In July 2009, a gay couple was detained after one kissed the other on the cheek near the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Matt Aune and Derek Jones were heading home from a concert. The couple was walking through a popular pedestrian thoroughfare that the city had sold to the Mormon Church in the ‘90s. When Matt kissed Derek on the cheek, church security guards confronted the men, as seen in this surveillance video. They handcuffed the couple for their public display of affection.
Troy Williams, 42, was outraged when he heard the news. Inspired by the sit-ins of the civil rights era, local activists, along with Williams, organized three “kiss-ins” at the exact plaza where Matt and Derek were confronted by the guards. Straight and gay couples gathered at the plaza and began kissing in protest. Even Stephen Colbert satirized the guards’ strong-armed response to the kiss in a segment on The Colbert Report (Williams portrays one of the Mormon missionaries at the end of the clip).
“We all sprung into action,” Williams said. “We took back that space. This was before occupying things was hip and trendy. We occupied Temple Square. And we made out under the shadow of the temple.”
Williams is tall, blonde and clean-cut. Were it not for his provocative, outspoken nature, one would assume that he, like the majority of Utah, is a good and faithful Mormon. That’s someone he used to be.
At one of the controversial Salt Lake City kiss-ins, Williams was the keynote kisser, and he needed someone to kiss. He grabbed someone from the crowd, who is now his current boyfriend.
Williams is the executive producer of RadioActive, a progressive, often political talk show, on KRCL 90.9 FM in Salt Lake City. It’s the only talk show of its kind in all of Utah. KRCL is a non-profit community radio based in Utah’s capital. Its aim is to “represent diverse cultural perspectives.”
“There’s not a big market for what we do,” Williams said with a laugh.
He was raised Mormon and grew up in Eugene, Ore. “Growing up Mormon wasn’t a horrible thing. It’s very family-oriented. You feel this sense of belonging,” Williams said. “So when you’re pushed out because of your orientation, there’s this deep sense of loss.”
Williams went through all the motions of a good Mormon boy. He did his mission, a rite of passage for male Latter-day Saints, in England; he attended Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah; and, in what he describes as a “sublimation” of his sexuality, he became a “right-wing conservative” and volunteered his time at the Utah Eagle Forum, part of a pro-life, anti-gay national organization. Gayle Ruzicka, whom Williams describes as the “Anita Bryant of Utah,” leads the group.
“I thought I could just run from who I was by hiding in an organization that was the exact opposite of what I feared I would become,” Williams said. “And that kind of sublimation causes all kinds of emotional, psychological pain.”
The Mormon Church is noted for its financial support of the passing of Proposition 8 in California, a 2008 initiative that eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry.
Williams calls the church’s backing of Prop 8 hypocritical and ironic. “This is a church that originally fled the United States, because they wanted, among other things, to practice plural marriage,” he said. “So it was really disingenuous for the Mormon Church to be pushing a proposition saying, ‘Marriage will only be defined as one man married to one woman.’”
“I prayed to Heavenly Father: Please, please make me straight,” Williams said. “Please help me have these desires for women. And thankfully, God ignored every single one of my prayers.”
Williams said he hopes he’s made up for it by leaving the faith and “being a good left-leaning activist here in Utah.”
The editors of The Salt Lake Tribune think so. On Oct. 1, 2010, reporter Glen Warchol called Williams the “gay mayor of Salt Lake City.”
“Salt Lake City is actually a very progressive town,” Williams said. “We have not elected a Mormon or Republican mayor for over thirty years.” In 2009, Salt Lake City passed a non-discrimination ordinance with a unanimous vote, making it illegal to fire LGBT Utahns or evict them from their homes just for being queer.
Williams said LGBT activism in Utah could be a model for other marginalized groups in the U.S.
“If you go into large, urban centers of queer people, you see lots of divisions,” Williams said. “Here in Utah, we don’t have that kind of luxury to have those divisions. We just don’t.”
Every month, Williams meets with other members of the LGBT community to talk about activism and projects. Williams said that the strength of Salt Lake City’s LGBT community lies in its diversity and cohesion. At these meetings, Williams said that on one side of him would be a member of the Human Rights Campaign, on the other a Log Cabin Republican. Across the table would be a transgender person.
“I thank the Mormon Church and the Republican Party for bringing us together,” Williams said.
Mormonism has recently gained nationwide popularity and attention. Between the Broadway musical and the two Mormon GOP presidential candidates, the best-selling Twilight series and the ubiquitous “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign, the “Mormon moment,” as Williams calls the phenomenon, is now.
Williams said that the spotlight has put pressure on the church to reevaluate its position on homosexuality. He cites the fact that until 1978, Mormon African-American men were denied the right to hold the priesthood. Under pressure from non-Mormons in the United States, church leadership allegedly received a revelation from God that allowed the Mormons to change their position.
“If the church is to survive,” Williams said, “it’s going to have to wake up in a big way. It’s going to have to draw down the powers of heaven and actually come up with a revelation. Otherwise, this rising generation is going to say, ‘Not interested.’”
For all the differences the Mormons have with the gays, and vice-versa, Williams said that the two groups have a lot more in common than people would believe.
“Mormons and queer people know what it’s like to be hated for being different,” Williams said. “So they ought to have empathy.”
Mormons were radical communitarians who practiced a different marital form. They fled the U.S. in the mid-1800s and settled in the Salt Lake Valley, ensconced in the Rocky Mountains and flanked by desert. When the Utah Territory was incorporated into the United States in 1896, the Mormons felt a tremendous need to assimilate and prove that they were just regular Americans.
Williams said that marginalized and persecuted groups tend to show that they’ve assimilated as “good, worthy Americans” by finding another group and ostracizing them. “They forget their own history of oppression and start to contribute to the oppression of others,” Williams said. “That’s what the Latter-day Saints have done.”
Williams said that gay marriage is fait accompli in the U.S. To him, the momentum is there and marriage equality is inevitable. But he said he fears that “in our zeal to show how American we are” the LGBT community would begin to attack other groups, like undocumented immigrants or Muslims.
“There’s a lot of groups still to hate in this country,” Williams said. “I hope that we remember we were once marginalized and that we will work for the emancipation of all people.”
Dan Q. Tham