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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

It's About Love--Not Rancor

Yesterday, an article was published on Religion News Service (RNS) about an event we held in Berkeley on September 7th. The article was subsequently picked up by Washington Post, Huffington Post and a few others.

In it, the journalist talked about the evening itself as well as looking at how social media has fostered change in the hearts and minds of Mormons on topics like our LGBT brothers and sisters.

While I appreciate the coverage, I regret the positioning.

This isn't really about pushing back on Church teaching, our leadership, or our doctrine. This is about meeting people where they're at, and helping create a Mormon culture where everyone is welcome, just as they are--a culture our Savior Himself would foster. A more accurate headline would be, "Mormons use social media to build connectedness and community inside a faith that views them as 'different."

We're not the rebels the headline might believe some to think. We're simply the face of cultural change, and are engaged in this effort because we love our Savior, we love our fellow Mormons, and we love our Church--and we want us to be better.

This isn't about rancor. It's about love.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Gospel of Attraction

I spend a fair amount of time at the gym. Working out has become part of my spiritual practice for me--it's an almost meditative state where I can simply "be" in my own body, and when I use my earphones I can play music that helps me feel insulated and private even when I'm in a room full of other people. I find as I exercise my body, my thoughts become more distinct, my motives become more clear, and I am better able to respond kindly to those around me because I am more centered.

Once in awhile, I get interrupted by well-meaning personal trainers offering advice on technique and form when I'm working out. Sometimes they're right, but sometimes they're not. Either way, I'm invariably surprised when someone approaches me and shares what they see to be the definitive right answer to a question I've never asked them. I can understand their motives, because once upon a time I, too, was someone who was certain I had the right answer for everyone's problems and I was compelled to share that right away! Suffice to say, my certainty and need to be right didn't always score me a lot of points with the humans around me. One thing I learned is unsolicited advice is seldom welcome.

Sometimes the same thing is true of those of us inside faith communities, including Mormonism. Based on fierce certainty that our way is the right way, and our God is the right God, we can feel entitled to share our enlightenment with those around us without considering the question, "Did they ask?"

What works better for me today is striving to embody the peace and mindfulness I get from my spiritual practice and staying close to my Savior--while allowing others the dignity to walk their own path. Sometimes it means people will ask my opinion about things of a spiritual nature or beyond, and sometimes not. Either way, for me, it's more like living a gospel of attraction instead of a gospel of promotion. After all, I try to look to my Savior in all things, and one of His mantras was, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock." It certainly wasn't, "I stand at the door and shout and will continue until you open up and do things my way, and if you don't open it I'll shout even louder!!"

When I'm at my best--meaning I'm really putting the principles of my spiritual practice into my actions, words, and deeds--I'm a lot better equipped to deliver the message my Savior would have me deliver, and I'm pretty certain He'll bring the people into my life who may learn from me--and me from them.

I continue to learn to be honest with myself. I will not use my spiritual practice as an excuse to change others or tell them how to live. They have a Savior too, and it's not me. Trying to control how other people think and act disrupts my spiritual center and moves me away from my Savior. Instead, I strive to promptly admit my missteps and then put the focus back where it belongs: on me and my connectedness with my Savior.

Besides, I'm starting to believe that how I respond to someone's lack of interest in any message I might deliver is a far more powerful demonstration of my commitment to my Savior than any lengthy (and unasked for) testimony I could deliver.

Today, I will strive to bring my spiritual practice to life in my thoughts, words, and deeds--and allow others the dignity to walk their paths without my interference. Only when my focus is on my own spiritual growth can I genuinely be who my Savior wants me to be--for myself or anyone else.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

What question have you been asking God lately?

There's a small group of interfaith friends I meet with once a month on a casual basis. It's been a great experience to learn about other faiths, and the stories behind the individual paths of the participants--ranging from clergy to new members--are fascinating to hear. What's been most remarkable, I think, is it's become clear that the actual 'brand' of faith matters less than the God we find there. Recently, at one of our meetings, a new participant asked a pretty proactive question: What question have you been asking God lately?

