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Gay BYU filmmaker ready to tell his story

Published July 15, 2011 11:01 am

After years in the closet, a gay BYU filmmaker is producing a documentary that balances his sexuality and his spirituality.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Kendall Wilcox traveled recently to what Mormons call the Sacred Grove, where they believe LDS Church founder Joseph Smith received a visionary, divine answer to his burning question about which church to join.

Wilcox, an executive producer with Brigham Young University Broadcasting, "lacked wisdom" of a different kind: why God made him Mormon and gay and how he was supposed to handle the conflict.

"Being the cynical TV producer and having been to the grove before on assignment, I frankly didn't expect much of a personally moving experience," Wilcox recalls. "But I was wrong. It was incredible."

He is still processing the spiritual impressions he received in that patch of trees in Palmyra, N.Y., but one thing became clear: It wasn't time to jettison his faith.

A lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the 41-year-old Wilcox has been the epitome of a good Mormon. He served a two-year mission to Barcelona, Spain, earned a degree from BYU, worked and taught Spanish at the church's Missionary Training Center in Provo for five years, then joined the staff at BYUtvcq, where he has produced documentaries, talk shows and reality-based series.

He did it all secretly knowing he was gay.

Now Wilcox is producing a film, which he is titling "Far Between," that will document his journey to find a place in a faith that gives him no option but a life of celibacy and in a culture that pushes him to reject his religion.

In the process, the Emmy-winning filmmaker plans to ask current and former Mormons, activists and defenders, those in mixed-orientation marriages, gays with longtime partners, writers, scholars, therapists, mothers, spouses and children how they manage that tension. The film's tone will be respectful of all positions and experiences, he says, letting the narrative take him in diverse directions.

This project is Wilcox's effort to rise above partisan debates that often devolve into dogmatic pronouncements on the one hand and political manifestoes on the other.

What everyone needs is a little more empathy, he says. "I'm not a victim, and the church hasn't treated me poorly."

Being gay is not a handicap or an impediment God imposed on some unlucky mortals, but yet another attribute for engaging with the gospel of Jesus Christ, he says. "I am happy to be engaged in this way."

Wilcox intends to explore his sexuality from a position of abundance and possibility, not fear.

"I'm trying to change the conversation and tap into shifting attitudes," he says. "I'm trying to change history."

He's starting with himself.

The tipping point

As a teen growing up in California, Wilcox didn't have a name for his same-sex attraction.

When his mother asked him if he was gay, the then-16-year-old could not connect himself with the stereotype her question conjured up and innocently answered "no," even though he had a crush on a boy at school.

By the end of his Mormon mission, Wilcox sensed signs of homosexuality. He thought he could keep them in check, especially if he remained cloistered in Provo. So he took a job at BYUtv and threw himself into production work.

On one film project, he met a woman who seemed in every way like a soul mate. They traveled the world together, working in 10 countries. But during their 3 ½-year relationship, they never kissed.

Slowly, slowly he acknowledged his sexuality.

A decade ago, his feelings "slipped past my impermeable wall," and he spent one long night crying and praying.

"What if it is homosexuality?" he implored the heavens, and an affirmation "literally rushed in," but with it came "overwhelming fear and burning in my heart."

Given BYU's and the LDS Church's then-strident opposition to homosexuality, Wilcox couldn't go public. So he tried to "get rid of it" in his own private way.

Therapy. Meditation. Self-control.

Finally, he fell hard for another Mormon man. The feelings of love and longing were overpowering. This was the real deal. But the feelings weren't mutual, and Wilcox was devastated when they stopped being friends.

After that, Wilcox thought he could keep work and soul together, but then came LDS apostle Boyd K. Packer's General Conference speech last year, saying gays could "overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impure and unnatural."

The speech lit a firestorm of criticism, with advocates on every side screaming at one another.

Wilcox struggled to find peace through it all. He took a drive in southern Utah, where he considered ending his life. As he pondered, prayed and agonized, one thought kept coming back to him: The only reason to stay alive is for others.

Perhaps, he reasoned, he could change the debate's tone from rage and vitriol to one of respect and empathy.

The way to do that was through narrative.

Putting empathy first

From that experience, Wilcox conceived the nonprofit organization Empathy First Initiative, which emphasizes listening to others' stories without judgment or attack. He also decided to seek out how others had lived with the tension of being gay and Mormon, unfolding his own story as he went.

He began to enlist the help of gays across the nation, through Facebook, blogs, websites, the Mormon social network and friends of friends.

That's how he found Jon Hastings, a Portland-based accountant who is an associate producer on the film.

Like Wilcox, Hastings has dealt with the tensions of being gay and Mormon. Until recently, he attended a Portland LDS singles ward, where he held various leadership positions, but now belongs to a family ward.

Hastings attends church, but told the bishop he couldn't promise never to be involved in a relationship and is, in fact, dipping his toe in the dating pool.

"People assume if you choose to be in a same-sex relationship, then you have no desire to be involved in the church, but that's not always true," Hastings says. "For myself, I would lose something if I didn't try to engage with my spirituality and I would lose something if I tried to ignore or suppress my sexuality."

That's why the documentary project appeals to him.

"When we get lost in the polemics," Hastings says, "we end up missing the point, not ministering to those who are in real need."

Finding the voices

Wilcox feels an urgency about spreading that message.

So far, he is funding the film with his own money, but he has put together a development team that is pursuing grants, foundations, private donors and investors. He is doing this on his own time, making it clear that it is not a BYU or LDS Church project.

Wilcox had been keeping his sexuality a secret at work, then something happened last October to make him believe he could be more open about it — the LDS Church-owned school changed its honor code.

BYU previously condemned homosexual behavior and "advocacy" of it, which was defined as "seeking to influence others to engage in homosexual behavior or promoting homosexual relations as being morally acceptable."

Now all mention of advocacy in this section has been eliminated. It simply says that "one's stated same-gender attraction is not an honor code issue." Only homosexual behavior — which is described as "not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings" — violates the code.

BYU spokesman Todd Hollingshead said this week that the school would not comment on Wilcox's movie or his work status.

"It's difficult for us to make any comments or speculate about it," Hollingshead wrote in an email, "since we know so little about this film."

But the BYU spokesman did point to the honor code's "conduct" section, which says, "Students [and faculty] may not influence or seek to influence others to engage in behavior inconsistent with the honor code."

Whatever the school decides, Wilcox is pressing forward. He already has conducted about 10 percent of the proposed interviews.

While on the East Coast, for example, he met a same-sex couple on their one-year wedding anniversary. They met at BYU, fell in love quickly and, after just two weeks, felt they should marry. Two months after graduation, they moved to Massachusetts and were wed on the grounds of a 17th-century inn on Cape Cod.

"They were sickeningly sweet and totally endearingly in love," Wilcox says. "I came away with lots of mixed emotions. Envious of their young love, yet not sure I could ever attain it or would/should actually get married to another man."

But such couples, he adds, indicate that the time is ripe for this documentary.

"We are at a positive tipping point that so many members of the LDS community have been hoping for," he says. "There are so many closeted, loving and kind Mormons who are dying for their culture to shift just enough that they can come out and say they love and support their homosexual brothers and sisters."

And they can affirm, he says, that they also love and support their religion.

pstack@sltrib.com

Nonprofit seeks to build understanding

O Filmmaker Kendall Wilcox created the nonprofit Empathy First Initiative to help improve conversations about homosexuality and other issues. Go to empathyfirstinitiative.org or the group's Facebook page.