Saturday Night. Salt Lake City, UT. After a long day visiting the Mormons and Temple Square, I’m curious to experience this town after dark, to see the other side that I know is there . . . . and I am interested to get the ‘gay perspective’ on the church. I Facebook a friend who used to live here: “any suggestions on places to eat?” He recommends a vegetarian restaurant that happens to be within walking distance of the hotel. I set out on foot.
This is a driving town, not a walking one, which is demonstrated by the fact that the streets are wide – wider than I have seen in other municipalities – and laid out in an almost perfect grid. Along the way, other people smile and say “hi.” It catches me off guard being from NYC; I guess that with fewer people on the streets it’s better to be friendly than not. The restaurant friend suggests is no longer in business, but I notice an interesting spot on the opposite corner: Sapa.
Unfortunately it’s too cold to eat on the back patio – a reincarnation of a Thai palace, complete with small wooden huts, buddhist statues and bamboo. The woman seating me seems surprised that I don’t want to sit at the sushi bar – I prefer to dine on the main floor where I can breath in the atmosphere and people-watch. I order their homemade Gyoza and the veggie Chapchae dish. They are both delicious, especially the Gyoza.
Mentally, I divide the patrons into two groups – those with cocktails I assume are not Mormon, those with only water are; it appears to be a 50/50 split. I spy an obviously gay guy working in the back. Walking up and glancing sideways, I ask “are you family?” in a hushed voice. It’s the secret gay handshake that allows us to identify one another in strange towns. “Yes, honey. What’s up?” he responds quickly. I wonder if he is snorting cocaine. “Where’s a good place to go out tonight?” I ask.
Taking me by the hand he leads me through the restaurant to the entrance where he locates Q Salt Lake, the gay newspaper. Thumbing through he talks to himself and me at the same time: “I know it’s here somewhere.” Flip, flip, flip go the pages, which all seem to scream “gay this!” or “gay that!” A group of six pink-cheeked Utahans walk in, looking both me and him up and down. “No, that’s the bathhouse – do you just want to get laid or actually go to a bar?” he asks. “A bar,” I reply. One of the guys waiting with his group smiles at me. I look at the floor. Mr. Fabulous gives me two recommendations; one is within walking distance.
TryAngles is one of the few bars in the city that remains a private club. These clubs are how bars got around the Utah prohibition laws, which only two years ago were abolished. It’s an unassuming saloon with parking lot and entrance in the, uh, rear. I pay the $2.00 membership fee, find the bar, and order my standard mocktail: cranberry and soda with a lime. The waiter shakes his hand when I offer to pay; the man behind me in line comments that I must be from out of town. I smile.
I find a position from where I can observe the room. Only it’s not long before I notice that I am the one on display. The men in the room are staring at me, hard. It’s like I have arrived on the set of the Twilight Zone; their stares make me somewhat uncomfortable. Are they judging or cruising? Probably both.
I reposition myself in another area. Guys look me up and down and then whisper to one another. I make up things in my head about what they are saying. Then, standing near the pool table, which not in use tonight, I start to laugh. It’s one of those uncomfortable, I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening, laughs. I walk away to recompose, performing a mine face-swoosh with my hand, then decide to break the ice by walking up to one of the main stare-ers.
He’s a little drunk – beer glasses in this bar are – comically – the size of footballs. The men hold them and look almost like children with play steins in their hands. We exchange niceties then he asks me “you in town for business?”
“No,” I say, “here to check out the Mormon church.”
A lopsided smile crossed his face as he asks “why would you do that?”
“I want to move out of my comfort zone,” I reply.
“I’m not LDS, but my roommate is,” he says pointing to a drunker dude next to him, who leans, err falls, into me.
The roommate’s story is touching and I am taken aback by what I hear. He grew up in the Mormon church and, like many young LDS’s, served the organization and even went on a mission. When they found out he is gay 12 years ago the church excommunicated him. He says “it’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” but the expression on his face betrays other feelings.
“They threw you out just for being gay?” I ask.
“No, they threw me out because I don’t want to change who I am – they will allow you to stay if you’re willing to be reformed,” he says.
“Reformed?” I ask.
“Yeah, you know, reprogrammed. You have to give up any gay friends and they will set you up with someone who will check on you to make sure you are staying on the straight and narrow,” he says putting air quotes around “straight and narrow.”
A moment passes while I digest this information. The he says, “I am happy with who I am – with being gay – I don’t need the church in my life.”
As the evening progresses, I learn that many of the gay men I meet have either been excommunicated or simply drifted away because of the church’s anti-gay stance. It seems to be a common point of pain that they are distanced from both their family and community. Mormons are incredibly close-knit and to be on the outside of that is hurtful. The pain of trying to live a lie of who they are, however, is greater. These are, it seems, men in limbo.
I get the sense that if the church were to change it’s stance that these guys would return and become active and valued members. In the meantime, they have found their own zion in a close-knit, imperfect community around a pool table in this private club within walking distance of the Mormon Temple. I leave the bar, alone, well after 12am and well after my bedtime.
To be continued . . .