It was a small group, so we each took a turn and talked a bit about what's been on our mind and how we've pulled God into our daily lives and concerns. I will admit, I'm a pretty deeply spiritual person and this was a tough one for me--I talk to my Savior constantly throughout the day and pull Him in on virtually everything. Rather than always being formal, my communication with Him is spontaneous and authentic. Sometimes I imagine He views me as one of those over-excited kids tugging at the shirt sleeves of a parent and jumping up and down while I do it. But I love my Savior, and I love having Him involved in my life, on every level--and I know He meets me where I am.

But what question was I asking Him? That was tougher. So when it was my turn, with my usual dry sense of humor, I responded with, "The question I've been asking my Savior is, 'When are we going to start doing things my way?" Of course, it generated a chuckle around the table and it was meant to do so.

Humor aside, there was a kernel of truth here. Once upon a time, my prayers were very much centered on getting my way and getting other people to change. "Please let my Dad figure this out so he will love me again," or "Show Mom that I am right!" were common refrains.

Over time, and by developing a solid spiritual practice that has led me to a deeper understanding of my Savior, my prayers have changed. I have come to believe that changing other people isn't my job--changing myself, however, is.

The serenity prayer has been a good guide post for me. Now, while I still share at great lengths about what worries and troubles me, I bring my Savior my joy and gratitude, as well. Today, my prayers are centered around what I'm supposed to learn, accept, or change within myself in any given situation. They've become about who my Savior wants me to be, and often include a request to grant me enough humility to bring my will into alignment with His. I pray for the wisdom to know the difference between my path and the paths of my fellows, and the courage to follow through with what I learn. Finally--and this is especially important for me--for those with whom I'm frustrated or angry, I pray that they be granted all the love, serenity, and peace I want for myself. After all, each of my brothers and sisters deserves that.

My Savior did finally start answering my prayers--but not until I stopped telling Him what to do.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

"You Can Be Angry at Someone (or Something) You Love..."

"You can be angry at someone (or something) you love, and it doesn't always mean the relationship is over."
Years ago, a wise friend shared this with me and when I heard it, I think I stared back at her for a good 90 seconds before I even blinked. It was as if someone stated the painfully obvious that I knew deep down was true, but had never heard verbalized my entire life--let alone seen someone practice it.
Sure, I got it intellectually--anger isn't the end of everything. But the world I lived in never dealt with anger directly or in a healthy way: it was stuffed, covered up, or denied wholesale until it festered right into a resentment, which of course could leap out at any time and punish the offender (who seldom had any idea why they were being punished), with harsh words or any icy freeze-out. This kind of behavior was not only true in my family, but also deeply entrenched into much of my Mormon culture where being "nice" seemed to be valued much more than being "genuine."
It took me a long time to understand how to come to grips with the truth of my friend's statement. And, it took me a long time to understand how to deal with my anger in a healthy way, and learn that it's not really "nice" at all to be angry with someone and not be honest about it, and instead carry resentments around with me like a giant bag of rocks.
Today I recognize I have a choice when dealing with anger. I also recognize that "anger" is only one letter short of "danger," and when I don't deal with anger appropriately it often leads me in a hazardous direction where I lose my spiritual center. That one-letter, one-second choice between managing my anger or letting my anger manage me often means the difference between creating cavernous gaps in my relationships, or creating connections with those around me based on honesty, respect, and dignity for both of us.

As an openly gay Mormon--and someone who stands as my authentic self in both communities--I get many opportunities to learn how to manage my anger. When I'm faced with anger, I can choose to detach and think before I react. Maybe I choose to remove myself from the situation; perhaps I choose to respond with a simple statement like, "You might be right" to avoid a pointless argument; or I can choose to directly tell another person I feel uncomfortable or angry with their behavior and say what I mean, without being mean when I say it. Then, if I need to, I can choose to process my feelings with a safe and trusted friend in confidence, put the situation in my God Box and give it to my Savior, or beat the heck out of my pillow with a whiffle bat. I can even choose to do all three.
Everything about maintaining my spiritual center begins and ends with me and the choices I make. When I choose to practice managing my anger in a healthy way, I don't have to carry resentments around like a heavy bag of stones, and I am free to live my life peacefully and with dignity--and allow others the privilege of doing the same.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Things That You Must Explain

Today, I'm sharing a guest post written by a good friend of mine, Matt Mosman. Matt has an interesting story himself: straight, multi-generational Mormon, honorably served a mission and in many callings within the Mormon Church, and married to a non-member (who is perhaps among the most fantastic humans I know).

