Equality for Utahns based on awareness

Story and photo by PAUL S. GRECO

Awareness is a compelling issue among the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. “Our biggest obstacle on Capitol Hill in Utah is awareness,” said Brandie Balken, Equality Utah’s executive director.

She said a lack of understanding regarding the rights of the state’s LGBT citizens daunts advocates. Envisioning a fair and just Utah is Equality Utah’s hope.

“Equality means all of us,” Balken said.

Equality Utah, located in downtown Salt Lake City, was established in 2001. It is the state’s largest civil rights organization for LGBT Utahns.

Max Green, a University of Utah alumnus, has been Equality Utah’s advocacy coordinator since December 2011.

Max Green with Equality Utah.

Green said he conducts citizen-lobbying and advocacy trainings to educate people about LGBT concerns. He alerts individuals to help make political changes that will bring equality to Utah’s LGBT community.

He said the primary goal of these trainings is to increase the number of supporters who will vote for more fair-minded officials.

Homelessness among LGBT youth

In 2008, UCLA’s Williams Institute used data gathered from the U.S. Census Bureau to estimate Utah’s LGB population at between 47,000 and 63,000.

In its mission statement, Equality Utah advocates to secure equal rights and protections for LGBT Utahns. Along these lines, Green addressed the concern of self-disclosure. He said there are safety factors involved. “It’s not necessarily safe for everyone to come out,” he said.

“There are people who are so admittedly against the LGBT community,” Green added, “that if it’s their child, they don’t know how they would react.”

He said many youth end up homeless when they come out to their parents.

According to the 2011 Comprehensive Report on Homelessness in Utah, “Sexual orientation is often cited in studies of homeless youth as one of the contributing factors in a youth’s reason for being expelled or running away from home. In the Utah survey, 29% of homeless youth were not heterosexual.”

This survey was conducted by the Volunteers of America Youth Drop-in Center, Salt Lake County Youth Services, the Utah Pride Center and Valley Mental Health. The report was based on youth aged 15 to 24.

LGBT youth and suicide

Another result of inequality and unfairness is suicide. As a member of Utah’s LGBT community, Green lost three close friends – in the course of junior high school through college.

“Not as a result of their sexuality, but their treatment because of their sexuality,” Green said.

According to a 2009 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, “LGB young adults who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence [compared to heterosexual young adults] were 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide, 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression.”

Bullying problems

Green said he not only wants Utahns to be aware of the LGBT concerns, but also for the LGBT community to be aware that change can and is happening.

In 2011, two Utah school districts, Salt Lake and Park City, passed an anti-bullying policy that includes sexual orientation. This is enforced among students as well as school employees.

Also involved in promoting equality for LGBT Utahns is the Human Rights Education Center of Utah (HREC), founded by Carla Kelley. She serves as HREC’s executive director and advocates against bias, bullying and discrimination of LGBT individuals.

“We have no right to dehumanize any human being,” Kelley said.

Kelley is not a member of the LGBT community; however, she is a single mother of three with one son who is openly gay.

Civic Ventures recognized Kelley as a social entrepreneur over 60. She also has received several acknowledgements for her humanity efforts. In 2009, Kelley was named Wasatch Woman of the Year by Wasatch Woman Magazine.

Kelley explained that it would be beneficial for individuals to check their biases and ask, “Why do I have these?”  Kelley said self-awareness of personal biases can help individuals better understand inequalities through association.

Equality Utah’s website details ways for individuals to get involved. Similarly, HREC has information on how to advocate for LGBT rights.

Max Green, with Equality Utah, said, “I believe that a better place to live is one where all of its citizens are respected, everyone has value, everyone has the same footing under the law. If society were changed slightly, not just for one group but for all of us, it would make a huge difference on the lives of kids growing up today.”