top of page

Meet Bonnie O'Brien, Festival Director

In 2009, when Bonnie O’Brien moved from Wisconsin to Utah as a newly-minted junior high school teacher, fellow LGBTQ+ educators warned her to keep quiet about her sexuality or risk losing her job. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, that year, three queer students in the school died by suicide. 


At their funerals, Bonnie watched the erasure of the children she knew by families who refused to accept the truth, and Bonnie knew she had to act. Even if it cost her her job, she wouldn’t let another student feel like they had nowhere to turn. She needed a way to reach the kids left behind, the ones who were angry about the funerals, the ones being bullied at home or at school, and the ones who hadn’t told a single soul the truth about themselves for fear of what might happen. Of course, all of it would be naught if her efforts got her fired, because the kids needed both safe spaces and safe adults, and she was determined to provide both.


Bonnie began the tightrope walk of finding subtle ways to tell kids they were okay while also keeping her job. She sought resources and places to turn for help if another child looked like they might choose death over facing another day in their own skin, which is how Bonnie found herself at the Utah Pride Center (UPC). 


Led at the time by Valerie Larabee, UPC’s mission to fund safe spaces for at-risk youth found a believer in Bonnie. Wanting to be part of the solution, Bonnie volunteered for the fundraising arm of the Utah Pride Center –  the festival. With her dedication and commitment, she soon migrated from a volunteer on the Green Team in 2009 to the Director of the Parade, Transgender March and Dyke March in 2012.


I met Bonnie in 2012, and one thing I learned immediately is what an excellent listener she is. She knows how to make people feel understood and valued, and through the years, I watched one person after another express their concerns to Bonnie about UPC, the rising costs to attend the festival, the rising costs for community groups to get a booth at the festival, the lack of representation for the most marginalized people and more. Anger and frustration rippled across all sectors of the community.


Of course, no organization is perfect, and the Utah Pride Center is no exception. By 2018, Larabee was no longer leading the center, and the staff began questioning financial decisions being made by the new leadership. Unfortunately, that leadership chose a scorched-earth approach to address the complaints and fired all director-level leaders of the festival in 2019.


Bonnie suddenly found herself with extra time on her hands, but by then she knew how to navigate the tricky waters of holding space for queer youth without getting herself fired. She’d made friends with LGBTQ+-affirming therapists and organizations that sought to provide resources for at-risk youth, so she had what she needed to protect the students under her care. Also, she began dating her soon-to-be wife, Kate Rusk. Bonnie was beginning a new era of her life with a partner who loved and cherished her, and things were different, but good.


For the next few years, Bonnie and Kate settled into their life together. Bonnie stepped up to the challenge of helping Kate parent three beautiful children, and the two of them looked like they were ready to ride off into the happy gay sunset together. Then in 2023, they realized Kate’s son, Chase, was queer, and Bonnie and Kate re-evaluated their future. Did Chase have the community he needed? In the unforgiving political landscape of Utah, were there enough places for him to feel celebrated and loved besides their home? When they realized the answer was no, they knew it was time to start something new.


With a leap of faith, Bonnie quit her teaching job and SLC Pride was born. When asked about her goals as festival director, she gave me a quintessential Bonnie answer. “Knowing when I mess up, acknowledging it and being transparent. I want to be a student of my community and be super humble. The community will teach me what they need.”


So Bonnie has been listening and as a result, she has a laundry list of goals for SLC Pride:

  • uplift and celebrate the most marginalized people in our community,

  • full financial transparency,

  • ethnically-diverse food options,

  • accessibility on a level no one’s seen before at a festival in Salt Lake,

  • welcoming spaces for sober people,

  • an area created by youth for youth,

  • affordability,

  • and more . . . 


To reach her goals, she made sure no one will be turned away because of their inability to pay, and that includes waiving booth fees for community groups that couldn’t afford them, rock-bottom ticket prices for adults and free entry for youth. “It’s the high school teacher in me,” she says. “Youth need to be able to show up and see themselves at 35, know they will exist and be okay. There’s a way out. They can talk to someone and learn that the next few years might be hard, but they can make it.”


It’s hard not to admire Bonnie, a woman of grit and tenacity, a leader who rallied the troops to make this happen. Because of her hard work, the community is responding in all of the best ways. “We’re hitting a nerve,” she says, “but it’s nice to be able to give access to our most marginalized members who don’t have money, don’t see themselves as leaders or don’t see themselves on stage.” She smiles when she says this, perhaps because she knows it’s just the beginning of a better future.


As a community, we’re lucky to have organizers like Bonnie. She and Kate have sacrificed their own financial security to make this dream a reality, and we can help by making sure the festival is a success. If you have it and you’re able, please donate, volunteer and/or attend the festival. Every time you help, it’s the equivalent of a thank-you, and I can’t think of a single person more worthy of our gratitude than Bonnie O’Brien, Festival Director Extraordinaire.


[caption: Bonnie with a bag, hat and bottle ready to go somewhere with a t-shirt that says, "Decolonize your Syllabus"]

[caption: Bonnie O'Brien and Kate Rusk wearing baseball caps and looking ridiculously happy in the desert with a tent in the background]


 

Tami Mandarino (she/her) - Pansexual, drug felon with a 5+ year incarceration history. Lifelong struggle with ADHD and major depressive disorder. Survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault. Badass witch. As I like to say about myself, I’ve seen some things, and those things make me strong, powerful and beautiful. Now that I live in the ‘burbs and could be mistaken for a soccer mom, I speak publicly about my past so we can break the stigmas that hurt our communities. When I’m not writing software at my day job or volunQueering for SLC Pride at night, I write contemporary YA novels under the pen name Tami Morning about issues facing youth today like poverty, climate anxiety and the necessity of choosing your family. If you catch a mistake in any of my articles or know a better/more sensitive way to say something, please shoot me an email at tymandarino@gmail.com, and thank you for helping me grow.

90 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page