James Kent: Asserting God's Unconditional Love
Excerpts from an interview published in Dialogue: A Journal of
Mormon Thought, 33:3 (Fall 2000), 123-131.
How did you get involved with Affirmation?
In May 1988, I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was 30 years old and still pretending to be straight. A heterosexual friend of mine, who also had an LDS background, called me one day and said, "I don't want to insult you, but I think you would find it interesting that in San Francisco there is a gay Mormon organization.” My straight friend and I went to the Metropolitan Community Church in San Francisco where the San Francisco chapter of Affirmation met. I can still remember walking up those stairs, opening the door, and seeing 31 gay and lesbian people with LDS backgrounds. I discovered for the first time in my life that I was not alone—that there were other people like me. And although my friend did not come back, I went there week after week as I began my journey out of the closet.
You were active in the Church at that time?
I was very active in the church at that time. I was living and going to church in Fremont, and I also attended a young adult ward in the south San Francisco Peninsula. When I came out, I immediately had my records transferred to the San Francisco Singles Ward where the bishop at the time was very gay-friendly. So there was a situation where I found a gay-friendly ward in addition to finding Affirmation.
How has your experience been in the LDS Church?
James Kent served an LDS mission in Japan
My grandparents where baptized off the coast of Maui in 1920, so I consider myself a third-generation Latter-day Saint. I have held many church callings, sometimes two or three church callings, attempting to be "the best boy in the world.” I served an honorable two-year mission to Japan. I reasoned that if I did all these things, perhaps God would forgive me for having these "unnatural” desires for other men instead of for women. At the time I found Affirmation, I was very lucky because I was extremely depressed. I was going to church in an attempt to date a Relief Society woman, only to get a crush on a member of the elders quorum. It was becoming increasingly more difficult to make things fit because I felt more isolated and alone with each passing year.
What has been your coming out process?
I probably could not have survived the coming-out process if it had not been for Affirmation. I was so involved with the church at the time, and I was so full of misinformation given to me by both the LDS church and the media. They both talked about effeminate men, men who wore dresses, men who molested children, men who wore only leather, promiscuous men who had sex in parks, restrooms, and bathhouses, men who hated God and had no moral values. I could very easily say, "Well, I cannot be homosexual because these traits are not me.” I knew in my heart that I was still attracted to men, but used this line of reasoning as a form of denial.
Some might say that I am gay because my parents were divorced and I did not have a male role model to guide me. For many years, as another form of denial, I used the argument that my homosexual feelings were really an attempt to reconcile myself to my absent father. Finally, I realized this argument is ridiculous because it would suggest that my siblings are also lesbian or gay, which they are not. My life has always been full of male role models: uncles, teachers, scoutmasters, church leaders, and co-workers who mentored me.
What's your current level of involvement with the institutional
For the last 12 years I have been pretty much inactive—I have very, very little contact with the LDS church although I support my mother by going to church with her sometimes. As I started to see gay friends whom I loved very much die of AIDS (some as a form of suicide) or be excommunicated for having same-sex relations, I felt the LDS church was playing the role of God. I finally came to the conclusion that if the LDS church was too good for them, it was also too good for me. So two years ago, I requested to have my name removed from the records. I still consider myself spiritually, culturally, and socially LDS, but I cannot support the current leaders of the church on administrative or political levels.
Do you attend any other church?
Sometimes I attend non-LDS church services, but I have not formally joined any church. The Mormon church has played such a major part in my life. I don't know that I will ever be able to embrace any other religion as fully as I once did the LDS church.
Many Mormons would assert that you have "apostatized”
or at least lost the Spirit. How do you respond to such accusations?
It is very easy to just brush people off and say that they are apostates. Each individual member of the church has his or her own brand of Mormonism. The question is—how much do we have to agree in order to be Mormon? How Mormon is Mormon? How far can you go away from the teachings of the church and still be considered a Mormon? And how far away do you have to go to be considered an apostate? Ultimately the term "apostate” would reflect the decision of a church court, and if such a court has decided that you have apostatized, then church leaders can take disciplinary actions if they want to. But such actions don't change the heart and soul of a person.
It is really sad that a lot of people who have been excommunicated buy into this apostasy rhetoric, and as a result they believe that God hates them or that God has abandoned them. I feel that my spiritual journey really began when I came out of the closet. I'm a firm believer that the relationship between an individual and God does not require a church. It should never require a church. A prophet can speak to 10 million members of the church, but the Lord can give anyone personal revelation in regard to his or her own life and how to live it. If people accuse me of having lost the Spirit or having apostatized—that's really their problem because I know that God loves me unconditionally. Everyone should know that God's love is unconditional.
