So You Want to be an Ally…

This past Saturday, I met with a local group of LGBT Mormons and Allies.

As I and another facilitator of the group used that term, “ally,” one (heterosexual*) member of the group spoke up and said he wasn’t sure if he was an ally, or he didn’t understand what that meant.  We promised him we would define that term later in the meeting, though we actually didn’t end up getting to it because our agenda was too full! Later, I posted a description of the meeting’s events and activities on the Mormons Building Bridges Facebook page and on an Affirmation site, and more questions were popping up from other heterosexual Mormons: What does it mean to be an ally?  How can I be a more effective ally?

The bottom line is that allies are first and foremost friends.  They recognize that listening is the most valuable tool in their toolkit.  They understand that it is better to empower others than to lead.  Finally, they are willing to leave their comfort zone in order to do concrete good for those around them.

Who can be an ally?

So, to define the term in relation to LGBT Mormons, I’d say an “ally” is someone who is not “LGBT” or who is not “Mormon,” but who wants to lend aid, relief or assistance to someone who is LGBT and Mormon.  So our allies could include various LGBT people who do not identify as Mormon.**  They would also include any heterosexual person, whether that person identifies as Mormon or not.***  The LGBT Mormon community has many allies of all these varieties.

It’s worth noting here that we are all allies to someone.  Within the LGBT community, I as a gay man am an ally to my lesbian sisters and to my bi and transgender brothers and sisters.  Their challenges and needs are different from mine, and there’s nothing magical about being a gay man that means I automatically understand those needs or function as an effective ally to them. I am an ally to my African American husband when we are working on issues related to racism in American society.  And so on.

When I think of Mormon allies, I remember those courageous Americans in the nineteenth century who lent assistance of various sorts to the Saints, who at that time suffered severe persecution and were despised by the vast majority of Americans.  These allies lent aid in a variety of ways: selling supplies to Mormons on the westward trail at fair prices when no one else would; helping secure needed political support in Washington, DC or in other localities; and writing newspaper articles in defense of the Saints.  Some very special Mormon allies emigrated to Utah with the Saints, sharing burdens with brothers and sisters in a church they did not belong to.

Similarly, we have different kinds of LGBT Mormon allies.  Some work behind the lines, some work in front.  Some lend quiet assistance at crucial moments.  Others are outspoken and seek to make a splash to raise awareness of our cause.  Some very special allies risk everything we risk, in order to bear our burdens with us.  All allies — regardless of how far they go or what kinds of risks they take — are needed and valued.  We need all those kinds of contributions.  Sometimes working “behind the lines” is more crucial and more valuable than shouting one’s support from the rooftops.

A divided community

Anybody who’s tried to be an LGBT Mormon ally will quickly learn that there are some pretty sharp divisions within the LGBT Mormon community.  For potential allies it can feel bewildering when different LGBT Mormons have very different — even conflicting — ideas about what they need.

The important thing to understand is that this is OK.  Every human being has different needs, and the same is true of LGBT Mormons.  Part of your role as an ally is to become aware of and understand the diverse needs, and figure out which needs you, with your particular passions, talents and resources, can meet best.

There are broadly three axes of tension among LGBT Mormons.

First, there are individuals across the spectrum in terms of how “out” they are as LGBT people.  They may have revealed their sexual orientation only to a handful of other people.  Or they may be fully “out” to everyone they know, both in and out of the Church.  Being in the closet is a difficult place to be, but there are still very real risks and dangers related to coming out.

Another axis has to do with how important our sexual orientation or gender identity is to us as such.  How often do we think about being gay, lesbian, bi or transgender?  Every day?  Once a month?  Once a year?  Almost never?  Usually, I don’t think about what it means to be gay when I am filing patent applications at work or am paying the bills or shopping for groceries or unclogging the toilet.  I may not even think very much about being gay when I’m being intimate with my spouse.  It’s not like I’m thinking, “Gee, I’m having gay sex right now!”

But when I am thinking about or working with others to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban my marriage to my husband, or when I’m sitting in Church (or listening to General Conference) and a teacher or speaker is making a negative comment about homosexuality, or when I am writing a blog post to help promote greater understanding of LGBT people in the Church, these things obviously come more to the forefront of my life.

It is helpful to understand that many LGBT people could be experiencing personal crisis around this issue.

