Complicating Factors in the LGBT Mormon Spiritual Path

I am contacted fairly frequently by parents or other family members of gay or lesbian Latter-day Saints. They are anxious for their gay or lesbian loved ones to somehow find a way to stay active in the LDS church. Even more often, I am contacted by lesbian or gay Mormons who themselves feel a deep yearning for a continuing connection with their faith, though they don’t see a clear way forward. A little over a year ago, I helped to create a new group under the umbrella of Affirmation called the “Prepare” group (short for “The Lord My Pasture Will Prepare”), specifically for LGBT Mormons who desire to give or receive social and spiritual support in staying active in the Church and living their faith.

In the last nine years, I have observed the spiritual journeys of many LGBT Mormons. I would say that the majority of those I have encountered have begun with a desire to stay connected to their church and their faith, but have eventually left the Church and have discarded many of their former beliefs. I am also encountering growing numbers of LGBT Mormons who, like me, left the Church for a time and entertained doubts about core beliefs of Mormonism, including belief in Christ and belief in God, and who eventually found themselves drawn back to LDS faith and to the Church. Many who have returned to the Church continue to wrestle with doubt, but the one common denominator for those who return is simply a strong feeling (often surprising to them, whether attributed to the Spirit or not) that returning is the right thing for them to do. I am also encountering a fair number of LGBT folks raised in other faith traditions who have come to believe in key LDS doctrines and/or who desire to join the LDS Church. Nevertheless, while I have not performed any kind of scientific study of this, I would estimate that those who choose to stay or return or join represent a minority of the overall LGBT population who have at some point in their spiritual journeys identified as Mormon.

Caution: We Are Neither Gatekeepers Nor Judges

In order to explore what this means, I believe it is important to clarify what LDS church affiliation, and what adherence to LDS doctrine may or may not mean in different individual spiritual journeys. Speaking for myself, I can say that church activity has functioned differently for me at different periods in my life and at different junctures in my spiritual journey. Sometimes our attachments to certain ways of being active in the Church or certain beliefs can be dysfunctional. While I believe there is an objectively true doctrine of the Restoration, each person works off of an internal picture of LDS doctrine that is individual to each of us. Functionally that personal image is what our LDS doctrine is, whether or not it correlates to some objectively true LDS doctrine. That is what we work off of. And our personal, internal doctrine may or may not be functional. Letting go of church affiliation and/or belief can sometimes be the healthiest way to clear out dysfunctional modes of belief and behavior.

As I currently understand the doctrine of the Restoration, saving ordinances and covenants are only available through the Church. Baptism into the Church is the outward sign of our covenant with God (which includes a covenant to love and serve the whole human family). However, as I also understand the doctrine of the Restoration, the ability to receive these outward saving ordinances and covenants has never been available to every member of the human family. Throughout human history there have been contingencies that have prevented the vast majority of God’s children from entering into them. LDS Scripture explicitly teaches a vastness of God’s mercy toward those who have – for whatever reason – been denied a fair chance at full inclusion in the physical Kingdom of God on earth. The vicarious principle ensures that no one who proves him or herself valiant in this life will be denied the full benefits of the Gospel. And only God, I believe, can be the ultimate judge of what contingencies weigh in the balance and how. So I think we should not fear for LGBT individuals who for a variety of reasons find that their personal best course leads them out of or away from the Church, whether they ever find their way into the Church in this life. It behooves those who retain testimonies of the Church to faithfully fulfill our calling to open the gates of the Kingdom as wide as possible and welcome in as many as possible, without making judgments. In order to honor our covenants, we need to honor the priesthood chain of authority, which means leaving it to that authority to make decisions about how and to whom saving covenants will be administered. But unless we hold those keys, we are neither judges nor gatekeepers. And I think we’ll be held accountable at the last day for every soul driven away from Christ by our stinginess of heart.

My life has been incredibly blessed by the Gospel principles I’ve been able to live, including my efforts to gather and worship with the Saints. I know that obstacles currently preventing my full participation in the Church will eventually be cleared away by the Lord. That’s part of my testimony. I yearn for other LGBT folks to enjoy those blessings, though I recognize that the social environment in the Church can be perilous for many. I believe that the healthiest way to approach church activity is to understand and acknowledge that our understanding is contingent, that it needs to grow and evolve; to understand that our own personal weaknesses and/or lack of knowledge do not imply a lack of goodness; to have confidence in our ability to discern truth and to be assertive/active in seeking truth; to be both non-judgmental and to learn to ignore the judgments of others; and, in short, to seek a balance of detachment versus constructive engagement in our personal search for truth within the framework of LDS faith and community.

