Activity and Lesson Ideas
Do I Leave Or Do I Stay? The Debate on Remaining Active in the LDS Church
TOPICS DISCUSSED IN THIS LESSON:
- Why leave the church?
- What usually happens when a person leaves?
- Why stay in the church?
- Is it possible to be both Mormon & gay?
Is There a Debate?
At one time leaving the church or being excommunicated were considered to be the only options available for gay/lesbian Latter-day Saints. In more recent years we see more examples of people who choose to remain active, even when they discover (or accept) the truth about their sexual orientation. We see also in recent years, many examples of wonderful church leaders who reach out to the gay and lesbian members in their wards and stakes. It would seem that the trend is leading to a more accepting attitude by members of the church, and a willingness by gays and lesbians to remain active in spite of the diminishing few members of the church who remain hostile.
The anti-gay ideas that are prevalent today would seem farcical if they did not have such deadly serious consequences. They are the way of extremists to concoct bizarre lies to justify their flawed ideologies. While many in the church can see through these mythic distortions, there are those who will not. This is the trickle-down effect of extremist ideas to nonextremist people who then, unthinkingly, integrate such fictions into their own beliefs. Our challenge, if we are to remain active in the church, is to remain invisible or to appeal to the decency in our fellow church members and leaders to lift the curtain of prejudice that obscures their view of who we are.
This lesson seeks to examine some of the options and attitudes open to us in making a decision as to whether we should remain active or "move on."
Why Leave the Church?
What are some of the benefits Affirmation members have expressed for leaving the church? One member of the church who left after realizing that he was gay shared:
"I have been inactive in the church for several years. However, I have been doing some soul searching recently and miss the church a great deal. I know, however, I could never go back. I have come a long way and have never been happier. I can still live a very spiritual life and even believe the Book of Mormon to be true and be gay at the same time."
"I'm now separated from my wife, have a month to go on the divorce becoming final, no longer consider myself a member of the Church (though no official action has occurred with my membership), and have found a wonderful long-term relationship with another man -- from Affirmation no less! Needless to say, the quality of my life has improved dramatically."
From a sister we learn of her frustrations over the way women are treated in the church:
"I was Mormon until the age of 35 at which point the frustration and anger I felt regarding the treatment of women, in particular, became too intense for me to continue. I asked for my name to be removed from the roster of the church. I've never had confirmation that that request was honored. I suspect it was not. However, I walked away from the LDS Church and have never looked back. I recognize and honor that much of who and what I am comes from my LDS upbringing. Like Morgan LeFey who stole power from Merlin, I can appreciate that much of my strength, awareness and spirituality flourished in the "compost" of Mormon dogma and practice. I would not trade that training for any other source of upbringing which I have viewed elsewhere, but I am grateful, daily, for the foresight which gifted me with the courage to find the sun of enlightenment outside of the church."
These people relate missing the church but never being happier, having one's life improved dramatically, and finding the "sun of enlightenment" outside of the church. Other's have shared how leaving has removed a "heavy weight," improved their self-esteem and self-respect, reduced stress by removing the threat of ex-communication, dramatically increased their freedom, and unified their life by discontinuing the compartmentalizing they had been doing by separating their two lives—gay & "straight."
- What other reasons would give a gay/lesbian member reason to leave the church?
- How many of you have felt leaving the church would be the answer to the problems you have faced in the church as a gay/lesbian/bisexual?
- A radio personality once said that leaving a church because it contained imperfect people who do stupid things was like using a sledge hammer to kill a flea. The ignorant few doing the harm are not "the church," she said, and leaving is a sign of Spiritual immaturity. What did she mean by this?
What Can We Expect by Leaving?
In what ways can our lives change when we leave the church? What is a typical ex-Mormon gay/lesbian lifestyle? One Affirmation friend shared:
"While I, myself, am 'straight' (I hate that word!), I have many friends who are both LDS and gay. Needless to say, there is much suffering for them, not knowing how to combine their 'church' life with their 'honest' life. I've had 2 friends that have committed suicide over these conflicts, and others that end up in the 'wrong places' because of the conflicts."
