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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Spirituality and Social Justice; Remarks to SFSU

In September of 2011, I was asked to speak to the graduate school of social work at San Francisco State University. I was joined by my friend Liz, a fellow MoHo, who I’ve grown to know well and respect and love deeply.

The focus of our talk was to help those in the social science and social work fields understand the challenges faced by MoHos—how we struggle to find our place within our faith in a way that doesn’t compromise who we are as individuals.

I focused primarily on three points:
1: A brief introduction to Mormon history
2: Why this issue matters to the Mormon community: The growing number of MoHos
3: The unique challenges we have as LGBT Mormons

Our session was video taped, and I’ll put it up on youtube soon and share a link on this page—my technical challenges are, sadly, great. In the meantime, I wanted to share my remarks with you now.

Enjoy. 



SFSU School of Social Work Remarks
Thanks for giving me and my friend Liz Palmer (who will be speaking in a moment) the opportunity to talk with you here today. For many people, Mormonism is a bit of a mystery and most certainly gay and lesbian Mormons are mysterious—but as you can see, we are not urban legends—we do exist! And we’re going to share our stories with you today.

Before I share my own personal story, I think it’s important to give you a bit of context. So I want to start first by sharing some of the history of the Mormon Church with you. Then, I will talk briefly about our existing policy on the LGBT issue, and also talk to you about our rich culture. I think all of these things will help make my story—and Liz’s—a bit more real to you and help you understand really, what a genuine challenge it is to identify so deeply with the Mormon faith and at the same time, be our genuine selves.

So, onto church history. I wish to note, though, that I am not a church historian but will share what I do know and also some additional information about our faith. I will freely admit that history is not my strong point, and I am eternally grateful for wondrous technology that keeps me from having to become a history expert (which is my packaged way of telling you politely that I borrowed much of this content directly from LDS.org). So if this sparks an interest for you, I’d encourage you to check out our website at lds.org.

I also want to note that I am not an official church spokesperson—I am only one man, albeit with a somewhat unusual history with the church, and as such can share my own experience, strength, and hope.

Mormonism is a faith that’s shrouded in mystery for many. Several rumors exist about the faith—some of them based in fact—but all leading to a genuine confusion in the general population about Mormonism. We are, really, kind of misunderstood. And if you think about it, so is the gay community—it’s also rather misunderstood. So from that standpoint, you can see right from the get-go that there are some pretty striking similarities between the two worlds that a lot of people don’t see as ever having anything in common.

About Mormonism
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or Mormon Church) was founded in 1830 in New York State by a man named Joseph Smith. It is probably the largest truly “American” religion, having been founded here on our soil and having grown not just here in the states, but across the globe.

Here are some quick statistics about the church:
  • Although our faith began in New York, we are headquartered in SLC, UT.
  • A local geographic congregation is called a Ward or a branch, and is comprised of several hundred members. For example, there are probably half a dozen wards or so in San Francisco proper. Wards and branches are presided over by a Bishop and his bishopric staff.
  • A collection of wards or branches in a geographic area is called a Stake—similar to what a Diocese would be in the Catholic faith. A stake can be a pretty large entity—in San Francisco Stake alone, for example, we have close to 2500 members. Stakes are presided over by Stake Presidents and their Presidency Councilmen.
  • During the early years of church history, the Latter-day Saints were a pretty persecuted faith. For those of you who know anything about LDS history, you’ll understand this to be somewhat of an understatement.
  • In fact, Mormons were driven from state to state through a series of bloody battles with fellow Americans until they finally reached Utah, in about mid-1800s. The recordings of the battles and the violent persecutions of the church are much documented, and include the murder of our founder, Joseph Smith and his brother in 1844.
  • I won’t detail the extent of the persecution here; but I do think it is important for you to understand that this is a faith that has not had it easy—but it is one that inspires soul deep commitment, dedication, and loyalty—even unto death.