Matt and I met when I took my calling as the openly gay executive secretary in the Bishopric in San Francisco almost three years ago. We became fast friends--he's quick to laugh, and quick to stand up for anyone who is unjustly placed in the role of the underdog.

He's now--whether he likes it or not--a solid part of my inner circle. A wise, articulate, intelligent and kind man I am proud to know. Here, he shares his thoughts around some of the sometimes questionable logic used against marriage equality. I asked him before I shared this, "Are you worried you will offend some by standing up for marriage equality?" His response was classic Matt Mosman: "I'm not even advocating for marriage equality here. I'm simply advocating for sound logic."

And that he does.


As I’ve become involved in offering support for LGBT rights and for LGBT acceptance within the LDS community, a few things have really stood out to me as striking crimes against basic logic.  I want to take a few paragraphs here to outline places where LGBT people should not have to defend themselves.  In most cases, those who oppose them do. 

Note here that I am not attempting to refute an exhaustive list of anti-gay rhetoric.  Rather, I’m sticking only to flaws of logic: those notions, often now memes, that fail on the level of basic structure.  To wit:

The claim that being LGBT is a choice.  This is a classic example of the logical fallacy called “Shifting the Burden of Proof.”  It goes like this: I am a rather tall person, at 6’4”.  When I look over a wall or fence and describe a view that is obscured from normal-sized people, the onus is not on me to prove myself correct.  I am the one looking on the sight; when I say that the neighbor’s backyard has a lemon tree, I am assumed to be correct unless someone can demonstrate that I am not by getting their own view beyond the fence.  To suggest that I am the one who must prove that there is a lemon tree in the yard, and not the person who cannot see past the fence, is shifting the burden of proof.

So why, when a person who is gay explains to us that this is the way that they have felt for as long as they can remember feeling anything, do other people suggest that they are wrong about that?  The only person on earth with a view into the person’s mind is the person himself (or herself); no one else could possibly make a sensible claim to know better.  Somehow the burden of proof has shifted to the wrong party.

The most logical thing to do would be to simply ask individual LGBT people what their experience was with respect to having experienced a moment of “choice,” or not.  When someone claims to have been the way they are for as long as they can remember, we should simply believe them -- the same way we believe heterosexual people who make the same claim.

The other flaw we often see in this argument is called the “argument from incredulity,” which takes the form of something like “I cannot imagine x to be true, therefore it must not be true.”  Many religious folks simply have difficulty reconciling the notion that God created LGBT people as they are with one or more of their religious beliefs.  But of course this is not logical at all -- an inability to reconcile something that is provably true by normal means with a belief system implies that perhaps the system should bend to accommodate new truth, instead of its proponents simply denying provable truth.

The idea that being LGBT is somehow a “popular” or “hip” thing to be.  This claim is often related to the “choice” claim, the idea being that young people are choosing to be gay because it’s cool.  This is an idea so irrational and insane that I hardly know where to start.  The experience of almost every gay person, anywhere in the world, is one of extreme difficulty and near-constant rejection.  Suicide rates and depression are dramatically higher for LGBT people, which argues rather successfully against the notion that it is the popular thing to do. 

The absolutely true notion that gay characters are gaining acceptance on popular television programs does nothing to support the idea that being LGBT is popular, though it may suggest an increase in acceptance (which is quite a different thing).  It remains true that most television programs feature exactly zero gay characters, and the fact that it is newsworthy that “Modern Family” features a gay couple (in which one of the actors, Eric Stonestreet, is not actually gay) argues against the popularity hypothesis. 

