A local group calling itself Patriots for a Moral Utah held a press conference Monday, March 8, in the Utah State Capitol rotunda calling on Lt. Gov. Greg Bell to submit what it calls the “Fair Solution Initiative” to referendum vote this November.
As Monday progressed, however, it became clear to the media that the press conference was actually a hoax, or more correctly, political theater. A group of about 10 gay and non-gay activists had concocted the idea after last month’s town hall meeting in response to a compromise that effectively silenced any discussion of gay and transgender issues for the duration of the session.
The group officially revealed their ploy the next day on a Web site developed for the elaborate action.
At the press conference, local actress Tamara Johnson-Howell acted as “Nora Young,” a “professional homemaker living in Murray.” In her remarks, she blasted Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City, for being a surrogate mother to a gay male couple, and accused local gays of violent behavior.
“We come together in love to denounce lifestyle choices that are inconsistent with the spiritual values of this great state,” said Young. “When we look out the eyes of love we see very clearly that our freedoms are being forcibly taken from us. Our religious liberty is being threatened. Many in this state call ‘good’ ‘evil’ and ‘evil’ ‘good.’ Many would all ‘love’ ‘hate’ and ‘hate’ ‘love.’ But it is in love that we stand for freedom and the Constitution.”
Young gave a number of ambiguous statements to the media, many of which could be taken as farcical. For example, when Young was asked by one reporter about her thoughts on the Utah media’s coverage of gay issues, she said: “They seem to cover a lot of gay issues. We hear them talk about gay issues quite a lot. I don’t hate gays. I have a cousin who’s gay. My hairdresser is gay. But I love this country more than I love my hairdresser.”
“We must not allow the federal government to tell us who we can love and can’t love. It is not the job of the federal government to mandate that we can’t love morality,” she also said. Later, she noted that Utah’s gay and lesbian population “[would] all be happier” in “homosexual havens” such as San Francisco and New York City.
Organizers of the action went to great lengths to appear credible, including writing a five-page “bill” and creating a full Web site, Facebook group and profile for a fictitious “Paul Jackson” as co-organizer.
“The entire effort took about a month to put together,” said co-organizer Nate Bassett. “The initiative itself took between 25 and 30 hours between gathering examples of current initiatives and copies of bills and pulling together language from existing statutes.”
He said it took additional time to write “Nora’s” speech, pull the actors together, and practice.
The speech was drawn from actual quotes from local conservative groups and leaders.
“You will notice listening to [Nora’s] speech that we lifted verbatim language from all those folks — Buttars, Oaks, et al.” said another organizer, activist Troy Williams. “We also wanted to satirize the endless message bills that our legislators have been pushing, particulary their anti-government ‘state’s rights’ bills. One of our big inspirations was the Patrick Henry Caucus video that Carl Whimmer and friends put together — it has all that over-the-top Bruckheimer-style jingoism at its best.”
What the ‘Initiative’ said
The initiative, drafted mostly by Bassett, sought to change state law to provide for “the involuntary redistribution and relocation of homosexuals to municipalities outside state boundaries or, to their rehabilitation in state-sanctioned facilities.”
To do this, the initiative would create an office of relocation and rehabilitation, a volunteer board of Utah residents to assist with the process, and public transportation options for homosexuals who will willingly leave the state. It also outlines guidelines to prosecute “delinquent homosexuals” or those who harbor them.
The statement of intent said that the initiative is necessary to “heal the divides in this state currently afflicted on us by the homosexual population and give them the compassionate choice to either leave the state or conform to the moral standards of society and uphold the values of family and traditional marriage.”
It justified itself by citing the passage of Amendment 3 in 2004 by a large majority of Utah voters. This amendment changed Utah’s constitution to illegalize same-sex marriage, a practice which state law already prohibited.
“Since that time, the homosexual community in Utah has continued to grow and exhibit offensive behavior while relentlessly bombarding our children with carefully placed messages in the media,” the initiative language continued. “This statute, if enacted, would offer a final solution to afford our children protection from the expanding influence of homosexuals and strengthen our cultural mores at a time when society’s moral anchors are being displaced with reckless abandon.”