I believe that the central complicating factor in the spiritual paths of LGBT Mormons is how we come to terms with a theology that invests ultimate meaning in marriage between a man and a woman. For gay and lesbian Mormons, our ability or inability to partake of marriage in this life and in the next is critical to questions of meaning and happiness. For gays, lesbians and transgender folks, what it means to define marriage as a union of two people based on some concept of eternal gender is critical to questions of meaning and happiness. This essay does not address these questions. I have written this essay with the implicit understanding that finding answers to these and other even more fundamental questions (such as, “Does God exist? Does God love me?”) are what our individual spiritual paths are all about. Most essays written about LGBT Mormon spirituality tend to focus on these questions. This essay focuses on other, ancillary complicating factors that challenge our efforts to come to grips with these more central questions.

Having offered these caveats, I’d like to share five specific complicating factors that I’ve observed playing a role in LGBT Mormon spiritual journeys. It’s my hope that in understanding these complicating factors better, we can better obey our baptismal covenants to lighten one another’s burdens, and empower each individual to make the choices that are right for them.

Complicating Factor No. 1: Internal Conflicts

If you are LGBT and a believing Mormon, it is virtually impossible to avoid a course of action that does not entail fairly intense internal conflict. If we choose to live a life of celibacy, in addition to struggling with feelings of loneliness, isolation and alienation, we may also be plagued with doubt about whether we are fulfilling the measure of our creation. A mixed orientation marriage may mitigate feelings of loneliness and isolation in some ways, but intensify them in others. Individuals in this situation also wrestle with doubt as to whether they’ve chosen the right partner, whether their marriage can last to eternity as well as whether they are fulfilling the measure of their creation. Those who choose to enter into same-sex relationships and/or leave the Church, are often plagued with feelings of doubt and spiritual loss. Have they sold their salvation for a bowl of pottage?

We all got the message that “sexuality is a good gift from God, but…” If heterosexuals have gotten shaming messages about sexuality (even  when it is acknowledged that sex a good thing), gay men and lesbians have gotten (and internalized) messages of extreme animus. An example of the kind of animus I’m talking about is a recent email I got from a Mormon who explained to me that “same-sex attraction is co-dependency” and that “Satan is gay.” In my own experience and in the experience of many others, having a same-sex relationship does not preclude being able to feel the Spirit or make good moral choices in our lives or in relation to our intimate relationships. But I suspect that many LGBT Mormons have internalized cultural, anti-gay animus, and I suspect this internalized animus is the culprit in many situations I’ve observed where individuals initially express strong testimonies of the Gospel and a desire to always stay affiliated with the Church, but then begin distance themselves as soon as they start dating members of the same sex. Even when we consciously tell ourselves that there need not be a conflict, it is hard to shake these inculcated fears and anxieties.

I’ve observed among some folks who’ve left the Church, and consciously decided that it is not true and that they don’t need it, a compulsion to ridicule, argue with and criticize those who opt to stay with the Church. I’ve observed similar (though usually more passive-aggressive behavior) among individuals who reject same-sex relationships who stay active in the Church; those who’ve opted for same-sex relationships are condemned as lacking faith, being willfully disobedient, etc. The internal doubts and conflicts we feel can easily fuel shame and judgementalism. Many of us were raised in a culture that tends to view the world in black-and-white, and we tend to retreat to that kind of absolutism as a defense against the internal conflicts we feel, regardless of which “side” we’re on. We demonize others who have made choices different from our own.

Internal conflict and doubt is amplified when we experience tragedy or loss. For example, consider the anguish experienced when a mixed orientation marriage entered into with hopefulness for change ends in divorce and antagonism between former spouses. Consider the double-edged sword of alienation and loneliness experienced by a person who seeks a same-sex spouse, and becomes alienated from the Church, only to be unable to find a life partner, or to enter into a same-sex relationship that ends badly. Consider the psychological trauma experienced by an individual who, striving for celibacy, “slips up” and contracts HIV.

