Our Pioneer Roots — Past & Present
Affirmation Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, August 22, 1997
By Ken Salzman
Seasons of Love, Seasons of hope. This particular song is from Rent. Deals with being HIV Positive, deals with how much a man's or woman's life is worth. How do you measure that life? A year, those years. How do you measure the years that we've been involved in the LDS church? How do you measure the years that we've spent coming out. How do you measure the years that we've spent trying to deal with our lives, friends, people...
The following remarks are taken from two books, one is Same Sex Marriage in Pre-Modern Europe, by John Boswell and Same-Sex Dynamics Among Nineteenth-Century Americans, by Michael Quinn. This is by no means a review of their works.
An interesting thing about our gay history is that there really isn't any. We've always existed, but we were "sorta there." Somewhat accepted, somewhat ignored, sometimes "don't ask don't tell." You can imagine the headlines as it reads in the history books, "French Gay Revolution Has Been A Victory." From as far back as history goes, there have been homosexual relationships. That's not what they've always been called. In Greece one could always tell what kind of a household it was by the kind of servants one had. Often the boy servants were there to serve the master until he got married. But in some cases the boy/man relationships lasted until death with instructions to be buried next to their partner. Even though these relationships were so common, they were hardly spoken of because they were a natural part of society. That's all there was to it, people expected it to happen, they dealt with it, they lived with it as a natural part of society.
Even in the late 1800's and early 1900's there was a sense of acceptance, of closeness, man to man, woman to woman, that was encouraged, allowed only to a certain point. As in Michael Quinn's book, we find that our Mormon ancestors were very close to the gay movement, even though they tried to ignore it or hope that it would go away. Mildred Berryman was a part of this history, and without her we might not have any insights into what we call our Mormon gay culture at that particular time.
Mildred J. Berryman's study is the only source for the views and experiences of early Utahns and Mormons who regarded themselves as homosexual. She indicated that she knew 100 homosexuals of whom there were about an equal number of men and women. However, without explanation, Berryman limits her study to 24 women and nine men. That was disproportionate to the gender ratio in Salt Lake City's homosexual population by her own statement and was only 1/3 of the Utah homosexuals she knew. Many homosexual participants in her study were members of the Salt Lake Bohemian club, which was incorporated in 1891. Although Berryman was probably biased in her study somewhat, because I think she had a very bad dislike for men, the book makes an interesting statement. "Berryman dismissed gay male relationships in general," they were of no importance. "It is worthy to note that constancy is much more in evidence among the homosexual woman than among homosexual men. Often they love but once, and if their union is broken they seldom try further but remain true to the one love. While among male homosexuals, their affections seem fleeting and are vacillating in their friendships. They form cliques and groups and just as suddenly as the groups are formed, they are dispersed and each member forms the nucleus of a new group. There is evidenced in the male homosexual all the negative characteristics which are absent in the female homosexual."
Berryman had started this project as an honors thesis at Westminster College, but it was discouraged by her advisor. She still continued this survey along the side. Eight years before she completed the study, she wrote as a non-student in a literary magazine of the University of Utah, "love knows no law nor recognizes any man-made consecration. Love alone, that all-consuming fire that refuses to be quenched by half measures, is a law unto itself." Berryman made no reference to homosexuality in this essay, but its lesbian subtext was indicated by an illustration of a female nude.
Berryman's study provides an extraordinary window into the self-perceptions of lesbians and gay men in the early decades of the 20th century. These people lived in a small city that had more in common with the values of America's heartland than the metropolis of New York City. Her study first of all demonstrates that even in such environments had both self-identity and community identity as a sexual minority. They interacted sufficiently that Berryman referred to 100 homosexuals of her own acquaintance. While some of these lesbians and gay men felt self-loathing others regarded their same-sex orientation as abnormal, only from a perspective of the majority's experience. They saw homosexuality as potentially healthy and happy. A few regarded their homosexual desires as completely normal. Nearly all of these lesbians and gay men reported childhood awareness of their sexual orientation, although there were a few who became aware of their same sex attraction only in their mid-20's. Any different from us? Sounds like the same old story, the same rules?