For those of you heterosexuals who are happily married, think back to the days when you were single.  Were you occasionally preoccupied with finding a date by the weekend?  Did you ever wonder if you might never be able to find the right life partner?  Did you worry about being alone for the rest of your life?  Remember the anxiety these kinds of questions caused?  An LGBT person in the Church also wonders about these things but… For us, there’s a special kind of urgency added to questions like: Will I spend this weekend alone? or Will I spend the rest of my life alone? We get to add questions like: Will my family utterly reject me for the rest of my life? Is something physically or mentally wrong with me? Does God reject me? Will I be excommunicated from the Church I love if I choose not to spend the rest of my life alone?  Will my co-workers or (worse!) my boss treat me differently if they find out I’m in a relationship with someone of the same gender?  When we are in crisis (usually provoked by loneliness or by family or community rejection), these things become much more urgent to us.

The third axis relates to the Church.  How close to or how distant from the Church am I?  (And, related, how close or how distant do I want to be?)

Lots of us are in very different places with this.  According to the recent survey by John Dehlin, et al., about 70% of LGBT Mormons leave the Church.  I had always guesstimated that number at about 80%, based on my own personal experience with LGBT Mormons. It’s possible that Dehlin’s data is biased by the fact that many LGBT Mormons have distanced themselves so far from the Church that they would no longer have any interest in participating in a survey of that kind, or even have the kinds of connections that would have made them aware of the survey in the first place.

In any event, that means most, but not all of us have left the Church.  Among those who have left the Church, some are very angry about their experience with the Church, some have forgiven the Church and become indifferent to it, while some have warm and positive feelings toward the Church even if they prefer to be elsewhere.  Some might consider coming back to the Church if it became more welcoming to LGBT people, others likely will never return. Some are concerned about the Church’s stances on homosexuality only to the extent that it affects those in the general society.  For instance, when the Church got involved in Proposition 8 in California, that had a huge impact on the civil rights of very, very many LGBT people, whether or not they have any personal connection to the Church.  Others are concerned about the Church’s stance because they are or want to be involved in the Church as members.

Depending on where we LGBT Mormons situate ourselves — either as out of the closet or in; either experiencing issues related to our sexual orientation as foremost and urgent or as “just one small aspect of who we are”; either as close to and connected to the Church or distant from it — we will have very different perceptions of what the most urgent needs and priorities are, and what are the best strategies to address those priorities.

Those — like myself — who are active in the Church may place a high priority on bridge-building within the LDS community.  We will likely highly value our faith as Mormons, and will prefer not to get involved in activities that conflict with our faith commitments or sow disunity within the LDS community.  We will probably be uncomfortable (to varying degrees) with forms of activism that openly criticize the Church or Church leaders.  We will be very interested in and passionately committed to being able to participate in the Church in a way that fosters our spiritual growth as Mormons.

Others who are no longer affiliated with the Church may have a rather different set of priorities.  They will likely place a high priority on preserving separation of Church and state, and won’t hesitate to (sometimes harshly) criticize the Church (or its leaders or members) when they cross the line into the civil sphere in a way that detracts from LGBT civil equality (such as when the Church got involved in Proposition 8).  On the other hand they may applaud when the Church supports civil rights initiatives that benefit the LGBT community (such as when the Church weighed in on the Salt Lake City discrimination ban).  They won’t be indifferent to Church teaching on homosexuality, because it will have an impact on how their devout LDS family, friends and neighbors interact with them.  They may get impatient with individuals who choose to stay connected to the Church, to the extent they see such connection strengthening an institution they regard as hostile to them.

The divisions I’ve described came to the surface last summer when Mormons participated for the first time in large numbers in Gay Pride marches, first in Salt Lake City and then in other cities in the U.S. and Latin America.  Some LGBT Mormons (like myself) saw the Pride marches as an excellent opportunity to build bridges, and welcomed all participation by active Mormons in Pride parades everywhere.  Other LGBT Mormons were harshly critical of Mormons who marched in Pride, unless they were willing to do so under a banner of support for civil marriage equality.

We’ve seen the same divide in other recent news-making events, such as the release of the “” official Church website.  LGBT Mormons who are actively involved in and connected to the Church almost universally applauded the web site as a positive step.  Some were unstinting in their praise of the web site, others voiced some reservations, but most were generally upbeat.  LGBT Mormons who are distant from the Church generally saw the new web site as “no big deal,” or harshly criticized it as a repackaging of old prejudices.

Where do I fit in as an ally?

If no one else has said it, let me be the first to say that you cannot be an effective ally of LGBT Mormons unless you do so from a place of integrity.  You must be an ally from the bedrock of your own convictions.

