How a Mormon Conservative became a Mormon Proponent of LGBT Rights

Recently, the LDS (or Mormon) Church announced that its members would not be disciplined for expressing support for gay marriage and other aspects of gay rights not supported by the church. This came on the coattails of the passage of a modest LGBT anti-discrimination bill in majority-Mormon Utah (with overt church support—more or less). It does not change much for me; I was already expressing my support for LGBT rights on social media. However, I thought it was a good time for some reflection on how I transitioned from a politically conservative Mormon who was completely opposed to LGBT equality to a Mormon who supports equality for my gay brothers and lesbian sisters (as well as bisexual and transgender people). This reflection turned out to be longer and more detailed than I had originally imagined. It is also more self-indulgent than I had hoped. However, it helped me get a better handle on my own maturation, so I suppose I wrote it more for myself that for others.

Prologue

I grew up in a home that was both conservative and Mormon, though my paternal grandparents were left-leaning politically and much less Mormon than either my parents or my maternal grandparents. In school, I earned a reputation as a conservative firebrand very early, both religiously and politically. On the other hand, I was very interested in science and was often troubled by the thought that my religious and political beliefs were rendered superfluous by, or even contradicted by, my scientific beliefs. Then my paternal grandmother—who had been my closest confidant—died after a long period of disease. I was left alone and friendless, an awkward twelve year old in what seemed to be a hostile and meaningless world.

I concluded that there was no God and that a wholly materialist approach to life more adequately explained its vicissitudes. However, I didn't share this belief with anyone; I wanted my parents to be proud of me and believed that this was incompatible with me divulging any of my new religious feelings (or lack thereof). I also continued reading Mormon apologetic literature, reading LDS scriptures, and attending Church, but I worked under the assumption that someday, when I was more or less independent, I would leave the faith of my childhood behind. This transition in belief did not reduce the disgust or moral outrage I felt towards gay people, however.

I experienced a radical changed what I was about seventeen and read Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. I was tremendously moved by Dostoevsky's moral argument for the existence of God. It provided for me, at that time, a compelling (if logically unsound) reason for embracing a belief in God and all of the religious and political beliefs I previously felt I had to abandon. I embraced Mormonism again and regained the confidence in right-wing political and social ideology that I had lost. Since the mature Dostoevsky was a staunch rightist, I think this would have made him happy, though my choice not to embrace Russian Orthodoxy would have confused him.

For the rest of my high school years, I was a rigidly committed Latter-day Saint and an opponent of gay rights. I spent a lot of time trying to erect a rationale for my political beliefs in terms of my religious beliefs.

Mission

Soon after turning nineteen, having attended only one quarter of college at Utah State University, I left Utah to serve a mission for the LDS Church in San Diego. This proved to be the most significant liberalizing experience of my life, far more so than my atheist interlude of early adolescence. For the first time, I encountered people from a culture radically different than my own. Also, for the first time, I was brought into close personal contact with gay and lesbian people.

I was called to serve Hmong speaking people in San Diego. Many of the Hmong families we worked with received public assistance. At first, I found this infuriating, but as I became more acquainted with their circumstances, it became more clear to me that many of them—along with their children—would be left to starve on the streets without help from the State and Federal governments (as well as the church). However, an even more transformative experience came from my exposure to other people in the neighborhood in which I and my mission companion lived.

One day, my first mission companion (Elder Martin) and I encountered Allyn, who invited us into his home to share our message. He was a retired employee of the San Diego library system and an active freelance naval historian with an interest the Pacific Theater (of World War II). He was also gay, a fact of which he warned us immediately. I had never met an openly gay man before, though a number of my friends from primary and secondary school later came out as gay or lesbian. I cannot deny that I was apprehensive. However, Allyn warmly welcomed us into his home and listened to what we had to say, including the LDS Church's teaching about the Law of Chastity, the standard that—as currently formulated—bans most sexual interaction outside of heterosexual marriage. We discussed the Law of Chastity at length; after considering our teachings and even experimenting with them, Allyn was not convinced that a homosexual life was any less moral or healthy for a homosexual person than a heterosexual life was for a heterosexual person. After one meeting, Elder Martin asked me why I did not simply use my rhetorical skills (which he seemed to hold in higher esteem than I did) to show Allyn that he was wrong. I did not know what to say, but I knew what I was feeling within: it was very hard for me to maintain a fair-minded attitude without agreeing with Allyn. I knew that Allyn was a good man and a gay man at the same time and without contradiction. This was very disturbing to me and it took years for me to process my encouters with him.

