Since 2006, Jeremiah Hansen has co-chaired The Village Summit, a weekend-long workshop focused on issues of gay men’s health formerly known as Invenio. But before he joined the effort to decrease the number of HIV infections in Utah’s gay male population, his efforts were directed to another place – the stage.
“I taught folk dance in high school,” recalls Hansen. “My sister had a studio and I had my own for several years.”
Born to a large Mormon family and raised in Burley, Ida. (“We had a movie theatre, and that was about it.”), Hansen grew up dancing, and lead his students (many of whom were significantly older than he) to several competitions around the country. Hansen won so many awards and taught his students so well that he eventually received a dance scholarship to Brigham Young University.
“My parents didn’t want me to major in anything artistic,” he remembers. “They thought it was instant death, career-wise.”
Nevertheless, Hansen joined BYU’s folk dance ensemble and another group, Clog America. Between the two, he estimates that danced through approximately 20 countries, including Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Jordan, China and Vietnam.
“I got to see lots of the world on the cheep,” he laughs.
After returning from his mission, Hansen served as an intern for Disney, eventually dropping out of BYU and auditioning for the Lion King show at Disney World, in which he performed for six months. At the same time, Hansen says he was coming to terms with a far less fulfilling offstage performance – that of pretending to be a straight man.
“I think that’s kind of when I had a bit of a crisis,” he says. “I knew I was gay, but I felt a lot of guilt and felt I needed to be a good Mormon.” Wanting to stay in good standing Hansen confessed his sexuality to his bishop and went to church court where he was summarily excommunicated. He then moved in with his sister in Wisconsin.
“I literally lived in the closet in her son’s room,” he remembers. After attempts to date women for a few months and briefly attending a local college, Hansen realized that he was miserable.
“I was trying my hardest to be what I wasn’t,” he says. “So at the end of that year, I moved to Boise with my brother who was kind of the heathen of the family and came out for good.”
Although Hansen does not remember his time in Wisconsin fondly, the film classes he took there lead him to Utah in 2000, to work as a production assistant or art coordinator on several Disney Channel movies including the popular tweeny-bopper hit High School Musical. But the long hours and the uncertainty of getting steady work eventually made Hansen question where he was going in life.
“I felt I was devoting so much time to it, and I was just doing these fluffy films,” he remembers. “I wanted to give at least a few years to something more meaningful.”
Hansen’s search to “give back” to the world lead him to work for Equality Utah during its 2004 “Don’t Amend” campaign to defeat Amendment 3, which sought to amend Utah’s constitution to define marriage as the union between a man and a woman. With the help of then Equality Utah Executive Director Scott McCoy’s partner Mark Barr Hansen produced the organization’s campaign DVD, which volunteers showed at several house parties to encourage people to vote against the amendment. He also conducted the interviews and filmed the footage for the annual Equality Awards and volunteered for the Utah AIDS Foundation. And when the job of HIV Prevention Specialist opened up, Hansen submitted his resume.
The rest is, simply put, gay Utah history.
One of the first things Hansen did in his new job was to revamp the Village program into the HIV-fighting powerhouse it is today. “It had existed for a number of years, but it hadn’t been very active when I started, so that was really where we focused our energy,” he says. His idea for the new, improved Village? “To get guys from the [gay] community to come together and organize events that are fun and have a prevention message and to build community,” he explains. And according to him, the need to get gay and bisexual men talking about HIV education and prevention couldn’t come at a better time.
“About 75 percent of infections in Utah are gay men or gay men who inject,” he says.
To reach these at-risk men, Hansen and his staff of hard-working volunteers have tried a number of programs, including Gay Movie Night at the Tower Theatre, and a recent “bar-b-queer,” which drew “about 150 people.” And then there are the condoms. Under Hansen’s leadership, the Utah AIDS Foundation has gone to the clubs and bars to distribute over 70,000 condoms in the last year alone. The idea, Hansen says, is to make safer sex fun.
“We create safer sex packets with little fliers in them that are themed throughout the holidays or whatever’s going on at the time,” he says, citing the “Get Lei’d” packets and leis volunteers distributed at this year’s Utah Pride Festival as a particularly memorable example.
“The idea is that guys, at least from the focus groups we’ve done, are tired of hearing, ‘be safe!’ and fear messages. They think they already know all that,” he explains. “So the goal is to make [prevention] sexy, make it fun and positive rather than fear-based.”
Although Hansen has put his artistic talents to good use in his UAF job, he sadly “hasn’t danced much” since 2003. Today, he says he prefers a “domesticated” life with his partner, skiing, camping and puttering around the garden.
“We’re just now starting to harvest it,” he adds, gleefully.
After all his years of continent-hopping, he says the change is nice.
“It’s funny because this job requires me to be out in public and the community, so a lot of free time I just prefer to do more things at home whereas before I got the job at the foundation would love to go out and dance and be at the clubs on the weekend.”