Deseret News/Ravell Call
Candidate Jackie Biskupski greets Connie and Jerry Floor while waiting for results in the mayoral race in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015.

SALT LAKE CITY — If the votes hold, Salt Lake City has elected its first openly gay woman mayor. Voters also elected a gay man to the City Council. A transgender candidate in Midvale made a respectable showing in a council race.

Sexual orientation wasn't an overt issue in any of those campaigns. Utahns seemed to have shrugged their shoulders at what might have caused deep division in elections past.

So what does it mean, if anything, and what does it say about Utah's capital city residents?

"I do think (Tuesday) night was an historic night for Salt Lake City and for Utah," said Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. "This is a population of people who have been part of humanity forever and have not felt safe to be visible until quite recently."

It's no hyperbole to say conservative, Mormon Utah shocked the nation two years ago next month when federal Judge Robert J. Shelby overturned the state's ban on gay marriage in Kitchen v. Herbert.

As that divisive question worked its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Utah lawmakers, with the backing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, found a way to compromise on anti-discrimination and religious rights legislation.

Gary Gates, research director at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA, said victories by gay candidates aren't surprising given what has happened in Utah the past couple of years.

He attributes much of it to a visible and engaged LGBT community.

"If people believe they have gay friends and neighbors, it makes the idea of a gay mayor much less difficult for them," Gates said.

Perlich agrees.

"It's just a slow recognizing that we're all God's children. We're all part of the creation here. A lot of what we've been taught about people just simply wasn't true," she said.

Utah's capital has long been an island of blue in a sea of red. Democrats, some very liberal, have occupied the mayor's office for the past 40 years. That a progressive Democrat would again hold the job was a foregone conclusion as both Jackie Biskupski and Mayor Ralph Becker belong to the state's minority party.

But a lesbian single mother mayoral candidate — an apparently winning one at that — was a first.

If Biskupski's lead holds, she would be among few openly gay city executives in the country, the most prominent being in Houston and Seattle. Biskupski, 49, was Utah's first openly gay legislator, serving in the Utah House from 1999 to 2011.

Derek Kitchen became familiar to Utahns as a plaintiff in the state's gay marriage case, which bears his name. He joins Stan Penfold as the second gay member of the seven-person Salt Lake City Council.

Sophia Hawes-Tingey fell short of becoming Utah's first transgender elected official in her bid for the Midvale City Council.

"That really says something about Salt Lake City, about where we are as a community, about where we are as a state and how much we've changed," said Perlich, who described Biskupski and Kitchen as "iconic" and "path-breaking" leaders.

Brigham Young University political science professor Chris Karpowitz said while Biskupski's election is a milestone, he doesn't think it will lead to any meaningful policy changes on LGBT issues, noting she and Becker aren't far apart.

"I don't think gay rights or Jackie's sexual identity was an issue at all in the campaign," he said. "Maybe that's a good thing that people aren't really focused on that and are looking to other aspects of the campaign and other policies beyond that."

Utah, he said, uniquely dealt with anti-discrimination and religious rights in trying to respect the different sides. For now, those issues might be off the table, not that they couldn't come back or new conflicts couldn't arise in the future.

Reflective of the ongoing conversation was the loud response to the LDS Church's announcement late Thursday that children living with same-sex parents or guardians will not be allowed membership in the church until reaching "legal age."

Church officials said the policy is not designed to limit the opportunities for young children, but rather to refrain from interjecting into the relationship these children have with their parents any undue pressure or influence from the church.

Biskupski responded late Friday: “The conversations I have had over the past 24 hours, regarding the LDS Church policy to exclude children living in same-sex households from membership, have been with people of all walks of life, both Mormon and non-Mormon. The common theme is both shock and concern for children—not just those directly impacted—but all children in our community who are witnessing a form of injustice that no child should experience," she said.

Still, the fact that conversations take place and those with differing points of view seek understanding reflects a change.

"In the near term, Salt Lake has embarked on a path that seems to allow our politics to move on to other kinds of issues, and that's probably a healthy thing," said Karpowtiz, co-director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

Perlich said it's "breathtaking" to see how quickly Utah has gone from a geographically isolated and homogenous place to a multiethnic, multilingual, globally connected state. She has attributed that to the LDS Church missionary program and the University of Utah, which attracts young people from all over the world.

For a relatively small city of 190,000 residents, Utah's capital has become quite diverse compared to other cities of its size. More than 82 languages are spoken on the city's west side. A Williams Institute study found Salt Lake City has the seventh highest percentage of adults who identify as LGBT in the nation.

Younger Utahns are driving the change. Millennials are defying the rules of baby boomers, and that generational shift is playing out in politics, Perlich said.

"These issues are just not important, to exclude groups of people in the way the post World War II baby boom generation has done," she said.

Gates said even though states such as Utah might start at a lower level of acceptance of homosexuality than other places in the country, increased support is clearly occurring even among conservative groups.

Electing more LGBT or minority city leaders without having to point out their sexual orientation or color would be a real sign of change in society, he said.

"At what point will it be that people don't find it particularly interesting? I don't think we're at that point yet," Gates said.

Troy Williams, Equality Utah executive director, deemed Tuesday's results a "historic" day for the LGBT community.

"For so long LGBT people have been marginalized in society, but when LGBT youth look up and see Biskupski and Kitchen in prominent positions in public service, it gives hope," he said.

Williams, however, doesn't expect a major policy shift for LGBT issues if Biskupski takes office because Becker proved to be a "tremendous ally" of the gay community. "But," he said, "I think the visibility is important."

State Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, who is gay, couldn't find enough superlatives to describe the election of Biskupski. He said it brings home the point that Salt Lake City is a special place where people are judged by their ability and character.

"It's a watershed day for our community, proving that old stereotypes about Salt Lake and Utah are dead wrong," he said. "This is a great place to live, a place that values everyone."

Contributing: Katie McKellar

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