A year and a half ago, I invited John Gustav-Wrathall, president of the support group Affirmation: LGBT Mormons, Families & Friends, to share his thoughts on the Church’s new policy affecting LGBT members and their children (see All Flesh from December 2015). Diverging responses to this post gave rise to the idea of hosting a conversation on the blog about what it is reasonable for LGBT members of the Church to hope for and why. To facilitate such a back-and-forth, Gustav-Wrathall offered to share his thoughts on his experience as a gay man raised in the Church, his “abundance” of hope, and the sources of his religious optimism. These reflections constitute the first part of a conversation exploring the question: “What can LGBT members of the Church hope for?” Jonathan Green’s response to Gustav-Wrathall, which includes Gustav-Wrathall’s subsequent reply, represents the second part of the conversation.
Readers are invited to comment below or contribute to the conversation in the comments to Jonathan Green’s forthcoming post, but should ensure that any comments posted mirror the graciousness and respect shown by each author and are in line with our comment policy.
What Can LGBT Mormons Hope For?
I have frequently been accused of optimism, both by people who think that’s a bad thing, and by people who think it’s a good thing. Some, both in and out of the Church, say my optimism amounts to false hope, that it’s wrong, maybe even a sin to encourage false hope. Others, also both in and out of the Church, agree that we need hope for this very perilous journey in which hope is in such short supply. I plead guilty to having an abundance of hope that I am always willing to share. Though I agree that it’s eminently reasonable to ask in relation to hope what it is exactly that we hope for and where that hope comes from.
In order to begin to answer that question, I feel it’s important to share my basic assumptions about the nature and meaning of life.
Growing up Mormon, I was taught to pay attention to the invisible. I was taught to pause frequently in life and to listen to what the invisible was saying to me about the tangible and the visible. I could seek confirmation that a text I was reading or a teaching I was presented was true. I could get help navigating the moral complexities of the schoolyard or, later, the workplace. I could seek and get wisdom at the great junctures of my life where decisions were required and my own knowledge and wisdom seemed not enough to make decisions of the magnitude I was called upon to make. And I could, through the course of life’s decisions, and with the help of the invisible, come to know myself.
Of course the invisible from which I was taught to seek help was given a name: God. Or names: Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit. I was taught that I came from the invisible realm that they inhabit, that I was a child of its Divinity, of this Father in Heaven. (And there was a Mother there too!) And that this Divinity or these Divinities, who were omnipotent and good, had sent me here to learn important lessons, to acquire traits essential for eternal happiness, to become more like them, and then to return to them.
Life teaches us very difficult lessons. So I discovered that there was an element of trust involved in invoking the guidance of the invisible. There are points in the journey of life when you wonder if there’s anything to this, if God is real, or if God is really good or if he really can help you. You wonder if there really are lessons, if you really are on a journey, or if it’s all just random nonsense. And there came a point for me, at least, where I discovered that I just had to decide to trust. And when I have trusted, sometimes the veil covering the invisible world has parted in remarkable ways.
My husband and I belonged to an African American Gospel choir for many years, and there was a song we used to sing: “He’s never failed me yet.” I have found that to be a true statement. It’s not that I’ve never stumbled, never experienced pain or loss, never experienced anguish or despair, never found myself alone in the dark. It’s not that I have never been tempted to give up completely. But there’s always been something, someone, there that helped me pick up, start over, try again, continue on. I discovered there was learning and there’s always been hope.
Over time, I found how aptly the name “Father” described this relationship. I learned how much I could trust him. Through that relationship, I had experienced a powerful and singular love. And that relationship, trust and love, and the lessons of service and sacrifice that I’ve learned through them, and my gratitude for them, have only grown over the years.
So to return to the initial question — what can we hope for and why? — I would answer that all my lesser hopes, whatever those hopes may be, are grounded in one great Hope of ultimate union (or reunion) with God. I trust that if any of those lesser hopes are unworthy, the journey of life will teach me to let go of them in order that I might continue steadfastly on toward that great Hope. The worthiest lesser hopes are the ones that serve as trustworthy guides in the journey into Divinity.
What are some of those lesser but worthy hopes that serve as guides along the journey of ultimate Hope? The most important for me have been the hopes fostered by human connection within the context of an intimate relationship. I first learned about those hopes as a child, in family. From my parents I experienced a transcendent love that was born of or an extension of adult, intimate love. The hope of experiencing that kind of love myself became the major this-worldly aspiration in my life. My church taught me to make it that, and taught me that it was reasonable to hope for that love, and the loves born from it, to transcend the limits of this mortal life. My church taught me the godlike quality of those loves.
