Blue Bubble, Red Sea

Salt Lake City Elects Gay Mayor, While Utah Exports Anti-Gay Hate

The capital of Utah makes history, but the state’s record on LGBT issues, ad that of the Mormon church, is a lot spottier.

11.22.15 5:01 AM ET

Salt Lake City made history this month by electing Utah’s first openly gay mayor, whose victory was finally certified last week. Outside the liberal capital city, however, the conservative state has become a leading exporter of anti-gay legislation, policies—and misdirection.

To be sure, the election of Jackie Biskupski as mayor was indeed a milestone. Biskupski served for 13 years in the Utah House of Representatives, first elected in 1998 despite an avalanche of hateful personal and anti-gay attacks. As with many gay politicians, part of her achievement was that her sexual orientation was not a central issue in the mayoral campaign: The Biskupski campaign website devotes more words to “dog issues” than LGBT ones.

Moreover, Biskupski’s opponent, incumbent Ralph Becker, has also been a staunch LGBT ally—notably, the advocacy group Equality Utah endorsed both candidates in the race. Despite its status as, essentially, the holy city of Mormonism, Salt Lake City is also a major American city with a diverse population that is only about 40 percent Mormon. Coastal elites may joke about Salt Lake City, but their stereotypes are more backward than the city is.

However, Salt Lake City remains a blue oasis in a red state. In this regard, it is not unique: Atlanta, Denver, Indianapolis, and many other cities are similarly cosmopolitan outposts in otherwise red or purple states. And that has become part of the problem, as the Religious Right increasingly finds ways to work around liberal enclaves and erode protections for women and sexual and gender minorities.

Tactic No. 1: pre-emption clauses. Republican state legislatures have begun to do end-runs around Democrat-led city councils by passing state laws that pre-empt local anti-discrimination provisions. Arkansas, for example, passed just such a law last February that prohibits any city from protecting a class of people not protected by state law.

Guess who fits that definition?

The first such “Don’t Save the Gays” law was Colorado’s, passed in 1992 and found unconstitutional in 1996, because it singled out gay people for disadvantage. So the new crop of laws don’t mention LGBT people specifically… but gay and trans people just happen to be the only ones covered by them.

As part of its much-vaunted “Utah Compromise” this past summer, the state passed a similar provision. Its nondiscrimination bill, sponsored by Republicans, supported by mainstream LGBT advocates, and passed by a bipartisan majority, indeed protected LGBT people from employment and housing discrimination. But it had broad exemptions for “religiously affiliated” organizations of any kind. And then the law specifies that it “supersedes and preempts any ordinance, regulation, standard, or other legal action by a local government entity, a state entity, or the governing body of a political subdivision that relates to the prohibition of discrimination in employment.”

In other words, if Salt Lake City were to pass an employment nondiscrimination bill that didn’t let Mormon Church-owned malls or Catholic Church-affiliated universities fire employees for being gay, the Utah law would nullify it.

This is why many commentators (including this one) were less than enthusiastic about the Utah Compromise. It provided a massive religious exemption and then denied cities like Salt Lake City the ability to protect people more.

Supporters say those provisions were needed to get the support of the LDS Church, which in what was billed as a magnanimous evolution in church doctrine, indeed supported the bill. Certainly that is a welcome change from the church’s financial support of California’s Proposition 8, which may have enabled the anti-gay referendum to win back in 2008.

Now, however, Utah-style bills are popping up all over the country. What was supposed to be a special case to win Mormon support has become the new normal, and so not just churches and schools but hospitals and universities as well are winning unprecedented exemptions from the laws the rest of us have to follow.

We’ve already seen the results. Doctors have refused to treat the children of same-sex parents, citing religious beliefs. Pharmacists have refused to fill birth control prescriptions. And while the Utah law is only about housing and employment, its broad religious exemption has set a dangerous precedent that is already being replicated elsewhere.

Mayor Biskupski, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this article. A spokesman said only that “Mayor-elect Biskupski has been a bridge builder in Utah throughout her career and will continue that as mayor. Salt Lake City faces tough issues and the only way to address them in a lasting way is to include all people in the discussions.”

Those people, of course, include the LDS Church, which has been giving with one hand and taking with the other when it comes to LGBT people.

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On the one hand, yes, the LDS Church is not funding Prop 8-style measures anymore, has softened its rhetoric in LGBT people, and has spoken of the need for compromise.

On the other hand, the church recently announced that it would not allow the children of same-sex parents to be church members, an action which prompted thousands of courageous Mormons to leave the church this past week. (Biskupski issued a statement saying, “Our community has also come so far in the last year to bridge the gaps between us, that this new policy feels confusing to many.”)

Influential leaders of the LDS Church also just hosted the World Congress of Families—the international network responsible for Russia’s anti-gay laws—in Salt Lake City just last month

So what’s going on? Is the LDS Church really evolving on LGBT equality, or is it launching a charm offensive in public while privately making things worse?

Perhaps the answer is both—some leaders, like Elder Dallin Oaks, have indeed made conciliatory gestures, while others, like Elder Russell Ballard, who spoke at the World Congress, have moved in the opposite direction. Perhaps it’s some of each: fits and starts of progress, accompanied by crackdowns on liberals like the feminist Mormon groups Ordain Women and Women Advocating for Voice & Equality.

Behind the authentically moving sight of a lesbian mayor of Salt Lake City, then, is a far more complex picture. Whether Utah and the LDS Church are moving backward or forward is, to a large extent, a matter of interpretation. That makes life difficult for figures like Biskupski, who have to sit around the table with people who claim they are interested in compromise, but who also think her own child is ineligible for salvation. It’s hard to be a “bridge builder” when the bridge is built on quicksand.