Martha Arndt had no idea whether she would be booed or simply given a stone-cold reception when she decided to march with the group Mormons Building Bridges in the June 2012 Pride Parade. The former LDS Primary president and Relief Society counselor was nervous as she dressed in her Sunday best, grabbed her scripture bag and headed out with a friend to drive from Logan to Salt Lake City.
Arndt is not your average “don’t make waves” Mormon. For example, she doesn’t fall in line with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ opposition to same-sex marriage. “I’d like to see the church recognize gay marriage as being a legitimate marriage,” she says. “But I would also like to see [LGBT people] take it to the point of obeying the LDS law of chastity, where the policy of no sex before marriage would apply to gay relationships, as well.”
Arndt likens her desire to see her church accept same-sex marriage to that of wanting an employer to change its policy on an issue. You may not be completely happy with either your church or your boss, but “you do a cost-benefit analysis and decide that the benefits are greater than the deficits.” She’d like to see politics removed from marriage, and for all nations to allow “any two mentally capable adults who were not coerced” to marry. She sees the church as taking “small steps” but acknowledges “allowing gay people to be sealed in the temple might be a bigger step than many Mormons could accept right now.”
Arndt has no relatives or friends who are openly gay. But, as an active Mormon, she wants LGBT folks to know that LDS Church members support them. “They don’t need to conform in order for us to love and accept them,” she says.
But while many in the LGBT community say such love and acceptance are long overdue, some wonder if it can be enough. The LDS Church’s doctrinal position is clear. An official statement on the church’s website reads: “Any sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong, and we define marriage as between a man and a woman.”
Such an unflinching position can strain family relationships. A May 22, 2012, article in LDS Living Magazine (which is a division of Deseret Book but is not an official church publication) titled “Relating to Your Son or Daughter Experiencing Same-gender Attraction: Advice to Parents” by M. Catherine Thomas illustrates the mental torment some Mormon parents live with. “At some point, parents are faced with situations in which they wonder what boundary lines might be appropriate because their love for their child versus their sense of right and wrong can create conflict in their minds. Such situations might include whether to attend a marriage or commitment ceremony, or what role a potential partner might play within the family.”
Thomas’ article refers to a 2006 interview with Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, and Elder Lance B. Wickman, a member of the Seventy. In the interview, transcribed on MormonNewsroom.org, Oaks was asked if parents should allow LGBT children to bring their partners home for the holidays. “I can imagine that in most circumstances the parents would say, ‘Please don’t do that. Don’t put us into that position,’ ” Oaks said. “Surely if there are children in the home who would be influenced by this example, the answer would likely be that.”
Oaks went on to say, “I can also imagine some circumstances in which it might be possible to say, ‘Yes, come, but don’t expect to stay overnight. Don’t expect to be a lengthy houseguest. Don’t expect us to take you out and introduce you to our friends, or to deal with you in a public situation that would imply our approval of your ‘partnership.’ ”
The church says it’s OK for its members to experience same-sex attractions as long as the feelings are not acted upon. Thus, you can be openly gay and a temple-endowed Mormon—just don’t plan on getting married or having sex with a same-sex partner the rest of your earthly life.
Oaks compared the prospect of being gay and unable to marry with that of being physically disabled: “The circumstance of being currently unable to marry, while tragic, is not unique. … life is full of physical infirmities that some might see as discriminations—total paralysis or serious mental impairment being two that are relevant to marriage,” he said.
It’s not just the church elders imposing their views on same-sex marriage. Church members themselves consider homosexuality socially unacceptable. According to a fall 2011 Pew Research Center, only 25 percent of Mormons surveyed said homosexuality should be accepted by society while 65 percent believed it should be discouraged.
So, what can a group of dressed-up-for-Sunday Mormons marching in a Pride Parade really hope to accomplish? It could amount to a complete disconnect if they raise the hopes and expectations of disfellowshipped LDS members, lulling them into thinking that the church will one day soon alter its position on homosexuality. And yet, judging by the outpouring of Utah Pride tears and embraces, the mild-mannered dissent/show of support expressed by the 300-strong Mormons Building Bridges group marching the parade’s six blocks in downtown Salt Lake City turned out to be a striking statement.
