The Utah Pride Center rebounds while the new SLC Pride bookends a monthlong party. | News | Salt Lake City Weekly
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The Utah Pride Center rebounds while the new SLC Pride bookends a monthlong party.

Too Proud to Fail


Chad Call, Utah Pride Center’s recently appointed executive director - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Chad Call, Utah Pride Center’s recently appointed executive director

Editor's note: The following article was initially published as part of City Weekly's2024 Pride Issue, which is available online and in print.

When Chad Call started his new job as executive director of the Utah Pride Center in April, he said he worried that he'd be greeted with "pitchforks and torches."

The center was teetering, having narrowly dodged financial collapse by selling off its headquarters in the Ballpark neighborhood and after multiple rounds of leadership turnover, staff upheaval and budget cuts left it with little more than a skeleton crew.

"I kind of felt that was going to be the case—that a lot of people were maybe anxious to see the organization fail," Call said. "And within three days, I was completely wrong on that reception. Even our most outspoken critics out there, they're outspoken because they want to see the center succeed. They want to see us move forward, and they want to see a path forward."

Speaking from UPC's new offices on the top floor of the historic McIntyre Building at 68 S. Main, SLC, Call said the organization had been through difficult times and has a long road ahead. But he noted that members of the local LGBTQ community had "stepped up big time," offering their time, support and encouragement as UPC regained its footing and prepared for its marquee event—the Utah Pride Festival, which runs Saturday and Sunday, June 1 and 2, at Washington Square.

"I guess there's just this real humbling moment when you think about everything that the Pride Center has gone through and how our community is still unwilling to let this fail," Call said. "It's a big deal—they haven't walked away from it, they haven't moved on. Our community still wants Pride, they still need Pride, and we're still gonna have Pride."

In fact, far from losing the local Pride festival, Salt Lakers will have two festivals this year with the addition of SLC Pride at the end of the month, June 27-30 at The Gateway. Bonnie O'Brien, SLC Pride's festival director, described the event as a hyperlocal counterpart to the larger state festival—one where youth can attend for free, where community performers and organizations will be highlighted and where the ability of attendees to relax, spend time and make connections will be prioritized as much as, if not more than, the booths and commercial spaces offered by vendors and festival sponsors.

"With 3 million people, basically, along the Wasatch Front, we have the ability to really create a sense of a month-long celebration," O'Brien said.

Bonnie O’Brien is the festival director for SLC Pride, an end-of-the-month counterpart to Utah Pride. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Bonnie O’Brien is the festival director for SLC Pride, an end-of-the-month counterpart to Utah Pride.

O'Brien and several others involved with SLC Pride had previously worked for the Utah Pride Center and Utah Pride Festival, and she said they were interested in experimenting with new formats and styles for a city-focused Pride event. O'Brien was adamant that the two Pride festivals are intended to complement each other on opposite ends of the June calendar, and that SLC Pride was not born out of any bad feeling or hostility toward current or previous Utah Pride Center management.

"It's hard to be mad at a building when it's completely new people," O'Brien said.

Call echoed the sentiment of partnership, saying he has long hoped to see the entirety of Pride Month celebrated in Utah and that SLC Pride will add to, rather than detract from, UPC's programming.

"We support Pride everywhere, and we support as many Prides as possible," Call said. "Obviously, as an organization, we don't have the resources to put on a celebration all four weekends in June. But that's the great thing—our community partners do, and we support them anyway we can."

Unity in Community
UPC will kick off the Utah Pride Festival with an interfaith service at Congregation Kol Ami on May 30 at 7 p.m. The festival runs from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on June 1 and from noon to 7 p.m. on June 2. Saturday will also see a rally and march from the state Capitol to festival grounds, while the annual Utah Pride Parade will take place Sunday morning at 10 a.m.

Call said the cost of booth registrations has been cut back to 2022 levels—the first in-person Pride following the COVID-19 pandemic hiatus—which has helped to maintain participation levels by sponsors, vendors and community organizations as well as the festival's overall footprint.

"We're putting all of our resources where they have the most impact," Call said. "We'll still be taking up all of Washington Square and a little part of Library Square as well, as well as the street between."

UPC organizers chose a theme of "Building Unity Within the Community" for this year's festival, and Call said he appreciated how that messaging reflects the history of Pride as a major event in Utah as well as the many different ways that people approach Pride month.

"Pride is a space where people come out. Pride is a space where people propose. Pride is a place where allies can go show their support," Call said. "It's becoming more of a family event in Utah, where families are going to support their brothers or their sisters or their children or their parents."

O'Brien also noted how families are increasingly attending Pride together, including straight couples who want their children to know there is a community of support available to them, no matter their orientation. "That didn't used to happen, and now it really is," she said.

