ATHENA: As General Conference weekend spins up, I find myself dreading the fallout even more than I usually do. This past year has been a rough one for people on the margins of Mormondom, and I am one of those people. I tried for a very long time to maintain a position in the center, to belong to the in-crowd, until I just couldn’t anymore. The LDS church was hurting me in very specific ways, and because of that, I grew to understand how much pain church membership was causing other people for whom I cared deeply. I guess you could say my empathy chip finally activated.
Let me explain:
When I was in high school in the mid-1970s, two of the most important people in my life let me know that they were LGBTQ. One was pretty sure exactly what that meant; the other, not so much. What they both knew, and wanted me to know, was that they couldn’t keep pretending to be something they weren’t, which was “straight.”
At the time, I had zero understanding of how their lives would change, and how that would change my relationships with them. I had zero understanding, really, of what it meant to be queer, because I had never known of anyone who was. I know now that this was 100% my own lack of awareness; queer people are everywhere and always have been. My limited understanding of this truth was completely due to the carefully curated LDS bubble I grew up in. Granted, the 60s and 70s were a different time; the world was not as fully connected, there was no readily available internet, we had 4 whole TV stations, etc. Lack of access to information made it really easy to just assume everything was fine.
That’s what I did. I assumed that my dear ones, who were a little bit different than what was considered “normal” would be fine. I had always loved them as they were; they had just given me language…words…to help me understand them better.
I started paying more attention, and I discovered that, even though my dear ones were the only people who had come out to me, many other people in our little town also presented in ways that suggested perhaps they, too, were quietly queer. Somehow I instinctively knew it was 1) not a topic for public discussion, because 2) it was really none of my business unless someone chose to share that part of their life with me. So, I watched, I observed, and I tried to learn without asking too many questions.
On one occasion, I shared with a close friend that I had dear ones who didn’t fit the prescribed social norm because I suspected that this friend had dear ones of her own who did not fit that same norm. I hoped she and I might be able to help each other learn so we could be more helpful to our dear ones. She seemed sympathetic but said she felt like maybe we shouldn’t talk about it at all. That was my last conversation with that friend. When I called the next day, her mother answered the phone and told me that I was not to call her daughter anymore. She forbade her daughter from my association. She told me I was a bad influence and should be ashamed of myself for going against God.
I was confused. What had I done that was so offensive to God? All I could think of was that my friend’s mother felt that even discussing queerness, or associating with queer people, was somehow in violation of God’s rules for humans. Was it? I had no idea. All I knew was I had just lost a friend because her mother believed God expected us to reject friendships with queer people or friends of queer people.
I started paying even closer attention. I thought about asking my parents if they could explain what had happened, but given my friend’s mother’s reaction, I decided that wasn’t a good idea. I started listening more attentively at church to see if I could get a better handle on what God had to say about queer people.
What I heard at church was heartbreaking. I heard that my queer dear ones were sinful, defective, an abomination, a scourge… You get the idea. I heard that God would separate them from their families in the next life. I heard that being queer was a lifestyle choice and that only the most selfish people would make such a choice because it meant turning their backs on God. I also heard that queer people could be saved from their own queerness, that they could choose to be straight, choose to live in ways that would make God pleased with them. I heard that, because I loved them, it was up to me to persuade my queer dear ones to change their wicked ways and step back onto the path of righteousness. I heard that I would be found lacking by God if I didn’t work to convince them to stop being queer.
How could I ignore this message, this challenge? I did love my queer dear ones and didn’t want them to be condemned by God, nor did I want condemnation. I wanted to be with them in the hereafter. I didn’t understand why God would make some people queer and then condemn them for it. This was just another item on a long list of things about God that I didn’t understand. This was a big one, but I felt like I must at least try to save my dear ones.
I wrote them letters because that’s something my church leaders said would be effective. I tried to make the letters seem loving and righteous because that’s what I believed I was being. I included all the arguments I had been taught–how the only way back to God was to live by the rules our church leaders had taught us, how it was a simple matter of them choosing to be obedient. I told them that I loved them but hated their sinful ways. I wrote the letters, and then I sent them, because I truly wanted to help my dear ones.
It never occurred to me to ask them if they wanted help. It never occurred to me to consider how they would feel when they read my letters.
