Lambda Lore

California Mormons and Gay Student Unions

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Ben WilliamsThe first openly gay person I ever knew was a Mormon student who attended Cypress College in Orange County California. It was 1971 and I really never knew any Mormons or gays before going off to college. This 18-year-old’s name was Kent Sandy Larsen and he took a perverse pride in the fact that his initials’ spelled KSL. Not until after moving to Utah did I realize why he had this affinity with these call letters.

Now, Kent was not only gay, he was a flamer. He was a fine art major and was creative as all get out. I was a history major but we were thrown together by Cypress College’s quirky decision to place all the humanities majors together in one building. He and I met in an art appreciation class taught by Terry O’Brien, who was a young and hot instructor, now living in Utah County. Kent informed me that O’Brien was also a Mormon. It was through my friendship with Kent that I discovered that there was a strong Mormon presence almost everywhere on campus; and I also learned that if Kent knew them, lavender was probably lurking nearby.

Kent Larsen and I became art locker mates and he first dropped his “hairpins” around me during a ceramic class we both were taking. Over a coffee break he confided in me that he was going through an identity crisis. He confessed that the love of his life was another Mormon with whom he had dallied all through high school. The romance ended when his love became Elder Farnsworth and decided to go on a mission. Kent was inconsolable. I confided in Kent that I, too, had a secret love, but unlike his, it had been unrequited. But we both had labored at love and lost, and along with the fact that we were just beginning our voyage into adulthood, this was enough to cement our friendship.

Kent’s mother was an old fashion, sweet, rhubarb pie-baking, coffee-drinking native of Ephraim, Utah. Kent was her baby and he had told her about his homosexuality after refusing to explain his absence from Gold and Green Balls any longer. Pained, she had written to Salt Lake City authorities for solace. She received none, and for some reason she decided I would be a confidant to whom she would pour out all her sorrows and disappointment in her church leaders’ silence. I think because I was not a Mormon and I was Kent’s friend, “sister” Larsen felt she could open up to me knowing I would not judge her as harshly as her Mormon peers would. I was a gentile after all, so my opinion really didn’t matter, anyway. But unbeknownst to Kent’s mother, I, too, had homosexual tendencies. Perhaps she suspected it, having scrutinized her own son’s lack of female friends. Or maybe not. But from these kaffeeklatsches I developed an appreciation for rhubarb pie.

Kent Larsen was a very vivacious blond Mormon youth, and he attracted a following of fawning gay guys and less attractive straight girls. He was a road show of enthusiasm and even ran for student body president of our college house and won. It was through my friendship with Kent that I ventured timidly into the previously hidden portals of the homosexual world. Kent kept an entourage of drama students who were not only openly gay, but flaunting it. I was not, however, amused, still pretending that I was just temperamental not queer. In 1971 I was barely acknowledging that I might have a tinge of pink in my nature.
In college, friendships often burn bright and fast and then burn out. I graduated with an associate degree from Cypress College with a skewed view of Mormons and homosexuality. I had this vague sense that since Mormonism was so quirky with notions of golden plates, lost tribes and polygamist pioneers that its followers would also be quirky and cool with homosexuality. I based this on the fact that nearly every Mormon I knew at that time was gay.

Kent was a year behind me in college, and in the fall of 1971 I had transferred to Cal State Fullerton. Kent remained at Cypress to reign as queen, and I settled into the dorms at the university. There my dorm mates were a hyper 17-year-old freshman jock and a 26-year-old Vietnam War navy veteran. The 17-year-old was trying to prove he was macho by binge drinking and fornicating with willing co-eds while my Navy mate, who looked like Robert Redford with his Sundance Kid mustache, used me to try and reacclimatize to civilian life. I was fascinated with them and we became really close as dorm mates can become. But I had a secret that, when revealed, turned our relationships topsy-turvy.

In August, before I transferred to Cal State Fullerton, a small group of Gay Liberationists had petitioned the Senate of the Associated Student Body for recognition of a Gay Student Union on campus. Only a handful of Gay Student Unions existed in 1970 — just  one year after the Stonewall Rebellion — but by 1971 they were popping up all over the nation. The Senate of the Associated Students of CSF voted overwhelmingly to approve the club.

However, the President of the Associated Student Body was a Mormon named Brent Fairbanks Romney, and then as now, Mormons felt they had the right to press their ideology upon non-Mormons. So Romney vetoed the Senate decision on Sept. 11, 1971, thus squelching the rights of homosexuals on campus to organize their own club. But while Romney managed to keep the Gay Student Union from being recognized as an officially sanction student club, he was not able to keep gays from meeting.

In October 1971 I saw a flyer on a campus bulletin board amid all the calls for war protest rallies and consciousness raising. It detailed the meeting time and place for a clandestine Gay Student Union. For whatever reason the fates were prompting me, I knew that my destiny demanded that I had to attend, and I did. Screwing my courage to the sticking-place and I hoping I would not fail, I walked into that college classroom where about seven souls had gathered to reclaim their lives and their choices. I felt at home for the first time in my life.

I never knew Brent Fairbanks Romney and he certainly never knew me. Why he felt he was entitled to dictate what I did with my life, I know not. Looking back now, I see that the Mormon Church then was filled with more Brent Romneys then Kent Larsens. It is true even today. More’s the pity.


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