Opinion: Utah lawmakers are playing with LGBTQ+ children’s lives

Legislators don’t see the consequences of their actions. But I do.

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Attendees mill about before the Rainbow March and Rally began at the Utah State Capitol Building in Salt Lake City as part of Utah Pride Week on Sunday, June 6, 2021.

My Mormon roots run deep, five generations on both sides. I grew up hearing the harrowing tales of sacrifice and bravery my pioneer ancestors endured on their journey to Zion. They ventured into wildly unfamiliar territory, all because they had the courage to follow their hearts.

Their stories have always inspired me, but now, in an even more meaningful way. They walked away from safety, security, stability, comfort, certainty and community. They risked everything. They traded a life that was known for the unknown, with absolutely no guarantees.

When our oldest child came out to us in 2019, everything changed. The path that had been so conveniently laid out for our family to follow was no longer safe to travel. The faith that we had cherished for decades was causing very real harm to our child’s mental health. Our decision to prioritize their safety and well-being required us to follow in the footsteps of our Mormon pioneer ancestors. We walked away from safety, security, stability, comfort, certainty and community. We risked everything to protect our child. We traded a life that was known for the unknown, with absolutely no guarantees.

Perhaps all it takes to truly understand why someone chooses a path less-traveled is to walk a few steps in their shoes.

In recent years, I have witnessed wave after wave of harmful, anti-LGBTQ+ legislation gain support and momentum across the country and here at home. With the upcoming Utah State Legislature General Session only weeks away, I am deeply concerned that this disturbing trend will continue.

I don’t expect our elected representatives to understand the complexities of raising a queer child in an extremely conservative and often unaccommodating state. I do, however, have a reasonable expectation that, at the very least, they would adhere to a basic code of ethics and do no harm.

Sure, politicizing issues of gender identity and sexual orientation is a cheap and effective way to signal one’s willingness to defend “the traditional family,” I won’t argue with that. However, it comes at a price. A price that is too high. The fundamental problem is that most politicians are playing with Monopoly money. They don’t see the consequences of their actions.

But I do.

I see it in the eyes of my oldest child. I see it in their friends. I see how unsafe they feel living in a state that doesn’t want them to be visible. I see how heavily it weighs on other parents of LGBTQ+ youth. I see the toll it takes on the mental health of already vulnerable children and the people who love them.

What I need lawmakers to understand is that this isn’t a game to us. We aren’t playing with Monopoly money. Our children’s very lives are at stake.

We don’t need Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, to sponsor a draft proposal that will prevent teachers from inviting, suggesting or encouraging a student to “reconsider or change” their gender identity, sexual orientation and political or social beliefs. Why? The short answer is; because that’s just not how it works.

My child was never “invited or encouraged” to identify as queer by a teacher, or by anyone for that matter. Rather, my child attended LDS church services every Sunday, went to girls camp each summer, read their scriptures and went to seminary. Every single outside influence in their life “invited, suggested and encouraged” them to be a heterosexual, cisgender believing member of the LDS church. And still, they are none of those things.

Teachers, parents and faith leaders cannot influence or invite another person to change their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Simply put, I am asking our elected representatives to please stop wasting precious time and resources on this type of legislation. There are far more efficient ways to address the issues surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity. A great place to start is by listening to families like ours and asking what we need in order to best support our LGBTQ+ children.

We need curiosity and conversations. We need allyship and representation. We need discourse and dialogue. We need empathy and understanding. We need someone who will speak up for us when we’re not in the room. We need safe, affirming environments where our kids don’t feel like they have to hide their true identity. We need funding for places like Encircle and other local non-profit organizations dedicated to providing services for LGBTQ+ youth and their families. We need access to gender affirming care. We need more QPR suicide prevention training and mental health resources.

I am asking our elected representatives to represent all Utah families. Consider this an invitation to walk a few steps in someone else’s shoes.

Jill Mortensen, alongside her child.

Jill Mortensen is a fierce and proud Mama Dragon. She has spent countless hours listening to, and believing, the stories of LGBTQ+ individuals and their families at Encircle St. George where she served as Advisory Board chair. Now serving on the Board of Directors for local nonprofit, Pride of Southern Utah, she strives to educate others through the power of story by openly sharing her family’s journey of fully embracing and celebrating their own queer child.

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