Search form

Scroll To Top

Dustin Lance Black: Pillars of Salt


"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 Cowans 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, Id 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: THE MILITANT HOMOSEXUAL Troy Williams, executive producer and host of KRCLs RadioActive, is pretty much the voice of progressive politics and gay liberation in Salt Lake City. Wed met at a screening of Milk there 18 months earlier, where hed 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 Buttarss ability to unite Utahs 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 thats when it all got interesting, as I discovered later that evening at the Red Iguana -- the best Mexican in Salt Lake, said Williams, who wasnt wrong. Hed arranged a meeting with some of the citys other gay leaders. Thinking I knew Williamss 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 hed been waiting for. The kiss-in sparked the first secret conversations with the church, Dabakis says. Its 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 familys 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 others 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 didnt recoil or drag them away in handcuffs. Instead, they hugged their partners and walked them all into the VIP section. For Larabee, that invitation represented a complete change of heart. But not everyone feels that way. People are really suspicious of it as well, says Williams. A lot of the reaction was, This is amazing, but a lot of it was great mistrust. Many suspected the church of maneuvering to dilute the ugly press it had received after Prop. 8. But when the Salt Lake City Council debated a nondiscrimination ordinance offering protections for same-sex couples in medical care, hospital visitation, and insurance rights, Williams and his colleagues saw an opportunity to test the churchs commitment. They insisted that a neutral stance from the church would be unacceptable this time around. Last October, the church made history by publicly supporting the ordinance, a shift that maybe only those raised in the Mormon Church can fully appreciate. As Jepsen puts it, When the church came out in support of the ordinance, they were giving Latter-day Saintsnot only in Salt Lake City and in Utah, but across the countrypermission to be in favor of these basic rights. Dabakis jumps in excitedly. Before the church gave their statement, 17% [of people in Utah] were in favor of antidiscrimination. The Deseret News [SLCs major newspaper] did a poll afterward, and it was up to 69% within days. It was the perfect storm of activism, says Williams. It was the angry protests around the temple, it was the arrest of Matt and Derek. It was Equality Utahs amazing response. All of us were working on different levels, and it finally cracked. I really think its a model of how activism should and could work. NIGHT FALLS The sun was going down as we walked out of the Red Iguana, and Williams steered me off politics with, And did you know Utah has the hottest queer guys in the country? Two of his friends were having a party. When we got there, the place was filled with gay men and lesbians: a photographer, a journalist, a political aida lot of different occupations, but one overriding theme. Everyone there was young and attractive. I started asking if everyone there was from Utah, and one young gay man, Josh Moon, said no. Hed grown up in Fort Worth, Texas, but moved to Utah to be closer to gay Mormons. I felt really outcast in Texas as a Mormon kid, he says. I was tired of feeling alone and different, so I moved to Salt Lake. Now he wants to work for state senator Ben McAdams, who replaced senator Scott McCoy, an out gay legislator who stepped down. Moon thinks that people like McAdams -- a straight, white Mormon who is totally ahead of the curve on LGBT rights -- represent a progressive shift in the state. It seems hard to believe, but one look at McAdamss platform makes it clear that there is such a thing as a devout Mormon in favor of full gay equality. Matthew Landis is one of the few on the other side of his 20s. One thing about Salt Lake City is that most people move away at 25, he says. Youll notice that its very, very gay but very, very young. Very, very gay? Landis nods. Ive lived in the gayest cities -- New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Miami. And I would say its probably gayer than most of them. I work in Provo, Utah, now, and it will fuck with your gaydar, because you cant tell who is or isnt because theyre clean-cut and like show tunes and ballroom dancing. There are a lot of similarities between Mormon culture and gay culture, and I think thats why it thrives here. I was skeptical. It was time to see this gay culture firsthand. First up was Babylon, a dark, spacious club with a glass-walled balcony upstairs for the lurkers to peer down on the dancers. And it was true, the crowd was young -- even younger than the folks at the party. It was more of the same at Club Sound. As the night wore on, it seemed there was no end to gay hangouts in SLC. I visited a lesbian bar called Paper Moon; the Trapp, with a local, hometown feel and an older crowd; and a queer-friendly hipster bar called W Lounge. But I was happiest at Club Jam in the Marmalade District, Salt Lake Citys gay neighborhood. A new bar, it had struggled for some time to open its doors, running up against opposition from neighbors at city council meetings. But this was the gay district, right? Who were all these housewives with nothing better to do than spend every day in city hall? After some head-scratching, they figured it out. It turns out the new bar was surrounded by the homes of members of a well-known family that still practices fundamentalist Mormonism. Polygamy. So it wasnt all the families in the neighborhood against them. Just one big one. Club Jam is small but well designed, with a fantastic beer bar and flat-screens everywhere. On this night, they were having a launch party for a new Salt Lake City business venture -- a gay porn site, When I asked to meet the sites founder, a handsome, clean-cut man introduced himself as Paul. Like others, Paul has found his own subversive way to take on the church in the wake of Prop. 8. He knows that Mormons are in a bind: If they object to his Sean Codystyle pictorials of supposed Mormon boys, he gets publicity and the site gets traffic. As the night wore on, the venues spun past ever faster. At Pure, the citys big Saturday gay