According to informal surveys among Affirmation leaders, the most common response for gays and lesbians is to not only leave the church, but also to reject everything about it. This response has been described as a justifiable reaction by individuals who are deeply hurt and betrayed by the group of people who they trusted most. Most of us can relate with this, recalling the emotional roller coaster we experienced as we worked through our own self-discovery process in coming out to ourselves. These individuals typically swing from a conservative lifestyle to a no-holds-barred approach to life. Rejecting the Word of Wisdom is common, as are any sexual restraints. Some have shared their feelings of hopelessness, believing what they have been told about themselves to be true, and so they might as well "live it up" or "give it up" since all is lost anyway.
Another response is to become inactive but hold on to basic gospel teachings. These individuals still believe in the Gospel, but have separated themselves from the messenger (the church), as a method of self-preservation. Some feel that they are still where they have always been, and that it is the church that has left them. One friend shared:
"I have AIDS and the church has turned its back on me. Needless to say, this is a very shattering blow to my belief in the church. I have been threatened with excommunication but I will go on in my faith."
Some choose to stay in the church, but live compartmentalized lives, showing one face to their church and straight friends, and another to their gay friends. This choice presents its own set of problems including the stress of knowing that someone might find out someday and the inner struggle of living a lie. A police officer shared:
"I felt as a gay mormon and a gay law officer that now was the time for me to manifest to all that I am gay and proud of it. I'm tired of feeling ashamed of myself. However, I know that it is a political fact of life, I cannot come out from the closet. I would be committing job suicide if I were to reveal my true nature. I am married, have children and am a respected member of my community. It is fine in this state to have as many girlfriends on the side as one wishes, but a guy who wants to have a monogamous relationship with someone of the same sex is not viewed with the same eye. I feel alone and isolated from my family because I am not really who they think me to be. Perhaps someday the world will change and it would not be such a risk in being who I really am."
Some choose to remain in the church and to be open and honest with their ward members and friends. This is becoming more of a possibility as more and more people come out. Affirmation has many in its ranks who have the love and support of their ward and stake leaders. Not all leaders support the official policy of discrimination coming to us from the few homophobes at the top. Some even start special outreach programs to bring gays and lesbians back and to keep those who are still in the church.
- What are the inherent problems for those who live a double-life?
- How can we love and show support for those who have chosen to leave the church? Is it our place to judge them?
Why Stay in the Church?
We Mormons are experts at the guilt trip. An Affirmation conference speaker who had lost her son to suicide once asked "where were you when my son needed you?" This may be one of the best reasons for remaining in the church. Gay youth growing un in the church will have positive role models, which will help them be less likely to choose suicide as their escape from bigotry and self-hatred. Simply by being there we help dispel homophobia and provide our leaders with opportunities for learning from our example. There's also opportunities for giving service in an environment that we are familiar with. Several friends in this position shared:
"I know God is proud of me, of who I am, and my courage to stay in the Church even though it doesn't seem to want me. I know God loves me and is pleased with my righteous efforts in this life. I believe he is more concerned with whether or not I am full of faith, hope, charity and love, than whether or not I love women."
Some even find opportunities for doing missionary work:
"I am so excited to find . . . that I am not alone in this heterosexual world. My love of my Heavenly Father has not changed since my coming out 4 years ago, it has only grown stronger having put me through great trials and knowing I will have many more with my new life. I am not ALONE!!"
"It saddens me to see the small paradigms of many members of the church. I used to have some of the same thoughts and perspectives, but I never knew of the gay and lesbian people around me, in and out of the church. It is very easy to throw stones when the gay community is comfortably enough beyond reach. When the realization comes that these children of God who are so easily disenfranchised are our fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, co-workers, Relief Society and Elders Quorum presidents, home teachers, choir, teachers, every facet of society, it isn't so easy to quote the platitudes of the church regarding homosexuality."
