I came to Utah alone on a Greyhound bus in January 1973. I had wrenched myself from a life in Southern California, with a one-way bus ticket to Provo, grasping only a suitcase, my childhood pillow and an admission slip to Brigham Young University. I had joined the Mormon Church in California while seeking meaning in my life. Although I was sexually active as a college student and had even tried coming out as a gay man in 1971, it just didn’t seem to be working for me. I know joining the Mormon Church really seems a little extreme, but back then most of the gay kids I knew in college were Mormons. The Utah church back then was not the bastion of ultra-radical conservatism and anti-homosexuality that it became after Spencer Kimball became president of the church.
So at the age of 21, I found myself at BYU, living with 20 or more 18-year-old guys in the Heleman Hall campus dormitory. I was in gay heaven. Although I was a Mormon and wanted to be good, I immediately fell in love with this funny, cute 18-year-old wrestler from North Dakota. Although I knew what my feelings were, I am sure he did not know his. I think he just knew he liked to wrestle me, up and down the hall on our dormitory floor. He liked to pin me holding my arms down, which I often let him do, and he would instinctively grind himself into me until I would buck him off, fearful of going too far. Sometimes other pre-missionaries would pile on and we were a mass of young bodies. However, all things come to an end, and at the end of that winter term, 90 percent of went off to serve a LDS mission. I felt like a widow as they left one by one.
By the end of December 1973, Harold B. Lee, the president of the church died and Spencer W. Kimball assumed the position of prophet, seer and revelator. At that point everything changed for homosexuals in the church. Kimball had a book published four years earlier called the “Miracle of Forgiveness.” Once he assumed the presidency, his words took on added weight and his book became a bestseller, which foreshadowed things to come. At the 1974 Fall General Conference, Kimball announced that “every form of homosexuality is sin.” The gears of the Mormon bureaucracy were reworked to ferret out homosexuality among members.
At first, it was hard to see the change Kimball’s presidency would bring, but church talk openly began to condemn homosexuality. It began to be framed as a disease, a contagion that had to be not only curtailed but rooted out. Exterminated.
Under BYU’s President, Dallin Oaks, campus security was instructed to find homosexual students and bring them before standards to be treated or expelled. At BYU, as in most of middle America, homosexuality was mostly an underground phenomenon, pushed into the shadows, into the recesses of dark places, into the furtive, quick, anonymous coupling in parks and men’s rooms, killing all hope of meaningful relationships and self esteem.
In certain areas on the BYU campus, in certain discreet men restrooms, homosexual graffiti was scribbled on walls of the stalls. The first time I encountered such graffiti, I was shocked that it occurred at the Lord’s University; but also titillated. Some of the passages were truly indicative of the torment and loneliness that homosexual males endured at the Y. Some wrote they were desperate, some said they were lonely, while others were pleas for human contact. I managed to be relatively behaved at the Y but as I was maturing, my young body rebelled against the artificial, unnatural state of forced celibacy.
I was 24 years old when I met Larry. He was a tall, blond, strikingly handsome, 27-year-old BYU student. I met him at the one of the few places in Utah County you could meet other homosexuals off campus, away from prying security. The Pleasant Grove rest stops, on I-15, were notorious in Utah County as a homosexual rendezvous.
I expected no more from Larry than a quick exchange of mutual desperate coupling, but instead we drove out into a farmer field late at night and we just kissed and kissed and kissed. I had not kissed a man in nearly five years and my soul was ravenous for affection. Even though I knew I was putting everything I had at BYU in jeopardy, when Larry asked to see me again, with a sad, remorseful reluctance, I agreed. I was very much emotionally conflicted between my loyalty to the LDS church for which I had given up everything, my California family and friends, and the hunger for the affection I received from being with Larry.
In spring 1976, Larry and I met surreptitiously on campus. We held hands beneath desks. I would sit on the floor outside of Larry’s classes, just to be there when he walked out of class to see the smile on his face. Once, while in the Heber J Grant building, sitting on the floor so very close, I looked up to see other students walking by and frowning at us. I suddenly realized that while we were not touching, we were beaming because we were in love.
At this time, unknown to us, Salt Lake Church authorities had directed Dallin Oaks to commence a crack down on homosexuality at BYU in conjunction with a joint operation with police and sheriff departments in Utah County. For sometime BYU security had set up a system of phone and body wire taps on suspected gay students. I did not know it at the time, but the psych department was also going full blast torturing gay men with electric shock “therapy. Gay men were terrorized that if they did not submit to BYU standards’ demands, their families would be informed of their homosexual activities and they would be excommunicated.
One snowy evening in early April, Larry came to my shared Provo apartment. I immediately knew something was wrong. He was despondent and had been crying. He said to me, “Ben, I’m not going to make it” and then poured out that he had been pulled in by BYU standards. They demanded that he “out” all the gays he knew on campus as a condition for non retribution. He was coerced to reveal names but he asserted that he never gave them mine. Then I learned he felt remorse over complying with BYU standards that he swallowed a bottle of aspirin. He had simply come over to see me, he said, for one more time and to say goodbye.
I did not respond at first. I was paralyzed by the nightmare scenario I had just heard, but almost immediately, putting that aside, I knew I had to try and save Larry’s life. I won’t go into the harrowing details of the drive up Provo Canyon or the reaction of the staff at emergency room at Utah Valley Hospital. Or staying with Larry as BYU Security came to question him while he was hooked to saline and other tubes and the school officials and his church leaders puzzled over why I was there. I had managed to hold it together for Larry but at a terrible toll on my psyche and my heart. I truly felt like we were the Jews of BYU. I felt we were out to be exterminated, to keep the university pure.
Some nearly 40 years after Spencer Kimball called me, my lovers and my friends evil, I sometimes feel like some people in Utah are still trying to exterminate us; not just us, but our families, our marriages and our authenticity as a people. Perhaps it’s just from the trauma, that I was subjected to as a young man while living in Utah County, talking that makes me skeptical of Utah’s intentions toward gay people. Or maybe not.