Queer Elephants 

Some Republican candidates argue they are the better state lawmakers for gay rights.

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Not only did a gay-rights bills fail to get a hearing during the 2010 Legislature—that’s normal—the expected supporters among Democrats abandoned them. Former Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City, a lesbian who played negotiator-in-chief for the community, had been warned that Republican legislators were gearing up to eliminate cities and counties' abilities to pass nondiscrimination ordinances unless bills seeking new LGBT protections were pulled. Johnson took the bait.

Frustration flared because of the high hopes that 2010 was the year that a portion of Equality Utah’s Common Ground Initiative—which seeks statewide nondiscrimination protections in housing and workplaces, among other things—could be passed. The momentum had been building all the way from the 2008 election, after which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the religion a super majority of legislators follow—had been publicly lambasted with a 5,000-strong march on Temple Square to protest the church’s key involvement in passing California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriages in the state where they had been previously legal. A year later, a mere three months before the session began, the LDS Church shocked many by not just supporting two Salt Lake City nondiscrimination ordinances, but also sending an emissary to the hearing to personally deliver a quick spiel about why the ordinances were important.

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It was the year in queer politics that wasn’t. And now, Johnson has left the Legislature and taken a job in South Carolina, so there’s a vacuum that leaves one wondering whether or not the LGBT momentum will continue.

There are reasons for the community to be hopeful. Foremost, perhaps, are the queer-friendly Republicans on the ballot. That’s right: there are more than one, although it’s not clear that any would be the champion of gay-rights bills if elected.

If there’s a Republican candidate most likely to carry the rainbow flag up Capitol Hill, it’s Mel Nimer. The executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans made a late entry into the Senate District 2 race—which includes much of Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake (map)—after the previous Republican candidate missed an August disclosure deadline and was eliminated from the race. Nimer is trying to oust the appointed Democrat Ben McAdams, a Mormon deeply trusted by queer politicos, who replaced Scott McCoy, the only openly gay senator ever to serve in the Utah Legislature, in January.

But the Log Cabin leader has a unique challenge. Other queer-friendly Republicans seeking office in liberal districts argue that they will get a seat in the closed-door Republican caucus meetings where all the real decisions are made and where—currently, at least—there’s not a single vocal advocate for gay rights. But Nimer’s argument is more difficult, however, because McAdams is perceived to have a special “in” with the Legislature’s power brokers by virtue of being a Mormon.

Republican Rob Alexander, who seeks the seat for House District 35 in Murray and Millcreek (map), makes the majority-caucus argument that he would have a better shot at installing queer-friendly laws than his opponent, Democratic incumbent Mark Wheatley.

“The more I get to know legislators, the more I realize a lot are just on the fence on a lot of issues,” Alexander says. “If there were a Republican up there willing to sponsor bills and champion individual rights, there are a lot of legislators that would go along, but they’re not willing to take the first step.”

Nevertheless, Wheatley raises the rainbow flag higher than Alexander on policy. Alexander supports repealing the second line of Amendment 3, which banned civil unions in the state constitution but hesitates to support full repeal of that amendment, which also banned gay marriage. Wheatley enthusiastically supports full marriage equality for same-sex couples. “To me, [marriage equality] shouldn’t be an issue,” he says.

Wheatley says no one will replace Johnson’s leadership on the hill in terms of LGBT rights, “but I think we [Democrats] can do that as a whole.”

Democrat Rep. Joel Briscoe, a former Salt Lake City School Board member and former adviser to a gay-straight alliance at Bountiful High School, was appointed to replace Johnson in House District 25, the eastside Salt Lake and Summit counties seat (map) that Johnson held until she moved. Briscoe’s history with queer youth in a very conservative school probably cements his bona fides, but Republican opponent Rick Raile is no enemy to the queer community. Like Alexander, Raile argues that the queer community would be better served by having at least one outspoken friend of the community in the majority caucus. Raile speaks very comfortably—and convincingly—about his belief that gays and lesbians are not adequately protected under current law.

That is more than can be said for some Democrats. Incumbent Tim Cosgrove, of House District 44 in the Fashion Place Mall area, says he’s been focused much more on jobs and the economy and declined to answer questions about statewide nondiscrimination proposals or adoption rights for gay couples. “I haven’t been looking at those issues at all,” he says. His Republican opponent, former sports star Shawn Bradley, did not return calls requesting comment.

Democrat Patrice Arent, seeking House District 36 (map), also doesn’t want to comment on some queer issues, such as repeal of Amendment 3, because they aren’t likely to be discussed by the Legislature soon, she says. The fast-talking no-nonsense attorney, professor and former legislator, however, supports statewide nondiscrimination ordinances, laws to ensure gay couples have hospital visitation rights, inheritance rights and two-parent adoption, a scheme that would allow a second parent in a same-sex couple to adopt his or her child so that both parents have parental rights.

Arent’s opponent, evangelical preacher Jason Epps, declined to discuss queer issues in a short phone call, and did not call back.

While there are queer-friendly Republicans on many voters’ ballots, it’s not clear who, if anyone, will attempt to fill Johnson’s shoes. In terms of momentum, six more cities and counties have passed nondiscrimination ordinances since Salt Lake City did, sending a message that many communities want these laws. That’s certainly momentum, but momentum has failed the Utah’s queer community before.

Related: Log Cabin Republicans at the 2010 Utah State Convention


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Jesse Fruhwirth

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