Mormon Allies

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I’d like to share my perspective on what it means to be an ally. My thoughts on this are not necessarily extremely sophisticated, but they come from the heart. My thoughts are very specific to the LGBT Mormon context, and of course I don’t speak for everyone who identifies as an LGBT Mormon. My thoughts may apply in other contexts, but they were generated by my specific experience as a white, gay, believing Mormon, male-identified man, who is married to an African American man who has sometimes identified as trans. I write as someone who is blessed to have had a good education, and to live with my spouse in fairly stable economic circumstances, and to have a wonderful foster son.

I feel it’s necessary to start by answering the question: Who is an ally? I think we generally use the term ally to designate someone who is willing to work for and advocate for someone else. An ally is someone who wants to help. An ally is a friend. When someone is working as an ally, they are not working to advance their own cause or their own issues, but to advance the cause and issues of others. In this sense, I believe we are all allies to someone. I hope we are. The Gospel teaches us to “bear one another’s burdens” (Mosiah 18:8). I think the Gospel calls us all to be allies, especially to the poor and disenfranchised.

In order to be a good ally, we first need to understand the goals of the person we are trying to help. This is crucial. This is to recognize that human beings have agency and are self-determining, which is one of the core elements of the Gospel as Latter-day Saints understand it. As Mormons we believe that a war in Heaven was fought to preserve agency, and that the purpose of this life is to enable us to grow through the exercise of that agency. So this is consistent with our faith as Mormons. Being an ally means putting that core belief to the test, because it requires us to trust the agency of the person we are helping. It is to trust each person’s ability to set goals for themselves, and to help them get access to the resources that will enable them to achieve their goals. To be an ally is, to some extent, to relinquish our own agendas in relation to the person we are trying to help. This requires us to be active listeners and learners. And it requires us to make ourselves available to the one being helped and letting them call the shots in terms of how we can help.

Second, we must make ourselves as fully aware as possible of our own prejudices, so that those prejudices don’t interfere with our ability to help the person we are trying to help. This is often one of the most difficult aspects of being an ally, but it is also the key to one of the most rewarding aspects of being an ally. It is difficult, because it is embarrassing to learn that what we thought we knew about something was wrong. It is difficult to put ourselves in circumstances where we know little or nothing about a particular situation. It is also incredibly rewarding, because as we learn more, new horizons open to us. It adds a richness and a depth to life that we couldn’t appreciate when we only saw around the edges of the blinders we used to have on.

These two core principles of being an ally — honoring agency and overcoming one’s prejudices — apply to every situation in which we can be an ally. It applies to me, for instance, in trying to be an ally to my husband in overcoming racism. Just because I’m married to an African American man doesn’t mean I don’t have to work at understanding race issues better or understanding things from his point of view, though it does give me a very intimate view into some of the challenges that African Americans face in our society. The same is true of all of us, whether parents or spouses, siblings or friends or ecclesiastical leaders or just general persons of good will in relation to the person to whom we wish to be an ally.

An ally will speak and act on my behalf in many situations. But an ally will prefer to empower me to speak and act for myself whenever possible. Since LGBT Mormons are often excommunicated or disfellowshipped, and thus literally can’t speak or act in certain settings, we need allies to speak and act on our behalf in many situations. But that is not the preferable situation.

I am not a perfect ally, and none of us will ever be perfect allies. Life is so complex, we will all only ever be learners, continually trying to refine our understanding and do better, but never getting it 100% right. That’ s OK. A good ally will be willing to deal with the humiliation of getting it wrong once in a while, in order to be of service. Being a good ally takes two qualities that we also understand as central to the Gospel: humility and patience.

Being a good ally will make us more Christ-like.

