by YEVGENIYA KOPELEVA
When Equality Utah, a nonprofit political organization in Salt Lake City that advocates for the LGBT community, asked Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City, to take on the employment non-discrimination bill protecting sexual orientation and gender identity, she agreed. Then she hung up the phone and began to cry.
“It’s going to be difficult to pass this law, but it’s the beginning of a conversation and a learning curve to educate others,” Johnson said.
An event sponsored by the Department of Communication and the University of Utah’s Debate Team was designed to do just that. On Nov. 15, 2007, politicians, students, faculty and staff gathered in the Reed Auditorium at the U to discuss the significance of equality. “Debating Discrimination” created dialogue about the following resolution: “Should the state of Utah pass legislation establishing protections from discrimination regarding sexual orientation and identity in the workplace?”
Johnson began her eight-minute perspective on the resolution by noting, “Working Americans should be judged on one criterion and one criterion alone, job performance not prejudice.” She said that 33 years after the first federal employment non-discrimination bill passed, the country has slowly progressed toward understanding the definition of discrimination and establishing equality to all. She encouraged everyone to give voice to the minority and protect everyone. “Another civil rights movement shall begin tonight,” Johnson said.
Anastasia Niedrich, representing the U’s Debate Team on the affirmative team, asked the audience how long the GLBTQ population must wait before Congress passes legislation to ensure equal rights in the workplace. “People are simply trying to be who they are and they need to be protected now because equality is right,” Niedrich said.
Chrissy Hayes, another member of the affirmative team, reassured the audience by saying equality is the top priority for the Utah State Legislature. She said GLBTQ issues are more important than education, poverty and health care, and through this resolution, Utah can set the precedent for the nation. “Utah is fighting for what is right – the principle America upholds above all others, equality,” Hayes said. Many GLBTQ people go to work every day in fear of losing health care and other benefits because of someone discovering their identity, she said. “Individuals should be judged on competency, not sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Her third point reflected the idea that as a large minority in Utah, the GLBTQ population can have a significant effect on the economy where tax revenue and cash flow will benefit all of Utah. The passage of the law would improve the quality of life for the GLBTQ population and give them equal rights to voice their opinions. Hayes concluded with a quote from John F. Kennedy: “Those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
U student Danielle Hughes, on the opposition team, said the law would raise controversial issues that don’t correspond with the morals of many Utahns. In particular, she added that the majority of the Latter-day Saints in Utah would not support the bill. “If we wait for Congress to strengthen the laws, then Utah would most likely pass this bill,” Hughes said.
Near the end of the deliberation, Nina Hall, Hughes’ debate partner, made three contrasting points about the resolution. First, the current laws protect everyone in Utah and passing this bill is a waste of time, energy and focus. Instead, she said the money being spent on fighting the bill should be allocated to more essential issues like education, poverty and health care. “The plan would cause backlash in Utah because changing the mindsets of Utahns would be impossible,” she said. Hall also said businesses and employers will be negatively affected if the law passes. Finally, she recommended keeping the status quo and letting change happen on a federal level.
Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, who in 2004 co-sponsored the constitutional Amendment 3, that defined marriage as “only the legal union between a man and a woman,” proudly defended traditional values, saying the law would cause many lawsuits. “I am going to get to the point like I usually do: It’s wrong, wrong, wrong,” he said.
Buttars contradicted himself by saying he will fight against Amendment 3 if it reappears before the Senate, while noting he doesn’t believe in discrimination because “discrimination is wrong and those who discriminate need to be punished.” Buttars questioned what would happen if this subgroup were to be accepted and how the passage of the bill would affect others. While Amendment 3 is, in fact, discriminatory, he also said he didn’t believe individuals who say, “Because we are born that way, you can’t discriminate against us.”
Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, defended Buttars by reiterating the importance of protecting order and morality in the state of Utah. “We have the responsibility to preserve the moral values of the people,” she said.
On the other hand, Will Carlson, manager of public policy for Equality Utah, said a healthy economy depends on rational decision-making, welcoming people who are the innovators and creators. “You discourage competency while promoting secrecy and distrust within the workplace,” Carlson said. By emphasizing the golden rule in which every religion believes in the importance of treating everyone with dignity and respect, he reinforced the importance of employees having the right to be judged on competency, not on their sexual orientation or gender identity. “It’s the inclusion from all church leaders that says morality calls for the passage to this law,” Carlson said.
