Mike Thompson’s mission: To be a ‘change agent’

by YEVGENIYA KOPELEVA

Imagine a beach covered with thousands of miles of starfish and an individual throwing them one by one back into the ocean. This is how Mike Thompson, executive director of Equality Utah, envisions his position. For him, it’s not about saving every starfish, it’s about making a difference to just that one. His personal mission is to be the “change agent.”

“I can’t change the world, but I can influence my part,” Thompson said about his career in Salt Lake City.

Thompson was born in Broken Arrow, Okla., in 1964, and received a bachelor of business administration in management and communication from the University of Oklahoma in 1986. After working for oil companies in Chicago and St. Louis for eight years, Thompson left the corporate world and joined a ministry training program for two years. Upon completing the program, he traveled to London to work with inner-city children and youth. It is there that he learned to work with his heart, not his head.

While using his spirit and compassion working as a nonprofit consultant in Denver, Thompson met a member of Equality Utah’s board of directors who encouraged him to interview for a campaign position in the summer of 2004. Thompson helped Scott McCoy, a state senator of District 2, raise $800,000 to say “no” to the “Don’t Amend” campaign. The constitutional Amendment 3 denied same-sex marriage. “It’s the passion of working on issues that resonates within me,” Thompson said about his responsibilities with the campaign. Although Amendment 3 passed in November 2004, Thompson’s leadership led him to be invited to interview for the position of Equality Utah’s executive director in August 2005.

Equality Utah was founded as Unity Utah in 2001 as a political organization. It became the political advocate for the LGBT community with the goal of creating “a fair and just Utah” and finding common ground with other members in the community. Equality Utah is part of three nonprofit organizations that share the same mission of “securing equal rights and protections for LGBT Utahns and their families.”

The Equality Utah Foundation educates and informs the community about issues impacting the LGBT community, while the Equality Utah Political Action Committee “endorses candidates and supports their campaigns with volunteer efforts and financial contributions.” Equality Utah strives to provide volunteer support to candidates who are “willing to be open-minded and create dialogue.”

When Thompson lobbies at the capitol, people first notice the “equality button” he is wearing on his suit, and then they simply walk away. He identifies this sort of bias as a major obstacle for Equality Utah. “It’s people assuming or stereotyping all the time that becomes frustrating in that you always have to prove credibility first,” Thompson said. “I need to be the whole of who I am and be treated equally regardless of who I am.” Thompson encourages the public to eliminate biases and “talk about the root of the issue.” He hopes that by reaching one person, dialogue about stereotypes and biases will lead to change.

Thompson believes that “people of faith have the biggest opportunity to support LGBT issues and Utah is where the social change needs to take place.” With that, he hopes to have point people in the 29 Utah counties to establish relationships and have Equality Utah be more of a presence in the state. Thompson says Equality Utah is successful because of its approach of building relationships. “We don’t have an activist approach; it’s about meeting people where they are,” Thompson said about the organization’s efforts to initiate conversations.

Through Thompson’s vision of effecting change, the Annual Allies Dinner, a fundraising event that benefits the Equality Utah Political Action Committee, has grown from 250 attendees in 2002 to 1,127 people this year. In addition, Equality Utah hosts “Out for Equality” events to promote membership and inform the LGBT community of available resources and current issues. “Anything we do socially has to have a tie to our mission,” Thompson said. With almost 1,000 members and an e-mail database with 10,000 supporters, Equality Utah is gaining influence in the community.

Equality Utah’s current starfish is working with municipalities to implement employment non-discrimination policies, which include both sexual orientation and gender identity, for their city’s employees. The policies aim to protect the rights of all people and create domestic partner benefits. “It’s about equal pay for equal work,” said Thompson. Although Salt Lake City voters approved this ordinance in March, Thompson hopes to introduce the issue in the 2008 Utah Legislature for a statewide ruling.

TEA of Utah

by JENNIFER MORGAN

Teinamarie Nelson and Rebecca Wilder were having lunch one day and discussing an issue they heard about from the media regarding transgender people that they thought was unfair. The two women wanted to do something to help transgender people and those who interact with them so they didn’t make the news the same way. They decided to form a nonprofit organization but, it wasn’t until Christopher Scuderi came on board that things started moving.

Transgender Education Advocates, or TEA (pronounced “T”), was established in 2003 as a volunteer organization. It is an affiliate program of the Utah Pride Center and its mission is “to educate the public on transgender issues for better understanding and awareness of discrimination towards the transgender population.”

