Growing Up Queer and Mormon: A Dangerous Journey
Thursday, May 17, is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) and this year Care2 is bringing you personal stories from around the world on the fight to eliminate anti-LGBT prejudice and discrimination. For our complete coverage, please click here.
I try to avoid telling people that I’m from Utah. It’s not because I’m ashamed of where I come from; Utah is a beautiful place, and many members of my family are lovely people. But I hate being put in a position where I have to explain my family and my personal life to near-strangers when they invariably assume that I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
I was born in Utah, and spent much of my childhood there. Like many LGBT children, I knew I was different at a young age, but I couldn’t tell you how or why. I can count the number of crushes I had on boys on one hand – when girls talked about the boys they liked, I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. When boys asked me out, I was never interested. But I spent an awful lot of time quietly adoring my female friends from afar.
I didn’t realize that intense longing to be near someone constantly was what a crush felt like. I was hitting puberty in Utah, and I was only aware that homosexuality existed in the abstract. I felt something was “wrong” with me and I didn’t know why. I tried to pray for guidance and clarity, but when none came, I began to doubt there was anyone listening – and then I prayed for forgiveness for questioning.
My family left the church – and Utah – when I was a young teen. While it’s left me with a lifelong aversion to organized religion and impatience for dealing with some of my more conservative relatives, the experience did little lasting harm. We began attending the Unitarian Universalist Church, where I received mildly flawed but fairly comprehensive sex ed which clarified my bisexuality for me. No one disowned me when I came out. I didn’t lose any friends. I didn’t get in any heated debates. (In fact, I married the first person I ever came out to!) I’m luckier than most queer people who grow up in the church.
It’s no secret that Utah, which is about 70% Mormon, has a suicide rate 3 times the national average. And a huge proportion of those deaths are among LGBT Mormon youth. What else can you expect, growing up insulated within a religion which makes clear, in no uncertain terms, that homosexuality ensures failure in your life’s purpose?
In past years, LDS leadership was explicitly anti-gay, promoting reparative therapy and counseling gays and lesbians to marry members of the opposite sex in order to be “cured.” This has worked out about as well as you might expect – resulting in divorces, broken families, and suicide.
I could try to describe what the Mormon church has done to gay members for you, but I think it’s easier to let Steve, an ex-Mormon and close family friend, tell you about his experiences:
The LDS church, to its credit, has progressed a little over the years. Oh, they’ve still donated tons of money to oppose marriage equality legislation, but their official line is no longer to try to force LGBT members into heterosexual marriages and hope it works out.
The church still believes that homosexual behavior is a sin, but now says that’s because gay marriage is wrong and sex outside of marriage is immoral – not because homosexual feelings and inclinations are in and of themselves sinful. It’s a shift in doctrine, but isn’t functionally any better for LGBT Mormons. The church is now essentially telling LGBT members that they need to choose between going to Heaven while living the rest of their lives in celibacy, or leaving the church and having fulfilling romantic relationships. And the Utah legislature is still trying to keep schools from reaching out to queer kids.
It gets worse, though. Mormon doctrine also makes fairly clear through its emphasis on family that the meaning of life is to get married and have children. In fact, Mormons who do not marry are told they will not attain the highest levels of glory in Heaven. Women are told they are unable to enter Heaven without a husband – a belief that’s not only anti-lesbian, but deeply misogynistic as well.
I want to be clear: many, many individual Mormons are supportive of gay rights. Many Mormons have LGBT friends and family members, and not all of them react badly when they come out. And many Mormons were upset and dismayed to see the money they’d donated to the church they believed in used to fund Proposition 8 and other anti-gay legislation. There are individuals and groups within Utah and the LDS Church – both LGBT and straight allies – who are working for change.
So I don’t want to imply that all Mormons are homophobic. But I do think that the Mormon faith is deeply damaging to queer youth who are raised within it, especially in Utah where it’s so engrained in the local culture. I don’t think it’s wise or safe to raise children who may grow up to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, asexual, or anything other than conservative, vanilla, and straight in the Mormon faith. Not when the official Church doctrine on such matters boils down to these options:
- Being miserable, celibate, and alone for the rest of your life.
- Marrying someone you aren’t attracted to and hoping for the best.
- Having relationships with the people you’re attracted to, but feeling deeply guilty and risking excommunication.
- Leaving the church and damaging your relationships with friends and family, possibly forever.
My mother and father chose that last option when they realized, for personal reasons and for my sake, that they couldn’t stay in the church any longer. (And a good thing, too, since 4 out 5 of their kids have turned out to be some variety of queer.) It had a price – my mother was never able to reconcile with my grandmother before her death.
The rifts within our extended family have healed some with time, but to some extent they will always remain. It’s difficult to explain why I can never come back to someone who’s never struggled with questions of sexual orientation or gender identity. Why I keep my distance. Why I don’t visit. Why I can’t talk about it.
How can I talk to relatives who insist that gay marriage is an abomination, that my lesbian cousin is “going through a phase,” that homosexuality is caused by overbearing mothers or absent fathers? Where do I begin? What do I even say?
Mostly, I don’t say anything. Those I’m on good terms with I don’t really talk about LGBT issues with. Those I know would mercilessly berate me for expressing any mildly liberal opinion, I don’t talk to at all. Had I been closer to most of them when I was younger, perhaps my life and experiences could serve as a teachable moment. As it is, I know I’m not in any position to actively change anyone’s opinion if they’re not already receptive to it.
I hope that as more Mormons and ex-Mormons speak out about gay rights, things will begin to change within the church, even if it’s just a matter of individual members becoming more accepting. The number of resources which have become available for queer youth in Utah since I was young is encouraging. I believe that Mormons are increasingly becoming aware of, and speaking out against, homophobia.
But it isn’t enough. Not yet. And I’m not sure that it will be enough for many years to come.
Photo credit: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr