So many colons! Anyway, here we go (there’s another):
Hello, and welcome to the second episode of I Like to Look for Rainbows. Today, we’ll talk about a cross-dressing son of Brigham Young, the recent Exclusion Policy of 2015, an answer to the question, “why do y’all come out at all? I never came out as straight”, and a profile of Savannah, a twelve year old Mormon lesbian with a very interesting story to tell. We’ve got a lot to get to, so let’s dive in. Let’s look for rainbows together, y’all.
Ok, well, first up is a historical look at queer Mormondom, and since we’re going way back into Mormon history, a disclaimer: the farther we go back in time, the more guilty we’re going to be of speculation, and giving currency to rumor and innuendo. I generally don’t like doing that, for a couple reasons that I’ll get into in a bit, but I decided to talk about these early possibly queer Saints for a few reasons:
First, a lot of the scholarship (at least that I’m aware of) on early queer Saints relies on such speculation partially out of necessity. No one was out in the late 1800’s, for example, and the concept of having an identity around being a man who was attracted solely to other men wasn’t nearly as developed or openly discussed as it is now. So what’s been done is to profile a few folks who seem like they might have been gay or lesbian or trans, and make some educated guesses as to possible equivalent modern identities.
One such person was Brigham Morris Young, more commonly referred to as B. Morris Young. As the name suggests, he was the son of the Brigham Young with one of his polygamous wives.
In many respects, he led a conventional yet prominent Mormon life: he served two missions to what is now known as Hawaii, got married, and had kids. In addition, he appears to have served as a Seventy, and was one of the founding members of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association, which is the precursor to the church’s modern Young Men’s program.
It appears that he worked at least for a time as a carriage driver, but it was another job which he also held that has kept his name current after all these years. He would dress and perform as a woman, taking the stage name of Madam Pattirini, while singing for audiences through the northern half of Utah. I also understand that this image is sometimes used in conjunction with Pride events in Utah.
Now, I think it’s easy to look at the image (it’s on B. Morris Young’s Wikipedia page, or it comes up in the results in a Google image search for the same person) and start speculating: was he a gay man who liked to dress in drag? Was he perhaps instead “she”, or, in other words, a transgender woman, or, at least would or might have been, had such a thing been safe and/or acceptable to be back then?
There is lots of speculation baked into the cake of at least some flavors of queerness even now. I suspect most of my listeners are familiar with the term “gaydar”; if not, it’s a sort of sixth sense that someone you meet might be queer, in other words, gay radar.
Now, there are reasons for that. It’s not always entirely safe to be out today, much less in the past, so there’s a long history of signals, hints, and looks pregnant with hidden meaning to communicate queerness to other queer folks in an often hostile world. It’s of course better now, but you still must pick your spots, and I’ve had people tell me they didn’t think it was appropriate to talk about in contexts in which they had no issue with me talking about my wife and kids when they assumed I was straight. Even quickly referencing my identity in passing more often than not is followed by an awkward silence. I have some friends who are out, but avoid mentioning it in certain contexts, and I certainly understand what motivates that.
There’s also the reality than almost every queer person spends at least a bit of time “in the closet”, and it may not surprise you to know that sometimes it can be a struggle to always keep that hidden part of you unseen, and always buttoned up and out of sight. So for most of us, there was a time in which speculation and reading the gay tea leaves might have given you the truth when we were outwardly living a fiction.
However, given all that, I still do end up feeling like a paparazzo or TMZ or something when we speculate this way. It also can unintentionally reinforce the idea that this is something to be ashamed of, like it’s embezzlement or pedophilia or something that needs to be uncovered for the good of society.
So while it’s entirely possible that B. Morris Young would fit somewhere on the queer spectrum if he had been able to outwardly own what he was when he was alive, it’s also possible he wasn’t. We can’t assume that because he couldn’t come out at the time, that he would have if he had had the chance, or even that he would have had any reason to do so. We do, however, know that he and others at the time didn’t hew strictly to the then dominant gender and/or sexuality norms, so that, coupled with the uncertainty we all have about exactly how sexual relationships were transacted in the past, still gives plenty of support to the idea that queerness is not a modern, decadent, Western concept.
Ok, now, let’s delve into probably the biggest moment in queer Mormon history in my lifetime: November 5th, 2015, the date we learned about what I call The Policy.
But first, we need to talk about the context of the decision, specifically: what the situation was like for queer Mormons before the policy, and how everyone came to know about it.
