I am not equal in Utah

When trying to choose who to vote for in any election – whether it be local, or for President – I believe that most of us try to imagine how we want our communities to be different. This is certainly what preoccupies my mind, and there is so much that I want to change.

Utah is an odd state. Salt Lake  City, liberal by any measure, is surrounded on all sides by one of the most devoted conservative strongholds in the nation. This leads to a tremendous conflict between expanding and supporting social rights, and restricting them based on religious ideology largely controlled by the LDS church. These interactions are normally a bleak reminder of how far our state has to come. Currently in the Utah House, there is a bill called the Sovereign Marriage Authority Act proposed by Representative Lavar Christensen. The bill simply states:

If, and to the extent, judicial decisions require action that is contrary to or inconsistent with the democratic process and the state’s time honored and enduring sovereign marriage authority, such decisions shall be narrowly construed and applied. The state may defer and comply with such decisions, but compliance does not negate or diminish the state’s continuing full reservation and exercise of sovereign authority at all times as recognized and provided in Section 63G-16-101, nor does it compel or require changes in other areas of the law including child welfare and adoption. 

If passed, it would mean that while Utah confers marriage licenses to all couples – as required by the Supreme Court – they will only interpret it to apply to the licenses themselves and not to other rights that marriage confers. Adoption services would show preference to straight couples, and presumably any other services provided to couples would show preference to straight couples rather than being provided on an equal basis.

There is a similar fight to derail an amendment proposed by Stephen Urquhart (R) that would modify hate crime legislation to include sexual orientation and gender identity in addition to existing categories such as race and religion. Hate crime legislation is important because it combats systemic and premeditated crime, and it specifically includes groups that have been historically marginalized or targeted. The LDS church has openly fought against modifying hate crime legislation:

“The Utah Legislature achieved something extraordinary last year in arriving at legislation that protected both religious liberty rights and LGBT rights,” said church spokesman Dale Jones in a statement Wednesday afternoon which was released in response to media inquiries. “Interests from both ends of the political spectrum are attempting to alter that balance. We believe that the careful balance achieved through being fair to all should be maintained.”

The church ignores the fact that its members are specifically protected by hate crime legislation, their long history of being victims of hate crime [more] [more] [more], and the LGBT community’s long history of being targeted for their sexual orientations and gender identities. It is a sad thing, but it is not unexpected.

Clearly, when private entities, churches and community leaders believe that discrimination and hate are not worthy of condemnation there needs to be large-scale change that validates and empowers victims to feel equal and most importantly, safe. Utah is not a safe place for people that are LGBT. It is not a safe place for minority communities, and it needs radical change.

I have no fear of being physically assaulted for my sexual orientation (but this has occurred recently in Utah), but I do fear that many rights which are necessary for my own well-being will be taken away by state lawmakers – and there is current precedence to support this position.

I do not feel that I can be myself here, I do not feel that I can go on a date anywhere in this state and feel comfortable that people won’t make snide remarks, won’t target me or my date, won’t flash dirty looks and won’t lecture their kids about the dangers of homosexuality within ear-shot. This is Utah, this is where I live, it is where my family and friends are, it is the most beautiful place I have ever been. But I don’t feel safe, I don’t feel secure, and I don’t feel equal.

There are a few accepting areas – specifically Sugar House – but I don’t want to live in Sugar House and I don’t want to feel forced to spend every waking moment in the tiny areas that are accepting. I believe that I should feel secure in living wherever I go, that I should be a part of the community rather than an outcast. Never have I felt with so much conviction that I am not a part of a community where I live, and that is entirely due to community convictions about my sexual orientation.

So what does this have to do with elections and my vision for my community? It means that I see a state in which discrimination is acceptable if it is based on religious ideals. I do not think this is acceptable, and I do not think that laws that would protect people should be gutted simply to appease a church. It means that I envision a path in which we elect candidates like Stephen Urquhart (R) who can rise in opposition to their church and to their party in order to protect all Utahns, and all Americans. I do not know his legislative history, but I do know that I see true bravery in someone who fights for a group that he is not a part of. On the other hand, I see people like Lavar Christensen (R) who hope to restrict the rights of community members and undermine the tremendous progress that the LGBT community has made in Utah. People like him need to be replaced by those who will fight for the rights of all their constituents.

Growing up in this community has – I think – given me good perspective and self-confidence. I know that despite what people say or do around me, I enjoy the person that I am. I enjoy being myself, and I enjoy my life. But I know that there are others who do not feel this way, and when they are faced with the challenges that exist in a state like Utah, many of them do not go unscathed. In Utah we have an epidemic of teen suicide among LGBT individuals, we have a tremendous problem with LGBT homelessness (especially youth homelessness), and the most powerful social institution in the state still supports conversion therapy and has a systemic and egregious history of discrimination. We need people in the LDS church to rise up and say that discrimination is wrong, and we need lawmakers who do not make their decisions based on LDS church press statements. That is rare here, and I hope that it will change.

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