Commentary: 2019 Pride: With persistence, hope can replace hurt

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Surrounded by supporters, Gov. Gary R. Herbert signs into law the new hate crimes bill along with Senate President Stuart Adams, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, Rep. Lee Perry and Lt Gov. Spencer Cox, at the Utah State Capitol, Tuesday, April 2, 2019.

The modern gay rights movement was launched at the Stonewall uprising only weeks before Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Fifty years later, the theme of this year’s Utah Pride Festival -- Exist, Resist, Persist -- captures the moment and encapsulates the challenges ahead for LGBT Utahns. Their journey of progress has seen both small steps and giant leaps.

The Utah Pride Festival celebrates a group of Utahns whose very existence was at first ignored and even now remains devalued by powerful forces and institutions. Nevertheless, thanks to a welcome increase in civility and healthy dialogue, the challenge for LGBT Utahns has been shifting from gaining recognition to winning acceptance of their grace and humanity. Gay people are normal and are not broken, defective or challenged by any dysfunction.

The battle over conversion therapy during this year’s legislative session revealed that there are still professional counselors and parents in Utah who want to tell LGBT youth that it’s not OK to be gay.

Scientific research has shown that homosexuality is a natural variation of human sexuality without any intrinsically harmful health effects, but this information is absent from Utah’s educational curriculum, including the new sex ed guidelines under development.

Unlike their straight peers, the thousands of LGBT children in Utah’s schools are denied life-affirming knowledge and support to foster happy and healthy sexual relationships, marriage, and family life. Officially LGBT teens are invisible people in Utah’s schools.

For years, the state of Utah enforced an entire system of laws targeting LGBT Utahns not just in schools but at every stage of life. These laws denied the existence of gay people, demeaned them as lesser human beings, and dismissed their lives and family relationships as illegitimate or unworthy of respect.

This legal regime crumbled due to a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases written by Justice Anthony Kennedy. In the ruling that first brought marriage equality to Utah, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby wrote memorably that, “It is not the Constitution that has changed, but the knowledge of what it means to be gay or lesbian.”

Shelby’s ruling was founded on -- and was later reinforced by -- Supreme Court decisions recognizing both the existence and dignity of gay people. However, the changing composition of the Supreme Court means that the LGBT community must now resist the reversal or erosion of these precedents.

In a sign of the times, Shelby will soon be joined on Utah’s federal bench by a Trump-appointee who previously deployed his legal skills to fight LGBT equality, arguing on behalf of clients both that homosexuality was a choice and that a gay man could not fairly serve as a judge in a case involving gay rights.

Some fear that the confirmation last October of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to replace Kennedy may tip the balance on the Supreme Court against LGBT citizens. Already the newly composed Supreme Court has allowed the Trump Administration’s ban on new transgender troops to take effect.

In the coming months and years, the Supreme Court is likely to decide not only the constitutionality of the trans military service ban, but also whether federal employment laws banning sex discrimination include sexual orientation, and whether businesses may invoke the religious beliefs of their proprietors to exempt their businesses from laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBT citizens.

It also remains to be seen whether courts will continue to recognize the existence and protect the dignity of LGBT citizens resisting regressive actions. The Trump administration has promulgated regulations permitting medical providers to refuse to provide care to LGBT people based on moral objections while rescinding every administrative regulation recognizing the existence and providing for the safety of transgender Americans.

Resistance has not been futile in Utah. Equality Utah successfully led the opposition to anti-trans legislation during the general session. Persistence also paid off as an enforceable hate crimes bill including sexual orientation was passed after nearly a quarter century of effort. And award-winning documentaries “Church & State” and “Quiet Heroes” chronicled and celebrated the accomplishments of Utah’s LGBT community.

Finally, the moral arc of Utah bent towards justice when the state’s largest religious institution rescinded its membership ban against married gay couples and their children. Whether this policy change is seen as a small step or a giant leap, for many it replaced hurt with hope.

Fifty years after Stonewall, the journey endures and in Utah reflects the persistence of a community that rightly celebrates Pride this weekend.

Paul C. Burke

John W. Mackay

Paul C. Burke and John W. Mackay, attorneys in Salt Lake City, have represented the Utah Pride Center, Equality Utah, and the Equality Federation.

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