Embracing All of Our Sisters and Brothers
Last fall in testimony meeting, an otherwise lovely sister told three jokes about gay people, and most of the congregation laughed out loud. The man sitting next to me was gay. He had not been to church for several years, but that Sunday his sister and her family were visiting from California and they had apparently decided to come together. As the gay jokes were being told, this large family sat silently and solemnly, staring straight ahead. Gratefully, the bishop and his wife rushed up to them after the meeting to try to encourage each one, especially the teenagers, to stay for Sunday School and to try to help them find the right classes, but the visiting family explained that they had decided to leave. My daughter and I also tried to find words to make them know that they were welcome in our ward, but what had happened had already conveyed an entirely different message.
During the same meeting, I had been aware of four ward members with grown, gay children or siblings. One woman has spoken to me about her Salt Lake family trying to support her lesbian sister as she struggles to stay active in the Church; she is so frequently bombarded with hostile remarks made either directly to her or within her earshot or at or about someone else who is gay.
“It is so difficult,” my friend says. “the whole family suffers every time someone says something unkind. My family has always been so active, but this cruelty is taking its toll on the level of involvement of several of my sisters and brothers. We are all very close, and my sister’s unhappiness and people’s rejection of her is killing them.”
Another couple keeps their son’s gayness a secret to all but a few and have shed many tears over his being rejected in his own ward in another part of the country. Another friend, whose son was excommunicated after serving a mission, is secretive and somber. Her son is gay and also lives far away and resents her staying active in the Church. The fourth ward member’s sister divorced her gay husband, and the stories that he tells about their family’s saga since the divorce and the revelation of the husband’s gayness are ugly. It seems that the reactions in the congregations of each of his family members have also affected the whole family. They have gone from absolutely being a part of the mainstream of the Church for generations to feeling somehow on the outskirts…somehow lesser beings who are viewed with suspicion. He commented that “we have emphatically told other Mormon families whom we know who have gay members to lie because the information will take a terrible toll.”
Now, because my ward is an average ward, I know that these stories are not unusual. In fact, there may be other members of my own ward with similar stories that I don’t know about. The point is if this many people are hurting over these kinds of experiences in my ward, brothers and sisters in your wards are hurting, too, for the same reasons. To what end? Not one of my ward friends to whom I have talked believes that the hostility and rejection poured out by others on their gay family members has contributes anything positive to anyone’s life—in or out of their family. In fact, they can’t imagine a circumstance under which a good purpose could be served by such actions. They also all admit that they themselves held different views before they knew that someone in their family was gay but that now they are clear and firm—no good is served by rejection and hostility. No one changes; people only suffer.
Where I live people don’t know a lot about Mormons. They know the Tabernacle Choir, the Utah Jazz, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and Mitt Romney. They have read recently in The Wall Street Journal that Mormons often do well in business because they speak many languages. They have also read that there was opposition to the proposed temple in Nashville. They have nearly all met a missionary. And now, they have seen the pictures of angry Utah Mormon demonstrators calling gay people in Utah names and have read about the Salt Lake community publicly debating the issue of gay/straight clubs in the local high schools. Some of my neighbors are telling me that now they know us for who we really are. I could cry.
They have forgotten all the tender TV spots about loving families and affectionate relationships and how impressed they were during the “Sixty Minutes” interviews by the genuineness of President Hinckley and others. They are now questioning the honesty of that program because of what has so recently been publicized about Utah’s fight against gays. The beautiful messages so many people have tried so hard to get out to the world are being drowned out for the first time by the talk about this hate and meanness.
My neighbors are asking me about what they see as hypocrisy in the Church. In a way, the Utah school committee and legislative fights are not ours; Utah is far away. But, the actions in Utah affect the image of Mormons all over the world. These anti=gay demonstrations will set back our missionary work and community relations everywhere. It is sad; and, again, to what end?
