"How can you stand it?"
That's a question I've frequently been asked when I've described the past seven years of my activity in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I am excommunicated from the Church, and have no prospect -- under current policies and practices -- of being reinstated into the Church so long as I remain committed to my husband and family of over twenty years. Even if I were to leave my partner tomorrow and go through what most would consider an arduous "repentance process" in order to have my membership reinstated, my understanding is that my Church membership record would be permanently marked identifying me as "homosexual." My reinstatement would require clearance from the First Presidency. There would be certain Church callings I would never be allowed to hold. Without being able to get married to a woman, I would be denied access to what most Latter-day Saints consider the most sacred ordinances of the Church, and I would be barred from certain priesthood leadership callings. Even if I lived by every single rule the Church currently prescribes for someone in my situation, my membership status would always be what most people would consider second class at best.
Then there's the informal stuff. There are the ignorant things that people say, privately as well as over the pulpit or in classes. There are always a certain number of people who shun me, either because they see me as tainted, or because they're embarrassed. There are the people who see me as a "mission," somebody who's mixed-up or confused that they need to help see the error of my ways.
And then there are the memories, like scars in my mind and in my heart. The memories of those dark places I was driven by rejection or fear of rejection. Those memories of anguish from a time when I felt completely abandoned by everyone. Those Sundays I would sit alone in the pews, desperately hoping someone would read the pain and the loneliness in the circles under my eyes, and say something, anything; reach out to me and ask me what was the matter; just be my friend! To no avail. And there are those many desperate nights I once dreamed of and planned for my own death. The darkness is always there on the threshold, even many years after the fact. Like a recovering alcoholic who could always fall with just one drink, the darkness is still there, inviting me to slip into it.
Yet, beginning at the end of October 2005, I quietly started attending my local LDS ward regularly again. I didn't leave my partner, but I did begin to live my life more and more, as much as possible, as a Latter-day Saint. I claimed that name for myself. I felt a stirring in my heart, something we Latter-day Saints call "a testimony," something I have shared more and more frequently in many different forums both formal and informal, including, on very special occasions, with very special dispensation, with the LDS missionaries or over the pulpit of an LDS Church.
People ask me: "How can you do that? How can you stand it?"
What I have experienced is what I would simply describe as pure grace. The best way I could describe it is it's like there is some guardian angel appointed to stand watch over me, ready to smite down whatever might come to destroy my peace. I have the Holy Spirit as a friend, comforter and companion, whenever I need him. He reassures me that my Father in Heaven is very pleased with me; that my efforts to love, to live righteously and to do justice are pleasing to God; and that God's love for me is infinite, and that while some may view me or treat me as a second class citizen, while my status in the Church is excommunicated, in his Kingdom I suffer no disadvantages, and there, there is a place of special glory appointed just for me and for my family, including Göran and all those we hold dear.
Time after time, I've had the experience of something happening at Church (somebody saying or doing something stupid), or some event taking place in the news (like, say, the whole Prop 8 fiasco; or some General Authority statement like that notorious talk by Boyd K. Packer) that ought to send me into a tailspin, that ought to make me throw up my hands in despair and leave for good. But whenever that's happened, I've always gotten some extra measure of the Holy Spirit reminding me not to despair, buoying me up and giving me hope. It seems that the more events conspire to give me pain, the more I find myself filled with joy!
In my home office, I have a framed picture on my wall, a print of the great Renaissance painter Raphael's portrait of St. Michael and the Dragon. That painting is a visible, tangible image of the protection I seem to receive from my own guardian angel, keeping my heart lifted and hopeful, keeping me turned ever to God, the source of all hope and strength and life.
I would like to be able to give to others what I have, this incredible gift. But I know that I can't. It doesn't come from me, but from God, as a sheer, pure gift of his love and grace.
We can never be the source of that grace, but that grace can work through us if we lend ourselves to the work of God by exercising what faith, hope, patience and love we are able. If we use the talents God has given us, whatever we have available to us today -- however meager! -- God multiplies that grace tenfold. God begins to work in us and opens up that fount of life never-ending, and he opens it up in the most intimate, deepest wellsprings of our hearts.
Once God has broken open that fount, so long as you stay fixed upon it, there is nothing anyone can say to you; no discriminatory laws or Church policies or hateful words or acts that can disturb your peace or harm even a hair of your head. They could even kill your body, but they cannot touch you. Not the real you.
I've been asked by Randall Thacker, President Elect of Affirmation, to serve as the senior vice president of this oldest organization of, by and for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Latter-day Saints.
When Randall first asked me to consider serving in this position a couple of months ago, he was still wrestling with the question of whether to serve himself; whether, in response to pleas from members of the Affirmation Board and Executive Committee, he would accept a nomination to run for president of the organization. We discussed this question late into the night. We prayed about it together and individually. Ultimately, when Randall asked my advice about whether he ought to run for president, I told him I thought he had to. And when he responded in turn that if he ran he expected me to serve as well, I felt the Spirit whispering that I had no choice but to say yes. I told Randall yes. It didn't matter what other commitments I had, I had to say yes to this commitment.
