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.”

The future of homeless LGBT youth in Salt Lake City

Story and slideshow by RACHEL JACKSON

See inside the Homeless Youth Resource Center.

It’s just another Monday for the Volunteers of America Utah outreach team. Members spread out so they can cover more ground and find their target — homeless youth. The team members hop on TRAX, because that is a common place to find them. The next place they look is under overpasses or in parks. They just want to tell them that they have somewhere safe to go.

Volunteers of America is a national nonprofit organization, which was established in 1896 by social reformers Ballington and Maud Booth. A chapter is located in Salt Lake City that has various human services programs, including homeless resources, detoxification services and housing assistance.

A  survey done by Volunteers of America showed that approximately 41 percent of the youth they served in 2010-2011 identified as LGBT.

Although that number has varied slightly since the summer months, Zach Bale, vice president of external relations for Volunteers of America, said that a little more than one-third of the youth he sees are LGBT. The number is disproportionate when compared to the general population of LGBT in the Salt Lake City community, which is 6 to 9 percent.

According to both the Utah Pride Center and Equality Utah, an advocacy organization for LGBT Utahns, there are two central causes to youth homelessness: a lack of recognition and acceptance on both the personal family level and by society in general.



Recognizing that homeless youth exist, and realizing that there are specific reasons why they end up homeless, is a crucial step for initiating changes.

According to the 2012 Comprehensive Report on Homelessness in Utah, released Nov. 8 by the Housing and Community Development Division, there was no representation of the LGBT community in both the adult and the teen categories. The survey included race, gender and age, but omitted sexual orientation.

This is one main reason why the state doesn’t know how many homeless people identify as LGBT. Awareness of LGBT homeless people on the state level would enable places like Volunteers of America to receive more funding.

“Awareness is half the battle,” Bale said. The homeless youth center on 655 S. State St., sees about 60 to 70 youth per day. In 2011, more than 1,000 youth were served at the center with basic needs such as accessing laundry services, food and hygienic resources.

The Volunteers of America Homeless Youth Resource Center accepts a small portion of funding on the federal and state level, but the majority of funding comes from local and private donations.

In 2011, Volunteers of America joined advocacy work with Equality Utah. The advocacy work was for the emancipation bill, which allows teens who are 16 and older to make legal decisions for themselves. And for many homeless youth this is a necessity.



Lack of acceptance is another reason why teens end up on the street.

“We see a high level of family rejection at TINT,” said Danielle Watters, director of community support and wellness services at the Utah Pride Center. “If they were accepted it wouldn’t be such a big issue.”

Utah Pride Center houses TINT, the other downtown youth resource center in Salt Lake City where youth can come to access basic needs.

Utah has the highest population of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) in the nation — 62.2 percent of the total population.

In a January 2012 Pew Research study on Mormons in America, 65 percent of U.S. Mormons reported that being LGBT should be discouraged by society.

Eliana Birdsall, 20, said, “I have been homeless on and off for about 5 years. It was just easier to be homeless than to have to deal with all of it.”

Birdsall’s mother has been into heavy drug usage for most of her daughter’s childhood. Birdsall feels she has no one to turn to, because the rest of her family members are LDS. She is bisexual and is afraid to tell them. Her aunt came out to her family as a lesbian and they refused to speak with her for several months.

Birdsall uses the homeless youth center almost every day.

Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, said, “When we look at our homeless youth, they are almost 50 percent [LGBT]. There is an obvious misrepresentation of our LGBT kids who are in our homeless youth population.”

Balken said that one of the reasons why these kids end up on the street is because they do not fit in with their biological families due to a lack of acceptance. The kids then look for a place they can be acknowledged for who they are, and the sexual orientation they identify with. They are either placed with a foster family through the state or they end up roaming the streets in search of shelter.


What is being done?

Volunteers of America also has a homeless outreach program where staff and volunteers search for individuals and families experiencing homelessness. Outreach workers supply people with basic necessities such as food, clothing and other survival material.

“We hop on TRAX, and seek out youth,” Bale said. “The outreach workers find youth and let them know that they don’t need to stay on the street.”

Meals are prepared three times a day at the center, often by volunteers who have purchased the food.

To further help youth, Volunteers of America Utah has partnered with the Utah Pride Center. Each now refers clients to the other organization if staff feel people would be better served or feel more comfortable at the other facility.

Volunteers of America also works with the Fourth Street Clinic. Youth are referred to the clinic when they are in need of medical care. This clinic allows uninsured and homeless individuals the opportunity to become healthy so they can work toward getting back into secure housing.

“We’ve been seeing a lot of kids with kids lately,” Bale said. So the center has had to acquire supplies to help teen mothers in need. The Fourth Street Clinic gives homeless pregnant girls or women the prenatal care they need to give their baby a chance at a healthy life.


