Fighting for LGBTQ Equality in the Mormon Church — Troy Williams, Gay Missionary

Gay Mormons are caught between faith and freedom. While leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now concede that homosexuality is not a “lifestyle choice,” “homosexual acts” remain a sin in official church teaching. In 2015 the church announced a “policy change” decreeing that children of same-sex parents must wait until they’re 18 to be baptized into the church — and must renounce their parents’ marriage. This policy has created a backlash from Mormons of all stripes who accuse the establishment of trying to force LGBTQ families out of the church.

But like lapsed Catholics or secular Jews, some queer members of the LDS church stay close to the faith because of commitment to family and community.

Utah has the largest population of Mormons in the country and Salt Lake City is home to the international headquarters of the LDS Church. But the state is also home to the highest portion of same-sex couples raising children in the country. Additionally, Salt Lake City has the seventh largest LGBTQ population in the country according to a 2015 Gallup Poll.

The two communities live beside each other but inhabit separate worlds.

Throughout Utah, progressive Mormons and allies are fighting to connect the two worlds. From a “gay missionary” to a Mormon mother raising a transgender son, these are the stories of people leading lives of bravery and compassion showing how modern LGBTQ Mormons and allies can reconcile their faith and sexuality.

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TROY WILLIAMS — Missionary for Equality

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH — Troy Williams has a unique calling: he’s a gay missionary.

As the director of Equality Utah, Williams is a fierce advocate for equal rights, but he’s taken many different roads before finding his true path as a preacher for LGBTQ equality.

Troy Williams fights for change 365 days a year at Equality Utah. Photo: Kelby Vera

Last year, was historic for Equality Utah and LGBTQ rights throughout the state. After the success of the Proposition 8 campaign in California (which was largely funded by the LDS church), tensions between the LGBTQ community and Mormons were at a fever pitch. Equal rights advocates came up with a unique strategy to reach across the aisles.

“We knew that we would never agree on issues of sexuality and marriage equality but we can both agree that no one should be fired or evicted from their home for being gay or transgender. So we said ‘this is it. that’s what we’re going to focus on.’” Williams explains.

That’s how bill SB 296 was born. The bill was written to reinforce Utah’s longstanding anti discrimination legislation that protected citizens from discrimination based on gender, age, race and religion. With SB 296 the existing laws now included sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill faced an onslaught of political and public opposition but SB 296 secured the sponsorship of Republican State Senator Steve Urquhart and bi-partisan support. In an unprecedented move, the LDS church endorsed SB 296 and it was passed in January of 2015. Equality Utah had successfully collaborated with conservative Utahns to make people’s lives safer.

Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City. Photo: Kelby Vera.

“I don’t know if they trusted us, I don’t know if we trusted them, but you have to take a leap of faith and it really was one of the coolest experiences of my life.”

Williams makes a perfect peacekeeper for the unique culture of Salt Lake City. Growing up in an LDS family in Eugene Oregon, Williams remembers learning the church’s strict teachings against homosexuality early on. Just as early, he remembers have feelings for other boys. “At 8 I remember thinking ‘why can’t two boys get married?’ To me, that was just a natural thing.” The conflicted confused him, but Williams’ faith in the church continued.

“I bought into the Mormon line that it’s something that you feel, not something that you are. It’s a verb not a noun.”

He grew up and at 18, Williams embarked on his “mission”. In the LDS Church one’s “mission” is when young men and women are called to serve their religion abroad for about two years. It is seen as a huge rite of passage into Mormon adulthood.

His time serving in England was rewarding but he returned home filled with unanswered questions about his faith and sexuality. After his mission, Williams moved to Utah and doubled-down in his conservative views. He hoped that with time and discipline his queerness could disappear.

Around this time he joined the Utah Eagle Forum, a conservative “pro-family” organization. There he met conservative activist and talk radio host Gayle Ruzicka who introduced him to the ins and outs of politics from a conservative perspective. Ironically, the skills he learned with the Eagle Forum would be essential to his success with Equality Utah.

“She was my mentor. She taught me how bills were passed and how to lobby, how you actually testify in committee hearings. She taught me all of that.”

At the same time, his faith was shifting. Williams was beginning to question some of the historical anomalies of the LDS religion. The more he learned about polygamy, the more it didn’t square with what he was taught in seminary and shared during his mission. Embracing his identity as a gay man, Williams’ political allegiances swung from far-right to the left. Before long, he was an outspoken LGBTQ activist.

“There was a year where I was arrested [for my activism] and the next year I’m actually working with the LDS church to pass this bill. It was kind of mind blowing.”

A proud Williams leads Equality Utah in its battle for justice. Photo: Kelby Vera.

Williams’ journey has taken him away from the LDS church but the church left a unique mark in his life.

“[The church] taught me how to be a missionary. Knocking on doors of people who don’t want me there and you go in and testify your truth anyway. I’m just taking all the lessons they taught me and now I move forward as a gay missionary and queer pioneer.”