A year and a half ago, I invited John Gustav-Wrathall, president of the support group Affirmation: LGBT Mormons, Families & Friends, to share his thoughts on the Church’s new policy affecting LGBT members and their children (see All Flesh from December 2015). Diverging responses to this post gave rise to the idea of hosting a conversation on the blog about what it is reasonable for LGBT members of the Church to hope for and why. To facilitate such a back-and-forth, Gustav-Wrathall offered to share his thoughts on his experience as a gay man raised in the Church, his “abundance” of hope, and the sources of his religious optimism. These reflections constitute the first part of a conversation exploring the question: “What can LGBT members of the Church hope for?” Jonathan Green’s response to Gustav-Wrathall, which includes Gustav-Wrathall’s subsequent reply, represents the second part of the conversation.
Readers are invited to comment below or contribute to the conversation in the comments to Jonathan Green’s forthcoming post, but should ensure that any comments posted mirror the graciousness and respect shown by each author and are in line with our comment policy.
What Can LGBT Mormons Hope For?
I have frequently been accused of optimism, both by people who think that’s a bad thing, and by people who think it’s a good thing. Some, both in and out of the Church, say my optimism amounts to false hope, that it’s wrong, maybe even a sin to encourage false hope. Others, also both in and out of the Church, agree that we need hope for this very perilous journey in which hope is in such short supply. I plead guilty to having an abundance of hope that I am always willing to share. Though I agree that it’s eminently reasonable to ask in relation to hope what it is exactly that we hope for and where that hope comes from.
In order to begin to answer that question, I feel it’s important to share my basic assumptions about the nature and meaning of life.
Growing up Mormon, I was taught to pay attention to the invisible. I was taught to pause frequently in life and to listen to what the invisible was saying to me about the tangible and the visible. I could seek confirmation that a text I was reading or a teaching I was presented was true. I could get help navigating the moral complexities of the schoolyard or, later, the workplace. I could seek and get wisdom at the great junctures of my life where decisions were required and my own knowledge and wisdom seemed not enough to make decisions of the magnitude I was called upon to make. And I could, through the course of life’s decisions, and with the help of the invisible, come to know myself.
Of course the invisible from which I was taught to seek help was given a name: God. Or names: Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit. I was taught that I came from the invisible realm that they inhabit, that I was a child of its Divinity, of this Father in Heaven. (And there was a Mother there too!) And that this Divinity or these Divinities, who were omnipotent and good, had sent me here to learn important lessons, to acquire traits essential for eternal happiness, to become more like them, and then to return to them.
Life teaches us very difficult lessons. So I discovered that there was an element of trust involved in invoking the guidance of the invisible. There are points in the journey of life when you wonder if there’s anything to this, if God is real, or if God is really good or if he really can help you. You wonder if there really are lessons, if you really are on a journey, or if it’s all just random nonsense. And there came a point for me, at least, where I discovered that I just had to decide to trust. And when I have trusted, sometimes the veil covering the invisible world has parted in remarkable ways.
My husband and I belonged to an African American Gospel choir for many years, and there was a song we used to sing: “He’s never failed me yet.” I have found that to be a true statement. It’s not that I’ve never stumbled, never experienced pain or loss, never experienced anguish or despair, never found myself alone in the dark. It’s not that I have never been tempted to give up completely. But there’s always been something, someone, there that helped me pick up, start over, try again, continue on. I discovered there was learning and there’s always been hope.
Over time, I found how aptly the name “Father” described this relationship. I learned how much I could trust him. Through that relationship, I had experienced a powerful and singular love. And that relationship, trust and love, and the lessons of service and sacrifice that I’ve learned through them, and my gratitude for them, have only grown over the years.
So to return to the initial question — what can we hope for and why? — I would answer that all my lesser hopes, whatever those hopes may be, are grounded in one great Hope of ultimate union (or reunion) with God. I trust that if any of those lesser hopes are unworthy, the journey of life will teach me to let go of them in order that I might continue steadfastly on toward that great Hope. The worthiest lesser hopes are the ones that serve as trustworthy guides in the journey into Divinity.
What are some of those lesser but worthy hopes that serve as guides along the journey of ultimate Hope? The most important for me have been the hopes fostered by human connection within the context of an intimate relationship. I first learned about those hopes as a child, in family. From my parents I experienced a transcendent love that was born of or an extension of adult, intimate love. The hope of experiencing that kind of love myself became the major this-worldly aspiration in my life. My church taught me to make it that, and taught me that it was reasonable to hope for that love, and the loves born from it, to transcend the limits of this mortal life. My church taught me the godlike quality of those loves.
Being gay means that my drives and yearnings toward intimate, human connection are directed toward members of my same sex. The messages I got from the Church and general culture were that gay people were selfish, that they were incapable of commitment, that attraction toward members of the same sex was not real and that it could be cured by establishing a “real” relationship with a member of the opposite sex, that a same-sex sexual relationship would drive away the Spirit, and that living a “gay lifestyle” would ultimately leave me sad, frustrated, empty and alone. I believed all of those messages, so as I experienced the dawning of my sexual awareness, I perceived it as an unmitigated catastrophe.
At a point of crisis in my life in dealing with this, I had an encounter with Deity, in which I was told that my sexuality as a gay man was an integral part of me and that it was good. I was not initially inclined to accept this. It took years of continued soul-searching before I was finally willing to attempt dating men and actively seeking a relationship. Even then, the process entailed a fair amount of self-doubt and anxiety. If others have questioned the personal revelations I have received on this subject, I have questioned them myself in the course of many dark nights of the soul.
