As a kid, I played that “stop you hitting yourself” game. I’d grab someone’s hand, make them hit themself, and then say, “Stop hitting yourself.” If it was someone roughly my own age, who was about as strong as I was, they’d break free pretty quickly cuz no one wanted to be on the receiving end of that game. But sometimes I’d pick on my younger siblings. My much younger siblings. I could make them hit themselves all day, or until they screamed loud enough for Mom to intervene. Snitches.
I don’t play anymore. If I were to hit someone my age with their own hand, they’d find it creepy and weird. If I were to pick on someone younger or less powerful than me, it would be abusive. To be clear, it was always abusive, but sometimes we don’t realize when cultural norms are actually just abuse repainted to look like child’s play.
Charlie Bird published an opinion piece in the Deseret News. He wrote, “Being gay and religious cannot become an oxymoron” and I couldn’t agree more. Religious sentiment cannot be owned by anti-gay people. But being gay and religious does not mean we have to find common ground with people who hurt us. To stick with the “hitting yourself” metaphor, when my Mom stepped in, she never told my younger siblings to “find common ground” while I was forcing them to hit themself. She made me, the aggressor, stop the abuse. The two sides were not equally balanced–I was older, stronger, and scarier. What my siblings and I wanted was not equivalent–I wanted to inflict violence and my younger siblings wanted to stop being hurt.
Before any common ground can be found with LDS leadership or members, they’ve got to stop hitting us.
By calling for unity while the harm is ongoing, Charlie asks us to collaborate in our own oppression.
LDS leadership has all the power in this situation and they’ve placed a lot of land mines in the path LGBTQ people tread if we want to stay active. Leadership controls official rituals of salvation like baptism and eternal marriage. They control official messaging on what families and individuals should look like, do, and be. They control policies of exclusion, including the exclusion of people at tithing-funded church schools. They control rules and procedures that result in the exclusion of queer folks from leadership, service and callings. They control who gets punished and for what–gay people less famous than Charlie are prohibited from taking the sacrament for marrying and allies are fired from BYU jobs while heterosexual men are protected by leadership when they abuse children and women.
Derek Knox texted me in frustration. “It’s  complete asymmetry. If the homophobes lay down their muskets, there would be no more hostility. If the LGBTs lay down their defenses, there will be no more LGBTs.” Testifying on a bill in our state legislature, I once said, “What is my queer child’s agenda? Simply to exist.” Before we can talk about common ground, the LDS church (and the hurtful members inside its walls) have to stop preaching against queer existence. The two sides are not the same.
If we’re going to heal as a church body, we need to first name the way power works. Then we need to honestly acknowledge the abuse the church, including individuals as well as official church policies, have levied against the LGBTQIA community. And we need to stop the abuse.
Charlie says, “Discussions about LGBTQ+ rights and religious freedom are often framed as ‘us vs. them,’ as if religious people and LGBTQ+ people are two entirely separate groups.” Dallin H. Oaks seems to disagree that queer people can also be religious, frequently drawing a line between “people of faith” and LGBTQ+ people. And since President Oaks holds the reins (along with 2 other men) to belonging and exclusion, it doesn’t really matter what any queer person says about belonging–Pres. Oaks has told us, repeatedly, that we don’t.
Charlie notes that the fight for legal protections is not enough, and I shout “hallelujah” in agreement. We shouldn’t have to fight for legal protections because as children of God, made in God’s divine image, we should have always been afforded the exact same benefits cisgender heterosexual white men have. Legal protections can be eroded, rolled back, and ignored. True equity will never be realized until the structures on which society runs, including religious institutions, learn to celebrate all of God’s children exactly as we are, without the threat of what Blaire Ostler calls “celestial conversion therapy.” Charlie’s statement that religious communities “can be protectors of religious freedom and create refuge for anyone who desires to worship Christ, regardless of orientation” is wishful thinking when that “refuge” is defined by cisgender heterosexual people based on cisgender heterosexual supremacy. It is not refuge when the church erases, but doesn’t apologize for, comments like Elder D. Todd Christofferson’s, “We regard same-sex marriage as a particularly grievous or significant, serious kind of sin that requires Church discipline…(marriage equality) is not a right that exists in the Church.” It is not refuge when transgender people are invited to the Lord’s table but are only allowed scraps while cisgender people feast. It is not refuge when we sit in the pews but cannot partake of the sacrament for the exact same behaviors cisgender heterosexual people are praised for: performing gender norms and living in a monogamous marriage.
I find it odd that Charlie would encourage us to find refuge when we’re taught that his marriage, which he announced with justifiable love and joy, will end at death and he will live alone for eternity as a ministering angel at best. I can’t imagine heaven will be very heavenly without the people I love the most, and I regret the time I spent encouraging those same people to allow the church to continue hitting them.
