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Salt Lake City elects its first openly gay mayor

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AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

(Read caption) Former state lawmaker Jackie Biskupski (r.) receives a hug from supporter Elise West at her election night party for Salt Lake City Mayor Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015, in Salt Lake City.

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Salt Lake City has long stood apart from its conservative state, with a four-decade history of electing Democrats and a sizable gay population.   

That became even clearer last week when Utah’s capital city elected its first openly gay mayor in a close contest – so close, in fact, that incumbent two-term Mayor Ralph Becker, a fellow Democrat, says he will not concede the race until final tallies come in next week.  

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When Jackie Biskupski was first elected to the state legislature in the late 1990s, conservative activists encouraged the house speaker to refuse to swear her in, claiming that she would violate state sodomy laws.

"There were several legislators who wouldn’t even look me in the eye – certainly wouldn’t shake my hand," she told the Associated Press.

But those laws have changed as has the culture of Salt Lake City, a city some are calling a bastion for Utah’s gay community in a state heavily influenced by the Mormon Church.

"It is extremely significant to have a lesbian mayor in Salt Lake City," said Troy Williams, Equality Utah executive director, to the Huffington Post. "The election of Ms. Biskupski sends a clear signal to Utahans that the LGBT community is ready to give back with public service."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is headquartered in Salt Lake City, and much of Utah is heavily Republican. A recent poll ranks Utah fourth among all right-leaning states, with 44.6 percent of residents identifying as conservative.

Last week, the church initiated new polices categorizing same-sex couples as apostates and barring their children from church membership. Children of gay couples must now repudiate gay marriage before they can join the church.

"The Church has a long record as opposing same-sex marriage," said church spokesperson Eric Hawkins in a statement. "While it respects the law of the land and acknowledges the right of others to think and act differently, it does not perform or accept gay marriage within its membership."

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Yet, an October poll conducted by UtahPolicy showed more than 75 percent of Salt Lake City residents said the fact that Biskupski is a lesbian would make no difference to their vote. Another 12 percent said her sexuality would make them more likely to vote for her.

Political winds in Salt Lake City are blowing to the left – Salt Lake City residents increasingly side with Democrats and reject the Mormon Church’s stance. Nearly 5 percent of Salt Lake City adults identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered, seventh among US metropolitan areas.

Biskupski, who nationally joins only a few openly gay mayors, told The Salt Lake Tribune she would begin her term by urging the Mormon church to soften its stance against same-sex couples and their children.

“Hopefully, we'll have a chance to rethink this a bit and move in a different direction somewhere down the road,” she said.