How Salt Lake City Became an Unlikely Gay Mecca

The city with holy significance for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is also home to a growing LGBT population.

Gay pride parade in Salt Lake City in June 2014. (Photo: Jay Jacobsen/Getty Images)

Mar 24, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Hayley Fox is a regular contributor to TakePart who has covered breaking news and the occasional animal story for public radio station KPCC in Los Angeles.

Jesse Walker grew up Mormon and gay in an Idaho town, so his visits to the nearest metropolis, Salt Lake City, offered him a glimpse of hope at a real future as an out man.

Walker left the church at 16 and shortly after high school moved to Salt Lake City, where “you can throw a dart and hit a gay person” who left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints because he or she didn’t feel accepted.

“There’s a large population here that have that exact same story,” said Walker, now 39. “That binds a lot of people together here.”

Part of that story for Walker is his ex-wife, whom he was living with in Salt Lake City when he came out to her at 24. He has now lived in the state’s capital for about two decades and has seen the LGBT population in the city explode, not just in numbers but also in visibility. As an artist and a DJ, Walker has been very connected to gay life in the city, he said, and the explosion of youth culture there has helped create an overall more accepting environment.

“We all feel connected despite our differences because we’re all part of the ‘other,’ if you might call it that,” said Walker.

With 4.7 percent of Salt Lake City’s adult population identifying as LGBT, the state capital now rates as one of the top 10 places where LGBT people live in the United States. Ranking between the Los Angeles and Boston metro areas, Salt Lake City comes in at No. 7 in population percentage on a list of top 50 U.S. metro areas for the LGBT community, according to a Gallup poll released Friday. San Francisco and Portland secured the No. 1 and 2 spots, respectively.

Salt Lake City’s LGBT population “is substantially more open and visible today, and the change in that visibility there is among the largest in the country,” said Gary Gates of UCLA’s The Williams Institute, who published a report on these comparisons. (In 1990, the city ranked 39th.)

While this may be due in part to the “regional draw” Salt Lake City has for LGBT individuals in the largely conservative state, it also demonstrates a substantial change in the comfort level of LGBT people to identify as such, said Gates. Historically, this feeling of social acceptance tends to precede legal equality, and Utah has made strides in both, noted Gates.

Utah is the first state since 2007 to pass a comprehensive antidiscrimination law that protects LGBT individuals in employment or housing based on sexual orientation or gender identity, said Gates. It was the product of cooperation between the Mormon church and gay advocates that many called historic.

“More than half the states still don’t have a law like that on their books,” Gates pointed out, and to get a state legislature to pass one shows there is a large politically active LGBT community. It also signals a slow shift in the Mormon church, whose support was instrumental in getting the law passed.

The church has gradually changed its stance on being gay from considering it “a sin next to murder” to a more nuanced position that judges people based on their actions, not their sexual orientation, said Kent Frogley, chairman of the Utah Pride Center.

The Mormon church has always moved slowly in terms of “theological evolution,” Frogley said, and until a few years ago, people either came out and left the church or remained but stayed in the closet. The church doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage as a legitimate union, said Frogley, but some bishops are welcoming gay congregants.

“It’s new territory for everybody,” he stated.

Salt Lake City is “an island of progressive thinking,” said Frogley, which makes sense because it allows LGBT individuals to remain close to their families, as is important in Mormonism, but live within a city that fits their lifestyle.

Over the past 15 years, the state’s gay pride celebration, which includes a parade, interfaith services, and more, went from attracting fewer than 4,000 people to more than 35,000 people at the most recent event, he said.

In a fitting portrait of the changing state of Utah, the gay pride parade has become the second-largest parade in the state, said Frogley. It takes a backseat only to the Days of ’47 Parade, a state holiday that celebrates the Mormon pioneers’ arrival in Salt Lake Valley in 1847.