Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Circling the Wagons: My remarks

On April 21st of this year, I had the honor to speak at the Circling the Wagons conference--a group that seeks to create a safe space for LGBTQ Mormons and their families to share experience and speak to one another truthfully and respectfully.

This conference was sponsored by Mormon Stories which explores, celebrates, and challenges Mormon culture through the sharing of stories and experiences.

As has become typical for me when I speak on this subject, I felt fine about it--until moments before I stood behind the podium. Awash with emotion, I stood before the microphone, tears in my eyes, and expressed my gratitude for being able to play a small part in a much larger piece of work that will make our faith--and our world--better for everyone.

I want to express my gratitude for those who worked diligently to put this conference together, and for those who attended--both in person, and in spirit.

I dedicate this to everyone inside my faith, and my MoHo sisters and brothers most especially: When none of us are on the outside looking in, things get a little bit better for all of us.



Earlier this year, I had the privilege to attend a leadership broadcast designed for Bishoprics and local church presidencies around the globe. President Dieter Uchtdorf spoke at that broadcast, and he said something that day that felt like he was speaking directly to my heart. His words were this:

"Brothers and Sisters, as good as our previous experience may be, if we stop asking questions, stop thinking, stop pondering, we can thwart the revelations of the spirit. Remember, it was the questions young Joseph asked that opened the door for the restoration of all things. We can block the growth and knowledge our Heavenly Father intends for us. How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know, but couldn’t get past the massive, iron gate of what we thought we already knew." ~Dieter F. Uchtdorf, First Presidency, February 2012
Let’s consider that for a moment: questioning, thinking, and pondering equal revelation. Well, that makes perfect sense to me on an individual level. In fact, President Uchdorf’s words have for some time been a bit of a personal mantra for me. I know from personal experience one of the ways I improve as a human—one of the ways I progress as my Father’s son—is to continue to question what I think I know—about myself, my beliefs, and my surroundings. As a human who walks this earthly path, I will stumble, I will reverse myself, I will progress and grow. That, I believe, is at the very core of my purpose here.

And over time, I have come to hold the same view of our Mormon faith. Like us as humans, it is very much three-dimensional—with many of the same characteristics we have as children of our Father. Our Mormon faith has stumbled. It has reversed itself, it has progressed and grown. And it will continue to do so—that, my brothers and sisters, is part of the grand design of not only our individual lives, but is, I believe, a fundamental element that exists at the very core of our faith. We were founded on the principles of critical questioning and continuing revelation—and therefore questioning is not only something that we should do, I think we actually disappoint our Father in heaven when we fail to exercise our agency in this capacity.

I want to continue to improve as an individual; I want to increase my knowledge and enrich my spirit. And I want these same things for my faith. Brothers and sisters, I love so much about our Mormon faith. I love our principle of eternal families. I love holding the priesthood and being of service to my fellows within the faith. There is just so much good to be found inside the Mormon faith—and I want that to continue to expand and increase.  

About the same time I heard President Uchdorf’s talk, I was asked by an author to give feedback on a book on the subject of how gays and lesbians fit within our faith. The book was written by several traditional Mormon therapists and thought leaders, and is more or less one of the primary “go to” manuals when it comes to understanding how LGBT individuals fit inside the Mormon Church. In fact, in the title was included the phrase, “Where to turn and how to help.”  

I enthusiastically agreed to provide feedback. As I read the book, however, I realized quickly that this was familiar territory—the common threads throughout the each essay and chapter were the same: LGBT individuals are suffering, and homosexuality—or as the book called it, same sex attraction—is a burden, to be denied wholesale. As I continued to read, I worried that the message was one that positioned gay and lesbian Mormons as somehow—spiritually deficient.

The more I read, the more I worried. I worried that at its best, this is a distinctly heterocentric notion of homosexuality—meaning, it was written entirely from the standpoint of heterosexuals. There were no LGBT scientists, contributors or authors, except those who offered unscientific case studies that validated the authors’ key messages.

