In the months since the announcement of new policies of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints related to same-sex couples and their children, I have spoken to many gay and lesbian Mormons about their feelings about the new policy and the implications it will have for their lives. The choices gay and lesbian members of the church must face have never been easy. To most, the new policy makes those choices that much more difficult.
Many fear that the added stigma of apostasy for those in same-sex relationships or marriages will result in increased stigma for all LGBT people. In the months since the policy I’ve seen widespread signs of trauma and depression within the LGBT Mormon community, including documented suicides. Many feel the church just wants to get rid of LGBT people. I believe the statements of church leaders, that the policy changes were intended to clarify and uphold doctrine and not increase hatred or rejection.
That being the case, and given the church’s calling to reach out to all in love, what can ordinary members of the church do to ensure that the policy changes do not result in more harm to lesbian and gay sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and friends?
Before discussing what can be done, I feel it is important to understand a little more about the people who are being affected by the policy and how and why they are being affected.
In the days after the news of the policy came out, I was contacted by a retirement-age man who has been married and who has lived the law of chastity his whole life. He is gay, and staying in the closet has been a heavy burden he has borne his entire life. Even though I have never met him in person, our conversations over the phone have been a tremendous solace to him. In the days after the announcement of the new policy, he was sent into a tailspin of depression and spent several days on the verge of suicide.
Why, many would ask, would a man who has been faithful his whole life, who certainly wouldn’t face any form of discipline under the new policy, be so deeply affected merely by the announcement of the policy that he would contemplate taking his own life? The answer is that being gay is not just about behavior; it is about deep yearnings for relationship, connection and intimacy. To this man, the new policy felt like an attack on his sense of who he was at his very core.
A lesbian friend of mine is legally married to her same-sex partner. Both were already excommunicated from the church even before the new policy but retain testimonies of Joseph Smith and of the Restoration and have been raising their children in the LDS Church. She once wrote me, “I have … asked God the question … of whether he'd let me follow him the best I could, and feel like he sends me love and nurtur(ing), welcoming me to come along, even while I don't understand everything about his ways. I love the church for what it is, that it builds and improves my life. I'm grateful I can raise my children to live full lives of service in the church, and to make covenants with God.”
After the policy change, I asked her if her feelings had changed. She told me, “I feel like Peter, when the Lord asked him if he would turn away along with all the others. 'Lord, to whom shall I go?'” Nevertheless, the hopes of my friend and her spouse that their children can enter into church covenants have been dashed. They are struggling with the question of whether they ought to stop attending for the sake of their children, who they fear will be stigmatized under the new policy.
I have spoken with numerous church leaders and members in the weeks since the policy change. All agree that regardless of the implications of the policy, they still have a responsibility to minister to all. How best to do that?
First of all, church members need to be aware that almost certainly every ward in the church has families with gay or lesbian members, whether they are aware of them or not. Most at risk are youths or teens who may not have come out yet to parents or church leaders. Because they are not out, negative comments or statements about homosexuality made over the pulpit or overheard in private can be internalized in an extremely damaging way and can’t be countered or contextualized by understanding adults.
It should go without saying that a young person who does find the courage to come out to parents or family should be reassured by parents, siblings and church leaders that he or she is loved unconditionally and supported in making the difficult decisions ahead of them. As the story of my gay friend illustrates, adults can also be at risk and deeply wounded by unintentionally harmful comments made by family, friends and ward members who don’t even know their friends and loved ones are gay.
Providing a context in which people can feel safe in coming out is essential. We can find a variety of ways to communicate the message, emphasized by church leaders in recent years, that we know same-sex attraction is not chosen and is not amenable to change through therapy, that same-sex attraction is not a sin and nothing to be ashamed of. When gay youths see examples of gay adults who are out of the closet and embraced and cherished by their families and their communities, it reassures them that there is a place for them as well and goes a long way toward reduction of risk of depression and suicide.
In my experience, most people in same-sex marriages are simply seeking the same thing all desire: intimacy and family. Recently I heard from a gay man in his 70s who, with his same-sex spouse, raised his children in the LDS church. All of his children are grown now and are raising families of their own in the church. One of his sons is a stake president. This is not an individual who has ever in any way wanted anything for his children but a normal upbringing in the church, with all the blessings of membership. Somewhat ironically, such individuals as this man might not be at risk of being excommunicated for apostasy, which carries real stigma within the Mormon culture, if they did not love the church enough to actively attend, thus getting on the radar of their bishops.
When I started attending church 10 years ago as an excommunicated gay man, my ward embraced me. Families and individuals in my ward have made sure I never felt alone, by sitting with me in church or inviting me to sit with them. My bishops have found informal “callings” for me, such as by giving me opportunities to help with genealogical extraction work. My husband, our son and I have had opportunities to participate in church-sponsored service projects, such as when the church organized relief efforts in North Dakota due to catastrophic flooding there years ago. My bishop has assigned me home teachers and meets regularly with me to counsel me in my efforts to learn and live the gospel.
With my permission, my bishop explained my situation to the ward council and told them that it was his hope that both I and my partner could attend church, and that they should make sure we were received hospitably. When my husband has attended church with me, he has been received by members of my ward with respect and generosity. When I have described the way my ward and local leaders have welcomed me to leaders of the church at the highest levels, their response has been that they wished every ward in the church could follow their example.
It is quite possible that my lesbian friend and her spouse will decide that no matter how kind and hospitable their ward is, it is not worth the risk of exposing their children to a situation where they would feel singled out and stigmatized. But if they do decide to stay, I hope their ward will make extra efforts to make sure that their children have friends, that they are treated like all other children in the ward, and that it is made clear that neither the Lord nor the church views them as any less deserving of all the blessings life has to offer, even if their official membership is delayed and their status cannot be the same as other children in the ward.
Most LGBT people I know do not feel safe in the LDS Church. Even when members and leaders at the local level welcome them (in the way my ward has welcomed me) church doctrine and policy feel invalidating to them at a profound and personal level. This is why so many have experienced trauma and depression in the wake of the policy.
Regardless of one’s membership status or activity in the church, regardless of one’s family configuration, one of the most concrete ways for a person to feel loved is to feel that he or she is heard and understood. When people feel the need to leave the church, their friends in the church should do everything possible to preserve friendships, with no strings attached. They should seek to learn rather than to judge. Even an awkwardly posed question, if asked with evident good intent, will signal respect and a desire to understand.
A recent study of LGBT youth in Mormon families has shown that risk of depression, suicide and self-destructive behavior was dramatically reduced by family support. In my experience as a leader within the LGBT Mormon community, I have observed that LGBT people who choose to live their faith as Latter-day Saints and who value church activity and membership tend to be those who come from families that loved them unconditionally.
The church plays a vital role in the network of support that both individuals and families need to grow into healthy, spiritually grounded adults. Church leaders and members can, regardless of what the policy is, make a concrete, positive difference in the lives of LGBT people both in and outside of the church by creating a safe social environment where everyone is cherished, by including individuals in the circle of our friendship, and by seeking to listen and understand.
John Gustav-Wrathall is president of Affirmation: LGBT Mormons, Families and Friends.