Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Random Thoughts about Marriage in Utah

Not in any particular order.

Random Thought #1
Lots of my friends here in Minnesota are asking me, "Why Utah?" Recently data was published showing that the Utah gay and lesbian community had the highest percentage of committed same-sex couples who were raising kids.

That's right. The Utah gay community seems to reflect Mormon family values. And in that value system love, commitment and marriage (and kids!) are seen as interconnected and important. Yes, gay couples in Utah have been yearning and praying for this for a long time, and their prayers have finally been answered.

Random Thought #2
This is a joyous time for gay couples in Utah and throughout the U.S. Every time gay and lesbian couples are granted the right to marry, there is a rush to the courthouses and the churches. Couples who have been waiting years -- sometimes decades -- for the right to marry don't waste any time. The Internet is then flooded with photos of people hugging, smiling, laughing, crying, laughing and crying at the same time, surrounded by friends and family rejoicing with them.

I feel sad for those who are angry; for those who feel nothing but Freudenschade, misery at the happiness of others. It's Christmas time, for God's sake.

Random Thought #3
What would have happened if conservatives, instead of satisfying themselves with blocking gay marriage, had engaged in a serious effort to meet the legitimate needs of gay-couple-headed families? What if they had done this 20 years ago, and not just as a last ditch measure to head off full-blown marriage for gay-couple-headed families? What if they had really been concerned about our welfare instead of treating us like we were barbarians at the gates, trying to upend civilization?

Because, of course, they were wrong about us. Marriage and family are the ultimate civilizing forces. We gay and lesbian marriage activists insisted that the dysfunctional norms of a community that had been shut out of civilization needed to be reformed. We understood the power and importance of marriage in a way our straight opponents and gay detractors didn't seem to.

But if conservatives had sincerely, genuinely shown concern for our needs early in this process, could a compromise have been reached that would have protected gay couples and their kids without admitting that gay couples were "married"?


But maybe it wouldn't have been desirable to have two different classes of families. That never works so well in a democracy committed to the principle of equality.

I'm still left asking the question: Why were conservatives never concerned about us? We were never trying to take anything away from them. Why were they afraid of us instead of compassionate toward us?

Random Thought #4
I find it a fascinating phenomenon that conservative judges appointed by conservative Republican presidents suddenly become "liberal activists" who are "legislating from the bench" when they rule in a way that conservative Republicans don't like.

The American system has always had that capacity for surprising us. It's why I am proud to be an American.

Random Thought #5
The Federal judge who made this ruling said that the state had failed to make the case that granting marriage to gay and lesbian couples took anything away from heterosexual couples or harmed them or their families in any way.

Conservatives have never actually really made this case. They've had two decades to do so, and they still haven't, and the house of cards is finally tumbling.

Random Thought #6
This ruling was made by appealing to the 14th Amendment -- the "equal protection" amendment. I guess that always seemed self-evident to me, but it still surprised me. I expected "full faith and credit" to be the path forward.

Equal protection. I, even I, deserve equal protection. My husband and I, we, deserve equal protection under the law. I'm still amazed and grateful and in awe.

Thank you.

Random Thought #7
MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN. At what point do Christian conservatives begin to wonder if God is trying to tell them something?

By the way, gay people are not terrible, evil, awful people who hate God and are out to destroy marriage and family. We want the same things everybody else wants. Love. Faith. Hope. Security. Family. Beauty. Happiness. The people who have been fighting for the right to marry have been some of the most stalwart defenders of values that conservatives claim to love.

Did it ever occur to conservatives that our prayers were just and God is finally answering them?

To quote another religious conservative from times long past (quoted here in poetic rhythms of King James English): "And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God."

Random Thought #8
I am so grateful for my family. Last night, Glen and his fiancé Will came over to unwrap Christmas presents and share the Christmas spirit. They didn't stay for dinner because Will's family got them on Christmas Eve. We get them tonight for Christmas dinner. We sent presents to Will's parents with them, and they're bringing presents from Will's family tonight. I love family. I love these connections, these relationships, through good times and bad, in wealth and in poverty, in sickness and in health.

Glen and Will have set a date, September 19, 2014. I'm so glad they will be able to marry legally in their home state of Minnesota, where they can be surrounded by all their family and friends.

I'm glad that Utah couples can now do the same.

Random Thought #9
Göran and I are getting old together. I just turned 50 in October, and was almost hospitalized at the end of November for a blood clot in my leg. It was a really BIG blood clot that could have resulted in an embolism or a heart attack. I'm on blood thinners now, and out of any immediate danger, and feeling much better. I'll probably be on blood thinners for the rest of my life, barring any major medical breakthroughs in the next few decades. (I'm still practicing yoga daily and still plan to live to be 100.)

I'm OK. I like the idea of the great love of my life and I turning into old farts together. I'm still wondering how we can leverage all the great and marvelous gifts God has given us into service to those around us, and to the generations that follow us. I want that to be the central concern of the rest of my life.

I'm glad we will soon be able to put this whole marriage equality fight behind us, so we can focus on other very important things.

Random Thought #10 
God rest ye merry, gentle folk, let nothing you dismay.
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day, 
To save us all from Satan's power when we had gone astray! 
Good tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy! 
Good tidings of comfort and joy!

We sang this Christmas Carol -- one of my favorites -- with some wonderful folks at a retirement home on Sunday. The leaders of the carol sing reminded us that in Victorian English, the word "merry" had slightly different connotations. It meant "healthy" or "well."

I love that line, "to save us all from Satan's power when we had gone astray." I'm a fallible human being in need of Christ's salvation. We all need saving. We all need our eyes and our hearts to be opened in different ways. I love that this season gives me an opportunity to remember that. 

Be healthy! Be well! Be grateful!

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, October 24, 2013


I've been traveling a lot this year. Three trips to Utah. Two trips to Washington, DC. Two trips to Chicago. A drive to Iowa and then St. Louis and then Memphis. Camping on the borders of South Dakota. A weekend in New York. Is that for real? No wonder it feels lately like home is this stopping place in between trips.

Much of this travel has involved spending time with LGBT Mormons and allies, building and strengthening a once very fragmented and scattered community now at a seemingly pivotal juncture. The LGBT Saints are gathering. Last weekend I was in Washington, DC because of work, but I spent Saturday evening at an Affirmation Family Home Evening at the Washington Temple Visitors Center, I attended the Washington DC 3rd Ward Sunday morning, and then spent the rest of the day meeting and planning with Affirmation leaders. Monday morning was an opportunity to answer emails and finish some long overdue Affirmation-related work. At one o'clock, I tore myself away and I permitted myself to go on pilgrimage, first to the Holocaust Museum, then to the World War II Memorial, then to the Lincoln Memorial.

Monday night, I'd invited myself to stay with friends and fellow Saints James and Chip at their apartment in Arlington, VA. They kindly accommodated me. It's hard to adequately describe my feelings during this visit.

James is part of Affirmation's International Leadership Team. He's active in his ward in Arlington and has a strong testimony of the Church, and he and Chip have created this amazing, loving partnership. James had organized the Saturday Affirmation Family Home Evening, and he and Chip both showed up. Chip is not a Mormon. (It seems that gay Mormons in relationship with other gay Mormons is the very, very rare exception, not the rule. Gay Mormons in same-sex relationships tend to be ecumenical and intercultural in their relationships.) But Chip is incredibly supportive of James' involvement in the Church and in his work with Affirmation. Because it was Monday night, I was invited to participate in their "family night" and Chip offered a closing prayer that would have melted any missionary's heart.

Chip had to work late, so while we were waiting for him before family night, James and I had a chance to talk, sharing stories and reflecting on what it means to us to be gay and Mormon, and to discuss our work in Affirmation. James shared spiritual experiences with me that had confirmed to him that he and Chip were meant to become a family, that being together was where God wanted them to be. He said to me: "I prayed about this, but it was very clear to me."  (Chip later confirmed that he felt the same way -- he had been praying for years to find a particular kind of life partner, and James had been the answer to those prayers.)

And yet, James has a testimony of the Church. He knows the Church is true. He knows its leaders are called by God, and that the priesthood keys they hold are real. I understood well the dilemmas and the awkwardness and the power of holding these things simultaneously. James and I both participate in a rapidly growing group organized under the auspices of Affirmation called the "Prepare" Group, which includes individuals in every region of the country who have testimonies of the Church, are staying active, and who are also in -- or seeking, or supportive of -- same-sex relationships.

