A few weeks ago, I remember hearing the news about the church’s new policy which targets the children of parents in same sex relationships. Like many, I was overcome with anger and hurt for the families that would be affected. However, I cannot say I was surprised. I have been an LGBT+ advocate for too long, heard too many stories, and felt them all too deeply, to be surprised anymore by news of this nature. Even so, it has been simultaneously painful and empowering to see the response to this issue. On the one hand, I have seen a massive strain on families in the past week, both those with and without LGBT+ members. I have seen loved ones attacking one another and relationships severed as a result. On the other hand, it fills me with hope to see so many LDS members taking a stand against the discriminatory practices of the church. Questioning your beliefs is not easy. Standing up for those beliefs against the majority is even harder. Though it may not be my place to do so, I would like to address individuals on both sides of this issue. I would challenge those who stand against the policy to remember how difficult it was to take that stand. I would also challenge those who stand by the policy to ask the difficult question, “Why?”

To be clear, I am not a member of the LDS church, nor have I ever been. Until I met my husband four years ago, I had never even spoken to a Mormon. And to be completely honest, I am not even religious. Though I was raised Evangelical for most of my life, I left the church in my late teens and now identify as agnostic. Regardless, I also do not believe it is my place to judge members of any religion. Religion has done beautiful things for many people, from offering individuals a healthy support network to even saving lives. My goal is not to degrade, but to share my experience and perhaps offer a fresh perspective. Though I am not a member of the church, I see many Mormons going through a journey similar to mine.

There has recently been talk of a mass exodus of LDS members over the new policy. While discrimination comes of no surprise to me anymore, I have to say that this movement did. People who are brave enough to change their views come few and far between.Like many of those who are considering leaving the church over this policy, I also left my own religion due to the rampant discrimination and hate I was seeing among church members. It was difficult for me, as it is for most people, to reach the point where I was forced to question everything I had ever known. But even more difficult was sitting through every Sunday, watching severely misguided individuals masquerading their hate and disguising it as love. I still vividly remember my final breaking point. I was sitting with an older woman in church on Sunday and listened to her proudly proclaim how they had recently kicked a gay man from the church. She stated, “We can’t have him working with the children, that’s disgusting” and proceeded into an incredibly vulgar discussion of anal sex with a sneer on her face. It was the first time I had encountered a person who held such bitter resentment toward someone, simply for being who they were. Frankly, it disgusted me.

At this point in my life, I was a staunch believer in “hate the sin, love the sinner” rhetoric. I would gaze down from my pedestal at my LGBT+ friends and remind them with self righteous flair, “I love you, but what you’re doing is wrong”. And how the mighty had fallen. How was I any different than that woman from church, self righteous and so convinced that her hateful actions were that of love? I stopped going to church, took a step back, and began to question everything I thought I knew. I began to ask why I believed what I did. Was it because it resonated with me on a spiritual level? Or was it because my parents and community said so? As I attended LGBT+ conferences and met more wonderful individuals with heartbreaking stories, I began to ask why is this wrong? Just because God or the pastor says so? It was hard for me to justify how tearing two loving individuals apart was even remotely the right thing to do. Why would a loving and righteous God would want this? I had a revelation upon meeting various religious leaders with differing views of the Bible and realized there were endless methods through which to understand the book. It was a relief, the freedom that came with knowing that I could interpret God’s word in a way that spoke to me. In the past, Pastors had told me to “Pray about it”, but were only satisfied if the answer I received was the same as theirs. I did and it never was.

However, along with this knowledge came the realization that religion can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be a very dangerous thing. Contrary to what I had previously believed, God did not create man in his own image. Rather, it seemed that man had created God in his own image. Religious text can be interpreted to support any idea the reader desires, be it one of love or hate. This is why I was somewhat uncomfortable to learn that in the LDS faith, interpretation of Religious text rests entirely in the hands of a single prophet and a handful of leaders (All older, white men with an extremely limited perspective), and that all members are heavily pressured to follow suit.

