Mormons (members of the LDS Church) tend to be some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. In fact, I have a secret vice to confess in that respect. But first…
Let’s talk about the LDS Church’s cruel homophobia problem.
Let’s talk about a senior LDS leader who just rebuked the faculty of Brigham Young University for discussing ideas contrary to the Church’s moral condemnation of LGBTQ people. Let’s talk about how that leader personally criticized Matt Easton, a courageous Mormon who came out as gay at his valedictory speech in 2019 with the knowledge and approval of his department dean, telling the crowd, “I am not broken. I am loved and important in the plan of our creator.”
Let’s talk about how that same senior leader publicly branded LGBTQ people as evil and undignified as he rebuked Easton and the BYU faculty. Then we’ll come to my secret vice.
Even though Mormons appear to be some of the nicest people on Earth, the LDS Church is one of the most homophobic, stigmatizing, anti-LGBTQ organizations on the globe. In parts of the United States where Mormons are socially dominant, queer people lead hard lives. Youth suicide in LDS-dominated Utah is far more prevalent than in the rest of the U.S. LGBTQ advocates say rejection of queer youth explains the sky-high rate, which is often described as epidemic.
I am not broken. I am loved and important in the plan of our creator. (Matt Easton, gay Mormon)
Growing up in a Mormon family and discovering you are lesbian, gay, or transgender often ends in estrangement or isolation. LGBTQ people who live in places where the Church is dominant suffer significant loss of social and professional opportunity.
As an LGBTQ advocate myself, I have often corresponded with queer Mormon youth asking for help coping with despair. I’ll never forget the teenage girl who wrote to me that since her family discovered she’s a lesbian, she spends her evenings crying alone in her room, excluded from ice skating and other events with her Church friends.
I’ll never forget how she wrote to me that she needs people to be good instead of nice. Her point of view greatly flavors my secret vice, by the way.
Mormon LGBTQ attitudes have been thawing
The LDS Church is not immune to changing times and improved understandings of complex human realities. Many individual Mormons, and Church leadership itself, have in recent years become less cruel to openly LGBTQ people.
While specific policies and teachings are beyond the scope of this article, the Church has softened some of its worst practices, for example scrapping the infamous 2015 November Policy that branded same-sex married couples as “apostates” and barred the children of openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender parents from participation in Church life. For those who don’t understand the impact of denying Church membership, in places where Mormons make up a majority of the population being branded an “apostate” or being barred from Church membership often means a kind of social and professional death.
So when the Church rescinded the November Policy three years after introducing it, many people celebrated.
Brigham Young University, sponsored by the LDS Church, has been something of a center of more progressive LDS thinking, though nothing like a “safe space” for queer students. The administration has sent conflicting signals to LGBTQ students, recently removing “honor code” prohibitions of same-sex dating, then apparently bowing to Church pressure to make clear same-sex relationships are still prohibited and that openly LGBTQ students may face expulsion. BYU students have reacted in part by holding sidewalk “die ins” to honor queer Mormon youth dead by suicide.
Senior LDS leader rebukes BYU faculty and insults Matt Easton
Matt Easton’s coming out was huge. The fact that a senior BYU faculty member approved his speech in advance was even more huge. LGBTQ Mormons and their families began to feel as if a place could exist for them in the world they were born into — that they could be queer and Mormon at the same time, without risking automatic condemnation and shunning.
Then on August 23, on the same day that BYU encouraged LGBTQ Mormons even further by announcing the establishment of an “Office of Belonging” to combat “prejudice of any kind, including that based on race… and sexual orientation,” senior LDS leader Jeffrey R. Holland went on the attack.
In an address to BYU faculty and staff, he sharply criticized people calling for LGBTQ equality in the Church, stooping to personal attack and insult, especially against Easton, whom he characterized as selfish and whom he accused of harming the dignity of BYU:
If a student commandeers a graduation podium intended to represent everyone getting diplomas in order to announce his personal sexual orientation, what might another speaker feel free to announce the next year until eventually anything goes? What might commencement come to mean — or not mean — if we push individual license over institutional dignity for very long? Do we simply end up with more divisiveness in our culture than we already have — and we already have too much everywhere.
