The Formation of Affirmation Wasatch: Memoirs of a Gay Historian
By Ben Williams
© Ben Williams. Posted with the author's permission.
Affirmation members know that the Wasatch Chapter of Affirmation was recently renamed the Salt Lake Chapter. What many do not know is that between June 1986 and January 1987 there were two Affirmation chapters functioning in Salt Lake City: The Salt Lake Chapter and the Wasatch Chapter.
The Salt Lake Chapter represented the old guard and had a primarily social focus. But in 1986 Russ Lane moved to Salt Lake and, instead of attending the Salt Lake Chapter, decided to form his own group: Wasatch Affirmation. Russ complained that the old Salt Lake Chapter was out of harmony with Affirmation's charter because the leaders did not start meetings with a prayer. The new Wasatch Chapter had a renewed spiritual focus and ambitious goals, and Russ Lane would later become Affirmation's national director.
In the following essay, Ben Williams tells us about the busy spring of 1986 when he came out of the closet, helped Russ Lane find a job, and met all sorts of gay Mormons. Ben Williams is a community historian living in Salt Lake City and a columnist for QSaltLake.
I recently learned that the Wasatch Chapter of Affirmation is no more. I don't know why I should care since I have not attended Affirmation on a regular basis in fifteen years. However, I was there at the beginning - well not the actual beginning, but pretty damn close.
In early February 1986, a 30-year-old man arrived in Salt Lake City from San Jose with a suitcase and a mission. This tall, lanky, red-headed Iowa native had an epiphany in California. It was revealed that the Utah Gay Saints were in a quandary and the Lord thus said, "Go east, young man," and so he did.
His name was and is Russ Lane.
In early February 1986 I also had my own epiphany while lying in bed with two young men who had picked me up while cruising the old downtown library. My epiphany was that I should get the hell out of the closet. And I did after realizing it wasn't sex I craved but the gay companionship which I had experienced with these men as we laid in bed naked talking about our fathers, our fears and our friends. From that moment on I decided I had to stop living a lie, living a life afraid of being me.
It wasn't going to be easy. Back then, I was 34 years old and a temple-married Mormon. Talk about carrying heavy-duty baggage. But what to do? (Hint: I didn't become a high-priced male escort).
Well, by chance, while at work, I stumbled across KRCL's Radio Free
Utah and while listening to some great tunes, a program came on announcing
"If you are, know or love someone gay or lesbian, yadda yadda ya …
stay tuned!" Holy crap! I swiveled around in my work cubicle to make
sure no one had overheard the queer radio and then I cranked it as
low as I could audibly, to hear "Mickey Moss" from "Concerning Gays
and Lesbians" announcing that on the program there would be missionaries
from the Church of Jesus Christ of All Latter Day Saints,
who arrived in Salt Lake City from Southern California to proclaim
good tidings of great joy and piss off Mormon copyright lawyers. Well,
something like that.
The premise of the proselytizers was that the Lord had raised up a restoration Church for the despised and rejected of the world. Well, that message hit bull's-eye with me since I was on the verge of being despised and rejected as I was kicking the closet door open. At the end of the program, I also heard "Mickey" ramble off phone numbers for various gay organizations in Salt Lake City. I recognized the name "Affirmation" from some gay Californian Mormons I knew in the early 80s. So, I had the fateful number in my nasty hand … drum roll … boom! I called! Yahoo! it was only a recorded message and not someone live! Oh Crap! Now what do I do?
Well, I tell my wife I am going to the library. What a liar I was. (Don't feel bad for her, she loves fags). With fear and trembling I sat in my blue '81 Datsun outside the Crossroad Urban Center, summing up the courage to enter a brave new world. I finally went in because I reasoned that anyone in there would have to be gay and so how could they possibly diss me? Well, whatever works.