It also cited efforts against California’s Proposition 8 in which it accused gay and lesbian Americans of seeking “to denigrate and disparage religious communities and others who support the natural family.”
“They have attacked our sacred institutions and any attempts to reconcile with the deviants are followed by thuggish and brutish behavior including vandalism, defamation, trespassing and violence,” it read. “Even now, the homosexuals are mounting a federal lawsuit that attempts to override state’s [sic] rights regarding traditional marriage.”
The language defined rehabilitation programs as those that the board of Utah volunteers would deem qualified to “assist homosexuals in reasserting their moral heterosexual nature and transition out of a gay identity and lifestyle.” It also would have given members of the board the right to subpoena gays and lesbians, mandate that gays and lesbians disclose their sexual orientation to law enforcement officers, and force testimony from witnesses to an individual’s sexual practices if an individual invokes his or her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Additionally, protests against the law would be made illegal.
“Any person, association, or corporation engaging in boycotts, picketing, protests, rallies, or other conduct, a purpose of which is to denounce or violate, or encourage others to denounce or violate any provision of this chapter, shall be guilty of illegal conduct contrary to public policy,” it read.
Local and National Exposure
The release that went out announcing the press conference late the night before began to develop legs as reporters called for reactions from gay activists and leaders a few hours before it was to take place. Some began to “rally the troops” and about a dozen protesters turned up with signs.
Blogger Joe Jervis of Joe.My.God and Daily Kos writer “smellybeast” picked up on QSaltLake’s story announcing the press conference just an hour before it was to happen. Jervis caught the concern of the story’s writer, JoSelle Vanderhooft, that some were calling the initiative a hoax. The Daily Kos writer did not.
But it was Salt Lake City Weekly writer Jesse Fruhwirth who was first to call the conference a ruse.
“I recognize two of the guys as local activists. One, @ash_anderson has trained with The Yes Men,” he sent through his Twitter account as the press conference started. “Media about to interview the ‘sponsors.’ This is a fake! I’ll flay them in a moment,” he tweeted 10 minutes later.
QSaltLake updated their story after the press conference when we could find no organization filed with the state under the name, Patriots for a Moral Utah, nor could we verify the existence of Nora Young or Paul Jackson (though the e-mail address used by “Jackson” did show an xBox enthusiast profile set up in 2008). The Attorney General’s office also verified that no initiative had actually been filed there.
“We have not received any paperwork that’s anything like that, nor have we communicated with any groups like this,” said Mark Thomas, office administrator for the Lieutenant Governor’s office.
The clincher (though not definitive) for this newspaper, however, was when reporter Tony Hobday was driving back to the office and passed the vehicle of the press conference organizers, both of whom were laughing and smoking. Hardly traits to expect from conservative leaders.
As the story developed, the Daily Kos writer angrily retracted his story after his colleague, “Jbearlaw,” erroneously said the press conference would not happen because it wasn’t on the Utah State Legislature’s Web site and it would cost thousands of dollars to rent the rotunda.
But it was too late. Dozens of other blogs across the country carried the story.
Early Exposure as a Farce
A few hours after the press conference, Fruhwirth posted to his Salt Lake City Weekly staff blog saying that he recognized two members of Patriots for a Moral Utah as local activists Ashley Anderson and Dillon Hase, both of whom he said were members of Peaceful Uprising, a local nonviolent progressive group which is seeking to raise awareness about environmental damage and climate change. Jackson, said Fruhwirth, was actually Hase dressed in a suit with his hair slicked back.
Fruhwirth wrote that he felt “punk’d” and the media were played for fools. He questioned the organizers’ motives in inviting him personally, in potentially angering a generally gay-friendly press corps, and conjuring “Nazi-like imagery.”
Shortly after the post went live, Hase commented on the blog, confirming that the press conference was a hoax.
“This was satire. It was meant to be ironic. Anyone who was paying close attention would eventually get it,” Hase wrote. “It is a sad fact that we live in a state that something as blatantly prejudice and unconstitutional as this ‘initiative’ would, even for a moment, be considered as truth.”
But considered as truth it was. Several local activists and many reporters believed the initiative was a serious, though misguided and perhaps naive, effort by Utah’s ultra-conservatives.