What still needs to be done? 

“In an ideal world we wouldn’t have anyone to help, but that’s not the case,” Bale said.

The Homeless Youth Resource Center is looking to expand. Bale said Volunteers of America is searching for a parcel of land that is big enough to construct a building from scratch and incorporate all of the plans for the future.

“We don’t provide shelter,” Bale said. “We want to be able to open an emergency shelter with about 30 beds for youth to sleep in.”

Bale and a group of other staff with Volunteers of America Utah went to various U.S. cities such as San Francisco and Seattle to study and learn from larger cities’ youth resource centers. They found that several cities offer homeless youth employment training and specific skills required to get a job.

Volunteers of America Utah hopes to offer something similar to help homeless youth get off the streets and transition into confident, self-sufficient adult lives.

Transitional housing is another project that Volunteers of America is currently working on. The existing building was scheduled to be remodeled, but on Sept. 16, 2012, an accidental electrical fire destroyed the roof and most of the top floor of the building located at 556 S. 500 East in Salt Lake City.

Two organizations, including the B. W. Bastian Foundation, have donated $50,000 each to support the project. Individuals will be able to live in the Transitional Home for Young Men until they get a job and are capable of supporting themselves.

Bastian said in a 2011 press release, “The fact that over 40% of the homeless youth are on the street because they are ‘not straight’ sickens me. I believe the LGBTQ community owes it to these kids to show them there is love for them. We also need to educate the parents and families of these kids to the truth so that fewer and fewer of these kids end up homeless.”

2013: LGBTQ equality in Utah? It has a fighting chance

Story and photo by SASCHA BLUME

With the 2013 Utah legislative sessions set to begin on Jan. 28, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community is in a political quandary.

Max Green, advocacy coordinator for Equality Utah in Salt Lake City, said, “We’re not asking for special treatment, just the same protection that everyone is provided.”

Green said the national and state elections of 2012 have made an impact on the coming year’s legislative process.

“With so much turnover from the elections not every person is up to date and not every legislator is familiar with the legislative readings,” Green said.

This makes it particularly difficult to have a season-long dialogue about specific legislation, Green said.

In an attempt to bring equal rights and protection to the LGBTQ community, Equality Utah created the Common Ground Initiative in 2012. The nonprofit organization’s mission is: “To secure equal rights and protections for LGBTQ Utahns and their families.”

This proposed initiative was designed to positively impact four problem areas in Utah’s LGBTQ community:

(1) Fair housing and employment (SB 51). Currently, Utahns can be evicted from their house because of their sexual orientation.

(2) Expanding health care (HB 64). Currently, lesbian and gay individuals cannot visit a loved one in a hospital.

(3) Relationship Recognition (SB 126).

(4) Inheritance. LGBTQ individuals are unable to claim inheritance when their partner dies.

During the 2012 legislative sessions, Utah’s Sate Capitol Rotunda was the site of a rally organized by Human Dignity Utah. The purpose of the rally was to encourage Utah legislators to ratify the Common Ground Initiative.

The rally drew more than 100 people — some carried signs, others sang, but all were there to show solidarity in their quest for equality.

Five speakers addressed the audience and the dozens of lawmakers who watched from the third-floor balcony surrounded by armed Utah Highway Patrol officers.

Sister Dottie Dixon, a local art performer, told the audience, “By showing up here today we’re showing that we are fed up; we’re tired of being ignored, politely dismissed, relegated to second-class citizens.”

Kathy Godwin, president of the Salt Lake Chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), told the crowd that the majority of Utah citizens and businesses want equal protection for the LGBTQ community. She also said that approximately 70 percent of Utahns encourage state legislators to give civil rights to the LGBTQ community.

Isaac Higham, a keynote speaker with Human Dignity Utah, said after the rally, “I’m sick of the nonchalance of how easily they just dismiss our community and don’t even give us a true fair hearing.”

Higham said that Utah legislators are misinformed regarding what the people of Utah want. He said it’s the job of all Utahns to remind lawmakers that they are in office to work for the people, not just their agenda.

The Common Ground Initiative failed. All four bills went unheard and were effectively tabled.

Lack of marriage equality for LGBT hinders immigrants’ ability to come to America

Story and photos by MATT ELLIS

For years there has been a struggle for the nationwide recognition of same-sex marriage. Some states have legalized the marriage of same-sex couples, but most have not and political battles wage on. At the center of the debate are liberties that are denied non-married couples. Though these discussions have taken a more prominent role in our culture over recent years, the implications of these policies on immigration have been discussed in far smaller circles.

The University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics is where five panelists gathered to discuss rights for LGBT immigrants on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012.

The challenges that face same-sex couples where both partners are American citizens are compounded exponentially when crossed with issues of immigration, mostly because of the denial of rights that would normally be afforded to a couple trying to enter America.

