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Gay in Utah: Hostility, acceptance part of life

Monday - 12/30/2013, 5:12pm  ET

FILE - In this Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013, file photo, Cheryl Haws, right, and her partner Shelly Eyre have their photograph taken after receiving their marriage license at the Utah County Clerk's office in Provo, Utah. The state plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to step in and put a halt to gay marriages while they appeal a federal judge's ruling overturning the ban. (AP Photo/The Daily Herald, Mark Johnston, File) MANDATORY CREDIT

BRIAN SKOLOFF
Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Utah has long been known as a bastion of red-state conservatism with deep roots in the Mormon faith. It's the kind of place that has historically been unwelcoming to gay marriage.

The state is the world headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which championed California's gay marriage ban that was eventually tossed out in court. The church looms over almost every aspect of life in Utah, where an estimated two-thirds of residents are Mormon.

But, like the rest of America, how gays are received depends on where they live. Some gay couples describe feeling hostility in conservative, heavily Mormon cities such as Provo. The suburban areas that surround Salt Lake City are a mish-mash of family-friendly communities across the political spectrum.

And Salt Lake City is more open to gays than many people outside the state realize.

The city is home to gay bars and coffee shops and a pride parade that attracts 25,000 people. There's a bus that takes gay men and women to Nevada to party. Salt Lake is also the city where hundreds of gay couples rushed to the county clerk's office to obtain marriage licenses and get married in the lobby of a government building, after a judge overturned the state's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage

As they wait for the courts to sort out the legal challenges to the Dec. 20 ruling, three gay couples describe differing experiences in Utah:

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Cheryl Haws and Shelly Eyre have been lesbian partners for eight years in Provo, about 45 miles southeast of Salt Lake City and arguably the most conservative city in Utah.

They have been the target of outright hostility and insults. Eyre left the Mormon church years ago; Haws was ex-communicated, they said.

A Mormon church leader once told Eyre, "'I would rather see you dead than commit this sin,'" Eyre said in what she described as one of her most painful experiences of being gay in Utah.

Provo is in Utah County and home to Brigham Young University, the flagship school for the Mormon faith where students are prohibited from having premarital sex and drinking alcoholic beverages. The county is overwhelmingly Republican; President Barack Obama received less than 10 percent of the vote there in 2012.

The couple was initially turned down for a marriage license by Utah County, which only reluctantly started granting them days after a federal judge struck down the state's ban. The couple got a license Thursday.

Haws and Eyre are licensed clinical social workers with a private counseling practice in Utah County. A few patients abandoned them after their effort to get a marriage license made their relationship widely known.

"I've never been un-friended by so many people on Facebook," Eyre said.

Eyre said she moved from more gay-friendly Salt Lake City to Provo eight years ago to live with Haws, a mother of seven children from a previous marriage who wanted to stay close to her family. Haws was still caring for two of the children, who are now off to college.

When Haws' oldest son died in a car accident in 2006, Eyre found her name disappeared from a published obituary as the mother's partner.

But Eyre said the couple has a circle of supporters, including traditional couples who have been "good, kind and generous -- people who have protected us." Some of her neighbors help out mowing their lawn or shoveling snow.

"We're not trying to judge others who judge us," Eyre said. "The folks who said they'd rather see us dead -- in their mind that was all the love they could muster."

The struggle in Utah is the same everywhere, Eyre said.

"Just being gay or lesbian and not having support or being afraid your family is going to kick you out or will not speak to you -- Catholics and Baptists can be the same way in other states," she said.

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Jon Jensen has been with his partner more than six years, but it wasn't until last week that the couple finally was able to become husband and husband.

It was a huge moment in their lives, but also, Jensen thinks, a reflection on changing attitudes in the state and more specifically, a backlash against the Mormon church over decades of repression.

Jensen and his husband, Jared Reesor, are more fortunate than others around Utah given they live in Salt Lake City, the state's liberal hub, despite the presence of the church's gleaming headquarters in the middle of downtown.

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