If you had to guess in what city you’d find “Utah’s queerest barbershop,” what would your answer be?
If you said Salt Lake City, a colorful LGBTQ+ oasis in a conservative state, you would have been right — up until late August.
Now you’ve got to head 111 miles down the road to Carbon County and the quaint town of Helper, population 2,558. It’s often a pitstop for gas on the way to Moab. And rural Utah doesn’t necessarily seem like the place that would be home to the state’s self-titled “queerest barbershop.”
It’s right there though on Main Street: Friar Tuck’s Barbershop. Eclectic art covers the walls and a pride flag hangs outside the front window.
Owner Kylee Howell is familiar with Carbon County. It’s where she was raised until she moved to West Valley City at the age of 12. She remembers the exact moment when Carbon County called her back home. She was on a drive with her wife, Jen, and parked the car on top of a mountain that overlooked the Book Cliffs above Helper.
“It was in January so there was like this dusting of snow on the cliffs. And just I honestly felt at peace,” she said. “And that was when I had made the decision like, ‘Wow, we really need to look into moving back here.’”
Howell didn’t always feel at peace growing up in Carbon County.
From a very young age, she knew she wasn’t straight and didn’t think being queer in rural Utah was an option for her. So she made a point to never become attached to where her roots were first planted.
“I think maybe my tiny little undeveloped brain was in survival mode of like, ‘Don't love this place because you're not going to be able to be here.’”
That mindset changed on top of that mountain. It felt like home, and it soon became home. After living in Salt Lake County for decades and running a successful barbershop, Kylee and Jen packed up their lives and moved to Helper about two years ago.
Howell didn’t expect there to be such a visible LGBTQ+ community in Carbon County. While she always knew queer people lived in the county, she “wasn’t aware there were so many of us.”
One of those community members is the mayor. Lenise Peterman is the first woman and the first LGBTQ+ person to lead Helper. She overwhelmingly beat the incumbent mayor in 2017 and is currently serving her second term.
Peterman isn’t from Utah but moved to the state in 2004. She migrated to Helper in 2015 to support her wife, Kate Kilpatrick, an artist with a gallery on Main Street. It was Kilpatrick who suggested they relocate to Helper from Salt Lake City in 2012. When Peterman heard the proposal, her first thought was “Where? What?”
But after seeing the city, Peterman “saw the bones of a community,” which at the time was mostly vacant. The potential she witnessed — with art leading the way — inspired her to invest in the city. Peterman chaired the Helper Revitalization Committee for two years before running for mayor and secured a large grant to help revive what is now a robust Main Street.
Various art galleries, restaurants and antique shops line downtown. Recently, the small town opened its first brewery. And people are often seen strolling through town, whether that be on Main Street or along the Price River that runs right through Helper.
Beyond a reinvigorated city, Peterman loves the community. When she was running for mayor, Peterman said no one ever treated her differently because of her sexual orientation. They cared about her ideas and what she could do to uplift a place written off as a ghost town.
“They don't see those things. They see who you are,” she said. “I just think it's the way Helper is.”
When Peterman and Kilpatrick got married at the local park in 2021, they invited the entire town. After they tied the knot under the park gazebo with a big audience, Peterman said they ended the wedding with a dance-off.
“As we exited, we all danced out. So it was fun.”
Howell has felt that community love. The response to the opening of Friar Tuck’s in downtown “has been great from everybody.” And she loves the rainbow of conversations she has with people in her barbershop chair. In some cases, Howell said she’s been surprised by the amount of open-mindedness.
In Salt Lake City, Howell said the title “Utah’s queerest barbershop” was “kind of born out of a need for it.” To her knowledge, she was the first barbershop in the state that catered to gender fluidity.
That demand, she said, isn’t as high in Carbon County, but it still exists. Even though most of the clientele is straight, it gives her the chance to have important conversations with community members. If they have questions about the queer community or why she is flying a pride flag, Howell wants to have those conversations.
Overall, Mayor Peterman describes the queer community in Helper as “really vibrant.”
“They are very free and confident in themselves, to be themselves,” she said. “We don't want you to hide, we want to see you. We want to make sure you have access to everything you need to be who you are. And I think that's really important.”
Is Utah unfriendly to LGBTQ+ populations? We’re breaking down Beehive State stereotypes in the latest season of State Street. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts to hear the answer when the new episode drops Sept. 26.