After a yearlong standdown on pro- and anti-gay-rights bills in the Utah Legislature, Equality Utah will be back at the Capitol this month with a new tool: research.
The advocacy group, with the help of a University of California Los Angeles think tank, has prepared Utah's first statewide report on discrimination against gay and transgender Utahns. The report features a nonrandom survey of 939 lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) Utahns and new analysis of census data that helps paint a portrait of the LGBT community in Utah.
The report will be distributed to Utah's 104 legislators Wednesday morning.
Equality Utah is pushing for a statewide law, sponsored this year by Salt Lake City Democrat Sen. Ben McAdams, that would ban housing and employment discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. In November 2009, Salt Lake City became the first Utah government to offer such protections, winning a landmark endorsement from the LDS Church.
Ten more cities and counties have followed the capital's lead (Midvale became the latest on Tuesday). And a year ago, a Salt Lake Tribune poll found that two-thirds of Utahns support a statewide law.
But the Republican-led Utah Legislature has blocked efforts at a statewide anti-discrimination law the past two sessions.
"The two concerns we've heard from the Legislature in the past is that employment discrimination is very rare ... and there would be a flood of frivolous claims" that would burden state government, said Clifford Rosky, an Equality Utah board member and a senior research fellow at UCLA's Williams Institute, the think tank that co-authored the report.
The report predicts that the Utah Labor Commission would receive 16 to 22 claims per year under a new law. Of the gay and bisexual Utahns surveyed, 44 percent said they have been fired or denied a job or a promotion due to sexual orientation or gender identity. Among transgender Utahns, 67 percent said they had received such treatment.
"That's not rare at all," said Rosky, a law professor at the University of Utah.
Even though the online survey did not poll LGBT individuals at random, Rosky believes the sample is a reliable measure of the rate of discrimination in Utah. He and the other authors found that the findings are similar to the results in scientific surveys in other states and nationally. Also, the demographics of the respondents reflect the diversity found in Utah's LGBT community.
"In Utah, like in other states, the problem of employment discrimination [against gay and transgender workers] is both pervasive and persistent," Rosky said.
But the new research, coupled with an LDS Church endorsement, widespread public support and the backing of 11 cities and counties, may not be enough to sway Utah's conservative lawmakers.
"If we look at this realistically, I don't think it has a lot of chance," said Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, Republican majority whip. "The Legislature is a little more conservative than it was a year ago."
Niederhauser said he does not presently support a statewide law because of "fundamental questions" about how anti-discrimination protections could conflict with "natural rights," such as marriage and children.
Last year, as part of a compromise, Republicans agreed to scrap bills aimed at altering or overturning Salt Lake City's anti-discrimination ordinances and Democrats dropped a statewide anti-discrimination bill and other gay-rights measures.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, and former Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City, proposed a legislative study in the interim, but that also was dropped in the moratorium.
Stephenson and Niederhauser both expressed skepticism Tuesday about the reliability of a self-reported survey. They want documented instances of discrimination.
"I want data. I want hard data," Stephenson said. "I'm not talking about estimates."
He hoped the one-year moratorium would give legislators time to see how anti-discrimination ordinances worked in Salt Lake City. As of late December, no complaints have been filed in Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County or West Valley City.
"That's a pretty good indicator for legislators to evaluate whether legislation is needed or not," Stephenson said.
But McAdams said passage of a statewide law shouldn't hinge on the extent of anti-gay discrimination in Utah.
"I'm convinced that any discrimination is too much," he said. "What we're also trying to combat here is a fear of discrimination. If members of our gay community fear they might be discriminated against, then I think protections are justified."
A quarter of gay respondents and more than a third of transgender ones say they fear discrimination in their current jobs, according to Equality Utah's survey.
A statewide law, McAdams said, would not only reassure LGBT individuals but would be a positive signal to businesses outside of Utah.
"As we look to grow our economy by recruiting businesses to come here, one of the questions that is asked is 'How will our employees be received in Utah?' " he said. "It will be proof that their employees are welcome."
Equality Utah's report includes a long list of Utah employers, including Adobe Systems Inc. and RC Willey, with workplace policies that forbid anti-gay discrimination.
Online • Previous coverage and voices
O For recent coverage regarding LGBT issues in Utah, visit sltrib.com/topics/lgbt
Gay-rights bills in the 2011 Legislature
Anti-discrimination • Prohibit discrimination in housing and employment based on a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. Sponsor: Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City.
Adoption • Unmarried couples cannot adopt in Utah. A proposed law would allow an unmarried partner to be a "second parent" when a child's legal parent agrees. For instance, a lesbian could adopt her partner's biological children. Sponsors: Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City; Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City.
Probate rights • Allow an unmarried partner or other financially dependent relative to sue in the event of a wrongful death. Sponsor: Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City.