Joe Redburn Days | Private Eye | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Joe Redburn Days 

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I remember the first time I walked into a gay bar. A group of bartender and waitress coworkers had gathered at my little cottage house on Laker Court for a party. It was in the middle 1970s, thus party time. In that era, a shining sun became an adequate excuse to partake of both legal and illegal substances while putting moves on your coworkers before slinking off for a cop behind the juniper bushes. Maybe it was a Sunday. Most clubs were closed on Sunday back then.

Someone suggested we exit to the Sun Tavern. This was an exciting proposition because we knew the Sun was Salt Lake City's best-known gay bar, and, well, gay bars were for gay people, when they were called gay, that is. Gay men had several gay bars in Salt Lake, and there was said to be one lesbian bar in the 1970s—literally, no one seemed to know where it was, though. Was it called Puss 'n' Boots? I don't recall, but the Sun, well, everyone knew that the Sun was "across from the Union Pacific train station. You can't miss it."

We were off. We entered the Sun Tavern with the same amazement Dorothy experienced when she landed in Munchkinland, all agog, with a fair amount of finger pointing and snickering whispers. The Sun Tavern in the 1970s was the kind of place you'd only see in the movies, but there we were, about 20 of us with no idea of what to do, where to sit, how to behave or why everyone else seemed happier than us. Maybe we were the movie.

We'd arrived during a break in the music, and the only open seats were along the dance floor. As we settled in, we huddled more or less with each other and in doing so, created a bit of an amphitheater shaped seating arrangement. The DJ took to his booth and everyone knew what was coming—we were going to see guys dance with guys. The music began and sure enough, a couple walked from a darker region of the club to the edge of the dance floor and then onto it. They walked hand in hand in our direction to within about 10 feet of us. The taller of the two, handsomely dressed in a gray suit, not a hair out of place, suddenly stopped, taken aback. He took a deep breath. Composed, he gave a huge shrug to our group, led his partner onto the dance floor and began dancing.

The man was our general manager back at our club! He said he couldn't come to our house party due to a vacation or malady but would we please have a drink for him. Something like that. We all recognized the import of what we just saw. We'd just outed our boss. None of us knew he was gay. It was an educational and defining moment for all of us, including our boss. We went back to work in the ensuing days like nothing happened, but he seemed markedly happier. In 1970s Salt Lake City, it could only happen at one place—Joe Redburn's Sun Tavern.

Joe was one helluva a guy. He died a month ago—on Sept. 6—alone and homeless at the South Salt Lake Men's Resource Center at the age of 81. I can only think of a few people who did as much for the Pride community of Utah as Joe Redburn. He did the heavy lifting for decades, including hosting his outspoken radio program, opening the Sun Tavern (now known in its latest iteration as Sun Trapp), promoting and helping to fund the original gay community tabloids and even hosting the seminal event that grew into Utah's renowned Pride Parade. That he died alone and homeless is a real kick in the pants and a warning to all would-be pioneers: Very few will understand or care what you're going through today, including some whose lives you've made better.

I would only come to meet Joe years later, after I started this paper, and I told him this story. He laughed his special hearty deep-bass-voice laugh and said that what we witnessed was not rare at all. After all, he explained the Sun wasn't a gay-only enterprise; it was a gathering place for the entire community. Eye contact happens. He broke the ice in Salt Lake by forcing gay and straight people to recognize they really aren't that different, and if he was going to have a club, everyone would be welcomed. I am among the many in Salt Lake feeling a bit of dismal shame that I had not seen Joe in five or more years. That happens often as you get older, but in Joe's case, it feels worse.

Joe was a hero in this town. If you don't know that, especially if you don't know that and consider yourself part of the LGBTQ+ community, then shame on you. He opened the door for you and held it open. He had the foresight to shape the minds of people like me, to push citizens to do the right thing, to hug, to share, to engage, to grow, to awaken, to be proud of one another.

He was a real man—a proud as hell man—an entrepreneur, a politician, a free spirit who had such a strong deep voice that I swear it could have scared water into running up hill. We drank too much whiskey and smoked too many cigarettes. We didn't have enough laughs, even though laughter was the secret weapon in Joe's pocket. We are about to embark on Utah's first virtual Pride celebration and road rally. It's just a transition with Joe virtually among us. In every virtual way, remember Joe with PRIDE.

Send comments to john@cityweekly.net.

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About The Author

John Saltas

John Saltas

Bio:
John Saltas is a lamb eating, Bingham Canyon native, City Weekly feller who'd rather be in Greece.

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