On the Road to Marriage Equality in Mormon Country

Members of Mormons Building Bridges march in Salt Lake City pride parade, 2012. Photo: Jay Jacobsen

Earlier this summer, Imagine Dragons lead singer Dan Reynolds gave us an up-close look at the uphill battle for LGBTQ rights in the Mormon community. In the HBO documentary Believer, the alt-rock vocalist took viewers through his personal struggle to reconcile his commitment to LGBTQ equality with the many homophobic views embedded in Mormonism, his faith since childhood.

The Mormon church has been on a slow road to reform. It still asks gay and lesbian Mormons to deny their sexual orientation and enter “mixed-orientation marriages” — or choose celibacy. Its official website uses the phrase “same-sex attraction,” suggesting that sexual orientation is not a fixed status but a feeling, something as malleable or trivial as their favorite brand of shoe. That is a step forward, though. In the past, gay and lesbian members would simply be excommunicated as soon as their sexuality was discovered.

In Utah, religious influence is a fixture that is written into the geography of the capital city.

Reynolds himself is heterosexual and could have quietly sidestepped the issue, but he couldn’t ignore the toll the church’s views took on people. He saw it early on when a childhood friend, who was gay and Mormon, was confined to the closet. As an ally later in life, he met people who shared devastating stories, like that of a Mormon couple who lost their gay son to suicide.

Believer follows Reynolds as he promotes tolerance and acceptance through what he knows best: music. Along with Neon Trees singer Tyler Glenn, a former Mormon who is openly gay, Reynolds organizes the LoveLoud Festival, a benefit and awareness-raising event. The festival was held in Orem, Utah — a city that is 93 percent Mormon — in the hopes of bridging the Mormon and LGBTQ communities. At the festival, the camera turns to the attendees. Viewers see parents embracing their LGBTQ children. They hear testimony from LGBTQ adults, who tell how events like this could have helped them out of the isolation and depression they felt growing up.

From Concert Stage to Courtroom in the Fight for Equality

While a rock festival can win hearts, minds are often won in real-life legal dramas. Another documentary that is out this month, Church & State, turns the cameras to an earlier fight for LGBTQ rights in Mormon country — one that took place in the courts instead of a concert venue.

Though same-sex marriage was legalized nationally in 2015 with the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, that case was preceded in the early 2010s by numerous smaller legal battles for marriage equality in state supreme courts and federal district courts.

Those state-level efforts picked up speed in 2013, as the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor overturned the narrow definition of marriage embedded in the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The same year, in a less legally decisive but still significant case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling against Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage in California. Within months of those two cases, more than two dozen states saw favorable rulings for marriage equality, and within a year, 44 percent of Americans lived in a state that recognized same-sex marriage.

Even with that momentum, though, there was one state where hope would face a hard test. In Utah, religious influence is a fixture that is written into the geography of the capital city, where streets are numbered based on their distance from the Salt Lake City Temple. In Arizona’s neighbor to the north, more than 60 percent of the population is Mormon, and the rigid views on gender and sexuality that are common to mainstream Mormonism are deeply entrenched.

For Arizonans, the City of Mesa might shed some light on the high hurdle Utah presented in the fight for marriage equality. A 2014 study named Mesa the most conservative of all U.S. cities with a population of 250,000 or more. Once Hohokam land, the city became a Mormon settlement in the late 1800s, and though its Mormon population has declined significantly — from 50 percent a few decades ago to 8 percent today — what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in civic engagement. Mormons, some research has found, exceed the national average in voter participation and political involvement. At the time that 2014 study was published, Mormons, in spite of their modest numbers (then about 13 percent of the population), held three of Mesa’s seven City Council seats. Statewide, it’s a similar story; in Arizona’s 2008 Republican primary, Mormons represented 11 percent of electorate, even though they were only 4 percent of the state’s overall population.

Holly Tuckett and Kendall Wilcox, who directed Church & State, knew from up-close experience the unlikely odds that were at play in Mormon country. Both have lived in Utah and been involved in gender and LGBTQ issues for much of their lives.

Tuckett has spent most of her life in Salt Lake City, where she has put her energy into numerous local, national network, and cable TV productions. In addition to her own work, she has been dedicated to promoting gender parity in the film industry through her involvement in the organizations Film Fatales and FEMME (short for Females Empowered by Movie Making Experiences).