Last month, the Boston newspapers carried a story about a gay teacher in the high school from which my son Ben graduated. Polly Attwood is a favorite and is an inspiration to many students, most of whom are now rallying in support of her and of the high school, both of which are being sued. A couple is claiming that because Polly is a lesbian their daughter suffered emotional damage because four years ago she was a student in Polly’s class. The school administration supported Polly. When she first complained, they had made every effort to place her in another class, but the family opted to take her out of school. No other student has made such a complaint about Polly; she has a fine reputation and has been a fine example of civic responsibility and community service for her students for years. My family knows her partner, as well, because she has been a pastor and a colleague of mine at the university where I teach.
Polly and her partner called me recently to say that their lawyers have discovered that the campaign against her is being organized outside the state by anti-gay groups who are targeting gay teachers all over the United States. Allegedly, some of the group leaders live in Utah. The women wanted to know if I knew anything about this. They asked me because I am the only Mormon they know. I explained to them that I am a locally active Mormon who, I assured them, plays no role in any anti-gay campaign to ruin careers of fine teachers. I also told them that I could speak for my women friends who are also active Mormons and who work on our newspaper, which tries to promote the kind of Mormonism that is love-based and committed to a policy of welcoming all who yearn to join with us in the worship of the Savior.
What else can we say when we are suddenly called to account for the excesses of people who appear to act in our name far away and without our consent or counsel? It seems quite simple, I guess, and probably personally strengthening in the long run: we must rely on our own light and the truth that we receive through our own relationship with the Lord. I will never defend any behaviors or actions of which I don’t approve and that seemingly use the name of the Mormon Church, especially when those actions are nasty and violent and motivated by hateful rage.
From time to time our ward, like yours, fasts for the missionaries. These last two months that effort seems to be a contradiction: we fast for the missionaries; yet, the papers are filled with news of gay-bashing Mormons in Utah saying the kinds of things that would drive anyone seeking the gospel of peace and love away from us as fast as it takes a missionary to ring a doorbell. Whenever we are invited to fast for the missionaries, I have decided to fast and pray for an end to this kind of hatefulness; I am convinced that approach will be twice as effective.
At Exponent’s annual summer reunions, sisters from all over the country have often unburdened themselves by telling their stories of being rejected by people in the wards where they have spent their lives in activity and service. The causes—a gay son or lesbian daughter; a gay husband; their own discovering that they themselves are gay. The reactions—no support; no embracing of their families; no expressions of love. And, to what end? These women come to the reunions hoping and expecting to be embraced. And they are, but they often have to go home to more judgment and recrimination. Some of us who are involved in the Exponent effort have developed a certain sensitivity to the issues of living with gay family members in the Mormon Church. Because we have hope that we have offered ourselves as supporters of members in all their diversity. It is now expected of us to be genuinely inclusive, and I feel that this embracing of any members who have struggles should be the normal role of home wards and visiting and home teachers.
And, of course, I feel that this embracing is best accomplished when people feel free to openly discuss their lives with each other. With that in mind, we print these articles about homosexuality in this issue of Exponent. We make no claim to have covered every experience of gayness in the Mormon community.
As we reviewed the articles that have been submitted, we realized that there are obvious as well as less obvious gaps. For example, most of the stories told are of families who have rallied to support their gay family members. We know that some families have not, and no one in this issue has discussed that experience. WE know such a story is out there, waiting to be written and published. We are also very aware of the well-organized, high-cost and ecumenical efforts being conducted in Hawaii and other states to defeat same-sex marriage bills. That story needs to be thoroughly and carefully told so that all of us can understand and discuss that issue in an informed and intelligent manner. We also do not have an article that presents information on how to teach our children about gayness within the boundaries of the Mormon Church.
May these gaps not send a message that some things cannot be said…cannot be discussed. May they rather invite responses and more sharing. It is no longer possible for any of us to believe and say that the issue of homosexuality does not affect our lives. Such an approach is dangerous because it allows things to be said in front of people we care about that should not be said carelessly. This need to be aware is an issue in the broader world, and it is an issue in the Mormon Church. Therefore, because Exponent tries faithfully to offer a platform for sisters’ voices, it is an issue for us as women to consider and understand more deeply.