The Salt Lake City Council has decided to name a street after pioneering gay leader Harvey Milk, the latest display of its position as a blue island in a sea of deep-red, where the prevailing Mormon faith still has a fraught relationship with the LGBT community.
Utah’s capital city recently elected its first openly gay mayor and its second sitting gay councilman, creating an increasingly friendly atmosphere for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in the home of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The conservative religion’s tone on gay issues has softened in recent years, but it still opposes same-sex marriage, maintains homosexuality is a sin and recently banned baptisms for the children of gay parents. Faith leaders said the highly criticized move would avoid putting children in a tug-of-war between their parents and church teachings.
The Mormon church declined to comment on the council’s unanimous vote to rename the street. Sponsor Stan Penford, the city’s first openly gay councilman, said that leaders likely would have reached out if they had a strong opposition.
Milk set the tone for the modern gay rights movement and his uncompromising calls for gay people to come out of the closet inspired a generation of activists, including many in Utah, said supporters who spoke at a Tuesday hearing that drew about 100 people.
“This sends a loud message that Salt Lake City values inclusion and diversity,” said Troy Williams, director of the group Equality Utah.
Several people spoke against the idea, with many saying that a local leader or inventor should be honored instead. The street serves as the ending spot for an annual parade honoring the deeply felt legacy of Mormon pioneers.
“Those are our pioneers, not San Francisco’s pioneers,” said resident Ralph Pahnke.
The street with the honorary name will be located near thoroughfares named for civil rights icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez. Lined with coffee shops, restaurants and a community garden, it runs through one of the city’s most in-demand neighborhoods.
Milk became one of the first openly gay people to be elected to public office in the U.S. when he won a seat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1977. A disgruntled former city supervisor assassinated him and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone at City Hall in 1978.
The activist’s life was memorialized in the Oscar-winning 2008 movie “Milk,” and he also has been honored with a commemorative stamp and a posthumous Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. The San Diego City Council approved naming a street for Milk in 2012, something officials said was a first.
The honorary name will be placed on part of a street that is nine blocks from Mormon church headquarters. Temple Square was the site of protests in 2008 after the church supported efforts to pass a short-lived gay marriage ban in California.
Mormon leaders subsequently softened their tone, backing a Utah anti-discrimination law last year that protects gay and transgender people from housing and employment discrimination while safeguarding the rights of religious groups and individuals.
As many as two-thirds of Utah’s 3 million residents are believed to be members of the Mormon religion, though some are more involved in the faith than others.
Utah’s capital also has supported a thriving LGBT community. An annual LGBT pride parade is the second largest in the state — behind only the yearly celebration of Mormon pioneers.
The city’s first openly gay mayor, Jackie Biskupski, took office this year, as well as its second sitting gay councilman. Derek Kitchen and his husband were one of three couples who sued to overturn the state’s same-sex marriage ban.