Being gay means that my drives and yearnings toward intimate, human connection are directed toward members of my same sex. The messages I got from the Church and general culture were that gay people were selfish, that they were incapable of commitment, that attraction toward members of the same sex was not real and that it could be cured by establishing a “real” relationship with a member of the opposite sex, that a same-sex sexual relationship would drive away the Spirit, and that living a “gay lifestyle” would ultimately leave me sad, frustrated, empty and alone. I believed all of those messages, so as I experienced the dawning of my sexual awareness, I perceived it as an unmitigated catastrophe.
At a point of crisis in my life in dealing with this, I had an encounter with Deity, in which I was told that my sexuality as a gay man was an integral part of me and that it was good. I was not initially inclined to accept this. It took years of continued soul-searching before I was finally willing to attempt dating men and actively seeking a relationship. Even then, the process entailed a fair amount of self-doubt and anxiety. If others have questioned the personal revelations I have received on this subject, I have questioned them myself in the course of many dark nights of the soul.
But my experience with this has paralleled the process described in Alma 32. The initial revelation felt right. It filled me with light. I finally put it to the test, and growth occurred. Eventually the growth led to the production of good fruit, new knowledge. New knowledge led to new questions, more personal revelation, more testing, more growth, more knowledge. I didn’t get ultimate answers, but the course I followed was productive enough of good fruit that I have been encouraged to stay in it.
I met my husband Göran in 1991. We became a couple in 1992, when there was no sign that we would ever receive legal recognition as a couple, or any of the protections that would enable us to care effectively for one another in the event of illness or financial hardship; when, in fact, all signs pointed in the direction of encountering significant animosity and discrimination for being openly gay. In 1995 we did what we could to proclaim our commitment to one another in a public ceremony with family and friends that had no legal standing. We bought a house together in 1996. We became foster parents in 2007, and raised a son. As soon as it became possible for us to legally marry in some jurisdiction (in California the summer of 2008) we flew there and were married, even though our marriage there had no legal standing in our home state of Minnesota. We fought for that legal standing in 2012, and in 2013 our home state recognized the California marriage we had contracted five years earlier. Soon after that, that marriage obtained legal standing in all fifty states.
In the more than two decades of our relationship, I have learned that every single message I internalized from my church and the broader culture about what it means to be gay was false. Being in a gay relationship taught me to how to be selfless and considerate of my spouse. It taught me the supreme importance of sacrifice as the noblest expression of love. It has taught me patience, faith and hope. We learned all of these lessons in an even more intense way through the experience of raising a gay foster son. Not ephemeral, our commitment has endured for 25 years, and our happiness in our relationship has steadily grown, and promises to continue to grow as we enter our latter years together. I’m not sure what qualifies an intimate relationship as “real.” What I can say is that when our Church leaders talk about marriage, when they describe the challenges it entails, the lessons it teaches, and the joys it proffers, I find perfect resonance between everything they have to say about marriage and my relationship with my husband, with one notable exception: that it must be between a man and a woman.
I have had ups and downs in my relationship with God. There was a substantial period of time when I did not really have the Spirit in my life. But the period of my life when I have been most spiritually alive has been the last dozen years when I acknowledged my testimony of the Gospel and have been both active in the LDS Church and fully committed to my spouse. I have never felt closer to God, nor felt the Spirit more continuously present, nor experienced more miraculous answers to prayer than I have in these years — even in comparison with the years when I was a member of the Church in good standing and a missionary. I have sought God daily in prayer, in scripture study, by attending Church, living the Word of Wisdom and other Gospel principles, and seeking opportunities for service. I have a testimony that the Church is true. My relationship with my husband does appear to have an impact on my ability to feel and respond to the Spirit in my life, but contrary to what I had once been told, it has a positive impact. When I am attentive to my husband, faithful, kind, and conscientious in my relationship with him, I experience much greater sensitivity to the Spirit.
I have met with Church leaders: bishops, stake presidents and even an apostle. I’ve shared my story with them in depth, and they have come to know me well enough over the course of the past dozen years of my Church activity to judge for themselves what fruit my life as an openly gay man in a same-sex marriage has produced. All have acknowledged signs of the Spirit’s presence and work in my life. All have offered me the verdict: “I cannot counsel you to do anything different in your life than what you are currently doing.” All have offered the same advice in relation to my excommunicated status and the contradiction between my personal experience and the current teaching and policy of the Church. That advice has been that I should cultivate patience. I have tried to do that.