I’ll actually talk about the second part of that first: how we came to know about it. It now appears that The Policy was finalized and sent out on November 3rd, 2015. A lot of people first heard about it when John Dehlin, who, among other things, runs the popular Mormon Stories podcast, posted about it, and it evidently was sent around originally by Ryan McKnight, who now runs a website called MormonLeaks.
A word about leaks: I’ve got no issue talking about the original “leak” of The Policy itself, especially as the church now talks about it very openly. They’ve vouched for the authenticity of the document.
There are other documents related to The Exclusion Policy and other topics of interest on the aforementioned MormonLeaks website. To my knowledge, these haven’t been vouched for or admitted to by the church as authentic, and although the ones I’ve personally looked at (which aren’t many) seem like they certainly could be and even likely are genuine (some seem more obviously genuine than others, but I’m certainly no expert on these matters), I suppose one couldn’t go wrong in taking them with as many grains of salt as you like.
I’m concerned with leaks in general, though, and perhaps not completely for the reasons you think. They can often be stripped of context, or altered to make the subject of the leaks look worse. The leakers often (where this would make sense in context) aren’t willing to open themselves up to the same level of scrutiny that they mete out for the subject of their leaks. But these aren’t my biggest issues.
My biggest concern is the safeguarding of the information. When a leaker gets access to a bunch of information, oftentimes some of it is irrelevant to what they want to leak. Often that irrelevant stuff has personal information like social security numbers, financial documents, family secrets that, if known, could endanger people’s lives, etc.
Once a leaker gets hold of that info, how do they make sure it doesn’t spill out even accidentally? How does the leakee know the leaker won’t release it just to hurt them, whether in an open way or otherwise?
Now, I’m not suggesting all leaks are bad, but they’re certainly not always good, either. The line between the Pentagon Papers and doxxing someone is finer and blurrier than we’d like to admit.
So, I guess that’s a long way of saying that, while leaks with a clear public interest are often a clear public service, we ought to all take care when consuming or producing leaked information.
Anyway, now to answer the first part of the question: what were things like for queer Mormons before November 2015. First, the background: the LDS church has always been very centralized. Like the Catholic church has parishes, diocese, archdiocese, and The Vatican, we have wards, stakes, areas, and Salt Lake.
But some parts of Mormondom were pretty far-flung pretty early; we had large pockets in places like Hawaii, New Zealand and continental Europe, not to mention Mexico and Canada, fairly early on. There was some concern that the doctrine would be adapted to local conditions, so there was a movement that is broadly called “correlation” to bring the teachings espoused in meetinghouses all over the world into much greater harmony with what the leadership in Utah wanted.
So, at least as long as I’ve been aware, local leadership (and perhaps higher levels of leadership, too) has had handbooks that go into great detail about what they should and shouldn’t do, and what is and isn’t allowed. For example, my wife grew up playing the trombone, and the current edition of Handbook Number Two (which, like Handbook Number One still is, used to be secret, but was publicly released maybe ten years ago) says the following that made it so my wife could never perform on her instrument in the chapel: “Instruments with a prominent or less worshipful sound, such as most brass and percussion, are not appropriate for sacrament meeting”.
These handbooks, and other written and spoken guidance from Salt Lake, are the global Mormon standard, and are enforced pretty rigorously. And I don’t mean to suggest that this is necessarily bad; there’s nothing inherently wrong with having everyone worldwide singing from the same sheet of music. But it’s important to note that when something makes it into this de facto canon, it’s settled doctrine, and local leaders are expected to follow that guidance, well, religiously.
What were the policies of the church relating to queer folks pre-November 2015? Well, the church held that trans identities aren’t real (a view it apparently still holds), although I think there is likely, at the very least, doctrinal room to believe that gender dysphoria is real; and that for cisgender queers, having “same-sex attraction” is likely not a choice and often won’t go away no matter what you do, but that you’re ok with the church (apart from not ever having a shot at the callings that require you to be married to an “opposite” gender spouse) as long as you don’t ever have gay sex. There is some evidence that one’s church records are annotated with a sort of warning or mark of some sort if you ever, for example, are a man and have sex with another man, and local leadership finds out. Furthermore, the handbook said that having “homosexual relations” may result in church discipline, which could entail certain restrictions on church activities, disfellowship, or excommunication, but since it used the word may, it didn’t have to happen, so local leadership had some leeway.
