Shanti Akayla says she was a highly praised employee at her sales job — until someone saw her rainbow bumper sticker. Then, she was fired.

"I was not out at work, I was not dating," Akayla, 39, told a legislative panel Wednesday. "My employer made an assumption about me because of a bumper sticker ... I had never been fired and I haven't been since."

Akayla had no legal recourse, because, in Utah, employment discrimination law doesn't extend protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity. That's something that Akayla would like to see changed.

"I truly believe someday this will be law. We are a very fair state," said Akayla shortly after testifying in favor of legislation to add sexual orientation and gender identity to a list of protected employment classes that encompasses characteristics such as religion, sex and race.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake, was sent to interim study during the past legislative session. The Interim Business and Labor Committee again considered the idea during nearly two-hours of wide-ranging discussion, but took no action.

There have been 495 complaints filed with the Labor Commission since last June. Since that time, 30 people have reported discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Of those, only two complaints could be filed — under other categories — one religion and one disability.

"If one is working in Utah, one should be judged solely on one's work performance," Johnson told committee members. "You can be fired for being gay ... or even saying 'fabulous' too much."

Questions arose during the hearing as to definitions and perceptions of what would be covered under the law. Rep. Stephen Clark, R-Provo, questioned how gender identity would be defined, and wondered whether a medical certificate would be required to prove an individual is transgender. The discussion also turned to potential cultural and economic impacts.

Monica Whalen, president of the Employers Council, spoke against the bill, saying it would hurt employers by adding to the "list of grounds upon which they can be attacked and have their management style second-guessed." And she said, the addition could open the door for further groups, such as young, single adults who may see family leave as discriminatory.

"There is no next. This is the group that is not protected, that has not been protected for years and years and years," said Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake. "It is time to add them to the list."

Harris Sondak, business professor at the University of Utah, said the change would help to dispel Utah's image of close-mindedness and help attract economic development. He pointed to a "Bohemian index" which shows a correlation between creative and high-tech communities.

Utah, he said, is higher on the high-tech scale than that index would predict, but that Utah could move itself even higher, by "being open minded and signaling that to the rest of the world."

Rep. Ben Ferry, R-Corinne, criticized that argument, saying "the issue before is not economics. ... The bottom line is what is the cultural barometer on the issue of morality in this state."

After the meeting, Johnson said she'd continue to carry the bill.

Clark said the bill won't likely be heard again until the 2009 session.

"Changing minds takes time," Johnson said. "False notions about homosexuals were created by generations of backward thought. It takes time to correct."


E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com