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How Salt Lake City, of All Places, Built America's Most Impressive Pride Celebration

By Kastalia Medrano, Thrillist -- Utah’s first Gay and Lesbian Pride March, in 1990, drew maybe 250 people. It went more or less unopposed. The biggest issue it ran into was that the route took marchers past a bunch of parked horse carriages, the sort tourists ride around the downtown.

“We were marching by, chanting and screaming,” says Connell “Rocky” O’Donovan, the march’s founder and a man introduced to me as “the local gay historian.” The horses, naturally, were startled -- presumably at the sight of a vocal gay march in Salt Lake City, or perhaps at the ruckus itself. “That actually got really dangerous,” O’Donovan continues. “I felt really bad for the horses. And the drivers and the police had approved the route, but then they said, ‘Oh, shoot, this wasn’t a good idea, was it.’”

But aside from the horse encounters, it was, in fact, a pretty good idea. At the second march, in 1991, turnout roughly doubled. O’Donovan led marchers on a new route from the state capitol down to the city council building, where the Utah Pride Festival is held today.

And this time, they arrived to find a handful of neo-Nazis waiting.

“They’d taken over the premises, and they had not gotten permits to be there,” O’Donovan says. “I was so angry that I had gone through all these hoops to get a permit and they just showed up. We went to the cops, and the cops were like, ‘They were here first.’ And I was like, ‘But they don’t have a permit to be here!’”

O’Donovan, bullhorn in hand, outwardly maintained his composure as he blared the message to his marchers that Nazis, too, had the right to free speech and freedom of assembly. Inwardly? “I’m freaking out,” he says, “thinking if any of them have a gun they’re gonna shoot me.”

Today, Utah Pride is most definitely A Thing. This year, the parade drew well over 125,000 people over the weekend. And the lead-up to the parade is stacked with events: an interfaith service; a youth dance; a 5K. When it’s time for the parade itself, marchers carry rainbow flags the length of a city block. Marriages are officiated from moving floats. As is the trend, this year’s festivities featured Aja, a former contestants from RuPaul’s Drag Race, and a queen who re-emerged from the ashes of an unremarkable performance on Season 9 with a Season 10 debut so gag-worthy (i.e., excellent) that they made the entire internet look foolish (myself included). To put it simply, Utah Pride was lit.

Pride here is now so large and so commercialized that old-timers like O’Donovan can feel estranged. (Its many, many sponsors include Goldman Sachs, which employs thousands in the city and which played a substantial role in making the city more cosmopolitan.) That’s a pretty typical dialogue around the nation’s largest, most established Prides.

What makes Utah Pride quite atypical, though, is where it was established.

Across just about every metric, you've got to put Utah firmly among the most conservative states in America. The last time its electoral votes went toward a Democrat for president was 1944, FDR's final term, and its long running, Trump-loving senior senator Orrin Hatch only vacated his seat this year. Since Karl Malone retired from the Utah Jazz -- since 1979 the most ironic name in American professional sports, after the team moved from New Orleans -- the national face of the state has been Mitt Romney, a Mormon and private-equity multimillionaire who tempts his faith’s bans on alcohol and caffeine by enjoying the occasional coffee ice cream.

Even if you’re not Mormon, and you’d like to enjoy so much as a Bud Light, things can get dicey in Utah. If you want to buy beer with more than 4% alcohol in Utah, you've got to buy it from a state-run liquor store, and no one can sell alcohol after 1am throughout the state. Until 2017, bartenders had to stand behind a frosted window called a Zion curtain to prepare drinks; the idea was to keep alcohol out of sight of people who weren't drinking. In Salt Lake, the Pride parade is free, but the Festival itself has an admittance charge -- the state’s liquor laws won’t allow Bud Light et al to sponsor free events (proceeds go to the Utah Pride Center).

It can skew a bit uptight, is what we’re saying here.

No surprise, Mormonism is a powerful theme in Salt Lake City’s queer community. But it’s that variable, and the state’s unique religious identity, that has made the city’s Pride so bold and so trailblazing. It’s also what has made it an inspiration to anyone invested in seeing equal rights become the norm for queer Americans. Certainly for dispossessed people who grew up in a strict religious environments, it has been a godsend.

