One-time Harvey Milk intern and internationally recognized activist Cleve Jones led the annual Pride Parade past thousands of spectators lining the streets of downtown Salt Lake Sunday morning — an apt prelude to his call later in the day for a national march on Washington, D.C., this fall to demand equal rights for homosexual Americans.
Bursts of torrential rain did little to dampen the spirits of those gathered to cheer Jones, who served as the parade's grand marshal; local political figures; and the dozens of floats that made up this year's procession — a highlight of the three-day Utah Pride Festival at Washington Square that drew more than 20,000 attendees. After the parade, Jones told a festival crowd that it is time to reprise a 1979 march for gay rights on the nation's capital and demand full equality. He said the march, planned for Oct. 11, will coincide with National Coming Out Day.
"We seek nothing more and nothing less than equal protection under the law in all matters governed by civil law in all 50 states," Jones said. "It is time to march again."
"I've got a message for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," he said. "Thank you. Thank you for uniting us. Thank you for galvanizing us," he said, referring to the efforts of the church and its members to win passage last year of California's Proposition 8, which overturned a court ruling legalizing gay marriage.
Jones told the Deseret News after his talk that the patchwork of inequality reflected by wildly varying state laws offering some, little or no protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans has led to a new chapter in the fight — one that requires a move at the federal level.
"Our community has many, many leaders, but we have not yet forged a national movement, and that's what many of us are trying to accomplish right now," Jones said. "More and more of our rank-and-file activists are beginning to understand that it's time to shift our focus to Washington, D.C."
The new strategy, Jones said, draws from lessons apparent in the civil rights movement that recognized that "Southern states and many others would never really extend equal protection to African Americans." Jones said the fight for equal rights for members of the GLBT community is now facing similar circumstances and needs to take a similar tack.
New strategies are also in the works for Equality Utah, a group dedicated to gay-rights issues and the driving force behind a package of legislation known as the Common Ground Initiative. Covering laws related to fair housing, probate, hospital visitation and employment, none of the handful of bills in the initiative garnered Legislature approval in the last session, but Will Carlson, the group's manager of public policy, said it wasn't for lack of public support.
"We already know that the majority of Utahns support each of the issues we're trying to push," Carlson said. "Now, we're convinced that since we have that public backing, people just need to find out where their legislators stand and let them know the need to 'catch up.' "
Carlson said his group is launching a new campaign to help constituents connect with their lawmakers and hold them accountable for the votes they cast.
Salt Lake resident Elissa Meier said she supported the Common Ground Initiative and would attend the march on the nation's capital because she had little hope that the Utah Legislature would enact change on its own.
"Our lawmakers sent us … sent the gay and lesbian community … a pretty clear message," Meier said. "We don't matter … and our voices won't be heard. I like Cleve's idea to take it to the top."
Meier said she was worried that the success of California's ban on same-sex marriage would help to bolster Utah lawmakers' opposition to extending rights to gay citizens and contribute to "taking us backwards."
Though political issues ruled the day Sunday, a spokesman for the Utah Pride Center, the group that stages the event, said the weekend had included a full slate of entertainment, education and celebration.
"The masses are here, and they're having a good time," said Michael Westley, media coordinator for the Utah Pride Center. "Pride is a festival that is a celebration, but it is also a gathering of the community to show solidarity and find support."
Westley said this year's version of the event, first held in 1983, featured local and national entertainment along with information and education booths, and a large variety of food and beverages from area businesses. Comedian Paula Poundstone drew a record crowd to her performance Saturday night, Westley said.
Contributing: Associated Press