There was a time when I utterly rejected the notion that it was possible to be gay and Mormon. I defined being Mormon as being a baptized member of the Church in good standing, and during the years I was coming of age, it was not uncommon for individuals to be excommunicated from the Church for the simple fact of acknowledging homosexual feelings. I had priesthood leaders and counselors who confirmed that merely to “be” gay made one unworthy. And in my mind, the distinction (commonly made in the Church today) between “behavior” and “feelings” or “orientation” didn’t really matter, because didn’t Jesus teach that to “lust in your heart” is just as sinful as to commit the act? I read Spencer W. Kimball’s Miracle of Forgiveness, which just left me feeling broken and hopeless. (Not that that’s a particularly unique experience with that book…! But the advice it offered about the causes and cures for homosexuality left me feeling particularly desperate.) The breaking point came for me once I came to terms with the reality that marriage to a woman was simply not possible. Growing up, I had deeply imbibed a brand of Mormon perfectionism that saw anything but the highest level of Celestial Kingdom as a form of “damnation.” So if I couldn’t achieve temple marriage, what was the point any more? It was feelings of worthlessness and despair caused by that realization that almost drove me to suicide.
In the late 1980s, I was referred by a Lutheran friend to “Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons.” At the time I was intrigued. I called the local contact for Affirmation’s “Great Lakes Chapter.” Over the phone I said to him something along the lines of, “This is a group for gay ex-Mormons, right? Because it’s not really possible to be gay and Mormon.” When he replied nonchalantly, “No, some of us are members of the Church,” that was as much as I needed or wanted to know. I toyed with the idea of attending an Affirmation meeting or two to see what it was about, but ultimately opted against it. I figured whoever they were, they had to be in denial. You could not be gay and Mormon. Ironic that, two decades or so later, I would become senior vice president of Affirmation, and that I would see the most important role of the organization being to help LGBT people find faithful ways forward as Latter-day Saints.
My current, more positive relationship with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began in a moment of absolute clarity I experienced while attending a Sunstone Symposium for the first time ever in August 2005. It was the first time in years I’d gone to any sort of event involving Mormons or Mormonism. I had gone at the encouragement of former BYU professor Mike Quinn, and the session I was attending was a paper presented by Lavina Fielding Anderson, one of the few Mormons I had any respect for at the time because she was one of the only ones who had ever listened to and taken seriously my story as a gay Mormon. This moment of clarity involved the Holy Spirit speaking to me in such a way that there was no doubt in my mind this was the Spirit speaking, not “just a feeling,” not a whim or a fantasy or a remnant of childhood guilt. It was like light flooding into my heart and my mind, communicating two very clear messages. God loved me unconditionally. And God was inviting me to “come back” to the Church. Whatever doubt I had at the time about the existence of God evaporated. I knew this was real.
At the time I wished I could “explain away” what had transpired, because back to the Church was not a direction I wanted to go. At the time I had no idea what “coming back” to the Church meant. So in the following month or two I was having this running argument with God about how and why “coming back” was “impossible.” And finally one day, the Spirit broke through to me by telling me simply to go to Church. Simply attend. That’s all that was being asked of me. So, like Naaman the Syrian, I finally accepted that if something so simple was all that God asked of me, why shouldn’t I try it? What I learned is that each time I followed a prompting of the Spirit, there was more light, more goodness, more joy, and more peace that came into my life.
I had returned to the Church with a heavy dose of skepticism. Just because someone in Sunday School, or Priesthood Meeting or Sacrament (or in General Conference) said something was true, or just because it was written in a manual somewhere, I’d decided, didn’t make it true. I would test and try principles one by one and see how they worked, and hold on to the stuff that worked and guiltlessly jettison the rest. Still, it astonished me to learn how much held true for me. I have since had experiences with priesthood leaders and with priesthood blessings that have convinced me that priesthood power and authority are real. I remember on more than one occasion meeting with my bishops over the last eight or so years and literally experiencing a visible, heavenly light in the room, and feeling that same perfect clarity and love and peace of the Spirit that brought me back to the Church. Not “just a feeling.” Real phenomena that I couldn’t deny. I knew that the priesthood my bishop held was different, special. I’m well read about the problems scholars have identified related to the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Still, the Book of Mormon has been a kind of Urim and Thummim to me, a conduit for divine light in my life. I’m well read in Church history and historiography, the good, the bad and the ugly; the faith-inspiring and not-so-faith-inspiring. I attribute my renewed testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith to my reading of Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History. It’s my experiences with the Spirit, with scriptures, with priesthood blessings and power that have enabled me to put troubling intellectual questions on a shelf, trusting that more light and knowledge will come along. Some have described having their “shelves” break under the weight of accumulated doubts about Church history and sociality, but my shelf is strong and broad, and there’s ample space there. The rewards of my faith have been far greater than the doubts.