Those tensions don’t exist elsewhere in this precise way because no other city is home to the LDS headquarters, and perhaps no other American city of Salt Lake City’s size (1.15 million metro area) has so much power concentrated in its church. That original march route, the one that startled the horses, O’Donovan chose because it would take marchers past two sides of downtown’s Salt Lake Temple -- a startling, Gothic castle-like so sheer and upright in design it looks like a 3D puzzle, almost digitally superimposed on its surroundings.

About half of Utahns are affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, the American religious group that Gallup has found is most likely to identify as conservative. The LDS church adheres to a law of chastity specifying that the only acceptable sex is straight sex, and those edicts show in the state’s politics. In 2004, for instance, Utah voters approved, by a two-to-one margin, a state constitutional amendment that withheld legal recognition from same-sex marriages and domestic partnerships. Obviously, something had to give.

Dancers on Float in Pride Parade

Gay pride in Utah (before there was Gay Pride in Utah)
In the late 1980s, the different factions of Utah’s queer community were loosely organized under an umbrella organization, the Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah. By democratic process, each group across the state could vote to send three members to what amounted to an LGBT summit to represent their vote in various matters of the gay agenda, as it were. It was in this manner that the council came to appoint O’Donovan its director of public relations.

“I chose to interpret that title very broadly,” O’Donovan says now. “And used it to organize the first march.” That’s a term distinct, he points out, from a parade, which is more celebratory. The march carried more overt political overtones. “I wanted to do a march -- ‘we’re here, we’re visible, we exist’ -- which had never been done before in Salt Lake.”

O’Donovan was the one who applied for city permits, hired security, planned the route, went to the police department to get the necessary permissions. Thus it was that in 1990 he led that first Gay and Lesbian Pride March, the precursor to what would later become the Salt Lake City Pride Parade.

Between the 1990 and 1991 marches, O’Donovan had founded activist group Queer Nation Utah to help radicalize the Salt Lake City community, and its members had taken non-violent activist training with a local Quaker church. O’Donovan instructed Queer Nation to form a line in front of the neo-Nazis -- who were bearing swastikas and chanting “Sieg Heil,” some of them in full Nazi Party uniform -- and keep them away from the marchers.

Also present were a few additional protesters who did not appear to be Nazi-affiliated, but who milled around with signs denouncing homosexuality in general (“oh, you know, ‘AIDS IS GOD’S PUNISHMENT FOR FAGGOTS,’ that kind of thing,” O’Donovan says). It is good to remember this rule of thumb in life: Even though you may not consider yourself a Nazi, if you find yourself standing on the side of the Nazis it is time to commit to some self-reflection.

Those first two years the March was held on June 27, to honor the anniversary of the Stonewall riots. O’Donovan moved away, and for the next two years, no march took place. Then, in 1994, a small handful of activists stepped forward to pick up where he’d left off, and the Gay and Lesbian Pride March was reborn as the Salt Lake City Pride Parade. Over the course of the 1990s, Queer Nation Utah proved instrumental in galvanizing and mainstreaming Salt Lake City’s LGBTQ community. Today, the Pride Parade coexists with the Dyke March, the Transgender March, and the Interfaith March.

“The impact an event like Salt Lake City Pride has on the community is powerful,” says Sara Grossman, communications manager at Matthew Shepard’s Foundation. The foundation’s name honors an LGBTQ+ student that was victim to a fatal hate crime, so Grossman understands how important it is to recognize the influence Pride has on youth. “This is who gay pride is for, after all. Not those of us who have lived in NYC or LA or SF, and have had no problem being our true selves because we were safe, but for those who live in places like Salt Lake City or Laramie, WY, or any other red dot in America.”

Salt Lake City is a liberal island in a sea of red
“The first Pride festivals actually go back in the ’70s and ’80s, and those were met with Nazis, people throwing rocks; it was a nasty time,” says Wyatt Seipp, Utah Pride Festival media director and a volunteer at the Utah Pride Center. “Now, Salt Lake has the reputation of being one of the friendliest places for gay people. People who don’t live here always think they know what Salt Lake is like, and then they actually come here and find out it’s a lot different. Salt Lake is to Utah what Austin is to Texas: a very liberal island in a very conservative state.”

The tensions remain, but the overall vibe today is “super-supportive,” Seipp says.

Even with 30,000+ people turning out each year -- this year topped previous records, with 60,000 attendees -- the Pride parade is just the second-largest in Utah. The largest, which takes place every year on July 24, is Days of ’47, the commemoration of the day the first Mormon settlers came to Salt Lake Valley. If you were to attend both, you’d notice one a bit more dour than the other, with lots of pioneer cosplay and hand carts and such.

