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What's Right With Utah | The Nation

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What's Right With Utah

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DAVID DANIELSUtah gays protest Proposition 8 in Salt Lake City's Temple Square.

About the Author

Lisa Duggan
Lisa Duggan, professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, is the author, most recently, of The...

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Salt Lake City

Forget everything you think you know about Utah. Yes, it's the reddest state in the union and the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). For the past twenty-five years, Republicans have had a virtual lock on statewide offices. Utah hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, and last year the state chose John McCain over Barack Obama by almost a 2-to-1 margin.

But here in Salt Lake City, it's a different story. The city and surrounding counties are a lovely blue. The current and previous mayors--Ralph Becker and Rocky Anderson--are well-known progressive Democrats with excellent records on the environment, gay and civil rights, disability access and other municipal issues, and Salt Lake County, home to four of the five most populous cities in the state, went for Obama in 2008.

Then there's Salt Lake City's queer community, whose smart, creative and coalition-building strategies could provide a model for gay activists across the country.

That last claim requires a bit of explanation. Last fall I lived in Salt Lake City. As a leftist and New York City dyke, I had expected to find a conservative city and a quietly assimilationist gay community. Instead, I was repeatedly blown away by the progressive politics and outright queerness of the capital city, which is about 40 percent Mormon.

I was in Salt Lake City in November when the passage of California's Proposition 8 generated national outrage against the Mormon Church for its role in sending money and volunteers to help antigay forces take away the right of California's same-sex couples to marry. A few national LGBT figures, most notably gay pundit Dan Savage, called for a boycott of Utah to punish its majority Mormon population. In Salt Lake City, I joined a furious crowd, including many gay Mormons and ex-Mormons, at a November 7 protest at the LDS Temple. The scene was a jumble of mixed messages, with signs ranging from Love Makes a Family, to Separate Church and State, to Brigham Young Had 55 Wives, I Want 1! But no one I saw advocated a boycott. Most seemed to agree with KRCL-FM public radio station personality Troy Williams, referred to by some Utahns as their homegrown Harvey Milk, who challenged Savage on his hourlong program, calling for an influx of queer migrants to the state rather than a boycott. Perhaps a New Queer Pioneer movement, modeled on the sanctified Mormon pioneers of the nineteenth century, would do more to shrink the impact of LDS antigay bigotry than any boycott ever could.

Not that Utah needs new queer residents to spark political, social or cultural creativity. The city is home to a floridly queer and unusually politically unified LGBT community. Salt Lake City hosts numerous gay bars and businesses, a busy assortment of queer artists and intellectuals, a thriving drag culture and an "extreme" BD/SM school. At this year's pride rally, after the annual dyke march on June 6, the city's residents flocked to the downtown Federal Building to hear local drag celebrity Sister Dottie S. Dixon (Mormon mother of a gay son, as embodied by actor Charles Frost) beseech "the almightly diva S&M Goddess of her Most High," among other deities, to "help our surgeons ta discover how to perfarm a complete brain transplant, so that Mitt Romney can live with hope fer a better future." And "while yer at it," Sister Dixon implored, "if you've got any more of them plagues of locus--please send them ta every household that voted fer Preperation 8!"

The rally was sponsored by the rapidly expanding Utah Pride Center, which under executive director Valerie Larabee has more than doubled its budget in the past five years. At the Pride Center, a broad range of local activist groups and LGBT individuals actually talk to each other--in stark contrast to the balkanized landscape of national LGBT organizations. Indeed, perhaps more than in any other city, Salt Lake City's queer scene resembles the storied days of ACT UP, when mainstream assimilationists collaborated with radical activists to develop talking points, coordinate strategy and change homophobic policy.

This conversation across boundaries is a product of savvy activists and, paradoxically, of the formidable political and cultural barriers created by the Mormon Church and the statewide strength of the Republican machine. In such a political arena, queer flamboyance and tough-minded seriousness have to coexist in order to get anything done. In that sense, as gay activists nationwide take stock of where the gay rights movement has come in the forty years since the Stonewall riots and plot a political future, they should look to Salt Lake City for pointers instead of Boston or New York.

For better or worse, national LGBT politics is now focused on marriage equality. This spring, gay marriage advocates were emboldened by the legalization of same-sex marriage in Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, which joined Massachusetts and Connecticut in the gay marriage column. New York is poised to become the seventh state on that list, and there are a few other states--New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington and Oregon--where activists can reasonably expect to pick up another marriage win in the future.

But then they hit a daunting wall: forty states define marriage as being between a man and a woman; and twenty-nine of those, including Utah, have that definition embedded in their constitution, putting such restrictions beyond the jurisdiction of state courts. Absent a Supreme Court decision or Congressional same-sex-marriage legislation, individual state-by-state campaigns to repeal these amendments and pass pro-gay bills remain the best avenue to secure partnership rights for same-sex couples in these states. (The legal odd couple, David Boies and Theodore Olsen, opponents in Bush v. Gore, have filed a federal lawsuit challenging Prop 8 and seeking to legalize gay marriage nationwide, but most gay legal experts consider it a long shot.) Unfortunately, very little national attention or political talent has been devoted to these states, where the vast majority of Americans live.

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