I know I just did a whole thing about not going to church, but the leadership of the YSA ward asked me a while ago if I'd be willing to participate in an LGBT-themed sacrament meeting, and I had no problem saying yes to that. Here's the talk I gave. You can listen to it, or read an adapted version below.
I've known I was gay since I was about 12 years old. I grew up in a pretty typical LDS household and had wonderful parents and leaders who were loving and supportive, so I never felt depressed, or suicidal, or like God hated me. My story is pretty atypical in that regard, and I feel very blessed because of it.
To anyone who identifies as LGBT, know this: You are loved, and important, and valuable. You have so much to contribute, and you are not alone.
Will and Sarah are going to have some amazing thoughts for you, but I want to focus on everybody else. The 90 and 9, as it were. I want to share with those of you who fit comfortably into the straight paradigm some thoughts on how you can help create a safe space for those of us who don’t. I will be speaking as a gay man today because that is my experience, but I feel safe in saying that the thoughts I share apply to anyone who finds themselves outside the norm of sexuality and gender.
I reached out to some people I know in the gay Mormon community to see what they’d want to hear or see from our straight friends and allies. Two themes emerged. I’d like to address them both.
First. It seems that despite the church’s efforts to clarify its position on the subject, there are still some false ideas and misinformation going around about the issue of homosexuality.
This is not something we chose. Nor is this something that needs “fixing”. In fact, most of us probably wouldn’t change it if we could. We are not broken1. There is nothing wrong with us. I’ve had numerous conversations with people who used phrases like, “Well if you just have enough faith,” or “If you just pray hard enough”. I want to be very clear about something here. The doctrine of the atonement is powerful. According to the scriptures, the atonement is infinite and all-encompassing. The atonement has the power to change. But I think in this situation it’s meant to change our hearts, not our attractions. The atonement is there to cleanse, heal, lift, comfort, and empower - which can happen regardless of sexual attraction. Besides, what happens to that young man or woman who is told to just have enough faith, pray enough, read the scriptures enough and these attractions will go away, and then they don’t? Do you understand how damaging that mindset is? The fact is, my sexual preference for men has no more bearing on my eternal salvation than my decorative preference for mid-century furniture.
Apparently, there are those among us who think that if someone is gay, that automatically means they’re disregarding the law of chastity. Being gay doesn’t mean we’re breaking the law of chastity, any more than being straight means you’re keeping it.
We are not depraved. We are not perverted. We are not broken. We are whole, beautiful, complex people - just like all of you.
I know that for most of this stuff, I am preaching to the choir here. But the fact is, you are all part of larger communities where harmful thoughts and ideas like these are still prevalent, and so now your challenge is to stand up for us when we can’t stand up for ourselves. You will be in family gatherings or leadership positions where your words can have an impact. Please have the courage to spread love and understanding. Don’t stand idly by when people spread fear.
Secondly, and overwhelmingly the message I heard from my LGBT brothers and sisters, and that I feel myself, is that we - like all people everywhere - want desperately to be a part of the community. And more than that, we deserve to be part of the community, just as you do. We want to feel welcome at church. To serve in meaningful ways. To love and be loved by those around us. To work out our relationship with God without the fear of hatred and rejection.
I want to be very careful about what I say here because I recognize that it might trigger some defensiveness. In the past few years, the men in the top leadership positions of the church have said things and implemented policies that have been quite hurtful to a lot of people. And this isn’t about sustaining leaders, or following the prophet, or where you might stand on gay marriage. What this is about is recognizing that there are real people feeling real pain. And the fact is, if someone says you hurt them, you don’t get to say you didn’t.
I think now would be an excellent time to talk about empathy. Brene Brown is one of my favorite researchers and speakers of the last few years and she shares some powerful thoughts about empathy. She describes empathy like this:
The shortest scripture in our entire canon is perhaps also the most powerful scripture we have. Lazarus had died, and when Jesus was coming into town, Mary and Martha went out to meet him. They cried to the Lord and said: “If you had been here, our brother wouldn’t have died.” The scriptures say that Jesus saw Mary and Martha weeping and all of the Jews that had come with them, and he groaned within himself, and then in John 11:35 it says, “Jesus wept.” He wept. He didn’t try to comfort them with platitudes, or silver linings. Even though he knew he could and would raise Lazarus. Instead, he practiced perfect empathy and sat in that pain and sorrow with them and wept with them.
