Gays unite at 'town hall' event

Civil rights » Disparate members of the community are energized by the Prop 8 setback.
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Stung by California's passage of Proposition 8, Utah's gay and transgender community is brainstorming on how to best be seen and heard -- and how to secure social justice.

Small crews have taken to the streets to shovel sidewalks and hand out equality pamphlets. The blogosphere brims with grass roots energy to boost awareness. And on Wednesday, Utah Pride Center will film testimonials, YouTube-style, to send to state lawmakers as the Legislature looms.

This and plenty more was discussed Sunday as more than 100 people crammed the Tower Theater for a gay town hall, of sorts, which featured a who's who of representatives for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

"This country is having a conversation just like we're having today," pride center executive director Valerie Larabee told a rapt audience determined to diversify the effort to quash discrimination. "What defines us is we are living under the Constitution. We are all equal."

The forum was a rare opportunity for virtually every gay rights group, from Equality Utah and the Log Cabin Republicans to the Queer People of Color Network, to collaborate and solicit new ideas. The top priority: Equality Utah's Common Ground initiative, a collection of six bills aimed at the 2009 legislative session that would enhance legal protections offered to LGBT Utahns.

"Proposition 8 broke our hearts, but it did not end our fight," announced Todd Hess, co-chairman of Utah's Human Rights Campaign steering committee.

Rep. Christine Johnson, an openly gay Democrat from Salt Lake City, called it inspiring to see "this many people … who actually give a damn." And she hopes the momentum translates into action at the upcoming Legislature.

"If you are intimidated to come up to the hill, if you think it's a big deal to talk to a legislator, it's really not," Johnson said.

On Sunday morning, the lawmaker organized a food drive on the corner of 9th and 9th. The donations will benefit the Crossroads and Utah Aids Foundation food pantries.

Many in attendance praised activist Jacob Whipple for organizing the town hall. But some dissension emerged. The group was challenged to synchronize its various phone trees, e-mail lists and online petitions. One resident noted the community can't even agree on its name -- is it gay or queer -- saying the latter is gaining popularity with youth but often is deemed inappropriate. And Marisol Garza, a Salt Lake City resident, argued the community doesn't do enough outreach to people of color.

"Were you at the immigration rallies?" she asked. "It's not just about Prop 8. We don't have a safe job to go make minimum wage. We don't have health care."

Many on the panel pledged to work harder to include minorities.

The panel raised the issue of how to avoid feeling ostracized as openly gay members of a faith community. And it introduced TransAction, a new group working to educate people about major challenges affecting Utah's transgender community.

But just opening a dialogue like this one -- Whipple wants to hold one every quarter -- is valuable, according to Park City's Mark Worthen.

"I want to learn," he said. "I don't want to be prejudiced."

Stamping out discrimination

PUtah Pride Center is hosting an event at 7 p.m. Wednesday to film anyone interested in recording a testimonial. The YouTube-style videos will be sent to Utah lawmakers prior to next month's legislative session. The pride center is located at 355 N. 300 West.