Mark Bryner, on his 80th birthday, surrounded by members of the
SLC East High Gay-Straight Alliance
Mark Bryner, "GSA Grandpa" Dies
by Sara Jordan
On Sunday, June 16, 2002, friends and family members gathered to remember the life of
Mark Bryner, advocate for the gay and lesbian community. Mark was born on May 11, 1920.
He married his wife of 60 years in the Salt Lake Temple in 1943 and remained active in
the church until his death on May 22.
Mark and Grace had three children, including a gay son, Michael, who died in 1998 from
complications related to AIDS. Michael was, in his life, a healer and one of the first
to incorporate mind/body/spirit work in his practice. He was a teacher to many in the
social work community.
Father and son never saw eye to eye about Michael's work, and it was not until his funeral
that Mark really understood who his son was and how many lives he'd touched. Natalie Clausen,
a family friend, remembers how after Michael's funeral, Michael's friends met in a circle
to honor him. They invited Mark to join. Upon realizing how much of Michael's life he had
missed out on, Mark committed himself to "walk in my sons footsteps." He became passionate
about social justice issues for gay and lesbian people.
The spring that Michael died, students at East High were becoming vocal about their desire
to be formally recognized as a gay/straight alliance (GSA). Their actions set off a firestorm of debate over the rights of gay and
lesbian people in Utah's public schools.
Mark, heartbroken over the loss of his son, somehow made his way to East High. There he
wasted no time assessing the needs of the students and set about providing resources
(money, information, furniture, transportation, a place to live) to the GSA and the
individual students in it.
Mark faithfully attended the students' weekly meetings, always bringing milk and donuts,
and became their advocate and friend. Sometimes this meant waking a student up in the
morning to get him/her to school or attending parent/teacher conference. He soon became
known as the "GSA Grandpa." Camille Lee, then advisor to the GSA, recalling one student
in particular, comments that without Mark, "there is no way she would have made it out of
In addition to getting involved at East High, Mark became active in
GLSEN, and the Utah Coalition for Safe Schools.
He told Camille, "I don't have very many years left in my life, and this is how I
want to spend them." He worked tenaciously, not only to care for "the one" but also
to affect institutional change.
Doug Wortham, former Chair of GLSEN, worked with Mark to organize GLSEN Day at the
legislature. He noted that Mark seemed unafraid to take on any authority or hierarchy.
He heard Mark say many times, "I am a citizen and I know how these people think." This
conviction was manifest in his constant willingness to take on whatever problem arose.
At the time of his death, Mark was working with LDS seminary and church officials on the
appropriateness of information being transmitted to students about the gay and lesbian
Mark has been described as a gentle bulldog. He refused to take no for an answer--for
example, when requesting a meeting with officials (legislators, school board and district
members, etc.). He talked with everyone he could about equality for gay and lesbian people
and was particularly concerned about their emotional and physical safety in public settings.
Mark was unrelenting in his presence and went wherever this work took him, including the
courtroom. He attended hearings concerning the legality of Salt Lake School District's
decision to ban all clubs and worked closely with the family of a lesbian student who
was assaulted by a male student, to ensure that justice and accountability were achieved.
The morning of his death, Mark met with the Principal of East High to discuss Title IX,
the federal law that prohibits discrimination in education. Mark wanted to be sure that
gay and lesbian students received the protection they were entitled to.
At the Fathers Day memorial gathering for Mark, John Apel, Michael's partner of 91/2 years,
said, "I am gay, and I have never done the kind of work that Mark has done." Sadly, Mark's
obituary mentioned nothing of his important work for gay and lesbian people. His legacy as
a tireless supporter, community organizer, and activist lives on in the memories of all
those whose lives he touched.