Dustin Lance Black: Pillars of Salt


By Dustin Lance Black

"As goes California, so goes the nation.' That, at least, was the conventional wisdom, on which I imagined the leaders of the Mormon Church bitterly reflecting as hundreds of gay couples lined up to wed on June 16, 2008, following an equal protection ruling by the state supreme court.

As a once-devout Mormon from Texas who grew up thinking of Salt Lake City as the promised land, it had taken the fight over Prop. 8 to fully open my eyes to the lengths the leaders of my former church would go to ensure my inequality. And it was why I agreed to narrate Reed Cowan's 8: The Mormon Proposition, a documentary that holds the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints accountable for their political and personal investment in the passage of that iniquitous law.

Still, when Reed called me to share the good news that The Mormon Proposition had been accepted into the Sundance Film Festival, I waited a bit too long to book a ticket and got stuck with a layover in Dallas -- where I found myself thinking back on the antigay testimonies I once heard on Sundays, the stories of shock and reparative therapy, and wondered how someone like me would survive there.

That curiosity got the best of me. By the time the plane touched down in Salt Lake, I'd scrapped my plans to spend the weekend in a posh cabin up in Park City, a half-hour away, and instead dedicated myself to finding out what Salt Lake City was like for LGBT people. How does this perceived hotbed of homophobia stack up? In short, how gay is Salt Lake City?

Troy Williams, executive producer and host of KRCL's RadioActive, is pretty much the voice of progressive politics and gay liberation in Salt Lake City. We'd met at a screening of Milk there 18 months earlier, where he'd assured me the city had a thriving gay scene and was on the front line in the fight for equality.

Williams grew up Mormon in Eugene, Ore., went on a mission to England and Wales, and moved to Utah to start school at Brigham Young University. But when he returned from his mission, he says he was 'terrified of that nascent queerness lurking inside me. I sublimated all my sexual desires by volunteering for the Utah Eagle Forum,' a far-right, antigay organization. Before long, he had become good friends with the chapter president and notorious antigay crusader Gayle Ruzicka.

But ask the blond, all-American Williams if it was hard to come out in Salt Lake, and he responds, 'Hell no! Being queer actually saved me. It saved me from Mormonism. Utah is actually incredible. It provides a great opportunity for cutting your teeth as an activist.'

Which is exactly what Williams has done since coming out, harnessing the energy of the grassroots and becoming the Cleve Jones of Salt Lake in the process. When state senator Chris Buttars made a now infamous statement comparing gays to Muslim terrorists in February 2009, Williams sprang into action. His Buttarspalooza event was not just a protest, but a party -- 'a celebration of Chris Buttars's ability to unite Utah's progressive populace,' as Williams frames it. And his willingness to 'scare the shit out of powerful people' has earned him the ultimate compliment from his former boss: Ruzicka now refers to him as 'a very militant homosexual.'

Then, last summer, an incident on the sidewalk near the Mormon temple -- gay couple Derek Jones and Matt Aune indulged in a quick kiss on what was technically church property -- lit the fuse of an unlikely rapprochement. Church security pounced on the couple, wrestling them to the ground in handcuffs and handing them over to the police.
Williams and his fellow SLC troops again jumped into action. 'We took over church property with not one, not two, but three kiss-in events. We really like to protest, and we really like to make out,' he says. 'Imagine the site of crazy queer people getting it on in the shadow of the temple.' This time the church security stood far away.

The event captured the attention of the national media. Jones and Aune were invited to recount their ordeal on The Colbert Report while Williams and his friend Jay, dressed as Mormon missionaries, made out in the background.

But that's when it all got interesting, as I discovered later that evening at the Red Iguana -- the best Mexican in Salt Lake, said Williams, who wasn't wrong. He'd arranged a meeting with some of the city's other gay leaders. Thinking I knew Williams's brand of activism, I expected a group of grassroots types ready to burn down the Mormon temple. I was wrong. The group at the Red Iguana included Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah; Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Utah Pride Center; Jon Jepsen, a board member of Equality Utah; and Jim Dabakis, cofounder of Equality Utah and the Utah Pride Center.

Over chips and salsa, Dabakis explained that he had been trying to open up a dialogue with the Mormon Church for well over a decade with no success. But after the PR disaster Prop. 8 created for them, he finally got the return phone call he'd been waiting for. 'The kiss-in sparked the first secret conversations with the church,' Dabakis says.

It's hard to exaggerate the breakthrough that call represented. The church wanted to meet at their Joseph Smith building. Dabakis suggested the Utah Pride Center. Eventually, they landed in a progressive Mormon family's home. The first meeting was a revelation, says Dabakis. 'I think it was less hatred and dogma than ignorance. I mean, they just had no clue who gay and lesbian people really are. One of the first questions was, 'What do you want to be called? LGBT? BLT?''

'It was not a lovefest the entire time,' says Jepsen. 'It was on, and then it was off, and then it was on secretly.' But over the next few months, they began to get to know one another on a personal level, eventually even becoming close with each other's families.

The dialogue culminated at Christmas, at the annual Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert -- the Academy Awards for Mormons. 'They not only asked this group [those at the table] to come, but they hand-delivered the tickets to the pride center and equality office,' says Dabakis. And when these four arrived on church property holding their partners' hands, the Mormon leaders didn't recoil or drag them away in handcuffs. Instead, they hugged their partners and walked them all into the VIP section.