Lambda Lore

Gay life in Utah in 1968-69

Richard Nixon became president of the United States in January of 1969. As that eventful year began in Utah, there were no homosexual support groups in the state. The only “Gay” magazine accessible in Utah was the Los Angeles Advocate, which in January had changed its name to simply The Advocate. There were no social outlets for homosexuals outside of softball leagues, which were the primary meeting places for Lesbians, and a few bars which served the closeted homosexual community. While not officially a “Gay” bathhouse, the Wasatch Springs Public Bath House and Plunge on Beck Street also serviced a fairly large closeted homosexual male clientele.

Outside of the bars, there weren’t any safe places for Gay men to meet in Utah. City parks, theaters and public buildings were the main homosexual cruising and gathering places. The most active of these in Salt Lake City were Pioneer Park, Liberty Park, Memory Grove, the Greyhound Bus Terminal, the State and Esquire Adult Theaters, the Deseret Gym, the Salt Lake City Library, the Skid Row section of Second South from Third West to Fifth West, and the south beaches of the Great Salt Lake.

In Provo, Ogden and Logan, the places where homosexuals could encounter each other were more sparse and bleak. Utah County had the Pleasant Grove Rest Stops on I-15 and certain locations on the Brigham Young University campus. Logan, also being a college town, had Utah State Agriculture College as well as Lady Bird Park in Logan Canyon. Ogden had 25th Street and the part of town mostly abandoned by the train depot, but most homosexuals in Ogden found it more convenient to cruise in Salt Lake City where they could be more anonymous.

In February, 1969, the Mormon Church’s general authorities met again as Brigham Young University’s board of trustees to discuss the ongoing problem of homosexuality on that campus. Years earlier in 1962, University president Ernest Wilkinson had met with the school’s general counsel, Clyde Sandgren; the new dean of Students, Elliott Cameron; and Mormon apostles Spencer Kimball and Mark Peterson “on the question of homosexuals who might be a part of our student body.” Kimball and Petersen informed Wilkinson at this meeting, that “no one will be admitted as a student at the B.Y.U. whom we have convincing evidence is a homosexual.” Additionally, a decision was made because the number of homosexuals on campus was considered “a very small percentage of the whole,” school administrators agreed “not to dignify [homosexuality] by meeting with the [homosexual] men and women of the university in a public setting, but handle each case on its own.” In other words, school officials were determined to preserve the university’s image of being free of immorality.

Also in 1962 Mark E. Petersen, suspicious of the rise of the openness of homosexuality within the LDS Church, ruled that Mormon missionaries were now required to sleep in separate beds regardless of the outcry of financial hardship by those who had to comply with the edict and buy extra beds.

As society’s norms were changing in the sixties, LDS leaders were desperate to restrain human nature, especially homosexuality, which they viewed as anathema to their church mission to create families. Shock treatments and other Draconian measures were not keeping homosexuality at Brigham Young University at bay. On 13 November 1965, president Wilkinson felt compelled to address the entire student body at an all-stakes fireside to affirm the church’s position on homosexuality as being infectious and must be treated as a disease that if not eliminated would contaminate the entire church body. Wilkinson remarked, “BYU does not intend to admit to our campus any homosexuals. If any of you have this tendency and have not completely abandoned it, may I suggest that you leave the university immediately after this assembly; and if you will be honest enough to let us know the reason, we will voluntarily refund your tuition. We do not want others on this campus to be contaminated with your presence.”

I was only 14 years old at the time but Wilkinson was directly talking to me and other Gay youth of the period. No one wanted to be contaminated with our presence.

President Ernest Wilkinson eventually received permission from church authorities to ask Mormon bishops at BYU to provide the standards office with lists of students who were “inactive in the church” or who had confessed to “not living the standards of the Church.” In 1967, the first year of the new policy, 72 students who were “suspected of homosexual activity” were turned in to the standards office by their bishops. The knowledge of so many homosexuals on campus spurred the administration into action to contain the “disease.” Security files were kept on suspected students, student spying was encouraged and suspensions increased. President Wilkinson said that it was the “code of the underworld” not to inform on those wrong doers and thus instilling the belief that those who tattled were more noble then those who did not.

The following year, in 1968, for the first time, the LDS General Handbook of Instructions, a policy guide for the church’s lay clergy, added “homosexual acts” to the list of sins for which a person could be excommunicated from the Mormon Church and the purging began in earnest. The first large-scale persecution of homosexuals at the Provo campus was known as “The Witch Hunt of 1968.” BYU officials acted on accusations and a spy network purged homosexuals off the Provo Campus or forced them into shock treatment therapy. All of the students rounded up were expelled from the university and comments of deviancy placed in their academic files. The official ruling from church headquarters was that none of these homosexual students “would be admitted or retained at BYU without approval from the General Authorities”.

The Mormon general authorities later, in early 1969, quietly ended the confidentiality of its members’ confessions to their LDS leaders in order to root out homosexuality on its campuses in Utah and Idaho. With this new mandate, Wilkinson instructed all BYU bishops and stake presidents to report to university authorities any student who confessed “unacceptable conduct.” This was done, according to Wilkinson, so as to eliminate “students who do not fit into the culture of BYU so those who would fit into it might be admitted to the institution.”

Social pressure to contain a changing morality was just as strong in Salt Lake City, where first amendment rights were subject to violation. In March 1969, the police raided a private home and seized pictures, books and movies which they deemed obscene. Thirty five reels of motion picture film, many photographs, and paperback books deemed “pornographic” were located in a bedroom closet at the Lake Street home. The resident of the home was fined $100 for having pornography in his home.

However, up in Logan of all places, a spark of freedom was ignited when Utah State University published the first student poem in Utah that contained a subtle Lesbian theme, entitled “Modigliani’s Gypsy.” This was in stark contrast to what was happening at the private university in Utah County where men wearing facial hair was even banned. Times were changing.

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