The LGBTQ community has come a long way since the days of the Gay Liberation Front. Folks like the ones featured in this week's news story—who in the fledgling days of Utah Pride faced everything from neo-Nazi protesters to an impenetrable church—and then went on to tirelessly fight for recognition and equal rights.
That fight is far from over. Last year was the deadliest in the U.S. for transgender individuals, with 28 recorded deaths due to violence; and locally, LGBTQ-identifying or not, suicide remains the No. 1 cause of death among kids ages 11-17 according to the Utah State Health Department.
We live in a society where it takes a helluva lot of moxie to be your true self. Celebrating that spirit, we've assembled this special issue to exalt those in our community who fearlessly pave the way. People like cover model Jason CoZmo, who from his humble beginnings in Salt Lake County, has always remained true to his inner entertainer and now delivers Broadway-quality shows to the masses on the regular; business owner Michael Sanders, the mastermind behind the area's first-ever Leather Pride; Utah Pride Festival performer Shea Freedom; and SLC Mayor Jackie Biskupski.
This issue is for them and anyone else who, oftentimes against the grain, live their most authentic life. Along with reveling during this week's celebrations, make sure to honor the memory of those who've come before—everyone from activist Marsha P. Johnson to local bar owner Robert B. Goulding. Also take time to applaud the next generation of torch carriers, like trans teen Jay Alfie, who this week was told by his Texas high school they'd be deadnaming him during his graduation ceremony instead f calling out his chosen name.
Say their names. And say them proudly.
From Magna to the world, Jason CoZmo is redefining local drag.
Story and photos By Enrique Limón
The setup backstage at Club X, home of the Viva La Diva show and Broadway Divas brunch, includes all the basic accoutrements you'd expect of a drag review—wigs galore, endless containers of pressed powder, a few cans of glitter spray, mile-long false eyelashes peering from jewel cases and ... power tools?
"We built all this set and the catwalk, and we put it all up and take it all down every week," diva matron Jason CoZmo says, as he overdraws his brows. "Every table, every chair ... I wash every one of those fucking tablecloths."
Ever the perfectionist, CoZmo (a portmanteau of his last name, Zambos, and cosmos, "a cluster of stars") adhered to a 9:30 a.m. call for the 2 p.m. show. Along with arranging the seating, the three hours it takes him to complete his transformation are factored in. "People are like, 'Why isn't brunch earlier?' Bitch, does it look like I'm ready to start painting at four in the morning?" he jokes.
The day's show is an homage to Disney characters—a full-circle moment we'll get to later. And though CoZmo and cast have performed the numbers twice before, he makes sure to follow a certain ritual and is methodic about prep. "I'm a very old-school, superstitious theater person," he says, adding that he also has to shave in the same sink and park his car in the same spot on show days. "Because, then if you don't, something goes wrong, and you go, 'I should have shaved in that other fucking sink'—that's why."
Pre-performance rites also include a general meeting where everyone involved in the production, from performers to crew, assemble in a circle. "I think it's important that we're on stage and bring that energy in together," he says. "Even if you're doing a solo, we're all still working together—they're running the lights and the sound, they're opening the curtain—so we're all still a team and we all need to, like, come together before a show."
An affinity to burn sage has earned him the nickname "Campfire CoZmo" around the bar. "It gets the gunk outta the air; I'm a big believer in energy," the also-host of Miss City Weekly, says. "I can go out and recite the script, but [audience members] can sense. They feel your energy."
Taped next to an oversize vanity mirror is a piece of paper with an extensive list of looks and looks-within-looks. You'd assume it's the full cast's runsheet, but it's just CoZmo's. From a raunchy Tinker Bell to Mary Poppins to a frothy Snow White and Frozen's Elsa, he'll perform 10 numbers in the show he conceived, produced and staged. He'll also emcee, play den mother to the cast and cut them all a check at the end of day.
Queen of Starts
"This show is extra, extra nuts for me," CoZmo muses, noting that he grew up as "that awkward gay boy who danced around my room listening to Disney records and playing every character. It's ironic now, because my parents would say, 'It's a phase, he'll grow out of it,' and here we are," he says with an infectious laugh.
Coming of age in Magna during the '80s was rough, he admits. Aside from wanting to grow up to be a fairytale princess, his family didn't identify as LDS or Republican. "A lot of the kids in my neighborhood weren't even allowed to play with me because I wasn't Mormon," he says. "And on top of it, I didn't play sports, so I just did not fit in. But I'd turn on those Disney records, and that was it."
By middle school, differences intensified. "Not only was I awkward and a theater nerd, but now I had braces and glasses and zits, and I didn't fit in," he says. "I went through a really dark time, like so many teenagers do, and I fell into theater, and that was it. That was the ballgame."
Having found his niche, he performed in every production he could, and eventually got a musical theater full-ride scholarship at Weber State University.
The deconstruction process that was part of the curriculum didn't gel. "I was excited to further my craft, and they were, like, 'Nope. Forget everything you know and we're gonna train you our way,'" he recalls. Six months later, he quit. "Even then, I was going to march to the beat of my own drum."
