Try to picture it: a transgender unicyclist, covered from face to foot with Māori-style tattoos and piercings, riding down Main Street in a sequined pink tutu and lots of silver and gold bling. Not so long ago, such a novel scene would have definitely been noticed with disdain. Today, I’m not so sure it would even be a reason for a double take.
Utahns are learning that the world is a sharing arrangement and that nobody can afford to take a hard stand over the meaningless distinctions between the great “washed” and “unwashed.”
Slowly evolving from the one-religion theocracy of Brigham Young’s dreams, Utah has evolved into a melting pot of people and cultures. Along with that, there’s been a maturation process in the attitudes of the populace and more acceptance of a healthy diversity.
When I was a kid, my mother regarded the ear-piercings of Hispanic toddlers to be some kind of a sin. After all, defiling the body with artwork was generally frowned-upon by most Christian churches. I was told that tattoos were a desecration of the body, and that if God had intended for us to wear them, we would have departed the womb with a full-body mural.
Now we’re discovering that tattooing and decorative piercings are deeply rooted in multiple cultures of our world; they’re merely echoes of other countries and regions in which such embellishments were, and are, a sign of status and ancient tradition.
The same goes for the two men, walking down a sidewalk holding hands. While some may still see it as an affront to their views of a correct society, those scenes are no longer a rarity. We’re starting to understand that no two people are the same, and that we must both acknowledge and respect everyone.
Ever since Brigham Young’s days of ‘47, Utahns have been criticized for not being a more diversity-welcoming people. During those years, cross-dressers, LGBTQ, Hispanics, Native Americans and, yes, Democrats were treated differently. And, why not? Back when there were so few exceptions to the homogenous makeup of the state, the few “odd balls" were forced to look for ways to pierce the inner circle and find acceptance in an unusually cohesive collection of vanilla people.
In a sense, Utah has been a super-clique of the like-minded, largely excluding the value of anyone who wasn’t interested in Mormonism. The church’s missionary efforts really said it all—if someone was “honest in heart,” they would surely embrace the LDS faith.
That attitude, if not actually doctrine, sums up the historical value of a “gentile”—absolutely zero if they won’t listen and convert. Simply stated, the “honest in heart” definition voiced by multiple Mormon leaders, was a condemnation of anyone who wouldn’t join.
Such arrogance! To say, in essence, that a person isn’t really “honest” if they won’t join the “only true church.”
That philosophy has been a culprit in keeping Utahns from an attitude of acceptance and has stood in the way of progress. Today they’re all faced with the realities of a very diverse world.
I, myself, was a transplant from the East, and arrival in Utah was a shock. Everyone was LDS—except for the others who weren’t.
It was strange to be in a place so thoroughly dominated by a single religion. And yet, I didn’t fret about it. My focus was on the magnificent mountains and Utah’s fabulous backcountry. Though I was determined to climb every peak, and ski as often as my skimpy odd-job earnings would allow, it was always a challenge to come up with the $5 for an all-day pass at Alta. (Yup, you read it right … and a half-day pass was $3.50.)
I’ve never gotten over my love for our easily accessible wilderness areas, a handful of charming alpine lakes, trails that seem to go on forever, and the stunning infrequency of fences. In most parts of our country, hikers are forced to deal with myriad rights-of-way. We’re really lucky—hiking and climbing all day without a fence standing in our way.
As for the unhealthy concentration of the like-minded religious, that has been changing, slowly, because of a marked dilution of Utah’s LDS population. More and more areas are creeping toward being only 50% to 60% LDS, so Utahns have been scrambling to put away yesterday’s prejudices and see a more inclusive and embracing state.
While there’s no question about the church’s continuing influence on politics and public policy, the large metropolitan areas have become far more cosmopolitan—to the point that necessity has mandated a more balanced way of looking at outsiders. After being in the near-100% group for so long, a closer to 50/50 split isn’t any place for smug exclusivity.
As Utah’s population continues to be diluted by other transplants, Utahns will continue in their education, finding that there are other people in their world and that it’s not about the good guys and the bad guys.
When diversity is not only accepted, but appreciated, Utah will be a healthier state. The inevitable changes in Utah’s demographics are going to force a different mindset on those who believed that the state was to be an exclusive sanctuary for the Mormons.
In a few years, no one will even look twice at the unicyclist in the sequined pink tutu. Though slow in coming, Utah is becoming a more-inclusive state for all, making it a more desirable place for outsiders to establish new roots and pursue the still-alive American Dream.
The author is a retired businessman, novelist, columnist and former Vietnam-era Army assistant public information officer. He resides in Riverton with his wife, Carol, and the beloved ashes of their mongrel dog. email@example.com