Young Utah gay couple become face of gay marriage

Tuesday - 4/8/2014, 12:56pm EDT

Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Derek Kitchen was a teenager still coming to grips with his sexual orientation when yard signs began popping up throughout his suburban Salt Lake City neighborhood in 2004 supporting an amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Kitchen felt angry but feared he would be shunned if he spoke out to his Mormon family and classmates. Instead, he grabbed a marker and went around the neighborhood crossing out the "yes" on the "Yes on Amendment 3" signs and scribbling in "no."

"It was my only way of expressing my opposition," said Kitchen, who at 25 now laughs at the memory. "It felt like I was personally being attacked."

The act of rebellion foreshadowed what lay ahead for Kitchen. A decade after Utah voters overwhelming passed that amendment, Kitchen and his partner, Moudi Sbeity, 26, are one of three gay and lesbian couples who are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state that led a federal judge to overturn the ban in December.

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

The couple has become the face of gay marriage in the state and a major reason why more than 1,000 gay and lesbian couples were able to marry after the federal judge's ruling and more may be able to legally tie the knot in the future.

Over the last three months, Kitchen and Sbeity have become superstars in the gay marriage movement. They have given speeches at raucous rallies and talked to high school classes. They've appeared in so many newspaper photographs and TV interviews that strangers come up to them and thank them for what they've done when they're out selling their homemade hummus.

Their journey to this spot 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 Utah 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. So as a gay teen, Sbeity was careful to hide his orientation to avoid being thrown in jail and because he feared his mother's Muslim family would turn against her.

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

They moved in together and started a business: making and selling homemade hummus. As the business grew, so did their bond. On their fourth anniversary, they obtained a domestic partnership certificate from Salt Lake City 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 spearheading an effort to bring a lawsuit against Utah and was looking for couples who would make strong plaintiffs. He asked Kitchen and Sbeity if they would join, but they said no. Kitchen was open to the idea, but 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. "I thought about what my mom would have to live through over there while I'm comfortably living here."

Lawrence kept asking, and Kitchen chipped away at Sbeity. Finally, they agreed. Kitchen and Sbeity knew they risked alienating customers and bringing a backlash on their families but decided the chance to bring meaningful change to a state where they intend to raise a family outweighed those concerns.

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

The couple opted not to marry during the December rush, but recently became engaged when Kitchen proposed to Sbeity during a public event to promote gay marriage.