In this episode, I give you my take on Savannah-gate, talk about how queer Mormons can obey the higher law, and we hear Nic’s story of life and love before, during, and after attending an LDS college.
I apologize for taking so long to post new content. I had a big certification test that I’d been working on for about a year to prepare for, I started a new job, and flew across the world and the US once each.
Anyway, enough excuses. In this bonus episode, a bunch of queer Mormons sit down at a dining room table and talk about the anniversary of the Pulse shooting in Orlando, our sometimes fraught relationships with allies, and other issues of concern for the queer LDS community. Caution: a very few swear words for those of delicate ear palettes.
Join us to talk about the “Little Factories” talk, “A Protected Class of Sin”, and to hear Kris’ story. They’re trans, asexual, Mormon, and a big Star Wars nerd.
So, the second episode of the podcast was dowloaded over 500 times in the first day after it was released, and it’s still going strong.
That’s the good news; it’s clear that when I feature compelling content like Savannah’s story, people respond. I’m happy to have played a small part in amplifying her voice.
The bad news? I need more stories, because I don’t have any more to feature. These stories come from you noble Mormon queerfolk. I trust you see the problem.
I mean, I’m not greedy. I don’t need all of your stories. Just some of them. But at least some. And I’ve already used up mine.
Review the podcast on iTunes and Google Play (or whatever you do instead in Androidland); feedback is a gift, and it’s my birthday*. Also follow the podcast on Facebook and Twitter and give me all the likes, yeah? I’d like to be able to communicate with y’all there.
What do I want to hear from you on those media? I’d like to know what you’d like to hear on the podcast. Like, for the Mormon Queer History part, do you want me to try to go chronologically, from as as early as I can find and make my way slowly to the present, or maybe jump around and just choose the most interesting topics (like the “Little Factories” talk)? What do you want me to spend more or less time on?
Because I’ll take suggestions. Gladly. Think of me as your private dancer. A dancer for money**. I’ll do what you want me to do. Tell me what dance you’d like to see***, please.
* It is not really my birthday, but I do want the gift of feedback from you.
** I don’t make any money off of this. I probably never will, which is fine; my day job pays the bills.
*** I have no plans to actually let you see me dance. This is a strictly audio podcast, although you can imagine me dancing while I record if it helps you.
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.
Our second episode is finally here! We talk about Brigham Young’s cross-dressing son, the November 2015 Exclusion Policy, and I answer the question “why do y’all come out? I never came out as straight!”
But the real reason to check out this episode: you hear about a young Mormon lesbian who tried to speak about her experience in church, her mike got cut, and she was made to sit down. Here’s what she wanted to say that day — and a few other things, too! — in her own words.
Hello. My name is Britt Jones, and I’m your host of the new podcast, I Like to Look for Rainbows. It’s a podcast by queer Mormons, about queer Mormons, and for everyone. In today’s episode, we’ll talk about, well, what to expect from all this, why it’s happening at all, and why you should tune in. In addition, you’ll hear my random musings about what I know and have experienced in this very interesting Mormon Moment that we find ourselves in. I’m excited, and I hope you’re excited, too. Let’s look for rainbows together, y’all.
Welcome back. Ok, well, first off – and this is going to feel like a talk in church – let me introduce myself briefly (I’ll have a bit more to say on this later), and talk about what I’m going to talk about.
I’m Britt, and I’m a Mormon. And, for those to whom this is an important consideration, or just for avoidance of doubt, I’m an active Mormon, and a temple recommend-holding Mormon. I’m also a cisgender bisexual Mormon. I’m married to a straight woman in a straight-presenting relationship, and we have four wonderful children.
This podcast is about being queer and Mormon at the same time. How it works, how it gets us all by, and how it sometimes, or even often, doesn’t work.
This podcast is neither pro- nor anti-Mormon. As Mormons, we often feel like the media we consume should be “uplifting” and “faith-promoting”. What we speak about here will not always be those two things, although it often will be. Remember, however, we know that we can only be uplifted and have faith if we also have at least once been depressed and have known doubt. All I can say is that my only intentional bias in content is that it be real. I will be quite happy if it is edifying, informative, accessible, and challenging for died-in-the-wool Mormons, ex-Mormons, never Mormons, and all in between.
Now, to borrow another overused device from Sunday talks over the pulpit, I’ll go through the most common question words to orient ourselves; I’ll do the “who, what, where, when, why, and so what?” of I Like to Look for Rainbows.
Who: Well, one person is me. I’ve talked a bit about myself, and, as I’ve said before, there’ll be more; I promise. There are also a bunch of people who have helped that I’d like to thank: my wife for her support, first and foremost. I’d also like to thank Jerilyn Hassel Pool, for the beautiful artwork and website (more on that in a bit), in addition, of course, to her great work in the queer LDS space. I want to thank Ben Cassorla, whose music you hear during the podcast; his music appears with the name of just Cassorla. He’s a high school friend and a terrific musician who I contacted out of the blue on Facebook – I hadn’t talked to him since high school – to ask if I could use his work on the podcast, and he very graciously said yes. His two latest EP’s are called The Right Way and Amigos, and both are available on Bandcamp, and the former is on iTunes. The two tracks you’ll hear most prominently are called The Right Way and Our Power. All of its way better than even I expected, and I expected it to be great, and you should give all his stuff a listen, too.
But the most important person is you. I hope we get a diverse listenership. I hope the broad LGBT+ Mormon community feels like it represents them as much as it can, and I hope they feel at home listening. I hope straight Mormons of all stripes will listen, feel like it meets them where they are, and helps them come away with some new understanding, and maybe a few other helpful things, too. I hope ex-Mormons feel welcome here, too; it’s my considered opinion that Mormons and ex-Mormons don’t understand each other very well, and I hope we can coexist harmoniously here. And I hope non-Mormons, both straight and gay, will listen too; I wouldn’t get upset if a bunch of non-Mormon folks started following this podcast like I’ve heard many do with “Mormon mommy blogs”.
While I’m on that subject, let me mention something we’ll have on the website that has something to do with that last group (non-Mormon listeners, not Mormon mommy bloggers, although they’re of course welcome to listen, too): there’s a lot of jargon specific to Mormondom that I’ll be using. I intend to publish a running glossary of sorts to help define the unfamiliar terms you’ll hear. I plan to do that for other things I think may call for it, like terms specific to the queer community that might be unfamiliar to some. If there’s anything I miss, please ask in the comments on the page. I’ll try to answer as many questions as I can get to, at least until this podcast makes me rich, famous, pompous, and aloof.
