When Matthew Landis was 21 years old, he attended his first protest in downtown, Salt Lake City. It was 1991, and radical actions from ACT UP and Queer Nation were erupting in cities across the country. The Grantsville native grew up in a Mormon home and knew he was gay at an early age—and he wanted everyone else to know it, too.
Sporting bright red lipstick and pearls, he set off for downtown to join members of the newly formed Queer Nation Utah. He, with original organizers Curtis Jensen and Rocky O’Donovan, led a rabble of some 40 “political queers” determined to shock Mormon Conference goers at Temple Square. “We wore shirts that said ‘fag’, ‘queer’ and ‘dyke’—things that, at the time, were very shocking,” Landis recalls. “We weren’t much interested in diplomacy.”
The group was outraged by rhetoric expressed by leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including apostle Boyd K. Packer who proclaimed homosexuals were “predators [who] proselytize the young or the inexperienced.”
But the newly formed Queer Nation, Landis says, was developing a voice. They rallied around the temple hoisting provocative signs that read, “Every Tenth Mormon is a Queer” and “Religion Can Be Cured.”
“Salt Lake changed after Queer Nation,” he says. “We would never be silent again.”
Sure enough, Utah’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has only gotten louder. Though they do not yet have the civil equality of their straight counterparts, they are rising in respect and influence. They attend dinner at the governor’s mansion, are VIP guests at the LDS Church’s Tabernacle Christmas concert, and Salt Lake City political candidates now aggressively court the gay vote.
“There was a time, not long ago, when candidates would whisper quietly, ‘I support you, but please don’t print my name anywhere in your literature,’” says openly gay Democratic State Party Chair Jim Dabakis. “Now, even conservative city candidates not only whisper support, they demand a good marching position in our Pride Parade.”
Mormons and Gay Liberation
In 1969, the famed riots outside New York City’s Stonewall Inn ushered in a new era, sparking the gay rights movement across the country and around the world. But, here in Utah, change didn’t come so quickly. That same year, future church president Spencer W. Kimball published The Miracle of Forgiveness, proclaiming a causal link between homosexuality and bestiality. “Satan incites the carnal man to ever-deepening degeneracy,” he wrote. “As an extension of homosexual practices, men and women have sunk even to seeking sexual gratification with animals.”
In 1976, Brigham Young University’s psychology department infamously conducted an electroshock study—“Effect of Visual Stimuli in Electric Aversion Therapy”—in which gay men were voluntarily adminstered shocks in three 10-second intervals. Then, in 1979, fingers were pointed at the university’s president and future apostle Dallin H. Oaks when a gay minister—and former Mormon—said he saw men from the BYU security force jotting down license plate numbers of cars with BYU stickers parked outside gay bars.
Queer Utah Organizes
Still, the LGBT community began to gather. Drag queens were among the first to organize. In 1976, they founded the “Royal Court of the Golden Spike Empire,” and produced drag shows to raise money for charities catering to the LGBT community. The Utah AIDS Foundation was founded 12 years later as the first cases of HIV and AIDS began to emerge. The community socialized in favorite bars Radio City Lounge, the Sun and Puss N Boots. By the mid 1980s, the program Concerning Gays and Lesbians was airing on community radio KRCL. The local transgender community also began to organize, first with a social group Engendered Species and later with the more politically active TEA (Transgender Education Advocates).
In 1993, playwright Tony Kuschner brought Angels in America to the Broadway stage. The play confronted the AIDS epidemic, smartly foreshadowing the deep connection between both the LDS and LGBT communities. The destinies of Mormons and gays were becoming intertwined in the national discourse, providing creative fodder for theatrical productions including the 2011 Tony Award winner The Book of Mormon in which Elder McKinnley, echoing the teachings of Boyd K. Packer, would encourage other gay Mormons to “Turn it off” like a light switch.
Throughout the early ‘90s, Queer Nation continued its role as tricksters, disrupting the city with gender chaos. Curtis Jensen’s favorite action occurred at the University Mall in Orem. “We went shopping in full regalia—black jean cut off shorts, pearls and red lipstick.” At Kingsbury Hall, he recalls, they threw flyers off the balcony during a Pet Shop Boys concert, effectively outing the then-closeted band to adoring straight fans. “Before our actions,” Jensen says, “all gay media was underground. We could not get mainstream coverage. By the time Queer Nation disbanded, gay issues were regularly covered by all TV stations and both major papers.”
Just in time. Utah’s LGBT community was soon to catapult onto the national stage.
Rallies across Salt Lake also brought Queer Nation to the steps of the Utah State Capitol.
East High’s Gay-Straight Alliance
“I thought I was the only lesbian at East High,” student Kelly Peterson told The New York Times in 1996, defending why she formed the first-ever gay-straight alliance at the Salt Lake City school. The move, meant to bring unity amongst gay teens, instead created a political and media firestorm, both at home and on the national stage. Peterson’s efforts brought down the wrath of The Utah Eagle Forum. “There was a flurry of hostile legislation led by Gail Ruzicka and her soldier legislators on the Hill,” Carol Gnade, then president of the ACLU of Utah, recalls of the battle. “They tried, unsuccessfully, to pass anti-gay legislation both for teachers and students.”
After a contentious battle, the Utah Legislature temporarily banned all extracurricular clubs. But the plan backfired. “Thousands of gay students and adults hit the streets holding demonstrations,” Gnade says. “At the same time new organizations such as Equality Utah and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network were born, the Utah Pride Center was built. We were now visible all over the state.”
Today there are more than 25 gay-straight alliances throughout Utah schools.
But perhaps nothing has built solidarity amongst Utah’s LGBT community more than the LDS involvement in supporting California’s Proposition 8. Three days after the historic vote, more than 3,000 angry Utahns surrounded Temple Square in protest and staged a kiss-in on Church grounds. Equality Utah seized the moment to promote pro-LGBT legislation through the Common Ground Initiative.
Surprised by the public backlash and onslaught of bad press—including a Sundance Film festival documentary 8: The Mormon Proposition—and ongoing high-energy protests, church leaders in 2009 agreed to meet with the organized LGBT movement. “Everyone was there with the intention to hear the other side and seek possibilities,” says Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah. “The hopes were to lessen the hostility and wounding that had occurred with Prop 8.”
The meetings were fruitful. The Church offered an olive branch by publicly endorsing Salt Lake City non-discrimination ordinances to discourage landlords and employers from evicting or firing someone based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Thirteen additional municipalities followed suit. Despite the Church’s endorsement, the Chamber of Commerce and positive public polling, the Utah Legislature killed a proposed statewide non-discrimination ordinance in the 2012 session. The pro-gay legislation was sponsored by Mormon Sen. Ben McAdams, who has vowed to return the bill until it passes.
Despite a “we vs. them” mentality, the LDS Church and the gay community are finding ways to work together and move beyond their tenuous and rocky past. And, as a result, Salt Lake is changing. Earlier this year, The Advocate named Salt Lake City the “Gayest City in America,” and the annual Pride Parade now rivals in size the Pioneer Day Parade. “We are the Gays of '47,” laughs Landis. “Looking back, I think we accomplished what we set out to do.”