IVINS– A colorful crowd of 400 gathered Saturday for a fundraising soirée at Kayenta’s Coyote Gulch Art Village, in the Southwestern-themed community of Kayenta in Ivins.
The feature of the event was Equality Utah (see Ed. note) and the event called for an Equality Evolution. The $75 per person banquet supported Southern Utah’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.
Smiles, hugs and love were in abundance with many wearing multicolored garb, gregarious wigs, tie-dye, T-shirts silkscreened with images of Obama, western wear and even drag. The invitation suggested costume wear reminiscent of equality eras and the get-ups served to blur lines of recognition of “type” that those in attendance might be identified by.
In individual interviews, the emphatic message was repeatedly the rhetorical question, “why do we have to label people?” But in the program, the messages proposed a concerted action to ensure the LGBT community is identified as a legally protected class.
The individual and the message
Allie Kiem and Andi Duncan moved to Southern Utah in February 2011 from Michigan. Their experience has been good and bad, they said, and is representative of many testimonials.
“It’s run more by a religion than by people,” Duncan said of Utah.
“When we went to the Santa Clara market, it seemed like people were staring at us, like we were … ” Kiem said, voice trailing off.
“I was uncomfortable,” Duncan said.
Kiem said they were told to give it two years, but she is not hopeful. Duncan said for her it is lightening up. The women said that there is no community for them, no place to hang out with like-minded people. They contrasted it to Michigan, where there were campgrounds, bars, places to meet people, and a pride fest. They said the nearest pride fest to their home here was one they had attended in Las Vegas, which was expensive.
Sheryl Haley moved to Southern Utah from Anaheim, Calif.
“This (event) is important because Utah is a utopia of ignorance,” Haley said. “I believe it’s a world of itself because of the Mormon religion. It’s a state controlled by religion.”
“(I am here) to support the fact that I am gay and this does a lot for the gay community,” Cindy Tolboe said, “and I was raised and born Mormon!”
Matty Jacobson came with his mom, he said, because his would-be husband – except for the fact that Utah does not recognize gay marriage – was working.
“I support equality,” Jacobson said, “and it’s a chance to wear a costume!”
Another, who said he is the father of “four daughters, one who is bi and one who is trans,” had been working as a volunteer for two days in support of the event.
Karen Sharkey, of Dammeron Valley, said she came because she believes in love, kindness, sincerity and equality for all people.
“I’ve had family and friends of other persuasion (any of the LGBT community, she later clarified) and I’ve seen beatings and violence and I don’t understand it.” Sharkey said, “Why should I have a label that says I’m heterosexual?”
Being isolated for being LGBT labeled was a common complaint.
The organization and the message
Brandie Balken inspired the guests with her message, “Our Evolution and Our Promise,” emphasizing that the community deserves to live free from discrimination, to live to protect the ones we love, to secure a fair and just Utah.
Her call to action seeks identification for people of the LGBT community as a distinct class.
Balken revisited progress the Equality Utah organization has made since last year’s Equality Utah event.
“One of our first steps was billboards,” Balken said, “one in Cedar City and one in St. George;” each placard thrusts the pithy proposition: LGBT Let’s Talk Equality.
Balken gave an anecdote of a young boy in Panguitch, driving in a car with his mother to Wal-Mart, seeing the billboard and realizing, “I am not alone.”
Additionally, she said that 15 ordinances have passed across the state that prevent discrimination in housing and employment, the most recent and local in Springdale, an intimate community at the entrance to Zion National Park.
“We are working with booths at expos,” Balken said, mentioning the recent Home & Garden Show in St. George as well as the weekend’s What Women Want expo. And she said the group distributes “frequently asked” flyers for “that kid who has questions, and to educate.”
Ongoing, Balken said Equality Utah works on policy through elected officials:
“We do advocacy … laws affect people,” she said, “ … we have to get people in office that legislate equality and if the people in office won’t, we have to change the faces.”
“Faces” in attendance hoping to be seated in Utah’s government in the upcoming elections included Chris White, D, running for Washington County Commissioner, Geoffrey Chestnut, D, running for state senator in District 72, and Brent Holloway, D, running for the new state house District 62.
Holloway is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; he said, “I support the same anti-discrimination policy that my faith puts out.”