But my experience with this has paralleled the process described in Alma 32. The initial revelation felt right. It filled me with light. I finally put it to the test, and growth occurred. Eventually the growth led to the production of good fruit, new knowledge. New knowledge led to new questions, more personal revelation, more testing, more growth, more knowledge. I didn’t get ultimate answers, but the course I followed was productive enough of good fruit that I have been encouraged to stay in it.
I met my husband Göran in 1991. We became a couple in 1992, when there was no sign that we would ever receive legal recognition as a couple, or any of the protections that would enable us to care effectively for one another in the event of illness or financial hardship; when, in fact, all signs pointed in the direction of encountering significant animosity and discrimination for being openly gay. In 1995 we did what we could to proclaim our commitment to one another in a public ceremony with family and friends that had no legal standing. We bought a house together in 1996. We became foster parents in 2007, and raised a son. As soon as it became possible for us to legally marry in some jurisdiction (in California the summer of 2008) we flew there and were married, even though our marriage there had no legal standing in our home state of Minnesota. We fought for that legal standing in 2012, and in 2013 our home state recognized the California marriage we had contracted five years earlier. Soon after that, that marriage obtained legal standing in all fifty states.
In the more than two decades of our relationship, I have learned that every single message I internalized from my church and the broader culture about what it means to be gay was false. Being in a gay relationship taught me to how to be selfless and considerate of my spouse. It taught me the supreme importance of sacrifice as the noblest expression of love. It has taught me patience, faith and hope. We learned all of these lessons in an even more intense way through the experience of raising a gay foster son. Not ephemeral, our commitment has endured for 25 years, and our happiness in our relationship has steadily grown, and promises to continue to grow as we enter our latter years together. I’m not sure what qualifies an intimate relationship as “real.” What I can say is that when our Church leaders talk about marriage, when they describe the challenges it entails, the lessons it teaches, and the joys it proffers, I find perfect resonance between everything they have to say about marriage and my relationship with my husband, with one notable exception: that it must be between a man and a woman.
I have had ups and downs in my relationship with God. There was a substantial period of time when I did not really have the Spirit in my life. But the period of my life when I have been most spiritually alive has been the last dozen years when I acknowledged my testimony of the Gospel and have been both active in the LDS Church and fully committed to my spouse. I have never felt closer to God, nor felt the Spirit more continuously present, nor experienced more miraculous answers to prayer than I have in these years — even in comparison with the years when I was a member of the Church in good standing and a missionary. I have sought God daily in prayer, in scripture study, by attending Church, living the Word of Wisdom and other Gospel principles, and seeking opportunities for service. I have a testimony that the Church is true. My relationship with my husband does appear to have an impact on my ability to feel and respond to the Spirit in my life, but contrary to what I had once been told, it has a positive impact. When I am attentive to my husband, faithful, kind, and conscientious in my relationship with him, I experience much greater sensitivity to the Spirit.
I have met with Church leaders: bishops, stake presidents and even an apostle. I’ve shared my story with them in depth, and they have come to know me well enough over the course of the past dozen years of my Church activity to judge for themselves what fruit my life as an openly gay man in a same-sex marriage has produced. All have acknowledged signs of the Spirit’s presence and work in my life. All have offered me the verdict: “I cannot counsel you to do anything different in your life than what you are currently doing.” All have offered the same advice in relation to my excommunicated status and the contradiction between my personal experience and the current teaching and policy of the Church. That advice has been that I should cultivate patience. I have tried to do that.
Heterosexual people do not choose an opposite sex partner out of a sense of duty. I know gay Mormons who have done that, but not straight people, Mormon or non-Mormon. Straight people follow their attraction, fall in love, and build a relationship, in much the way I did, and in much the way other gay people do when they are not inhibited by social animosity or legal disadvantages. Gay and straight people in relationships, if they allow the discipline of commitment to teach them learn sacrifice and service (whether that discipline is inculcated by religion or is the natural product of the yearning for intimacy); they become parents and mentors and pillars of their extended families and communities. And their love matures into a beautiful thing.
Most people I know — gay and straight — who believe in some kind of Heaven-like afterlife anticipate it will be a time of eternal reunion with their spouse and other loved ones. They know this without having had to be taught any doctrine of eternal marriage. Straight families, if they embrace the Restored Gospel, are delighted to learn that doctrine. Gay individuals are told by the Church that they must destroy existent family or renounce potential family and stand alone in this life if they want a chance of having a relationship in the next life with someone they will never have had the opportunity to build a life and a relationship with in mortality. Most straight people, if presented such a doctrine, would intuitively reject it as an abominable teaching (as Luther did confronting the Roman doctrine of celibacy, and as the LDS Church did when they encountered the Shaker doctrine). Of course gay people reject it.
Faith has taught me to go forward without seeing too much of the road ahead. I’ve had some extraordinary spiritual experiences that have given me glimpses. I believe I will be a member of the Restored Church in good standing again someday, though I don’t know the details of how that will come about. I believe there is something very, very special in store for me and my husband together in the next life if we continue faithful to each other and if we continue to learn the lessons God has to teach us. I don’t know what it will be except that it will make all the challenges of this life very worthwhile.
I think it is reasonable to hope that straight Latter-day Saints can, even within the current doctrinal framework, have at least enough charity to listen to and learn from the stories of LGBT people, and strive for wards and stakes where Zion-like love is practiced, and where all feel fully included regardless of their formal membership status (as my ward has excelled at doing). I understand why most LGBT people do not feel drawn to the current arrangement in the Church.
But I’m very much a believer that the Lord gives us more when we do well with what we already have. And it seems to me that there’s far more we all can do and learn with what we currently have.