A few other statistics of note; as of 2010:
  • We have over 14 million members on the official church membership roster
  • We are among the fastest—if not the fastest—growing religion in the world today.
  • We are, despite what some in the media say today, a Christian religion. We view faith in Jesus Christ and in His atonement as the central tenet of our faith.
  • We have four scriptural texts inside the faith: The Bible (both old and new testaments), Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price.
  • Continuing revelation: We believe that more will be revealed both to our Prophet, to guide us as a collective, as well as individual revelation to help us as we conduct our own lives.
  • Because of this fact, I think Mormonism is probably among the more ‘hopeful’ faiths out there today. We don’t focus on the guilt, the martyrdom, or the pain and suffering: We focus on a glorious and grand future for both this life and the one to come.

Our faith is also one that puts profound emphasis on family, and on chastity. From the family side, we view families as the center point of our lives, and value family bonds and relationships as something eternal—meaning, we view them as something week keep when we pass from this sphere into the next. In fact, one of the key teachings of our faith is that nothing in this life—no secular success—can compensate for failure within the home.

Likewise, chastity is a cornerstone of our beliefs: Chastity is sexual purity. Those who are chaste are morally clean in their thoughts, words, and actions. Chastity means not having any sexual relations before marriage. It also means complete fidelity to husband or wife during marriage.

Currently under church policy, marriage is defined as an institution between one man and one woman. When it comes to those within our faith who are gay or lesbian, we encourage them to maintain the law of chastity as well—which translates into the requirement of living a celibate existence in order to maintain a full relationship with the faith.

Why the LGBT issues is of such importance to Mormons: The numbers
So, I want to switch gears here a bit now that you have a little historical  and policy context, and talk about some of the reasons the LGBT issue is of such significance to the Mormon community—and therefore to you, as individuals who may be working with them.

First and foremost, it’s a numbers issue.

In 2010, as I noted earlier, we reported official church membership to be over 14 million.

Based on that 14 million membership number, we can extrapolate that there are literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of LGBTQ people and those who care about them in the membership of the church today.

Let me tell you how I came up with that figure. Given our current church membership number of 14 million, let’s assume a very conservative estimate of 1% LGBT Mormons inside the faith today. That would mean we currently have over 140,000 gay and lesbian Mormons in the faith. (Now, most accepted science will tell you that number is at least 7% or higher—which would be about 980,000 LGBTQ people among our ranks—but for the sake of simplicity, let’s use the 1% estimate).

Now, add families to that 1% estimate of 140,000—keeping in mind that Mormons typically have really large families—and that number quickly grows to at least 500,000. Then, add to that their friends, their neighbors, and their priesthood and relief society leaders, those who care about them—that number quickly grows to over a million—within the faith alone.

Now, let’s factor in those who have left the church over this issue, and those within the LGBTQ and straight communities alike who listen to what our faith has to say on this matter, and we can extrapolate that there are probably tens of millions of people in the world to whom this is an important topic—tens of millions of people who are troubled, pained, and long for some kind of reconciliation on the question of how gays and lesbians fit within our faith.

And that’s just based on numbers today.

So let’s look toward the future. I mentioned to you earlier that Mormonism is one of the fastest—if not the fastest—growing religions in the world today. According to a recent US News and World Report, if the present growth trend within our faith continues, there could easily be 265 million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints across the globe by 2080. To put that in context for you, the total United States population today stands just over 300 million people—so that number is not insignificant.

If we continue our conservative estimate of 1% LGBTQ population in the Mormon faith, then by 2080 we’re talking about 2.65 million LGBTQ Mormons—not including their families, leadership, friends and others who love them—both within the faith and outside of it.

So from a simple scientific and sheer numbers perspective, you can see that this issue is a pretty significant one for the Mormon population today alone. And, given our growth projections, it’s one that’s going to be of increasing importance, and increasing significance.

Simply put: As we grow as a faith, the significance of the Mormon missionary opportunity to our gay and lesbian fellows will also increase.  