It was personal, divine revelation that transformed old assumptions about the incompatibility of my Mormonism and my gayness. I came to understand the most fundamental aspect of my faith and my identity as a relationship with a real, divine being who had revealed himself to me in clear, undeniable, readily discernible ways. The Church was a vehicle through which God worked, nothing more, nothing less. I belonged there. The Lord made that very clear to me. This was his Church, and he decided who belonged there, and the Lord made me know in the most certain terms possible that I belonged, he wanted me there, and that nobody else but he was the arbiter of that, and whatever misunderstandings, lack of clarity in doctrine or practice or whatever else was keeping me out quite simply did not matter in the eternal scheme of things. It would all be worked out, and all I needed to do was to trust him. Trust that it was his Church, the Church of Jesus Christ. (Not the Church of the Latter-day Saints! The Saints are his people, but his Church is not their Church!). Trust that he would guide his Church in the way he saw fit. And it would require patience on my part, but if I could be patient, the reward would exceed imagination.
So, here I am.
Shortly after I had started attending Church and had begun praying daily again, I began to feel promptings to pray that the Holy Spirit might be poured out upon the LGBT community. At the time it didn’t make a lot of sense to me to pray for such a thing. To me it made sense to pray for specific individuals, like my sisters and brothers or my parents, or my nephews and nieces, for friends. Praying for a group of individuals who number in the millions worldwide seemed like an empty gesture to me. What would my solitary prayers matter in that grand scheme of things? But the Spirit reassured me that the Lord could work with even a handful of prayers. All that mattered in a prayer was that it be offered in faith, less that large numbers of people were praying for that. So I began to pray for that. And I started to keep my eye out for other LGBT Mormons. I wondered, “If the Lord has spoken to me in this way, surely he is speaking to others.”
For a long time, it seemed as if he wasn’t. I started spreading my feelers out far and wide — at Sunstone, on-line through my blog and reading the blogs of other gay Mormons, through Affirmation and through individuals who had been involved in extensive outreach to LGBT Mormons (like Bill Bradshaw and Ron Schow). Did anybody else know of gay folks like me, in committed same-sex relationships, who also had testimonies of the Church? Who were trying to be active in the Church whatever the peculiarities of their status? (My status was and remains “excommunicated.”) Again and again, people who ought to have known said, “No, as far as I know, you’re the only one.” I remember the excitement I felt when someone told me for the first time, “Oh, I know of this one guy,” only to have it not really pan out. All the gays I met who were active in the Church were those who were in heterosexual marriages, or who were making a go of celibacy. It was not uncommon to encounter folks who were opening themselves to the possibility of a same-sex relationship and who had a yearning to stay connected to their faith, only to gradually withdraw from the community of the Saints, some with sadness, most with anger and disillusionment. I knew there had to be others in the unique kind of in-between space I had found, but I just wasn’t connecting with them. It seemed like you were in one of two categories: ex-gay (or “SSA”) and Mormon, or ex-Mormon and gay.
I became aware of a shifting landscape in the run-up to the Affirmation Conference in Kirtland, Ohio in 2011. I was contacted by Randall Thacker, then vice president of Affirmation, who invited me to be a speaker at the devotional to be held in conjunction with that conference in the Kirtland Temple. The theme I was invited to address was “how to live with the Spirit in your life.”
I had been at Affirmation conferences before, but the 2011 Kirtland Conference was of a very different order. It was one of the most spiritual conferences I had ever attended. The heart and soul of that conference was prayer, singing hymns, going on pilgrimage to the sacred places where the Restoration had unfolded, and bearing testimony in a latter-day temple. This conference wasn’t just about socializing and sitting through workshops. I watched as gay and lesbian Mormons wept and prayed individually and collectively, and as we reflected on Affirmation’s mission and future. Something powerful was happening.
At that conference I encountered in significant numbers folks who fully accepted themselves as lesbian and gay, who knew that for them a same-sex relationship represented the fullness of joy, the integration of mind, body and spirit that God intended for them, and who also could not deny their testimony of the Restoration. I met individuals who were praying, studying the scriptures, going to Church and trying to live the Gospel the best they could, even when their own personal sense of how they were to live their lives didn’t jive totally with what the Church taught about homosexuality. We were exercising faith; that in spite of the message that had been almost universally drilled into us that by virtue of our self-acceptance as L, G, B or T we must somehow be faithless.
