This Utah LGTBQ+ activist aims to protect his community by breaking bread with GOP lawmakers

Since joining Equality Utah as its executive director nearly a decade ago, the LGBTQ+ rights activist has made unlikely allies as he has worked to protect his community.

Republican delegates in plaid button-ups, blue jeans and, occasionally, Trump 2024 hats swirled around a convention center in Orem on an overcast Saturday morning in April, waiting for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to deliver a speech that certainly would promote his state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and its ban on gender-affirming care for transgender youth.

Nestled between tables representing some of Utah’s most powerful GOP politicians and conservative groups, the head of Utah’s most politically active LGBTQ+ advocacy organization offered handshakes and cold cans of Diet Coke while vying for delegates’ attention.

Not everyone welcomed the jovial Troy Williams, who handed out pamphlets with the words “FINDING COMMON GROUND” in bold on the front, followed by the declaration, “We are not as far apart as you might think!”

In the days leading up to the Utah GOP’s annual convention, conservative pundits criticized the state party for allowing Equality Utah to purchase a table there for its third year — the last two being in 2016 and 2018, Williams said.

One woman, after politely accepting a brochure, threw it in a trash receptacle as she walked away. But some of Williams’ interactions with delegates seemed successful in finding that common ground he was looking for.

“What’s the proposition?” asked one delegate from rural Millard County as he passed by the booth.

Williams told him that although Equality Utah doesn’t always agree with the Utah Legislature and leadership of the state’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its aim is to come together with them to find solutions that make life better for everyone. He recalled a bill passed in 2015, commonly known as the “Utah Compromise,” which offered protections against discrimination for the LGBTQ+ community, while also safeguarding religious liberty.

“I like the approach,” the delegate said, nodding, before moving on to the next table.

Before the convention, Williams said he and Equality Utah’s staff role-played these conversations, and prepared for the more uncomfortable ones, too.

One of Utah’s most recognizable LGBTQ+ activists, Williams hasn’t always been so interested in forming relationships with the conservatives who often propose policies that could harm his community. But in the near-decade since taking the helm of Equality Utah, Williams has evolved, embracing efforts to engender understanding between the two sides — and, in some cases, has been able to mitigate the impact of bills that carve away at his and others’ rights.

Political disruption to compromise

Just months before he was hired as the executive director of Equality Utah, Williams, while calling “Liberty and justice for all,” was taken out of the Capitol in handcuffs with a dozen other activists. They were protesting the Legislature’s refusal in 2014 — just after a federal court struck down Utah’s ban on gay marriage — to hear a bill that would prohibit housing and workplace discrimination against LGBTQ+ people.

A former Latter-day Saint missionary whose first job in politics was with the hyper-influential conservative group the Eagle Forum, Williams’ advocacy has oscillated and evolved. A pendulum no longer bouncing between extremes, he now describes himself as “politically fluid,” saying his “voting record and affiliation has been bi-political.”

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune LGBT activist Troy Williams is arrested along with other supporters after blocking the doors to Senate committee room 210 at the Utah state Capitol on Monday, Feb. 9, 2014, in an effort to bring attention to anti-discrimination bill SB 100 with hopes of a hearing.

The last time Williams was profiled by The Salt Lake Tribune, in 2010, he said, “In politics, you need people who are rattling the cages and people who are building bridges. I’ve always been better at burning bridges.”

But with age and the weight of his role overseeing the group whose vision is “A fair and just Utah,” Williams said he has found that he’s more effective in adopting “compassion and civility and kindness” toward his adversaries with the hope that LGBTQ+ people will receive it in return.

“I’ve been the far right, I’ve been to the far left and then the rabble-rouser who was arrested,” Williams said during an interview at the Capitol this spring, continuing, “It’s one thing to be an agitator, which has its role, and it has its importance to be out there with the bullhorn and the marches and the rallies. But then it also requires a different skill set to come in and actually persuade people to consider voting yes on your bill. And you know, no one’s going to be persuaded by being called a bigot or a hater or a fascist.”

Back at the GOP convention, Williams spotted state Rep. Jeff Stenquist, a Draper Republican. They smiled at each other, and warmly grasped hands as they began exchanging good-natured banter.

“See, we like each other,” Williams said, and Stenquist replied, laughing, “Yeah, we can get along, stuff like that.”

In February, Stenquist introduced legislation that, in Equality Utah’s words, “copied and pasted” from a Florida bill widely known as “Don’t Say Gay.” It would have banned any discussion of sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms.

Two days after the bill was numbered, Stenquist and Williams sat down to talk about finding a middle ground on the legislation, which was being vocally opposed by LGBTQ+ advocacy groups.

Stenquist amended the bill that same day, but the new version was never discussed in committee.

“There were people who helped me understand that there could be issues with talking about families,” Stenquist told The Tribune at the time. “There could be a student who has two moms. Or a teacher might refer to her partner.”

Now, Williams jokes about calling and harassing Stenquist, “but in a charming way.”

“Troy’s never really had to harass me before, this is like the first time where I’ve stirred up the hornet’s nest in certain areas, so that’s a new thing for me,” said Stenquist, who has been in the Legislature for four years. “I’ll go back to working on boring stuff.”