Back to the drawing board, the Salt Lake County theater kid looked back to his living room origins and decided to go after his dream of becoming either a Disney animator or actor. A two-hour flight to Southern California later, he gave it his all.
"In my head, I was so Disney and so right," he says about attending that first open "cattle call" for Disneyland cast members among 500 other hopefuls. "My attitude was, like, 'Here I am. You've been waiting, are you ready?'"
Bolstered by self-confidence, he made it through the first cut. An across-the-floor dance routine followed. A number he'd performed at Salt Lake Community College's Grand Theater a few days earlier betrayed him, turning his step-behind-ball-change movement into a step in front, and he was cut.
As he was being escorted out of the property, and pressed by a fight-or-flight instinct, he came up with the need for an urgent restroom visit, went into the men's room, changed shirts, pinned his casting call number back on and went for another go. "I did the routine again, was there for two days of call-backs and got hired," he boasts.
Park producers pegged him as a dead-ringer for Peter Pan, but when CoZmo heard climbing ropes was part of the gig for the pyrotechnic extravaganza Fantasmic!, the idea was nixed. His acting experience and natural expressiveness, however, led him to be cast as the Mad Hatter, and CoZmo came into his own in more ways than one. "I dated five different Aladdins. And Goofy? His feet are that big," he says belting out a chuckle.
CoZmo went on to celebrate very merry unbirthdays for five years. "It was amazing. Everyone was, like, 'You're gonna be disillusioned by it all, this and that, and I wasn't," he says. "People ask me if I regret dropping out of college and the answer is no, because I knew I was going to be a performer and Disneyland was like college. I mean, they are so strict and so professional and they really just whip you into shape. Then 9/11 happened ..."
He was scheduled to work that Tuesday, but following the terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa., the Walt Disney Co. closed their domestic theme parks for the day.
"As horrible an event as it all was, I had some major turning points," he reflects, "because on Sept. 12, we had to go in to work and do the parade, and for that whole time, I was in shock." CoZmo had heard rumors of Disneyland being a terror target, and maybe the draft making a comback, reflecting the day's gloomy zeitgeist.
"I was scared; no one knew what was going on. It felt inappropriate to be playing these happy characters," he says. "I'll never forget that parade: We went out, and the audience was so different. People had obviously planned their vacations, so they were there. It was this huge sense of release—these people needed to escape—they needed to not think about it, and that's when I was, like, 'Oh, this is what I do. This is why I'm here. I can't go out and fight, but I can help people escape their troubles and real life, and it clicked."
A Drag Star Is Born
Calling the moment a "surreal realization," and with Disneyland brass anticipating a drop in visits, they cut performers' hours. Now a newly minted part-timer, CoZmo found a job at famed restaurant Hamburger Mary's, where dishes are accompanied by a side of drag.
"I was this little twink serving my burgers and beer and flirting with everybody," he reminisces. Along with American fare, the restaurant served up a weekly amateur drag contest, which left the budding performer unimpressed. "I said, I could do this in my sleep!"
Aladdin No. 5 taught him a dance routine to Chicago's "All That Jazz" and CoZmo mustered the courage to compete. This wasn't his first time at the glam rodeo. For Halloween '99, he'd dressed up as Alice to balance out his chi, and the following year, some members of Disney's parade department thought to dress up as dead celebrities. CoZmo purchased a cheap Wilma Flintstone wig, copied the Snow White makeup chart ("I made the eyebrows orange, and that was it," he notes), put on a polka dot dress and went as Lucille Ball.
At Mary's, he won the amateur contest his maiden try, but still, it was a far stretch to consider drag as a viable option. "I wasn't a drag queen and I wasn't looking to create this persona, but I'd done musical theater all my life and I loved all these female, diva heroines." Personifying Rizzo from Grease and Carol Channing's Hello, Dolly!, CoZmo went on to win the competition for a month straight and was offered his own Saturday night show.
By 2005, having left his mark in the Long Beach and West Hollywood scenes, CoZmo visited New York for the first time, and knew that'd be his next step. "New York's a different beast, and it'll chew you up and spit you out," he says. "But unlike so many other places, if you're ambitious, you can go out and make it work—and I did. I hit the pavement." For the first six months, that involved hitting the contest circuit hard, and participating in whatever competitions he came across.
Word got out and he secured his own night at a bar in Hell's Kitchen, graduated to the original Lips restaurant in the Village and later the Stonewall Inn, all without the help of a campy stage name. "To me, it was just me as somebody, not this character as somebody," he says.
9 to 5
Lucy and Liza had become his bread and butter by the time he put on that first wispy blond wig and gave Dolly Parton a go. "Everywhere I worked, there was a Dolly, and drag queens get very territorial—'Well, that's my character,'" he says in a gravelly voice.
He remembers applying the makeup to resemble the country queen and thinking, "That's too much. Then I put the wig on and said, 'It needs more.'"
