Tom Christofferson was in the shower on Thursday morning when he missed a phone call with huge implications for the lives of LGBTQ Mormons and their families.
Christofferson is gay. His brother, Todd Christofferson, is a member of the highest body of authority in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Todd was calling Tom to let him know that the LDS Church was about to roll back a controversial 2015 policy that automatically labeled Mormons in same-sex marriages apostates and barred their minor children from being baptized—a rite required for membership in the LDS Church and seen as necessary for eternal salvation. Under the new policy, same-sex marriages are still considered a “serious transgression,” according to a Church announcement, but not definitively apostasy. The children of LGBTQ couples can now be baptized.
The presence of LGBTQ Mormons is an undeniable reality in the LDS Church. The Church acknowledged the widespread pain caused by the former policy: “While we cannot change the Lord’s doctrine, we want our members and our policies to be considerate of those struggling with the challenges of mortality,” said Dallin Oaks, one of two counselors to the president of the LDS Church, in a statement.
Under the new policy, LDS teachings on same-sex relationships and transgender identity haven’t changed, but the language around them has shifted. Married LGBTQ Mormons are no longer automatically labeled apostates, and they are put on slightly more even footing with straight couples: “Immoral conduct in heterosexual or homosexual relationships will be treated in the same way,” Oaks wrote in the announcement. Children living with these couples can be baptized, as long as parents know that they will be taught that LGBTQ relationships are wrong.
The new policy will create space for LGBTQ Mormons and their families to engage more comfortably in their Church communities, and many hope it means they will find greater welcome there. The former policy “caused a lot of pain and turmoil to people that I love,” Christofferson said. “I know a number of folks for whom that was a breaking point.” Although Christofferson openly identifies as gay and left the Church for a number of years while he was in a relationship with another man, he has since rejoined the Church. For other LGBTQ Mormons, “my hope is, now that [the policy has] changed, they will consider rejoining and worshipping with us and help us to keep moving forward,” he said. For many current and former Mormons, however, the consequences of the 2015 policy cannot be undone. Their relationships—with the Church, with their families, and with God—have been irreparably damaged.
LDS leaders consider both the 2015 policy and Thursday’s new policy to be matters of revelation, even though one effectively reverses the other. “The public by and large, and Mormons in particular, tend to think of revelation in very dramatic, charismatic ways,” says Terryl Givens, a Mormon historian at the University of Richmond. “In the founding days of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, revelation often was spectacular and involved visions, visitations, audible voices that Joseph Smith [the founder of the Church] heard.”
But as this new announcement demonstrates, Church leaders clearly heard the objections from LDS community members. In a living faith tradition like Mormonism, relationships—between neighbors, relatives, or, say, a gay Mormon and his brother in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles—have the power to shape the context of revelation. “The historical record would suggest that [Church leaders] are open to concerns, to historical developments, to scholarly input,” Givens said. “Revelation never occurs in a vacuum.”
Even with this new policy change, LGBTQ Mormons occupy a fraught space in LDS life. Those in same-sex relationships, or who have gone through a gender transition, live with the knowledge that their choices are condemned by Church teachings. And for LGBTQ believers, the theological consequences of their sexuality and identity are serious: Mormons teach that families can be bound together for eternity, and LGBTQ families are not included in that vision. Although the LDS Church has tried, in its way, to welcome LGBTQ Mormons, this core theological teaching is not likely to change. “For Latter-day Saints, it was not just a matter of sociological debates as to the merits or demerits of gender transformation,” Givens said. “The point that is nonnegotiable for Latter-day Saints is that gender is eternal.”
The former LDS policy on married LGBTQ couples and their children was announced in November 2015, just months after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage in the United States. “When the Supreme Court made its decision, and it became the law of the land … the Latter-day Saints said, ‘We will obey the law of the land,’” says Kathleen Flake, a scholar of Mormon history at the University of Virginia. But, she says, the Church also added, “Let us restate that it’s not lawful marriage in the eyes of the Church.”
At the time, in a letter to Church leaders announcing the 2015 policy, former LDS President Thomas Monson wrote that “revealed doctrine is clear that families are eternal in nature and purpose,” and the policy on apostasy and forbidden baptism was designed to protect “the welfare of both adults and children.” This was partly motivated by a desire to protect families from painful divisions, Todd Christofferson said in an interview shortly after the announcement: “We don’t want the child to have to deal with issues that might arise where the parents feel one way and the expectations of the Church are very different.” Following that logic, the former policy prevented children of LGBTQ couples from being baptized into a Church that their parents could not be part of.
Many LGBTQ Mormons and their families found this hurtful, and “spoke up about their concern and their sorrow over that policy,” says Erika Munson, the founder of an organization called Mormons Building Bridges, which encourages “love and acceptance” for LGBTQ people. To these Mormons, the 2015 policy didn’t “feel like the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” she says. “Figuring out what the will of the Lord is is hard. And it’s a lifelong process.”
On a practical level, the 2015 policy cut many LGBTQ families off from participation in LDS communities. Parents couldn’t stay even loosely connected to the Church through their children, and some felt that it was cruel for the Church to ostracize kids because of their parents’ choices and identities. And the “ apostate” label was painful: John Gustav-Wrathall, the executive director of Affirmation, an organization that offers support and community to LGBTQ Mormons, says he would “have that question in the back of my head: Do people look at me and see me as an apostate?” Apostasy essentially means someone is leading others away from the Church, he said—it’s “one of the worst things you can be.” Although Gustav-Wrathall is in a same-sex relationship and was excommunicated in the 1980s, he is an active member of a ward, or local church, in Minneapolis. The 2015 policy introduced an extra layer of stigma, he says, but eventually, “I had to just trust that people knew me. … They knew of my love for the Gospel and my faith in Jesus Christ.”
Other LGBTQ Mormons—and their families—left the church over the policy. Although LDS policies are guided by the central authority of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, local leaders have some degree of autonomy in how they deal with individual cases, and that can make all the difference in whether LGBTQ people find welcoming space in Mormon communities. The 2015 policy took away some of that flexibility, adding extra strain to family relationships and friendships—and people’s faith. “There was a lot of suffering caused by the policy, and it’s going to be hard for a lot of hearts to heal from that,” says Gustav-Wrathall. Like others, he draws a connection between the policies of the LDS Church and the high rate of suicide among LGBTQ teens in Utah, while acknowledging that it’s impossible to know the cause of most suicides. “What parents must be feeling,” he said, is: “Would my child still be here with me if this policy hadn’t happened?”
Despite all of this pain, many LDS leaders say they want to invite LGBTQ people into the Church—and some LGBTQ people want to be there. “My life has been blessed by people that I have profound disagreements with,” Gustav-Wrathall says. “I can’t be a good disciple of Jesus Christ if I’m out of fellowship with any other member of the human race … At some point, God is going to resolve this difference for us. And at some point, whatever scales there are on any of our eyes will fall away.”