Prop 8 inspires new army of Utah activists

Post-election push » Groups enlist new soldiers in the battle for gay rights.
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Crushed by the defeat of same-sex marriage in California, Jacob Whipple fired off text messages to everyone he knew the day after Election Day. Two nights later, more than 3,000 people joined him at a rally outside of Salt Lake City's Temple Square.

"It was exhilarating," says first-time organizer Whipple.

The 29-year-old is part of a national phenomenon Proposition 8 backers likely didn't see coming. The ballot measure, eliminating the right of gay couples to marry in California, succeeded, but it also ignited a furor among gay-rights supporters, forging and fortifying a new generation of activists who could fuel the movement for years to come.

"People thought that Prop 8 would fail, considering it was in California, which most people think of as this very liberal, very pro-gay state," says Doug Jennings, the Utah Pride Center's media coordinator. "It moved people to say, 'What's wrong with our organizations right now? What are they not doing that we can do?' "

Whipple staged a protest. A week later, so did University of Utah student Elaine Ball: About 2,000 people rallied at Salt Lake City Hall, where speaker Jeff Key declared Utah's capital "ground zero" in post-Prop 8 activism.

As headquarters of the LDS Church, which prodded its members to give substantial time and cash to prop up Prop 8, Utah has drawn a national backlash, including calls to boycott the Beehive State.

"When [Prop 8 passed], I realized that, yes, for years, people have been voting to take away our rights," says Whipple, who plans to marry his boyfriend, Drew Cloud, in California this April, even though the ceremony now will not be legally recognized. "If no one in Utah was going to stand up and fight for change, I was going to be a big part of it."

But the east Millcreek resident wasn't alone. By mid-December, Whipple had to convene an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) town-hall meeting so the community could work to coordinate all of the new political efforts. Many new activists were cultivating grass-roots groups on the social-networking Web site Facebook.

Whipple launched the All for One Initiative and sponsored a Christmas toy drive for Primary Children's Medical Center.

Ball, a Salt Lake City resident, and Eric Ethington, of Murray, hatched Pride in Your Community, with the goal of boosting awareness of LGBT issues through service. Ball and Ethington, both 24, are bisexual.

In December, they shuttled 20 people to Cottonwood Heights during a snowstorm to shovel driveways and sidewalks. Last week, Ball and Ethington baked pumpkin bread to deliver to Republican Sen. Chris Buttars and his neighbors in West Jordan.

"We really want to get out to those [conservative] districts to show there are people who care [about gay rights] in their community," says Ball, who is married and wants "everyone" to have that right.

Michael Mueller, a 34-year old straight and married Salt Laker, became an organizer the month before Prop 8 passed, throwing a benefit for the "no" campaign. He launched Utahns for Marriage Equality, drawing more than 1,000 members on Facebook.

"The thought of 16,000 marriages in California being rescinded," Mueller says, "struck me not as a gay-rights issue, but as a human-rights issue."

Earlier this month, he gathered 60 people in view of Delicate Arch in southeastern Utah for a rally in support of marriage and other legal protections for same-sex couples. He wanted to cast the iconic, red-rock span as a symbol for all Utahns -- not just the straight ones.

Established advocates have benefited from a post-Prop 8 push, too.

Equality Utah crafted the Common Ground Initiative, a collection of bills that would extend some legal protections to same-sex couples, such as hospital visitation and probate rights. The LDS Church has said it does "not oppose" such rights, but it has not responded to a request to endorse the initiative itself or the particular bills.

More than 3,000 people have signed a petition backing the effort. Seventy percent of them are brand-new names to Equality Utah's database, said executive director Mike Thompson.

"That's a significant increase," he says. "We're interested, ourselves, to see if this kind of new wave of activism is going to translate into focused efforts during the legislative session."

Already, there are indications that LGBT Utahns and their straight allies could lobby Capitol Hill in greater numbers this year. The session starts Jan. 26. Last week, close to 120 people showed up for Equality Utah's "citizen lobbyist" training -- double the usual number.

Nikki Boyer, chairwoman of Utah's Stonewall Democrats and a lesbian involved in the movement for more than 40 years, compares the post-Prop 8 surge to earlier rallying points for the LGBT community, including the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and Anita Bryant's drive for anti-gay legislation in the 1970s.

"What's different with this [burst in activism] is now there are organizations and people in place who can carry on the message," Boyer says.

For the 66-year-old, it was inspiring to look over the crowd at the Temple Square rally and see so many young faces.

"I just hope it keeps up," she says. "I would like to see -- in my lifetime -- our civil rights given to us."

March on Utah's Capitol

Jacob Whipple has planned his second rally -- a march from Salt Lake City Hall to Capitol Hill.

When » Saturday at 2 p.m.

Where » 450 S. State St.

What » A rally to urge Utah legislators to support Equality Utah's Common Ground Initiative.