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The greatest challenge for faithful Mormons in relation to the specific situation of being an ally of an LGBT friend or loved one has to do with the question of, How can I be an ally if the goals of the person I want to help seem to run contrary to what the Church teaches about this issue? To put this very bluntly and pragmatically, Can a Mormon who believes in the Proclamation on the Family be an ally to a gay individual who wants the right to marry his same-sex spouse or to a transgender person who needs surgery in order to transition? This is a very difficult question, and each person needs to figure out how to answer it for themselves. Different people will answer this question very differently, with different nuances and different implications for action.

I can speak very personally to this as a gay man who loves and has a testimony of the Church, and who also loves my husband and believes that part of my Heavenly Father’s plan for me from the beginning included for me to find and marry the wonderful man with whom I have made my life for 23+ years. Part of the guidance I’ve received from my Heavenly Father has been to live the Gospel as fully as I can within the constraints of being married to a man in a Church where being in that kind of marriage means I can’t be a member in full standing.

My LDS bishop is an ally to me in helping me live the Gospel as fully as I can, and in helping to create an environment in my ward where both I and my husband will feel loved and welcomed. He has been an ally to me in helping me petition my Stake President in relation to my membership status. Other faithful Latter-day Saints I know have been allies by showing unconditional love and acceptance, hosting inclusive firesides and family home evenings, making LGBT-affirming comments in Church classes, and talking one-on-one with friends and family in the Church about this issue.

I know many Latter-day Saints who personally wish that the Church’s policies and teachings on this issue could be different, and who pray for the Church to receive greater light and knowledge on this subject. Since I believe in God, and since I believe that this is God’s Church and that he guides it, I consider prayer to be a kind of advocacy. I welcome and am grateful for allies who pray.

I don’t know if my bishop has personal views on the subject of same-sex marriage that differ from the current teachings of the Church on this issue, but I know that in his role as bishop he has supported the Church’s position. I didn’t expect my Church leaders or friends who are active in the Church to join me in fighting for the legal right to marry. I wasn’t disappointed in those who didn’t. I recognize the importance of following one’s conscience. That’s OK. They won’t be my allies in relation to that one issue. But they are and can be my allies in relation to other issues that are of supreme importance to me.

I also need allies who recognize the importance of my faith and my testimony in my life. So the same concept of being an ally on some issues but not others also applies to many of my non- and ex-Mormon friends who were willing to fight for marriage equality with me, but who reject or don’t understand my yearning and my desire to be a member of the Church in full standing. Again, I am grateful for their help in one important arena of my life, and don’t hold it against them that they can’t or won’t be allies in that other, to me more important, arena of my life.

Just because a person can only be an ally in one area or on one particular issue doesn’t mean that their contributions are not important. I don’t know anybody in the LGBT community who is not grateful for the LDS Church’s support for anti-discrimination legislation in Utah. That legislation is making many people’s lives much better. Of course there are many in the LGBT community who wish the Church could go further. But few would say, “Because you can’t help me in this one area, I reject your help in this other very vital area.”

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The most important work an ally does is work that will only rarely be recognized.

An example of this was demonstrated during the fight against Amendment 1 in Minnesota (the proposed state constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage in 2012). Lots of Mormon friends who did support marriage equality across the country thought that the best way they could be allies was to publicly proclaim their support on blogs and web sites, and to organize big visible demonstrations of their support at LGBT Pride.

While the demonstration of support was nice, and while I’m sure it even may have entailed some risk for these individuals to come out publicly in support of marriage equality, I doubt that this activity actually changed any minds about this issue. I was frustrated that people tended to put so much emphasis on doing that more visible stuff, but then balk at doing the one thing I felt would really actually make a difference: to engage in one-on-one, personal conversation with people who disagreed with them on this subject.

The entire campaign in Minnesota was built on this important concept: talk to someone you disagree with about this. Talk to them in a way that shows you are listening to them, and in a way that shows you have respect for them. But talk. One-on-one, one person at a time. The campaign goal was to foster one million conversations about gay people and marriage, and the campaign planners knew that if we had those million conversations, we would win the political fight. And we had the conversations. And we won.

