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An interview with Equality Utah’s new executive director Troy Williams

‘This isn’t quite the life path I envisioned for myself when I was a 19-year-old Mormon missionary knocking doors in England,” Troy Williams told the crowd of over 2,000 gathered at Equality Utah’s annual Allies Dinner last month. “Or when I came home from my mission and I was so scared of being gay that I became an intern for the one organization where I thought I would be safe – The Utah Eagle Forum. Gayle [Ruzicka] had no idea she was training the future director of Equality Utah. Obviously, I’ve come a long way since then.”

Indeed, Williams’ life path leading him to head the state’s largest equality organization for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans* and ally community is not what one would expect, even in his more recent life travels. How can a man who has seemingly been more comfortable barking behind a megaphone replace the more soft-spoken and nuanced outgoing director, Brandie Balken? Can the man who was among the protesters blocking access to a committee hearing at the Utah State Capitol now sit at the table with the legislators he was calling to task in that same building?

Yet, perhaps this is exactly what Equality Utah needs to transition to in the face of marriage equality being the law of the land in the state. Equality groups across the nation are in the process of reshaping and retooling to address the continuing need for progress in the LGBT movement in a time where many may believe that the fight is over.

If Utah’s community believes the fight is over, the Utah Legislature will certainly put an end to that fallacy at the next session in a few short months. Several ideas for bills have already made headlines in the state, including one that would recognize same-sex marriages as something different than their counterparts, even using a different term: “pairriage.” So-called religious liberty bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country and will certainly be introduced here. And what about Equality Utah’s flagship cause — a statewide nondiscrimination bill protecting LGBT citizens from discrimination in housing and employment?

As I sat with Williams before the Allies Dinner for this interview, he was contemplative and seemingly awestruck that just the night before he had received a call that he was chosen as Equality Utah’s new executive director.

He also seemed ready and eager for the challenge. As we spoke, it was obvious he knew what would lie before him as the group rolled out his name and the community would weigh that decision in their own minds, and in some cases, in social media.

“It will be a very different Troy” that we would see at the helm of EU, he said.

Hey Troy, thanks for taking this time to speak with me. I know it is a roller coaster ride for you at the moment. Tell me what you think the board of Equality Utah saw in you that they wanted to tap for the organization? What I hope they saw in me is someone who has a deep passion and commitment to the LGBT community who is willing to go the distance and secure or rights.

So obviously we are on the precipice of marriage equality. What is your vision for Equality Utah’s future. Well, there are so many things that Equality Utah is doing right that we are going to continue, which include training lobbyists, drafting legislation, community education and outreach, working with our transgender brothers and sisters. We are really looking at the future and what the future will be after a marriage victory, and that is going to require us to come together as a community to bring our best minds forward and really craft what our movement will look like, moving into the future. Wherever we go will be a collaborative effort. It won’t be me deciding where we are going, it’s all of us together.

We have the legislative session coming up in a few months. How do you see the group addressing that? I think it’s critical that we always have a presence at the legislature, that we continue to lobby our elected representatives, that we tell them our stories, that they get to know us as human beings and that they meet our families. So, we will have a strong presence on Capitol Hill every year.

The more that they get to know us, the more that fear drops away and we are able to move things forward.
How do you think the group and the community will need to respond to the possible scenarios that will play out on the Hill? The organization and we, as a community, need to be nimble. We need to be able to pivot and be prepared for any scenario. All that come through a collaborative effort — bringing our best minds together, working with our national organizations, and actually crafting a winning strategy. So we don’t quite know what scenario is going to play out, but we have to be ready for all of them.

What would you tell people that may think you are not the right personality for this job because of your background as an activist? You know, our movement was kicked off by Latina drag queens during the Stonewall riots, and yet we’ve also seen the eloquence and thoughtful presentation that Peggy Tomsic gave before the 10th Circuit Court, and we know that all of those voices are critical to our movement. What I can say about myself is that I have had many experiences in my life, and many phases. I was a Mormon missionary, I was an intern for the Eagle Forum, I’ve been an activist and I’ve grown and evolved throughout the years. When look back at the community over the years and the tempers that were raised over Amendment 3 and the Prop 8 debates, for a Mormon kid who deeply loves his faith, the conflict between our two communities really hurt. I felt estranged from this loving community that raised me, and I think my experience is similar to a lot of other people in the community. But I had this really awesome experience in 2012 when I started working with Mormons Building Bridges and we had that great Pride Parade. I recognized what I wanted to believe — that there were many active Latter-day Saints who wanted to love and care for their gay and transgender family and friends. And that really melted my heart in a big way. I recognized that not only can we work together, we have to work together in order to shift the state. So, I’m really excited for that. It’s part of my own personal evolution. I love my faith community again, and I thought that was something I would never again experience. That gave me a lot of hope for the future.

How do you see yourself working with the community going forward? What’s really critical is that we all come together. The message that we can all put forward is that we can all coexist, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, a Mormon or an atheist, gay or straight or transgender, what we share in common is so much greater than our differences. That is the most important message we can put out right now.

The Utah Legislature is the most conservative group of people in the state — much more conservative than their constituents. How do we work with them? Are they not just a lost cause? What I do know is that gay and transgender children are born into even the most super-conservative of families. There are always entry points to reach out and connect with people even with people who you think are ideologically opposed to you. We have just got to find that common ground. It’s the most essential work that we do. We must reach out to people who are different than us and show where we connect.

Think of the idea of shared values. Gays and Mormons, or gays and conservatives, however you want to break it down, we all share a love for families and friends. We all share a love for living in safe neighborhoods and going to safe schools. We all want to contribute back to society. If we can connect on those levels, I think we can overcome a lot of the divisions between us.

What do you think the role of rights groups such as Equality Utah is as we move forward? At the end of the day, what we are asking for is equal protection for gay and transgender Utahns. It’s all about giving people a shot at the American dream. And we want people of faith and those who may disagree with us to enjoy those rights as well. We need that same courtesy in return. Q

Photo: David Newkirk

Michael Aaron

Michael Aaron is the editor and publisher of QSaltLake. He has been active in Utah's gay and lesbian community since the early 80s and published two publications then and in the 90s.

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