LGBTQ Literature in Utah

That dear white hand within my own I took
"Illa,” I whispered, "May I keep it so?"
My eager blood my anxious cheek forsook
Fearing my love that loved me might say no....
She raised her eyes. There looking I beheld
The Sound of Music through the eyes of love.

So wrote Kate Thomas, prolific turn-of-the-century poet, playwright, suffragette, anarchist, and Mormon woman in her poem “To _______” within the unpublished pages of her journal.  Thomas, born in 1873 in Salt Lake to British parents, learned early to hide her sexual attraction to women from her Mormon community, retreating to New York City and Europe in 1921 while writing articles and poetry for the LDS Relief Society magazine. 

Thomas’ move from Utah to New York was likely driven by her realization that her desires and aspirations could not be easily reconciled with her Mormon beliefs, nor accepted by the society in which she moved. 

In that, her flight might recall that of other early 20th-century-LGBTQ Utah writers, such as Wallace Thurman, an African American novelist and editor born in Salt Lake City who moved to New York during the Harlem Renaissance. Or May Swenson, a poet and translator who left Logan for New York in the 30s to work in publishing. Like Thomas and Thurman, Swenson nurtured bigger literary ambitions than anything Utah could then provide. 

Based upon their complex racial, artistic and sexual identities, Thomas, Thurman and Swenson would all likely have felt like outsiders to turn-of-the-century Utah and the culture that rose up around the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While that culture has changed, some of the central tensions between the church and the LGBTQ community remain relevant today.

On paper, Utah’s reputation as socially and religiously conservative might stand at odds with its current protective laws for LGBTQ residents, whose state rights and anti-discrimination protections are among the most extensive in the nation. Part of the reason for Utah’s progressive laws is the Wasatch Range’s expanding LGBTQ community. Currently, Salt Lake’s LGBTQ population per capita ranks seventh among the top 50 metro areas, beating out Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago. 

In Utah, same-sex marriage has been legal since 2014. In 2015, the state passed a bill strengthening state anti-discrimination protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in housing and employment.  In 2019 and 2020, the state approved bills to criminalize hate crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity, as well banned conversion therapy on minors. Finally, Utah now offers third sex options for sex descriptors on state identity documents so as to represent nonbinary residents more equitably. 

But while many Utah laws might protect LGBTQ residents, that does not mean these residents feel protected. In part this is due to the outsize cultural influence of the church, which officially recognizes only heterosexual unions. Though the church has become increasingly progressive in its understanding of LGBTQ identity and issues, including changing its position on conversion therapy, it maintains that “immoral relationships” must be renounced.  This has resulted in LGBTQ members facing the impossible choice of either trying to change their sexual orientation, or marrying a member of the opposite sex, or refraining from sex and masturbation so as to remain members of the church in good standing.

Thus many LGBTQ writers in Utah, especially ones who are Mormon, live in a nebulous cultural space: at once visible and erased, their identities legally safeguarded and also suppressed. This strange space has been explored in J. Seth Anderson’s history, LGBT Salt Lake City, and at times  has been directly expressed in the Utah publishing world itself. In 2013, the authors Michael Jensen and David Powers King, who co-authored the young-adult fantasy novel Woven, charged that Utah publisher Cedar Fort’s imprint Sweetwater canceled their book’s publication after Jensen wanted to reference his boyfriend in his author’s bio. The dispute between the authors and the publisher led to an open letter of support for the authors by over 40 Mormon writers and public outcry against Cedar Fort. 

This split between progressive and conservative Utah culture has been explored in the work of many authors. The novelist Greg Bills, who is gay, considers the tense relationship between a gay Mormon teen and his family in Consider This Home.   Chad Anderson’s memoir Gay Mormon Dad explores the struggles Anderson experienced as a closeted gay man in a large religious family. The actor and writer Steven Fales’ humorous and autobiographical one-man play, Confessions of a Mormon Boy, focuses on his leaving the church while also working as an escort in Manhattan. GLAAD-winning journalist Samantha Allen examines the lives of LGBTQ people living in red states like Utah in her nonfiction book Real Queer America, while also exploring her own gender transition in her memoir Love & Estrogen. Finally, Julie Jensen's play Two-Headed, a play about Utah's Mountain Meadows Massacre, takes its title from the metaphor for how an LGBTQ person can feel in a conservative, heteronormative world.

Straight authors have also responded to this cultural clash. Christina Lauren’s YA novel Autoboyography, for example, details the relationship of two teenage boys in Utah--one from a progressive family and one from a conservative religious family--who fall in love in a writing class. Dayna Patterson’s hybrid poetry and lyric essay collection, If Mother Braids a Waterfall, grapples with her family’s patriarchal and polygamous heritage while also coming to terms with her mother’s bisexuality.  Fourth-generation Mormon novelist, poet and playwright Carol Lynn Pearson, whose memoir Goodbye, I Love You traces her marriage to a gay man who died of AIDS in 1984, closely examines the painful cultural fallout of the church’s stance on LGBTQ people in her 2007 play Facing East, about a Mormon family reeling from the suicide of a gay son. Finally, BYU professor, playwright and LGBTQ ally, Eric Samuelsen, wrote movingly about the complex life of an openly gay LDS teen in his 2011 play “Borderlands.”

Even gentile, or non-Mormon, LGBTQ writers are forced to reckon with the widespread influence of the church. Poets such as Natasha Sajé examine the complex intersections of race, sexual orientation, gender and place that Utah’s unique culture create, topics that slam poet Willy Palomo also addresses, while focusing primarily on his experience as the child of immigrants from El Salvador. The slam community in particular has been home to many younger LGBTQ writers, such as Enan Whitby, Rebeca Mae, Dee Emmett, Ry Harper, Tanesha Nicole, Tyler Schkyra, Kari Lindsey, Dorothy McGinnis and Selina Foster. The slam community’s support for LGBTQ youth is shared by Daniel Cureton’s literary journal Enhueduanna and We Are Here, a writing and artist collective for and by women of color and nonbinary, trans and queer people of color, that nurtures work by Utahns who might otherwise feel erased or tokenized by their racial and gender difference in a predominantly white environment. 

This is not to say that Utah’s LGBTQ authors are solely or even primarily interested in exploring the influence of the culture’s politics on their identities, or that their works are essentially traumatic.  Like all writers, they are influenced by a variety of topics and personal experiences. Sajé, for example, predominantly writes about language, food, history, and critical theory.  Swenson, who became one of America’s most respected mid-century poets, wrote widely about the natural world, sports, feminism, and science. Thurman, who was publicly shamed and divorced for a homosexual affair, wrote most powerfully about the problems of colorism in the African American community. 

As for Kate Thomas, she wrote about topics ranging from women’s voting rights, to peace activism, to yoga, which she practiced in New York. Thomas herself eventually returned to Salt Lake in 1920, first to live with her mother and then finally her brother, Elbert, who became Utah’s U.S. senator. Though her relationship with the church as a young woman was strained, Thomas appears to have reconciled with her childhood faith in middle age, as records indicate that at age 49, she participated in the LDS temple endowment ceremony as a single woman. 

What Kate Thomas finally felt about the church or Utah, however, and what desires her faith might have left unsatisfied, we will never fully know.