He did just one number that night, lip synching 1978's "Two Doors Down," a move dubbed by a friend as "the biggest cock-tease ever," and Parton soon became one of his more popular characters.
Cue a casino tour across the Southwest, and buzz started to grow. Upon his return to the Big Apple, a Good Morning America producer called, said they were having the Tennessee songstress on the show and asked if they could use one of CoZmo's pictures as her during a segment. "I was like, 'Oh my God, what if she says I'm fat or ugly,'" he remembers.
Parton, famous for quotes like "It's a good thing I was born a girl, otherwise I'd be a drag queen," didn't bat a 301 eyelash when asked if that was her in the picture, and "then the other gigs started to come in," CoZmo says.
"Atlantic City was kind of getting its second wind. It used to be the shit back in the '80s and '90s," he says of his next move, and is quick to point out that this was in Dennis Gomes' Atlantic City and not Donald Trump's. "He was like the Walt Disney of Atlantic City," CoZmo says of the former.
With Gomes' blessing, and with a no-end contract in sight, CoZmo channeled all his energy to perfecting his Parton act. He remembers being the youngest cast member in the review "by 20 years. They'd been doing these impersonation shows since I was born," the 38-year-old says. "It took me a while to gain their respect. It was not easy. Then, when I was good, it didn't make it any easier either."
Friendless and in a new market, CoZmo started studying Parton obsessively—her movies, music videos, live performances, interviews, anything he could get his hands on. After each show, he'd go straight home and "fall into the Dolly Parton rabbit hole."
Channeling Parton was a no-brainer. "My definition of drag is a woman with an exclamation point. I mean, who's draggier than Dolly?" he says of his muse. "She just exudes the definition of femininity."
With Dolly paying the bills, CoZmo soon realized impersonating the seasoned diva held the key to the drag fountain of youth. "I've always said, the best way to stay young is to play people 30 years older than you—you'll always look good," he says.
Some 20 custom dresses and a dozen or so wigs (each consisting of two or three wigs sewn together, he points out) now comprise his Dolly arsenal. "Miss Dolly Parton was not lying when she said, 'It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.' I bet my cheapest costume is $500 and my most expensive is about three grand," he says.
Performances were selling out six nights a week at the boardwalk hotel. "I'm thinking, 'We're set,' CoZmo says. Then, casino owner Gomes died unexpectedly following back surgery.
"We were in limbo for a few months," CoZmo says. The Mohegan Sun Tribe acquired the property alongside Jimmy Buffett following the impresario's passing. "We were the longest-running show in over 30 years in Atlantic City ... and I'm thinking, they're business people and we're bringing in a lot of business," he says. "It didn't matter, we were fags in dresses."
Drag was out, Margaritaville was in.
"Nobody saw that coming, it was devastating," CoZmo says about receiving his notice. He'd given up his gigs, apartment and life in New York, and again, found himself back at square one.
"I was in a dark, dark place," he says. "I struggled. All these queens that you'd given a job to are your best friends, and as soon as you're not paying 'em, you find out who your real friends are real quick."
CoZmo landed a gig on Fire Island, and when other queens he'd worked with before suddenly become unavailable, he made lemons into Smoky Mountain lemonade and developed his own one-man show. His hustle was reignited.
Pop culture had again shifted toward drag queens thanks to RuPaul's Drag Race, which CoZmo considers "a blessing and a curse."
"It's brought drag back into the mainstream," he says about the reality competition TV show, "but it only helps those queens. They're making thousands of dollars to show up and do 10 minutes, and I'm trying to get booked doing a show by myself for two hours and begging [venue owners] to let me keep the door."
He took his Coat of Many Colors show across several "obscure, little towns," and soon experienced another turning point. "When I left Utah, I was, like, OK, I'm gay, I'm a performer, I'm a drag queen. For me to live and have a social life and a career, I need to be in LA or New York. Well, then I started going to all these towns and meeting the local queens and the local people."
Realizing fabulosity existed in pockets outside the two coasts, and harkening back to that little kid miming "Some Day My Prince Will Come" in his living room, CoZmo would sporadically return home. During one trip, his grandmother saw a video of him as Lucy, and she convinced him to perform on the patio for her and her friends. Nana's squad, who CoZmo lovingly refers to as "the Golden Girls," had pull at a local bar, and she arranged for her grandson to start his own night there. "She didn't ask the bar owner," CoZmo says. "She told him."
"We broke every record in Magna," he unironically says. "We had 200-and-some people in there. They ran out of beer, they ran out of ice—it was nuts." The move planted a seed CoZmo would later revisit.
A burgeoning drag brunch had already sprung without his involvement. "It was good some weeks and it was bad some weeks and just kind of all over the place," CoZmo says. "It was all kind of a clusterfuck."
He came in and cleaned house. The working relationship with his inherited cast was going nowhere. CoZmo was called a has-been and told his Broadway concept was tired. "I thought, 'Those are the local queens?' So I made new local queens."
Into His Own
Corsetted, made-up and ever resplendent, a little spritz of White Diamonds seals the deal and CoZmo is ready to take the stage. "It goes with all my characters," CoZmo says of Elizabeth Taylor's signature scent.
