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May 29, 2019 News » Cover Story

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  • Phil Roeder via Wikimedia Commons

United We Stand
CNN's W. Kamau Bell on Mormonism, passing the microphone and being a diversity surrogate.

By Kylee Ehmann

W. Kamau Bell is a comedian and host of the Emmy Award-winning CNN documentary series United Shades of America, where Bell explores the cultures and challenges facing different communities across America. In the upcoming episode "Out and Proud in Salt Lake," airing June 2, Bell and his crew explore the often contentious relationship between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and SLC's growing LGBTQ community.

Before you came to Utah for this upcoming episode, what was your understanding of Mormonism in general?
I think I had a pretty thin understanding of Mormonism. I did see

The Book of Mormon, but I didn't expect that to be a primer in the religion. But, you know, I grew up during the era where you saw The Church of Latter-Day Saints commercials on TV when you were watching cartoons, but I actually didn't really know that was the same thing as the religion of Mormonism until later in life. So, I think I had a pretty thin understanding, but maybe more than most, just because I'm a naturally curious person. But I think I had only knowingly met one Mormon in my life before we went there.

You mention a few times in your episode that a lot of religions have a strained relationship with LGBTQ folk. What was it that got you and your team interested in focusing on the relationship between Mormonism and LGBTQ folk in particular?
I think it's because when you think about Salt Lake City, for most of us who don't live there, we think about the Mormon religion. And then you think about the things connected to that—Donny and Marie Osmond. That and skiing. And then every time I would talk to people from there, they would say it's way more diverse than you think, it's actually got a really burgeoning LGBTQ+ community, and then you're like, how does that work? So, one thing the show I think does really well, is that we go investigate and talk about those things. To go to Salt Lake City, and maybe just talk about the religion, you'd be missing another huge story, especially now that Salt Lake City is not majority Mormon anymore. For me, I was really excited to actually meet and talk to Mormons and learn more about that religion, but then also this other story, the growing LGBTQ community. And also, the thing that I understood before I went there was oh, there's a growing LGBTQ+ community and it sounds like oh, happy LGBTQ+ people, but then when you realize, what about people who are born into the religion, or people who are Mormons who are LGBTQ+, what is their experience?

Were you nervous at all to approach an episode that was so centered around religion—especially one that isn't super well-known to those outside of it?
I mean, I'm basically nervous for every episode. This one I was nervous because there's so much going on in it. If we had just done an episode about the religion, I think I would have been less nervous. But the show is only 42 minutes long, so we're really trying really to pack a lot in and tell a lot of different stories and have a diverse cast of people tell those stories. And also, I was nervous about, as I say in the episode, Mormonism is one of the few religions that you can feel free to make fun of and Mormons are generally like, 'OK'—whereas other religions can get litigious about it. So, I didn't want it to look like I was coming in to make fun of their religion and the faith, whether I agree with different tenets of it or not. I felt extra-sensitive about really trying to make sure that it didn't look like I was coming in to take cheap shots that people have taken with the Mormon faith a lot over the years.

The episode shows a lot of the joy and resilience of Salt Lake City's LGBTQ population and a lot of the pain many have suffered from the LDS church. How did you and your team go about striking this balance in such a short amount of time?|
We interviewed a lot of people, and a lot of stuff didn't make it in the episode. Then we sat back with all the pieces we had and we're, like, OK, what is the best version of this? What tells the best version of the story? For this one we had like, four or five different versions of the episode. We kept going nope, that's not it, move that around here, take that over here. It really becomes like alchemy. Like, Dan Reynolds [of Imagine Dragons] is an outside presence so, you don't want to hear from him right away, because then it weights down the whole episode. But then you also don't want to wait too late and feel like we're giving the straight, cisgender white guy the last word. So, it's like, where do you put the rock star? I had a great conversation with [ex-BYU and NBA basketball player] Shawn Bradley and his wife, but we just didn't have time for it in the episode, so it'll go up online. And that was a painful cut, because I was really excited to talk to him and didn't want him and his wife to think I wasted their time.

Dan Reynolds is in the episode quite a bit. What was it like hanging out with a rock star in a space like Encircle?
I think he did a really good job. We sort of walked into Encircle and once we sat down with the young people, he did a good job of knowing how to be quiet. I think he's aware of his presence as a rock star, and I think he's probably even gotten feedback that maybe he's taking up too much space. It's hard when you're a person of note and you want to help, because it's very easy to sort of make it look like it's all about you, and I think he did a good job of trying to make it not about him while at the same time, what's the point of having all this fame and fortune if you're not going to help people and help shine a light?

