When Troy Williams returned from his Mormon mission to Great Britain in 1991, he wanted to continue the sacred work of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He wanted to apply his zeal to fight for the values the church holds dear, including patriotism, opposition to abortion, and the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.
Williams, raised in Eugene, Ore., moved to Utah and soon became an intern for the Eagle Forum, led by Gayle Ruzicka, possibly the most powerful force for conservative values in the state.
But under the surface, Williams' life was spinning out of control.
Williams, who had baptized 10 converts to the LDS faith, finally had begun to acknowledge that he is gay. "I had sublimated my sexuality into religion, as Mormon gays usually do."
In the past year, Williams, the young man whom Ruzicka trained as a political activist, has become famous nationally for his gay-rights work - as an organizer of the "kiss-in" rallies that embarrassed the LDS Church, the cheeky "Buttarspalooza" at the Capitol that protested by celebrating the homophobia of state Sen. Chris Buttars, and as co-creator of Sister Dottie, the voice of Mormon motherhood as portrayed in drag by actor/gay activist Charles Lynn Frost.
Out, the national gay magazine, and local leaders have labeled Williams, 40, the "gay mayor of Salt Lake City" and the "Harvey Milk of Utah gay politics."
Williams, who began his gay activism as a producer on KRCL community radio, reached the acme of exposure for a young activist when he appeared last year in a Stephen Colbert send up of the LDS Church's kissing ban on Main Street Plaza. (Williams and his partner, whom he met at a kiss-in, portrayed a pair of smooching missionaries.)
But it had started out so differently.
"He loved what we were doing," Ruzicka remembers of Williams. "I'm very fond of Troy. He was a great worker."
Williams now recalls the time with revulsion. "I owe a lot of my education to her. We worked on so many projects, it was a blur. Abortion was a big issue then. I found myself swerving to the other side."
Williams met with Utah conservative demigod Cleon Skousen, but he also attended Sunstone, the conference of Mormon intellectuals, and visited polygamist fundamentalist churches. He was bouncing back and forth between Eugene and Provo hating his job as a real-estate appraiser. By 1998, Williams had come out to himself and was attending the University of Utah, where he would earn degrees in anthropology and filmmaking. He also was losing his religion. Within a year of coming out, the zealous returned missionary formally resigned from the LDS Church. "It's like peeling an onion," he says. "I held onto the Gold Plates. Then I held onto Jesus. Then God. Each thing starts to fall away."
By the turn of the new millennium, Williams felt he was a new person, "saved" by his gayness. "Being gay rescued me from the Mormon church, from conservatism, from the Eagle Forum," he says, laughing. "It saved me from living in the suburbs."
Ruzicka learned of her protégé's new life through a 2008 guest opinion article he wrote in The Salt Lake Tribune in which Williams "praised" her and Buttars for energizing Utah's gay-rights movement. "The simple truth is that every minority group needs a cranky xenophile on the Hill, and Buttars knows how to get the job done," he wrote. "Utah's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population has never been better-organized, funded and effectively trained in political action."
"I thought, ‘Wow!'?" Ruzicka remembers. "I knew he was leaning toward making some changes in his life, but I didn't know he had any enmity towards me."
Ruzicka says she holds Williams dear. "You don't quit caring for someone because they've made some lifestyle changes and says some angry things about you."
And Williams still holds Ruzicka in the highest regard, at least as a formidable opponent. "Gayle is brilliant at what she does. She is a refining element for feminism and gay-rights activists - she's actually doing the Good Work. Without her aggressive demonizing of queers, feminists, liberals, we would be more lazy about our work."
Another milestone came when Ruzicka described Williams in an Eagle Forum alert as a "militant homosexual." He delights in arguing issues with his former mentor when he bumps into her at rallies and protests. "I like to provoke and have fun with her," he says. "It's a friendly thing. She always says, ‘I love you, Troy' when it's over."
Clashes from within
Williams' ongoing development as an activist has also led to clashes with older and more conservative leaders in Utah's gay community. In particular, Williams and other young activists question what they see as their elders' obsession with being accepted by the LDS Church or at least reaching an accommodation.
Williams fears that marriage equality, repealing the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays and negotiations with the LDS Church are really about gay men trying to regain the traditional male privilege they lost when they came out publicly as homosexuals.
"[Mormon gays] give up even more," Williams says. "You are giving up your promised godhood. All of a sudden, because of this quirk of nature, you've lost it all."
Williams, himself, would settle for indifference from the LDS Church. "All I want is for the Mormon church to back off and get the hell out of politics," he says. "I don't want a temple marriage. I just want to live and let live. I will stand in opposition to anyone trying to take away [Mormons'] civil liberties. Let me have mine."
