Lambda Lore

Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah — part II

Editor’s note: The following is the second in a two-part series

The month of August in Utah was hot and so was its 1987 Council Meeting. Graham Bell related how Dr. Craig Nichols, the state’s epidemiologist, was refusing to use federal AIDS funds intended for the gay community.  Then John Sassaman resigned as pro tem chair as his health steadily declined from AIDS. Before he did, there was a major blow-up between Sassaman and Bell over how the council would be organized. After many heated words, the council voted to postpone the official organizing once again, which made people angry.

Privately, Sassaman had told me that some members of the council had sabotaged all attempts at organizing except on their terms. He told me that he no longer had the strength to fight against those who wanted to use the council for their own agendas. At the meeting, a feisty election took place between Mark Lamar, Lyle Bradley, and John Bennett, all running for the position of Chair. John Bennet was elected and Lyle Bradley was elected vice-chair.

After the heady confrontational August meeting, September’s council was contrite. It had a smaller turn out than usual but the council did decide to form a committee to record anti-gay attacks. Michael Aaron agreed to chair the committee because of his involvement with his own Anti-Violence Project. After the resignation of Sassaman, Triangle Magazine folded and  Satu Servigna, a gay woman, announced to the council she had taken over the Triangle and it was undergoing a transformation to be more of a community digest. That paper existed until 1990 when Servigna’s health issues forced her to shut it down.

Finally, in October 1987 the community council held an organizational meeting at Beau Chaine’s Aardvark Café. The five-hour meeting of 11 gay men and one gay woman struggled with creating bylaws to set procedures for voting, membership, and a statement of purpose. I and others were bound and determined that solo activists, who represent no one but themselves, would not have equal status with leaders of organizations who represented groups of people. The community council, I argued, was established as a place for organizations to network with each other not to push the personal agendas of some people. I passed a motion – which was adopted – that individuals would have one vote and organizations would have three members and three votes, ensuring that organizations would dominate the council. While the bylaws could not be officially adopted until voted on in November, we did name the organization The Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah.

On the first anniversary of the GLCCU, over 40 people were present. Bell spurred a lively and heated debate for 3½ hours trying to persuade the council to endorse him as head of a liaison committee to the Mayor of Salt Lake. GLCCU voted against Bell. My main concern was his lack of accountability to the gay community of which he would say they are representing. Accusations were voiced about Bell’s veracity, there were tears, there was outrage. It was very emotional. Many felt he was setting himself up as a kingmaker, others genuinely believed he was trying to strengthen our gay influence in the Mayor’s office. The vote was 11 yays and  22 nays and 4 abstaining. I voted no because I thought how could Bell hope to represent the community when he tried so little to compromise. Everyone at the council wanted a mayoral liaison. That idea was sound. That wasn’t the issue.  It was who would decide the criteria for those appointed to the committee. That and the perceived token representation of the lesbian community on the liaison committee was Bell’s downfall.

It was 9:30 p.m. before the council got to the rest of the night’s agenda. Chaine was asking for $250 to help maintain the Gay Help Line for the holidays – when the most suicide calls occur. The council voted to give him $75 from its meager funds. When it was my turn to give an organization report, I reported on the formation of the Utah Names Project, along with Ben Barr, to create panels for AIDS victims. I also announced the newly formed Unconditional Support for Gays and Lesbians and spoke of the needs of KRCL’s Concerning Gays and Lesbians, of which I was then a co-host to producer Becky Moss. It was after 11 p.m. when the meeting closed.  It was out of control. That’s the price of democracy.

Eventually, the Community Council incorporated with the state of Utah and filed for non-profit status with the United States. An AIDS subcommittee, a public relation subcommittee, and the Utah Stonewall Center subcommittee joined the Pride Day and AVP committees. The GLCCU organized rallies and protests and worked with the city which recognized the council on the same status as any other community council in Salt Lake neighborhoods.

The long-lasting value of the GLCCU, however, was that for the first time the movers-and-shakers, as well as passive onlookers, of the queer community were talking with each other face to face. We got to know each other, and while there was never a total agreement on all issues, the council was a representational forum for the entire community. Anyone could join, pay their 10 dollars, and have a say and a vote.

Salt Lake City was light years away from any other gay community in America by exercising representational democracy. I miss that. I miss that an 18-year-old or an 81-year-old could help make policy for gay Utah. Maybe it will come back someday.

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One Comment

  1. If you “were bound and determined that solo activists, who represent no one but themselves, would not have equal status with leaders of organizations who represented groups of people” at the Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah, wouldn’t that have prevented Harvey Milk (who was dismissed by most California groups and was never a leader of any group until he became a member of the San Francisco government) from having equal status?

    It is exactly this status difference between council members that you championed that I am not so certain that the Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah was a “representational democracy.” Three votes for a group regardless of its size (like the historical society that enjoyed exactly three members, or Graham Bell’s People Against AIDS group which enjoyed exactly one member), but one vote for an individual regardless of his or her influence in organizing and lobbying churches, corporations and government? Certainly, equality was, therefore, not the council’s hallmark. The council was a private, nonprofit corporation using its own policies to govern itself and its projects. That isn’t democratic, that is corporate.

    Functionally, the council did a lot that was amazing, but let’s not exaggerate its ideology. It operated no differently than, for example, the University of Utah Lesbian and Gay Student Union that predated the council by 10 years (except that the LGSU didn’t charge membership fees and allowed anyone to attend its meetings and events).

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