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Allies Honored at Equality Utah Dinner

Equality Utah’s annual Allies Dinner is one of the highlights of the year for Utah’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer community. Sponsored by philanthropist Bruce Bastian and Jane and Tami Marquardt, the dinner is one of the gay and transgender rights organization’s biggest fund-raisers, as well as a day for it to honor individuals and organizations that have provided exemplary service to Utah’s queer community.

Named “Gaining Ground,” in honor of the spread of job and employment protections for gay and transgender people, this year’s dinner will feature Dustin Lance Black as its keynote speaker. A writer for the television show Big Love, Black has won numerous Writers Guild of America awards for his work on the HBO drama about polygamy in Utah. In 2009, he won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Milk, a dramatization of the life and assassination of gay-rights activist and public official Harvey Milk. He also narrated 8: The Mormon Proposition, Reed Cowan’s controversial documentary about the LDS Church’s involvement in the passage of California’s Proposition 8.

During the dinner, Equality Utah will also give its Allies for Equality Award to five recipients: Jane and Tami Marquardt, Gary and Millie Watts and the Salt Lake City Human Rights Commission.

Once a practicing attorney from 1979 to 2007, Jane Marquardt has served Utah’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens since 1982, when she started offering seminars on establishing powers of attorney, wills and other directives to same-sex couples. In 1996, she also helped organize training sessions for Utah judges about “the cutting-edge issues of the day like employment nondiscrimination” affecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. During those sessions, she faced off against psychologists and BYU professors who presented what she called “the other side” of the debate.

“It was a chance to be a competent gay person standing up in front of a group of judges who may have thought they didn’t know gay people,” she said. “That was a fun thing to be involved in. It was a landmark that the Utah Supreme Court even wanted to be educated on these issues in the middle of the ’90s.”

Marquardt also served as a board member for Equality Utah from 2001–2007, starting when the organization was known as Unity Utah, and is still a member of the group’s advisory council. In 2004, she served as the chair for the Don’t Amend campaign, Equality Utah’s effort to stop a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. When founder Michael Mitchell departed the organization, she also acted as interim director until the board hired Mike Thompson.

“I did a lot of legal work to help them grow from being just Equality Utah to the three organizations it is today: Equality Utah, Equality Utah PAC and Equality Utah Foundation,” she said. “I realized that was a good structure, to combine a political action committee, a lobbying arm and a political foundation. I think I followed the lead of the Human Rights Campaign, which is set up in a similar way.”

Marquardt is legally married to her partner Tami in Canada and in a number of U.S. states that have legalized same-sex marriage. Tami Marquardt served as the Utah Pride Center’s interim director in 2004 before the hiring of Valerie Larabee and is a member of the Center’s board today.

“Tami had a real interest in youth,” Marquardt explained. “She has a real passion for talking to young people, so when she was at the Center she helped to run programs for youth. In life now she’s always willing to talk to people having issues coming out. She’s so good at it people come to find her.”

Like Tami Marquardt, Gary and Millie Watts have also helped gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth, as well as their families as the leaders of LDS Family Fellowship. Although the two did not found the organization, they joined soon after its formation in 1993; two of their six children are gay, and one of them, Craig, has been excommunicated from the LDS Church.

“Our love for Craig lead to a family commitment to do all we can to help people understand more about same-sex orientation,” the two wrote in a 1994 letter viewable on their website, ldsfamilyfellowship.org, shortly before they began holding Family Fellowship meetings in their Utah County home. “Not only do we share the scientific research that is coming forth, we also try to help people realize how much discrimination hurts, not only the homosexual person, but  family and friends as well. It [Craig’s coming out] has opened our eyes to the world of “justified” discrimination that exists in many aspects of society.”

As leaders of the support group, the Wattses not only provide council and support for parents struggling to come to terms with their child’s sexual orientations, but tireless advocacy for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

“Education is one of our major goals, and to just try to get the parents and siblings to love their gay child and keep their gay child under their wing, not kick them out of the house like happens so many times with gay children,” said Millie Watts in an interview with KUED for Friends and Neighbors: A Community Divided, a 1999 documentary about the families and friends of gay and lesbian Utahns.

Throughout the ’90s and 2000s, the Wattses have spoken to journalists and organizations alike about their work, and have spoken out against anti-gay pronouncements made by LDS officials. A number of organizations have recognized them for these efforts, including Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons, a support group for former and current gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members of the LDS Church.

“Gary and Millie possess a genuinely charitable spirit,” said Family Fellowship supporter Marge Bradshaw in a 2006 ceremony where Affirmation honored the couple with an award for outstanding leadership. “They give. They give time; they give money; they give love. We spend four nights or so each year, with several other couples, at the dining room table in their home stuffing and addressing envelopes that contain a flyer announcing the upcoming Family Fellowship gathering. They provide the home, the pizza and root beer, and contribute to the spirit of friendship. There are no aides or secretaries; there is only Watts’ generosity.”

The eight-member Salt Lake City Human Rights Commission has been an invaluable part of making the capital city a safer and more just place for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents. In 2009, its report on discrimination within the city’s boundaries revealed that discrimination based on race, sexual orientation and gender identity were significant problems. The report was the cornerstone upon which Mayor Ralph Becker based two ordinances prohibiting housing and employment discrimination against gay and transgender residents. The Salt Lake City Council ultimately passed the ordinances near the end of last year, and seven other municipalities have adopted them since.

Lisa Harrison Smith, Becker’s deputy director of communications, said that the commission was “honored and excited” to receive the recognition.

“We’re really thrilled that we’re recognized by Equality Utah. They’re a big part of many, if not all, of the initiatives that come out in the city. It means a lot to us.”

Upon entering office, said Smith, Becker created the commission with Coordinator Yolanda Francisco-Nez at the helm “with the charge to make some very big changes” in how the city handled matters relating to diversity.

“I think that set the tone for a pretty progressive agenda when it comes to LGBT rights,” she said, adding that the mayor’s office appreciated EU’s recognition of Francisco-Nez’s efforts.

Francisco-Nez was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

“Gaining Ground” will be held Sept. 28 at the Salt Palace. Tickets are $100 per person or $900 for a table of 10. Proceeds will go to Equality Utah Political Action Committee, to help elect fair-minded candidates who support equal rights for Utah’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens. Vegetarian options are available. To purchase tickets and for more information visit alliesdinner.com.

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JoSelle Vanderhooft

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