John Gustav-Wrathall is the newly-elected president of Affirmation: LGBT Mormons, Families & Friends, an international organization founded in 1977 to support LGBTQ/SSA Mormons and their families, friends and Church leaders. Following his election, I invited Gustav-Wrathall, a personal friend, to draft a post on his thoughts about the new policy, his interactions with Church leaders, and what he thought important that members know. The post below is the product of that invitation.
For those who don’t know him, Gustav-Wrathall is an adjunct professor of American Religious History at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, where he teaches future Protestant ministers about Mormonism (and other religions). He is the author of Take the Young Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA (University of Chicago Press, 1998), has published articles in Sunstone and Dialogue on being gay and Mormon, and is the author of the Young Stranger blog, which he has maintained since 2007.
Though excommunicated from the Church, John has a testimony, and has been active in his south Minneapolis ward since 2005 (he discusses his journey back to the Church in several of his Young Stranger blog posts, including the fantastic “On Being a Gay Mormon Missionary“). He currently lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his husband of over twenty years, to whom he was legally married in Riverside, California in July 2008, and with whom he has foster parented three sons.
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions. (Joel 2:28)
When I first met with my bishop in late 2005 and told him my story, the first words out of his mouth were a quotation of the scripture above. His insight, upon hearing my story, was analogous to Peter’s insight as he stood upon the threshold of Cornelius’ house and saw the Spirit being poured out on Gentiles. There are growing numbers of LGBT individuals who have felt the Spirit of the Lord calling us, who have gathered under the eaves of a Church that still doesn’t know quite how to receive us. There is something happening within the LGBT community that I believe is larger than any one of us, that has to do with God’s unfolding plan for all his children, a plan that preaches to the poor, that heals broken hearts, that delivers captives, that gives sight to those who can’t see, and that liberates those who have been bruised.
There has historically been a tendency among Mormons to view “gay pride” and the gay rights movement as unmitigated evils, as “signs of the times” proving that Satan is abroad in the land. That feature of Mormon culture is exactly why Mormons Building Bridges was such a big deal. Mormons just didn’t march in gay pride parades. That conservative stereotypical view of gay pride and gay rights did have some historical and cultural basis. Historically, coming out as lesbian, gay, bi or transgender resulted in excommunication from one’s family, and so many within the LGBT community made a virtue of disconnection from family. The Church saw us as anathema and we returned the favor. In the years before the gay rights movement, LGBT people tended to meet in bars and red light districts, in contexts where substance abuse and promiscuity were normal. Popular in the gay subculture were “sex liberation” and countercultural ideologies that romanticized “queerness” and indignantly condemned marriage as an oppressive bourgeois institution. So the predominant conservative religious view of homosexuality and transgender as sinful and pathological seemed justified based on what many observed of LGBT culture — especially to those who observed it from the outside.
What is important to understand is that it is more correct to speak of gay rights movements, plural, than a single monolithic movement. More important, significant elements of the gay rights movement have always been as concerned with reforming LGBT cultural norms as they have with reforming the wider culture. In the last five decades, the changes within LGBT culture have been as revolutionary, if not more revolutionary, than the changes of attitude within the broader American culture. Some of this may be a function of the emergence of a middle American LGBT movement, an LGBT movement of the American heartland rather than of West Hollywood, the Castro and Greenwich Village. It is certainly a function of legal reforms that have made it increasingly possible for LGBT people to come out of the closet without risk of loss of livelihood and extreme social ostracism. What we are seeing are LGBT people and an LGBT culture that increasingly embraces family and faith, sobriety, engagement and commitment. The movement for marriage equality is the tip of that iceberg.
The way this looks on the ground floor is LGBT folks being empowered to make healthier choices thanks to our ability to “come out of the closet.” It is really only since the 1980s that gay people “coming out” became a normal phenomenon. Prior to then, the social cost was too great. Being exposed as gay literally destroyed lives. When I came out publicly in the late 1980s, it was rare to encounter another gay person who was fully, publicly out. Now in the second decade of the twenty-first century, in most parts of the U.S., it is rare to encounter gay individuals who are not out to everyone they know. Being able to be out means being able to find social support networks that are not centered in bars and cruising spots. It means having family relationships that are based on honesty. It means the possibility of having an intimate relationship based on openness, love and commitment. And it means a spirituality rooted in honesty and agency.