Under the lights, any awkwardness he might have presented as a youth is out the emergency exit and CoZmo lets brunch-goers have it. "It's Sunday morning and you're all fucking sinning 'cause you are here," he tells the audience. "This is a lot more fun though, isn't it? Now I'm gonna take all your tithing."
The group's comprised by just about every LGBTQ subculture, the Golden Girls table which includes CoZmo's mom and grandma, and a gaggle of whoo-hoo girls with their boyfriends in tow. "I figured it out—straight women in Utah love two things: Hobby Lobby and drag," he says.
Not skipping a beat, CoZmo delves into a 40-plus minute no-holds-barred monologue. "Utah, you need this. You may not realize it, but you need it," he says. "This is not the Davis County Roadshow."
Groupon cheapskates, Provo conservatives, a wayward Dallas Cowboys fan and a table of folks from Kearns are all targets of his trademark barbs. "Don't give them a hard time," he says of the latter. "Someone's keeping Valley Fair Mall in business. God bless you for that."
In a moment of clarity, CoZmo shares the abridged version of his personal journey with the audience and mentions how detractors warned he wouldn't be able to pull off a monthly variety drag show in Salt Lake City.
"They were right. It doesn't work once a month" he says. "It works once a week, bitches."
Proud to Be Caring
Gay and Hispanic, Lee Castillo reflects on his journey to the ballot box.
By Carolyn Campbell
Lee Castillo always answers his phone by saying, "This is Lee, how can I help you?" Offering to help is a habit developed during his years as a social worker. Being a front-line person and interacting with people has taught him that, "In working or volunteering, one life matters," the Layton native says. "You change the course of somebody's life if they know that somebody actually cares. People need love to thrive. They need to be shown that they are seen as a person."
As a social worker and a Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress from Utah's District 1, Castillo appreciates the need to "strive for others." He says that his understanding of that idea will help in the way he'll shape policies. "I wouldn't sell out to oil or the NRA. When you make a decision for self in the name of greed and take other lives for granted, you have not represented the people you are elected to represent," he says.
After the June 26 primary, he hopes to be the first openly gay Hispanic to have his name on the ballot for a federal office in Utah. If elected, he'd also be the first to serve in Congress. Lee was raised in a Catholic household where he heard, "a lot of negative things about gay people. I internalized those comments and had a lot of self-hate and self-doubt. I wondered if I was OK, and why I would be afflicted with this. I tried to pray the gay away," he remembers. It took him a long time to reconcile being gay with the views of others—men, women and, sometimes, churches. "It took time to see that I could still love and be loved," he says.
Today he feels that, "Churches are not always right. They get the message that God has for his children and preach it incorrectly sometimes. God's love is for everybody. He loves all of his kids."
Castillo's and his parents' opposing views later led to an estrangement from his family. "My dad and I always fought. I don't remember it ever being a positive, healthy relationship. My mom and my little brother were supportive. But I lived in a strict home," he says. He describes his father as an old-fashioned man, "a Mexican guy with all that machismo stuff." Because of the familial conflict, Castillo left home early. "I experienced homelessness. At first, it seemed like everyone turned their backs. I found myself sofa surfing and staying with friends. It was hard—the rejection and not knowing where I was going to go," he says.
For a while, he stayed with his uncle, who is a quadriplegic. One of his friend's parents also let him stay at their home. "If it wasn't for someone else caring and doing, I don't know where I would be," he says. When you feel like nobody cares, God can surprise you with people in your life"
He feels that his own homeless plight led him to reach out. He tries to host two fundraisers a year for Volunteers of America. A recent one raised more than $2,000. He's also collected thousands of dollars toward an overnight homeless shelter. "I think a lot of my own struggles finding acceptance and understanding within my own family have led me to the youth," he says. "I identify with their struggles because I've had so many."
Most surprising—and gratifying—to Castillo was his own father's about-face. "He wasn't the same man that he is today," he says. Recently, Castillo's dad was the third person to donate to his political campaign. "He donated after telling me a few weeks before that I shouldn't run. He had his own beliefs about what it takes to run and I told him I had to listen to what I feel God is asking me to do." Then, when his father donated to the campaign, "It kind of shocked me," Castillo says. "The support is pretty cool and it was a cool transformation to see someone change from mean and cold to open and accepting." Along with his dad, his older brother and sister who weren't very accepting earlier also came around. Castillo was further surprised when his dad hired his friend, a trans woman, to do a job for him, and "he got the pronouns right."
It was through his social-work career that Castillo found healing from his own childhood trauma. "My own struggle helped me when I worked with kids and families. It helped me personalize people," the youngish 40-year-old says. "People would ask why I was working so hard with 'that parent who is really struggling.'" He would respond with "that parent is more than just a case. He is a human being."
