Open Heartedness: Five Questions for Troy Williams of Equality Utah
Equality Utah is the state’s LGBTQ advocacy organization, with a mission to make sure Utah’s laws include and protect the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transsexual/queer community. Equality Utah is a partner organization with EDCUtah. We caught up with executive director Troy Williams to learn more about their remarkable success. As he’s said elsewhere, “Equality Utah has been working for two decades to shatter stereotypes and foster dynamic change in the Beehive State.”
How would you characterize Utah’s national reputation in LGBTQ matters?
TW: Utah is way more inclusive than our reputation. Utah has a conservative Republican super majority in the legislature, and about 90 percent of those legislators belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. It’s a very conservative state.
Even so, in terms of red states, Utah has led the way in advancing rights for the LGBTQ community. In 2013, we were the first state to overturn a gay marriage ban. Then in 2015, Utah put housing and employment protections in place five years prior to having those protections federally. It was the first red state to do so. And it’s the only red state in the country to have passed additional housing and employment non-discrimination legislation.
Some of these advances include the overturning of one of the last anti-gay laws in 2017. This was the repeal of a state law prohibiting supportive discussions of homosexuality in public and charter school curricula and classrooms. It passed almost unanimously in both chambers.
In 2019 there was bipartisan support in passing a law to criminalize hate crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity. And in the 2020 session, we become the 19th – and by far the most conservative state – to protect minors from conversion therapy.
Utah is remarkable in its willingness to come together and have difficult conversations. I’m grateful to Governor Herbert for his openness to have these conversations. I admire the fact that, despite our political differences, he’s been engaged with our community and signed several pro-LGBTQ pieces of legislation.
When I go to national conventions on LGBTQ rights, I have lots of people asking in a positive way, “What is happening in Utah?” Within the field of human rights organizations, Utah has a good reputation.
We’ve heard Equality Utah described as a 19-year overnight success. How do you operate on a day-to-day basis?
That’s right, we’re celebrating our 20th year next year. We were originally a political action committee raising funds for pro-equality candidates, but back then, even the Dems were leery of taking our money. We have evolved.
As an organization…we don’t just preach to the choir. We have to be willing to have difficult conversations, and to be generous and respectful in our dealings with all stakeholders. We find that compassion and empathy can be reciprocal. We identify shared values, and we look for the places where do we connect. When we approach people with an open heart, we can find what we all have in common.
And you never know when you meet someone what their family background is. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard “My nephew is trans” or “My aunt is gay.” This makes for an opening for further dialogue. I go into meetings with really conservative lawmakers and religious leaders with a positive attitude, thinking, “This person is my future ally.”
Talk about your Business Equality Leader certification and D&I training and how they can benefit companies in Utah.
While we’re very effective in our relations with the legislature, we have a broader mission. Our LGBTQ constituents have been telling us there is still a fear of coming out at work. Some companies may have residual bias in place that prevents them from truly excelling. And companies in the tech sector in particular have been asking us for help in recruiting diverse talent. These tech companies often encounter the out-of-state misperceptions and stereotypes about Utah; that the state is not welcoming to people of color, women, and LGBTQ talent.
In response, we developed a training and certification program. It’s comprised of three one-hour trainings, some directed at management and some to all employers. Our goal is to make it fun and interactive, to break down barriers, build bridges, and encourage people to bring their authentic selves to the workplace. We talk about what we share and care about – our shared humanity and American experience, and our desire for good schools, safe neighborhoods, and dignity at work. We recognize these are shared goals. Barriers start to break down when you reach that recognition.
We start with an inclusion assessment and then branch out to the language of inclusion, the gender spectrum, legal history, and EEOC policies. And we do what we call “LGBTQ&A.”
At the conclusion of the training, organizations get a certificate they can post on the web to help with recruiting. Of course, we have adapted how we deliver the training, so there’s a virtual option in light of COVID-19 and work from home protocols.
I want to reiterate that we strive to make it lighthearted and joyful. There’s some research that says implicit bias training done the wrong way can make the issues worse. We try not to have anyone feel attacked. We strive to be empathetic to anyone in the training, regardless of their backgrounds and experience and comfort with the topics.
What’s your message to site selectors or other corporate relocation experts?
Utah has some work to do, no question. I do think we have such an amazing opportunity to open peoples’ hearts. Utah is emerging and becoming more welcoming and more diverse. You can be part of the change. What you do in terms of a corporate relocation can really truly make an impact here. I urge people and companies to see themselves as change makers.
For our EDCUtah investors, what are some ways to expand diversity in hiring practices and retaining a diverse workplace culture?
The cultural mindset of a company is critical. It’s the realization that being open to diversity is good for you, your business, and our economy. That attitude has to come from the C suite down. It can’t be lip service. Team members see through that.
Take a hard look at your hiring and advancement processes. We gravitate to people who look like us, share our religion, share our politics, and so forth. That’s where obstacles for advancement occur. How do we move beyond our little circle, our tribe? There has to be a commitment by the organization to examine policies.
Second, there has to be a genuine openness to change and a willingness to send a message. When you’re willing to make a public display of commitment that we all belong together, that goes a long way. It’s a message of “We know you are suffering and we want to show our support.” That means so much to team members who are marginalized.
See yourself as a change maker. Help people who have been historically disadvantaged achieve the American dream. The phrase “A more perfect union” implies that we are not there yet but we’re striving for it.
We’d love to partner with EDCUtah and your investors in creating a business culture that works for all and elevates all. Our invitation is let’s sit down together and start to bridge the divides.
Bonus question - We like to ask how organizations such as Equality Utah are not letting a good crisis go to waste.
I’m not ready to say what a blessing COVID has been. Everyone is going through intense times. But the crisis has been a moment for profound reflection. I see connectivity, altruism, love, and caring for each other. It’s mobilized the community to donate to food and help the homeless, to come together to help those less fortunate. We are also seeing escalating social and political divisions. So, these are also times of great peril. The moral fabric of our country is being challenged. But crisis reveals the character of our community. Now we have an opportunity to see what kind of people we can be.
For more information, visit https://www.equalityutah.org
To learn about the certification program, contact Mindy Young at firstname.lastname@example.org.