But to engage in that conversation, and to do it again and again, was difficult. It took a unique kind of patience and courage. It happened out of the limelight. The reward for most of those who were willing to do it was a good feeling of having made a difference, one conversation at a time. The cost was having to face potentially uncomfortable and awkward situations with their family and friends. The people who did that were the real heroes of the Amendment 1 campaign, in my opinion.

I use this example not because I specifically want or need all my Mormon allies to work with me on marriage equality, but as an example of how effective work as an ally is seldom easy or glamorous. The same principles apply to other areas of much needed work on behalf of LGBT Mormons, such as fostering greater understanding of LGBT issues in the Church and making our wards and stakes more loving, nurturing places for everyone.

Allies will often not only not be thanked by those they desire to help, but may actually even become the targets of harsh criticism and unkind accusations from them. LGBT Mormons face incredible stresses and frustrations. We are human. And sometimes when the stress or the anger reaches a peak, we lash out at the person who happens to be standing closest to us, which is usually, of course, an ally. 

But I think this brings me back to where I started, which is that being an ally really, truly is and always has been a call to service, based on the profoundly Christian principles of agency and empathy. A person who is not at some time and in some way an ally is not, I would argue, being a true disciple of Christ either.

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3 comments for “Mormon Allies

  1. Tom McAffee
    October 9, 2015 at 11:59 pm

    I just read this and was deeply touched. I have conceived of myself as an ally, perhaps more especially as I’ve worked on a book on marriage equality. But I realize that I at least vaguely considered myself an ally at least ten years ago; but strategic silence has been my strategy at church & with members if assume to be ultra-orthodox. I have always viewed it as the discretion that is the better part of valor. Why “start a fight?” I still have work to do. But I often refer to my book, and talk about the equality values that are central to our constitutionalism. So I take many more opportunities to share my perspective with LDS friends etc. But it is a tad like being the missionary we’re “supposed to” be. With any number of folks I’ve known for years, and who I assume consider themselves to be “loyalists,” I have not “reached out” to share a different perspective. And part of me fears the reaction to the book I hope to publish on marriage equality. I do feel more strongly than I ever have that my LGBTQ brothers and sisters need strong allies who are part of the tradition; and the “difficulty” it presents is MY PROBLEM, not theirs. I have been more indignant, even angry, at attitudes and perspectives I’ve been a witness to, than I would ever have thought. But the shame I sometimes feel and express runs very deep, since what now vexes me has never impacted me for the lengthy period I’ve had some interest. I have unwittingly–perhaps even casually— contributed to the state of affairs that now deeply concerns me. Justice Powell once said that sodomy was such a hard issue for him because he did not know any gays–he just didn’t know that he had known many. A difficulty I’m sure I have is analogous; in truth, the past fifteen years or so, I have associated more closely than ever before with gays who were “out” and quite unashamed. But I wish I knew more LTBTQ people, and especially well enough that we could chat in depth about everything at stake etc. I really appreciated the observation that one on one conversation is the most important way to show that we are allies. I hope to do better..

    • October 12, 2015 at 5:49 pm

      Tom – My take on “conversation” as a form of activism is that we’re most effective at it when we let go of the idea that we’re supposed to persuade the person we’re talking to of a particular point of view.

      My first foot forward in a conversation with someone about any “issue” is basic curiosity. I want to understand how the other person views things and why.

      The why is important… Often in relation to this issue, we discover that the person we’re talking to shares the same core values we do, but they have bad data.

      In a really good conversation, where you’ve been really patient and curious, the person you’re talking to may eventually become curious about what you think… That’s the best time to share your experience, your data, your values: when they’re open to hearing what you have to think about it.

      • Tom McAffee
        October 13, 2015 at 2:45 pm

        Thanks. A very helpful response. the curiosity approach may help counter the “fear of argument” factor motivating silence. I will do better.

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