So I attended my first meeting of Affirmation, the Salt Lake Chapter. I soon learned that the chapter director was a 42-year-old man named John Cooper. He was so pleasant and warm I thought this might not be so bad. Here I am in a room with six other gay men. It's the most openly-gay space I had ever been in. Wow! My "Roman" eyes were everywhere! Talk about your candy store stage!
Well, attending Affirmation was neat but, since they only met twice a month, if I was to get my new "gay fix" I had to find another meeting. Listening again to "Mickey," she said that the gay Mormon Church people were back in town and "were gonna have a meeting!"
Well this was a pickle. It was one thing to be going to a gay support group but going to an apostate gay church was a whole bigger bowl of Jell-O. I screwed up my religious convictions, dug deep for my well-spring of support, and with West Texas pioneer fortitude (hey - not everybody rode in on a handcart) I gained the courage to attend an organizational meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of All Latter Day Saints, also at the Crossroads Urban Center. Who do you suppose I met at this meeting? No, not Orrin Hatch, Russ Lane, by golly. Those with short attention spans - reread the first paragraph.
Russ was at the meeting to sing LDS hymns with a queer slant and to recruit people for the new and improved Wasatch Affirmation. He informed everyone at church that a new chapter of Affirmation was being organized and was meeting that very night at - you guessed it - the Crossroads Urban Center!
Well, I huffed to myself, what's wrong with the old Affirmation? But because I was smitten by Russ Lane's charm and buoyant enthusiasm, I went. Did I mention that he had a bushy red mustache?
My first meeting at Wasatch Affirmation was its third, but its first planning and
organizational meeting. While only about six people attended the Salt Lake chapter, nearly 20 were at the Wasatch Meeting, all due to Russ' canvassing and beating the bushes.
Russ Lane's Wasatch meetings were like an old-time-religion revival with the spirit pouring out. It was contagious, campy and fun. Each week the meeting grew until people were sitting on the floor or overflowing and flaming out into the hallway. By summer the meetings were moved to the First Unitarian Church.
Now is the part where it all fits together. Thank you for your patience. In early March, Russ heard that the job he thought he had fell through. Out of money and out of luck, he was returning to San Jose. I immediately was struck with the feelings of gloom, despair, and agony on me … deep, dark depression, excessive misery (apologies to Buck Owens). I could not allow Russ to leave! (No, I didn't
go all psycho on him). I could see what a blessing his being in Salt Lake City was and how, if he stayed, he could help hundreds of gays find a place where healing and acceptance could take place.
So I put my shoulder to the wheel, resolved to keep Russ Lane in Salt Lake City. Back then I was in the title business. So I went to my boss and told him that, if he would hire Russ as a trainee, I would train him personally and make sure that his production would be high and accurate. So my boss did and I kept my word. Russ Lane went to work at Utah Title, moved in with my wife and me from Duane
Dawson's couch, and went on to build a strong gay-affirming organization. In 1988 Russ Lane was even elected director of the National Affirmation Organization. Russ once told me that it was all because of my wife and I that Wasatch Affirmation survived. It's true.
By the way - this is queer - one of the guys in bed with me that February (keep up) turned out to be Randy Holladay, a cousin of Russ Lane and who hosted the first meeting of Wasatch Affirmation at his own home. Sing-along with me - "It's a small world after all."
As for old Ben (me), well I reckoned he'd later go on to become the
last director of the old Salt Lake Chapter of Affirmation, which in
1987 metamorphosed into Unconditional Support for Gays and Lesbians.
The old coot also became a co-host for seven years on Concerning Gays
and Lesbians with Becky "Mickey" Moss. The old fool even started Beyond
Stonewall a weekend retreat, organized the Sacred Faeries, helped
found the Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah, the Utah Stonewall
Center, the Stonewall Gay and Lesbian Archives, the Utah Stonewall
Historical Society, and became a columnist for Triangle Magazine,
The Bridge, The Pillar, Salt Lake Metro and now QSaltLake.
Yep I'd say it was worth knocking that door down. I hope you