Locals + Culture

Perhaps you’ve seen the little blue ‘n’ yellow equal sign we’ve all come to know so well smacked on the bumpers of, say, one-third of Salt Lake City’s motor vehicles. But the Human Rights Campaign has a lot more than a noteworthy logo under their belts, folks. The organization pounds the pavement for a veritable boatload of causes–along with championing for marriage equality, rallying to end hate crimes, and working to educate the public on the LGBT community, the HRC also provides a safe harbor for those seeking answers about coming out.

The HRC is, essentially, only as strong as their reach, which–at 1.5 million members strong–makes them like the Hercules of causes [the Kevin Sorbo version, obviously]. Conceived in 1980, the HRC was begat as a means to “advocate on behalf of LGBT Americans, mobilize grassroots actions in diverse communities, invest strategically to elect fair-minded individuals to office and educate the public about LGBT issues.” The coalition brings to light matters that many Americans would prefer be kept in the closet [and any group that campaigns for folks being accepted just the way they are is one that we can COLLECTIVEly say that we are wholeheartedly down with].

they've been going the way of the rolling snowball since Jimmy Carter was calling the shots.

But the HRC has only been solidly repped by the salty citizens of Utah for the past 13-ish years. The man responsible for slingin’ those slick equals sign stickers seen from South Temple to Sugar House? His name is Mr. Bruce Bastian, and he’s one of the splendid sparks that lit up the HRC in SLC. Bruce visited his first HRC National Dinner in DC over a decade ago, where he quickly fell head over heels with the outpouring of LGBT support. He was so smitten, he snapped up his campaigning hat and pledged to be a part of it–and he’s been seated squarely on the HRC Board of Directors ever since.

As one of the most anticipated events on the LGBT calendar, the HRC Utah Gala Dinner comes from humble beginnings. The yearly event–which began, essentially, as a house party–[don’t worry; Bruce’ll explain below] is now “the largest fundraising event in the State benefitting the LGBT community specifically”. She’s come a long way from her awkward phase; this year’s fete boasts SLC’s fave, Ty Burrell, as the Ally for Equality Honoree, and his Modern Family co-star Jesse Tyler Ferguson as presenter, to boot. The Gala, according to Dustin Schrecengost [a Dinner Committee Co-Chair ], “gives us all the opportunity to come together and celebrate the many successes that this movement experiences each year.” Additionally, says he, “HRC plays an integral role in moving this journey forward through groundbreaking achievements and important initiatives, and it gives our community the chance to gather for a memorable evening and reflect on those accomplishments.”

As Utah’s unofficial figurehead of equality, Bruce Bastian is, undoubtedly, a very busy man, so we were utterly humbled that he took the time to chat a spell with us about gays, galas, and breaking ground for good. 

"There is, however, a lot of work still to be done"

Where do your ties to the HRC begin? How did this relationship develop from the jump? Bruce: My “ties” to HRC started in the early 90s with conversations with the leadership of HRC at that time. Shortly after that I attended my first HRC National Dinner in Washington, DC. WOW! That was probably 12 or 13 years ago now. I was so impressed with the people I met who were members or staff of HRC. I had never witnessed a group of people really fighting for LGBT equality, and I wanted to become more involved. Shortly after, I joined the Board of Directors on the Human Rights Campaign where I am still privileged to serve. I have been deeply involved with HRC since then and have seen the growth in the organization and in the many programs it has to offer the entire LGBT community.

The HRC was officially born in 1980…when did Salt Lake City become hip to and/or join the effort? Bruce: After I joined the Board of HRC, we were able to get others in the area involved as well, but the membership numbers were small. Ten years ago, we had our first HRC Utah Dinner — that was the first major exposure most people in Utah had to HRC. In a way, that dinner got people in Utah acquainted with and excited about HRC. That has continued to grow over the last ten years. Today the Human Rights Campaign is known, not only by the LGBT community of Utah, but also by many people as the national voice for LGBT equality.

Our dear Beehive State seems to have a nationwide stigma of intolerance and general up-tightedness. Is the chapter membership here aligned with that misconception? Or do we have a healthy gang of folks equal to the cause that effectively disprove the naysayers? Bruce: As a state, especially if you move away from the safety bubble of Salt Lake City, I believe that stigma is warranted. Many parts of Utah are still very harsh toward our community. The HRC membership in Utah is made up of people from all over the state, but I think most of them are from the Salt Lake valley. I believe the members of HRC who live in Utah see great potential for educating Utahns so that stigma can be broken or proven false. There is, however, a lot of work still to be done. If you get out of Salt Lake City, most LGBT Utahns still feel misunderstood or looked down upon, and even face discrimination sometimes daily. I know I do, and I live in Orem. The programs and work and voice of HRC really help counter the misconceptions that many Utahns still have of who we are.

