Activist at center of Utah gay rights battles to depart

Published September 29, 2008 2:54 am
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Before the gay rights movement found its footing in Utah, it found its voice in Laura Milliken Gray.

In 1996, she opened her own law practice, and within a year was fighting alongside students at East High School for a Gay-Straight Alliance club.

A few years later - after conservatives found out she had helped same-sex couples to adopt - she fought alongside Rep. Jackie Biskupski, then Utah's only openly gay legislator, in an unsuccessful attempt to stop a ban on unmarried Utahns adopting.

She also was on the periphery of the Amendment 3 debate, trying - though again unsuccessfully - to stop the state from blocking gay marriage in its Constitution.

But while Gray has fought for other's families, she now is leaving the country to stand up for her own.

On Wednesday, she is leaving to join her wife, Agnieszka Lesiewicz. The two married last May in England, but they couldn't get a visa for Lesiewicz to come to the United States. Gray can get one for Britain under its civil partnership status there.

"We've been doing a long-distance relationship for three years, and when she couldn't come here, that was the final straw," Gray said, recounting their courtship in settings such as Picadilly Circus, Covent Garden and SoHo.

She doesn't plan to stop fighting for what she sees as right. She's starting by taking a one-semester course on international human rights law at the London School of Economics.

"When you get that kind of work into your blood, it seems that's who you are no matter where you are," she said.

But she realizes she'll be leaving behind many battles still to be fought here in Utah, as well as many allies and friends.

Biskupski looks at Gray's leaving as a "huge loss," but says it will force growth in the community.

"Laura has planted a perennial seed and change will continue to happen year after year because of that seed," she said. "We will see things bloom and blossom here that really will benefit Utah's families."

Even those who crossed swords with Gray, and disagree utterly with her views, have only good things to say about her.

"I really admire Laura for her willingness to publicly raise issues and speak to the issues," said Lynn Wardle, a law professor at Brigham Young University who championed the gay adoption and marriage ban. "Our legal system and policies are better when you have the expression of diverse viewpoints."

Gayle Ruzicka, leader of the conservative Eagle Forum, also respects Gray for her commitment.

"She believed in what she was doing, and when you have a passion for something, you probably get a little [pushy]. But people say that about me. I never had a negative experience with her," said Ruzicka. The conservative morals activist knows, though, that others will take up where Gray left off.

Some of those replacements will be the attorneys at Gray's Utah law practice, Gray, Alder & Cawthorne, and the legal panel at Equality Utah.

Gray served on several boards for Equality Utah, and recently was honored for her contributions to the gay community.

"She leaves a great legacy here," said Mike Thompson, the group's executive director.

Gray has little doubt that the goal she fought so hard and long for in Utah will one day be reached.

"The tide has turned," she said. "The opposition is trying to keep the sun from rising, and they have to know that."

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