What: It’s a podcast. You listen to it. That is, unless you have a hard time listening, or would just rather read it, in which case, I’ll try my best to post a transcript of each episode on the website.
Under this heading seems like a good place to talk about format. At least at present, here’s what I’m thinking:
- Something historical
- Something recent, perhaps like a This Week in Queer Mormons segment
- A profile of a new queer Mormon each week (this week, it’ll be me)
- An answer to a question I’ve either been asked before, or that we get on the site, or on social media
- A bit of a closing statement from me on sort of whatever I want to talk about
Ooh, here’s a good time talk about social media: we’ve got a page on Facebook, which is called I Like to Look For Rainbows. Also, follow us on Twitter; the account is called ILike2Look4Rainbows, all one word, “to” and “for” represented by the numbers 2 and 4; the links to both are on the website, iliketolookforrainbows.com. Also, our email address is email@example.com.
Also, this is a queer LDS voice, not the queer LDS voice. I don’t and can’t speak for all of us, although I want as many of our voices as I can have be part of this story.
Where: On the interwebs, and in your mind! But seriously, it’ll be on our site, where you can subscribe, and, if all goes well, it’ll be available on iTunes and on Android devices, too, before too long.
When: Right now, since you’re listening to it. And any time you want. But as to schedule, I’m gonna shoot for once a week, subject to change.
Also, I’m from the US, and suspect most of my listeners will be so, too, but I don’t live in the US now. So if you don’t get prompt responses to questions on the site, that you send via email, or on social media, it may be because there’s a time difference, and/or because I have a day job and a family. Also, sometimes I’m seriously the worst, so steel yourself for that, and that includes not promptly getting back to folks sometimes.
Why: Ah, now we’re really getting to the meat. Why do this at all? Queer folks, and maybe particularly queer Mormons, get asked why? a lot. For example: Why do you even come out a lesbian or trans or what-have-you? I never came out as straight, they say. Why do you dress (or not dress) that way? Why did you take things we like that used to mean something else and gay them up, like rainbows, the word “gay”, bears, or Rick Santorum? Just kidding, no one likes Rick Santorum. I mean, regardless of your politics, he’s the least charismatic and likeable politician of my lifetime. Anyway, probably two people listening just pulled out their earbuds and clutched their pearls, and now we have two fewer listeners. AND I HAVE TO LIVE WITH THAT, YOU GUYS. Well, our hearts will go on.
Anyway, so why even talk about this? Why do we just go on and on about this? Why make this our identity, when there’s so much more to you than the “same-sex attraction” that you’re struggling with?
*Sigh* So, to start out with: because we exist. I know that sounds so obvious as to be obnoxious, or even condescending, but there’ve been some unfortunate comments by LDS Church leaders to suggest that we don’t exist, or that these identities shouldn’t exist as such. Let me just get this out of the way real quick – and this is now how the church talks about it, too – this ain’t a choice. You can’t pray it away. No queer person is only queer. No one’s ever said our queer identities are or should be our only identities. That’s not a thing, and it’s a strawman. Not a good look, bro.
Since we exist, we have stories. When you have stories, you’re allowed to tell them. Keeping ourselves or our stories in the closet isn’t healthy for us, our families, or the church. We’re doing this for your own good, after all.
But I’ve heard plenty of queer LDS stories! you say. There’s the Mormon and Gay official LDS church website. There’s the recent videos on the Mormon Channel about the gay kid in that good LDS family AND THEY EVEN ADMITTED HAD A BOYFRIEND AND EVERYTHING, GOSH! Queer Mormons have been on the Mormon Stories podcast, and then there’s the Mama Dragons.
Sure, and some of those groups are great, and certainly have their place. But who tells those stories? Who controls that narrative? Besides, off the top of my head, Tyler Glenn’s recent album “Excommunication” (which, by the way, is great, I’m obsessed with it, is essential listening – along with this podcast, duh – to understanding modern queer Mormondom, etc.), almost all of the stuff written or spoken or produced about us is done by straight people, and often for an audience of straight people.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with you straight people. Your voices are valid, too. We know that’s just how you are, and there’s nothing you can do about it, and WE LOVE YOU. SO MUCH (this is a joke).
But we don’t need to run the story of our existence through a straight filter; it’s better straight – strike that, gay — from the source. Also, the story changes depending on who’s telling it.
Here’s a concrete example of my last point: recently, there’s been a story bouncing around the corridors of social media about an evangelical Christian mother in suburban Houston who now leans into parenting her openly trans four-year-old daughter. It’s a heartwarming and beautiful story about a mother who overcomes what she’d been taught, and the hate and misconceptions she had in her heart for trans people, to help her daughter walk as God made her with her head held high, even with the woman’s family’s opprobrium.
I’m sorry, but that’s not the story. Or, put another way, that’s a story, but it’s not the best, or most worthy of your attention, story going on there.
What do I allege you’re missing hearing the story told only from mom’s perspective, rather than from the child’s? Well, it’s hard to be fully sure, since I’ve only got mom’s words, but even from just that, we learned that this child knew with such a surety who she was that she started to fight mom for that true identity when she was only 18 months old. Mom brought church authority figures to the house to “heal” her, punished her for behaving like a girl, and brought the full force of parental authority to bear on this child. And, for two and a half years, this little girl persisted.
Do you have any idea how awesome this child must have been to stick to her guns like that? This isn’t to suggest that this is the only “willful” or “defiant” toddler ever; I’ve had lots in my house, so I know this is the rule, rather than the exception. But to stick to it when everyone, even her peers, told her she was wrong, and to stick to one thing for so long, and to not get bored of it once she got what she wanted (or, in this case, needed)? We parents of young children (and often for good reason) think we’re always right; this little girl changed mom’s mind through the force of will and persuasion. We’re giants from whence everything in the world comes for these young humans; how could you oppose them for so long when all the wind is constantly in your face? When I read it, I just wanted to take a second to honor this child, and the strength of her character, to fight and win the fight for herself.
This is not to say Mom doesn’t deserve praise here; she does. And it’s not to say we can’t hear mom’s story. We can; I’m sure it’d help lots of parents in similar places. But it’s a problem when the only stories you and we both hear aren’t ours. And this happens ALL THE TIME with queer Mormons.
Here’s an example: we see a video put out by the church of a rock-ribbed LDS family, and their struggles to accept the gayness of their son/brother. Useful and nice, to be sure. But we hear very little about his struggles. About his coming to grips with it. It only talked about him through the perspective of how his queerness affected his straight family members, and how he being who he is was so hard on them, but they came through (we don’t hear much about him, the person, at all, actually).
