Two weeks ago, a sparkly float festooned with American flags, gold stars and military insignias made history as it proceeded down Provo’s University Avenue.
“Utah Honors Our LGBTQ+ Veterans” read the lettering on the side. Riding atop were some of our state’s heroes: gay, bisexual and transgender members of the armed forces. This float, sponsored by Mormons Building Bridges, and the two other LGBTQ entries in the parade proved to skeptics that a conservative community’s celebration of American patriotism is deepened by including those who have been historically marginalized.
The crowds still cheered, the bands still played, and the horses proudly clip-clopped down the street. But this year, gay, bi and trans Utahns could share with their straight and cisgender neighbors the essence of a parade experience: belonging to something greater than self.
This almost didn’t happen. It was the result of hard-won compromise and generosity. While the power of tax dollars to enforce non-discrimination shouldn’t be underestimated, there was also deep listening at work. Utah County’s LGBTQ citizens and their allies spent months sharing their stories with Freedom Festival organizers and with town and county councils. They explained why their visibility matters, and how it can make Provo a kinder, safer place for everyone. They listened, even when it hurt, to the Freedom Festival organizers’ appeals to tradition, to the concern that LGBTQ support would somehow detract from a celebration of patriotism.
The LGBTQ coalition saw how difficult it was for those in power to put themselves in the shoes of the marginalized. They asked the Freedom Festival to lean into their discomfort with a public conversation around sexual orientation and gender identity. The push and pull of this honest, respectful conversation bore fruit. In the end Provo hearts were bigger and the promise of American freedom a little brighter on July 4, 2018.
So as the focus shifts from a national celebration to a state event, is Salt Lake City’s Days of ‘47 parade ready to accept an LGBTQ-affirming entry from Mormons Building Bridges? Can they show the community goodwill that the Freedom Festival had?
Sadly, the answer is no. Once again, MBB’s float design, “Build Bridges of Understanding” has been rejected by the Days of ‘47. The organizing committee has consistently refused to even meet with Mormons Building Bridges.
Every year (this is MBB’s fifth attempt) the rejection sounds more and more absurd. That Mormons Building Bridges is ineligible because it is an “advocacy group” rings hollow. What parade entries, from humanitarian organizations to the 20-some floats from stakes of the LDS church, are not advocates for many good causes? It is a darkly comical experience to read the mission of the Days of ‘47 in light of this exclusion:
“We believe the example of past and present pioneers’ courage creates a vision for the future that everyone can follow ... Pioneers — Pushing toward our Future!”
The Days of ‘47 Inc. is unwilling to do the hard work that pioneers have always done. Pioneers are by definition on the forefront of progress, respectful of precedent but not held back by old paradigms. In Provo we saw some very unlikely citizens who would have been happy to have things stay as they were embrace the pioneering spirit for the sake of fairness toward all. Not so in Salt Lake.
The role of the Mormon church in this parade further complicates the situation. While a private non-profit, the Days of ‘47 Inc. is inextricably linked to the LDS hierarchy. The church is the biggest donor, a member of the First Presidency always leads the parade, volunteers are called by their stake presidents to build floats. How can observers not connect this LGBTQ exclusion to the power the church wields in our community? Despite church leaders’ discernible change in tone around many aspects of the LGBTQ experience, despite their support for suicide prevention initiatives, when it comes to this parade, gay and trans people are not wanted. Their pioneer stories — some of the most inspiring among us — don’t count.
If this is exclusively a parade about LDS Doctrine — a religious pageant — then it belongs away from public thoroughfares and on to temple grounds. But if the church wants exercise their moral leadership (as they did in the Utah Compromise of 2015) to help our diverse community truly come together around the pioneer ethos, well — let’s be blunt — someone at 47 East South Temple needs to facilitate a conversation between their LGBTQ neighbors and the Days of ‘47.
Ritual is comforting and change is hard. When the Mormon pioneers left the familiar green of New England and the fertile plains of the Midwest they found themselves in a harsh western landscape. But what we love about their story is that they were able to use their values of faith, work, and love to negotiate new realities. Treasured traditions are best kept safe within an expansive community of belonging. Before the Days of ‘47 becomes irrelevant if not downright hurtful to a significant portion of our community, let’s do as Provo did. Let’s start talking.
Erika Munson is co-founder of Mormons Building Bridges.