To be a member of the LGBT community and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has always meant walking a tightrope between two worlds. The Church has stated unequivocally that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, and that homosexuality is contrary to God’s plan for his children. Mormon theology emphasizes the eternal nature of human relationships, particularly traditional marriage and family.
But Church leaders have also emphasized that simply being attracted to someone of the same sex is not a sin, and that God loves all of his children. Those wishing to maintain full membership in the Church could commit to a life of celibacy, and many LGBT Mormons who choose to pursue same-sex relationships still attend church, some even with their partners. The Church even supported anti-discrimination legislation in Utah that included protections for LGBT citizens and released a statement that members would not be punished for supporting same-sex marriage and other gay rights on social media or in other public forums. For LGBT Mormons who wished to be part of the Church, a careful balance between their identity and their faith seemed possible.
That changed in November when the Church introduced a new policy in the Handbook of Instruction, a guide for lay clergy: Members in same-sex marriages would be considered apostates, an excommunicable offense. Children living in same-sex households would be excluded from religious rites, such as baby blessings and baptism, until they turn 18. Once they reach that age, they have the option to disavow same-sex relationships, move out of their parents’ house, and ask to join the Church.
The backlash was immediate, even among conservative members of the Church not prone to championing LGBT rights or questioning Church policy. People were shocked by the policy’s extreme language and worried about the possible negative consequences for children. The incremental but significant progress the Church had made in its relationship with the LGBT community seemed undone. And for LGBT Mormons and their straight allies who disagree with the policy, the decision about whether—and how—to stay in the LDS Church got more complicated.
This is especially true for younger LGBT Mormons, who are struggling to understand and accept their sexuality within the context of the Church at the same time as they are making other big life decisions about where to live, what job to pursue, and what relationships they want to cultivate. Many LDS young adults plot their lives based on the ideal timeline of events laid out by the Church: serve a mission, go to college, get married, have a family. A decision to leave the Church is like a decision to create a new life plan—not a decision to take lightly.
Braxton Barham, a 16-year-old living in Sandy, Utah, just south of Salt Lake City, knew his whole life that he was gay. But he was also always taught that he shouldn’t be. “From a very young age I just understood that it was a bad thing and I should try to not show it,” he said. “From a very young age I knew I should try to suppress those feelings and if I didn’t I was sinning. Growing up, there was so much shame and doubt and guilt.”
Barham, whose parents are divorced, came out to his mom when he was 12 and to his dad when he was 14. He came out to most of his friends within the past year, but he has hesitated to come out to everyone in his congregation. “If I accept that this is part of who I am it almost seems like I’m betraying the church that I grew up in,” he said. “As I learned to love who I am, I did go through a point where it was difficult for me to go to church.” Over time, he has come to see a distinction between the institutional Church and Mormon culture and what he believes are the teachings of Jesus Christ; ultimately he decided to stay in the Mormon faith. “The people of the Church make mistakes and can be unkind,” he said, “but the spirit and Heavenly Father are perfect and they don’t make mistakes.”
Barham said his dream is to be with a man and have an eternal relationship with him inside the Church. “My truest hope would be that some day it will change, that we’ll be accepted,” he said. “Sometimes it really does feel like we’re fighting a losing battle. What gives me hope, though, is that there are so many of us.”
For many LGBT Mormons, including Barham, finding a community of others like them has helped them accept their identity. Church-owned and -operated Brigham Young University has a gay-straight alliance, for example, though the group is not officially recognized or sanctioned by the university; it meets every Thursday evening at the Provo City Library. Officially called Understanding Same Gender Attraction, or USGA, the group welcomes students and faculty who identify as LGBT, same-sex-attracted, or straight allies, sponsoring social activities and educational programs for the broader BYU community.
The group met on the night the news of the new policy leaked on social media. “To me it raised the stakes,” said Addison Jenkins, 27, a student at BYU and president of the group. “For the people who were still trying to do the good thing, who still valued their faith, all of a sudden all those options were gone. They felt they were left high and dry spiritually.”
Berta Marquez, 37, and her wife Kathy Carltson, 31, spoke at that evening’s meeting and then went back to their home in Springville, Utah, and prepared for the fall out. They spent the weekend doing the kind of advocacy and volunteer work they have committed their lives to: picking up LGBT youth at the emergency room after suicide attempts; hosting dinners for current and past Church members struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity; and ministering to people in crisis.
Even after their marriage a year and a half ago, Marquez and Carlston, who were both raised in the Church, often attended church meetings together and felt welcomed and loved in their local congregation. The new policy changed that. “We did feel for a long time that it was going to be possible for us to participate as members of our community of faith but that can’t really happen anymore,” Marquez said. “Once that policy release happened I realized that our lived experience, our hopes, and our sorrows were not relevant to the Church and what they were doing. It was a tribal ousting.”
Marquez and Carlston no longer attend church meetings as a couple because doing so could trigger a disciplinary council and, most likely, excommunication. Ideologically, they had already moved away from the Church on many issues, particularly its teachings on sexuality and family life. But the sense of loss and pain they felt after the policy was released was still acute.
“I do find it damaging to be in a place that so invalidates something that is so integral to my way of being,” Carlston said. “But I still think the Church is exceptionally good. A lot of my foundational ethics and self-worth and the way I treat other people, I do believe that I learned those things at church. I’m worried for the Church but I’m rooting for the Church.”
As the community of openly-LGBT Mormons seems to be growing, the network of straight allies within the Church is growing as well. Erika Munson, 56, has been married to the same man for 35 years and raised her five children in the LDS faith, mostly in Connecticut. She has always considered herself a champion of LGBT rights, but “most of my adult life, I separated my LGBT-support life from my church life,” she said. “When I saw gay people leaving the Church, I thought, ‘Hey, I totally get it.’”
