Russ Lane died Sunday, Oct. 24. Anyone born after 1975 is probably wondering, “Who’s that?”
Well, let me tell you. He was a giant. In my lifetime I’ve known four giants — people who came to Utah on a mission. They were Robert Waldrop, Luci Malin, David Sharpton and Russ Lane. Each of these people heard their own special calling to come to Utah to fight the good fight for equality. I, myself, am just an accidental activist. I didn’t move to Utah to be an activist. I was kind of just pulled here by fate and fell into the role. The aforementioned individuals had callings.
Robert Waldrop had a passion to be an ecumenical activist, a role patterned after black ministers during the civil rights struggle. Waldrop, as pastor of Salt Lake City’s Metropolitan Church, used his ministry to preach social justice for gays and other oppressed minorities. Luci Malin came to Utah as an Equal Rights Amendment missionary. After ERA’s defeat, she stayed to champion the rights of all women, lesbian and hetero. David Sharpton came to Utah believing that he would be an emissary between the LDS Church and Utah’s gay community. But after learning that the church had no intention of offering an olive branch, he stayed on to become the spokesman for AIDS awareness across the state.
Russ Lane felt he had a similar calling. He felt that he was on a mission to rekindle the flame of Affirmation that he believed had gone out in Utah. Affirmation is a national support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people with an LDS faith or heritage. Catholics have Dignity. Episcopalians have Integrity. Unitarians have Interweave. And Mormons have Affirmation. Unlike the other organizations which had some ecclesiastical support, Affirmation was on its own with no official recognition by the LDS Church.
Affirmation was founded in Salt Lake City in 1977, and the organization soon flourished in California, the bastion of expatriate Mormons. The original Salt Lake Affirmation had its ups and downs, depending on who was willing to facilitate the group. By 1986, Salt Lake City Affirmation was meeting every other week with only a handful of attendees. It seemed to be adrift on a sea of malaise.
In February 1986, a 29-year-old man arrived in Salt Lake City from San Jose with a suitcase and a mission. This tall, lanky, redheaded Iowa native had an epiphany in California. It was revealed to him that the Utah Gay Saints were in a quandary, and the Lord thus said, “Go east, young man.” And so Russ hopped on a bus and came to Utah. He was going to set Affirmation aright by forming a new group, one that would abide by the national charter which decreed that the Word of Wisdom must be adhered to at meetings and that each meeting must open and close with a prayer. Russ arrived in Salt Lake City without funds, a job or a place stay, but found all within a very short time.
I first met Russ within weeks of my finally coming out of the closet in 1986. I had surreptitiously attended my first gay support group after Becky Moss promoted it on KRCL’s Concerning Gays and Lesbians. It was the Salt Lake Chapter of Affirmation. A young man there told of a gay Mormon Church being formed, and since at the time I was still of the LDS persuasion, my coming out had to be through the symbols, rituals and jargon with which I was familiar. Baby steps.
At the first meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of All Latter-day Saints, I saw a handsome red-haired man with a neatly trimmed mustache. His name was Russ Lane. I must admit that I was immediately smitten not only by his looks, but by his charisma. He was so full of enthusiasm and had all the spunk of a Mormon missionary after his first baptism. It was at this church meeting that I learned he was here to form a new group which he named Wasatch Affirmation.
The Wasatch Affirmation and Salt Lake Affirmation were like night and day. Russ’ infectious spirit was contagious. We all felt like we wanted to be part of his grand plans. However, toward the end of March, Russ Lane’s prospects for employment were nonexistent. He told me that he was leaving Salt Lake. This I could not allow. I knew that Russ was here to do good things, and that his being here would touch the lives of hundreds of gay men and women throughout the state.
I decided to approach my own boss and told him that if he hired Russ, I would personally train him and keep his production up as well as my own. My boss reluctantly agreed. I then went to Russ, told him what I had done, and then offered him to come live with me.
For about six months I was Russ’ confidant and supporter. But as I began to become more confident in myself as a gay man, Russ and I had several disagreements. I felt that Russ was too singularly involved in promoting Affirmation at the expense of the broader burgeoning gay community. However, Wasatch Affirmation, under his leadership, expanded from 70 to 100 members attending on a weekly basis. Next to the Royal Court of the Golden Spike Empire, Affirmation in the late 1980s was the largest gay organization in Utah due solely to Russ’ dedication and singularity of purpose.
In 1988 Russ Lane was elected director of the National Affirmation organization. After serving for a year, he found that he, too, had outgrown his own organization and left Wasatch Affirmation in 1989. Wasatch Affirmation continued to exist until 2006. Later in life, Russ would go on to find a place for himself in the First Baptist Church of Salt Lake City, having once served on its board of directors. However, he spent his remaining years out of the spotlight of gay activism.
Russ and I diverged completely on the political spectrum as I became a more avid proponent of gay rights and a queer identity. When we lived in the same apartment building, the now-demolished Juel Apartments, we had some doozies of fights over how best to advance the cause of gay rights. I’d rather not remember Russ from all the fussing and quarreling we did as young men. I’d much rather remember him as the man from the profile I wrote a day before his 30th birthday.
“After work I went to Cahoots to buy Russ Lane a birthday present. I bought him this cute card with a sexy guy on it, a Chippendale Calendar for 1987, some male magazines, and a birthday cupcake. I brought them upstairs to him about seven-thirty to wish him a “Happy Birthday Eve.” I didn’t know if he had birthday plans for tomorrow so I wanted to catch him home tonight. After inviting me in, I gave him a body massage and rubbed him down with Vick’s Vapor Rub since he said he was coming down with a cold. After having him all rubbed down, I just held Russ in my arms and said that I’m glad that I’m the person you are spending your last night with in your 20s. We just held each other, cried a little, and laughed a little.”
Russel Eugene Lane, rest in peace, 1956–2010.