Wilcox, who today is openly gay, faced the difficulties many gay Mormons do during their youth, not understanding how their sexuality can coexist with their faith. He spent adolescence and early adulthood in the closet, immersing himself in faith and work to avoid confronting who he was. He took to film production and worked for Brigham Young University’s broadcasting department. It was there, while working closely with a woman he hoped might be his soulmate, that he realized he was in denial about his sexuality. After more than three years, in which the two of them traveled together extensively, they never even kissed.

As Wilcox resolved internal struggles, however, public tensions took over. Amid controversy, he was terminated from his BYU career of 13 years, in what he called “an increasingly hostile work environment.” Thereafter, he co-founded an organization called Mormons Building Bridges, which promotes acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ people in the Mormon community.

The War over Marriage out West

For their film, Tuckett and Wilcox give significant screen time to Kalamazoo College professor Taylor Petrey, an expert on the history of Mormonism and sexuality, who was himself raised in Utah and the Mormon church. According to Petrey, after Mormons began moving from their polygamist roots in the late 1800s, they took cues from conservative evangelical Christians as they gave new shape to their views on family, sexual identity, and the social issues surrounding them. Their views, in turn, have had a big influence on politics in Utah and the Western United States.

That influence could be seen both in Utah’s own same-sex marriage ban — known as Amendment 3, which became law in 2004 — and in California’s. From Gallup to The Hill, pollsters and papers often name California one of the most liberal states in the U.S., but the conservative Proposition 8 was able to pass, in large part, because of out-of-state funding. Months before the election, the Los Angeles Times reported that at least 39 percent of the money backing the ballot measure was coming from outside of California.

Conservative Mormons, both inside and outside of the state, were among the biggest funders behind Proposition 8. The church itself put $190,000 toward the cause. Among notable individual donors was Alan C. Ashton, grandson of a former church president, who gave $1 million to the campaign. Another $17.67 million in contributions came from 59,000 Mormon families. Collectively, Mormon contributions were reported to make up as much as 77 percent of total funding for pro-Proposition 8 efforts.

As Proposition 8 was being challenged in the Supreme Court, back in Utah, a group of plaintiffs, represented by attorney Peggy Tomsic, took the fight against Amendment 3 to the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah. The plaintiffs, Derek Kitchen, Moudi Sbeity, Karen Archer, Kate Call, Laurie Wood, and Kody Partridge, filed their suit on March 25, 2013, and by the end of the year, theirs would become the first ruling on a same-sex marriage case following the Supreme Court’s decisions in the Proposition 8 and DOMA cases.

As The New Yorker put it, a victory for marriage equality “was not widely anticipated” in the Amendment 3 case, known as Kitchen v. Herbert. On August 12, 2013, the state of Utah issued its formal response to the lawsuit’s filing, maintaining that marriage refers strictly to the legal union of a man and a woman — and, without clarification or specification, added that this strict definition “is rationally related to a legitimate government interest.” The response also denied that LGBTQ people are a protected class whose rights require “heightened scrutiny.” Months later, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert requested a summary judgment in the state’s favor, arguing that the interests of “responsible procreation” provide adequate grounds for denying marriage rights to same-sex couples.

In what many called a surprise ruling, however, District Judge Robert Shelby decided in favor of the plaintiffs on December 20, 2013, mincing no words when he stated, “The state’s current laws deny its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in doing so, demean the dignity of these same sex couples for no rational reason.” Shelby’s ruling would have made Utah the 18th state to recognize same-sex marriage — but the case would go into months of appeals.

The film crew behind Church & State was embedded with the plaintiffs and lawyers during the initial trial and the long process of appeals, capturing the personal stories behind a case that people on both sides of the issue, in Utah and beyond, were watching closely. The appeals would finally end on October 6, 2014 — finally delivering a victory to the plaintiffs and to marriage equality in Utah — and the following year, Obergefell v. Hodges would legalize same-sex marriage nationally.

Laws, though, tell just one part of the story. The individual journeys of the people affected by those laws, and the often rocky journey to change in the surrounding culture, can give depth and character that a legal history can’t — and can provide meaning and inspiration for the battles for justice still ahead. For those who wish to follow those journeys through the lens of the Amendment 3 case, Church & State opens in select theaters on August 10. Believer can be seen on HBO and HBO streaming services.