What concerns me here is that I have seen otherwise intelligent people listen to someone make this bizarre claim and yet nod their heads in assent without an investigation of the merits.  It has become a meme, asserting itself purely through repetition.  People who are fairly good at saying, “Now, wait just a minute here…” to almost anything else are not questioning a claim that has almost no basis in reality. 

Here, again, the burden of proof is on the claimant.  The person making this assertion cannot simply state it without offering any reasonable evidence. 

And the proof won’t be there.  I’ll indulge in my own fallacy by using a sample size of one to illustrate, but I have to tell this story:  Just a few years ago, I was CEO of a software company here in the San Francisco Bay Area.  One of my company’s software engineers arrived at work one day with a black eye and a fat lip, and I asked him how it happened.  He said he was just walking to his train stop, and some guys jumped him.  “For what?”, I asked, incredulous.  The engineer just looked at me like I had two heads.  He’s a gay guy, and he thought the “why” question should have been obvious to me.  It still happens.  Even here.  A lot.

The notion that gay marriage is an “attack” on “traditional marriage.”  Before I even address this, I have to note for everyone what my brilliant wife, who is not LDS, has pointed out to me on several occasions: that for Mormons, of all people, to be lecturing others on what is or is not “traditional” in marriage is a little bit mind-bending.  Which, well...yeah.  It really is.

This particular idea suffers from multiple fallacies in the “red herring” category.  Red herring fallacies attempt to hide a weakness in an argument by drawing attention away from the real issue.  

This argument is very obviously an appeal to fear, a fact made clear by the common use of the word “attack.”  It becomes difficult for people to evaluate merits when fear is involved.  Also, the very use of “traditional marriage” makes it an appeal to tradition, a form of argument which places extra value on something being “the way we do things,” ignoring or diminishing the fact that some traditions are just plain wrong.

Were proponents of this line of reasoning to state more reasonably their objection, it reads (and feels) rather different.  It would be something like, “In the modern era in the West, the societal norm for marriage has been one man married to one woman.  Gay marriage is not that.”  Such a statement is absolutely correct, but it doesn’t carry the fear and (long) tradition heft.

Finally: Gay marriage is a slippery slope.  The notion here is that widespread legal approval of gay marriage will inevitably lead to a series of dire consequences.  Often this ends with the prediction that the government will eventually force the church to solemnize gay marriages in its temples.

It’s interesting to me that this is put forth as a firm argument, since the whole concept of a slippery slope is widely considered to be a logical fallacy (it is also sometimes referred to as the “camel’s nose fallacy” or the “thin edge of the wedge”).  The reason it is considered fallacious is that it assumes a series of events that are by no means guaranteed to occur (and in fact most often do not occur) in order to reach its dire conclusion. 

Sadly, the argument itself has often brought about its own dire conclusions.  Our nation went into Vietnam on a slippery slope argument -- the fall of Vietnam to communism was supposed to be the first domino in a series that would end up with communism engulfing all of Asia.  A generation of young men fought and died for that faulty hypothesis.

A more useful argument would outline each of the steps and assign some likelihood to each, in order to accurately assess what might actually happen.  Since the steps taken together form a conditional probability (in which you multiply each of the probabilities together to obtain the likelihood of the result actually occurring), the proposed endgame is almost always exceptionally unlikely: either a long series of fairly likely steps or any series that contains even one unlikely step will produce a low-likelihood result.  A series of five steps, each with a 70% likelihood of occurring, produces a 16.8% likelihood of reaching the endgame.  Insert even one term in that series with a 25% likelihood, and the overall probability drops to 6%.

None of this is to say that it is impossible to believe differently than I do about gay people or about gay marriage.  I’m certain that there are reasonable things that can be said on each side of these issues.  Rather, it is to say this: that the arguments presented above are each deeply flawed, and if a person is to use them, they have some fairly serious explaining to do. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Come Ye Thankful People, Come

A post by my friend Bob Rees, in honor of Thanksgiving. Enjoy.