But why take issue with a great story of love towards a gay person, you ask? Well, for starters, we’re human, so we deserve love. It’s worth pondering why we need to pat ourselves on the back for showing a family that loves their son.
Also, no one’s denying this family the right to their story. They seem great. All I’m saying is that if they get an Oscar, it’s for best actor in a supporting role, not in a lead role. And I want to hear about him, from him, if at all possible.
Anyway, that was a long way of saying we need a way to tell our own stories in our own words, and I hope this podcast can play at least a small part in that.
And last, but not least, SO WHAT? Well, this is an opportunity and an invitation to increase in understanding and empathy. To reconsider what you thought you knew. To try to get us as people and as a church on the path to progression, and off the path of contention and stagnation and dug-in heels, on this issue. And to have a good time together. Because girls, they wanna have fun (so glad I don’t have to pretend not to like that song anymore).
Ok, so, since I spent so much time giving the preamble and introduction, and especially since I’ve got nothing for you this week besides just my voice (like I said, we’ll have additional voices starting next week), I’m going to skip the queer Mormon history and current events sections I’ve promised. I know, I haven’t even finished an episode yet, and I’m already breaking the rules. But I will do a profile of myself like I promised so we can get to know one another better, and then wrap it up with a little closing statement so we all know where we are going forward.
Ok, I’m not going to lie; this is a little intimidating. I’ve spent nearly all of my life closeted, which is another way to say that I’ve spent so much time and effort in carefully and fastidiously concealing what I’m about to share that it’s really become habit and reflex. But I can’t ask others to share in future episodes if I can’t, so here goes:
I knew I was attracted to men before I actually understood anything about sex or attraction, if that makes sense. I was ten years old. I mean, I knew how babies were made, but before puberty, it all seemed like a rather odd and unpleasant grown-up chore to have kids. Or, at least it did to me.
But there I was, watching TV at my grandparent’s house, and some show featuring young, fit guys wearing little more than loincloths came on — I think it was about Polynesia or something similar, and I think they were doing some sort of traditional dance – and I knew right then I was drawn to them in some way that I had never been to anyone before. I don’t remember this causing me any grief or anguish at this time – don’t worry, that’s coming pre-teen Britt! – but these feelings also didn’t dissipate, and I became slowly aware that I wasn’t really interested in girls like other boys my age were becoming.
I started getting to the age at which my peers started to define themselves more and more by their sexual interests and identities, and, more pointedly, at which the word “gay” was commonly used as an insult on the playground and in the hallways of school. This was the early to mid-90’s, so you would also hear mild rumblings of disapproval at church and elsewhere of gay pride parades, and of maybe letting men marry each other in Hawaii, so I began to understand that this was something to avoid mentioning, then to scrupulously hide, then to deny, and then to try in earnest to change.
Years later, now in high school, I do remember every now and again being at least vaguely interested in girls, but it didn’t really feel the same to me as my attraction to guys. Girls seemed something to appreciate more like art, and from a distance. But it’s really hard to figure out looking back if I would have considered myself bi then (had I had the vocabulary for that then), or gay. This may take a little explaining.
You see, at that time, and perhaps even now, although the climate for being a queer Mormon teen was not safe or supportive, in some ways, the climate around sexual attraction and dating helped you keep your queerness under the radar, and that helped you keep it under wraps, even from yourself. Mormon youth are taught that life leads to marriage, but also that we’re not yet nearly ready for it (obviously). Most churches teach you to save sex for marriage, but Mormons really, truly mean it, and expect it of ourselves. So, the church wants to encourage teen interest in the opposite sex, and learning the rituals of courtship, but also wants to avoid having the kids getting biz-nizzy in the back of a car before the wedding bells ring (we don’t have bells on our churches or temples, but you know what I mean). How do you toe that line, knowing that love isn’t always on time? Well, you encourage group dating and chaste, dorky dances held in the gyms of church buildings starting at 14 years old, and allow some one-on-one dating after 16, but you’re actively and strongly discouraged from going steady with any one person, lest, you know.
So, what if you’re not really into the gender you’re supposed to be into? Well, you hew strictly to the rules that discourage going too far with girls. You politely play the field, and develop friendships but not serious relationships with girls. If this sounds like every portrayal of life as a closeted gay teen in popular media, I can see you’re following me. You go to the dances, and dance with girls when the slow songs come on (but then you keep a chaste distance from a girl while dancing with her; the folk rule of thumb was to maintain more than a Bible’s worth of distance between the naughty bits). However, you might avoid going on dates (unless your mom pushes you into one, or invited three girls on an elaborate but frugal surprise date night on your sixteenth birthday). Thus, your doubts about your ability to really be interested in girls looks like obedience, and like you’re focusing on school and your eventual missionary service after high school.
Anyway, during my last few years of high school, I didn’t change so much as the environment around this issue began to change. And, first, just to make this clear, I didn’t live in the so-called Jello Belt of heavily Mormon areas in AZ, UT, ID and WY. I went to middle and high school in suburban Philly, so in a place that would be considered pretty progressive about these issues. So, first, court cases and advocacy for gay marriage started cropping up here and there. Speaking of gay marriage, I had never considered this as an option for anyone. This also brought the issue to the fore at church; I understand it had previously been fairly uncommon to talk about gayness to young men at church unless there was a specific issue or concern, but the climate, and the attitudes the church held on the subject generally, drew the church out to defend so-called “traditional marriage”. So we started getting some pretty clear anti-gay messaging at church. Chief among this messaging was a document released in 1995 entitled The Family: A Proclamation to the World that, among other things, removed all possible ambiguity from the church’s position on gay marriage. That messaging included the conviction that being queer was a choice and a lifestyle, and there were lots of breathless, unsubstantiated theories on how such a malady was caused. One I heard at church said that a lack of a close relationship with one’s dad, and being too close with one’s mother, was a likely culprit. Great; my parents getting divorced (and my lack of a close relationship with my then stepfather for lots of serious reasons I won’t get into here) made me even more broken that we all thought single-parent kids were going to be. So, all in all, not ideal for me.
Then, in ’97, Ellen came out on TV. I remember this being a bolt from the blue. I didn’t know any gay people. Our school had a straight and gay alliance, but I think everyone who went was either straight or acted like they were. All the depictions I had seen or heard of queer people were of aggressive, nearly-naked-in-the-streets, drug-addled, AIDS-infected, degenerate drag queens who were somehow both sissies and coming to destroy well-behaved society. She was a TV star, and looked normal. It made me think, at least vaguely, that queer people might not all be mutants or something, and that there was life after – and even during — gay.