The internal conflicts that we feel make it difficult for us to feel that any choice we make will help us. This is perhaps a factor in the high levels of depression and suicide we find among many LGBT Mormons. But they also deny us the possibility found in nuance. Is it possible that our gayness is an inherent and a good part of who we are, created by God, and that our testimony of the Church is also true at the same time? Of course even if we allow for such ambiguous possibilities, there is still no clear way forward.

It’s hard for us to make sense of these kinds of conundrums. Although, in my experience, dwelling in ambiguity and contradiction is fertile soil for spiritual growth.

Complicating Factor No. 2: The Desire to Please

It is truly a blessing to see increasing numbers of faithful Latter-day Saints who have increased knowledge of the challenges related to same-sex sexuality and gender identity. It is truly a blessing to see empathy growing by leaps and bounds among faithful Church members and leaders. However, the fact of increasing understanding and empathy may not always make choices on the LGBT Mormon spiritual journey easier if we feel an increased obligation to please those who are reaching out to us.

We hope that parents and Church leaders will be a resource to us. If we have learned to trust them, we will naturally reach out to them and want to weigh their thoughts and opinions about things in our decision making process. But if parents, Church leaders and other loved ones get invested in a particular outcome or a particular way of achieving an outcome, it only adds stress and anxiety for the individual trying to discern what is right for them. Any time a desire to please others weighs more heavily in making a decision, it can undermine our own sense of certainty about that decision, whether the decision is right or not. That can only heighten internal conflicts and self-doubt.

After I started going to Church in October 2005, I actually kept my Church activity a secret from my parents. I didn’t want to get their hopes up, and I wanted to explore Church activity on its own merits for me, in my own personal journey, and not out of a desire to please them. I wanted to avoid the added stress of worrying about how they would feel if my attempt to return to Church didn’t work out. Shortly after I started attending, I had some powerful spiritual experiences confirming that becoming active in the Church was what I needed to do. Then, and only then, did I write a letter to my parents telling them what was going on, and asking for their support and prayers. For example, I asked my parents to fast and pray with me in preparation for my first meeting with my bishop, which they gladly did. I am glad that my parents let me call the shots in terms of what kind of support I needed from them.

It is important to recognize that no matter what choices our LGBT loved ones make, they may need to wrestle with internal conflicts. It is helpful to refrain from repeating truisms or platitudes, and instead to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. It is also helpful to have faith in our love ones’ ability to discern and make the right choice. We should express our desire for them to find happiness, and our belief in their ability to find happinessWhile friends, family members and church leaders can and should communicate their beliefs, values and hopes for their LGBT loved ones, it is critical to say and demonstrate through action that we will love our loved ones regardless of the choices they make. This will enhance the principle of agency in our loved ones lives, and will make the choices that they do make that much more meaningful.

In my own journey with this, I have found an interesting dynamic. When individuals attack and are critical of me, I find myself feeling increasingly certain that they are wrong and I am right. The more people go on the attack, the more certain I feel of myself (at least in a superficial way). However, when people are kind and supportive and unconditionally loving, I find questions of “who is right” or “who is wrong” receding, and find myself forced to focus on “what is right” and “what is wrong.” I find that superficial certainty of myself is no longer helpful. That is more uncomfortable and difficult, but that is as it should be. And the good news is that when people are surrounded by family and friends who are unconditionally loving, that is the safest possible way to begin to wrestle with the uncertainties in one’s life.

It’s perhaps worth noting that I personally have never seen anything positive come out of exerting pressure on LGBT loved ones through expressions of conditional love or “tough love”. Besides depriving individuals of agency, it almost inevitably leads to alienation and estrangement. When individuals finally do discern what choice is right for them, if their choices end up disappointing their loved ones, they often come away with a feeling of betrayal. It may or may not be possible to mend relationships broken under such circumstances.

Some people fear that unconditional love provides a carte blanche for making wrong choices, but this is not true. It is our yearning for truth and goodness that drives our search for answers to difficult questions. If we make a wrong choice, an unconditionally loving community becomes a foundation for us to make good choices and to obtain self understanding.

