Utah Elected Its First Gay Mayor? Don't Be So Surprised

On Tuesday, election officials in Utah verified that Salt Lake City had elected its first openly gay mayor, Jackie Biskupski. Biskupski had garnered the most votes on election day two weeks ago, but the race was close enough to require mail-in ballots to be counted. Those ballots have now been counted. Biskupski captured 51.55 percent of the vote.

A gay woman becoming mayor of the largest city in Utah will likely surprise most observers. One of the deepest red states in the nation and headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Utah's conservative reputation is well-earned, so Biskupski's victory seems especially unlikely. As Biskupski's own spokesperson said election night, "If Utah can do it, anybody can do it."

But Utah didn't elect Biskupski; Salt Lake City did. And that's the important difference here.

Salt Lake City has long been a blue island in a deeply red sea. And the city has become an especially welcome home to the LGBT community, even as Utah remains a stronghold of social and religious conservatism.

Since 1985, Democrats have controlled the mayor's office. One of those mayors, Rocky Anderson, attracted national controversy when he sponsored protest rallies every time George W. Bush came to town.

To win her election, Biskupski, a Democrat, had to defeat the sitting Democratic mayor, Ralph Becker, to claim the spot. (The city's mayor election is officially non-partisan, and Biskupski and Becker emerged as the two top vote-getters in an August primary.)

Thanks to that Democratic strength in the capital city, Obama had strong showings in Salt Lake County in both his elections. In 2008, Obama narrowly won the county. And in 2012, Mitt Romney, a Mormon, could only capture 58 percent support, whereas many other Utah counties gave him around 90 percent.

But not only is Salt Lake City a safely-reliable Democratic city, it also has a reputation as an especially gay-friendly town. A 2006 survey estimated 7.6 percent of the city's residents were gay. (New York City came in at only 4.5 percent). Home to the University of Utah and several major corporations, Salt Lake City has attracted a diverse and tolerant population that has benefitted gay life. More than 35,000 people recently attended the city's gay pride parade. In 2012, the Advocate, a leading gay magazine, named Salt Lake City the "gayest city in the U.S."

That warm climate has translated into important political gains for the city's gay citizens. A 2009 city ordinance guaranteed housing and employment protections to gays and lesbians. Gay and lesbian residents have fared well in seeking public office. Jim Dabakis, an openly-gay Democrat, represents the city in the state senate. Several gay men and women have served in city government. And one more - Derek Kitchen - was elected to the city council on the same night of Biskupski's victory.

All of this set the stage for Biskupski's rather unsurprising victory after a campaign run where her sexuality had not even come up as an issue.

As an openly-gay mayor of a major city, Biskupski has joined a small but growing circle of gay and lesbian women leading America's largest metropolises, including Houston's Annise Parker and Seattle's Ed Murray.

Like Parker in Houston, Biskupski's election demonstrates that a gay woman can win in a very conservative state, despite the odds. But for years now, Salt Lake City has been showing that those odds were increasingly favorable for any gay person seeking its highest office.

That result may not be big news in Salt Lake City, but her election is not inconsequential, especially considering the LDS Church's opposition to same-sex marriage and its conservative stance on homosexuality. Just days after the election, LDS officials unveiled a new church policy that declares Mormons in same-sex marriages as apostates of the church and bars children of same-sex couples from baptism and membership.

Biskupski indicated one of her first orders as mayor will be to meet with LDS Church leaders to discuss the new policy. While Biskupski may not change anyone's mind in Temple Square, her presence could have a tempering effect on LDS Church culture and policies regarding homosexuality in the years to come. If so, that would have repercussions far beyond the progressive precinct of Salt Lake City where Biskupski now serves as mayor.