Many pieces of legislation are under fire by those fighting for same-sex couples’ immigration rights, but the one that may be the most central is the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), passed in 1996. Section 3 of DOMA defines marriage exclusively as the union of a man and woman, and the word “spouse” as a reference only to a partner of the opposite sex.

Under these definitions, an American citizen can request citizenship for their partner so long as that partner is of the opposite sex. For same-sex couples, immigration to the U.S. can be vastly more complicated.

Mark Alvarez, an immigration lawyer in Salt Lake City, spoke at a panel at the University of Utah in October 2012 on the difficulties that face same-sex couples who want to immigrate to the U.S.

“It’s because of DOMA,” Alvarez said. “A same-sex couple cannot petition for normal family rights.”

Because an individual has no legal grounds for petitioning for the citizenship of a same-sex partner, the partner often has no way of achieving that status and is forced to leave the country with or without their companion.

Mariana Ramiro works with the LGBT Resource Center at the U. She is originally from Mexico City and has had personal experience with the difficulties of immigration.

She and her family immigrated here illegally, and lived illegally for more than a decade. She eventually got a green card and is now in a five-year probationary period before citizenship where she can still be deported for any reason.

Mariana Ramiro smiles for the camera. She and her partner are enduring the very issues that the panel was assembled to discuss.

Her partner is in a similar situation, which puts a great deal of stress on their relationship.

“I can be with my partner here, but if my partner ends up getting deported there’s no way to [bring us back together],” Ramiro said at the panel. “I either stay here and try to become a citizen, and maybe hope that in the future there is something that will change that I can bring my partner back. But realistically we are going to be separated unless I choose to go back there, but then that would disqualify me from citizenship.”

These fears are very real, even for those who have been legally married in the U.S.

In the case of Pablo Garcia and Santiago Ortiz, whose story was published on, the two were legally married in Connecticut but Garcia is not an American citizen.

Ortiz, who was born in New York, is an American citizen but because DOMA overrides local laws even he and his partner are not exempt.

Ortiz has tested positive for HIV and sometimes has to travel abroad to receive treatment. Garcia is unable to accompany him on those trips because he fears he would not be allowed reentry. When Ortiz’s father died Garcia couldn’t even attend the funeral in Caracas, Venezuela.

“You are putting yourself at risk for legal ramifications, for jail time, for pursuit under the state,” Max Greene, the advocacy coordinator for Equality Utah, said at the panel. “Those things prevent people from real meaningful relationships because you are already in the society where some of us aren’t valid. Imagine what that does to someone’s ability to be who they really are.”

But hope is on the horizon for couples like Ortiz and Garcia.

In 2011 the Obama administration announced that it found Section 3 of DOMA to be unconstitutional as it relates to issues of immigration, bankruptcy and public estate taxes. Though there has not been a formal repeal of the law, the administration decided that it would no longer be defended in court.

Eight federal courts, including the First and Second Circuit Court of Appeals, have also found Section 3 to be unconstitutional and as of 2012 several cases regarding immigration were awaiting a response to review in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Additionally, according to the Global Post, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency has announced that deportation will not be a priority for illegal immigrants who have strong family ties in the U.S., specifically those in the LGBT community.

Many have compared the struggles of the LGBT community with the African-American civil rights movement and while that does entail subjugation and oppression, some are hopeful that the end result will be similar and that equality will soon emerge.

Alvarez is confident that, in spite of the political dealings moving at such a slow pace, America is ready for the next step.

“I think our society is [moving] forward,” the immigration lawyer said at the panel. “I firmly believe this country is on its way to marriage equality. The question is when, and I think it’s coming sooner rather than later.”

Equality for Utahns based on awareness

Story and photo by PAUL S. GRECO

Awareness is a compelling issue among the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. “Our biggest obstacle on Capitol Hill in Utah is awareness,” said Brandie Balken, Equality Utah’s executive director.

She said a lack of understanding regarding the rights of the state’s LGBT citizens daunts advocates. Envisioning a fair and just Utah is Equality Utah’s hope.

“Equality means all of us,” Balken said.

Equality Utah, located in downtown Salt Lake City, was established in 2001. It is the state’s largest civil rights organization for LGBT Utahns.

Max Green, a University of Utah alumnus, has been Equality Utah’s advocacy coordinator since December 2011.

Max Green with Equality Utah.

Green said he conducts citizen-lobbying and advocacy trainings to educate people about LGBT concerns. He alerts individuals to help make political changes that will bring equality to Utah’s LGBT community.

He said the primary goal of these trainings is to increase the number of supporters who will vote for more fair-minded officials.

Homelessness among LGBT youth

In 2008, UCLA’s Williams Institute used data gathered from the U.S. Census Bureau to estimate Utah’s LGB population at between 47,000 and 63,000.