In other words, if you have a testimony of the Gospel (as I do), let the strength that you derive from that testimony be what fuels your efforts to make positive change on behalf of your LGBT brothers and sisters.  There are members of my ward who love the Church and love the Gospel, and that’s what motivates them to reach out to other Church members and leaders and to dialog about this issue.  It’s what motivated some of them to march in Gay Pride and even to work against Minnesota Amendment 1 (the state constitutional amendment that would have banned gay and lesbian couples from legally marrying).  It’s impossible for me to adequately express the gratitude I feel for these brave Saints — especially when they are exposed to criticism by LGBT activists (be they Mormon or non-Mormon) just for being active in and committed to the Church at the same time as they are exposed to criticism from other Church members for taking a stance that is widely misunderstood by Church members and leaders.

I know some heterosexual Church members who feel so conflicted about the Church’s position on homosexuality that they are ready to leave the Church over it.  When asked, I make no bones about this: Do not use me as an excuse to leave the Church.  My life’s goal is the building of Zion, a Zion that fully includes me and my family (my husband and our sons).  I need you here, with me, active and faithful in the Church, petitioning the Lord for greater light and knowledge, and being part of the process that helps our fellow Saints understand that we all need to be on this journey together, on a journey that includes everyone: gay, lesbian, bi, transgender and heterosexual.  I need you and your testimony here with me, solidly on Gospel ground.

I realize that people leave the Church for a variety of personal reasons.  The Church’s position on homosexuality may be for you only one of a number of pressing concerns.  When I say Don’t leave the Church for my sake, I’m not speaking to you.  If you need to leave the Church, leave with my blessing, and my hope that you will find what you’re looking for elsewhere.  If you are still concerned about the welfare of LGBT Mormons, do what you can do from your own place of personal integrity.  There is solace you can bring to many broken-hearted whom, from your position outside the Church, you might reach better than those within the Church.  I left the Church for 18 years and eventually found my way back.  I don’t regret those 18 years away, because there is so much I learned outside the Church.  So I don’t begrudge you your need to distance yourself, if that’s what you need to do.  For all I know, your sojourn away is the work of the Spirit, so I should thank God for what you’re doing rather than criticize you.

Whatever you do, whatever position you claim, don’t fall into the trap of “straight guilt.”  People can become paralyzed because they fear criticism.  It’s easier to stay distant and uninvolved than to risk making a mistake or being criticized by someone else, gay or straight.  I’ve always loved the Martin Luther quote, “Sin boldly!”  What the great reformer meant to say by this is, God would rather we thrust in our sickle and work, and risk making a mistake, than do nothing out of fear.  Once your yearning for justice and compassion exceeds your fear of criticism, congratulations!  Blessed are you!  You’ve become an ally.

Another trap of straight guilt is the trap of anger and self-righteousness, which become too-easy substitutes for concrete, constructive action.  For example, during the marriage campaign here in Minnesota, we needed people to actually talk to their neighbors, family and friends about marriage — have serious, open, one-on-one conversations.  We won the marriage campaign by having over 1 million conversations in the state of Minnesota.  But having conversations can be scary and intimidating.  It’s easier to post on your Facebook wall angry, self-righteous jabs at opponents of marriage equality (preaching to the choir) than it is to actually have a serious, respectful conversation with an opponent of marriage equality.  Once your yearning for justice and compassion exceeds your desire to stay well within your zone of comfort, congratulations! Blessed are you!  You’ve become an ally.

What allies do

Allies become allies because they’ve been willing to listen to the stories of LGBT Mormons.  Allies remain good allies by always remaining eager to listen and to learn.  The best allies know that it is better to step back and empower an LGBT Mormon to find his or her voice and tell their own story than it is to step forward and speak for LGBT Mormons.

Good allies are not superheros, arriving to “save the day.”  They are co-laborers who use their unique gifts, resources and connections to make a difference.  Because LGBT people are typically excluded from decision-making bodies in the Church, we often can’t speak for ourselves in the places where our voices really most need to be heard.  Good allies will use their access to the “corridors of power” — whether it be in a ward council or the Quorum of the Twelve — to ensure that our voices are heard.

Being an ally is — at its most basic level — being a friend.  It is about relationships.  Only on the rarest occasions have I come across an ally who became an ally just because they thought — in some abstract sense — it was the right thing to do.  That does happen on occasion, and perhaps it will happen with increasing frequency as knowledge about the issues faced by LGBT people becomes more widespread in our society.  But the vast majority of people who become allies, become allies because of a brother, or a daughter, or a parent, or an uncle, or a friend.  And anyone who becomes an ally will not stay an ally for long without making lots of friends.