Activist Michael Westley, a former Salt Lake Tribune reporter raised as a Catholic in Utah, knows this gay Mormon conflict well. "The indoctrination into the LDS Church runs very deep. And many of its gay members, when they find they are not inside that circle anymore, yearn for it. That yearning is a very big piece of being a gay Mormon. How do you turn that off?"
Taking up the torch, to burn the bridges down
Longtime gay activist Jim Dabakis, who is involved in ongoing meetings with representatives of the church, counts Williams at the forefront of Utah's "young turks." Troy is "pure energy. That's why they call him the gay mayor of Salt Lake City."
Dabakis adds: "These guys are young and impatient and pushy and much more media savvy than we ever were. In the '70s, we would take fliers for early Mormon gay groups and put them on windshields at [LDS Church] Conference, then run away. That was our kind of activism. They are more sophisticated. They are not only picking up the torch from us - they are burning down the building."
Though Williams' extreme politics irritate some gays and lesbians - he admits having had his share of clashes with other gay leaders - the Utah community seems determined to live up to the unity for which it won praise in a recent Out magazine article. "The groups here in SLC are putting into action what many of the national organizations haven't even figured out yet - that the infighting must stop and coordination and cooperation must begin," wrote Dustin Lance Black.
The national spotlight: What's next?
Nobody, it seems, has anything bad to say on the record about Williams. The rare exception is actor/activist/former Mormon missionary Steven Fales, who recently referred to Williams as "big fish-little pond Brother Williams." The comment followed Williams' dismissal of Fales' autobiographical play "Missionary Position" as "cutting-edge 20 years ago."
Dabakis says the more venerable gay and lesbian leaders wholly support the younger activists as an important part of getting the church's support for local anti-discrimination laws that have been passed in the past year. "It makes the establishment much more comfortable in dealing with us when they see these other guys out there."
"There are those [among young activists] who would see us as sellouts," Dabakis says. "But I sense a wonderful chemistry and a willingness to work together."
Williams agrees: "In politics, you need people who are rattling the cages and people who are building bridges. I've always been better at burning bridges."
Westley says nearly everyone agrees Williams' turn in the national spotlight is deserved. "It's great for all of us that Troy is getting attention. He has integrity for what he does and he shares. He shows up. Who cares whose name is on it?"
Williams won't discuss future projects, though he is energetically pursuing several, including a screenplay. "I'll be dissecting the Mormon experience - hopefully, in smart ways."
Right now, he's coming off a recent triumphant trip to the Toronto Film Festival and the premiere of "Tabloid," a documentary film by award-winning filmmaker Errol Morris of "Thin Blue Line."
"Tabloid" chronicles the strange days of Joyce McKinney, who shocked Mormons and delighted scandal newspapers around the world in the 1980s when she kidnapped a Mormon missionary in England and held him as a "sex slave." Williams appears in the film to explain Mormonism to a worldwide audience.
"This has been the best year of my life," Williams says of his involvement in "Tabloid," the cameo on "Colbert Report" and that prominent mention in the Out article written by Black, Academy Award-winning screenwriter of "Milk," who compared Williams to international AIDS activist Cleve Jones.
Reaching across with Sister Dottie
But what might become the most enduring legacy of Williams is his work with Charles Lynn Frost in creating Sister Dottie of Spanish Fork, a star of radio, YouTube video, then stage. The satirical concept is based on Frost's own Mormon mother.
Sister Dottie, who tenaciously clings to her LDS religion and her gay son, was first embraced by the gay community as pure Utah camp. Then, Frost and Williams noticed a change in the audiences at their follow-up play, "The Passion of Sister Dottie."
"I was looking out on rows and rows of middle-aged women who looked just like Dottie," Frost remembers. "I think it's because Dottie says, ‘I don't have to throw my gay child out because of my religion.'?"
Few members of Williams' family have completely accepted his homosexuality, especially because it put him at odds with their church. His parents adopted a "don't ask, don't tell" denial that remained a wedge in their relationship. But shortly before his mother died late last year from breast cancer, something had changed.
"She told me the gay stuff just didn't matter to her," Williams recounts. "She just worried that my life could be endangered because I was gay."
Oddly for Williams, who espouses a confrontational "queer politics," the character of Sister Dottie is an attempt to reach out compassionately to the Mormon community, who have historically claimed the biblical label as a "peculiar people."
"I've been hard on the church," Williams says. "Dottie was my attempt to reach across. I want Mormons to see their own queerness, their own strangeness. ‘Queer' and ‘peculiar' have the same dictionary meaning."