Before COVID-19, a swarm full of people walked down the streets of Salt Lake City on their way to an annual fall general conference for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when they spot a fellow church member holding a sign that reads, “Hug a gay Mormon.”
The member was none other than Salt Lake Community College’s Gender & Sexuality Student Resource Center coordinator, Peter Moosman.
Moosman uses his position to help create a safe space for women and LGBTQ+ students. But without the help of Equality Utah, an LGBTQ+ civil rights organization that works to make legislative changes in state and local government, centers like the GSSRC would not exist.
Moosman is one of many in Utah’s LGBTQ+ community who are working towards a more inclusive environment for those who have and are coming out, including individuals at SLCC.
After growing up in the church, Moosman believed that his attractions were sinful. He struggled with feeling less than in the community, leading him to feel broken.
“I spent my life trying to pray the gay away, so I can be okay,” Moosman said.
It wasn’t until 2015 where he felt it was time to begin the coming out process with his loved ones and eventually on social media.
“That’s one thing about coming out, it’s not a one-time experience,” he said. “Every day we’re coming out in different capacities.”
That same year on Oct. 11, Moosman announced he was gay through a blog post on National Coming Out Day.
“Early on in the year, I had this very spiritual experience where I realized I wasn’t broken or faulty, and I was exactly who I was supposed to be,” he said over his decision to come out.
From then on, Moosman made it a goal throughout the first couple of years of his coming out to try to create bridges between the church community and the LGBTQ+ community.
With this idea, he created the quote, “Hug a gay Mormon.”
“I wanted to try to make space for people that are living in that gray area in between those two identities and experiences,” Moosman said.
The coming out experience is not the same for everyone.
“Coming out to myself was technically my first coming out process,” said SLCC student Lauren Hamilton-Soule. “It was really difficult to come to terms with my own sexuality.”
Carling Mars, a former student leader at the GSSRC, came out in the early 2000s in Murray, a relatively gay-friendly area.
“I came out when I was 15 and it was not a big deal at school,” they said.
Preston Hilburn, programs director at Equality Utah, noted that reactions may vary throughout Utah and where one attends school, such as Salt Lake City where it is pretty progressive.
“I came out when I was pretty young,” Hilburn said, noting he thinks he was about 15 years old. “It was hard for me to say I’m gay, even though I knew my parents would be cool with it.”
It didn’t make telling them any easier, though, despite having a good support group of family and friends.
“It was so emotional for me that my mom eventually offered to help me because I was crying so much,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Yes, I’m gay,’ and she was like, ‘Oh, honey, we’ve known since you were three. We were just waiting for you to know.’”
For many LGBTQ+ youths today, other places are not as welcoming.
“Even today, we get parents complaining about not letting transgender people put their chosen name in the yearbook or giving people flak when they’re trying to use the restroom that matches their gender identity,” Hilburn said.
Looking back, Hilburn wishes there were more resources available when he was younger for LGBTQ+ youth, which is why he strives to make a change today.
One such change is the anti-discrimination bill that passed in 2015. Pushed by Equality Utah and others, the legislation bans discrimination against LGBTQ+ folks in employment and housing.
“Utah didn’t have statewide protections for LGBTQ+ people,” he said. “They could legally be fired or evicted just for being who they were.”
As a program director, Hilburn was one of many who advocated passing the bill for seven years as well as other laws for the LGBTQ+ community.
“Since then, we’ve passed an enumerated hate crimes law, we repealed our anti-gay curriculum laws, we banned conversion therapy and we fought back pieces of anti-transgender legislation, including this year,” Hilburn said.
With Equality Utah’s impact, the GSSRC formed at SLCC, and coordinators like Moosman are working towards a more inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ students and women.
“I get to work with the college on creating positive change for our students,” Moosman said.
Students like Hamilton-Soule, who is also a work-study at the GSSRC, feel the positive impacts being made.
“It’s really nice to be surrounded by people who have a similar vision as me,” they said. “In a lot of other workspaces, I’m usually the only queer person and I’m always the one trying to correct people on pronouns and things like that, so it’s so helpful for my mental health to be in an environment where I don’t run into those problems at every turn.”
Mars, who worked with GSSRC last fall, said the center offers a safe and comfortable space.
“Everyone is really supportive and awesome,” they said. “It’s a great option for students who want to have a queer community on campus or online programming virtually.”
Hamilton-Soule, who is attending their first semester at SLCC, agrees.
“Being in the GSSRC has helped me familiarize myself more with the programs here and has helped me get more involved in the community, which is something that’s really important to me,” they said.
For more information on the GSSRC, follow the center on Instagram.