Here’s how The Utah Pride Center fell so far — and how it plans to bounce back

Community members and past employees talk about the history of the LGBTQ+ organization, and what its future might hold.

Para leer este artículo en español, haz clic aquí.

For the Utah Pride Center, 2023 was perhaps the most perilous year in its four decades as a resource for Utah’s LGBTQ+ community.

The nonprofit ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, mostly from the costs of staging the Utah Pride Festival in June, according to its new executive director, Ryan Newcomb. He was hired after two rounds of layoffs had reduced a staff of 19 to, as of the end of September, just two. Services were paused briefly for what the center’s leaders called “an organizational reset.”

Newcomb sees his first challenge as “rebuilding trust” with the community by being more transparent about the organization’s finances, he said when his hiring was announced in November.

How did the Utah Pride Center — which began in 1986, amid the AIDS epidemic, as the Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah, and later became the Utah Stonewall Center and the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Community Center of Utah — get to this point?

The Salt Lake Tribune interviewed past employees of the Utah Pride Center, and members of Utah’s LGBTQ+ community who have observed and been frustrated by UPC’s actions, particularly in the last year. Their voices, as well as comments gleaned from previous reporting, are included in this oral history of how the center started, the path it’s traveled and what might be in its future.

The comments reveal a generational divide in what community members think about the Utah Pride Center and its mission, then and now.

Early days

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ben Williams, a Utah LGBTQ historian who has seen the state's queer community develop from the 70s onward, has kept track of every meeting, moment and person crucial to that development in his journals.

Ben Williams, LGBTQ+ archivist • “There had been attempts at pride centers back in the ‘70s. We opened one back in 1974 that was out of Joe Redburn’s bar, and it lasted like for maybe two years, primarily because the community was just too small to support it.” (Redburn opened The Sun, an iconic Salt Lake City gay bar, in 1973.)

Babs Delay, real estate broker and LGBTQ+ activist • “Myself, Joe Redburn and a few other folks created [the first center] near where the bars were downtown. It was next door to the Sun Tavern, and a bunch of us were concerned about our community. People were getting beat up. People wanted to get together outside of the bar.”

Nikki Boyer, activist, in a 2020 interview, recalling Redburn’s first effort to throw a kegger in 1975 that is considered Utah’s first pride festival • “Queers like to drink beer, let’s face it. We were loose. It was the ‘70s, for God’s sake.”

Williams, who was involved with the Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah (GLCCU), created in 1986 • “[The council was] a United Nations of different gay and lesbian organizations. … [It was formed as] a response to the fact that AIDS was coming into the community.”

Stonewall Center

What resulted after the organizing of Utah’s first pride events — called the Utah Stonewall Center — was largely a volunteer-run organization.

Williams, a founding member of Utah Stonewall Center, which grew from the GLCCU • “Anybody that came into that center was immediately greeted and welcomed. … There was always some accountability with the [Stonewall Center].”

Michael Westley, who attended his first Utah Pride Festival in 1994 • “Back then, it was held at a park, on the north side of the fairgrounds, in this little place where no one can see us. … We went to Kmart — yes, Kmart — and bought matching colored tank tops in the rainbow color. There were 12 of us, and we marched, two-by-two, up over a little grassy knoll with a flag. That was the opening ceremony.”

Williams • “One of the quotes that we used to have at the old Stonewall Center [was] that ‘community meant communication and unity.’ That’s what community was, and I don’t feel like there is much communication or unity in our broader community [today], and it might be because we have so many different issues. … We’re not the same people that we were in the 1990s, when we started the Stonewall Center.”

Sue Robbins, a transgender organizer who joined UPC around 2008 or 2009, through a group of people who weren’t out yet • “I was able to participate in that group and start to find like people who are trying to explore and understand ourselves. … It let me know I wasn’t alone. I was able to find others like me. … We became a base support structure for each other and the majority of the people that were in that group did come out and transition publicly.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pictured is Sue Robbins, who is transgender and a member of the Transgender Advisory Council of Equality Utah, on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023.

Westley, who became the center’s media and special events coordinator in 2009 • “When we [organized the Pride Festival in 2009], it was literally just five of us … around [director Valerie Larabee’s] kitchen table. … [Larabee was] adamant that the money from the budget and festival was not tied to staffers’ salaries, because she was not going to put people’s livelihoods and mortgages on the line for an event that could be rained out.”