Holloway also said he was greatly disappointed in the handling of Senate Bill 51, the Statewide Antidiscrimination Bill, which failed to pass in March of this year. He is a realtor, and he said that the National Association of Realtors recently added sexual orientation to its list of seven or eight nondiscrimination classes. “Our state is not keeping up with professions,” he said.
“We are here to build community,” Balken said, “and to honor … extraordinary human beings.” There were three honored guests at the banquet: Dr. Diane Bernard, the University of Utah/St. George HIV Clinic Staff and George Stoddard.
Dr. Diane Bernard is an activist who chose to retire here in Utah. She supports and works with Claudia Bradshaw at the PFLAG St. George Chapter, serving parents, families and friends of and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Persons. Melynda Thorpe Burt, media coordinator for the evening’s event, said that PFLAG identifies college students in the LGBT community who need money to complete college, students who have been compromised financially for “coming out.” Burt said that a lot of times these students are ostracized by family when they come out and that PFLAG helps them find housing and scholarship money.
The University of Utah/St. George HIV Clinic, established through the University of Utah’s Tri-State HIV/Aids Task Force, visits St. George at the Doctor’s Volunteer Clinic at 1036 E Riverside Drive on the second Saturday of every month. Dr. Kristen Ries, professor emeritus of internal medicine and infectious diseases at the University of Utah, is founder of the HIV task force. Representing the clinic at the event, Reis said that the clinic sees 20-30 patients a day, is given a social worker and an advocate, and said that “U of U allows it to be a cost center, not a profit center.” Credit for making the program possible was given to Equality Utah, Southwest Utah Health Department and University of Utah.
In January 1996, George Stoddard’s daughter died of AIDS. His tender testimony was first played on large video screens throughout the dining area, as had other testimonies throughout the evening. He said that during that time, his family received support, a large part of it coming from the gay community. He said that at some point before his daughter died, he realized that he was now part of this (the LGBT) community.
In Stoddard’s personal address to the gathering, he said that (Viktor) Frankl said our core drive as humans is for meaning. Stoddard drew analogy between Frankl’s sense of meaning coming from the “death camps” (of the Nazi era) and his own experience with his daughter’s death. Stoddard is an activist and supporter of the LGBT community in Southern Utah.
Taking cues from public faces of the past
The program concluded with three vignettes from actors representing Susan B. Anthony, Harvey Milk and Barney Frank.
The Milk character repeatedly cried out “I’m ready to recruit you.” He related a day in 1977 when homosexuality hit front and center as a topic of media:
“Within days everyone was talking about homosexuality, good or bad,” the Milk actor said. “Once you have the dialogue started you know you can break down prejudice.”
The Milk actor said “today the black community is not judged by its friends but by its black leaders, .… the leaders we need must be independent and unbought.”
“It’s time we have legislators who are gay and are proud of it,” he said.
Two pieces of art painted for and donated to the event for the auction were local artist Jeff Ham’s Walt Whitman, which sold for $5,100, and a composite piece with segments painted by several artists, entitled Bloom, which sold for $4,200.
There were many donations for the silent auction from local businesses. A photo booth was available at the party, which generated some funds, as did a portion of the ticket price for the event. Private donations were called for during the dinner.
Net proceeds are not available as this story goes to publication, but Burt said that the organizers are very excited to have exceeded their goals, that their goals were to exceed funds raised last year (the first Equality Utah banquet in Southern Utah had a turnout of 270 guests).
Waving the rainbow flags
As the guests were invited to rise for applause at the close of the program, 400 small hand painted flags were pulled from the table centerpieces, with a collective flag waving and cheering as the program concluded with the Milk character’s cry:
“I’m here to recruit you and you and you – I think we’re winning the fight!”
Ed. note: According to its website, Equality Utah is comprised of three organizations sharing a single vision and mission: Equality Utah, a IRS 501 c (4) organization, the state’s largest LGBT and civil rights organization; Equality Utah Foundation, a IRS 501 c (3) organization, which educates the LGBT community and the public-at-large; and Equality Utah Political Action Committee, an IRS 527 organization, which endorses and supports candidates and similar efforts for elected officials in state and local government.
Email: [email protected]
Copyright 2012 St. George News.