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posted Friday, October 22, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 43
Salt Lake City: New center of LGBT activism? SGN interview with organizer Eric Ethington
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Salt Lake City: New center of LGBT activism? SGN interview with organizer Eric Ethington

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff writer

LGBT rights activists disrupted a televised debate between two Utah gubernatorial candidates on the evening of October 19.

The debate between incumbent Republican Gov. Gary Herbert and Democratic challenger Peter Corroon, currently mayor of Salt Lake County, took place at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Midway through the debate, eight protesters from the newly formed direct action group Justice Vanguard jumped up from their seats.

One activist yelled out, 'Governor Herbert, you have frequently pledged against a statewide non-discrimination policy, telling LGBT youth that they are second-class. Here are some that have heard your message, now what are you going to do about it?'

Then, one by one, seven other members of the group held up photos of Gay youth who had taken their own lives and shouted out the names of each of the victims.

Security reacted quickly to haul the protesters out of the room.

Herbert succeeded former governor Jon Huntsman when President Obama appointed Huntsman ambassador to China. Huntsman favored a statewide anti-discrimination law, while Herbert is opposed.

One of the Justice Vanguard activists, Eric Ethington, spoke to reporters after the protest.

'For too long these politicians have sat back on their heels and said, 'Oh, maybe in the future' or, 'no, we're not going to do it at all,' Ethington said. 'So, we're going to stand up and tell them what the citizens of their state want them to do.'

Ethington also organized the October 7 die-in in which some 4,000 people lay down on the pavement in Salt Lake City's Temple Square to protest remarks made by a Mormon church official calling Gays immoral and claiming that sexual orientation is a choice.

Ethington spoke recently with SGN about the Temple Square action and LGBT rights movement in Utah.

The protest was called in response to a sermon by Mormon Elder Boyd Packer, the president of his church's Quorum of Twelve Apostles, and the heir-apparent of Mormon leader Thomas Monson.

Packer told a church conference that God intended all people to be straight and to enter one-man/one-woman marriages.

The public outcry was so great that Packer subsequently reworded his statement on sexual orientation, and the church issued a statement explicitly denying it approved of anti-Gay discrimination or bullying.

Asked if he saw this as a victory for activists, Ethington replied 'Yes and no. The church is beautiful at shadow games.'

Ethington told SGN it was significant that the church's most senior apostle had to reword his statement, but he was skeptical of the church letter on Gay rights.

'The church's statement said everything and yet it said nothing,' he said. 'It strongly condemned bullying. That was fantastic. I loved that part.'

'The problem,' Ethington continued, 'is that Packer's sermon was broadcast all over the church - to every ward everywhere in the world. This letter - it's much more positive - but it will only be heard by a fraction of that.'

'We want it to be sent to every ward to be read from the pulpit,' he concluded.

Ethington vowed to 'keep the pressure going.'

'You apply that much pressure, you get that much reaction,' he said.

Asked what form the 'pressure' would take - street actions, lobbying, private meetings with church elders - Ethington replied, 'All of the above. We need to keep up the visible pressure plus having ongoing dialog with legislators and with church leaders.'

While he wants to focus on direct action, Ethington says he is constantly in touch with other activists who have talks with church officials.

'Those who have been involved [in those discussions] got a glimpse into what's really on the church's mind,' Ethington said.

Asked what that might be, Ethington shot back 'Their public image.'

'It's their top priority,' he explained. 'That was the primary factor in getting them to support the Salt Lake City non-discrimination ordinance.'

Ethington knows the Mormon church from personal experience.

'I was married in the Temple at one point,' he tells SGN. 'But there came a day I could no longer continue lying to myself.'

He became an activist three years ago in response to the Mormon church's intervention in California's Prop 8 campaign.

'I was just out,' he tells SGN. 'I was so furious at what the church was doing with Prop 8. So I wrote a letter to the editor and a friend asked me to read it at a rally. And I guess I just kept going&.'

Ethington says he is optimistic about the future of LGBT rights in Utah.

'I see a lot of possibilities - non-discrimination ordinances, housing and workplace protections,' Ethington says. 'I think we can get some things passed in the next year or two.'

'We have a very strong coalition in the state legislature. Very strong allies in the senate,' he explains. 'It tends to be mainly Democrats - but Sen. Howard Stevenson, he's a very strong Republican ally.'

Ethington warns that marriage equality will be much more of a challenge to Utah activists because of the special place of one-man/one-woman marriage in Mormon theology.

'The exact language the church uses is they're OK with anti-discrimination 'as long as it does not do violence to the institution of marriage,' Ethington explains.

'The Mormon Church controls 98% of the legislators and they will do anything the church tells them to do, so we have to put on the pressure to support basic protections.'

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