To whom do we look for our gay pioneer heritage? A few of the more famous ones are the Primary General President, Louise B. Felt, and her counselor, May Anderson, and their declared affection towards one another. And then of course, Evan Stephens, director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir from 1890 to 1916, when he retired. He wrote 19 hymns that are in the hymnal today. He was a professor of vocal music at the LDS University in Salt Lake City. He found many a cute, "little boy" in the choir. [One of Evan Stephen's songs, A Mormon Boy, was then performed by the California Affirmation Boys choir.]
It can only be a matter of speculation whether Stephens had sex with any of the young men he loved, lived and slept with most of his life. If there was any unexpressed erotic desire, it is possible that only Stephans felt it, as all his "boy chums" eventually married. Homoerotic desire could have been absent altogether or unconsciously sublimated or consciously suppressed. Of his personal experience, Stephens once wrote, "Some of it is even too sacred to be told freely, only to myself." Whether or not Stephens' male friendships were homoerotic, both published and private accounts show that the love of the Tabernacle Choir director for young man was powerful, charismatic, reciprocal, and enduring. One biographer wrote that Stephens attached himself passionately to the male friends of his youth and brought many young men, some distantly related, to his home for companionship.
It's really too bad that we don't have some personal insight into these people. The closest we come is two articles published in The Children's Friend on Louise B. Felt and May Anderson and another on Evan Stephens, written under the name of Evan Bach (which was some sort of play on Bach the composer) and his "boyhood chums," where he declares his great love for his friends. But again, hidden in codes, are phrases that suggest but never say.
This I find most frustrating, but I guess it's left up to us here in the present. Overwhelming? Yes. Are we ready to act, are we ready to speak out, to take a stand? Here's the campfire, right here. Many of us have travelled many miles, both over distance, emotionally, physically, and spiritually, to get here. And even though we are all here in the same room we are all really in different places in our lives. But for now, we are here, together. We are resting from our travels and journeys. All is well. All is well. All is well.
I hope that before our journey of this conference is over we'll be strengthened by thoughts of those who have paved the road we will travel and that somehow, someway we can stop to help build the road so that many others can travel safely forward.
There's a quote from a song of Romanovsky-Phillips called, One Way Out, the last two verses: "When they talk about saving the children, one out of ten they ignore. But if we the survivors can drown out the liars we won't have to lose anymore. Anyone can be a beacon to brighten the dark of despair, and light up the path to another way out when nobody else seems to care."
Let's talk for a minute about the beginnings of Affirmation. Affirmation is the brainchild of Steve Zakharias, starting in 1977, after losing two good friends to suicide. After going through "reparative" treatment and discovering they could not be cured, they became so depressed that they took their own lives. He formed this support group to help people like that. In 1978 Paul Mortensen inquired about Affirmation and helped start the Los Angeles chapter. Shortly after that Steve had to abandon the leadership because of health reasons and asked Paul to take over. Since we're talking about pioneers today, I think these two men should lead the list. How many lives were and are being saved because of their insight? I would not be where I am today except for Affirmation, and it's only been one year since I became a part of this great and beautiful group.
There have been many others, not necessarily LDS, who are pioneers to us. May I quote from Paul Monette, a poet, writer, screen writer, and activist, from his book, The Gay Soul? It is several interviews with pioneers in the gay field. It is an excellent book. Paul Monette says, "[They are] the really special people who have given me some wisdom and a helping hand and made things easier for me and put themselves out for me. There's no way I can repay a hundred different people for what they have taught me. Sometimes, completely unconsciously, but they form a kind of bridge of linked arms, and I'm on the other side. It's made of those I'm generally in love with, like Winston and Steven, or Roger, or also just strangers. They have made me stronger in my belief in myself and made me more joyous in my sense of self."
I don't realize how open I am compared to most people and I'll say anything if it's going to make me figure out something better. There's a wonderful saying in New York: there's talking and there's waiting to talk. I think I'm a better listener than I've ever been. Sometimes in listening I feel that I express myself better than when I'm talking. But I profoundly agree with Socrates too, that you don't have a clue what something is until you've talked it through. He didn't really much believe in much, he thought books were kind of a dead, impatient thing, that it was in a vitality of human intercourse that one finds the life force. I agree. Life is such a good conversation. If we don't talk, who's going to know. If we don't discuss, and re-discuss, and talk about our feelings, and dig inside, who's going to understand? We need to talk, not just here in our Affirmation group. I realize that it's harder done than said, and everybody's circumstances are different, but, we're not going to get anywhere if we keep leaning up against the wall.
