Richard Nixon became President of the United States in January 1969 and the Vietnam War was in its fifth year. As the year began, there were no gay and lesbian support groups in Utah — or anywhere else for that matter, except for a handful of national homophile organizations. There were no social outlets for homosexuals to speak of outside of the women’s softball leagues, which were primarily meeting place for lesbians.
Only two bars served the closeted homosexual community in Salt Lake City at that time: the Radio City Lounge for men and the Broadway Lounge for women. In Ogden there was also a bar called the Court. And while not officially a gay bathhouse, the Wasatch Springs Public Bath House and Plunge on Beck Street serviced a fairly large closeted homosexual clientele.
Outside of the bars there were no public places for gay men to meet. City parks, theaters and public buildings were largely cruising areas rather then gathering places. The places that saw the most activity were Pioneer Park, Liberty Park, Memory Grove, the Greyhound Bus Terminal, the State Theater, the Deseret Gym, and the Salt Lake City Library. The “skid row” section of 2nd South along 3rd West to 5th West, South Beach of Great Salt Lake and the Esquire Adult Theater were also popular cruising places.
As for gay publications, the only “gay” magazine accessible in Utah was the Los Angeles Advocate which in January had changed its name to simply the Advocate. If you were lucky and well-connected, you might be invited to a private party at someone’s home or apartment. Coats and ties were the appropriate attire for these swishy cocktail soirees .
In February 1969, then-BYU President Ernest L. Wilkinson, concerned about the growing homosexual conduct of his students, instructed all campus bishops and stake presidents to report to university authorities any student who confessed “unacceptable conduct.” This was a way, he said, of “eliminating students who do not fit into the culture of BYU so those who would fit into it might be admitted to the institution.”
With Wilkinson’s decree Brigham Young University, in effect, ended the confidentiality of its student’s confessions to LDS leaders. At the same time the university’s board of trustees — so the church’s General Authorities — ruled that homosexual students would not be admitted or retained at BYU without church leaders’ approval or consent.
In March 1969 the Salt Lake Police raided a private residence on Lake Street in Salt Lake City during which they seized pictures, books and movies which they considered pornographic. They confiscated thirty-five reels of motion picture film, many photographs and paperback books they found in a bedroom closet and also arrested the owner. The man was then fined $100, with a suspended 20 day jail sentence, by city Judge Melvin H. Morris.
However, not all Utah gays had their First Amendment rights violated that month. January 1969 also had the first student poem in Utah with a subtle lesbian theme published at Utah State University in Logan. It was entitled “Modigliani’s Gypsy.”
I wasn’t a resident of Utah forty years ago, so I was blissfully unaware of all these shenanigans. In 1969 I was a senior in high school in sunny Southern California. At that time, my main worry was registering for the draft in April when I turned 18.
In March 1969 I remember sitting at my open desk while my senior English teacher, Mrs. Appy, droned on about iambic and trochaic poetry meters. She kept tapping the blackboard with a wooden pointer, trying to teach us the rhythm of the verse. I sat as wooden as her pointer, watching the clock as it ticked along in its own cadence. I was bored. I slouched in my seat and looked up at the high slit windows.
I noticed then that a sunbeam had burst into the room. I was fascinated with how its brilliance illuminated the dust fairies swirling around within it, they blissfully unaware of the conformity that Mrs. Appy was dutifully trying to rap-a-tap into us, her dullards.
I let my eyes follow the beam down, down, down — until it rested on a single boy. The golden glow highlighted his face, which unlike mine was looking at Mrs. Appy attentively. To say I was entranced would hardly describe the feeling that welled up in me; my heart felt like it was exploding. The most beautiful god-like creature I had even seen was sitting in my classroom, resting his chin on his erect fist.
I know not how long I was frozen there staring at the chiseled portrait of this boy. But it was long enough for the girl behind me to giggle and for my face to burn hot in embarrassment. No matter. I had seen the most striking Adonis, and all this time he had been in my fifth period English class! I didn’t even know his name. That would change.
Today I would be called a stalker. Back then, I was a lovesick puppy sniffing out all the ways and stays of this beautiful boy. I couldn’t even tell you why, because I certainly wasn’t queer … still, there was this something that had no name then, but felt so sublime. In 1969 I had no vocabulary by which to label these feelings I had for this boy!
I quickly learned that his name was John Cunningham, a name like no other name; a name above all others, for it was his name. I also knew that I was different from all my friends. I now had a secret that I could never tell anyone else, ever. I was in love with a boy. It was my greatest joy and my deepest shame. I knew that if I had any chance at becoming John Cunningham’s friend, I would have to hide what my soul wanted to shout.
I didn’t know much of what was going on in the world in 1969, but I knew that being called queer was the very worse epithet that could be hurled at you. I was in love with a boy named John Cunningham, and I could not tell a single solitary soul. My life was a cliché. It was the best of times. It was the worse of times.
It was March 1969.