After Robert Moolman’s cousin flew to Salt Lake City, the two drove from the airport to Lucky 13. Even as Moolman showed his relative this quintessential Utah bar, his phone rang with exciting news. Utah Pride Center board of directors chair Sue Robbins offered Moolman the job as executive director of the Utah Pride Center. Would he accept?
“Of course I would,” said Moolman, energy and enthusiasm brimming in his South African accent.
“It was a lovely moment,” he recalls. The two men finished their meal. Then Moolman remarked how coincidentally close they were to the Pride Center’s new site on 1300 south. “We’re basically around the corner,” he told his passenger, before circling his car around the building where his new position would be. It was one of many visionary moments he’s experienced since accepting his new title.
Mike Aguilar, past chair of Utah Pride’s board of directors, shares Moolman’s excitement about a bright future in the new Pride Center location.
“In social justice activism, there can be plateaus and downhill experiences in your quest for the highest peak. We are now hiking fast to the highest peak,” he said.
Today’s status is the happy result of many people refusing to give up. In 2015, the previous director abruptly resigned.
“We were in a state of shock. We didn’t have a leader, we were financially struggling and the board wasn’t as strong,” Aguilar recalls. “We were at rock bottom. We said we might have to close the Center — which, then, we immediately said we couldn’t do that. This organization means too many things to too many people.”
Board member emeritus Kent Frogley says Carol Gnade’s skills and willingness in assuming the role of executive director were pivotal to the Center’s survival.
“She came into the role with her eyes wide open, having worked in nonprofits, knowing the issues they deal with in raising money and keeping programs running. She had the experience from an operational and strategic point of view. I was thrilled when she wanted to help with the transition.”
Today, thanks to the persistence of those who persevered, young people can feel welcome and valued at the Pride Center. They can do their homework. Along with youth programming, there are support groups for kids as young as four years old, and groups for men, women and trans adults. A mental health space includes in-house therapists and interns who offer counseling regarding family, individual and gender issues. There is help for suicide survivors.
“It is viewed as a safe space where best practice takes place,” says Moolman.
The word Ubuntu, a traditional African philosophy, hangs on his wall. Ubuntu reveals that a person is a person through other people. Moolman hopes to bring Ubuntu to his Pride Center work.
“What really excited me about working there was seeing the people who enjoy the environment,” he says.
The many avenues of help complement Moolman’s experience in education and interaction. As a young teacher, he experienced his first taste of LGBTQ discrimination and school intervention.
“It was a first-person lesson in why there needs to be LGBTQ educational work in any organization. The most important lesson was illegitimi non carborundum — a mock-Latin phrase meaning, ‘don’t ever let them bring you down.'”
A South African native, he has also lived in Australia. Yet he never imagined he would reside in Salt Lake City, a place he always lived thousands of miles away from.
“The perception among our Australian friends was, ‘What are you boys going to do there?'”
He grew up in South Africa during the racial segregation of apartheid.
“Being exposed to the revolution was one of the things that shaped me into who I am. We, as a country, had to face up to what we did. It made me question what oppression looks like and whether it can be overt and covert,” he said.
“Being gay was something that society didn’t acknowledge as an option,” he says of the 1980s and 90s. “I don’t think I knew a gay person in the town where I lived. There were a few at university, but I wasn’t out at university. It became a tricky dance for me in that I wanted to be a great teacher; in my mind being the gay teacher wasn’t going to stop that.”
During 1998 and 1999, he taught at a school that excelled in recognizing the spirit of individualism. Although he wasn’t out then, “that school and that experience, gave me the confidence that in my next job, I wasn’t going to make a big deal about [being gay], but I was also not going to deny it.”
He was out to a number of teachers at the next school, a learning institution that he says that held the philosophy that “going to senior school is as much about finding one’s niche in life as having the freedom and encouragement to explore it and become the best one can be.”
Continuing to explore his own identity, after a move to Capetown, he started coming out to more and more friends.
In 2007, he met his husband, Brad Martin, while on vacation. The relationship preceded his coming out to his family. They were seated together around a table when he said, “I’ll see you guys at Christmas. I’m bringing this guy, Brad, that I’ve been seeing.” His “very kind” sister, said, “Oh, good, it’s about time.”
He describes his parents as “stoic South Africans.”
“It was one of those situations that makes you wonder why it took so long to tell your family,” says Moolman, “Still, there was a sense of relief — there’s a saying that you’re never really out until you’re out to your family.”
Moolman and Martin’s relationship continued on a long distance basis with Martin in Australia and Moolman in South Africa. After Moolman moved to Australia in 2010, Martin’s work later led to their relocation in the Beehive State. Martin works for Dyno Nobel, a company that makes mining explosives and fertilizer and is affiliated with the Nobel Peace Prize.
“He came over here and was offered a wonderful job with a wonderful team. He kept coming back and forth, and we kept thinking we really should move to Salt Lake City,” Moolman said.
Moolman himself had a part-time job that he loved, “but I could actually do the work wherever I needed to, so it made sense to move here, given the opportunity it gave Brad.”
They had spoken about getting married while living in Australia, but eventually tied the knot at the Salt Lake County clerk’s office.
“I had read the press and was terribly nervous going in, but they couldn’t have been more lovely — to the point where Brad’s brother wants the same officiator to oversee his [heterosexual] marriage.” The couple now live in a house with heir two dogs, Rupert and Dudley.
Moolman envisions the new Pride Center location continuing to bring people together.
“I’d like it to be the first port of call for the community. In our new, larger space, we can host events, develop new leaders and move the cause forward confidently,” he says. “We credit Carol Gnade, the current executive director and the board for this amazing new space to grow into.”
In the future, he hopes that the new space will also house other nonprofits relating to the LGBTQ community.
“I’m excited to work with people I’ve gotten to know in the organization who are helping to drive change. I hope there is something I can help them understand in the education kind of space and the programming kind of space,” he said.
“Utah is a unique place with a vibrant LBGTQ community that is juxtaposed beside a church where there appears to be hesitancy in starting discussions,” he says. “There is an exciting challenge in opening that door for conversation. I’m hugely respectful of any religious affiliation, particularly of the LDS religion and its sense of family and sense of community. Those are wonderful things that a religion can bring to people, but what I don’t understand is how that community and family sense can lead to young people being excluded from the fold because they are different.”
Robbins values the way Moolman analyzes things, and following that, how he reacts to them.
“The executive director is required to do a vast array of things. Nonprofits have smaller staffs than a commercial setting. The hiring of an executive director was among the most important work I would ever do. We were excited with the broad base of candidates. Rob has an amazing skill set and his personal skills are exceptional,” Robbins said. “Choosing a new executive director was a lengthy process, as it should have been, but we were able to check all the boxes and come to a great result.”
Gnade is grateful to work alongside Moolman’s high energy, great ideas, and love for the community.
“I’m looking forward to retirement, but I’m very happy that I had this great experience with such strong board leadership and a wonderful staff committed to community,” she said. “Rob has not only the energy, but also the wisdom to take the Pride Center into the next level.”