Like all friendships, the friendships between LGBT Mormons and their allies will be tested by our weaknesses and limitations.  Work together with someone long enough, and you’ll need to be forgiven, and will need to forgive.  That’s the nature of any work that’s worth doing.  And the work that we do will be, by its very nature, difficult.  If it were easy, we wouldn’t have the need of allies to help us do it!

The nature of the journey

I would say that I officially became a “gay rights activist” in 1989 when the pastor of the Lutheran congregation I belonged to at the time asked me to speak to the congregation about what it meant to me to be gay.  He later shared with me his own journey as an ally.

Little did I know when I came out to this pastor that he had been one of the most conservative voices in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) on the issue of homosexuality.  Shortly before I came out to him, he had published an article in The Lutheran, characterizing homosexuality as a sin, and defending the position that gay people could not be ordained pastors and that homosexual relationships undermined the family. When I came out to him, it came to him as something of a shock. The following Sunday, as I knelt at the communion rail, he initially intended to pass me by — to deny me communion.  As soon as that thought occurred to him, however, he realized that impulse had been wrong.  He found it impossible to imagine Christ doing the same thing.  And so instead, he offered me the communion bread and wine.

His own wrestling with the issue led him to invite me to speak to the congregation as a whole about my experience.  He became an ally and I became an activist when I accepted his invitation.  And we entered a journey together, that I will always be grateful to him for.

At the time, headlines were being made by two small Lutheran congregations in the Bay area (St. Francis and First United) when they extended calls to three openly gay pastors.  The denomination ultimately expelled the congregations for their actions.  The ELCA’s actions became a huge stumbling block to me.  Despite the fact that I had had a pastor who had crossed an enormous chasm to reach out to me, to give me a voice, and to help make the Church a more loving place for me, my anger about the actions of the larger denomination ultimately led me to leave the Church.  In 2009, the ELCA finally changed its policy, making it possible for openly gay Lutheran pastors to be called in ELCA congregations.

I now look back at my actions then as a kind of tragedy.  I ended relationships with people who genuinely wanted to help me and support me.  Perhaps I was a casualty of institutional homophobia.  I try not to be too hard on myself because this was an extremely painful issue for me at the time.  I was in crisis.  But nowadays I can’t help but look back and feel bad about the opportunities lost because of my impatience, which I now see as counterproductive.  To acknowledge my failing in this situation is nothing more nor less than an acknowledgment of my full humanity.

I conclude with this story because I want to emphasize that being an ally is about being a friend in the journey — a journey in which we are all learning and growing as children of God.  I guess the ultimate tragedy in this journey would be for us not to reach out to each other, either out of condemnation or fear.  It is in that reaching out that we find both the humanity and the divinity in ourselves and in others.


* Speaking for myself and no one else in the LGBT Mormon community, I prefer the word “heterosexual” over “straight.”  I don’t like the word “straight” because it implies that heterosexual people are morally “straight” and everybody else is not.  Heterosexuals can behave in a sexually immoral way, so being heterosexual does not automatically make one “straight,” any more than being gay makes one morally “crooked.”

I wish I had a better word, because I feel I ought to reject the word “heterosexual” for the same reason I reject the word “homosexual” — because I don’t feel people should be defined by their sexuality.  But if I dislike “straight,” and I dislike “heterosexual,” I’m not sure what other words there are to use.  (Let’s not even go there with “opposite-sex attracted.”)

I once had a heterosexual friend who said she’d like to be known as “happy.”  So we could be “happy” and “gay.”  Maybe we need to have a national referendum on this issue.  (Better a referendum on this, than whether my husband and I should be allowed to marry!)

** As improbable as this sounds to some, I know a number of LGBT individuals who are not and never have been formally baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who identify themselves as “Mormon.” These are largely individuals who have acquired testimonies of the gospel, but who are unwilling or unable to leave a committed same-sex relationship/marriage or to make the commitment of life-long celibacy that baptism would require at this point.

I know many individuals in the Mormon community would reject my self-identification as a Latter-day Saint because, despite having once been a baptized member, and despite having served an honorable mission for the Church, and despite the fact that I have a testimony and seek to live my faith the best I can, I am excommunicated and cannot be reinstated on the grounds that I remain committed to my marriage to my husband. Fortunately, most of my LDS family, friends and ward members don’t exclude me from the circle of LDS community or identity.  My brothers and sisters in the Lake Nokomis Ward call me “Brother Wrathall” or (if they’re really sharp) “Brother Gustav-Wrathall.”

For the purposes of this essay, I identify as an LGBT Mormon anyone who through personal belief and/or practice self-identifies as such.

*** Michelle Beaver, author of The Gay Mormon Decade, is an example of a straight non-Mormon who is an LGBT Mormon ally.

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