News | Somethin’s Happening Here: Salt Lake City’s gay-rights movement may have reached a tipping point. 

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n{::NOAD::}California’s Proposition 8 woke a sleeping gay army in Utah. So says Jacob Whipple, organizer of the first of several Salt Lake City rallies that followed passage of the ballot measure banning gay marriage. n

Whipple’s call brought thousands out on a freezing night to march around the headquarters of the LDS Church, which had urged its members to support passage of Proposition 8. But rather than letting off steam, it seems that march might have been the start of something big. Nov. 15 brought two more rallies, at City Hall and at Utah’s Capitol. It is impossible to keep up with the new Utah organizations, protests and lobbying groups growing around the issue of gay marriage. A new nonprofit group was recently incorporated in California with the aim of organizing a 1963-style march on Salt Lake City at the spring equinox.


The emotions moving people to the streets is even out of the control of Utah’s established gay-rights groups. Many Utahns now organizing around Proposition 8 are first-time activists; several aren’t even gay.


For Elaine Ball, organizer of the Nov. 15 rally at the Salt Lake City & County Building, it was the sight of a black man being elected president the same night that California stripped gays of existing marriage rights that drove her to action. She happened upon a Website for Join the Impact, a group organizing city-hall protests throughout the country, and in two days found herself organizing Utah’s event. Though she had worked on the Obama campaign, it’s the first time the 23-year-old University of Utah linguistics student had taken the lead on anything. Ball sees gay marriage as her generation’s civil-rights battle. “This is everyone standing together saying, ‘Gay rights are my rights,’” she says.


In addition to rallies and sign carrying, Proposition 8 has caused the formation of a lobbying group dedicated to bringing gay marriage to the Beehive State. Like the rallies, Utahns for Marriage Equality was created on the fly through the magic of social networking on the Internet. Michael Muellera straight, married Salt Lake City architect with a gay cousin who married in Massachusetts—started Utahns Against Prop. 8 in October and helped to organize get-out-the-vote telephone calls to California. Within days of the election, the group had morphed into Utahns for Marriage Equality, which already has met with a core group of volunteers to create a lobbying strategy. Item 1 is to lobby for a list of legislative proposals put forward by the long-established Equality Utah that would give legal protections to gay couples short of marriage.


“Proposition 8 has transformed a gay-rights movement to where now it’s a civil-rights movement,” Mueller says.


Whipple’s activism was galvanized by watching protests in West Hollywood following the Proposition 8 election. “I was astounded the gay community was actually standing up for itself,” says the 29 year old. The California protests made his annual donation to the Human Rights Campaign look pale by comparison, he says. What ended with thousands outside of the LDS Church headquarters began with Whipple e-mailing a few friends asking them to stand with him in protest.


A North Carolina Mormon who came to Utah to attend BYU, hoping the experience would “straighten” him, Whipple has been out for just six years. Following his first rally, he’s organizing a second for Jan. 24, the weekend after the presidential inauguration. Now linked up with nationwide activists through the Internet, Whipple is helping to organize rallies at city halls and statehouses throughout the country to call for a slate of legislation like the landmark mid-1960s laws that erased the vestiges of Jim Crow for blacks. Eventually, he wants a rally in Washington, D.C., aimed at pushing President Barack Obama to junk the federal Defense of Marriage Act and to add gays to federal nondiscrimination laws “with full inclusion of all GLBT members.”


Whipple’s language is idealistic. “This is a really great opportunity to stand up and do something that will forever change history, to ensure constitutional rights for future generations.”


He began his speech to the crowd at the Nov. 7 rally at City Creek Park by thanking the Mormon Church for backing Proposition 8. With many, he believes the California ballot measure has mobilized Utahns in way that the Utah’s own 2004 anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment couldn’t.


“Utah, though it doesn’t know it yet, is one of the largest gay population areas per capita in the country,” he says. “I see Salt Lake City being one of the areas of major demonstrations in this movement, along with L.A., San Francisco and New York.”


So does Shawn Cunningham. The Menlo Park, Calif., marketer created the “March on Salt Lake City” page on Facebook after Proposition 8 passed. The idea—an intentional reflection of the 1963 March on Washington, only with Utah as a landing spot for activists from throughout the country—is gathering momentum. A straight man with a gay mother, Cunningham was inspired by his mother’s crestfallen look at the passage of Proposition 8 so soon after he shared her elation at the election of Barack Obama. He is working with Utah activists on gathering permits for a weekend’s worth of activities in late March and lining up homes in Salt Lake City as a backstop in case the hotels fill up.


Cunningham is trying to distance his march from calls to boycott Utah, which he calls “totally counterproductive.” Cunningham, as a marketer, thinks the symbolism of Utah to gay liberation is too powerful to ignore. To Cunningham and many others outside of the Beehive State, Utah symbolizes a mindset that has to go. His point is to move gay marriage away from a religious discussion to one of civil rights.


“Utah chose itself,” says Cunningham, who worked in Utah for five years in the early 1990s. “Here we have a state that literally owes its entire being to a people who were chased across America in pursuit of freedom of expression now using their influence and economic power and organization to hold down the rights of others. It’s the perfect venue.” tttt

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Ted McDonough

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