For the LORD shall comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste places; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody.
Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.
At times when they have sought solace, clarity and inspiration, prophets have gone into the desert. Even Jesus, as he prepared for his mission, went into a desert place to find strength. On Saturday, April 27th, I too went to a desert place—Phoenix, Arizona—to speak at and attend “‘All Are Alike Unto God’: A Conference to Promote Greater Love and Understanding of LGBT/SSA Members of the Mormon Church.” Organized by local LGBT members and their families, friends, and allies, the conference was designed both to give LGBT members a voice and to educate straight members as to how they could be more enlightened and provide greater support.
Mitch Mayne gave an inspiring talk titled, “We Are All Enlisted: Our Mission as LGBT Mormons,” and I spoke on “Awakening Our Christian Imagination On Behalf of Our LGBT Members.” Perhaps the most enlightening and inspirational part of the conference was a panel of five LGBT Mormons chaired by Emily Clyde Curtis, the editor of Exponent II. Members of the panel, Adam, Stephanie, Kent, Terry, and James, recounted their personal stories of growing up in a church environment that was alternately confusing, fearful, dangerous, and hostile but also at times kind, loving and supportive.
Stephanie, who feels her lesbian orientation defines her emotionally, physically and spiritually, spoke of experiencing enormous hurt and self-loathing. Although she was inclined to give up on the Church, she feels she has been helped by “angels” God has put in her life, including two remarkable bishops. Kent, who grew up in a large Mormon family in a conservative Arizona town, felt like he couldn’t share “one side” of who he was with anyone. He finally came out to a friend who was loving and supportive, which gave him courage to tell some members of his own family. When Adam thought about praying to have his gayness taken away, he realized he didn’t want it removed because it was an integral part of who he was. With his gayness came a number of unique gifts, such as sensitivity and artistic expression. Theresa tried to fit the traditional Mormon model by dating men, going on a mission, and trying to do everything a good Mormon girl would do. She and her friend, Rachael, fell in love but nevertheless spent years denying and repressing their affection before finally acknowledging and celebrating it. When they came out to their families they experienced love and acceptance but are still trying to negotiate their way in the Church. James grew up very devoted to the Church and served a mission in Japan, but was nevertheless plagued by deep shame. Like others on the panel, he tried dating members of the opposite sex, but found out that what was “inside” him didn’t match what he was trying to do on the outside until he fell in love with another man. He said the love he felt for his family demanded that he be honest with them about the life he is now living, even though it has been difficult for all of them. Currently, he is active in his ward in Virginia and has a bishop who has welcomed him and his partner into the ward and considers him a “pioneer” in the modern Church on this issue.
After lunch, two of the primary organizers of the conference, Bryce and Sara Cook, spoke about their experience of having two gay sons, how difficult it was to deal with that in their family and in their congregation and how it has motivated them to reach out to other gay men and lesbians trying to find their way through the LGBT Mormon labyrinth. One manifestation of their care and compassion has been to start a support group in the Phoenix area for LGBT Latter-day Saints.
The conference ended with a time for personal sharing. One conference attendee, a therapist from Salt Lake City, spoke of her testimony as a “loving, breathing, expanding, growing, contracting, thing.” Another therapist, who had been in a committed relationship with another woman for nine years, spoke of the experience of coming back to Church and having a stake president who assigned her to attend the conference so that he could learn how to better minister to the LGBT members of his stake. Others spoke of: surviving suicide, feeling that God was going to punish her and her partner because of their relationship; of wearing “so many masks” to hide his gayness; of feeling hopeful when he saw Latter-day Saints participating in the Phoenix Gay Pride parade; of coming out of the closet at age sixty-three; of coming to terms with having a gay brother; and similar expressions—both dark and light. Two expressions struck me as particularly memorable: one spoke of being aware of her feelings for another girl when she was in the third grade. She said, “I wish I could go back to the third grade and hold that little girl (i.e., herself) in my arms and tell her it would be okay.” Another said in relation to his being welcomed into his ward, “Now I have a fire in my heart that there is a place for me in the Church.”
Perhaps a desert is one of the places where such a fire can be ignited. Jeremiah said,
God’s word is in my heart like a fire,
a fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in;
indeed, I cannot.
Those who attended the conference—and increasingly Latter-day Saints throughout the Church—are weary of holding the fire of love and compassion we feel for our gay brothers and lesbian sisters in our hearts and bones. Indeed, we can no longer do so—and that is a blessing for everyone— especially the Church.