As a boy, Troy Williams sought refuge in X-Men comics. The X-Men are outlaw heroes whose unusual powers manifest at puberty. The world persecutes them because they are different. Yet, despite being ostracized, X- Men do their best to protect a world that is hostile to them.
“That premise became a metaphor, not just of my emerging sexuality but also of my life that I would later channel into advocacy,” says Williams. “I clung to those fictional heroes as if my life depended on them.”
Today, he wants to build a co-existing world that includes gay and straight people rather than fictional mutants.
“I trace this goal back to how the incredible X-Men stories wired my brain and worldview,” he says.
From Closet to Capitol Hill
In his 20s, Williams felt that his sexual orientation and religious convictions could no longer co-exist within himself. Yet today, co-existence is among his specialties as he helps create collaborations among LGBTQ citizens, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and state legislators. As a result, he has been able to work with Utah faith communities and a legislature that is 90 percent LDS by building on common ground and engaging with mutual respect. In addition, his well-honed skills in pursuing equality under the law benefit millions of people.
As the executive director of Equality Utah since 2014, Utah’s largest LGBTQ political action and advocacy organization, 53-year-old Williams explains, “Wherever legislation impacts a community, we’re at the table, helping to shape it.”
Williams grew up in Eugene, Oregon, as a closeted Mormon who served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in England.
“I was trying hard to escape this queer thing inside me,” he recalls.
Afraid to be gay, Williams originally came to Utah to attend BYU for a semester.
“I thought the most important thing I could do was go to the land of my Mormon people, and this would all go away,” he remembers. “I felt that accepting it was contrary to my family and faith community.”
So instead, he carried his secret to his first legislative session on Utah’s Capitol Hill. Back then, Williams was an intern for activist Gail Ruzicka, who leads the conservative interest group Eagle Forum. Its right-wing social stance was counter to Williams’ concealed nature. So, he sublimated his sexual orientation into right-wing politics.
“I was denying who I was as a person and rejecting an authentic part of myself,” he recalls.
Yet, being part of Eagle Forum helped him understand the mindset of people who fear LGBTQ equality. “It has helped me understand the lingua franca, which has helped me navigate endless conversations with lawmakers.”
Williams says that, often, conservatives and liberals have entirely different frames of reality, which makes finding common ground challenging.
“We may talk around the same thing yet use different words,” Williams explains. “So, I try my best to meet people where they are and use their language when possible. It’s part of me and so easy to summon when needed.”
Eventually, his inner discord pushed him to an emotional and spiritual breaking point. Then a surge of relief flowed from an unexpected source. One day, his boss tossed an Indigo Girls CD Williams’ way, saying, “This is a couple of lesbians. You’ll probably like them.”
Today, Williams vividly recalls driving down Provo’s University Avenue before pulling over to the side of the road. A profound, peaceful feeling descended as he listened to the duo’s harmonies and lyrics. Williams then understood that God loved anyone who could create such beautiful music and that being gay wasn’t bad. When he read a book by author Joseph Campbell, he learned that “our demons are really just unrecognized gods that become demons because we push them down and try to control them. Then they break free.”
Williams realized what he thought was a curse “was a gift that I could give to the world.” So, instead of being scared to be gay, he began to embrace it.
“When we tap into the core of who we are, the things that we fear and try to suppress about ourselves are often our superpowers,” he says.
The Utah Compromise
It might not be a stretch to say it took a superpower to pass SB296. This ground-breaking bill became nationally known as the Utah compromise.
“What happened in Utah was clearly a miracle,” says Orlan Johnson, Director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the Seventh Day Adventist Church. “Very rarely will you get to see an opportunity where the faith-based, LGBTQ, and business communities all come together and peacefully co-exist.” He adds, “I think that should be the goal of all of us.”
The Utah compromise was “something novel and great that people outside of Utah would never imagine that our state would lead in,” says Williams. SB296 bans employers, landlords, or property owners from discriminating against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It also exempts religious organizations from being required to comply. Creating SB296 was indeed a bipartisan effort.