Today, Castillo is a clinician for Utah State Hospital, working on their forensic team, laboring directly in the jail to help inmates who have been found incompetent to stand trial. "When their mental illness goes unchecked, they end up in jail, and they await court dates," Castillo says. "Instead of doing this post-treatment in the jail, we could be doing prevention and allowing people to have health care and mental-health services that are accessible and affordable." The move, he says, is multi-pronged. "It would improve not only the criminal justice system, it would also unclog the system in different ways and give them their lives back."
Understanding the importance of caring and providing hope, Castillo has adopted a teenage boy and fosters another. He's proud to provide constancy in their lives, to let them know that they matter and deserve love. "They have this little man cave downstairs," he says. "After a year, they realized I'm not going anywhere."
He chose to run for office after hearing the rhetoric "coming out of our president's mouth. We are becoming disconnected from the rest of the world. He has personally attacked Hispanics, trans, Muslims and women. They are all community members. I felt a prompting that I should do something about it. In the name of love and in the name of God, I wanted to let little Hispanic kids know that they can achieve their dreams."
Through it all, Castillo notes, acceptance has been a common thread. "I spent a lot of time being unhappy and I won't do that anymore," he says. "I accept myself for all of my flaws, everything I've ever been through and overcome. I love myself—even the extra weight."
Of his recent victory in acquiring 53 percent of the vote at the Democratic nominating convention, Castillo says, "People assume that a gay Hispanic guy who has never run for office wouldn't be much of a challenge. But I've surprised a lot of people. You never underestimate the little guy that is acting in love."
Pride Little Black Book
Make the most of your Pride weekend by checking out these standout events:
THURSDAY, MAY 31
Kick off the weekend by feeding into your spiritual side. All are welcome.
Zion Lutheran Church, 1070 Foothill Drive, 801-582-2321, 7 p.m., all ages, free
Miss City Weekly
Our annual beauty pageant which celebrates every color in the crayon box turns 9.
Metro Music Hall, 615 W. 100 South, 385-528-0952, 9 p.m., 21+, $10 in advance; $15 at the door
Salty Disco Party
Join DJ Naomi and a couple hundred of your soon-to-be closest friends at this dance extravaganza.
The Sun Trapp, 102 S. 600 West, 385-235-6786, 9 p.m., 21+
FRIDAY, JUNE 1
Notable LGBTQ community members and supporters collide for this yearly gala.
Union Event Center, 235 N. 500 West, 385-831-7770, 6 p.m., all ages, $110
Youth Pride Dance
An energetic celebration for those ages 14-20 (w/ID).
Utah Pride Festival grounds, 451 S. State, 6-11 p.m., $5
She's perfect, she's beautiful, she's RuPaul's Drag Race Season 9's breakout star.
Metro Music Hall, 615 W. 100 South, 385-528-0952, 9 p.m., 21+, $20 GA; $40 VIP
Where the wild things are.
Club Try-Angles, 251 W. 900 South, 801-364-3203, 9 p.m., 21+
SATURDAY, JUNE 2
Outdoors and Proud
Come sweat all the vodka off at this 5K.
Jordan Park, 1060 S. 900 West, 8-11 a.m., all ages, $45 onsite registration
Revel and rejoice with a stellar entertainment lineup.
Washington Square and Library Plaza, downtown, 1-11 p.m., $10
Pride March and Rally
A rally at the Capitol is followed by a march to Festival grounds.
Utah Capitol, 350 N. State, 1 p.m., all ages, free
Utah Pride And Utah Pride Youth Pageant
Six titles are up for grabs at this yearly competition.
Murray Fraternal Order of Eagles, 10 W. Fourth Ave., Murray, 7 p.m., 18+, $7
Once Upon a Diva!
Jason CoZmo and crew take over during this Disney-themed spectacular.
Club X, 445 400 West, 801-935-4267, 9 p.m., 21+, $30
The outspoken and boisterous Ru girl returns to SLC.
Metro Music Hall, 615 W. 100 South, 385-528-0952, 9 p.m., 21+, $20 GA; $40 VIP
SUNDAY, JUNE 3
Utah Pride Parade
A little like the Days of '47 Parade, but way more fabulous.
Starts at West Temple and 200 South, 10 a.m., free
Day two continues with oodles of great entertainment.
Washington Square and Library Plaza, downtown, 11 a.m.-7 p.m., $10
Rooftop Block Party
Princess Kennedy's annual rooftop bash.
Green Pig Pub, 31 E. 400 South, 801-532-7441, noon-9 p.m., 21+
16th Annual Pride Steak-Fry
Cap-off your weekend with some juicy, sizzling meat.
Club Try-Angles, 251 W. 900 South, 801-364-3203, 4 p.m., 21+
Powwow Power Couple
Two-spirit pair uses traditional dance as a motive for change.
By Sarah Arnoff
Adrian Stevens and Sean Snyder have been dancing at powwows since they could walk. "Powwow has always kept my culture relevant in my day-to-day life," says Stevens, who hails from Fort Duchesne and is of the Northern Ute, Shoshone Bannock and San Carlos Apache tribes. "It's always brought my family close together and it's something I was raised doing."
