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When Stacey Jackson-Roberts last lived in Utah nearly 20 years ago, same-sex marriage wasn’t yet legal anywhere in the United States, the local LGBT movement was just taking off and services for transgender people were essentially nonexistent.
“When I was in school at Utah State University, my therapist at the time couldn’t even find someone in Salt Lake that could offer hormone therapy,” she said.
Now, Jackson-Roberts is preparing to move back to her home state to lead the Utah Pride Center. She will be the first transgender person to lead the Salt Lake City-based nonprofit, overseeing Utah Pride’s $1.9 million annual operations, public programs, service delivery and signature initiatives, including Pride Week.
In their recent hiring announcement, Utah Pride emphasized that Jackson-Roberts will draw on her professional qualifications and lived experience “to focus on increasing resources in more remote parts of the state and in systematically marginalized communities.”
Jackson-Roberts acknowledges the “really beautiful, amazing progress” that has been made here in Utah while she was away. But, she says, “there’s a lot of work ahead of us” — and she’s ready to get to work.
An expansive, inclusive vision
Born and raised in Beaver, Utah, Jackson-Roberts graduated from high school at the age of 16, “mostly [for] survival, growing up as a closeted trans kid in southern Utah,” she said.
“There’s a lot of really good people in Beaver,” she said, “but [it wasn’t] the most hospitable environment for anyone who is LGBTQ.”
She studied law and constitutional studies at Utah State University before moving to the Washington, D.C. area. Her career spans nonprofit program administration, healthcare policy and labor relations — along with a stint on Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s Judiciary Committee staff. She has formed and led numerous coalitions working at the intersection of service delivery and health equity, and received her MWS in clinical social work from Smith College in 2013.
Jackson-Roberts says she’s glad that moving back to Utah means she will be closer to her own family, who now live in Cache Valley. But, because of her own experience growing up here, she knows that many LGBTQ Utahns — particularly young people — still face the same pressures that led her to leave Beaver more than two decades ago.
“There are LGBTQ+ youth in more rural parts of the state that need [our] support,” Jackson-Roberts said in Utah Pride’s announcement. They “need to know the Utah Pride Center is there for them, and wants them to feel heard, loved and accepted.”
Lisa Wucherpfennig, director of communications and operations at Pride of Southern Utah in St. George, welcomes the expanded geographic focus that Jackson-Roberts promises to bring.
“Rural regions are often forgotten about, and given that we are the southernmost part of the state, we do feel that at times,” Wucherpfennig said.
Big expectations, challenging circumstances
Stepping in to lead any organization during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic would be challenging enough, but the Utah Pride Center is also facing a lawsuit from five former employees who allege they were wrongfully terminated at the height of the coronavirus pandemic after raising concerns about nepotism, ethics, mismanagement and financial malfeasance. (Their complaints were outlined in a story by The Salt Lake Tribune published last year.)
Jackson-Roberts is aware that her new role will require her focus on building — and, in some cases, rebuilding — relationships.
“I don’t expect anyone to just take me at face value,” she said. “I expect to earn people’s trust by listening and by taking action.”
Jackson-Roberts said she plans to further expand virtual and online services — and that Utah Pride will follow the advice of public health officials about how best to engage in-person. Still, she said, continuing to guide the organization through the pandemic is “going to be a challenge.”
Jackson-Roberts will be the sixth person to lead the organization in under eight years.
Sue Robbins — now a member of Equality Utah’s Transgender Advisory Council — worked with two executive directors during her time as a Utah Pride board member. Her advice? “It’s about learning, listening and adjusting.”
Robbins said it’s exciting to see the Utah Pride Center select its first transgender CEO. As a trans woman herself, she believes it’s important for transgender youth to see transgender adults in leadership positions.
“It means that they have a path forward, that they can have hope to be able to achieve great things,” said Robbins. And, she points out, the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly hard on Utah’s LGBTQ community.
After so many months of isolation, people “don’t have the community engagement that helps us thrive,” Robbins said. And for LGBTQ organizations like the Utah Pride Center, “there needs to be creative thinking to reach out to people.”
Not everyone is quite so optimistic.
Alex Lore — an author, teacher and a transgender man who lives in Salt Lake City — said he wants “to be supportive of… things like the Pride Center.” But, he explained, “there has always been this [question] of ‘Is this only for cis, white, gay men? Or is this for everyone that is under the umbrella?’”
Lore hopes Jackson-Roberts will make needed changes at the Utah Pride Center — and that her first “call to action” will be ensuring that more people of color, trans people and queer disabled people are well-represented in hiring and decision-making.
“I’m really hoping that [Jackson-Roberts’ hiring] is the start of something that will continue evolving,” Lore said — and not so that Utah Pride “could check the ‘transgender’ box.”
Jackson-Roberts described the challenges facing the Utah Pride Center in similar terms. “We have a lot of different racial and ethnic minority groups that haven’t been as well served in the past… And we could do a lot more [in] collaboration with them,” she said. “I really look forward to building a strong coalition amongst our organizations [and communities.]”
Ermiya Fanaeian agrees that the Utah Pride Center has a lot of work to do before it can truly be a resource for all of Utah’s LGBTQ community.
Fanaeian is the director of Pink Pistols SLC, a chapter of the national organization advocating for LGBTQ people “to become comfortable with guns, learn to use them safely and carry them.” She’s also a former Utah Pride Center volunteer, and during her time there, she felt Utah Pride was more worried about impressing donors than spending budgets in a way that benefited the LGBTQ community.
“They have a responsibility to fight for mutual aid and to fight for [the] radical collective betterment of queer and trans people,” Fanaeian said.
Utah Pride needs a leader that uses its resources to make a tangible difference in people’s lives, Fanaeian believes, and she feels that no past leader has done that. She named housing and healthcare as two immediate priorities.
Both issues are areas that Jackson-Roberts told The Tribune she plans to focus on.
Bringing science — and lived experience — to Utah politics
During the last legislative session, Utah state lawmakers proposed two unsuccessful bills that would have negatively impacted transgender youth. Both are likely to come up again next year.
One bill would have barred transgender girls from participating in female K-12 sports, while the other limited young people’s access to medication that suppresses puberty and other gender-affirming health care.
Seeing trans youth become political targets in Utah and across the country was “one of the reasons why I felt like this might be a time for me to return to Utah,” Jackson-Roberts said. “Being a transgender woman and being able to speak to some of these issues as a health care provider” could help make a difference here.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” she said.
While Jackson-Roberts can understand these issues have led some people — particularly politicians — to worry, she said “I think that those concerns can be dispelled with factual information that is science based.” Even in Utah, there are “experts in the community that deal with [trans] issues” every day.
Jackson-Roberts was “really heartened,” she said, by a February press conference where Governor Spencer Cox became emotional while talking about the transgender sports bill.
“These kids are … they’re just trying to stay alive,” Cox said at the time, holding back tears. “There’s a reason none of them are playing sports. And so … I just think there’s a better way. And I hope there will be enough grace in our state to find a better solution.”
Jackson-Roberts believes she shares a “deep love” for her home state with Governor Cox and other potential allies.
“I do hope that there’s opportunity there to build a relationship with Governor Cox and the lieutenant governor around these issues,” Jackson-Roberts said, “so that the policy in the state of Utah is driven by the science and not by fear.”
Mostly, she said, she is “really excited about the opportunity to come back and serve the community here.”
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.