The Risk of Universalizing

by Bianca Morrison Dillard

This is a blog  post I’ve seen in heavy circulation the past couple of days. Perhaps you’ve seen it too. This is my response that does not center around the debate over gay rights, but instead on the risks we run when we set one person’s story up as a universal model of healthy happy living.

This is an article about how this man is making his life a success. I am very excited when anyone finds a lifestyle that works for not only them, but for their family—the ones they are committed to love and for whom they are responsible.

I’m also concerned that too often it is being shared in a way that suggests that this man’s experience should be a standard for all homosexual people.

He points out that sexuality is fluid for many of us. Based on our interview work for this project that seems to be true for many people–it also seems to be quite rigid for others. I don’t think it an overstatement to say, sexuality is complex and anyone who assumes that their own experience with it is also how everyone else experiences sexuality would be wise to listen to more perspectives.

I’d also like to talk a bit about internalized homophobia and the many ways in which it manifests itself in both straight and gay people. We often characterize it as simply self-loathing because you are attracted to people of the same sex. I would argue that this self-loathing is one of many ways that internalized homophobia can be manifested and that it is a symptom of what belies it, which is believing that heterosexuality is the only right and true sexuality. Many, therefore, believe heterosexuality should be the ideal our society prizes and thus has been promoted (consciously and unconsciously  for generations) as the only correct, true, and virtuous ideal expression of human sexuality. This is all complicated by the fact that the LDS church, like many other religions, teaches that heteronormitivity is the correct, true, virtuous and ultimately right way of heaven. And what society or our faith prizes can also become what we personally prize because we internalize societal and religious ideals. This means that although the author of the essay says he is not being swayed by what society thinks, and that, in his experience, heterosexual living is simply the best and truest form of marriage and that society has nothing to do with the shape his story takes, decades of social science, anthropology, history, biological science, and countless other fields would prove him wrong.

So how are we to reconcile all this?

One answer that appeals to some is to find examples of people who fit happily into the mold some believe God has set for those who are homosexual, and say, “Look, everyone, this guy is making it work! He is not only doing what I think God thinks homosexual people should do, but he is happy and fulfilled, which means if it’s possible for him, it’s possible for everyone.” I will reiterate that I find this a very dangerous proposition. Not only is this man’s experience in the vast minority, but even if he were in the majority, the fact that this type of living situation does not work for everyone means there is still a problem. I’m genuinely happy for that this man has found happiness and I think we ought not to dismiss his story because it is the exception and not the rule. That said, what do we do with the rule? Do we comfort ourselves by constantly highlighting these stories while dismissing the rest as too weak to follow the fullness of God’s law? What do we do as faithful LDS people who believe that heterosexuality is the eternal truth and that people would be happier if they lived up to this true, right way, or waited out this life to enjoy it in the eternities, but are also faced with the reality that not everyone is going able to find happiness with this model? Many, many, many people have tried and failed—what do we do with that reality?

I’m going to make a bold statement. I think that if we continue to insist that everyone must accept the heterosexual ideal despite the fact that many people don’t or can’t live up to that  ideal, we are also going to have to accept that there is going to be significant human suffering. We are going to have to accept suicide, bullying, risky behavior, depression, broken families, broken hearts and broken homes in the vast majority of cases. Or is it possible to allow people their own agency and relationship with God–the ability to work out their own lives and salvations with their Maker? Is it possible to strive to live our best life and allow others that same opportunity even when another person’s choices do not match up with our ideal?

Far Between Blog: Exploring the conversation

Far Between Blog: Exploring the ConversationThroughout the process of creating Far Between, it’s been apparent that the tone of conversations about the experience of being homosexual and Mormon greatly affects how people view themselves and respond to their situations.  As part of Far Between’s effort to engage more constructive and helpful conversations, the Far Between Blog is not only a source of project updates and opportunities but a place to share examples of conversations and lessons learned.

Blog authors will share experiences and thoughts from internal, interpersonal, and community conversations around homosexuality and Mormonism.  Weekly posts will include narration, deconstruction, and results from their own introspection, interpersonal conversations, and public discussions such as news media and panel forums.

In addition to sharing your own stories, we invite readers to join us in practicing empathy-centered conversation by subscribing to Far Between, reading and commenting on new blog posts every week, and joining or starting conversations in your respective communities, whether online or geographical.

We see individuals and organizations increasingly engaging and changing environments and lives for the better.  We offer the Far Between blog as one way you can join in filling the gulf many feel between the conceptions or experiences around homosexuality and Mormonism with constructive love and compassionate communication.

Will you join the conversation?

Working Out Our Own Salvation Together

by Jon Hastings

I recently had the opportunity of describing my experience of being gay and Mormon in a stake leadership training meeting.  My stake president has been wanting to change the atmosphere in our stake to be friendlier to gay and lesbian members, and as a step in that process he called this meeting and invited bishoprics, relief society presidents, young men’s and young women’s presidents as well as the heads of the corresponding stake auxiliaries and the high council.  The first 20 minutes or so the stake president used the church’s new website to talk about what the church’s current doctrine and stance are on the topic and to also talk about the importance of reaching out with love to gay members.

The rest and majority of the meeting was a panel consisting of Josh Weed and his wife Lolly, Josh’s father, me and another gay man in the stake.  We each introduced ourselves briefly and then opened it up to a Q & A with those in attendance.

The meeting went about as well as you could expect it to considering it was a stake leadership meeting and the topic was homosexuality.  I’ve lived in the stake for almost 10 years and so there were lots of familiar faces in the meeting, some of whom already knew I was gay and others who probably didn’t.  It felt good to talk openly about my reality in a church setting with some friendly and familiar faces.  Part of what made it feel good is that I was there to contribute to the meeting in a significant way by sharing my experiences and answering questions and therefore having an influence on the messaging surrounding the topic at hand.

Typically when homosexuality has been addressed in my experiences with various church meetings, it has been straight priesthood leaders telling me how to live the gospel or what the experience of a same sex attracted member should be, and it’s often boiled down to a very simplistic “be faithful and it will all turn out in the end.”  (Even though what feels like a fairly core aspect of myself seems to directly conflict with core aspects of the gospel.)  These men mean well, but their counsel and advice has often felt like I imagine counsel and advice would sound from a man telling a room full of women what to expect when they’re expecting.

I guess a shorter way of saying that is that it felt good to be included in a way that gave me the opportunity to contribute to greater understanding of the group by sharing what my experience has been instead of having someone tell me what my experience is or should be. The former feels empowering and soul expanding; the latter feels incredibly frustrating and demeaning.

I’ve been fortunate in that I have a pretty great bishop and stake president.  Both know that I am dating a man and neither one has directly tried to talk me out of the relationship.  My stake president teaches the doctrine in general terms, and when it comes to me specifically he reaches out with love, admiration and encouragement.  My bishop is genuinely curious and asks appropriate questions and listens a lot.  He has told me my boyfriend is welcome to join me at church.  A couple of Sundays before the stake leadership meeting, my bishop and stake president gave me a blessing.  I won’t go into the specifics of what was said during and after the blessing, but it was pretty clear to me that my stake president has gone through his own conversion process on the topic.  He’s really taken the time to humble himself and study and pray and listen and admit that he doesn’t have many answers, things that anyone wanting to approach this topic successfully will benefit from greatly.

The stake president has now started traveling to each individual ward in the stake to do a combined priesthood and relief society meeting during the third hour on homosexuality.  There are also plans to do a youth fireside, although the details for that have yet to be worked out.

Now, lest I lead anyone to believe that I live in a stake that has gone rogue and celebrates homosexuality, let me assure you that is not the case.  My stake president sticks very closely to the material on the church’s new website.  If you’ve seen the church’s website, then you probably have a pretty good idea of what’s being said in the meetings in my stake.  He uses a lot of the videos from the site.  Some of you might think that’s just fantastic and some of you might be rolling your eyes.

I think it’s good that the messaging on the issue from the top on the website is moving away from condemnation and more towards inclusion, that family members shouldn’t be ostracized for making life choices we don’t agree with, that we should trust people in knowing what their feelings are, etc.  I feel a little bit frustrated that most of the subtle changes in messaging can be boiled down to essentially a message of treat homosexuals like you would any loved one.  I get a little bit frustrated thinking that that’s the progress we’ve made, that we’re just beginning to understand that the golden rule actually also applies to people who through no fault of their own feel and experience a very real and profound attraction to people of the same sex.  They are baby steps, but those baby steps are progress and will hopefully pave the way for more progress, whatever that ends up looking like.

My other larger frustration is that we’re still not talking about what I believe are the most important questions.  Reaching out with love will make a big difference and will be enough for some people, but there is still no clear and satisfying articulation of what role homosexuality plays in the plan of salvation, other than to say that it won’t exist in the hereafter, which is a convenient and comforting answer if you’re straight.  If you’re gay, the answer can feel unsatisfactory and dismissive of the harsh and deeply felt realities of this apparent conflict.  There’s still not much there to entice a person to invest heart, spirit and soul to sticking around and being patient with the church.  As I said in a previous post, dangling eternal heterosexual marriage as incentive is like telling a child that if they behave, they’ll be rewarded with liver for dinner.