Stenquist wasn’t the only lawmaker to propose a bill this last legislative session impacting the LGBTQ+ community that led to phone calls from Williams.

Some, like a bill that modified the rules surrounding conversion therapy, ended in a way that gained the support of all stakeholders. Others were disappointing to Equality Utah and LGBTQ+ people, like a bill that effectively banned gender-affirming care for transgender youth.

In all cases, though, lobbying efforts by Equality Utah led to legislation that wasn’t quite as harsh as it might have initially been.

Rep. Michael Petersen’s, HB228, “Unprofessional Conduct Amendments,” sought to modify a conversion therapy ban passed in 2020. It would have weakened the prohibition, narrowing the definition of conversion therapy and exempting written or verbal communication from it.

While Petersen, R-North Logan, said the rules on conversion therapy were so restrictive mental health professionals couldn’t do their job, Equality Utah worried the bill offered a loophole to reinstate the practice widely seen as damaging to LGBTQ+ kids’ mental health (Williams quit a suicide task force in 2019 when then-Gov. Gary Herbert supported changes to an earlier bill meant to ban conversion therapy).

After talking with Equality Utah, Petersen changed the bill to allow mental health professionals to provide care to minors seeking information about sexual orientation or gender identity in a “neutral” way.

That victory, Williams said, is the one from the last session he is most proud of, and credited Senate President Stuart Adams, House Speaker Brad Wilson and Gov. Spencer Cox with “encouraging us to get around the table and work together.”

The bill passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate.

“When you protect the rights of others, your rights actually are strengthened,” Adams, who was one of the chief sponsors of the 2015 “Antidiscrimination and Religious Freedom Amendments,” told The Tribune. “And when you diminish the rights of others, many times your rights are diminished and that’s been the case for a lot of different issues.”

When meeting in the middle isn’t mutual

Equality Utah’s concerns about bills like Stenquist’s, Petersen’s and others throughout the session may have been heard and taken into account, but Williams said it was shut out of the conversation on one bill that’s already having a substantial impact on some of the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ+ community — kids.

Coming to the table to meet the subset of people whose lives are being regulated in the middle, Williams said — “That’s what didn’t happen with the (transgender) medical ban.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Troy Williams of Equality Utah reacts to a statement by intern Ari Webb, which was read by Sen. Nate Blouin, D-Salt Lake City, as the Senate gives final passage to a bill aiming to crack down on the ability of doctors to prescribe hormone therapy for minors who are transgender, at the Capitol building in Salt Lake City on Friday January 20, 2023.

“Transgender Medical Treatments and Procedures Amendments,” or SB16, was introduced by Sen. Michael Kennedy, R-Alpine, to limit gender-affirming medical treatments available to transgender youth.

It passed just 10 days after the start of the legislative session, and Cox signed and enacted the legislation the next day (most bills, unless they were passed at the end of the session, waited weeks for a signature).

The law bans surgeries on minors if they are intended as part of a sex change, and enacts an indefinite moratorium on prescribing hormone treatments for new patients. During that pause, the Utah Department of Health and Human Services is studying the scientific data on the use of those medications.

The initial version of SB16 banned gender-affirming care for transgender kids without the possibility of it being reinstated following a review, but after multiple substitutes, it left open the possibility for future adjustments.

“We had differing ideas that weren’t able to be resolved,” Adams said. “But even in that piece of legislation, it’s substantially different and a much better piece of legislation from the dialogue we’ve had.”

Even after that dialogue, most people who opposed the bill from the time it was filed still were not on board. It passed without the support of any Democrats, who were joined by some Republicans in voting against it.

Although there was a line added to the bill that says the Legislature will consider researchers’ recommendations when discussing whether to lift the moratorium, without a deadline for the study or a guarantee that lawmakers will re-examine their decision, LGBTQ+ advocates like Williams have said there is no substantive improvement.

The only openly LGBTQ+ member of the Legislature, first-term Rep. Sahara Hayes, D-Millcreek, stood on the House floor to urge her colleagues through tears to “put a pause on this bill, and find a better way forward.”

“At the end of the day, you’ve got a room full of cisgender people who are making decisions that impact the trans community without any direct representation,” Hayes told The Tribune. “I still think we have an issue where people are writing laws and voting on things the way that they think they should be, not necessarily the way that the communities impacted think they should be.”

Hayes said she would like to see more proactive action in proposing and getting policies passed that help LGBTQ+ people — not just attempts to minimize the harm on the community session after session. For her part, she introduced a bill that would have provided insurance coverage for gender reassignment surgeries for state employees and their beneficiaries. It never made it out of Rules Committee for debate.

In the face of SB16′s passage, Williams hasn’t given up hope. Sometimes, he said, the end of the story looks much different.

He pointed to Utah’s Constitutional Amendment 3, passed in 2004, that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman and was struck down in federal court nearly a decade later, forcing the state to recognize same-sex marriages. And when he was arrested for insisting the Legislature consider anti-discrimination measures, they were passed in the “Utah Compromise” the next year.

“As we are in the midst of these contentious political battles, and we are experiencing losses, I don’t know that these losses aren’t going to be what ultimately leads to our victory down the road,” Williams said. “And in that, I am wired to be a perpetual optimist.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.