To me it is no coincidence that the spiritual experience I had prompting me to return to the LDS Church came at a time of increased stability and commitment within my relationship with my husband. The way I experienced it was that my willingness to make significant sacrifices for my husband made me more sensitive to spiritual things, to spiritual promptings. When I started to pray again, the Lord prompted me to pray for an outpouring of the Spirit on the whole LGBT community, and that is what I believe I am witnessing.
To me and to many other members of the LGBT community, the end of the closet was a liberation that came from God.
As LGBT people have come out, our coming out has changed us, but, of course, it also changed the people around us. Now our families, friends, co-workers and neighbors know us in ways they never knew us before. They know much more about our character and our choices, and about the contingencies that shape those choices. And that new information has challenged the old paradigm of LGBT people as pathological or sinful or both. With a flood of new data made possible by LGBT people coming out on a mass scale, the old paradigm has crumbled with a rapidity that astonishes. When I came out in the late 1980s, we dreamed of marriage equality, but none of us ever expected to see it in our life times.
A moment that epitomized the clash between the old paradigm and the new data was President Boyd K. Packer’s October 2010 General Conference talk. President Packer, responding to the testimony of gay people themselves that our gayness is an essential part of who we are, that it is part of how God has made us, rhetorically posed the question: Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Even though that question was edited out of the published version of his talk, I felt it was an excellent question. It was the question, in my opinion, that the experience of LGBT people demands we as a Church answer. As a Church, we have new data; we have an old paradigm that the data just don’t fit; and we have a doctrine that, in light of the new data, demands new light and knowledge from on high.
So this brings us to the new LDS Church Handbook Policy implemented without public announcement or comment on Thursday, November 5, 2015, followed by a rush to rationalize and “clarify” and catch up in the wake of a social media storm that pointed to a much broader and deeper crisis of faith for significant numbers of Latter-day Saints church-wide. While books could be written (and undoubtedly will be written) on what has transpired since, I would like to share some fairly brief observations, all of which incline me toward hope.
- Last week, I engaged in not just one meeting but a series of meetings with Church leaders in Salt Lake in my capacity as president elect of Affirmation, the world’s largest and oldest organization for LGBT Mormons and their families and friends. This was the first meeting between a leader of Affirmation and Church leaders since the promulgation of the new policy, and Church leaders were anxious to meet with me. They were eager to hear my account of the impact of the policy as I had observed it and people’s reactions to the policy as I had heard them. Far from treating me as persona non grata (as some might assume an individual in an “apostate” marriage would be treated) I was received with kindness and respect and as a member of our community of faith. I witnessed genuine empathy and concern, and genuine wrestling. What I can say without the least shadow of doubt is that our leaders see the Church as an inclusive community founded on love, and yearn for all to be a part of it, LGBT people no less than any others. The problem is that they feel constrained by the current doctrine of the Church to maintain certain boundaries with regard to marriage and sexuality. They are as perplexed by the dilemmas faced by LGBT individuals and their families as anyone else.
- This has affected non-gay Latter-day Saints on a far larger scale than anything we’ve seen in the history of this issue in the Church. As a result of what has happened, gay marriage, gay relationships, and gay experience are being discussed in virtually every corner of the Church. And everywhere, people are wrestling to make sense of the data and its seeming incongruence with doctrine. Bottom line as far as that incongruence is concerned, gay people flourish in gay marriage. It is good for them. It grounds them spiritually. It affords them greater stability. It creates family and community and connects them to larger family structures and social institutions. That does not make sense to most Mormons in a paradigm where same-sex sexual relations are categorized as grievous sin or (now) as apostasy.
- On the grassroots, Mormons are responding with love. Those LGBT individuals and their families who showed up at Church the Sunday after were greeted with an outpouring of support. We were embraced, we were comforted, we were reassured that we were loved and that we had a place among the Saints.
- The intention of the policy change is to clarify Church doctrine on marriage and the family as it currently stands, not to stigmatize individuals.
