The Salt Lake City LGBT community wants equal rights

Story and photo by VALERIA MONCADA

Many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Utahns want equal rights. This does not only include equal marital status but also includes issues such as adoption, benefits, the protection of their children and the right to make choices for their partner.

Monica Martin, 22, and Hali Taylor, 23, have been dating for a year and living together in Logan for 10 months.

“Neither of us has been disowned or had our parents disappointed in us,” Martin said. “But my father was remarried this summer and he made it clear he didn’t want us introduced as a couple at his wedding because he didn’t want people focusing on us and our relationship rather than his marriage. In reality he was afraid that he would be judged as a father.”

Martin and Taylor have also encountered difficult situations where landlords did not want to rent them an apartment due to their sexual orientation.

“Renting an apartment was hard in a religious community,” Martin said. “Even though people are not supposed to discriminate, they do. We have had to be careful not to disclose our relationship to possible prospective landlords.”

When it comes to acceptance, some people are not as lucky as Martin and Taylor.

Berlin Schlegel, 20, who lives in Murray, did not have his family’s support during his coming-out process.

Berlin Schlegel, on the left, and Tadd Mecham are like any other couple: they enjoy reading together, hanging out and spending time with their dog.

“The biggest struggle I have had to overcome was the disapproval from my family,” Schlegel said. “My mom did not take my coming out well and it has since then created an ongoing conflict.”

Schlegel not only had to face family issues, but he also began to get cyberbullied.

“I would receive anonymous emails that said things like faggot, queer, homo, etc.,” he said. “There were not any instances that were very assertive, just a few offensive slurs here and there.”

In the lives of a gay or lesbian person there are more difficulties than just marriage. Equal rights, renting a place, buying a car and family situations all can be challenging.

Martin and Taylor have thought about these difficulties.

“Honestly marriage is the least of our worries,” Martin said. “I am more concerned about hospital rights, partnership rights, insurance, all the details that straight couples often take for granted. It scares me that one day I could end up in the hospital or Hali could and we would not be able to see one another without permission of an immediate family member.”

Others do worry more about equal marriage rights, such as Tadd Mecham, a student at the University of Utah.

“I am concerned that equal marriage rights will take longer than they should to become legally recognized nationwide it is already long overdue,” he said.

Mecham added, “If I want to get married it should not be a process of moving to another state. I should be able to get married and adopt if I want to. Also, it would be nice to be able to legally visit my partner if they were in a serious accident. Things like that should not fall under anyone else’s responsibilities.”

Martin worries about end-of-life issues. “If I die my wishes would be determined by my family who honestly has no clue what I want if such a thing were to happen,” she said.

“I would love to one day call Hali my wife, but if it cannot happen tomorrow or even five years from now that is OK, it doesn’t change how much I love her,” Martin said. “All we ask for is the ability to gain civil union rights.”

Sometimes there may not be any family members to decide what happens. Brandie Balken, the executive director of Equality Utah, recently related a story about friends of hers.

“Nikki and Ann had been together for 24 years, they had all of their paperwork put together,” she said. “Unfortunately Ann died of a heart attack. Nikki called the morgue and then went to pick up the body. She had every contract except Disposition of Remains.

“Ann’s parents were dead and she did not have any siblings, there was no one to give the body to because Nikki did not have that contract, Ann’s body goes to the state and Nikki does not have a say in what happens,” Balken added.

Despite all of the challenges the LGBT community faces, Martin stressed how ordinary their lives are.

“We are definitely normal,” Martin said. “We are best friends; we build forts like kids, have sushi dates and spend nights watching our favorite shows and doing homework together. And we could not be happier.”

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.”

Equality Utah and LGBT Resource Center work to prevent bullying

Story and photo by CONNOR WALLACE

The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) released on Sept. 5, 2012, the 2011 National School Climate Survey, which outlined the experiences of more than 8,500 LGBT students in all 50 states. The survey found “6 in 10 LGBT students reported feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation.” This marks the first significant drop in bullying based on sexual orientation. GLSEN credits schools and districts with helping to prevent bullying and harassment.

Locally, Equality Utah and the LGBT Resource Center at the University of Utah can be credited with helping school districts to implement bills and provide services regarding LGBT issues.

Equality Utah is a nonprofit organization that focuses on providing equal rights for all LGBT people and their families through helping politicians get elected as well as affecting policy through advocacy. In 2008, Equality Utah helped pass a bill, H.B. 325, which created a definition of hazing and bullying as well as set “the minimum standards for bullying and hazing policies in local districts and charter schools.” Two years later, cyberbullying and verbal harassment were included in the criteria of forbidden activities.

“Bullying has changed,” said Equality Utah Director Brandie Balken regarding cyberbullying.

The Human Rights Education Center of Utah define cyberbullying as “willful and repeated harm inflicted upon others through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.”