A generational shift

A new, younger generation of LGBTQ community members reflect on their experiences at the center through the years — and what they want from it.

Nick Arteaga, who came to UPC’s old offices in Marmalade as a queer, trans, nonbinary and a neurodivergent person of color from Utah County • “It provided support for me when I lived in Eagle Mountain, and had very little support if any at all externally.”

Ermiya Fanaeian, who got involved with Utah Pride Center in 2015, through the Queer Youth Activist Collective • “[The collective was] focused on doing organizing work for the community around queer and trans youth issues. … I had first wanted to join them because I wanted to be a part of some kind of activist effort in my youth, with the rise of Donald Trump during the time, as well as so many different attacks that trans students were facing.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ermiya Fanaeian speaks at a rally at the Utah State Capitol Building during the 2020 Womxn's March in Salt Lake City, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020.

Arteaga, who was hired full-time in 2020, and helped organize UPC’s Gender Evolution Conference • “I had a point of being there. I was excited to be there. Looking forward to any change or differences that I could make. I just didn’t feel like that was a space where I could really dive in [with] all my ideas.”

Roberto Lopez, who started as a UPC volunteer in 2012, and rose to become UPC’s youth and family coordinator in 2020, when he was in a group of employees who were fired • “The reason why a lot of us were getting kicked off was because of speaking up against how they were managing their funding, directly to our leadership, and then they retaliated and let us go.”

Jakey Siolo, case manager coordinator at Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR) and NuaNua Collective director, who worked with center in 2021 • “The whole Pride Festival [was] planned behind closed doors by three people. When I was there, it was three white people. … When we did raise concerns, staff of color, we were always just handed over to [one official] because she’s a Black woman.”

Fanaeian, who became a UPC intern, until she left in 2018 • “I saw a lot of [things that] were not adding up. I saw just how unsupportive the center was for our activism and queer youth who were experiencing [homelessness]. … They would come to queer youth meetings after school at the Pride Center, and the center would do very little to provide them any kind of support. … [I never brought it up because] I was largely told I wasn’t allowed to speak to upper leadership.”

C Meyer, who ran a therapy group for transgender and nonbinary people at the center for more than two years (the group moved last summer to Flourish Therapy) • “We are getting paid out for the month of September but aren’t allowed to hold the group under UPC — so to me it is all about the money and not providing ‘life saving services.’”

Arteaga, who was fired in October 2021, a month before he was to give a presentation at the conference he organized • “I couldn’t give my workshop presentation. I couldn’t attend the event.”

Siolo, noting that the center included NuaNua Collective on its 2022 annual report, as one of the programs it supports, without Siolo’s consent • “It shows to me that they do not care about really building relationships with these queer collectives of color, because they had no problem throwing us on to the diversity space on their annual report. … [We have] created our own organizations that are focused in a decolonial way of running a nonprofit.”

Williams, recalling a display of memorabilia at the Utah Pride Center tracing the LGBTQ+ movement’s history in Utah • “All that disappeared. There’s not a wall there with pictures on it anymore. There’s not an ancestry room. There’s nothing to connect us to our history. … [The center has] distanced themselves from our past [and] from the general community.”

Lopez • “This organization claims to be a community organization, but they lack the initiative to inquire within the communities that they serve to see what the needs are. They lack that transparency.”

Williams • “The time of local activism kind of disappeared, and so the Pride Center became more like a business and less of a volunteer community group.”

Robbins, now a member of the Transgender Advisory Council of Equality Utah “A nonprofit like the Pride Center is trying to balance the amount of resources they have between recognizing what they can give to the most people, versus what they need to give to the most marginalized people.”

Ryan Newcomb, hired in late 2023 as the center’s executive director • “[Diversity, equity and inclusion are] ingrained throughout the new strategic plan, and will be incorporated into everything that we do going forward.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Employees of Goldman Sachs are among the thousands participating in the Utah Pride Parade in Salt Lake City on Sunday, June 5, 2022.

Grassroots vs. corporate

Ahead of the 2023 Utah Pride Festival, local LGBTQ vendors voiced frustration at the pricing for booths, with one past vendor stating the increase made “room for major corporations.” The question of corporate support is one with which the Utah Pride Center has wrestled for decades.

