Gay in Utah: Hostility, Acceptance Part of Life
SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah has long been known as a bastion of red-state conservatism with deep roots in the Mormon faith. It’s the kind of place that has historically been unwelcoming to gay marriage.
The state is the world headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which championed California’s gay marriage ban that was eventually tossed out in court. The church looms over almost every aspect of life in Utah, where an estimated two-thirds of residents are Mormon.
But, like the rest of America, how gays are received depends on where they live. Some gay couples describe feeling hostility in conservative, heavily Mormon cities such as Provo. The suburban areas that surround Salt Lake City are a mish-mash of family-friendly communities across the political spectrum.
And Salt Lake City is more open to gays than many people outside the state realize.
The city is home to gay bars and coffee shops and a pride parade that attracts 25,000 people. There’s even a bus that takes gay men and women to Nevada to party. Salt Lake is also the city where hundreds of gay couples rushed to the county clerk’s office to obtain marriage licenses and get married in the lobby of a government building, after a judge overturned the state’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage
As they wait for the courts to sort out the legal challenges to the Dec. 20 ruling, three gay couples describe differing experiences in Utah:
Cheryl Haws and Shelly Eyre have been lesbian partners for eight years in Provo, about 45 miles southeast of Salt Lake City and arguably the most conservative city in Utah.
They have been the target of outright hostility and insults. Eyre left the Mormon church years ago; Haws was ex-communicated, they said.
A Mormon church leader once told Eyre, "`I would rather see you dead than commit this sin,’" Eyre said in what she described as one of her most painful experiences of being gay in Utah.
Provo is in Utah County and home to Brigham Young University, the flagship school for the Mormon faith where students are prohibited from having premarital sex and drinking alcoholic beverages. The county is overwhelmingly Republican; President Barack Obama received less than 10 percent of the vote there in 2012.
The couple was initially turned down for a marriage license by Utah County, which only reluctantly started granting them days after a federal judge struck down the state’s ban. The couple got a license Thursday.
Haws and Eyre are licensed clinical social workers with a private counseling practice in Utah County. A few patients abandoned them after their effort to get a marriage license made their relationship widely known.
"I’ve never been un-friended by so many people on Facebook," Eyre said.
Eyre said she moved from more gay-friendly Salt Lake City to Provo eight years ago to live with Haws, a mother of seven children from a previous marriage who wanted to stay close to her family. Haws was still caring for two of the children, who are now off to college.
When Haws’ oldest son died in a car accident in 2006, Eyre found her name disappeared from a published obituary as the mother’s partner.
But Eyre said the couple has a circle of supporters, including traditional couples who have been "good, kind and generous - people who have protected us." Some of her neighbors help out mowing their lawn or shoveling snow.
"We’re not trying to judge others who judge us," Eyre said. "The folks who said they’d rather see us dead - in their mind that was all the love they could muster."
The struggle in Utah is the same everywhere, Eyre said.
"Just being gay or lesbian and not having support or being afraid your family is going to kick you out or will not speak to you - Catholics and Baptists can be the same way in other states," she said.
Jon Jensen has been with his partner more than six years, but it wasn’t until last week that the couple finally was able to become husband and husband.
It was a huge moment in their lives, but also, Jensen thinks, a reflection on changing attitudes in the state and more specifically, a backlash against the Mormon church over decades of repression.
Jensen and his husband, Jared Reesor, are more fortunate than others around Utah given they live in Salt Lake City, the state’s liberal hub, despite the presence of the church’s gleaming headquarters in the middle of downtown.
In fact, Jensen said, the church has had such a polarizing effect on Salt Lake City’s younger population that he thinks people in the capital are more open to gay people.
"It makes people stand up more for what they believe in," he said.
With clubs and bars, coffee houses and tattoo parlors, Salt Lake City has become a bustling center for the younger, hipper crowd that doesn’t live up to Utah’s generally buttoned-up, clean-cut image. That’s why Jensen and Reesor, 36, a residential contractor, have chosen to live here after being raised Mormon in surrounding counties where acceptance wasn’t so easy to come by.
"People don’t even question that you’re a gay couple. In Utah County, we’d have to explain who we are," said the 35-year-old software developer. "People here, they don’t even care. They don’t even bat an eye when you introduce your husband or partner."
Jensen said the changing attitude toward gays in the city is prevalent in the number of outspoken critics he has counted during protests at the annual pride festival.
"It’s so reduced at this point it’s barely noticeable," he said.
Jensen recalls his youth in Utah with hesitation and a bit of remorse, a legacy of his Mormon upbringing that stifled his individuality.
"As a young kid, I remember lying on my bed ... feeling so guilty I wanted to die. I always felt like I just didn’t belong," he said.
Jensen left the church about 10 years ago while still hiding his sexuality, unable to come to terms with who he was and feeling unwelcomed by those around him.
And now, living in Salt Lake City - without the guilt, without the judging eyes of others - Jensen and his husband are finally feeling free and rewarded for having waited.
They talked about going elsewhere for their nuptials, maybe Hawaii, "but we wanted to be married in our home state. We just never expected it to happen so soon."
Greg Jaboin is raising two teenage children with his partner in Salt Lake City. He grew up in the Boston suburbs, came out after college and moved to Utah in 2005 after meeting partner Steve Kachocki during a work training trip.
He said Utah is a huge shift from Massachusetts, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2003. Jaboin, who is black, said people stare more often because of his skin color than because they notice he’s gay. Utah is more than 90 percent white.
"They can’t get past race to get to sexuality until they see Steve," he said, referring to his white husband.
Steve’s former wife lives on the same street, four houses away with her new husband.
Their two children walk back and forth between the two homes, he said.
"For the most part, I’ve had a pretty decent time here being gay," Jaboin said. "However, when work and gayness collide that’s when things change."
Jaboin, 35, works in banking, and while there’s a relatively diverse workforce and accepting corporate policy, he said he still notices what he calls "passive disapproval" from some Mormon co-workers, such as a normally chatty co-worker turning silent after he brought up on Monday that he’d just gotten married.
Jaboin said having a family helps him gain acceptance in Utah. People become more comfortable with them because their life is similar to that of heterosexual couples, "the children, the mortgage, the two cars, the school, the soccer on Saturdays, that kind of thing," he said.
He said that he thinks full acceptance will come within his lifetime.
"The change will come more fully to Utah in the next 10 years," he said. "Right now, they are a little bit shell-shocked."