“The impact an event like Salt Lake City Pride has on the community is powerful,” says Sara Grossman, communications manager at Matthew Shepard’s Foundation. The foundation’s name honors an LGBTQ+ student that was victim to a fatal hate crime, so Grossman understands how important it is to recognize the influence Pride has on youth. “This is who gay pride is for, after all. Not those of us who have lived in NYC or LA or SF, and have had no problem being our true selves because we were safe, but for those who live in places like Salt Lake City or Laramie, Wyo., or any other red dot in America.”
Salt Lake City is a liberal island in a sea of red
“The first Pride festivals actually go back in the ’70s and ’80s, and [faced] Nazi [protestors], people throwing rocks; it was a nasty time,” says Wyatt Seipp, Utah Pride Festival media director and a volunteer at the Utah Pride Center. “Now, Salt Lake has the reputation of being one of the friendliest places for gay people. People who don’t live here always think they know what Salt Lake is like, and then they actually come here and find out it’s a lot different. Salt Lake is to Utah what Austin is to Texas: a very liberal island in a very conservative state.”
The tensions remain, but the overall vibe today is “super-supportive,” Seipp says.
Even with 30,000+ people turning out each year, the Pride parade is just the second-largest in Utah. The largest, which takes place every year on July 24, is Days of ’47, the commemoration of the day the first Mormon settlers came to Salt Lake Valley. If you were to attend both, you’d notice one a bit more dour than the other, with a lot of pioneer cosplay and handcarts and such.
“Ours is as over-the-top and colorful as you’d expect,” Seipp says. “And on a Sunday morning — when all our LDS friends are at church.”
The church will still only accept self-identified queer members if those members have promised to be celibate. Festivals and parades are ultimately the sum of the people who are in them; Salt Lake City Pride is a singular phenomenon because the city’s population is, too.
“Oh, honey, we’re all ex-Mormons,” O’Donovan says. “The Episcopalians, the Unitarians — they’re all ex-Mormons. I’m being a little flippant, but yeah, I can’t think of any of my fellow activists or colleagues back then who didn’t have a Mormon background. Ninety-nine percent. Most left on their own, or they came out and then kicked out.”
The newer guard, he says, is more religiously diverse. That includes the city’s current (since 2015) and first openly gay mayor, Jackie Biskupski, who grew up Catholic. In 2016, she married her fiancee Betty Iverson on the same day the Mormon church saw a mass resignation — more than 100 people — over its anti-LGBTQ policies. Such resignations are common enough that organizations such as QuitMormon have sprung up to help handle the transition. For many who leave the church, its refusal to accommodate its LGBTQ members has been central.
“I was in and out of [the church] for a long time,” O’Donovan says. “It’s such a part of your conditioning and your sense of identity. I’d get angry and leave, and then I’d find a cool congregation and attend for a while, and then they’d find out I was gay and there’d be, you know, problems, and I’d leave. It took four or five years to actually leave.”
Mormons Building Bridges is a model for allies everywhere
O’Donovan requested excommunication in 1990. But while huge contingents of Salt Lake City Pride Parade attendees were born into the Mormon Church, it is not the case that all of them have left it — several different active LDS groups now march each year. The most visible is Mormons Building Bridges, which has sent a float and hundreds of active LDS members to the parade each year since the group’s inception in 2012.
“It was a big moment when you first had 350 Mormons in their Sunday best marching in the Utah Pride Parade,” says Mormons Building Bridges co-founder Erika Munson. “And I think that indicated, hopefully, to church leaders that members wanted to use the principles of their religion to initiate LGBT outreach. Because of their religion. Not in spite of their religion. We want Mormons who aren’t a part of the parade to see us marching on a Sunday in our church clothes and say, ‘Oh, those people are my family. Maybe I’ve taken some distance but that’s my family.”
Utah has the nation’s highest youth suicide rate, and that specter hangs lowest over the state’s Mormon LGBTQ youth. “It’s on everyone’s mind here,” Seipp says. “In part, it’s because of the predominant religion here teaching that being gay is wrong.” Mormons Building Bridges is now joined by an increasing number of active-Mormon groups like Affirmation, a support group for queer Mormons, and Mama Dragons, a network of Mormon mothers advocating for their LGBTQ children with a particular focus on preventing suicides.
Munson (who is straight) says it’s dangerous to blame the LDS church for suicides — and suicide experts would caution that such rhetoric is dangerous for those who are at-risk — but that it’s something the church must reckon with honestly. No matter LDS policy, Mormons are going to continue having gay and trans children.
True to its name, Mormons Building Bridges has applied for a float in the Days of ’47 parade in each of the past four years. Days of ’47 has rejected them each time; maybe the fifth time, this year, will be different. Munson says they’re patiently looking forward to the time when Days of ’47 recognizes their commonalities and accepts them.
“We’ve seen initiatives on the part of the church that have helped,” Munson says. “We’ve seen church speakers be loud and clear about, ‘Don’t kick your gay kids out when they come out to you.’ But at the same time, there’s no doubt that they’re sticking to [their stance] that there’s no place in Mormon theology for same-gender couples.”
It is no longer the church’s view that one can and should pray the gay away. And yet, in 2015, the church enacted a massively controversial new policy subjecting same-sex Mormon couples to excommunication and barring their children from baptism until they turned 18 (Mormon children are traditionally baptized at age 8).
“Working for LGBT acceptance within the church, it’s a matter of learning how to live, in a healthy way, with dissonance,” Munson says. “But I’ll tell ya, committing yourself to a faith community where many have different perspectives than you? It’s a fabulous spiritual experience — it is amazing how much you can learn about faith, about patience, and loneliness and connection. That’s what I see in gay and trans Mormons now.”
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Kastalia Medrano is Thrillist’s Travel Writer. You can send her travel tips to firstname.lastname@example.org, and Venmo tips at @kastaliamedrano.
Photo courtesy of Jason Cameron