“Not only were we starting to bring Republicans on board, but we also had our loyal Democrats at our side.” Williams explains, “When it comes to non-discrimination and religious liberty, we are all there together,” he adds.
Utah is one of the country’s most conservative and religious states. “When you are working with LGBTQ rights in a state like Utah, you can’t do it without working with Republicans, conservatives, and people of faith,” says Williams.
Common Ground and Mutual Respect
For half a decade, when Equality Utah worked to establish non-discrimination protections in employment and housing, Williams understood that the heart and core of the negotiations were “to engage each other and always demand common ground and mutual respect.”
Gary Herbert, former governor of Utah and current executive chair of the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce, agrees.
“I’ve learned in my years of working with Troy Williams that we get much better results and outcomes when we listen with mutual respect, don’t blame, and find common ground. This commonality allows us to find mutually beneficial solutions.”
“Finding common ground is at the center of the legislative process. I appreciate my relationship with Troy Williams and his shared perspectives,” says Utah State Senate President J. Stuart Adams. “We all have unique experiences that are worth being heard and understood. For example, while working on S.B. 296 and S.B. 297 in 2015, I felt we were creating a more compassionate state by protecting both LGBT individuals and those of faith. As a result, everyone gained additional protections.”
Banning Conversion Therapy
Williams says Herbert was also instrumental in helping Equality Utah pursue the Utah conversion therapy ban. “He may go down in history as the governor to sign the most pro-LGBTQ bills in Utah,” Williams says.
Along with collaborating effectively, there were moments when Williams and Herbert faced conflict.
“One year, I walked off the suicide task force. Another year, I was arrested after protesting outside his office,” says Williams. “And despite our disagreements and conflicts, Governor Herbert always kept the door open for dialogue. He always insisted that we find common ground. I deeply admire him for that quality.”
After years of failed legislation to ban the practice, Williams views his success in assisting Utah to become the 19th state to ban conversion therapy for minors as one of his proudest achievements. Conversion therapy typically includes quasi-psychoanalytic methods, either in one-on-one or group therapy sessions, to try to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
“To have a state that so deeply identifies with the Republican Party and conservative values step forward and say, ‘No, this practice is life-threatening, it’s harmful, it’s unnecessary, it’s ineffective, and it must stop,’ is a profoundly important moment,” Williams says.
The law passed in 2020, before the pandemic. “It was a difficult year working on that, and it stirred up many difficult emotions,” says Williams.
According to WebMD, medical and mental health experts have rejected conversion therapy practices as dangerous and discriminatory for decades. In addition, conversion therapy is linked to higher rates of suicide, homelessness, and drug use among minors, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Yet, according to the Trevor Project, a national survey of more than 25,000 LGBTQ youth ages 12–24, 67 percent of respondents reported that someone tried to convince them to change their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“I had close friends who went through conversion therapies,” says Williams. “I saw the catastrophic impact on their lives. But, ultimately, I was able to work with Governor Herbert, Governor Cox, and the Division of Professional Licensing to end this odious practice,” he says. He has since received calls from other states looking to follow Utah’s model.
While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints initially expressed opposition, it later supported the professional licensing rule, which bars therapists and counselors from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a client under age 18. A state-licensed therapist who violates the ordinance could face sanctions for unprofessional conduct.
At a news conference, Nathan Dalley, a University of Utah student, said, “This bill means to me that youth will be accepted and protected within our communities.”
Adds Williams, “We have no doubt the adoption of this rule will send a life-saving message to LGBTQ+ youth across our state. Our hope would be, as the state sets the standard, religious institutions or these kinds of ‘pray the gay away’ camps will back away,” he said. Williams credits those who shared their stories of conversion therapy with helping to determine the outcome. “They opened hearts and ultimately changed minds,” he said.
Melting Hearts and Building Bridges
Mindy Young, Managing Director of Equality Utah, has known Troy Williams since 1999.
