QSaltLake wouldn’t be where we are today without the many gay and lesbian publications that came before us, such as Babs DeLay’s The Salt Lick and The Open Door, the main newspaper for Utah’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community from 1977 to 1981.
The paper, named with the phrase “coming out of the closet” in mind, was owned and operated in party by Rev. Robert “Bob” Waldrop, a pastor at the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church. Although short-lived, the paper published a number of weighty articles, including the famous “Payne Papers,” a rebuttal against a BYU professor’s anti-gay lecture by gay BYU student Cloy Jenkins.
Waldrop arrived in Utah in 1977 to replace MCC-SLC’s outgoing minister, Rev. Alice Jones. Here, he found an environment that was very different from the one he had left behind in California. Just weeks before his arrival, Lt. Governor David Monson had rescinded permission for the church to hold a dance in the State Capitol Rotunda. Further, an arsonist whom Waldrop describes as “amateurish” had also attempted to set fire to the MCC’s files.
“There was a lot of fear and worry,” he recalls. “Gays were becoming more visible nationally, and the LDS leadership began making statements against gays and that didn’t help anyone’s paranoia. There were tales of BYU security, aversion therapy, suicides. One evening while handing out invitations to come to MCC at the Sun Tavern, a jeep with four guys in it pulled up to the curb and I went over and handed them a flyer inviting them to church … and then I noticed they all had baseball bats. They looked at the flyer, and then I looked at the guy sitting closest to me, in the eyes, and he said to the driver, “Let’s get out of here.””
As the pastor of the state’s only gay-affirming church at the time, Waldrop says he soon became the “go-to person for the media whenever a gay story came up.”
“That in itself was controversial, as the way the community had survived for a long time was by remaining ‘under the radar,’” he says.
From there, it was an easy leap from being the so-called spokesperson for the fledgling gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community to providing a forum for others to speak. In 1979 Waldrop purchased _The Open Door_ from activist Ken Kline, who had previously acquired the paper from its founder, Ray Henke.
“I thought it was providing a needed service and shouldn’t just disappear,” he says.
Under Waldrop’s leadership, the paper was, as he recalls “mostly news and politics” with “commentary about problems with the Mormon Church” (such as the aforementioned “Payne Papers”) appearing frequently. Like many papers of that time, content about and for bisexual and transgender people was scarce, and layout was primitive by today’s standards. Waldrop pasted articles by hand onto sheets that he sent to the printer in rural Utah (who, says Waldrop, told him that his money was “as green as anyone else’s”). Headlines were created from letters cut from film sheets.
“I was always running out of one letter for a headline at 2 a.m. when the stores were closed,” he laughs. “I remember being excited that The Open Door had a fancy electric typewriter that would allow you to make columns with a justified right margin via a complicated process.”
Along with this laborious preparation process, the paper faced a lot of hostility from the community at large. Waldrop recalls getting “a lot of hate mail and threatening phone calls.” And while threats didn’t stop the reverend from publishing, financial problems did in 1981. Despite attempts to generate ad revenue and even to charge a quarter per issue to raise money for gay-affirming organizations like Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons and the Imperial Court of Utah, the paper folded just two years after Waldrop purchased it.
But though the paper’s time was brief, its mark on Utah’s queer community was not, and neither was Waldrop’s. In his time of Utah he participated in a spirited demonstration against singer and anti-gay activist Anita Bryant at the Utah State Fairgrounds, and attempted to raise awareness in his own way about the 1978 murder of his friend, a fellow gay man named Tony Adams — a case which is open to this day and about which QSaltLake columnist Ben Williams has written extensively.
“At the time I spray painted [in] orange paint that question ["Who killed Tony Adams?”] on a bunch of construction walls in downtown SLC as it became clear the case would not be resolved,” says Waldrop, adding, jokingly, “ I hope the statute of limitations for graffiti is past for that deed.”
When asked what prompted him to fight for Utah’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community as a minister, a publisher and activist, Waldrop says it was and is a matter of justice.
“One thing that drove me on were the stories people came and told me,” he remembers. “In times of trouble, people often seek a clergy person to talk to, and throughout my time at MCC, one person after another came through my office, most of them not members of our church, but just seeking someone to talk to. I heard a lot of really terrible stories and heartache. No one could go through that and remain silent.”
“One theme in my life that has been consistent through all of my own journey is to stand with those who are rejected and persecuted, “on the edge,”“ he continues. “I have always had a thing about injustice and felt that the hoary cliché — the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing — was true.”