From Salt Lake City’s streets to a YouTube documentary, Utah Pride Festival celebrates LGBTQ community ‘fighting for equality’

(Courtesy of YouTube | Kim Raff ) Carson Tueller, left, a Salt Lake City LGBTQ activist, poses with YouTube personality and activist Raymond Braun at the 2018 Utah Pride Festival. Tueller is featured in "State of Pride," a documentary produced for YouTube and narrated by Braun. The documentary debuts on YouTube on May 29, 2019. This year's Utah Pride Festival is set for June 1-2, in Salt Lake City's Washington Square.

For Carson Tueller, going to a Pride festival — whether in his home state of Utah or elsewhere in the country — is a big declaration of who he is.

“It’s like a reclamation of worth,” said Tueller, 29, a board member of Affirmation, a group that tries to provide a bridge for LGBTQ people who grew up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Historically, LGBTQ people get the message that there’s something wrong with them,” Tueller said. “Pride is, in the face of all that, declaring we’re really perfect the way we are and how we identify.”

Pride differs from place to place around the country, from the massive celebrations in New York and San Francisco to the two-day Utah Pride Festival set for Saturday and Sunday around Salt Lake City Hall. That diversity in events, from big cities to small towns, is the focus of “State of Pride,” a documentary premiering Wednesday on YouTube.

“I’ve always felt like Pride is a looking glass into the whole LGBTQ community,” said Raymond Braun, a YouTube personality and activist who is the movie’s on-screen host.

The documentary peers through that looking glass in three cities: Tuscaloosa, Ala., a small Southern town where the community still resists the presence of LGBTQ neighbors; San Francisco, where Pride is practically a city holiday; and Salt Lake City, where tension between LGBTQ people and Latter-day Saint doctrine permeates the celebration.

Braun said he felt that tension when he drove around Salt Lake City last summer.

“Ten seconds after driving by the temple," he said, “I saw my first rainbow flag.”

Jeffrey Friedman, who directed “State of Pride” with his longtime filmmaking partner Rob Epstein, said that as they were selecting locations for the documentary, “we knew religion would be a big issue, so we were looking for a place where the church plays a strong role in the community. That’s how we zeroed in on Salt Lake City. … It seemed like these issues are very much alive there, in ways they’re not in places like San Francisco and New York.”

Braun and the filmmakers also had heard Tueller’s story, through his self-effacing posts on Instagram in 2017. In those posts, Tueller talks about being an out gay man in Salt Lake City, and living with a spinal cord injury that put him in a wheelchair.

Both aspects of Tueller’s life trace back to pivotal events in December 2013. Early that month, Tueller posted on Facebook about being gay — the last step in a yearlong process of coming out to family and friends. A few weeks later, on a family outing to a trampoline park, Tueller landed badly and broke his neck.

The movie shows Tueller leading by example, showing his LGBTQ Utah neighbors how to live authentic lives. Much of the Salt Lake City part of the movie shows Tueller’s interactions with his mother, a devout Latter-day Saint who joins her son in walking in her first Pride parade.

“It was the cherry on top,” Tueller said of participating in the parade with his mom. “Our process together, and my desperation for her to accept me and embrace my gayness, was so important to me. … I felt like I’ve finally got my family to step into my world.”

(Ironically, this year might be Tueller’s last Utah Pride Festival for a while. He’s moving to New York in June, to live with his boyfriend.)

What Braun loves about Tueller, he said, is “how he leads with empathy, how he leads with such an open heart.”

For many LGBTQ people, and the people who love them, Pride this summer has a special meaning. It marks the 50th anniversary of the 1969 riots at New York’s Stonewall Inn, considered the spark of the gay-rights movement in America.

Stonewall “was a symbolic moment, when the tone shifted,” Braun said.

Drag queens and other patrons at the Stonewall Inn, New York’s prominent gay bar, fought against a police raid, Braun said, as they asserted that “we’re going to push back when we’re being discriminated against.”

A year after the riots, the first gay pride marches were organized in several big cities. The trend spread nationwide. An informal gathering in a Salt Lake City park in 1974 is considered the beginning of what’s now the Utah Pride Festival, which expected to attract some 35,000 people.

The theme for this year’s Utah Pride Festival — “Exist. Resist. Persist.” — evokes the Stonewall anniversary, said Hillary McDaniel, the festival’s director and community events manager for the Utah Pride Center.

“It speaks to the movement in the last 50 years,” McDaniel said. “First, fighting for the right to exist. … Resist, when members of the community resisted against the police. And persist, for the last 50 years, even now, fighting for equality for our entire communities, and all the communities in the LGBTQ movement.”

Friedman, who lives in San Francisco, acknowledged he stopped attending Pride regularly there decades ago. “It’s the sort of thing that I sort of took for granted,” he said.

In researching the film, Friedman said, he “met a lot of young people who really had no idea what Stonewall was. It’s something they’ve heard of. They had a vague idea it was an early gay-rights event. I was kind of shocked to hear how distant in the past it is.”

Braun is more knowledgeable about Stonewall than most of his generation.

As a “deep in the closet” junior in high school in a small Ohio town a decade or so ago, Braun remembered “reading one sentence about LGBTQ history. It said the Stonewall riots happened.” Unsatisfied with that summary, Braun asked his history teacher if he could study more about LGBTQ history, and make Stonewall part of his junior-year study project. The teacher said yes.

“That’s how I discovered Rob and Jeff,” Braun said, from watching their early documentaries, now considered classics in recounting America’s LGBTQ history: “The Times of Harvey Milk” (1984), “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt” (1989) and “The Celluloid Closet” (1995).

Friedman said connecting with Braun helped make the documentary more relevant. “He’s younger, and very engaged with LGBTQ issues that we wouldn’t be as older white dudes,” he said.

In Utah, McDaniel said, Pride is as important as ever. She cited this year’s legislative debate over so-called conversion therapy, in which a bill was rewritten so that “it protected therapists more than it protected patients,” as an example of an LGBTQ rights issue still being fought.

Pride, McDaniel said, also serves as a positive example. “So many people have been inspired by seeing people come out of the closet and be their authentic selves,” she said.

Braun said he hopes the documentary will help people “reflect on their own relationship to Pride. In my perspective, it’s about simultaneously honoring our history as LGBTQ people, and our future together.”

Tueller sees the film as a beacon of hope. “I hope it provides a sense of progress for people, especially young people who don’t have access to Pride, or can’t feel out or don’t feel connected to the community."


(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Pride Parade marches up 200 South in Salt Lake City, Sunday, June 3, 2018.

Utah Pride Festival

The 44th annual Utah Pride Festival is a celebration for the state’s LGBTQ community and allies.

Where • Washington Square, surrounding City Hall, between 400 South and 500 South, and between State Street and 200 East, Salt Lake City.

When • Saturday, June 1, 1 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, June 2, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Headliners • Saturday: Aja, nonbinary queer artist/performer featured on “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 3,” at 10:20 p.m. Sunday: Lafemmebear, music producer/DJ, at 3 p.m.

Tickets • One-day tickets, $8 in advance, $10 at the gate; two-day pass, $17 in advance, $20 at the gate; discounts for youth and seniors; VIP pass options available; go to utahpridecenter.org for details.

Pride Parade • Sunday, June 2, 10 a.m. to noon. Route runs along 200 South, from West Temple to 400 East. Free to attend.