“It’s been fun to watch Troy go from being a more radical activist in the early days to becoming someone who is wholehearted in his effort to participate and work with people who think differently,” she says. “His whole ethos is that he wants everyone to feel seen. Everyone we look across is our future ally.”
She says Williams’ outlook takes a rare kind of moral fortitude, especially in politics, which is why he has been “so ridiculously successful. People who think they don’t like gays and don’t believe what he is saying start hearing him and respecting him. I’ve seen it over and over.” She said it was “awesome to watch Williams melt hearts” at the Utah Valley Society for Human Resource Management Conference.
A man wearing a BYU shirt raised his hand and said, “As a white man over 50, when you talk about DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) work, I feel erased from this conversation.” Williams replied. “I can sympathize. I’m also a white man over 50, but it takes all of us coming together to do this work.” Young recalls that the event sponsor—a white man over 50—shed tears that night.
Helping the LGBTQ Community Feel Seen, Heard, and Understood
Three years before the conversion therapy ban in 2017, Williams worked to successfully overturn the state’s “no promo homo” law, which prohibited discussion of LGBTQ issues in the classroom. The bill removing the so-called “no promo homo” language was introduced in the legislature after Equality Utah sued the state for what it said was a discriminatory policy. A federal judge stayed the lawsuit pending the outcome of the legislation. Williams called it “a historic day for LGBTQ students in Utah.” He said, “Removing this discriminatory language from the school curriculum laws will send a positive message that all students are valued in Utah.”
Williams has also advocated tirelessly for transgender rights. In a statement, Transgender Education Advocates of Utah said that when transgender people use a driver’s license or identification with the wrong gender marker, it can force them to out themselves daily, putting them at risk for ridicule, discrimination, and violence. Two transgender people, Angie Rice and Sean Childers Gray, came before the court in 2018, stating that many judges in the state had routinely granted sex designation changes on driver’s licenses and other identification. Previously, they were denied sex designation changes by a Utah judge who said it was unclear whether he had the authority to approve it. However, the state did not fight their lawsuit on their second court appearance. The ruling removed legal ambiguity, clarifying that people have the “common-law right” to change their sex designations. Rice and Childers-Gray met those requirements. Williams called the ruling a landmark victory for transgender Utahns. He said, “This is what ‘equality under the law’ looks like.”
At the beginning of 2021, when a bill was introduced to ban trans girls from playing sports, Williams was essential in getting the bill tabled and educating legislators on trans issues. However, another version of the bill was passed in 2022, and several states have passed similar bans.
“Of course, there is so much more for us to do, particularly around trans issues,” says Williams. “We need friends and allies of LGBTQ Utahns to stand up, speak out and help us protect our freedom and families. This situation is a moral test for our country, and we all must rise to the occasion.”
He adds that young people face incredible challenges today, ranging from depression to climate change to fear of violence in schools. “Throw on top of that an alternative sexual orientation or gender identity that politicians mistrust and fear, and young people have to be tough.”
But the good news, Williams says, is that gay and transgender kids are strong and resilient.
“There has never been a greater time to be an LGBTQ youth. There are many support systems now, and unprecedented media representation.”
He adds that young people can build a community of interconnected peers. Williams wants gay and transgender kids to know that “the future is what we create. We can ‘rewrite the stars’ as Zac and Zendaya sing in The Greatest Showman.” Williams concludes, “They don’t have to repeat the fears and failures of the past. They are not victims. They are survivors. They can rise, they can sing, they can soar.”
To learn more, visit equalityutah.org.
► You’ll also like: How an Anonymous Note Brought a Community Together
The Annual Allies Gala
Known as Utah’s Met Gala, Equality Utah’s star-studded annual Allies Gala is Utah’s largest LGBTQ fundraising event. Past galas have featured celebrities such as Robert Redford, Steve Young, Tan France, Dan Reynolds, Laverne Cox, Billy Porter, and Eddie Izzard.
Click here to learn more.