April 24, 2009 by Gsmith
Anna has lived in California for so much of her life that she can’t remember living elsewhere. A faithful Mormon for decades, Anna has also lived with a secret. It’s something that she calls same gender attraction. She seems at first surprised when I ask for a definition, and suddenly wary, as though she can’t believe that I have yet to hear the term. “It’s what we call it,” she explains, as patiently as my primary teacher might have broken down the concept of the atonement.
“It’s our term for being a lesbian.”
I pause for a minute, pondering the phrase. It seems clinical, like the name of a disorder I’d find listed in the DSM-IV. Her nervousness is palpable, understandable, and is the beginning of an appreciation for the profound changes which have occurred in the LDS church over the course of the twenty years that I’ve been away from it. Anna, I’ll learn, did teach primary for several years. She went on a mission. She lives a life of contradiction which exceeds her sexuality. She’s a faithful gay Mormon, a high-school graduate in a Silicon Valley family, a political conservative in one of the most liberal parts of the United States. Now a divorced fortysomething with a working class job and no university experience, she exudes a thinly-veiled proletarian rage which I seem to innately understand, in spite of our obvious differences.
Proposition 8, a ballot initiative which effectively modified the constitution of the American State of California, was arguably the most contentious issue in North American politics. On 5 November, 2008, after passing with a three percent margin, the foundation of the state’s legal authority was re-written to mandate that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California. If the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints wasn’t the prime mover behind the proposition, it was one of its most vocal supporters.
When I asked Anna about the most important message she’d like to send to her faith community, she answered instantly.
“It made me feel like a freak,” she explained, “a pervert and an outcaste. For weeks, Proposition 8 was the focus of every meeting. When you get to be my age, you’ll understand. Sex and sexuality is such a miniscule part of who I am. If I were to find a partner, it would be out of desire for companionship, not an attempt to destroy morality.”
When I asked her if anyone from her ward opposed Prop 8, she answered in the negative.
Over the course of several weeks I attempted in vain to get a comment, official or unofficial, from the LDS Church. The receptionist at the church offices in Salt Lake City referred me to third party sources in a monotone voice, sounding as though she were reciting a script long since committed to memory. A family history worker in Spokane, Washington disconnected abruptly. An observant member who has been my friend for ten years, and who served in the bishopric of a ward in Vancouver, British Columbia, encouraged me not to pursue the matter. “I’d be worried that the church might sue if you published anything” he warned. Calls to the Cardston, Alberta temple, which some of my relatives helped to build, ended as soon as I asked about the policy on same-sex Mormon couples seeking a sealing. Marriage equality has been the norm in Canada since 2005, and I thought it might be possible that the question had been raised there. If it has, the temple-workers weren’t willing to discuss the matter.
The refusals were largely polite, with one exception. In March of this year a Mormon gentleman called me “a filthy faggot”. Apparently the idea that a married family man might be interested in this particular aspect of twenty-first century history was just too unlikely to consider. The angst is understandable, if unpleasant. LDS meetinghouses have been vandalized with broken windows and spraypaint. Mormons have been threatened with violence, and in some cases assaulted. The Book of Mormon, the supreme scripture for the Mormon people, has been made the focus of derision, used as toilet paper and kindling in self made short films available on the internet.
Daniel, a twentysomething single gay Mormon with a white-collar job, did agree to an interview. After raising the question in an internet forum, he sent me a private message.
Call me in ten minutes...
Despite their geographical dissimilarity, the difference in ages and genders, Daniel used the same clinical terms to describe his condition, and expressed the same frustration. He described his ward in the Los Angeles area as having the same political flavor as Anna’s in suburban San Francisco.
“A gospel doctrine teacher did seem sympathetic,” Daniel told me, “but he wouldn’t say anything definite, and he wouldn’t speak out openly. Nobody would vocalize anything except the official position.”
The official position was, and still seems to be, yes on Prop 8.
Daniel described hosting a pair of teenage missionaries at that distinctively California landmark, the In-N-Out Burger. When he asked them for advice, they gave him responses he described as bland, canned and unhelpful, reminding me of my own telephone call to Salt Lake City. He also used the term same-gender attraction several times during the conversation.
