Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who roiled Utah’s political waters when he endorsed civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, said America needs to continue its pursuit of "equality under the law," but said states should decide how to deal with same-sex marriage.
"What’s important here is people having the conversation about inclusiveness and about fairness and about equality under the law," Huntsman said Thursday. "It’s hard to know what the wrapping looks like, what the definition and term happens to be, and each state might end up doing it a little differently, but the end point ought to be equality under the law."
Huntsman and his wife, Mary Kaye, received the Allies For Equality award from Equality Utah, the state’s leading advocacy group on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals.
He told the crowd of 2,000-plus that he was surprised to be invited, since he was "a failed musician and I’m pretty much a failed politician," a comment that drew boos and a call of "2016" from the crowd.
Huntsman said the objective of those in the room should be to get people to lower their barriers and enhance unity and understanding.
"Sometimes it might not happen as fast as everyone would like, but you keep at it and you stay focused on the goal, which is equality under the law," he said.
Huntsman told reporters that he supported civil unions at a time where it was "a pretty risky thing to do," but change needs to happen incrementally.
"I did it because I fundamentally believe that equality is an American value," he said. "You take some slings and arrows, but I think maybe the community, after that, had some conversations and is still having those conversations. And do you make progress in terms of including everyone in the fabric of society? I think so."
Mary Kaye Huntsman told the story of a young man from Illinois who killed himself after being bullied. She said the story reinforced her interest in helping young people in challenging situations and strengthened her feeling that "No one should have to walk silently alone."
Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, said she wasn’t disappointed that Huntsman did not endorse same-sex marriage.
"We live in a state where we still lack workplace, housing and hospital benefits," she said. "It’s really important to keep the conversation focused on the areas we still have commonality and the areas where people are most vulnerable and most at-risk."
In 2009, Huntsman became a rarity, bucking the Republican orthodoxy and endorsing civil unions in perhaps the most conservative state in the nation. The move attracted national attention and got him un-invited to speak to a Republican group in Michigan.
During his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, which never gained much traction, Huntsman defended his support for equality and civil unions but insisted repeatedly that he believed marriage should a union between a man and a woman.
But nationally and in Utah, the sands have been shifting on both civil unions and gay marriage.
In Utah, 28 percent of those surveyed recently support gay marriage, and 43 percent support civil unions, according to the poll conducted earlier this year by the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at the LDS church-owned Brigham Young University.
Taken together, 71 percent of Utahns support legal recognition for same-sex partnerships, up from 46 percent in 2004.
Nationally, a Gallup Poll conducted in May after President Barack Obama said he supported same-sex marriage, showed that 51 percent of Americans supported his position, while 45 percent were opposed.
Huntsman said his position on the issues has been shaped by his own experiences — a neighbor who lost both legs whose partner couldn’t visit him in the hospital, and a family friend who lost his son in an accident, but whose partner wasn’t allowed into the emergency room.
"If you keep your ears open and your heart open, I think you learn as you go along," he said.
Copyright 2013 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.