Anyway, on November 3rd, 2015, not yet five months after the US Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, an addition and a correction to Handbook One was sent for distribution to unit leaders worldwide for, as the letter stated, “immediate implementation”.
The content of that letter was about “same-sex” couples, and, parenthetically, I should note that when the church speaks about this issue, they’re generally not including trans folks in the conversation (although this should not to be taken to mean that the church is accepting of trans identities; we’ll talk about trans issues in the church in future episodes in greater detail).
Now, I know I’ve just finished diverging to give some background, but I have to do that again, because there’s quite a bit of Mormon minutiae that you have to know to understand what this policy does.
Anyway, the policy essentially did two things: harden or strengthen the line on queer relationships, and introduce wholly new policies for minor children of certain queer Mormons. We’ll talk about the first one, well, first:
The first thing it did was to add the awkward phrase “especially sexual cohabitation” in parentheses next to “homosexual relations” in the list of things that may call for church discipline. I suppose there are a few defensible readings of that phrase in context, but I interpret it to mean that leaders should consider a gay couple living together and having sex as more serious than the same couple just having non-hetero sex. All in all, this isn’t surprising, but I don’t personally see what it adds to what’s already there.
The second, much more serious change is the addition of being “in a same-gender marriage” to a subset of things that one can do that will call for mandatory church discipline. While it was perhaps unsurprising that the church would maintain its doctrinal opposition to gay marriage after Obergefell, it was a bit unexpected to add it to the “must result in church discipline” pile when other intimate gay relationships had been in the may pile, especially since gay marriage had been legal in a number of US states and countries for years prior without any editions to the handbooks. What was much more surprising was that getting gay married was now explicitly termed “apostasy”.
In many religions, “apostasy” is a very serious charge, and the LDS tradition is certainly no exception. It means an active and purposeful rebellion against God. Needless to say, to many queer Mormons, this seemed like a needless escalation, especially since we’d seen some real progress in the prior four or five years (we’ll touch on that, too, in future episodes). But, as frightening as that was, it wasn’t even remotely the worst part of the addition to this handbook section.
That new section is titled Children of a Parent Living in a Same-Gender Relationship. First, I should point out there’s a seemingly small, but I would argue, significant change of wording going on here. The church has most often (at least as far as I’m aware) referred to these relationships as “same-sex”, but now we’re seeing them referred to as “same-gender”. I know that many people use these two phrases interchangeably, and for most people, your sex and gender are the same thing. But sex and gender are actually different things, and for some people, one’s sex and gender diverge.
Sex is largely a descriptor of biology and anatomy, and describes differences in reproductive systems, sex organs and secondary sex characteristics. Gender is a social description, and that revolves around proscribed or claimed roles, and also identity.
Why does this matter? Let me give an example. I know a married couple in which a straight, cisgender man is married to a trans man who has not transitioned, so they could be described as an opposite-sex, but same-gender couple. The opposite could be considered true of, say, a lesbian cisgender woman married to a trans man; they could be considered as a same-sex but opposite-gender couple.
This brings up the question of why the church made this rhetorical change. I’m fairly certain it’s not an accident or a mistake; the church is really careful about how they word official documents, and there are some leaked documents that suggest that this was an intentional word choice, and that the church was differentiating between “same-sex” and “same-gender”. I suppose it could be an attempt to say that sex and gender are always the same. The church could be intentionally using different definitions than the generally accepted ones. I’m frankly not sure, but I’d be happy to hear what you think it is in the comments, or on the podcast’s Facebook or Twitter accounts.
Anyway, back to the second change. It more or less made it so that children of “same-gender” couples (whether they’re married or just living together) can’t participate in any of the ordinances that their peers can. They can’t receive a name and a blessing in the ceremony we do for newly-born children, so they can’t appear on the records of the church at all (Mormons are the most record-keeping folks you ever did meet, so this is not a small matter). They can’t get baptized, they can’t receive the priesthood (as all Mormon males 12 and older can), and they can’t serve missions until and unless they both A) “specifically disavow the practice of same-gender cohabitation and marriage”, B) are at least 18, and no longer can be considered to live with their queer parent or parents who lives with or is married to someone of the “same gender”, and C) their local leader wants to recommend them for all these ordinances (he’s not obligated to) and the highest levels of church leadership approves.