Charlie’s position is difficult. He said in a recent Instagram video that “it worked until it didn’t” and I think a lot of us who don’t mirror the Family Proclamation understand what he’s saying. Charlie’s journey is absolutely valid for him, and questioning his decision to stay active, to get married, or anything else he decides in the future, is a form of oppression–I hope the queer LDS community, at least, can show him the support he needs as he attempts to navigate a difficult path. While I absolutely support Charlie in his path, I’m concerned that he is using his platform to push for reconciliation even while the queer community faces wave after wave of hate from LDS leadership. Encouraging those who are abused to find refuge with the abuser is harmful.
My mom once told me that respect is earned, not demanded. Charlie insists, “Conversely, those within the LGBTQ+ community should seek to build bridges with people of faith and demonstrate respect.” I respect a lot of things about the LDS church. I respect their organizing ability–if there’s a natural disaster, cheerful Mormons in yellow vests will be there to clear away the mess. But this same organizing ability is routinely weaponized against queer folx, including the fight against marriage equality. When I lived in Houston, Texas, the area presidency told us over the pulpit that the First Presidency wanted us to raise our voices in favor of the state’s ban on marriage equality. I don’t owe respect to an organization that uses its membership like a cudgel against me and people I love. I can’t build a bridge if, on the other side, the people with all the power are still inflicting violence on me and my community. That would make me complicit in my own annihilation.
Charlie ignores the disproportionate violence trans and gender expansive members face. Trans people are at least four times more likely to experience physical violence compared to cisgender people. In the LDS church, theology and practice combine to enact emotional and mental violence against non-cisgender people. This makes Charlie’s universal call for respect from the LGBTQ community a form of cisgender supremacy. As a cisgender man, Charlie can attend a gender-affirming class, Elders Quorum. His name and pronouns are respected by everyone. Trans people do not have that luxury. I have a friend who sits in the hallway outside Relief Society because they won’t let her sit inside the room. Sometimes, kind sisters will leave the door cracked so she can hear the lesson, but more often than not, someone else will shut the door in a way that reminds my friend she’s not welcome where the sisters meet. When asking all queer folx to find common ground with non-affirming members and policies, Charlie misses an opportunity to advocate for those who have less power in the LDS church than he has.
What will it take to find common ground? The LDS church (leadership and members alike) need to acknowledge the power imbalance, stop the abuse, repent and make amends for the generations of violence they’ve inflicted on LGBTQIA+ people. In other words, they need to remove the land mines because they’re the only ones with the power to do so.
In case they need ideas for how to begin, they could make reparations for the years of conversion therapy, including electro shock therapy, BYU engaged in. This will include money because thoughts and prayers don’t buy therapy.
They could reinstate gender-affirming voice therapy in BYU’s speech clinic.
They could remove religious prohibitions on gender-affirming care for trans people, including whatever social or physical transitions the person wants.
They could acknowledge and stop the practice of marking the permanent records of gay members.
They could make amends by using some of their vast resources to support queer advocacy groups.
These are just a few steps and they don’t begin to account for the annihilation of Two Spirit youth through the LDS foster care program; the suicide deaths of untold LDS queer folks; the destruction of family units through preaching rejection of queer identities; the rhetoric that gives fuel to hate groups like DezNats; etc etc etc.
My heart aches for Charlie. Like the majority of us who grew up queer in the LDS church, I assume Charlie carries a lot of scars. Let me make it clear–Charlie is in an impossible situation. The church demands we either live alone, or with gender dysmorphia, or that we give up a large part of our religious experience. That means that staying in the church puts us in a constant state of punishment. We don’t get the sacrament. We can’t access the temple. We sit outside full communion with our ward family without the prospect of ever regaining it unless we step back into the closet. While Charlie is willing to face that constant hitting, it is still abuse.
Charlie also has an enormous amount of privilege with the platform he’s been given. While he insists he doesn’t “want to be considered a standard for anyone else,” he voluntarily took on the role of token good gay, first when he worked with BYU administrators to “improve the campus environment…within the existing policies,” then by publishing books (which he has since said he still stands behind) that encourage queer LDS people to be nice and shut up about the abusive practices of the LDS church. He is still volunteering for that job by preaching unity and collaboration without the cessation of harm. We can be both victims and perpetrators of systems of harm, and I believe Charlie is (inadvertently) using his voice to advocate for further violence against the queer community.
Charlie doesn’t want “structural or doctrinal changes.” He wants the status quo, but he wants it nicer.
Smiling oppressors still oppress.
@latterdaylez wrote, “He is making decisions that impact not just his personal life…he is also making decisions that impact Latter-day Saints and especially queer Latter-day Saints…he is navigating this path with a lot of grace…but all while appealing to the oppressors.”
The problem with encouraging the LGBTQ+ community to find “common ground” with our oppressors is that, regardless of what Charlie Bird might intend, he cements our oppression.
Correction: The post originally misidentified Charlie’s job at BYU–he was part of a working group, not the Honor Code Office. I apologize.
edited for spelling