SALT LAKE CITY — In an emotional gathering marked by tears, hugs and handshakes, a bipartisan group of more than Utah 20 lawmakers and officials met Wednesday night to hear gay and transgender people share personal experiences with discrimination.
St. George Republican Sen. Steve Urquhart, one of two legislators hosting the event, called it an “educational activity” as lawmakers in Utah and other states debate gay and religious rights.
In addition to the roughly 250 people packed into the meeting room at the Capitol Wednesday night, two overflow rooms were filled to capacity, said Sen. Jim Dabakis, a Salt Lake City Democrat and the other host for the evening.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and state Auditor joined lawmakers at the meeting, where about a dozen people shared stories about fear and discrimination against their gender identity or orientation. Others told of family members and friends who hid their identities, committed suicide or left Utah for a more welcoming environment.
Merrie Smithson, 57, of Salt Lake City, told lawmakers about her 27-year-old son, who is gay.
“The problem is, he lives in California, because he doesn’t want to worry about losing his job or housing. As a mother, I want him to come home,” she said. “I hope you can help me by creating safe spaces for all people who live in the great state of Utah.”
Smithson and the other speakers made pleas to lawmakers to pass a proposed statewide anti-discrimination law.
The bill, which Urquhart is sponsoring, would bar discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation in housing and employment.
Candice Metzler, a 45-year-old from Cottonwood Heights, said the discrimination issue is an important one that could use legislative help.
Metzler told lawmakers of her experience as a transgendered person living in the Salt Lake City-area.
Soon after she made the decision to live as a woman, Metzler said she was fired from her job as a home inspector and became homeless for a time after she was repeatedly denied jobs she was qualified for.
“It soon became obvious that people were not going to look at my skills or my experience,” she said.
Sen. Luz Robles, a Salt Lake City Democrat, was one of several lawmakers who struggled to speak through tears after hearing the stories.
“In the state that I represent, and that I proudly call home, that your rights are not protected is heartbreaking. And I have to go to bed thinking I’m not doing enough,” Robles said. “Because I don’t think we’re doing enough as legislators to fight for your rights.”
In Utah, the simmering debate over gay rights erupted late last year when a federal judge overturned the state’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage.
More than 1,000 gay couples married in the state until the U.S. Supreme Court granted Utah’s request to halt the weddings in early January.
The case is pending in a federal appeals court, which is not expected to make a decision at least until Spring.
Republican leaders at the Legislature have opted to stifle this year any legislation dealing with gay or religious rights, citing fears it could affect the state’s defense of the law.
Wednesday’s meeting came two weeks after 13 protesters were arrested at the Capitol while calling for lawmakers to hear the bill.
Urquhart’s proposal has been before the Legislature about half a dozen times, but has traditionally been sponsored by Democrats. Last year was the first year a Republican pushed for it, and the bill made it further than ever before when it was approved by a Senate committee.
It died soon after in the Legislative process, but Urquhart has vowed to run the bill every year until it passes.
Urquhart, who represents a conservative district in southern Utah, said last year he had moved from opposing the bill to supporting it over the past few years.
He has repeatedly argued that the bill has nothing to do with same-sex marriage and has lobbied his colleagues, including Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, to allow the bill to be heard.
Niederhauser, a Sandy Republican, attended the meeting Wednesday, said hoped that discussions going forward have more respect, patience and civility.
“This is difficult. It’s difficult for me, it’s difficult for you,” he said. “I appreciate the courage and the openness with the dialogue we’ve had here tonight.”
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