Complicating Factor No. 3: The “All Or Nothing” Game

In the Mormon culture that many of is grew up in, there has been a tendency to take an all or nothing approach to faith. If you had a spiritual witness of the Book of Mormon, then you knew that Joseph Smith had to be a prophet. And if Joseph Smith was a prophet, then the church he restored had to be true. And if the Church was true, modern day prophets were true prophets. And if modern-day prophets are true prophets, then everything they say comes to us directly from God, and all we have to do is obey them and unquestioningly take everything they say to be the gospel truth. And everything will be okay.

I think the LDS community, including its leaders at the highest levels, are gradually coming to appreciate how dangerous and potentially idolatrous this philosophy is. I think for many it is comforting – so long as they remain in a bubble where no conflicting information is encountered. This philosophy makes ambiguity and doubt relatively easy to dispense with. It encourages those of us who are wrestling with doubt not to let doubt overwhelm them. That’s the best that can be said for it.

There has always been a counterpoint within Mormon culture that taught the opposite of this “all or nothing” approach. This is the idea, which many of us are also familiar with, that we need to seek a testimony of each and every principle of the gospel, and that we need to stand on our own testimony, and not on the testimonies of others. This principle, when taught alongside the former principal, became the meat that, if we digested it, enabled our faith to mature. The “all or nothing” principle gave us hope to persevere even when our faith was relatively weak. But the “work out your testimony” principle had to be followed through if we were to develop a durable faith.

Unfortunately, the second principle requires a lifetime of wrestling, questioning and work. Much of the current “crisis of faith” that is drawing the attention of the media, church members and church leaders alike, is a result of the “all or nothing” testimonies toppling like so many houses of cards, especially in the harsh, unflattering light of the World Wide Web.

For LGBT Mormons, this problem manifests itself as we gradually become aware that many of the things that church leaders have said about homosexuality simply don’t square with our personal experience of being LGBT. And if we have imbibed the idea that everything that comes to us through the Church is either all true or that it is all false, this creates a domino effect.

Once we leave the church over LGBT issues, we then go online and start to read about questions related to LDS church history and the Book of Mormon. Since we were never really encouraged as Church members to seriously investigate the intellectual challenges in these areas, we are generally shocked by what we learn. But we’re learning it at a time when the Church already has one strike against it because of the understanding gap we’ve perceived in relation to LGBT issues.

I believe there are reasonable answers to all the intellectual questions. I’m intimately familiar with all the challenges related to Church history, polygamy, the historicity of the Book of Mormon, etc. I find none of them sufficient to require abandoning my faith. On the other hand, I find the world far less reasonable and comprehensible if our sole lens for examining it comes from a materialist, skeptical worldview. Atheists pose good questions and have done a service to religion by pointing out when the Emperor Has No Clothes. But I find atheism only sees half of the picture – the visible, tangible half. And while the visible and the tangible is fascinating and deserves attention and understanding, if we only ever focus on that, we only ever scratch the surface of reality.

Once I reached the point of unraveling of my own faith in the years after my mission, I would likely never have been motivated to begin to investigate Church history or the Book of Mormon in a serious, open way, if I had not had some very compelling spiritual experiences. Those experiences motivated me to work through the feelings of anger and betrayal, and the internal conflicts I felt in relation to being LGBT and Mormon. For many, once faith is unraveled, it can’t be re-raveled.

For me, one of the most encouraging developments of recent general conferences has been a growing willingness to affirm that doubt is a natural part of the faith journey, and that asking and seeking answers to hard questions is a good thing, not a bad thing. It remains to be seen whether Mormon culture will evolve in a healthier, more mature direction as a result.

Complicating Factor No. 4: Parental Anxiety (and Parental Faith Crisis)

One of the things I have learned from becoming a parent myself is that parents are human beings.

Growing up, I had the impression that my parents’ faith was like the Rock of Gibraltar. I’m sure now that throughout their lives, they have wrestled with their fair share of doubt. For my parents, I think the Church was their Rock of Gibraltar, a fixed point in their universe that helped them face the incredible challenges that parenthood has thrown at them.

Many LGBT people of my generation came out to parents for whom the Church similarly functioned as a “fixed point.” That was one of the things that made coming out as LGBT so painful for those of my generation. Coming out always seemed to threaten a rift between LGBT children and their parents, seemed to inevitably provoke a crisis in which parents would have to choose between their child and the Church. Fortunately, my parents avoided opening up a rift. Fortunately, my parents aren’t the only parents of that generation who managed to hold on to their commitment to the Church, even as they also kept faith with their LGBT kids.