If it’s not obvious how damaging this is, let me explain. First, this seems to, if not directly contradict, but at least to be against the spirit of, the church’s specific disavowal of other Christian churches’ doctrine of Original Sin. The most succinct way I can explain how we approach this issue as Mormons is a letter or founding prophet, Joseph Smith, wrote in response to a question of what Mormons believe that has now been canonized as scripture for us, and is called The Articles of Faith. In Article 2, we read: “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression” (the last part references the Christian doctrine of the Fall of Adam). So many have pointed out – and I agree with this reading – that this feels like kids are being unnecessarily punished for what their parents do (especially given that we don’t restrict the membership of kids of murderers, pedophiles, rapists, etc.).
Second, the stated reasons for The Policy don’t make much sense to me, especially in context. One of our apostles, Elder Christofferson, conducted an interview with church Public Affairs, and he had this to say on the subject: “[The Policy]originates from a desire to protect children in their innocence and in their minority years. When, for example, there is the formal blessing and naming of a child in the Church, which happens when a child has parents who are members of the Church, it triggers a lot of things. First, a membership record for them. It triggers the assignment of visiting and home teachers. It triggers an expectation that they will be in Primary and the other Church organizations. And that is likely not going to be an appropriate thing in the home setting, in the family setting where they’re living as children where their parents are a same-sex couple. We don’t want there to be the conflicts that that would engender. We don’t want the child to have to deal with issues that might arise where the parents feel one way and the expectations of the Church are very different.”
It may indeed be true that in this specific instance, the leadership does not want “the conflicts that that would engender”, but this is simply not the case in other similar situations, and I would love to hear some clarification on why these very similar things are looked at so differently. For example, there is no restriction on the membership of a child whose parents have left the church, been excommunicated, actively advocate against the church, belong to other churches, are atheist, are criminals, etc. So long as the parents will agree to let the kids be baptized, we don’t in any other way interfere, or mandate conformity of belief at home for anyone besides that person themselves. In fact, missionaries who meet minors who are interested in the church actively teach them and exhort them to work on their parents to let them join the church, and, once this is agreed to, this minor can join the church and participate fully without any restrictions whatsoever due to what their parents think or say or preach or believe about the church. Let’s also not forget that this policy doesn’t just affect kids who’ve grown up with “two mommies”; if Evan McMullin’s mother had gotten divorced from his dad and started living with her female partner when he was seven rather than after he was grown and out of the house, and she had maintained at least joint custody of him, he couldn’t have grown up LDS, and couldn’t have joined until he was at least 18.
The Policy also introduces a wholly new and separate standard for membership that doesn’t exist for other church members. Simply put, I’m not asked nor expected to disavow “same-gender cohabitation or marriage” to participate without limitation in the church, or to get a temple recommend. These people are. And depending how the local leader approaches the question, this could be an institution of a political test for membership; if the person’s bishop’s standard for disavowal is that you must not just disavow it in a personal or LDS church context, but in a universal sense, then I can stay a member in good standing of the church while supporting marriage equality in the US and worldwide, but these people cannot for the exact same belief.
But perhaps the most damaging thing of all of this is more firmly attaching a stigma to lots of God’s children for no real doctrinal reason or gain. For a missionary church, this makes our job of bringing souls to Christ much harder; not only does our unnecessary affixing of a bigger scarlet letter on innocent kids not look good and not only fails to attract but also repels people of all creeds who support queer rights from giving the LDS church an honest look, but to many, including me, this just doesn’t feel Christlike. It frankly drives the Spirit away from our presence when we forbid even the (possibly even straight!) kids of queer people from uniting with the body of Christ.
I’ll leave aside the other issues (why wait until it was fully legal in the US when it had been legal elsewhere for more than a decade, the – and this is as charitable as I can be – odd linking of this issue to polygamy; maybe that’s an issue we don’t want to keep bringing up, you know?), but I’ll close with this. The Exclusion Policy drove lots of faithful people out of the church, and didn’t bring anyone new in. It paints us in a very unfavorable light. It’ll make it even more awkward when we inevitably allow gay marriages in the church (if you don’t believe that the church will yield to the promptings of the Spirit in changing our course while couching it in terms of yielding to outside pressure, read the Excerpts From Three Addresses By President Wilford Woodruff Regarding The Manifesto in Official Declaration One). But most importantly, there’s just no Jesus in it.
Now, we have a very special queer Mormon that we’re profiling today: her name is Savannah, and she is a twelve-year-old Mormon lesbian. She’s being interviewed by Jerilyn Pool.
