Jackie Biskupski made history last week as the first openly gay or lesbian person sworn in as mayor of Salt Lake City, seat of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), which has a notorious history of working against LGBT rights in Utah and across the country, and which also has much political power in her state.
Now Biskupski is poised to make greater history in pressuring the Mormon Church on its anti-LGBT policies, which came into stark relief again in recent months when LDS church leaders threatened to excommunicate those church members who’d entered into same-sex marriages and decided it would ban their children from being baptized in the church.
“Salt Lake City has always been much more progressive than the rest of the state, even though we have a very conservative home base here for the LDS Church,” Biskupski, a Democrat, said in an interview with me on SiriusXM Progress. “I think as a community, though, what we’re finding with my election is that there just are not the barriers that the country maybe thinks there are with the LDS Church being located in our city. So, those relationships just continue to evolve in a very progressive and positive way and I'm pleased with that.”
Though the Mormon Church signaled a possible shift earlier in 2015, backing a limited LGBT anti-discrimination bill which includes broad religious exemptions — a far cry from when it was a driving forcing in helping to pass Proposition 8 in California in 2008 — shortly before Biskupski’s election win in November, it stunned many members with the new anti-gay policy.
The move caused a ferocious backlash — in Utah and across the country. Biskupski, as mayor-elect, sent a letter to LDS church leaders and met with church officials in December.
“My message in my letter was one of hope that this policy would be one that could be reviewed sooner than later and reconsidered," she said. “Because it really is damaging, and what we saw, kind of a ripple effect from it, was an exodus of LDS church members who just could not wrap their brain around it: 'Why would we have a policy that had a negative impact on children through no fault of their own or are part of a family that we aren’t seeing eye-to-eye with?' That didn’t sit well with the members— a lot of members, anyway."
Biskupski, who became the first openly gay elected official in Utah when she was elected to the Utah Legislature in 1998, used her own story, as the newly elected Salt Lake City mayor who happens to be a lesbian mom (and who recently got engaged to be married), to try to persuade Church officials.
"My son is growing up in this community," she explained. "He is six and at some point if he wanted to be baptized into the LDS Church I would not get in his way. I would want to support him and his choices. And that was something I said: ‘Do not hold his seeking of spiritual guidance against him simply because of who I am and my sexual orientation.’”
She expressed hope that she and others were heard, and that the Church will reconsider the policy.
“The LDS church continues to evolve as the world evolves,” she said. “We have to remember, too, that the leadership of that Church is from a much different generation than I am from. I can only second guess what goes on. But I have to believe that as we are evolving in our world, and in our community, and in our country, that they’ll continue to evolve as well. And that change will happen. It has been [happening]. When I was first got elected [to the state legislature in 1998] what was in the LDS handbook that we would get every two years as a legislator — the language was so different than it is today when it comes to people who identify as LGBT. So I think we’re moving in the right direction.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that children of LGBT Mormons could not "ever" be baptized by the Church. However, upon reaching age 18, if the child decides to get baptized and has publicly disavowed same-sex marriage, they are eligible. This has been corrected.
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