Lambda Lore

1995 brought major changes to Utah’s LGBT community

In 1995 Utah’s gay and lesbian community lacked the basic civil rights afforded to other citizens. They could be fired from jobs or evicted from their apartments because of their sexual orientation. Employees of Salt Lake County and the University of Utah were two exceptions although the Republican County Commissioners had proposed to remove anti-discrimination protections for its gay employees that gay activist David Nelson had written.

Utah had no elected official who was openly gay and the overwhelmingly Republican Mormon Legislature was homophobic. Fearing ramifications from a pro-marriage equality ruling in Hawaii, Utah had in 1995 become the first state to pass a law prohibiting recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Also, as the old-guard gay and lesbian volunteer activists began to burn out in 1995, they slowly began to be replaced with paid activists who sustained the movement toward equality until LGBTQ professionals stepped in to create the organizations we have in the 21st Century.

I was mentioned that year in a Salt Lake Tribune article when asked about the changes happening in the gay community. “Ben Williams, the Stonewall archivist, grows nostalgic. The 43-year-old reminiscences about the old days when the torch was carried by folks with nothing more than a fire in their guts. Now the Stonewall Center has computers. The Utah AIDS Foundation accepts resumes. And activists wear suits. ‘There were so few of us, we kind of all rallied together,’ Williams recalls wistfully. ‘Gay has become a job instead of an adventure.’”

Having been intimately involved with those who were movers and shakers in the fledgling Gay community, I was keenly aware that the times were changing.

One of the most significant organizations that faded away in 1995 was the Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah which had coordinated community growth for nearly a decade. However, it too began to weaken in importance as folks could not be found to replace leaders who were burning out. Also, many of the founding member organizations had dissolved or had dropped out of the council by 1995. Groups such as Unconditional Support, Wasatch Leather Men, and Queer Nation, which were once powerhouses had by then disbanded.

Also gone or reorganized were the Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church, Queer Nation, the Knights of Malta, OWLS-Older and Wiser Lesbians, and The Horizon House.

Perhaps the most visible loss to the public at large was Queer Nation. It was founded locally in 1990 and specialized in “in-your-face” stunts that forced straight people to acknowledge homosexuality. Two of its founding members Curtis Jensen and Connell O’Donovan had moved from Salt Lake City. O’Donovan moved in 1993 to Moab for two years and then to Santa Cruz, California. Jensen moved to San Francisco. Jensen said that one of the reasons Queer Nation disappeared was that members were drained of energy. He said. “It was such an intense experience for people involved in it. It couldn’t last forever.”

Some other notable changes in 1995 were that many high-profile leaders were moving out of state or resigning from their positions. Moving out of state were Kathy Worthington, founder of the Womyn’s Community News; Kate Kendall, a lawyer for the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union; John Bennett, executive director of the Utah Stonewall Center; and Dale Sorenson of the Gay and Lesbian Utah Democrats.

With Worthington and her partner Sara Hamblin’s move, the Womyn’s Community News ceased publishing. However, a short lived lesbian publication called Labrys was started by Dina and Whitney Hannah, which they had hoped would fill the void. The Pillar of the Gay and Lesbian Community however was still the main publication, but its core partnership was dissolving. Eventually Todd Dayley became the sole owner of the paper and with Kim Russo as acting editor.

Kendall, the former ACLU lawyer, moved to California to become the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. She saw the move as an exciting opportunity for gay Utah leaders to make a national difference. However in San Francisco, where an estimated 15 to 20 percent of the population was gay, Kendall said she believed her effectiveness was somewhat diluted compared to being in Salt Lake City. She said, “In a place like Utah, activists are sorely needed. In a place like San Francisco, it’s a big yawn.”

John Bennett, former U.S. Senator Bob Bennett’s nephew, resigned from the Utah Stonewall Center due to salary conflicts with the Board of Directors and then moved to San Francisco California. He had been active in the gay community virtually since he came out at the University of Utah. Bennett had worked with the Lesbian and Gay Student Union, AIDS Project Utah, and the Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah. 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. Bennett’s departure was a significant loss.

Gay and Lesbian Utah Democrats activist Dale Sorenson, Utah’s first openly gay Democratic National Convention delegate, was for years the No. 1 “queer in all the news media’s Rolodexes.” Sorenson said of his time with GLUD, “It was fun, but it got really tiring after a while. I had work and activism and that was my whole life. I wrecked a couple of relationships. I was doing it because I felt I had to because no one else was. I saw them as worthy causes and could not let them go.” However, the pride Sorenson felt when strangers thanked him for being out eventually turned to bitterness. Finally exhausted, Sorenson quit GLUD and moved to Manhattan.

AIDS had also gutted leadership in the community’s bars and organizations. At the Utah AIDS Foundation, interim director Rick Pace resigned after becoming what he called “battle-weary.” Pace left UAF because of burnout. Pace said he was weary from all the funeral announcements, two or three a week. “You just keep getting punched and punched and punched and after a while, you don’t want to get punched anymore,” he added. He was replaced by Barbara Shaw, the first non-gay person to be hired as the executive director of UAF.

In 1995, AIDS was still the number one cause of death among men age 22 to 44 in Utah. Deaths from AIDS peaked in Utah with 130 officially counted deaths by the end of 1995, however there were many more who died but were not counted by the Utah Health Department. This was in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Fortunately, due to better treatments, AIDS was no longer an imminent death sentence after 1995, nonetheless over 158 new cases of full blown AIDS were diagnosed during the year. In all, since the CDC required states to track AIDS statistics in 1983, there had been 1,157 reported cases of AIDS in Utah with over 600 deaths by 1995.

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