by Joel McDonald
Last year, I had the opportunity to attend a fireside featuring Tom Christofferson hosted by the McLean Virginia Stake. The fireside was titled, That We May Be One. Many readers will recognize this as being the title of Christofferson’s book, where he shares his experience as a gay Mormon who asked to be excommunicated, enjoyed a long-term relationship, came back to the church, and was rebaptized after his relationship ended. Tom’s story is one that likely resonates with both straight and active Mormons who may see the parallels between his story and that of the prodigal son. It may also resonate with gay and lesbian Mormons who seek a hopeful example as they strive to live up to the standards of their faith. As Christofferson says often, his story and experience are not that of all gay and lesbian Mormons, and his decision to return to the church is not meant to be a prescription for all gay and lesbian Mormons. Reinforcing this, publisher’s preface of Christofferson’s book, notably from Deseret Book, includes, “Although we recognize that not every LGBTQ individual’s experience will mirror Tom’s, we hope that his contribution to the dialog will open doors and offer perspectives that readers may not have considered.”
Pulling up to the stake center, about fifteen minutes late due to many slowdowns along my five-hour journey, I felt the same nerves I feel every time I pull into a church parking lot. Walking in, I was surprised at just how many people were sitting in the chapel and in overflow listening to Christofferson speak. Taking a seat near the back of the overflow, I glanced around the room and quickly realized that it appeared the crowd was mostly straight, husbands and wives sitting together. I was a little amazed that so many had taken their Sunday evening to hear someone speak about being gay from the pulpit. For me, this was a first. I was somewhat caught up in the novelty that it was actually happening. Twelve years ago, as I was coming to terms with my own sexuality while still serving as a missionary, I would have never imagined this being possible. It felt like progress.
As I listened to Christofferson speak and answer questions, I noted that he seemed cautious in what he said and the answers he gave. It was clear that he knew his audience, and while he would occasionally offer hope of affirmation in general to gay and lesbian Mormons by saying that he believed in the possibility of future revelation pertaining to him and them, he definitely spoke from the perspective of an active Latter-day Saint speaking to other active Latter-day Saints who were mainly straight and cisgendered.
In the crowd, I recognized Spencer Mickelson who I knew through his posts in Affirmation’s online groups. After the fireside ended, I made a point to introduce myself. Later, I messaged him and asked if he’d share his thoughts about the fireside. What he had to say surprised me somewhat, as I had generally felt positive about the event. Spencer’s response was from a different perspective, one that has caused me to think more, not just about this event, but about the discussions members of the Church are having about LGBTQ Mormons at church meetings like the one in McLean. Here is some of what he shared:
As I listened to Tom speak in generalities and in a way that an audience of traditional Mormons could understand I wanted to shout in frustration. I know the meeting wasn’t for me. It wasn’t for LGBTQ people. It was for the straight Mormon population to gain a greater understanding. What I found frustrating was that nothing was called out directly as unhealthy or even abusive behavior. The fact that the church has historically been on the wrong side of some moral equations wasn’t presented. The fact that prophets and leaders have been horribly wrong in the past and wasn’t approached. It has caused hurt, anguish, and pain that some cannot escape.
I am tired of dumbing down my experiences and insight to preserve the comfort of the conservative majority. This same conservative majority needs to understand that people are suffering. I’m tired of people speaking with authority on topics they know little or nothing about. This isn’t just about learning to love and “tolerate” others. This is about learning to not judge others, to empathize with those different than ourselves and learning from them, to see everyone around you as your equal, and about wiping away the assumption that you have all the answers. This is about learning to hear and learn from LGBTQ people themselves about the LGBTQ experience. This is about conservative religious institutions admitting fault, taking responsibility, and learning to do better. I know too many LGBTQ Mormon people who are suffering as their personal, honest identity and their religion tear them in two. I have known too many people who have not been able to suffer this dissonance and have ended their lives, fallen into addiction, or otherwise self harmed.
I love Tom and appreciate the work he is doing. The emphasis on love and inclusion in his address was important. But love and inclusion are only a part of the answer. It is time for knowledge, study, empathy, and change. It is time for the LGBTQ truth to be defined by LGBTQ people. The only way to actually bridge the disparity between Mormonism and the LGBTQ people who still claim the faith is a true doctrinal change. God loves us as we are. We are included in Gods plan. God sees us and supports us. The Mormon church needs to too.
Even while I still feel that even having a fireside like this was an example of progress, I don’t disagree with where Spencer is coming from here. While it was positive that the conversation happened, and that similar conversations are happening in many places, it wasn’t a particularly difficult conversation, especially when you consider just how much trauma LGBTQ Mormons have experienced due to church doctrine, policy, and culture. If an element of growth is getting out of one’s comfort zone, and the amount of growth proportional to the level of discomfort one experiences, then it’s arguable that little growth actually happens in these church-sanctioned meetings. Some may argue that the very fact that leaders and members of the church are even willing to engage in a discussion about the gay and lesbian experience within the Mormon church is enough discomfort for them and enough growth for now. Others, like Spencer, would argue that we’re beyond the time of merely acknowledging their existence and loving them. The entirety of their experience needs to be understood and change needs to happen. The reality of this experience underscores the importance of Affirmation as an organization and community of LGBTQ Mormons, their family members, and their friends. A large part of what members of the community do in Affirmation is sharing their experiences. Often these experiences are very raw. Difficult conversations happen, and they happen without judgment. These difficult conversations are yet to be had in Mormon chapels.