After Chip arrived, we spent our family night on an outing to the Martin Luther King Memorial and the FDR Memorial. I told them about what I'd seen at the Holocaust Museum, and we talked about what the American Dream meant to us: freedom and interconnection; unity and diversity. We each shared our sense of faith. We finally retired to their place, played with their cat Frankie, had ice cream, and ended the evening with prayer. 

The Spirit was present in a sweet, powerful way.


That night I had a strange dream. I recorded it in my dream journal:

I was attending a new ward in some Midwestern city. I was invited to attend a session at the temple. At first, I was a bit confused. I was not sure how I could be allowed to enter the temple proper. I arrived at the temple, and I entered a large sanctuary area. I felt a bit reticent about entering, but my bishop, a woman, was accompanying me, and as we found our seats she reassured me that it was OK. The sanctuary area was shaped like a square, and there were rows of wooden chairs ascending in stadium fashion up all four walls of the sanctuary. I asked my sister bishop how it was possible that I could be allowed in the temple, and she said to me, “Look, see? It's OK for you to be here. Even these Jewish brothers are here in the temple.” I looked up and saw an entire section where there were orthodox Jewish men, dressed in black suits, with beards and hair in the orthodox Jewish fashion, and black, broad-brimmed hats. When I saw them, I set my mind at rest.

The temple ceremony began, and it was a dance. We stood up and moved into the center area of the sanctuary which was a great, open, square area. We were standing in concentric circles, and we began to dance, our arms crossed, and our hands clasping the hands of those on either side of us. The dance involved stepping side-to-side, back and forth with one foot crossing the other as we went side to side in a great circle. The dance steps seemed a bit complicated to me at first, but I was watching the others and doing as they did, and I was able to learn the dance fairly quickly. We were dancing to heartbreakingly beautiful music played by a klezmer band, and as the pace of the music slowly picked up we kept up with the rhythm, dancing faster and faster. There was great joy. People smiled and laughed and cried tears of joy. I asked myself, How could it be that we are dancing in the temple? How is it that dances are allowed in the temple? And then I remembered that the Saints danced in the temple in Nauvoo in the early days of the Church with Brigham Young. They danced and danced each night until the small hours of the morning.

My sister bishop and I eventually left the temple. She asked me to help her run some errands in the ward. The streets of the city were beautiful: broad streets lined with trees and small, white houses. The streets were arranged in a grid pattern around the temple. My sister bishop led me to the home of a widow who needed some sort of assistance. We arrived at her home but no one was there. The sister bishop said it was OK, we just needed to pick up some bills that needed to be paid. She knew where they were, and she had a key to let us into the widow sister's home.

I accompanied her inside, and was meditating quietly as the sister bishop found what she needed to find. I was still marveling that I had been allowed to go inside the temple. 

That was when I woke up. I recalled the dream with force and clarity. It filled me with happiness and peace. I knew I had to write it down right away. I climbed down out of bed and found my cell phone and looked at the time: 3:51 a.m. I turned on my computer and started writing the dream, and as I wrote, tears flowed down my cheeks.

I climbed back up into bed. (The bed in the guest room was the top of a bunk bed.) I still couldn't sleep. I felt prompted to pray. So I started to pray, and as I did, I realized that the Lord had given me -- in a dream -- a vision of Zion. I was very humbled, very aware of my many deep, deep imperfections and flaws, but aware that part of faith in the Atonement is to go forward in spite of one's flaws, trusting in God more than we fear our imperfections.

I felt so excited, I wanted to go right away and wake up my hosts and tell them what I had dreamed: that I had caught a vision of Zion, and that I -- that we! -- would be there, in the temple, dancing with the Saints.


In the past year I have gotten to meet many LGBT Latter-day Saints with strong testimonies. When I say "strong testimonies," I mean that they know the Church is true and they are willing to live that truth in some way that requires making sacrifices or facing fears and challenges. These are individuals who are transgender, who are living the gender they know they are. These are gay men and lesbians who are in the same-sex relationships they know God intended them for. We are praying, studying, living the Word of Wisdom. We are going to Church. We are serving in various ways in our wards, usually very humbly and without formal callings, because many of us are not permitted to hold formal callings, or if we are allowed callings we are allowed only the humblest of callings. Some of us are excommunicated, and some of us are allowed to keep our membership. Many have started going to Church despite strong fears of rejection or misunderstanding. We are laying down  weapons of self defense, and going back, hoping that we will be received by the Saints as Saints. We are looking for Zion.

I was born in 1963 and grew up in a generation when LGBT people were accustomed to being subjected by members of the Church to a series of shibboleths. What I mean by that is being told, for instance, "If you're in a same-sex relationship, you're not following the prophet and you're not really a Saint and you don't belong here." And we have been subjected to a series of humiliations and have experienced forms of rejection that literally broke us. We usually experienced this rejection in its most intense form from those who ought to have understood us best -- our closest friends and family. Often we pushed those who ought to have known us best furthest out, because we ourselves feared what was in us; because we assumed that to be fully known would mean to be hated; because we ourselves found it impossible to believe that we ought to believe in ourselves.

Our Church leaders remind us again and again that "the Church's doctrine is not changing and will not change." Two of our leaders reminded us of that again at the most recent General Conference. But fortunately, what is changing is the attitudes of the Saints. Not always. I'm still hearing all too frequent reports of the old shibboleths. But with stunning frequency I'm also hearing growing numbers of reports of LGBT Saints who are going back, and who are being told, "I'm not here to judge you. If you want to come back, and you want to worship God with us, you are welcome."

What we know in our heart of hearts doesn't always seem to line up with every utterance of the brethren. Often, we are the ones who feel most confused about that. Our fellow Saints don't know how that works and neither do we.

What we do know is that it's for us to move forward the best we can, in faith.

The Lord has a place for us in Zion. It's not a separate-but-equal place. It's not an inferior place where we get to be lonely and everybody else gets to be fulfilled. It's a place in Zion where we are valued and we have family and we will be blessed, just like everybody else. That's what Zion is.

But it takes faith to get there. And we have a long journey ahead of us.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

'Just Be There': BYU Students Discuss Suicide

This is a beautiful video. I know some of these men and women, and am so grateful for their courage in sharing this important message.

It seems only appropriate to link here to Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's beautiful talk on depression from last weekend's General Conference. As a former sufferer of depression, and as someone who almost committed suicide in my junior year at BYU, I felt extremely grateful to Elder Holland, not only for the advice he offered about how to approach depression in a compassionate, nonjudgmental way, but also for his courage in discussing his own struggles with depression.

Both of these videos make me so proud to be a Mormon!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Why the Conference Talks about Gay Marriage Are Steps Forward

Would anybody have believed on Wednesday, November 5, 2008 that Prop 8 was actually going to propel the movement for marriage equality forward in unprecedented ways?

I certainly didn't, though in praying and seeking comfort from God about this, I got a very simple, quiet prompting from the Spirit saying, "Forgive. Be comforted. I will make this right." That prompting enabled me to let go of whatever anguish I was feeling at the time and trust that God was moving us collectively in the right direction, even if the results from the polls in California seemed to be indicating the opposite the day after the election.

At least one very palpable reason Prop 8 did in fact move things forward is because it forever shattered the taboo in LDS circles on speaking openly about homosexuality. And we saw the proof of that in General Conference this past weekend: not one but two conference talks openly discussing same-sex marriage, and introducing, as a topic for discussion, the legal, moral and spiritual ramifications of same-sex marriage.

Now very many people may not like what was said in those two talks. I for one liked what was said very much. Not necessarily because I agree with everything was said (though I agreed with much that was said), but because I think the statements that were made implicitly opened up questions that very much deserve to be discussed.

Elder Nelson in his talk, for instance, discussed the importance of self-mastery as a gateway to the highest virtues. He used fasting as an example of a practice that allows us to master our appetites in favor of a greater cause -- care and concern for the poor. I was deeply inspired by what he said about this, and absolutely agree with him about the essential role that self-mastery plays in schooling us for the very highest human virtue of love.

But to me, if you are going to introduce this point in the context of same-sex sexuality, then you invite a discussion about whether the conventions of continence and commitment that come with marriage ought not to apply to gay and lesbian individuals. Aren't gay and lesbian individuals who desire the rights and responsibilities of marriage essentially saying, "Yes, we agree! Continence, commitment, self-mastery, which includes reserving sex for the right time, is something we want!" Can anybody really say that desire to link our sexuality to a framework of love and commitment is a bad thing? And don't we undermine the value of marital commitments in the eyes of our youth if we say one standard applies to heterosexuals but another standard applies to homosexuals?

