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Story Publication logo May 20, 2024

Sacred Space: Utah’s Queer Haven

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W&M students developed reporting and writing skills with the support of Pulitzer Center staff.

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Multiple Authors

The 28-story Latter Day Saints Church office building in Salt Lake City. Image by Declan Casto. United States, 2024.

More than 500 bills targeted the LGBTQ+ community in 2023, breaking records. Continuing this trend in 2024, Utah became one of nine states to have passed laws banning diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs in state institutions such as student diversity offices that serve the LGBTQ+ community on college campuses.

The new law bans any programs or offices that have diversity, equity, or inclusion in their name. In the wake of this decision, queer students have lost some of the few spaces in the state dedicated to helping LGBTQ+ people feel safe and affirmed in their identity, and access important resources and information.

But one place in Utah still shows how queer people can carve out space for themselves when necessary: Salt Lake City.

Salt Lake, in which a major road named after one of the most famous figures in queer history stretches just three miles away from a twenty-eight story Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints office building, is a city of social rebellion. The capital city stands firmly against the cultural norms of its state and marks “the one habitable space for all of the queer people [in Utah] to gather,” says Julia Decker, a senior project manager completing research on queer issues at the University of Utah. 

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According to a 2015 Gallup poll, Salt Lake City contains the seventh highest LGBTQ+ population of any metro area in the United States. Its downtown area holds seven queer-affirming bars and, in 2023, hosted approximately 150,000 people during Utah’s Pride Festival, which takes place each June. LGBTQ-owned businesses, such as the queer-owned independent bookstore, Under the Umbrella, are not just footnotes but well-known local landmarks. “There are affirming people here [in Salt Lake]. This is where I find my queer connections,” emphasized Decker. 

However, this does not mean that Utah’s recent legislation is without consequence. Not every queer Utahn lives near the refuge of Salt Lake’s queer landmarks. 

At the University of Utah, Dr. Lisa Diamond runs a research lab in the school’s psychology department dedicated to exploring issues of gender and sexuality. With the help of graduate students and senior project managers Julia Decker and Jay Christensen, Diamond studies queer Mormon and ex-Mormon populations. The lab’s research is conducted through the lens of social safety theory, which centers around how safe or unsafe one feels in a certain environment. The idea is that unsafe environments trigger the body's ‘vigilance system’ which can cause physiological problems over long periods. For queer Utahns in unaccepting communities, this could mean “greater rates of depression, greater rates of anxiety, and worse general health,” says Christensen.

The idea that LGBTQ+ people are at a higher risk for mental health issues is nothing new. According to 2023 data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there is substantial evidence that queer Americans are at a greater risk of substance abuse, major depressive episodes, and suicidal thoughts.

The state’s religious makeup presents unique obstacles to social safety. Roughly 55% of the population in Utah ascribes to the Mormon Church of Latter Day Saints, which publicly maintains that same-sex relationships are sinful and wrong. With a focus on Utah’s unique environment and the way religion impacts the social safety of queer people, Decker chose to narrow the scope of her research to the interaction of religion and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in queer people. 

“Folks have been looking at the relationship between religiosity and obsessive-compulsive symptomatology for a while now. And being more religious doesn't make you more obsessive-compulsive, so my research looks into, okay, so maybe it’s the social fabric of a religious context that interacts with obsessive compulsive symptomatology rather than the beliefs and practices,” explains Decker. 

Early analysis of the lab’s data suggests that the more people were exposed to religious messages and teachings that created dissonance between their religion and their sexual orientation, the “less safe they felt and the more trauma exposure and symptomatology they had,” says Christensen.

Although their research has not yet been analyzed based on the geographic location of the respondents, Decker and Christensen talk about the cultural concept of ‘bishop roulette,’ which explains how, despite the standardized nature of the overall religion, the Mormon church’s religious and social impact on the individual can vary by location. 

“Depending on where you are and who the bishop is of your ward at any given time, you're going to have a different experience,” says Christensen. Their work shows how ‘Bishop roulette’ has a tangible effect on the well-being of LGBTQ+ people in Utah.

