Most Mormon LGBT are traumatized by their Mormon experience; I was not. My narrative begins with the question “Why, as a gay youth, was my Mormon experience so positive?
I grew up in a strong Mormon family in Ogden, Utah. We came from Mormon stock. My grandfather was a general authority and both of my grandmothers were born to polygamist families prior to the Manifesto. Our ward considered our family stalwart because we lived by the proverbial letter of the law, obeying all Mormon tenets zealously. My parents came together initially out of this shared passion. They actually met because my father served as mission secretary under my mother’s father. They had nine children and my mother would have had more if she could. Their rigid interpretation of Mormonism was the glue that held my parents together. Some families might have suffered collateral damage from this kind of rigidity, but not ours. There were many factors that contributed to our relatively healthy home, but two factors in particular proved to be life-saving for me later as I negotiated my coming out process.
My parents took a zealous approach to everything in their religion, including Christ-like love. Especially my mother. She took service to the extreme. She would identify the underdog in our ward or community and become their support system. She took troubled teens or troubled young adults under her wing. She advocated for them. She listened to them. She could empathize, having suffered depression herself. Many stalwart ward members including bishops came to her for support when they passed through their own hard times. Yes, my mother was volatile, but her apologies exceeded her explosions by a thousand times (a vulnerability I manipulated more than once as a teen). Our home resembled a boarding house for international students. My older siblings would send home any stray wandering friend they found while on their missions or on their studies abroad. My mother would teach them English and refuse payment even while she was waking up at 5 AM every day to deliver newspapers to have a little spending money. Some of these students were Mormon and some were not. Some were active and some were not. My mother didn’t use that to determine whether to serve them. She knew that service was the best missionary work. For me, all of this was ordinary. I didn’t appreciate it or resent it. It never once occurred to me that I would be rejected from the family for any choices I made. I didn’t even think about it. I didn’t need to.
My parents also affirmed originality, individuality and diversity. Conforming for conformity’s sake was disdained. Each of my siblings had unusual passions that were not only tolerated, but celebrated. My parents always befriended the most original misfits they could find because they truly enjoyed their uniqueness. They automatically befriended anyone in the community, Mormon or not, who was from another country or culture. We children were taught that originality was desirable. Hallmark cards were accepted, but home-made cards were applauded. Gender roles existed, but they certainly weren’t rigid. My masculine traits and my feminine traits were both affirmed. Obedience to the gospel may have been enforced, but obedience to social norms was absolutely neglected. I grew out of this experience with a strong sense of my own individual self-worth.
I came out as a gay man at age 24. I can’t say how my parents would have reacted if I had come out to them at a younger age. But by the time I came out, it no longer mattered. My parents had given me what I needed to negotiate the difficult process of coming out and overcoming my own homophobia. I had my self-image, my identity, my moral compass. I didn’t need the approval of society. I didn’t need the approval of my ward. I didn’t even need the approval of my family any more. What they had given me trumped my need to find acceptance from others. I passed through this experience without resentment toward my family, the church, or my Mormon upbringing. I was able to start a new life with the normal angst and the normal enthusiasm of a young adult free of bitterness and regret. I thank my parents for this.
I really was lucky. You might say I won the lottery. I came out at a time where other pioneers and activists had already fought for the right to live openly as LGBT people. With the tools my parents gave me, I negotiated the difficult process of coming out, even while I was in the most difficult year of medical school. I have been able to be openly gay throughout my training, and throughout my career as a psychiatrist, with no repercussions. I have been able to pursue health and happiness. I found a partner and we have established a life together based on love, commitment, trust, mutual goals and mutual spiritual pursuits. My life has been golden.
This ‘golden’ life is available to many more young LGBT people now. In some parts of the country homosexuality is almost a non-issue and the majority of the young people don’t see themselves at much disadvantage. Unfortunately Utah is not one of those places, and neither are most of our Mormon wards and communities.
I am going to speak bluntly. We (LGBT people) do not suffer same-sex attraction or same-gender attraction. We suffer homophobia. We suffer ostracism. We suffer discrimination. We suffer hate-crimes. We suffer bullying. We suffer marginalization. We suffer family rejection. We have to endure these things even more in our Mormon communities because they are even stronger there. I was lucky because I was given the tools to overcome these challenges. Too many Mormon LGBT youth aren’t given these tools. Instead they are taught to hate themselves. They are often cut off from their families and homes. They do not feel welcome in their wards and communities. They aren’t allowed to become strong enough to survive.
My rigidly Mormon parents had the answer: Christ-like love. Empathy.
P.S. A Christ-like reading of the Family Acceptance Project’s pamphlet, “Supporting Families, Healthy Children: Helping Latter-day Saint Families with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Children” can only lead to adopting the guidelines described. If you already recognize the importance of this work, please spread it around and please contribute financially to the FAP, so that they can keep providing these supports to LDS families who want to learn how to save their LGBT children.