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.

Straight allies are voices, advocates of LGBT community

by YEVGENIYA KOPELEVA

“Allies are those who are willing to be vocal and advocate for equal opportunities,” said Whit Hollis, director of the Olpin Student Union, in a short video presented at the beginning of “The Straight Ally: Putting the A in LGBTQ” panel at the University of Utah on Oct. 17, 2007.

In support of the LGBT Resource Center’s Pride Week 2007, U students and faculty filled more than 50 desks in a classroom at the Union building to listen, learn and ask questions about what it means to be an ally of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer community. “You have the choice to help everyone, but you don’t have the time or resources to save the world so you choose your passion,” said Esther Kim, a panelist and student at the U.

A straight ally is someone who accepts, supports and respects members of the LGBTQ community. An ally also can be someone who is an activist for equality, fairness and justice.

“As a student of color, I have always felt comfortable making connections with a minority group and my experience has been that I am the voice and advocate for the LGBTQ community,” Kim said.

While Kim appreciates the ally to be acknowledged as part of LGBTQ, panelist Matt Basso, a professor of gender studies, feels uncomfortable because it’s “normalizing” something. “It is a reminder for ‘normal’ individuals to remember to be activists, but the ally tag should remind me to not walk in life easily,” Basso said.

Allies can be some of the most effective and powerful voices for the LGBTQ community. Not only can they assist in the coming-out process, but they can also inform others about the importance of mutual respect and acceptance. “Allies are people who take the time to consider how other people affect them and their identities, and work towards a better understanding of people who might be different than themselves,” said Bonnie Owens, staff intern for the LGBT Resource Center.

When it comes to creating awareness of LGBTQ issues, Octavio Villalpando, a panelist and the associate vice president for the Office of Diversity, believes one of the failures in the education system is not exposing students to inequality and issues of diversity. “Students going to school for 12 years and still not knowing about LGBTQ issues until college is a problem,” he said.

Kari Ellingson, associate vice president for student development, shared a personal story with the audience. While driving her son and his friend to West High School, Ellingson overheard her son’s friend say “that’s gay.” When she pulled the car over and asked what the phrase meant to him, he was speechless and didn’t realize how his words had impacted someone else. “It’s for us parents to take action and advocate our children on issues they may not face or hear about in high school,” Ellingson said.

Panelist Becky McKean, who works as an administrative assistant for the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs, believes everyone needs access to education without barriers. “I am LDS and when I accepted my current job, I was honest and asked permission to ask questions about the people I would be working with,” she said. “I discovered how many things I take for granted. For example, I rarely have to question being accepted or go to a place where I feel unsafe.” As an ally, she supports the idea of allowing individuals to be who they are and encourages people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes before making assumptions.

Although Pride Week is a step toward celebration and forming conversations, “there never is only one issue and if you open up conversations, you will get new ideas from everyone,” McKean said. Ellingson admits that there still are battles to fight, but she also recognized the LGBT Resource Center for doing a great job at reaching out to students, faculty and the community.

Basso believes it’s about finding common ground and knowing that you can somehow relate to everyone you encounter without having any expectations. “At universities, it is easier to be an ally and have those discussions, but we need to create more dialogue and awareness,” Basso said.

Owens says allies are a growing part of the community and represent new theoretical terrain for the fields of gender and sexuality. “I thought it was important to host the straight ally panel because it shows dedication and commitment to our ally community on campus and it reaffirms our relationship to academics and the growing awareness of our communities and identities,” Owens said.