Just to forestall some possible questions: yes, Savannah is young, but that doesn’t mean her story is invalid. Couldn’t she change her mind as to her sexual orientation, and isn’t it too early to be making such weighty decisions, you might ask? Well, one’s sexuality isn’t something about which one simply changes one’s mind about. Also, while it’s true that sexuality can move and be fluid throughout one’s lifetime, I fail to see the harm in calling it what it is, even if it’s possible that it might change. And on the subject of change: if you’re a straight nearly-teenage boy, for example, no one says, “well, don’t say you’re attracted to girls yet; it could still change!” Whom we love is no more susceptible to change than whom you love. Anyway, without any further ado, this is Savannah’s story:
Savannah: My name is Savannah, I’m from Utah, I like art, writing books, reading, and probably being alone a lot.
Jerilyn: Awesome, awesome. And, do you want to talk about what happened?
Savannah: Yeah. So, I wanted to share my testimony from the beginning of this year, and I kept asking and asking, and getting a “no”, because it would be—
Jerilyn: Who were you asking?
Savannah: Oh, my mom and dad, and they finally said yes, and we started writing my testimony, and we went through a couple of rough drafts, and by the time we finally made the perfect one, I was waiting until the next Fast Sunday, and when I finally did do my testimony, I got most of the way there, like, I only had a couple more sentences of a paragraph to read out loud, and I got cut off by my microphone being turned off by the stake president, and, yeah, and then, I was pretty sad and happy at the same time.
Jerilyn: Why were you sad?
Savannah: I was sad because I wanted to finish it, and I felt like what I was saying should’ve been heard by everybody else.
Jerilyn: And why were you happy?
Savannah: I was happy because I could finally get out to everyone, and show that gays aren’t weirdos.
Jerilyn: Right! Right, so true. So, at that very moment, when the microphone shut off, what went through your head?
Savannah: I think it’s broken.
Jerilyn: And when did you realize that that’s not what happened?
Savannah: When I turned back around and they said, “can you go sit down?”
Jerilyn: Wow. Were you embarrassed?
Savannah: A little bit! Because I was like, “I think the microphone’s broken,” but then he stopped me, and said, “can you go sit down now?”
Jerilyn: So, you went and sat down, what happened after that? Like, did anybody say anything?
Savannah: Are you referring to the people who came to listen to the testimony, or people in the ward (programming note: it appears Savannah and/or her parent(s) invited some people who may not have also been members of that church congregation to church with them to listen to what Savannah had to say. This isn’t always done, but it’s certainly neither unwelcome nor out of the ordinary)?
Jerilyn: People in the ward.
Savannah: Ok. So what happened is, at school, a couple of people came up to me, and said that they supported me, which I was surprised about how many they were. And the stake president’s daughter came up to me and said she didn’t agree with his decision, and supported me.
Jerilyn: Wow. Wow, that’s pretty impressive. How did that make you feel?
Savannah: I felt really good inside, and that she rebelled [against] her father – not saying that you should do that!
Jerilyn: Right. Right, but that actually says a lot about how maybe he’s raised his kids to think independently, too, and to act on their own convictions; that’s pretty darn impressive. Do you think he regrets what he did?
Savannah: Not really, actually, because I felt like he acted on it after that too…
Jerilyn: What did he do after that?
Savannah: When I walked out of the foyer, he got up and told everyone that only Christ-like testimonies are to be said, and you could only go up if your name was called.
Jerilyn: So clearly your testimony was all about the devil (laughs).
Savannah: Yeah… In his perspective, yes.
Jerilyn: But did anyone in the ward, in the testimony meeting there, stand up and say anything?
Jerilyn: Nobody did? Do you wish they had?
Savannah: Yeah, I also—Well, the bishop wasn’t there, and he’s my best friend’s father, so I was hoping he would be there, but he wasn’t, and that was kind of sad, because I bet he would’ve stood up for me, in my opinion.
Jerilyn: Are you out to your bishop?
Savannah: Yes, now I am.
Jerilyn: Now you are? Well, now you’re out to a lot of people (laughs).
Savannah: Yeah (laughs).
Jerilyn: But you weren’t out at the time to your bishop?
Savannah: No, but I was out to my best friend, and she … kept it a secret from him.
Jerilyn: Yeah, wow. It’s good to know that you have that kind of faith in your bishop, though. Has your bishop reached out to you at all since then?