You talk a lot about suicide among Utah's LGBTQ youth while visiting Encircle, and that's a hard topic to cover respectfully in such a short amount of time? How did you approach this topic to avoid dipping into sensationalism?
Trying to be sensitive and trying to not be exploitative, and also trying to let the people tell their own stories and stay out of the way. I think the best thing I can do on the show is pass the microphone to people and let them tell their version of the story and just be there to help the story get out. So, I think a lot of the time, the less I talk in things like that, and the less spiel I do, the better it's going to be. If it feels like I'm telling too much of the story, then it's not going to come off well. Don't always be a comedian trying to make a joke, don't always try to get to the next question. Let people talk.

Speaking of Encircle—you spend a lot of time with groups like New Tribe, Mama Dragons and Encircle. Why did you want to focus on groups like those that bridge between Mormonism and the LGBTQ population instead of ones that are more focused on just the LGBTQ community?
This is the challenge of every episode. You know, there should be a weekly series just about these issues in Salt Lake City, you know what I mean? We decided to focus on specifically the intersection of this religion, which has an outsized presence in this town, and this community, which has a growing presence in this town and also has members who feel like they don't know where they fit or feel comfortable in their faith anymore, or are sometimes kicked out of the faith. Certainly, there are LGBTQ+ people in Salt Lake City who are just living their lives—but even those people, like what we talked about in the coffee shop with the one barista, end up somehow having intersections with the faith, because it has such an outsized presence in the town. The challenge is that you cannot tell all the stories in 42 minutes, but you do want to be at least accurate to the stories that you're telling.

You seemed to approach so much of your visit to Salt Lake City with such an open-mindedness, but was there anything about Salt Lake City's LGBTQ community or Salt Lake City in general that surprised you while you were visiting?
I really enjoy cities that don't feel like carbon copies of other cities. In America right now, because of capitalism, everybody's got a Chipotle, so you know, things can start to seem very same-y. So, the thing I like about Salt Lake City is the thing I also like about New Orleans, is like, this feels different. You know, like when you walk into the bar and there's a sign that tells you all the different alcohol things and what you're able to do there. I like cities that make me pay attention in a new way.

Also, I want to be clear about the fact that yes, every major religion that I can think of has its own issues and has not done a good job of embracing the LGBTQ+ community, but these are the issues that are specific to this religion. I don't want to just forgive, but I also don't want to act like that Mormons are the only ones. Dan [Reynolds] says this is a religion that can actually update its operating system, and I think that's an important thing to know about. Because not all religions are able to do that. Even since we left there's been some updating of the operating system, but it certainly doesn't go far enough.

What did you personally get out visiting with Salt Lake City's LGBTQ community?
You can go online and read about this stuff, but until you're standing in the New Tribe dance space and dancing with people and laughing and learning how to whack, like it's very different than just being at home and watching it on TV. And that's why I'm glad to sort of be the surrogate for the people who are watching, like I'm just throwing myself into it. I didn't expect to see a lot of people of color there, and to hear right off the bat like no, no, no, we got a lot of people from the Pacific Islands. So, for me, that was like the first thing that I did when I got to town, like, oh this is not what I expected. Unfortunately, I think many people in America see 'this is not what I expected, run,' or 'destroy it,' and I'm a big fan of 'this is not what I expected, let me sit down and learn something and keep my mouth shut.'

I understand this is a national show and your audience is everyone, but is there anyone in particular you hope watches this episode?
I hope the members of the church who are maybe the most suspicious of it actually watch it. You know, I think there are probably people who are going to assume that they know what the episode is going to be about because I'm some sort of West Coast, black, leftie comedian who is going to make jokes about their faith. And I hope that they sit down and watch it, because I believe there are things about their community that they will learn. And on the other side, I hope members of the LGBTQ+ community feel like I did right by them in this episode. We've talked about the LGBTQ+ community a lot over the course of the show, but we decided to actually define the letters. That was a big deal to go like, let's stop assuming that everybody knows this. You know, that's one of the best things about this show is that it's

Sesame Street for grownups. So, I hope that people feel like we didn't exploit them, and I hope that people feel like they actually were, as my friend Alicia Garza, the one who co-founded Black Lives Matter, says, not an ally but co-conspirators, that I'm in the fight with them.

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