One of the ways in which the LGBT Mormon experience today is dramatically different from what it was a generation ago is that LGBT individuals are coming out at a much younger age. It is not uncommon for kids to be coming out in their early teenage years, at the age of 14, 13 or even younger. The experience of parents whose kids come out to them also seems to be dramatically different. In my generation reparative therapy loomed large as an option for dealing with this “struggle.” Parents today are much more likely to reject reparative therapy out of hand, to see it as damaging for their children. Concomitant with these developments, we are seeing that a kid coming out to his or her church-active LDS parents is provoking a faith crisis for the parents. Parents today seem much more likely to identify with their LGBT kids, and so a kid coming out can lead to faith crises for the entire family.

At a certain point in my own faith journey, when I was very angry at the Church, I think I would have been glad to see my entire family leave the Church with me. Now I have very mixed feelings about this.

My parents’ willingness to stick it out with me, and continue to love and support me to the best of their ability, while simultaneously embracing their faith and staying active in the Church ultimately was a huge blessing to me. My parents’ prayers on my behalf (of which I learned only after coming back to the Church) and their continuing activity in the Church helped set the stage for the spiritual experiences I had in 2005 that impelled me to come back to the Church, to wrestle with difficult questions and to rediscover and reforge my faith. My faith as a Latter-day Saint and my decision to affiliate with and remain active in my ward have added a depth and power to my life and have made me happier than I ever could have imagined. Would I have lost those opportunities if my parents had left the church, as I once would have desired them to do?

I say this not as a reproach to those LDS parents of LGBT youth who have left the Church. They are no less entitled to their own journey and their own process in relation to their faith than any of the rest of us. I actually believe this is a question not so much for them to wrestle with (they need to do what they need to do!), as it is for the larger Church community to wrestle with. I believe that the faith crises we are seeing with increasing frequency in the Church are indicative of weaknesses within Mormon culture and within the Mormon community, not necessarily individual failings.

But I will say this to parents who feel the tug of the Spirit and who feel a yearning to continue to engage with their LDS faith, but who also worry about the tension that their continuing faithfulness in the Church might introduce into their relationship with an LGBT child who feels impelled to leave the Church: that tension may serve a valuable purpose. It may enable us to enter into the complexities around this issue in a healthy way that we could not if you simply resolve the tension by leaving the Church. My advice would be to find ways to demonstrate unconditional love for your kids without giving up on your faith. Recognize that it may be right for your kids to leave the Church, even as it is right for you to stay. I believe in the end we will come to appreciate that there are reasons each of us have different journeys to make. Practice the principles of your faith, which include prayer, study, patience and charity. You may live to see your kids thanking you for it, as I have lived to thank my parents for their faithfulness.

Complicating Factor No. 5: Blasting Out of the Shame Closet

I once wore bright red fingernail polish and dangly, sparkly earrings to church. It was a Lutheran Church, the church I was active in at the time. I now officially apologize to my pastors at the time who, to their credit, defended me to the best of their ability during the firestorm that broke out in a subsequent church council meeting.

Lutherans have no less of a sense of decorum about such things then Mormons do. And I believe that my in-your-face display of Gay Pride at church caused no less consternation in this Lutheran congregation than it would in any Mormon ward.

I have no desire to do that again. In fact looking back I think it was very inappropriate for me to do that. I believe it was inappropriate because I was doing it primarily for its shock value. (Wearing nail polish and earrings would be a very different situation for a transgender person, who needs to be able to outwardly express their internal gender identity. But I am not transgender! I can imagine how my behavior as a cisgender gay male might even have made things more difficult for transgender members of the congregation, by associating gender nonconformity with rebellion or protest.)

Nevertheless, I look back at that younger version of myself with compassion and forgiveness. There is a kind of simultaneous nervous energy and terror that comes with the process of coming out of the closet. We may feel the need to push boundaries precisely because we fear rejection, because we are eager to test the limits of acceptance and rejection. Sometimes we may act out because we unconsciously want to end the suspense over whether we will be accepted or rejected. If we’re going to end up being rejected, let’s just get it over with now! It’s probably pointless to ask individuals who are in the throes of this kind of anxiety to restrain themselves. To do so would only confirm their worst fears that they are not being accepted for who they are. So I think the burden needs to be on our fellow Saints – those who’ve covenanted to bear our burdens with us – to try to be understanding and patient in this kind of situation.

