Lesbian and Mormon
Ina Mae Murri (right) and partner Stella Lopez-Armijo
by Ina Mae Murri
Originally published in Peculiar People: Mormons and Same-Sex Orientation
Picture the typical small Mormon town of the 1940s and 1950s. In Idaho and Utah such towns were over 90 percent Mormon. Families were large, usually with six or more children. Mothers stayed home and reared their offspring in a sheltered environment. The awareness of pioneer heritage was strong, and many were from polygamous backgrounds. Education was favored, and almost everyone graduated from high school. Those who could went on to Ricks College or Brigham Young University. A few ventured even "farther away" to study or work in Salt Lake City or California. Teenage marriages were common, and the cycle continued.
Like many others I came from just such a background. However, I did not come out of the experience like most others. I am lesbian. In order to explain how I came to an understanding of my homosexuality, I must tell you something about myself. I am the eighth of nine children. My parents were of pioneer stock. They were married in the Mormon temple. I consider my upbringing to be in no significant way different from the others in my family. As I recall my childhood and teenage years, I wanted what my peers did, and I had the same role models. If anything, my family emphasized the church rules more than did many of my friends' families. I daydreamed of boys, dating, and marriage. I dated some, but on a deeper level I realized years later that my strongest feelings were for my female friends. These were close relationships, and although they were never overtly erotic, I became jealous when my girlfriends had other close friends.
After high school I lacked the inclination to go on to college, and no one else pushed me to do it. I drifted along, helping out with older brothers' and sisters' families and on their farms. I was fortunate to spend a year as a mother's helper to a Latter-day Saint family in Washington, D.C. Still being unsure of myself, I spent most of my time there still in a very protected LDS environment. I did not think I was capable of seeking employment with the government agencies in that area.
I would call my religious upbringing practical Mormonism. Our religion was part of our everyday life, but we were not scholarly. We had family prayer but were not especially devout. I liked pioneer stories, Mormon folklore, and the stories in the church magazines. We read the scriptures but learned more from Sunday school class than from personal study. Even in Washington at that time (1954-55), most of the LDS people were transplants from rural Utah and Idaho and were only a bit more sophisticated. In more recent years I have studied Mormonism along with other religions and philosophies. To this day I am more a doer than a thinker.
So how do I reconcile my religious training with my life as it has been for the past thirty years? I was always taught to go to church, listen to church leaders, study, pray, listen to the still small voice, and then "do what is right." Translated that meant—as far as my mother and the church leaders were concerned—"do as we say." Yet we were always admonished to follow our own personal revelations. In discovering my sexuality, I did this, and I have never felt wrong or guilty about it.
In 1955 I enlisted in the Air Force. Still unsure of my abilities to go to school or find a job, I was in effect opting for the military patriarchal system to take care of me. In an environment where there were at least ten men to every woman, for the first time in my life lots of men were asking for dates. But life is full of surprises, and I fell in love with a woman. That first lesbian experience was a mixed bag of euphoria at being in love and fear of Air Force rules against homosexuality. Since I was a student at the base and scheduled for transfer, the relationship did not fully develop before I left, but as a result of that homosexual friendship I was discharged after fourteen months' service.
I was left with a lot of ambiguous feelings, and so after finding a job in Los Angeles, I began to attend church regularly and to date men. I had had only a brief look at homosexual life, and not knowing where to meet anyone outside of a chance encounter at work (or possibly at church), I did not actively seek out other women. I had close women friends both at church and work but was not otherwise attracted to them. I did not talk to any of the priesthood leaders about this, as I did not consider that I any longer had a problem.
In 1960 I met Jim at work. I dreaded the possibility of a temple recommend interview if I married an active LDS man (I intended to be honest with my future husband). But Jim was an inactive Mormon. He was not terribly upset when I told him about my Air Force experience. We married after a somewhat tumultuous courtship—we were basically reluctant but still had some desire to marry. Eventually we became parents of a son. Jim remained inactive in the church, and at his request I became inactive after about three years of marriage. Following several moves we settled in the San Francisco East Bay area in 1966. During the years of our marriage, as we both sensed that it didn't fit, the thoughts staying with me were of women. By an odd coincidence I again met the woman I had known in the Air Force. I found that my feelings had not changed, and knowing the marriage was over, I began living actively as a lesbian (though not with her).