Spending much of their time on the road, the two-spirit couple met on the powwow circuit eight years ago, and their participation in "Sweetheart Specials"—dances meant specifically for couples and where two-spirit pairs are not commonly seen or even forbidden from participating—has propelled them to become activists for the two-spirit and LGBTQ communities. Although Stevens and Snyder, who grew up from Corbel, Iowa, and is of the Navajo and Southern Ute tribes, won first place at the University of Utah Sweethearts Special in April, they were disqualified from the San Manuel Band of Indians powwow in California in October 2017 simply for identifying as LGBTQ. In years past, they say, that powwow banned same-sex couples from dancing together, but in 2017, that specific rule was not present on any of the powwow advertising materials, so Snyder and Stevens decided to go for it. They practiced their routine for a month and a half and handmade regalia based on their Ute traditions, but when they arrived at the registration area, the Sweethearts rules stated that all pairs must consist of a man and a woman.
They signed up anyway.
"It was one of those things where we went into the situation and we didn't know what was going to happen." Snyder says. "We had prepared so much and we felt ready that we just wanted to do it." They were allowed to perform their routine on the arena floor and were judged, but powwow officials disqualified them in a formal statement before the winners were announced. "Everything that we got judged on was thrown out," Snyder says. "For them to publicly say that kind of started the discussion about should we be able to dance like everybody else?"
Support for the pair came from across the country. The Human Rights Council invited them to speak at their Time to Thrive conference in Orlando, and the couple produced a video that reached a wide Native audience. The video in particular made them realize the leadership role they were taking as LGBTQ activists, especially in influencing the next generation.
"I think that video has helped Native youth in seeing, 'OK we do have representation out there.' What we don't have, what we were asking for, is we don't have anybody that's older to represent us but now we're those people," Stevens says. "Watching that video and the families see that video or a relative and friend see that video, they get kind of sense of understanding of some of the struggles, but also the support that's out there."
"We're our role models," Snyder says. "A lot of our previous generation are gone now. They didn't make it—through HIV or self-harm. We've lost a lot of our aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters that way. It's almost like we have to renavigate how to start the discussion and start all over again."
And the powwow arena, they say, is a perfect place to do that.
"Powwow is a weird space where it's definitely at the forefront of our social scape," Snyder says. "It's such a unique space where you can push those boundaries or take a step in that direction and start the conversation. No matter where you're at, everyone goes to the powwow. Everyone is there together at that one weekend. You definitely impact a lot a people wherever you're at, whatever weekend you're at because everyone goes to powwow."
Both Snyder and Stevens acknowledge that, in general, the Native world doesn't like to talk about LGBTQ issues. Traditionally, however, many tribes accepted—and some even revered—two-spirit individuals.
"When we say 'two-spirit,' it's not on a biological level, it's on a spiritual level. We both embody those male and female spirits," Stevens says. In Native American ceremonies, gender roles can be strict, but two-spirit individuals have the ability to transverse those lines. For example, Stevens notes, "Men are only allowed to carry water but sometimes you'll see a two-spirit woman carrying the water that we pray with." And both Stevens' and Snyder's families have been supportive of who they are. Shortly after Stevens came out to his family, he attended a funeral where, traditionally, women were the ones to take care of preparing the body for burial. He was asked by his relatives to take on duties normally assigned to women.
"[I said] 'but I'm a man, I'm male,' and they were like, 'No you're not'" he recalls. "And that's when I was like 'Whoa, my family sees this. And their supporting this and they're saying that you need to get in there and you take care of both sides now."
The support of their families has provided them with the framework to influence younger Native people who might be struggling with their identity. Colonial Christianity, they say, has infiltrated and vilified two-spirit people, but they also have seen an openness from Native youth about LGBTQ and two-spirit acceptance, and view this as a return to traditional beliefs.
"I just think it's interesting that there's no way around it anymore," Snyder says. "The themes of Christianity are so interwoven into our Native cultures or our Native reservations or the way society is set up ... There's that internalized homophobia across the board."
Stevens calls the area between tribes' general struggle to maintain their cultures and languages and relatively recent adoption of Christian influences a "gray space," but believes that the next generation of powwow dancers and Native youth will encompass everything about what it means to be Native. "I think they're definitely going to make the leap," he says.
"Their outlook on the world being so pure is exactly what we need and is much more of a return to our core values," Snyder adds. "These kids are being taught exactly what we all believe in without the hate and it's amazing. I can't wait for the next generation to push those boundaries because it's going to be amazing."
For now, both Stevens and Snyder have taken a year off from their studies at Utah Valley University to travel to speaking engagements and, of course, continue to dance. They sell handmade beadwork and regalia pieces online through their design website AD Designs, and are making a documentary about their journey and their everyday lives. They hope to enact change through the powwow circuit and their mutual love of their traditions. The goal, they say, is to never fall silent.
"Sean and I have started the discussion now and we continue to do the work in educating people and shining the light on two-spirit individuals," Stevens says.
Snyder aggress: "There is always going to be a need to be open about your life."
Hell-Bent for Leather!
The first Utah Leather Pride fest was a bonding experience of fashion and fetish.