“Mom, I Really Can’t Do This”
When Erika Munson formulated her idea for Mormons Building Bridges, she mainly wanted to encourage gay members of the church to stick around. “There hasn’t been a way for Mormons to reach out to gay people. We haven’t known how to do it,” says Munson, a Harvard graduate, English teacher and mother of five who lives in Sandy. “When kids figure out that they are gay, they stop coming to church and disappear. They say, ‘I had to decide between my sexual identity and my church.’ It is the saddest thing. Straight, active Mormons often don’t realize how unhappy they are to leave.”
Two events in Munson’s life had brought her to this place: “As my kids have grown up and reached the age of 16 or 17, they sensed a disconnect of the unconditional love of Jesus that they learned about in church with an unwillingness to show that love to LGBT people.”
When her bishop planned to schedule an interview for her 18-year-old son to become an elder—a priesthood office in the church—“he looked at me and said, ‘Mom, I really can’t do this.’ He mentioned a teacher at his school who heads the gay-straight alliance, saying, ‘This guy is one of the most spiritual people I know. How could there not be a place in the church for him?’”
In another instance, Munson was visiting California during her daughter’s freshman year at University of California Los Angeles. “Everyone was talking about Proposition 8. The whole Relief Society meeting was about organizing for Proposition 8,” she recalls. “My daughter was really saddened by that and hasn’t gone back to church.”
Munson says that her commitment to LGBT people “stems from my faith in the teachings of Jesus Christ who preached not to judge and to love unconditionally, particularly those who may be marginalized by society.”
Two weeks before the parade, she met with local gay activist Troy Williams. “Erika Munson said something so different that I had been waiting for a Mormon to tell me for years,” Williams says. “She said, ‘I love you for who you are, not in spite of who you are.’ ” She mentioned her unprecedented idea of having Mormons march in the Utah Pride Parade. Williams thought, “This is one different kind of Mormon.”
“Mormonism Created Me”
Williams is also a different kind of Mormon, albeit now an ex-Mormon. A radio producer at KRCL, writer and “queer thinker,” Williams has participated in numerous protests against the LDS Church. A returned LDS missionary, he says, “If it weren’t for Joseph Smith and his golden plates, I wouldn’t be here. Mormonism created me.”
His religion left an indelible mark on him: “The most beautiful thing about Mormonism is that it cultivates a deep sense of belonging and community,” he says. “I was lost for years without that.”
Williams became inactive in the church about year after his mission. More recently, he met his boyfriend at one of the kiss-ins on Temple Square in 2009, sparked after a gay couple was detained by LDS Church security and later the police for kissing on the Main Street plaza.
“I was a keynote speaker who was standing in the crowd,” Williams says, recalling how he and his boyfriend met. “I needed someone to kiss, and I found the cutest guy there and grabbed him and kissed him. He has been my boyfriend for three years.”
While he has found happiness in a relationship, he struggles to remain close with his parents. “This whole gay thing has caused such a wedge in my relationship with my father. We talk regularly but are not close. He knows nothing about my life. We have a very shallow, superficial relationship, and he doesn’t know how to process the fact that he has a gay son. I don’t want other kids to feel ostracized from their parents like I have been.”
The activist’s anger with Utah politics and the state’s dominant religion is quick to bubble to the surface. “We can’t gloss over the fact that the Mormon church has been aggressively anti-gay for decades,” Williams says. “There was shock therapy at BYU, counseling gay men to get married—which is abusive to both the man and the woman—and political campaigns all across the country in which they aggressively attacked the gay community.
“The divide has been so volatile,” Williams says. “After Prop 8, 3,000 people surrounded the Temple. And it isn’t just the church—it’s the Legislature. People like [former West Jordan Republican Sen.] Chris Buttars and [Eagle Forum president] Gayle Ruzicka have been attacking gay people for years, using their religion as a motivation and excuse.”
People Are Ready for This
“To truly heal the divide, we all agreed that we needed to march together. It was a wonderful convergence,” says Williams of his meeting with Munson. “But we knew there would be people on both sides who would question the appropriateness of their parade presence. There could be reprisals at wards and stakes.”
“[Mormons Building Bridges] chose to march on their own,” says Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Utah Pride Center, the sponsor of the annual festival and parade. Coincidentally, someone on the other side of the rainbow was making a wish for a group like Munson’s. Dustin Lance Black, the award-winning screenwriter of the movie Milk and a former Mormon, was invited to be the parade’s grand marshal. He phoned Larabee asking if there could possibly be any Mormons to march with him at the front of the parade. Larabee says she replied: “I’ve got some!”
