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, 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.
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.