Westley • “In the mid-’90s, sometimes Wells Fargo put the wagon in the parade, the first corporate sponsor ever to be put in our parade. Some of us were in tears, because this was a sign of hope, a true symbol of our acceptance and our prosperity that a major corporation would be on our side. [It] said that we were going to be OK, we were going to be able to work for an organization that wasn’t going to fire us.”

Kent Frogley, who served on Utah Pride Center’s board for 11 years • “The infrastructure to put on a festival that attracts 200,000 people from around the Intermountain west, that stuff doesn’t manifest itself out in the community. It’s got to be managed. I think sometimes people forget those conversations.”

Robbins • “It’s OK to have a pride event that is a protest and also OK to have a pride event that is a celebration. We need both of those, especially during these times that we feel under attack legislatively. Because we need to be able to protest against the way we are being pushed back against. We’ve got to be able to come together and celebrate who we are.”

Frogley • “The largest role for a nonprofit is that fiduciary responsibility to make sure that things are being run in a way that sustains the existence of the center, meaning that it’s going to be around to build and deliver the programs that make a difference. … The other role is to be voices and to be a sounding board for the people who are running the programs about how they’re doing, how are things performing, is it representative of the community?”

Lopez • “The focus has always been more of the clout of how great of a party they can put on, but not necessarily focused the funding to the actual resources that the community needs.”

Newcomb, responding to criticisms that the 2023 festival catered to corporate sponsors, at the expense of local vendors • “Those criticisms are valid. … At the same time, we want to make sure that [the] corporate partnerships we end up having are true partnerships and relationships that exist year-round.”

What happens next?

After many changes in management — one former CEO said the organization has had 13 leaders over the last 10 years — the center hired Newcomb as executive director. He has vowed to deal with the center’s mounting debts and rebuild trust with the LGBTQ+ community.

Delay • “The turnover [of the board the last few years] has been insane. Frankly, I have found it impossible to see a rhythm there that is helpful to our community. They make a lot of promises, and the only thing that seems to happen of any success is [the Pride Festival].”

Frogley • “Where [does] the Pride Center fit within the constellation of LGBTQ support organizations and resources available? … You look at what just happened with the Utah AIDS Foundation, how they’re moving to become full health care. Providing for members of the community as they evolved into that it reflects, again, how things have changed.”

Robbins • “[The Pride Center] has the most history. And I think people are just invested in it. So when something seems wrong, they get upset. … People remember what it was like when they needed it the most, and then if it changes and evolves, then they feel like it may be moved away from them.”

Lopez • “It is a vital, vital resource that unfortunately is not utilized in the proper way.”

Fanaeian, now a political organizer with Armed Queers Salt Lake “It’s … really refreshing to see people open their eyes. For people to begin understanding that nonprofits who largely have ties to corporations, who largely don’t have a dedication to the community, such as The Utah Pride Center — they aren’t really what our community is needing. Our community is needing radical on-the-ground organizing.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nick Arteaga at Vista Park in Taylorsville on Wednesday, June 30, 2021.

Arteaga, who is now an organizer and transgender rights strategist with ACLU Utah • “Something that [is] salvageable is essentially more or less intact, has a good foundation, [and UPC doesn’t have that]. It needs to be exorcized. It needs to be gutted to its core. … I do think the concept of the center is salvageable.”

Newcomb, speaking in November after his hire was announced • “Really, [the center is here] to empower, celebrate and unify the LGBTQIA+ community in Utah and greater Salt Lake. … We envision a thriving community where people are affirmed, loved and accepted for who they are, and enabling programs that do that. Mostly our program going forward is Pride [the parade and festival], and from that we’ll be able to rebuild some of the [other] programming. … And if we’re not doing the programming, we’re providing the resources to people … to get to the program that they do need.”

Lopez • “I hope that the new leadership … takes the time to actually meet with community leaders, and sits, even with discomfort, to allow the underrepresented members of our community to share what they need and want, rather than perpetuating the same cycle of wavering distrust and disappointment. If they can do that, I have hope for change.”

Newcomb • “I really want to start to reach out to some of these groups one-on-one directly, to listen to them and to hear them, first of all, but also to let them know who I am, and that I’m here. … We [aim] to establish smart, measurable goals that will implement DEI across the organization, and the board, and in future staffing.”

Westley • “[The center] has worked far more than it has failed, we need to remember that. … The biggest challenge is trying to figure out who it is. What are the needs and who are we serving and how do we do that? That’s an ever-evolving quest.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.