By Ana Nelson Shaw
Intended for cross-post at mitchmayne.blogspot.com and nomorestrangers.org
I’m the oldest of six children, born in Utah and brought up moving all over the country. Two of my three brothers are gay. Jake, almost four years younger than I, came out when he was fourteen via a very scary suicide attempt, born of his mistaken surety that his Mormon family would never accept him as a gay man. I am so grateful he survived. Tom, born when I was twelve, came out at seventeen, thankfully without such a terrifying risk to his life. I am grateful that the path Jake cut with so much difficulty made the going a bit easier for Tom. That’s grace, right there.
I am glad and grateful to be a sister to two brilliant, creative, resilient, strong gay guys who have helped me learn some vitally important things. This post explores the biggest lesson I’ve learned as their sister. Unfortunately, I learned it by really messing up when I was asked by LDS Church leaders to support the Yes on 8 campaign in California in 2008.
I thought for many years that my family was doing pretty well. My parents never disowned my brothers for being gay. We never cut off contact with each other. When Jake found his husband Dave, my family loved and welcomed him. Jake and Tom left the Church, and our third brother resigned, as well. This was a source of sadness to those of us who remained LDS, as we believed it had to be, but we who were in the Church didn’t see it affecting our relationships.
There were, however, tensions to which I was mostly oblivious – except when I really thought about them. I felt afraid for a long time that I would have to choose between the LDS Church and my brothers. Especially when I moved from Utah to California in 2003, I started to feel pretty sure that at some point there would be an anti-gay-marriage policy decision point, a re-visiting of what had happened in California in 2000 with Proposition 22. Our grandma, who lived in a Southern California retirement community, had done what her leaders asked her to do to promote the proposition. I knew how deeply hurt my brothers had been by her decision to participate. I also believed that if my church leaders ever asked me to do the same thing, I would have to do it. I dreaded that day.
In spring 2008, our dad let us all know about the faith transition he had been experiencing for several years. It came as a giant surprise to me and required me to reevaluate everything I thought I knew about my family’s identity. It was tough. Because Dad would not be renewing his temple recommend after it expired that fall, my youngest sister decided to marry her boyfriend that summer so that Dad could be in the temple for her wedding. She was only eighteen, and her boyfriend (now husband) was several years older, and those in our family who had left the Church had serious concerns about her choice.
Based on this upheaval and on interactions on family communication vehicles like a Facebook group, battle lines seemed to be drawn: Those who were in the Church versus those who were out. Those who were in mourned the exits of those who were out. Those who were out wanted everybody out with them. Jake told me once that the Church was like a family member that had abused him his entire childhood. He felt incredibly betrayed that I would still welcome the originator of that abuse into my life. We saw things so differently. I learned that with my family, I could not even mention the events and connections that came with my church life – such a major feature of our growing up together – without getting a close-up view of the anger and pain felt by those who had left – sometimes directed right at me. Everybody’s feelings were raw. Every time we interacted with each other, we all hurt.
Then came the letter on a June Sunday. Everybody who was in the Church in California in 2008 remembers it. The First Presidency asked us to do all we could to further the “Yes On 8” cause. I struggled to hold myself together emotionally until I got home, and then I collapsed on my bed, crying and praying for some kind of guidance, some kind of help managing the conflicting demands of my family, my conscience, and my church. I don’t experience answers to my prayers all the time, but I had experienced them before that most miserable sabbath, and I experienced one then, lying on a tear-dampened pillow. “Your place is to teach love,” the Spirit said to me. I caught my breath and dried my eyes. That, I could do, I thought. That would be doing all that I could, which was exactly what the letter asked.
But getting an answer through the Spirit was not the end of the conflict for me. In our ward in the Central Valley, a relatively conservative community, we were expected to counterbalance the liberal influence of the coastal cities. There was only the most nominal effort to keep Yes On 8 activities separate from church meetings. Bumper stickers were handed out at the home of members who lived across the street from the chapel, but sign-up sheets for phone banking and other activities made the rounds in Sunday School and third-hour meetings. Leaders presented supposed reasons to support the measure in formal lessons. One prominent (and financially well-off) leader suggested that members contribute the cost of their last vacation.
Church was squirmy-uncomfortable all summer long. But we loved our ward. The members had become a family to us through some pretty tough times. So we weren’t among the California Mormons who took a break from church during the Prop 8 campaign. We didn’t even consider it. But I don’t think I realized how much the pressure at church was affecting me and my previous prompting and resolve to simply teach love.
My husband was as uncomfortable as I was with the whole Prop 8 campaign as I was, but at the time he believed he was simply obligated to obey Church leaders. He felt greater pressure than I did to give time and money – I at least had the refuge of serving in Young Women, where we didn’t really discuss the campaign. One day – I think it was in August – he came into the kitchen with a $100 check to Yes on 8.