Savannah: No, I haven’t seen him. For a really long time, actually.
Jerilyn: That’s kind of unfortunate, actually. You deserve to have people reach out to you and tell you what you did was ok. Especially people in leadership. So, ok, let’s go back to, when did you know that you are gay?
Savannah: How long? Or when did I find out?
Jerilyn: Yes, when did you figure that out about yourself?
Savannah: I figured out when I was in sixth grade, when I didn’t have any … imagination kind of things with boys, but when I saw a girl, I always thought, “I wonder what it would be like to kiss her?” And then, that sort of changed things, and I pushed myself away from girls, and made myself like boys. But then, after sixth grade, and during, like, the summer, I felt like I didn’t have to do that, and I came out to my mom.
Jerilyn: Yeah, I bet! How did that go? Were you nervous, to come out to your mom?
Savannah: Yeah, I would hope to, um, yeah, I think I was nervous, actually.
Jerilyn: What were you afraid would happen?
Savannah: That she wouldn’t me, but, well, I felt like she would accept me, but my other parent wasn’t.
Jerilyn: Yeah, that can happen. That can happen; that’s hard. I think sometimes… parents do the best they can, and sometimes, they act before they think, sometimes. How are things with you other parent now?
Savannah: I would say sort of warming up to the idea, but it’s still on the iffy side, I would say.
Jerilyn: Yeah, well, you definitely deserve to be loved, and respected, and taken care of. So, hopefully you know that. Hopefully your other parent can come around to that, sooner rather than later. So you came out to your mom, I assume this was last summer?
Jerilyn: So maybe just a little under a year ago. Wow. And how did your mom react? Your mom’s sitting right here, so there’s no way to tell me what really happened! (laughs)
Savannah: Well, she was ok with what happened, and I was happy that she respected [me] for who I was.
Jerilyn: Yeah, of course. Are you the oldest in your family?
Savannah: Yeah, out of five kids.
Jerilyn: Out of five kids. So, that was last summer, and you’ve just come out to a few people here and there, and what made you decide you wanted to get up and talk about it in testimony meeting?
Savannah: Because I felt like people weren’t being very supportive or nice to gays for who they are, and that’s how God made them, and they were just being super rude to everyone, and children would start coming up to their kids, and they would say mean things to them, and I found that really offensive. So, I wanted to be people’s voice.
Jerilyn: Wow, that’s really impressive. I don’t know many 12, almost 13 year olds who “want to be people’s voice”. So you decided in January that you wanted to get up and bear your testimony? Because you wanted people to know that there was somebody in the ward that was—
Savannah: No, I didn’t know; I don’t know, because I don’t want to be in people’s personal life, but I just wanted to send them a message that you should be careful with what you say to others.
Jerilyn: And what do you… that’s beautiful. That’s beautiful. And hopefully, in the last couple of weeks, a lot of people have had a lot to think about, and are thinking about ways to be more careful. I have a feeling you touched a lot of people, in different ways that day. So, you wanted to bear your testimony, you wanted to talk about – what did you want to talk about? – you wanted to talk about how God made you the way you are, right?
Savannah: Yes, I did.
Jerilyn: How do you know that? How do you know that God made you the way you are?
Savannah: Because if God wanted you to be a straight like that, and not gay, I think He would’ve made you that way, and not the way he wants you to be gay. And also, I don’t think He would push gays away from the church, and not love them, if we’re all [children] of God.
Jerilyn: Do you feel like you’re a child of God?
Savannah: Not right now.
Jerilyn: Not right now,really? Why not right now? Because of the—
Savannah: Because of what they’ve done. I don’t feel like it was God’s choice. I think that they did it on their own.
Jerilyn: Ok, so, what would you like to see change for the LGBTQ community in the Mormon church?
Savannah: I think they should all be supportive, and instead of being really rude to them, that they should accept them for who they are, and let them do what they want to do. Like if a trans boy, let’s say they want to go and be in the Boy Scouts, and what happens is they can’t, because they won’t be accepted. I think they should be accepted, because, it’s what they believe that they are, and the church is practically based on belief.
Jerilyn: Right. Right! That’s pretty deep, actually. Your point about bearing your testimony was to talk about how you know that God accepts and loves you as a gay kid, because I know there’s going to be a lot of people who say, she only did that to shame the church, or to make a scene, what would you say to those people who say that to you?
Savannah: Where do you even get that idea?
