Guest Post: Reflecting on a Queer Mormon Pioneer 30 Years Later
Growing up just outside of Logan on through my studies at Utah State University, I regularly crossed paths with May Swenson’s ghost: the poem “Two Part Pear-Able” hanging over the drinking fountain at my father’s office, installing a poem overlooking Bear Lake, and preparing labels for artifacts in the Swenson Room for USU’s English Department. She was a poet to be renowned for her talent and her Mormon Utah roots, but not for her sexuality.
As we mark the thirtieth anniversary of her passing, her impact is still felt in our communities, and her influence extends from her hometown of Logan to a national literary community and beyond.
Born May 28, 1913, the poet grew up in Logan literally in the shadow of the Utah Agricultural College where she would go on to study English and Art. Her Swedish immigrant parents, Margaret and Dan, made their home at the base of what became USU’s iconic Old Main Hill.
Several shrines to Swenson have been erected around USU’s campus over the years. Her typewriter, desk, dice, and other toys stand on display in the Swenson Room. The bench at her grave, a short walk from the Aggie Ice Cream shop, is etched with her poem “The Exchange,” exhilaratingly describing the ground, the grass, and the birds breathing life from her now lifeless body.
While her alma mater and hometown have embraced and memorialized her in the years following her death, the poet had a more fraught relationship with her communities. Though she would write about these landscapes for the rest of her life, she crossed the country and exiled herself to Greenwich Village in New York City.
There, the poet pursued her writing career while working as an interviewer for the Works Projects Administration and as a secretary. She went on to accumulate publications, fellowships, and awards. She rubbed shoulders with contemporaries like James Baldwin and Henry Miller. She developed deep literary friendships with some of the greatest poets of her generation, including Elizabeth Bishop. Alicia Ostriker declared “Whitman is a door and Swenson walks through it.” Swenson embraced nature and the ecstasy of inhabiting a body in this world even more boldly than Walt Whitman a century earlier.
That is perhaps why her poetry seems to be instilled with an unspoken danger.
Like many, I turned to literature to consider my unspeakable and unshareable experiences. In Swenson’s “The Centaur” I found a joy in transgressing gender, in being alone and different as a child as Swenson recounts the experience of cutting a switch from a tree with her father’s pocket knife, riding it around as she and her imagined male horse gradually unite: “I was the horse and the rider, / and the leather I slapped to his rump / spanked my own behind.”
In work by historians Connell O’Donovan and Sara Jordan I found an LGBTQ+ Mormon community claiming Swenson as part of an obscured history for her evolved spirituality and frank sensuality. She belongs to a pantheon of LGBTQ+ Mormon Pioneers including Leonard Matlovich, an Air Force Sergeant and Vietnam veteran who came out in 1975 to challenge the ban on gays and lesbians in the armed forces, and attorney Kate Kendall, longtime Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
In Swenson we have the assurance that LGBTQ+ Mormons have always been here and our challenges are nothing new. Decades before any of us, Swenson reconciled her spirituality and sexuality, awkwardly introduced partners to her family, and developed the language to express joy in being alive and a little bit different.
Corey Clawson (http://coreyclawson.com/) is a writer, scholar, and administrator working at Rutgers University-Newark. His work digitally maps networks of 19th and 20th century queer writers and artists.