When Michael Aaron asked me to write a history column in 2004, for what was then the Salt Lake Metro, I readily accepted. I had been writing history columns for various publications in our community since 1987 when Satu Servigna, editor and publisher of the Triangle Community Digest, first asked me to write for her.
I had to come up with a name for my column for the Salt Lake Metro, one that would describe what my column would be about, and so I named it “Lambda Lore.” Fifteen years ago, most community members understood the association that the Greek letter lambda had with homosexual human rights. Today I am not so sure. Organizations such as Lambda Legal and Lambda Rising Bookstore, which closed in 2010 after 41 years of encouraging the writing and publishing of LGBT books, were named for the Greek symbol. And although the bookstore is gone, the Lambda Literary Awards, known as the Lammys, are still given out annually. The Lammys are to honor the best gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender affirming books for the year.
So why did I choose lambda, and what is its significance to our history? Well, in 1970, the Gay Activist Alliance of New York wanted a symbol that would stand for “freedom from oppression.” GAA member Tom Doerr suggested the lower case lambda λ as that symbol because he said in physics the symbol represented kinetic energy and gay people were seeking change. Other sources stated that the lower case lambda Greek letter was chosen because it was used as a shield pattern by the homosexual Spartan Army. The symbol also stood for unity.
In December 1974, the Greek letter was so recognized that it was officially declared the international symbol for gay and lesbian rights by the International Gay Rights Congress. Thus for over 40 years, the lambda has signified “unity under oppression” which is why Lambda Legal had chosen its name from this symbol and also why I chose the symbol for my column.
I added the word “lore” to the title, not merely because of its lyrical alliteration qualities but more for what lore means. In most dictionaries, the word has the meaning of a “body of knowledge, especially of a traditional, anecdotal, or popular nature, on a particular subject.” Of course, what I choose to write about is mainly Utah’s unique homosexual culture.
While I have a degree in history, I am genuinely an amateur historian. I have never written volumes on the subject, or done post-graduate work. But I have observed and compiled my observations of the exponential growth of equality rights for sexual minorities in Utah. I was not a passive observer. However, as for about a decade from 1986 to 1997, I was actively involved with those who were changing the landscape in Utah for the legal protection and acceptance of sexual diversity.
When the Utah Stonewall Center opened its doors on June 1991, two of its main features were its library and its historical archives. At the time, the Salt Lake Public Library had less than 20 books on its shelves that dealt with homosexuality, and some of them were from ex-gay sources. The Utah Stonewall Center had the most extensive collection of gay and lesbian books between Chicago and California.
I remember going to New York City’s Gay Community Center and was shocked to find that they only had six bookcases of gay and lesbian resources that were locked up for the night. Here in Salt Lake City, we had a room filled with over 20 shelves of books ranging from novels to self-help tomes to history books. We had over 1,500 titles all donated from our community, with many of them first editions. The library was so popular that we had to train several volunteers to act as the staff who did nothing but tend to the library.
This library was the vision of Robert Smith and Liza Smart, working with a committee of volunteers, I being one. Bobbie suggested that the library also house the archives, the bulk of which I was hauling around to my various apartments. The archives grew over the years so that when the then board of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center chose not to house them, I with the help of Jay Bell donated the bulk of the collection to the Marriott Library at the University of Utah in 2002. It took them nearly ten years to categorize it all since it was over 30 linear feet of material saved from items before 1997. Sadly much more was lost by short-sighted disinterest in our history.
That brings me to the point of: where are our historians? I can name on one hand people from this community who have actively written about or tried to preserve the records of these people, and they have all been gay men. Where are the lesbians in Utah who are needed to protect “herstory?” What about the Trans community? Who is documenting the rise of their community through Engender Species and TEA and all the rest? Is the bisexual community stepping up? It worries me.
Jay Bell, who I mentioned before, researched, documented, and wrote about gay people’s interactions with the Mormon Church as it pertained to Affirmation. This support group for gay and lesbian Mormons was founded in Salt Lake City in 1977 and had a rich history of surviving the LDS Church’s 40-year war with homosexuals.
Bell tragically was killed in a car-pedestrian accident in 2003, but more tragically, the official Affirmation Web page has removed all of Bell’s works, as well as other people’s stories and memorials to LDS gay folks who died of suicide and AIDS. The folks running the site now have sanitized it to the struggle with the Mormon Church.
Douglas Winkler, a gay man who I knew many years ago when he was rooming with Robert Smith, wrote a tremendous resource called “Lavender Sons of Zion: A history of gay men in Salt Lake City, 1950—1979” as a doctorate dissertation. His research was published in 2008 as a 538-page book, but unfortunately, it is not readily available. In his work, Winkler was kind enough to acknowledge Bell’s “extensive research on LDS Church policy, “ and that I deserved “appreciation for sharing several years’ research,” and “unstinting efforts to raise historical awareness among Utah’s GLBTQ community.”
Seth Anderson is another historian who is working to preserve history for the current generation. Having just completed graduate work this year at the University of Utah, Seth received a master’s degree in social history with a focus on the history of sexuality in the western United States.
Connell O’Donovan and I share a passion for history, so much so that on Halloween night 1988, we started the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Utah. He is a meticulous researcher and has published a series of outstanding articles on Utah and Mormon LGBTQ histories. An essential read is his “The Abominable and Detestable Crime Against Nature: A Brief History of Homosexuality and Mormonism, 1840- 1980,” which is available online.
While not an active part of the LGBTQ community but, by all means, a historian of renown is D. Michael Quinn. A former BYU professor and now openly gay, Quinn wrote “Same-Sex Dynamics Among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example.” Although Quinn’s main emphasis is early Mormon history, “Same-Sex Dynamics” is also a must-read for anyone who calls Utah home.
Earlier in October, I had the honor of receiving from Utah’s Division of History a recognition of my nearly 30 years of dedication toward the preservation of, and writing about, the history of my people. However, for me, the true significance of this award is that Utah, after all these years, has finally recognized that we are a people with a history within this state and that it is worth preserving and celebrating.