Then in ‘98, Matthew Shepard happened. I remember just having a conversation about that with my wife, and she was surprised that I knew the year of his murder off-hand without thinking about it. This is perhaps a clear difference between queer and straight people of my generation. More than this, I remember when I found out about it. We were one of those families that would think we had enough money for things like cable and magazine subscriptions once about every two years or so, and it would last a couple of months. During one of these times, I remember reading a Newsweek article about his murder in our downstairs bathroom (that’s where civilized people keep their magazines, duh!) and crying quietly. I learned that day more clearly than I had ever known before that I was a problem, and that the world wasn’t safe for me. I pushed everything even farther underground, and tried to stop even wondering to myself if I might be gay; it seemed dangerous to even think such things.
In ’99, the film Boys Don’t Cry came out. I still haven’t seen it, but I read about it a lot (I think at my school’s library). You see, I’m not trans, but at the time, at church, there was this notion that gay men, for example, were claiming that they were female spirits trapped in male bodies (I heard a variation on this theory from a church official in the Church Office Building just this year, even though we don’t teach it anymore), and that God could never make such a mistake (we’ll get into the controversial “Little Factories” talk, where this idea seems to come from, in a later episode). Was I like Hillary Swank’s character? I didn’t think so, but who knew? Best not to think about that, either.
Now it was coming time to think about college in earnest. I remember being worried that if I went to a secular school (rather than a school with an LDS ethos and honor code like BYU), the gays there would somehow make me one of them. I was like an alcoholic afraid to go on a brewery tour (although I’d never been with a man, and still haven’t). I put all my effort into gaining entry into West Point (I may have been one of the only people to join the Army specifically because of DADT) and BYU, and when I got into both, I went to the former.
The Army, in some ways, felt like my mission would later be as far as being queer was concerned (and I’ve heard other queer Mormons describe their mission experiences this way): I was always so tired and harried and busy that I had neither time nor energy to be sexually or romantically interested in anyone. It wasn’t just me; all my apparently straight classmates would openly admit to the same thing, so much so that there was a prominent rumor that they put an additive into the food at the mess hall to depress our libidos. So, in that way, it sometimes felt like a vacation from being an “other”.
However, in some other ways, it was much harder on me as a queer person at West Point and in the Army at that time than civilian life had been. Perhaps because West Point was something like 90% male at the time, I was instructed to guard against “homosexual tendencies and actions” both inside and outside of church while I was there. The idea of ever being with a man took on the added mental burdens of upsetting unit cohesion and combat readiness, as well as, from a local church perspective, tempting good, temple-worthy LDS classmates into something against their natures because there were few suitable objects of their affection around them on a daily basis.
I had always thought that if I could avoid acting on my inclinations, maybe I could remain in good standing with God and His church, but now even those un-acted upon feelings convicted me. I felt as though my existence was a threat to everyone around me, especially at church, and that I needed to be fixed somehow. It was then that I first began to fast and pray to no longer feel gay.
When that didn’t work, I withdrew from church, started to feel keenly homesick, and lost my motivation to keep up with my military and academic commitments at school. I also began to feel like I needed to be around girls if I had any hope of not going full-blown gay, so, in early November of my first year, my newly again-divorced mother, with tears streaming down her face, drove our big Mormon van with my five younger brothers and sisters up to New York to bring me home.
I came home, and very quickly sat down with my bishop to confess to him my sin of liking boys. He was the first person I ever came out to, which was made all the more difficult by the fact that I had done everything right in high school, and here I was, having crashed out of college.
Anyway, before I get to how coming out to my bishop went, I feel I should back up to explain why exactly I thought my world was ending as a possibly gay LDS teen. Surely, it’s clear that it’s not easy to be a young queer person in any Christian sect with conservative teachings, but there are some aspects of Mormon doctrine and culture that cause some unique challenges for us.
As I’ve mentioned before, everything in a young Mormon’s life is framed as leading and preparatory to marriage. Well, what exactly do I mean by that? Well, we believe in an eternal marriage to our spouse, and through that your children are “sealed” to you, so none of our family relationships are “until death do you part”. We don’t have any celibate clergy, and indeed encourage “multiplying and replenishing the earth” with kids (which is part of why we often have such big families). In short, we teach that much of the purpose of our creation and life on earth is to get hitched and have and raise kids, and most senior leadership positions are only available to married members. The most important unit of the church is the family, not the individual, and the church’s concept of the family, at its core, is a marriage between a man and a woman. We do not only not recognize gay marriages, but the highest levels of church leadership teach that these aren’t even marriages at all (one such leader recently referred to them as “counterfeit”). So it’s not hard to see how you feel like you’ve got no future now, or in the eternities, if you’re frozen out of a church-sanctioned marriage, which is the fundamental organizing principle of Mormon society.
Anyway, my coming out went about as well as it could, which is mostly to say, my bishop was kindly and not scolding, but mostly seemed not quite to know what to do about it. This is not meant as an insult in any regard; in fact, I wonder if it going poorly could have put me at some risk of some self-harm, so I am actually quite grateful to him for being calm and moderate and caring.
He counseled me to not “act on my inclinations” (way ahead of you, boss, I might have thought; I think at that point I was at my lifetime peak of internalized homophobia), and to continue in fasting, reading scriptures, and prayer. I don’t think he even asked me to pray the gay away, but that’s sure what I decided to double down in doing. I read scriptures voraciously; on the bus to the job I found at a paper factory, at lunch, and anywhere and everywhere anytime I had free time. I sought out every speech and piece of written material that the church had put out on “same-sex attraction” (given the tenor of the pieces available then, they only made me hate myself more, but it helped me to re-redouble my commitment to getting fixed), and prayed so hard and so frequently that I was sure I would so wear out the very ears of God with my entreaties that He would have to cure me.
The cure didn’t come right away, so I became convinced that I hadn’t done all I needed to do rid to myself of this cancer, and that I needed to also confess this “sin” to my mother. She took it pretty well; she looked on wide-eyed and worried, was happy to hear that I was pushing back hard against my burden, and promised me she’d never tell a soul. As a quick aside, this isn’t quite what I’d suggest that parents do if their kids come out to them today, but in late 2000 in a Mormon household, that was quite good, and, again, compared to any number of worse possible reactions, it may have saved my life.
So, one day, after a number of weeks of this, the other members of my family went somewhere, and I came up with some excuse to stay home. I decided to kneel in the deserted living room, and not stop praying until I got forgiveness and a cure for what I was. Once I was kneeling, I decided instead of continuing to pray to be changed, remade, or fixed, I would ask for some way to fit, for this to work out. That didn’t seem like a distinction at all to me, but I now believe that change in what I was asking for made all the difference.
