Whether battling breast cancer, marching on Capitol Hill, or putting together informative — and cheeky — sex ed classes, Utah’s queer women of all gender identities are a powerful political force who like to have a good time. And for the last decade, one prominent local group has helped them do both.
SWerve (yes, the W is capitalized) began in 2000 as “a small group of women that started sWerve, and they started it to provide social opportunities for the queer female community as well as some civic things,” said Lynda Lee, the organization’s new Marketing, Promotions and Public Relations Chair.
“It had a lot of initial success because the organization filled a need that women wanted,” added board president Jeri Tafoya.
And what women wanted was community building mixed with a double shot of fun. Shortly after its founding, Lee said the organization’s focus shifted to holding monthly parties, which today include its popular Oktoberfest and Tie One On, a spring celebration combining speed dating, libations and, of course, sexy women in ties. But while Lee describes sWerve’s board as great “party planners,” the group hasn’t strayed from its civic commitment.
“In 2003, sWerve was formed into three houses known as Learn, Serve and Connect,” said Tafoya. The three parts of the organization surveyed queer women about their needs and wants and came up with a number of service ideas including housing and garden projects.
“Although the house idea didn’t flourish, the vision of the houses brought awareness and dialog to the special needs and interests that women had,” said Tafoya. “They saw behavior changes in and out of the community and brought a more positive awareness to the lesbians in general. They were very hands on with the community — painting homes, helping women move, etc.”
This was also the year that sWerve’s board became the organizing force it is today. Past members have included Daisy Johnson, Claudia O’Grady, Doris Watson, former QSaltLake columnist Laurie Meecham and Brandie Balken, who now serves as Executive Director for statewide gay and transgender rights group equality Utah. Their work for lesbian, bisexual and transgender women is evident today in things like the Utah Pride Festival’s Dyke March, which Balken and other board members helped found in 2003.
“They paved the road and gave [us] a great foundation in which to build on,” said Tafoya.
In the past, sWerve has worked with a wide array community organizations, and have worked or partnered with several that are women or queer-focused. These have included the Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the Gay Games, and 2004’s Don’t Amend Alliance, which was formed by the Political Action Campaign of Equality Utah (then called Unity Utah) to fight Utah’s ultimately successful constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
In addition, Tafoya noted that sWerve plans to make a donation to the New Horizons Women’s Shelter this year. The group has also collected jackets, tents and bus tokens for local homeless youth—several of whom in Utah, as in other states, identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise non-straight.
However, sWerve may be most famous for its scholarship program. Founded in 2004, the program awards two $500 scholarships to women in the community who exemplify the mission proclaimed on its website: “[T]o strengthen our community by promoting positive images and experiences of queer/ lesbian/ bisexual/ transgender women in Utah, building community among women, creating women-safe places, and engaging in civic action including education and community service.” One of its past recipients is Jordan Rullo, a graduate student in the University of Utah’s Clinical Psychology program who has facilitated a number of workshops on queer sexuality and emotional wellness.
Today, sWerve’s board consists of eight members, whose term limit is two years. This year, four of those members are new, including one woman who is 21 years old.
“She’ll add a great dimension,” said Lee. “We’re trying to attract more members from that age group because traditionally we haven’t gotten many young queer women.”
The organization is also hoping to do better in reaching out to the transgender women as ell as men — many of whom, Lee noted, identified as queer women before they identified as transgender men.
Overall, Lee said that the group hopes to take its mission and its sense of fun well into the next decade and beyond.
“It’s a good social atmosphere,” she said. “The thing that appealed most to me personally [when I joined] is that it is the one place you can go where you can see the women you know in the community.”
With nearly 1,700 followers on its Facebook page and roughly 250 regular participants in its monthly parties, sWerve is always looking for new members age 21 and up (women-identified people age18–20 are, however, welcome at sWerve events that are not held in age-restricted venues). The group’s next social event will be a camping trip near Payson Lake from Aug. 20–22. Families are welcome.
The deadline for sWerve scholarship applications is Aug. 1.
For more information about sWerve and its programs visit swerveutah.com. The group is a program of the Utah Pride Center.