Gay-rights champion leaving Equality Utah post
As a leading champion for gay rights in a famously conservative state, Equality Utah is used to spinning major defeats into mini-victories.
Sure, the Legislature trounced all of the group's Common Ground bills earlier this year, but, hey, at least they were debated. And, yes, most Utahns oppose gay marriage, but at least they don't want workers to be fired simply for being gay.
But there is no rainbow lining for Equality Utah loyalists in one looming loss: their boss is leaving.
Teary-eyed mourning and a black countdown paper chain hang over the nonprofit group's office. Each day, Keri Jones, programs and administration manager, dons her campaign pin with the slogan "We want Mike to stay."
But it's not working.
"I'm going to be a total mess" when he goes, Jones says.
Mike Thompson, Equality Utah's executive director is leaving the 5-year-old organization after four years at the helm. His last day is Friday.
The Oklahoma native is heading west to San Francisco -- a city he has wanted to live in for a long time -- to do what he does best: Build up fledgling nonprofits.
"He's always pushed to increase the number of people we serve," says Jane Marquardt, a former Equality Utah board member who helped to recruit Thompson. "Every year, we've gotten bigger."
From 2005 to 2009, the group's budget has more than tripled, from $140,000 a year to $450,000. The staff has doubled from two to four. And the number of city, county and state officials holding elective office, with an Equality Utah endorsement, has grown from five to 37.
Thompson, 45, was somewhat of a late political bloomer -- working on his first campaign just five years ago.
As the oldest of three sons in a "good Southern Baptist home" in Broken Arrow, Okla., Thompson's coming-out as a gay man happened in "stages" in his 20s and 30s.
A University of Oklahoma business grad, he spent his 20s working in marketing for big oil companies, Amoco and Mobil, but became disillusioned with the corporate system. He left the industry to attend a two-year, nondenominational Bible school.
Thompson never became a formal minister -- although he has been known to lapse into fiery sermons at political rallies. Instead he directed a school for special-needs kids and pursued work with the homeless: First with youths in London and then, as a weekly volunteer, serving food at a men's shelter in Tulsa, Okla.
There, he says, he learned to "look every person who came down that line in the eye, speak to them with love and compassion and make them feel valued and significant."
"That," he says, "is the thing I left Bible School with: Everyone is valued and everyone is significant."
Thompson says he ultimately found his "ministry" in Salt Lake City.
"I wound up in a place where I could work to create value and significance for a marginalized community," he says. "I didn't even realize I had become an activist, because it just seemed like the right thing to do."
Thompson has worked to shift Equality Utah's focus from defense to offense. Before he became director, he worked as a consultant on the group's first big campaign: the push against Amendment 3, a gay-marriage ban that Utah voters approved by a 2-1 margin in 2004. It was Thompson's first political experience, too.
"I loved the pace of it," he recalls. "I fell in love with the community."
In addition to fighting anti-gay bills at the Legislature, Equality Utah has started backing legislation that offers some basic protections to gay and transgender Utahns. Last year, an anti-bullying and hazing bill, sponsored by Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, won the Legislature's approval.
This year, Equality Utah launched its most expansive, proactive campaign yet: The Common Ground Initiative, coined to signify some areas in the gay-rights movement, besides marriage, that most Utahns might be able to agree on. The three-bill initiative would make it illegal to fire or evict someone for being gay or transgender, allow same-sex couples to sue in the event one partner suffers a wrongful death and provide inheritance and medical-decision making rights to gay and lesbian pairs.
None of the bills made it beyond a legislative committee hearing, but Equality Utah has pledged to revive the campaign in 2010.
The group also has reached out to city and county governments, most notably to Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, both of which have extended health benefits to same-sex partners -- and other financial dependents -- of employees.
"I don't support gay marriage. I don't support the repeal of DOMA, the [federal] Defense of Marriage Act," says Salt Lake City Councilman Eric Jergensen. "But that doesn't mean that there aren't remarkable things that we can do together."
Jergensen and the City Council, with some help from Equality Utah, have crafted a Human Rights Commission, passed a nondiscrimination ordinance and launched the state's first mutual-commitment registry, open to cohabiting pairs in Salt Lake City.
"The important thing about Mike is he's good with relationships," Jergensen says, praising Thompson's "collaborative" approach, even with officials who don't share all of Equality Utah's political positions. "I hope the next leader will have the same attitude."
The nonprofit's board has launched a national search for a candidate "with heart."
Age » 45
Education » Bachelor's degree in business management from University of Oklahoma.
Career » Thompson worked for big oil companies before switching to nonprofit work. He has been executive director of gay-rights group Equality Utah for four years.
Next step » Thompson is moving to San Francisco to work as an independent consultant for nonprofit groups.