In its mission statement, Equality Utah advocates to secure equal rights and protections for LGBT Utahns. Along these lines, Green addressed the concern of self-disclosure. He said there are safety factors involved. “It’s not necessarily safe for everyone to come out,” he said.

“There are people who are so admittedly against the LGBT community,” Green added, “that if it’s their child, they don’t know how they would react.”

He said many youth end up homeless when they come out to their parents.

According to the 2011 Comprehensive Report on Homelessness in Utah, “Sexual orientation is often cited in studies of homeless youth as one of the contributing factors in a youth’s reason for being expelled or running away from home. In the Utah survey, 29% of homeless youth were not heterosexual.”

This survey was conducted by the Volunteers of America Youth Drop-in Center, Salt Lake County Youth Services, the Utah Pride Center and Valley Mental Health. The report was based on youth aged 15 to 24.

LGBT youth and suicide

Another result of inequality and unfairness is suicide. As a member of Utah’s LGBT community, Green lost three close friends – in the course of junior high school through college.

“Not as a result of their sexuality, but their treatment because of their sexuality,” Green said.

According to a 2009 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, “LGB young adults who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence [compared to heterosexual young adults] were 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide, 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression.”

Bullying problems

Green said he not only wants Utahns to be aware of the LGBT concerns, but also for the LGBT community to be aware that change can and is happening.

In 2011, two Utah school districts, Salt Lake and Park City, passed an anti-bullying policy that includes sexual orientation. This is enforced among students as well as school employees.

Also involved in promoting equality for LGBT Utahns is the Human Rights Education Center of Utah (HREC), founded by Carla Kelley. She serves as HREC’s executive director and advocates against bias, bullying and discrimination of LGBT individuals.

“We have no right to dehumanize any human being,” Kelley said.

Kelley is not a member of the LGBT community; however, she is a single mother of three with one son who is openly gay.

Civic Ventures recognized Kelley as a social entrepreneur over 60. She also has received several acknowledgements for her humanity efforts. In 2009, Kelley was named Wasatch Woman of the Year by Wasatch Woman Magazine.

Kelley explained that it would be beneficial for individuals to check their biases and ask, “Why do I have these?”  Kelley said self-awareness of personal biases can help individuals better understand inequalities through association.

Equality Utah’s website details ways for individuals to get involved. Similarly, HREC has information on how to advocate for LGBT rights.

Max Green, with Equality Utah, said, “I believe that a better place to live is one where all of its citizens are respected, everyone has value, everyone has the same footing under the law. If society were changed slightly, not just for one group but for all of us, it would make a huge difference on the lives of kids growing up today.”

Equality Utah and LGBT Resource Center work to prevent bullying

Story and photo by CONNOR WALLACE

The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) released on Sept. 5, 2012, the 2011 National School Climate Survey, which outlined the experiences of more than 8,500 LGBT students in all 50 states. The survey found “6 in 10 LGBT students reported feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation.” This marks the first significant drop in bullying based on sexual orientation. GLSEN credits schools and districts with helping to prevent bullying and harassment.

Locally, Equality Utah and the LGBT Resource Center at the University of Utah can be credited with helping school districts to implement bills and provide services regarding LGBT issues.

Equality Utah is a nonprofit organization that focuses on providing equal rights for all LGBT people and their families through helping politicians get elected as well as affecting policy through advocacy. In 2008, Equality Utah helped pass a bill, H.B. 325, which created a definition of hazing and bullying as well as set “the minimum standards for bullying and hazing policies in local districts and charter schools.” Two years later, cyberbullying and verbal harassment were included in the criteria of forbidden activities.

“Bullying has changed,” said Equality Utah Director Brandie Balken regarding cyberbullying.

The Human Rights Education Center of Utah define cyberbullying as “willful and repeated harm inflicted upon others through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.”

Balken said Equality Utah is working to prevent bullying for any reason and pointed out that it has helped two school districts, Park City and Salt Lake City, to adopt policies preventing bullying and discrimination. Despite those policies, students still suffer persecution because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Allison Shepard is a student at the University of Utah. She said she was bullied in high school when people discovered that she was bisexual.

“There were rumors spread that I fooled around with my best friend,” Shepard said. “The rumors were completely untrue.”

She said people need to stand up for themselves when being bullied.

“If a bully says that you’re a loser, prove them wrong,” Shepard said.

Shepard is originally from Chicago and came to the U to study nursing. She said that while progress is being made due to efforts by organizations like Equality Utah, the process is a slow one.

“I do believe that Utah is slowly becoming more intolerant of bullying,” said Shepard, who plans to graduate in May 2013 with a bachelor’s in health promotion and education.

However, she added, “the LGBT community is affected more than others because bullies will use [being LGBT] to target people.”

