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.”

Media influenced Native American voters

by JESSICA DUNN

The Black Eagle family of the Crow Tribe adopted president-elect Barack Obama, whose new name is “One Who Helps People Throughout the Land,” during his visit to the Crow Nation in Montana on May 19, 2008.

Obama was the first presidential candidate to visit the reservations of the Crow Nation. He was adopted in a private ceremony, and then he gave a speech ensuring Native Americans that their well-being is a priority to him.

He promised to honor the government-to-government relationships and treaties, to appoint an American Indian policy advisor and to host an annual summit with tribal leaders. Obama also vowed to improve trust funds, education and health care for reservations all over the country.

“I want you to know that I will never forget you,” Obama said in his speech to the Crow Nation. “You will be on my mind every day that I am in the White House.”

Obama’s visit and speech had an impact on the early support from Native Americans.

“I think people were impressed with his commitment he showed by just going to the reservation,” said Harlan McKosato, the host for Native America Calling, in a phone interview.

Native Americans overwhelmingly supported Obama by more than 80 percent, according to a poll conducted by Native Vote Washington, a voter advocacy group based in the state of Washington. And like most demographics this election, voter turnout for Native Americans also saw an increase.

“Before a lot of people didn’t vote because they said it didn’t matter who was in the administration because things didn’t change for Native peoples. They were treated the same and ignored the same,” said Donna Maldonado, general manager of KRCL. “The tribes saw promise in Obama. … I think he is our hope for the future.”

Native American support can be attributed to many factors, including Obama’s promise of change and better voter education overall.

Change

Obama has promised change to the Native American community. And while most are skeptical about promises made by a politician, a lot of people think he can change things, McKosato said.

Native Americans see Obama as someone they can identify with because of his diverse heritage, said Ella Dayzie, executive director of the Indian Walk-In Center in Salt Lake City, in an e-mail interview.

A follow-through on those promises will first be seen through Obama’s appointments within his cabinet and other positions. He has promised to create an American Indian advisor position to better meet the needs of the Native communities. Obama has also proposed an annual summit with Native American tribal leaders.

“With a Native American cabinet chair, the hope is that the U.S. government can now be well informed about the special set of challenges American Indians face, from issues of sovereignty to access to affordable health/behavioral health care,” Dayzie said. “One cannot ignore what is in front of him/her daily.”

Obama has already named six Native Americans to various transition teams. Mary Smith, Mary McNeil and Yvette Roubideaux have been assigned to work on justice, agriculture and health issues respectively, and John Echohawk, Keith Harper and Robert Anderson will advise Obama on changes within the Interior Department, according to Change.gov.

Obama has also promised money towards improvements for Native American health care and education. His economic and infrastructure development plan includes an increase in the federal minimum wage and adequate funding for the Indian Housing Block grant, according to the First Americans Fact Sheet at Obama’s Web site.

Obama’s promises to Native Americans created greater interest in the election within the Native communities. Voter education on the issues and candidates also influenced voter turnout.

Voter Education

Voters had a vast amount of information at hand about the election, from the newspaper and television to the Internet and YouTube. Most of the sources contained general information on candidates and issues. However, some programs focused on Native American issues and voting.

KRCL-FM is a public radio station in Salt Lake City, Utah, founded in 1979 as a community radio station where all issues could be discussed. KRCL has always been committed to having diverse voices on the air, said Maldonado general manager of KRCL.

Various ethnic groups, including Native Americans, have had airtime since the beginning. Today, the Native American slot is on Sunday mornings. Native America Calling, a live call-in program based in Albuquerque, N.M., that discusses issues specific to the Native American community, is rebroadcast on KRCL at 6 a.m. And, at 7 a.m., Living the Circle of Life plays traditional powwow music and contemporary American Indian music from local and national artists.

Native America Calling is an hour-long program that airs every weekday at 1 p.m. Eastern time on select stations. The program’s topics range from financial issues to a book of the month. During the presidential campaign, the program evaluated the topics and candidates from a Native American point of view.

“Native [America] Calling on KRCL helped in bringing news/reports about the issues that matter to Native American voters,” Ella Dayzie said.

Some of the election topics included discussions about political parties, Native veterans, women’s vote, young voters and planning for Election Day. The program also talked about the reaction to Obama’s win and discussed the promises Obama made to Native Americans.

Native America Calling has had full phone lines each time the election was discussed, said McKosato, the show host.

“People were more interested in this campaign than ever before,” he said.

Native America Calling helped get the issues out to Native Americans. The show used politics related to the community to spark an interest in the election and get people motivated to vote. 

AIROS Native Radio Network also used the radio and Internet to give Native American voters a voice. AIROS is an all-Indian Internet radio that is broadcast 24 hours a day through web streaming. It had audio, video, news articles and podcasts covering the election from a Native perspective. AIROS reporters used their stories to link Native communities to the election. They covered the 2008 Native Vote Initiative campaigns, presidential candidate rallies and Native American support.

The National Congress of American Indians expanded its Native Vote Initiative this year in an aggressive campaign to get more Native Americans to vote. The 2008 initiative had four core plans: provide training to educate, engage and mobilize voters; ensure fairness of voting laws and protect Native voters; educate candidates on issues important to Indian Country; and get the Native Vote message to media and the general public. Volunteers from tribal communities visited with people, even going door to door, to educate individuals about issues and help them register to vote.

“The NCAI’s Native Vote team has done a great job on getting the ‘vote’ out and educating the American Indians about both parties so that [they] can make an informed decision,” Dayzie said.

The End Result

Obama’s goals and promises to better Indian Country have brought a new hope to Native Americans. And due to a focus on the Native American voters and issues, Obama now has the opportunity to keep his promises to them and people all over the United States.