Not long after this, we became acquainted with a young Hmong man named Riam Yaj. He had recently immigrated to the US from a refugee camp in Thailand and was struggling with high school despite being a person of outstanding intelligence. We tutored him and provided feedback on his essays. One day, the subject of homosexuality came up. I had convinced myself that sexual orientation was culturally constructed and commented that there did not seem to be any gay Hmong. His response was not what I expected: “There are Hmong men who like men but they don't admit it because they know we would kill them.” This answer made an indelible impression on me. It was hard to reconcile with my position that sexual orientation had no relationship to biology. After all, why would people choose to be gay if they knew it would likely result in their deaths? Then again, I had heard that the “treatment” which gay Mormons were expected to undergo was no walk in the park either and yet some Mormons, like some Hmong, insisted perversely on being attracted to members of the same sex.

Near the end of my two-year mission, the Asian language proselytizing program of the LDS Church was disbanded in San Diego. I was sent to a different area and was cut off from the Hmong community. This was a painful transition for all involved. The members of the Hmong-speaking branch of the LDS Church in San Diego, with whom we worked, bombarded the mission president with a barrage of phone calls including—I am told—more than one death threat (Hmong culture is not necessarily violent but Hmong tend not to waste time on half measures). For my part, I was crushed: I found it excruciatingly difficult to identify with, and even communicate with, the Anglo-Americans and African Americans that, together, formed the majority in the area where I was assigned to work. Without Filipinos to talk to, I doubt I would have made it.

I became deeply depressed. I was sent to a succession of therapists at LDS Social Services (now LDS Family Services). The first counsellor was a former Presbyterian minister who had converted to Mormonism. I benefited considerably from working with him and learning about the power of grace, but was inexplicably switched to another therapist (named Brother Brown). I made the mistake of telling him two things:

  1. I was uninterested in the Chargers, the Padres, and professional sports in general. Also, I felt uncomfortable affecting an interest in sports. This was problematic since professional sports were among the first things the men in my new area brought up when we tried to make conversation with them.
  2. I did not spend a lot of time with my father while I was growing up due to the fact that he was usually working two or three jobs and was fulfilling church callings as well.

Brother Brown helpfully informed me that some men underwent improper psychological development because they lacked a strong male role model. Such men did not develop appropriate male interests and required therapy focused on helping them develop gender-appropriate behaviors. While he never said the word “homosexual” or the Mormon euphemism “same-sex attraction,” I had heard enough about “reparative therapy” to understand what he was driving at. It suddenly occurred to me that he had no idea what he was talking about and that the whole cadre of LDS counsellors who practiced “reparative therapy” probably had no idea what they were talking about either. I had no sexual interest in members of my same gender, but I was being targeted for therapy because I was more interested in language and culture than in the San Diego Chargers. I was also acutely aware that Allyn, despite being openly gay, was an avid Chargers fan, which suggested to me that sexual orientation had nothing to do with one's interest in spectator sports. I began to doubt that the leaders of the Mormon Church who empowered therapists at LDS Social Services to approach gender and sexuality in this way had any particular insight into heterosexuality or homosexuality. I did not spread this around, but I told my mission president that I no longer wished to see Brother Brown.

Undergraduate Studies at Utah State University

I emerged from my mission more religious and more liberal before. I still read conservative publications like Frontpage Magazine (which was extreme then and is now simply a repository for lunacy), National Review (which actually published some interesting articles at that time, before intellectuals were purged from the conservative movement), and Reason (the most venerable tentacle of the Kochtopus). During this time, gay rights was a common topic of discussion in the conservative press. Much of the ink was spilt on defenses of anti-LGBT positions, but there were a few surprising articles that attempted to provide a conservative rationale for improvements in rights for gays (in particular, gay marriage). This seems hard to believe given what the American conservative movement has become, but it made sense in the late 1990s. I vacillated on the issue: I wanted to feel that I was still a conservative in some respect and I could not decide whether the state should allow gays and lesbians to marry, thus providing support for stability and commitment in gay and lesbian relationships (which seems awfully conservative from a certain perspective) or whether being conservative meant supporting traditional institutions as they traditionally existed. At the same time, I had a nagging awareness that twentieth century marriage was not a particularly traditional institution. At times, too, I inclined towards a more libertarian position, contending that government should remove itself from the marriage business altogether.