I believe there is much to be gained by exploring and mining this issue thoughtfully and carefully: greater understanding of the role and importance of gender and what attraction is and how our experience of it might inform what it means to be sealed together, what is family and what is its role in this life and the next.  Without a clear articulation of some of these issues and how homosexuality fits into it all, many will still feel estranged from and rejected by a gospel that is meant to be inclusive of everyone, no matter how much outreach there might be.

The temptation for some is to say we have the truth and it’s up to those who feel at odds with the truth to conform.  But how?  Is it that all these subgroups that don’t fit perfectly into the plan need to find a way to conform or could it be that we don’t actually have all the truth there is to have on these matters?  I wouldn’t claim to know for sure, but I do know that the quickest way to not find out is to not ask questions and to assume that since this is the way it’s been for many years that this is the way it’s supposed to be.

I applaud the increased outreach and understanding and love.  Let’s continue with that.  If there’s ever a question of how to approach a situation or a person, the answer should always be with love.  Let’s also continue to ask the hard questions and explore and work out our own salvation together.

Then Shalt Thou See Clearly

by John Gustav-Wrathall

Last week, I was doing a Sunday School homework assignment.  (I guess I’m outing myself here as a total Church geek.)  We were supposed to go home, pray for light and understanding, then read 3 Nephi 14, and then conclude by praying for continued light and understanding.  I dutifully performed the assignment.

So, after praying for “light and understanding,” I began with the text.  Verses 1-2.  Jesus teaching the Nephites: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”

OK, I thought.  We’ve read that so many times, we take it for granted.  But in the meditative, focused spirit that had been induced by my prayer, I felt more open, more attentive, even a little excited.  This teaching about non-judgment is profound.  My mind and spirit were hungry for deeper insight.

The following verses (3-5) present the parable of the beam and the mote.  Again, how many of us haven’t heard this parable a million times?  “Thou hypocrite, first cast the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”

I had always taken the meaning of this parable essentially to be: Focus on your own damn faults.  You have no business messing with others or telling them how to fix their own faults.  You have a beam.  Your brother has a mote.  You’d better focus on the beam.  That’s always how I’d read this.  Not a bad reading of this text.

But, I realized, there was a part of this saying of Jesus that had always troubled me, given my traditional interpretation of this text.  It’s the part about how, once you’ve cast the beam out of your eye, then you can help cast the mote out of your brother’s eye.  Is Jesus actually saying that I could become perfect enough some day to in fact be in a position to help fix others’ faults?  That bugged me.  It seemed like a dangerous teaching.  Because I know I’ll never be perfect.  I’ll always have beams or motes or imperfections of other sorts.  And if I take what Jesus says here literally, wouldn’t there be a risk of me thinking I’m perfect when I’m not?  And in my delusional self-image of perfection, go about judging and trying to perfect others?  Doesn’t this actually teach away from what Jesus is saying here? Doesn’t that open up the prospect of all kinds of judgmental and pharisaical attitudes on the part of individuals who feel like they’ve taken care of their beam, so now they’re all ready to start working on the motes of their less fortunate brothers and sisters?

But on this reading, there was a particular phrase that caught my attention, that helped bring me to a deeper understanding of this text: “Then shalt thou see clearly.”  I remembered the first verse of this chapter: “Judge not.”  The parable on beams and motes was an extension of that teaching, an illumination or illustration of it.  Jesus is using the parable to teach the art of non-judgment.

It was then I realized that I had always misunderstood what Jesus meant by the symbolism of the beam.  I had always assumed that the “beam” represented my flaws, my failings, my faults, which were always bigger and worse than the flaws, failings and faults of others…  Their “motes.”  What I now realized is that the beam represents a very specific type of failing.  It represents my inclination to judge.

The central metaphor here, I realized, is not the beam or mote.  It is the eye.  Immediately, another saying of Jesus came to mind, from the preceding chapter (3 Nephi 13/Matthew 6).  “The light of the body is the eye; if, therefore, thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.

Jesus wants us to “see clearly.”  Beams and motes in this parable are an impediment to clear sight.  In teaching about the “beam,” what Jesus is telling us is that our inclination to judge one another is our number one impediment to seeing the way God wants us to see.

See, we are in a very real sense our brother’s keeper.  We are supposed to be there for each other and help each other with flaws and faults.  But it is impossible for us to do this effectively when we judge one another.  Huh?

OK, let me expand on the parable a bit here.  Has anyone ever actually extracted a mote from someone else’s eye?  I’m here to tell you, I never have.  I’ve occasionally had a mote (spec of dirt) in my eye, and I’ve occasionally been around someone who’s gotten a mote in their eye.  But the eye is a sensitive organ.  Do I want somebody poking around in my eye with their dirty fingers and trying to pull out my mote?  Does somebody else want me doing the same?  Heck no!

When I’ve had a mote in my eye, the usual response of a friend or a loved one who happened to be nearby during such a misfortune is for them to put their arm around me, perhaps help guide me to a near-by sink, and then comfort me while I rinse my eye under running water, gently washing the mote away and restoring my sight.  I think this is really the only practical way I or anybody else casts a mote out of a brother’s or sister’s eye.

My most important responsibility in relation to any brother or sister is not ever to correct them, but to see them.  To cast away any impediments, any judgmentalism, that hinders me from understanding and empathizing with them.  Only when I can see them non-judgmentally, only when I can see them as they see themselves, is it possible for me to be in the type of solidarity and love with them that enables us each to work on our individual flaws and live into the potential that Jesus Christ has called us all to live into.

I often hear LGBT people cite Jesus’ teaching of “judge not, that ye be not judged,” as a way of insisting, “Don’t judge me!”  But Christ intended the teaching universally.  It applies to us LGBT folks as judges of others, as much as it applies to us as the victims of unkind judgment.  We need not to judge even those who judge us.  I came away from this scripture with a hunger to “see clearly” and to have a “whole body full of light,” and a profounder realization of the depth of alienation and loss of vision that is caused whenever I judge, no matter whom I judge.

I pray for continued light and understanding.  And, as God is my witness brothers and sisters, I’m asking you both to see me, and to help me keep my vision clear.

Trust me, you’re gonna love this liver!

by Jon Hastings

If I had to choose one reason why so many gay Mormons end up leaving the church or one reason why several of those who stay experience a great deal of frustration, it would be that they don’t see themselves in the narratives placed before them.  I know I didn’t, and in a lot of ways I still struggle to see my place in the grand narrative known as the plan of salvation.  The plan exclusively is focused on families formed by heterosexual relationships.  For those who are gay, the hope is held out that if you are faithful, you will become heterosexual in the next life and be blessed with a heterosexual relationship.  Rather than offering hope, that explanation tends to simply offer more frustration to many.

To me, explanations like this sound more like someone grasping at straws to explain something they truly don’t understand or have a good answer to (see early explanations for why those with African ancestry couldn’t hold the priesthood or go to the temple).  It also doesn’t ring true to me.  We are taught in the scriptures that the spirit that inhabits our bodies at the time of death will continue with us in the next life.  Will we really be changed in the next life?  Is homosexuality really only a broken mortal condition?  It certainly doesn’t feel that way to me.

Also, the thing that is held out as incentive to remain faithful (eternal marriage to a woman) isn’t even at all enticing or effective as an incentive.  It’s like telling a child that if they are good, they get to have liver for dinner.  “Trust me, it might sound gross right now, but by the time dinner rolls around, you are going to love it!”

There’s always the celibacy route, but that seems more like a myth than a plausible, healthy life path.  It’s never been a significant part of our theology and there’s virtually no guidance on how a celibate life might look.  For those who say it would look like any other single adult member of the church, think again.  Lifetime celibacy is different than temporary celibacy.  Celibacy from any sort of romantic relationship, from the life affirming experience of sharing your life with someone you are attracted to on all levels, celibacy from sharing those quiet moments cuddled on the couch watching a movie or having a quiet conversation and saying “I love you”—that kind of celibacy is different than not having sex until you’re married.     Put in those terms, it might be easier to see why it might seem more like a myth than a healthy and fulfilling life path.  I know there are some who do go the celibacy route with no intention of marrying someone of the opposite sex.  To be more specific, I know of one dear friend who is doing that and who has lasted beyond more than just a handful of years on that path.  There are probably others out there, but even though it’s proposed as a possible choice for those who attracted to the same gender, it certainly isn’t a life path that’s widely celebrated in our culture.

It becomes more apparent why so many gay members of the church have a hard time finding themselves in the provided narratives.  By choosing to continue to stay and be engaged at church, it often feels like I’m choosing to swim upstream.  Sometimes that sense of frustration with feeling like I have to constantly carve out a space for myself within Mormonism is exacerbated by well-intentioned bishops.  I recently posted in the Mormons Building Bridges Facebook group and asked people there for ways bishops have ministered to them that have been helpful and ways they haven’t been helpful.  A common theme was that the helpful bishops sought to understand and meet them where they were and find ways to help them engage in appropriate ways, given the circumstances of the individual.  The less helpful bishops sought to impose narratives without first seeking to understand the situation or whether or not those narratives fit the individual.

