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Salt Lake City to host first tour stop for gay rights

By David Crary

Associated Press

Published: Monday, July 25 2011 9:56 p.m. MDT

As hundreds of jubilant gay couples became newlyweds in New York over the weekend, their well-wishers included many far-flung gays wistfully aware that their own states may never willingly allow same-sex marriage.

"The victories in other states are always a little bittersweet," said Jeff Graham, executive director of the gay-rights group Equality Georgia. His state is one of 30 that have adopted constitutional amendments aimed at limiting marriage to one-man, one-woman unions.

In a few of those states — California, Oregon and Colorado, for example — activists hold out hope of repealing the bans. That outcome seems improbable, though, in many heartland and Southern states, and gay-rights leaders there are looking at more modest short-term goals.

They'll soon get a boost from a leading national gay-rights group, the Human Rights Campaign. It plans to launch a bus tour, starting Aug. 12 in Salt Lake City and ending Oct. 30 in Orlando, Fla., which will carry it through 11 states that ban gay marriage.

Stops along the way are planned in Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky, Georgia and Alabama — all with no statewide recognition of same-sex relationships and no state nondiscrimination laws protecting gays.

"We're going into the belly of the beast," said Fred Sainz, the Human Rights Campaign's vice president for communications.

Activists on the bus tour will be hosting forums and workshops, offering advice on how gay communities can empower themselves politically even on conservative turf, notably through local ordinances and initiatives.

Even as New York became the sixth and largest state to legalize same-sex marriage, gay and transgender people in many places "continue to face tremendous obstacles," said the campaign's president, Joe Solmonese.

"The bus tour intends to draw attention to these challenges and ensure that this rising tide lifts all boats," he said.

The tour will start from the Salt Lake City Pride Center, which provides advocacy and support services for gays across Utah.

Two years ago, Salt Lake became the first city in the state to offer housing and employment protections for gays and lesbians; it also has a "mutual commitment registry" that offers some local recognition to same-sex couples. Both measures exemplify goals that activists believe could be achievable in many communities in conservative states.

"We recognize that same-sex marriage may not be right around the corner," said the Pride Center's spokeswoman, Marina Gomberg. "But we see different areas where we can change our state and have changed our state."

As for the news out of New York, Gomberg said, "It's a boost of energy for me. A success in New York feels like a success here, because as a nation we're making progress toward equality and acceptance."

Conservative leaders in some of the states on the bus tour route expressed doubt that the advent of gay marriage in New York would have impact on their home turf.

"I don't believe it's a shot across the bow," said Jerry Cox, head of the Arkansas Family Council. "I would say it's an indication of how out of step New York is with the rest of the country."

Any push for gay marriage in Arkansas would face a difficult time with either major party. Gov. Mike Beebe, a popular Democrat who won re-election last year, recently told a gay-rights group that he can't see himself supporting same-sex marriage or civil unions.

With six states now recognizing same-sex marriage, there will be increasing pressure on Congress and the courts to dismantle the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal recognition to married gay couples. Even some conservatives believe the eventual endgame will be some move by Congress or the Supreme Court to require all states, including those with constitutional bans, to recognize such couples.

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