What followed was, and still is, the most intense spiritual experience of my life, and by several orders of magnitude. It was awe-inspiring and soothing and overwhelming and intimidating all at once. We talk a lot about the “veil” between the mortal and the divine, this world and the next. It was so thin that night that it was as if the power of God was pressed against it so that it revealed the outline of His form.
Here’s what I was told: your Heavenly Father loves you. I didn’t note it then, but there were no qualifiers in that statement. Next, that He made me this way for a wise purpose in Him, and I needn’t wonder why, or ask to be changed. In other words, this wasn’t a disability. I was then told I would be able to like and fall in love with a choice daughter of God, but that my desire for men would never go away. Lastly – and this is the part that really blew my mind at the time – that I should take note that some others couldn’t do as I would do; no matter what they did or didn’t do, no matter how righteous and upright before the Lord, they’d never be able to make it work with the “opposite sex”.
I was dumbfounded. The fact that I wasn’t a mistake, but it was planned this way; that I didn’t earn this fate by poor choice or insufficient faith or something someone else did or didn’t do; that this wasn’t a choice I was somehow making; and, most shocking of all, that some others were just gay, and would always be gay, and there was nothing they could do about it? These all conflicted directly with what I’d been taught, and what I believed; I resisted, and refused to trust what I had received. I voiced this disbelief while still in prayer, and the answer came back swift and hot with righteous indignation (although not in these words): “did I stutter?”
However, after I got up from this powerful communion, while I couldn’t forget what He had told me that flew in the face of what I had heard repeatedly from His leaders and at His church, I focused on the part of the answer that had finally given me hope for the future: girls were finally going to be a viable option for me! I felt like I had gotten a death-row pardon, and it was time to live the life that led to marriage, and therefore possibility, that I had always assumed I had been promised.
By early January, I was in the same giant Mormon van again, this time heading south to the mountains of Virginia. I had secured a place at Southern Virginia University, a small liberal arts college that had a LDS religious environment similar to BYU’s. If nothing else, I thought, this would carry me through to get on my mission that summer, and I’d have a chance to test out my newfound sexual normalcy, albeit in a chaste, pre-mission Mormon way.
I was popular with girls there (it didn’t hurt that there was then about 2.5 girls to every guy at SVU). I still wasn’t really into them – and my attraction to guys certainly hadn’t gone away, as much as I wish God had been kidding about all that — but it was “better” than before, and I assumed I’d grow into it like a kid does into a pair of shoes bought too big.
I became a member of a group of six friends, one of whom was a big, buxom, bold, blonde Southern girl with a old Camaro we’d get rides in. She was going to go on a date to a movie with my roommate, and suddenly I found myself feeling inexplicably upset when he told me he wasn’t super into her or seeing the movie. I said, “I’ll go with her instead then,” and when we both saw her later, I asked her if she’d go with me since he didn’t want to go, she said yes, we went, and I was in love. She appeared to reciprocate, and, four kids, 15 moves in three countries, and over 16 years later, still does.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was so excited to finally be really interested in a girl. Things were getting as serious as they can get before a young Mormon dude serves a mission, so I figured I needed to tell her my secret. “I love you, and am obviously really into you” – I was saying this at a park after dark between make-out sessions, which, come on guys, we were good Mormon kids, so just kissing – “but I want you to know that I’m attracted to guys, too.”
“I think it’s going away,” I lied. I also told her that it wasn’t an issue now, and would never be an issue in any way in the future (quick sidebar: lol).
She told me she believed me, still loved me, knew I would be hers forever (did I tell you we had already agreed that we’d get married, after not even a month of dating? No? Ah, young Mormon love!), that I would never “act on it”, and we kissed some more before we drove back to the dorms.
Fast forward to my mission in Houston, her waiting for me, me getting back, us getting married, working for a while and then moving back to VA to finish up college. Every now and again either she or I’d quietly and privately bring up my continuing attraction to guys, but she said it didn’t bother her, and I never even got close to stepping out on her, so it was good. Well, perhaps apart from the bouts of insomnia and depression in college that caused my grades to slip before I graduated, perhaps brought on at least partially by not only denying who I was, but actively being against any political right for teh gayz and always worrying if I was “passing” with what I said, did, and wore; insisting on substituting “us” for “them” when speaking about fellow queer people; trumpeting and supporting the church’s then line that being what I was was a choice and a sin but my identity was also somehow a fiction, even though I knew that wasn’t what God told me, and I knew God knew it, but who knows? Could’ve been anything.
We graduated, got jobs, couldn’t have kids for a while (no, I’m sure I never internalized our infertility and thought it was somehow punishment for being queer and/or that not being straight made me do it wrong somehow, why do you ask?), adopted our oldest, then unexpectedly conceived our oldest son, had him, and later two more, moved around a bunch, etc. In the meantime, the church started to change its tune on us queers.
In 2006, the church published an interview with a church public affairs representative and two of our high-level leaders, including one apostle `about what we call “same-sex attraction” (the Church then really rejected labels like “gay” or “lesbian” because, to be charitable, the leadership thinks that if you publicly identify as such, it will drown out other, more important facets of our identity, which, parenthetically, I don’t even know what to do with that, but whatever).
There were still some worrisome things said in there – the assumption that of course you could never allow your adult lesbian daughter who was visiting from out of town to stay the night in your house with her wife comes immediately to mind – but it was also quite important for a few other positive statements. We’ll also cover this statement in more depth in a future podcast.
Chief among these was the admission that being queer probably wasn’t a choice, and that we shouldn’t encourage gays or lesbians to marry straight people as a way to make them fit (we really used to do this, and, long-term, it generally goes about how you’d expect; we’ll do a podcast that does a deep dive into “mixed-orientation marriages” in the future), and an admission that there’s lots we don’t know about this whole gay thing.
I read this statement so many times that I could’ve probably recited it to you word for word back then. This confirmed (and future statements would do an even better job of this) much of what I had been told in answer to prayer more than five years prior. It felt good for my church to be on what I felt, and I know, to be the right road, even if they were slow to get on it, now walk on it slowly and sometime erratically, and not even always in the right direction. It felt even better to know of a surety that I could trust what I get in answers to prayers.
Anyway, nothing much happened on this front for a number of years, which is to say, it rarely came up at home, never came up at church, I was still closeted to all but my wife and mom, I was still trying hard to “pass” each and every day, and, when queer rights came up, I gradually grew more comfortable advocating for them, but only as society at large got more comfortable with it (so I stood out less for it; I couldn’t risk too much looking different since I was trying to pass, and always worried that there was some sort of secret tell). And I always played the role of the ally, never revealing that I was advocating for myself.