Let me give some concrete examples.  Up until my current bishop, just about every other bishop I’ve had has encouraged me to date women, having the goal of marriage in mind.  None of them sought to understand what my experience had been up to that point with dating women, what my level of attraction to women was, and therefore whether or not dating them with the goal of marriage was even a viable option.  It began to feel like a very specific path was more important to them than my own well-being.  When the real issues aren’t being addressed, it makes it difficult to get in touch with what the real issues are and therefore, what can and can’t be done.  It’s like my childhood pediatrician.  If my mom ever took me in for something and he couldn’t figure out what it was, he’d just say I was constipated and prescribe lots of fiber and 8 glasses of water per day.  Not helpful.  The problem was, I didn’t fully understand or know how to articulate to myself why meetings with bishops weren’t helping, let alone express that to a bishop.  That’s when hope evaporates and despair begins to creep in.

On the other hand, bishops can do a lot to help carve out a space for gay members of their wards without compromising current doctrine.  John Gustav-Wrathall, who also blogs here, is married to his husband and has two foster sons.  In 2005, he decided to return to church activity.  His bishop at the time found ways to keep him engaged at church, even though he couldn’t hold certain callings.  He was asked to help out with some genealogical extraction work, sing in the choir, organize a ward talent show, etc.  John also said that a helpful bishop will “help keep us engaged and connected to the sources of our spiritual strength.”

My current bishop has had his calling since last December.  In that time, we’ve met a handful of times and so far the meetings have mostly been about him getting to know me.  He stated up front that he didn’t have a lot of experience working through the intersection of Mormonism and homosexuality and wanted to understand more about that and about my experience specifically.  It became clear to me that he sees me as an interesting person to get to know, instead of a problem to fix or a person to get onto a certain path, whether or not it made any sense.

I’ve recently been getting to know a high councilman in my stake, Yiyang, and his wife Suzi.  I met Suzi at a book club meeting and knowing about my situation, she invited me over for dinner.  They were both very interested in getting to know me (and I them) and understanding how they can help carve out a space for gay members.  At our latest get together, they asked me to invite a handful of my gay Mormon friends who live in the area.  There were five of us and each with varying levels of activity and belief in the church.  While we ate delicious food, we talked.  Yiyang and Suzi asked questions about what each of our experiences has been, the level of support we’ve gotten from our families, how our experiences at church have affected our relationship with the divine, how our relationships with our parents affects our relationship with the church and how we view our Heavenly Father, what we think could be done to make gay members feel more welcome, etc.

We talked for a good two or three hours.  I was amazed at how much each person was wiling to open up and share profound aspects of their spiritual journeys.  Yiyang and Suzi also shared some of their experiences as well.  I think what made the dinner successful (in terms of us being open and honest and respectful of each other) was that it had a very open ended goal.  The goal wasn’t to get anyone to do any specific thing.  Suzi and Yiyang weren’t inviting us over to get all of us into the pews at church (although I’m sure they’d love it if that happened), and we weren’t there to try and convince them that the only way to make us feel welcome was to embrace gay marriage.  There was just a genuine interest in seeking to understand each other’s lived experiences.

I understand that even if bishops and ward members are loving and supportive, many gay members will still find it difficult to find hope or a place in the current doctrine.  But before we begin to address those questions, I believe ecclesiastical leaders and ward members can do a lot together with gay members to create healthier narratives and options, though opening our hearts and minds to each other and having open and respectful conversations about our individual spiritual journeys.  Then we might be able to begin to see and understand together.

 

Confronting What We Don’t Know

by Jon Hastings

Have you ever stopped to consider the enormity of what you don’t know?  Or what about the things that you don’t even know you don’t know?  Overwhelming, right?  There’s a certain amount of comfort that comes with believing I know much more than I actually do, in being able to wrap difficult and complex issues up into neat and tidy little packages.  Our minds often tend to gravitate away from ambiguity and towards resolution.  What happens though, when we move towards resolution too quickly, before we’ve allowed ourselves to more fully explore something?  What truths do we end up missing out on by not remaining suspended in a space filled with the tension of two opposing ideas, not knowing, asking questions, as opposed to immediately gravitating towards one side, towards resolution?  And how can a failure to patiently hold and consider the tension of two opposing ideas lead to breakdowns in conversations with those who see things differently?

Historian James Harvey Robinson said, “Partisanship is our great curse.  We too readily assume that everything has two sides and that it is our duty to be on one or the other.”  What happens if instead we allow ourselves to remain suspended between perceived sides, drinking in what good we are able to find in each one?  What if we approach our conversations with others less like a zero sum game of winner takes all and more like a process of discovery?  How can our mutual willingness to question and explore together rather than merely state our opinions as facts lead to greater truth and understanding?

Dieter Uchtdorf of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints expressed the value of this questioning and exploratory state in a talk he gave at a recent leadership training conference:

Brothers and sisters, as good as our previous experience may be, if we stop asking questions, stop thinking, stop pondering, we can thwart the revelations of the Spirit.  Remember, it was the questions young Joseph asked that opened the door for the restoration of all things.  We can block the growth and knowledge our Heavenly Father intends for us.  How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know but couldn’t get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew?

In a recent post, I made brief mention of some scriptures in the Doctrine and Covenants about studying things out in our minds and also about not being compelled in all things, but acting.  I talked about how we have to proactively go out on our own spiritual journeys, much like Joseph Smith did, and seek truth.

It occurs to me again and again that the reconciliation of homosexuality with spirituality and our conversations about that process is one of many areas that could benefit from an approach of openness, patience, humility, courage and thoughtfulness that comes through in the scriptures and quotes I’ve mentioned above.  Taylor Petrey is someone who has contributed in such a way to this reconciliation conversation and process.  Petrey is assistant professor of religion at Kalamazoo College and recently gave the keynote address at the Compassionate Cause symposium that was held last month at the University of Washington.

In his keynote address, Petrey laid out a pretty thorough exploration of the LDS Church’s approach to and perception of homosexuality throughout its history, with a more specific focus on the past 50 to 60 years.  His remarks seemed important to me because I think we often assume that current attitudes and approaches are as they always have been.  We too easily forget where we’ve been, how that has contributed to wounds and divides that exist today and how we’ve evolved.  Historical context is important to more fully understand what we’re faced with today as we study these things out in our minds.  You can read his remarks, or if you’re more the type that likes to watch and listen, you can do that here. (Or you can knock yourself out and do all of the above at the same time!)

Petrey also wrote a very thoughtful paper for the Winter 2011 edition of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought entitled “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology.”  As he says at the beginning of the paper, it’s meant to be a thought experiment and not a statement of church doctrine or even a suggestion of what church doctrine should be.  As I was reading it, it felt very much like he was loosening and tilling the hardened soil of what we think we know about not just sexuality, but also about gender, gender roles, procreation, the purpose of relationships, etc.  Sometimes we project the way we experience our mortal lives onto the heavens and eternity, instead of seeking to inform and enrich our mortal experiences with instruction from heaven or the divine.

We live in a fallen world, don’t we?  Is it possible that we don’t understand all there is to know about gender and its eternal role?  Is how we experience attraction in our limited physical bodies an accurate representation of how we’ll experience it as glorified and perfected celestial beings?  And what role will that play in how we experience relationships with others?  What physical characteristics will follow us to the next life?  Will women be in a constant cycle of gestating spiritual baby after spiritual baby every nine months?  To how many women does that sound appealing?

As you can see, the questions begin to mount.  I know, I know, just put them on a shelf and trust in God.  How long is that a viable and effective strategy though?  What are we missing out on by not allowing ourselves to wrestle with these questions?  Can we expect God to just hand us the answers if we’re not willing to wrestle with these questions ourselves and together?

Again, if you’re more of the listening type as opposed to the reading type, you can also listen to a discussion of Petrey’s paper on this podcast from Mormon Matters.  The host, Don Wotherspoon, moderates a discussion of the paper with Petrey and Kristine Haglund, Dialogue editor.

This excerpt from a recent press release from the LDS Newsroom also sums up beautifully how we can not only benefit from exploring and wrestling with the realities faced by those who are gay and Mormon, but also how it is incumbent upon us to do so:

Mormons welcome truth from whatever source and take the pragmatic view that where religion and science seem to clash, it is simply because there are insufficient data to reconcile the two. Latter-day Saints approach such tensions as challenges to learn, not contradictions to avoid.

This productive tension can enrich both mind and heart. All understanding, whether spiritual or rational, is worked out in constant questioning and discovery. The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest.”  Latter-day Saints do not expect God to simply hand down information. He expects us to wrestle with the complications of life through prayerful searching and sound thinking. “You must study it out in your mind,” Mormon scripture teaches, and then answers will come. This pattern of inquiry opens Mormons to expanding spiritual possibilities.