“I’m going to turn this in unless you tell me not to,” he said, offering me an out that I didn’t even see. I remember only that I felt weary. Weary of the pressure at church, weary of the impossibility of harmony within my family. Weary from the other stresses in my life.
I believe what I said was, “Fine.”
My husband reminded me that the donation would become public information. And what I said was, “Let them see who we really are.”
So the donation went in. I gave my approval to a $100 check taking a stand against one brother’s family and another brother’s future family. I did it not out of conviction but out of exhaustion, and in a sort of flip-them-off, angry gesture. My husband was asking for a sign from me at that point to bolster his convictions, and I failed him, too. By rubber-stamping that donation I actually betrayed who I really was and what the Spirit of God had told me I needed to do. Maybe worst of all, I thought very little of it.
As everybody knows, Prop 8 passed. My brothers found our names on an online donor roll, and Jake cut off contact with my little family. (To be very clear, I don’t believe he was wrong to do so. People need to be safe from hurt, and I was not a safe person during and after Prop 8.) Tom expressed his hurt in a gentle but uncompromising way. I put my parents in the horrible position of not being able to have their children all together. I felt heartsick that my little brothers whom I loved, were not speaking to me – that my kids would lose touch with their uncles. I never dreamed that any members of my family would be estranged from each other. I hated it.
But I was very much in a fog. I didn’t see clearly why my decisions were wrong, and so I didn’t see any way to make things better. I think it’s possible that because I took myself out of harmony with what the Spirit tried to teach me, I lost touch for a while, at least on this topic. Talk about a stupor of thought!
More than a year later, after my husband and kids and I moved to another state, I began to pray about how to heal the rift between me and my brothers. Only then I remembered the prompting I’d had the Sunday the Prop 8 letter was read in sacrament meeting. I suddenly saw so clearly that I had failed to follow the Spirit – I had let my exhaustion and anger and fear overcome what I knew was right, and I had stepped outside the role the Holy Spirit told me was mine. I had failed to teach about love.
I took a few months to think about this new way of looking at the events of 2008. I had picked up “Women, Food, and God,” by Geneen Roth, and the insight that hit me hardest from her writing was something like this: Wishing life were different is an affront to the life God has given you. It’s ingratitude. It’s miserable and unhealthy. From this root grew a new conviction that I can no longer say to my brothers, “I love you,” and then continue in my mind, “but I wish you weren’t gay,” or “I wish you were an active member of the Mormon church.” That wish invalidates the love. It insults all the wonderful things they are.
I’d thought I accepted my brothers before, because I didn’t openly reject them. Accepting is much more than that. Accepting is embracing without reservation or condition. Accepting is gratitude for life and people as God made them. Accepting is trusting our fellow humans to see clearly their own best paths in life and supporting who they are and what they do, not just in word but with our whole hearts. I came to see that if I could not offer that complete acceptance to my family, I was offering almost nothing. But if I could – if I could, I would be offering love like Christ’s love, love that heals and offers hope for joy and togetherness in this life and worlds to come. That would be opening up the whole reason for trying to be a Christian person.
With these new insights about love and acceptance, and with my new understanding about my mistakes during Prop 8, I have begun – only begun – to rebuild relationships with my brothers. My husband has also reached out to apologize and express his deep regret about everything we did related to Prop 8. This is not a fast-moving process. Both of us consider our participation there among the biggest mistakes of our lives. I understand that humans learn from their mistakes, and the best way I can move forward from that mistake is to learn and do better. I can’t undo the hurt I caused in California, and I can’t undo the abuse that Jake and Tom survived growing up in the Church. But I can try to fulfill the words I heard in my heart in 2008 – the calling to teach my brothers and sisters in the Church about love. Now, with Church leaders in Hawaii encouraging members to stand against marriage equality as the legislature there considers a new and inclusive marriage law, I believe it’s time for me to share. That’s why I’ve written this post.
To those in Hawaii feeling the doubts and struggles I felt in 2008, I hope with all my heart that your experience is different from mine. I want to remind you that you do not have to keep your heads down. You do not have to simply hear and obey. It is your divinely-given right and responsibility to pray about what your Heavenly Parents want you to do and to receive answers in personal revelation. Record the answers you receive so that you won’t forget them or let your best intentions be overwhelmed by negativity (as I did). Make a plan that will keep you in touch with your deepest convictions. Be aware of the pressures that might cause you to deviate from what you know is right, and avoid them if you can.
And please remember that “I love you, but,” is not the same as “I love you.”
If we Mormons can grasp that, the walls will start to crumble. If we can just love without qualifications and without judgment, that’s when people outside the Church will see the reasons we want to stay members of the Church. That’s letting them see who we really are.