There is truth to Shepard’s statement. In a 2009 study conducted by the Child Trends Data Bank and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five high school students reported being harassed at school. But the GLSEN study found that more than 80 percent of LGBT students were verbally harassed in 2011.

Kai Medina-Martínez became the director of the LGBT Resource Center in 2007.

Kai Medina-Martínez is the director of the U’s LGBT Resource Center, which provides information on LGBT issues as well as sensitivity training for allies.

Medina-Martínez, who prefers the gender-neutral pronoun “they,” equated the higher occurrence of bullying in the LGBT community to a societal stigma.

“Gay in our country is a bad thing,” they said. “Bullying is very much a concern in the LGBT community.”

Medina-Martínez said bullying is a problem for every group. However, they pointed out that in order to prove that bullying is a hate crime, a victim must demonstrate that sexual orientation was a factor. Medina-Martínez said in order to help stop bullying, society needs to be more aware and look for signs that include: loss of interest in school and school events, trouble sleeping and nightmares, declining grades and increased fighting in school.

“The secrecy around bullying keeps the cycle going,” Medina-Martinez said.

Fighting for Utah LGBT rights involves more than just marriage

Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, works in her office October of 2012 in downtown Salt Lake City.

Story and photo by JAKE GORDON

Fighting for equal rights in behalf of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community isn’t just about marriage — it is much more complex than that.

Brandie Balken, executive director for Equality Utah, expressed frustration that the public views gay marriage as the main issue.

“When we look at what the equality movement is and what our role in the equality movement is, we are really looking at the beginning of a person’s life all the way through the end of a person’s life,” Balken said in a talk to reporting students at the University of Utah on Sept. 13, 2012. “And I mention that because I think in the popular dialogue today, all we hear about is marriage and I have to tell you that there is so much more that needs to be done.”

The LGBT community has to fight hard for the same human rights that straight people generally take for granted. Rights like visiting loved ones in the hospital, transferring health and retirement benefits to a partner and being recognized as a non-biological parent are some things that Balken has had to fight for with the costly help of a lawyer.

“To secure access to your partner (in a hospital), even if you have been married in another state, you have to get a designated beneficiary contract and you need to establish a will and a trust if property is included,” Balken said. “My partner and I have spent literally almost $10,000 with our attorney preparing contracts to protect our home, to protect our life insurance investments and to protect as best we can our child to make sure that she is cared for.”

Tooele County Justice Court Judge John Mack Dow, who practiced law for 21 years prior to being named judge, talked about the differences between rights for straight and gay relationships.

“If there is a husband and a wife then the rights are transferred automatically in the relationship,” Dow said. “But if it is a homosexual partnership then they have to get the necessary paperwork and even that paperwork can be challenged in court by other family members.”

Balken has forked over the money to work with lawyers to become the medical decision-maker for her partner. When going on trips, Balken makes sure that she packs her paperwork and legal documents, just in case something does happen.

Niki Corpron, a registered nurse at Intermountain Healthcare hospital in Murray, said the hospital has strict policies regarding who can or can’t visit during an emergency.

“If someone is brought in by an ambulance and they have a homosexual partner then they aren’t allowed in to visit without the appropriate paperwork,” Corpron said. “If the partner doesn’t have their papers then they have to contact the family and receive permission from them.”

Balken is not only fighting for herself and her own family, but as executive director for Equality Utah she also is working for equitable rights for all in the state. Balken said Equality Utah was founded in 2001 as a political action committee, or PAC. The purpose of a PAC is to help people get elected into office. Equality Utah also fights legislation that seeks to disallow equal rights to gays.

She said that in the nation marriage is basically a state-by-state determination. Some states allow marriage, some states allow civil unions and some states, like Utah for one, prohibits any or all marriages or civil unions. Therefore, in Utah, equal rights are an uphill battle for Equality Utah and the LGBT community.

One piece of legislation Balken mentioned was a constitutional amendment that passed in 2004 penned by Rep. LaVar Christensen (R-Draper), which was called Amendment 3.

“This amendment to the constitution basically says marriage equality is prohibited, civil unions are prohibited, and any other contractual agreements with substantially equivalent benefits are prohibited,” Balken said. “That went before our legislature, was signed by our governor and put to the ballot in 2004 and more than two-thirds of the population of Utah approved that measure. So, currently in the state of Utah, marriage equality is banned in the constitution as are civil unions.”

Balken also knows that it takes multiple approaches to educate the public about equal rights.

“You have to educate the population about the issues, about the language, and about the implications of unequal policy,” she said. “You have to work with elected officials who are seated to understand the importance of equitable policy and to work with them to change that policy.”

Equality Utah works to get more fair-minded people in office, from the school board all the way up to the state house, to sustain achievable cultural change.

Although it is a long road to travel for equal rights, Equality Utah has had some success in passing some legislation. Balken said the organization passed in 2007 a bullying and hazing statute and a hate crimes prevention law.