I’m convinced that there is more knowledge and understanding to be had with regards to these important topics that will come to us if we will allow ourselves to sit with the seemingly dissonant identities of being gay and being Mormon.  If we sit with the tension with a spirit of humility and curiosity, instead of jumping quickly to conclusions, I believe our conversations will improve and the knowledge and understanding will begin to flow more easily.  We just need to be willing to thoughtfully hold and listen to our own as well as each other’s stories and experiences and carefully explore and talk about the reconciliation between sexuality and spirituality with open hearts, well tilled soil and iron gates thrown wide open.

Listening, Validating and the Balm of Gilead

by Berta Marquez

When you go to Disneyland, you’ll notice that if you ask an employee for directions she will point using her entire hand, fingers together.  I tested this with different employees and the result was always the same.  Why do they do this instead of simply pointing with their index finger as most Americans might?  I took a tutor training class in college that cued me in on what was happening.  You see, different cultures interpret hand signals differently.  What to you or I might be an innocuous thumbs up, for example, could be an offensive gesture to someone from another country.  Thus, in order to avoid offending the one we were trying to help we needed to be aware of this.  Too often when we talk about homosexuality and Mormonism, we give and take offense without intending to.  So what can we do to help change this?  What are the hand signals that will help us to get the lay of the land, this tenuous landscape where homosexuality and Mormonism intersect, and to heal wounds rather than create new ones?

This article will be the first in a series to look at why miscommunication occurs in our conversations with one another when we face this issue.  Where is the disconnect and why does it happen?  We will approach this question from a variety of perspectives – that of the friends and family of gay Mormons, their ecclesiastical leaders and of course gay Mormons themselves.  We will look at common phrases that we use and how they were received in various situations.

The following is one example.  When Tori’s homosexuality comes up, her mother and sisters often tell her, “Use the atonment.”  For her this is really painful and frustrating to hear.  ”Every time I hear this I feel like they are saying, ‘if you really knew the atonement you’d be fixed and straight already’.  In other words, I feel that they are telling me, ‘the only way the atonement can help you in this situation is by making you straight.’”  So why does Tori feel this when she is told to simply, “use the atonement”?

Tori served a mission, was an EFY counselor, and graduated from BYU.  She spent countless nights, months, and years reading the scriptures and praying for her Heavenly Father to help her, perhaps change her.  If she could not learn to be attracted to men, she would pray to find peace with the idea that she would need to live a life of celibacy.  In essence, she had done “everything right” so when told to simply use the atonement she felt she was being told that she clearly wasn’t trying hard enough to change – as if all of her efforts and tears were being dismissed and were somehow not enough.  Either that or the atonement wasn’t for people like her, who after years of work and struggle are still only attracted to members of their own sex.  Prescriptive advice can feel dismissive of the massive efforts that loved ones have often already made – the superhuman lengths to which many have gone to try to fit the heterosexual mold, including reparative therapy, endless prayer, much fasting, regular temple attendance, serving missions, faithful church service, all the while bargaining and pleading with God to be changed.  Without intending to, telling a gay loved one to just use the atonement can make him feel that he is somehow not really accessing it yet.  This can lead to feelings of powerlessness, defeat, frustration, self-loathing, or defensiveness.

What about the other end of the spectrum?  As Mormons, we are raised to believe that the atonement, that is to say Christ’s sacrifice, makes change of just about any kind possible.  We are also taught that to act on homosexual feelings is a sin.  Thus, it is natural for us to conclude that a child, sibling, or friend, who is homosexual should be able to use the atonement to achieve the end we view as most desirable – to become a heterosexual.  To raise the stakes even more, we are also taught that families can be together forever but that each family member must abide by the rules governing Church membership for this to be possible.  for gay members of the church, this means either entering into a mixed-orientation marriage or living a life of celibacy.  Any parents would want to know and feel that their child would be with them for the eternitites, so any variation on the latter options could cause a great deal of pain, even panic in a parent.

So the question becomes, what can we do to bridge the divide?  We can ask sincerely inquisitive questions about someone’s experience rather than just asserting our view and we can give the gift of listening.  The Empathy First Initiative has established conversation guidelines that can have the power to do just that.  Key to improving our conversations are the following (to name three of the seven guidelines):

  • Set aside settled assumptions.
  • Be vulnerable and inquisitive.
  • Patiently listen with grace to not be provoked.

All three of these guidelines require one common attribute – the gift of listening, really listening to the other person rather than making pre-constructed assertions, broad religious statements, or giving pre-packaged advice.

As I was reading the book of Luke, it struck me how often Jesus asked questions and then listened closely.  In one sitting, I counted 85 times in which he framed the conversation by asking a question.  ”What is written in the law?  How readest though?” “What wilt thou that I shall do unto thee?” “Why are ye troubled?”  Always, a question and then listening.  What a great example for us to learn from.  It is my great hope that each of us will learn to make the effort to really understand the lived experiences and perceptions of our loved ones as we broach what for many of us is the undiscovered country of the Mormon homosexual experience.  Perhaps in the end we can make better use of our hands not by pointing fingers, shouting, “lo here, and lo there” but by simply taking the hand of our loved one and walking with them.  Ultimately the gifts of listening and validation can be the greatest Balm of Gilead that we can apply.

Focusing My Energy

by John Gustav-Wrathall

Recently, my attention was brought to a polemical article about same-sex relationships.  I was invited to do an analysis of the piece – noting where I thought the author got it right and where I thought the author got it wrong.

I read the piece and, honestly, it felt toxic to me.  The author insisted on referring to same-sex relationships in terms of a desire for “gay sex,” a phrase the author used some two dozen times or so.  I never use that phrase because, frankly, I find it offensive.

My husband and I are celebrating our 19th anniversary this month.  Just yesterday, we found out that we will be foster parents again, to a 10-year-old boy named Jeremiah.  (Our first foster son, Glen, just finished his second year in college.)  My husband Göran and I have experienced so much profound joy (but also challenges!) in our love and commitment to one another, in our labor as parents, and in the work we each do to build positive, loving communities.  Our commitments as life-partners, as parents and as activists have taught us so much, and blessed us so much.  When we learned that we would be foster parents again, it’s impossible for me to adequately describe the rush of complex, powerful emotions I felt as I embraced my husband and life-partner and, with tears in my eyes, thanked him for making possible all the best, most wonderful, most meaningful things in my life.

So please don’t characterize my relationship with my husband as being about a desire for “gay sex.”  It’s uncharitable and uncouth and inappropriate to do so.  As I said, I don’t even like that phrase, really.  I mean, do we go around talking about heterosexual marriages in terms of people’s desire for “hetero sex”?

But the question was presented to me: Would I, could I respond to this piece?  Would I, could I respectfully refute the distortions in it?

Perhaps that work needs to be done.  We do need respectful dialog with each other, across differences of opinion.  If someone says something that I find hurtful, perhaps the most respectful, loving thing I can do is to explain to this person – in a way that does not assume offense was intentionally given – why his words are hurtful.  Maybe if I do so with patience, charity and kindness, the quality of our conversations will improve.

Honestly, that is easier for me to do, one-on-one and in person.  It’s easier for me to sit down and have a heart-to-heart conversation with somebody who sees things differently from me.  The written word can be dangerous, because the written word is essentially a monologue.  And in monologues, it’s too easy for us to “go off” on perceived insensitivities; it’s too easy to get on one’s high horse and “rail” against others.  It takes skill to write in a way that invites dialog.  In one-on-one, personal conversations, it’s much harder – for me at least – to disregard the complexities of the other person and his or her perspectives on life.

I decided that I needed to not spend a lot of time responding to this written piece in writing.  The piece did feel hurtful to me, and I realized that I might respond out of that hurt, and that would not be helpful.  I realized it would take a lot of time and energy for me to work through difficult emotions in responding to this piece, to respond adequately and appropriately, and, quite frankly, right now I have too many other important commitments more deserving of my time and energy, such as making our new foster son feel loved and welcomed in his new home.

Over the years, I’ve learned that in order to be healthy, we all need to figure out where and how our energy is best invested.  We need to focus on the things in our life that give life, and avoid focusing on stuff that frustrates us.  I’ve found that nine-hundred ninety-nine times out of a thousand, it is best for me to let go the criticism or the unkind words of others.  They may or may not be aimed at me; they may or may not be intended offensively.  Whatever the case may be, I’m best off not focusing on them, not engaging with them.

When I focus instead on comforting and on kindness, somehow those blessings of comfort and kindness always come back to me tenfold.  It takes discipline to avoid the negative, to focus on the positive.  It requires patience, faith, hope and love, all qualities that won’t just passively come to us, but that we need to actively cultivate, that we need to pray for and work on every day of our lives.  But whatever effort we’re willing to make to cultivate patience, restraint, and kindness, always comes back to us in love and peace and the sweet, sweet presence of the Holy Spirit.  So that’s where I prefer to focus my energy.