Munson had purchased a slot for her group that was about 80 entries back in the parade. Larabee moved them up front, right behind Black, who, as grand marshal, would ride in the first parade car. “We realized there might be a little pushback around [the Mormons being first],” Larabee says. “But what I saw on the parade route was tears.”
Larabee reflected on the many judgmental comments spoken about LGBT folks by political and religious leaders over the years. “You can be an adult and hear these things and attribute them to the fear and ignorance of the people who are saying that,” Larabee says. “Young people who don’t have enough life experience to acknowledge that will think ‘I’m bad, and I’m wrong.’
“I’ve heard stories of rejection and have seen the cost of that rejection from the Mormon faith. Once I decided [the Mormons] should march at the front, I never wavered once. … When I saw the size of that contingent, I started to cry. So did Lance Black.”
Black says it was a brave thing that Mormons Building Bridges did. “Seeing the Mormons march at the front of the Pride Parade was like a physical, visual and emotional manifestation of all of the work that the Mormon church and LGBT community have done over the last three years. Now, when I go all over the country talking about how it is possible and what it would look like, we have images for the first time, and it looks very loving.”
Munson hoped three things might happen at the parade: She wanted other active Mormons to see them marching in church clothes, carrying signs containing lines from scripture and hymns. “I thought they might think, ‘Maybe I can be a friend to a gay person who is not coming to church anymore,’ or, ‘Maybe I can make church a welcoming place.’ ”
Second, she wanted the gay non-Mormon community “to see that those people who come streaming out of the conference center want to say, ‘We love you, and we are not as narrow-minded as you thought.’ ”
And third, she wanted to reach out to Mormon youth, “because that is where we have the suicide rate. A lot of those kids are gay LDS kids, and they think that God doesn’t love them, and their parents think they have to kick them out of the house.”
Munson told her bishop about her plan. “I expected him to be kind of uncomfortable; he’s kind of a straitlaced guy. But he said, ‘I think this is wonderful.’” She put the idea out to friends on her e-mail list, asking if anyone wanted to march. “The response was huge. I ended up with 300.”
Mormons Building Bridges also marched in the Boise, Idaho, Pride Parade two weeks later.
“What was surprising was we were there to show love for the gay community, and we felt so much love back,” Munson says. “People are ready for this now—on both sides.”
Rattling the Temple Gates
Williams says that many were suspicious of their softer stance and efforts to interact. “I was suspicious, too, but you have to take the risk, if the potential is that we can heal this community. It’s worth taking the risk. Even though Erika [Munson] might be mocked in her ward, and I might be mocked in the gay community for acquiescing to the church, do we want to be peacemakers and create a safe society?” Williams asks. “On the path we are walking, there is going to be backpedaling and wild turns and bumps in the road. ... A horrific statement could put us back a few steps, but you do not stop moving forward. You have to keep going.”
Harsher critics included university professor and self-professed atheist Gregory A. Clark. He wrote in a guest column in City Weekly that Mormons Building Bridges offered gays only pale emotional support. “But let’s not kid ourselves in overanxious gratitude for the least bit of acceptance,” he wrote. “In reality, many of the MBB’s faithful fall right in line with the church’s positions on homosexuality, gay rights and same-sex marriage.” In other words, the position that such behavior is sinful and an abomination, meriting (in biblical times) the death penalty.
Clark particularly took issue with the MBB’s skirting of marriage equality.
But Williams says the stakes are too important not to try to work together. “When you look at [the LDS Church’s] political muscle, you know that we have to work for change; otherwise, they will just bulldoze over the rights of gay Americans—especially with young people growing up with the idea that the love in their hearts is an aberration and an abomination. They go to extreme measures of suicide, self-loathing and self-punishment. That is what we cannot tolerate. Mormons and gays have to work together to change that.”
Should the church launch another Prop 8-style political campaign against the gay community, however, Williams vows he will again protest against the church. “I will rattle those temple gates,” he says.
Meanwhile, the LDS Church, when asked to comment, declined to answer City Weekly’s questions in response to Mormons Building Bridges. Instead, LDS Church spokesman Cody Craynor referred us to links on the Mormon Newsroom site that spoke to the importance of being kind, the fact that the church supports nondiscrimination regulations in housing and employment in Salt Lake City, the importance of celibacy if one has same-sex attractions, and the Mormon ethic of civility.
