Lambda Lore

Lambda Lore: The founding of Utah Pride Center

OK, I know I am a history nerd, but it irks me when I see wrong dates listed in our community. For example, I see time and time again that the Utah Pride Center says it was founded in 1992. If you accept that the Pride Center is an extension of the former Utah Stonewall Center, and I question that, then get the facts straight. The year was 1991!

Twenty years ago, on June 1, 1991, the Utah Stonewall Center held its gala grand opening. I know. I was there. It was held at 450 S. 900 East, suite 140 in space located by Ben Barr, executive director of the Utah AIDS Foundation, whose own office at the time was in the same building. The opening of the Stonewall Center was the fruition of two years of planning the part of the Community Center Committee of the Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah. The council was a quasi-political organization in which representatives from the major gay organizations and activists met monthly to unify our community. Well, at least we tried to unify our community. Much of the time we just bitched at each other.

The Utah Stonewall Center was just one of the committees of the council. Others included Gay Pride Day, the Anti-Violence Project, AIDS Awareness and other community outreach projects. Both the Utah Stonewall Center and Gay Pride Day outlasted the council which disbanded in 1995 due to lack of interest and participation.

In 1988 I had proposed at a community council meeting that we form an exploratory committee to see if the community at large would support a center. At the time we could barley support the council so the timing was not right and the motion was tabled. It was not until 1989 that the issue of a community center was raised again. Garth Chamberlain of the Utah Gay and Lesbian Youth, which had the unfortunate acronym UGLY, made a motion that the council should form a committee to plan for a gay and lesbian community center. This time the motion passed and Jim Hunsaker, a former president of Lesbian and Gay Student Union at the University of Utah, was chosen as chair of the newly formed committee.

The first meeting to organize and plan for a community center was held July 23, 1989 at Jim’s place. The first meeting was not overwhelming supported with only three people attending: Jim Hunsaker, Robert “Bobbie” Smith, representing Unconditional Support for Gays and Lesbians, and me who was Secretary for the Community Council. Only thing really agreed upon at that first meeting was that we ought to look at buying a building rather than renting. We had very grandiose ideas, even if we had no money. I think we even picked out the color of the curtains.

On Aug. 20, 1989 the planning meeting, as authorized by Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah, met again at Jim Hunsaker’s house. Our little committee grew to five people, Jim, Garth Chamberlain, Bobbie Smith, Liza Smart, of Older and Wiser Lesbians, and I. At this meeting we struggled with what to call the center. I proposed that we include the word Stonewall in our title. I had just previously returned from celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion and strongly felt that having that name in our title would be empowering and educational. The committee unanimously accepted the moniker and presented it to the council the following month for consideration. In September Utah’s community center had a name if not a location.

At sequential meetings the Utah Stonewall Center committee began to flesh out what the mission statement for the center would be and what kind of vision did the community council have for it. First and foremost, the center was to be a gathering place. We envisioned pool tables, pinball games, a library and a coffee shop. The gay help line and community resources would be located there and staffed by volunteers. However,  we had no way of getting the funds to rent a space let alone buy a building. Eventually Jim Hunsaker resigned as chair of the committee replaced by Bobbie Smith, who in turn was replaced by Charlene Orchard, a financial planner.

Orchard was the organizer who turned dreams into reality. She reorganized the committee and wrote grants for the funding that eventually allowed us to secure the means to rent space. While Orchard and her committee searched for a building, Smith with Liza Smart began to create a library. More than one thousand books were purchased and donated and housed in Smith’s apartment until the space on 900 East was secured. By the time the library was ready to be moved the collection had grown to 2,500 volumes and was one of the largest gay libraries in the nation. In comparison the Salt Lake City library had less than 75 books on homosexuality in their collection. The pair single-handedly transported the library and set it up in the new building. Unsung heroes.

About this time Smith approached me to house my archives and collection in the library and I agreed; so upon the grand opening of the Utah Stonewall Center, it had a huge lending library, an archive and a community reference center, but no pool tables.

The Center was a project of the council and operated through its non-profit status. The council felt ownership of the center and felt that the center was answerable to them. This was not the view of Orchard who was Chair of the Center’s board and Craig Miller, the first executor director of the Utah Stonewall Center. Having no connection or affiliations with members of the community council, Miller and Orchard felt no allegiance to the council and eventually a major blow up would occur over what was the purpose and intent of the center.

But on that festive occasion of June 1, 1991 white helium-filled balloons tied to lavender streamers filled the office space. Local musician Kathryn Warner performed at the open house while later Connell “Rocky” O’Donovan of Queer Nation gave a brief address to a crowd of about 25 people on the need of gays to gather together and have their own space. Nearly 100 people visited the brand new center off and on throughout the day. It was felt to be a rousing success.

After the center closed at 9 p.m., the party moved to the In-Between, a bar located at 579 W. 200 South, which was holding a disco night as a benefit for the center. I wrote the following in my journal about the evening. “I danced primarily with Bobbie Smith but it didn’t matter, everyone was out on the floor discoing to  “I Will Survive,” “I Love to Boogie” and “YMCA.” Craig Miller and I were bumping hips. Lots of Fun! But I am extremely exhausted.”

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