Gay lawmaker to leave Utah House, laments lack of 'equal protections'

Published March 4, 2010 6:28 pm
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Rep. Christine Johnson is stepping down from her seat in the Utah House at year's end. But she's not backing away from her role as a gay-rights advocate.

"I'm not leaving because I'm giving up on the fight in Utah," the two-term Salt Lake City Democrat said Thursday after announcing she won't seek re-election. "We have so many budding leaders [in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community] that I'm anxious to see who's going to step up next."

As a single mom and a surrogate for a gay couple -- the baby is due in June -- Johnson expressed some displeasure at what she sees as hypocrisy in the Legislature.

"For the past four years, I have stood with my colleagues each morning of the session, placed my hand over my heart and pledged 'liberty and justice for all,' " she said in a statement, "and yet repeatedly witnessed blatant disregard of those so in need of equal protections in the name of 'family values.' "

Johnson -- one of two openly gay legislators (a third resigned in December) -- said that nontraditional families often are the most devoted partners and parents. It is "reprehensible that we continue to ignore them," she added, praising Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County for fighting anti-gay bias.

"Their bravery and willingness to understand the reality of shameful discrimination within Utah will demonstrate to state leaders that courageous leadership is admirable," she said, "and that Utah is a better place when we suppress our entitled need to cast judgment on one another and instead respect the authenticity and free agency of each person."

House Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara, said Johnson has "added to the debate," although he "may have a different slant on what the Legislature has done."

Johnson, 41, expressed satisfaction with her efforts to pass statewide gay-rights measures. Those issues have faced universal defeat in the Legislature, but she relished challenging her Republican colleagues.

In 2010, for the third year, she introduced a bill that would extend Utah's housing and workplace protections against discrimination to gay and transgender people. She also sought the Legislature's support in her call to press the federal government to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which bans openly gay service members from serving in the military.

Johnson set aside those two measures early this session when she brokered a moratorium on all pro- and anti-gay-rights bills. The compromise is credited with stopping efforts to overturn recently passed anti-discrimination statutes in Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County. The deal also allows other cities and counties to pursue such protections in housing and employment for their gay and transgender residents.

"She's been an amazing advocate for LGBT people," said Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah. "Purely by her presence, she has broken down stereotypes."

Balken said her group will work to keep Johnson's district, which includes many east-side Salt Lake City neighborhoods and a piece of Summit County, a "pro-LGBT seat."

Johnson, a Realtor, has passed legislation to retrofit school buses to improve air quality, reduce the phosphorous content of detergent and streamline Utah's election process. She said her decision to leave the Legislature will allow her to seek work in LGBT advocacy outside of Utah.

"I have really made a genuine attempt to make Utah my home," since relocating from Maryland eight years ago, Johnson said. "I just haven't felt that in my heart that Utah is home."

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