Salt Lake City has been named one of the “queerest cities in America” — but it’s home to relatively few gathering places designed specifically for the LGBTQ community, notes resident Kaitlyn Mahoney.
In a survey she sent out recently that asked Utahns for their favorite queer spaces in both the capital city and across the state, “so many” of the 70 or so respondents “were like, I don’t know any; I can’t name a single queer space in Utah that I can go to,” Mahoney said.
“Or it was people mentioning the two gay bars we have: Sun Trapp and Try-Angles,” she added, “but also people saying, ‘I don’t necessarily always want to go to a bar,’ or ‘I’m too young to go to a bar.’”
Mahoney hopes to address that lack of community gathering spaces with the opening of a “little queer bookstore” in the Salt Lake City area this summer — a place she envisions will be filled with books by queer authors or containing queer characters and where people’s pronouns are respected and their identities are celebrated.
”Under the Umbrella will be straight friendly,” she said in a recent interview, “but it’s queer specific.”
Mahoney also sees the future bookstore as a way to build the LGBTQ community in Salt Lake City.
Once the shop comes to fruition, she plans to create partnerships with groups like Drag Queen Story Hour and with organizations that provide books to people who are incarcerated. She wants to host queer book clubs and poetry nights. And she intends to sell items like candles, stickers, pins, artwork and more made by members of the queer community.
In order to make her vision a reality, Mahoney recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise the money needed to build an inventory of several thousand books for the store — a cost she anticipates at around $50,000.
She has also received a small loan and plans to invest $70,000 of her own savings into the bookstore to pay for furniture, rent, licensing and marketing costs.
So far, Mahoney has raised a little more than $10,000 for inventory from more than 130 individual donors. And she said the excitement in the community for an LGBTQ affirming space in the conservative state feels palpable — particularly on the heels of anti-transgender bills that were proposed and ultimately failed in this year’s state legislative session.
“I knew that we needed this space just personally,” Mahoney said. “But as soon as I went live with this, the response that I got from other people was overwhelming — how many people reached out and said how excited they were for a space like this to exist and how much we need it here.”
Tracey Dean, chair of the board of directors for the Utah LGBTQ+ Chamber of Commerce, which Mahoney recently joined, said she thinks the bookstore is a “great concept” — particularly given the sparse landscape of LGBTQ spaces in the state.
The chamber has grown rapidly since its inception in 2012 to now more than 160 members, of which she estimates about 40% are ally-owned businesses and 60% are owned by members of the LGBTQ community. But community gathering spaces for the queer community remain few and far between.
“As much as we’ve moved forward, I mean, we’re talking about two gay bars and a gay community space, but that’s it,” she said. “So it’s really important.”
Dean said the space could also provide a welcome refuge for members of the LGBTQ community who might face discrimination or be misgendered in places where people are not as educated or aware of queer issues or are openly hostile to people who are visibly queer.
“We don’t know where we’re going to be accepted,” she noted. “So [people worry about] even as much as holding hands, or if you’re a transgender person are you going to get good service? Are they going to whisper behind your back? Those things are very important to know, kind of where you’re going to be accepted. I think anyone wants that.”
In addition to Sun Trapp and Club Try-Angles, Salt Lake City is also home to the Utah Pride Center, which, along with organizing Pride events and providing mental health resources, offers a community gathering space in its building.
Rob Moolman, the center’s outgoing executive director, said that before the pandemic, many people used the space as a place to meet up with friends or just to sit and be themselves. And the center has recently created a new program called Rainbow Wellness — offering painting, writing and workout classes — in an effort to meet the additional demand for community gathering space.
“We want to live in a society where all spaces are welcoming and open to us, but we know that’s not the reality,” said Moolman, who announced Wednesday that he was stepping down from his role at the Pride Center. “And sometimes just having people around you who have had similar experiences or similar outlooks is important and we know that’s something that our community is constantly looking for.”
With that in mind, Moolman said he’s “hugely supportive” of the work that Mahoney is doing to create additional community spaces in Salt Lake City.
After living near a queer bookstore in Melbourne, Australia, he said he’s seen firsthand the benefits of access to that kind of space and is looking forward to seeing how the Pride Center can partner with Under the Umbrella to serve the LGBTQ community.