"I have met the most incredible guy. We are having a great time getting to know one another. He is Mormon and I am Catholic. I have been studying The Book of Mormon and have found it quite interesting. I feel for my boyfriend because I see the pain in his heart over the consequences of discussing his homosexuality with his family and church."
Betty Berzon, the author of Setting Them Straight, gives reason for not going along in silence:
"The problem is everyone else does not go quietly about their business. They talk about their lives—husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends... Without revealing their sexual orientation, gays and lesbians are sentenced to silence or obliged to lie—which means always being vulnerable to discovery, living in fear of humiliation, [excommunication], loss of career. That is the price to be paid for essentially doing what everyone else is doing.
The message of "don't tell" is: Be invisible so we can pretend gays and lesbians don't exist. It's too late for that. It is hazardous to our health as individuals and as a community to cooperate with the lunatic fantasy that gay and lesbian people don't exist in the [church] and everywhere else."
- How many of us feel we will remain active in the church?
- If the church policy of discrimination were to change, how many of us who have left the church would choose to return to activity?
Is It Possible To Be Both Mormon and Gay?
The first obvious answer to this question is "yes." Youth growing up in the church who discover that they are gay or lesbian are both Mormon and gay. Adults who have had the orientation but have chosen to live as straights and later decide to come out are both Mormon and gay. Affirmation has many in its ranks who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, (even a cross-dresser who teaches Sunday School) who are out and active in the church. Most members would be surprised to discover just how important the contributions from these individuals are to the wards and stakes where they live.
Another answer to the question is "no." Some choose to disassociate themselves from their church friends due to the very real threats and perceived threats:
"I am a former member. Some fine people in our former ward are trying to have us come back into the Church but, truthfully, I am having a difficult time, especially considering the Church's attitude toward homosexuality. My son is gay. I have been crushed by the judgmental, non-Christlike view of gays. I have very much accepted the fact that my son is gay. Is there any way to reconcile the Church's attitude with becoming active again?"
The real issue here is bigotry based on long-held, outdated ideas about
who gay people are—ideas that survive because our historically homophobic
church (and society) has preserved them. Challenging the policies of the
church which are based on homophobia challenges the bigoted ideas on which
the policies are predicated.
"I live in Texas were there are few Mormons, much less gay Mormons. I tend to feel real isolated. Since my parents have found out about my sexual orientation, it has been hard to reason with their understanding of homosexuality and the church. . . . Fortunately, my parents have not disowned me, however I see the disappointment in their eyes. Being raised in the church, my family means so much to me and I pray that one day they will come to accept me and not condemn me."
Being the victim here doesn't make it any easier to walk the "high road" and choose options that would challenge the prejudice. It would seem for some an impossible battle that both sides would rather not fight:
"Members in my ward seem to look the other way or else they just do not see it as an option."
"It is very frustrating for me to not be able to express myself openly and freely, but perhaps someday I will have the courage to do so. Meanwhile, my lover and I both look down the barrel of a loaded gun as we await the day when we may be called into court. I don't desire for either of us to be ex'd...it's scary, but I know that I will still be a child of God and loved very much by Him."
Our willingness to be true to our religious beliefs, to our gay selves, and to God requires skills and a spiritual strength that is not taught in the church. Today's message is one of obedience, in doing what we are told—not thinking for ourselves. This makes confronting the perversions of religious belief difficult for most individuals. Truth is our best weapon against ignorance and fear. The courage to tell the truth and to live the truth can be our strength. The ability to survive and the obstinacy to prevail can be our genius. It is up to us to develop the inner strength as individuals and as a Affirmation group to make it possible.
- How do you tell the difference between the person who really does pose a threat, and the person whose acceptance you don't need to earn?
- Why are we so afraid to confront homophobes?
- What can we do to replace self-inhibiting messages with self-affirming ones that will help make us spiritually stronger and better equipped to face bigotry?
