Utah’s first Gay and Lesbian Pride March, in 1990, drew maybe 250 people. It went more or less unopposed. The biggest issue it ran into was that the route took marchers past a bunch of parked horse carriages, the sort tourists ride around the downtown.
“We were marching by, chanting and screaming,” says Connell “Rocky” O’Donovan, the march’s founder and a man introduced to me as “the local gay historian.” The horses, naturally, were startled -- presumably at the sight of a vocal gay march in Salt Lake City, or perhaps at the ruckus itself. “That actually got really dangerous,” O’Donovan continues. “I felt really bad for the horses. And the drivers and the police had approved the route, but then they said, ‘Oh, shoot, this wasn’t a good idea, was it.’”
But aside from the horse encounters, it was, in fact, a pretty good idea. At the second march, in 1991, turnout roughly doubled. O’Donovan led marchers on a new route from the state capitol down to the city council building, where the Utah Pride Festival is held today.
And this time, they arrived to find a handful of neo-Nazis waiting.
“They’d taken over the premises, and they had not gotten permits to be there,” O’Donovan says. “I was so angry that I had gone through all these hoops to get a permit and they just showed up. We went to the cops, and the cops were like, ‘They were here first.’ And I was like, ‘But they don’t have a permit to be here!’”
O’Donovan, bullhorn in hand, outwardly maintained his composure as he blared the message to his marchers that Nazis, too, had the right to free speech and freedom of assembly. Inwardly? “I’m freaking out,” he says, “thinking if any of them have a gun they’re gonna shoot me.”