How Mormonism shaped Salt Lake City gay activist Troy Williams

Story and slideshow by CONNOR WALLACE

See Troy Williams in action.

It is difficult to mention Troy Williams without bringing up his experiences with the Mormon Church and his activism in the gay community. But Williams, production and public affairs director at KRCL 90.9 FM, is better known for his role in the Salt Lake City Kiss-Ins.

Williams grew up in Eugene, Ore., where he was raised in the LDS church. Like others, he decided to go on a mission and was sent to England. Looking back, he says there were signs that he was gay.

“I pushed down my sexual desires in such a way that I channeled it into zealotry,” Williams said. “But it would creep out in interesting ways. I was on my mission from ’89 to ‘91, and I still broke the rules so that I could get the new Madonna CD that came out or the new Erasure CD, all this gay stuff, gay music. I remember teaching … and this family let us in to teach the first discussion. So here I am talking about Joseph Smith … and I see for the very first time on the television set the Madonna ‘Vogue’ video and all of the sudden I’m transfixed…. All I could do was watch.”

After returning home from his mission he was an intern with Utah’s chapter of the Eagle Forum. In Utah, The Eagle Forum is a religiously conservative anti-gay organization that focuses on affecting policy. Williams tried to deny his identity while there, but it kept bubbling to the surface. Since then he has maintained a cordial relationship with Gayle Ruzicka, the chapter’s president.

“I love Gayle Ruzicka and Gayle Ruzicka loves me, and she’ll tell anybody. Gayle always says ‘I have gay friends’ and ‘I’m not a homophobe’ … Well she’s talking about me and other people that she knows,” Williams said.

Although Williams cares for her, he acknowledges the negative impact she and former Utah State Senator Chris Buttars have had on equal rights. Both have succeeded in striking down legislation that would give the gay community more rights.

“Make no mistake, I don’t trivialize the damage that she’s done to LGBT families because it’s been horrific,” Williams said. “But on the flip side of that I think that Gayle and Chris Buttars and all these homophobic adversaries in Utah have really helped the LGBT community congeal to become stronger, to become more weathered. We’ve organized so much and a lot of it is due to the fierce opposition that we’ve had.”

Williams also points out that not only does this opposition help to make the community stronger, but it also helps each individual to feel more wanted.

“Salt Lake City is one of the easiest places to be a gay person,” Williams said. “It’s so easy to plug in to the community here. We just kind of take you in.”

After his time at the Eagle Forum, Williams reevaluated his life and became more entrenched in the gay community. He eventually landed at the local nonprofit indie-music radio station, KRCL, which debuted in 1979. It was one of the first to put gay people on air when it introduced “Concerning Gays and Lesbians” in the 1980s.

Williams has used KRCL as a type of conduit to help not only the gay community, but also the Salt Lake City public as well. “RadioActive” is a set of community features that explore the different issues concerning the Salt Lake Valley. “RadioActive” has moved from being a one-hour show on Sundays to a segment that is played each hour.

Vicki Mann is the general manager of KRCL, located at 1971 W. North Temple. She said Williams is vital to the station because he oversees the community connection features, fills in as a DJ when needed and is a hard worker.

“He really does whatever he needs to do,” Mann said. “He’s a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of guy.”

In 2009, Williams took the activism out of the radio booth and onto the doorstep of the Mormon Church. Two gay men were arrested for kissing on Temple Square. In response, Williams helped lead three Kiss-ins there. Although the events were in protest, one of the Kiss-ins ended up bringing him together with his current boyfriend.

“I had to lead the Kiss-ins but I didn’t have anybody to kiss until I scanned the crowd, and there was this adorable guy there. I actually just went down and grabbed him and pulled him up with me, and then the pictures were shot and then it ended up in the [Salt Lake] Tribune and then three and a half years later he’s been my boyfriend. When I go in and meet with [the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], I’m always like ‘I want to thank you guys for helping me to hook up with my boyfriend because if it wasn’t for you arresting those two boys on the plaza I never would have met Josh,’” Williams said. “It’s fun to tease them about that a bit.”

Williams was in the spotlight again soon after his role in the Kiss-ins. He received a part on the “Colbert Report,” a satirical news show. He was also in “Tabloid,” a documentary about a woman who tried to seduce a Mormon away from his religion, and even met another famous Utahn.

“That was like the craziest week for me because I went and and shot the Colbert piece, and then I went to L.A. and did the … film the next day, and the third day I met with Roseanne Barr in a coffee shop and developed this deep friendship that I still have to this day,” he said.

Brandie Balken, director of Equality Utah, was a former co-host of “RadioActive” with Williams. Equality Utah is a civil rights organization that focuses on improving LGBTQ people’s lives through political action and educating the public about issues facing this community. Balken points out that there are more similarities than differences between Mormons and LGBTQ people.

“We share families, we share workplaces, we share neighborhoods, our kids go to the same schools,” Balken said. “There’s a lot of interface between these supposedly separate communities.”

Williams agrees and points to the group, Mormons Building Bridges. Members of the organization marched in June 2012 with Williams and Dustin Lance Black, the Academy Award-winning writer of the movie “Milk,” in the Utah Pride Festival Parade.

“We marched at the front of the Pride Parade with 300 active Mormons who, in their Sunday clothes, were marching to show their support for the LGBT community. That’s unprecedented, and it sparked Mormons marching in 10 different Pride parades across the summer, across the country,” Williams said. “This is such an exciting time. You can actually see the nation shifting on an issue and it’s happening so rapidly.”

Troy Williams continues his advocacy on behalf of the LGBTQ community and his work to improve relations with the LDS Church.

“I think without folks like Troy,” Balken said, “we are more likely to leave people behind.”

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