Ben Williams opens up a blue shoebox, and history comes pouring out.
Specifically, Williams, 71, has become the chronicler of the history of Utah’s LGBTQ+ community — much of which he has experienced as a young Brigham Young University student who was kicked out for being gay, and later during the AIDS epidemic of the ‘80s when he decided to come out.
In the box, he carries bits and pieces of the history he’s kept. There’s an award from Dr. Kristen Ries, who was the only doctor in Utah willing to treat HIV patients during the worst of the AIDS epidemic. There’s an educational poster about AIDS, which he kept from his days as an elementary school teacher in Davis County. And there’s a dusty block, a lifetime achievement award the Utah Pride Center gave him in 2019.
There’s the 2015 certificate, for outstanding contribution, given to him by the Utah State Historical Society — which, Williams said, was the “first acknowledgment of [the existence] of a gay community from a state agency.”
As an LGBTQ+ historian in Utah, Williams said, he has seen the state’s community develop since the 1970s, and he has documented it all. He started keeping a journal when he was 16, in 1968 — the year of the Tet Offensive, of student protests against the Vietnam War, and of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.
“I always felt that there’s going to be a time where Utah’s going to rewrite history and say how much they loved gay people, Black people, people of color and everything else,” Williams said. “I wanted to have a record of saying, ‘No, we fought. Everybody that has any rights today, fought tooth and nail to get anything here in Utah.’”
That fight, Williams said, was a “magnificent struggle” and though he’s glad times have changed, it’s important to remember “you can’t change the past.”
The good, the bad and the ugly
Williams said he kept a journal because he knew what was happening around him in Utah, and beyond, was historic. “Very few cities can trace the origin of their gay community, not only the origins, but who the people involved were,” he said.
Williams was raised in southern California and converted to the Latter-day Saint faith as a teenager. “I look back now on it and it was mostly to overcome my homosexuality,” Williams said of his conversion. In high school, he said he remembers being in love with a boy named John who didn’t love him back.
That heartbreak, and the general shame associated with homosexuality at the time, made life difficult.
“I tried to come out at Cal State-Fullerton in 1971, but there was no support back then,” he said. “I was fairly religious and I thought, ‘This is not what God wanted me to be,’ and everybody I knew that was gay in California were Mormons.”
His family didn’t convert, he said, and was accepting that he did. Homosexuality wasn’t something his family talked about. Once, he recalled, he was upset about telling a different boy that he was gay. Williams said his mother tried to comfort him, without knowing he was gay, and the conversation got awkward.
“I had to comfort her by not telling her that her son was queer,” he says.
In 1973, he started attending Brigham Young University — the Provo college owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — but was kicked out in 1976, when the school learned he was gay.
During his time at BYU, records show, the university was performing shock therapy on students as a “gay cure” — something Latter-day Saint apostle Dallin H. Oaks denied in 2021, despite the records.
Williams’s time at BYU, he said, was a “homophobic witch hunt period” — and he said he knew of two “purges” of homosexuals from campus. He was never called in for shock treatment, but he said he knew it was happening.
Someone he was involved with was caught by the university — which, according to Williams, said they wouldn’t expel the man if he informed on others. Williams said the man didn’t rat him out.
But when Williams later met with his bishop, he said he couldn’t take the shame any more and confessed. Williams eventually was kicked out of BYU, without getting his teaching credentials.
In 1977, Williams did what many gay men in the Latter-day Saint faith had done at the time: He got married to a woman, to “get back into the good graces of the church. … The church at that time was telling you that marriage was a cure for homosexuality.”
Williams said living with internalized shame was what inspired him to become an activist. “I wanted to get rid of people having this sense of shame,” he said. “I realized the power society had over us. They equated what we were doing with prostitution and pedophilia. … They preached homosexuality was a sin next to murder.”
When asked if he regrets his decision to convert, he doesn’t answer “yes” or “no.” Like most things, it’s complicated.
“I never would have come to Utah and been a Utah gay historian if I hadn’t found the Mormon church,” Williams said. Though there was some wasted energy, as he put it, “in some psychic kind of cosmic way, it saved me from AIDS.”
It was Dr. Ries who diagnosed Utah’s first case of AIDS, sometime in 1981 or 1982. In 1985, the Utah AIDS Foundation was founded. The gay community, stricken by grief, rallied together.
“Not only were we fighting for our civil rights, we were fighting for our lives,” Williams said. “The state wouldn’t do anything, they wouldn’t allocate from the health department a dime for the gay community, even for education.”
Instead, Williams says it all came from grassroots organizations that the local gay and lesbian community created.
As “we were dying left and right,” Williams said, he decided to chronicle the epidemic. “I thought, ‘I had to preserve this for my friends that were not going to be around to tell their stories.’ They were all young men, having a good time. They were fun, vibrant and they were gone,” he said.
He started cross-checking his journal entries with newspaper archives, like those of The Tribune. “I thought as a historian: that was my job. If I’m going to pass away, I want my journals, records and archival things preserved,” he said.
In the mid-’80s, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, Williams decided to come out, at age 34.
“I wanted to live an authentic life,” Williams said. “I had some kind of epiphany saying the reason I was so unhappy all my life was because I was rejecting this gift that God gave me, that my homosexuality was not a curse. It was a gift that made me more sensitive, loving and kind. … It made me a better person.”
Stonewall comes to Salt Lake City
Williams said gay liberation came to Salt Lake City in October 1969, only a few months after the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, seen generally as the beginning of the gay-rights movement.
