Homosexuality has always been a topic of contention within organized religions, and the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) is no different. In an effort to address the many religiously conflicted gay mormons in their classrooms and congregations, the Gay-Straight Alliance at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah last spring launched an “It Gets Better” video that brought a lot of media attention to the sometimes suicidal effects religious persecution can have on those who are both of faith and queer-identified. It’s been almost a year since that media firestorm, but still one question remains: did it get better? I sat down with some of the activists involved to check in on their progress within the church and the LGBT people who remain there.
“The church is moving forward – too fast for some people, though not fast enough for me personally,” said Bridey Jensen, President of the GSA on the predominantly Mormon BYU campus and one of the original few who were featured in the “It Gets Better” video. As a lesbian who is active in the LDS faith she still feels that there is a way to go with reconciling these two very important parts of her identity. “Our initial aim [with the “It Gets Better” video] wasn’t to change anything internally about the church itself, but to reach out to the members and let them know that they are not alone,” she said. Certainly, in that respect, she succeeded.
“I got tons of messages from people about how much it helped them to see the video,” Jensen said. “On the other hand, we also got tons of messages from members in the church who said we were disgusting. There were also tons of messages from the LGBTQ community saying that we were brainwashed and should be ashamed for sticking up for a church that hated us.
“It’s not easy living in this world – this in-between world. Even if you try to choose one side over the other, [the church] can never really leave you.”
Since the “It Gets Better” video was released Mormon church has made small steps to come out and acknowledge the queer presence within their faith, as well as making efforts to publicly acknowledge past harassment towards those individuals by members of their own faith. One of the most popular development swas the creation of a website called “Mormons and Gays.” It’s composed of links to personal stories from gay, lesbian, and bisexual members as well as their relatives and ecclesiastical leadership. A new film put together by the Family Acceptance Project attempts to “show the journey from struggle to support of ethnically and religiously diverse families with LGBT children.” It will feature a gay teenage boy in the Mormon church and extensively follow his parents’ rough road to acceptance. Other movies, like the new “Far Between” project, work to show the underlying complexities of Mormons in the church and how they deal with it as a community. Both videos are attempting to open up a space, like the “Mormons and Gays” site, where people can honestly come forward to express their concerns, hopes, fears, and real-life experiences within their religious communities.
While the website does show a promising shift in cultural attitudes towards queers within the church as they acknowledge its biological predisposition, the LDS church continues to set firm requirements for their tolerance by saying on their website that “the attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is.” It’s to this point that Jensen feels the need to speak up.
“Personally, I hate the word sin,” she said. “It makes people feel dirty and unwanted, so even when they say ‘feelings are okay, acting is a sin’ —it hurts. My love is just as valid as anyone else’s. I really feel that God made me this way. I don’t think he loves me any less or any more than any other one of his children, so it hurts when I feel like I am seen as less than within the church.”
Ultimately, the LDS church finds itself perpetuating a catch-22: gay people aren’t sinners, but gay sex is a sin because it happens outside of marriage, although the potential to be righteously compliant members by saving themselves for marriage is barred because marriage is ordained as strictly between a man and a woman for the purposes of procreation. Clever trick, guys.
It seems for many to be a no-win situation in which obedient members of the faith are given the “choice” to either take up a lifetime vow of celibacy or give into the “traditional” gender pairing. And for those who stay anyway, many are responding to this dichotomy by choosing to marry contrary to their sexual orientation. (Josh and Lolly Weed, a Seattle-based Mormon” heterosexual” couple are one example of such a pairing. He’s openly gay, and married to a woman.) For many queer-identified folks, living a lie simply isn’t an option, but neither is living in shame about the truth and their own desires. Jensen agrees. “People are not leaving because they don’t believe,” she said. “They are leaving because it hurts too much to stay.”
As someone who was raised in the Mormon faith, I have seen my friends leave. I left. I have experienced the late night phone calls from gay friends, worried about how they are going to pay their tuition if their parents turn out to be unsupportive. I’ve helped friends write their own “pros” and “cons” about how coming out as being in an “active” relationship might jeopardize their chances of graduating and how that affects their sense of “integrity.” I have also personally feared any exploration of my own sexuality. This article comes from a new place of knowing. A new place of acknowledging that I’m still getting over what I spent a lifetime being taught.
And while, as Jensen says, the church may not be moving as fast as we would like in terms of tolerance and acceptance, it must be admitted that the LDS church is at least publicly moving into a more accommodating and invitational space for dialogue. The church is undoubtedly attempting to shift its message from one of judgment to love. This is leaps and bounds over many other Christian denominations who continue to preach messages of hate and violence, and that progress should be acknowledged.
It is my hope that the stories from people struggling intimately with their sexuality who are of the Mormon faith can help to bring about more understanding and love for queer members of the Mormon Church. It is my hope that these stories soon have happier endings. It gets better, that’s for sure. We’re just still getting there.