Gay Rights Getting “Enhanced” in Utah

On this 12th anniversary of Freedom to Marry Day, gay and lesbian partnerships are getting an unlikely ally, of sorts – the Republican governor of Utah.

Republican Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who governs one of the country’s most conservative states, said Tuesday he supports civil unions for gay people that would give them many of the same legal rights as married couples.

Utah has a constitutional ban on gay marriage and domestic unions that was approved by voters in 2004. At the time, Huntsman said he supported Amendment 3.

“I had many discussions about Amendment 3 with many legal experts who informed me that individual rights, equal rights, could be taken up to the level of civil unions without compromising traditional marriage, which is something I believe in,” Huntsman told The Associated Press in an interview. “I believe in the traditional definition of marriage, but I also believe that we can do a better job in enhancing equal rights for more of our citizens.”

The governor, who, like nearly 90 percent of the state’s legislators, is Mormon, uses an odd phrase here that I’ve never seen before: “enhancing equal rights.” He uses it again in another quote saying he doesn’t think the state’s ban on same-gender marriage will need to be altered to repeal a prohibition on domestic partnerships:

“I don’t know that that needs to be done. It may need to be clarified, over time, by way of the courts, but I think there was a pretty broad level of interpretation from the beginning that certain areas equating in enhanced equal rights would be allowed under Amendment 3,” he said.

I’m not sure what “enhanced equal rights” are. Does that mean gays and lesbians have won or collected enough points for some special upgrade? Or, perhaps our rights are getting a boob job. All I know is that gays and lesbians have no equal rights to be “enhanced.” Passing a civil unions bill would be a great step along the path to actually granting us full civil rights but it really “enhances” nothing—except perhaps Gov. Huntsman’s wider political image:

Huntsman is the most popular governor in state history and is increasingly speaking out on moderate issues such as global warming that make many conservatives in the state cringe. For Huntsman, there is little political risk because he has pledged not to seek a third term.

“It seems he’s more concerned with what people outside the state of Utah think of Utah than he is with what people inside Utah think,” said Jeff Reynolds, spokesman for the Sutherland Institute, which opposes civil unions. “It would certainly appear that there’s some political aspirations to blend more into mainstream national politics with these kind of statements.”

Whatever his reason, political or sincere, this is a giant step for Utah, and hopefully the governor is serious about helping Equality Utah pass its legislative agenda called the Common Ground Initiative that seeks fairness for gay and lesbian residents of Utah in many areas including healthcare, housing and employment along with civil unions.

If they’re successful, our “enhanced” rights will certainly look hot in a wedding (or civil union) dress.