SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The new leader of one of Utah's most important LGBT organizations marvels at the rapid progress made on gay and lesbian issues, but says the growing transgender community still faces harsh discrimination.
Marian Edmonds-Allen, named last week as the new executive director of the Utah Pride Center, said fostering understanding and acceptance for transgender people is one of the key areas she'll focus on in her role.
Edmonds-Allen, a pastor and native of Maine, has been working on LGBT issues in Utah for several years. She was the director of a youth center in Ogden and more recently worked for a national organization based in San Francisco called the Family Acceptance Project.
She takes over an organization that has not had a permanent director since Valerie Larabee left in 2013. Edmonds-Allen's thoughts on several key issues:
MORE TRANSGENDER COMING OUT, MORE HELP NEEDED
There's been a spike in the last year of youth and adults coming out as transgender, spurred in part by an increase in people such as Caitlyn Jenner being featured prominently in popular culture, she said. More people are talking about it, too.
"They can see someone and recognize something in themselves that maybe they hadn't figured out yet," she said.
With that comes more need for support, she said. Transgender youth still face discrimination, unsafe living conditions and pushback in schools, Edmonds-Allen said. For instance, students aren't always allowed to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. Adults are trying to figure out how to tell their children and navigate their marriages, she said. "We are figuring out how to support everyone," she said.
The issue is personally important for Edmonds-Allen. One of her and her wife's four children identifies as transgender. "It's been helpful for me to have that youthful perspective on things," she said.
LEGALIZED GAY MARRIAGE, STATE'S NEW ANTI-DISCRIMINATION LAW POSITIVE FOR LGBT
The legalization of same-sex marriage and the passage of a Mormon church-backed anti-discrimination law that protects gay and transgender people and religious rights sent an important, symbolic message to the LGBT community that they are accepted and emboldened them to plan for their futures without fear of reprisal, she said.
"It's been wonderful for youth especially," she said.
Edmonds-Allen reserved judgment on whether there are any issues with implementation of the state law or side effects from the religious liberties protections, saying it will likely take a couple of years before an assessment can be made.
DOMINANT MORMON CULTURE CREATES CHALLENGES, BUT HAS ADVANTAGES
Edmonds-Allen said it can be "super hard" for Mormon youth coming out as LGBT. Though the tone from church leaders on LGBT issues has softened in recent years, the religion still opposes gay marriage and believes homosexual activity is a sin.
But she said she's seen a groundswell of support for LGBT among active, faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that has made it possible to create a support network in the state. She called the Mormon infrastructure that stretches to the neighborhood level in many places a community organizer's dream.
"They are all over the state," she said. "Whenever there is someone in need, I can make a call and there's someone right there who can help."
She said she's optimistic she'll have open channels of communication with Mormon leaders, who have sent quiet overtures about discussing LGBT issues. One thing she may tell them: A website the church launched in 2012 instructing Latter-day Saints to be more accepting and compassionate toward gays is very helpful for Mormons, but needs to be publicized more.
HOMELESS LGBT MAJOR PROBLEM
High rates of young LGBT who are homeless and considering suicide continue to plague the state, often triggered by rejection from their families, she said. About 40 percent of the estimated 5,000 youth who are homeless in Utah identify as LGBT and half come from Mormon families, Edmonds-Allen said. In some Latter-day Saint homes, a LGBT boy or girl can even get kicked out after they come out, she said. The problem is especially acute in rural parts of the state, she said, which is why she wants to work to ensure that people who can help are available all around.
"All the sudden it's like, 'You're gay? Pack up your stuff. I want you out of here by morning.' I saw it over and over again,'" she said. "Where do they go? There are predators looking for these youth. A lot of them end up being sex trafficked. The ones that make it somewhere to get help are the lucky ones."