Although the 18-day period during which Utah allowed same-sex marriages has ended, observers say the visibility of gay couples marrying there made an indelible impression on one of the nation’s most conservative states.
Utah’s flirtation with marriage equality began on Dec. 20 when a district court ruled in favor of marriage, allowing more than 1,300 same-sex couples to marry in the state before the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay on the weddings pending appeal of the litigation.
Gov. Gary Herbert has said the state won’t recognize the same-sex marriages, but the federal government had pledged to view them as legitimate, and the events have shaken the state government, the view of state residents and even the Mormon Church.
Michael Ferguson, who wed his partner in Salt Lake City on Dec. 20 and became one-half of the first same-sex couple to marry in Utah, saw a sharp transition in support for marriage equality on social media in just two days of having marriage equality in Utah.
“I saw people who were posting some pretty horrible things about bestiality and pedophilia, and the slippery slope of world corruption, that’s going to ensue with same-sex marriages being solemnized in Utah,” Ferguson said. “Within two days of social dialogue, those same people were apologizing, and saying, ‘I can see that I was wrong and speaking from a place of ignorance, and I’m going to keep a more open-minded position in this conversation.'”
Mark Lawrence, director of the Utah-based Restore Our Humanity and the individual behind the marriage equality lawsuit, also noticed a distinct change in public opinion as the weddings took place.
“So many more people are, ‘OK, this is going to happen,” Lawrence said. “They’re coming around. They still may not agree with it, they still may not be happy with it, but I don’t think they see it anymore as the sky is falling and this is going to be the destruction of society.”
Evidence that attitudes have shifted on marriage equality in Utah is more than just anecdotal. Two new polls reveal significant growth in support for same-sex marriage in the state.
A new consumer poll made public on Sunday reveals that for the first time ever, a bare majority of Utah residents — 51.3 percent — support marriage rights for gay couples. In comparison, 43.7 percent oppose legal relationship recognition.
David Baker, a Mormon and gay D.C. activist, ran the poll over the course of last week using Google’s digital platform system, which is deemed an accurate method of polling by statisticians.
Baker said he “absolutely” believes the events in Utah in the past few weeks — especially Herbert’s decision not to recognize the marriages performed in the state — has had an impact on the perception of marriage equality in the state.
“I feel that Gov. Herbert’s decision to continue to put the rights of LGBT couples, who are legally married in the state of Utah, in a legal limbo has caused Utahns to face this issue that they may not have thought of before in the same context of legal rights for LGBT couples,” Baker said.
The results of Baker’s latest poll are along the lines of a poll published Tuesday by the Salt Lake Tribune that found Utah residents are now evenly split on whether same-sex couples in Utah should be allowed to marry — 48 percent were for it and 48 percent against it — and nearly three-fourths said same-sex couples should be allowed to have civil unions.
It’s hard to say that new support for marriage equality in Utah is the result of people seeing firsthand same-sex marriages happening in the state because no other data exists immediately before the weddings took place. However, the findings assert strong support for gay nuptials never before seen in the state.
Perhaps the most visible demonstration of this support for same-sex marriage came on Friday — coincidentally the day U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Obama administration would recognize the same-sex marriages — when an estimated 1,500 people rallied in Salt Lake City to urge Herbert to drop his appeal before the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Among the speakers was a 12-year-old boy, Riley Hackford-Peer, who said seeing his lesbian moms being able to marry in Utah was the second-happiest day of his life — right after the birth of his younger brother — and “felt like fireworks bursting in my heart.”
“Some people do not believe that I’m from a loving family because my moms are gay; they are wrong,” Riley said to applause. “I love my moms, and my moms love me and my brother, unconditionally.”
Troy Williams, a Salt Lake City gay activist and one of the organizers of the rally, said the event was intended to build off online petitions at Moveon.org calling on Herbert to let the court ruling stand in favor of marriage equality in Utah. At the time of the rally, the petitions had a total of 58,000 signatures.
“There’s so much excitement and energy right now,” Williams said. “Utah’s LGBT community is on fire and we are united like I have never seen before. There is such a sense of momentum and it was just happy coincidence that Friday morning Eric Holder announced the federal government would be acknowledging our marriages.”
Another institution showing signs of change — albeit subtle — is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is headquartered in Utah and nearly six years ago led the fight against same-sex marriage when California’s Proposition 8 came on the ballot.
In a statement the church issued on Friday, it reaffirmed its opposition to same-sex marriage, warning church officers not to employ “their ecclesiastical authority to perform marriages between two people of the same sex” and forbidding the use of church property for same-sex marriages.
Still, a portion of the statement advises members of the church to treat everyone with respect.
“While these matters will continue to evolve, we affirm that those who avail themselves of laws or court rulings authorizing same-sex marriage should not be treated disrespectfully,” the statement says. “The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us to love and treat all people with kindness and civility — even when we disagree.”
The words came the day after news broke that the Mormon Church wouldn’t file a friend-of-the-court brief in the Utah case seeking marriage equality now before the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals — a change in trajectory for the church after it joined the religious right in making filings before the U.S. Supreme Court when it considered Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act.
Spencer Clark, executive director of Mormons for Equality, said the statement is notable because it could have come out when same-sex marriages started advancing throughout the country, but instead is happening now.
“But given the rapid spread of civil marriage equality over the past couple years it’s evident that the church has recognized that this is something that is not going away and with which they will have to co-exist,” Clark said. “The fact that this letter came out now, and not in 2001 or even 2004, is a tacit admission that the climate has incontrovertibly changed and that we as Mormons must confront reality.”
And there’s optimism going forward about the lawsuit. It’s pending before the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has pledged to consider the case on an expedited basis and is expected to render a decision this spring.
J. Seth Anderson, the other-half of the first gay couple married in Utah, said the short-lived nature of marriage equality in Utah demonstrates that the issue needs to be at the federal level and not left to the states.
“The states cannot be trusted to treat fairly, equally and lawfully their gay and lesbian citizens,” Anderson said. “There’s no statute in Utah law that allows the governor to select a group of marriage licenses and just declare them not recognized. It places Utah at the center of a very important national debate, and shows, I think, Utah digging its heels into keeping its position as a far right-wing rogue theocracy.”
The lawsuit may be the first to reach the U.S. Supreme Court among others seeking the court to find a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.
But Lawrence said he’s hoping the case ends with the Tenth Circuit ruling — with no appeal by the state of Utah to the Supreme Court — so that gay couples in Utah can continue marrying yet again as soon as possible.
“There are many people who want to this to go to SCOTUS, and if it does, we feel very strongly if we go to the Supreme Court this is going to be the end-all for the whole country,” Lawrence said. “That would be great, but I don’t want to keep our people in limbo for that long.”