Balken said Equality Utah is working to prevent bullying for any reason and pointed out that it has helped two school districts, Park City and Salt Lake City, to adopt policies preventing bullying and discrimination. Despite those policies, students still suffer persecution because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Allison Shepard is a student at the University of Utah. She said she was bullied in high school when people discovered that she was bisexual.

“There were rumors spread that I fooled around with my best friend,” Shepard said. “The rumors were completely untrue.”

She said people need to stand up for themselves when being bullied.

“If a bully says that you’re a loser, prove them wrong,” Shepard said.

Shepard is originally from Chicago and came to the U to study nursing. She said that while progress is being made due to efforts by organizations like Equality Utah, the process is a slow one.

“I do believe that Utah is slowly becoming more intolerant of bullying,” said Shepard, who plans to graduate in May 2013 with a bachelor’s in health promotion and education.

However, she added, “the LGBT community is affected more than others because bullies will use [being LGBT] to target people.”

There is truth to Shepard’s statement. In a 2009 study conducted by the Child Trends Data Bank and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five high school students reported being harassed at school. But the GLSEN study found that more than 80 percent of LGBT students were verbally harassed in 2011.

Kai Medina-Martínez became the director of the LGBT Resource Center in 2007.

Kai Medina-Martínez is the director of the U’s LGBT Resource Center, which provides information on LGBT issues as well as sensitivity training for allies.

Medina-Martínez, who prefers the gender-neutral pronoun “they,” equated the higher occurrence of bullying in the LGBT community to a societal stigma.

“Gay in our country is a bad thing,” they said. “Bullying is very much a concern in the LGBT community.”

Medina-Martínez said bullying is a problem for every group. However, they pointed out that in order to prove that bullying is a hate crime, a victim must demonstrate that sexual orientation was a factor. Medina-Martínez said in order to help stop bullying, society needs to be more aware and look for signs that include: loss of interest in school and school events, trouble sleeping and nightmares, declining grades and increased fighting in school.

“The secrecy around bullying keeps the cycle going,” Medina-Martinez said.

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.

The bridge between authority and leadership

by SHAANTAI LEARY

Linda Oda, director of  Asian Affairs, is a petite Japanese-American woman who feels strongly about authority. As a sign of respect she has a sense to bow every time she meets someone older than she. (Oda did not want to disclose her age, but said she is “29 and holding.”) Bowing has been instilled within her as part of her culture. Custom also dictates that one’s elders should be respected; the phrase “children should be seen and not heard,” is a sign of this.

In addition to her role in the Utah State Office of Ethnic Affairs, she served as a moderator for the “Day of Remembrance,” which was held on Ogden’s 25th Street, also known as Japantown, Feb. 16-18, 2007.

She was raised on Ogden’s 25th Street. Oda’s first job was at the age of 3. Her family lived above the grocery store they owned and operated; her job in the store was to watch for “dorobo,” or shoplifters. She recalled a man asking her if she thought he was going to steal. As she described this confrontation, she put her hands on her hips just as she did when she was a child, and looked up. In a very stern voice she said, “yes.”

When Oda was about 10, her job in the small store was to trim the lettuce and pull off outer leaves so the greens displayed well. One day, a man walked into the store, pressed a knife to her stomach and said, “I could kill you.” Oda did not flinch. She took the knife she had been using on the heads of lettuce, placed it against the man’s stomach, and said, “I could kill you, too.”

She was raised to fight for her life; every day was a battle for her and her family. In fact, her father was murdered on 25th Street for less than $100.

Despite her difficult childhood, Oda went on to become a principal at Taylor Elementary School in Ogden. There, she worked to break the cycle of bullying by attempting to instill respect within her students.

Chase Dunn, 21, is majoring in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Utah. He is well-versed in his studies of culture and religions ranging from Islam to Catholicism. “Bowing is a sign of cultural respect,” he said in a text message. “Bow back. When it comes to authority I tend to think everyone should be met with skepticism. Sure they are older, but they are humans and humans make mistakes and have their own interests [in mind].”

Dunn, who is white, is currently working in Washington, D.C., as an intern for Frances D. Cook, the former ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman. Dunn also has completed study-abroad classes in Cairo and Beirut over the past few years.

”Power and authority should be challenged and unless they can justify themselves, then they should be dismantled,” Dunn wrote. “Remember authority figures and institutions are humans and human built and therefore can be changed.”

For Oda, authority is a compicated issue. She said that one’s “authority, stature and expertise can be diminished” simply because one is “an ethnic minority.” So, people feel as if they have to prove themselves. Oda said she is assertive, not aggressive. “I win and you win, both of us win. To me, that’s an Asian way.”