James Brighton, born in Modesto, CA, in 1913, is a film maker, writer, and artist. He says, "Gaiety has no gender barriers. Isn't joyfulness available to all sexes? I do not condone heterophobia anymore than I do other prejudices. I am uncomfortable with the dichotomy of them against us. I believe in the potential of redemption of all [human] souls." Wouldn't everyone benefit from more enlightened consciousness? As the rap song says, "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt." Men have denied their softness and suppleness, their tenderness and sensitivity, they have taught their sons to be tough, contemptuous, and inflexible. This is a perversion of masculinity. Can we transcend the cynical thinking that denies value to the soul and to the quest for significant meaning? I would plead for a loving friendship. Keats called friendship a "holy emotion." The clasp of fond friendship is life's greatest collision, I once wrote. Look for all that is beautiful in men and women. Despite appearances to the contrary, look for the radiance behind the mask of every face. Though you may not want to believe it, every other human being is as divine as you are. Rub against fellow creatures, all shapes, stripes, smells, tints. How else will we end the civil wars of the world and inherit a friendly future? Love not only ourselves but even the heterosexual.
Ed Sidebritcher, born in Chicago, a 65 year old author, teacher, and lecturer, directs a meditation center now in Los Angeles. He says, "Humankind is struggling with understanding what sexuality is all about, and gays are a very prominent sexual speciality in terms of power they carry. Yet gay men have still to wake up and go inside [themselves]. They've got incredible power but they have to let it come from consciousness. They have to because the world is a mess. To the gay men [and women], I say, just stop whatever you're doing and go inside. Find your inner guide and wake up. There's nothing more awesome than sexual union with God. Again, inside." Do we take these things to heart?
Harry Hay is widely known as the visionary founding father of the modern gay movement. His open stand against homophobia in society and within gay people themselves led to the formation of the Mattachine Society in 1950. He organized the first gay demonstration in Los Angeles in 1966. At 84, Hay remains one of the most daring and original theorists of the gay movement. He says, "The gay movement's critical mass visibility is still largely ephemeral. What society sees is the middle-class hetero-assimilationists. The gay movement has not developed even the illusion of a vigorous, anchored in the rock, grass roots foundation." Our potential clout is still to be demonstrated, with 81% of the American public insisting that homosexuality is wrong, with half our friends and relatives being middle-class as we are, we still have to rousingly defeat the religious right.
Malcolm Boyd, born June 7, 1923, is a well-known author, activist, clergyman. He said that Gandhi, who practiced non-violence, was involved in social action as anyone in the world. It's how you accomplish social action. What are your goals? As gay people we have to be socially active at every level. We're asserting our own rights and the rights of others, but at the same time, we need to do it through non-violence and unconditional love.
The real choice is: are we going to have the courage to persevere to find out what it means to be gay and then, to do the hard work to get to some new places; or are we going to just stay wounded and unforgiving. Do we have to play the same tired roles over and over again? What we're offered is freedom. As gay people, you'd think we want more of it than anyone else because we have been denied that freedom for so long. There is now a potential for that freedom. This is freedom inside, freedom to develop as a person who is free of old wounding, old strictures, old pride. It's an interior freedom. Unless we deal with this as a gay people, we're going to end up as some footnote on page 288 in some history book. We don't want that! We won't be relevant at all. Our progress can't be measured in terms of who knows what president or who's on the cover of People. That's totally irrelevant. What's important is the kind of life we choose to live and if we have the courage to make it real. As I look around I see some gay people pioneering on the paths of interior freedom, but I see all too many people not doing this, all too many.