The ripples from Stonewall were felt nationally, mostly through college campuses, Williams said. In Salt Lake City, there were also people with progressive ideologies — such as Ralph Place, the founder of the state’s first gay organization; Joe Redburn, the radio host who founded two of Salt Lake City’s iconic gay bars, The Sun and The Trapp; and Linda Huntington, whose bohemian store Mother’s Earth Things anchored the funky 9th and 9th business district.
The community in Salt Lake City started small, with less than a hundred active members in 1970, Williams said.
“One of their first activities they went to was an anti-war march in October of 1969,” he said. “They had a war moratorium across the nation, and they had a big peace rally at Pioneer Park.” The psychedelic rock band Country Joe and the Fish, which had played at Woodstock just two months earlier, performed in the park.
In 1973, Redburn opened The Sun, which Williams called the first real gay bar in Utah. (Technically, Radio City Lounge on State Street predated The Sun by a decade.) Redburn also provided the kegs for an under-the-radar party at Bare Ass Beach, a nude bathing spot; the event became known as Utah’s first Pride celebration, Williams said.
Soon after that, gay student unions started popping up. The mainstream news outlets in Utah wouldn’t publish anything about gay liberation meetings, Williams said, but the Daily Utah Chronicle, the student paper at the University of Utah, did write about them. Williams attended the meetings and took notes on everything he saw and heard.
Former Utah state Sen. Jim Dabakis, a longtime friend, said Williams “somehow … seemed to understand that in 1976 that these meetings, marches and demonstrations were important. He documented who was where on what day, what they said. For hundreds of events … his foresight in saving first-person narratives makes Utah unique in the Intermountain West.”
The growth in Utah’s LGBTQ+ activism stalled in the late 1970s, Williams said, after a series of violent murders of gay men, including social activist Anthony Adams, shut the community down and forced people to go into hiding.
How Utah’s LGBTQ+ community evolved
Williams was one of the founders of the Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah, which started in 1986. He also was a frequent speaker on KRCL’s “Concerning Gays and Lesbians” started by Donna Maldonado (who died in September).
But after Williams became a schoolteacher, he said, his involvement in the community was on the down low, because he would have lost his job otherwise.
Williams said he noticed then that the gay community was much like high school: When the seniors graduate, the new students have no clue what went on before them.
“Their history, it’s all gone. It’s like everybody’s always reinventing the wheel,” he said.
That thought spurred Williams to become an archivist at the Utah Stonewall Center (which would eventually change its name to the Utah Pride Center), where he was also a founding member. He wanted to preserve and record as many things as possible, so he put his journal entries to use.
Williams said he wanted to write about the “nitty gritty,” not just the big issues. “I didn’t want people to think we were just these pure activists,” he said.
Amongst his recordings, he was even a witness to the evolution of the LGBTQ initialism. Williams said it started as “gays and lesbians” until the first National Lesbian Conference took place in Atlanta in 1991, where bisexuality inclusion was introduced. Later on in 2010, it would add the “T” for transgendered people and “Q” for queer.
“At first it was GLBT,” he said. “I have no idea why, but then LGBT became the standard.”
Williams says he still calls it the gay community, even though he’s aware it’s not politically correct, “I call it the gay community, because to me, gay is still all-encompassing.”
Because of the time he grew up in, Williams said, the issues the trans and gay communties face now are completely different to “older gay people” like him.
“Sexual identification or gender identity is almost driving the movement more than sexual orientation,” he says. “To me, being gay was all about love, having the right to love who we fell in love with.”
In the 1980s, Williams said, Utah was “beating us up over the heads saying we didn’t deserve any rights because what we’re doing was illegal.” This was a decade after the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 decision to not categorize being gay as a psychological condition.
“Part of it is that I understand that things change and evolve and people have to build the community that they want to live. We built one we knew, we fought the good fight,” Williams says. “We cannot bitch and moan because it’s not the way it was. When we were young, we had to start from scratch, and now people don’t have to start from scratch.”
Williams cited the way BYU’s LGBTQ student community has grown from the days he was a student there. “To be truly honest,” he said, “it is so radically different to me that they even know that there’s gay people down there. That [they] feel comfortable enough to challenge, because I didn’t have that when I was there.”
Here and now
Dabakis, responding via text, praised Williams’ record keeping, and the impact it has had.
“After most of us are long forgotten, future historians [will] honor Ben’s meticulous work in collecting and preserving the history of the LGBTQ community in Utah,” Dabakis said. “Through the AIDS pandemic to marriage equality, Ben has been there every single day. Pen in hand.”
Dabakis can’t remember when or how he met Williams, just that he’s been struck by his friend’s ability to “come up with astonishing stories, using sources that would dazzle Sherlock Holmes.”
Those efforts continue, because history is always being made. In 2022, Utah has seen Gov. Spencer Cox veto a bill regarding participation of transgender athletes in high school athletics (which the Utah Legislature overrode), and on the day Williams was interviewed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints voice support for federal legislation to codify same-sex and interracial marriage.
Also this year, a Salt Lake City tea shop suffered online harassment after video of an all-ages drag show there went viral, and an HBO Max reality show drew angry responses when it shot an episode in which drag queens staged a show in a St. George public park.
“Part of history is going two feet forward and one foot back, but as long as you’re going one foot forward, you’re still making progress,” Williams said. “Being old now, I can look over a span of history and see how things have progressed, that we are in a better place today than we were 50 years ago.”
There will always be setbacks, Williams said, pointing to groups that would like to “eliminate us … [and eliminate] women’s rights, Black rights and immigration rights.”
At the end of the day, Williams said, they aren’t a “people if you don’t have history.”
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