Although 19 states, the District of Columbia and 150 cities and towns protect the LGBT community in the workplace, it took Colorado eight years to pass the law. Johnson thinks it will take at least 15 years for the state of Utah to give equal rights to the LGBT population. “The [Utah State Legislature] is going to chew me up and spit me out, but I am willing to get beat up knowing that I will initiate change and create dialogue,” she said.
According to the results of the debate, 44 out of 145 people believed the bill is unnecessary. “I would have been interested in speaking with those who oppose the bill so I could ask them if their thoughts remained the same after hearing all the positions,” Johnson said. She believes the process of educating people is a very slow and arduous one. “The U of U event is another step in hearing one another and learning.”
Johnson, a former Equality Utah board member, continues to work closely with the organization.
“As our strategy for the 2008 session took shape, it was determined that Rep. Johnson would be the best person to sponsor the [employment non-discrimination] bill in the House of Representatives,” said Mike Thompson, executive director of Equality Utah. “Her performance on the ‘Debating Discrimination’ panel is a perfect demonstration of her passion for the issue.”
SIDEBAR: Rep. Christine Johnson aims to make a difference
In 2004, when Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, sponsored a marriage recognition policy bill, which defined marriage as “only of the legal union between a man and a woman,” Christine “Chris” Johnson was so upset she wrote a document in the middle of the night to be presented the next day at the capitol.
At the time, Sen. Karen Hale, D-Salt Lake City, sided with the Republicans on the proposed bill. In an effort to convince Hale that her constituents were not opposed to civil unions, Johnson stood outside of her local grocery store in the snow to get 100 signatures from people who wanted Hale to vote against the bill. She succeeded and went on to testify against the bill at the committee hearing. “I simply said that my homosexuality wasn’t a choice, but rather a reflection of my authentic self,” Johnson said. “I spoke of my love for my partner and daughter, and even though the sponsor felt his God condemned my commitment, my God approved completely.” She told the committee that morality is subjective and it is not the place of government to legislate morality.
Johnson and her family were interviewed by local media because they were the only gay family to testify. “We were on the news the next morning and my family became advocates for the gay and lesbian community,” said Johnson about her first steps into the field of politics.
Wanting to effect positive change and make a difference, she aimed to be a part of the capitol. In November 2006, Johnson was the only female running against six other candidates. With a 75.4 percent winning margin, she was elected to serve the residents of District 25 as a representative in the Utah House of Representatives. “The LGBT community got me elected into office,” said Johnson, a proud lesbian, single mother and activist.
“I respect anyone on the hill who is out and proudly fighting for equal rights,” said Bonnie Owens, staff intern at the LGBT Resource Center at the University of Utah.
For Rep. Johnson, D-Salt Lake City, the most difficult aspects of running a campaign was to raise the money to win and ask people to vote for her. “Authority is assumed and then respected when you are confident,” Johnson said. “People saw that I was passionate and voted for me.”
She believes everyone should have the right to live with authenticity – whether it is a man wearing makeup or a woman wearing men’s clothing. “You need to put your foot down when you feel something wrong inside you,” she said about standing up for your one’s values and beliefs.
Johnson supports public and higher education, women’s reproductive rights, literacy and minority issues, health care, open-space preservation and air quality. “It’s about portraying your passion with your heart,” Johnson said.
Realizing the small progress she has made in the House as a female, Johnson created the Women’s Leadership Project in hopes of giving voice to a minority. “We don’t have enough minority voices in politics,” Johnson said. By visiting classrooms within her district, she encourages females to think about being community leaders in politics. After demonstrating how a bill winds through the process, Johnson asks students to write a paragraph about the significance of women and minorities in the government. The teacher selects the best paper and the winner gets to shadow Johnson at the capitol for a day.
Johnson spends her weekdays answering at least 50 e-mails a day, speaking with three to four organizations that want her attention, attending interim sessions every Wednesday and making a living through real estate. Despite this busy schedule, she said, “It is simply the labor of love and creating change in this state.”
She has a 15-year-old daughter, Olivia, who is a sophomore at Judge Memorial High School. Olivia dances 14 hours a week with the Ballet West Academy, gets straights A’s, is open-minded and educates herself on a variety of issues.
In her free time, Johnson enjoys cooking, spending time with her daughter and volunteering in the community. For example, Headstart, a program that assists children with literacy skills, recently invited Johnson to visit and play with the pre-school children.
She expects to continue fighting for equality and making a difference, but change does not come without personal sacrifice. “It’s been hard to balance professional and personal life,” she said.