While I very much believe in being accepting toward all religions, I have also studied enough social psychology to know that blind obedience to authority is rarely a good idea. Most people have heard of Stanley Milgram’s experiments on submission to authority. In post World War II, the Germans were judged and written off as evil individuals with evil intentions. Americans swore that they would never do the same if in the same position. Milgram put these assertions to the test with his experiment. He invited participants into a room and instructed them to issue shocks, of varying levels of severity, to an actor in the next room whom could be seen and heard. Though it was obvious that the person was in severe pain, and even at risk of death, 65% of individuals applied the maximum voltage when continuously prompted by the experimenter. Despite the questionable ethics of his experiment, Milgram made us all face the terrifying reality of our own capabilities. That given the proper setting and authority figure, we were capable of great evils, just as the Nazi party had been.

The more my husband introduced me to his family and other LDS members, the more I got the sense that the church demanded this blind obedience. After meeting with several Mormons, ex Mormons, and LGBT+ individuals of both persuasions, I had heard countless stories that were very difficult to listen to. These were people that loved, or had loved the church and everything it had given them, only to have their entire lives stripped from them once they dared to ask “Why?” After this policy was leaked, the church swore that it was for the good of families. However, story after tragic story detailed how it was ripping families apart. Parents are terrified that their children will be forced to leave them, that they won’t be able to enter the church and, perhaps most tragically, that they might feel killing themselves is the only option. LGBT+ youth are already one of the most at-risk groups in the country for mental illness and suicide. This policy could potentially isolate them from perhaps the only support group they have. And yet, despite all of this, I constantly hear the mantra “Follow the prophet” from supporters who refuse to question.

In the past, I might have judged these individuals. Internally I would have furiously shook them while yelling “LOOK AT WHAT THIS IS DOING”. But I believe the only way a problem can be solved is through empathy. When faced with these moral dilemmas, you experience a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. You reach your breaking point and are forced to reconsider everything you have ever known, all of your morals and values, your very identity, and the stress can be nearly unmanageable. So you are faced with a choice. You can turn your back and refuse to think about it. Surround yourself with like minded individuals, rely entirely on authority figures to make those tough decisions, as Milgram has shown that all of us are so wired to do. Or you can face it head on and begin asking the hard questions. Why is this policy good for families? What are the positive and negative outcomes it has made? Does the good really outweigh the bad?

This seems particularly difficult for members of the LDS faith to do. Mormonism isn’t just a religion, as Evangelism, Catholicism, or Lutheranism is for many. It is a culture of its own and an entire lifestyle. There are many things I respect about the Mormon church. I admire the closeness of the LDS families I have met, their desire to help those around them, their dedication to practicing what they preach. But there are also aspects of the church that make my heart hurt for its members. It was painful to hear how my husband was paralyzed with fear when telling his parents he couldn’t continue living a lie, attending a church he no longer believed in. It is frustrating to sit around the table of an LDS family during dinner, viscerally aware of the elephant in the room, all of the secret feelings that everyone is too afraid to voice, lest they shatter the illusion of perfection they had worked so tirelessly to build. Most of all, it hurts to see families torn apart by a simple disagreement.

I have been told that the church tends to foster an “All or none” mentality. You’re either with us 100% or against us. But I challenge that belief. I still remember the shock my husband felt upon visiting my family and seeing us viciously arguing about politics and religion one moment, then laughing and backslapping the next. (Not to mention when he was accused of being “Some sort of f***ing communist” upon refusing a beer from my brother-in-law). Yet we still continue to love and respect each other. We still continue to have those conversations. Disagreement is healthy. Debate sharpens minds and can bring families together through honesty. Everybody on this earth believes that they are good people, trying to do the right thing. What is important is that you think critically about why your actions are right. Chances are, if you are against this policy, it is because you have dared to ask those questions, to challenge your beliefs rather than continuing to follow blindly. But don’t forget to remember how difficult that journey was. To go against authority, even when doing the right thing, is often often punished rather than rewarded. This policy is proof of that.

Leah Westover is a feminist LGBT+ Advocate with a BA in Psychology/Gender Studies and a background in child welfare. She was born and raised by a single mother in Central Illinois, in an Evangelical household that was financially poor but rich in love, hospitality, and delicious comfort food. Leah met her husband, who was an ex Mormon, and married into his Mormon family within a few years. She currently resides in Klamath Falls, Oregon and plans to work toward her graduate degree in Child and Family Therapy. In her free time, Leah enjoys traveling, learning about people and cultures, making music, and watching Netflix

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