To be in that space means to simultaneously embrace contradictory data. We would have to, for instance, embrace the notion that Elder Boyd K. Packer was a divinely called apostle of Jesus Christ, but that he occasionally said stuff about homosexuality over the pulpit in General Conference that didn’t make the least bit of sense. (For what it’s worth, though, I think Elder Packer in his now notoriously failed attempt to canonize the Proclamation on the Family, asked a very good question that I think the Church will at some point have to wrestle with in depth, namely, “Why would God make someone like that?”)
Randall Thacker recruited me to help organize the Affirmation conference in Seattle the following year. At the end of 2012, Randall (whom I learned had recently begun attending his home ward in Washington, DC, and had been warmly welcomed by his bishop despite the fact that he was in a same-sex relationship) ran for president of Affirmation. He asked me to be his senior vice-president, and together we began to hammer out a new vision for Affirmation, that involved “following the Spirit,” and affirming that you didn’t have to choose between being LGBT and Mormon. We began to communicate in every way imaginable that if you were LGBT and if you had a testimony, Affirmation was the place for you, and that if you felt the Spirit calling you to do a work of reconciliation, of healing, of gathering the LGBT Saints, you were “called” to leadership in Affirmation.
Affirmation is not (and cannot be) exclusively an organization of believing LGBT Mormons. It needs to include everyone who identifies with the LGBT Mormon label, whether they have testimonies or not, whether they want to have anything at all to do with the Church or not. There is tremendous pain and damage that LGBT Mormons have suffered that need healing, and many need to distance themselves from the Church in order to find their courage and their integrity and to experience healing. We want Affirmation to be a place where they can do that. But Affirmation must also be a place where faithful, believing LGBT Mormons can find each other, and strengthen each other in the uniquely challenging journeys that we have.
Since Seattle, we’ve convened leadership gatherings in Washington D.C., Salt Lake and most recently Nauvoo, IL. Early in 2013 we decided it made sense to hold conferences in Salt Lake for at least the next couple of years, since that would be the place most accessible to the regions where there are critical masses of LGBT Mormons, so last year’s annual conference was in Salt Lake, and so will be this year’s (September 12-14, at the University of Utah). We also recently organized a conference in Mexico City, and plan to continue to organize regional gatherings that will make Affirmation more accessible to those distant from the Mormon heartland. These gatherings have been approached as spiritual gatherings, gatherings of LGBT people seeking God’s blessings and guidance. The Affirmation Conference in Mexico City resulted in the baptism of a gay man whose first encounter with the LDS Church was through Affirmation. We’ve organized an on-line group known as the “Prepare Group” (name of the group based on the hymn, “The Lord My Pasture Will Prepare”) to provide support for active, testimony-bearing LGBT Mormons that is also attracting LGBT investigators — folks who feel the Spirit and yearn to unite with the Saints, but who are not sure how to go forward with that, given the homophobia still endemic in much of Mormon culture, and given Church policies and teachings that would tend to scare LGBT folks away.
It seems every day now I am encountering more individuals who fall in this category, and I never cease to be amazed and moved by the power of their stories, usually very spiritual stories about how the Lord spoke to them and touched them in some way that was unique to them. We are starting to collect these stories. (A bio/spiritual story writing project is a key part of what we are doing in the “Prepare Group.”) We each have unique stories; and many (perhaps most) of these stories are stories of coming to faith even believing that there could be no one else in the world who found sense in being both LGBT and Mormon, only to one day discover to their surprise that there were others, and we were starting to gather in this organization called “Affirmation.”
There came a point in my own personal journey where it was logical to ask the question, “Did the Spirit speak to me and lure me back to the Church in order to wean me, line upon line, away from my same-sex relationship or change my mind about what it means to be gay?” Or, was it the other way around? Was God gathering me to the Church, as he did Cornelius in the Book of Acts, to open the eyes of the Church to a different understanding of what it meant to be a disciple of Christ, and to transform their understanding of the meaning of the Law and its role in the lives of the faithful? And the only honest answer I can or ought to give on that score is that I don’t know. Only God knows the end point to which he is leading us individually and as a Church. I know what his will is for me personally right now, and I have to accept that where he leads me in the future is for me to learn as he unfolds it to me. But I trust him to teach me and us whatever it is we need to learn in relation to his issue. And we will only learn it through practice and through the exercise of faith.
But I do believe I was prompted by the Lord to pray for the outpouring of his Spirit on his LGBT children for a reason. He wanted to pour his Spirit out, and the Lord makes those kinds of blessings contingent upon our praying for and desiring that. And so I invite you to do the same, to pray for the outpouring of God’s Spirit on us all.
In addition to serving as Senior Vice-President of Affirmation: LGBT Mormons, Families & Friends, John Gustav-Wrathall teaches American Religious History at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, is the author of Take the Young Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Dynamics and the YMCA (University of Chicago Press, 1998). He attends the Lake Nokomis Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and lives in south Minneapolis with his husband of over two decades.