TEA offers a Gender 101 class, which aims to make people aware of individuals who don’t fit the binary gender system. Scuderi said 50 percent of the classes they teach are requested while the other half are through TEA’s outreach efforts. Because TEA doesn’t have an office of its own, classes are offered in the Utah Pride Center or at the organization receiving the training.

One group that received the Gender 101 training recently was the Public Safety Liaison Committee. PSLC is a group of individuals in service-related professions, including firefighters, police officers and EMTs that aim to educate those in their field about LGBT issues. Rachel Hanson of the Utah Pride Center and Scuderi conducted the training for PSLC, which lasted about an hour and half. Hanson felt it was a success because people openly talked a lot about biases and other subjects that came up during the presentation. Another good gauge for determining whether the training went well, is if participants feel free to ask questions. “I can often tell when people feel comfortable because they ask questions without worrying about sounding dumb,” she said. “A lot of people don’t understand transgender people.”

Gary Horenkamp, PSLC’s co-chair, said the training was “a well-organized, well-presented learning activity” with useful information that he hadn’t heard anywhere before. Horenkamp also is the project leader for OUTreach Ogden, which supports the “personal growth, acceptance and equality” of LGBTQ people and serves Box Elder, Morgan, Weber and Davis Counties. Gender 101 classes are available throughout the year, but TEA also hosts special events.

During November, TEA hosted a number of events in recognition of Transgender Awareness Month. For 2007 it brought in two speakers to provide workshops for medical and legal students and professionals. TEA also observes the Day of Remembrance annually on Nov. 20 with a candlelight vigil. The memorial commemorates transgender people who have lost their lives due to hate-crime violence.

Although it wasn’t a hate crime, Scuderi tells of an individual who was involved in a car accident that died because of a lack of understanding. When paramedics arrived they had to cut away clothing and when they discovered the genitalia of the victim didn’t match the rest of their appearance they were shocked. Apparently they laughed and poked fun but never helped, which resulted in the victim’s death. Some people have a hard time seeking medical help because they don’t know how they will be treated.

In the Salt Lake City medical community there are four family doctors who advertise that they treat transgender patients, but only one, Dr. Nicola Riley, is still accepting new patients. The others had to stop because their practices were too large. Riley received TEA’s 2006 award for Individual of the Year, while Equality Utah was given the Organization of the Year award for its work. Riley received this award partly because of her willingness to continue accepting transgender patients.

If a transgender person decides to have gender reassignment surgery, or GRS, they may have a difficult time finding a surgeon as well. Scuderi estimates there are a dozen throughout the United States, but none are in Utah. The closest surgeons are in Colorado, California or Arizona. Outside of the country, Thailand has the most GRS surgeons because of its progressive views regarding gender.

TEA’s 2007 keynote speaker, Dr. Marci Bowers, has a waiting list of 150 people. Her practice is located in Trinidad, Colo., which is the “transgender capital of the world” according to the city welcome sign. Born Mark Bowers, she transitioned later in life after marrying and having children although she had thoughts about becoming a woman by the age of 5. Bowers has helped more than 500 patients through this process and is considered a world-renowned surgeon. She has been a guest on “Oprah” and “Larry King Live.”

Locating a surgeon is just one challenge facing individuals. Securing funding also can be problematic. Many people can only afford changes from the waist up and can feel incomplete because of it. A few insurance companies cover GRS, but it has to be written into the plan. For male-to-female surgery, Scuderi estimates the cost ranges from $8,000 to $22,000. Female-to-male surgery costs considerably more: $30,000 to $150,000.

Because the costs are out of reach for many, TEA established the Cans For Change program. Aluminum cans are collected for recycling and the money goes toward a scholarship. The scholarship fund was developed to help with a portion of general reassignment surgery costs for an individual on a need basis. You can e-mail TEA to arrange a pick up of clean cans any time. While it has yet to raise enough to consider applicants, TEA hopes to have $1,000 soon for this purpose.

Due to confidentiality and stigma, few statistics are available on the transgender population. But Scuderi and Rachel Hanson believe the transgender youth population is growing. They think this is partly due to the media. Films such as “Boys Don’t Cry” and Barbara Walter’s segment on “20/20” bring exposure to the transgender community. Also, the Internet provides a forum for youth to discuss their lives and issues in a safe environment.

Hanson is the youth director at the Utah Pride Center and facilitates the transgender youth group that meets weekly. She said many transgender people are not receiving support from family or friends so they are at a higher risk for suicide and other self-destructive behavior than gay and lesbian youth.

Utah law doesn’t allow the promotion of homosexuality in schools. Hanson says that when they have approached schools to educate them they often shy away from the training because they’re afraid it’ll fall under the “promotion” of alternative lifestyles.

