Lambda Lore

Last of the gay historians

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The author Pearl Buck once said, “If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” Sometimes I feel like I am the grandmother’s attic for the gay community. Scattered about, dusty, rarely looked at, with years of recollections, articles, and reflections waiting to be boxed up and taken to the dump when grandma’s house is razed for something newer and shinier. Well, that’s the nature of things.

However, I think it’s a sad commentary that I am virtually the only person trying to preserve our collective history here in Salt Lake City, the Crossroads of the West. No matter how committed I may be to being impartial, my perceptions will color and misrepresent people and events of the history of the struggle for gay rights in Utah.

I know of only two others who have tried to preserve our history: Connell “Rocky” O’Donovan and Jay Bell.

O’Donovan and I founded the Utah Gay and Lesbian Historical Society in 1988. At the time I was more of an archivist while O’Donovan was doing some first-rate research into early Utah Mormon history. He began collecting and archiving documents, photos and other materials relating to homosexuality and transexuality. In 1992, through Signature Books in Salt Lake City, he published a preliminary history called” The Abominable and Detestable Crime Against Nature: A Brief History of Homosexuality and Mormonism, 1830-1980,” which is now online at www.connellodonovan.com.

O’Donovan moved away from Utah to Santa Cruz, Calif. in 1994, where he maintains, in his home, the large archive of historical material related to both Utah and Mormonism.

In 1995, the year after O’Donovan left Utah, Bell attended his first meeting of Affirmation in Salt Lake City where he came out as a gay man.  Bell, despite being completely blind in one eye and legally blind in the other, was an avid reader and researcher. His love for research began as a student at BYU. Bell belonged to a group known as the “Xerox Priests,” an underground group of BYU students who spent hours photocopying the controversial Mormon historical documents that were emerging in those days. He was perpetually collecting documents and sharing them with those who asked for a copy.

Bell’s first research project was looking for gay Mormon related articles in the local papers. He later expanded his research over the Internet, capturing hundreds of pages with gay Mormon related articles from the web. Bell also conducted research outside of Utah – at the One Institute and Archives in Los Angeles and at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

During the last years of his life, Bell was a permanent fixture at the LDS Church Historical Library on Temple Square and the Special Collection at the Marriott Library. His concern for the preservation of gay Mormon history led him to create the Affirmation Collection at the Marriott Library at the University of Utah. He and I also worked together to start a similar collection of Utah gay history at the university’s special collections. Eventually, Bell wrote several articles for the website for Affirmation (www.affirmation.org). He also composed a data-disc compilation of some 130 documents and articles related to homosexuality in the LDS Church and the Community of Christ.

Bell died as consequence of a traffic accident in Salt Lake City,  in 2003, precisely when his remarkable research was beginning to bear fruit.

Now I am the last gay historian to remain in Utah, but I’m the first to admit that my collection is tainted by biases imprinted at an early age. It focuses on the people I knew either personally or by common knowledge. I have an encyclopedia memory of first hand events from 1986-1997 but I rely on the memories and printed articles of others for events prior and afterward. Though, I’ve tried to be objective.

I have written a history column for Utah’s Gay publications since 1987 and acted as the archivist for the old Utah Stonewall Center from 1991-1997. After the closure of the archives, I rebuilt my collection, and with the help of the late Chad Keller, restarted the Utah Stonewall Historical Society, which can be found on Facebook.

I stopped recording Gay events at the end of 2010. In an era where the Salt Lake Tribune has a blog page devoted exclusively to LGBT issues, it has become tedious, as well as irrelevant, to record the minutiae of our lives. There was a time when one had to ferret and sniff out our hidden history since we were a taboo subculture in Utah society. We can hardly be called a subculture or taboo anymore. We have become so main-stream that we are now simply ordinary, which, to me, is extraordinary. I liked it better when we were simply fabulous. In the not so distant past, we had to be fabulous to overcome the slings and arrows of a hostile society that were directed at our collective soul.

O’Donovan, Bell and I all kept a history of gays in Utah for various reasons. None of them was for fiduciary benefits. While I cannot speculate on why O’Donovan and Bell devoted much of their lives to reclaiming our past, one of my main reasons for 25 years of record keeping is that I felt the story of the determination of a people to fight for dignity and justice has to be told.  I am also convinced that a people without a history are not a people. What binds us together is our connection to the past. Yes, I am old school and still believe that gays are a “people” with special and unique quantifiers that make us slightly different from heterosexuals, not better or worse but certainly out of the ordinary. And it’s our right to know where we came from and how we got to where we are now. That’s my bequeathment to a community I have always been proud to have served and have loved. We have a common legacy.

Finally, I like to think of my writings and interpretations of past events as how the American philosopher Elbert Hubbard once defined history as “gossip well told.”

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