Over the past
year the GLBTQ community has had a number of issues come knocking on it's door.
Propositions, protests, boycotts and more, a number of gay rights topics hit
mainstream media and Utah became one of the main focal points of the debates and
debacle. In the midst of the constant struggles, this weekend presents a
The 2009 Utah Pride Festival kicks off tomorrow evening at Washington Square, taking over downtown SLC for three days in a land that's been dubbed a Gay-Mecca by many. With Paula Poundstone leading Saturday night, Jon Huntsman Jr. being honored, local artists performing from dawn to dusk, and of course the Sunday morning tradition of the Pride Parade... this weekend looks to be one of the biggest festivals to hit the summer this year. I made my over to the Pride Center and got a chance to chat with Michael Westly about his career and joining up with the Center, the Festival itself, thoughts on the GLBTQ community, and a few other questions here and there.
Gavin: Hey Michael! First off, tell is a little bit about yourself.
Michael: I was born and raised her in the Salt Lake Valley. My parents were teachers – well mom still is a teacher in her 46th year! Dad passed away at the end of 2007. I graduated from Judge Memorial Catholic High School and attended the University of Utah and Salt Lake Community College. I did NOT finish my bachelor’s degree because at 21 I quit school to take a full time position with the Salt Lake Tribune as the newsroom secretary and assistant to the editor. In May 2007 I resigned my position with the Trib after nearly 14 years – the last 6 of which I worked as a full-time reporter covering breaking news, cops, courts and a variety of other subjects.
Gavin: How was it for you growing up in Utah over the years with the conservative environment?
Michael: It was not easy being raised a Catholic in Utah especially growing up in Sandy where my family moved when I was 8 years old. Over the years I learned how to carve my own niche and find others with a similar value system and mindset. That skill has served me well.
Gavin: What first got you interested in journalism and writing?
Michael: My mom was the youngest editor to be hired by Weekly Reader in Massachusetts. The fact that she was a woman being hired in the 1960s is also not to be ignored. She claims it is in my blood. The real answer is that during my time on the high school paper at Judge I became really fond of the atmosphere of a newsroom, the proximity to news and the energy that comes by being surrounded by people that give a damn.
Gavin: What made you decide to go to the U for college, and how was your time there?
Michael: I went to the U because it is where everyone who goes to Judge who does NOT go out of town ends up attending. I was more worried about coming out of the closet at 18 years old and figured it wasn’t wise to spend a bunch of mom and dad’s money on an expensive school out of town when I was just not that interested in education.
Gavin: How did the opportunity to work at the Tribune come about, and what was your first year there like for you?
Michael: I worked as a nanny during the summer in high school and was at the pool with the kids one day when I ran into a former classmate of mine from Judge. We were making chit chat about what we do now for work, well I was mostly staring at his chest talking about how nice it is to get paid to go to the pool, when he told he that he worked as a newsroom assistant for the Trib. I was instantly enthralled with that idea. I got his information down, called the newsroom a week later and managed to get hired that fall (Oct. 6, 1993 to be exact) by Editor James E. Shelledy. The first year was a lot of fun. I was going to school in the morning and working at the Trib in the afternoons. Because my hours were somewhat flexible, I got put on a lot of special assignment jobs which gave me one-on-one time with reporters and afforded me the knowledge on how the company’s computer system was all bridged together. Shelledy was a great mentor to me and gave me a lot of opportunity to learn. I have remained close with he and his family as well as many others I met at the Trib.
Gavin: What would you say were some of your favorite stories you worked on during your time there?
Michael: Favorite stories eh? Hard to say because so much of it was so much fun. Over the years I interviewed a long list of celebrities and entertainers and local politicians. I loved reviewing concerts and plays and a good old fashioned building fire or explosion was always a thrill to cover.
Gavin: What did you think of the awards and recognition you had gotten over the years?
Michael: I got a lot of recognition INSIDE the newsroom for being just about the only person who could stay in close proximity with editor Jay Shelledy and not go crazy. My one award from the Associated Press was for my role in the Olympic Bribery scandal in which I cornered jurors after the trial was over and asked them about their involvement with the case. One of them turned out to be an acquaintance of mine who I dragged into the newsroom with me from the courthouse which no one had ever seen done before. He was also great at helping me get comment from some of the others jurors.
Gavin: How did your time at the Tribune come to an end and what was that transition like for you?
Michael: I was sad to leave the Tribune. I had really come to love many of the people I worked for and shared the joy in why and who we did what we did and for whom. Unfortunately, after the Trib was sold and then eventually acquired by its current owners, Media Newsgroup, headed up by Dean Singleton, the paper lost its edge. I was the last person to work in the old newsroom at the 143 S. Main street building where the paper’s five flags hung over Main street for more than 70 years. When I left the Trib about three years later I was pretty clear about the fact that the paper I had fallen in love with as a wide-eyed youth had been long since buried and forgotten.
