Lambda Lore

Where Harry met Harry

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Our Gay bars never were, and still are not, just about getting an alcoholic beverage. While our bars were never safe due to police raids, blackmail, or assault by guilt-ridden heterosexuals, they were the wellsprings, the beginnings where homosexual consciousness and identity bubbled up. In the pre-Ellen Show era there were no positive images of homosexuals except for the ones we made for ourselves.  In these places, on the most part hidden places, we escaped from the everyday oppression of the straight world in which we hid, or at least tried to blend in.
For much of our history, for a Gay person, every encounter of an intimate nature was potentially dangerous, from the threat of being arrested, to being assaulted, to even being murdered.  However, in our clubs we felt safe; we were not alone; we were not an aberration. There, we were not pitied or condemned.  There, we could thrive.
Originally, Gay friendly bars in Salt Lake City were mostly associated with the red light districts of Commercial Street, Plum Alley and, later, Second South.  Ogden, being a railroad town, was wide open to sexual possibilities for straights but Gays were hidden in backrooms of saloons and the rooms above them. Outside of our bars, there were few ways to meet other homosexuals unless initiated into a social group. These cliques jealously guarded their privacy, knowing that any exposure could destroy lives.
In 1986, I started my first support group — a self-help therapy meeting for homosexuals leaving heterosexual marriages. I called it “Married and Divorced Gays and Lesbians,” and later it was pointed out to me that the acronym spelled MADGAL. It was unintentional put appropriate since most of the wives we were leaving behind were pretty mad. Anyway, while running this group I was approached by a man of some prominence who asked if I would screen men coming to the group for him. He belonged to a private homosexual circle of married lawyers, doctors, bishops, and other professional men who were seeking others in similar circumstances. They had no intention of leaving their wives or ever coming out. I did not acquiesce. I was too full of self righteous Gay Pride and after years of self deception I wanted no part of that scene. I realize now I should have, though. These men were more typical of homosexuals in Utah nearly 30 years ago than the handful of people self-identifying as Gay men and women. I could have learned a lot.
Small homosexual cabals, where invitees brought acquaintances or “initiates” to top-secret parties, were the norm for much of Utah’s history. Middle class soirees, with the curtains drawn and shades pulled down were all that was available outside of the bars. At these parties, people dressed up, coats and ties for men, dresses and makeup for women. Drag was not even a remote possibility. Cocktails were served, and small talk made. These parties tried to imitate the cosmopolitan air of similar chic parties on the east and west coasts.
Lesbians had their softball leagues for a social outlet and could, therefore, be more “tom boyish,” but at their residential parties, it was required that a more formal attire be worn. The “butches,” or masculine-looking women, were allowed to wear sporty men’s clothing with slicked back or short cropped hair, to distinguish themselves from the “fems,” who were in party dresses.
If one did not consider themselves homosexual, then the dangerous world of illicit sexual encounters in semi-public places was all that was available. Quick anonymous sex was sometimes as addicting as an adrenaline rush; with the fear factor of being caught.  Anonymous sex afforded the delusion of being “normal” after returning to whatever “normal” life one was leading. After all, it wasn’t real sex. It was just fooling around.
Much of the “Gay” scene outside of our bars is still conducted at private parties at at private residences, much like what is still happening today in Utah County. In 2005, a message sent to a Utah group site I was hosting contained the following: “Since moving to Provo eight months ago, I have found there is no safe place for Gay men in Utah County to play. No Gay bars, no sex clubs, no saunas, or safe cruising places. So, I’m hosting two parties. I have had three parties since July 30th, and they were phenomenal visual and sensual experiences for all.”  This man’s description could have been from 1955.  The fact that Utah County had no Gay bar has been, and is, a real impediment to the growth of a Gay identity south of the Point of the Mountain.
Gay-friendly bars were also the only safe places where Utah homosexuals could cross dress. Heterosexuals in these places made little distinction between “lewd women” and “sissy men” and used both for personal sexual gratification. In fact, often sissy men were preferred to prostitutes because they frequently didn’t charge and would perform oral sex, which women are sometimes loathe to do.
I met my first cross dresser while hanging out at Pioneer Park in 1977 — a place that was notorious for anonymous hook ups more than being a refuge for the homeless and drug dealers as it is today. This cross dressing Gay man was a curiosity and we visited for sometime about his experiences. He informed me that hetero-men had no problem with him being Gay, as long as he was in a dress. Another time I met a man there who was in his 70s who told of his time as a sexually active young man in Salt Lake City in the 1920s and 1930s. He hadn’t any post Stonewall concept that Gay was a state of being and not an action. To him, the word only had a semi-sexual connotation. It was what you did, not who you were. You performed Gay acts only.
I read somewhere that the term “Gay Blade” in England  did not connote a “happy fellow” but rather a person who was “randy and naughty” and usually was applied to gentlemen who frequented houses of prostitution. For most police officers before Stonewall, and probably to many today, the words homosexual, whore, and prostitute were all synonymous with vice. I know it is the case with Dallin Oaks and Boyd K. Packer.
Prior to 1970, only the Radio City Lounge was openly identified as a Gay friendly bar, although its owners were straight. In 1970 a women’s bar called Perky’s opened on 3rd West in Salt Lake City which had a lesbian clientele, but was not at first identified as an openly Gay bar. It was operated for five years by its lesbian owner.
The emergence of a Gay community in Salt Lake City, due to the efforts of the “radicals” of Utah’s Gay Liberation Front in the 1970s, would displaced many of the Gay friendly bars of Pre-Stonewall with openly Gay bars. Joe Redburn’s  legendary Sun Tavern opened in 1973 as the first openly Gay bar in Utah and became the most important bar in the development of a Gay identity and community in Salt Lake City and probably in all of Utah. Thank you, Joe.

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