So, fast forward to late 2015. That’s when what has come to be referred to as The Exclusion Policy or just The Policy came out, which was obviously earth-shaking, and changed so many things, and none for the better. More of course will be said on this later.
It also happened to be when, while I was commenting on a post in closed, secret politically- and LDS-themed Facebook group (one that I assumed would be cool and supporting, and they generally were), and I happened to mention that I had come out as gay years prior to my bishop, and that I now considered myself bisexual. There were a few small public shows of support in the group, but it was just a reply to a post that wasn’t directly related to queer issues, so I just thought no one really saw it. I later found out people started blowing up my wife’s phone (she was an admin of this same group), breathlessly asking, “did you see? Are you ok? Are you guys splitting up?” It was that day that I began to learn about a number of important things: bi erasure and the mis-appropriation of the bi label; the larger landscape of Mormon mixed-orientation marriages and how tough it can be on not just the queer, but also the straight, spouse; and how one’s support for queer folks can struggle to make the transition from the general to the specific.
So, it turns out many (Mormon and non-Mormon) folks come out as bisexual first as a sort of transition state before they come out as gay or lesbian, since being bi can be seen as more acceptable, since the perception is that we can move easier through a heteronormative world. However, like the boy who cried wolf, if too many people cry bi, but the truth is they’re really gay or lesbian, people stop believing that being bisexual is a real thing. Straight folks need to and should believe us when we own our identities, and trust and listen to us when we tell them what it’s like and who we are, but we can cause problems for ourselves there when we aren’t ready to be fully honest about it, and we rush out a half-truth. I do get how hard it is to come out (details coming very soon!), and I can sympathize with a desire to come out in what you think will be an easier way and more palatable to onlookers, but coming out can’t have the power and healing – not just for yourself, but also for your family and your various communities — it should have when we don’t insist that others accept us as we truly are. But, just to close the loop here for our straight listeners, if a queer person tells you something about themselves, believe them. If it turns out not to be 100% true, they probably had a good reason, and, I dunno, just do whatever you do the other three times you hear something that wasn’t fully accurate that same day.
Another issue for us as a couple is that my wife is big in cultures (Mormon and American) that value thinness and insist fatness can’t be beautiful or desirable, so it’s even more likely that she’s looked at as my “beard” (again, since so many people don’t think my identity is real). She’s been supportive, but also has pointed out that this perception is something she could’ve lived without, which is fair, of course.
A month or so later, I disagreed with someone on their post in the same Facebook group, and she got upset. She decided to retaliate by trying to get both my wife and I fired from our jobs, and our foster kids taken away from us, and she planned to out me to accomplish this. She began exposing what little she had on me in a bunch of other pages, and sent me and my wife threatening Facebook messages. It wasn’t a well-considered plan; none of our employers were ever going to care, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea to tell our employers before she told them (because who knows what BS she would embellish it with when she realized they didn’t care about what she was saying), and call the cops. So, I came out to the woman who works in security at work who I barely knew and a cop in the suburbs of Provo, UT that day. A fun little Monday, that.
But remember, this woman was clearly pro-queer rights in this group. However, when she thought she could out someone and threaten them with exposure to get even for an internet spat, the true colors shone through. I learned that day – if any of my queer listeners haven’t learned this yet, learn it from me, and hopefully not from experience – not to assume someone’s support and benevolence solely because they claim it when it’s easy and nothing’s on the line.
After that, I wanted to just rip the band-aid off and come out generally to everyone, especially after Orlando (I wanted to post and talk about it, but it felt wrong to say “they” when I meant “we”), but my wife was worried it could affect our custody of our foster kids (our relationship with the birth mother wasn’t ideal, and sadly, we had to maintain it). However, by July of last year, I had waited long enough. I did it in the most millennial way possible (sorry, not sorry, Oldie Hawns) and announced it on Facebook. It generally went well, but some folks unfriended me, and some family members started (untrue) rumors that I had a secret gay lover, so that was fun. You can’t win ‘em all, right?
I want to talk just really quickly about what it’s been like now that I’m out. Generally, it’s been positive, and I recommend it without qualification (if you have something to come out for, and, no, you don’t come out as a Yankees fan or that you prefer Pepsi to Coke). It’s amazing the extra energy you have when you don’t have to expend so much trying to pass as straight; you don’t realize how much work it was until you can stop. This will also sound obvious, but it’s nice to just be honest about yourself to other people.
However, it hasn’t all been great. It can change your relationship with people. People assume you’re straight if you don’t tell them different, and when you do tell them different, sometimes you find they are not really comfortable with queer people, and aren’t into trying to fix that. If you’re bi, people want you to pick a lane; I can’t tell you how many people have notified me that I’m not queer because I’m a man who’s with a woman. Also – and this is positive but uncomfortable – being out draws the negative feelings that some straight folks have toward gays, even if they’re outwardly supportive. Let’s just say it was surprising how many people seem to think that threats of violence to queer people are pretty normal – it’s not just you, Senator Enzi! Moving on…
We moved again for work later that summer, and my new branch president called me in to meet with him. He said it was a welcome to the branch type of thing – and it was – but he had seen my post, and wanted to talk about it.
I could tell right away he was concerned. He asked if I was keeping the Law of Chastity (our collection of religious sex rules, which basically boil down to this: If you’re cisgender: Thou Shalt Only Bump Uglies With Your Opposite-Sex Spouse, and If you’re trans: Don’t). I said I was, and it seemed like he couldn’t believe that I had been faithful to my wife and wasn’t “addicted” to porn. I explained that there are probably people who aren’t his wife that he finds himself attracted to every so often, but, he’s married, and values their agreement to be monogamous, so he doesn’t pull the trigger (let’s go ahead and say pun intended). It was the same for me, but the range of people I find myself attracted to is perhaps a bit broader than his. I remember watching a wave of realization spread over his face, and we moved on to other topics.
So, I started working, and one of my co-workers had just joined the Army Reserves. I had long had a vague desire to join the reserves as a Chaplain, but thought the LDS church didn’t have them. He said he thought he had met one, so I looked into it, and indeed they did have them. I contacted the guy at LDS church headquarters who’s over the Chaplain program, and I sent him all the documentation he asked for to get the ball rolling, and applied and got accepted with a scholarship to Claremont’s Master’s of Divinity program. I figured everything was in the bag; I have a job with lots of responsibility, and I represent an organization much larger than the LDS church in an official capacity as part of my duties, so it seemed an obvious fit.
