As the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion looms in 2014 and the 40th anniversary of Utah’s first celebration of Gay Freedom Day, I marvel at how we as a people have grown, changed, and evolved to a point that I wonder if we even consider ourselves a people or folk anymore. We once considered ourselves a separate people from heterosexuals, as we reclaimed our histories and our culture which had been dismissed or erased by a sexual majority which saw our people as the “other” to be shunned, persecuted as well as prosecuted.
We, however, found strength and unity under the nomenclature “gay.” It is a noun, not a verb. It is who we homosexuals are as we chose to self identify ourselves. It was not our actions, how we used our genitals, that made us gay but our soul, our life force; it was all about who we fell in love with, who we fantasized about, who we were passionate about. This basic core of our nature drove our creativity, spirituality and courage.
For much of the early years of the Gay Civil Rights movement, we simply fought to not be classified as criminals and mentally ill. These goals were our prime objectives. So we formed collectives, health clinics, social clubs and consciousness-raising groups, all under the banner “gay.”
In the mid to late 1970s a change occurred, spurred by feminist homosexuals who felt that women needed their own identity; separate and apart from gay men. The late feminist writer Jill Johnston argued that that gay women needed to form a movement disconnected from the “gay” umbrella. She taught in her book Lesbian Nation, first published in 1973, that “Gay men, however discriminated against, are still patriarchs.” Johnston spurred a national trend where women separated from organizations they felt dominated by gay men to form their own communities. It is during this period that the gay movement becomes the “Gay and Lesbian” Movement. Gay men protested the idea that they were still part of societal male privilege. We argued that once we come out as homosexuals we lost any male benefit as being perceived as “effeminate” by the heterosexual male-dominated society.
No doubt homosexual men and women had a tenuous connection as allies from the beginning but the feminist movement emphasized our differences. In 1974, a group of Salt Lake City women broke away from the fledgling Metropolitan Community Church to form a Lesbian Congregation led by a woman pastor named LaVerl Harris. The church was called Grace Community Church and lasted for about five years. In 1977, the first all Lesbian organization was formed by “radicalesbians” called Women Aware which lasted about eight years.
Many organizations formed in the mid-1970s resisted the lesbian separatist movement with gay women staying in those organizations and taking leadership roles. The Imperial Court of Utah and the Student Union at the University of Utah were two of those, although the student organization changed its name from the Gay Student Union to the Lesbian and Gay Student Union in 1979.
At the beginning of the 1980s, Utah communities began using the term “gay and lesbian” almost exclusively to describe our movement. While many women still preferred being called gay, the term fell out of favor by the end of the decade and the term gay and lesbian was fairly universal, which cemented the concept that the movements aims were divided.
However, as the AIDS epidemic began to decimate the gay men’s community, lesbians not only stepped forward to help with the crisis they also assumed leadership roles formerly held by the weakened gay men’s community.
At the beginning of the 1990s the new buzzword was “gender parity” for all leadership positions of Utah’s governing organizations. This was especially true for Gay Pride Days where officers were chosen from both the gay and lesbian communities as co-directors.
The concept of parity came out of the 1991 National Lesbian Conference which was held in Atlanta, Ga., to establish a national agenda. Three-thousand people attended, including delegates from Utah. They were all women, as men were barred from attending any workshops. Two years in the making the conference was an alcohol-free event with convention literature asking participants not to wear perfumes and other chemicals, lest they make some participants ill. Organizers also set up special workshops for a variety of ethnic and racial groups and established voting procedures to insure parity among black and white, old and young, physically handicapped and non-handicapped.
In Utah much of the gay men’s energies were engaged in AIDS prevention organizations. By the hundreds gay men were dying, the death rate climaxing in 1995. With the increase availability of drugs and medicine the death rate slowly declined, but the death of so many gay men had left a power vacuum in community organizations which began to be filled by lesbians.
In the mid-1990s, for the first time, the term “gay, lesbian and bisexual” began to appear locally. As political correctness and inclusiveness became the new word du jour, bisexuals not identifying as either gay, lesbian or straight vied for a place in the homosexual civil rights movement, although most mainstream media still used the term gay and lesbian. Bisexuals now grafted into community found themselves in an awkward position of having their loyalty and commitment to the struggles of gays and lesbians questioned. Straights were still generally perceived as hostile to gay people, therefore some viewed bisexuals as sleeping with the enemy.
As bisexuals took their place in the homosexual alphabet acronym, in the 2000s a paradigm shift occurred as transgender visibility was being perceived as another “sexual minority.” However, “gender identity” was not viewed by many in the community as the same as “sexual orientation” and many resisted transgender issues as being part of a homosexual rights movement.
After a vote at their 1998 annual meeting in San Francisco, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays was the first national organization to officially adopt a transgender-inclusion policy in its mission statement. PFLAG continued the push to include Transgender as part of their work by creating the Transgender Network (TNET) in 2002. PFLAG’s national influence became the main motivator for the inclusion of Transgender as part of the homosexual acronym.
By 2004, Utah’s Gay and Lesbian Community Center officially changed its name to reflect the national trend to include transgender folk within the gay, lesbian and bisexual communities. Its new moniker however was an awkward mouthful – the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center of Utah (GLBTCCU).
Until 2005 the acronym GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender) was used to refer to this new movement that included all sexual minorities. Also in 2005, the Utah Community Center switched the acronym to LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) to refer to homosexuals and transgenders in their publications and web postings.
It is clear even today, from the use of queer as a unifying umbrella term as gay once was, that our movement is still undergoing growing pains, and there are still no agreement as to whether the acronym should be GLBT or LGBT. Or as more people are demanding inclusion should the alphabet moniker keeps growing to include Q and I and A and P?
Some see this growth as a good thing as we become more and more inclusive, while others see it as diluting the original concept of “community” believing that we, by trying to become all things to all people, have lost that part of us that made us gay in the first place. As we enter mid way into the 2010s can we reconcile a movement that began to protect and safeguard the rights of people’s sexual orientation, a fundamental right to love who you will without persecution, with a movement based on gender identity? Once gay people referred each other as “family”… can there be an LGBTQIA family? Time and history will tell I suppose.