Story by Reuben Lehr
Utah is infamous for being the home to the conservative Mormon religion, however the capital city, Salt Lake, is liberal in comparison. Listed number five on Forbes’ list of fastest growing cities, Salt Lake is constantly expanding. With LDS culture right at the heart, and their belief that sex and marriage should only occur between a man and a woman, it may come as a surprise that Salt Lake has the seventh largest LGBT community. This poses the question as to whether a state with a conservative base can fortify growth within a community that is not supported by the Mormon Church, such as the LGBT community.
To dive further into this inquiry I decided to ask the opinion of members within the LGBT community to see their feelings towards the issue. I started with Andrew Edward Moncrief, a Canadian artist, who had a short spell in practicing his art in Salt Lake. Before coming to Utah, Moncrief’s knowledge of Utah’s culture was very limited, adding an interesting opinion on the matter. In an interview with Daily Extra, a Canadian magazine, he describes his familiarity with Utah, saying, “I didn’t even know where Utah was on a map before the first time I came here.” Moncreif used his time in Utah to focus on his art and had a successful show at the Utah Contemporary Museum of Arts called “A Strange Feeling.” The exhibit featured images of nude male wrestlers, describing it as an unraveling of “dichotomies of violence and intimacy, stoicism and submission, tolerance and taboo.” The content of the exhibit is something that not every artist would have the guts to tackle, especially not in Utah. The success of “A Strange Feeling” demonstrates that even in a largely Mormon culture, art based on opposing views can still thrive.
To further the question, I asked Andy Simmonds, aka @heyrooney, for his insights. Simmonds is an illustrator, business owner and popular Instagram persona who energetically describes himself as “loudly gay.” In fact, his business is oriented towards the LGBT community, adding an interesting take on his opinions regarding the changing Salt Lake area. In an interview with Out Magazine, Simmonds describes his frustrations he struggled with growing up in the LDS religion, saying, “Mormonism is a very rigid belief system and an even stricter culture.” For Simmonds, his work has thrived off the culture he previously struggled with. His art is what led to the creation of his business, selling his illustrations on various products like t-shirts, posters and other various items. He describes his work and his merchandise as pieces that “challenge core ideas in the community.” Simmonds ability to explore his art and grow a successful business in Salt Lake’s culture demonstrates that, although, the beliefs of the Mormon Church are prevalent, they don’t have to hinder someone if they are willing to work.
Perhaps the most influential evidence of Salt Lake’s changing culture is the election of Jackie Biskupski, Salt Lake’s first openly gay mayor. In fact, Biskupski said, that her victory “is not just about making history, it is about people. It is about effecting change.” Just weeks after Biskupski was elected I had the pleasure of sitting next to her and her fiancé at the Market Street Bar, congratulating her on her victory, we shared a laugh or two and then carried on with our dinners. At the time, I remember thinking, “What an exciting time this is for the city.” However, shortly after her election the Church upset the LGBT community with its new policies that exclude children living with same-sex couples from having baby-naming ceremonies and baptisms. Furthermore, they stated people in a “same-gender marriage” were subject to excommunication. Although the Church, and not the state made these policies, they still reflected a strong attitude within the Salt Lake community. Biskupski’s election was undoubtedly a huge step for Salt Lake, however the prevalence of conservative opinions reinforces the question at hand.
Factoring in the success of a controversial art exhibit by Andrew Moncrief, the creation of a popular pro-gay company by Andy Simmonds and the election of the first openly gay mayor, Jackie Biskupski, it would seem that Salt Lake is becoming highly progressive.
However, at the same time both Moncrief’s and Simmonds success is fueled by the controversial attitudes towards the LGBT community. And curiously enough, Moncrief no longer lives in Salt Lake, although, it is unsure as to why he came here in the first place or why he left, one could speculate his leaving as a sign of disagreement with the culture. Additionally, the same month Mayor Biskupski was celebrating her victory the Church, whose headquarters reside in Mayor Biskrupski’s city, was releasing new anti-gay policies.
Ultimately, I do believe that we are all witnessing a slow change of Salt Lake’s culture, one that is painful for many. As someone who would like to proudly say that I was born and raised in Salt Lake, I am hopeful for the future, however Salt Lake has a long way to go.