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Utah gays say laws often exclude them

About 200 Utahns gathered Friday to discuss issues they care - and sometimes worry - about: Keeping their jobs, avoiding harassment, getting benefits for their partners, retaining child custody and visitation rights when their relationships dissolve.

The fact that most of them were gay or lesbian seemed to add urgency to the discussion because, they said, so many laws don't include them.The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and The Gay and Lesbian Law Alliance sponsored the town meeting, which was billed as a "legislative and political perspective," in support of the new Utah Stonewall Center, which will be a resource for gays and lesbians. Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, and Kathryn Kendall, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, were the featured speakers.

They spent most of the 90-minute program, held in the packed Moot Courtroom at the University of Utah College of Law, offering their best guesses of what the future holds politically on a number of topics.

At times they joked or commiserated with each other. The meeting was devoid of "antiestablishment" outbreaks. But the two women made it clear that gays and lesbians have concerns that need to be addressed.

Birch said people need to use "some common sense from time to time" when lobbying for rights and not "lead with the outrageous."

Asked about the repeal of the one-month-old Salt Lake City ordinance to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual preference, Birch said the entire nation is going through a transformation. While "the last place you would look for civil rights protection is corporate America," nearly half of the Fortune 500 companies now offer benefits or protection for gays and lesbians. And she said that Utah has "the makings of the most magnificent institutions, but you must build them."

Same-sex marriages came up several times. Kendall said when it was first proposed, she wasn't sure she thought gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry. But no "historic civil rights struggle" ever begins when everyone's ready. "Nobody's ever ready. Change happens because you peg the goal up here," indicating a place above her head.

"Huge segments of (gays and lesbians) live lives very much like their non-gay counterparts," Kendall said. "I promise you your life is going to get a lot better."

While acknowledging that the "religious right" has been a potent force against pro-gay and lesbian policy, Birch said that "most Christians in this country do not want to see their sons and daughters hurt." Groups like the Christian Coalition and Eagle Forum, she asserted, see gay issues as a "cash cow" that helps their fund raising. "They lost communism, they needed us."

She said only about a third of Americans are "passionately anti-gay," while another third are "persuadable."

Birch also said spirituality is important to many who are gay or lesbian.

The human face of the gay and lesbian - the mother, the brother, the co-worker and friend about whom people care - is "still the most powerful tool we have," according to Kendall.

Birch praised Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, for being one of only two senators who has been willing to support the nomination of James Hormel, who is gay, as ambassador to Luxembourg. "Thank him for his leadership. . . . He's being brave and noble and has integrity on this."

The women also pointed out that there are knowledgeable, experienced attorneys available throughout the country to help gays and lesbians protect their legal rights in terms of employment, estate planning, family law and in other ways.

The military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy drew harsh criticism. That policy, from the gay and lesbian viewpoint, is "worse now than before Clinton tinkered with it," Kendall said.

Birch believes the policy will stay, at least for a while. "It's worse in some ways now because it's more out there and in the air. No one used to think much about (sexual preference) and now they think about it all the time. Out-and-out witch hunts are going on in this country."

President Clinton "thought erroneously that this compromise would be better. I know that President Clinton is ashamed of this policy."