“Come Ye Thankful People, Come”
Robert A. Rees

That is the title of a Thanksgiving hymn written in 1844 by Henry Alford which is still sung in many churches today. The imperative, repeated “come” give the hymn  the sense of both invitation and urgency. This is a season of coming together (as families, groups and congregations) to express appreciation, gratitude and thanksgiving (related but distinct human emotions).  The Institute of HeartMath in the Santa Cruz Mountains where I worked for a dozen years has studied gratitude and its associated emotions and their impact on our minds, bodies,  and spirits. Here is a summary of their findings: “[When expressing appreciation or gratitude,] you feel a deep sense of peace and internal balance­­—you are at harmony with yourself, with others, and with your larger environment. You experience increased buoyancy and vitality. Your senses are enlivened—every aspect of your perceptual experience seems richer, more textured. Surprisingly, you feel invigorated even when you would usually have felt tired and drained.” Another way to say this is that expressing appreciation, gratitude and thankfulness are good for us—physically, emotionally and spiritually. 

And yet, we often have to be reminded to be grateful. That happened to me just this week. I was at Best Buy involved in a long, difficult phone conversation with a computer repair technician somewhere in the antipodes. I was irritated, frustrated, and tired. To a woman standing next in line waiting to be served, I complained, “What a day!” She responded, “But it is a day.” Immediately, her words changed my perspective. Yes, having any day (even a difficult one) is better than having no day. Whatever difficulties I was experiencing, I was alive. I was also immensely blessed, especially in comparison with the vast majority of humankind, including no doubt the technician on the other end of the line.

Thanksgiving is also a day, a day set apart for expressing gratitude and thanks.  It is a day when we remember all of those others who have blessed our lives in some way, who have given to us beyond the limits of obligation and expectation, who have given time, patience, and love with grace and generosity and in doing so have made our lives fuller, richer, safer, and more meaningful.  With just a little thought a list of those who have touched or now touch our lives in some way expands exponentially. Thus, those for whom we should be grateful are not only those millions who have sacrificed to make our world as rich, comfortable and safe as it is, but, in Wordsworth’s expression,  the “little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and love” of which we are daily recipients.

It is the nature of gratitude to engender gratitude—in ourselves and others. Which is to say that gratitude is contagious. That means that expressing gratitude on Thanksgiving is likely to elicit gratitude in others—and more gratitude in ourselves beyond Thanksgiving, finding in each day at least one thing for which we can be grateful. Expressing gratitude also often leads to our manifesting gratitude beyond words. Feelings of appreciation and thankfulness often motivate us to do something for others.  As John F. Kennedy said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.

One of our family rituals is to ask all those sitting around the Thanksgiving table to name one thing for which they are especially thankful and then to have a collective prayer of thanksgiving. When I was travelling in China years ago with a group of American writers,  Barry Lopez said something I have never forgotten: “An older meaning of ‘to remember’ means to pass something through our hearts once more.” This Thanksgiving, perhaps as we sit around the table with friends and relatives we can all take a moment to let some remembrance of gratitude pass through our hearts again. As the old French proverb puts it, “Gratitude is the heart’s memory.”

Robert A. Rees, Ph.D., a member of  the  Marin Interfaith Council Board, teaches Mormonism at UC Berkeley and Graduate Theological Union. He lives in Mill Valley.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Salt Lake: We Have a Problem

Today, I share an article written by my friend Bob Rees--about another friend of mine, "Emily." This is a tragic story--for everyone involved, especially for us as a Mormon faith.

We can do better.

Salt Lake: We Have a Problem
Robert A. Rees

This is a true story; it is also a sad story; and it is a story that Mormons—leaders and lay members alike--need to hear.

 I got a call last week from a woman, I’ll call her Emily. This is her story.

Emily was raised in a large, Latter-day Saint family, one with long and strong pioneer roots. Growing up, she was furiously engaged in the Church, taking seriously its doctrines, standards, and gospel-centered lifestyle. She was aware from an early age that she felt differently about girls and women than she did about boys and men, but didn’t attach any particular significance to this awareness. Starting in elementary school and lasting into her college years, she had a series of crushes on her female teachers. She didn’t identify her feelings as gay, but when others made comments suggesting that there was something inappropriate about the relationships, even in early elementary school, she felt a deep sense of shame, a shame she didn’t know the cause of and couldn’t even name.

