Each year QSaltLake names a Person(s) of the Year. From politicians to community leaders, we’ve covered the gamut of community members that have made an impact in the Beehive State. This year, we’re honoring a selection of unpaid volunteers who keep the standard of living for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Utahns very high and very fabulous. Without these individuals, many programs and social groups would collapse, rallies and gatherings wouldn’t be held and the Utah would be a much less fabulous place to live.
Kirk Birkle is the president of the Utah Bears, a social group for larger, hairy men and their admirers. He’s helped lead charity drives, social events and organize a weekly coffee mixer. For more information, go to utahbears.com.
Why did you get involved with the Utah Bears?
I wanted to be part of an organization that provides a place for people to belong, be respected, and gives back to the community — that is the Utah Bears. It is both a social and service organization. It’s a great group of guys who originally came together based on body characteristics and image; now it’s about inclusion and promoting diversity regardless of characteristics and image. In my almost five-year involvement in this group, we have seen our membership and our level of community involvement increase. I consider myself fortunate to find a group I am proud to belong to, participate in, and lead.
Why do you think social groups are important for Utah’s gay community?
Social groups can provide a home for people — a place where one feels safe and valued. Additionally, social groups provide a way for individuals to connect and feel a part of their community, based on interests and kinship.
If you could have one super power, what would it be and why?
The super power I would like would be the ability to turn hate into appreciation, not necessarily acceptance or love — as we need conflict to progress and grow.
Lee Castillo is involved with several projects benefiting homeless youth in Utah. He’s responsible for raising thousands of dollars for the overnight shelter.
What organizations are you currently working with?
I do a variety of things for Volunteers of America Homeless Youth Resource Center and volunteer with the Royal Court of the Golden Spike Empire. I have been a strong advocate for the HYRC. I’ve sorted donations and worked with workshops over the years. This last year I worked with the Pride Center and helped revise and give ideas for state policies that affect queer youth in state’s care.
You recently sponsored a fundraiser for the Volunteers of America. How much money did you raise and why did you decide to sponsor that organization?
We raised more than $2,300. I attempt to do two fundraisers a year for VOA and their efforts to secure the first overnight shelter for homeless youth. I think a lot of my own struggles finding acceptance and understanding within my own family have lead me to the youth. I identify with their struggle because I’ve had so many. I’ve sofa surfed, stayed with friends and even though I’ve never had to sleep on the streets, I know how it feels to think you are all alone.
What’s your biggest fear?
My biggest fear is making a client’s life worse than before I was involved. I hope to improve people’s lives. Also I fear being a disappointment to my nieces and nephews.
Aaron Smith plays an optimal role in the organization of Utah’s Pride Softball League. He spends all year prepping to make each season a huge success.
How long have you been involved with the Pride Softball League?
I first started participating in the league during its inception in 1995 and have played in 17 of their 22 seasons. I have assisted with running the league since 2006.
Why do you think it’s important to have LGBT-inclusive sports groups?
It gives us a safe environment to seek out recreational activities with like-minded people with no stress, drama or fear of violence – where we can be ourselves. Another reason is with all the networking leagues and organizations that can cross-promote or sponsor an important event or just get the word out allows us to prop up and support the causes that are so important to us. But most of all, it’s because so many of us know each other and it gives those who are new to Salt Lake a sense of support and can make new friends. It helps us realize we are our most valued asset, and with the organizations we have behind us builds a stronger community.
When does next season begin and how can people join a team?
Our next season begins Sunday, April 14, and runs through August, with an end-of-season tournament and banquet. Open registration begins Feb. 1 through March 24, location and dates TBD.
Would you rather be rich or famous?
Definitely rich, being famous is definitely something I am not too keen on.
Wes Heaps, former chair of the Queer Utah Aquatic Club, helped lead the club in local and international competitions in 2011. For more information, go to quacquac.org.
What’s the key to QUAC’s success?
QUAC’s success really is in the enthusiasm and countless unseen hours of effort that all its members put into the organization. QUAC’s board and coaching staff are entirely composed of volunteers who donate their time and effort making it such a great and welcoming place for everyone. I think the key to QUAC’s enduring appeal is really in its inclusive and welcoming atmosphere. It doesn’t matter how well you swim, there’s a place for you at QUAC!
Why is it important to have social and sports groups such as QUAC in the LGBT community?
I think social and sport organizations such as QUAC are a vital and vibrant part of any LGBT community. It’s so important that we have a place to belong and provide a place of inclusion for everyone.
If you could choose a super power, what would it be?
I’d choose the power to jump into anyone’s head and experience their lives as they do. People fascinate me and I’d love the ability to understand and experience what they experience.
Connie Anast is the head of Transgender Education Advocates of Utah. The group serves as a resource for state officials, as well as individuals to learn more about trans issues that affect Utahns.
What projects or events is TEA of Utah working on now?