Heterosexual people do not choose an opposite sex partner out of a sense of duty. I know gay Mormons who have done that, but not straight people, Mormon or non-Mormon. Straight people follow their attraction, fall in love, and build a relationship, in much the way I did, and in much the way other gay people do when they are not inhibited by social animosity or legal disadvantages. Gay and straight people in relationships, if they allow the discipline of commitment to teach them learn sacrifice and service (whether that discipline is inculcated by religion or is the natural product of the yearning for intimacy); they become parents and mentors and pillars of their extended families and communities. And their love matures into a beautiful thing.
Most people I know — gay and straight — who believe in some kind of Heaven-like afterlife anticipate it will be a time of eternal reunion with their spouse and other loved ones. They know this without having had to be taught any doctrine of eternal marriage. Straight families, if they embrace the Restored Gospel, are delighted to learn that doctrine. Gay individuals are told by the Church that they must destroy existent family or renounce potential family and stand alone in this life if they want a chance of having a relationship in the next life with someone they will never have had the opportunity to build a life and a relationship with in mortality. Most straight people, if presented such a doctrine, would intuitively reject it as an abominable teaching (as Luther did confronting the Roman doctrine of celibacy, and as the LDS Church did when they encountered the Shaker doctrine). Of course gay people reject it.
Faith has taught me to go forward without seeing too much of the road ahead. I’ve had some extraordinary spiritual experiences that have given me glimpses. I believe I will be a member of the Restored Church in good standing again someday, though I don’t know the details of how that will come about. I believe there is something very, very special in store for me and my husband together in the next life if we continue faithful to each other and if we continue to learn the lessons God has to teach us. I don’t know what it will be except that it will make all the challenges of this life very worthwhile.
I think it is reasonable to hope that straight Latter-day Saints can, even within the current doctrinal framework, have at least enough charity to listen to and learn from the stories of LGBT people, and strive for wards and stakes where Zion-like love is practiced, and where all feel fully included regardless of their formal membership status (as my ward has excelled at doing). I understand why most LGBT people do not feel drawn to the current arrangement in the Church.
But I’m very much a believer that the Lord gives us more when we do well with what we already have. And it seems to me that there’s far more we all can do and learn with what we currently have.
I love you. Thank you for your voice of faith and hope. It strengthens my hope as well.
Thank you, John.This is a powerful testimony and I am grateful to you for sharing it with us.
John and Marc, thank you very much for this powerful testimony.
Love this, John.
Lol. The “??” were supposed to be a heart.
Which part of this post is “powerful”? That he is gay and happy, or that he knows God loves him? Neither of these are particularly disagreeable themes, but I certainly don’t feel inspired. Wondering where everyone is coming from?
John’s experience busts so many myths about gay marriage. It does not result in unhappiness and despair, it is not just based on lust and sex, it ennobles and edifies – in short, it provides all the blessings and benefits of heterosexual marriage. So what does this mean with respect to the church’s position on same-sex marriage? If the church’s current position was simply inherited from general societal and religious belief of past generations, then maybe it’s time to take a hard look at the current position to see how it squares with the reality that John and many other happily-married gay couples experience. Just as President Kimball had to finally acknowledge within himself that the church’s position on blacks and the priesthood may have been incorrectly perpetuated based on past belief and tradition,
I hope that a not-too-distant church leader will have the courage to ask similar questions with respect to the church’s position on same-sex marriage. This is a particularly pressing issue for the church because its position, which teaches gay people from the time they are young that a core part of their being – their desire for human love and companionship – is evil if expressed and must be forever extinguished, causes severe emotional and spiritual harm.
Bryce, while I find your comments intriguing, I believe the comparison to race is bit apples to oranges (though I admit maybe I’m just shortsighted). Sure, if the position on homosexuality were of relatively recent vintage, like LDS teachings on race, then I can see most members accepting the change as simply a correction of false teachings (I was born after 1978 so I don’t have firsthand experience on the removal of the race ban). But here, you’re talking about prohibitions that may go back to 1200 years or more before Christianity and are widely accepted in three major world religions. That’s a lot of history with which to contend, and I’m not sure how willing your average member will be to simply discount that history if the prophet announces ten years from now that homosexuality is no longer a sin and that gay couples can be sealed to each other (though I personally expect it to happen in stages over decades if it does come to pass).
Northern – true, the analogy isn’t perfect. But the 1978 revelation serves as a model for how what is believed to be unchangeable doctrine can change. Also, the prohibitions that go back to OT times did not deal with same-sex marriage, because that is a very modern phenomenon, one that I hope modern-day prophets are more equipped to deal with than ancient scripture.
Bryce, I think there clearly are a lot of myths people have about gay issues. To the degree such beliefs are false we should correct them. There was an unfortunate tendency in much of the 20th century to believe false things because they didn’t think God would do something like make real homosexuality. Thus it had to be because of lust and other such false stereotypes. To the degree we understand others it’s important to get at the truth.