“Those may seem like small things,” she said, “but . . . prevention of hate crimes or at least acknowledgement of hate crimes as well as prevention of bullying and hazing behaviors is crucially important.”

LGBT organizations continually work toward equality in Utah

The Utah Pride Center, located at 361 N. 300 West, is an advocate for the LGBT community.

Story and photo by CHAD MOBLEY

Salt Lake City is seen through the eyes of the nation as a conservative and religiously centered metropolitan area whose dominant Mormon culture controls everything from lawmaking to media consumption. However, the population is ever changing and growing more diverse all the time. The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is one segment of the population with organizations in place to help balance the scales and promote equality among all citizens in Utah. Equality Utah and the Utah Pride Center went to bat for the LGBT community during a recent controversy and the leaders involved felt the outcome was positive.

In late August 2012, KSL refused to air the new NBC comedy, “The New Normal.” That decision caused a media firestorm and many in the LGBT community in Salt Lake City to take action. The issue was covered by news outlets across the country, including the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post and CBS. When the story first broke, the Utah TV station was portrayed as regressive and bigoted.

Not only did this decision catch the attention of the national media, but enraged advocates for gay rights in America.

GLAAD President Hernon Graddick was quoted in a blog from the organization’s website: “Same-sex families are a beloved part of American television thanks to shows like ‘Modern Family,’ ‘Glee’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ While audiences, critics and advertisers have all supported LGBT stories, KSL is demonstrating how deeply out of touch it is with the rest of the country.”

Graddick continued, “We invite Jeff Simpson (CEO for Bonneville Media, KSL’s parent company) to sit down with GLAAD and local LGBT families. We know that if he would, he would see that not only are our families normal, but by citing ‘crude and rude’ content and refusing to affirm LGBT families, KSL and Mr. Simpson are sending a dangerous message to Utah. They should make that right.”

Five days after KSL’s decision not to air the program, the director of the Utah Pride Center, Valerie Larabee, along with Equality Utah director, Brandie Balken, her family and another same-sex family sat down for a roundtable discussion with KSL and Bonneville Media.

The organizations then released a joint statement on Aug. 29 regarding the decision to pull the show from the primetime lineup.

According to KSL, “It was helpful to talk together, to better understand issues, and to be able to discuss the reasons behind our decision to not air ‘The New Normal.’ This was not a decision we made lightly and it was not made because of any single issue including gay characters or LGBT families. … We care about and value all members of our community, including LGBT people and their families, and are grateful when there can be the type of cordial and respectful dialogue we have had today.”

Equality Utah and the Utah Pride Center added in the statement, “We had a great opportunity to talk about our families and our kids. We appreciated the opportunity to express our concerns, and to hear firsthand the reasons behind this decision. We accept their explanation that the decision to pull ‘The New Normal’ was not made lightly and it was not made because of any single issue including gay characters or LGBT families.”

After having seen the show, Balken and Larabee agreed with KSL’s decision.

“Having the LGBT presence in the show was important,” Balken said in a telephone interview. “However, more than or equally important to just being present is how we are portrayed. We want to be represented as who we really are.”

Larabee added, “Once we saw the first episode, we got it completely. I agreed with them. We think it is very poorly written.”

One member of the local LGBT community felt relief knowing that advocates are ready to fight for their rights.

“That really does show what they are doing and how effective they are,” said Shalise Mehew of Salt Lake City. “I totally agree, I wouldn’t want it on primetime either.”

After a heated controversy over what seemed to be an anti-gay decision, a simple dialogue  immediately alleviated concerns. A planned protest was cancelled, a joint statement was released and an understanding between two sides of the community was reached.

“It was the first step in helping to create trust between at least a segment of our community and the local media,” Larabee said.

The Utah Pride Center and Equality Utah continually monitor the media to correct any unfair reporting or disparaging portrayals of the LGBT community and its families. The two organizations maintain relationships with the media on a daily basis and they work with GLAAD when they have any major issues surrounding coverage or statements made by those in the media industry.

“Utah Pride Center and Equality Utah work tirelessly to promote tolerance and grow acceptance of LGBT people and families in Utah,” said Graddick of GLAAD on the website. “We are proud to be working with them.”

For the organizations, fighting for equality doesn’t stop with the media. One of their goals is to reach this same type of understanding between the LGBT community and the dominant religion.

“We are really invested in continuing conversations with LDS people,” Balken said. “We live in the same places, work in the same places and have kids in the same schools. Anytime people can and will sit down and really just be real with each other, it’s a great release and it’s positive.”

Mike Thompson’s mission: To be a ‘change agent’


Imagine a beach covered with thousands of miles of starfish and an individual throwing them one by one back into the ocean. This is how Mike Thompson, executive director of Equality Utah, envisions his position. For him, it’s not about saving every starfish, it’s about making a difference to just that one. His personal mission is to be the “change agent.”