Gavin: You told me you went into doing auto-brokerage. How has that been going?
Michael: I love helping people shop for cars. It feels good to put a crazy amount of car knowledge to use helping people do something that typically overwhelms and scares the crap out of them. Business has been strange the last year – the market has been all over the place.
Gavin: When and how did the opportunity to start working with The Pride Center come about, and what's the experience been like for you working with them?
Michael: My position was vacated unexpectedly about six weeks before Pride, leaving the staff a bit freaked-out about how they would cover my duties in the days before the festival. I had told my good friends Becky and Marina that I was looking for work to help cover the bills while the car business was so unreliable. Marina works for the Center and jumped at the chance to get me an interview with Valerie Larabee, the center’s executive director. I have, thus far, loved my time working with everyone at the center. As the Media and Special events coordinator, I feel like all my years at the Trib gave me a strong and specific training to do what I do for the center. The center is filled and surrounded by people who give a damn about who we are and how we live and it is rewarding to work with and for them in the fight for equal rights for all Americans!
Gavin: How has your experience gone working on the Pride Festival, and what have you got planned for this year?
Michael: So far, it was been an amazing experience that has really pushed me to the limit and challenged me to meet deadlines and think outside the box. It isn’t over yet, though so ask me again after the festival has completed its run.
Gavin: Delving a little into the community beyond the Center. First off, what do you think about the gay bar scene in Utah, both good and bad?
Michael: I covered the club scene in Utah for over a decade while I was at the Trib. It has a lot of good things working for it – an interesting selection of neighborhood bars, spots for the ladies and a handful of large dance clubs. The bad part is the need for some fresh places to mingle. We had MORE selection 10 years ago and the music was definitely better.
Gavin: What's your take on the gay clubs in our local schools, and is there anything you think could be done to make the clubs function better?
Michael: There were none when I was in school so anything that meets now has got to be an improvement. As to how well they function – I have no idea.
Gavin: What's your thoughts on people trying to have them shut down because they don't feel those clubs belongs in school?
Michael: It’s the same kind of thinking that is against gay marriage and from the same kinds of minds. It will change eventually.
Gavin: Going into media a little, do you feel shows like Will & Grace or The L Word represent GLBTQ lives fairly, or does it feel like they reinforce stereotypes and make light of it?
Michael: There was a lot of debate around this question with Queer As Folk. Many worried that it showed too much of the drugs and sex and clubbing that can be a part of gay life. It also, however, showed gay people interacting as rather regular folks in regular interactions and relationships. I think, in the end, that more exposure is better no matter what.
Gavin: What's your take on the way local media has reported on stories involving gay issues, both good and bad?
Michael: The local media has been exceptional on covering gay issues. Having worked in the newsroom, I know we took care to cover issues that deal with sexuality and the LGBTQ community. I know that the other media were in step.
Gavin: There's been a lot of press over the years about Mormons who come out and then were kick out of the church for being gay. What are your thoughts on that type of practice? And what does the Center do for those who have gone through that?
Michael: I find it heart-breaking that ANYONE who shows the world the truth about who they are can be treated with such indifference or hate. No one should have to go through that kind of isolation and pain. The Center has great programs for youth that give them a place to hang out and find community when the rest of the world seems to fail them. We also are rich in information about other resources available to those who may need support or counseling.
Gavin: After the Prop 8 issues and local backlash, what do you believe will be the long-term affect of that here between the church and the GLBTQ community?
Michael: I can’t even being to guess.
Gavin: I know you probably get asked this a lot, but what are your feelings on the idea that Salt Lake City has become a "Gay Mecca"? Do you think we deserve the title?
Michael: Salt Lake City IS indeed a gay mecca to many folks who grew up in the Inter-Mountain region. It is the closest, largest and safest city for many rural folks to escape or move to once they realize they many want to find others like them.
Gavin: A bit of a hard question. Is there anything you wish would change within the gay community? Or do you feel like things are in a good place right now?
Michael: I don’t’ know about change, but I will tell you what I lament: Our acceptance in the mainstream culture has been a wonderful thing to witness. With that acceptance and understanding we tend to need to lean on each other less which creates a lack of cohesion for being a marginalized community. There was a tighter bond in the community when nobody liked us. Progress is progress, of course, but I miss that bond.
Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?
Michael: Mainly the 2009 Utah Pride Festival. We have a lot of great things planned and have ramped up our message about the need to reach into the community for help from our allies!