Bullying, stereotyping must give way to acceptance, say Asian-American women of Utah

Story and photos by KAREN HOLT BENNION

No one realized that when she entered the room, this petite 5-foot-2-inch tall frame would pack such a powerful punch.

Linda Oda grew up in Ogden’s “Red Light District.” It was known for being the toughest and most violent section of town. At an early age, she learned how to protect herself from bullies and thieves. When she was 12 years old, she stood up to a potential thief (called a “dorobo” in the Japanese culture). He pressed a knife against her stomach and told her he could kill her. She then flashed a knife she had been using to trim heads of lettuce and said, ” I could kill you too.” She was unhurt. Even more tragic was the death of her father. One day, he came upon a “dorobo” robbing the store. The thief took $100.

Then he bludgeoned her father to death.

These experiences were some of the many that toughened Oda on a daily basis and drove her into survival mode. In elementary school, Oda soon found out that fighting back was the only way she could endure. “A lot of times I had to fight for my life,” Oda said. Name calling and being driven apart from the “white kids” was her way of life. It was yet another element that motivated her to eventually stand up and walk away from being labeled as an “other” by students with racist attitudes.

Oda said that during the 1940s and 1950s, Japanese-Americans who were not sent to internment camps were relegated to the lower-income neighborhoods. They were ignored and made to feel invisible. For her, it was all a matter of having to prove herself and to break out of the tightly-woven stereotypical mold of being a soft-spoken, passive Asian-American woman.

She admits that her hard childhood was the key motivator for her to succeed as an adult. Right after high school she headed to college and eventually earned her doctorate at Weber State University. She has been an elementary school  teacher, a middle school principal and a dominant figure in helping new refugees adjust to life in Utah and find well paying jobs.

She is now the director of Asian Affairs for the Governor’s Office of Ethnic Affairs. Although she has made a name for herself, she admits that even today she still feels that she must constantly prove herself in the “white man’s world,” as she calls it. Her optimism overflows as she speaks of communities in Utah helping the growing number of minorities and immigrants feel included, especially women. She is driven to bring positive changes to her community. For example, Oda is currently working on bringing young Asian men and women together for an Asian Youth Leadership Summit. The conference will teach teens to overcome feelings of doubt and offer them tools to be successful in education and in leadership roles after high school graduation.

Today, the number of Asian-Americans in Utah is steadily increasing. According to both the U.S. Census Bureau and The Utah Minority Bar Association, the Asian-American population is second only to the Hispanic population. Asian-Americans make up 4.1 percent of the state’s citizens.

Another advocate for the Asian-American community works at the University of Utah. Tricia Sugiyma works at the Student Center for Ethnic Affairs and is the adviser for the school’s Asian-American Student Association. At the AASA’s first meeting of the fall semester, Sugiyama’s face lit up as more and more curious students entered the room. Soon, more than 40 students filled the room. Their families had come from places such as Southern China, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Korea.

Chaw Wguyen, left, and Ming Lam attend AASA's first meeting of fall term.

After hearing the story about Oda, a small group of freshman women said they hadn’t experienced the same type of bullying that she did. They said their families and friends are supportive of them and have encouraged them to get a good education. Chaw Wguyen and Ming Lam, both 18, said the U is already pretty diverse and so far they haven’t noticed any kind of outward bullying. However, others in the group said they have noticed a more subtle type of disdain arising from various comments they hear. One student said because she is Asian, people automatically expect her to be extremely smart. “I’m really not; I have to study hard like everybody else.”

“I know,” said another student. “I get so sick of complete strangers coming up to me and telling me how silky and smooth my skin looks, like I’m some sort of a doll or something.”

Sugiyama said the definition of bullying has changed since the days of WWII. “Taunting of Asian-Americans still exists,” she said, “just in different ways.” “Cyber bullying” is a real danger, especially among young girls. Other methods of intimidation aren’t as extreme; however, the impact can be felt just the same.

“Asians-Americans are viewed by many, especially in the media as perpetual foreigners,” Sugiyama said. She believes that many movies and televisions programs portray Asian women as exotic looking seductresses, or passive subservient women who make good wives. Men don’t fare much better. They are depicted as warriors and Kung-Fu fighters.

Talking with peers is a good way to feel secure about oneself, say Linda Oda and Tricia Sugiyama.

Sugiyama’s parents were born in Japan, but she grew up in Sandy. She was raised and assimilated into the prevailing culture of that area. It was when she was in college that she realized much of her family’s culture had been forgotten. She now maintains a balance of being “Americanized” as she puts it, and still celebrates her family’s heritage while helping other young women find their own place in today’s society.

Both Oda and Sugiyama feel all young women need a support system. Becoming involved with clubs and organizations is a good way to secure and build confidence. Sharing feelings of being left out with a trusted peer or mentor can also help students realize they aren’t alone, they aren’t invisible, they don’t have to be an  “other.”