From the beginning, we've realized this was not something any one of us could do individually. This was not Randall's work or my work or anybody else's work. It was a work we were joining, a work already in progress that we would lend ourselves to for a time. And we were overwhelmed by the sense that we needed a host of others to help us in this work. And we needed God's help.
As Randall and I discussed who might fill the vice president role, Karin Hendricks came to my mind. I had wept when Karin bore her testimony at the Affirmation Conference of 2011 in Kirtland. I think Karin's testimony was also an enormous help to my husband, who has long been one of those people who has asked me "How could I stand it?" Shortly after the Kirtland conference, I connected with Karin through Facebook. I at one point was wrestling with the question of whether I could really stay connected to or active in Affirmation, and it was Karin who convinced me to stay the course, to get more involved in Affirmation, not less.
So in recent months I returned the favor by approaching Karin to find out if she would be willing to serve in some leadership capacity. Karin surprised me (though I guess I shouldn't have been surprised) by saying that after my initial Facebook message asking if we could talk, she had intuited the reason I was approaching her, and she and her partner Tawnya and some close friends had already been joining them in prayers for guidance before she and I even had a chance to talk. Eventually, after receiving the guidance she had been seeking, she accepted the invitation to become vice president.
Similar stories could be told for all those who are stepping forward in a variety of leadership roles: people like Tina Richerson, Todd Richardson, David Baker and Tom Christofferson; people like my friends Beth E. and Sam N. who are either stepping into local leadership/organizing roles, or who are joining one of the many impact teams we are trying to organize to gather LGBT Saints, for the purpose of healing each other, giving each other hope, and strengthening our efforts to build a better world, to build Zion.
As the Church becomes increasingly serious about building bridges, sharing stories and increasing our capacity for empathy and understanding, we desperately need faithful LGBT Mormons to come forward and bear witness to what we know: both of the pain we have experienced, as well as what we've experienced of God's healing and grace in our lives.
That means you. If you respond with enthusiasm to one of my blog posts, you might expect to get back a response from me: Come Join Us In This Work.
Affirmation excludes no one, regardless of Church membership or relationship status. We seek to sustain individuals in their journeys of faith. The vision that unites me, Randall and Karin as an Executive Committee is a vision of Affirmation as an organization that is unconditionally supportive of individuals who are seeking a faithful way forward. Whether you are in a same-sex relationship, single, divorced or in a mixed-orientation marriage, whether you are excommunicated (like I am), or a member of the Church (like Randall is), whether you have faith in God but are no longer active in the Church (like Karin), or whether you wrestle with or question faith all together, Affirmation welcomes you and needs you. Your life is sacred and your story -- your unique journey -- is powerful and can and will transform us, the Church and the world.
We will not be alone in this work. Trust me: if you do not already have stories you can tell of guardian angels that "smite death's threatening wave before you," join us in this work and you will begin to experience the grace that I and others of us are already experiencing.
"If ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work... and lo, he [or she] that thrusteth in his [or her] sickle with his [or her] might, the same layeth up in store that he [or she] perisheth not, but bringeth salvation to [their] soul." (D&C 4:3-4) There's a harvest of grace we are all called to participate in, right here, right now.
Our greatest challenge is still in coming to terms with the incredible pain so many LGBT Mormons have experienced.
It is encouraging to see initiatives like the one unveiled by the LDS Church on the "Mormons and Gays" website this past week. At the same time, there have been so many suicides, and for so many decades so many thousands of people have been forced to find solace and hope with no support or encouragement from their devout LDS families and wards. So, yes, those initiatives -- as much reason as they offer for hope -- feel to so many like empty gestures that are too little, too late. And there are still policies in place, there are still entrenched attitudes, that will continue to provoke the question from so many of my well meaning friends: "How can you stand it?"
But the Holy Spirit has taught me that the misunderstanding of others doesn't define me, and the Spirit's confirmations of God's unconditional love for me have freed me to go where God calls me to go.
Furthermore, the evidence I see of a desire to understand and to overcome the divisions between straight and gay Mormons feels qualitatively different, more genuine and heartfelt than ever before. Many devout members of the Church are not just engaging in lip service. They are engaging in concrete acts to make good. They are acknowledging the depth of the pain that they knowingly or unknowingly have contributed to, and are actually doing something different. I see an incredible openness among so many Church members -- a true, unconditional openness to watch and listen and see where the Spirit leads us as a Church.
As I approach straight LDS Church members about the work we are trying to do in Affirmation, including members in my ward and in surrounding wards and stakes, they are responding in the affirmative. Long-time allies and pioneers like Ron Schow, Bob Rees, Bill Bradshaw, Carol Lynn Pearson and Gary and Millie Watts are finding their ranks strengthened by new, faithful allies like John Dehlin, Spencer W. Clark, Anne McMullin Peffer, Hollie Hancock, Greg Prince and a growing host of others.
A little over two months ago, I found myself in a situation where I was literally 24 hours from death. I believe I am still alive and am blessed with health and strength for a reason. And I am SO ready for this journey. Wouldn't trade it for anything in the world.
If you want to get involved, contact me through Facebook or using the contact information in my Blogger profile, or go to this page on the Affirmation blog.
We have a great work to do, and we need your help.