“These places like the Pride Center, like the bars, like the bookstore, are places where people go and seek community,” Moolman said. “And that’s vital and important for particularly suicide prevention work, for mental health reasons, all of the above.”
KAITLYN’S QUEER BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS:
• “George” by Alex Gino
Kaitlyn’s review: “This middle-grade novel about a transgender girl is a sweet story of acceptance. Perfect for cis and trans kids alike, as well as the adults in their lives.”
• “Pet” by Akwaeke Emezi
Kaitlyn’s review: “YA (young adult) speculative fiction about Jam, a young, Black, selectively nonverbal transgender girl who lives in a sort of utopia where monsters were driven out by angels. Jam is supported by her community and her family, and the story explores the justice system, utopia and friendship.”
• “Autoboyography” by Christina Lauren
Kaitlyn’s review: “A bisexual boy moves to Utah and back into the closet, then falls in love with the Mormon boy mentoring his writing class. If you're from Utah or familiar with the religious culture in Provo, this book will hit you right in the feels.”
• “Let’s Talk About Love” by Claire Kann
Kaitlyn’s review: “A super sweet new adult novel about a biromantic asexual Black woman. The novel explores identity and love in a thoroughly enjoyable way.”
• “Kim & Kim” by Magdalene Visaggio
Kaitlyn’s review: “Best friends and interdimensional bounty hunters go on punk sci-fi adventures and end up in way over their heads.”
• “Goldie Vance” by Hope Larsen
Kaitlyn’s review: “A 16-year-old biracial girl on a mission to become the in-house detective at a resort solves mysteries in an alternate 1960s Florida.”
• “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities” by Chen Chen
Kaitlyn’s review: “Poems about love and connection between biological and chosen family.”
• “The Argonauts” by Maggie Nelson
Kaitlyn’s review: “A meditation on queer family-making, gender, motherhood, desire and identity.”
• “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe
Kaitlyn’s review: “A candid memoir of gender discovery.”
‘It feels healing’
Mahoney, a 34-year-old marketing editor who grew up in Provo, says she came to understand her queer identity later in life — when she was 27 and divorced — in part through reading queer books.
But those titles can be hard to come by at most general-interest bookstores. And after she discovered a community of people on Instagram who were sharing their book recommendations, Mahoney realized she wanted to find a way to help people access the kind of stories that had helped her in a more organized way.
“I saw how many people were reading and enjoying these books and sharing them with each other, kind of like an informal way to share queer books, and I was like, I want to do that in a more structured way,” she said of the impetus behind the bookstore. “I want to help this community right here find queer books that are hard to find in traditional bookstores.”
That’s one of the exciting prospects of the bookstore for Indigo Mason, a 21-year-old Salt Lake City resident who grew up in Park City and donated to the campaign.
Mason, who identifies as a nonbinary lesbian and uses they/them pronouns, said they’ve spent hours searching for queer titles at general-interest bookstores only to leave empty-handed. When they looked at the queer book offerings Mahoney has made available on Bookshop.org, Mason said they “definitely teared up a bit.”
“It feels healing to be able to find those stories and be like, oh, we are here and we’ve always been here and our stories are not inherently sad or tragic, like we just live our lives and there’s a lot of joyful stories, too, out there,” they said. “I feel like this bookstore is putting those at the forefront, and I think that’s probably the most important part.”
Moolman added that queer books can be “vital” to growth for some members of the LGBTQ community, whether someone is planning to come out and wants more resources or whether someone has been out for years and just wants to read queer-focused literature.
“It’s such an important space, and I know it because I’ve been in those spaces and I know how comforted I felt when sitting in a bookstore that had queer books and resources around me,” he said. “It felt important. It was important to my own growth.”
As she works to build up her inventory of queer books, Mahoney says the shop is a go as soon as she can find a location that checks all her boxes — including a storefront accessible to people with disabilities.
And while that’s been difficult in Salt Lake City’s red-hot real estate market, she said she’s “optimistic” the bookstore will be able to open by June, just in time to celebrate Pride month with the community.
“Right now, we have all of these bills going on trying to keep trans people out of sports and limiting their access to health care. It’s scary. And having a place where you can go and know that anyone who’s in there — as much as I can provide, right? — that they support you. ... I can’t even imagine having a space like that myself,” Mahoney said. “I’m so excited to help create that.”