Why the LGBT issue is of such importance to Mormons: The culture
A second key reason the LGBT issue is of such significance to the Mormon community is the depth of our culture, and how intensely it becomes embedded into the lives—and to use my own terminology—into the spiritual DNA of our members.

Let me give you an example. I was having dinner the other night with Dr. Caitlin Ryan of the Family Acceptance Project—I believe you’re all familiar with her amazing research on the LGBT community—and we started talking about the topic of gay and lesbian Mormons.

During Caitlin’s work in Salt Lake, she had the opportunity to work with Mormon gay and lesbian youth who were now homeless, having been cast out of their homes because of their sexual orientation. What she said to me is something that I, as a Mormon, have known all along: The sense of loss these kids experienced, the sense that they had been deprived of something glorious as a result of having lost their families was much more significant in Mormon youth than of those from other faiths. One reason, as I mentioned, is the important emphasis our faith places on our family unit—that these are the most critical relationships of our lives, and indeed beyond.

But a second key reason is this.

Mormonism, unlike almost any other faith, embeds itself deeply into who we are. As I talked about this with Dr. Ryan, it became clear that Mormonism moves well beyond most standard religions, and she actually pointed out that if we want to identify it correctly, we need to think of not as just a faith, not as just a culture, but as an ethnicity.

You see, for Mormons, our faith is not something we practice for a couple of hours on Christmas and Easter. It is not even something we practice for a few hours on Sunday. It is a faith that profoundly affects almost every aspect of our lives, and again, embeds itself into who we are spiritually.

Let me give you some examples:
  • It affects how we dress
  • It affects what we eat, what we drink, and how we treat our bodies physically
  • It affects the schools we choose to attend
  • It affects the careers we choose to pursue
  • It affects where we live geographically
  • It affects how we spend our vacation time and our free time
  • It affects the friends we choose
  • It affects who we date—and most certainly who we marry
  • It affects how we interact with all others and the importance we place on the relationships with those whom we care about and love

I think the best comparison I can make—and again, I’m not a theologian or a historian—is Judaism. Judaism really is both a faith and an ethnicity—and it affects all the same things I mentioned above. Seldom, seldom do we see any other religion so deeply impact the lives of those who are counted among their ranks.

So when an individual begins to realize that another important element of who they are—their sexual orientation—is at odds with their faith, this spiritual and cognitive tug-of-war begins to take place. Many times Mormons are secretive about being gay—having gotten messages and cues from both leadership and in many instances family members—that being gay is not only undesirable, but that it is shameful: that it goes against God and His will for us.

I cannot underscore enough here how bitter—how deeply piercing—the emotional turmoil is that gay and lesbian Mormons experience.  I can’t underscore enough how painful the anguish, the spiritual discord that these individuals face. We are faced, in essence, with a Sophie’s Choice—a paradox in which there is no solution that doesn’t result in an excruciating, heartbreaking loss.

Which do I choose? Do I choose my orientation, how my Father has made me, and lose this other part of myself—my faith, my culture, my spiritual ethnicity—and possibly my eternal family? Or do I choose my faith and deny another critical cornerstone of my identity—one which will mean I will must travel this earthly path alone, surrounded by my brothers and sisters inside my faith who have their life companions and families—knowing I will never have that for myself?

Which do I choose? How do I choose? How do I make the right decision in a way that won’t fracture my soul and leave me with only half a life?

Since I have come out as an openly, unapologetic gay Mormon and accepted a priesthood leadership position within the church, the floodgates have opened. I quite literally receive hundreds of emails a week from people around the world who grapple with the struggle I just described to you. Let me share one with you.

Dear Mitch:

My name is Armando. I have known I was gay since before I was a teenager. I served a mission and came back 3 years ago. I’m from South America and my culture is very violent and hostile to gay people. I've been feeling guilty for a long time and thinking I'm not good enough, only two of my friends know about my ''situation'' and I have no one to talk to. I have felt inadequate at church and think that the Lord hates me for being like this. Most of my friends and my family hate gay and lesbian people and when they make hateful comments about them, I just keep quiet and kinda cry inside.

