Gay ex-Mormon campaigns to lead the Navajo Nation in ‘Moroni for President’

(Photo courtesy Obscured Pictures) Moroni Benally is profiled in the documentary "Moroni for President."

“Moroni for President” is about a gay man, raised as a Latter-day Saint, who ran for president of the Navajo Nation. And it’s a lot more about the Navajo part of the story than either the gay or faith aspects.

“That’s what I liked about the film in the end — highlighting that gay, Mormon piece was also just highlighting the different ways that one can be Navajo,” said Moroni Benally, a Salt Lake City resident who’s the subject of the film.

What began as a graduate-school project by filmmakers Saila Huusko and Jasper Rischen was expanded to a full-fledged documentary that debuted on the film festival circuit earlier this year and was screened at the Utah Pride Festival in June. On Tuesday, it airs as part of the PBS World series “America Reframed.”

It's primarily about three months in the life of Benally as he ran for president of the Navajo Nation in 2014. He comes across as smart, funny and frustrated that his good ideas don't translate into votes.

(It’s not a spoiler to say that, no, he doesn’t win.)

Benally tries to stay focused on what some call his “radical” ideas of overcoming “colonization” and adopting new strategies to deal with the federal government and not on his sexuality, which is an “open secret.”

“There are far more important matters right now than me saying that I’m gay,” he says.

“Moroni for President” doesn’t ignore that he’s gay and ex-Mormon, however. “I will have no first lady,” he says with a laugh. “It could just be a cost-saving measure for the Navajo Nation,” he adds, because the president’s spouse receives funding from the tribe.

ON TV • The “America Reframed” presentation of “Moroni for President” premieres Tuesday at 6 and 10 p.m. on PBS World — Channel 7.2 over the air in Utah and Channel 390 on Comcast. The documentary repeats on PBS World on Wednesday at 6 a.m. and noon; Saturday, Nov. 24, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 25, at midnight, 7 a.m. and 3 p.m.

And the filmmakers followed Benally on a visit to Salt Lake City’s Temple Square.

“It brings back lots of fond, warm memories,” he says, along with “some highly unresolved thoughts and feelings” of how he would go there to “plead with God that he would heal me.”

Benally says he was 27 when he stopped trying to change himself — stopped visiting therapists and leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At one point in the film, church missionaries show up and Benally quickly exits.

While Benally is at the center of the documentary, it also features two other gay Navajos who work for two of his opponents — LGBTQ activist Alray Nelson, campaign manager for former president Joe Shirley Jr.; and Zachariah George, executive assistant to then-incumbent Ben Shelley. George’s mother says on camera that homosexuality is against the Navajo tradition — she calls it “disgusting,” “nasty” and “weird” — but Benally and Nelson dispute that.

“There were a lot of issues in terms of uneven understandings about the Navajo traditional perspective on what it means to be gay or queer,” Benally said.

He didn’t exactly jump on board when Huusko and Rischen first approached him.

“I was kind of suspicious when they reached out to me out of literally nowhere,” he said, concerned that they might fall into “standard tropes of framing Native Americans in very stereotypical ways. I didn't want that to happen.”

He was eventually convinced the filmmakers were committed “to telling the story as much as possible from an indigenous perspective. … They used my story and the tribal elections as kind of a vehicle to explore a lot of these really messy issues about identity. There’s just all these tensions even within the community itself. And it didn’t try to force on the viewer an idea or a picture of what Navajo life is like.”

Including what it means to be Navajo and a Latter-day Saint, “because oftentimes people will see those as antithetical.”

While overall, he’s pleased with the documentary, Benally admits he winced a few times when he first saw the finished product.

“They did capture what I feel were embarrassing moments, but others have interpreted as endearing moments,” he said.

Like when his mother calls him “a gift from Heavenly Father,” followed immediately by footage of Benally getting knocked down by a sheep. “That was a little embarrassing,” he said with a laugh.

Or when he’s caught on camera dancing at an event he sponsored for LGBTQ Navajos. “But in the end, I think they just captured my life,” he said.

Benally grew up on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico and Arizona. In Salt Lake City today, he’s the coordinator for public policy and advocacy at Restoring Ancestral Winds, a nonprofit tribal coalition that addresses domestic violence and sexual assault.

He’s also the co-director of the Utah League of Native American Voters, a board member of the conservation group Western Resource Advocates, and, as director of the Navajo Nation’s Division of Natural Resources, he worked to facilitate the tribe’s involvement in the push for the Bears Ears National Monument.

More than four years later, Benally said he has no regrets about his 2014 run. (He chose not to run in 2018.)

“My running made me a high-profile figure in the Navajo Nation,” he said, and his work with the tribe resulted in policy changes “that I think have made the Navajo Nation a little better.”

And in Utah, he’s led efforts to get the Salt Lake City Council to declare Indigenous People’s Day on Columbus Day and adopt a resolution in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

“I can just kind of see all that domino effect as a result of running,” Benally said.