TEA is gearing up for an exciting year of advocacy and education. Our first focus is to assist the Utah Drivers License Division in streamlining their policies to include transgender individuals. This includes being able to photograph in the hair and clothes they wear every day. This is a daunting task, but one with great promise. We have made considerable gains with the DLD and are partnering with them to create a full training curriculum that will also include a video used across the state for their employees.
How long have you been involved with the group?
I began Transgender advocacy in 2007, slow and small at first, as a friend to the community. One of my best friends in high school came out and began his transition, which was the catalyst for me to begin learning about the trans* community. In 2010, when TEA applied for their non-profit status, I was appointed to the board of directors and served as treasurer. In 2011, I was honored to be appointed as executive director. The position is non-paid, but one I dearly love. As Mara Keisling, director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, says, “You have to be amazed by the work in order to be amazing.” As amazed as I am by trans* advocacy, I certainly hope one day I will be amazing.
Would you rather have the superpower to be invisible or to read minds?
I would have to say read minds. It sure would come in handy when I need to present for a grant or meet with a Republican! I’m kidding … kinda.
Dominique Storni is everywhere. From Transgender Awareness Month events to rallies and everything in between, Storni is a well-known face in many areas of the community.
If you could improve one aspect about Utah’s queer community, what would it be and why?
The one thing that most needs improving is the lack of inclusion in our own community. False hierarchies serve only to keep us divided, not united. And divided we will fall. United we will stand.
Until we learn to embrace the queerness and gender queerness within our own community, how can we expect heterosexual and cisgender folks to accept us?
There is diversity; black and white and everything in between, gay and straight and everything in between, male and female and everything in between. Let us splendor in and embrace the differences and use our diverse strengths to gain full equality for all people.
If you could encourage people to attend one function or fundraiser each year, what would it be and why?
The one event that is most close to my heart is the Transgender Day of Remembrance Candlelight Vigil. It is held every Nov. 20. This year was the 14th year of this international event, and the 11th year we have held this solemn ceremony in Salt Lake City.
This past year 265 people around the world were killed, just because they were transgender, binary gender non-conforming or perceived to be so. There were 15 in the U.S. This is the event that inspired me to start Transgender Education and Awareness Month in 2002, with the help of Darin Hobbs, then-assistant executive director of the Pride Center.
If you could have had the starring role in one film already made, which movie would you pick?
Probably Better than Chocolate because in that movie, even the older MTF transwoman found a girlfriend.
Valina Eckley helped launch Cheer Salt Lake, a queer-inclusive cheer squad that helps raise funds for the Utah AIDS Foundation and other worthy causes.
With practices, organization and other tasks, running the cheer group must feel like a full-time job. Why do you do it?
After eight years of living in Japan, I decided to come back to America because I was obsessed with Cheer San Francisco and their 30-year history of philanthropic cheerleading. Within my few short months in the Bay Area, I became good friends with all of CheerSF and the sister teams of the Pride Cheerleading Association. At SF Pride, I was honored to volunteer with the PCA and took the title of top fundraiser as we were raising money for the AIDS Emergency fund.
Since losing my job the week after arriving from Japan, I moved to the Salt Lake area. I took the bold decision to spread the love of the PCA to Salt Lake. I knew Utah already had amazing talent.
I took cheerleading classes with 12-year-olds. Thankfully Andrew, Alex, Mike and Wes came on board. I have high hopes for Cheer Salt Lake over the next 10 years. Not only will our talents and skills be top notch, I want us to be considered one of the top entertainment-for-charity groups in the area.
Would you rather have fame or money?
Money, the reason is not because I want to be able to fly away to my private island on a moment’s notices, but because I know it is better to put your own mask on first before assisting others. Right now, Cheer Salt Lake is operating on a skeletal funds donated by team members through team dues. However, if we had more money to invest in the team, the team would be able to make more for our beneficiaries. As for fame, that will come from our fabulous performances!
Peggy Bon is an activist and volunteer in Northern Utah. Her sunny disposition and steadfast desire to aid her community’s growth is admirable, to say the least.
What groups are you currently helping?
The only group I work with presently is Ogden OUTreach Resource Center. And I am passionate about all we’re doing at OUTreach! And there is a lot going on — more than meets the eye!
What do you like most about volunteering in Northern Utah?
For years and years now, I’ve felt that something should happen in Northern Utah. You shouldn’t have to move to Salt Lake City to participate in life. Without OUTreach, these youth have zilch, nada, nothing. And that isn’t right. Also, a part of what OUTreach is trying to do is change the culture so our youth will have a more hospitable place to live and grow, so they can thrive. And those causing the problem aren’t going to drive to Salt Lake for community conversations.
If you were given 24 hours to live, what would you do?
I think I’d just ask everyone I love to come to my home and hang out. I’d want to be at my place of abode because I really like my yard, all my flowers and trees, and I’d want to spend my last 24 hours in my yard surrounded by all the people I know and care about.