With that in mind, I’d like to remind you of the promise you made when you were baptized. When Alma was preaching to the people in the wilderness by the waters of Mormon he said: "Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort..."
I want to reiterate that I don’t think being gay or dealing with SSA or however you want to say it, is a burden. Again, we are not broken. Nothing needs to be fixed. However, growing up LGBT in the church can often be accompanied by depression, self-loathing, and a very real sense of grief over love, marriage, and family that may never happen.
So, brothers and sisters, if you are willing to help bear those burdens, to mourn with we who mourn, and comfort those of us who stand in need of comfort, here is what I would encourage you to do: Listen to the stories of your LGBT brothers and sisters. Really listen. Stories of those who are choosing to live lives inside the church and its teachings, and stories of those who are not. Resist the urge to prize or value one of those situations over the other. If you are hearing these stories in person, you might say, “Thank you so much for sharing that with me. I know it’s not always an easy thing to talk about.” Then go home, and on your own follow the advice of the children’s primary song - search, ponder, and pray. Start with the church’s website: mormonandgay.org. Look at organizations like Northstar, Affirmation, or I’ll Walk With You. Reading up on this subject may bring up some questions. Don’t be scared to ask them. But also don’t be scared to sit with the answers and practice empathy. The important thing is not that you get everything right, or that you agree with everyone. The important thing is for you to help create a space and a community inside the church where people feel safe to work out their relationship with God - wherever that may take them. It is not your job to offer judgments, shoulds, or spiritual prescriptions. Your job as fellow travelers and followers of Christ is to provide love and understanding. To say, “You know, I don’t know exactly what you’re going through, but when I encounter hard times in my life, here’s something that helps me. If that also helps you, that’s great. If it doesn’t, I’d love to help and see what we can discover together.” And understand that someone’s journey may take them out of the church. But please. Please don’t abandon them. Church activity should not be a stick against which we measure someone’s worthiness as a friend.
Tom Christofferson, the brother of the apostle D. Todd Christofferson, was in a committed gay relationship for many years. He recently returned to church activity. He shares this story from early in his journey: “One night, Mom and Dad asked all the boys and their spouses to put their kids to bed and come into their room to have a family meeting. We had prayer together, and then our dad talked about his concern that we would be unified as a family and have loyalty to each other.” Christofferson remembers, “Mom told us, ‘I’ve realized that there is no perfect family, but I believe we can be perfect in our love for each other.’ And then she turned to my brothers and sisters-in-law and said, ‘The most important lesson your kids will learn from the way that our family treats their Uncle Tom is that nothing they can ever do will take them outside the circle of our family’s love.’
Now, for a couple of other practical suggestions:
Give plenty of hugs. Research shows that hugs lasting at least 6 seconds optimize the flow of mood-boosting chemicals.
Guys, host a guy’s night. Girls, host a girl’s night. Make an effort to include us socially.
Have discussions in Elder’s Quorum and Relief Society about things you can do to help the LGBT members of your congregation, and solicit their advice. And not just in the YSA ward, but as you move on to the glories of the family ward. This may seem like a lot to do for such a small percentage of the population, but when compared with the number of marriage lessons we’ve had to sit through, I think it’s merited. In fact, when preparing those marriage lessons, take a second to think about how that’s going to affect those who may not have hope for that in this life. Don’t let the burden of “likening the lesson” always fall on our shoulders. Further, don’t offer dating and marriage advice.
There may be some discomfort around this issue for you. Lean into that. Be open about expressing your discomfort, but also be willing to find out how to grow out of that discomfort.
I’ll leave you with one last story. When the president announced that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the military, a friend of mine on Facebook, who doesn't identify as LGBT, but is very active in the community, posted something along these lines, "I know today has been a hard day from some of you. If you need anything, let me know and we'll make it happen. I'll be having pizza at my house. Feel free to come over. If you can't come to pizza, let me know and we'll take care of you." She accepted donations from anyone through Venmo and PayPal and anyone who needed some comfort and kindness that day received it. Whether it was pizza, a movie, a new blanket, a haircut, or a kind word. She didn't dole out judgments, or scriptures, or pronouncements. She simply served. It was one of the most Christlike things I have ever seen and it brought me to tears.
May we all create spaces of safety and refuge where we can work out our relationship with God and learn how to grow closer to Him.
1I know. We're all broken. We all have things that need fixing. That's the whole deal with the atonement. My point here is that being gay is not what's broken. It's not the thing that needs fixing.