I struggle so much. I want to serve The Lord and keep his commandments but at the same time I want to have someone to love. I don't date any girls right now because I don't wanna feel like I'm cheating on them whenever a guy passes by and I feel attraction. I can't have the courage you have because the members of the church in South America do not agree with that, they have a very macho culture and well.

I can't tell anybody here--you're only the third person I’ve told. I feel so alone. Write me back soon please. I really need a friend.

At the beginning of this talk, I promised I’d share with you my experience, strength, and my hope. Let’s talk about the hope part.

Mormons in the San Francisco Bay Ward: Making a cultural shift
For those of you following the media about what’s been happening here in San Francisco Bay Area, we are emphasizing another—and perhaps the key cornerstone of our faith:  developing a Christ-like love and acceptance for all individuals traditional Mormons might view as different—single parents, people of color, and most certainly our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

And the message we want to deliver is simply this: Everyone is welcome in the Mormon Church. There is no asterisk on that statement. There is no qualifying interview to sit in the congregation with us on Sunday. There is no test to take to be the recipient of our love, our companionship, or to be part of our community of faith.

I want to underscore the importance of what we’re accomplishing here in the bay area, and what we’re also seeing emerge in other pockets throughout the church, because I think it’s a pretty critical cultural emergence within our faith. True, policy has not changed. But no one will ask you to give up your partner to attend. That means anyone can come to our congregation and be part of the ward family—and no one will ask you to change who you are to do it.  

Also true that gays and lesbians who are living outside the bounds of chastity may not be able to hold temple recommends given policy as we understand it today, but let’s be honest here—there are a lot of things that hold straight people back from getting temple recommends and holding callings as well, and they’ve always been welcome in our ranks. Now that same welcome is extended to everyone—regardless of their orientation.

So is it a doctrinal change? No. Is it a great and wonderful softening of the perception of all of our Savior’s children as our brothers and sisters? Will it help mend families? Will it help people like Armando dispel the illusion that God hates him because he is gay? Will it keep him safer physically, emotionally, and spiritually?

Absolutely!

In fact, in my short time in my calling with the Bay Ward, I’ve now met almost a dozen gay and lesbian fellows who’ve returned to church—including a transgender woman—because they were starting to feel welcome. Each of them is in a different spot in terms of how deeply they want to develop their relationship with the church. And each one is welcome!

So while it may not be a policy change, it is certainly an example of what we as Mormons really want to be: Disciples of our Savior, and human extensions of His love for all in the human family—regardless of where they are in their personal lives.

Let me switch gears here once again, and quickly tell you my own story.

A bit about me…
I was baptized into the Mormon faith when I was eight, which is traditional for Mormons. My parents had converted, but both fell away from the church after their rather difficult divorce. My Mom continued her activity for a few years, but when I reached my teenage years I also fell away—but a seed had been planted.

I returned to the church of my own volition in my mid-20s, knowing full well I was gay and that I would somehow, at some point in time, have to find a way to integrate my faith with my sexual orientation. For a time, I tried living life as a Mormon without being gay, and I was miserable. I also tried living life as a gay man without the church—and I was equally miserable. I was beginning to feel like I was a man with a foot in two worlds—but I really belonged in neither. But the truth is, I am a man with a foot in two worlds—and I belong in both.

I started to have a “come to Jesus” moment when I was in school at Stanford. I had a college boyfriend and found it so difficult to try to be my authentic self—a gay man—and at the same time not feel shamed and condemned by my faith. While the process began here, it was one that took many years—so I guess you could say what I’ve really had is a “come to Jesus journey”—not a moment.