There were very many fundamental spiritual principles that both talks presented that I agree with 100%. I agree with Elder Oaks that "cultural and family traditions," "political correctness," "career aspirations," "material possessions," "recreational pursuits," and the search for "power, prominence and prestige" can be idolatrous. I agree with Elder Oaks that the starting point for all discussion about painful, divisive issues must be to emphasize God's love for all and the equality of all before God. God is no respecter of persons! Many I have spoken to in the days since conference have commented on the fact that Elder Oaks' strong statements about "moral courage" and standing up for what one believes in regardless of what others think about them has inspired them to engage with this issue more -- not less -- deeply.

As a Latter-day Saint, I found tremendous comfort in Elder Nelson's comments about the importance of learning as a central aspect of our experience in mortality. I have learned so much wrestling with this whole issue of homosexuality and the challenges LGBT experience has posed for the Church. I believe it is teaching us the value of charity, empathy, patience and unity. I was comforted by his assurance that every single one of us is created in God's image. I experienced a spiritual confirmation of his witness that every stage of life -- including death! -- is a sacred and necessary component of the plan that will enable us to achieve eternal happiness.

There was only one thing that did not resonate for me, but I felt grateful that both talks introduced this question which can only continue to be discussed as we collectively wrestle with this issue.

This had to do with the presumptions of both speakers about the etiology and nature of homosexuality in particular and sexuality in general. Both speakers either implied or directly asserted that homosexuality did not exist in the pre-mortal realm and that it will not exist in the post-mortal realm, and that in the mortal realm it is best understood as a "temporary" (temporary meaning, only through the course of mortality) condition or "affliction." Elder Nelson in his talk spoke of "imperfect bodies," addressing the challenge of physical or mental disabilities. He didn't directly say homosexuality was a "disability" per se, though I doubt that he introduced a discussion of physical imperfections in the framework of this talk by chance.

I am extremely doubtful -- just from studying what we know about the prevalence of homosexuality in all higher species, and uniformly throughout humanity in every race and culture we know of -- that homosexuality is a mortal "flaw" or "imperfection." To me, it appears adaptive. In human societies, it functions well as a tribal/familial survival mechanism. It provides social benefits, even as it surfaces in ways that do not hinder the transmission of a family's genetic inheritance. To me, everything I know about homosexuality militates toward it being an intended and functional part of creation.

What I know about LDS theology in terms of the relationship between spiritual creation and physical creation to me militates against the notion that something functional and positive in creation wouldn't have existed before spiritually, nor continue to exist after spiritually. If I understand Mormon scripture and teaching correctly, those aspects of ourselves that we experience as most core to who we are -- including things like sexuality and gender -- are also eternal aspects of ourselves.

Now this is why lesbian, gay and bi people experience such anguish when we are told that our sexuality is "flawed," or "sinful." We experience this anguish even if we are not acting on our sexuality. I've witnessed this time and time again. I know so many faithful LDS gay, lesbian and bi people who are living all the standards of morality taught by the Church, but who find themselves deeply wounded when the suggestion is made that this aspect of us is wrong, a flaw, evil. I think it is because we experience this as a core aspect of who we are.

I have frequently reflected on my own encounter with God on this subject in the summer of 1986 after I had nearly committed suicide, and I felt prompted to pray to God, and God spoke to me very clearly about my homosexuality. God spoke to me clearly in specific words and phrases that have always stuck with me since: "I know this about you, because I know you from your inmost parts." I have often turned that phrase over in my head, "from my inmost parts." My inmost parts are those parts of me that are most eternal, that existed before I was clothed in a body of spirit or, in turn, clothed in a body of flesh.

Over the years I have encountered increasing numbers of LGBT people who have had profound spiritual experiences with God in which God revealed to them something critical about their own natures. I'm aware now of hundreds of individuals who have had these experiences.

I am aware of certain SSA individuals who have had very different experiences; who have had spiritual experiences confirming that their SSA is not a part of their eternal nature. I have no more reason to doubt their experience than I have to doubt my own experience with this. I think it's very likely that there are different kinds of homosexuals.

But all of this is critical data! It cannot and should not be dismissed!

Will it be discussed as we continue to wrestle with this issue? The fact that it was discussed not once but twice at General Conference assured me that we will. I remember that notorious talk that Elder Boyd K. Packer gave a few years ago that caused similar upheaval and upset. I remember feeling comforted -- not upset! -- by Elder Packer's talk for the same reason I have felt comforted by these talks. He posed the question, "Why would God do this to anyone?" That, I believed then and I still believe now, is the question that needs to be asked.

There's one final reason I was comforted by these talks. I have a testimony of the Church of Jesus Christ. I am comforted by the sense of burden I hear expressed by leaders of the Church to the effect that this is not their Church and not their doctrine to mold or shape as they wish. I would want no part of it if it were. I believe our leaders are doing the best they can with the information they currently have, and I believe that until they are authorized to do so by revelation from God, they have no choice but to teach what they teach. I personally take comfort in that.

I know that many do not take comfort. Many continue to experience anguish about this. I wish people didn't have to feel anguish about this. A friend of mine messaged me through Facebook recently and described to me how her response to this situation was to go to her knees and seek comfort directly from God. And she found the comfort she needed! Others don't find comfort in prayer. I say, find comfort from others then. Do whatever you need to take care of yourself and be reassured that you are good and that you are entitled to figure this out and make your own decisions about what is best for you.

In the meantime, I hope we will all take comfort in Bishop Caussé's talk at the Priesthood session. Bishop Caussé expressed the same notion that Elder Oaks did, that "our wards and quorums do not belong to us, they belong to Jesus Christ." And he used that principle to remind us that "no one is a stranger to our Heavenly Father," and "in this church there are no strangers or outcasts, there are only brothers and sisters." Like Elder Oaks, Bishop Caussé reminded us that God is no respecter of persons and that "in every nation, he that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted with him." And he reminded us what kind of righteousness Christ will hold us accountable for at the final judgment bar.

"I was a stranger, and ye took me in." (Matthew 25:35)

Monday, October 7, 2013

I Am Not Offended

I am not offended by the words people speak.

If their words are true, then I would be a wise man to listen to them and take them to heart, even if to do so causes inconvenience to me. In fact, the more inconvenient the truths, the wiser I would be to listen.

Inconvenience creates emotions like stress or anger or hurt. And those kinds of emotions cloud my ability to see truth. So if I hunger for truth I need to find a way to calm those emotions. I must try not to be offended.

If the words someone speaks are false, there is no power in them. I have no need to be offended. I would be wise to ignore them.

Spoken untruths may inconvenience me for a time, especially if they inspire others to act in a way that is harmful to me. But I cannot stop that from happening by being offended. I am better served by trusting that the truth is larger than words.

I'm not super human. I'm just me, a man, with all the mixture of weakness and nobility that implies. I do not know all things. I do not regard myself as better than any one else. I feel good will toward all, and would prefer that we wrestle together to come to an understanding of the truth, than that we make each other enemies because one or both of us takes offense.

So I am not offended, because my hunger for your fellowship and for the truth is greater than my fears.


This morning, I woke up in my husband's arms just as the grey sunlight was starting to filter through our window shades. It was still very early, and he was sound asleep. He was clutching me tighter than usual, breathing heavily. In the background I could hear the hum of the dialysis machine he is connected to each night as we sleep. Life is fragile and precious.

My mind was filled with beautiful memories from the weekend. Beautiful sessions of conference that left me feeling inspired and deeply, deeply happy. Special promptings from the Spirit that filled me with hope and confidence, that I jotted into the little notebook I keep with my scriptures. A ward potluck in between Saturday sessions where I stuffed myself on Relief Society-produced delicacies, including the best collared greens I've ever had. A rare opportunity to bear my testimony. I love the Church. I know too deeply in my soul to ever deny it that the Church is true.

Sunday afternoon, a lot of people were upset by a couple of conference talks. I spent a lot of time on Facebook and on the phone. I was not -- I am not -- offended, either by what had upset people, nor by the fact that they were upset. But when I finally fell asleep after midnight, I was exhausted.

I woke up in my husband's arms filled with warmth. The Spirit was there in our room, luminescent almost, brighter than the filtered grey sunlight coming in through the shades. I felt deeply happy. As my husband clutched me, I realized how precious he is to me, what a gift our love is to us, what a gift is our mutual life, even with the disappointments, even with the difficulty, even with the dialysis machine humming in the background. It is our commitment to each other -- expressed in rituals and in legal documents hard fought for, but also expressed in the way his whole life intertwines with mine -- that gives everything in my life meaning and direction.

