Categories: Lambda Lore

The end of the Gay ’90s

After much public criticism of the 1996 Utah State Legislature’s blatant invective against gay people, the 1997 legislative session was relatively calm. An exception was Utah Senate President Lane Beattie’s defense of his vituperative colleagues. He claimed that the Utah Legislature was not anti-gay but “pro-heterosexual.” He stated, “I don’t believe we discriminate against anyone but I can say that we will do everything in its power to make sure that the ‘homo-sexual/lesbian lifestyle’ is not taught or condoned in any way in our public education system.” Talking out of the other side of his mouth he added, “we also believe that their (homosexuals’) civil rights shouldn’t be violated either.” No one believed that malarkey.

By November 1997, Salt Lake City Councilwoman Deeda Seed pushed for an anti-discrimination ordinance that included protection for all gay city employees. It was a fulfillment of a campaign promise she had made to the gay community. As chairwoman, she asked city attorneys to draft an ordinance similar to policies adopted by Salt Lake County and the University of Utah. Immediately she faced blow back from Councilman Keith Christensen, who was opposed to inserting “sexual orientation” in an anti-discrimination ordinance. He reasoned that “naming protected classes of people is offensive.”

However, in December the council passed the ordinance on a 5-2 vote, which made Salt Lake City the first municipality in Utah to protect a person’s “sexual orientation” from discrimination. Those who voted for the ordinance were Tom Godfrey, Mary Mark, Lee Martinez, Deeda Seed and Joanne Milner. Those opposed were Bryce Jolley and Keith Christensen. Upon learning the news, editors at the Deseret News went ballistic. They lambasted the Salt Lake City Council for “ramming the new ordinance through.”

November 1997 was an election year for Salt Lake City Council and Tom Godfrey, Mary Mark and Lee Martinez were replaced on the council with Roger Thompson, Tom Rogan and Carlton Christensen. Jolley immediately spearheaded a move to repeal the ordinance. He solicited the newly elected councilmen Carlton Christensen and Thompson to join him and Keith Christensen in repealing the law. Jolley said his main opposition was that it was passed by a “lame duck majority,” not that he was homophobic. As proof he said, “I love the theater and plays and movies … I have many friends who are in that field.” Yes, people rolled their eyes then like you are now.

Councilwoman Milner was more forthright and said Jolley’s real motive was the fear that the ordinance could lead to benefits for the gay community including “legalize same-sex marriage.” Seed accused the Mormon councilmen of not being “entirely honest.”

“These men believe that homosexuality is immoral,” she said. “They won’t come out and say that. They’re hiding behind legal arguments.”

The councilmen however vigorously protested that they simply did not want to grant “special rights” to a new class of people.

In January 1998 the new Salt Lake City Council voted to repeal the anti-discrimination law protecting homosexual workers 4-3. In the end Jolley, Thompson, Carlton Christensen and Keith Christensen voted to repeal the law while Seed, Milner and Tom Rogan voted to retain the law.  Discussions before the vote were so heated that Jolley even tried to throw some gay rights advocates out of the council meeting. University of Utah law Professor Terry Kogan said he tried to persuade several friends who work for the city to speak up but “to no avail.”

Too many were afraid that being honest would affect their employment. Kogan said that, in of itself, is discrimination. A PFLAG mother was so furious at the repeal that she vowed to “kick the bums out of office.”  She stated, “They’re not leaders. They’re moral cowards.”

After the vote to repeal, representatives from dozens of community organizations hoped to persuade Salt Lake City Mayor DeeDee Corradini to use her veto power. “As long as you have the veto power, you can’t run away from it,” attorney Rocky Anderson told the mayor. David Nelson chimed in, “She’s charged with protecting the integrity of the work environment for her employees. She has a responsibility. I hope she takes it seriously.” The gay community was a strong backer of Corradini in her 1995 re-election by which she won by barely 400 votes, so we were confident she would support them. We were disappointed.

Mayor Corradini met with representatives of PFLAG,  NOW, UAF, the Anti-Violence Project, Utah Lawyers for Human Rights, the First Unitarian Church; and the Utah Progressive NetworkEducation Fund (UPNet), a nonprofit umbrella covering more than 25 citizen groups, the Utah Women’s Political Caucus, and the Utah Stonewall Center.  She smiled and listened for one hour, but the mayor’s mind was already made up not to veto the repeal.

One reason the mayor did not use the veto was from  counsel from city attorney Roger Cutler, who said, “The state and everyone else seems to manage life without having such a policy.” Corradini assured the angry and disappointed gay activists that she would personally intervene if any one brought a complaint to her over discrimination. Yeah, right.

After the repeal of Seed’s ordinance, the council had Cutler draft a new anti-discrimination ordinance, stripping out whole sections of offending text. Inclusion of  “sexual orientation,” as  far as the LDS councilmen were concerned, would give “special rights” to a new class of people, the wrong sort of people. The council continued to squabble over the language of the new anti-discrimination ordinance but eventually reached an uneasy truce. As long as the words “sexual orientation” did not appear in a new law, ”there will be peace” said Keith Christensen. Legal experts, however, declared the proposal a dismal failure, but Keith Christensen said he was satisfied.

While Salt Lake City had struggled over language, on the federal level President Bill Clinton, in 1998, signed an executive order forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation in the federal civilian workforce and urged Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Even Stephen Covey’s Utah-based Franklin Covey Company changed the wording of its nondiscrimination policy to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1998, but the measure was too extreme for Salt Lake City.

To the south of Salt Lake City, in Happy Valley, that summer of 1998, the Nebo School District officials had ordered Spanish Fork High School teacher, Wendy Weaver not to discuss her sexual orientation to anyone, even her own family, or she would lose her job. Utah was still one of 20 states where sodomy was a criminal offense. This law allowed Utah policymakers to justify discrimination involving gay people.

When some Spanish Fork residents learned that Weaver was suing her district for discrimination, they cited Utah’s anti-sodomy law as a reason to have her fired. Arguing that homosexual relationships are illegal, Weaver was therefore unfit to teach. Weavers’ discrimination suit against Nebo officials sparked a firestorm of controversy and attracted the glare of national and media attention. Eventually, after several years of putting Weaver through hell, she won not only her suit, but also the right for all public educators to acknowledge being gay without being fired.

The struggle for civil rights in Utah took its toll on the citizen activists and institutional fatigue finally claimed two powerhouse organizations. The Utah Human Rights Coalition, which sought to amplify gay voices in education, politics and public policy was dismantled when Charlene Orchard and Debra Burlington called it quits. The Gay and Lesbian Utah Democrats also folded with David Nelson’s loss of support in the Utah Democrat Party. A few vocal Utah Democratic leaders had actually said that Nelson should be taken to “the woodshed” for the proverbial whacking. The one bright spot in 1998 was the election of Jackie Biskupski to House District 30. She became Utah’s first elected openly gay representative.

The Gay ’90s ended with one last hurrah. In 1999 the Gay and Lesbian Political Action Committee [GALPAC], ACLU, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force promoted actions in all 50 states “to focus attention on legislative battles over gay rights.” The national slogan was “Equality Begins At Home.” Gay activists rallied on the steps of the Utah Capitol where Weaver talked about discrimination in the workplace. Dave Jones, Rocky Anderson and Jim Bradley, all Democratic Salt Lake City mayoral candidates, also spoke out against discrimination based on sexual orientation, as did Jackie Biskupski.

Despite the rally, the Utah gay and lesbian, and by now, bisexual and transgender community was waiting for new people and new organizations to carry on the fight for equality. It was time to pass the torch. We were done partying like it’s 1999.

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Ben Williams

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