“The fact that so many people thought it was real was surprising,” said Williams. “That says something about the state of anti-gay politics in Utah. It also tells me that we should have stepped up the outrageousness of the spectacle. Many lessons were learned.”
Some, like philanthropist Bruce Bastian, weren’t laughing at the “spectacle.”
“This was not a joke. It was a serious mistake,” he wrote in response to Fruhwirth’s post. “There is activism and then there is stupidity. We pour millions of dollars and thousands of hours into trying to put truth out there, and then there is this. What we want is respect for who we are and what we want. We won’t get there with stupid jokes! I am personally offended.”
Rep. Christine Johnson posted that she did not “find amusement in intentional deceit of the LGBT community by the LGBT community.”
“I felt bad that there were folks who got angry about it and took it to heart, initially,” said Jackson-Howell. “At first, I honestly thought it was too far-fetched for anyone to believe, that people would know immediately that it was a farce. I guess that’s the point, though. It’s appalling that the ‘initiative’ and Nora could say such outlandish, crazy and hateful things, yet there was enough reality in it that for about 24 hours, many people thought it was in earnest. The fact that there’s even a glimmer of possibility that such a thing could take place and could be viewed as legitimate, speaks volumes to the distance we still need to travel toward equality.”
“For me, I’d give the performances an A+ and the overall execution a C–,” said Williams. “I didn’t anticipate the national blogs to run with the story before it happened. I naively thought they would pick it up after it was so obviously revealed to be a hoax.”
Some Saw the Irony
Others, however, saw some good in the hoax.
“I have since learned that this was a hoax, and yes I was fooled for quite a while due to how elaborate it was and how, unfortunately, believable something like this is in Utah,” wrote activist Jacob Whipple. “I do hope, however, that it is a good wake-up call for our legislators and Utahns in general.”
“If this is political theater, awesome,” wrote activist Eric Ethington on his blog, PRIDE in Utah. “Utah has been rampant with ugly and pointless message bills this session and it’s about time someone stood up and made a farce of it.”
“Once it was revealed as a piece of guerilla theatre or satire, I think most people have appreciated the effort. We have had tons of positive feedback,” Jackson-Howell said. “I hope all is forgiven, as this was never meant to hurt; only to creatively highlight a problem that we all need to come together to fix.”
What Was the Point?
In the aftermath of the event, the lack of mass media coverage and feelings of all kinds, many have wondered aloud what the point of the action was.
“As a member of the LGBT community,” Jackson-Howell said, “I felt that it was important. As a community, we hear a lot of outrageous rhetoric from some pretty hateful individuals. Sometimes it’s helpful to hold up a mirror to ugly behavior. It is my hope that those folks will see something in this that strikes a chord with them and makes them want to behave better.”
“After the community forum, some of us were frustrated with the way things were going in the state and how the Legislature was handling our issues this session,” said Bassett. “We were trying to figure out a way to get people talking and raise visibility and decided this might be a way to get people talking about LGBT rights and allow for discussion.”
“As the Mormon Church conspires with the Catholic Church to find new arguments and strategies to marginalize the LGBT community, we are going to have to find more creative, artful and colorful responses to their homophobia,” said Williams. “Comedy and satire are essential to our progress. I also think we have to be willing to take risks with our creativity. Activists need to be willing to experiment and we need to be willing to fail. And hopefully we’ll get smarter and more creative as we go along.”
“Early queer activism enjoyed fantastic camp created by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and the Cockettes and many more. Act Up and Queer Nation pushed the envelope with outrageous, inflammatory stunts. Patriots for a Moral Utah are pretty mild compared to those folks — but we can still aspire,” he continued.
More for Nora?
So, is there more work out there for “Nora”?
“I really hope Nora will reappear in a different format,” said Jackson-Howell.
“I hope that ‘Nora Young’ will reappear again soon in some capacity,” agreed Williams. “She is an amalgamation of all the right-wing crazies that push anti-gay politics in Utah. Tamara is an extremely gifted actress. I think we can find some new capacity for her to make commentary on the insanity in the future.” Q
The complete text of the bill is available at tinyurl.com/y8b4qpo.