Still, I believe it’s good that conversations like that which happened at the fireside in McLean are happening. Whereas church leaders advised in the not too distant past that gay and lesbian members should not discuss their sexual orientation openly, Christofferson was permitted to do so from the pulpit. This permission; however, is narrowly granted, either explicitly or implicitly. Because of this, it’s understandable to feel that it’s not enough. It’s unfortunate that special permission has to be granted before church members will engage on these topics. John Gustav-Wrathall touched on this while sharing his personal thoughts about Dan Reynolds’s documentary, Believer.
A pivotal moment in the documentary is on the eve of the LoveLoud festival, when Dan has only sold 8,500 out of 20,000 total tickets; nerve-wracking for him. He’s used to sold-out shows months in advance. And then — a miracle! — the LDS Church comes out with a public statement endorsing LoveLoud and encouraging members of the Church to support it. Within days the show sells out. To me, this sort of begs a big huge question that the documentary kind of skipped: If the leadership of the LDS Church is so bigoted and hates the gays so much, why would they do this? Why would they endorse LoveLoud? The answer is, they wouldn’t.
Again, a valid perspective. The purpose of LoveLoud and Believer is to, “ignite a relevant and vital conversation about what it means to unconditionally love, understand, accept and support our LGBTQ friends and family,” saying that, “LGBTQ+ youth in unaccepting homes and communities are 8 times more likely to commit suicide and 3 times more likely to engage in risky drug use.” Many point to the doctrines, policies, and culture of the LDS Church as being a factor in there being unaccepting homes and high rates of suicide in areas where Mormons make up a significant part of the population. ‘These stats need to change,” urges the LiveLoud website. The LDS Church, to its credit, gives the following as the first among ten tips to parents of gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth, “You will never regret saying ‘I love you.’ You will never regret throwing your arms around your child and hugging him or her. You will never regret listening. You will never regret trying to understand.” Extending love is the obvious first step, but it’s just the first step.
A thought that has been on my mind lately is the difference between tolerance and acceptance and the role that love plays. While I applaud that the church is being permissive in having conversations about the gay and lesbian experience of those who currently align themselves with the standards of the church, and is encouraging members to express love for LGBTQ+ people, it does feel that we’re in a period where the church is advocating tolerance, where the message to LGBTQ people is, “We love you, but…” Acceptance is more about inclusion, where these statements are “We love you because…” We need a lot more of the latter, and we need it now. John Gustav-Wrathall continued:
So while we’re waiting, people are dying of suicide. Nobody can engage with this issue without a sense of heart-breaking urgency. But I think the key to the suicide issue is not doctrine. It is connection. Suicide is the opposite of connection. It is the ultimate disconnect. It’s what people resort to when loneliness and pain completely overwhelm us. And what saved me from suicide was connection to God and connection to others in community and in family. Once I found those connections, the doctrine really stopped worrying me. I had personal assurance from God that I was OK and that he was going to work all the doctrinal stuff out for me and for others like me.
I think that’s the middle space where we need to focus right now. The Church is not doing enough right now to reassure queer youth that they are loved and will be embraced no matter what, including if they choose a relationship with someone of the same sex. It is not doing enough to reassure them that there is ultimately a place for them in God’s plan, even if we don’t fully understand what that place is yet. It can do these things without compromising the doctrine. It’s starting to take steps to do this… And publicly endorsing the LoveLoud concert was one of those steps. So is the mormonandgay.org website. So was the Church’s new website on suicide prevention. So was the Macintosh family video and blog. So was the series of articles on suicide and inclusion published in the Deseret News starting a couple of years ago.
I think Dan Reynolds is on the right track. His gut reaction is to just reach out to LGBTQ people in unconditional love and acceptance. And I think it was that movement of unconditional love and desire to support folks that the Church applauded and wanted to endorse. But there’s also a higher quest that we need to be on that requires patience, humility, and waiting on God, that we can’t force, and that I pray the Church can learn to bear our burdens with us in. Maybe when Church leaders recognize that our quest for understanding as queer people of faith needs to be their quest too, then God will be ready to reward all of us with the greater light and knowledge we need on this issue. But it’s going to take patience and faith and lots of love.
I think it’s okay to both applaud progress while encouraging further steps, even demanding further steps, especially when the people’s lives are literally at stake. After the fireside, I had a good conversation with a straight couple from Miami visiting the Washington D.C. area on vacation. They took the evening to come and listen to Christofferson. They shared they just wanted to understand better, as the husband’s brother is gay. I shared what Affirmation is doing, and my personal feelings about the church and my hope for the future. They were struggling to reconcile what they believed to be right and wrong while being accepting of his brother. While they love him, they didn’t want to signal to their children that his “lifestyle” was okay. It had been a while since I’d been in a conversation with straight Mormons about the gay Mormon experience, and I struggled to help them navigate their concerns, as it was clear there were some foundational beliefs that we couldn’t agree on. At the conclusion of our conversation, I shared that I understood how difficult it was for them to understand the perspective and experience of his brother, and how much I appreciated them being there and taking the time to try to better understand. Our conversation may not have been everything I could have hoped for, but at least it’s a conversation that happened, a conversation I wouldn’t have imagined having inside a Latter-day Saint chapel a decade ago.