Not surprisingly, my relationships with my dear ones changed after I sent those letters. They distanced themselves from me. In hindsight, I don’t blame them for this response. At the time, I couldn’t understand it. Why didn’t they want to make God happy? Didn’t they want to be with me in heaven? Why couldn’t they see that I was trying to help them?
Fast forward a few decades:
I went about my life, trying diligently for a few more years to do exactly what my church leaders had instructed me to do in order to avoid making God mad. I did all the things. I followed the check list exactly, skipping only those things were outside my control. Ultimately I decided that I couldn’t continue because trying to satisfy the list (the demands of church leaders) was hurting me mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. My body started reacting to my internal conflict in ways that were also dangerous to my physical health.
I started to understand how my queer dear ones felt when they distanced themselves from the LDS church. They had done what I finally had to do myself: step away from the church for their own safety, because the list demanded that they do things that were outside their control, things that were hurtful to them.
I lost decades of precious time with my dear ones because the church presumed to tell all of us how we should live our lives. I hurt them deeply, because I tried to make the church’s rules work for me by pressuring them to comply with the rules.
What I know now that I didn’t know then is…a lot.
Now I know:
- Queerness isn’t a choice, any more than being brown-eyed or left-handed is a choice. Humans seem to have mostly gotten over persecuting each other for these other physical variances; it’s time to get over persecuting queer people.
- God (the God of the New Testament, the God Christian churches claim to worship) never said anything about queer shunning, condemning, or calling queer people to repentance for being queer.
- Church leaders who insist that God said to shun, condemn, or reject queer people are putting words in God’s mouth, something God specifically said not to do.
- What God did say was “love everyone,” period. No exceptions. Church leaders who place conditions on that instruction are doing it wrong.
- Adhering to the dictates of God’s minions didn’t bring me closer to God. It did put a distance between me and the rest of humanity. The harder I worked to please the church, the less connection I had with the people around me, especially the ones I cared about the most. Loving everyone while being disconnected from everyone who isn’t acceptable to the church = not loving everyone.
- Adhering to the dictates of church leaders also meant I was distanced from myself. I had been trained from birth to surrender my personal authority to the church, which meant I allowed the church to determine every aspect of my existence and to serve as the touchstone for every decision I made. I sent those letters to my dear ones because the church suggested that was my best chance of “saving” them from their sinful lives. I “knew” I was doing the right thing, but my “knowledge” was based on ignoring my own instincts about kindness, love, and integrity. I learned that certain knowledge almost certainly leads to error and harm.
This last one–that I truly believed that I “knew” what was best for my queer dear ones–is the one that brings me the most grief, but it has also taught me the greatest lesson. I was so sure I was right, so sure that the “knowledge” I had was unassailable, that I never stopped to think about what the consequences might be if I were wrong. I never stopped to think about how my “knowledge” could be harmful to those at whom it was aimed. It was many more years before I understood that the “knowledge” imposed on me by my religious upbringing was hurting people I cared about.
Here’s the thing: what I experienced then and what I did then, including the terrible letters I sent to people I love, is something that could happen now. The same messages I received at church in the 1970s are still being taught today. The church still wants us to believe loving our neighbors means correcting them, force-feeding them “the truth,” and making them deny a part of themselves. I’ve learned, finally, that this approach could not be more wrong.
I’ve learned that whenever I start to feel certain, to feel that I’m positively right about something, I need to step back and look at my position again, to see it from the outside looking in. What will someone else, someone who is not me, see? How will my certainty make others feel? What is my goal? How important is it for me to be right? Is it more important than being kind?
These questions are the ones Jesus wants us to consider. He wants us to understand that we need to be very careful about who we shun in the name of the Lord because it will always turn out to be someone we should love instead.
I’ve learned better, I know better, and now I’m trying to do better. I hope the church will soon learn, know, and do better, too. For starters, please stop bludgeoning our dear queer ones with the idea that God will only love them if they pretend to be straight.
To read more posts by Athena, please use our search bar on the Home page.
Sisters Quorum exists to give voice to those who are not being heard and is seeking submissions. If you have a story to tell, SQ invites you to visit our submission page for guidelines.