Wanting to be a good and obedient Latter-day Saint and believing in the promises that a temple marriage held, she married a returned missionary when she was nineteen. On the wedding night and thereafter, she knew something was terribly wrong as she experienced emotional and sexual intimacy with her husband as repulsive, although she still didn’t identify as lesbian. In spite of her valiant efforts to be a good, faithful and loving wife, after a year of marriage, she divorced her husband, feeling that it was unfair to both of them to continue in such a conflicted, unsatisfying relationship. Her siblings blamed her for the failure of the marriage as did her husband’s family.  And although it was very painful, she had prayed and fasted about her decision and felt a deep peace that it was right because she felt her husband should be loved in the way he deserved to be—something she knew deep within her that she could never give him.  Instead of attributing the failed relationship to her being gay, she continued to tell herself that she just hadn’t met the man who was right for her.
In the following years, her family kept pressuring her to remarry.  Heartbroken, lonely and full of despair, Emily redoubled her devotion to the gospel. For ten years, she tried dating other men but the relationships always ended the same way because she never felt emotionally or physically attracted to these men.  She threw herself furiously into school, work, and church service, often spending six or seven hours a week preparing her weekly gospel doctrine lessons.  She knew she was different. Ultimately she began to fear what that difference was but tried all she could to run from it.  She begged God to change her, to make her like all her women friends who were attracted to men. Experiencing an existential loneliness, Emily did the only thing she felt was still open to her—redoubled her efforts to live a righteous, even holy life and turn her life over completely to God.

During this period, she sought numerous blessings at the hands of her bishop and other priesthood holders. Reflecting on these later, she identified a common theme: all of them assured her that the Lord wanted her to be who she was. She wasn’t sure she knew what that meant, but finally accepted it as some kind divine validation of her identity. Even so, she saw no way to reconcile being a lesbian with being a Latter-day Saint and, after “crying for months,” made a deliberate and careful plan to commit suicide. When the night came to act on this decision, she had what she describes as a profound spiritual experience, one so sacred that she wouldn’t describe it to me except to say that it was clear that God wanted her to be who she was as a lesbian even though she didn’t necessarily conclude that this validation meant a relationship with another woman. Trusting God, she turned her life completely over to him, assuring him of her willingness to accept his guidance as she went forward, asking only that he show her the way.

At age twenty-nine, after this spiritual confirmation, she acknowledged her identity and orientation as a lesbian, but when she revealed this to her family, the majority of them became even more abusive, accusing her of being a deviant, a pedophile, and under the influence of Satan.  They rejected her and cut her off from family events and forbade her from having a relationship with their children, her nieces and nephews.  At the time, she didn’t even know another gay person.     

With a family she felt “hated her” and with no real friends, she once more poured herself into work and Church activity. Within a year, she met Rose at the place where she worked. Although not a Latter-day Saint, Rose valued many things about the Church and was in fact living its standards. Tentative about the relationship, they slowly began seeing one another but kept their relationship chaste. Emily says that her prayers were simply, “If I am to be with someone and this is the right person, please let me know.” After praying this way for a period of time, she says she heard a distinct voice saying, “You will be with her some day.” Rather than seeing this as permission to move aggressively ahead with the relationship, Emily was once again cautious, saying to God in effect, “I leave this completely in your hands and will accept whatever you desire.” Soon the confirmation came that this was to be a relationship approved by the heavens.

Wanting to keep her covenants and abide by gospel principles, Emily and Rose became bonded through a domestic partnership, the only legal option open to them at the time. Shortly after doing so and having no idea how it would come to pass, Emily told Rose, “I have confirmation that you and I will be married within five years.” Rose was incredulous. Four years later during the 2008 battle over Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative challenging the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, Emily and Rose were married during a brief window in which same-sex marriages were legal. They have now been legally bonded to one another for nearly a decade. Fortunately, family members who once rejected them are now loving and supportive.

Now for the rest of the story . . .