Contribute to the Conversation

by Jon Hastings

Every so often in the history of humankind, we are asked to confront important and difficult questions.  Individually, we have our own personal questions and dilemmas with which we must engage throughout our lives, and on occasion some of those individual questions bubble up to become a concern and a quandary in the collective consciousness of humanity.  It becomes a collective concern when it affects a critical mass of people and when it affects various aspects of our lives.

Currently, one of the questions we seem to find ourselves faced with is how we as a people reconcile emotional and sexual attractions that don’t seem to square with religious and spiritual beliefs.  We are at a point where a growing number would probably concede that a person doesn’t choose to experience homosexual and homoemotional attractions.  We may not know at this point how they develop or originate, but at this point it’s probably safe to say a majority would agree they exist and not at the choosing of the individual who experiences them.

At the same time, humanity has probably just as many beliefs/disbeliefs about who God is and how she and he feel about the various and different ways people experience these attractions as there are people who populate our shared globe.

I wasn’t aware of this multitude and variety of voices and opinions as I grew up in the LDS church in what to me was idyllic Sandy, Utah.  All I was really aware of was that it was occasionally mentioned in a talk as being bad and that Spencer W. Kimball had some pretty strong things to say about it in The Miracle of Forgiveness. As a matter of fact, it took me years and years to come to terms with what I was feeling because all I knew growing up in the 80’s was that homosexuals lived in big cities like San Francisco and New York, wore cutoff jean shorts and tube socks and got that mysterious and scary disease called AIDS that invariably ended in death.  Needless to say, growing up in a traditional Mormon home, that identity wasn’t one that felt even remotely close to me.

Looking back, I realize how disconnected I felt from myself as a result.  There was no thoughtful, nuanced description or exploration of what it was like to be gay outside of the popularized stereotype, nothing that resonated with me.  I realize now how I was left to my own devices in figuring out what this meant for me and I made some bad choices along the way.

Fortunately, an increasing number of thoughtful discussions about this quandary are beginning to bubble up amidst the “war of words and tumult of opinions.”  More and more individuals are going into their quiet and sacred spaces to ask the divine where to go with all of this.

For the past year or so, filmmaker Kendall Wilcox has been capturing stories of individuals who have thoughtfully and conscientiously been working through these issues for Far Between, a documentary that will seek to explore the experiences of those who are gay and Mormon. These stories run the gamut of paths both inside and outside of the church, stories of mixed orientation marriages and same sex relationships, stories of loneliness and despair, hope and possibility. We believe that by exploring the vast array of experiences, the documentary will hopefully provide individuals and families with helpful information and insights as they carefully study these issues out in their minds and navigate what can at times be tricky waters.

The Far Between website is also already providing uncut footage of interviews, with new interviews being added regularly as a resource before the documentary is finished for those wanting to engage in the conversation. The website also has a blog with posts by individuals who share what they have learned about what works and what doesn’t when sharing their experiences with their friends and family. We hope all these tools will increase understanding and bring hope to individuals, families, congregations and communities.

After more than a year of work and burning through personal savings, we believe we’ve done the groundwork necessary to be able to come to you with what we believe is a project that has the potential to positively affect the conversation we find ourselves in and ask for your support, both financial and by word of mouth.  Please consider visiting our fundraising page and making whatever donation you are able to and sharing the link with friends and family through email and social media.

The questions and issues explored in the film are relevant to all of us, questions about how to reconcile a part of us that doesn’t seem to easily reconcile with our religious believes, what it means to love, the role of gender and how we experience our own, etc.  We plan to start a Kickstarter fundraising campaign, but if you donate by the end of this round of fundraising, we’ll be able to keep more of the money since Kickstarter keeps 9% of what we raise.  So donate by Saturday, August 18th!

This Isn’t About Chikin

By Jon Hastings

At least not entirely or directly. Today, as I write this, is Chick-fil-A appreciation day, as declared by Mike
Huckabee. It’s also Kiss-Your-Same-Sex-Lover-in-your-nearest-Chick-fil-A day. I’m not sure who first
proposed the latter idea though. For me, it’s more of a Facebook Shabbat. I declared it after starting to
read through my Facebook feed this morning.

As I started reading my feed I started having flashbacks of that one time when President Packer gave
a talk in conference and Facebook angst ensued. Or that other time when that Prop 8 thing happened
and Facebook angst ensued. Usually the debates are kept at a quiet simmer in my Facebook world and
it usually doesn’t bother me. It’s just when it reaches a boil and people feel the need to pick a side or
draw battle lines and nuance is lost that I get bothered and feel the need to withdraw, because then it
seems like we don’t even know how to talk to each other.

Sure, there have been the occasional posts that have attempted to break through the polemics, like
this one from my friend Mandi: “I love gays. I love Jesus. Some people don’t, and I love them too. I’m
going to eat at chick-fil-A and visit Boston, and San Francisco, and if I were a coffee drinker, I would visit
Starbucks too. And I will be quite content.” There was also the coupon I saw that offered a free original
chicken sandwich in exchange for your homosexuality that made me laugh.

Overwhelmingly though, I saw battle lines being drawn. This for me is when the tension of my
Mormonness and gayness becomes a little too much, when politics enters the conversation and seems
to divide people I love (and myself) into two painfully predictable parts. Sometimes it seems like those
two parts are completely unaware or insensitive to who they see as the opposing side. They reduce
loving relationships and religious beliefs to a chicken sandwich at a fast food chain and it begins to feel
like there is no hope for reconciliation.

It’s unsettling to see friends with whom I have fond memories choosing to tell their Facebook world
they don’t approve of the loving relationships of my other friends and plan to show it in such a cavalier
way as eating fast food. It’s also unsettling to see people propose a same sex “kiss-in” to counter
the “chicken served with hate”, not because I’m opposed to same sex kissing, but because It seems
that it’s much more likely that a stunt like that will lead to escalation to something ugly as opposed to a
meaningful exchange where both sides are heard.

I had dinner on Sunday with a lovely family in my ward. The father told me about his efforts to mend
fences and build bridges with his brother who is gay and who has been estranged from the family for
several years. He quickly came to the realization that in order for that work to be effective, they had
to leave politics out of it. This isn’t to say that we should never talk about gay marriage or politics, but
we should realize the effect it will likely have on what could otherwise be a potential bridge building
conversation.

Once politics enters the scene, it seems like names such as homophobe and bigot start getting tossed
around. I have never met a fellow Mormon who treated me in a hateful way just because he or she
knew I was gay. I’ve certainly sensed discomfort or maybe a little passive aggression, but I think a lot
of that comes from not knowing how to talk about it or being afraid to talk about it. I also hear some
Mormons (or other conservative Christians) saying that they love the sinner but hate the sin. The
problem with that is most people are much better at hating the sin than they are at loving the sinner (a
label that applies to all of us).

If you haven’t already, you should read this post by Rachel Held Evans. She makes a lot of insightful
points that will come in handy no matter where you find yourself on this issue. As she says:

“As Christians—conservative and progressive, gay and straight, activists and slacktivists—we must
direct our efforts instead toward bridging this divide, which is going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of
disappointment, a lot of tears, a lot of compromise, a lot of honesty, a lot of mistakes, a lot of apologies,
a lot of listening, a lot of forgiveness, a lot of meal sharing, a lot of gospel.

“In other words, it’s going to take a heck of a lot more effort than either eating or avoiding a chicken
sandwich.”

If you’re interested in bridging the divide, join the Mormons Building Bridges group on Facebook. There are lots of fantastic conversations happening, as well as information and resources being shared about very real and specific ways we can build bridges.

A Change of Heart / the Spirt at Work

We are pleased to welcome John Gustav-Wrathall to our blogging team! This first post was originally posted here on John’s  blog Young Stranger.

Six years ago while visiting my parents in Utah, I attended church with them, only to be treated during Sunday School to the most homophobic tirade I had ever heard in any LDS congregation.  I was about to get up and walk out, I was so upset.  Instead, the Spirit spoke to me very clearly, reassuring me that the brother who was saying these things didn’t have the full picture.  He didn’t know what he was talking about, and his ignorance was no reflection on me.  The Spirit reassured me that God was very pleased with me, that I was doing what he wanted me to do, and I was where he wanted me to be — in Church.The presence of the Spirit was so sweet and so reassuring, and filled me with such peace, not only did my desire to leave evaporate, I actually felt grateful that I’d had this experience.  This experience taught me that there was nothing anybody could say that could hurt me, because I knew who and what I am, and I knew where I stood with God.  I knew God’s love for me, and that was all that mattered.  I immediately and completely forgave the brother who had said all these things.  I recognized — or I should say, the Spirit helped me to recognize — that he was not a bad man.  He was a very good man who was ignorant.

This week I am visiting my parents in Utah, to celebrate their 50th Anniversary with them.  As I always do when visiting my family here, I attended Church with my parents.  And it so happened that today the brother who had made all these homophobic comments six years ago in Sunday School was the person giving the priesthood lesson.

At one point in the lesson, this brother was talking about the fact that even though we have the full, restored gospel in the Church, still there are many members of the Church who believe in “false doctrine.”  In light of his comments years ago, I was more than a little apprehensive about precisely what false doctrines he worried were prevalent in the Church.

