Fighting for Utah LGBT rights involves more than just marriage

Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, works in her office October of 2012 in downtown Salt Lake City.

Story and photo by JAKE GORDON

Fighting for equal rights in behalf of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community isn’t just about marriage — it is much more complex than that.

Brandie Balken, executive director for Equality Utah, expressed frustration that the public views gay marriage as the main issue.

“When we look at what the equality movement is and what our role in the equality movement is, we are really looking at the beginning of a person’s life all the way through the end of a person’s life,” Balken said in a talk to reporting students at the University of Utah on Sept. 13, 2012. “And I mention that because I think in the popular dialogue today, all we hear about is marriage and I have to tell you that there is so much more that needs to be done.”

The LGBT community has to fight hard for the same human rights that straight people generally take for granted. Rights like visiting loved ones in the hospital, transferring health and retirement benefits to a partner and being recognized as a non-biological parent are some things that Balken has had to fight for with the costly help of a lawyer.

“To secure access to your partner (in a hospital), even if you have been married in another state, you have to get a designated beneficiary contract and you need to establish a will and a trust if property is included,” Balken said. “My partner and I have spent literally almost $10,000 with our attorney preparing contracts to protect our home, to protect our life insurance investments and to protect as best we can our child to make sure that she is cared for.”

Tooele County Justice Court Judge John Mack Dow, who practiced law for 21 years prior to being named judge, talked about the differences between rights for straight and gay relationships.

“If there is a husband and a wife then the rights are transferred automatically in the relationship,” Dow said. “But if it is a homosexual partnership then they have to get the necessary paperwork and even that paperwork can be challenged in court by other family members.”

Balken has forked over the money to work with lawyers to become the medical decision-maker for her partner. When going on trips, Balken makes sure that she packs her paperwork and legal documents, just in case something does happen.

Niki Corpron, a registered nurse at Intermountain Healthcare hospital in Murray, said the hospital has strict policies regarding who can or can’t visit during an emergency.

“If someone is brought in by an ambulance and they have a homosexual partner then they aren’t allowed in to visit without the appropriate paperwork,” Corpron said. “If the partner doesn’t have their papers then they have to contact the family and receive permission from them.”

Balken is not only fighting for herself and her own family, but as executive director for Equality Utah she also is working for equitable rights for all in the state. Balken said Equality Utah was founded in 2001 as a political action committee, or PAC. The purpose of a PAC is to help people get elected into office. Equality Utah also fights legislation that seeks to disallow equal rights to gays.

She said that in the nation marriage is basically a state-by-state determination. Some states allow marriage, some states allow civil unions and some states, like Utah for one, prohibits any or all marriages or civil unions. Therefore, in Utah, equal rights are an uphill battle for Equality Utah and the LGBT community.

One piece of legislation Balken mentioned was a constitutional amendment that passed in 2004 penned by Rep. LaVar Christensen (R-Draper), which was called Amendment 3.

“This amendment to the constitution basically says marriage equality is prohibited, civil unions are prohibited, and any other contractual agreements with substantially equivalent benefits are prohibited,” Balken said. “That went before our legislature, was signed by our governor and put to the ballot in 2004 and more than two-thirds of the population of Utah approved that measure. So, currently in the state of Utah, marriage equality is banned in the constitution as are civil unions.”

Balken also knows that it takes multiple approaches to educate the public about equal rights.

“You have to educate the population about the issues, about the language, and about the implications of unequal policy,” she said. “You have to work with elected officials who are seated to understand the importance of equitable policy and to work with them to change that policy.”

Equality Utah works to get more fair-minded people in office, from the school board all the way up to the state house, to sustain achievable cultural change.

Although it is a long road to travel for equal rights, Equality Utah has had some success in passing some legislation. Balken said the organization passed in 2007 a bullying and hazing statute and a hate crimes prevention law.

“Those may seem like small things,” she said, “but . . . prevention of hate crimes or at least acknowledgement of hate crimes as well as prevention of bullying and hazing behaviors is crucially important.”

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