Knowing the Mormon Church’s stance on same-sex couples and same-sex marriage, Emily and Rose have been faithfully attending another Christian church—as they have done for the entire time they’ve been together. Like good Latter-day Saints, they have scripture study, hold family home evenings, regularly fast, and live lives of integrity.  Because of Emily’s love for the gospel, she and Rose would periodically attend Sacrament meeting at different wards just so Emily could re-experience the ambiance of the Church she loves so much.  Although wanting to attend other meetings, they avoided them because they knew they wouldn’t be accepted if they answered questions about who they were. Recently, Emily has felt during her prayers a strong impression that she and Rose should return to the Church and attend all meetings.  She has a deep longing in her soul is to find fellowship with her brothers and sisters in the Restored Church—and to find a place in a ward where she and Rose can worship together. They have also spoken of wanting to start a family and raise their children according to gospel standards in a Mormon congregation. Knowing how the Church regards their relationship and fearing what could be a painful experience if their efforts to find fellowship among Mormons fail, Emily sought the help of several allies in finding a hospitable, welcoming bishop and congregation.

Through connections, I found several possibilities in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live and, let’s say, where Emily and Rose live. Believing Emily and Rose would get a warm reception from a couple of bishops others had recommended, I suggested that Emily contact them.  She did so for one and had an ally help contact the other one and reported the following:

The first bishop, a university professor, told Emily that she and Rose would be welcome in his ward but suggested that it would be better if Emily severed what he called their “common-law marriage.” If she didn’t do that, they could still attend the ward but he warned that he would have to “call her to repentance every week,” and they could later sit down together and consider Church policies regarding excommunication.  

The second bishop, according to a person from whom Emily solicited help, said that she and Rose would be welcome in his ward but that if they attended, he would be compelled to excommunicate Emily—but that she could still attend the ward after that.  Emily was told by the ally that some members in this ward still have feelings about Prop 8 which they had experienced as their trial by fire similar to Mormon pioneers’ journey across the plains.

After these experiences, Emily wrote, “Oh Bob, why is this so hard for the members of the church?  I
think it is partly explained by the fact that they do such a good job of keeping gays and lesbians away from the Church that they never have any substantial interaction with real ones; otherwise, they would see the pain that is caused by such misunderstanding and rejection. If they only took time to feel our spirits, hear our testimonies, and understand our hearts, they would see that we are just like them with the same hopes and desires, the same need for love and acceptance.”

She added, “Not long ago, when Rose and I attended a ward, the sisters in Relief Society actually thought we were visiting from the General Board of the Relief Society! Imagine how surprised they would have been if we had revealed that we were a same-sex couple.” She added, “It's disheartening when I consider that if I want to attend church with Rose my options are: 1) divorce her, 2) get excommunicated, or 3) lie about my real name.  To me, none of these options seems in accord with God’s will.”  Emily wonders why if the Church now concedes that being gay is not a choice, it continues to believe that Heavenly Father’s purpose for His gay children in this life is different from his purpose for his heterosexual children.  

What’s wrong with this picture? The Church has a problem until it figures out how to deal with people like Emily and Rose. It is hard to believe that people like them who have a sincere desire to worship the Lord and find fellowship with other Latter-day Saints would not be welcomed in any Mormon congregation without fear of rejection or disciplinary action. 

I can’t help but feel that their experience (which is certainly not an unfamiliar one to anyone who has been involved in the long and tortuous relationship between the Church and its LGBT members) stems from several factors, all of which seem to me out of harmony with the spirit of the Christian gospel:

  •  As Emily suggests, a basic ignorance among the general membership of the lived experiences of gays and lesbians, of the normality of their daily lives;

  •  A plethora of cultural overlays that stereotype gay men and lesbians as perverted, deviant, broken and, most of all, deliberately sinful that many Mormons accept unquestioningly.

  • A failure to understand that Christ calls his followers to respond to others (including those whom we consider strangers or other) with generosity, hospitality, openness and, ultimately, with love.

  • The failure of the Church to communicate to leaders and members alike the more loving and enlightened messages found on

  • The failure of the Church to articulate a clear policy for leaders and lay members alike as to how to accommodate people of good faith who enter into legal same-sex relationships.

