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Face of gay marriage in Utah an unlikely pair

April 7, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Derek Kitchen and Moudi Sbeity have become superstars in the gay marriage movement in Utah. Raised in Mormon and Muslim families, they have given speeches at raucous rallies and have appeared in so many media stories that strangers come up to them and thank them for what they’ve done.

They are one of three gay and lesbian couples who are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the conservative western U.S. state that led a federal judge to overturn Utah’s gay marriage ban in December. More than 1,000 gay and lesbian couples were able to marry after the ruling.

They will be among supporters in Denver on Thursday for a hearing before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considering whether to make gay marriage legal in Utah.

Their journey is an unlikely one.

Kitchen and Sbeity were both raised in conservative religious families that shun gays: Sbeity in a Muslim family in Lebanon and Kitchen in a family that belonged to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They each came out when they were 16 years old and had parents who at first struggled to accept the revelations.

“I was the only gay person that my friends knew and anybody in my family had ever met,” Kitchen said. “They didn’t know how to react to me, and I didn’t know how to handle it myself.”

Sbeity was raised in Lebanon, where, until this year, being caught having sex with someone of the same gender was punishable by up to one year in jail. As a gay teen, Sbeity was careful to hide his orientation.

Sbeity came to Utah for college. While studying, he met Kitchen online. The two say they had an immediate spiritual connection.

They moved in together and started a business: making and selling hummus. As the business grew, so did their bond. On their fourth anniversary, they got a domestic partnership certificate and began dreaming of being able to marry legally.

Yet, the couple had no plans to jump to the forefront of advocacy for gay marriage. That all changed when they met Mark Lawrence at a Utah Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce event in early 2013.

Lawrence was leading an effort to bring a lawsuit against Utah and was looking for couples that would make strong plaintiffs. Sbeity worried about how it might impact his mother and father, who still live in Lebanon.

“I was scared they would suffer the consequences of the cultural norms there,” Sbeity said.

Finally, the couple agreed.

“I was thrilled,” said Lawrence. “They are perfect: They tell the story so well.”

Their families now embrace them. After Sbeity’s father found out his son was gay by reading about the ruling online, he called his son to tell him that he loved him and supported his decisions.

On Christmas, Kitchen’s father and grandfather told the couple they were proud of them and that they were happy their last name was on the lawsuit.

They said the spotlight has been taxing and stressful, but the experience empowering. Sbeity hopes his story inspires change in Lebanon, and they intend to keep using their newfound platform to share their story and tell others how being gay means everything and nothing at the same time, as Kitchen says.

“We’re just normal guys who want nothing more than to live like a real family like everybody else,” Sbeity said.

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Follow Brady McCombs at https://twitter.com/BradyMcCombs

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