How Can We Change the Anti-gay Environment in the Church?
The process for change in the church involves both the membership and leadership, gays and straights, open minds and hearts, and a willingness to put into practice the teachings of Christ. We can begin to affect this change for the better by remaining active in the church and openly talking about our lives with our fellow ward members. This will help reduce the anxiety felt by many who know nothing more than the message taught by homophobic leaders. This will also create an environment where our leaders will be more willing to start asking God for answers and be unafraid to share His will with the members of the church.
The current attitudes held by many in the church got that way through institutionalized deliberate antigay propaganda that began in the 1960's. Boyd Packer is perhaps the best example of this kind of teacher who once taught that it was okay to hit (assault) someone who was gay. The church has also distributed antigay pamphlets, filmstrips and movies that warn members about homosexuals (without ever mentioning them directly), who might try to seduce and "recruit" them into a perverted life. The warning was followed with guidelines for warding off such assaults through mind-over-matter approaches like the famous "hum a hymn" method suggested in the "mind is like a stage" filmstrip.
Prior to the 1960's, the church had few issues or policies that dealt directly with homosexuality. D. Michael Quinn outlines the change from relative tolerance to homophobia in his book Same-Sex Dynamics among Nineteenth-Century Americans.
With all this propagandizing going on, it's no wonder that the current attitude in the church is antigay. It's also clear that if they knew how to teach homophobia, they also know how to teach its remedy. What must not be forgotten is that the problem has never been homosexuality. The problem has been the institutionalized bigotry without which homosexuality would not even be an issue.
Nephi teaches us "Where there is no law given there is no punishment; and where there is no punishment there is no condemnation." (2 Ne. 9:25) While it is clear what our leaders think of us, not one of them has ever made the claim of revelation that backs up their antigay policies. There is an important distinction to be made here. Policies are not the same as revealed doctrine. Policies in the church can and do change and are not necessarily based on revelation. Doctrines, on the other hand, are based on eternal truths that do not change. Without revelation, the attitudes relating to homosexuality in the church are simply someone's misinformed opinions. Opinions which have resulted in destroyed lives, broken families and unsuccessful church programs seeking a "cure."
The homophobic attitudes that are prevalent in the church are unjustified. They were a creation of mortals and can be eliminated by mortals. While God had no role in their creation, He certainly can be a part of our efforts to remove this bigotry from the church. When you take the trouble to confront someone who you suspect is stuck in a prejudiced mode, you are offering a precious gift to that individual—your willingness to engage with the person, not the prejudice.
You become the role model. You are the one in charge of the encounter. If there is openness to your reality, great, you have demonstrated the way reasonable human beings should interact. If there is not openness, you continue to be the role model—direct, honest, and in touch with the real truth.
Whatever path you take in this venture, one thought should always be with you. You are never alone. God, of course, will always be a companion on your journey. In addition, there are people you've never met, in places you've never seen, thinking and feeling exactly what you are, taking the same uneasy first steps, discovering the excitement of being in on the world changing. They are your gay and lesbian companions in the struggle. They are your Affirmation family.
- How does a gay person remain active in the church and be true to themselves?
- What examples do we have of the elimination of homophobia in the church?
- What are the consequences of remaining silent and invisible?
Letter writing campaign
Contrary to popular belief, our church leaders really do notice the well-reasoned letters that they receive from sincere individuals. Although they never admit that changes come about because of "bottom up" suggestions and direction, interesting "coincidences" of changes in policy have closely followed these efforts in the past. Take a few moments to write to a church leader to express how you feel and what it is you want from them concerning these issues.
Getting your family involved in discussion groups is one of the best ways to help relieve homophobia. Take them to an Affirmation or PFLAG meeting, or host one in their (your) home. An extension of this is to involve friends in like manner.
When faced with attitudes and expressions that we know to be contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ, no matter what the source, we should be brave enough to stand up to it and teach truth. Don't let antigay comments in classes and conversations go by without clearly stating that you feel differently and why.