I woke up this morning to heartbreaking news of two more young members of the Church who ended their lives this week, presumably because their sexual identities were at odds with the teachings of their religion. Their spark of life is gone. I shed tears as I watched videos posted by parents of their once vivacious and joy-filled children. For those of us who believe in an afterlife, I can only hope and pray that these lovely souls are now cradled in the bosom of the Savior who comforts and weeps with them. I don’t know what this brings the total suicide count to over the past year. I’ve heard numbers could be as high as sixty. Regardless, trying to figure out the numbers can distract us from the real conversation we need to have. This is more than tragic; it is an epidemic. These are our children, our brothers and sisters, our friends and neighbors. They don’t feel loved, they don’t feel wanted, they don’t feel valued, and they don’t feel human.
It is easy to point our fingers at Church leaders; to blame them for making hurtful statements and policies. And they are complicit. But the problem is larger than this. We have a culture where being single or gay is viewed as less than the ideal. Our culture, which promotes the beauty of eternal family and community, leaves too many out in the cold in the here and now. The rhetoric at our local wards, taught from our youth, promotes an ideal that, for a significant number, will never be obtainable – a temple marriage, bearing children, and finding a fulfilling relationship with a member of the opposite sex.
Although Mormon teachings are unambiguous about the nature of individuals and families, Mormon teachings are also unambiguous about our responsibility towards our neighbors, friends, and family. An official website of the LDS Church states: “Everyone in God’s small world is our neighbor, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.” (Mormonsandgays.org). While lay members have no influence over the teachings and policies of the Church, we have tremendous influence over the social environment within our wards and neighborhoods, and this is where it needs to start: we need to build an army of love, compassion, and inclusion. And we need YOU to enlist. In fact, you already enlisted when you entered the waters of baptism and promised to “mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8-9).
The majority of Latter-day Saints experience their religion through their family and local ward congregations. In particularly dense LDS areas, this also extends to their neighborhoods, schools, and social activities. The phrase “no man is an island” applies. In some way or another, we are connected to the lives of others. Often, we don’t realize the influence that we have. Awareness of this issue is perhaps our largest obstacle to overcome. For many, it is obliviousness, not hate, that perpetuates their insensitivity. Until I served in a ward-level leadership position where I was put into direct contact with gay members (some open and others still struggling with self-acceptance), I was ignorant of the very real challenges that they face while hiding in plain sight. I was ignorant of the influence that I had to offer comfort or cause harm by my words and actions.
Neylan McBaine authored a remarkable book titled Women at Church that offered a faith-positive challenge to the common roles that women are relegated to at the local ward and stake levels. This book has been well-received and passed along to numerous bishops and stake presidents with hopes that they may become more aware of the ways in which their decisions affect women in the church, offering pragmatic solutions that can be initiated at the local level without challenging current Church teachings or policies. We need a similar approach to ways in which members can influence our local social environment to make it more loving and inclusive for LGBT+ members; as well as to make us aware of the potential we each have for inflicting harm, even if unwittingly, through our complicit silence. I believe such a book will come in due time, and I hope it gets into the hands of many. Until then, I can only offer a few suggestions and hope that the conversation continues.
- Be a leader. If you are involved in a leadership calling, be it Young Women, Young Men, Relief Society, or a bishopric, please have a conversation among your leadership regarding LGBT+ suicides in the Church. See this post titled “The LGBTQ Mormon Crisis: Responding to the Empirical Research on Suicide” for well-researched data. Also see the Family Acceptance Project website for publications, training, and resource material. You may not be aware of gay or lesbian members within your quorums, groups, and auxiliaries. Statistically speaking, they are likely to be there. Even if there aren’t gay or lesbian members in your immediate surroundings, there are members within your group, quorum, or auxiliary who likely have gay or lesbian friends, relatives, or neighbors who may be hurting. Discuss what you can do to ensure an environment where all are valued and welcome. Please be aware of what we are teaching and the message that is being conveyed. I am not suggesting that we should de-emphasize the core messages of the Gospel. However, please be aware that our messages on eternal family, while central to the Gospel plan, can cause severe depression among those who feel excluded from it due to their sexual orientation or other reasons. Please be aware that our emphasis on family and raising children, while inseparable from our teachings on eternal family, can be emotionally painful for those who see no place for themselves.
- Watch your language. Responding to LGBT+ members by encouraging them take hope in an afterlife where they will be “corrected” is tantamount to telling them that they are unacceptable to us and God now. I do not pretend to have an understanding of eternal nature and sexual identity; I am, however, suggesting that sentiments such as this that attempt to minimize the pain felt in the present can actually be more damaging. Likewise, using the “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach is demeaning and patronizing. We must learn to love people for who they are now without condition. Referring to same-sex orientation as a “trial” is not helpful. Being gay is not a trial. Being gay among a group of people who do not accept you is a trial. Unless we change how we discuss homosexuality, we will only continue to foster a hostile and unwelcoming environment for our gay and lesbian brothers, sisters, and children.
- Speak up. When you hear others speak in a demeaning or judgmental manner, please speak up. Understandably, most of us prefer to avoid conflict, staying silent when we hear others speak unkind words. Be aware that there may be others around you who feel that they have no voice. They may be silently crying out for someone to speak up on their behalf. Fear keeps us from action. We do not have to be callous or flippant in our reactions. Often, a simple reminder that we attend church to feel uplifted, not to condemn others, is enough. Sometimes, a more direct request to stop using language that demeans those who we care deeply about is necessary. Muster the courage to speak tenderly but firmly. Through our courage, others may feel emboldened. Remember, it only takes one comment to change the tone of an entire room. But also remember to pick your battles. Sometimes, the most appropriate response is to take the offender aside after the meeting and gently tell them how you feel about what they said.
- Be kind. People respond to our disposition and how we carry ourselves. Being kind lowers defensive reactions. As the old adage goes: you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Yes, there is a place for outrage. The civil rights movement would never have succeeded, and segregation would never have ended, if outrage had not been expressed. Can we express our outrage, our grief, and our sorrow in ways that do not push others away or make them defensive? Can we express ourselves with a contrite heart and broken spirit? Yes. By allowing charity and compassion to be the vehicle through which our outrage and sorrow is expressed.
- Build Zion. Be involved. Do your home and visiting teaching. Serve faithfully in the callings that you are asked to perform. Treat your leaders with charity. Volunteer and look for opportunities where you can make a significant difference in the lives of others. Being actively-engaged is far from a compromise of our integrity, it is an opportunity to interact with others and better understand their challenges – even more, it may be an opportunity, if we are friendly and fearless, to help change the perspective of others around us who are oblivious to the silent suffering of so many within our midst.
- Be an ensign. Make it known that you are a safe ally for LGBT+ members to approach. If you are courageous enough, you can bear testimony of your love and concern for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. You can also follow the #RainbowMormon initiative by wearing a rainbow ribbon to church on Sundays, or pin it on your shoulder bag or scripture case. These do not need to be taken as signs that you are an activist against the teachings of the Church, but rather that you are a safe person to confide in.
These are only a few ideas of what we can do at our local level without challenging Church leadership or teachings to express our love, concern, and inclusion towards our LGBT+ brothers and sisters. Many more and better ideas than these can and should be explored. Let us be steadfast with courage, but filled with compassion and charity. Until that “dawning of a brighter day,” may the light of Christ shine through us. We can make a difference. We must.