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My view: The climate is right to tear down the wall of discrimination

By John Hales

Published: Sunday, Feb. 12 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Eric Ethington and Tala Chebib and other supporters of the Salt Lake Valley LGBT community wear symbolic gags during a sit-in at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Feb. 12. 2010. The group was protesting a warning issued by Utah Senate President Michael Waddoups to the LGBT community last week that "offensive activities in a public setting" would impact the direction of future gay-rights legislation.

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Mr. Waddoups (et al.), tear down this wall.

Please don't misinterpret. In using the words of Ronald Reagan regarding the Berlin Wall, I neither invoke nor compare Sen. Mike Waddoups to the image of Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of an "evil empire." Quite the contrary: I invoke the image of Gorbachev, friend of Reagan, who, in the case of the Berlin Wall, performed nobly and promoted a change for the better.

A similar opportunity is now before our lawmakers, with the Berlin Wall a metaphor in their consideration of anti-discrimination legislation.

The divisive, destructive wall of discrimination in Utah does indeed exist.

Roughly 50 percent of Utah's LGBT people experience discrimination. Almost two-thirds of those experience it weekly or even daily. Given a conservative estimate of 55,000 LGBT people in the state, that means more than 25,000 of our fellow Utahns are discriminated against, some of them on an ongoing basis, and many without recourse or remedy.

Those statistics are troubling. The real stories behind them are sad. Discrimination hurts everyone — those who experience it, their loved ones, those who commit it and society at large.

When I ask Waddoups to tear down the wall, I echo a fellow senator, Ben McAdams, who recently said, "It's time for Utah to adopt this."

Actually, it's past time. But we have something now that we didn't have before — the right climate.

When Reagan issued his challenge to Gorbachev, the two men had created a constructive atmosphere. Their relationship allowed Reagan to make a direct request, but from a place of mutual respect, not mere rivalry or confrontation.

So it is now with regard to anti-discrimination legislation, which faces a much different climate than it did just two years ago.

In 2009-10, the strife between Utah's LGBT community and perceived anti-LGBT alliances reached fever pitch, having continuously risen during the previous several years.

The LDS Church cooled things down considerably when it supported Salt Lake City's anti-discrimination measures, officially calling them "fair and reasonable."

The Legislature called a truce when dueling legislation and heated passion led to a moratorium on LGBT-related bills in a compromise orchestrated primarily between former Rep. Christine Johnson and Waddoups.

Johnson recently said, "I can tell you that I know some of those meetings shifted the way Sen. Waddoups thinks about LGBT issues."

Other things have changed since then.

The legislation is gaining bi-partisan support, with Rep. Derek Brown sponsoring it, saying, "It's the right thing to do."

The Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and a growing number of major business interests are strongly endorsing it.

Today, 73 percent of Utahns agree LGBT discrimination should be illegal. Eighty-one percent of them assume it already is.

While some claim the law would infringe on religious liberty, the proposed legislation makes allowances for religious and "expressive" institutions. When it comes to individuals, there is no legitimate or official religious mandate or doctrine that requires discrimination from the religion's adherents. Prejudice should not be allowed to masquerade as religion.

Some say anti-discrimination laws should be left up to local communities to decide for themselves what is best. The proposed legislation would allow governments to make those decisions locally. But fundamentally and ethically, when is discrimination ever the best thing for a community?

While some say we don't need such laws because Utah is already accepting, a 50-percent discrimination rate suggests otherwise. And almost 70 percent of Utahns think the state is perceived as unfair, disrespectful and discriminatory toward LGBT people.

Changing that perception, creating a better climate of acceptance and promoting dignity, require bringing down the wall of discrimination legally as well as morally.

Gorbachev didn't build the Berlin Wall, nor did he have unilateral power to tear it down. But he had influence, and he used it to promote human dignity.

President Waddoups, et al., will you support anti-discrimination legislation and use your influence to encourage others to do likewise?

John Hales is a former journalist, now a freelance writer and author of "Living In QUtah," a regular column appearing regularly in QSaltLake Magazine, a publication geared toward Utah's LGBT community. Hales adapted this article from a recent "Living In QUtah" column.

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