Don't you believe gays and lesbians can change their same-sex behavior?
I'm a firm believer that a gay man or a lesbian woman can live a heterosexual lifestyle, but that such a person is in self-denial. If you truly are gay or lesbian and you pretend to be heterosexual, then you are living a lie—a lie that you will have to deal with for the rest of your life. Now, I do know people who are bisexual enough to comfortably live a heterosexual lifestyle. And I know from personal experience of hundreds and hundreds of men from LDS backgrounds who did get married, did have children, and then five, ten, twenty, or thirty years later they found themselves coming out of the closet for the sake of their own sanity and survival. Finally they had to deal with who and what they are rather than continue pretending to be something they are not.
Do you find high levels of homophobia in the LDS Church?
The LDS church is among the most homophobic of Christian denominations today. The church membership is led to believe that everyone is born heterosexual and that homosexual activity is merely a confusion or perversion of one's sexuality. Given that premise, one can understand the condemnation. If you really were a heterosexual person and were engaging in homosexual sex, that would be as unnatural as a homosexual person engaging in heterosexual sex.
Recently we've heard of several gay Mormons who committed suicide, and one of the cases received attention from the national media. Do you think it is fair to blame the Mormon Church for such deaths?
That is a complicated question. There could be many factors behind a suicide—depression, the home situation, a career. However, when gay people are raised in an environment where they are taught that they are evil, wicked, degenerate, and selfish, they grow up with all this information and learn to hate themselves. They learn to treat their bodies as the enemy. They have very low self-esteem. And under these pressures some take their lives. I don't hold the LDS church solely responsible, but I do hold the church partially responsible for the deaths of Stuart Matis, D. J. Thompson, and others. Given the circumstances, how could it be otherwise?
Do you think the church will ever change its views on homosexuality?
I don't expect the church to change its views in my lifetime. Perhaps sometime down the road there may be a change, but I'm not going to hold my breath. I'm going to continue living my life the best way I can and helping people out of the closet so that they can live their lives the best way they can. Let the church do what it deems best. If the church leaders do something very homophobic, I firmly believe they should be held to account. If, on the other hand, they undertake something positive, that should be acknowledged.
What kind of dialogue would you like to see between Affirmation and the institutional church?
This is a very difficult question. I personally have no desire for dialogue because I feel that LDS leaders are so set in their attitude towards homosexuality—as well as a variety of others topics such as feminism and intellectualism—that discussion would be a waste of time. The church leaders routinely imply that they have the answers to everything and that they never make a mistake. I'm hoping that over the years enough parents, brothers, sisters, and friends will stand up and say to the church, "What you are telling me about homosexuality just does not add up to what my mother, my sister, my son is. This has to stop.” Eventually the leaders' attitude toward homosexuality would change if enough church members stood up to general authorities to get them down on their knees, asking for additional revelation, rather than simply assuming they know the answer.
What would be your advice for young Mormons who might be questioning their sexual orientation?
Whether you are straight or gay, I believe in the church's teaching that you are better off being celibate until you're old enough to sort through these issues and make mature decisions. You should date and get to know the person, let the relationship take its time, allow time to test and enjoy being together before you go on to a committed relationship.
What would be your message to families who have a gay child, sibling, or parent?
You need to love your family member, unconditionally, as is: fat, warts, imperfections, everything! You don't have to agree with, but you do have to love him or her, and to find ways to express that love. I realize this is very, very difficult for some people. It would be nice if we could just come out to Mom and Dad and have them hug us and say, "Don't worry, we love you.” But the fact is they have to deal first with the loss of a child they had thought was heterosexual, a child they thought was going to get married and have kids. Just as we did, they have to go through a grieving process and then a kind of re-birthing. We had wanted the same things, only to realize that we were different, that our lives are going to be different. Sometimes this process is very short, but sometimes it takes an entire life.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I think the most important thing about this entire process is that in spite of everything I have said in this interview, I admit to you that I could be wrong, and I think that's O.K. And if I should change my mind, that's O.K., too. This is so important to me. I fear the person who says, "I have all the answers. I don't need to question anymore, and my answers regarding your life are better than your answers.” My life is full of questions. I'm not afraid to admit that I make mistakes. I'd rather live by my own light and admit my shortcomings than live out someone else's expectations and pretend to be perfect.