Bruce: I understand that you’re sort of the Godfather of the Gala in our salty city [a.k.a. it was your generosity that spawned the first dinner, taking shape in your own back yard for several years]. Tell us more about that. Bruce: When I first thought about having an HRC Utah Gala, my goal was to make it something special and something a lot of people would want to attend.  I thought if people weren’t sure about attending an HRC dinner, they might really want to attend a big party at my home.  It worked!  That first dinner was a huge success as a dinner and also as a moment when many of us felt that, yes, we could do this.  We could really build change in Utah. And I believe we have.

"Suddenly we had thousands in the LGBTQ community and our families and friends saying 'No. This is wrong.'"

Speak a touch more to the Gala: why is this important to Salt Lake’s Chapter, and in what ways, specifically, does it benefit the cause? Dustin: The HRC Utah Gala is important for so many reasons – and I think to each of us it would a variety of different things. Each year, the Gala gives us all the opportunity to come together and celebrate the many successes that this movement experiences each year. HRC plays an integral role in moving this journey forward through groundbreaking achievements and important initiatives and it gives our community the chance to gather for a memorable evening and reflect on those accomplishments. Additionally, the HRC Utah Gala is the largest fundraising event in the State benefitting the LGBT community specifically and through those dollars, HRC has the ability to advocate on behalf of LGBT Americans, mobilize grassroots actions in diverse communities, invest strategically to elect fair-minded individuals to office and educate the public about LGBT issues.

The LGBTQ community has seen leap-and-bound type progress over the last few years, from the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell law to marriage equality in 19 US states. Do you have any favorites…or is that like asking someone to pick which of their children they love most? Bruce: It is hard to choose just one event or one thing that was my favorite because so much of the success we have seen in a short time is a result of many years of hard work with a mix of limited success and disappointment. I think the tide changed, especially in Utah, when Prop 8 passed in California and people in Utah rallied in protest.  Suddenly we had thousands in the LGBTQ community and our families and friends saying “No. This is wrong.” I believe that’s when we first felt our unity and our determination to change things. Since then those who oppose our equality have been routinely shown that they are wrong and their arguments are based upon either ignorance or dislike for who we are. Now we win the arguments. Dustin: As Bruce said, it’s so difficult to choose just one event – there have been so many huge victories for this movement over the last short period of time. Personally, I would lean towards the Supreme Court decisions in Hollingsworth v. Perry, challenging California’s Prop 8, and Windsor v. U.S., challenging the federal governments ban on recognizing legally married couples. It was incredible to see HRC’s iconic logo turned red for social media and how support for equality went viral across the entire country – still gives me chills to think about the love, support and energy felt nationwide. Sean: I would say that all the victories we have experienced recently are important, but it was very exciting that Utah was the first major decision since the Windsor case that starting a synergy that allowed other judges in other states to build upon.

According to the HRC website, “only one state – North Dakota  – has a ban on marriage equality but no current court case challenging its constitutionality”. Do you think this equality pressure cooker will have an effect on Utah’s current marriage equality case [Kitchen vs. Herbert]? Bruce: It is difficult, if not impossible, to know whether public opinion or events around the country affect any single court case. However, every judge who has ruled in this matter has ruled that local and state laws and constitutional amendments that deny marriage equality are not in accordance with the United States Constitution. I believe that does matter. And it’s not just that these laws were found to be unconstitutional. It’s the words the judges are using to explain their decisions. I think it would be difficult at this stage to go against all of those decisions, but you can never tell a judge how to rule. We will have to wait and see what happens with the Kitchen vs. Herbert case.

"the show has helped positively change American culture and bring about increased acceptance for the gay movement"

Has this been an uphill battle for all 10, or rather a 10-year practice in gradual fluidity? Bruce: The HRC Utah Gala has never been a “battle” at all. It has always been a lot of work and a labor of love, and at the end of every Gala, we all feel exhausted but so happy to have been a part of it. When we moved the dinner from my home in Orem to the Grand America, my role changed a lot.  rom that time to the present, I have remained involved, but less and less. If you are familiar with any other Galas in any other city, you will know that is normal. We very much have a team now that focuses on the Gala for months in advance. Dustin and Sean are the leaders of that team. They have done a great job this year, and we are anticipating a wonderful, successful dinner.

How can cityhomeCOLLECTIVE (and other local businesses) help HRC? What sorts of efforts see the most direct benefits for the HRC and the LGBT cause, in general? Dustin: Businesses can start by becoming more informed. There are so many incredible resources out there to help understand what is going on that will impact the lives of your LGBT loved ones – spend some time educating yourself on the issues. Secondly, show your support. Show your employees, coworkers, patrons and competitors that you are an ally for equality and diversity, and that you value fairness as a practical matter of being simply good for business. Lastly, put your dollars to use. Support an event in your community, or if you can, host one. Help foster your community by letting us bring our members to your business or home, where they can mix and mingle with your network of supporters and together we can talk about what is happening locally, ways to get involved, and the importance of joining this movement.

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