“I can’t change the world, but I can influence my part,” Thompson said about his career in Salt Lake City.

Thompson was born in Broken Arrow, Okla., in 1964, and received a bachelor of business administration in management and communication from the University of Oklahoma in 1986. After working for oil companies in Chicago and St. Louis for eight years, Thompson left the corporate world and joined a ministry training program for two years. Upon completing the program, he traveled to London to work with inner-city children and youth. It is there that he learned to work with his heart, not his head.

While using his spirit and compassion working as a nonprofit consultant in Denver, Thompson met a member of Equality Utah’s board of directors who encouraged him to interview for a campaign position in the summer of 2004. Thompson helped Scott McCoy, a state senator of District 2, raise $800,000 to say “no” to the “Don’t Amend” campaign. The constitutional Amendment 3 denied same-sex marriage. “It’s the passion of working on issues that resonates within me,” Thompson said about his responsibilities with the campaign. Although Amendment 3 passed in November 2004, Thompson’s leadership led him to be invited to interview for the position of Equality Utah’s executive director in August 2005.

Equality Utah was founded as Unity Utah in 2001 as a political organization. It became the political advocate for the LGBT community with the goal of creating “a fair and just Utah” and finding common ground with other members in the community. Equality Utah is part of three nonprofit organizations that share the same mission of “securing equal rights and protections for LGBT Utahns and their families.”

The Equality Utah Foundation educates and informs the community about issues impacting the LGBT community, while the Equality Utah Political Action Committee “endorses candidates and supports their campaigns with volunteer efforts and financial contributions.” Equality Utah strives to provide volunteer support to candidates who are “willing to be open-minded and create dialogue.”

When Thompson lobbies at the capitol, people first notice the “equality button” he is wearing on his suit, and then they simply walk away. He identifies this sort of bias as a major obstacle for Equality Utah. “It’s people assuming or stereotyping all the time that becomes frustrating in that you always have to prove credibility first,” Thompson said. “I need to be the whole of who I am and be treated equally regardless of who I am.” Thompson encourages the public to eliminate biases and “talk about the root of the issue.” He hopes that by reaching one person, dialogue about stereotypes and biases will lead to change.

Thompson believes that “people of faith have the biggest opportunity to support LGBT issues and Utah is where the social change needs to take place.” With that, he hopes to have point people in the 29 Utah counties to establish relationships and have Equality Utah be more of a presence in the state. Thompson says Equality Utah is successful because of its approach of building relationships. “We don’t have an activist approach; it’s about meeting people where they are,” Thompson said about the organization’s efforts to initiate conversations.

Through Thompson’s vision of effecting change, the Annual Allies Dinner, a fundraising event that benefits the Equality Utah Political Action Committee, has grown from 250 attendees in 2002 to 1,127 people this year. In addition, Equality Utah hosts “Out for Equality” events to promote membership and inform the LGBT community of available resources and current issues. “Anything we do socially has to have a tie to our mission,” Thompson said. With almost 1,000 members and an e-mail database with 10,000 supporters, Equality Utah is gaining influence in the community.

Equality Utah’s current starfish is working with municipalities to implement employment non-discrimination policies, which include both sexual orientation and gender identity, for their city’s employees. The policies aim to protect the rights of all people and create domestic partner benefits. “It’s about equal pay for equal work,” said Thompson. Although Salt Lake City voters approved this ordinance in March, Thompson hopes to introduce the issue in the 2008 Utah Legislature for a statewide ruling.

TEA of Utah


Teinamarie Nelson and Rebecca Wilder were having lunch one day and discussing an issue they heard about from the media regarding transgender people that they thought was unfair. The two women wanted to do something to help transgender people and those who interact with them so they didn’t make the news the same way. They decided to form a nonprofit organization but, it wasn’t until Christopher Scuderi came on board that things started moving.

Transgender Education Advocates, or TEA (pronounced “T”), was established in 2003 as a volunteer organization. It is an affiliate program of the Utah Pride Center and its mission is “to educate the public on transgender issues for better understanding and awareness of discrimination towards the transgender population.”

TEA offers a Gender 101 class, which aims to make people aware of individuals who don’t fit the binary gender system. Scuderi said 50 percent of the classes they teach are requested while the other half are through TEA’s outreach efforts. Because TEA doesn’t have an office of its own, classes are offered in the Utah Pride Center or at the organization receiving the training.