"I love you," I told him as I kissed him on the forehead while he slept on blissfully.

That truth is larger than words.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Spiritual Challenge in Mormon Political Support for Gay Marriage

It is a relief that leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are now publicly encouraging members of the Church to study out the issues, make up their own minds, and act and vote according to the dictates of their own conscience, in relation to extending marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples. This occurred most dramatically in recent letters sent out by the LDS stake presidencies of Hawaii that acknowledged in a non-stigmatizing way that members of the Church stand on both sides of this issue. It is also a relief that Church leaders are now publicly acknowledging that even in California during the Prop 8 campaign, when letters from the First Presidency of the Church were directing members to contribute time and talents to ensuring that Prop 8 passed, support for Prop 8 was not a litmus test of faithfulness. In other words, we are now made to understand, members of the Church have always had the right to support marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, and have always had the right to determine how and where to invest their time and talents on this political issue, and to vote according to their conscience. What a relief.

I listened carefully to the letters read over the pulpits of Minnesota LDS wards in 2012 during the campaign related to Amendment 1 (a proposed constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage in Minnesota). These letters urged members to study the issues out, make up their own minds, and decide for themselves how best to get involved in this political issue. I know many Mormons who opposed Amendment 1, and who worked in the campaign to defeat it. These members were clearly following the counsel they'd received over the pulpit from Church leaders every bit as much as members who supported Amendment 1.

I remember, though, how gingerly members of the Church approached this subject. Many assumed, based on what happened in California during the Prop 8 campaign, that support for marriage equality might be considered lack of faith or disobedience to the Brethren. I could quote to them verbatim what had been written to the contrary in the letters read over Minnesota pulpits, but many members of the Church still worried and wondered if "studying the issues out" really meant that as members of the Church in good standing they weren't still supposed to draw the conclusion than that marriage equality for gay couples should be opposed.

I spoke to one member of my ward about this issue, and he shared a painful story with me. He told me how he had taken the counsel of the First Presidency during Prop 8 to heart. He personally did not like the idea of voting to deny marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples. But, he reasoned, the Brethren may know things about this issue that I do not. He took it as a matter of faith. And acting in faith, he voted against his conscience. He believed that after the election, following a well known LDS principle of faith, he would receive a confirmation that he had done the right thing. Knowledge comes after we exercise faith. That's how he reasoned.

He told me, however, that after the election, after Prop 8 passed, he did not receive a confirmation that he had done the right thing. Quite the opposite. He said he felt sick to his stomach. He felt disgusted with himself for doing something he believed to be wrong, something that now was going to harm thousands of his fellow citizens. And he vowed to himself, "Never again. Never again will I do something just because the Brethren tell me to do it, when doing so violates my conscience. It's not worth it." He committed himself from then on to support marriage equality for all families -- not just heterosexual families. No matter what Church leaders said or did.

There has been much discussion about the "cost" the LDS Church paid for its political support of Prop 8. There's been discussion about the financial cost (decreased giving to the Church, not to mention tens of thousands of dollars spent on a campaign that ultimately failed important judicial tests of fairness), the impact on membership (members leaving the Church over this, painful divisions that turned family member against family member and ward member against ward member, prospective members refusing to talk to the missionaries and refusing to join), and the social cost (protests against the Church in California and elsewhere, and the harm to the Church's public image).

But there hasn't been enough discussion, in my opinion, about the moral cost. The spiritual cost. The cost in Church members' feelings of betrayal after Prop 8. My friend's story poignantly illustrates those costs which in my opinion are far, far higher.

I should add that, while we can all -- Mormon and non-Mormon -- draw a sigh of relief that the Church has affirmed the principle of separation of Church and state, it must surely be disquieting to many to consider how many Mormons would readily have embraced a denial of this principle, how many Mormons -- whether or not they were sanctioned by Salt Lake -- did make political opposition to marriage equality a litmus test for faith. That the Church is now officially saying they were wrong to do so should only partially alleviate whatever disquiet that might inspire.

Nevertheless.... It is a relief that LDS Church leadership is slowing backing away from this political issue. I am glad that the news is slowly but surely getting out that Mormons may support full marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples and their families.


Yet and still... I am not satisfied with where things stand. And here is why.

I think the best way to explain it would be to say that if I were an atheist, I would be quite happy and completely satisfied with where things stand. Because if a Mormon says, "I believe that there is no marriage equality for gays in Heaven; but so far as matters are concerned in the political realm here on earth, I support marriage equality," if I were an atheist I would say, "Well, Mormons support me in the only realm that matters."

But I am not an atheist. I am a believing Mormon. And to a believing Mormon, a statement such as the one I've given as an example is not comforting at all. In fact, it is as disquieting and as discomforting as any statement possibly could be. First of all it is discomforting because to a believing Mormon it is the same as saying, "Here in the temporal realm -- the realm which is really just the wink of an eye in the span of eternity -- I support your equality; but I believe that where and when it really matters -- in eternity -- you will not and never can be equal." And it is disquieting because, again, from the view point of a believing Mormon, if you are my brother or sister and you really care about me, you must care about my eternal welfare. If you really believe that there's no good place for a same-sex married couple in eternity, I'd rather you be honest about it here in this realm where there's opportunity to do something about it. I would say supporting politically in the temporal realm something that you see as disabling in the eternal realm means you have not very carefully thought out the full implications of your beliefs.

What about a more nuanced statement of belief? What if our hypothetical Mormon supporter of marriage equality justifies their support in this way: "I believe that God does have a special place in his plan for heterosexual couples; that plan is clearly spelled out in scripture and in the teachings of living prophets. I'm not sure how gay and lesbian people fit into this plan. I know that gay and lesbian people exist. I know that many have discerned -- often at great personal cost -- that the best thing for them is to be in committed same-sex relationships, and that marriage is an enormous benefit to them in their efforts to live moral lives and protect their loved ones. I know they are God's children, and I know God loves them just as much as he loves his heterosexual children, and I don't believe in a God who would make people a certain way and then punish them for building happy lives that are harmonious with the way he's created them. So even though I'm not aware of anything from scriptures or the current teachings of living prophets that explicitly tells us what place gay and lesbian people have in God's eternal plan, I trust that they fit in there somehow, and just how they fit will hopefully sometime soon be revealed to us. And in the meantime, I trust their individual discernment process; I honor the sanctity of their lives and their right and ability to make decisions that they've determined to be best for them. And I think it's wrong, therefore, to treat them unequally under the law. And that's why I fully support marriage for gay and lesbian couples!"

That more nuanced statement I personally live with very comfortably. I think it is a good statement of my own position.  Yet I recognize that even here there is still stress and struggle. For many gay and lesbian Mormons, not knowing is a luxury they can't afford. If you are a believing Mormon, eternity means everything, and to be on the wrong side of eternity is to lose everything of value that this life -- even this temporal life -- has to offer.

I personally have found a way forward that works for me, partly because God has spoken to me very clearly about the course I should pursue in my personal life. I am very comfortable where I am in my relationship with God, in my testimony of the Church (which includes an understanding of how truth unfolds line-upon-line, and an understanding of how a key part of our Heavenly Parents' plan involves delegation and agency), and in my relationship with the Church (which is challenging because of my excommunicated status, but nonetheless a blessing to me).  I'm finding a way forward in the way of faith, hope, charity and patience those relationships both with God and with the Church teach me.

But I'm also gradually becoming aware that my way forward cannot and should not work for everybody. We speak of the Church as the body of Christ, and we understand each member of that body having diverse gifts -- some of us having gifts of knowledge and others of us having gifts of faith; some of us having gifts of community and others of us having gifts of the courage to go it alone; all of us having unique ways of knowing what we know, and varying abilities to live with ambiguity or cognitive dissonance.

Some of us are in deep pain because of the dogmatism of those who claim to know things about the eternal realm that I think they actually don't know. But far too many of us are also in deep, deep pain and suffering because of the not knowing. We are getting better at addressing the suffering of the former, but are still not adequately addressing the suffering of the latter. I have to say that regardless of how nuanced your position, therefore, saying "I believe X about eternity, but I'm willing to take position Y in relation to temporal, political issues" must still be unsatisfying if you are concerned about that suffering.

