Last March, I participated in a “Mormons and gays” dialogue that was held in the Chicago Stake. That dialogue emerged from a series of conversations between the local stake president and members of the Church — both gay and straight. I drove down to Chicago from Minneapolis with a member of my ward, mainly because I have been hoping to see something similar happen in my home stake, and I wanted to learn from what was happening in Chicago.
In March there was a certain amount of excitement that was generated just by the fact that nothing like this had ever been done there. Those who had planned the event were anxious; and the mood in the room was intense. There were a number of LGBT Mormons who showed up who had been away from the Church for a long time, but who were drawn by the possibility of Church leaders who were willing to listen to their experience. There were also lots of heterosexual Mormons who were just trying to understand. The intensity worked in favor of the event. Hearts were opened. Tears were shed. There was deep listening. And at the end, President Blakely declared his commitment to see similar events happen again. The “again” took place last weekend, on Sunday, September 22.
Round two featured a similar cast of characters, but in slightly different configurations. There were more heterosexual church members/allies, but fewer LGBT people. Those LGBT folks who did show up were more likely to be active Church members. I might have been the only LGBT person in the room who is currently excommunicated but actively attending my ward. Perhaps half of the people in the room had been there the last time, and the other half were new.
While the prevailing mood at the first event was anxious and intense, now the mood felt calmer, more intentional. There were enough familiar faces present, and those of us who had been there before knew enough about where those familiar faces were coming from, that we didn’t necessarily worry whether this was going to be a safe space. I think we mostly knew that it would be. And it was. Especially in the small group discussions I experienced a deeper level of listening and compassion.
There was a large presence there of members of the Westchester 1st Ward, where I attended church the morning of the event last March, and where I attended again the morning of last Sunday’s event. When I attended in March, there was an explicitly gay-friendly, anti-bullying statement presented in the priesthood lesson. Last Sunday, numerous announcements were made about the “Mormons and Gays” dialogue, encouraging members to attend. My friend Beth and I (who were pretty out as bi and gay respectively) were warmly welcomed. The members of that ward seem very comfortable with this issue, and very comfortable with LGBT people, a phenomenon I’m observing in a growing number of LDS wards.
The format of the second dialogue was very similar. It was opened and closed with hymns and prayers. I was invited by President Blakely to give an opening prayer, which was a moving experience for me since I am not generally allowed to pray in LDS meeting houses. Opening statements by President Blakely and Devan Hite (one of the organizers and an openly gay man) were made explaining the purpose of the event: to cultivate empathy. We then broke up into groups of five, and were invited to answer a series of questions intended to help us introduce ourselves to one another and to take us deeper into the topic of the evening’s dialog. We then reconvened and watched a short (ten-minute) video, and then there was general discussion and sharing for another 45-50 minutes. After the closing hymn and prayer, informal conversations continued over a potluck feast brought by local members of the Church.
The ten-minute video was a clip from the NorthStar “Voices of Hope” web series. It featured Jeff Bennion, who self-identified in the video as an individual dealing with same-sex attraction, and his wife Tanya. Jeff discussed his journey with his same-sex attraction, and Jeff and Tanya discussed their marriage of eight years. LGBT individuals present were then invited both to comment on the video and to share their own stories and experiences.
Some expressed frustration with the video, including an openly gay man who was there with his same-sex partner and who identified himself as a former participant in NorthStar. He felt that gay guys who managed to get married heterosexually were lionized at NorthStar, and many younger men who participated in the organization felt under pressure to do the same, with sometimes disastrous results.
Not everyone expressed frustration. I actually related very much to the part of Jeff’s discussion where he talked about reaching a point of desperation related to his sexuality, and where he “placed it on the altar.” I came to a similar point in my spiritual journey, though what God asked me to sacrifice was not the possibility of a relationship with a man. I shared the observation that Jeff seemed to speak as though his “same-sex attraction” were something he could give up or “sacrifice.” My experience of it is that it is who I am, not something capable of being given away or sacrificed even if I wanted to.
At a key moment in the discussion, in response to some of the expressions of anxiety, President Blakely stated simply that there was no “one way” for those of us in these situations to deal with them. Each of us would have a different path with it that was appropriate to our unique experience and circumstances. That statement from the Stake President created a very important aura of safety for all who were present. It allowed us to share without fear of being judged, and without judging ourselves. Most of the heterosexual participants made comments that expressed a similar openness, a desire simply to listen and be present and support the LGBT individuals present in their journeys, however they chose to take those journeys.
One heterosexual brother who is a member of the Westchester 1st Ward bishopric (whom I got to know well at the March event, since we were in the small group discussion together), referred to an old talk of President Boyd K. Packer discussing the purpose of sexuality. Elder Packer, he said, had suggested in this talk that the purpose of sexuality was to create a powerful bond between spouses (between, in Elder Packer’s talk, a man and a woman). But what if that sexuality drives us to create another kind of bond? What then? This brother, in a most humble, beautiful way, posed a question I have frequently reflected on in my own wrestling with this. What if God wanted some of us to create same-sex bonds. What if there was a purpose in his plan for that kind of bonding?