Savannah: Because I didn’t say anything rude about the church, I didn’t say I didn’t believe about the church, or anything like that, and I, I talked about Christ, and God in it, and how He made me the way that I am, and how we’re all children of God, so, yeah, I don’t see how they got that idea.
Jerilyn: So what is something that you think Mormons think about gay people, even gay kids, that needs to be corrected?
Jerilyn: Everything? (laughs) Like what? I want to hear. What do you want people to know about what it’s like to be a gay Mormon kid?
Savannah: Um, what they should know is that they just want someone to love them, and that they’re still normal; they’re still the same person, and nothing’s really changed. It’s just who they find attractive, or how they feel. They’re the same person; the same person that you love, and what happens is, people keep kicking out their children, for being gay, and calling it “tough love”, and that’s not good, in my opinion, because they’re just still the same person, and you can’t change that.
Jerilyn: Why do you think people are homophobic, or afraid of gay people?
Savannah: Why are they afraid of gay people? Because they’re afraid of becoming gay.
Jerilyn: You think so?
Jerilyn: You think they’re afraid they’ll “catch the gay?” That’s something we joke about in our house, because we have a lot of LGBTQ that come here.
Savannah: Yeah, it’s, like, people say that the pollution in the water is turning the frogs gay, and that’s always been stupid, because frogs can be both genders, and—
Jerilyn: How does that make you feel when you hear stuff like that?
Savannah: You guys must be really that stupid.
Jerilyn: (laughs) So do you have any, like, LGBTQ heroes?
Savannah: Ellen DeGeneres
Jerilyn: Awesome. So, what are some of the things as a teenager, especially as a gay teenager, that you’re looking forward to?
Savannah: Holding hands. Finding someone who loves me the way that I love them back. Just finding someone to love me; that would be so nice.
Jerilyn: So, normal teenager stuff then, huh? So weird how that happens. (laughs) So, do you want to close by– do you want to read the testimony that you wanted to share?
Jerilyn: Because I’m sure a lot of people would like to hear this highly controversial thing that got you—that a grown man had to shut down out of fear for an entire congregation.
Savannah: Yeah, but that’s the thing: since I didn’t finish, people have been making words and putting them into my mouth, which I didn’t say.
Jerilyn: Which is why it’s important for you to have your own words out there.
Savannah: I don’t get why people are so mean!
Jerilyn: How are you feeling about everything now?
Savannah: Now? Umm, still the same: sad and happy.
Jerilyn: Have you received a lot of support?
Savannah: Yeah! A lot of support.
Jerilyn: Any haters?
Savannah: Yes, but my mom won’t let me—she won’t tell me what they say.
Jerilyn: You have a good mom.
Savannah: Yes, I know. She’s one of the best. Not—
Jerilyn: You don’t need any haters at 12.
Savannah: Not to be rude to anyone else who has a different mother.
Jerilyn: No, it’s ok. Ok, when did you get up—did you get up first, did you get up, in the middle…
Savannah: I got up first.
Jerilyn: You got up first!
Savannah: Yeah, and I think I sorta ruined it for everyone else who wanted to get up.
Jerilyn: I don’t think you ruined anything. I don’t think you ruined anything. I think it was a really powerful thing.
Savannah: …and I felt like people needed to hear it.
Jerilyn: Ok, so, are you ready to tell us what you’d wanted to say in your testimony? So this is something you’d written out ahead of time so that you were staying on message, so that it was appropriate for the meeting, so that you could stay focused on what you wanted to say, right? Ok, perfect. So why don’t you go ahead and read that.
Jerilyn: That’s really beautiful, Savannah.
Savannah: Thank you; sorry of that was too quiet.
Jerilyn: It’s not too quiet. Is there anything you want – we’re going to close – but is there anything you want people to know about you, or about what people like you, what gay kids in the Mormon church, should be treated like?
Savannah: That they’re perfect just the way they are, and no one should judge them, and they shouldn’t be judged because they’re perfect. And, this is the way they were made.
Jerilyn: That’s beautiful. Thank you.
Savannah: Thank you.
So, I think I’ll close with an extended answer to a question I get all the time, which goes a little something like this: “Why do you even come out as gay/bi/trans/whatever? I never came out as straight! And why do we need to label ourselves? That just serves to divide us rather than unite us.”