I would say, as a Latter-day Saint, if you take your baptismal covenants seriously, you cannot be unconcerned about that suffering. And I would say, if you are concerned, as I am, there are three things we can do.

First, pray.

Second, be with those who suffer. Bear their burdens with them. Make them know that as long as they suffer, you cannot be fully at ease in your soul, and that you will do what you can to alleviate their suffering.

Third, do something to alleviate that suffering. Talk. Ask questions. Listen. Share. Connect. Build community. Make sure that the voices of those who suffer are being heard.

Third, pray.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Affirmation Reborn

One year ago, Affirmation was at a crossroads. The fundamental question: What role will faith play in our organization?

Two years ago, the Kirtland Conference, organized under the presidency of David Melson, took Affirmation back to the early roots of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In a way, Kirtland was an acknowledgment of the desire on the part of gay Mormons to come to terms with their past. There are two ways of coming to terms with your past. One way is to make peace with it, and then to move on. Another way is to engage with it, to remember, to let it renew and re-energize your present.

I believe there was divine purpose in God granting stewardship of the Kirtland Temple to the Community of Christ. At least part of that purpose involved their willingness to share the temple with us, to grant us gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Saints access to those sacred precincts. The effect on those of us who have largely been shut out of our temples, out of the places most sacred to us as Latter-day Saints, was electrifying. Kirtland surprised us by revealing how many LGBT Mormons still have a deep yearning to draw from the wellsprings of our faith. In 1835, in the Kirtland Temple, a latter-day Pentecost filled the Saints with light and courage. In 2011 gay Mormons, gathering in the same space, experienced an outpouring of the same Spirit that was poured out on our ancestors in that place.

Once we tasted of that Spirit, we wanted more of it. We learned in Seattle in 2012 that we did not need to gather in an LDS temple to experience an outpouring of the Spirit. All we needed to do was to ask God, "who giveth to all liberally and upbraideth not."

One year ago, inspired by the rich outpourings we experienced in Kirtland and then -- to our delight and surprise -- in Seattle, we dared to propose something radical. We dared to suggest that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Mormons could ask for and receive and follow the promptings of the Spirit. We dared to insist that we did not have to choose between being gay and Mormon. We dared to believe that the integrity of our souls allowed that "we through our faith may begin to inherit the visions and blessings and glories of God."

Randall Thacker articulated that vision in terms that resonated with many. Randall was elected president and asked me and Tina Richerson to serve with him as the Executive Committee of Affirmation, and together we extended invitations to all who felt called to this work to join with us.

Randall is a gifted leader, but I don't believe it was ever any one individual or group of individuals who were or are responsible for the incredible influx of new members, new leaders, energy, time and financial resources that came into Affirmation in the coming months. It was the vision.

In the course of leadership gatherings in Washington, DC in January 2013 and in Salt Lake City in April 2013, that vision was hammered out into a plan of action. On the eve of our 2013 conference here in Salt Lake City, during a 2 a.m. Facebook convo with Randall, I looked at the goals we had set only nine months ago, and what we had accomplished since then, and I wept. Back then, they felt like dreams, and now they are flesh and blood reality.

Through the course of the conference I talked to many of the individuals who had been instrumental in bringing those plans to fruition. Again and again I heard the words, "I didn't do that much. I could have done more. I didn't do enough." It was a team effort, not the work of any one individual.


From Seattle (2012) to Salt Lake (2013) conference registrations more than tripled, and our financial assets quintupled. More than 70% of those who participated in the Salt Lake City conference were first time attendees.

More astonishing and moving was the unprecedented numbers of LGBT participants who were accompanied by heterosexual family members, friends and allies -- mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and ward members.

The first night of the conference, the documentary Families are Forever, featuring the family of Tom and Wendy Montgomery, was presented. The Montgomery's were present with their gay teenage son Jordan. In the documentary, Tom and Wendy posed the painful, poignant question: Is there a future for our son in the Church? What is Heavenly Father's plan for his gay sons and daughters? I presented an award to the film's producer, Caitlin Ryan, a Roman Catholic ally I am proud to call my sister in Christ. As I did, I turned to Jordan, sitting on the front row. "We may not fully understand what it is, but our Heavenly Father does have a plan for us. It is our privilege to work it out and to learn what that plan is." The Spirit was thick. Pure joy was beaming from Jordan's face. He knew that whatever his future might be with the Church, his family and hosts of friends would be there with him and for him. Unconditionally.

Later in the conference, I attended a workshop on transgender Mormon experience. I wept at the grace and faith evident in the testimony of Sara Jade Woodhouse, who recognized that even with the intense pain and loss she had suffered as a transgender woman who came of age decades ago in southern Utah, there was good in her life that could not have come without the pain. I wept at the hope and the fervor of Grayson Moore, a transgender young man whose mother, Neca Allgood, had learned to become his fiercest advocate and defender. I honor Sara's bravery as a pioneer, and Grayson and Neca's model of what LDS family values should be all about.

Our sages were there, those who over decades of faithful witness have believed in us when no one else would, when even we had a difficult time believing in ourselves. Saturday morning, Carol Lynn Pearson, who has spent decades lovingly witnessing, hearing and telling and retelling our stories, bore us testimony of our story as she has observed it. We were not unworthy, undeserving and excommunicate. We were heroes. We -- reluctantly or not -- had accepted a call, faced our darkest demons, recovered the elixir of life, and were now called to return to our tribe to share with them the healing that both we and they most desperately needed.

Bob Rees, another of our mentors, presented a workshop with me and three other lesbian and gay Mormons who are active in the Church: Sam Noble, Ellen Koester and Tina Richerson. The title of the workshop was "Restoring our Relationships with the Restored Gospel and Church." Bob spoke compellingly of how the principle of restoration could operate in the lives of LGBT Mormons, healing injury and repairing brokenness. I and the other LGBT participants shared insights from our experience staying connected to the Church or returning to the Church. Basic principles of the gospel, first principles of faith in Jesus Christ and repentance, hope, patience and love had helped us navigate the treacherous challenges of coming out in communities blinded by homophobia. In turn, the challenges we had faced and overcome as LGBT Mormons had deepened our understanding of the Gospel and the Church. No magical answers, no doctrinal formulas; just faith, hope and love. The workshop participants were invited to share their own stories of restoration. The stories revealed pain that was still raw, but also that deep, deep yearning for faith and connection. The workshop was offered twice, because it had garnered the largest numbers of conference pre-registrants. Many of the participants stayed for both sessions of the workshop.

Other panels/workshops, which I unfortunately can't comment on since I didn't attend, included "Growing Up LGBT in America" (with HRC's Ann E. Nicoll and Sharon Groves); "Follow Your Heart: Breaking Through Stereotypes and Confronting Shame, a Guide in Being a Fearless Lesbian Mormon" (with Tina Richerson, Hollie Hancock, Berta Marquez, Kim Mack, Anna Empey and Amy Larson); "Circles of Empathy" (with Kendall Wilcox of the Far Between Project); the "LDS Family Fellowship" panel (with Kathryn Steffenson and the Abhau family, Oviatt family and the Weyman family); a panel on "Spiritual Partnerships" (with Karin Hendricks and Tawyna Smith); "Building Local Communities for LDS LGBT/SSA Individuals, Family and Friends" (with Bryan Hendrickson and Bryce Cook); a BYU USGA panel (with Adam White, Keith Trottier and others); and "Healing Our Spiritual Selves" (with Karin Hendricks, Tawnya Smith and Alaina Hendricks). In the afternoon there was a family/parents discussion group with the Montgomery's, Abhau's, Weymann's, and Oviatt's).

Over lunch, Daniel Parkinson presented a montage of testimonies of LGBT Mormons who had, at the end of deep heartache, often on the verge of suicide, turned to God and been rewarded with powerful personal assurances of divine acceptance and approval.

As in previous years, the heart and soul of conference was in our worship and testimony together. Prayer, hymns, and the conference choir (rehearsals and performance) were heartfelt. The first evening choir rehearsal, I couldn't make it through our singing of "The Spirit of God" without getting choked up at the thought of what it meant to us for the Lord to "extend the Saints' understanding" through returning "visions and blessings" and our anticipation of a day when "the lamb and the lion shall lie down together without any ire." The testimony meeting, this year held Saturday evening to a standing-room-only crowd, was filled with raw authenticity; belief and hope rendered all the more poignant by honest admissions of doubt; a man who wept as he told of an experience in which God healed shattering self-hate. Peter VanDerWalt who had traveled all the way from South Africa, reduced many of us to tears as he told of how he had read the Book of Mormon with the intention to prove the absurdity of religion, and had come away with a testimony of God.

