Mormonism isn’t exactly the most understood faith group in the country. Especially if all you have learned about Mormons comes from Big Love or South Park. Or if you look outside of the entertainment world, you may have heard about Mormons fighting vigorously for Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in California.
In 2008, Mormons spent approximately $20 million and countless hours making sure Prop. 8 passed, in an extremely vocal fight against same-sex marriage equality. The amendment has since been ruled unconstitutional, but the consequences of the LDS Church’s actions still affect Mormons around the United States. Now Mormon groups are uniting to reset their image, not just for the general public but for LGBT Mormons and allies.
We flew in the face of what we stand for. The family unit is the reason we exist.
“We branded ourselves as a hateful group in the eyes of the LGBT community and in the eyes of Mormons who are compassionate to LGBT individuals,” says Mitch Mayne, an openly gay Mormon who just completed a calling as a priesthood leader in his Bay Area congregation. He calls the Church of Latter-day Saints’ support of the amendment “un-Christlike.” “We flew in the face of what we stand for,” he says. “We drove division within the family unit and pitted father against son and brother against sister. The family unit is the reason we exist.”
Spencer Clark, a straight Mormon living in Maryland who volunteers as executive director for Mormons for Equality, says he felt like Mormons in disagreement with Church leaders on this issue had to defend themselves, particularly to gay friends, and say, “Hey, I’m not a bigot; this is not how I feel.” He adds that the public “blowback” from Proposition 8 was so big, he heard rumors from the Church office that leaders proclaimed, “We are never doing that again.”
In the wake of Proposition 8, which saw LGBT Mormons and straight allies leaving the Church, grassroots organizations of LDS members have gathered momentum to support a host of LGBT-related issues. In 2012 and 2013, thousands of Mormons marched in pride parades in the very Mormon state of Utah and across the U.S., carrying signs saying “Sorry We’re Late.” Clark’s organization currently focuses on national public policy initiatives to secure legal marriage equality, recently focusing on gay marriage in Utah.
The efforts underway go beyond political actions. Therapists within the Mormon community are joining together to provide help that is not in the form of reparative therapy (a treatment protocol for “curing” homosexuality, often practiced by fundamentalists in a variety of faith groups). Organizations like the Family Acceptance Project seek to decrease homelessness and suicide by providing education to religious families. Forty percent of Utah’s homeless are LGBT, and about half of them are LDS; some of them are LGBT Mormon youth who were kicked out of their homes after they came out. Utah also faces housing and job discrimination when it comes to LGBT people, and multiple organizations have taken on that fight.
In the Mormon Church, a “ward” is a large local congregation led by a bishop.
Mayne’s former bishop, Donald C. Fletcher, lead the San Francisco Bay Ward from 2011 to 2013 and focused on LGBT outreach. Mayne explains Fletcher’s message was “Please come back,” and he called on Mayne to serve as an openly gay leader and asked him to encourage inactive Mormons to return. Since then, other wards have contacted Mayne to ask how they can follow in his congregation’s footsteps.
Some people are turning to very direct and personal interactions. Sherri Park, a retired teacher who now volunteers with Mormons Building Bridges, started Sit With Me Sundays. Mormons volunteer to accompany a returning LGBT Mormon to church, and last December about 400 Mormons across the country participated. She and her husband also started a scholarship fund donating five $1,000 awards annually to young LGBT Mormons.
The outreach seems to be working. Public perception on marriage equality has changed: recent polling in Utah showed 72 percent of people support civil unions and 48 percent support gay marriage. The latter is 20 percent higher than what it was just two years ago. Park and Clark both say Mormons are more likely to speak out in support of LGBT people than they were a few years ago.
The LDS Church has not officially changed its stance. However, now, when it releases statements against gay marriage, as it did recently when it was made legal in Utah, it uses softer language. The Church also launched the website MormonsandGays.org, although it has been criticized for not promoting the site enough.
“For the first time we have the general authority of the Mormon Church admitting that being gay is not a choice. That changes the dialogue significantly,” says Mayne. He adds that the website sends a clear message to parents that they don’t have to “make the Sophie’s choice of choosing between their child and their Church.”“As soon as somebody opens the door, a whole bunch of people will join in and say, ‘Hey, that’s how I feel,’” says Park. Clark says social media has helped amplify this effect, allowing support to reverberate in the community via Facebook posts and Twitter conversations.
A crucial part of Mormonism is one of its “Articles of Faith,” stating that God has “yet” to reveal “many and great important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” This continuing revelation tenet allows the LDS Church to evolve and adjust claims that were made in the past.
This means that, at any point, the LDS Church could accept a revelation about homosexuality in Mormonism. As Mayne points out, this has happened with “traditional marriage” multiple times within the LDS Church. Once in favor of polygamy, once against, and then once more to allow interracial marriage.
Clark adds, ”It’s kind of funny, when plural marriage was seen as the highest form of it, our prophets were railing against monogamy and the ills that had on society. We’re really not ones to be talking, even though we do, about the redefinition of marriage.”
This is not the first time the LDS Church has lagged behind in social and cultural change. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Mormons allowed black men into the priesthood. Mayne says that the men in the leadership circle are white heterosexuals who have not spent much time outside of where they live. “These men are still human and still allowed to make mistakes. It wouldn’t occur to them [to change] until society and communities tug on their sleeves and say, ‘Brethren, what we have is not working. Let’s fix it.’”
Until then, the grassroots organizations will keep fighting. Tug, tug.
Why you should care
LGBT equality is being fought out not only in the courtrooms, but also in churches around the United States. Here’s the underground way LDS members are stretching out their arms to welcome LGBT youth.