What's Right With Utah
Activists took on the conservative opposition in some new ways as well. During the 2009 legislative session, notoriously Neanderthal Republican state legislator Chris Buttars was recorded making another in a long series of offensive antigay remarks:
They're probably the greatest threat to America goin' down I know of. Homosexuality will always be a sexual perversion, but you say that around here now and everybody goes nuts. But I don't care. What is the morals of a gay person? You can't answer that, because anything goes. They wanna talk about being nice? They're the meanest buggers I've ever seen.
Rather than resort to earnest denunciation, gay and progressive Utahns got together to throw a big party--Buttars-Palooza--to thank the legislator for clarifying the nature of the opposition and bringing them all together. Troy Williams of KRCL and Michael Mueller of Utahns for Marriage Equality brought together a coalition of organizations including Utah Jobs With Justice, the Healthy Environment Alliance, the Brown Berets, Trans Action Utah, the Utah Pride Center and the state branches of Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign and the ACLU. On a soundstage powered by a giant Solar Saucer, speakers mixed with bands and break dancers. Below, on the lawn of the state Capitol, an unprecedented range of progressive forces gathered to demand social justice across all their issues.
Nonetheless, the barriers to progressive action are as formidable as the powers arrayed against them. Activists are up against an intransigent LDS hierarchy active in state politics and a state legislature as reactionary as any in the country. LGBT kids in Utah still must cope with an often devastatingly hostile environment outside Salt Lake City. A 2008 survey by the Utah Volunteers of America showed that 48 percent of homeless youth in its outreach program identified as LGBT or nonheterosexual. (A documentary by Salt Lake City filmmaker Natalie Avery tracing the difficult plight of these young people was broadcast last year on the public television station KUED.) Yet until recently, it was illegal to offer shelter to a homeless minor in Utah without parental permission. But now, thanks to the passage of HB22 during the 2009 legislative session, homeless or abandoned youth, including runaways from polygamous families and queer kids, can be sheltered by individuals or organizations; notification of the Division of Child and Family Services will prevent criminal charges.
Changing public opinion and shifting demographics lie behind such legislative change, slow as it is. Along with the soaring popularity of departing moderate Republican Governor Huntsman, such changes indicate that the LDS hierarchy and conservative Republican moralists are increasingly out of touch with their constituencies. Most optimistically, my education in Utah leads me to believe that what's happening here can be a model not only for queer progressive politics in the DOMA states but for organizing at the federal level as well.
Every state has specific local conditions to contend with. But many states, Georgia and Texas for example, might profit from a close look at Utah's CGI. Both states have Super DOMAs and no statewide job or housing protections for LGBT residents, but they are also home to dedicated activists and vibrant queer communities in Atlanta and Dallas.
CGI's inclusive strategy might also work well at the national level. During three speeches at the Utah Pride Festival, Cleve Jones, former Harvey Milk protege and founder of the NAMES Project, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, called for an October 11 march on Washington. Jones said that the march would be for "full civil equality," but he never mentioned marriage equality specifically. Though some news outlets reported that he called for a "gay marriage" march, Jones later confirmed in an e-mail to me that though full civil equality includes the right to marry, he intentionally left out a specific appeal on the marriage issue in favor of a single, more all-encompassing sentence. "We seek equal protection under the law, in all matters governed by civil law, in all fifty states," he wrote.
The crowds in Salt Lake City reacted to Jones's call for full civil equality with the kind of energy and emotion that only marriage politics have been generating at LGBT gatherings for nearly a decade. It can be daunting to try to mobilize constituencies with lists of rights, benefits and a more democratic menu of partnership and household recognitions than marriage only. Even universal healthcare, though broadly desired by queer Americans as much as by any others, fails to generate fiery rhetoric or stoke the energy of crowds. It remains to be seen whether a call for full civil equality can produce mass mobilization, or whether it might soon be reduced to a call for gay marriage only, or worse, to the production of just another commercially sponsored gay parade. The devil will be in the details, which will be settled in the weeks to come.
But my months in the Beehive State have taught me that a call for basic fairness and full civil equality, made in terms that include queers but are not limited to them, can rally progressive action in even the most arid conditions. Such outside-the-box strategy, focusing on concrete material benefits that cut across constituencies, can help sidestep the polarizing ferocity of gay-marriage politics, which engulfed California last year. "Full civil equality" expressed in these terms extends beyond the conventional conjugal couple to include the distribution of rights and resources to other individuals and households, to homeless youth, transgendered workers, hounded immigrants, impoverished single parents and beyond.
More ambitious, a close analysis of the CGI agenda's list of benefits can help us realize that universalizing some of those benefits, especially access to healthcare, would obviate the need to attach them to partnerships, households or employment in the first place. Universalized benefits and broader basic household and partnership recognition beyond the conjugal couple might ultimately make marriage less necessary and desirable across the board. Indeed, this vision at the center of the right-wing nightmare (we'll all become unmarried socialists, like in Sweden!) appears to leftist dykes like me as a dream. Perhaps defining queer issues as those that address the needs of most of us (like healthcare or childcare), rather than merely those that address only gay people, can move us out of isolation and into overlapping alliances that might change all our lives for the better.
Instead of advocating domesticity and promoting consumption under the name of equality politics, as the mainstream LGBT movement currently does, we might do something truly weird and definitely queer: look to Utah for inspiration.