At the "Evening of Affirmation" Saturday night, Judy Finch, featured on the website, told the story of how her understanding unfolded through decades of wrestling to come to terms with the homosexuality of a son and a grandson. Steve Young used an analogy of faith that LGBT Mormons could relate to when he described the experience of "throwing blind," striving for a goal that you can't see. His wife Barb Young spoke passionately about the pain caused by Proposition 8, and the story of a heterosexual LDS friend of hers whose life and understanding were transformed by the forgiveness of her lesbian next-door neighbors.

Both Friday night and Saturday night, Benji Schwimmer shared his own testimony of the power of authenticity and love, through words and then through dance. My feet didn't dance, but my heart did.


The conference isn't over yet. We will be gathering at the Tabernacle later this morning, and then for a final luncheon in which Mormon ally Erika Munson will speak to us. I risk being a zombie today, having forgone my night's rest in favor of publishing this post.

I could not sleep partly because I miss my husband, whom I wish could have been here with me to witness this richness of love and exuberance and hope. But it was also that I lay in bed, the visions and blessings of the last few days washing over me, replaying again and again in my mind and heart, drawing out tears of gratitude. This conference exceeded all our hopes and expectations.

Affirmation experienced a kind of rebirth this weekend. We've gone back to Affirmation's roots, to the hopes and dreams of Affirmation's founders in the 1970s that LGBT Mormons might find faith, hope, and love against all odds in a Church that denied the possibility of gay Mormon virtue. We've gone back to the roots of our faith as Latter-day Saints, blossomed from the yearning of a 14-year-old farm boy for wisdom greater than that he possessed, who dared to "ask of God."

We too dare to ask.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Dynamic Tension: Affirmation's Constituency and Mission

Affirmation, the world's oldest and largest organization of, by and for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Mormons and their families and friends, has, since its inception in the late 1970s, had to deal with tension along the spectrum of how individuals understand their Mormon identity and manage their relationship with the LDS Church. Bluntly put, Affirmation has always experienced tension between those who are fundamentally committed to the LDS belief system and to some form of connection with the institutional Church, and those who see the LDS faith and Church at fundamental odds with being self-affirming as an LGBT person. As a result, in its three and a half decades or so of existence, both at the international and local levels, the organization has experienced a number of pendulum swings between approaches that are, on the one hand, secular, activist and confrontational, and, on the other hand, devout, conciliatory and committed to the Church.

There has been a tendency for individuals on both poles to see these “modes” of managing the tensions implicit in being gay and Mormon as fundamentally at odds. The assumption has been that the organization has had to choose between being fundamentally secular and activist or being fundamentally religious and devout. If the organization emphasized the former approach, it is often assumed, then those who valued their ties to Mormonism would not and could not feel comfortable participating in the organization. If the organization favored the latter, it is correlatively assumed, then those who saw their primary commitment as secular activism would secede from the organization. This “either/or” approach or mentality is unwarranted, unnecessary and harmful to the organization, for three reasons.

First, an organization that prioritizes one approach over the other cannot effectively reach or serve Affirmation's stated constituency: LGBT Mormons. There will always be LGBT Mormons in both categories, and an organization that chooses one approach over the other will always fail to serve a significant portion of those it claims to serve.

Second, very few if any members of Affirmation have always been or will always be adherents of one approach over the other. People can and do, in their individual life journeys, experience their own pendulum swings between faith and doubt, confrontation and conciliation, activism and quietism. Some leave faith and then come back. Some experience a conversion, and then later wrestle with doubt. If Affirmation chooses one pole over the other, it will effectively only serve people in one mode of their life journeys, and will fail to support folks at the most crucial times in their lives: when they are in transition!

Third, and most importantly, despite the persistence of perceptions to the contrary, significant goals of individual members of the organization can best be accomplished if the full range of view points and responses is present within the organization. In short, we need each other, and our fundamental goals are not as incompatible as we sometimes assume. It is this last point that this essay will explore in a bit more depth.

What I offer here is obviously a bit of an oversimplification. I'll draw the two poles or modes as “ideal types,” in their most extreme mode, in order to demonstrate my point. Obviously, real-life members of the organization may have more nuanced views and approaches to the fundamental problem.

I'll start with the “LDS devout” ideal type (since that's the type I currently identify with). Folks in this category fully identify as Mormon or as LDS. They might describe themselves as having some sort of “testimony” of the Gospel. They value their connection to the Church, and this implies some deference to the lines of priesthood authority and leadership in the Church. They hope for positive relationships with Church leaders and members. They hope to be involved, as much as possible, as active, faithful Church members. They recognize the Church's long history of poor treatment of LGBT individuals, and they recognize that many Church doctrines and practices (specifically focussed around temple marriage) don't seem to recognize the legitimacy of gay identities or relationships. But they still don't see this as an insuperable obstacle to the full and equal participation of LGBT individuals in the Church. In the history of the Church, past teachings have been refined or revised in light of expanded understanding; and the Church still holds to the doctrine of continuing revelation.

Goals of individuals in this “LDS devout” category typically include:
  • to live a devout life that includes prayer and worship with others of like mind (both gay and straight) and to feel and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit
  • to find some personal spiritual/theological resolution to the dilemmas inherent in being gay in a Church that in its public, institutional forums makes little space for being gay
  • to participate in dialog with Church members and leaders about homosexuality, with a goal of greater inclusiveness in the Church

The other ideal type might be called the “secular activist” type.

Though I don't currently identify with this type, I did for almost two decades, so I think I am capable of treating it with empathy. Since the purpose of this paper is understanding, I encourage any who currently identify with this ideal type to let me know if my presentation of it is deficient, as my goal is to develop a common platform within Affirmation across these two poles of “devout” versus “activist.”

Secular activist” members of Affirmation have disaffiliated from the LDS Church, and no longer believe it to be “the” or even “a” “true church.” However, they may have family members or friends who are active, believing LDS, and may hope for positive relationships with those individuals, even if only on the basis of “agreeing to disagree.” They may consider themselves “culturally” Mormon, in much the same sense that “secular Jews” consider themselves Jews. Their primary concern in relation to the LDS Church revolves around the active harm they see the Church doing by inculcating LGBT youth with negative attitudes toward homosexuality that will eventually lead to severe internal conflict, including depression and suicide, and contribute to other social problems such as homelessness among LGBT youth, and various other forms of self-destructive behavior among LGBT youth and adults. Their personal solution to the problem of uncharitable and inequitable treatment of LGBT people in the Church has been to remove themselves from the Church. If the Church maintained political neutrality, that might be enough. However, to the extent that the LDS Church gets involved in political campaigns to deny equal rights and equal treatment of LGBT people in the larger society, they feel a moral obligation to protest and resist such efforts. They feel that as former Mormons, they are in a unique position to be able to address what they see as some of the more extreme abuses of the Church.

Goals of individuals in this “secular activist” category typically include:
  • getting a sense of personal closure in relation to their former faith, and then moving on, perhaps with no faith at all, or perhaps in another community of faith that they see as more welcoming of LGBT people and more congenial to their values
  • saving” LGBT Mormon youth from “internalized homophobia”
  • working for full political and social equality of LGBT people or working to serve the LGBT community (through political efforts to pass anti-discrimination laws and/or marriage equality, and through AIDS outreach work, outreach to homeless youth, etc.)

Of course the constellation of concerns I've identified within these two “ideal types” are not mutually exclusive. A devout member of the Church with a testimony could also believe in marriage equality and be concerned about helping homeless youth or people living with AIDS. A person who has left the LDS Church and is no longer affiliated with it in any way might still value aspects of his or her Mormon upbringing, and might value various forms of worship, personal piety and spiritual expression (albeit in a community of faith other than the LDS Church). That's why, I think, it's important to address some of the “fears” and “stereotypes” that typically drive tension and conflict between folks who identify with one of these poles or another. My purpose in identifying “fears” and “stereotypes” is not to perpetuate them, but hopefully to deflate them.