I know from experience that Latter-day Saints can muster the charity to avoid turning a “coming out crisis” into a “faith crisis.” A few years ago there was a member of my ward (not gay) who used to sit at the back of the classroom during priesthood meeting and make very loud, cynical, disruptive remarks. Instead of alienating or uninviting this brother, I watched with a certain amount of awe and gratitude as our elders’ quorum president reached out to him and became his friend. It was not very long before the disruptive, inappropriate comments ceased, this brother started sitting toward the front of the class, and started making constructive and interesting comments that contributed to a spirit of love and learning in our elders’ quorum meetings.

Ideally, if an individual member of the church decided to slam the closet door open with a loud bang, and throw up some glitter on their way out, our wards would take it in stride, with generosity and a sense of humor – in much the way two brave Lutheran pastors responded to me with love and support when I decided to wear red nail polish to church.

Will the Youth of Zion Falter?

The typical life course for LGBT Mormons is changing. In my generation, it was not uncommon for individuals to recognize their same-sex attraction at a fairly young age, but to postpone dealing with it until much later. The typical life course for my generation didn’t involve really coming out or dealing publicly with our sexuality until after a mission (often after a marriage and kids). We either didn’t confide our struggles with same-sex attraction to our Church leaders or, if we did, our Church leaders tended to be dismissive of it, to not see it as a real issue. They would typically counsel us to get on with our lives and live them as if our same-sex attraction simply didn’t exist.

This had the disadvantage of shepherding many of us into often disastrous mixed-orientation marriages. But it had the advantage of allowing many of us to experience the full range of church service. By the time I resigned my Church membership in 1986, I had served in a variety of Aaronic Priesthood quorum leadership positions, as an elders’ quorum teacher, as a home teacher, as a full-time missionary and even as a branch president. As a deacon, teacher and priest I routinely assisted in passing, preparing and administering the sacrament. As an elder I baptized and confirmed new members and gave priesthood blessings. As a youth I graduated from seminary, achieved the rank of Eagle Scout, and had the opportunity to serve in Boy Scout troop leadership positions. These opportunities for service helped lay an important spiritual foundation for the rest of my life.

What to me is one of the most disquieting trends in the LDS Church today is that LGBT youth, as they come out at younger and younger ages, are being cut off from these kinds of opportunities for service. I’m talking about young men and young women who are worthy being ostracized in their classes and quorums; who are being denied church callings; who are being denied opportunities for missionary service. They are being shunted to the side not because of anything they have done, but because of discomfort on the part of church members and leaders about having an openly gay youth participate in activities like passing the sacrament or teaching a class. The message is loud and clear, and these youth are getting it. It doesn’t matter how many sacrifices I make or how hard I try to stay worthy. There’s no place for me in the Church. I have no future in the Church.

I have always felt that LGBT youth ought to serve a mission for the Church. In my mind, it seemed that since the Church has always dissuaded youth under the age of 20 from courting and marrying, at least until after the young men had completed their missionary service, this, in some sense, put gay and lesbian youth on the same footing as their straight counterparts. No one – gay or straight – was being counseled to marry at pre-mission age. I really didn’t date that much at all before my mission. (When I did, the dates were always initiated by a young woman!) I actually felt a sense of relief that the Church actually discouraged serious dating until after my mission. And my mission was the highpoint of my spiritual life as a youth. It was a powerful experience that I have never regretted – not even after I left the Church and not even during the time I was most angry at the Church. If I had one bit of advice for LGBT youth (were they to ask my advice) I would say, “Do whatever you can to serve a mission for the Church. Don’t make any big decisions about your sexuality until you have at least done that.”

Unfortunately, what I am witnessing now seems to suggest that Church leaders, by isolating openly LGBT youth and cutting them off from opportunities for service in their wards, are de-incentivizing youth to even try to prepare for and serve a mission. I’m also seeing it increasingly common that LGBT youth are being considered unworthy to serve missions merely by virtue of being openly LGBT.