As queer people and former members of the church themselves, Decker and Christensen have experienced the dissonance and division associated with religion and queerness throughout different areas of Utah. “I've lived in Draper a couple summers, and there's definitely that like underlying hypervigilance when you're in an environment with a lack of social safety. Where, like, as you move through a space, you don't really want to be perceived at all, and you definitely don't really want to be perceived as queer,” said Decker. Draper, a suburban area south of Salt Lake City, has an overwhelming Mormon population, with nearly 61% of its residents ascribing to the Church of Latter Day Saints.

Pending geographic analysis of their data, Christensen hypothesizes that areas like Salt Lake likely have more queer-affirming bishops and higher levels of social safety. Meanwhile, queer people in heavily religious and less diverse areas of Utah, like Draper, are likely exposed to more potent and discriminatory religious teachings and are therefore more likely to be vigilant and experience greater rates of depression and mental health issues associated with extended periods of hypervigilance. 

This desire to not be perceived as a member of a minority group often leads to code-switching, a term first coined in the 1950s by linguist Einar Haugen to describe the way that people switch between dialects or languages. Today, the term also more broadly describes the way that members of minority groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community, alter their behavior in different environments. 

“I've noticed that a large part of code switching for me is small talk,” says Christensen, who emphasizes that more comfortable or fun conversations for him tend to take place in Salt Lake.

In this way code-switching often means going from open, vulnerable, more personal conversations in one environment, to guarded, surface-level social interactions in another. Areas like Draper in Utah mean that queer people have to code-switch—alter their voice, dress in different clothes, or omit phrases commonly used by the LGBTQ+ community—and remain vigilant 24/7.

For many queer people, Salt Lake City is a sort of refuge from these areas, but for others, Salt Lake is not just an escape from the religiosity of towns like Draper, Logan, or Provo; it’s also a haven of both faith and acceptance, guarded by people that do not see queer identity and spirituality as mutually exclusive. One such guard is Pastor Price, a minister at Salt Lake City’s First Baptist Church, who visits the Utah Pride Center each Tuesday afternoon. 

“I'm there to apologize and repent on behalf of the Christian faith for all that we've done to bring harm to the community,” says Price. Donning a smile and a rainbow stole, he lends an ear to queer people of Salt Lake who have experienced religious trauma or distanced themselves from religion because of prejudiced ministers, family members, and friends who have drawn a line between queer rights and connection with faith. 

However, Price recognizes that he’s more than just a listener. He holds a rare and significant position as an LGBT-affirming pastor in Utah. With each conversation at the Utah Pride Center, he has come to know the common nature of the queer relationship with religious trauma. Still, he keeps going to the Pride Center, hoping that each Tuesday he can offer “a little bit of salve to the wounds, a little bit of healing, and perhaps an avenue for hanging on to one's faith,” said Price. 

For the queer community in Utah, healing is not easy, and building or rebuilding a relationship with religion is not a one-size-fits-all experience. Price has come to realize that each story and each individual’s relationship with faith is fundamentally different. He emphasizes the importance, particularly within the queer community, of individuals finding a relationship with faith that is right for them. “[Queer people] come [to the Utah Pride Center] and they're given time and space to heal and to explore and reacquire a faith of their own, a faith they've articulated for themselves, a faith that reflects their own values, a faith that they can claim for their own,” says Price. For Price, identity is not a barrier to having a deep and abiding faith. 

One conversation in particular confirms this belief for Price: an interaction with a transgender man at the Pride Center who described themself as not being a person of faith.

“Really what the person was describing to me was a very deep faith, just not in one that fit the box that someone else had created for them. And so by the end of the conversation, this person came to realize that, now, wait a minute. No, in fact, I am a person of faith. I have a very deep faith. It just doesn't fit someone else's definition of what faith ought to look like,” recalls Price.

Outside the walls of the traditional church—whether it be in the comfort of one of Salt Lake’s secular queer-owned bars and bookshops or in the office of a rare LGBT-affirming pastor at the Pride Center—it seems queer Utahns build their own sacred space.



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