A Seat at the Table: Senator Jim Dabakis

A Seat at the Table

Senator Jim Dabakis, a fixture of Utah television and talk radio for 13 years who came to be known as “Mr. Democrat,” has seen many changes in the perception of members of the LGBTQ community over his lifetime. He is known as one of Utah’s most energetic and outspoken Democratic leaders and advocates for LGBTQ rights. He has been with his now-husband for 32 years. However, he wasn’t always willing to speak so openly about his identity as a gay man and the struggles that he and others in the LGBTQ community have faced and still face.

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Jim remembers that when he was growing up, “There were no gay people.”

He never met any other (out) gay people during his time at Brigham Young University; no one ever talked about LGBTQ folks or even acknowledged their existence. He felt lost and sought help from an Apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a therapist at BYU, even the dictionary - but he didn’t personally know anyone who was also going through what he was going through. After leaving BYU and starting his career, Dabakis was content to live the next chapter of his life, not hiding his orientation yet not really presenting it publicly, until his friends started dying.

Dabakis decided to come out when the AIDS epidemic swept the nation in the 80s. For two or three years, no one knew what it was that was killing young LGBTQ people in such a horrible way and at such an alarming rate. President Reagan wouldn’t even acknowledge it as the epidemic it was, and doctors were terrified and refused to see patients. The families of Dabakis’s friends went one of two ways - they were supportive and loving, or they thought that the revelation of their child’s orientation was as bad as the fact they were dying.

Dabakis remembers wrapping his friend Tim in blankets, loading him into the car, and driving to every doctor’s office in the area to try to find someone who could help him.

One by one they were turned away, and Tim would have died by himself except they finally found one doctor who would see everybody. Her waiting room was filled with dozens of people in the same situation. She and her physician’s assistant, who is now her wife, would hold these young people as they were dying, when what they craved most was human contact.

Dabakis said he felt compelled to come out to honor the memories of his friends who were taken so tragically. 

“I owe it to all of my friends and all the people I care about to not be silent, to not just go live my own selfish life but to go out and to speak and make people face their own discomfort. It wasn't just me, it was hundreds and thousands of us that started saying, ‘You know what? Get over it, because we’re not going away and we’re not crawling back into little holes.’”

As a result of an entire generation of LGBTQ people standing up and coming out, Dabakis has seen massive changes that would have been unimaginable to him as a freshman at BYU in 1971.

He summed up the striking generational differences in how LGBTQ people live their lives:

“The generation before me all got married [mixed orientation marriages]; my generation said we’ll live our lives, not get married, have a quiet life and that'll be that. This generation - Have you been to City Creek lately? Half of the people there pushing baby carriers are LGBT. We were a different generation.”

As a former chair of the Utah Pride Center and the founding Chair of Equality Utah, and in his political roles as Chair of the Utah Democratic Party and, since 2012, a Utah State Senator, Dabakis has learned that equality never comes without a fight.

“In America, if you want political power, nobody gives it to you. These fights, nobody ever says, come on, take a seat at the table, we've been waiting for you. If you want a seat at the table, you have to fight for it. We organize, demonstrate, get people elected, we go to the table with power and we say to those around the table, you want trouble? You'll get trouble.”

Luckily for Utahns, Dabakis has been willing to take on those challenges at every level through open communication, and he has seen progress in his conservative associates, the LDS Church, and the general public. He sees a bright future ahead for Utah and the LGBTQ community as a whole.