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Lambda Lore

Gay life in 1988

utah gay life 1988
Written by Ben Williams

The year 1988 saw the beginning of true cooperation between the various diverse elements within the “openly” gay and lesbian communities of Utah at a time before we had heterosexual allies or any political clout. Thirty years ago the general perception of gays, especially here in Utah was that we were to be feared and hated for our “immoral lifestyle” and as “recruiters of youth.” Gay men were especially vilified as “purveyors of filth” and “spreaders of disease.”

We had the numbers to be a force to be reckoned with, but this virulent social climate, reinforced by church and state decrees, prevented all but a handful of folks who were willing to publicly identify with being gay.

The 1990 Census of Salt Lake County, Davis County, and Utah County showed a population of 1,185,000. Therefore, in 1988 it can be safely estimated that 90,000 or more homosexuals were living along the Wasatch Front if we did indeed make up 10 percent of the population. However, most were part of an invisible population.

While the majority of homosexuals sought each other out in clandestine places for sex and romance or stayed closets of isolation, still others found support and a sense of community within the eight bars within Salt Lake City and Ogden and within a growing number of local organizations. The increase of members in these organizations were due in part to the ever-increasing fear of the AIDS epidemic.

The only information phoneline in Utah for homosexuals was the Gay Help Line, which was listed in the phone directory. It was operated by Beau Chaine and supported by the Royal Court of the Golden Spike Empire and the Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah. Calls logged by the helpline between January and April 1988 were reported to the council and they indicated the priorities of the people 30 years ago who were seeking referrals or help.

Out of the 679 logged calls, 236 or 35 percent of them were seeking information about the bars. The next largest amounts of callers were simply hang-ups, making up 27 percent. These were the curious and people who were too afraid to talk to a real person. Forty-nine people sought counseling, 42 callers wanted information regarding any new organizations, 36 wanted information about the Mormon-centric Wasatch Affirmation, and 27 were referred to AIDS Project Utah.

Twenty-five callers wanted information about women’s groups which there was only Becky Moss’ newly formed First Thursday Women’s group. There was a women’s group known as Older and Wiser Lesbians, but it was generally a closed group. Women on Wheels was an activity group also that was guarded about who was invited.

Twenty-two calls were logged in as non-bar calls, whatever that meant. Twenty wanted information on Garth Chamberlain’s newly formed youth group, and 14 sought out information on national groups.

Seven callers requested information on Gay Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and seven people wanted to know about “transvestite and transsexual” organizations, of which there were none. These callers were referred to the RCGSE, which had a number of drag queens as they were felt they were most knowledgeable about cross-dressing and gender orientation issues. There were three calls referred to Michael Aaron’s Anti-Violence Project, three referrals to a Mormon parent support groups called People Who Care, and three more to Steve Brackenbury’s newly formed Gay Fathers support group. There were even two calls seeking information about the Gay Mormon Restoration Church. People Who Care was a Mormon support group for parents who had gay children and was not an advocacy group.

Organizations loosely associated with the bar community 30 years ago were the RCGSE, the Wasatch Leathermen, the Knights of Malta, and the Gay Rodeo Association.

There were two college Lesbian and Gay Student Unions, one located at the University of Utah and one at the Salt Lake Community College. An unofficial group for gay men was formed by students attending BYU and Utah Valley Community College. Geoff McGraff formed a support group called the Utah Valley Men’s Group for non-heterosexual men. The group was too afraid to use the word gay. Another group loosely connected with students and faculty at Utah State University in Logan was the Gay/Lesbian Alliance of Cache Valley.

Besides the Restoration Church, of which Bob McIntier was president, there was Metropolitan Community Church with Pastor Rev. Bruce Barton that also had an outreach to the gay community. Wasatch Affirmation was the largest support group for gay Mormons.

The only secular organization not affiliated either the bars or academia was Unconditional Support for Gays and Lesbians of which I was the director. Unconditional Support, LGSU, Affirmation, and MCC held a series of joint community dances for the youth group and others. Unconditional Support also sponsored the 1st three-day weekend workshop retreat at a YMCA camp near Kamas.

The Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah had found its purpose by 1988 and became the main clearinghouse for most of the community organizations. It also sponsored the Anti-Violence Project, an AIDS subcommittee, and the Utah Pride Day of which Floyd Gamble was elected its director. Pride Day was held in Sunnyside Park and a community service award was given to Dr. Kristen Ries for her humanity working with AIDS patients. The award would afterward be named for her.

The Desert and Mountain States Conference was a political organization whose Utah delegates met with delegates from Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona to network and share concerns that were unique to the Intermountain West as opposed to the West and East Coasts. The 1988 Conference was held in Denver.

AIDS organizations in 1988 were the AIDS Project Utah, of which Richard Starley was the director and the Salt Lake AIDS Foundation of which Ben Barr was the director. By the end of 1988 APU had closed its doors and the SLAF took over support for APU’s clients and eventually adopted the name the Utah AIDS Foundation. John Gatzmeyer ran a support group based on teachings of Louise Hay called the Loving Yourself Group. The Utah AIDS Commemorative Quilt Project was an organization that tried to promote the making of quilt panels for people who had died of AIDS.

Even with all these organizations and our gay and lesbian bars, there was still not much of a sense of a vibrant community. In October I had asked a question at Unconditional Support, whether we were really a gay community or only individual people who happen to be homosexuals.

I was surprised that even among the gays who were out of the closet, two-thirds of those attending the meeting still rejected the idea that Salt Lake City had a viable gay community.

The greatest inhibitor to the idea of an energetic gay community was mainly internal and external homophobia. At the time there had been a hope that the Mormon Church leaders were willing to have a dialog with us about homosexuality as Alan Gundry was touted as the church’s liaison between the Department of Homosexual Concerns and Affirmation. Instead, it was a false hope as that in 1988 “unofficially” the Mormon Church supported the Evergreen Foundation and its claims of success in “reorientation therapy” as a cure for homosexuality.

It was ironic that nationally, an evangelical Christian movement called Exodus which supported the gay reorientation organization, had refused to work with Mormon leaders who were also anti-gay. These Christian groups viewed Mormons as being members of the Satanic Cult of the Devil and therefore Evergreen was formed using Mormon theology to cure gay Mormons in Utah.

Photo: Garth Chamberlain

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Ben Williams

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