“It was very superficial” he explained, when asked about his last visit to his ward. “I got looked down upon for riding my bicycle to church. I was trying to improve my health, conserve fuel, and improve my body, which we believe to be a temple of the Lord, and people looked askance at me for it.”
Reaching out through the internet to gay and lesbian Mormons was surprisingly easy. Everyone seemed to have a story to tell.
James, an active convert to the LDS Church during the Proposition 8 phenomenon, described the same sort of alienation even in his Texas ward. Adam, another Californian, agreed to an interview only if I thoroughly concealed his identity. Here in their own words are the answers to five questions.
Has your relationship with the church changed since the Proposition 8 debate? If so, how?
Adam: Of all times in my life for the Church to take the most active political stance it has in probably a century, it chose to do so at the same time I felt prompted, urged, pushed to come out. I have no idea why this timing coincided. I had lived in the closet all my life and was determined to stay there until one day when I felt strongly prompted to come out to one particular friend. The prompting was strong and undeniable, it was just like those I’d had before when the Spirit had whispered to me to do something or say something and the results verified that the inspiration was true. So I went with it. And you really can’t go back into the closet. Since then my faith is stronger, I am so much more happy and at peace with myself and life, it was absolutely the right thing. I honestly believe I was inspired to finally come out, to end the vicious conflict within myself that a life in the Church had perpetuated. I was miserable. Now I am at peace and in many ways happier and more faith-filled than I have ever been.
Sigh. The problem, though, is that as all this wonderful reconciliation was happening for me personally, I also watched the senior leaders of the Church I’d faithfully followed all my life engage in spreading what I absolutely knew, factually and objectively, to be falsehoods about a political issue. I was raised in the Church, went to BYU, served an honorable mission, have served in Church leadership at ward and stake levels and even in the temple. My Mormon bona fides are rock solid. I was raised to revere the General Authorities as next to God in knowledge and wisdom. So to see them try to leverage Church members’ individual finances to support the unprecedented revocation of an existing civil right based on religious doctrine, to take away something legally from a group of people who mostly had no interest in the reasons for the Church’s actions anyway–well, it shook me to my absolute core. I knew the facts of the “examples” used by the pro-Prop 8 crowd, and I knew they were being spun and lied about. I couldn’t believe these men I’d been taught to trust without hesitation would do something like that: spread falsehoods in order to write a religious belief into secular law? What happened to “we do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government” as stated in the Doctrine & Covenants?
So Proposition 8 worked a fundamental change in my relationship with the Church. To put it bluntly, I no longer trust the Church as an organization like I did before. I no longer give it the benefit of the doubt on most things. My faith in the gospel and in the Savior is still there. My faith in the Church as an institution is pretty much gone. I’ve seen the internal memos and correspondence verifying the Church’s two-decade political campaign against same-sex marriage or anything that might approach its effects. In light of that indisputable context and plan, the First Presidency’s letter last summer urging support for Prop 8 seemed less like the voice of God and more like just the next step in a protracted political campaign that was as coldly, rationally calculated as any corporate business plan.
Only this time, the goal of that plan was to attack the hopes and desires of people like me who wanted only to live and let live, who just wanted to be able to love the way God made them and have the same basic civil rights extended to that love that most other people already took for granted. I still fail to see what’s wrong with making stability and faithfulness in loving committed relationships more available to more people. It’s unbelievably ironic that a Church once on the ropes itself for its “alternative” marriage practices would rise like the proverbial royal army to not only prevent but take away from another group historically discriminated against an existing right to an “alternative” marriage practice that the Church didn’t like. Try as I might, I just can’t see that as anything other than sheer hypocrisy and a staggering memory loss by the Church.
As a result, my relationship with the institution will never be the same again. I used to assume that everything the Church did was right and true and honest and ethical and consistent, and somebody else would have to make the case that the Church was otherwise. No longer. Now my default setting is skepticism and, while I remain willing to listen, it’s the Church that has to justify its actions to me. It betrayed my trust before. I don’t know if it will ever get that trust back in full again.
