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What's Right With Utah | The Nation

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What's Right With Utah

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Utah suffers with a so-called Super DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), passed in 2004 by 66 percent of voters as Amendment 3 to the state Constitution. Amendment 3 goes beyond barring same-sex marriage to bar any "marriage like" legal relationship between same-sex couples. Domestic partnerships offering broad benefits, like those in California, as well as civil unions are off the table, along with marriage, at all levels of government in the state.

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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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You might think that such draconian restrictions would hobble LGBT legislative action in states saddled with constitutional bans that cannot be overturned except by another amendment, especially in those eighteen states with a Super DOMA. But not in Utah! In the wake of the Prop 8 protests last fall, an energized LGBT policy organization, Equality Utah, formulated an ingenious strategy. Drawing on the claims of LDS officials and some conservative state politicians that their support of "traditional" marriage isn't antigay, and their assurances that they support other basic protections for LGBT citizens, Equality Utah drew up a list of just such protections. University of Utah law professor Cliff Rosky, a member of Equality Utah's legal panel, branded it the Common Ground Initiative (CGI).

Equality Utah then invited supporters of Prop 8 to demonstrate their lack of antigay rancor by supporting six legislative initiatives on the CGI platform: healthcare rights, fair workplace rights, fair housing rights, inheritance rights, domestic partnerships and clarification of Amendment 3 (removal of the "Super" part of the DOMA). Equality Utah activists also launched a mass public relations campaign to build the Common Ground identity, and now Common Ground buttons, stickers and signs can be seen all over Salt Lake City, gracing shirts, cars, homes, businesses and lawns.

Polling by the Salt Lake Tribune and Equality Utah showed majority support for the core CGI issues not only in Salt Lake City and County but statewide. In an early January Equality Utah poll, 62 percent of voters supported employment nondiscrimination laws, 56 percent supported fair housing laws and 73 percent supported granting adult designees of state employees health insurance coverage. The Tribune poll also found that 56 percent backed legal protections like inheritance rights and job protection for LGBT people.

The CGI also won the backing of wildly popular Republican Governor Jon Huntsman, who on February 9 surprised the national press by calling for civil unions for same-sex couples and endorsing CGI's first package of legislation. Huntsman had endorsed Amendment 3 when he ran for office in 2004, but his recent change of mind and support for civil unions is out in front of Utah public opinion, which still opposes civil unions by 70 percent. Many pundits surmise that Huntsman's switch is aimed at courting a national public as he prepares to run for president (from his likely perch as ambassador to China). But Huntsman didn't change his position in a political vacuum in Utah. Clearly established public support for most of the CGI issues, disarticulated from the national drive for marriage equality, makes Huntsman's call for civil unions politically viable. The soon-to-be-former governor retains an 84 percent approval rating in his home state.

But despite this outpouring of support and despite dogged work by Equality Utah executive director Mike Thompson (since moved to San Francisco) and staffers Will Carlson, Lauren Littlefield and Keri Jones, who mobilized an army of volunteers energized by the passage of Prop 8, the first three bills to come out of the Common Ground Initiative failed in committee during the 2009 legislative session. A coordinated cadre of antigay legislators schemed to undercut the three bills--covering wrongful death, eliminating housing and employment discrimination and establishing an "Adult Joint Support Declaration" registry--before they could come to a vote on the floor of the Legislature.

The brilliance of the CGI strategy, however, does not lie in the likelihood of immediate or enthusiastic endorsements from conservative opponents in the Legislature or the Mormon Church. Rather, the brilliance of the strategy is its ability to refocus public opinion, put conservative opponents on the defensive, shift public perception of the barriers to LGBT equality and broaden the scope of action to include the needs of people living in nonconjugal households, be they straight, gay or other.

Utah's activists are looking beyond marriage equality in a variety of other ways. Sometimes forced by Amendment 3 to ask for less than marriage would provide, they are also pushing ahead to ask for more. Challenged in public venues by conservative claims that CGI is just a step toward marriage equality, Equality Utah organizers repeatedly stress a simple but often overlooked fact: many basic rights and protections for LGBT citizens, including some on the CGI list, are not guaranteed by marriage. Housing and employment discrimination, for example, could continue against married or cohabiting couples as well as single people. That point is very well taken in the current political climate, when marriage equality often stands in for all civil equality.

The CGI legislative initiatives also include provisions that allocate benefits to Utahns living in nonconjugal households, those whose primary "next of kin" and interdependent relations are not with romantic or sexual partners--elderly caretaker households or close friends who live together and share finances, for example. Building on the existing provision in Salt Lake City that grants health insurance benefits to the "adult designees" of city employees, one of the CGI proposals would create an Adult Joint Support Declaration. Such declarations would provide a legal mechanism for adults who take responsibility for each other to have hospital visitation, medical decision-making and inheritance rights. Though designed to get around Amendment 3, which bars recognition of "marriage like" relationships, including domestic partnerships, the Adult Joint Support Declaration bill would actually extend rights to a far broader range of households than marriage or even domestic partnerships do.

Such proposals begin to make the diversity of households and interdependent relationships visible and highlight the limits of a marriage-focused gay rights agenda that prioritizes the needs of the conventionally coupled. Such provisions could also make coalition-building easier: get the AARP on board to lobby for medical next of kin, tax and inheritance rights for "Golden Girls" households, or attract libertarians who want to take the state out of the business of "recognizing" sexual or romantic relationships entirely.

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