No Empty Chairs

 

The sentiment is as ingrained in Mormon culture as a Saturday’s Warrior dance climax and conjures up equally strong emotions. It derives from a metaphor comparing Mormon heaven to a great big family feast with God at the head of the table. The chairs are set up, one for each family member, and as long as everyone has washed up and come to sit at the table, each chair is filled. An empty chair is a failure. A family member who didn’t make it home for the meal. A visual reminder that the feast is not complete, the joy is not full. Somebody’s going to be very hungry.

As far as I can tell, the idea originated with the Mormon prophet, Ezra Taft Benson, possibly while riffing off a quotation from Lucy Mack Smith:

God intended the family to be eternal. With all my soul, I testify to the truth of that declaration. May He bless us to strengthen our homes and the lives of each family member so that in due time we can report to our Heavenly Father in His celestial home that we are all there—father, mother, sister, brother, all who hold each other dear. Each chair is filled. We are all back home” (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson[1988], p. 493).

Benson’s quotation has been comforting to many, a fact witnessed by the multiple blog titles that pay homage to it from LDS families who have experienced deep tragedy, usually the death of a small child. It endows tragedy with meaning, a sense of purpose that things can be done on earth in order to help reunite us with loved ones who have passed on.

Building on this theme, Janice Kapp Perry wrote a song entitled “No Empty Chairs.” Lyrics by none other than Senator Orrin Hatch (probably my favorite musical collaboration since those two un-neutered cats were loose in my neighborhood). This woman even mounted six full size chairs to her wall in order to help her kids remember that they are a forever family–don’t mess it up. All signs point to this idea being around for a long time in greater Mormonism.

But for LGBTQ people growing up in a Mormon context, I have seen how this concept has been used as a mode of violence by family members who wish to control the choices of their LGBTQ kin. Because right or wrong, embracing and acting upon one’s LGBTQ identity in the Mormon church buys your family an empty chair.

I had a friend, Jordan, at BYU who reached out his hand to help me when I took my first fumbling steps out of the closet. Jordan was kind and shy, a calming influence for me as I transitioned from the world of Peter Priesthood to Jacque Mormon. He was just starting to settle in to his first gay relationship when his Dad died suddenly and tragically. No empty chairs was the theme of his father’s eulogy and each word stung him deep in his heart. Was his budding love worth giving up the chance of seeing his father again? Jordan broke up with his boyfriend the next weekend, retreating back to his prescribed loneliness. A part of him was, at least temporarily, buried with his father.

A gay man choosing between the love of family and the love of romance is not a new phenomenon. In years previous, the process of “coming out” included the necessary but painful step of leaving one’s family of birth in favor of a family of choice. It was the natural response to the devastating trauma of family rejection—re-trench, hole up, surround yourself with friends who will support you, no matter what. The families that buried early victims of HIV/AIDS were often united through common hardship more than common blood. Empty chairs abounded at these sullen funerals.

I saw even more empty chairs at the wedding of two of my dear friends, Brandon and Todd. Todd knew his family members wouldn’t be showing up. Their South Jordan values clashed horribly with his Park City love. But Brandon had been anticipating that a few would come. No one in his family had seemed excited about his impending wedding ceremony, but he knew they loved him and he thought that would matter most. He was wrong. “Dearly beloved, we gather here today before friends and…other friends to celebrate the union of these two souls.” Their families missed a spectacular wedding.

GayWeddingCake

 

The empty chairs at my friends’ wedding are also a failure. They represent a neglect of LGBTQ people, prevalent in Mormonism and much of society that will be a cause of shame to our grandchildren who are left to peruse our (digital?) picture albums. Those of us who live long enough will be left to explain to children born into a far more affirming world why we failed to show up for the most important events of one another’s lives. Something tells me we’re going to have a hard time finding meaningful answers. Remember those racist comments grandma lets slip every once in a while that make you first shudder and then pity her? We might find ourselves pitied as well.

So to the LDS families of my LGBTQ friends, may I once again challenge you to have no empty chairs. No empty chairs at our weddings, no empty chairs at your holiday tables, and no empty chairs for us when you picture your family in Heaven.  Instead, have hope that your Father in Heaven will be even more inclusive and loving than you could possibly imagine and let that hope motivate you to be the same. We’ll all be much happier when the table is full.

 

10 comments for “No Empty Chairs

  1. February 16, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    Thanks, Cary. Other empty chairs we need to mourn are suggested by the great song in “Les Miserables,”–”Empty chairs at empty tables.” Marius is singing about his fallen comrades who were killed in the revolution. We have empty chairs in our families where our gay people who took their lives should be. We have empty chairs in our chapels where our gay brothers and sisters (those who choose to) should be. Lots of empty chairs because of how we have failed on this issue.

    • Taryn Fox
      February 16, 2013 at 4:11 pm

      My Mormon family rejected me right before Christmas, for being transgender. I wish it were talked about more.

      • Neca Allgood
        February 18, 2013 at 5:18 pm

        Taryn, I am so sorry that your family has been rejecting. Several years ago, when my son was transitioning, one of his fears was that he would lose his extended family. Honestly, it was a fear for me as well, because I knew, if our extended family forced me to choose between them and my son, who I would choose. My son was going through the hardest time of his life, and he needed me.
        Fortunately, our family has been very loving and accepting of Grayson. I wish your family had the model of another LDS family who chose to love and accept their transgender family member. It might have helped them see being accepting as a possible path for them

  2. Carole Thayne Warburton
    February 16, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    This is absolutely beautiful. I think the day will come that we (the church) will be ashamed. I hope it comes in my lifetime.

  3. Janet Hardy
    February 17, 2013 at 12:25 am

    When I was young in the 40′s I remember how ashamed I was that the Harlam Globetrotters could entertain us but not stay in the nicest hotel in town. We can make change by acting with our hearts. Thanks for stating this so well.

  4. Curtis Cloward
    February 17, 2013 at 5:18 am

    The “empty chair” is a very powerful illustration, both visual and spiritual in its impact. I still, to this day, recall with pain the moment my sister “pulled my chair from the table” by saying: “If we accept you, we will lose you.”

  5. Lynette Duncan
    February 17, 2013 at 11:26 am

    This issue was written about so beautifully. Unfortunately, it doesn’t just happen with the LGBTQ community. I happen to be straight and have tried to be a good Molly Mormon, but struggled in life after my father and sister were murdered when I was just 17. I had undiagnosed post traumatic stress for years. I spent a few years “inactive”, but I thought my LDS friends still loved me. When I was 30, I finally married. He was a “non-member” We had a private ceremony, then planned a large reception. I invited ALL of my LDS friends, I sent out over 50 invitations. NO ONE CAME! It wasn’t a temple marriage, so it really didn’t count. I had been to so many receptions for these friends, yet there were empty chairs at mine!

  6. Carole Thayne Warburton
    February 17, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    Lynette, that is just tragic. So sorry.

    • Lynette Duncan
      February 17, 2013 at 3:29 pm

      Thank you Carole

  7. Wendy Montgomery
    February 20, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    Beautiful and touching article, Cary! Thank you so much for writing it. There will be NO empty chairs in my home. :-)

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