David K. Nelson, author of Utah’s first hate-crimes legislation, dies at 62

Nelson, a longtime LGBTQ+ activist, was an “unsung hero” of civil rights in Utah, a historian said.

David K. Nelson, an activist for Utah’s LGBTQ+ and disability communities who wrote some of the early versions of the state’s hate-crime laws, has died.

Nelson died June 11, in Salt Lake City, from Lewy body dementia, according to an obituary published in QSaltLake. He was 62.

Nelson “was an integral part” of passing Utah’s first hate-crime laws, former Utah Rep. Frank Pignanelli said in a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune. “He was courageous, compassionate and a true leader. The success of human rights in Utah owes a great deal to David’s tireless work.”

Before working at the state level, Nelson drafted Salt Lake City’s first nondiscrimination ordinance in 1986, said local LGBTQ historian Ben Williams. That draft included a prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation — the first such law in Utah, Williams said. The city attorney then, Roger Cutler, opposed the bill. Nelson tried again in 1987, speaking with then-Mayor Palmer DePaulis, but the bill was again rejected.

In 1991, Nelson — representing Gay and Lesbian Utah Democrats (GLUD), which he founded — started working with Pignanelli, then House minority leader, on a statewide hate-crimes bill. The purpose of the legislation, Pignanelli said, was to help “law enforcement and the Judiciary in protecting all Utahns from violent actions accompanied by hate speech.”

A 1992 version, Williams wrote in QSaltLake in 2019, marked the first attempt in the state to include “sexual orientation” as part of a hate crime bill. The first version of the bill passed, but without the part about sexual orientation.

Dale Sorenson, former executive director of GLUD, recalled a meeting at Nelson’s apartment. “David showed [Pignanelli] the bill. Frank asked him, ‘Did you get this from Legislative Research?’ There’s a department that writes all the bills on behalf of the legislators, they don’t write themselves. And David said, ‘No, I wrote this,’” Sorenson said.

Nelson’s superpower, Sorenson said, was that he was a “savant of policy and legislation.”

Pignanelli, writing in 2006 in the Deseret News political column he co-wrote with LaVarr Webb, described Nelson as, “one of the few Utah voices demanding basic rights for gay and lesbian citizens. Aggressive in promoting anti-discrimination measures, he assisted in passage of the first hate-crimes legislation. Although Nelson frequently generated disagreement among supporters (including me), no one can dispute the courage he exhibited in the early years of this movement.”

Also in 1992, Nelson wrote and lobbied the Salt Lake County Board of Commissioners to adopt a law to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in the county’s hiring and services. It also was the first law of its kind in Utah, according to Sorenson.

”His first attempt at writing civil rights legislation failed,” Sorenson said. “His second attempt was … a mixed victory. And that third attempt was successful.”

Nelson’s activism in politics started in 1982, and Sorenson — who called Nelson “one of my oldest friends and closest political mentor” — met him in 1990 at a censorship protest involving a touring exhibit about Anne Frank and the Holocaust on display at what is now called Salt Lake City Hall.

“The [Utah Board of Education] censored mention of gay people murdered in the Holocaust, and there was an appropriate public outrage of this,” Sorenson said. “David was there with a little flier, which is facts about homosexuals in the Holocaust.”

The flier, Sorenson said, a third of a sheet of paper, and “set the record straight” without being confrontational. “We weren’t trying to stop the Anne Frank exhibit,” Sorenson said. “The exhibit itself was not censored, only the educational materials that the Board of Education had control over.”

The flier “gave people extremely clear instructions on who to call, what to do, where to go to get involved in the process” to become a delegate at the Salt Lake County Democratic Convention,” Sorenson said. It didn’t ask for money, signatures or contact information, he said.

“It was an empowering little flier,” said Sorenson, who also said he was one of 27 LGBT delegates at the county convention that year. “That made us the second-largest caucus at the time,” Sorenson said, “and from that caucus was born Gay and Lesbian Utah Democrats.”

The group started organizing with three tasks, Sorenson said: organizing a conference in the party; endorsing and working on specific campaigns; and lobbying the Legislature and city and county government on policy.

After GLUD organized, Sorenson said he, Nelson and others “went to work” for campaigns and candidates. “We walked districts, registered voters, stuffed envelopes and licked stamps and everything else that was involved with politics at the time. Just putting in the legwork.”

GLUD had no offices and no money, Sorenson said. “The group was, I think, activism in its best and purest form,” he said.

David Keith Nelson was born April 7, 1962, in Salt Lake City. According to his Wikipedia page, he was a descendant of the Cannon family, a political force in Utah since the Mormon pioneers arrived.

He studied political science at the University of Utah from 1982 to 1984, but did not earn a degree, QSaltLake reported. In 1984, Williams wrote in Salt Lake Metro in 2005, Nelson founded a short-lived LGBTQ news publication, The Up Front. In 1985, Nelson and Michael Aaron — now editor and publisher of QSaltLake — launched another short-lived publication, The Community Reporter.

In 1985, Nelson and Aaron joined a holy union together. They later separated, but remained friends.

QSaltLake reported that Nelson also founded the Military Law Task Force of Salt Lake City and worked with the Lesbian and Gay Student Union at the University of Utah. He also is credited with founding the Utah Stonewall Hall of Fame, and was a founder of the Gay and Lesbian Community Council and GayVoteUtah.com to help LGBTQ Utahns with voting registration online.

Williams, the historian, said he met Nelson in 1986, and described him as “an unsung hero and mostly forgotten.”

Nelson, Williams said, is one of “a few people that have really helped change this community. … He laid the groundwork for a lot of the political interactions with the county to push the boundaries of politics.”

Nelson’s activism also extended to other intersectional spaces. After he was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder in 2015, he helped create the LGBTQ-Autism Utah organization in 2018 with the Utah Pride Center and the University of Utah’s Autism Spectrum Disorder Clinic.

When Nelson’s health started declining, Williams said, he shared an 88-page list of information about what he had done in his life and through his activism. “He said he wanted to write it down while he could still remember it, … [before] his illness took his memory away,” Williams said.

“We lost a champion of our civil rights who pushed the boundaries of politics. David was a visionary,” Williams said.

Over the years, Sorenson with GLUD, said he shared many memories with Nelson that stood out: being with him in the Salt Lake County Commission chamber, going to “excruciating” committee hearings for hate-crimes bills and celebrating the “winning” moments — such as the times elected officials listened and worked with GLUD on issues.

“David had the hubris to lead, but he never had an ego,” Sorenson said, “and it takes hubris to believe that you can change the world and David did change the world. He made the world a better, fairer and more just place.”

A list of surviving family members was not immediately available. A memorial will be held Thursday, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Starks Funeral Parlor, 3651 S. 900 East, Salt Lake City, according to the parlor.