Fortunately, not all leaders respond to gays and lesbians (whether legally married or not) as the two bishops described above have. A few bishops and stake presidents are taking an enlightened, flexible stance toward LGBT Latter-day Saints. One bishop in the Bay Area told me that when a lesbian asked if she could come back to church, he responded, “On two conditions: 1) that you bring your partner, and 2) that you accept a calling.” 

I know another bishop who welcomes a gay friend of mine and his family to church where they are fully integrated into the congregation. A stake president of my acquaintance has created a welcoming spirit for gays and lesbians in all of the wards of his stake. 

In his recent conference address, Elder Dallin Oaks reiterated the Church’s position that outside the bonds of hetero-normative marriage all uses of our procreative powers are to one degree or another sinful. However, most sexual expression among humans, including among Latter-day Saints, does not focus on procreation but rather on physical, emotional and spiritual intimacy. To think of this complicated and even mysterious amalgam of expressions and emotions as primarily procreative is somehow to diminish their richness and complexity as well as their integral role in relationships based on romantic and erotic attraction. Part of Joseph Smith’s enlightened understand of our humanity is that our sexual powers, expressions and pleasures are gifts beyond procreation.

Elder Oaks was very clear, as is the church’s website, as to what is currently acceptable in the eyes of the contemporary church regarding same-sex marriage. However, the rapidly changing landscape with regard to same-sex marriage (in which many states and nations increasingly either have or will be making them legal) may suggest that we are in a state of flux, especially, as with Emily and Rose, for those who are legally and lawfully married. Historically, church doctrine and practice relative to marriage have been quite elastic, with various forms (monogamy, polygyny, polyandry) being accepted under certain conditions. In the 19th century under the practice of polygamy there were many kinds of marital relationships, some of which were procreative and some that were not, some that were sexual and some that were not, and some of which were eternal and some of which were not. In the past in Catholic countries that didn’t allow divorce, some Latter-day Saint marriages that were technically unlawful were recognized as legitimate by the Church. At one time, at least, common-law marriages were seen as acceptable, if not ideal. 

What I sense most gays and lesbians want the Church to recognize is that from their earliest years the Church itself teaches all children (whether they turn out to be gay, bi or straight) to desire, plan, and prepare themselves for that deep intimate bonding with another person who ultimately completes and fulfills them. This is taught at their parents’ knees, in primary, in Sunday school, in young women’s and young men’s programs, in seminary—everywhere. No one can grow up in the Church without understanding that his or her crowning achievement in life is to find that special someone and create an earthly and eternal nuclear family unit. To devote one’s life to that objective, as has Emily, and then be told that it is not a possibility, at least in this life, causes a profound existential crisis, one that can unravel all prior teachings and obliterate future promises. It is in a sense like growing up in a family in which every child is promised an abundant Christmas, only to awaken on Christmas morning to find that all of the other children in the family have multiple Christmas gifts and surprises, but there are none for you.  

Thus, something that is absolutely given in every normal human being to desire and that the Church itself emphasizes as the ultimate human relationship is denied to a significant group of people. Until the Church figures out how to accommodate people like Emily and Rose, I hope that as leaders, congregations, families and individual members we will err on the side of kindness, generosity, and patience, seeking the Lord’s direction and praying for a way forward that includes fellowship with our gay brothers and lesbian sisters.

In a recent e-mail, Emily wrote the following: “My relationship with Rose is one that I've sincerely fasted, prayed, and asked Heavenly Father about with an open and willing heart to do His will. I try to stay close to my Heavenly Father because that is the one place that I've always felt safe. This is why I pray fervently, listen closely, and have endured incredibly hard things in order to follow the will of God for my life. I keep trying to come back to the Church because the gospel and the Church are a huge part of my identity. I have hope that one day leaders and members will pray, fast, and be willing to open their hearts to God's answer on this matter even if it may be different from the one they hoped or thought it would be.”
In the middle of the night following this conversation, I awoke with a certain spiritual confirmation that Emily ‘s story was not only true but that she was an extraordinary Latter-day Saint.
Who would not want such a person and her family in their congregation?  I'm pretty certain our Savior sure would.