The three-day 2008 Utah Pride Festival kicks off today, and organizers say Utah's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community has plenty to celebrate and a long way to go.

"Large events like this really do showcase our political movement, our movement for civil rights," said Yana Walton, spokeswoman for the Utah Pride Center, which sponsors the annual event.

Last year's festival attracted an estimated 25,000 people, and Walton said this year's festival is projected to be even bigger.

Singer-songwriter and bass player Meshell Ndegeocello is set to headline the festival with a concert Saturday night. And Mayor Ralph Becker will be honored along with the Salt Lake City Council at tonight's Grand Marshal Reception.

The theme, "Come Together," emphasizes the Pride Center's work to be inclusive of everyone, including the transgender community. And, she said, the theme celebrates those who work together across party lines. She pointed to a new anti-bullying bill as an example of bipartisan success.

"We want to celebrate all that and include everyone," Walton said. "At the center that's a huge part of our work, which can come across in our festival."

There will also be celebration of Salt Lake City's new mutual commitment registry, which gives employers who choose to recognize domestic partnerships an easy way to identify them, Walton said. And, later this month, same-sex couples will be able to tie the knot in California because of a Supreme Court ruling there.

However, advocates in Utah, where same-sex marriage is constitutionally banned, point out that the legislative climate here is one in which gays and lesbians struggle.

In the past legislative session, a bill to allow gay and straight unmarried couples to adopt didn't get a hearing. Another bill to expand workplace anti-discrimination law to include sexual orientation and gender identity was deferred to further study. It recently received an interim committee hearing, but no action was taken.

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, said such laws aren't needed because gays and lesbians aren't being discriminated against.

"We don't have any laws in Utah that are contrary to our constitution," Ruzicka said. "They have the same rights the rest of us have. But, rights based on sexuality, sexual choices, what does that mean?"

That kind of reasoning is frustrating to Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake, sponsor of the anti-discrimination bill. Johnson says she's frustrated by the "amount of energy wasted in trying to prohibit equal rights and protections for gay people."

"When I am sitting in the Legislature and I observe all the things in our state, and nationally, that so desperately need attention ... figuring out how to make lives miserable for gay people should not be a priority," she said.

Organizers say the Pride Festival, which will include children's activities, is a great way for families to enjoy a day out. And Johnson will be using the event to find volunteers for Bridge, a new service organization in which members of the LGBT community will help the broader community.

She hopes the organization will "community build through service" and help bring awareness to the broader community, in the same way that her own presence as one of three openly gay lawmakers has had on the state Legislature.

"There's been this demystification of LGBT stereotypes," Johnson said. "I have a really great relationship with most of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle."


If you go . . .

2008 Pride Festival and Parade

Today: 6 p.m. Grand Marshal Reception, Hilton Salt Lake Center, $75.

Saturday: 2 p.m. Pride Interfaith Service, First Unitarian Church, 569 S. 1300 East, free.

4 p.m. to 11 p.m., Pride Festival, Washington Square, $10.

Sunday: 10 a.m., Utah Pride Parade, downtown, Free.

10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Pride Festival, Washington Square, $5.

For a full schedule of entertainment and events or to purchase tickets, visit www.utahpride.org.


E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com