About the time fictional cowboys Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist were riding the rump range in Wyoming and trying to learn how to quit each other, another fictitious movie cowboy struggled with his sexual orientation. On May 25 1969, the Best Picture of the Year went to Midnight Cowboy — the only Academy Award-winning film ever rated X (although it has since been re-rated as R).
Midnight Cowboy takes place in pre-Stonewall New York City, where Andy Warhol and his infamous Factory’s influence were at their height. Homosexuality was “inching its way out of the shadows,” but as the movie showed, it was still a source of deep shame. The movie’s main character, Joe Buck, is a young Texan who dreams of making a living in New York City as a gigolo. So he catches a Greyhound to the Big Apple where by chance he meets a seedy, shady character named Ratzo with whom he develops his only intimate relationship. At one point Ratzo, ridiculing Buck’s macho cowboy act, says to him, “That’s faggot stuff.” Buck hollers back, “John Wayne! Are you tryin’ to tell me he’s a fag?”
This odd couple learns to survive in a condemned building by caring for each other in the only way they know how — much like Jack and Ennis’ ill-fated relationship. However unlike the Brokebackers, Ratzo and Buck regard homosexuals with contempt and fear.
In the end both cowboys, Ennis and Buck, lose the one person they care the most about because of society’s disregard. But hey, this was the Sixties and homosexuals, who basically had a “non-existent status” in American society, could hardly expect to fare any better.
Ironically, Midnight Cowboy had a song in its soundtrack called “He Quit Me,” echoing the sentiments of Ennis Del Mar’s famous wish.
The same day that Midnight Cowboy was released with its X rating, making it dead in the water for any Utah screening, Salt Lake City was about to experience an example of the Youth Rebellion which was challenging authority all over the United States.
Few know that Sugar House Park once housed the Utah State Prison. On these 180 acres, Labor Union Activist Joe Hill was executed on May 19, 1915, despite world wide pleas for clemency. He was not alone. Between 1900 and 1951 nearly 40 people were executed by firing squad before the state penitentiary was moved to the Point of the Mountain.
By 1969, the park was a peaceful gathering place where Happenings and Love-Ins occurred for Salt Lake City’s long-haired hippies, flower children and other queers.
America realized that the times were a-changing when the July 7, 1967 issue of TIME Magazine ran the cover story: “The Hippies: The Philosophy of a Subculture.” America then learned that the members of this counterculture movement were adopting a communal lifestyle and renouncing corporate nationalism and the Vietnam War — all the while experimenting with sexual behaviors and new forms of mind-enhancing drugs. This alternative, psychedelic lifestyle put hippies at odds with most traditional middle class Western values. The hippie mantra said it all: “Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out.”
Although the “Establishment” viewed long hair on males — a symbol of the hippie movement — as effeminate and suspected most hippies were queer; the early hippies were not particularly tolerant of homosexuality. In fact, most male hippies were as misogynistic and homophobic as members of their parents’ the mainstream culture. However, within the bohemian counterculture from which the Beat Generation and hippies derived, homosexuals were able to experiment with gender and push the boundaries of sexual conventionality and conformity.
The hippie movement in Utah was also first noted in 1967, when a _Salt Lake Tribune article_ stated, “Another wave of state visitors — the Free Love Clan — has been apparent in Salt Lake City streets the past few weeks, a sudden blossoming of the Flower Children with sandals and beards and buttons.”
The article went on to claim that “Salt Lake City [was] known as a hot spot,” for hippies. The City’s Deputy Chief of Police tried to assure the panicky residents that the influx of hippies into the state was under control. He said, “These Hippies aren’t organized. They’re just disillusioned. They found San Francisco was no paradise and they are going back home to momma.” Ogden Police Chief reassured Ogdenites that even though five hippies had move to Ogden from California, they “were being watched “.
On Memorial Day Weekend in 1969, hundreds of young people were getting their groove on in Sugar House Park. Elvis Presley blared from transistor radios singing “In the Ghetto” and Friends of Distinction harmonized that “Grazing in the Grass is a Gas.”
But as two young brothers were cruising through the park, things turned un-groovy fast. A Salt Lake City police officer spotted their vehicle and noticed that it did not have a “damage release sticker” on the windshield. So he stopped the teenage driver, and then smelled a distinctively fragrant odor wafting from the vehicle. The cop proceeded to arrest the 19-year-old driver after finding “suspected marijuana.” but he was not prepared for the teenager to put up a fuss as he was handcuffed and shoved into the patrol car’s back seat.
A crowd of curious onlookers soon gathered to see what all the commotion was about, and the arrested teenager’s 22-year-old brother, Spencer Lee Anderson, began yelling “police brutality” and calling upon the crowd of several hundred to help intervene. The bevy of young people, learning that the kid was being arrested for marijuana possession, began to shout, “turn him loose,” “everybody smokes pot” and “pigs” at the arresting officer. At this point the young suspect bolted from the back seat of the squad car. As a back up reserve officer gave chase, Spencer tackled the cop, allowing his younger brother, still handcuffed, to dart through the crowd. The mass of youth had parted to allow the escape and then closed to block the police as the escapee sprinted across the park and then leapt onto the back of a motorcycle, which sped by to help with the get away. The motorcyclist then drove across the grass toward 13th East, ala Steve McQueen, and fled the park.
The riled-up park crowd was then told by the law officers to disperse, but without results. A back up force was called to Sugar House to scatter the hundreds of mostly 19-year-olds who were taunting the police and refusing to disband. The cops then ordered the park gates closed, released snapping police dogs into the crowd and ordered the lawn sprinklers turned on to break up the throng of angry youth who were rebuffing orders to leave the city park.
Meanwhile two Salt Lake detectives finally cornered and arrested the motorcyclist and passenger at 7th East and Browning Ave. In all six young people were arrested for possession of marijuana, interfering with a police officer, and failure to disperse before calm returned to the park.
The following Monday, May 26, Salt Lake City Police Chief Dewey J. Fillis demanded that the Salt Lake City Commission ban beer in city parks following the near-riot at Sugar House Park. He claimed that Sugar House Park had become a “gathering place for undesirable persons.” He added that 80 per cent of the persons who called his office complained about the hippies and were “tired and fed up with permissiveness of this element.”
The all-Mormon city council complied and placed a ban on consuming beer in all city parks. This is the lasting legacy of the rebellion at Sugar House.
Rather than the drunken deeds of hooligans, the rebellion at Sugar House Park can be seen as symptomatic of the anger that was boiling to the surface in a generation that distrusted anyone over thirty. This melee in Salt Lake City foreshadowed, by a month, another youth rebellion which would occur in Lower Manhattan under yet another full moon.
Meanwhile, John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded “Give Peace a Chance” on May 31.