I think assuming that all the church’s teachings on chastity and marriage are wrong is going a bit far. Indeed it seems to make exactly the same mistake well meaning but wrong Mormons made who bought into the stereotypes. They thought homosexuality character must be freely chosen and in some sense not real because God wouldn’t do something like that. Now the difference is the rules of marriage can’t be real because God wouldn’t do that. It’s exactly the same sort of reasoning.
Thank you for this beautiful post.
Clark, what exactly are the “rules of marriage”? A simple review of marriage through history (and among different cultures) shows that those rules have changed tremendously over time – even in the short life of our own church.
Bryce, that’s an interesting way to approach it and I seem to recall just such a proposal somewhere on the bloggernacle before. But I wonder how well such a change in doctrine would go over with the rank-and-file membership. Not that revealed truth needs to be popular,, but I’m sure the Church would preder to avoid another schism if possible. Then again, perhaps I’m ascribing too much homophobia to the Saints.
By rules I mean the rules of the church. The issue isn’t whether they change but whether they are inspired.
What exactly is the “unchangeable doctrine” that changed in 1978. When you have Harold B. Lee saying in 1972
“It’s only a matter of time before the black achieves full status in the Church. We must believe in the justice of God. The black will achieve full status, we’re just waiting for that time.”
A better description would that of the doctrine (of perhaps policy) that was guaranteed to change.
Bryan, you may need a broader historical view to grasp Bryce’s reference to “what is believed to be unchangeable doctrine.” Brigham Young and Bruce R. McConkie and others taught that the blacks would never have the priesthood in this life. That continued to be believed by some to be unchangeable doctrine even after Harold B. Lee’s statement. While David O. McKay had described the no-priesthood-for-blacks issue as a policy and denied that it was a doctrine, a prior First Presidency had declared it a doctrine. Part of the problem is, of course, the often unnoticed fluctuating meanings of “doctrine.” BTW, one of the great things about BRM was his ability to publicly tell people he had been wrong and that they should ignore what he and BY had said on the subject. The doctrine/policy/whatever was not “guaranteed to change” in this life, despite differences of opinion among presidents of the Church, until it in fact changed.
JR, nothing is a guarantee of course. But there’s plenty of major figures who accepted the curse theory yet thought it would be open to them. That’s simply unlike the doctrines of chastity and marriage. Further even Young and McConkie thought they would be given the priesthood it was just a question of when. Now they were wrong, which is why McConkie said forget what they said. The doctrine was always there though.
BY’s 1852 speech made it clear when (in his view) — not until after all other descendents of Abel had had the opportunity. For him it was not just a question of when. It was never in this life.
I don’t want to derail things, but there’s multiple ways that could be read. I don’t deny what you outline is a popular one that McConkie held to. But it’s not the only one nor more importantly was it the only historic view in the church.
Clark, That is right. However, what started this tangent was not a comment about unchangeable doctrine. It was a comment about what some people believed was unchangeable doctrine. There are some similarities between what some people believed about the priesthood doctrine/policy/whatever and what some people believe about the same-sex relationship teachings. There are also some major differences. Since D&C 137 contradicts D&C 76, for example, as to who may get to the celestial kingdom, it is not too much of a stretch for some to suppose that there may be more revealed someday with respect to gays than you will find in the D&C (namely nothing, except the supposition that what is found there applies to all humans). I currently prefer remaining a bit less sure than some that I/we fully understand the scheme of the hereafter or what God expects of all. Merely a current, personal preference, I suppose.
I certainly agree some people thought it was unchangeable. Typically this came by looking at only some evidence. It’s interesting as I recall Chauncey Riddle, who apparently did the research in preparation for the joint prayer on the issue by the 12, telling me how he had focused on the main texts (Journal of Discourses, Doctrines of Salvation, Gospel Doctrine and the other main texts of the era). He thought the evidence was overwhelming that they shouldn’t change the doctrine. When they did it was a shock – not out of a racist desire but simply because he thought the doctrine was established. He had to fast and pray about it and got a very distinct answer that it was right.
So it really was a shock to many people mainly due to the way statements by prophets tended to get treated at the time. However looking more carefully at history it’s clear that things weren’t as univocal as they appeared then. More importantly it tended to privilege a few writings above others.
With regard though to the issue of changing doctrine though, I think the history is quite different. For people for whom doctrine was what JFS/BRM said, then it really was a big shock I’m sure. But even Kimball when he was first called as President said it would just be a matter of time and he didn’t know when. So in a certain sense those surprised probably shouldn’t have been. Their conclusions much more reflected what texts they were privileging. Although to be fair, especially in the 1970’s, that reflected the main published books for most people.