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Lambda Lore

1976, the Gay Student Union emerges

The 1970s were the origin of a gay social revolution in Utah. Activists, teeming with idealism and social consciousness, thought they could make a better world. By 1976 the gay landscape of Utah had changed dramatically from 1969, with 24 gay-identified organizations, businesses and publications; whereas at the beginning of the decade there had only been one, the Utah Gay Liberation Front. Important organizations formed in 1976 were the Gay Service Coalition, the Imperial Court of the Wasatch Empire, Women Aware and the University of Utah’s Gay Student Union.

At the beginning of 1976, the growing community was still serviced by two religious organizations — the Metropolitan Community Church of Salt Lake City and its splinter church the Grace Christian Church. The gay media — essential to building community — was basically a California-based The Advocate, whose editor was a former Utah LDS missionary named Robert I. McQueen. Utah’s Salt Lick was published by the Gay Community Service Center. As the year began, the board of Trustees of the GCSC, however, changed the name to the Gayzette, with Babs DeLay as its editor. The Gayzette ended with the closure of the community center, but by the end of the year the Open Door was published by the Gay Service Coalition as a community forum.

Interestingly, the Salt Lake Tribune recognized the societal changes taking place, when on  Jan.8, 1976, they opined, “Two women who had applied for a marriage license in Salt Lake County probably should have been issued one, according to Utah law. Utah statute does not specifically prohibit marriage between members of the same sex, a spokesman in the Salt Lake County the Attorney office said.” The women were referred to the county attorney when they attempted to obtain a license. However they didn’t go to that office and one can only speculate what would have happened if they had.

There were six gay bars at the beginning of the year: Radio City Lounge, the Sun Tavern, Sweetwater Tavern, the Rusty Bell, Sisters and the Sunset Room. They were soon joined by a new gay bar called The Name of the Game Jr. which had changed from a straight bar to a gay bar because the owners said, “Gays get down a lot more and are less trashy than some of the straight street people we get in here.” The bar even offered free drinks on Mondays and Tuesdays from 8–10 p.m., for “ladies” and “men in drag” — a first for any gay bar. 

One of the more important organizations founded in 1976 was the Gay Student Union, the forerunner of the University of Utah’s current Queer Student Union. Responding to  a Daily Utah Chronicle’s article, “Homosexuals Discuss Gayness and Society,” Paul Larson wrote a letter to the editor to promote his new organization.

In part it said, “Of interest to Chronicle readers are some of the activities of the Campus Christian Center, 232 University Street. We are offering an ongoing Gay Consciousness Raising Group and a two-part presentation on Gay History and Literature, Sunday evenings March 7 and 14 at 8 p.m.”

The Gay Consciousness Raising Group was formed by Larson to show gay people that “they were not alone in their homosexuality” and to help people “adjust and learn to cope with living in a heterosexual society.” The group was also designed as “an alternative to the gay bars and the parks,” and, “as a setting where members of the gay community and any heterosexual who wishes to attend can relate to each other as complete people instead of simply as sex objects.” Additionally, Larson’s course on “Group Dynamics” at the University of Utah was probably the first real gay lecture ever presented in Salt Lake City.

In Sept. 1976, the first workshop for the gay community was held by the GCRG at St. Mark’s Cathedral. Twenty people attended with Hal Carter and Paul Larson facilitating the meeting.

At the beginning of the University’s fall quarter, an average of 40 to 50 people were attending the GCRG each week. By October, the meeting, which had started out with six people, grew to an extent that the original group had to split. One of these groups left the Campus Christian Center to meet in the Student Union Building on the UofU campus. This group was called the “Gay Awareness-Conscious Raising Encounter Group,” which was formed by students to talk openly about “their hang ups, of pressures put on by society, and family and religion, and to express their hopes, dreams and long term goals.”

The student leaders of the Gay Awareness-Conscious Raising Encounter Group then pushed to have their group listed as a campus club. On Nov.3 1976, the club was formally placed on the University register by the Committee on Student Affairs as “The Gay Student Union.” Its first formal meeting had 46 people attending the session.

The Gay Student Union’s stated purpose was to “promote and maintain activities and ideas supportive to gay rights and gay people through combating gay oppression and promoting gay dignity, unity and liberation.” The format of the club was still a “rap group” designed for “getting people together, sharing feelings, and ideas.” The Gay Student Union sponsored the Gay Awareness-Conscious Raising Encounter Group and met every Monday at 7:30 p.m., in Orson Spencer Hall.

Membership in the Gay Student Union was open to anyone who conducted themselves according to, and in support of, the goals of the Gay Student Union and was not limited to university students although its officers had to be enrolled on campus.  In one of the bylaws meeting, the Gay Student Union considered admitting any Brigham Young University student, faculty, or staff member with a valid identification card to any activity in lieu of an official membership card due to the ongoing persecution of gays enrolled at Brigham Young University.

These “peer” discussion meetings of the Gay Student Union consisted of a “getting acquainted section” and then breakout sessions where issues relevant to the gay community were read and discussed. These breakout sections were divided into four groups with one person in each room designated as a facilitator to keep the discussion topic focused. If one of the discussion groups did not meet the needs of those attending then that person could change sections.

The Daily Chronicle featured three stories in the fall of 1976 on the new campus gay club. On Nov. 1o, 1976, an article entitled “Gay Group Discusses Social Bars,” stated “Salt Lake City is unique in that it is one of the places in the United States where people are concerned about the oppression of homosexuality.”

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Ben Williams

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