As to activity level, well, I had been slowly, slowly more and more discontent with the Church instructional curricula for a long time before all this Prop 8 stuff happened. While I understand what may be the reasons for an increasingly basic and correlated set of courses and instructional materials for two of the three hours on Sunday, fact is that most of it has gotten more boring over the years for someone who’s been raised with it and was cursed with relentless intellectual curiosity. I don’t say this to be arrogant. I know that I don’t know everything and I’m not the smartest guy around. But that’s precisely why I’m always curious, wanting to know and learn more. And with the level of teaching that tends to prevail in the Church, plus the pablum in the published materials, I really don’t learn much anymore from attending Sunday School or Priesthood meeting. Why go through the charade? My life is packed with demands as it is, there are much more effective ways for me to study and learn about the gospel than to sit for two hours every Sunday hearing repeats of things I’ve heard who knows how many times already.
So we go to Sacrament meeting of course. It’s important to be there to worship, take the sacrament and renew baptismal covenants, sing the hymns and try to feel whatever inspiration we can. It’s important to set an example for my kids of dedication to faith and following the Savior. Like I said, my faith in the gospel and in Jesus Christ remains strong. But as a gay Mormon dad, I just don’t fit most of the Church demographic. It’s hard to feel like a fully accepted and welcomed member of a ward and stake that rallied around myths and prejudice and gave huge amounts of money to finance the taking away of an existing civil right from friends of mine who just wanted to live and let live and certainly weren’t hurting the Church any. While I’m sure the people around me at Sacrament Meeting would be aghast to think of themselves that way, fact is that they went out of their way to pay for something that had a vicious and devastating effect on a lot of lives. And isn’t going to last very long anyway! Prop 8 is going to be repealed one way or another. So all the Church will get out of that experience is a badly damaged reputation, and innumerable crises of faith for its own members like me. And some extra space in a lot of meetings on Sundays where my family used to sit.
James: The church’s open stance made me feel ostracized. I felt voiceless in a sea of open hostility and ignorance.
I am a strong believer in separation of church and state. Religion to me is a personal matter. I do not feel comfortable pressing my personal beliefs on other people nor do I feel comfortable when other people force their views religious or otherwise on me. My relationship with God is a personal one – as is anyone’s… when I pray to God I feel love and acceptance greater than I have ever felt. God created and loves me as I am; so when I go to church and am told that “those people are wrong” and “those people need to be saved” and “those people are waging war against God by defacing marriage” I do not see it.
I know I am gay. I did not ask or choose this and I could reject God altogether, but I love the Creator. The message of the Church is perfect but right now many of the members are not. The message of Christ’s love for mankind is tarnished with a message of “God loves you unless…” The comments and views of many of the members put a wedge between me and God. So I have stopped attending. I still maintain my relationship with God and since I do not feel comfortable in my Church I have left it.
During the campaign, did any members express any opposition to Proposition 8?
Adam: I remember one all-hands planning meeting during the 3 hour block on Sunday with a member of the stake presidency, the purpose was to coordinate the next round of efforts, rally the troops, answer questions and give instructions on how to state the Church’s position. All of the myth-mongering about gays forcing their way into temple marriages and schools indoctrinating kids were on full display. And one sister raised her hand & said she just couldn’t go along, she worked with teenagers, knew a lot of gay kids, and saw the pain and hurt and fear that the Church itself was causing them by its efforts, and the best she could do to support the First Presidency was probably just not to actively oppose the Church in the campaign. Lots of clucking and harrumphing ensued of course. I thought she was incredibly courageous and told her afterward that she wasn’t alone. She almost gasped with relief. But she was the only one I ever heard speak out like that.
James: There was a network of bloggers that helped me stay in longer than I would have. And it also helped that there was a fellow member who was struggling under the burden of the same cross I was. It helped to have someone to confide in. At my low points he would build me up and in his I would build him up. After moving across the country it became harder though. With no one to share that struggle with it became impossible to stay in.
How comfortable do you feel in vocalizing your position on the issue of sexuality within the church? Do you feel silenced or encouraged to speak?