nightclub -- bigger than any Ive been to in New York or Los Angeles -- young, polished Mormons, cute lesbians, and some fabulously aggressive trannies cut it on the dance floor like there was no tomorrow. Downstairs in the under-21 section, a Latina drag queen called the crowd into action. I want to see all of you queens up in Park City tomorrow to demonstrate your support for 8: The Mormon Proposition! The crowd roared. Word was out. I snuck upstairs to the over-21 area, filled with couches, table service, privacy curtains, and flat-screens. The music was great, and I settled in for a drink. But within seconds, a dazzling blonde tranny sat down next to me with a bottle of champagne and asked what the hell I was doing in Salt Lake City. I said, I want to know how gay it is. She laughed, Have you seen Mormon boys? Theyre like the British -- even the straight ones seem gay! This was Principessa Kennedy, Salt Lake City royalty. Born and raised in Salt Lake, Kennedy is the youngest of seven children from a devout Mormon family. Childhood was typical, except that I knew I was different, she says. Not only in sexuality, but I have identified as female from my earliest memory. It took moving to San Francisco for her to find kindred spirits. I learned that I could be the person who I am, which is a trans. One of the original Trannyshack queens, Kennedy has done shows with Pansy Division, the Scissor Sisters, and Cher, and yet here she is, back where it all started -- home. Now she writes for three mainstream newspapers in Salt Lake City. Im impressed with how Salt Lake has grown since I left in 93. To accept my voice is incredible, but we still need outsider help. Salt Lake City Gay Pride is just around the corner, and I, for one, would love to see every gay in the nation here. SUNDANCE Sunday came. Premiere day for 8: The Mormon Proposition, and I drove up the mountain and met the films executive producer, Bruce Bastian. This is the man who for decades has generously funded almost everything LGBT in SLC -- and many other things beyond. From Williamss progressive radio show to Equality Utah and the Utah Pride Center. At first, his story seems a common one here. A handsome, devout young Mormon man marries, but then comes out, decides to live openly, and is rejected by his church and family. But Bastians story takes a brave turn. Unlike the vast majority of gay people in Utah, he didnt leave; he stayed to fight. Hes been using his wallet and his mind to support LGBT activism both here and nationally ever since. Bastian and I got out of the cold and joined the films director inside the theater. The place was buzzing. We found our seats in the jam-packed audience, and right before the lights went down, so did San Franciscos mayor, Gavin Newsom, the man who sparked the modern LGBT marriage fight. So how gay was Utah all of a sudden? Very. When the film ended and the credits rolled, there were audible tears and a three-minute standing ovation. A woman stood up and told the audience that she was a devout Latter-day Saints mother, and wanted everyone there to know that not all Mormons hate gay people, that in fact, many, many of them love gay people and believe they deserve equal rights. The applause was thunderous. But I was happy for another, more personal reason. I grew up Mormon. I still have Mormon family, and I know that all Mormon people dont feel the same way about gay people as the leadership of the church. I was moved that this woman had the courage to let her dissent be heard. Afterward, though, I got the cold shower I had been afraid of. At a discussion panel, a leader of a national LGBT organization disparaged the contribution of our young and burgeoning grass roots movement. They dont really show up, he said. They dont really do anything. And I was reminded of Brandie Balkens final thoughts at our Red Iguana dinner: There are a million voices within the LGBT community, and theres a place for each one. I think thats the thing thats helped us shimmy forward. I was ready to get back to Salt Lake City for one last night. Williams picked me up, and we headed to the state capital building. An LGBT equality rally was scheduled to take place in the giant rotunda. As I walked in, I was impressed by the size of the crowd. It filled the grand space, but more than that, a quick look revealed transgender people, African-Americans, radical queers, conservative gays, a punk kid sitting next to an affluent, suited member of the local Human Rights Campaign, butch dykes sitting next to hungry twinks. The people in the room crossed all barriers of class, gender, and race. Williams read my grin right off. Never underestimate the power of Mormons to bring people together. Utah queers are tight. And what I took away from it was that all the talk I heard at the Red Iguana two nights earlier was not just hot air. There truly was something special going on here in Salt Lake City. Something unique. It looked to me like collaboration. LOOKING BACK I checked my luggage at the airport, but I didnt want to go. I wanted to be there when other municipalities finally start passing similar equal protection ordinances. I wanted to be there to watch Equality Utah make inroads into communities we never could have anticipated a year ago, to see the Pride Centers Family Acceptance Program put into action so Mormon kids wont get thrown out of their homes when they come out, and to see Jim Dabakiss dream of a Mormon-funded youth homeless shelter become a reality for all of those who do. So as my plane took off and I looked back out my window, I had a very different feeling in my heart. I got the feeling that the groups here in SLC are putting into action what many of the national organizations havent even figured out yetthat the infighting must stop, and coordination and cooperation must begin. That we must harness the energy of the young grassroots and the wisdom of our established organizations and reach out to those who fight against us the hardest. We must introduce ourselves, communicate, and make cracks in their long held homophobic policies. And as the city grew smaller outside my window I thought, Damn it, Principessa Kennedy was right. I, too, want to see 10,000 LGBT people jam Salt Lake Citys 2010 Gay Pride with their support, their sweat, their tears, their voices, and their love. 8: The Mormon Proposition is in theaters nationwide June 18.Send a letter to the editor about this article.
Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Dustin Lance Black