Bill defines human rights: equality vs. morality

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. 

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.

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.

Becker is backed by Equality Utah

by CLAYTON NORLEN

With a donation of $7,500 and a commitment to volunteer involvement in mayoral candidate Ralph Becker’s campaign, Equality Utah is endorsing who it believes can advance its mission.

Becker has proposed the adoption of a universal human rights initiative that is broken into three categories: Comprehensive Ordinances and Policies, Domestic Partner Policies and Compliance and Enforcement. These measures will encourage the progressive development of current legislation and further the protection of human rights in Salt Lake City.

“A fundamental part of growing a great American city is making sure every citizen is protected by the law and treated equally,” Becker wrote online in his announcement of proposed incentives. “As Salt Lake continues to develop and grow, I want to make sure that every person feels they are safe and secure in this community.”

In advocating these measures, Becker is supporting Equality Utah’s key issues, such as the development of anti-bullying, equal access policies for students at all levels of education and furthering the adult designee program to include domestic partners as beneficiaries.

Utah’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community’s biggest enemy is bias, said Mike Thompson, executive director for Equality Utah. The mission of Equality Utah is to secure equal rights and protections for LGBT Utahns and their families. Its political action committee is determined to encourage legislation and vocal support of politicians and measures that move it closer to its goal.

“We are the political activist group for the LGBT community, and if only 10 percent of our members volunteer it can make a significant impact on the mayoral race,” said Will Carlson, manager of public policy for Equality Utah. “$7,500 was the cap on what we could donate, and it’s significant because it illustrates Becker’s support for our mission.”

As a lobbying organization Thompson explained, the strength of Equality Utah is in its education of politicians and the citizen representation it embodies on the hill. Because Equality Utah wanted to invest its money in the individual whom it felt would be best for the communities it represents, it waited until the primary elections to endorse a candidate.

Thompson said that the filter through which all of Equality Utah’s decisions run is its mission statement. The issues that surround the LGBT community cannot be simplified into a yes or no questionnaire. Because of this, Thompson explained that it is important to maintain relationships with politicians so Equality Utah can speak openly with officials and encourage dialogue.

“Politicians are realizing the impact the LGBT community can have in elections,” Thompson said.

Buhler didn’t comment on Equality Utah’s decision to endorse Becker instead of him, only saying, “It was their decision.”

“My feeling is that everyone should be treated the same in providing any city service, be it picking up someone’s garbage or providing insurance,” Buhler said. “I can’t think of why we’d treat anyone differently. If elected, we’ll treat everyone the same.”

David Everitt, campaign manager for Becker, said Equality Utah’s donated funds will go into a general campaign account to cover advertising, rent and other costs in the mayoral race. Everitt didn’t specify what the money would be used for, saying only that once money is donated to the campaign it covers whatever costs it is needed for.

“There’s always more doors to knock on,” Everitt added.

Volunteers who participate on behalf of Equality Utah in the race will be put to work knocking on doors, placing signs and stuffing envelopes. Volunteers can also donate their time to data entry, making phone calls or doing what Everitt described as general office work.

“It’s all about building relationships with both sides of the party line. This allows us to strive towards a fair and just Utah,” Thompson said. “[Utah] is where change needs to take place. What are you going to do, make a blue state bluer? No — [Utah] is where the challenges are.”