Some of our greatest pioneers are our teachers. B. Michael Hunter, New York, writes in One Teacher in Ten: Gay and Lesbian Educators Tell their Stories, by Kevin Jennings, says, "I feel good about being a teacher. I feel good about knowing that many of my colleagues know that I'm gay. While marching down 5th Avenue in the 1993 Lesbian and Gay Pride march, I was greeted and joined by at least seven fellow city school staffers. The principal and several of my students also spotted me on an African-American cable TV talk show where I shared about being black and gay. But although I have never felt better about myself or my work, I still constantly struggle with feeling totally comfortable in this profession. As a gay teacher, I struggle personally as well, knowing that the successive deaths from AIDS of so many of my friends have weighed me down. I'm often unable to find language to express my own feelings of loss. In April of 1991, HIV and death were unintentional motivators for me to teach. Not until an ex-lover died of AIDS did I decide it was time to get tested for HIV, the virus believed to cause AIDS. I had waited for years for some physical sign, some indicator that I might be infected. When I tested positive for AIDS on November 18, 1992, I was not surprised. On that day I breathed a sigh of relief and cried three times on the way home from the anonymous testing site. Once for my mother, who I did not want to see me die. A second time for my cousin, Sheila, with whom I had grown so much. The third, for my lover John, who I feared would witness me deteriorate. I was too numb to cry for myself. When Rhea asked me to team-teach the HIV awareness class, I was reluctant. Pressing fears about being so out were paralyzing. Even though many of my students know I am gay, their remarks are often homophobic and reflect an erroneous association between HIV and being gay. But once I agreed to teach the class, I had every intention of disclosing my seropositive status. I never did. I was afraid of being perceived as an infected gay carrier who warned students to protect themselves from high risk groups, which ironically includes gay men and sexually active teenagers. I also found it difficult to echo the prevention messages routinely targeted to the public that separate people into the negatives, those who must be spared, and the positives, those who will end up with AIDS and die. Eventually, I know I will talk about how being gay, and being HIV positive, for that matter, does not mean having AIDS. I know too that sharing this information will add to my own healing and will help me define who I am. I know now that I began teaching because I was unconsciously prepared to die. I continue teaching because I am looking forward, more consciously than ever, to tomorrow."
Christine Robinson, an English teacher from New Hampshire, writes, "You can't tell by looking at me. My hair, skin, bone structure, dress, movement, locate me very well within the boundaries of mainstream culture. But I live on the margins. I am a member of a unique minority that has no racial, ethnic, or national identity, that speaks every language, lives in every country, a minority that historically has been both ignored and brutalized, punished on earth, excluded from heaven. But you can't tell by looking at me. I know how to pass. Oh, I couldn't pass as French on school year abroad, and I sure couldn't pass as a Southerner in Alabama, but acting straight in a straight world is everything I've been trained for. From the intimacy of family to communities of schooling, to visual realms of advertising, cinema, art, even shopping malls. With devastating simplicity I learn complex rules of behavior, developing elaborate forms of evasion, secrecy, denial, half-truths, in which the failure to speak becomes in itself a form of oppression. Oh, you might carry a photo in your wallet of a cute guy, not too handsome, but no one will believe you. You might have a friend's brother take you to the movies. After college, I went cross country on motorcycle with Mr. Dan Kempton. Oh, I got enough mileage out of that story to have crossed the US a dozen times. In other words, I learned to be a pretty good liar. Oh, even now, after the poetry, novels, research, a gay pride parade or two, grounded in the history and the traditions of my collective identity, I am reminded daily that my lifestyle is at odds with prevailing ethos, assumptions, privileges, of heterosexuality, so that I straddle two ways of being, perceiving, and creating meaning. I walk a tightrope between assimilation and resistance, complacency and revolt, silence and voice. I am on one hand the member of a dominant class sharing many of its luxuries, and on the other on the rock bottom of legitimacy, without constitutional rights, denied legal protection, and in some cases gestures of even common decency. I have spent much of my life fearful, reticent, too easily persuaded that protective coloration is better than truth. The ability to disguise sexuality is both a gift and a curse, a freedom and a burden, for when you pass you lose the opportunity to define yourself because you are not being yourself. For years I began every encounter on uncertain ground, listening to signals to guide behavior conversations. The advantages are simple as a survival, sometimes physical, sometimes psychological. But to quote Adrianne Rich, 'Invisibility is a dangerous and painful condition, and lesbians are not the only people to know it. When someone with the authority of a teacher describes the world you are not in, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you're looking in a mirror and saw nothing.' I have felt that shadowy existence, a stranger to myself and self-hatred that comes from internalizing negative messages of our culture. Liberation of any sort can be painful, costly, but also exhilarating, fulfilling. My journey is connected to my sense of myself as teacher."
Booker T. Washington said, "A nation cannot teach its youth to think in terms of destruction and oppression without brutalizing and blunting the tender conscience and sense of justice of the youths of our country." More and more, we must learn to think not in terms of race, or language, or color, or religion, or of political or sexual boundaries, but in terms of humanity. Above all distinctions, there is humanity. If we think about humanity, I think we'll see the bigger picture.