I worried that this line of thinking—despite the fact that the book itself is titled “How to help”—didn’t really help gay and lesbian individuals at all. I worried that what this might be, in fact, was a theory designed to help straight people feel comfortable around people who were different from them—by allowing them to view them as broken or struggling.

I worried that we seemed to overlook scientific evidence that demonstrates that viewing ourselves as burdened and afflicted, or that we have the ability to change our orientation—is actually harmful psychologically, and most especially to those individuals who are highly motivated by faith. I worried that the premise outlined would continue to keep my LGBT fellows locked in the mindset of being victims not only to the church, but to God himself. 

I worried that some among us would, based on the contents of this book, feel excused from having to do the very difficult thinking and rigorous mental work to understand a complex sexual identity, and would accept the reductionist notion that being gay is simply about sex alone.

But most of all, I worried that there are those who would walk away from this feeling as if they had been granted implicit permission to not only view gay and lesbian Mormons as spiritually deficient, but to actually treat them as if they were. I worried that some would interpret this as justification to treat us as damaged, broken—and slightly less worthy in the eyes of God.

So I did exactly as President Uchtdorf counseled: I questioned, I pondered, and I asked. And I came up with a different approach of looking at how our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters fit within our faith.

Our premise today is that homosexuality is an extra burden—an affliction, something that gays and lesbians must suffer through and really, deny wholesale if we want to remain righteous sons and daughters of our Father. We are the subject of an extra ‘test’ that doesn’t seem to serve any known purpose.

But what if there’s another way to look at it. Yes, there is very likely a test wrapped up in all of this, for there is undoubtedly a reason that some of us are gay and lesbian, while others are not. But what if the test, really, is not being given to gays and lesbians, but through gays and lesbians? What if we are actually the vehicle through which the test is being delivered? And the test, then, is not for us at all—but for you--our heterosexual brothers and sisters?

That would mean, then, that the test might really be this:  Will you, straight brother or sister, lend us equality? Will you view us as your peers, your equals? Will you move past your own fear and prejudice and genuinely show Christ-like love and compassion to a segment of society that, for whatever reason, appears to be the least of these in this sphere?

Or, will you shun us? Will you persecute us? Will you force us to choose between God and Gay, because that is what makes you comfortable? Will you compel us to choose between the faith we call home—and walking this earthly path with a companion we love?

Which will you choose? How will you perform on your test?

That would also mean that we as LGBT individuals and MoHos specifically, aren’t entirely off the hook, either. While the test for us may not be what many think it is, there is an extra onus on the LGBT community—and especially gay and lesbian Mormons. Our challenge is to continually turn the other cheek, to love those who despise us, to view ourselves as whole and understand we can have our Savior in our lives regardless of our paths—and in spite of what others would tell us we must believe.

Our ultimate challenge, then, as MoHos, is to be what we seek to receive. It is up to us to be the bellwether examples of kindness, compassion, understanding, and tenderness to our brothers and sisters as they grapple with how to understand how we fit within our faith. Because if this is, in reality, the acutal test—we fit in perfectly, just the way we are.

One of the best things about my calling in the church as an openly gay man is the opportunity to meet those who walk this path with me. It is in these moments when I meet kind, tender souls who carry with them injuries from a lifetime of being told that they have been afflicted at the hand of our Father. And it is in these moments where I am most able to see my own experience, strength and hope help heal the wounds of another.

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with a young woman who was struggling to find her place within our faith. She had come to a point in her life where she needed to be honest about who she really was—a gay daughter of our Father. As we spoke, and as I shared this idea with her, it was as if I physically saw her countenance grow lighter. It was—like a light went on inside her again, where she began again to view herself as a whole person, a beautiful daughter of our Father who had a divine purpose—who was here, and was exactly who she was for a reason.

I had the chance to talk to this young woman again as I was composing this talk. I asked her this: “Since we first spoke, what has changed for you?”

Here was her response: “I think the most important thing that has happened for me is reconnecting to my Savior, and beginning to understand that it’s okay to have my own personal relationship with him, independent of what other people tell me.