Not Easily Washed Off
The visibility of Mormons on LGBT issues speaks to the depth of the Mormon identity, says Dan Wotherspoon, 2001-08 editor of Sunstone magazine and current host of the Mormon Matters podcast, a weekly panel discussion on contemporary issues in Mormonism.
Wotherspoon views Mormonism almost like an ethnicity. Just as the Jewish identity runs deeper than its beliefs, Mormonism is not something that easily “washes off.” He asks, “How else can one explain the depth of feeling that causes many Latter-day Saints to stand up and try to be witnesses within the church for the truths they’ve come to feel in their hearts about the [LGBT] identity (it not being a sin or something chosen)—even if their standing against the tide causes friction with family, friends and fellow ward members?”
He notes that when tensions arise in other religious traditions, members might seek a new congregation that better fits their theological or political leanings. “But just as most of us, when we are at odds with our family on something, don’t usually abandon our … family,” Wotherspoon says, “many church members care enough about their fellow community members, their ‘people,’ to stick around and be voices that call for more compassion and more thinking.”
Further, Wotherspoon feels that LDS doctrines are not nearly as “settled” as some think they are. The church’s own Articles of Faith contain a claim that there are many “great and important things” yet to be revealed. Wotherspoon isn’t sure that Mormon activists will bring about a theological shift on the LGBT front, but you never know. “Perhaps it will turn out … they are much like those church members who, for decades before the 1978 revelation, stood for re-examination of the priesthood and temple ban for black church members.”
The Mormons Building Bridges Facebook page now has 2,000 members. “We have assembled a core group who is now working together and sharing the labor,” Munson says. They’re using their Facebook group page to support each other (gay and straight), as well as share strategies and successes with starting conversations in individual wards. They’re also gathering personal stories on the page.
Mormons Building Bridges will support the Pink Dot Event in Liberty Park on Oct. 13. The original Pink Dot Event took place four years ago in Singapore, where it is a crime to be gay. Pride’s Larabee says it involved “a brave group of straight people,” everyone wearing pink and forming a circle. “When we saw the video that was produced, we knew that we had to do this event in Utah,” she says.
Laura Compton, webmaster of the marriage-equality group Mormons for Marriage, has been a straight ally for 25 years. She sees Mormons Building Bridges as encouraging LDS people to talk more and understand this issue. “People are having the courage to step out and be public, and it makes a difference. If your home teacher has a bumper sticker on the car that says ‘I am a Mormon Building Bridges’ and you do, too, then you know that there is somebody that you feel safe to talk to. As people connect on the Internet, they are able to talk in ways that they couldn’t talk when they were feeling like they were the only person in the ward who is gay.”
Compton feels that the church is following the same pathway as society in general, in that homosexuality has moved from being “a crime to a disease to a challenge to part of who you are.” Compton adds that, today, the official statement is “we don’t know why people are gay.”
A recent survey from the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy from Brigham Young University indicates that while the majority of Utah voters oppose gay marriage, attitudes toward some legal recognition of same-sex marriage have changed dramatically over the past eight years. The poll found that while 72 percent of Utah voters oppose gay marriage, 71 percent now favor some form of legal recognition. The number of Utah voters opposed to legal recognition of same-sex relationships continues to drop each year, from 54 percent in 2004 to 29 percent in 2012.
Munson says her children were pleased with the march. Her daughter has a photo of the group on her refrigerator in Los Angeles. “They proudly e-mailed their friends about it. My son called me on march day, just as we finished, and was just so surprised and happy at the huge number of people who chose to march. He continues to find his spiritual practice outside the LDS Church,” she says.
“My children inspired me to consider making a safe place for LGBT people in my church, but my work in Mormons Building Bridges has never been about ‘bringing back’ those of my children that have chosen a different path.”
The night before the parade, Munson’s youngest daughter who lives at home was hanging out with neighbor kids. When they said, ‘See you in church tomorrow,’ she replied, ‘I won’t be at church. I’m marching in the Pride Parade.’ ”
Munson recalls an LDS neighbor said, “‘What? I thought we hated gay people. I don’t hate gay people, but I thought we were supposed to.’ ”
Her daughter replied that she loved LGBT people and wanted to show it.
Just like the discussion that took place between her daughter and her friends, Munson would like to see individuals in wards talking about this issue. Along with seeing gay kids feeling safe and supported by their families, Munson would like to see gay people “feeling welcomed in our congregations and feeling safe in our pews.”