Equality Utah fights for ‘fair and just’ state

by STEPHANIE FERRER-CARTER

There is a checklist to the approach: a smile, eye contact and a confident, “Hello, senator. I need to talk to you.” As fellow politicians stream from the freshly finished session, the Senator acknowledges the lobbyist and walks over. Then, suddenly, the senator’s smile freezes. A glance down at the blue button pinned to the lobbyist’s chest decorated with white block letters that reads “EQUALITY” is enough to quickly divert the politician’s path.

It’s a scenario recounted by Mike Thompson, 43, executive director of Equality Utah. In a conservative state, the often taboo subject of lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender (LBGT) rights may make any politician hesitant to become a crusader for the LBGT community.

It’s not easy, but to Thompson that just means, “This is where the work has to take place.” Thompson thinks politicians shouldn’t be so quick to write off Equality Utah. “We can influence a race,” he said.

Political activeness is one aspect of Equality Utah. What drives the organization is the goal of making Utah “fair and just” and securing the rights of LBGT Utahns and their families.

Founded as Unity Utah in 2001, Equality Utah encompasses three separate groups. The Equality Utah Foundation focuses on political education. Its aim is to inform people about why they should vote and why it is important to be politically active.

Equality Utah, the state’s largest LBGT civil rights group, advances local LBGT issues. And the Political Action Committee gives official endorsements to Utah candidates running for any state office. More than the endorsement, however, the PAC also makes financial donations and provides volunteers for candidates, an invaluable resource during an election.

Though they are labeled a statewide organization, a majority of the group’s work is done in and around Salt Lake City. However, with continuous growth year after year, Equality Utah hopes to one day have a representative in all 29 of Utah’s counties.

Thompson said he’d also like to see the day when the group is fighting for, and not against new bills, moving from the defensive to the offensive. He first saw Equality Utah flex its political muscle during the “No on 3” amendment campaign in 2004. “The Marriage Amendment” defining marriage as a union between a man and woman only, had a flurry of hard-line, conservative support.

The proposed amendment also acted as a “catalyst” Thompson said, igniting the LBGT community around a single cause. Together, Equality Utah and other advocates worked to educate Utahns on why to vote against the proposed amendment.

The amendment passed and with it came a new battle, securing domestic-partner benefits.

That is one issue Equality Utah will be focusing on in the 2008 Legislative Session. First and foremost will be the employment non-discrimination act, making it illegal for any employer to fire or discriminate against employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Where the non-discrimination act is already in place, domestic partner benefits must be obtained, and even further, Equality Utah hopes to make it mandatory for companies that work with the city to have the non-discrimination act.

“We don’t have an activist approach … that’s not going to work in Utah,” Thompson said.

What does work?

“We have to build relationships on both sides of the political aisle,” Thompson said. He credits the personal touch of Equality Utah’s staff and volunteers for its success.

The group isn’t working in the political arena alone. Utah is one of 10 states with three openly gay legislators, one in the Senate and two in the House of Representatives, with whom Equality Utah has often found ally support.

The group has also had strong backing from Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson. It’s a trend they hope to continue by officially endorsing mayoral candidate Ralph Becker.

In the 2007 Salt Lake City mayoral race, three of the top four candidates were members of Equality Utah. Before giving an official endorsement Equality Utah looks for candidates who have demonstrated leadership and support the LBGT community.

“There’s not a line we’re expecting anyone to cross to get our support,” Thompson explained.

Equality Utah is looking for politicians who are “reasonable” and “willing to communicate and have dialogue.”

It also helps to endorse a candidate who will help Equality Utah overcome its biggest obstacle, stereotypes and bias, and someone who won’t change directions when faced with the issue of gay rights.