As her children grew up, however, Munson said she started to see the issue through their eyes. One turning point came when she accompanied her daughter to Sunday church meetings in California, where she was starting her freshman year at UCLA. It was September 2008. All anyone was talking about was Proposition 8—the state’s legislation to ban same-sex marriage—which was strongly supported by the LDS Church. The weekly meeting of the Church’s group for adult females, called the Relief Society, was “basically a Prop 8 organizing meeting,” Munson said. “We were shocked. My daughter never went back to church after that.”
When Munson’s family relocated to Utah in 2012, she said, “I suddenly felt an us-and-them, Mormon-and-non-Mormon thing that I had never felt before.” She decided to put together a group of faithful Mormons to march in the Utah Pride Parade, “not in spite of our beliefs but because of them.” She figured she’d be lucky if 25 people were interested. About 350 people showed up. Munson realized there were plenty of people within the church who wanted to help LGBT members—they just didn’t know how.
Munson’s one-time activism turned into an ongoing mission when she formed Mormons Building Bridges, an organization with the purpose “to make LDS homes, congregations, and communities safe and welcoming for LGBT people.”
“I have no illusions about how difficult and slow change is in an institution like the LDS church,” Munson said. But she believes it can happen. After all, the Church once banned black members from the Priesthood and religious rites, such as marriage, performed in Mormon temples; those polices were eventually disavowed, although the process was arduous. Still, Munson has faced criticism from those who say true LGBT allies should not—and would not—stay in the Church. “If everyone leaves then who is going to help these kids?” Munson said. “It’s not my job to change LDS doctrine. Right now it’s my job to say, ‘If you’re LGBT and you want to stay in the church, how do we do this?’ … Now more than ever, this kind of grassroots love and acceptance needs to take place.”
Faced with this ambiguity of identity, young Mormons have made different choices about how to relate to their church and their cultural heritage. Jenna Hawkins, 22, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and now lives in Los Angeles. Starting in elementary school, she prayed every night to be attracted to men instead of women. She didn’t need to be attracted to a lot of men, she reasoned, just one. When her handsome and popular best guy friend asked her to be his girlfriend when she was 16, she felt like her prayers had been answered. It seemed ideal. They were best friends, his family loved her and her family loved him. But it wasn’t working. “Even under these perfect circumstances there was nothing there for me,” Hawkins said. “That was when the weight of everything hit. If not this perfect relationship, then there was no one who could make this go away.”
Soon afterwards, Hawkins started dating a girl; she said she felt “alive inside.” Her parents were devastated when they found out—her mom cried for days. They put a tracker on her phone and she couldn’t see her friends. But when she started at BYU, she had a breakthrough. “I had been thinking this whole time, ‘How can I be Mormon and a lesbian,’” she said, “but then I realized I had been doing it my whole life. Why should I do anything differently just because I figured it out?”
Since coming out publicly, Hawkins has remained just as active in the LDS Church as she was in her youth. She attends Sunday meetings every week, pays 10 percent of her income as a tithe to the church, and reads the Book of Mormon every day. She also plans on marrying her girlfriend. The new policy on LGBT families forced her to confront the reality of her future in the Church, she said: Under the new policy, once she and her girlfriend are married, Hawkins will be considered an apostate and subject to excommunication. While all clergy must follow the new policy on LGBT families, anecdotal evidence suggests local leaders have approached enforcement in different ways—which is perhaps why Hawkins hasn’t been disciplined so far. But even facing the possibility of future excommunication, she couldn’t—and didn’t want to—turn her back on the faith of her upbringing. “I’m a Mormon and a lesbian,” Hawkins said. “It would be wrong for me to deny either one when both have been such a part of me and both of them are true for me.”
Others, though, didn’t feel comfortable staying in a Church that condemns them. Jessica Swenson, 23, grew up in a small town in northern Utah where 95 percent of the students in her high school were Mormon. It never occurred to her that she wasn’t attracted to men because she was a lesbian—based on what she was taught at church about sexuality and gender roles, she thought it was because she was more righteous. “For me it felt like a non-issue,” Swenson said. “I was able to repress it so much that it was a non-issue. It wasn’t until I saw people who were queer and happy that I realized it was a real thing.”
Coming out publicly when she was 20 years old wasn’t scary, Swenson said. After years of repression, it was a relief. It was also the beginning of the end of her activity in the LDS Church. “It got to a point where being [out] and being LDS was painful,” she said. “To continually hear that my relationship was not true happiness, that I should be celibate, that I should reject this love, that didn’t work for me.”
She stopped going to church once she graduated from BYU and moved to San Diego, where she is now engaged to her girlfriend. But she still felt culturally connected to her Mormon upbringing and didn’t mind that her name remained on the membership records of the Church. After the new policy was introduced, though, she decided to leave on her own terms rather than be excommunicated, even though the decision to have her name removed from Church records has been a painful one. “Mormonism is my culture. It’s a very specific thing. To disavow it is to disavow part of myself,” she said. “I feel like I’ve effectively been forced out.”
Even those who stay may still feel “forced out” in many ways. The LDS Church provides a narrative for the “ideal” life, complete with marriage and family relationships that continue in the next life. LGBT Mormons have essentially been written out of that narrative.
Barham, the 16-year-old from Sandy, said that’s what upsets him most—not being able to live this ideal narrative on his own terms within the Church. But, like many of his Mormon LGBT peers, he said he has felt the acceptance of God, and that has helped him accept himself. “This is who we are as children of God,” he said. “This affects every part of our life and who we are. When I die and go to the next life I hope I’m gay. I sure hope I am. Because it’s who I am as a person and I love myself.”