My religious development was not static either. I took many classes at the LDS Institute of Religion in Logan, and started to take more and more advantage of the extensive library there. In its stacks were many books that Mormons were not generally encouraged to read, and I learned many things about the history of the church from them. For example, I investigated the developments that lead up to the Mormon Church's 1978 revelation on the priesthood, which allowed Mormons of African descent to hold the LDS priesthood and participate in temple rituals. I had always been taught that this change came more-or-less out of the blue and was immediately accepted by all the high-ranking leaders of the church as revelation from God. What I learned in the Institute library was that the change developed over a substantial period of time. LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball, it turns out, engaged in considerable machinations in order to ensure that certain racially prejudiced members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles were not present when the subject of ending the ban was first broached. The implication seemed to be that Spencer W. Kimball was convinced the ban should be abolished long before some of the other leaders of the church came around to that way of thinking. This radically reconfigured the way I viewed decision making in the LDS Church. I began to realize that politicking was as or more important than divine revelation in determining what changes in policy and doctrine had occurred in the past, and I saw now reason to think that the same would not be the case in the future.

As I finished my bachelors degree, I found myself moving considerably to the left in my political views, and in an even more liberal direction with regard to religion. This development entered into my decision to accept admission to the PhD program in Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. I knew that I would be surrounded by progressive colleagues there. More importantly, though, I speculated that I would find a community of open-minded Mormons there.

Graduate School at Berkeley

In graduate school, for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by openly gay and lesbian people. It has often been observed that there is no recipe for the acceptance of difference quite as potent as immersion in difference. Linguistics, possibly even more than most academic disciplines, is densely populated by gay scholars. Before I went to graduate school, I believed that I had a handle on my feelings and beliefs about LGBT folks. I soon realized that I had a good deal to learn, and more that a little growing to do. In my second year of graduate school, I started dating a fellow graduate student in the Linguistics program who shared a house with a member of my cohort who was gay (remarkably, he still is). We had a number of interesting conversations about sexual orientation and gay rights, which had a permanent effect on me. At the time, I was ready to argue in favor of civil unions for gay couples but not marriage. He took the radical position that gays should undermine marriage altogether since it was an inherently oppressive institution. While I did not concede his position, his argument made me rethink my own. I no longer felt comfortable claiming that an arrangement in which heterosexual couples were allowed “marriage” but homosexual couples were allowed “unions,” no matter how similar the rights they were granted, could ever be seen as equal.

Meanwhile, I remained active in the LDS church. However, even in the comparatively liberal Oakland-Berkeley University Student Ward, I started to develop a reputation for unorthodoxy. I am told that my first bishop (like a pastor) in that congregation referred to me in a private meeting as “David Mortensen, that wild-eyed radical.” Just as Berkeley's linguistics program drew gay and lesbian students from around the country, Berkeley as a whole drew gay and lesbian Mormons from around the country (but especially various parts of California). As I developed friendships with various members of this lot, I became acutely aware that the problems faced by LGBT people were not limited to the legal and political realm; many LGBT folks come from communities of faith to which they are devoted. Problematically, many of these communities of faith are not equally devoted to them.

Mormon teaching, in particular, raised painful problems for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals (and even more acutely, for transgender Latter-day Saints). These problems had surfaced publicly during the Proposition 22 debate in 2000 and would come to even greater prominence later, during the Proposition 8 debate, but they neither started with the debate about same-sex marriage nor subsided as the tide of legal decisions and public opinion shifted in the direction of legal recognition for gay and lesbian couples. Mormon theology, in its current form, provided no satisfactory place for people where were not heterosexual (and, some of us would argue, for people who were not heterosexual males). This was painful for me to admit: I loved (and continue to love) the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I wanted to say that all God's children were welcome there. I could not say this. And yet, I was aware that change in the church was possible. I had read some of the backstory regarding the repeal of the priesthood and temple ban on black Mormons. I knew that change in the church was not always neat and free of political machinations, but that it could move the church towards justice.

