Prior to the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion one of the duties of the nation’s police was to keep the city streets safe from sexual deviants. Not only the streets but in private spaces such as in hotel rooms and parked cars. The police were allowed to look through keyholes and over transoms in hotel rooms in which two men were suspected of lewd behavior. They were allowed to sneak up on parked cars to catch men in a sexual liaison. They thought it was their responsibility to curb prostitution and homosexuality, which were treated as the same vice. Both were seen as corruption of youth.
In Utah there were not any sodomy laws prior to 1876. Men caught in the act of anal intercourse could not be prosecuted. Utah legislators only criminalized sodomy because the federally appointed governor asked them to adopt California’s criminal code, in which sodomy was punishable with a five-year imprisonment. For the next 30 years, however, Utah judges gave sentences of only three to six months for those convicted of homosexual activity. The punishment for sodomy in Utah was changed in 1907 to imprisonment in the Sugar House Penitentiary for three to 20 years.
In 1851, the “State of Deseret” had enacted a criminal code for the territory that made sodomy illegal between “any man or boy,” and set the penalty at the discretion of the Bishop courts. However, the following year, Utah’s legislature removed sodomy from its criminal code without explanation, and Governor Brigham Young had claimed that legislators had never criminalized sodomy. The lack of a sodomy law became an issue when a Ft. Douglas soldier was accused of raping a Mormon youth in 1864. Ironically the man could not be convicted because of the lack of any sodomy law. Although not convicted, he was later killed by “mercenary” Mormons while returning to the fort.
Punishment in Utah of homosexual activity often depended on whether you were a member of the dominate religion or a gentile. Non-Mormons were sentenced to prison in a greater number even for consensual anal intercourse while Mormons “guilty” of homosexuality often were dealt with in Mormon Bishop courts. In 1886, Thomas Taylor was removed from office as Bishop in Salt Lake City due only to his sexual relations with males. In 1887 this teenage son of an anti-polygamy crusader was committed to an insane asylum for his homoerotic sexual activities.
When Mormons did get arrested for sex they were frequently tried by juries of other Mormons. Such a jury in 1891 acquitted two Mormon men of sodomy, despite the testimony of numerous eyewitnesses. Later, in 1893, the town of Honeyville was “rocked” by a homosexual scandal which pitted local LDS leaders against each other. This extraordinary case did not involve the police but was settled in a Church court. A few years later a house of prostitution was raided in the mining town of Eureka, Utah where the gentile owner and three male prostitutes were arrested.
In 1901, 16-year-old Joseph Flaherty was committed to an insane asylum for engaging in sodomy. However, the next year 14-year-old Clyde Felt, the son of a prominent Mormon family, murdered Samuel Collins with whom he had been having an ongoing sexual relationship for gifts. Felt was not only cleared of Collins’ murder, but he was allowed to go a Mormon mission.
The Utah Supreme Court ruled in 1913 that fellatio did not violate the state’s “crime against nature” law. Ten years later Utah legislators amended the statute to outlaw oral sex, even among heterosexuals. This law criminalized most sex acts regardless of sexual orientation or genders.
In 1925, Utah passed a castration law for certain criminal or immoral offenses. However, in 1929, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that an African American prisoner, caught in the act of consensual sodomy with another prisoner could not be castrated for that reason alone.
During the 1930s and ’40s, Utah was more preoccupied with the Great Depression and World War II than with homosexual conduct within the state. In fact, a homeless person arrested for sodomy was released by a Utah Court in 1933 because the state had little money to incarcerate and it was not worth the expense as he was just passing through the state.
In 1949, the Utah Supreme Court finally upheld a sodomy conviction; but three of the justices instead urged “treatment” by citing sexologist Alfred C. Kinsey. This was the first sodomy opinion in the United States to refer to the Kinsey study. As legal opinion began to shift, homosexuality changed from being criminal to a mental illness. In 1953, consensual sodomy in Utah was reduced from a felony to a class-B misdemeanor, while forcible sodomy remained a felony. It would take 50 years for the United States Supreme Court to rule that all state sodomy laws are unconstitutional.
The paranoia of the 1950’s Cold War influenced the belief that homosexuals were subversives and un-American. It was a horrible time to be a homosexual, male or female. When a 1955 news headline “Three Boise Men Admit Sex Charges” began a public disclosure of sexual relationships between men and boys in Idaho, it led to a massive witch hunt in the homosexual communities of the Intermountain West.
SLC Chief of Police, Cleon Skousen, lead the morality crusade against the city’s homosexual population in 1956, preying on the fears of parents. He ordered police to charge homosexuals under state law, rather than city ordinances, so that courts could commit offenders to the Utah state mental hospital for life. Judge Marcellus K. Snow added to the misery by stating that “more use of the jail sentence” would curtail homosexuality. Snow claimed that certain places in the city were widely known as “mecca’s for sexually maladjusted persons.”
The police, under Skousen’s orders, increased arrests of homosexuals. Skousen ordered the vice department to institute a policy of using “handsome” decoys to entrap men for “solicitation.” He also ordered the surveillance of homosexual meeting places such as taverns and city parks. Movie houses were also raided, where patrons and owners were arrested. In 1964, the film, “The Fourth Sex,” was shut down after Salt Lake City police decreed it “objectionable for this community.” Homosexuality was a prominent theme in the picture according to the police. A couple of years later, the newly appointed Police Chief, Dewey J. Fillis, ordered those arrested in sex offenses to be held in jail to undergo a health check for venereal diseases.
In Oct. 1969, young people named Ralph Place, Pam Mayne, Mary Heath and George Kelly formed Utah’s Gay Liberation and Anti-war Fronts in a hippy commune in Salt Lake City’s Lower Avenues. Due to the sparks that Stonewall ignited, Utah’s gay community was prepared to fight and organize. Within five years Utah had over 20 businesses, organizations and churches for homosexuals, where many years before there had been none. Today there are hundreds for the gay and trans* communities in Utah alone.