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September 02, 2009 News » Cover Story

Gay Activism in Utah 

Can the gay community find new reasons to rally?

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From Zero to Hope
While listening to House Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara, discuss the chances of any Common Ground bills passing, it’s hard to see much change in the near future, but also hard to see the status quo maintained for long.

“We have the same people with the same personalities,” he says of the session that will begin in January. He predicts the session will focus on budget shortfalls, and as far as LGBT issues go, “I’m not expecting a different outcome. I would be surprised if things were any different. I think the die is cast—at least for this session.”

While there is not much change in the overall population of lawmakers, there are a couple of significant changes in the Legislature and overall state leadership. The loss of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.—who came out mid-session in favor of civil unions and is widely credited as the impetus behind the Common Ground bills getting committee hearings in the House—is most strongly felt.

Morgan Philpot, a former Utah House member who is now the vice-chair of the Utah Republican Party, says Common Ground faces a tough road in the next session, “especially because they’ve lost the greatest Republican asset to that fight in Gov. Huntsman.” Replacing Huntsman is avowed conservative Gov. Gary Herbert, who has spoken against gay marriage, does not support legal protections for gay and lesbians, and, more importantly, is run for reelection in 2010.

“I’m very doubtful he’s going to be jumping on the equality bandwagon,” Johnson says.

Also, the Senate has lost Greg Bell, who will soon be confirmed as Herbert’s lieutenant governor. As a senator, he opposed civil unions, but he carried bills to allow domestic partnerships—and was considered the most moderate Republican senator, even more so than some of the Democrats. Bell’s replacement likely will be much more conservative.

Clark’s emphasis on “this session” is important, however, because Clark seems to recognize that 2010 will not mark the end of the debate.

“I look backward at a lot of issues that stir up a lot of emotions and there seems to be a process for this that takes four or five tries,” he says. “It takes time and persistence.This may very well be the natural process for this.”

Clark met with Equality Utah and Johnson last session for what he says was “an amicable discussion,” in which he felt Johnson “expressed genuine, heartfelt concern.” During that meeting, Clark says, “I was noticing from a personal standpoint that each generation has a different view of this, from my grandparents to my parents to my generation to my kids. Each generation is more responsive to what is happening at the time.”

If even the leader of one of the most conservative legislative bodies in America has a hint about which way history is headed, it’s hard not to see LGBT civil rights, including gay marriage, becoming a reality at some point down the road. After all, no less a conservative than George Will has stated that gay marriage will be a non-issue for the next generation, and has even suggested that the Republican Party may have to address gay issues as early as the 2012 elections. When the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage in April, Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal decided against trying to battle the decision after his daughter, Kate, told him same-sex marriage opponents “had already lost” and her generation didn’t care.

As for how history might play out in Utah, Johnson notes, “We have a very mature Legislature. A lot of the legislators are the age of Chris Buttars or older.”

But even when the Buttars generation retires, Philpot says the Utah population will still have many voters ready to elect representatives who are opposed to gay marriage because, “This is an issue of religious belief. There will be opposition here in Utah. You have a religious belief that is a determining factor in the decision-making process.” Which means that, as with many other political issues, Utah may end up going one way while the rest of the country goes another.

“Do I think there will be gay marriage in the future?” Philpot asks. “From a state perspective—no, I do not. Do I think it will be the same case nationally? No, I do not. Gay marriage may become a non-issue for much of the rest of the nation, but the rest of the nation isn’t quite like the West, and the rest of the West isn’t quite like Utah.”

People on both sides of the issue don’t accept the inevitability of the future, and they refuse to be complacent about the present. “Somebody gave me the ‘20year story,’ when I walked in here,” says Larabee, referring to when she began her tenure at the Pride Center five years ago and someone told her gay marriage would be a reality in 20 years. “Well, I’m not getting any younger, and every day I’m not equal to my heterosexual friends is a day wasted.”

“This is not inevitable like the setting sun,” Carlson warns. “It’s going to happen only as long as people are working on it. It’s still the case that today’s the day.”

Hughes, who, as a younger conservative, will likely still be involved in shaping the discussion in years to come, says, “There is still a debate yet to be had.” He also points out, “You have to pay attention” to the fact that California voted down gay marriage, since “no one is going to say California is a red state.”

“Keep Being Out There” History may end up showing the summer of 2009 was a period when Utah’s LGBT community and its allies were taking a relatively quiet break between the upheavals of November 2008 and whatever events may lie ahead.

“Summer’s here. Pride’s over. It’s hot out. The Legislature’s not in session,” Whipple half-jokes when listing reasons for why things seem laid-back right now.

Johnson agrees and says the current stage is more of a respite than a falter. “My feeling is this is sort of the calm before and after the storm,” Johnson says. “It’s just that period of time when there’s a lull.”

However one wants to label the current period of time, it also seems to be the case that, 10 months after Prop 8 passage, the “time and persistence” Clark speaks of will be required.

“My perception of how we’re going to do this is to just keep being out there,” Whipple says, “so it won’t seem like a big deal anymore, and the more people are going to get used to us.” 

More Good Reads

Activists rally to support gay couple

Discrimination against blondes

Writer pretends to be gay at seminar

Online resources that cover the gay community:


Joe. My. God.

Good As You

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