I now know that I don’t have to choose, that I belong, and that I am enough exactly as I am. Understanding this has, in fact, been a new breath of life for me spiritually.”

Watching the transformation in this young woman—watching her begin to breathe again spiritually—gives me great hope. And, it increases my testimony that President Uchtdorf is, indeed, correct: When we refuse to tightly shut the iron gate of what we think we know, we can indeed—and will—continue to understand things more deeply, and be better equipped to unlock the mysteries of this life and of our Father’s kingdom.

I want to shift gears here for a moment, and talk about what we’re doing in the San Francisco Bay Area that’s a little bit different—and specifically the Bay Ward—and why that is so important to everyone inside our church, regardless of their orientation.

Simply put, we are in the business of brining people closer to our Savior—gay or straight—regardless of where they are in their personal lives. To quote my Bishop, Don Fletcher, “We welcome diversity in all its magnificent forms—every stripe, spot, color and pattern. Everyone should have a home here—and everyone should feel at home here.”

I believe that one of the things that makes us unique is the philosophy of my leadership—a philosophy of viewing themselves as humble servants of our membership and our Savior, not of one as the police or the governors. If one among us has a problem they think we can help with, we encourage them to approach us, and we will do all we can to help. But we will not seek out individuals, investigate them, and create problems where, in fact, none may exist at all.

When it comes to LGBT members, this creates a safe space for all to walk in our doors, just as they are, without fear of persecution or retribution. It enables them to genuinely feel that they have a home here, and allows them to grow and develop as equal children of our Father. Resultingly, we now have about 15 new MoHos who have returned to church. Each of them is in a different place in their personal lives, and each one is welcome as a valuable member of our ward family.

This isn’t a doctrinal shift, brothers and sisters—it’s a cultural shift, and a philosophy change. Policy as we understand it today hasn’t changed. But we believe that even if an individual has sinned, we do them a disservice by stripping them of their membership, of the guidance of the spirit, of their ability to take the sacrament, and their ability to fully fellowship with their peers. All of these things we believe, encourage people to do good and to live righteous and honorable lives—so removing these things from them if they have sinned doesn’t help bring them closer to the Savior—and it may, in fact, drive them from the one who loves them the most.

But the implication here is really much more broad reaching than just our MoHo brothers and sisters. It means that everyone is welcome here, independent of who they are, or how they think they don’t fit. Gone is the subtle message that you, for whatever reason, are on the outside looking in. We are all equal fellows in our family of faith, and equally loved by our Father as his glorious children. 

And when no one is on the outside looking in, things get a little bit better for all of us.

Brothers and sisters, as we move forward on our paths as individuals and as a collective Mormon faith, I pray that we do so with an eye toward President Uchtdrof’s counsel—that we continue to ask questions, think, and ponder—and seek to find the knowledge that surely awaits us—and not be hindered as children of our Father by locking tight the massive iron gate of what we think know.

Last, I wish to close with a thought I like to leave with all my MoHo brothers and sisters. It takes a strong spirit to be gay—or the ally of a gay individual—in this life. It takes a remarkable spirit to be a gay Mormon, or the ally of a gay Mormon. Never, for a moment, doubt that you are anything but remarkable. For that is most certainly how our Father views you.


  1. Thank you, Mitch. You make me feel blessed to be a part of this wonderful MoHo community.

  2. Wonderful talk. Wish I could have been at the conference and heard it in person! Thank you so much for highlighting that accepting MoHos is not "a doctrinal's a cultural shift." Oh so very true.

  3. Thank you for posting your talk. It was even more beautiful the second time around. Thank you so much for coming to the conference.

  4. Well said, my Mitch :) Made me feel like shouting Hallelujah a few times!

  5. Excellent! Thanks for sharing...

  6. Thank you, I'm not LDS but I am Bisexual, I belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church, which looks at gay people as broken, not homophobe per se but it is seen as a problem to be overcome. I am celibate, but sometimes rarely I slip. Your talk encouraged me not to look at myself as broken but as a whole person loved by our loving God the Father.

  7. Please keep writing; you are helping me see/understand things in a new way. Thank you!