By Rich Kane
"How many people think they're not in Salt Lake City anymore?" Michael Sanders asked a geared-up crowd that gathered May 20 at the Sun Trapp tavern for the first annual Utah Leather Pride fest. "How many feel that they've teleported to a place where this isn't a big thing?"
But from the approving crowd hoots and hollers, this was, in fact, a big thing. More than 500 leather-lovers fluttered in and out of the bar during the afternoon. Part of 100 South was blocked off to traffic. Food truck chefs sold their grub. A Toyota dealership gave away branded tchotchkes.
And at the 15-plus vendor tables was a wide selection of for-sale swag you'd never find at your local Deseret Industries store—bondage ropes, hand-stitched spanking paddles, dog collars not necessarily meant for your pooch, steel cock cages and T-shirts that proudly proclaimed, in rainbow-flag colors, NOT TEMPLE WORTHY.
Sanders, the event organizer, looked the fashionable part in his black leather officer's cap, black leather vest, black knee-high motorcycle boots and a MR. LEATHER SL,UT tank. He's the reigning Mr. Leather Salt Lake, after all, and later that evening, he would give a farewell speech as the new Mr. and Ms. Leather Salt Lake were revealed.
Leather lifestyle groups have existed in Utah before. But when Sanders, a New York transplant, arrived in the Beehive State in 2008, he found the scene disorganized. So he decided to build a bigger, better one.
"It's a lot of work and people don't want to do it a lot of times," Sanders said. "I thrive off that."
It took plenty of flogging to make it happen. There were obstacles along the way, including ones put up by some members of the local LGBTQ community, who Sanders said stopped his attempt a few years ago to have a leather and fetish area at the annual Utah Pride Festival, something many other Pride fests around the country have.
"A couple of very uptight gay men got super squeaked-out by it," Sanders reminisced. "I know this is Utah, and we're not in San Francisco on Folsom Street. We were going to be a separate 21-and-over section with privacy fencing. But one of these gentlemen sent emails out to the major Pride Center donors and said there was going to be nudity and fisting and all these things that are absolutely illegal to do at an event like that."
That pearl-clutching reaction spoke to the infighting that's been a part of gay life since the 1969 Stonewall riots, which were spurred not only by drag queens and trans people of color, but leather men as well. Since those revolutionary times, the LGBTQ rights movement has often been called out by minorities-within-the-minority, accused of being too white, too male, and spreading too much of a hey-look-we're-just-like-straight-people assimilation gospel in issues like marriage and adoption.
Sanders said that's a very sex-negative viewpoint that ignores basic LGBTQ history.
"The gay leather community has been a visible force since the very first protest marches," he said. "We're all reaping the benefits today of what our people did back then, so you can la-dee-da down the street with your husband and adopted baby to your white picket-fenced house and live your little hetero-normative life. You gained that privilege through the work and bravery of gay leather men, gay trans people, gay hustlers and the people who started the movement."
The gay leather scene can historically be traced to World War II, when homosexuality was very much illegal and could get a young man from small-town Utah (and every other state) booted out of the military on a "blue" discharge.
"These men who were discharged couldn't just go back home, because it was printed in their hometown newspapers, so they were dropped off in these major port cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles," said Sanders, who has also taught leather history classes.
"They formed communities of their own in these cities, which eventually grew to have huge gay populations," Sanders said. "They were already entrenched in the hierarchy traditions of military rank, uniforms and motorcycle culture. And what did you wear on a motorcycle back then? Usually leather."
The 1953 Marlon Brando biker film The Wild One further popularized leather—especially black leather—as both fashion and fetish, which slipped easily into the rock 'n' roll culture that followed. Countless musicians like Elvis Presley, the Ramones, and queer icons-to-be George Michael and Judas Priest's Rob Halford all adopted the look.
"And gay men just went bananas," Sanders said. "Leather is sexually appealing and can feel very liberating. There's just something about the smell and look of leather and leather gear."
So when you spot the Utah Leather Pride folks marching along the Pride Parade route this Sunday, remember that it's not just a fashion and a fetish—it's a whole lot of queer history. As Sanders put it in his speech, "Ya'll motherfuckers need leather Jesus! Can I get an amen?"
This year's Pride Festival entertainment lineup tightens its focus on locals.
By Nick McGregor
This year's Utah Pride Festival entertainment lineup features an embarrassment of riches across its three stages. What's surprising, however, is that new entertainment director Hillary McDaniel booked two full days and nights of creative, representative fun while spending just half of last year's budget. The secret? A deliberate focus on local performers.
"Bringing in national acts is very expensive," McDaniel says. "We wanted to spend a lot less on entertainment this year—not because we're hurting or don't have the budget, but because every dollar that we don't spend on entertainment is money that can be used at the Utah Pride Center for lifesaving programs and youth services. It was very intentional to have more local representation this year."
