Gretta Whalen is a graduate student, writing tutor, and Young Women advisor in Los Angeles. When she finishes her thesis on Religion, Boredom, and Modernity, she hopes to watch a lot more television.
Full disclosure: I am a Sunday School teacher’s nightmare. For example, when my seminary teacher suggested that masturbation leads to homosexuality, I raised my hand and declared if that were true, then every boy in the class was gay. And probably some of the girls.
It did not go over well.
This incredulity characterizes the approach I’ve always had to my issues with the church. Whenever I encounter something confusing, contradictory, or upsetting for any reason, I rarely shy away from pushing for a fair answer, even in cases where there isn’t one.
When I was 24, I got engaged to the best boyfriend I’d ever had—a fellow Mormon with whom I had fallen uncharacteristically and unreasonably in love. Before our wedding and my endowment ceremony, I wanted to learn everything I could about the temple. I was determined to enter the temple, eyes wide open, with as much of an understanding of the promises I was about to make that I could possibly muster. Basically, if they were sacrificing human babies in the temple, I wanted to know beforehand, so I wouldn’t have to make an awkward exit the week before my wedding.
As I researched the history of the temple, the endowment ceremony, and polygamy, I didn’t come across anything I hadn’t heard before, but now that my future husband had a face — a really cute face, I might add — the language of the temple ceremony–and the concept of plural marriage–had a devastating affect on me. I hated the thought that I belonged entirely to my husband, but that he might have to be shared by me. I resented being told that my desire to be my husband’s only wife was a reflection of selfishness on my part. I remember very distinctly driving with my fiancé to LAX to pick up his recently temple-married sister, who came into town for the endowment ceremony and sealing of one of hers friend. The conversation on the way across town turned to my concerns about the temple and polygamy. Because my fiancé (now husband) loves me (and hates being in trouble), he stayed mostly out of it. But his sister, though well meaning, was condescending and utterly dismissive. She tried to assure me that regardless of what I’d read, the reason I was upset was that I just didn’t understand. She couldn’t tell me why, but she assured me that all my questions would be answered by the temple ceremony.
Now that I’ve become active in the Mormon Feminist movement, the feelings I experienced that day with my sister-in-law have resurfaced. People tell me my decision to wear pants to church last December was silly, disrespectful, and misguided. They tell me that my choice to write to church leaders, asking them to let women pray in general conference, is similarly ill-conceived; that if I just understood my divine role, I would get that women don’t need to pray in public. They insist since that they’ve never felt pain from exclusion or oppression in the church, and that if would just put aside my worldly pride, I wouldn’t feel it either. Believe me, I would love this pain to go away. I would love to feel valued and included as many of my Mormon sisters do. But I don’t. I hurt. I ache. So, I don’t need my well-meaning friends to explain why I shouldn’t be in pain. I need them to hear me. I need them to just accept that I am in pain. I need them to try to understand my burden. And maybe, if it’s not too much trouble, help lighten it.
I see this same thing happening to my gay family and friends when they talk to members of the church about their feelings of rejection and isolation. Their pain, anger and sorrow are real. Yet all too often, members are dismissive of their concerns. They urge them to have more faith, endure to the end. For them, enduring to the end means celibacy and not experiencing romantic love. They tell them that homosexuality is a trial, and that homosexual behavior is a sin. They chastise their gay brothers and sisters for asking questions, expecting answers, and agitating for change. They tell them that we don’t understand why homosexuality exists, but that someday we will. They remind them that their only choices are adherence to church standards of behavior or ostracism from their community. Many church members don’t hear their gay brothers and sisters. They don’t try to accept and understand their burden, and they certainly don’t try to help them find a way to make it light.
When Mormons are baptized, we promise to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that need of comforting. Nowhere in this admonition are we charged with deciding whether or not someone’s torment and sorrow are warranted. So let’s bear each others burdens. Let’s stop dismissing and disparaging each other. Let’s carry and support each other, for as long as we have to, until we finally get answers and our pains are healed.