A Utah state agency shared an LGBTQ+ Pride post on social media — a Gov. Cox appointee had it removed

Public records show that a Department of Government Operations employee ‘got in trouble’ for posting an LGBTQ+ Pride image on the agency’s official social media pages.

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Marchers take part in Utah Pride Week in 2021. A Utah Department of Government Operations account posted about Pride on the agency's social media pages this year, but was later told to remove the posts.

Just as it did last year, the Utah agency that oversees human resources for state employees worked during the last days of May to prepare social media content commemorating LGBTQ+ Pride Month, to “recognize (employees) and support them,” wrote a manager who curates the state’s employer brand.

But less than a week after the division made a Pride-related post, records obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune show that the communications director for the Utah Department of Government Operations — which oversees the Division of Human Resources Management — “got in trouble” for the post and was directed to delete it.

An email sent to members of the department’s communications committee the following day says all posts must “refrain from recognizing social media holidays and nationally recognized holidays, and anything ‘politically charged.’ Marvin would like us to be ‘agnostic.’”

In a conversation with The Tribune, Department of Government Operations Executive Director Marvin Dodge said that although the policy was issued and began being enforced with Pride Month, the entity and its several divisions — whose responsibilities range from managing human resources to overseeing the state’s archives and records — can no longer post in reference to any holidays.

“My concern with any holiday — and I’m not saying I’m anti-religious or anti-anything, but it seems these days, no matter what gets posted, somebody has a burr in their saddle, … and we shouldn’t go out of our way to irritate people,” Dodge said. “So if we celebrate Christmas, and post Christmas things, then we irritate the atheists. If we talk about Pioneer Day, we irritate the anti-Mormon people. Obviously, there’s a lot of conversation around gay pride and that irritates the conservatives.”

The email to the communications committee indicates his decision came after Gov. Spencer Cox’s office asked each department in the executive branch to establish written content review policies “consistent with provided principles and best practices.”

A spokesperson for the governor’s office declined to answer questions about what those principles and best practices are, nor would they comment on Dodge’s policy, prior to fulfilling a pending public records request pertaining to Cox’s directive.

The office responded to a previous public records request regarding recent social media policies and communications about them — especially as they relate to Pride — saying it had no records.

Cox appointed Dodge as the head of Government Operations in April. Dodge said that the Pride Month posts were the first he was asked to review.

“The content review piece came out of the governor’s office, … but frankly, that wasn’t part of my decision and I’m going to accept all of the blame and fault for this one,” Dodge said. “And I’m not trying to pick on gay Pride Month or any other issue. Frankly, I approach this as I have throughout my career — with the perspective of taxpayers as the primary focus of concern.”

His rule change came as other state officials and agencies in recent weeks have seemingly distanced themselves from past messages supporting the LGTBQ+ community.

(Utah Transit Authority) A Utah Transit Authority bus with pride livery will no longer appear in Sunday’s annual Pride Parade, a spokesperson with the transit agency said Friday, June 2, 2023.

Just days before the post was removed, Cox published a Pride month declaration that left out any mention of the LGBTQ+ community — departing from years past — and the state’s transit authority caved to pressure from lawmakers to remove Pride-themed livery from a bus set to appear in Salt Lake City’s annual parade.

“I don’t have any issue, whether somebody’s part of the LGBT community, or the Black community or Hispanic community, or anything else,” Dodge said. “We’re all employees, we’re on the same team and I can love them and respect them and appreciate what they do. … I don’t think having something posted on our social media is the ultimate statement that I can make.”

He continued, “Obviously there are some folks that are really irritated with me, and I’m OK with that. I’d rather that they just come to my office and have a conversation with me to understand that, rather than, you know, seek out the press and GRAMA (Government Records Access and Management Act) requests and all this.”

‘Sad we (can’t) support them’

On May 23, Jennifer Weaver, the communications director for the Department of Government Operations, sent a message to Justin Berry, the employer brand manager for the Division of Human Resource Management, asking, “Do you have an image or video from DHRM for Pride Month that I may post on social media?”

Berry indicated to Weaver on May 25 that he uploaded the content, and Weaver said she was “keeping (Dodge) informed,” records show.

“With the Gov’s new push for content review, I am informing Marv about recognizing Pride Month via social media so he’s aware. I don’t see a problem with it at all, but I want to make sure Marv knows.”

A week later, Berry followed up, asking if Dodge had approved the post. Weaver said he hadn’t responded.

“I really don’t think it’s an issue and as long as he was made aware, we’re good. If something was wrong, he’d tell me,” Weaver wrote.

“I agree, it is just a strange new world at the moment LOL,” Berry replied.

Another week passed, and on June 6, Weaver messaged Berry saying, “Would you happen to have any time to chat? I got in trouble for the Pride post and had to delete it.”

Both Weaver and Berry appeared to disapprove of their boss’s position, with the latter saying that removing the posts was “sad.”

“We need to support our employees and I’m very sad we can not support them by recognizing their heritage or special recognition days,” Berry wrote. “I hope that changes. It is not political, it is human.”

Berry asked if Weaver thought it would be helpful to sit down with Dodge and talk to him, to “explain why we need to support these things.”

She told him that Dodge would address it in a meeting, and that she had brought up the same points Berry made, “but (Dodge) was firm in his decision.”

“I would argue that supporting pride as (a) month is not a community group, but rather a group of employees who often feel like they are not seen or supported. Same with Black History, Women’s history, etc.,” Berry said.

“And he doesn’t want any posts on those either,” Weaver replied.

The Utah Public Employees Association, the union representing state employees, did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Be proud’

A day after the post was removed, Weaver sent an email to members of the department’s communications committee. “As you may or may not know, a new content review framework from the Governor’s Office was issued by Chief (of Staff Jon) Pierpont earlier this week. All state agencies are required to establish written policies consistent with provided principles and best practices from the Governor’s Office.”

Weaver said in the email that Dodge would meet with the committee in July to “share his vision and what the content review process may look like for GovOps.”

“In the meantime,” she added, “please keep social media posts related to GovOps only.”

In June of last year, the Division of Human Resource Management posted a graphic to its social media pages that said, “be proud,” wishing followers a happy LGBTQ+ Pride Month. The word “proud” was colored in rainbow. and the letter “u” was in the shape of Utah.

The week prior to the Pride post being deleted, the division posted a graphic recognizing Memorial Day. It remains on its social media pages.

Starting in 2021 — his first year as governor — Cox has annually declared June as Pride Month. And although that declaration was watered down this year, FOX13 reported that he is the first Utah governor to issue such a proclamation.

Since Dodge’s directive, another state holiday that was posted about in years past — Juneteenth, a day commemorating the end of slavery — has passed. While the Legislature voted to officially recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday in 2022, Government Operations and its divisions appear not to have shared posts about it this year.

Troy Williams, the director of Equality Utah, said “Our society could benefit from more curiosity and less suspicion of each other.”

“There is a relentless demand in our country to engage in the tired old culture wars. It’s always my tribe versus yours, ad infinitum,” Williams said. “But what if we put aside our weapons and recognize how we are connected in deep and profound ways?

“We can all honor Juneteenth, regardless of our race. We can all enjoy Pioneer Day regardless of our faith, and we can enjoy Pride month regardless of our sexual orientation. None of this is political. All of these celebrations are how we share our humanity and culture with each other. Come to the party and join our parade. Everyone is welcome. Let’s get together and learn more about each other.”

Correction, June 27, 9:30 a.m. • This article was updated to clarify that the Utah Transit Authority removed Pride livery from one of its buses.

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