In 2009, I was approached by my stake leadership in Oakland to be part of a series of meetings aimed at mending the fences between the LGBT and Mormon communities after Prop 8. (I attended church there even though I lived in San Francisco—I had moved to that area after Stanford, and really consider that my home ward). I enthusiastically agreed, and from there really began to write and speak openly about being an openly gay, active Latter-day Saint.

Over the course of just a few short years, the east bay stakes—and I—became involved in about a dozen different types of events aimed at increasing the dialogue both about—and with—the gay community. Earlier this year, I was asked to be part of a meeting in San Francisco with the stake leadership here. The focus of that meeting was something like this: “Hey, Oakland, you guys have been doing a really great job of building unity over there in the east bay. We’ve watched what’s happening and we want to be part of that, too.”

At that meeting I met then President Don Fletcher. President Fletcher and I became good friends and stayed in close contact around this issue and how to get San Francisco more involved. In August of this year, President Fletcher was called as bishop of the bay ward here in San Francisco, and asked me to serve with him as his executive secretary.

Now, up until about a year prior to this, I’d been in a committed, long-term relationship with my partner of several years. Many people in my Oakland ward—my home ward—knew. I wore a wedding band, and was honest about who I was.

So, I had some serious thinking to do when Bishop Fletcher asked me to serve with him in a relatively high-ranking priesthood leadership role in the bay ward. On the one hand, I could choose to stay in Oakland, get ‘re-married’ for lack of a better term, and live a quiet, peaceful and pretty happy little life, not just accepted by my family of faith, but celebrated for who I was.

On the other hand, I had this opportunity in front of me to help create what I had in Oakland for my LGBT brothers and sisters in other wards families. I had the chance to team up with senior local leadership of inspired, kind men who really wanted to build bridges and begin dialogue and create space for the gay community among our ranks.

Now, how could I possibly be a disciple of my Savior and *not* want to be part of that? I accepted the calling. I went through the identical interview process any straight man would undergo to be placed into this role. I was deemed worthy and confirmed by the membership of the church in the same way any straight man would be for this role. Both of those things are fair and equal—and I did them both with full purpose of heart.

What’s unique here is that I was called into this service position not in *spite* of the fact that I was gay, but largely because I was gay. My additional role is not just to serve as Bishop Fletcher’s executive secretary—it is to help begin to rebuild those relationships between the gay and Mormon communities. To open the dialogue, to show my LGBT brothers and sisters—hey, look what our leadership is trying to accomplish here. For now, not only do you have a home inside the Mormon Church, but you have a path.

I don’t want to leave people with the impression that I am changing my orientation to be Mormon. Or that I am changing my faith to be gay. Neither of those things is true. I am a gay man, and gay men are emotionally and intimately attracted to other men. That has not changed, and it won’t change. And likewise, part and parcel of being Mormon is I’ve always strived to live my life in accordance with what I understand my savior’s will for me to be, and that hasn’t changed either.

Both of these things are just embedded into my spiritual DNA.

So that, my friends, is a portion of my story—and I want to give Liz time to share hers, as well. If I have one final thought I want to leave you with, it is a message of hope. As you encounter gay Mormons out there in the world—and you will—I want you to be ambassadors of the message we want to deliver in the Bay Area. And what we want you to say to them is this:

It takes a strong spirit to be gay in this life. It takes a remarkable one to be a gay Mormon. Never doubt for a moment you are anything less than remarkable. For that is most certainly how our Father in heaven views you.

Thank you.

4 comments:

  1. Spiritual DNA is interesting but Brad quoted "ethnicity" which is very valid I personally decided, hard to pin down sometimes but compelling. I'm such a mutt I'm thinking sometime, somewhere perhaps I was Mormon ancestrally. I like the idea. LDS is in the future though. Thanks so much Mitch for your entry. I'm learning so much about recent american history. And Joseph Smith himself with the joseph smith papers available online. It's very slick. Again, Thanks for covering so much succinctly in one place. Very much appreciate it.

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  2. Well said, and thought provoking as usual. Thank you for being who you are.

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