Gay minorities in Utah can face double discrimination

Story and multimedia by KAREN HOLT BENNION

Watch Jerry Rapier direct a reading of “The Scarlet Letter” for the 2011-2012 season.

Listen to Jennifer Freed talk about Jerry Rapier, director of Plan-B Theatre Co.

Jerry Rapier has made a name for himself in Salt Lake City as an award-winning producer and director.

This is the 11th season of Plan-B Theatre Co. which he founded in 1991 with Cheryl Cluff and Tobin Atkinson. Rapier has been given many honors, including the Salt Lake City’s Mayor’s Artist Award in the Performing Arts in 2008. In 2009, he was given the title of Alternative Pioneer by Salt Lake City Weekly. With many successful plays, a rewarding career and a loyal partner who has been with him for 15 years, some might say that Rapier is living the “American Dream.”

However, despite his current success, he still remembers facing trying times in his past. Jerry Rapier is Asian-American and he is gay. Consequently, he faces a double hardship in Utah.

He was born in Nagasaki, Japan, to an alcoholic mother. When he was 8 years old he was adopted by an American family and went to live with them in New Mexico. Life with his new family was trying at times because his family was “very, very LDS,” he said in an e-mail interview. When he was 23, he mustered all of his courage to come out to the family. Rapier says it was difficult for a few years because they needed time to adjust. “They are great now,” he said.

As a minority who is gay, Rapier is part of a small number of gay minorities in Utah. He says the main reason for the low figure is due to demographics. “This is not a very diverse place, period,” he said in a recent interview. On the other hand, he believes that minorities who are also gay fear coming out because they could be ostracized from their families. “But I will say that I believe this to be changing, slowly, surely,” Rapier said.

“I think it’s almost impossible to live your life now and not know a gay person — and that changes your perspective,” he said in the e-mail.

He remembers how isolated he felt as a teen and is upset by the bullying that is escalating against gay teens today across the country, with some ending in suicides. As a result, Plan B joined 40 other local Outreach Partners to put an end to bullying. The event on Sunday, Nov. 14, was called “Different is Amazing.” The fundraiser included theater, songs and dance. The festivities opened with a short dance by the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s Step Up group, which consists of dancers from Salt Lake City high schools. All proceeds went to the Human Rights Education Center of Utah.

Another advocate for civil rights is Cathy Martinez. She is the director of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Center at the University of Utah. She agrees with Rapier about the small number of gay minorities in Utah. While she acknowledges that Utah is predominantly white, she says gay minorities are trapped in a stigma of being “a minority within a minority.” They are virtually forced to live in two communities.

Her experience with international students at the U has led her to realize some Asian families do not embrace or encourage members who have different sexual identities. “We need to talk about race too when we talk of sexual discrimination,” Martinez says. She recounts helping a  gay couple, who were international students studying at the U from China and Korea. When the Korean student’s family found out he was gay, they immediately st0pped paying for his schooling. Without money to continue his studies,  he was forced to return home.

“Not all cultures look down on homosexuality,” Martinez says. Thailand is the Asian hub for sexual reassignment surgery. Moreover, before missionaries arrived in early America many Native American tribes respected gay and transsexual members. They believed them to be two spirited.

Plan B’s latest production, “She Was My Brother,” which was directed by Rapier, is about a government ethnographer who is sent to study the Zuni Tribe of the Southwest in the late 1800s. The government official becomes attracted  to a male transgender tribal member. The tribal member is revered by the Zunis as very wise. Ironically, the Native American calls people in the “white society” uncivilized because of their intolerance to its citizens who fall outside of what society deems normal.

Martinez feels that education about race and sexuality and ability level (blind, deaf and disabled) must filter down to more high schools, junior highs and communities. She is working hard to educate people at the college level.

Brandi Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, says her office is working on educating the public as well. She says that being a gay minority is enduring “double marginalization.”

“There is not state for federal protection in housing and employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” Balken says.

Protection is available for those based on race, age and gender under the Civil Rights Act. Moreover, the Americans with Disabilities Act helps those with different levels of ability. However, people at Equality Utah are continually working with local legislators to pass state and federal laws to help all citizens of Utah gain the same rights to fair housing and employment.

Gay and transgendered citizens in seven Utah cities and counties have some protection regarding employment and housing rights.  They include: Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, Park City, Summit County, Logan, Taylorsville and West Valley City.

With the help of Jerry Rapier, Cathy Martinez and Brandi Balken, the future could look brighter for people of all races and gender identities who are in need of support.