There was a sweetness and a sense of healing present throughout the evening that only the Holy Spirit can bring. Even though there had not been the intensity we had experienced at the March event, it felt solid to me, it felt significant. There were lots of amazing one-on-one discussions and small group discussions that took place afterwards over food. Even after spending an amazing week in Utah at the Affirmation Conference, I still don’t take for granted the power of being able to be in a space where I can be all of myself. At this wonderful event in Chicago I could bring my entire self as a gay man who has been in a 21-year-long relationship with my husband Göran, and who has learned the greatest of life’s lessons from that love and that relationship. I could bring my entire self as a believing, testimony-bearing Latter-day Saint. At that event in Chicago, I was able to be whole, and feel unconditionally loved. And it was powerful.
Afterwards, I had a chance to talk one-on-one with President Blakely, and in that conversation I got as clear a sense of the path that lies ahead as I ever have.
That path looks to me much like the path ahead must have looked to the first Saints to begin the trek from Winter Quarters, Iowa to the Great Basin. That path wound its way across what was then called the “Great American Desert.” A desert is forbidding. It threatens scarcity, not plenty. It overwhelms you with its vastness, with its seeming endlessness, with the risk that there might be nothing on the other side. Setting out into a desert is not a trek you take without faith.
Right now the Church doesn’t offer comfortable or easy options to LGBT Saints. There was a gay man present at the Chicago dialogue last weekend who shared his testimony of the Gospel, and who is a current temple-recommend-holding member of the Church. He recently met a man he believes to be the person he was meant to spend the rest of eternity with. Now he has a choice to make, and he believes the most correct path for him may lead through excommunication. Nothing, he said, could cause him to deny his testimony. Even excommunicated, he said, he would continue to attend church and practice his faith the best he could.
Church leaders, to the extent they have addressed the possibility of changing doctrine on this issue have insisted that the doctrine is not changing. I did an interview with a reporter from the Deseret News before the Affirmation Conference. She asked me, “What if there is no change in doctrine in the Church? Will greater listening and empathy be enough for most gay people?”
I told her that, No, it will not be enough for most. But for some it will be.
What would keep us in the company of the Saints under such circumstances? The majority of folks I know in the gay community think that is just crazy. Most LGBT people would say, “Find a church that accepts you as you are.” Yet, I am seeing growing numbers of LGBT Mormons who are — against all logic — choosing to stay or choosing to come back, even under circumstances where they are essentially treated as second-class citizens or non-citizens. Why are we doing that?
In recent years, I’ve had many opportunities to speak with members of that growing company of LGBT Saints, and I’m finding common threads.
Why are we staying? Or why are we coming back?
Because we feel the Spirit at Church. Because we’ve experienced a richness of spiritual blessings there — healings, personal revelation, visions and miracles.
Because our lives are blessed when we live the principles we learn through our involvement with the Church. Our lives have been blessed by the scriptures, by prayer, through personal discipline. Sometimes our lives have been blessed by the growth we experience when we choose to love and to give unconditionally even in situations where we are treated as unequal.
Because we’ve received very specific promises directly from God about what our destiny is, and how our lives will be blessed if we are true to the promises we’ve received.
Sometimes we don’t have adequate words to articulate what it is that keeps us connected. We can’t explain our actions in clear theological or doctrinal terms. Sometimes we just don’t know, except that it’s a feeling that that’s what we need to do, so we do it.
That’s why most of the Saints chose to cross a desert a century and a half ago. Outpourings of the Spirit; lives blessed through a lived faith; promises; sometimes just inchoate hope.
What if our hope of reaching some ultimate resting place — like the ones the Saints found in the Salt Lake Valley, a place where all can be well — is vain?
We can still take some comfort that wards like the Westchester 1st Ward and other wards throughout the Church are becoming oases for LGBT members. Caitlin Ryan’s research has shown that even moderate improvements in attitude on the part of family and church communities can result in dramatic reductions in the rates of suicide and other forms of self-harming behavior. And we are seeing at least moderately improved attitudes — sometimes dramatically improved attitudes — in wards throughout the Church. If that kind of change is not enough to keep most LGBT people in the Church for the long term, it will still save lives.
In October it will have been eight years since I started attending the LDS Church again. Oddly, I haven’t lost hope yet. I wasn’t deterred by Prop 8. I wasn’t deterred by Elder Packer’s notorious (Ensign-edited) conference talk. There are undoubtedly more indignities gay Mormons will face before we’ve reached our journey’s end. I’ve been in this path long enough that I’ve at least proved to myself this wasn’t just some momentary madness. I’ve been blessed in this journey more than I ever could have imagined and I’m not turning back from those blessings now.
At the second dialogue event in Chicago, I realized, this is where the initial buzz, the excitement and intensity having passed, many will lose interest. This is where the journey actually gets started.
On Sunday, in the Westchester 1st Ward, the topic of discussion in Sunday School was D&C Section 136, “The word and will of the Lord, given through President Brigham Young,” to “all the people of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and those who journey with them.” So I’ve been taking a personal inventory. I’m standing at the edge of the Great American Desert and I’m counting the cost and gathering my supplies, and I’m figuring out how to make this journey work. I’m ready for that journey with the Saints.