Lambda Lore

Celebrating allies from our history

I love October. Not only is Oct, 11 National Coming Out Day and Oct. 31 our unofficial national holiday, Halloween, but also the entire month is dedicated to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender history.

One of the great paradigm shifts that has occurred between the generation of older gay Baby Boomers like myself, especially activists, and today’s Generation X’ers and Millennials is the perception of what the roll should be of straight people in our lives and communities.

I discovered while talking with friends in their 30’s and younger, that many of them said they had more straight friends than gay friends.  I was surprised by this because almost all my friends, especially my closest friends, are all gay, which seemed to be the case with many gay people 45 years and older.  The realization that among younger people, straight people are no longer seen as a threat is truly amazing, fascinating and encouraging to me.

Since we live in a world full of straight allies, who support and promote our struggle for equality here in Utah, it is hard to imagine a time when it was not always so.  There was a time when being a friend of the gay community was almost as dangerous as being gay itself.

For most my life I lived in fear of straight people. I filtered how I spoke. I censored my experiences, and was constantly on guard against aggression. I think many of my generation felt the same. We built communities for each other, not just to thrive, but also to survive.

The anger, at being forced to live an unauthentic life to placate heterosexual sensibilities, bubbled to the surface with the rise of Queer Nation in 1990, a gay separatist movement.  The slogan “I hate straights” and QN’s Manifesto reflected how many gay people felt living in a society dominated by people sometimes derisively called “breeders.”  The opening paragraph of the manifesto below sets the tone that called for a separate queer space.

How can I tell you. How can I convince you, brother; sister that your life is in danger… There is nothing on this planet that validates, protects or encourages your existence. It is a miracle you are standing here reading these words. You should by all rights be dead.

The raw anger of this message resonated as thousands were dying of AIDS, and the Supreme Court had recently denied gay people even the fundamental right to privacy. For gay people there were no protections from being fired from their job or being evicted from their home. The worst was they had no right to be with, or make decisions for, their dying lover.

Vitriolic attacks by radical straights of the Reagan era and the malignant neglect of the heterosexual majority made the extremist rhetoric of the Queer Nation Manifesto seem not so excessive to us, the oppressed. We accepted as a truism the statement: “Straight people are your enemy. They are your enemy when they don’t acknowledge your invisibility and continue to live in and contribute to a culture that kills you.”

Times were so bad in the 1980’s we had to create a National Coming Out Day to encourage people to come out as a homosexual.  The sentiment was that people who were closeted harmed those who were out by having to face the onslaught alone. Remember we had no allies. Just each other. “When I risk it all to be out, I risk it for both of us.”

If it was that hard being out and gay, imagine how hard it was before the 21st century paradigm shift for straight people to be allies.  It was hard. It was hard to say you stood for gay rights when most straight people equated us with pedophilia and carriers of a deadly infectious disease.  But there they were.  Limited space allows me to name just a few of the gallant allies who helped, supported and loved us.

Lee Caputo  and Elvin Gerrard were two straight business partners who opened Radio City Lounge on State Street in 1948. Yes, they made a living off of the Gay community, but they allowed gay people to have a social outlet for nearly 60 years. While their bar was threatened with closure and was harassed by the police, it was at one time the most famous homosexual bars in the tristate area of Utah, Idaho and Wyoming.

Rose Carrier, a straight woman, began her career tending bar in 1954 and eventually worked at most of the gay bars in her long career. She was a surrogate mother to many and for over 40 years she was a nonjudgmental soul who listened to the cares and woes of her gay friends. She gave love to those who felt unloved.

Shirley Pedler, as director of Utah’s ACLU, was the first to publicly defend homosexual rights in Utah. In 1977 she condemned Hotel Utah’s cancellation of a Gay Pride event. Later in 1980, Pedler filed a class action suit against BYU on behalf of the homosexual students being entrapped by campus security. In 1986 she supported David Nelson’s failed attempt to get the Salt Lake City council to adopt a human rights bill for minority groups, including gays.

Carol Lynn Pearson, a Mormon straight woman, wrote a book in 1985 about the death of her gay husband from AIDS. As a renowned author and poet within the LDS community, her willingness to embrace gays gave other Mormons license to love and care for their dying children and spouses.

People Who Care began as an unofficial Mormon support group for parents of gays. Founded by two Mormon mothers, Gerry Johnson and Lucille Warren in 1986, they predated a Utah Chapter of PFLAG by seven years. At the 1988 Fourth Annual Fordham Debate held at the U of U College of Law, Johnson sat on a panel as a proponent of gay rights.

Dr. R. Jan Stout was a respected professor of psychiatry at the U of U Medical Center.  In 1987 he promoted the unpopular position that “the preponderance of evidence suggests that homosexuality is neither a matter of choice nor a question of identifiable environmental factors.” This was at a time when others were promoting homosexuality as a chosen lifestyle.

Tom Godfrey, a straight SLC councilman, gave the opening address at Affirmation’s 1987 International Conference.  In 1989 he became the first Utah politician to speak at Gay Pride Day. He welcomed the participants saying “the fact that you are here enjoying yourselves without being harassed proves progress has been made toward acceptance of individual choice.”  His GOP opponent attacked him severely for attending Pride.

Rev. Barbara Hamilton-Holway, a co-minister of South Valley Unitarian-Universalist Association from 1987 to1996, was a staunch defender of homosexuals and their rights to have the same privileges as heterosexuals. She once stated, “AIDS is no more evidence that sex is dirty than an airborne virus is evidence that breathing is dirty.”

Gary and Millie Watts attended the newly formed Family Fellowship in 1993 and since that time have been very vocal and public supporters of the rights of gay people. Gary believes that homosexuality is not a choice, but rather a discovery. He said, “We want exactly the same things for all our children, gay or straight, including the right to be with someone they love.”

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.  Those who profess to favor freedom and yet renounce controversy are people who want crops without ploughing the ground.” —Frederick Douglas

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