McDaniel says all of that local talent is comprised either of fierce allies or members of the LGBTQ community. "I want people who have never heard of these bands to know they're living and working here in Salt Lake City," McDaniel says. "Take SUNNEI, for example: if you listen to their music, you may not realize they're gender fluid, or that you can see them regularly at venues like Urban Lounge. After the festival is over, I want fans of their music to continue to support them as they build their career."
A wide variety of genres are represented across the Utah Pride Festival's trio of stages (the Main Stage, Red Rock Stage, and DJ/Spoken Word Stage): electronica, samba, dance-pop, indie rock, folk, rap, glam-metal, even blues. Long-running all-female band Sister Wives might turn heads, McDaniel laughs: "Usually when you think of lesbians, you don't think of blues music, right?"
Local favorites Talia Keys and The Love also do a good job dispelling expectations, McDaniel says. Keys packs a lot of Michael Franti-esque soul and R&B grooves into her infectious tunes, and though "it's not dance music," McDaniel clarifies, "Talia will absolutely make you dance. Lyrically, her music is extremely political, too, talking about control and power—and taking that power back. It's really good for people to hear that message coming from someone in the community who's been marginalized."
Hearing authentic voices talk about authentic experiences is part of what makes the lineup so powerful. This year's theme is "Get Salty," emphasizing the fact that while some battles have been won by the LGBTQ community, many more are still left to fight. "Yes, we've legalized gay marriage, but we still have transgender people dying everyday," McDaniel says. "There's still a very big lack of representation in the media for transgender and non-binary artists—even more so with people of color."
Shireen Ghorbani, an Iranian-American woman from North Dakota who works at the University of Utah, spins under the name DJ Legs and will close out the weekend on the DJ/Spoken Word Stage. You might have seen her name around town—she's running for Congress in Utah's 2nd District. "Shireen offered to donate her time," McDaniel says, "which is great because she can show people that there's another side of her. A lot of our performers are complex individuals who have complicated and intersectional identities. Letting them speak for themselves is a powerful way to make change."
Two more acts that McDaniel pinpoints as important to that cause are local band Fists in the Wind, who recently released a single about the 53 percent of white women who voted for Donald Trump, and California's Shea Freedom (pictured above), a transgender man who grew up in the foster care system. "Shea spent 18 years of his life moving from home to home while struggling with gender dysphoria, and that message stands out in his music," McDaniel says. "Seeing somebody on stage like that—someone you identify with and whose music you can dance to, but who is also such a strong ally of the queer community—can be very inspirational and make you want to do more as an activist. That kind of representation can really change the way our community is treated and shift the way we have conversations about LGBTQ issues."
That hard work is highlighted thanks to appearances by Salt Lake Men's Choir, Salt Lake Acting Co., Music and Art Collective, Cheer Salt Lake, The Performer Studio, Wasatch Wordsmiths, and When She Speaks I Hear Revolution, all of which will offer locals the chance to get involved after the festival ends. The Miss City Weekly Pageant winners and Utah Vaudeville and Burlesque Collective also add a glamorous touch to the weekend, while a plethora of other intriguing acts pack the Saturday-Sunday lineup. There's even a Youth Pride Dance led by RuPaul's Drag Race alum Kimora Blac on Friday.
"Queer people have historically worked behind the scenes in the entertainment industry," McDaniel says, "but having all these queer voices spotlighted on center stage is important. Even though the budget was halved this year, I took that as a good challenge to make sure every dime we spend was done so intentionally and that every creative act chosen to perform could have an impact."
Taking a breath, McDaniel, who's spent several years doing just that kind of work with Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls Salt Lake City and the Women's Redrock Music Festival in Torrey, admits, "I'm pretty proud of what we were able to accomplish."
SLC notable figures discuss what 'Pride' means to them.
Much like art—depending on each individual's journey—the essence of the word "Pride" is in the eye of the beholder. Curious about their own denotation, City Weekly reached out to some local notables and asked them for their own personal definition of Pride.
"For me, especially during trying political times, Pride is a time to remember and find strength in our differences and diversity, so we can not only resist, but rise."
—Jackie Biskupski, Salt Lake City Mayor
"It means the freedom to live my life openly and honestly."
—Jim Dabakis, State Senator, District 2
"It's having the strength and confidence to be yourself and to live the kind of life you want to live."
—Misty Snow, trans-rights crusader, former Senate candidate
"Pride, to me, is about being able to express your true colors and be who you want to be with no judgment from anyone. Pride is like a pride of lions; a group together like a family. That's what the LGBTQ+ community is at the end of the day—a family that is together through everything."
—Kay Byee, Drag Entertainer
"Pride is fearlessness—combating the status quo is a source of true valor. When it comes down to you versus the darkness, you know who must win."
—Jared Gold, Fashion Designer
"Pride is accepting oneself, working hard to achieve an instilled sense of confidence about who you are, who you have been and who you'd like to become. Pride is acceptance of others, acknowledging and celebrating the different forms self-acceptance can manifest in people—both like and unlike yourself. Pride is acceptance of history, never losing context of the LGBT journey to where we are today and remembering the shoulders of giants we stand on."
—Shaun Carley, DJ, Cultural Advocate