While the 1950s should be applauded for the awakening of the gay and lesbian movement across the United States, here in Utah I mostly think of the 1950s as a sad time of quiet desperation for the queers who chose to remain rather than make the exodus to the West Coast.
What is remarkable to me about the decade in Utah is the almost total lack of news in media about homosexuality. The silence is maddening. “Don’t talk about it and it doesn’t exist” seems to have been the state motto.
I have personally researched the index of the Salt Lake Tribune from 1950 to 1959 seeking any feature articles that might imply a same-sex relationship between the people mentioned in them. The most I could find for the 10 years we call the ‘50s was 45 small news articles. Homosexuality when it was mentioned at all was regarded mostly in the context of criminal behavior. That was how society viewed gay people.
As 2009 is wrapping up, I am more keenly aware of how far we have come as a people. In the state’s largest newspaper, _Salt Lake Tribune_, which called us a “social evil that must be fought” in 1958, nearly every day there are local and national news articles on Queer people in Utah.
The war against homosexuals in Utah can said to have begun on June 9, 1956, when anti-secularist and Mormon theocrat W. Cleon Skousen was named Chief of Police of Salt Lake City. He promptly began a morality crusade. During the four years Skousen commanded the Salt Lake Police Department, he made his staff open all official meetings with a prayer, oblivious to the inappropriateness of doing so, and acted as if his agency was more an extension of the Mormon Church than of the city.
On Oct. 17, 1956, the Radio City Lounge, at 147 South State St., and the Boulder Tavern, on 24 W and 2nd S, had their beer permits suspended by the Salt Lake City Commission for 60 days on Skousen’s recommendation. While police gave no official reason for why these two taverns were singled out, police consistently raided both bars because they allowed same-sex dancing.
During the 50s and early 60s, gay life in Utah was extremely difficult. Gays and lesbians who wanted to go out and socialize were forced to wear gender-appropriate clothing. If they wanted to dance, they had to make sure there were two people of the opposite sex on the dance floor also, so the appearance of morally acceptable behavior was portrayed.
On Nov. 1, 1956, Skousen held a special preview for Salt Lake’s school board and educators of two films concerning homosexuality and molestation that had been prepared by the Los Angeles Police Department. Skousen wanted them to be shown in schools to warn children of the danger of homosexuality. He stated, “The films, which were produced in California, carefully outlined the pit falls of children in theaters, on streets, from the police point of view.” He added that police would purchase these films “if the school board agreed on their educational value.”
A week later, Skousen had the molestation films shown at the Salt Lake School District’s monthly meeting of principals and supervisors. The city’s Assistant Chief of Police, L.R. Greeson, told the educators, “Salt Lake City has a sex deviate problem of some consequence, and attempts must be made to place the city’s youth on guard.” Greeson tried to persuade the educators to use the films to show children the dangers homosexuals posed to them.
“The films have several values. They make children aware of the problem and dangers and also instruct him what to do in certain situations. I don’t see anything suggestive or offensive about films,” Chief Greeson told his audience.
“Many people seem to think there is no problem of the sex deviate in Salt Lake City. Frankly I have run into more of a problem here than in any other city I have worked in,” Greeley warned.
When a teacher objected to the films saying they might frighten the children, Greeson dismissed the concern saying, “some children may need to be frightened to be safe.”
Several teachers praised the films, touting them as being “what was needed to fill a need.” However, Dr. M. Lynn Bennion, superintendent of Salt Lake City schools, cautiously told Greeson that the matter of showing the films to students would be discussed by city school principals before a decision would be reached on whether to use the film in schools. Wisely, Skousen’s offer to purchase the films was turned down by the city school district.
While Skousen’s assistant was trying to convince educators to show molestation films in Salt Lake City’s public schools, the Police Chief ordered his officers to start charging deviant sex suspects under the harsher state law rather than the more lenient city ordinances. This was in an effort to stem what Skousen viewed as an increase in reports of molestation in Salt Lake City. He wanted a conviction under the state ordinance which would enable authorities to commit offenders to the Utah State Hospital for life if medical examinations showed that they were mentally ill. Homosexuality was listed as a mental illness prior to 1974.
Under Police Chief Skousen’s new directive, sex deviant suspects were charged with violation of Section 76-39-1 of the Utah State Code, which outlined misdemeanor moral offenses. If convicted, the prisoner was subject to other state statutes which permitted a medical examination to determine whether or not the defendant was mentally ill. If the medical report indicated the defendant needed treatment then Utah’s Legal Code Section 77-49-5 stated the offender be confined to the Utah State Hospital “for life.”
A person so committed to the hospital in this manner could only be released if the hospital superintendent certified that he was “reasonable certain that a repetition of the offense is unlikely.” Another legal statute specified that the committed individual must receive “such treatment as is best suited … care for the mental illness.”
The Police Chief added that his new directive would keep the public safe because, “If the medical examination shows the defendant is not mentally ill, he then will receive the normal sentence required by law.”