Individuals who choose to affiliate with the Church are not “mindlessly obedient” to the dictates of Church leaders. They haven't “turned off their brains” or closed themselves off to “rational critiques” of Mormon belief. The fact that they choose to affiliate is usually actually a sign of the opposite; that they are willing to wrestle to find a thoughtful faith that works for them. They are not unwilling to dialog, but they do tend to get weary of constant carping about everything that's negative in the Church. They are not unconcerned about social action; in fact, they may be very activist. But they seek ways to do activism that involve building alliances with faithful Church members and that avoid harsh public criticism of the Church or its leaders. They do not have it as a goal to “force” members of Affirmation to “believe” a certain way; but they do want the organization to be friendly to expressions of traditional LDS devotion, and they want the organization to present a public face that will not automatically turn off their active LDS family members, friends, and fellow parishioners.

Individuals who choose not to affiliate with the Church are not “angry naysayers” or people who have “left the Church but can't leave it alone.” They are not “anti-Mormon.” Rather, they see dissent and criticism as constructive, as something that could help those active in the Church make it a better Church if they were only willing to listen. They do not deny Mormonism a rightful place in the world; indeed, they see their commitment to separation of Church and state as Mormonism's likeliest, best guarantee of that rightful place, given that everywhere but in small portions of the Intermountain West, Mormons are less than 1-2% of the population. They don't want Affirmation to be unfriendly to individuals who identify as Mormon. In fact, they recognize that Affirmation will fail in its mission long term if it doesn't appeal to people in this category. But they want to be able to express themselves without feeling they have to censor themselves, and they don't generally have much interest in participating in activities where LDS-style devotion is a prominent feature.

Having gotten some of that out of the way (certainly not in any comprehensive way), I think it's worth pointing out now how having both types of members active and visible in the organization will be critical to serving Affirmation's primary constituency, and achieving the goals that different members of the organization have.

First, I hope it will be more obvious now than it was when I earlier stated it in this essay that having a diversity of viewpoints in the organization will actually be more functional for individuals who are wrestling or struggling or in transition in relation to their faith and/or sexuality. Seeing that there are a variety of healthy ways to respond to the challenges of being LGBT and Mormon will give people choices. It will empower individuals to make their own decisions about precisely how faith fits or does not fit into his or her life. They will see different ways to manage choices about relationships, and seeing the outcomes in others' lives of trying to manage these choices in different ways. They can encounter individuals who are single and dating, or individuals who are celibate; individuals who have been or who currently are in so-called “mixed orientation marriages,” as well as individuals in same-sex marriages or committed relationships. They can encounter individuals who are finding various positive ways to make LDS faith work in their lives, and judge for themselves whether they find it healthier to sever their ties with Mormonism. Personal authenticity and autonomy can only be enhanced through participation in a healthy community that embraces diversity. Authenticity (honesty) and autonomy (or “agency” in Mormonspeak) are strong, positive values for folks on both ends of the spectrum discussed here.

For those who value constructive dialog with the Church, it will be good to have relationships with individuals who have left the Church. The Church needs to hear the stories of disaffiliated LGBT people to fully understand the nature of the challenges faced by LGBT LDS people. Political activism will have the effect of promoting discussion in the Church, even when that discussion starts out in a negative way. For instance, the backlash experienced by the Church in the wake of Proposition 8 has had a leavening effect on dialog within the Church, and has motivated large numbers of Church members to open up a dialog they were previously unwilling to engage in.

For those outside the Church, who want to see the Church “do less harm” to LGBT youth, the presence and activity of devout LGBT members can only be seen as a positive thing; they should be supportive and encouraging of those who find ways to be present and visible in the Church. Those individuals' presence will also promote the kinds of dialog that might eventually persuade Church leaders to be more conciliatory in the public, political sphere. The Church is unlikely to feel motivated to examine teachings and doctrines that have a history of causing heartache and harm if they don't see a solid core of LGBT individuals who have a deep love for the Church and are committed to it, even as they struggle with some of its teachings.

Affirmation needs to be an organization where devout LDS LGBT people can come together to pray, sing hymns, wrestle with faith questions from a faithful perspective, and find support in the challenges of being LGBT and faithful. Affirmation also needs to be an organization where people can come together and unburden their doubts, ask difficult questions, and process difficult emotions (including anger and grieving that come along with leaving the Church or experiencing family rejection). An organization that would do all those things would serve all of its members far better.

In the last few years, Affirmation has been moving toward a more Church- and faith-positive position, and this move has attracted a large influx of members, energy and new leaders. It has also turned some folks off. Some have posed the question: Will Affirmation now become unfriendly to questioners or those who have disaffiliated from the Church? The only honest answer, I think, is it could but it doesn't have to. I've tried to make a case here for why it shouldn't, and I do so as one of the advocates of incorporating a stronger faith-positive component into the organization. It would be nice to see Affirmation find a healthy balance and an optimal, dynamic tension between the two poles described here, rather than constantly being in some devout-LDS vs. secular-activist pendulum swing.

The kinds of tensions that Affirmation is experiencing are not unique in the Mormon world. Other organizations such as the “Mormon Stories” and “Circling the Wagons” communities, “Mormons Building Bridges,” and the “Sunstone” symposia and affiliated communities have wrestled with the same tensions. I believe that developing a core ethic of empathy along the lines developed by the “Empathy First Intiative” and “Circles of Empathy” may be a key to moving forward. The better we can do at asking questions rather than making assumptions, and allowing for changing organizational dynamics without assuming the worst about these changes, the more staying power and dynamism we will have as an organization.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Spirit Prison

Today our Sunday School lesson focused on the doctrine of vicarious ordinance work and "redeeming our dead." After introducing the LDS doctrine of "Spirit Prison," our Sunday School teacher posed a question: "Are those who are in Spirit Prison all there because they are bad people?"

The answer was: No.

Many of those who are in Spirit Prison are there because they have not yet received the saving ordinances that need to be performed on their behalf by those of us who have bodies. He used a particular turn of phrase that struck me forcefully: "They are locked in there until someone unlocks the doors for them."

In that moment, I opened my journal and wrote: "I am in Spirit Prison."


I know lots of Latter-day Saints would respond, "Of course you are not. You are excommunicated from the Church, but you have the power to rectify your own situation. All you need to do is leave your husband and go through the requisite repentance process, and then be re-baptized into the Church and have your priesthood and temple blessings restored. In fact, if you don't do this right now, knowing what you know and having the opportunity right before you, your opportunities in the next life will be greatly diminished. So repent and do it now!"

But the problem with that line of reasoning as I understand it is that my fullness of joy cannot possibly lie in "remain[ing] separately and singly" (D&C 132:17). Whatever I understand of "fulness of joy" I understand through my marriage with my husband.

The nature of that joy has become particularly poignant to me as we've begun to face the challenge of my husband's kidney disease together. I've realized there is something powerful and visceral within me that is willing to put everything on the line to fight for his life. I understand that to be "one flesh" with someone is much more than about having sex with someone. It is about having your life entirely intertwined with the life of another human being; to know that your whole welfare, temporal and eternal, is tied up in him.

To tell me that my only way out of hell is to leave my husband, is not showing me any way out of hell at all. It is only to point out to me what I understood most clearly in Sunday School this morning: that I am in Spirit Prison, and that I cannot get out on my own. Somebody else has to unlock the doors for me.


It could be viewed as a cruel doctrine, this notion that the spirits of our ancestors languish in prison until we do the work to free them. Of course the early Saints did not see it as cruel at all. To the contrary, they saw it as compassionate and enlightened compared to the doctrine it replaced: the doctrine that all of those who died without baptism were banished to eternal hell. To the Saints, the doctrine of vicarious ordinance work was proof of God's justice and mercy.

Yet, the doctrine puts the responsibility for saving the dead squarely in the hands of lazy, egotistical, and imperfect humans. Is that actually a mercy after all?

Many Latter-day Saints have heard stories in Church of members who were contacted by dead ancestors or family members, through a dream or through some other miraculous parting of the veil. Their ancestors often contact them to remind them of their responsibility. 

I had an experience of this nature myself in February 2008. I awoke in the middle of the night, and sat up in bed. As I sat there, I saw quite clearly in the northwest corner of our bedroom a man. He had very dark skin, aquiline features, and wore clothing I recognized as African style clothing. He gestured to me, and then he vanished.

This encounter did not frighten me. Quite to the contrary, I was filled with tremendous peace and a sense of well being. This was not a dream. I was wide awake, sitting up in bed. I immediately got up out of bed and went downstairs to our living room. The feeling of peace and well-being lingered, and I got down on my knees and prayed for understanding about who this was and what this meant. And then the impression came very clearly to my mind that this was one of Göran's ancestors.