However, the guy from church headquarters started to be a lot less responsive, and I started to get worried that I wouldn’t be able to reply to Claremont by the deadline to accept my place without hearing about next steps from him, and I told him so. He responded with a request that I call him at his office.
When I called, he said he had been told that I was openly bisexual. Yes, that’s true, I said. He was clearly bothered by it, but seemed to struggle to put into words why. The best he could do (besides saying something like “Brigham Young said we should not publish our follies for all men to see, well, I’m not saying this is a folly, but … do you I understand what I’m saying?”, which I didn’t) was to continually ask me to empathize with his feeling that this put the church in a difficult position, which I told him I also didn’t understand.
I assured him I had never “acted on” my “inclinations”, which he said my branch and district president had made clear. So, then what’s the problem, I said? He said he was worried I’d broadcast my sexual orientation to all who I met; he actually said they were worried I’d wear a sign or something on my head to let all passersby know that I was bi (I took this seriously, but not literally). I told him I had a job now with high visibility and lots of responsibility, and I could pass him my supervisor’s contact information if he wanted to confirm that I didn’t come to work wearing a sash that said “Miss Bisexual 2017” or something (I didn’t use those exact words, natch), and said he could talk to my wife, but he said both were unnecessary. I said I thought that, if anything, my having the experiences I’d had would be a positive for my service with many young LDS servicemen and –women, as I could empathize with them if they were dealing with a whole multitude of problems that they didn’t feel they could tell anyone. He agreed, but then later seemed to angrily push back, and say that it’s wholly wrong and inappropriate to share those type of sensitive personal details with those you counsel, which I met with confusion and telling him I hadn’t said I would do that at all. He asked me to send him a screenshot of my Facebook post in which I came out, which I did. He then said he would have to think about it, bring it to the Seventy that supervised his program, and that he would get back to me, after which he politely excused himself from the call.
I was crushed. I had taken great pains (literally) to live my life in a way that accommodated the church’s shifting positions on queer life throughout the years, all for the promise that if you did that, you’d have all the same opportunities and blessings as everyone else. In fact, the entire logical scaffolding of the way we talked about being gay and Mormon was that it had nothing to do with identity (so much so that we were, and, to a lesser extent now, repeatedly told not to identify as queer) or attraction, but wholly with behavior and actions. Which is to say, if you’re a man, and you can keep your behavior 100% straight and/or just stay celibate, it’s all the same to the Lord. I had done exactly that, and a door that should’ve remained open had been closed for a reason it was said would never happen. This seemed like a clear contradiction. And before you say, “well, it could have been any number of reasons why they decided not to accept you, it’s wrong to assume you know their reasons,” remember that we spent half an hour on the phone, and it was the only issue that came up, and he admitted he saw no other issues with my application.
However, I’m a good Mormon; I kept the faith and a positive outlook. Surely he’d take his concerns to the Seventy, and that gentleman would say it was fine, and my application would move along. What do you think happened, listeners? Place your bets now. Maybe this won’t seem as inevitable to you as it should have to me. Anyway, let’s find out!
A couple of weeks went by, and no word. I emailed, and no response. So, I stayed up late (remember, big time difference) called, left a message, and went to bed. I woke up to the following email:
Dear Brother Jones,
After discussing your situation with Elder Lawrence and through prayerful consideration, we have decided not to provide endorsement for you to become an Army Reserve Chaplain. We encourage you to pursue other career options and advanced degrees that will enhance your work in the [name of my employer redacted]. We know this will be a disappointment to you, but be assured it was only after careful consideration that we came to this decision. We wish you all the best in your professional pursuits.
Brother [name redacted] (N.B. This was the first time that he referred to me or him as “Brother”).
I got back into bed, buried my head into my pillow, and cried hot tears for a while. And then I got up and went to work. The few LDS co-workers I told had what ranged from no reaction to a fairly tepid one. My non-LDS co-workers sympathized, but said they didn’t really understand the context (this is fair enough; we’re a “peculiar people”). I had offers to come and talk about it from members of my branch, and I welcomed that, but it never happened.
But, still, somehow, I kept the faith and a positive outlook. I emailed back, and urged him to reconsider. I said I’d be in Utah soon for a wedding, and I could come speak to him if it’d help. He replied that he’d set up a meeting, and sent me the invitation.
Maybe he would reconsider? Certainly if he agreed to a meeting, he wasn’t just going to do it to reiterate what he’d said in his email and prior phone call, or, in other words, to rub salt in the wound? Let’s guess what happened again, what do you think?
Yeah, it’s what you’d think would happen. Actually, it’s not exactly fair to say they brought me in to just say the same things to me. They said some new things (very few positive, but a few were unintentionally helpful), and they thought I wanted the meeting when I had just said I’d be happy to meet if it’d help them reconsider, so it was likely a misunderstanding.
They (there were two people there) said that they were concerned with my judgment that I showed in deciding to come out (one who had been a mission president said he had gay missionaries serving in his mission, and that they didn’t tell their companions, or anyone else, because they were “dedicated to the task at hand”).
They said it would made it look like the church supported gay sex, because it would be natural to assume that anyone who says they are bisexual is regularly sexually active with men, and although they knew I hadn’t, I couldn’t possibly explain that to every person in the military.
One told me he was sure that I had felt called to the work, and then asked me if I knew why I wasn’t chosen. He pulled out his scriptures, and read Doctrine and Covenants 121:34-38, which reads:
34 Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?
35 Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—
36 That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.
37 That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.
38 Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.
When I asked him, surprised, “wait, do you mean to accuse me of aspiring to the honors of men, or trying to cover my sins, or seeking to gratify my pride or vain ambition?”, he said, “no, I wasn’t referring to you specifically; just what could cause someone not to be chosen.” When I reminded him that he had started the citation not one minute prior to answer the question he posed as to why I, not some rhetorical example, hadn’t been chosen, he got frustrated, and said, “I’m not going to argue with you, Brother Jones.”
They bristled when I pointed out that the Church had just started the Mormon and Gay website (which I also pointed out that the church wasn’t forced to do), in which many Mormons are claiming similar identities to what I claim. Moreover, there is a video from Elder Christofferson saying explicitly that as long as you keep the commandments, you’ll have the same blessings and opportunities as anyone else, and they responded that these people wouldn’t be given endorsements to represent the Church as chaplains, either.
They insisted they understood what we go through because one has a brother who came out as gay a few years ago after being married with kids for years (although I’ll note he only talked about the anguish his adult kids and wife went through, although he did express his love for his brother), and the other said he had a transgender niece. I didn’t have much to say for a few seconds after this; hearing the queer version of the “but I’ve got a black friend or family member!” defense always feels like hearing that someone, somehow still works at Blockbuster. After those few beats, I told them I came out at least in part to help those hurting in silence. Because if his brother and his niece had heard that there were others like them, and more than that, you can come out on the other side and that there’s a future for you, they wouldn’t have felt so desperate and alone, and more kids make it to adulthood then.
