I have to admit that I was a little apprehensive about my recent assignment to attend the 2010 Affirmation conference in San Francisco. Affirmation is a group that caters to LGBTQ folks who have or have had a connection with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or the Mormon Church. The Mormon Church is one of the fastest growing religions in the country, and has been for some time. Additionally, they are an outspoken critic of LGBTQ identities and are openly against extending equal rights and protections under the law to LGBTQ individuals. There are nearly 13 million members of the Mormon Church, and just under half reside here in the United States. Most recently the church has come under fire for being a major financial contributor to the passing of Proposition 8, which repealed the right for same sex couples to marry under California state law.
I was most nervous about attending this conference because of my own history with the Mormon Church. I was raised Mormon. I served a two year mission for the church from December 2005- December 2007. The Mormon mission is a rite of passage in the church and a commandment for all healthy young men between the ages of 19 and 26. I served my mission in Orlando Florida where I was required to learn and teach in the Spanish language.
The mission is hard. For two years you work 16 hour days with no vacation time or even a full day off each week. I believe I was a good missionary. I worked hard, I was obedient, and I led others in the mission to do the same. I held the highest leadership position a missionary can hold in the mission field, that of Assistant to the President.
However, my mission is a time of mixed emotions. I learned the benefits of hard work. I learned discipline. I also suffered from severe depression and suicidal thoughts. It was on my mission that I began to come to terms with my sexual orientation. At one point in my mission I realized that I had these “homosexual feelings” that I couldn’t overcome. Truth be told, I had always known about them, but I thought that serving an honorable mission would make me straight. This is an idea often promoted by the church and its leaders. In effect, the church believes that being gay is a sin of choice, and that with diligence and prayer – one can overcome this sin, and enjoy a “normal” life. The church continues to preach this message even while every reputable psychological and medical organization in the world affirms that one cannot change or choose their sexual orientation.
At one point on my mission I went to the president about my “feelings”. I told him that I had been severely depressed, that I felt worthless, and that I had been having thoughts of harming myself or killing myself. His response was to read me a scripture from the Book of Mormon. Like many scriptures in the Book of Mormon, this verse had an identical twin in the Bible and it begins: “O wretched man that I am…” My president ignored all of the issues I was facing, and very clearly let me know that the root of my problems was my “same sex attraction”. He enrolled me into counseling at the church’s health services office in Orlando. Luckily, my counselor was reputable, and realized that I had far more serious problems than being upset about my sexual orientation. I know many others who have had far worse “reparative therapy” experiences than myself, including therapy provided by the Mormon Church. While the counseling was still oriented at suppressing my sexual orientation, we focused on the bigger issues first.
After my mission, I moved to Utah where I found a nice young Mormon woman and quickly began planning our wedding. Luckily, I came to my senses before ruining not only my own life, but the life of another. I accepted I was gay and left the church knowing that I would not be welcomed. Getting out of the Mormon Church was a difficult experience for me, and it has taken me a long time to come to peace with God. The Affirmation conference was the first interaction I have had with a group of Mormon or former Mormon affiliated people since leaving the church. I was worried that the conference would bring up old feelings of inferiority and self-hatred.
I couldn’t have been further from the truth. What I saw at the conference was a community of beautiful people who had come together in a place of healing and acceptance. Being a member of the Mormon Church is different than being a member of some other churches. It is a lifestyle, one that is hard to abandon. When I left the church I left most of the community I had in my life, and I risked losing the support of my family. Others aren’t so lucky…they lose everything. It has been documented that LGBTQ teens and young adults are 3-7 times more likely to attempt suicide. There is a long history of closeted Mormon youth that have sadly taken this path.
The folks at Affirmation are providing resources for young people still in the church, letting them know that they are good and whole. For some of these young people, this is the only such message they are receiving. I felt true bonds of friendship and love at the Affirmation conference. It was my pleasure to attend and to participate in the training and program provided. They are doing an important work.
On the heels of ten known LGBTQ suicides, President Boyd K. Packer of the church leadership found it appropriate to condemn LGBTQ people over the pulpit during the church’s Semi-Annual General Conference. His talk was extremely homophobic, and he suggested not only that being “homosexual” was a choice, but that a loving Heavenly Father would never make someone “that way”. Apparently in his eyes, LGBTQ people who have come to grips with their identities and who have gotten answers from God that they are good and whole – are wrong. They can’t possibly be creations of God. He went on to condemn marriage of same sex people, and talked about the church’s view of marriage being one man and one woman. I could go into the church’s varied history of what defines a marriage, or how the church has also oppressed people of color and women in it’s not so distant past, but I have given them too much space already.
What I learned at the Affirmation conference is that we must stand up. We must let people see us as the whole and wonderfully made beings we are. I walked away from the conference energized and ready to let others in my life know that I am someone created by a loving Heavenly Creator. I have been blessed in my coming out process to find a family of loving and supporting individuals. I am more at peace, and closer to God now, than I have ever been. My message to other youth out there is that you have choices. You can choose to listen to the bile spread by church leaders, and sometimes even by your own friends and family. You can choose to internalize hatred and loathing. I chose this path for the first 24 years of my life. What you can’t choose is who you were created to be, including your sexual orientation and gender identity. You are beautiful, good, loved, and whole – just as you are. If you need help, please reach out. Search our resources here on the Soulforce website, or contact the numerous other organizations with affirming resources. Respond here to this article, and I would be happy to listen. You are not alone. I won’t lie – the path is hard, but it does get better.
Thank you to Affirmation for the important and, I believe lifesaving work you do. Thank you for letting me see that even within a culture ruled by silence and fear – hope exists. Thank you for empowering me to continue to empower others and I hope that all of you can do the same. The road to equality is long and winding, but together we move forward one step at a time.
Photo by Bob Doran