Adam: I feel silenced. It’s not safe to express how I feel. I was not as brave as the sister I mentioned above. Other than her, everyone else in my ward and stake was in lock-step on Prop 8 or else too fearful to speak. Sadly, that included me. And how much does that stink: to be so afraid of the Church you’ve given your life’s devotion to that you can’t even speak your mind on a political disagreement because you know what the consequences for your reputation and even membership might be. The more I’ve thought about that, the more it’s reinforced my suspicion of the Church as an institution. It says it believes in free thought and speech, but the atmosphere and culture it inculcates sure don’t bear that out. Another reason to just quietly distance myself if I want to stay true to my conscience.
When the prophet and president of the Church publicly says he doesn’t know anything about homosexuality, how can I trust my eternal destiny to the Church on this issue? How can I be confident that the Church is right to say that the price of eternal blessings for me is to remain lonely and celibate in this life, even denying myself the comfort and security of a marital relationship solely because the other party might be another guy? How can I have faith that the Church’s position on this issue won’t change again as it has in the past? I can’t. In which case, if I go with what the Church says today, and end up basically wasting my life in trusting a mistaken or incomplete belief, then what?
Nor do I have any faith in the organization’s or the members’ ability to be tolerant or judge fairly if I were to truly speak my mind on this or any other GLBT issue. I have no doubt that I would risk formal discipline for saying what I think, because some would accuse me of apostasy and not supporting The Brethren. I have read enough Church history to know that this kind of atmosphere is not how things have always been. Apparently up until the 1970’s or so, there was much more tolerance for intellectual inquiry, free disagreement on all kinds of fundamental things. But since Correlation took hold, the bandwidth for that kind of thing has become more and more narrow. I don’t want to be kicked out of the Church. I think I can be a force for good and for increasing tolerance and understanding and charity, which I think the Savior would want. But the atmosphere and culture in the Church is going to have to change. People are going to have to get over their persecution complex–which is HUGE in the Church–and stop being so fearful of cultural differences. I don’t expect to see this happen in my lifetime, but maybe I can be a catalyst for changes that others will finish.
James: Usually it was not I who brought up the subject but other members. I would try to chime in with something that leaned in favor of gay rights or issues but was bulldozed down and looked at as simply short of the Truth. I even tried to mention the fact that many teenage suicides are the result of a young person who cannot love themselves because their religion or society makes it hard for them to. It is as if you have to change a part of you to fit in. As if you are a puzzle piece. And if you to not fit in with the cookie cutter image then you are tossed out.
Many men even marry women just to stay in the church but can you structure a marriage on a lie? Is that what God would want? Is it better to lie and fit in than to accept who you are and love yourself? Many people in my last branch said that the church was being prosecuted… but I feel that word is thrown around too loosely. This made me closet my opinion. In a sence I felt censored but the sentiment and clanging opinion of my fellow members.
Were you ever troubled by the fact that religious leaders seemed to be giving political advice in a spiritual context?
Adam: Extremely! As I noted above, our own scriptures say “we do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government” (Doc. & Cov. 134:9). Somehow that got tossed out the window when the Church decided same-sex marriage was a threat to civilization.
I know Church leaders have taken stances on political questions before, that’s everyone’s right in the United States. The difference this time was the scale of what got mobilized–unprecedented in the entire history of the Church–and the fact that top Church leaders actively helped spread demonstrably false beliefs about it.
Another difference, as I said before, was that never in all of American history had a church mobilized to try to take away an existing legal civil right from a specifically targeted group of people who’d already been historically discriminated against, or to write into secular law its own religiously-based definition of a social relationship, thereby imposing its own religious doctrine on people who otherwise had no interest in that doctrine, in qualifying to enter the temple, or in affiliating with the Church. It boggles my mind that a Church with a history like ours could treat others like we still protest we were treated long ago. So yes, it bothers me very much that Church leaders would give political advice to mobilize Church members to do something like that.
James: Of course. There are so many other pertinent issues that need to be faced here and abroad. People need to be brought together not torn apart. And that is just what happened to many families in the church over that. If we are going to be a Church of Christ we need to accept people for all their “faults” and love them. But if Christian churches continue to make this a wedge issue more and more people, gay or not, are going to further marginalize them.
