Something extraordinary happened at my LDS congregation a few Sundays back. The gospel doctrine class lesson was on eternal marriage, and the usual material about marriage between a man and a woman and the Proclamation on the Family was presented. But instead of dwelling in platitudes, the class discussion acknowledged the less-than-ideal realities that many members of our church and society live with. There was heartfelt story sharing. The experience of LGBT people was verbally acknowledged by a newcomer to our ward. The entire conversation took place in a spirit of kindness and compassion. After the class, two members of my ward approached me, each separately, to check in with me and make sure I was OK. A member of my elders quorum invited me and my spouse over to his home for dinner. For the rest of the day as I reflected on my experience at church on Sunday, I wept tears of gratitude. I had not only been spiritually fed, I had been cared for.
You see, I am gay. I was excommunicated from the LDS Church in 1986. My husband and I have been in a committed relationship for over 25 years. I have been actively attending my ward for the last 12 years, because I have a testimony of the gospel, despite not being in the typical situation that you expect to see in a Mormon congregation. And in that time I have witnessed a sea change in how Latter-day Saints are engaging with LGBT people.
The same Sunday that I had that experience in my ward, a gay Mormon friend of mine reported on Facebook that in his ward, several members mentioned their love for and support of LGBT individuals in their testimonies, and he felt similarly uplifted, loved and supported. Another friend reported that when LGBT individuals attended an LDS ward in Reading, England as a group after the local pride festivities, the bishop came and introduced himself to each one of them, and asked what he could do to help. Another friend reported LDS friends coming to the rescue and defending him from homophobic attacks in social media. Another gay friend, like me, reported being invited to share his experience in his gospel doctrine class, while the instructor offered words of support.
Are these good reports coincidence? Or are they indicative of a larger trend within the LDS community? These happy experiences reported from as far away as the UK, come on the heels of a public statement by the LDS Church about the LoveLoud Festival, a benefit for a number of LGBT support organizations, including Encircle, a Provo-based ministry providing support for families and LGBTQ youth. The LDS Church statement joined the church’s voice “with all who come together to foster a community of inclusion in which no one is mistreated because of who they are or what they believe.”
Most LGBT Mormons will respond to these reports with skepticism. Relatively few would permit themselves the indulgence of optimism. My friend who reported an upsurge of love and support in his fast and testimony meeting had just been telling me the previous Sunday that he was so discouraged he was considering completely cutting himself off from all things Mormon. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the majority of LGBT Mormons have experienced trauma in their wards and families, in the places where we all ought to feel most safe and most embraced in the tender bosom of Christ's love. They have learned that progress comes slowly, and that signs of hope are often quickly obscured by clouds of misunderstanding, fear and defensiveness.
What is needed at this juncture is consistent, steady, fearless bridge-building. What happened in my and in other wards recently needs to be happening in every ward in the church. What is needed is faith in the power of love to inspire and strengthen people. What is needed is love unfeigned that, like that of Christ, trusts the individual to make good choices on the foundation of that love. Good church people occasionally ask me, how can I support LGBT people better? My answer: listen to them.
There is an extraordinary opportunity for listening, bridge-building and love coming up Sept. 22-24 at the Utah Valley Convention Center in Provo, where the annual international conference of Affirmation: LGBT Mormons, Families & Friends is taking place.
I believe that the hopeful signs I and others witnessed in recent weeks are signs of things to come. I pray for parents’ hearts to be turned to their children, and children's hearts to their parents. I pray for us all to experience eternal family, in that largest, most expansive sense that I experienced in my ward when individuals embraced me and asked me if I was OK.
John Gustav-Wrathall is the worldwide executive director of Affirmation: LGBT Mormons, Families & Friends.