Scuderi says TEA has had conversations with two school boards. “We’ve contacted most of them, but they’ve either declined or haven’t returned emails or phone calls.”

On campus and elsewhere, the most obvious place transgender people encounter problems is the bathrooms. If a female has male genitalia and goes into the boy’s bathroom she’s more likely to have a problem than using a girl’s restroom.

Another place that is high risk for transgender people is correctional facilities. Currently when someone is picked up they are placed in holding cells based on their genitalia. Because their outward appearance is generally different than those their holed up with, they become easy targets for harassment or worse. Horenkamp said there was a senior officer from SLCPD at the Gender 101 training and he felt it was well received.

NLGJA low on numbers, high in benefits

by STEPHANIE FERRER-CARTER

They are called under-represented, minority groups for a reason. Groups that fall under this category often have their images skewed, stereotyped or all together forgotten in America’s newsrooms.

In 1975, the National Association of Black Journalists was founded in an attempt to combat this growing problem. Other ethnic minority groups — Hispanic, Asian and Native American — followed suit, establishing their own associations all sharing the same goal, an effort to find a solution to misrepresentation through education.

Then, in 1990, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) was founded. It was time to address the needs of a group that was not identified by their ethnicity or race, but by their sexual orientation.

Headquartered in the nation’s capital, NLGJA has spread across the nation into 25 chapters, located in cities or states that have at least 10 official members. According to NLGJA executive assistant Brian Salkin, the Indiana chapter and the Nashville, TN, chapter were the most recent to be instated, Alaska will be the next state to add a chapter.

“As an organization we do primarily three things: we first advocate for fair coverage of LBGT issues in the media, we advocate for equal work place benefits in news media and related fields and we train professionals,” Salkin explained.

According to NLGJA’s Web site, approximately 1,300 “journalists, media professionals, educators and students” who are gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual and transgender have become members in NLGJA’s nearly two decades of existence.

Two of those members reside and work in Utah. Salt Lake City is one of four cities and states that are categorized as significantly smaller groups called satellite chapters.

The low membership in Utah may come as a surprise considering the benefits NLGJA offers. The group strongly advocates for equal work-place benefits, and labels itself as a support group, providing a wide variety of programs such as the Diversity Oversight Committee and Podunk, a task force for the group’s smaller markets. NLGJA also posts job listings, events calendars and provides resources, such as an official LGBT style guide.

“And then there are the intangible benefits,” Salkin said. “It serves as a huge networking pool for our members and people who want to be members .… It provides you with someone who you can relate to as a fellow journalist who is out.”

NLGJA is especially student friendly. For an annual fee of $25 aspiring journalists can apply for scholarships and internships that are offered through the group. An Excellence in Student Journalism Award with $1,000 in prize money that student members can qualify for is offered. And perhaps most importantly, students can find professional mentors willing to share the experiences and challenges of being gay and working in a newsroom.

Much like gay journalists, Salt Lake has some stereotypes of its own to break. JoSelle Vanderhooft, NLGJA’s Utah representative and assistant city editor at QSaltLake, said the state’s reputation makes her somewhat of a “celebrity” at NLGJA conventions. “They say, ‘Wow, Utah. What’s that like,’” Vanderhooft said.   

What is Utah like?

As far as media coverage, QSaltLake and the Pillar are two examples LGBT media publications in the state.

In Vanderhooft’s opinion, KSTU FOX 13 has provided some of the best LGBT coverage in the state. However, a story by another Utah television station about gay men soliciting sex in Memory Grove, a park in Salt Lake City, warranted Vanderhooft’s harshest criticism.

“It was ridiculous. They made a lot of assumptions. If I had known about it I would’ve called NLGJA’s rapid response task force,” Vanderhooft said. The rapid response task force referring is a part of NLGJA that examines specific complaints from media consumers and journalists. 

Her criticism has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Vanderhooft said she felt the story did not have accurate sources. Vanderhooft fully believes a “straight” journalist is just as cable of covering the LGBT population as a “gay” journalist would be; it just takes a little more effort. “You’ve got to be educated. You’ve go to do your homework,” she said.

Gay or straight, bisexual or transgender, the fact is, a journalist is likely to be asked to cover a story involving the LGBT community at some point in his or her career. NLGJA is there to act as a watchdog, but more importantly, to help journalists make sure their coverage is accurate.

“We’re actually having conversations about gay marriage … it makes for a different newsroom,” Vanderhooft said. “Ultimately, I’m looking forward to the day we won’t need to say LGBT media and people just write about it.”