One group that received the Gender 101 training recently was the Public Safety Liaison Committee. PSLC is a group of individuals in service-related professions, including firefighters, police officers and EMTs that aim to educate those in their field about LGBT issues. Rachel Hanson of the Utah Pride Center and Scuderi conducted the training for PSLC, which lasted about an hour and half. Hanson felt it was a success because people openly talked a lot about biases and other subjects that came up during the presentation. Another good gauge for determining whether the training went well, is if participants feel free to ask questions. “I can often tell when people feel comfortable because they ask questions without worrying about sounding dumb,” she said. “A lot of people don’t understand transgender people.”

Gary Horenkamp, PSLC’s co-chair, said the training was “a well-organized, well-presented learning activity” with useful information that he hadn’t heard anywhere before. Horenkamp also is the project leader for OUTreach Ogden, which supports the “personal growth, acceptance and equality” of LGBTQ people and serves Box Elder, Morgan, Weber and Davis Counties. Gender 101 classes are available throughout the year, but TEA also hosts special events.

During November, TEA hosted a number of events in recognition of Transgender Awareness Month. For 2007 it brought in two speakers to provide workshops for medical and legal students and professionals. TEA also observes the Day of Remembrance annually on Nov. 20 with a candlelight vigil. The memorial commemorates transgender people who have lost their lives due to hate-crime violence.

Although it wasn’t a hate crime, Scuderi tells of an individual who was involved in a car accident that died because of a lack of understanding. When paramedics arrived they had to cut away clothing and when they discovered the genitalia of the victim didn’t match the rest of their appearance they were shocked. Apparently they laughed and poked fun but never helped, which resulted in the victim’s death. Some people have a hard time seeking medical help because they don’t know how they will be treated.

In the Salt Lake City medical community there are four family doctors who advertise that they treat transgender patients, but only one, Dr. Nicola Riley, is still accepting new patients. The others had to stop because their practices were too large. Riley received TEA’s 2006 award for Individual of the Year, while Equality Utah was given the Organization of the Year award for its work. Riley received this award partly because of her willingness to continue accepting transgender patients.

If a transgender person decides to have gender reassignment surgery, or GRS, they may have a difficult time finding a surgeon as well. Scuderi estimates there are a dozen throughout the United States, but none are in Utah. The closest surgeons are in Colorado, California or Arizona. Outside of the country, Thailand has the most GRS surgeons because of its progressive views regarding gender.

TEA’s 2007 keynote speaker, Dr. Marci Bowers, has a waiting list of 150 people. Her practice is located in Trinidad, Colo., which is the “transgender capital of the world” according to the city welcome sign. Born Mark Bowers, she transitioned later in life after marrying and having children although she had thoughts about becoming a woman by the age of 5. Bowers has helped more than 500 patients through this process and is considered a world-renowned surgeon. She has been a guest on “Oprah” and “Larry King Live.”

Locating a surgeon is just one challenge facing individuals. Securing funding also can be problematic. Many people can only afford changes from the waist up and can feel incomplete because of it. A few insurance companies cover GRS, but it has to be written into the plan. For male-to-female surgery, Scuderi estimates the cost ranges from $8,000 to $22,000. Female-to-male surgery costs considerably more: $30,000 to $150,000.

Because the costs are out of reach for many, TEA established the Cans For Change program. Aluminum cans are collected for recycling and the money goes toward a scholarship. The scholarship fund was developed to help with a portion of general reassignment surgery costs for an individual on a need basis. You can e-mail TEA to arrange a pick up of clean cans any time. While it has yet to raise enough to consider applicants, TEA hopes to have $1,000 soon for this purpose.

Due to confidentiality and stigma, few statistics are available on the transgender population. But Scuderi and Rachel Hanson believe the transgender youth population is growing. They think this is partly due to the media. Films such as “Boys Don’t Cry” and Barbara Walter’s segment on “20/20” bring exposure to the transgender community. Also, the Internet provides a forum for youth to discuss their lives and issues in a safe environment.

Hanson is the youth director at the Utah Pride Center and facilitates the transgender youth group that meets weekly. She said many transgender people are not receiving support from family or friends so they are at a higher risk for suicide and other self-destructive behavior than gay and lesbian youth.

Utah law doesn’t allow the promotion of homosexuality in schools. Hanson says that when they have approached schools to educate them they often shy away from the training because they’re afraid it’ll fall under the “promotion” of alternative lifestyles.

Scuderi says TEA has had conversations with two school boards. “We’ve contacted most of them, but they’ve either declined or haven’t returned emails or phone calls.”

On campus and elsewhere, the most obvious place transgender people encounter problems is the bathrooms. If a female has male genitalia and goes into the boy’s bathroom she’s more likely to have a problem than using a girl’s restroom.

Another place that is high risk for transgender people is correctional facilities. Currently when someone is picked up they are placed in holding cells based on their genitalia. Because their outward appearance is generally different than those their holed up with, they become easy targets for harassment or worse. Horenkamp said there was a senior officer from SLCPD at the Gender 101 training and he felt it was well received.

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