I am inclined to remain cautiously optimistic. It seems to me that the Church is in flux right now in relation to this issue (and in relation to a number of other mission critical issues). I see a grassroots yearning for more satisfactory answers to our existential questions about homosexuality, and more satisfactory resolutions to the challenges created by the existence of gay people in a social system that was designed as if they didn’t really exist. As far as I can tell, our leadership at the highest levels is not “out of touch” with the general membership when it comes to this. They are wrestling with the issues as much as anyone else, though their process is not as publicly visible.
This is not just about finding an “easy way out.” It’s not just about liberal caving to worldly social pressure. Circa 1965, the Church’s view of homosexuality was virtually indistinguishable from the dominant view in American culture. This is about a search for meaning. A new paradigm, a new doctrine, a new understanding of the place of LGBT people in the plan of salvation would still require sacrifice, discipline, faith, hope and love, even if — especially if — gay relationships were somehow encompassed in that new understanding.
Genuine anguish has been created by the new policy. I have witnessed heightened depression and despair among LGBT individuals and families who have found it impossible to interpret the policy in any other way than as the harshest form of rejection coming from the highest levels of the Church. The Church has a challenge in that as a result of the policy, growing numbers of individuals have lost faith in their leaders. And that faith is extremely unlikely to be restored by anything that anyone says. Only actions that demonstrate love and inclusion will be persuasive. Rhetoric will count “as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” But how to act?
One of the many conversations I’ve had in the wake of the policy change was with Darius Gray, an individual who played a pivotal role in the Church’s wrestling with issues related to race prior to 1978. Since 1978, Brother Gray has also worked tirelessly for the deconstruction and renunciation of the damaging, indefensible, racist folklore that was invented to justify the erstwhile policy that had banned black men from holding priesthood and black families from being sealed in the temple. One thing he told me particularly struck me. There are some wounds created by prejudice and exclusion that never fully heal, in this life at least. But we must still eventually learn to forgive. And, he insisted, we must stay engaged. If you must leave the Church, he told me, consider it a sabbatical, a vacation. But do not give up on the Church.
In the days after the news of the policy hit, I prayed. I pleaded. And I found a broad, abiding, powerful peace. I found assurance that God has not forgotten me or my husband or our sons. I saw a way of light opening up before us, like the waters of the Red Sea parting. This is not the end. It is a beginning. I have spoken to other LGBT individuals who were driven to their knees by this, who similarly found peace and love pouring down from Heaven. Most LGBT folks have already left, and many more will continue to leave. But there is a core of us who will not leave, who cannot leave. And as far as I can tell, the Lord is equipping us for this journey, however long it might be.
To my straight brothers and sisters, to the parents and grandparents, the siblings and uncles and aunts and cousins of gay Mormons, I ask: have faith. Stay firm. Hold onto whatever core of your testimony you can cling to. The Church is not perfect. Our commitment to it is nothing more nor less than the acceptance of an invitation to engage with one another in a process of becoming perfected. That process, that faith, will perfect us. It will heal us and save us — not just in some theological sense of finding Heaven above, but in some very root, down-to-earth, fundamental sense of making us whole, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Things will get better. We will get better, both individually and collectively, if we hold on to each other.
Your gay family members may need to leave the Church, at least for a time. Don’t you leave them. As Carol Lynn Pearson put it during a TribTalk panel I appeared with her on shortly after the policy announcement: You come up with your own personal policy. You love unconditionally. You hold and support and include everyone, as Christ would have you do. If you stay with the Church (as I hope you will), make sure you communicate clearly and in no uncertain terms to them that your staying doesn’t mean abandoning them, it means making a better world for them and for future generations of gay kids who are being born into the Church even as we speak.
I read and love the scriptures. And I find there that the Lord is seldom able to lead us the easy way. It could be easy if we were so inclined. But human beings are inclined to learn the hard way. Our hearts are often hard, our minds impenetrable, our eyes closed, our ears shut. That is why this process can feel so crazy-making so often. I look at the Church’s journey with this issue, and it is full of tragedy. But I also see the hand of God in it. I believe the current policy predicament is jolting us awake. And the Lord is not abandoning us — any of us — in this process. His Spirit is being poured down, on all flesh.