“Ours is as over-the-top and colorful as you’d expect,” Seipp says. “And on a Sunday morning -- when all our LDS friends are at church.”

The church will still only accept self-identified queer members if those members have promised to be celibate. Festivals and parades are ultimately the sum of the people who are in them; Salt Lake City Pride is a singular phenomenon because the city’s population is, too.

“Oh, honey, we’re all ex-Mormons,” O’Donovan says. “The Episcopalians, the Unitarians -- they’re all ex-Mormons. I’m being a little flippant, but yeah, I can’t think of any of my fellow activists or colleagues back then who didn’t have a Mormon background. Ninety-nine percent. Most left on their own, or they came out and then were kicked out.”

The newer guard, he says, is more religiously diverse. That includes the city’s current (since 2015) and first openly gay mayor, Jacqueline Biskupski, who grew up Catholic. In 2016, she married her fiancee Betty Iverson on the same day the Mormon church saw a mass resignation -- more than 100 people -- over its anti-LGBTQ policies. Such resignations are common enough that organizations such as QuitMormon have sprung up to help handle the transition. For many who leave the church, its refusal to accommodate its LGBTQ members has been central.

“I was in and out of [the church] for a long time,” O’Donovan says. “It’s such a part of your conditioning and your sense of identity. I’d get angry and leave, and then I’d find a cool congregation and attend for a while, and then they’d find out I was gay and there’d be, y’know, problems, and I’d leave. It took four or five years to actually leave.”

Mormons Building Bridges at Pride Festival

Mormons Building Bridges is a model for allies everywhere
O’Donovan requested excommunication in 1990. But while huge contingents of Salt Lake City Pride Parade attendees were born into the Mormon Church, it is not the case that all of them have left it -- several different active LDS groups now march each year. The most visible of these is Mormons Building Bridges, which has sent a float and hundreds of active LDS members to the parade each year since the group’s inception in 2012.

“It was a big moment, when you first had 350 Mormons in their Sunday best marching in the Utah Pride Parade,” says Mormons Building Bridges co-founder Erika Munson. “And I think that indicated, hopefully, to church leaders that members wanted to use the principles of their religion to initiate LGBT outreach. Because of their religion. Not in spite of their religion. We want Mormons who aren’t a part of the parade to see us marching on a Sunday in our church clothes and say, ‘Oh, those people are my family. Maybe I’ve taken some distance but that’s my family.”

Utah has one of the nation’s highest youth suicide rates, and that specter hangs lowest over the state’s Mormon LGBTQ youth. “It’s on everyone’s mind here,” Siepp says. “In part, it’s because of the predominant religion here teaching that being gay is wrong.” Mormons Building Bridges is now joined by an increasing number of active-Mormon groups like Affirmation, a support group for queer Mormons, and Mama Dragons, a network of Mormon mothers advocating for their LGBTQ children with a particular focus on preventing suicides.

Munson (who is straight) says it’s dangerous to blame the LDS church for suicides -- and suicide experts would caution that such rhetoric is dangerous for those who are at-risk -- but that it’s something the church must reckon with honestly. No matter LDS policy, Mormons are going to continue having gay and trans children.

True to its name, Mormons Building Bridges has applied for a float in the Days of ’47 parade in each of the past five years. Days of ’47 has rejected them each time. Munson says they’re patiently looking forward to the time when Days of ’47 recognizes their commonalities and accepts them.

“We’ve seen initiatives on the part of the church that have helped,” Munson says. “We’ve seen church speakers be loud and clear about, ‘Don’t kick your gay kids out when they come out to you.’ But at the same time, there’s no doubt that they’re sticking to [their stance] that there’s no place in Mormon theology for same-gender couples.”

It is no longer the church’s view that one can and should pray the gay away. And yet, in 2015, the church enacted a massively controversial new policy subjecting same-sex Mormon couples to excommunication and barring their children from baptism until they turned 18 (Mormon children are traditionally baptized at age 8).

“Working for LGBT acceptance within the church, it’s a matter of learning how to live, in a healthy way, with dissonance,” Munson says. “But I’ll tell ya, committing yourself to a faith community where many have different perspectives than you? It’s a fabulous spiritual experience -- it is amazing how much you can learn about faith, about patience, and loneliness and connection. That’s what I see in gay and trans Mormons now.”

To read the article on Thrillist, go here.