Joe Redburn, the founder of two iconic Salt Lake City gay bars who brought the beer for what became the first Utah Pride celebration, has died.
Redburn died Tuesday, Sept. 22, at the Men’s Resource Center in South Salt Lake City, according to the LGBTQ magazine Q Salt Lake, which first reported his death. He was 82. The magazine said officials had not released a cause of death.
“He wasn’t just a bar owner. He built our community and kept us safe,” said Roy Li Zhang, chairperson of the Utah Queer Historical Society. “Joe really brought our community together with these bars. They really were our social clubs.”
“Joe had great ideas. He was very progressive,” Nikki Boyer, a longtime activist and friend of Redburn, said.
In 1973, Redburn opened The Sun at the corner 400 West and South Temple, facing the Union Pacific station. (The spot is now the northwest steps of Vivint Smart Home Arena.)
Redburn was inspired by the Midnight Sun, a gay bar in San Francisco, Boyer said. The Sun, she said, “was like the first disco in Utah. It had the first disco ball, the first live DJs. … It was about all the freedom we had there. It was a good time. It was a great time.”
Former Utah state Sen. Jim Dabakis had just left Brigham Young University, and was just coming out of the closet, when he first visited The Sun in the mid-'70s.
“I remember being overwhelmed that this was possible,” Dabakis said. At the time, he thought, “Are there this many gay people in the whole world?”
Dabakis also knew Redburn from listening to him as a host on talk-radio station KTKK, aka K-TALK. Redburn was a fixture there from the late-'60s until the station let him go in 1993. Station brass said they let him go because of a format change; Redburn said it was because he was openly gay and a liberal on an increasingly conservative medium. (In his final years on the station, Redburn was paired with arch-conservative Mills Crenshaw.)
Dabakis said he gravitated toward K-TALK, and ended up working as an unpaid intern there. Listening to Redburn, he said, “is really where I learned politics.” Dabakis also rang doorbells in the Avenues for Redburn, when he made an unsuccessful run for the Utah Legislature in 1976.
In 1975, Redburn, Boyer and others organized a party in City Creek Canyon for about 300 gay men and lesbians. Redburn brought some kegs from the bar.
“Queers like to drink beer, let’s face it,” Boyer said. “We were loose. It was the ’70s, for God’s sake.”
That kegger started a tradition that grew into the first Utah Pride celebration. At the time, though, Boyer said, “we didn’t dare call it ‘Pride,’ or nobody would have come.”
The Sun moved in 1983 to its second location, at 200 South and 700 West. Redburn sold The Sun in 1990. In 1991, he opened a small, homey gay country-western bar, The Trapp, at 600 West and 100 South.
“It was the place to be,” said Johnny Harris, known locally as Johnny Disco, a longtime bartender at The Trapp. “If you weren’t there by 6:30 or 7 o’clock, there wasn’t a bar stool to be had.”
In The Trapp, Harris said, “there was this amazing energy. It was classy, and clean. It was a beautiful place to be.”
A focal point of The Trapp, recalled Debbie Hall, director of adult programs at the Utah Pride Center, was the tiny dance floor. Above the floor, instead of a mirrored disco ball, was a mirrored pair of cowboy boots.
Redburn sold The Trapp in the late ’90s. When The Sun blew over in a tornado in 1999, the new owners of The Trapp paid homage by renaming their bar The Sun Trapp.
In the last few years, friends knew Redburn had financial and health problems, and was experiencing homelessness at the time of his death.
“He just kind of dropped off the face of the earth,” Boyer said.
Redburn’s death, Hall said, points to a troubling issue in the LGBTQ community: the loneliness experienced by elderly queer people.
LGBTQ people are twice as likely to be aging alone as non-LGBTQ people, Hall said — and four times as likely to never have gotten married or had children.
“We are dealing with the generation where it was not OK to be gay,” said Hall, who oversees the Utah chapter of SAGE, a group for elderly queer people. They are a generation, she said, that has dealt with discrimination and ostracism, having their homosexuality treated as a mental disorder, and the deaths of friends during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
Harris said a memorial service is being planned for Redburn in November at The Sun Trapp.