Utah lawmakers hear tales of discrimination from LGBT crowd
Meeting may not resurrect anti-bias bill, but organizer says it has warmed hearts.
Published: February 27, 2014 11:36AM
Updated: September 27, 2014 10:57AM
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Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Senator Jim Dabakis (center) listens to the witness at the first-ever open, public conversation between the LGBTQ community and Utah State Leaders, sponsored by Senators Steve Urquhart (R-St George) and Jim Dabakis (D-SLC) Wednesday, February 26, 2014.

In what Sen. Jim Dabakis called a “watershed moment” in the state’s LGBT history, lawmakers heard stories of gay Utahns who have been insulted, fired from their jobs and felt unable to make a life for themselves in Utah at a meeting Wednesday night.

“It’s amazing — I’ve only been gone six years, and I come back and see legislators on the side of equality,” said native Justin Utley. He moved to New York after he was fired from a credit union when his boss figured out he was gay by monitoring his emails after the death of his partner. “Stories like mine are not few and far between.”

About 300 people attended the meeting, filling two overflow rooms, and some 40 state legislators came to listen between town hall and caucus meetings.

“I need to be here. The courage of people to come and share their stories and how difficult that is, the least I can do is give my time,” said Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. “I think there’s a lot of soul searching going on among legislators and everyone in our community. People are asking hard questions.”

They heard from 12 people, including Candice Metzler, who said she lost her job in the construction industry after coming out as transgender and ended up “sleeping on a park bench.” Clair Barrus of Draper, who called himself a “pretty typical Utahn,” said his nephew was fired from a bookstore because a co-worker didn’t feel comfortable working with a gay man.

“This does not feel right to me,” he said. “When I grew up, I learned at church that you’re supposed to treat everyone fairly.”

A high school student in American Fork said she’s worried about staying in Utah if she comes out.

“I have to walk down the halls hearing people say things like, ‘fag, dyke,’ and know that they’re full of hate and they’re aimed at people like me,” she said.

Neca Allgood, mother of a transgender 19-year-old man, said she’s worried her son won’t be able to make a life here.

“I didn’t choose to have a transgender child, but I have chosen to love and support Grayson, and help him to be the best person he can be,” she said. “Please support legislation so he can live and work in our state.”

Listening to their stories were lawmakers like Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, and Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, who proposed a bill similar to the much-criticized and vetoed Arizona measure that would have allowed people and businesses to refuse service to gay people. His bill wasn’t considered this session because legislative leaders decided to shelve all proposals related to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues while the state is in the midst of a court battle to uphold its ban on gay marriage.

That decision means the Legislature also won’t consider SB100, a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity — something that likely won’t change with Wednesday’s meeting.

Nevertheless, Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said the event was part of a process.

“Very few members of the Legislature, before tonight, had met a transgender person,” said Dabakis, the state’s only openly gay legislator. “I saw hearts warming tonight, and it goes both ways. This is the difference between us and Arizona.”

The meeting was organized by Dabakis and Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, who is sponsoring SB100. He called it “one of the most beautiful legislative experiences of my life,” and acknowleged a standing ovation when it was over.

“This isn’t mine, this is yours, and we will claim the prize,” he said. “We are one people, we’re one Utah and tonight we shine awfully bright.”