“Mormonism Created Me”
Williams is also a different kind of Mormon, albeit now an ex-Mormon. A radio producer at KRCL, writer and “queer thinker,” Williams has participated in numerous protests against the LDS Church. A returned LDS missionary, he says, “If it weren’t for Joseph Smith and his golden plates, I wouldn’t be here. Mormonism created me.”
His religion left an indelible mark on him: “The most beautiful thing about Mormonism is that it cultivates a deep sense of belonging and community,” he says. “I was lost for years without that.”
Williams became inactive in the church about year after his mission. More recently, he met his boyfriend at one of the kiss-ins on Temple Square in 2009, sparked after a gay couple was detained by LDS Church security and later the police for kissing on the Main Street plaza.
“I was a keynote speaker who was standing in the crowd,” Williams says, recalling how he and his boyfriend met. “I needed someone to kiss, and I found the cutest guy there and grabbed him and kissed him. He has been my boyfriend for three years.”
While he has found happiness in a relationship, he struggles to remain close with his parents. “This whole gay thing has caused such a wedge in my relationship with my father. We talk regularly but are not close. He knows nothing about my life. We have a very shallow, superficial relationship, and he doesn’t know how to process the fact that he has a gay son. I don’t want other kids to feel ostracized from their parents like I have been.”
The activist’s anger with Utah politics and the state’s dominant religion is quick to bubble to the surface. “We can’t gloss over the fact that the Mormon church has been aggressively anti-gay for decades,” Williams says. “There was shock therapy at BYU, counseling gay men to get married—which is abusive to both the man and the woman—and political campaigns all across the country in which they aggressively attacked the gay community.
“The divide has been so volatile,” Williams says. “After Prop 8, 3,000 people surrounded the Temple. And it isn’t just the church—it’s the Legislature. People like [former West Jordan Republican Sen.] Chris Buttars and [Eagle Forum president] Gayle Ruzicka have been attacking gay people for years, using their religion as a motivation and excuse.”
People Are Ready for This
“To truly heal the divide, we all agreed that we needed to march together. It was a wonderful convergence,” says Williams of his meeting with Munson. “But we knew there would be people on both sides who would question the appropriateness of their parade presence. There could be reprisals at wards and stakes.”
“[Mormons Building Bridges] chose to march on their own,” says Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Utah Pride Center, the sponsor of the annual festival and parade. Coincidentally, someone on the other side of the rainbow was making a wish for a group like Munson’s. Dustin Lance Black, the award-winning screenwriter of the movie Milk and a former Mormon, was invited to be the parade’s grand marshal. He phoned Larabee asking if there could possibly be any Mormons to march with him at the front of the parade. Larabee says she replied: “I’ve got some!”
Munson had purchased a slot for her group that was about 80 entries back in the parade. Larabee moved them up front, right behind Black, who, as grand marshal, would ride in the first parade car. “We realized there might be a little pushback around [the Mormons being first],” Larabee says. “But what I saw on the parade route was tears.”
Larabee reflected on the many judgmental comments spoken about LGBT folks by political and religious leaders over the years. “You can be an adult and hear these things and attribute them to the fear and ignorance of the people who are saying that,” Larabee says. “Young people who don’t have enough life experience to acknowledge that will think ‘I’m bad, and I’m wrong.’
“I’ve heard stories of rejection and have seen the cost of that rejection from the Mormon faith. Once I decided [the Mormons] should march at the front, I never wavered once. … When I saw the size of that contingent, I started to cry. So did Lance Black.”
Black says it was a brave thing that Mormons Building Bridges did. “Seeing the Mormons march at the front of the Pride Parade was like a physical, visual and emotional manifestation of all of the work that the Mormon church and LGBT community have done over the last three years. Now, when I go all over the country talking about how it is possible and what it would look like, we have images for the first time, and it looks very loving.”
Munson hoped three things might happen at the parade: She wanted other active Mormons to see them marching in church clothes, carrying signs containing lines from scripture and hymns. “I thought they might think, ‘Maybe I can be a friend to a gay person who is not coming to church anymore,’ or, ‘Maybe I can make church a welcoming place.’ ”
Second, she wanted the gay non-Mormon community “to see that those people who come streaming out of the conference center want to say, ‘We love you, and we are not as narrow-minded as you thought.’ ”
And third, she wanted to reach out to Mormon youth, “because that is where we have the suicide rate. A lot of those kids are gay LDS kids, and they think that God doesn’t love them, and their parents think they have to kick them out of the house.”
Munson told her bishop about her plan. “I expected him to be kind of uncomfortable; he’s kind of a straitlaced guy. But he said, ‘I think this is wonderful.’” She put the idea out to friends on her e-mail list, asking if anyone wanted to march. “The response was huge. I ended up with 300.”
Mormons Building Bridges also marched in the Boise, Idaho, Pride Parade two weeks later.
“What was surprising was we were there to show love for the gay community, and we felt so much love back,” Munson says. “People are ready for this now—on both sides.”
Rattling the Temple Gates
Williams says that many were suspicious of their softer stance and efforts to interact. “I was suspicious, too, but you have to take the risk, if the potential is that we can heal this community. It’s worth taking the risk. Even though Erika [Munson] might be mocked in her ward, and I might be mocked in the gay community for acquiescing to the church, do we want to be peacemakers and create a safe society?” Williams asks. “On the path we are walking, there is going to be backpedaling and wild turns and bumps in the road. ... A horrific statement could put us back a few steps, but you do not stop moving forward. You have to keep going.”
Harsher critics included university professor and self-professed atheist Gregory A. Clark. He wrote in a guest column in City Weekly that Mormons Building Bridges offered gays only pale emotional support. “But let’s not kid ourselves in overanxious gratitude for the least bit of acceptance,” he wrote. “In reality, many of the MBB’s faithful fall right in line with the church’s positions on homosexuality, gay rights and same-sex marriage.” In other words, the position that such behavior is sinful and an abomination, meriting (in biblical times) the death penalty.
Clark particularly took issue with the MBB’s skirting of marriage equality.
But Williams says the stakes are too important not to try to work together. “When you look at [the LDS Church’s] political muscle, you know that we have to work for change; otherwise, they will just bulldoze over the rights of gay Americans—especially with young people growing up with the idea that the love in their hearts is an aberration and an abomination. They go to extreme measures of suicide, self-loathing and self-punishment. That is what we cannot tolerate. Mormons and gays have to work together to change that.”
Should the church launch another Prop 8-style political campaign against the gay community, however, Williams vows he will again protest against the church. “I will rattle those temple gates,” he says.
Meanwhile, the LDS Church, when asked to comment, declined to answer City Weekly’s questions in response to Mormons Building Bridges. Instead, LDS Church spokesman Cody Craynor referred us to links on the Mormon Newsroom site that spoke to the importance of being kind, the fact that the church supports nondiscrimination regulations in housing and employment in Salt Lake City, the importance of celibacy if one has same-sex attractions, and the Mormon ethic of civility.