So, to answer the first part of the question, you’re right; you likely never came out as straight. But this question meant to stump us or cause us to question ourselves and our tactics (which play into the stereotype of us as “drama queens”, but it’s fine, we’re learning here), like in many of these questions, the answer reveals itself when you answer the rhetorical question yourself.
If you never came out because you’re cisgender and straight (sometimes we just say cishet for “cisgender and heterosexual” to speed things up), why is that? Is that because you’re just less of a shameless self-promoter than us? Is it because you’re more self-assured than us, or just don’t crave constant reaffirmations, or more confident in who you are? Well, I’ve heard those reasons advanced as the answer to this question, but let’s examine them.
Certainly you’d grant that there are plenty of straight people who also lack self-confidence, who seem to need constant adulation and praise, and seem to thrive on drama and self-promotion, yes? But, do these people come out as cishet? No, they don’t; you were right when you say that straight people don’t do this.
So, if it’s not the reasons you mentioned, why is it? Well, here’s what I think: It’s because literally everyone assumes that you’re cishet your whole life, all day, every day. Think about it: I can’t tell you how often I hear stuff like this said about little babies that are only a few months old: “Oh, he’s going to be such a lady killer!” or “watch out, Dad, when she’s older, you’ll have a line of boys around the block trying to take her out”. Think about how many people (maybe even you) are so fastidious about sticking little hair bows on still-bald babies so they know the baby is a girl. Doesn’t almost everyone correct you not only when you call their child a girl when he’s a boy, but also when you “misgender” their cat?
If you’re still not convinced, do an experiment for me: leave your house, and go about your normal routine, and see how often your sexual orientation gets mentioned. I’m not talking about someone literally referring to you as heterosexual, but anything where someone else assumes it, or you mention it. So, if you’re a man, mentioning your wife or girlfriend, or evaluating the attractiveness of a woman (or saying that you can’t evaluate the attractiveness of a man). Or “normal” comments like these: “Ugh, men! It doesn’t matter how much you doll yourself up for them, they’re always going to stare at the 25 year old with the fake boobs, you know what I mean?” or “How’s your love life like these days? I bet a good-looking young guy like you has to beat the girls off with a stick, right?” or “Oh, you have a twin sister? When you two were in high school, were you ever interested in the same boy?” or “What do you mean, the clothes your son and his date wore to his prom didn’t match? (turning to you) When you went to senior prom, didn’t you match something on your tux to her dress?”
Well, maybe it makes sense to come out once just to let people know, you might be saying, but why must you bring it up and/or rub it in our faces all the time?
We’re not rubbing anything in your face; that’s not only rude and unsanitary, but puts it too close to your bitey bits. But even if we were, why are we flaunting our queerness when we talk about who we are or in whom we’re interested, but Chet in Marketing can give every woman he sees a score based on how “hot” he thinks she is, gives us way too much detail about his supposed weekend exploits, and bros the place up so much that we’ll have to change the carpets after he leaves? I’ve never heard anyone go on and on about guys like that who are “rubbing their straightness in your face” (and you just know he would if either you or he were drunk enough).
But while we’re on that topic, there’s really just about no amount of talking about that’s acceptable in polite society. If we never come out, we’ve not only got to scrub everything we say, but also come up with a fake straight and/or cisgender persona to answer questions that assume we are who you think we are AND we often become whispered about in a “do you think she is? I never hear her talk about any boyfriends she’s ever had…” way. If we come out once, but not to new people we meet, those new people often get mad that we didn’t give them a heads up, or, once they find out, they want to brag about how they thought they knew because of some supposed tell of ours, or how well-developed their gaydar is. If we talk about our not cishet-ness like you do your “normalness”, we’re talking about it too much, it “consumes” us, or it’s all we ever talk about, or we get accused of letting it overshadow our other identities.
Anyway, like many things, when you find yourself troubled by something that someone else is doing, ask, as Jesus’ disciples did, “Lord, is it I?” Is it possible that the cause of my unease is not them or their behavior, but something errant within me?
If something a queer person does or is that you can’t find a good reason to dislike or be bothered by, well, bothers you, it may well be that at least a part of you still harbors some negative feelings feeling about at least a part of us. It may just be homophobia, or biphobia, or transphobia, or any of a manner of –phobias. You may want to consider making that a topic of prayer and spiritual effort, or honest reflection, to cleanse the inner vessel of this impurity. Do it not only for us, but realize that you deserve no less, too.
*music starts* This has been I Like To Look For Rainbows; please join us again next time.