He didn’t leave me in doubt very long.  False doctrine, he immediately explained, was whatever caused us to be exclusive, to make the Church less accessible, to view anybody as “less than” or to think of ourselves as better than others.  He then proceeded to say that many members of the Church need to be more open to all those we’ve often been closed to, including those who are gay or lesbian.

I literally almost couldn’t believe my ears.  It took a minute for his words to sink in.  This brother who, six years ago, had been railing against gays and lesbians, was now announcing to the High Priests’ Quorum that an understanding of true doctrine in the Church would open us up to receive and learn from our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.  As the reality of what I’d just witnessed sunk in, I felt the warmth of the Spirit inside.  Tears of amazement and gratitude welled up in my eyes.  This was quite simply a miracle.  I realized that I was literally witnessing the Spirit at work in the Church, teaching the Saints true doctrine, opening and changing hearts.  That was, quite simply, the best priesthood meeting I’ve ever attended.

After we met my mom outside the Relief Society room, as we walked out of the Church toward the car, Dad immediately commented on it.  “Do you remember Brother ___?” he asked me.

“Oh, how could I forget him?” I replied.

“Do you remember what he said in Church a few years ago when you were visiting?” he asked in amazement.

“Oh yes! I remember!”

We told the whole story to my mom.  Then we went home and told Göran and my sister Anne, who had stayed at home baking while we were at Church.

Tears came to my eyes as I told the story again, and then as I recounted to Anne and to my parents the experiences I’d had during and after Twin Cities LGBT Pride, marching with a Mormon contingent.  Dad said, “You know, after Bro. ___ made those comments years back, I didn’t know if I could ever feel the same way about him.”  I reminded Dad that all of us have had to work through our homophobia.  None of us could claim that we all started out enlightened on this issue.  So it shouldn’t surprise us as others who’ve expressed these kinds of attitudes in the past begin to see and understand and have a change of heart as well.

The talks in Church today focused on the theme “Judge not that ye be not judged.”  I realized that what the Spirit told me all those years ago was true.  This man was not a bad man.  He was a good man whose understanding was incomplete.

I feel so humbled by this experience.  In what ways is my understanding incomplete?  And what kind of fellowship will we be able to experience in the Church some day if we give each other half a chance?  If we can find it in our hearts to be patient with one another, and forgive, and trust that this is the Lord’s Church, and that he is at work in it today teaching us and perfecting us and preparing us for Zion?

Learning to Trust Myself

by Jon Hastings

As I’ve progressed along the path of reconciling my sexuality with my spirituality, I’ve come to appreciate more and more the concept of personal revelation, or my ability to receive truth about myself and my potential from the Divine. It was difficult to trust or even hear my own instincts in the beginning. It was difficult to begin to develop a conception of the meaning of my attractions separate and apart from what others were telling me they were. There were (and still are) many competing voices from all areas of life telling me what I am and who I should be. This can make it hard to trust what my own heart tells me about these things. I’ve learned that the key is reserving quiet moments of conversation with myself and the spirit, listening.

That’s not all though, there’s plenty of work that has to be done before and after those important conversations with self. In the Doctrine and Covenants, we are taught that if we have a question, we are to study it out in our minds. We are also taught that we shouldn’t be compelled in all things, but that we should be anxiously engaged in doing things of our own free will. (See D&C 8:9 and D&C 58:26-27) This tells me that we all have to proactively go out on our own spiritual journeys of self-discovery. I talk to, listen and learn from those around me, but ultimately, there comes a time when it’s just me and the spirit.

This reality hit me one night when I was gathered with a group of other same sex attracted Mormon men. I had been participating in the group for a few years, and it had contributed a lot up to that point to my growth and understanding of what it meant to be gay and Mormon. It was, after all, the first time I was able to talk so openly on a regular basis about what I was grappling with and an opportunity to hear other men share their own experiences.

I learned an important lesson in that group though. We often look to those around us to get clues about how we should “be” in our individual life circumstances. In a new job, I might look at those around me to get a sense for the culture to understand how I can fit in. A mother might look at how other mothers interact with their children to get a sense of how she can be a good mother. The church has a culture all its own, and it’s always interesting to me to see how new members seem to adapt and conform to that culture. Our own groups of friends have certain expectations about how friends in the group should interact with each other.

As I sat in this group listening to these men talk about how they viewed themselves in the context of being Mormon and being attracted to men, I realized that I was trying to cram myself into their conception (or my perception of their conception) of themselves and their experience of being gay and Mormon. My perception was that many of them felt very uncomfortable with accepting the attraction as a part of themselves, or viewed it as a broken part of themselves.

At the time, I was beginning to feel more comfortable with myself and my sexuality. I was out to most people in my young single adult ward and family and friends. What I was hearing the other men in the group say wasn’t really resonating with my experience. I felt comfortable and was becoming more confident with my sexuality. I also knew, though, that even though the stories and experiences of these men who were choosing to stay connected to the church weren’t resonating with me, that didn’t mean that I didn’t want to maintain some kind of connection with the church.

What I quickly began to realize through these conversations with myself was that I had to stop leaning on others to tell me how to experience my sexuality and my spirituality as well as the intersection of the two, even though the experiences of others could help inform that process. The scriptures and our own church history are replete with stories of journeying alone to have some kind of meaningful experience with the divine that helps illuminate purpose and potential. Moses wandered up into the mount alone to receive the ten commandments, Joseph felt lost and confused and went into the grove alone to seek answers, Nephi ultimately had to go alone to get the brass plates and had to make what I’m sure were gut wrenching decisions along the way. I have to do the same. I believe we all have to if we want to learn and grow and progress towards becoming part of divinity.

How do you go about having those types of experiences of exploring conversations with self? How do you cultivate and learn to trust your own connection to the spirit? How do you balance that with input of friends, family and church leaders?

Conversations With My Mother

by Berta Marquez

I am an “in-betweener”: one who belongs to two communities that are forever at odds with each other – LGBT and LDS. I am also part of a family that is both orthodox LDS and unorthodox at the same time – politically progressive on one end, always supporting the disenfranchised, the oppressed and the forgotten, but fully committed to the idea of heterosexuality as the only sphere in which people should experience love, intimacy, and marriage. Most poignantly, there is the mother I love, my hero, someone I don’t ever want to disappoint or hurt. For these reasons I kept my LGBT propensities to myself for over a decade. So how did our dialogue on the issue of my sexuality begin and how has the narrative between us evolved?

One night my mother came to speak with me.

“Mija (a Spanish term of endearment meaning ‘my daughter’), I think it’s time for us to fight this depression. Not doing anything hasn’t worked. I think it’s time for us to do whatever it takes to help you get out of this rut. Let’s find you a good doctor or therapist, let’s do whatever we need to do to fight this thing. Don’t worry about the cost. Your father and I will help you with that. Would you be willing to go to a therapist?”

“Mom, of course I am. I’ll go to therapy if you want me to. I’ll go to the doctor.”

After a VERY long pause I continued, without making eye contact, “But mom do you remember how in high school you asked me if I liked women and then I cried and said yes and later you gave me a copy of a talk about what the church teaches? Well, those feelings never went away. For a long time now I have been hurting with this alone.”

“Bertita, I don’t remember that. You are only thinking these things because you are depressed. Where is your testimony?”

At this point I began crying. “No mom, I still love the church – I just don’t want to be celibate my whole life. It’s a terrible way to ask people to live. I want to have a family of my own and children.”

“Mija, you are contradicting yourself. How can you say that you believe in the gospel and then say that you want to be in a relationship with a woman? I believe in what the prophets teach. I won’t change that”

And that was the end of the conversation. It wasn’t the conversation I had been hoping for. It left me hurting even more. I didn’t think that I would ever be able to share this part of myself with my mother again. A tiny part of me reconsidered the merits of suicide. Anything had to be better than this kind of pain.

A few days later I was fortunate enough to attend a forum organized by The Provo Peace Forum and the Empathy First Initiative designed to address the experience of being LDS and LGBT through moderated discussion and empathic dialogue. One of the major things that stood out to me was that I witnessed conversations where people grew in empathy for each other because they were vulnerable enough to acknowledge what they didn’t understand about one another and to listen. The spirit of love, compassion, and understanding was so strong. I left feeling that I didn’t have to give up on my loved ones because I learned the power of vulnerability and its capacity to engender the gift of listening.

A couple of months later, the same organizations that put together the first forum organized another one. This time I decided to invite my mom. I came to her bed quietly. She was reading something on her laptop and preparing to go to sleep. I sat beside her and began,  “Mom there is this forum that is being held to address the LDS LGBT experience and I would really like it if you were to come with me.”

“Mija, I don’t need a support group. My beliefs aren’t going to change.”

“They don’t have to mom. It’s not a support group. It’s just a place for conversation. It’s a really loving and safe environment so no one has to feel intimidated or like they’re going to be told what to think.”

“I have to think about it,” she said. I could see the apprehension on her face as she looked back down at her laptop.