Another impression immediately came to my mind. We had recently attempted to make contact with Göran's biological father in Memphis, Tennessee by sending him a letter via registered mail. The letter had been returned to us unopened, and at that point we felt stuck. We weren't quite sure how to proceed. As I was praying to understand the meaning of the presence of the man in our room, it also came clear to me that we needed to try sending the letter again. The next morning, I spoke with Göran about it and told him it was urgent we try making contact with his father again.

It took us a few months to actually get around to doing it, but when we finally did, our second contact attempt succeeded. We finally met Göran's biological family for the first time in August of that same year.

There are a few things that intrigued me about this encounter. First of all, I thought it was interesting that Göran's ancestor chose to appear to me rather than Göran. Was that because, being a Latter-day Saint, he knew that I would understand the importance of making contact with Göran's family, both for the sake of the living as well as of the dead? But it also intrigued me that if Göran's ancestors were attempting to make contact with Göran, that they did so through his same-sex partner. Was that an acknowledgment that, on the other side of the veil, our relationship is recognized as having validity? Do Göran's dead ancestors see me as a part of the family?

Another interesting thing had to do with the timing. It was only later, in August 2008 when we finally met Göran's family in Memphis, that we learned that Göran's grandfather had passed away in January of that same year. Less than a month before the spiritual experience that prompted us to renew our efforts to find his biological family.

When we arrived in Memphis, I had a notebook with me at all times, and a copy of "Mac Family Tree" installed on my computer. By the end of our visit, I had assembled a family tree with about 350 names in it.

Whenever I hear lessons of the nature we heard in Sunday School today, I feel a bit guilty. It's been a while since I've worked on Göran's genealogy. And it bothers me that even if Göran and his family were agreeable, we couldn't do vicarious ordinance work for them because both Göran and I are barred from the temple.

Are Göran's progenitors gnashing their teeth right now over the uselessness of their descendents, including that white Mormon guy who married into the family?

But why speak to me in the first place if I'm so frickin' useless?


I wept in Church today, during Sacrament meeting, particularly during the singing of this hymn:
Father in Heav'n, we do believe
The promise thou hast made;
Thy word with meekness we receive,
Just as thy Saints have said.
We now repent of all our sin
And come with broken heart,
And to thy covenant enter in
And choose the better part.

O Lord, accept us while we pray,
And all our sins forgive;
New life impart to us this day,
And bid the sinners live.

Humbly we take the sacrament
In Jesus' blessed name;
Let us receive thru covenant
The Spirit's heav'nly flame.
I don't know what to make of my current predicament. But what I do know is that my salvation is tied up with Göran's, and with his family's. I've had numerous other spiritual dreams and experiences that have confirmed that. So I can't be saved by divorcing him. This much I know.

But I also know that I'm waiting on the Church to unlock some door for me -- for us.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Ye Have Sinned a Great Sin

Exodus chapter 32 represents a key moment in the history of God's dealings with Israel. It is the moment where the children of Israel first face God's wrath. In preceding chapters of Exodus, it was the Egyptians who had plagues poured out on them because of Pharaoh's intransigence. But these plagues appear merciful in comparison with the utter destruction God threatens against the people of Israel in this chapter.

First, it's worth examining a few turns of phrase in the King James text that have dramatically colored the way in which this text has been read in American culture. In verse 6, the KJV reads, "and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play." Later, in verse 25, the KJV reads, "and when Moses saw that the people were naked; (for Aaron had made them naked unto their shame among their enemies)." If you've ever seen The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston, the portrayal of the events of this chapter as a kind of Bacchanalian sex orgy is pretty unforgettable. It gives the impression that when "the sons of Levi" rallied to Moses' call and slew "three thousand men," that they were being slain as much for their sexual licentiousness as for anything else. This translation/reading of the text has certainly cemented in the American religious imagination a connection between idolatry and sexuality. Better translations and a more careful reading of the text present a much different and, in my opinion, far more sobering picture of the relationship between God and his people.

The Jewish Publication Society translation of these texts (which is supported in the footnotes of the LDS edition) first of all reads away from the image of a sex orgy, and toward the establishment of a new (idolatrous) religion. In verse 6, JPS reads, "they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance." The contrast between the KJV and JPS translations of verse 25 are even more striking. JPS reads, "Moses saw that the people were out of control -- since Aaron had let them get out of control -- so that they were a menace to any who might oppose them." In other words, Moses finds in progress not a sex orgy, but an armed rebellion. And in that light, what is portrayed to ensue -- the quelling of the rebellion with armed force, resulting in the deaths of three thousand -- makes much more sense.

Read in context, we see that what is happening in this chapter is the establishment of a new religion without divine authorization. Moses, accompanied by Joshua, goes up into Mount Sinai to receive God's commandments. The people are distressed by his absence, which they feel has been long enough that they no longer know what's happened to him. At their urging, Aaron gathers gold from the people and fashions an idol. And here's where it gets interesting.

"This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt," he proclaims. He builds an altar for sacrifice, and then proclaims, "Tomorrow shall be a festival of the Lord!" Exodus 32 proceeds to describe a standard religious festival, complete with sacrifices, sacraments (eating and drinking), hymns and liturgical dance. Not an orgy, but worship.

This is fascinating to me, because I had often read this text as a violation of the first commandment ("Thou shalt have no other gods before me" -- Exodus 20:3). In fact, it is a violation of the second commandment, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image."

The difference to me between these two commandments has always been kind of fuzzy, especially given the Christian culture I am accustomed to where portraits of God are common -- in stained glass windows or on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Mormons don't think twice about fashioning images of God when portraying Joseph Smith's theophany in the Sacred Grove.  Such portraits in Sunday School manuals or films or in missionary flip charts is commonplace. To us that is not idolatry, that's missionary work. (Even though some of us have learned to squirm a bit about portrayals of God as a white guy with a beard.)

But the distinction between the first and second commandments is less fuzzy in the context of Jewish history and culture, where any visual portrayal of God is taboo, where even the writing or the careless speaking of God's name is considered off limits. I guess the Jews have stayed closer to the lessons of Exodus 32 (and Exodus 20:4-6) than Christians. Jews understand, as this text should make clear to any people who cherish the Bible, that false images of the one true God are just as dangerous as false gods. You don't have to worship Asherah or Beelzebul to have gone astray. You can worship something you have persuaded yourself to be the one true God but is actually a mere false image.

When Aaron stood before the golden calf and proclaimed, "This is your God... who brought you out of the land of Egypt," he intended to point toward the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Perhaps he hoped that this form of devotion was better than the lawlessness the people seemed to be careening toward in Moses' absence. Perhaps he reasoned, it is easier for people to stay focused if they have something concrete to worship.

The problem, of course, was once they had latched onto their own image -- their own idol -- of God, they became fixed upon it to the exclusion of any true revelation from God. When Moses reappeared in the camp with a bonafide revelation, they rejected it in favor of the one they had fashioned for themselves, and the result was violent rebellion, "a menace to any who might oppose them."

This is far more disquieting in my mind, than the image of the children of Israel engaging in orgiastic revelry so often presented to us from this chapter. A more accurate reading of this text reveals the children of Israel actually engaging in orderly worship, in devotion that looks not too different from the devotion demanded by the One True God. In the chapters just preceding Exodus 32, we have revelations in which the Lord spells out what kind of altar to build for the purpose of the sacrifices he requires (see particularly Exodus 30), and in Exodus 32 we see Aaron building an altar for sacrifice to "the Lord."
Idolatry, it seems, is a far graver sin than revelry; and it seems a much easier sin to mistake for the kind of worship God demands of us.


For what it's worth, what ensues in the story is revealing about the fundamental nature of idolatry versus true worship.

An idol is problematic because it is "graven," it is fixed. And so it seems all the more significant that the description of God presented in this text is of a being who is not fixed.

In verses 9-14 of the same chapter, the Lord clearly states his intention to utterly annihilate the children of Israel, to wipe the slate clean and start over with Moses. And Moses enters into a kind of pleading or bargaining with the Lord that is reminiscent of the bargaining that Abraham engages in on behalf of the city of Sodom (Genesis 18: 23-35). Moses actually, remarkably, puts himself on the line for the children of Israel. Moses pleads with the Lord, in verse 32, "Now, if You will forgive their sin well and good; but if not, erase me from the record which you have written." Moses was willing to go down with the sinking ship if necessary; and greater love hath no man. God accepted Moses' pleading, Moses' sacrifice of love, and made a different, more merciful, arrangement.

Idols can't do that. An idol is fixed. And a fixed idol can be an idea as much as a statue or a picture.

God preserve us from that.