I could list a lot more things – we talked for over an hour – that they said and my responses, but what they said to, and heard from, me wasn’t the real reason we were there. After I told them why I had come out, at least one of them softened, and said the most useful thing I had heard since this process started:
He told me that the decision not to give me the endorsement hadn’t been easy. They thought and discussed (including with his supervisor; as I mentioned, a high-level leader in the church) and prayed about it at length, but that he just couldn’t overcome his concerns about my sexuality and feel comfortable about saying yes, so he had to say no. I immediately knew what that meant, and if you’ve ever developed a habit of praying for answers, you should, too.
First of all – and it shouldn’t be this way, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we know it often is – we all know it can be hard to accept something that goes against what we’re sure is right, or what we’ve decided. Furthermore, I have found that the Holy Spirit almost never will give me inspiration to do something if He knows I won’t obey. Lastly, for a revelatory church, built on the rock of inspiration gotten from asking the hard, challenging questions of ourselves and of God, it seems indeed an odd fate that we almost exclusively call managers rather than revelators to lead us, and, outside of the personal and family contexts (I’m speaking here again of developing our leaders), we prioritize administration over inspiration.
This, dear listeners, is how we enshrine inertia as our operating principle, and why we showed up generations too late to nixing polygamy and the black priesthood ban, and why we’ve fallen badly behind in having an actual plan (made all the more glaring because we are the plan having-est people on the planet) for our queer fellow worshipers. And why, in my view, this brother came away thinking God wouldn’t want him giving me an endorsement.
Anyway, after that, we ended with a few inconsequential pleasantries, and he asked me if I wanted to bring my family, who was hanging out at Temple Square, in to eat at the Church Office Building cafeteria (aside: Wut. Are you actually being serious right now?), I said no, we shook hands, and I left. And that takes us to today, the end of the profile of myself, and leads me directly into my little closing statement.
Thanks for sticking with me through that wall of speech. Here’s what I want to end with:
I’m sure many of you listening today thought, “wow, this guy is really against the church; why doesn’t he just leave if he hates it so much?”, or something similar.
I don’t hate it. I want it to get better and be what it should be because I love it, and it’s beautiful, and it’ll be part of me forever no matter what I do. To be honest, I thought about leaving since the chaplain debacle; I told a few people I was going to at least “take a break” that I never took, and now don’t expect to. The two gentlemen at the COB seemed to expect that I would; one of them said to me “I hope this won’t influence your activity or membership in the church”. Everyone expects queer folks to leave.
But I don’t want or plan to leave. Many, or perhaps most, of us don’t, at least not at first. There’s not a queer Mormon out there who hasn’t fought and struggled and wrestled to make it work. It’s our home. It’s our community. It’s our church just as much as it’s yours. In fact, maybe moreso; most of you will never have to purchase your membership and activity for the price that I paid and continue to pay every day, and many, many of my fellow Mormon queers have it much, much worse than I do.
Why do I stay? Why do I pay such a price to remain where you say things to either erase me, exclude me, or impute evil motives to me that I don’t have, and then smile at me as if nothing happened? Well, simply, I still hear the voice of God, and, to me, He still speaks to me through this church. But let’s get one thing crystal clear: the church is merely a tool to help us be like Jesus, and do what He asks of us. Same goes for apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth. The church is for God, not the other way around. Follow where God leads you, period.
But here’s what gives me pause about my renewed commitment to stay: I can trust the church with me; I know the ropes already, and what to expect here. But I struggle to trust the church with my most precious things: my children. I have no idea what they will be as they mature; they are all still quite young. But if it were to be, I don’t know that I could raise a queer kid in this church in good conscience; at least, not as it is now. And I don’t think I’m alone; not by a long shot.
But the good news is that we have all the power we need to bring our policies and doctrine and hearts and minds into line with God’s will within us all Right. Now. But, on that wise, there is surely work enough to do ‘ere the sun goes down, and the time is far spent to start.
For you straight folks out there that might be wondering, What can I do? or What lack I yet?, here’s one idea I have (I’ll have others for you later):
Your queer fellows exist in a space in which many would prefer that we didn’t exist, weren’t around, or were just someone else. It’s often so lonely that you wish you could just see the hidden bitterness instead, until the bitterness envelops you so completely that you yearn for the loneliness again.
So it’s fine and even commendable to say to us, “your sexual orientation or gender identity doesn’t make you any worse or different to me; I see you how I see everyone else”, at least if you mean it that you don’t see it as a negative when many others do. But some say you should instead “celebrate” your gay kids and queer co-workers, but I’ve never cared for that phrase; to me, it feels a bit like a parent-to-very young child interaction, like a celebration for being potty trained or losing your first tooth. We also don’t celebrate the “normal” people (in this case, straight) for being normal, so the “celebrate” verbiage can bolster this false narrative that we’re seeking a place above and superior to straight people.
But society on a large scale, and church on a smaller scale, does prefer people to be straight. So, it would be really meaningful and even transformative if you could find a way to prefer us the way we are, not just to tolerate or accept it. We would not only be different without our queerness, but lesser beings altogether. And if you like us, you like us at least in part because, and not in spite, of that part of our identity. Learn to prefer, please.
Now, last but not least, to my fellow Rainbows, to all of us Little Purple Pansies (seriously, read the lyrics to that song; it’s perfect for us) who are listening, here’s what I say to you:
The way you hear your queerness talked about is that it is a “struggle”, a “challenge”, or a “cross to bear”. But it’s not. It’s a gift. It’s a spiritual gift just like knowledge, faith, healing, prophecy, tongues, etc.
Now, you might be saying, are you saying it’s not a struggle? Haven’t you spent this whole time saying how hard it has been for you?
But it’s not hard because of the gift you received. It’s a struggle because others despise your gift – sometimes just out of ignorance, or a lack of light and knowledge — and are trying to teach you to do the same. Do not despise it, and do not neglect it. Prune it, dig about it, and nourish it, and it will grow and bloom, just like you will and you already have.
How is it a gift? Well, because of it, I am like Janus: I can see in more than one direction, and not just romantically or sexually. I can see things that others can’t see, and sense and relate to things you can’t. I’m certain it’s the same for you in one way or another. If you can’t see it as a gift, pray and/or study and ponder until the gift you’ve always had is revealed.
*music starts* This has been I Like To Look For Rainbows; please join us again next time.