On the day of the forum I sent my mother a text, “Hi mom. I hope to see you at the forum today. If you don’t feel comfortable coming, that’s okay. I love you.” No response.

Still, I had been hoping to find my mother and was a little sad that she wasn’t there. Later, I was surprised to spot her in the back sandwiched between two really large gringos.  At one point I looked back but she was no longer there. “This was probably too much for her,” I thought.

A couple of days later my mother and I talked about the forum.

“The thing that makes me sad,” I had been trying not to cry but that failed at this point, “is that there may not be a place for me in our family in the future. I want my children to know and grow up with their cousins. I want to have my sisters around me, for us to swap advice and cry and laugh together. I want to come home and feel welcomed and loved. You are such an important part of who I am. I don’t want to lose you.”

This is where my mother began to cry, where all the dogma and all the rhetoric fell away. “I don’t understand what this is like for you, mija, but there will always be a place for you in our home. I can’t speak for everyone else, but you will always be welcome here con tu papa y yo (with your father and I). I will always love you. You are my child. There will always be a place for you here.” We embraced as we hadn’t done for a long time.

We haven’t figured everything out. But we have found a way to communicate with one another based on a shared desire to understand and empathize. Key to this is being vulnerable enough to mutually acknowledge that there are things that we still don’t understand about one another. This has magnified the need for us to reach out, ask genuine questions, and listen in order to understand. I also learned that being vulnerable means opening up about what we fear the most. We’ve stopped talking past each other and now we listen, validate, and listen some more. We have become much closer as a result.

As for myself, I feel so much happier than I have for a really long time. In being open about who I am I have felt an interminable burden lift. My life is filled with beauty and possibility once more, as it was when I was a child. I see everything with new eyes, with wonder, and look to the future with hope and a determination to help others.


Maintaining the Bridges

by Davey Morrison Dillard

On the morning of Sunday, June 3rd, over 300 Latter-day Saints gathered in their Sunday best to march in the Pride parade as an expression of love for their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. I was one of them.

Mormons Building Bridges

As we stood waiting for the parade to start for over an hour in the blazing sun, fanning and shading ourselves with homemade signs (“Jesus said love everyone, treat them kindly, too,”), I looked around me and was amazed by the sea of enthusiastic smiles, happy tears, and warm embraces. Members of the LGBT community marching with other organizations invariably stopped on their way to thank us, to hug us, to perform cheers for us. Girls wearing short skirts, high boots, and bright red wigs lined up to have their picture taken with a curly-haired, smiling Mormon grandma. When the Mormons began singing “Love One Another” and offered an opening prayer, the nearby speakers stopped blaring their Europop out of respect. And as the march commenced, the streets were crowded with weeping spectators, embraces, and cries of “Thank you!”

We had gathered because we wanted to do what we could to share God’s love with a group that has often been made to feel like social outcasts and spiritual pariahs. The outpouring of Christlike love we received in return was completely humbling and utterly overwhelming. I don’t know if I have ever witnessed such heartfelt gratitude. It was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences I have had in recent memory.

When I got home, my Facebook feed was littered with pictures, status updates, and links to articles written about the event for every publication from The New York Times to The Deseret News, all of them positive. I was thrilled with the pervasive sense of love and goodwill surrounding the march and the tremendous outpouring of support from members and non-members alike who heard about Mormons Building Bridges in the news. It was thrilling, uplifting, humbling, beautiful.

But then I started reading the comments.

The first three or four were friendly, respectful, positive, loving, gracious. But three or four comments was all it took before it was back to the same old flame wars. People on both sides–Mormon and non-Mormon, gay and straight–were back to treating one another with the same lack of respect, the same intolerance, the same unfortunate name-calling and partisanship we had hoped to help work past with our Sunday morning bridge-building.

Of course, I realize that change will not happen overnight and that, in the grand scheme of things, 300 people walking down a couple blocks in Salt Lake City can only realistically do so much good in the world. But why was there such a vast discrepancy between the peace, love, and Spirit I felt walking down 300 South and the frustration and sadness I felt reading these comments? How can the same internet that has helped to topple corrupt regimes and bring together warring factions on the other side of the world take an event of unifying compassion and tear it apart?

I think the answer lies in relationships.


Jesus Said Love Everyone Photo by Jay Jacobsen, used with permission Child carrying "God Loves ALL His Children" sign "Free Hugs"
Photos by Michael Budge and Jay Jacobsen, used with permission

 

At Pride, I saw people who had never met before, who probably didn’t know each other’s names, smiling, embracing, exchanging words of love and gratitude. Common ground was established. Love was shared. Any animosity between people or organizations seemed to dissolve almost immediately. Bridges were built.

On Facebook, I saw people (who may or may not know each other except as Facebook friends of Facebook friends) immediately getting caught up in and focusing on their disagreement. Well-articulated arguments fell on deaf ears because there was no sense of love or respect. Common ground was ignored, differences of opinion were emphasized and even exaggerated, and language was parsed and re-parsed. Argument has its place. Reason is important. Language and rhetoric are among the most powerful tools we have at our disposal. But it’s hard for anyone to listen to someone they don’t know or trust, and the more we discuss and debate without first building bridges of love, understanding, and empathy, the more we are putting people on the defensive, encouraging them to hold even more fiercely to their preconceived notions, to close their ears and to close their minds. Studies have shown again and again that logic alone does little to convince people when it comes to their most dearly held ideologies. What does change minds and hearts is experience–personal interactions, storytelling, vulnerability, and the bearing of testimony in an environment of love, acceptance, and respect.

"We will reach out with love and understanding to all"

Photo by Michael Budge, used with permission

I’ve found that the internet makes it easy to jump to conclusions and to jump down throats–it’s much easier for me to argue with someone who’s just a name on a screen, and it’s much easier to love them when I’m standing beside them, looking them in the eye.

If this is the case, how can we have better and more constructive conversations? How can we foster environments and develop relationships based on love, acceptance, and respect? How can we use the internet as a tool to unite rather than divide?

From Evangelism to Empathy

by Berta Marquez

I recently came across a blog and forum post by Jefferson Cloward in which he articulates his experiences with his gay father. Jeff was 10 years old when he was told his father was gay. As he grew up, Jeff developed a fervent conviction that it was his job to save his dad. This desire grew particularly pronounced when he began to study the scriptures more deeply at the age of 14 and came across some particularly distressing passages in the Bible describing the torments of hell. It was terrifying for this boy to think of his father in such a place. He became convinced that he had been born into his family to save his father. Extended family members added to this sense of obligation by, “[taking] my brother and I to the side at a family party and [telling] us we were the best chance our dad had; we could get to him in a way no one else could.” What a burden for a young boy to carry!

He goes on to tell of his most pronounced effort to save his father, ”I was sitting across from him at the Cloward grandparent’s house in their sun room. I was a bold boy of 17 and needed to talk to him alone, so I asked if we could chat for a second. The others in the room left to give us privacy and I went to grab the Book of Mormon I had marked for him. I had fasted and prayed to be guided, but had no clue what to say. I told him I was thinking about him, that we had never talked about why he left and that I’d like to know… I bore my testimony and gave him the Book of Mormon I had prepared, and asked him to read what I had marked on his flight home.”

The desire to ‘save’ our loved ones when we believe they are straying is a natural impulse. Our cosmology, our way of seeing the universe and our place in it, may have endowed us with a particular set of principles. If our loved one does not fit the mold of what we have been taught is the only right way to live, we may feel alarmed, and our initial reaction may be to talk to and plead with him or her to change. It is understandable: this impulse comes from a loving place.

Now, if you could indulge me, let’s engage in a small exercise in empathy. Try to remember a time when you needed a listening ear, not to be told what to do, but just to feel validated. Maybe you had a broken heart. Maybe you were going through a period of illness. Maybe you were sad about something else entirely. Now imagine that rather than listening, validating how you are feeling, or trying to understand, the person you were speaking to began telling you how you might be misperceiving things or that your experience was not authentic or valid. How would that leave you feeling? Would look to this person as a source of compassion or go to them for advice in the future? Now imagine that that same person listened actively, provided empathetic feedback such as, “that would be hard” or asked questions such as, “what does it feel like?” or, “I don’t understand but I want to. Could you explain _____ to me?” And what if above all else that person made you feel loved? That you were not so alone in the world, and that he or she was a trusted friend you could confide in in the future?

The experience of being LDS and LGBT is not an easy one. It can be a particularly desolate and unforgiving walk in the valley of the shadow. The high rates of suicide among LDS LGBT souls is evidence of this. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Research shows that providing a loving and empathetic environment can make all the difference. For Jeff, his relationship with his dad changed profoundly and grew once he set his evangelism aside and took time to listen, really listen to what life had been like for his father as a gay man. To be clear, I’m using the term ‘evangelism’ to refer to the impulse to preach, sermonize, exhort, or admonish. He writes, “I now, for the first time in my life, have a close relationship with my father. The conversation has changed because I no longer have it in the back of my mind that he needs to change… I stopped asking questions so I could convince him to change and started asking to understand instead.”