SLC Pride will feature a youth zone at its festival at the end of month, and the weekend will kick off on June 27 with GenderFuq, an all-ages event with performances, concessions and a queer market. The festival itself will run from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday, June 29, and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday, June 30.

O'Brien said most of the vendors and sponsors will be oriented toward Rio Grande Street, with the open area around The Gateway's Olympic Legacy Plaza hosting a performance stage as well as unstructured space donated to community organizations to program as they choose.

She said community partners have been asking for that kind of latitude, and participating organizations are being encouraged to think outside the box of a typical booth setup. That could be as simple as building a lounge area for attendees to hang out in or offering direct connections with resources and service providers.

"This really is a space, that circle area, where we're trying to create a sense of community beyond buying something. This is where we could go gangsters, or it could bust us," O'Brien said. "You curate your space and make it happen in a way that serves your people in a way that you know it needs to be served."

SLC Pride organizers set a goal for themselves of 14,000 tickets sold and 20,000 guests overall, O'Brien said. She emphasized that the festival is free to those age 17 and younger, which not only makes the event more accessible but also allows for youth to participate with or without the support of their family.

"One of the most heartbreaking things is sitting on the outside of the Pride festival and watching people not be able to get in—and they're always, always kids," O'Brien said. "How easy is it for a kid who knows about the festival and knows it's free to say, 'Hey parent, I'm just going to go to the movies.'" O'Brien said.

In addition to its programming at The Gateway, SLC Pride is partnering with Sugar House Pride to host additional events at queer-owned businesses in the city.

"Knowing that the bar is the original sort of community center for queer folks, it's nice to be able to tie those in as well," O'Brien said. "Club Verse is shutting down part of the street. Sugar House Coffee and the Locker Room are trying to build off of their back patio."

Among those extra events is a tongue-in-cheek 0.5K race on June 8, in which participants will gather at Sugar House Coffee and then travel across the street to The Locker Room. O'Brien said the 0.5K will feature many of the traditional elements of a 5K fun run, like a selfie station—with spray bottles to simulate the sweat of exercise—and T-shirts that play off of the winner finishing first while the runners-up are "sloppy seconds."

"Do you really want to run? Or do you really just want brunch?" O'Brien said. "If you really truly just want to pay to watch, you can get a shirt that says, 'I pay to watch.' We about peed ourselves coming up with how funny that is."

Bouncing Back
In the past, the Utah Pride Center relied heavily on the revenue generated by the Utah Pride Festival to sustain its year-round operations. Call said that left the organization financially vulnerable when anything from bad weather to a global pandemic could see attendance drop or evaporate entirely during any given year.

As the new executive director, he said UPC will be looking to build out a more sustainable structure as it rebuilds itself over the next several years.

"I think sustainability is on the forefront of our board's mind right now," Call noted. "It's challenging when your largest influx of cash in an organization like this comes from an event that's contingent upon weather, contingent upon participation, contingent on pandemics. There's a lot of factors that are completely out of our control and it's difficult to build a program that is so dependent on high performance in an environment that you can't control all of the factors."

But there's no denying the recent setbacks experienced by the Utah Pride Center, most notably the loss of its headquarters at 1380 S. Main St., just south of Smith's Ballpark. The building was donated to the Utah Pride Center, and Call said the cash infusion from its sale is what kept the center afloat, with roughly one-third of the building's equity used to retire debts.

"If the Pride Center hadn't had an incredibly large owned asset, they would have had to foreclose," Call said. "It's the reason why the center is still functioning right now, because we've had that capital to leverage."

Call described the loss of the building—and what it represented for UPC—as "devastating." But he added that members of the LGBTQ community have lifetimes of experience regrouping and rising to a challenge.

"It's an incredibly resilient group of individuals," he said. "Coming back from a setback, that's not something our community is unfamiliar with. We know how to navigate it—we navigate it every day, and I think it's inspiring to see so many people who want to see the center move forward."

On the topic of resilience, SLC Pride's O'Brien noted how far Utah's queer community has come in terms of its visibility, safety and inclusion. She said more and more people are able to create space for themselves, without fear and with a larger umbrella of support. But she added that those gains have not been universally felt, pointing to recent laws and rhetoric targeting transgender Utahns.

And while big fights over legislation and debates of the political moment might draw the most attention, O'Brien said that much of the life-saving work within the LGBTQ community is done by small, unsung organizations that don't get the recognition they deserve. It's those local heroes, O'Brien said, who SLC Pride is designed to champion and celebrate.

"They are raging, and they're celebrating, and they're healing their own communities, because there wasn't a space for them within these larger organizations," O'Brien said. "The goal, the hope, is that SLC Pride brings these people together, is able to highlight—on stage—the work that they're doing, the community leaders who are sacrificing paid time at their real jobs to make sure community members are getting moved out of a bedroom and into a safer space."