At about that time the women's movement was claiming the attention of women everywhere. Women were exploring their roles as wives, mothers, housewives, and men's sexual partners. In many cases it was as though we had awakened from a slumber to reach out into the real world, to recognize our real selves, to shed layers of socialization, and to reject the expectations of our upbringing. My partner and I became active in the women's movement and its sub-movement, the gay women's liberation groups. We attended consciousness raising groups, helped organize women's centers and bookstores, and created a new and stimulating life for ourselves.
Out of this exploration came a way to define myself as a lesbian. I am a woman whose primary social, psychological, emotional, and erotic interest is with another woman. I do not dislike men, I prefer women. I think there is something in my genes, my nature that makes me this way. I do not think it is from the way my parents raised me (why me out of nine siblings?). As far as I can discern, my upbringing was essentially the same as the rest of my family and friends.
I do not know how I came to be this way. If God has some scheme for me, I do not understand it. I only know I am happy with my life and am not sorry for the decisions I have made. Except for our intimate relationships, most lesbians' lives are indistinguishable from those of straight women. Many of us have been married and have children. So we work, raise our families, buy homes, pay taxes, take vacations, have hobbies, and so on. Many of us are still active church members.
During all this I still retained my ties to the Mormon church. I was not active but kept an interest in the daily workings of the church. I came to recognize that a great deal of my oppression came from my upbringing in a patriarchal church. Women are the neglected and exploited majority in the church. With more women members than men, the emphasis is still on the men, since they hold the priesthood. The church's programs for working with homosexuals are directed toward gay men. Lesbians are even more invisible than gays, hardly rating a line in the manuals bishops use for counseling homosexuals. We are largely unrecognized in our relationships with other women. I am sure if you look you will find us in your wards and stakes, many in leadership positions. If we stay in the church, we often do not have children and so have more time to devote to these positions.
In 1979 I heard about two groups, Mormons for ERA and Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons. I became active in both and especially in Affirmation, where I have held many leadership positions, including two years as international coordinator. We fill a need for many members of the church. Why? Because gay and lesbian members approach the church troubled and anxious and in search of compassion and understanding. Instead, we find a refusal to listen to our feelings at all levels, from apostles and church Social Services personnel and BYU professors to stake presidents and bishops. We find tunnel vision, people refusing to look beyond "sinful" behavior to see the tremendous loss of uncounted souls who would be active, contributing members if allowed to be ourselves and not forced to hide a most important facet of our personal lives.
Affirmation functions as a place for us to be. There we are allowed to express our innermost selves, to function as complete human beings. I could speculate on the blind acceptance by church leaders of the mainstream Judeo-Christian definition of homosexuality and the failure of LDS scriptures to mention the subject. Church officials and members seem to depend on personal prejudices and to brush off the "problem" because the "answer" is in the Bible and in some relatively recent writings by Spencer W. Kimball and others.
The church does not recognize scientific assessments of homosexuality nor the personal experiences of its own members. Talks have been given in conferences and church-wide firesides and pamphlets written which blame a poor family life. These talks must drive daggers into the hearts of parents who know this is not true but have a lovely son or daughter who was an exemplary member until his/her unconventional love surfaced. Little compassion or understanding for those parents or that person comes from untrained bishops, poorly trained counselors at church Social Services, or officials at church schools.
So in recent years the only place to turn to has been Affirmation. We are a self-help support and social group. We do not try or intend to take the place of the church. In the past eight years we have been a lifeline for thousands seeking understanding and caring from others like themselves. I pray for the day when Affirmation is not needed, when we have an understanding of the plan of salvation that could include a recognition of our love, and when we have better informed and better trained church officials and members to help us sort through the pieces of the puzzles of our lives.