Life after Doctorate

By the time I completed my PhD, I had started to date my now wife, had accepted the job I would take after graduation, and had developed into a person committed to the full acceptance of LGBT people from a political, social, academic, and religious perspective. However, I continued to have experiences that helped me grow.

Teaching at University of Pittsburgh

While teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, between 2006 and 2014, I worked with many students who were gay or lesbian. Many of them were happy and well-adjusted. Others—in at least one case because of a religious commitment—maintained an ambivalent relationship to their sexual orientation. The pain brought to the fore by this tension was palpable. It was clearly not my place to insert myself into this struggle, yet I wished I could do something. Although it seems like an ineffectual approach, I committed myself to showing love and acceptance toward LGBT people and refusing to accept hateful behavior from others.

Marriage

My marriage, in 2007, initiated the most fulfilling chapter in my life. This is not to say that I have not experienced any challenges since that time—I have experienced many. Instead, I would say that I would never have made it through those challenges without the love and commitment of my spouse. This is relevant to my understanding of gay rights because it brought to the forefront the power of the institution that misguided laws were denying to LGBT people. This is not to say that relationships that are not made official by the state as marriages lack power and depth. Rather, there is a certain strength in the social institution of marriage and the accompanying expectation of exclusivity and perpetuity that can have a great salutary effect on a relationship. On a more practical note, it would have been very hard for my spouse to immigrate to the US if we had not been legally married (indeed, it was hard anyway—thank goodness for good lawyers).

Proposition 8

When gay rights activists and the LDS Church finally met for the epic battle that was the Proposition 8 debate, I seem to have missed all the action. More accurately, I don't remember the debate aside from a few vague impressions. This is because my memory of a few years prior to 2012 was lost to a long series of ECT treatments that I received to combat a severe depressive episode (a result of bipolar disorder). After I realized what had happened in California, I was mortified. I tried to remember what I had done, how I had reacted, but the whole experience was shrouded in fog and confusion. I heard stories of how this had affected friends and family members in California. Some erstwhile Mormon loved ones, who admittedly had a difficult relationship with the church before the Prop 8 battle, found it to be their breaking point. I wondered how I could remain in the church. I spent a lot of time pondering and silently praying for direction. At length, I feel I received direction: God had called me to serve in the Mormon community and to love and advocate for all his children with whom I came into contact, be they straight, gay, or otherwise oriented.

Conclusion

My path to this destination was admittedly circuitous. Perhaps it would have been more economical for me to have transitioned directly from the atheism of my youth to the support for LGBT equality that characterized my destination. However, I believe that the best of my Mormon faith actually helped me be a better supporter of LGBT rights—one who was not merely motivated by a dry and clinical logic but by a love born of seeing all my human brothers and sisters as reflections of the Divine. My faith taught me that relationships form a fabric that spans eternity and surpasses in value and significance all dogmas, doctrines, and ideologies. Through my journey, it was relationships that served to transform the bigoted notions that originally dominated my thinking to a better, more fully human, understanding. I would never pretend that my journey is the only path from hate to love; that would be absurd. I only assert that my path was a path from hate to love.

This essay has gone on much longer than I expected it to, and has meandered from idea to idea. However, it does have a point: we should never lose hope that people who are attached to conservative religious communities are capable of transcending the prejudice that sometimes seems to permeate those communities. The journeys of members of these faiths may be long and indirect, but as the core virtues that make their faiths viable interact with ever broadening circles of relationships, many of them will step out of the narrow bonds of hatred into the expanse of love. If that is too airy-fairy for you, just assume I said that broadening social networks and an increasing number of “out” LBGT individuals mean that even members of conservative subcultures will come to identify, more and more, with sexual minorities and be less and less inclined to act in ways that undermine their dignity and equality.

David R. Mortensen

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

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