Monica Dobbins: The job of ending anti-LGBTQ discrimination is not done

Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney should get behind anti-discrimination bills now before Congress.

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Meggane Vasquez, right, and Heidi Thomas, a recently engaged couple from Salt Lake City, share a kiss as they and the crowd begin marching away from the Utah State Capitol Building at the start of the Rainbow March and Rally in Salt Lake City as part of Utah Pride Week on Sunday, June 6, 2021.

As a Utah faith leader and parent, I call on Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee to help find common ground ensuring fairness and equality for all Americans. For decades, Congress has neglected its responsibility to protect the LGBTQ community but, with both parties now proposing to add nondiscrimination protections to federal law, this could finally change. I look to our senators to help hammer out details of this crucial legislation.

For the past four years, I have served as minister to the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City. LGBTQ folks serve in our congregation’s leadership and marry and raise their children here. First Unitarian participates in the city’s annual Interfaith Pride Service and our church marches every year alongside Utah’s five other Unitarian congregations in Salt Lake’s Pride Parade.

For me, it’s also personal. What I know about the LGBTQ community is informed not only by my work, but also by my own personal experience. I identify as bisexual, and my husband and I are raising a 14-year-old non-binary child. I recall the message I heard as a teacher’s college student not to come out in that profession or risk losing a job.

As a parent, I know my teenager will face hurdles as they grow into adulthood — from obtaining appropriate official documents reflecting their gender identity to accessing quality healthcare services. At the same time, my husband and I appreciate that they are leading a privileged life, with the love and support of their family and their home in a supportive faith community. We’ve been pleasantly surprised with how welcoming their school is in respecting their gender identity.

Not all Utah LGBTQ youth share that good fortune — sadly not surprising given statements by prominent public officials and faith leaders in September. Just days after a lesbian couple were found shot to death in a Moab campground, a faith leader urged those opposed to marriage by same-sex couples to use muskets to defend their beliefs, a message echoed online by an Ogden politician who wrote, “Time to get out our muskets” in response to a Layton high school offering its welcome to LGBTQ students. Negative attention toward that high school’s inclusive posture first came from a state school board member.

Even as institutions such as the Utah Pride Center and Salt Lake Encircle enhance the city’s climate for our LGBTQ residents, too often the state’s LGBTQ youth fail to get the support they deserve in their schools. Statistics show that Utah has experienced a devastating rise in youth suicides in recent years. I have worked with The Peculiar, an inspiring group for Mormon parents and families of LGBTQ youth aimed at providing loving support to their children. The organization was founded by parents who lost their child to suicide.

I’m pleased that Utah has made a start in state law to combat discrimination, but as a nation we have a long way to go. I’ve learned that one in three LGBTQ Americans, according to a 2020 survey, experienced discrimination — in public spaces, on the job, in schools, and in their own neighborhoods — in just the previous year.

That number rises to 60 percent among transgender people, who endure exceptionally high levels of unemployment and homelessness. They are also stalked by violence, with a record 44 hate-motivated murders nationwide last year.

Black and Latino LGBTQ folks face greater poverty rates than communities of color generally. Less than half the states protect the community’s youth from bullying in school. Elders must often re-closet themselves, with nearly half of same-sex couples reporting discrimination in seeking senior housing.

Thankfully, there is now hope Congress might finally act. For the first time, Democrats and Republicans have put forward measures to add LGBTQ protections to our civil rights laws. The major disagreement between the two parties involves balancing the urgent need to protect LGBTQ people with the religious freedom Americans cherish.

Finding a path to getting that job done is what legislators do when committed to solving problems, and Sens. Romney and Lee can look to the 21 states that prohibit anti-LGBTQ discrimination without compromising religious freedoms.

Washington can follow suit, with senators reaching across the aisle to end the divisive pattern pitting religious liberties against the rights of LGBTQ Americans. Every major civil rights advance — from the 1964 Civil Rights Act to the Americans with Disabilities Act — has found the appropriate balance.

Senators Romney and Lee: One hundred thousand LGBTQ Utahns, their families, and their friends are counting on you.

Reverend Monica Dobbins

Rev. Monica Dobbins is a minister at the First Unitarian Church Salt Lake City.