This is not Church policy, and some local Church leaders and mission presidents are doing what they can to encourage openly gay missionaries to serve. Unfortunately, suspicion and fear of openly gay individuals is widespread. Based on what I’m observing, I’m afraid that the Church is destined to lose an even larger percentage of its LGBT youth in the current generation and in up-coming generations than it lost in my generation, unless it takes action to correct the tendency to deny openly gay and lesbian youth the same opportunities for Church service as their straight counterparts. And if it loses this generation, it may lose them for good, because it is losing them before they have the opportunity to have some of the powerful, spiritually formative experiences of Church service and missions that I and others of my generation had.

For good or for ill (maybe a good that God sees but that I don’t) LGBT youth of this generation may have to find a very, very different spiritual path forward than the paths of previous generations of LGBT folks.

A Living Faith of Our Own

I remember one Sunday after Sacrament Meeting when I was a youth, my dad turning to me and telling me, “I only want you to stay active in the Church if you can know for yourself that it is true. You need to seek truth wherever you can find it.” It was actually quite stunning to me to hear this from my dad. And as brave and wonderful a thing as it was for my dad to say something like that to me, in reality one of the most painful life passages my dad ever went through was years later when I took him at his word, resigned my membership in the Church and went looking for truth in a variety of very different, very interesting places.

I think the fundamental challenge of any faith was identified by William James in his classic study on the Varieties of Religious Experience (1901-1902). There is a fundamental difference between genuine religious experience, a genuine encounter with the Divine, which James identified as the wellspring of all religion, and simulated or emulated faith, in which individuals are encouraged to follow a pre-set path, in which they experience various sorts of societal pressure to reach certain pre-determined conclusions. The more a faith becomes calcified in this way, the less faith is able to meet genuine human needs.

The power of the LDS faith is precisely in the fact that the notion of direct, personal revelation is a cornerstone of our faith. It is “the rock” on which Mormons understand Christ to have been telling Peter he would build his Church. James 1:5 is in some very significant sense the founding text of our religion. Let he or she who lacks wisdom go and ask of God. And God will give liberally and not upbraid.

We ought to view faith crisis as an integral part of faith. It is where the rubber of faith meets the road of reality. I believe that it is only in forging a faith of our own, tried through challenge and crisis, with all the dross of intellectual laziness and bad theology burned off, that we can find a faith that can sustain us and make Christ-like people of us. I pray for us to be able to find a faith based not on a desire to “earn rewards,” but to love and to emulate God; a faith that motivates us not to judge others, but to serve them. A sustaining true faith doesn’t mean we will have the answers to every question. In fact, it will frequently demand that we walk in darkness and uncertainty. But neither is true faith a faith that is unthinking or undiscerning. Latter-day Saints claim the right to seek confirmation of truth. We have a right (and sometimes the obligation) to seek and obtain our own “first vision.”

3 comments for “Complicating Factors in the LGBT Mormon Spiritual Path

  1. LeAnn
    October 26, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    Thank you John for writing this article. It was much needed by me. I resigned my membership in July, but already feel a tug towards the Gospel again. This article has helped me to understand what is happening. I don’t know if I’ll ever be a full, baptized member again, but I suspect that for now I just need to go to the church I’m at, while testing out my ward to see if I can truly be safe in it as an openly gay woman whose testimony and opinions don’t necessarily match those of Church leaders.

    I had already reached a few of the conclusions you outlined in your article, but couldn’t have articulated them in any particularly coherent way. May Heavenly Father bless you as you continue your journey.

    • October 29, 2014 at 3:12 pm

      Thanks, LeAnn…

      I’m not entirely convinced that anyone can “help” anyone else through the various spiritual challenges they have to face. But, maybe.

      I guess my hope in writing this article was at least to reassure people who are in particularly rocky places that that is normal… At the very least I hope people can know that it’s OK to feel unsure about where you are, and that’s part of the process, and eventually clarity does come as you learn to trust (in God, in yourself).

      May the blessings you’ve asked for me come back to you!

  2. Diana
    December 2, 2014 at 7:34 pm

    Thank you for writing this. I REALLY appreciated the thoughtfulness and perspective with which it was written. Especially resonant with me was the perspective on the relationship between faith and doubt and the idea that love that doesn’t judge creates space and the climate to finding truth for yourself where “tough love” does the opposite. Thanks for taking the time to articulate this.

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