There is a great deal of beauty, hope, and healing that can come about when we leave the war path of evangelism and trade our weapons of war for the plowshares of peacemaking, empathy, and ultimately love. It is in this that I place my hope for reconciliation between the LDS and LGBT communities, families, and especially for those who belong to both.

When others’ choices feel threatening

by Jon Hastings

You may or may not have heard the story of Josh Weed.  He and his wife recently wrote a post on his blog on their ten year anniversary and shared with whoever cared to read it that he is actively Mormon, happily married to a woman and gay.  A few weeks ago, the Desert Book owned magazine LDS Living featured Ty and Danielle Mansfield on the cover with an article of them sharing their story.  If you don’t know the story, the article is now available online.

I think the most interesting thing for me to observe when things like this come out, is all the conversations that result.  It’s interesting to see how people engage in talking about these things with others, whether it’s online, in person, formal responses, or comments in a Facebook discussion group.  I think it’s interesting to pay attention to my own initial reaction, and then to see how my thoughts and feelings change and settle as I take in responses from various angles.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about life, it’s that it is constantly providing me with opportunities to learn about myself.  Those learning opportunities usually unfold as a result of having to engage with people in the world around me on issues that are complex, with tentacles that reach into political, social, and religious realms.   The people I engage with have different interests, opinions, backgrounds, temperaments, life experiences and beliefs. (Even within Mormonism.  Surprise!)

Obviously, the intersection of religion and sexuality is such an area for learning opportunities.  I call them learning opportunities, because the conversations have great potential to tease out all my innermost fears and insecurities, or my own personal demons.  At that point, I can either take a step back and spend some time alone, sitting down with my fears and listening to what they have to tell me about myself and working through them, or I can let them take over the conversation for me, often leading to useless and even disastrous conversations/arguments that involve two people forcefully talking past each other.

So what are some of these fears or demons?  To explain, I should give you more context to better understand where I’m coming from.  I am also gay and also actively Mormon.  I am not, however, married to a woman, nor do I plan to get married to a woman.  As a matter of fact, I currently have a boyfriend who is also Mormon.

As you might expect, some of my initial knee-jerk reactions to stories like the Mansfield’s and the Weed’s is to feel a little bit threatened.  What if people I love try to use these stories to 1. Tell me that the path I’m currently on is not correct or 2. Tell me that marriage to a woman is possible for me.  Even worse, what if I actually haven’t tried hard enough and I’m just damning myself by taking the path I’m on? Sometimes entertaining these thoughts is incredibly uncomfortable.  Isn’t it much easier to just attack or shut out any story that feels threatening to my own?  If I do that though, whenever the subject comes up, I might find myself making the conversation about defending myself instead of about furthering thoughtful discussion that could result.

Or maybe you’re on another side of the coin (and by the way, this coin has many different sides, not just two).  Maybe you are in a situation similar to those of Ty or Josh.  Maybe any thoughtful question someone might raise, or opinion skeptical of their stories  or yours someone might state feels like an attack on your life choices.  If so, then the exchange might feel or even become a fight to defend your life choices and in essence who you are, and once again a thoughtful exchange is short circuited.

I’ve found that the conversation is much more productive when I spend time getting acquainted and comfortable with my demons.  I take a step back and recognize that there is nothing wrong with anything that causes me to take a second or third look at where I’m at in life.  An unexamined life, after all, is a life I don’t want to lead.  I take stock of my own very personal experiences that I’ve had with the spirit and the moments in my life that I’ve felt guided (and at times more aggressively nudged) by the unseen hand of God to arrive at where I find myself today.

If I do that, I’m able to enter the conversation from a more grounded place.  The process might cause me to alter or tweak how I think about or approach certain things, but I ultimately end up feeling more comfortable and confident with my path and my relationship with God.  If someone asks me about the LDS Living article or the Weed blog post (and people definitely have, people who loved them and people who hated them), I can respond without letting my demons make assumptions about what the other person is “getting at” by bringing it up.

For me, these things have been good opportunities to start a conversation and share my perspective.  I think one of the biggest complaints about the article is that parents and ecclesiastical leaders of gay members could use it to say, “See!  You can do this too!”  My hope is that people would use it as a conversation starter rather than a tool of manipulation, although I realize the latter will happen.

Hopefully, we can learn to trust our own experience and our own connection to the spirit, and in the process also encourage others to develop that same connection and trust the outcome.

How about you?  What do these types of conversations teach you about yourself?  How do you keep your demons from taking over the conversation?

Ever willing to listen

by Jacob Dunn

“…a very large ship is benefited very much by a very small helm in the time of a storm.”  I had thought of this passage from the Doctrine and Covenants many times before my “conversation” with my parents, but never in this context.  I had always interpreted this statement to mean that my individual, often small, actions over the course of each day would determine my ultimate destination.  I realized, however, that this scripture also applies to the discussions on this topic as well – being both gay and Mormon.  This specific application wasn’t so much a reinterpretation as it was a realization.  The overarching discussion on this is simply made up of smaller conversations, and as such, my desired destination on this issue–an increase in love and understanding–is made up by my individual, often small, everyday actions.

To begin, I will unequivocally state that my parents are fantastic.  Growing up, I definitely had the normal disagreements with their parenting choices, but all in all, I felt they did a pretty good job in raising me and my siblings.  On this issue particularly, they had always been very conservative.  Even shortly before they found out, when discussing it with siblings in generalities, they stated that they felt it wasn’t different than any other “urges” people experience towards violence, alcoholism, or adultery.  At that time, my brother attempted to explain to them the difficulty of the situation, were it conversely presented to them.  What would their actions be, if the only acceptable partner relationship were with someone of their own sex?  What would their choices be in that instance?

My parents found out about me through my Far Between video.  While I may be criticized for not addressing family members privately first, I felt it was important that others find out this way.  First of all, I needed to be able to explain several things without concern of interruption.  Secondly, I also wanted the people I care about to have their initial reactions in private.  Conversations on this topic often become so charged with emotion that any reaction, comment, or conversely, lack of reaction or comment may be received negatively.  I didn’t want that to happen in such a potentially painful situation.

I met with my parents to talk several weeks ago.  I was hesitant at first since I didn’t know what was going to be said, and so I had them meet me at my brother’s apartment with him there, so that it wouldn’t feel so inquisitorial.  They started by letting me know that they loved me, and that they would always love me.  My mother expressed regret at not being able to do anything to help me bear this, and she expressed her sorrow for anything that they had said previously in ignorance.

They first asked about terminology.  I explained to them that particularly as an active member, I had concerns with the church’s official label of “struggling with SSA/SGA.”  I explained that I felt that those terms were limiting, leading people to feel, as my parents did previously, that homosexuality is simply a collection of urges.  While I recognize that the word “gay” is also a loaded term, without an inherent distinction of whether one is sexually active, I feel that it better represents the all-encompassing aspects of my experience.  Essentially, it is not simply limited to sexual “urges”, but inclusive of the same feelings, wants, needs, and desires that (I assume) heterosexual people experience in seeking love and companionship.

We then talked about the current state of the discussion within the church.  I informed them that while so many good things are happening to increase love, support, and understanding inside the church, other continual statements apparently undermine those efforts.  I tried to convey the exasperation that I feel whenever I hear comments made from various individuals in authority that display a lack of understanding of my experience.  I explained how difficult it is to avoid frustration towards the church, when pointed pulpit pontifications from authorities seem to brush aside evidence or experience challenging deeply ensconced beliefs on this issue.  I explained that while attending institute, I heard the institute director, a full-time CES employee, teach things that even the church does not currently believe, and that I am worried for gay and lesbian youth listening to these things from their full-time seminary teachers and not feeling able to have a safe conversation with anyone.

My mother then asked how we could make the church more welcoming for active gay and lesbian members.  My answer to that was a question to them – would an active person who identifies as LGBTQ truly feel welcome to worship in any ward or branch?  Or would they be welcome only as long as they don’t flaunt any homosexual tendencies? (aside from the acceptable ones for a gay man to “flaunt,” like playing the organ or singing in the choir…) My dad asked if it would be helpful for the stake president to know the individuals in the stake.  I told them that a person’s decision to be open depends on so many variables, not the least of which often includes concern about the potential reaction from others.  Leadership response on this issue has been so varied that with any new ward or stake, I personally play “leadership roulette” – deciding whether or not to risk confiding in bishops.  I expressed hope that things actually would get better in the church as the conversation only becomes more pertinent, and my parents agreed.

Considering the short time that they have had to process everything, this conversation was astonishingly productive.  The main thing that I got from them was that they were so willing to listen – a drastic change from the dogmatic statements of just a few weeks earlier.  Are small conversations such as these necessary to dispel fear and promote love?  Are personal discussions the key to changing this group from an easily maligned, faceless “other” to a lifelong friend, cousin, a son, or a brother? My parents periodically ask me questions, still trying to understand my experience, ever willing to listen.  Perhaps what Carol Lynn Pearson wrote in Goodbye, I Love You is really true – “when dogma collides with experience, when the people involved are those you love, you see with different eyes.”

 

I have hope.