If there were one message you could send to the wider world about your experience as gay Mormons, what would it be?
Adam: It’s a paradox. I love the gospel of Jesus Christ. My faith and trust in the Savior and His atonement is solid and secure. My faith and trust in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an institution is badly damaged by the Prop 8 fiasco and I do not trust most of the Church’s members to understand or be tolerant of the issues I face.
I reconcile these competing opposites by continuing to strive in my personal life to live as the Savior taught, to set an example for my children, to reach out to others with the love and charity that the Savior enjoined on all of us, and by participating in the Church to the extent it fosters my own spiritual growth. These days, that’s not a lot. I hope that changes.
For all its claims of the heavens and scriptural canon being open to new revelation, the LDS Church has paradoxically fostered in its members an attitude of incredible insularity and resistance to new ideas or ways of thinking. This is a cultural thing that I think stands in opposition to the doctrine, which should prod Mormons to constantly explore and question and seek new knowledge and inspiration, to ever be learning and growing. Yet the demands the Church places on its members in terms of time and commitment and activity seem to crowd out the ability, interest or time of most members to do much of that. It’s an unfortunate failure of the Church to live up to its ideals.
I reconcile that by simply stepping aside. I’m content to let others maintain the furious pace of activity which I too kept up for a long time, till I realized that it was basically getting me nowhere spiritually and was in fact perpetuating the conflicts inside me. Now that I’ve come out, I am no longer two conflicting halves of a person constantly at war with myself. I am an integrated whole, at peace with how God made me, and confident that He has a purpose in it somewhere. I look for ways to practice the two great commandments in my life and trust the Savior’s admonition that all else is secondary to that. I see the Church as an institution that still has a lot of growing to do in terms of knowledge, theology, and understanding. Mormons of all people should be open to the possibility of God speaking again to completely up-end what they thought was true before. He’s done it in the past and I have to believe He’ll do it again.
There is a huge gaping hole in the Church’s knowledge about homosexuality, and its current stance presents gay Mormons with intolerable and insoluble conflicts between what they know of their own natures and what the Church tells them they must do and be in order to qualify for God’s blessings. Under the current regime, sooner or later each gay Mormon has to make a choice whether to follow heart or Church, resulting in a steady stream of gay members leaving. This incredible cruelty has got to stop, and perhaps my mission in life is to help prepare the hearts of the people of the Church to receive new instruction from God that will tell them that His gay children are just as valuable as the straight ones and their relationships can be just as valid. That would be a revolution in Mormon theology, but I don’t see any way around it. Sooner or later, something has to give. And I can’t believe that a God of love would say the thing that has to give way and knuckle under is the individual lives and happiness of countless numbers of His children. The Church now has grudgingly conceded that homosexuality is a “core characteristic” that “may” not change for some people. Surely God, who is no respecter of persons, will make some provision for the ultimate eternal happiness of His gay children as He does for the straight ones. But the pattern is that He doesn’t speak until the Church is ready to hear. It’s not ready yet. I pray it will be in my lifetime.
James: I would like to say that I feel both sides were in the wrong in California (and not just there but seemingly abroad). Christian and Gay militancy are much the same. Both are binary: closeted or liberated, damned or saved; both demand emotional showboating and almost narcissistic public displays of emotion and both seek to turn private lives into public crusades or moral right. And both are impatient to the quirks and kinks of human behavior. There is no middle ground and in a country as diverse as this there must be.
I would also like to add that the Church has enriched my life and the principles I glean from the Word like charity and love I make a point to act on. I follow Jesus’ example of universal love and I follow what the Bible so clearly states – “Judge not lest ye be judged”. I have met many a good person in the Church who I love. Even though a few of them no longer love me after I shared with them a certain aspect of who I am.
While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints declined to comment on this article, readers can explore the Yes on Proposition 8 positions at Protect Marriage. [link]
The No on Prop 8 campaign’s website is also available at Equality California. [link]
All the names of my subjects were changed for privacy purposes.