LGBT community pushes legislation for equal rights in Salt Lake City

Story and photo by MATT ELLIS

The Scott M. Matheson Courthouse is where the Utah Supreme Court meets.

It is no secret that people who are in the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) community may find life to be a lot more difficult on a day-to-day basis than those who are not. There are currently no laws against discrimination in the workplace and where they live. There is also a constant political battle as people who identify with the LGBT community fight for rights and protections many feel should be afforded to them as American citizens.

Though there seems to be growing support among the general public through most of Salt Lake City, people in the LGBT community are fighting an uphill battle in the court systems as they try to secure their liberties, such as the right to marry, the right to adopt children, and the right to be free of discrimination in the workplace.

Several organizations are involved in politics on behalf of the LGBT community, but little progress has been made relative to other, more progressive cities around the U.S. – such as San Francisco, where gender-reassignment surgery can be subsidized by the government.

So if the public opinion is shifting, why is it so hard to gain support in the political arena? Kai Medina-Martínez, director of the LGBT Resource Center at the University of Utah, summed it up simply.

“Gay, in our country, is not a good thing,” Medina-Martínez said. “It’s something to be ashamed of and be treated badly for.”

But in a study released in August 2012 by the Huffington Post and the Campus Pride Index, the U was declared to be one of the top-25 LGBT-friendly campuses in the nation. It seems, then, that the lack of widespread support for putting the LGBT community on an equal playing field probably goes deeper than just being gay or transgender.

“I think one of the first major obstacles is that any time you talk about protection and rights for LGBT it automatically means marriage,” said Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, in a phone interview. “There is not a lot of support for [gay] marriage in Utah among the population at large.”

That is due in large part to the presence of religious organizations, none more significant than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The LDS church holds firm that marriage should be between a man and a woman only. Given that many Christian sects share this belief and that America was founded on Christianity, this may help to explain why people are hesitant to show public displays of support.

Chad Christopher, a sophomore studying mass communication at the U and an openly gay student, said he supports legalizing gay marriage but he doesn’t think that it is totally necessary.

“It’s more about the benefits rather than the actual title of being married,” he said. “It’s about health benefits and just being able to really function as a family. If we can have all that, we don’t need the title.”

He said that unless things change over the next couple of years, he plans to leave Utah after graduation and settle in a place where he would be able to start a family, though he doesn’t know where yet.

But the struggle to legalize same-sex marriage is not the only legal battle the LGBT community is fighting. Every day, gay or transgender people are evicted from their homes or fired from their jobs simply because of the fact that they do not identify as a heterosexual male or female. Drew Call, a Salt Lake City man who worked for the LDS church, said in an interview with Salt Lake City Weekly that he is gay, but said he has never been sexually active with a man. In spite of that, he was fired from his job because of his friendship with other gay men.

Balken and Equality Utah, along with many other pro-LGBT organizations, hope that they can help our society progress to a point where things like gay friendships won’t matter.

Equality Utah is an organization that works to educate the public about the LGBT community and the issues it faces, as well as back political candidates who support the expansion of rights afforded to LGBT people.

“We’ve passed 25 pro-LGBT ordinances,” Balken said of EU’s work with local legislators. They include “fifteen [that] have to do with gender identity in housing and the workplace, four are to prevent bullying, and four others that are statewide statutes including a hate crime statute.”

She said Equality Utah plans to keep focusing on schools because bullies are targeting LGBT students. With students’ expanded use of social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter, Balken said it is much harder for students to escape the abuse and that her organization seeks to find a way to address that through legislation. Equality Utah was also able to pass a gatekeeper bill in March 2012, which mandates that teachers receive training on recognizing suicidal behavior in students and how to act accordingly.

Though she knows the road is not easy, Balken still has big plans for future legislative battles.

“Right now we are working on statewide legislation for housing and employment protection,” she said. “Further down the road we are looking at some sort of a contract package to make it easier [for LGBT people] to protect their homes, kind of like a will or trust.”

Such a package would allow unmarried same-sex couples to take advantage of many freedoms that are afforded to married couples, such as the ability to pass property on to their partner or make medical decisions on their behalf.

Balken said it might help the cause if there was a way to rally public support and try to get rid of the disconnect between popular opinion and that of the lawmakers, but she is not sure how that can be done.

“I would have addressed it by now,” Balken said, “I honestly don’t know.”