Logan Brueck has helped coordinate Utah’s Pride Parade as it has grown by leaps and bounds each year. He’s also involved with the Righteously Outrageous Twirling Corps. For more information, go to rotcslc.com.
The ROTC is one of the most honored and visible LGBT-inclusive groups in the community. Why do you think it’s been popular?
I’m not really sure why, but I’m not going to question it. I think that it’s due to the fact that we are such a different style of performance and such a diverse group being made up of straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer members. We also play hard and really work at getting ourselves out there.
What are the biggest challenges facing a queer-inclusive social group in Utah?
I have to say that it has to be breaking the stereotypes and being able to perform and fit in with all groups and events. Every performance we do is based on the event that we will be showcased in. We write two drills to each number, a PG-rated and an R-rated, so we can perform them depending on where the event is and to suit our audience.
If you were stranded on a desert island and could have one book and the ability to watch one movie, what would they be and why?
Book: a cookbook; if I find something to eat I can cook it. If I don’t then I can eat the pictures in the book. Movie: Last Holiday with Queen Latifah. It tells me to live life to the fullest and to be open but loving.
Becky Moss has been involved in local political and non-profit organizations for more than a decade.
How long have you been involved with the Stonewall Democrats?
Off and on since close to it’s inception. I was lucky enough to serve with David Nelson, Michael Piccardi, Nikki Boyer and now Todd Bennett.
Why is the Stonewall Democrats an important group for the community?
Utah’s LGBT people and supporters deserve to know about, and participate in, the political process — we provide that access. Especially through a political party that embraces our community.
What’s the best way for people to get involved with the Stonewall Democrats?
First, vote. Vote at every election, sign up for vote by mail, just vote. Second, check out our website and our Facebook page. Third, attend our monthly board meetings, the second Saturday of every month, 10 a.m., Salt Lake Public Library. Fourth, call any board member and attend our events. If there’s not a USD chapter in your county, start one.
If you won the lottery, what would you do with the prize?
I wouldn’t tell anyone, but I expect that a lot of friends, family, non-profit organizations and total strangers would find financial windfalls.
Roque Salas plays an intricate role with the Utah Gay Fathers Association and with the Temple Squares, a queer-inclusive square dancing group. He’s also a familiar face at nearly every gay and affirming event in the city.
You’ve been involved with the Utah Gay Fathers Association and the Temple Squares. Why do you think social groups are important for Utah’s LGBT community?
When my partner and I moved to Utah in 2008, we originated from a very conservative area in northwest Florida where there were almost no LGBT organizations other than a couple bars and gay-friendly churches. Upon discovering the Utah Pride Center and QSaltLake, we were overwhelmed with the many clubs and groups to choose in Salt Lake City and the surrounding areas. We think these social groups are important to the entire community as beacons of hope that LGBT people can thrive and live in concert with our straight equivalent groups and allies, plus open the eyes of those who have never known LGBT people in their close-knit circles.
What are the biggest challenges queer social groups face in Utah?
Some of the biggest challenges for LGBT social groups in Utah include participation in political and social issues that could affect our future rights as individuals and a community. The existence of the Defense of Marriage Act will always cripple us by preventing gay and lesbian couples from taking advantage of basic federal rights and benefits that are only available to straight couples. Our families endure the same (and sometimes more) hardships and challenges of everyday life, but are not given the same benefits to help us financially and socially. Our social groups can help pave the way to open hearts and educate the entire state to end stereotypes and prejudice. Exposing ourselves to the public would be an excellent start.
And one other challenge for our social groups would be in membership growth. If more of our community participate in these groups, the public can see just how large a percentage of the population consists of LGBT people and that we can make a huge impact to improve our society.
If you were to perform in the circus, what would you do?
I’ve always wanted to perform in a circus as a trapeze artist. The beauty and strength to perform death defying tricks in the air always amazed me, and it might also help cure my fear of heights.
Better known to most as former QSaltLake columnist and Matron of Mayhem Ruby Ridge, Don Steward has entertained and provided for the Salt Lake community for decades. What some may not know, however, is his many other volunteer positions beginning in the early days of AIDS.
Along with his partner, Dick Dotson, Steward created and ran the Camp Pinecliff Weekend Retreat for people with HIV/AIDS and their families for 24 years. They also opened a drop-in center for people with AIDS, called Horizon House, in 1989 and started the Living with AIDS Conference at the University of Utah with David Sharpton of the People with AIDS Coalition of Utah. Steward helped bring two showings of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt to Utah and created the Utah AIDS Foundation Food Bank, getting its USDA and Utah Food Bank certifications.
He was the Utah Pride Parade coordinator for three years and was named the Community Volunteer of the Year in 2005.
He and Dick also rescued and found permanent homes for 389 bloodhounds, walker hounds and basset hounds.
Interestingly, he also attended the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas Concert as a guest of President Hinckley.
Steward recently moved back to his native New Zealand and has left a gaping hole in the heart of Utah’s queer community. He will be missed greatly and his contributions will not go unnoticed.