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Kristen Cyr
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Ex-Mormon LGBT activist singer/songwriter
to perform at free coffeehouse event

April 21, 2016

Justin Utley photograph Singer-songwriter Justin Utley will perform and share his story of being gay within the Mormon church in Utah at a free coffeehouse event April 28.

Some people speak their truth. Justin Utley sings his.

The openly gay singer-songwriter and LGBT activist, whose own coming out story includes surviving two years of so-called gay conversion therapy in the Mormon church, will come to the Community College of Rhode Island to share his story and perform at a free coffee house event sponsored by the Gender Equity Initiative on April 28.

When he's not recording, touring or lobbying for LGBT issues around the country, Utley said he tries to fit in as many of these performances on college campuses as he can, estimating that half of all of his LGBTQ/Pride-related performances take place at colleges and universities.

"I feel very passionately about addressing colleges and universities, because that's where, at least in my experience growing up in Utah, that was my first experience being outside the bubble and learning about real life as opposed to seeing what was put in front of me," he said.

"When I talk about my experience, and about discrimination, with college audiences, my hope is that it brings a sense of urgency in that there's still a need for these issues to be addressed," said Utley, who pointed out that while there's now marriage equality in the United States, you can still be legally fired for your sexual orientation in most states. "There's all the more need for advocates and activists to get out there and become active."

In fact, it was his own experience that led Utley to become a loud advocate for change and equality. Growing up Mormon in Salt Lake City, Utah, he said he had hints that he might be gay as early as grade school. Though some religions and states had come around to gay rights – or at least a certain tacit tolerance – early, Utah and the Mormon church were not among that group.

So Utley tried to push his feelings from his mind, until a strange – and contradictory – encounter finally brought things to a head.

He and another church youth were on their mission and were house-sitting for one of the church's bishops. Utley used the computer, and saw that the bishop's Internet history was full of gay pornography. He realized not only that he could no longer run from his true sexuality, but that others in the church were going through the same struggles.

Utley tried to come out to his bishop at age 27, and fell into harm instead of help. The bishop told him he simply suffered from a disorder called same-gender attraction, and Utley began his two years of therapy. Needless to say, it didn't work. After he left the therapy program, he dated someone for two years until his partner's sudden heart attack death in 2004. Utley went back to the bishop to ask his advice, and was met with more hate.

"He told me that God allowed Brent to die because I was not supposed to be in a gay relationship," Utley said. "I realized at that moment that I needed to break away and forge my own path."

Next, Utley came out to his family, who weren't supportive at first but eventually came around. His mother, no longer a Mormon, was divorced from Utley's father and heard of what had transpired with the conversion therapy. Always the independent voice, she only had one frustration with Utley's announcement: that he had not trusted her enough to come out sooner.

Newly engaged and splitting his time between Utah and New York City, Utley said his family members "are extremely supportive. My parents, my brothers, and their families have all been to marriage equality functions and pride rallies. They've come a long way, and so have a lot of other people in Utah. I feel like this is my home state, and this is where I experienced a lot of these things I write and think about – and I have a duty to do what I can to help change the system that's broken here. It is changing. It changes slowly, but when it does change, it's significant."

Utley has publicly criticized the Mormon church and its gay conversion therapy, and though he moved away from Utah for a time, he came back frequently to testify at hearings about gay rights issues. He's always been a singer, but whereas before he was writing mostly religious music specifically for Mormon audiences, he now pens songs about his life and experience.

"I felt compelled to make the decision that I needed to use this energy and these experiences for something good," he said, using an example of a new single he has coming out in a few months – one that talks about the scars that we try to hide to look normal, but that ultimately shape us.

During the coffee house, Utley will sing his original work as well as speak to attendees about some of the legislation underway in the country, such as the so-called bathroom laws in North Carolina. He said he hopes to inspire and motivate other LGBTQ and allied individuals to continue to advocate for change.

The performance is free and open to the public, and will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 28, in the Lower Commons at the Knight Campus in Warwick. Refreshments will be served. There is an event earlier in the day for staff, faculty and students involved with the Gender Equity Initiative. Anyone who is interested should contact Nancy Forsstrom for more information.

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Last Updated: 8/25/16