Thank you for all your efforts to gather stories for the Rainbow History Project. I’ve appreciated reflecting on the South Valley congregation’s involvement.
Rainbow History Project – South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society, Salt Lake City, Utah
In the summer of 1987 I began serving as a New Congregation Extension Minister at the South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Soon after I arrived, I was invited by two women, not part of the congregation, to preside at their wedding or holy union ceremony. This wedding and my presiding as the minister were reported on in a local newspaper. Lay leaders and I feared hate mail and calls but knew we wanted to be visible for what we believed. What we received was for the most part appreciation and support and visitors.
Opening words I used weekly for Sunday Services included “We are here young and old, male and female, lesbian, gay and straight…” Opening words which today I would edit and enlarge to be more inclusive. For the time, they were bold.
After the service one Sunday in the church kitchen, a member Hank whispered to me, “These words you’re saying are really helping. Our daughter is gay, but don’t tell. Alice doesn’t want anyone to know.”
More gay and lesbian people and allies were drawn to the congregation and joined. Alice was the outgoing friendly greeter who welcomed all warmly.
Members shared their appreciation that the first time their children heard the words “lesbian” and “gay” were at church and as words of worship.
Straight members of the congregation said they never imagined that when their work lives brought them to live in Salt Lake City that this is where they would attend so many weddings, mostly of gay and lesbian couples, church members who had become their good friends.
Lesbian, gay, and straight members of the church gathered to share their experiences of being lesbian or gay or hearing of lesbian or gay people or knowing lesbian or gay people. They wrote their personal stories and read one another’s stories in a Sunday Service. Sharing stories deepened relationships, grew real friendships.
I was invited to give the prayer to open a session of the Utah State Legislature. Afterward, Senator Frances Farley told me I had made history as the first person to use the words “gay and lesbian” in the Utah legislative chamber.
Hank and Alice Carlson went on to be founding members and leaders of the local PFLAG chapter (later PFFLAG). The Carlsons created relationships with Gary and Millie Watts who began a support group for gay Mormons and their families.
Hank and Alice Carlson and a good number of the church membership marched in the early Gay Pride Parades. The parade route went right alongside the Mormon Temple. In those early years of the parade, participation for many took real courage and strength.
1990 Bill Hamilton-Holway joined me in a co-ministry with South Valley and as organizers of new congregations in Park City and Ogden. The New York Times featured a photograph of Bill presiding at the Utah wedding of a lesbian couple. Together we presided at many Utah gay and lesbian weddings and spoke at many rallies.
Early in 1995 Church members who were faculty and students in the local high school joined with others to form the school’s first Gay/Straight Alliance. One of the students received the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Mountain Desert District’s “Walk Your Talk” award and recognition.
When the alliance was met with fear and hate, the school board was willing to ban all extracurricular school clubs in order to stop the formation of a gay/straight alliance. The congregation held a community wide event and wrapped the church in a ribbon, hung a large Hate Free Zone banner, and proudly flew the rainbow flag. The flag has flown continuous since then over the front doors of the church.
Of course it wasn’t all smooth and easy. A few members feared we were becoming a “gay church.” Most members viewed their lives as enriched by new friendships, association with community organizations, and opportunities to be visible in their values. The congregation was honored by the UUA with O. Eugene Pickett Award for Growth. The congregation’s involvement in Lesbian and Gay Rights gave focus and meaning to congregational life.
I was honored by the Utah Chapter of the National Organization of Women as Woman of the Year and with a YWCA’s 1993 Outstanding Achievement Award, and by the Utah AIDS Foundation as an ally at their Academy Awards Gala. I am proud of these honors and know that in honoring me, these organizations were honoring the congregation who empowered me to speak on behalf of their beliefs.
The South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society was a leader in the Lesbian and Gay Rights Movement in Utah. I am grateful to have been one of their ministers.
Rev. Barbara Hamilton-Holway