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LGBT speakers, families share experiences with Utah legislators

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 26 2014 10:30 p.m. MST

Merrie Smithson, the mother of a gay son, was one of the speakers as Sens. Steve Urquhart, R-St George, and Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, hosted a conversation between the LGBT community and Utah leaders in the Senate Building at the state Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When Joey Eccleston's son told him at 15 that he was gay, he said he was struck by "a lightning flash of fear."

The Layton father's voice broke as he addressed Utah legislators Wednesday night in a meeting meant to share the experiences of gay, lesbian and transgender people from across the state.

"The fear was not knowing if I would be able to protect my child from the intolerance of the outside world," Eccleston said, his wife and son at his side. "So many things raced through my head in that fraction of a second."

Joey and Laurie Eccleston have loved and supported their son Conner for nearly two years, introducing him as an "A" student who loves math, physics and videogames. Being gay is only part of his story, his father says.

But the Ecclestons now worry about the next step as Connor prepares for college.

"Connor has asked if he can leave the state," Joey Eccleston said, in tears. He said he fears that the rights most people have, like holding a job and an apartment while in college, might elude him because of his sexual orientation.

Joey Eccleston was one of a dozen people who spoke Wednesday, many of them accompanied family members, at a meeting organized by state senators Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, and Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, and attended by a crowd of sympathetic legislators on both sides of the aisle.

Met with rousing applause, Urquhart urged Connor to "Stay in Utah, we could use you here. Give us a chance to catch up to you and your parents, OK?"

The meeting was a chance to learn and listen, a first-of-its-kind meeting between lawmakers and supporters of the LGBT community in search of tolerance, understanding and protected rights.

Urquhart is the sponsor of SB100, an antidiscrimination bill that won't be heard this year. GOP senators decided earlier this month not to hear bills related to proposed antidiscrimination laws or religious liberty until they have a clearer direction after the state has completed its appeal on behalf of Amendment 3.

The state's voter-approved definition of marriage, which defines marriage as being between one man and one woman, was ruled unconstitutional by a U.S. District Court judge in December and has since been presented to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

But this night was not about same-sex marriage. It was a night to share stories of personal experience.

Other presenters included Rachel Heller, an aerospace engineer who was born a man but lives as a woman and met great support and understanding from her coworkers at Hill Air Force Base; Merrie Smithson, an LDS mother speaking on behalf of her gay son who has moved from the state; and Justin Utley from West Valley City, who said he was fired after an employer found an email he sent about the death of his gay partner.

Together, they called on Utah lawmakers to support antidiscrimination legislation to protect them and their loved ones.

"Perhaps my greatest fear was that I would no longer be judged by the strength of my character or the evidence of my accomplishments, but that my life would be seen through a filter of my gender identity," Heller said. "I desire nothing more than to be able to live and work in the state I call home, to defend and support the country I love, and to do so knowing that who I am will not deny me the opportunities I have worked so hard to create."

No votes were cast or action taken Wednesday. It was a chance to listen, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox told the overflow crowd that filled three rooms.

"This is how we come to love one another," Cox said. "Thank you for sharing your stories, thank you for being Utahns because we're all different, that's what makes Utah an incredibly great place to live, and it will hopefully be a great place to live for all of us for years to come."

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, thanked the speakers and audience saying that following Wednesday's meeting, he hopes the state can "have less prejudice, and have more understanding."

"It's going to take patience, we're all going to have to have patience in this, and compassion and civility," Niederhauser said. "I hope those principles will win out in the discussions as we go forward."

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com

Twitter: McKenzieRomero

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