By now everyone has heard of the resigning of the executive director of the Utah Pride Center. It’s a tough gig. It was tough in the early 90s when directors only had to deal with contentious gay men and lesbians. However, as the alphabet grows and different elements of the community want a place at the table, the job of being the public face of an often-not-so-united community has become ever more difficult.
Before the current Center, there was the old Utah Stonewall Center which began as a project of the Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah. The symbolic name of Stonewall stemmed from the uprising at a Gay bar by the same name in New York City in 1969.
From its humble beginning, members of the Stonewall Center committee were directly accountable to the community by reporting monthly progress at council meetings. Jim Hunsaker, former president of the Lesbian and Gay Student Union, and later Robert Smith, director of Unconditional Support, were chairs of the various planning committee. They were replaced in 1990 with the election of Charlene Orchard, who applied for grants to make a space feasible. With this seed money, a grand opening was held June 1, 1991 at 450 S. 900 East. Craig Miller, founder of the Living Traditions Festival, was chosen by Charlene Orchard as the first executive director.
Almost immediately, conflict arose over the intended purpose of the Center. In the minds of several of the Community Council members, the center was to be a gathering place for our community, with meeting spaces, a library and recreation opportunities for the youth. However Orchard, as board chair, had a vision where the Center was to be a service organization, dispensing counseling and operating with licensed social workers and other professionals.
As the Utah Stonewall Center’s board’s intentions to sever its ties as a project of the Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah became known, people objected. The Utah Stonewall Center itself was serving as a meeting place for approximately 35 organizations in the community and housed GLCCU. Many were concerned about accountability of the Center to the community it served, if the Center formed its own, separate nonprofit organization.
By September, these two conflicting positions of what the Utah Stonewall Center should be came to a head and the community had a major blow out. Fifty community leaders and activists called a meeting to discuss the direction the Center was heading and called for the Community Council to adjudicate the conflicting positions. Accusations were flung; reputations tarnished, but it was decided by popular vote to maintain the directive that the Center was to be a gathering place and not a service-oriented organization with paid staff. Both Orchard and Miller resigned due to the internal discord.
The community healed with the election of mild-mannered Marlin Criddle, an attorney, as board president in 1992. Criddle re-organized the board of directors and chose Melissa Sillitoe, of the youth group, to be interim director. At the time, Sillitoe was a 22-year-old English student at the University of Utah and daughter of historians John and Linda Sillitoe. Under Sillatoe’s leadership, the Center relocated in 1993 to a warehouse at 770 S. 300 West.
Under Sillitoe and Criddle’s stewardship, the Utah Stonewall Center became a regular meeting place for such diverse groups as the Utah Stonewall Historical Society, a youth organization, the 50-Plus club for gay men; Affirmation for Lesbian and Gay members of the Mormon Church and Queer Nation.
The Utah Stonewall Center surged as lesbian volunteers constructed and painted walls and made rainbow window dressings. Volunteers continued to staff the place, and the library grew to the largest gay library between Chicago and San Francisco. It was here, at this location, that high school teacher Camille Lee met East High School student Kelli Peterson and began the process of organizing a Gay-Straight Alliance at East High in 1996.
Marlin Criddle stepped down from Board Chair in 1994, after securing the Utah Stonewall Center’s own nonprofit status after recognizing the impending collapse of the Community Council. The Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah, which at the time coordinated information among about 30 independent groups, withered from inept leadership, burn out and a drop in community interest in 1995. The year 1995 was also the peak of AIDS deaths in Utah, which also weakened and robbed the gay men’s community of much-needed talent and leadership.
Melissa Sillitoe also resigned just prior to Criddle, who chose 32-year-old community activist John Bennett as director. Bennett had been active in the gay community since he came out at the University of Utah. He had worked with the Lesbian and Gay Student Union, the AIDS Project Utah and the Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah. Additionally, for three years, he played piano for the Salt Lake Men’s Choir and, in 1993, founded The Lesbian and Gay Chorus of Salt Lake City. He is also former Sen. Bob Bennett’s nephew.
Replacing Criddle was Clare Coonan, who came to the board chair position unaware of the community’s history or its leadership. She would serve only a few months in 1995 before being ousted in favor of Nikki Boyer, a lesbian business woman and long-time community member. Coonan and Boyer both, however, had no history with the former parent organization and had little interaction with community leaders.
Bennett resigned in July 1995 over a pay dispute with the Board of Directors, and Coonan’s refusal to hire an interim director led to her being dismissed as board chair. Boyer replaced her and hired Renee Rinaldi in late 1995 to reorganized the Stonewall Center. Without a director for six months, the Center’s resources were being depleted. In 1995 its budget was $47,000.
Rinaldi had been a longtime community activist in such organizations as Queer Nation, the Lesbian and Gay Chorus, the Gay and Lesbian Community Council and the Anti-Violence Project. She envisioned a community center having a coffeehouse atmosphere with literary readings, chess and social hours. However Rinaldi found it difficult to get financial support from well-heeled members of the community and, as the Center was hemorrhaging money due to a large rent increase, she resigned in April 1997.
Shortly after that, Boyer resigned as chair and Brook Heart-Song, a Certified Public Accountant, took over as chair. Michael O’Brien was hired as director and was tasked with turning the Center’s finances around. After six weeks he was fired by Heart-Song, who felt he had actually put the Center deeper in debt. Unfortunately, no plan was devised to alert the community of the Center’s dire straits. There no longer was a community council or any forum from which to reach out until it was too late.
Acting Director Alan Ahtow unceremoniously shut the Center down in September without even notifying the volunteers. Officially the dream of the Utah Stonewall Center ended when the doors were locked Oct.1, 1997.
The Utah Stonewall Center lasted from 1991 to 1997 basically living on small grants and donations from the community. With no deep pockets willing to help with the financially struggling Center and it could not be sustained by small donations.