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Lambda Lore

The beginning of Utah’s gay community

Someone asked me “when did the gay community in Utah begin?” I heard some suggest that it began with the battle over Amendment 3. They are wrong and shortsighted. Was it in the 1990s when Utah high school students fought for Gay Straight Alliance clubs? Nope. Would it surprise you to hear that Utah had a vibrant gay community before the Millennials were even born and while Generation X was still in elementary school?

Forty years ago the first Gay Freedom Day was held in Utah. Before the 1980s these celebrations were held in June to commemorate  the uprising at the Stonewall Inn. Communities across the nation held marches and parties by a variety of names, but more commonly were called “Gay Freedom Day,” “Gay Liberation Day” or “Christopher Street Liberation Day.” All these names were meant to conjure up almost a militant-in-your-face image that we as an empowered minority were demanding, not asking, for our rights.

Gay liberation was formed out of the urgency to keep the spirit of the Stonewall Uprising continuing, and even had a presence in Salt Lake City as early as October, 1969. Gay men and women from Salt Lake City’s Anti-War Movement,  Women’s Liberation Movement, and the ecology movement organized and began attracting attention on the University of Utah’s campus in the early 1970s. At the same time Reverend Troy Perry founded a branch of his Metropolitan Community Church in Salt Lake City in 1972.

Thus, people began to meet to raise consciousness and awareness of what it means to be gay. In 1972, Salt Lake City’s first gay bath house opened and in 1973 gay activist and radio talk-show host, Joe Redburn, opened The Sun Tavern on the corner of 400 West and South Temple as an openly gay bar owned by a gay man. People came to party at The Sun but also to connect with other gay people, and so began establishing a gay identity in a very hostile world.  The emerging gay community was large enough in 1973 to have its first schism when gay women broke away from the Metropolitan Community Church to form an all women Grace Community Church with a female pastor.

Utah’s first Gay Freedom Day was sponsored by Joe Redburn on Jun. 27, 1974, the 5th anniversary of the New York City Stonewall Riots. A public community party was planned to celebrate Gay Freedom Day and according to both Nikki Boyer and Joe Redburn the event was originally held in City Creek Canyon, but was moved to “Bare Ass Beach” because “the drunks couldn’t drive back down the narrow road.” So over 200 gay men and women gathered at approximately 8000 West along the southeast shore of the Great Salt Lake to continue the “kegger” and celebrate Utah’s first Gay Freedom Day. For most of the 1970s and 80s kegs of beer were legal and keggers were parties where beer flowed from half-barrel metal beer kegs containing up to 16 gallons of beer.

For the remainder of the 1970s the gay community in Salt Lake City grew exponentially. The first community protest and demonstration occurred in 1977 at the Utah State Fairgrounds, which featured singer Anita Bryant.  The former beauty queen was the figurehead of an anti-gay rights movement called Saved Our Children.

By the latter part of the 1970s, a national lesbian separatist movement took root in Utah and reshaped the gay community with organizations being renamed “Lesbian and Gay” or all women groups like Women Aware. Utah was then at the forefront of anti-equal rights, with missionaries from the National Organization For Women being recruited to come to Utah to stem the Mormon Church’s interference with passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

In the 1970s, Utah received national attention due to the fact the editor of the Advocate, a national gay magazine, was a gay man from Price, Utah. He published in the magazine, on a regular basis, news about the gay communities struggles against oppression, especially the gay students who were being tortured and persecuted at Brigham Young University.

Within the decade, from the time Pam Mayne, Ralph Place and a few friends organized Utah’s Gay Liberation Front until 1980, Utah had a thriving community. Like the Mormon pioneers before them these gay and lesbian pioneers made the desert bloom as a rose in an incredibly hostile environment.

The 1970s had a myriad of social clubs, service organizations, and support groups. Some of them were The Gay Awareness and Consciousness Raising Group, The Men’s Support Group, The Gay Crisis Line 533-0927, The Imperial Court of Utah, The Gay Service Coalition,Women Aware, Coalition on Human Sexuality and Alternative Lifestyles, Gay Libertarian Association, The Stonewall Club, Gay Alcoholics, and The  Lesbian and Gay Student Union.

The gay and lesbian bars, and bath houses were Radio City Lounge at 147 South State (“The Original and first Rocky Mountain gay bar”), The Sun Tavern at 1 S. 400 West (largest gay complex in the Rocky Mountain area.), The Uptown Place at 15 S. 400 West (“serving the lesbian community”), The Comeback Club at 551 S. 300 West, The Rail opened east of the Sun Tavern  at 363 W. South Temple, Studio 8 at 8 W. 200 South, Bogart’s at 1225 Wilmington Avenue in Sugar House, Bobby’s First Endeavor on 12th Street below Wall Avenue in Ogden.  The GYM, (Jeff’s Gym) was located at 727 W. 1700 South, and Club 14 was at 1414 W. 200 South.

Utah was especially unique in that the newly organized KRCL FM 91 had a local gay program from the beginning called Gayjavu which would become Concerning Gays and Lesbians for the next 20 years. Stephen Holbrook, a gay man who founded KRCL, was dedicated to Utah’s gay minority having a voice.

After the Gayzette folded, another community newspaper called The Open Door printed news and events for the gay and lesbian community for nearly four years, including publishing in serial form “The Payne Papers,” also known as “Prologue” which was a scholarly rebuttal to the Mormon Church’s position on homosexuality. Eventually the Advocate would publish a condensed version of the revolutionary pamphlet for gay rights.

It was only natural that Salt Lake City would have several religious and spiritual organizations. They included The Metropolitan Community Church of Salt Lake City (“Where God does not discriminate”–Pastor Robert Waldrop), Dignity “A Catholic alternative,” Affirmation-Gay Mormons United of Salt Lake, and Integrity of Salt Lake for Episcopalians.

Utah even had several gay recreational groups in the 1970s, such as the Gay Activities Society, The Inter-Bar Volleyball League, and The Salt Lake Gay Athletic Association.

In the 1990s there was a major cultural shift away from commemorating the Stonewall Riot, as those born after Stonewall came of age. “Liberation” and “Freedom” began to be replaced under pressure from more conservative members of the community, replacing them with the nomenclature “Gay Pride.”  Even that, in the 21st century as the celebration became more assimilated to mainstream, has been simply reduced to one word, “Pride.” The Greek lambda symbol and the pink triangle, once revolutionary symbols of the Gay Liberation Movement, have been “tidied up” and replaced with rainbows or the Human Rights Coalition’s generic equality symbol. No wonder we don’t know our story.  Its being erased.

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Ben Williams

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