Besides perpetuating the very divisiveness he says he opposes, despite falsely classifying Easton’s pre-approved speech as commandeering, Fulton appears to be asserting LDS hierarchal dominance over the university, attempting to silence faculty and students speaking from their own hearts and consciences. His speech puts BYU in direct tension with the ideals of the Academy and independent intellectual pursuit. I’m not writing about that here, however. For those interested, The Salt Lake Tribune published a thorough piece that digs into academic freedom issues.
Kind words paint LGBTQ people as evil
Fulton went on to speak of love and tolerance, of assisting LGBTQ people who “struggle.” But that didn’t stop his fangs from showing as he made clear he believes LGBTQ people are evil:
For example, we have to be careful that love and empathy do not get interpreted as condoning and advocacy, or that orthodoxy and loyalty to principle not be interpreted as unkindness or disloyalty to people.
I bless your families that those you hope will be faithful in keeping their covenants will be saved at least in part because you have been faithful in keeping yours. Light conquers darkness. Truth triumphs against error. Goodness is victorious over evil in the end.
Then he doubled down on LDS doctrine that LGBTQ people who enter into loving relationships are sinners, saying BYU must uphold that doctrine at all costs even if the university were to lose “professional associations and certifications.” If that happens, Holland said, “then so be it.”
He did not discuss the painful cost to LGBTQ Mormons and their families of maintaining that stigmatizing doctrine. By all indications, he’s willing to overlook harm to LGBTQ people as collateral damage in a “holy war” where members of gender and sexual minorities are the vulnerable and relatively defenseless enemy.
And now to reveal my secret vice
For the past year or so, I’ve indulged a passion for relaxing to ASMR massage videos on YouTube. If you don’t know about that recent fad, Google it; it’s wonderfully stress-reducing. In the process, I somehow fell down a YouTube rabbit hole and subscribed to the channel of a lovely family in Utah raising a child with cerebral palsy.
I didn’t know they were Mormon at first; they rarely mention it, and it’s not a central part of their channel. Their videos are friendly and upbeat as they share their lives and their child’s victories and setbacks. The whole family sacrifice to give him the best possible medical care and put him on a road to maximizing his human potential.
But sacrifice isn’t central to their videos either; it’s just an unspoken assertion and a manifestation of selfless love.
I watch some of their videos because I enjoy a peek into the lives of some of the nicest, most loving people I can imagine. I call it a vice because the content is “fluffy.” There’s little intellectual engagement, very little serious thinking, and no controversy.
What there is, is lots of love inside the family and among all their friends and neighbors. My secret vice comes in 15-minute installments of peace and the very best of human nature. Well, truthfully, it doesn’t hurt that that the pater familias is very easy on the eyes, especially when boating and surfing shirtless, but perhaps I shouldn’t go there.
“Not going there” is part of the tension I feel as a gay man looking in on that world of love and kindness. I have no idea what this family and their friends think about LGBTQ people, and I try not to think about it. I want to believe they are tolerant and accepting.
Sadly, I know that if they are, then they live in tension with the LDS Church that they say they love, a Church that holds that LGBTQ students coming out on campus destroy institutional dignity.
And I’m so tired.
I’m so tired of always being on guard, of always worrying that even the nicest people are likely to hold me and the people I love in disrespect and moral opprobrium.
I’m tired of often being on the outside looking in. I feel deeply for Matt Easton, for whom this reality must be so personally painful. His experiences are not dissimilar from my own growing up in a mixed Evangelical/Catholic family where people like me are always outsiders and rarely fully accepted or truly welcome.
But you know what? I won’t stop rooting for that Mormon child with cerebral palsy, and I won’t stop valuing love. I WILL keep telling stories and working for real equality, for a world in which people like Matt and me can come in out of the cold.
Former Air Force intelligence analyst, longtime LGBTQ activist and alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, James Finn is an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, an “agented” novelist and a runner, Marine, Airman, polyglot and self-proclaimed “middle-aged, uppity faggot.” He blogs at Medium.