Halfway through a session titled “Emotional Healing: Including God in Your SSA Journey,” a young man in a yellow shirt haltingly put up his hand to speak. He sat in a room of around 100 Mormons, mostly male, who were attending the last day of a three-day conference organized by North Star International, a nonprofit dedicated “to Latter-day Saints who experience same-sex attraction or gender-identity incongruence,” according to its website.
Two life coaches had led the session, talking about how to deal with loss, mourning feelings and relationships associated with “same-sex attraction” and surrendering to God your desires and “your timeline” of expectations for life.
But the young man in the yellow shirt was struggling, he said, with the idea of surrendering. “I don’t get it,” he said. “I pray and pray and pray for help, and I don’t think it comes. Maybe it does but I don’t see it. And it just bothers me.”
The momentary silence that greeted his words suggested that many others in the hall were also tired of the discord between their sexual orientation and the doctrine of the LDS Church.
Michael Ferguson—a former Mormon who was one of the first to be married in Salt Lake County after same-sex marriage was briefly legalized in the state in December 2013—says that as the issue of gay marriage continues to gain momentum in the United States, the next battleground for the LGBT community will be “the restoration of gay participation in spiritual and religious communities.”
Some of those battles, it seems, are already being fought in wardhouses across the country. Discussions during and after conference sessions revealed how the tone, approach and attitude toward same-sex relationships differs widely among LDS members and even the church’s on-the-ground local leadership of bishops and stake presidents, who are called to lead congregations on a part-time basis.
A City Weekly reporter purchased a one-day pass to attend the last day of the conference, which is unaffiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The day featured a morning session for ecclesiastical leaders in the Mormon church who are ministering “to those who experience same-sex attraction.” Two bishops and a stake president and, as the conference handbook put it, “the same-sex attracted men they shepherd—one single, one married, and one in a same-sex relationship” told their individual stories.
Panelist Tom Christofferson, who is in a same-sex relationship, requested excommunication from the LDS Church after the failure of a brief heterosexual marriage. He spoke of how, in 2007, he had wanted to return to the LDS Church and asked the bishop in a Connecticut ward if he was welcome to attend. The bishop, also on the panel, said that he couldn’t refuse the man; how could he, when he said yes to those in his congregation who had affairs, drank beer or watched porn? But Christofferson’s partner, while made to feel welcome by the ward, warned that, Christofferson said, “this will all end in tears. You are trying to reconcile the unreconcilable.”
“My prayer is that it ends in joy, that [my partner] knows what I know,” Christofferson said.
But the stake president on the panel noted that he was in ongoing communication with another church official over a downtown Portland, Ore., ward where returning members who were transgender were causing “confusion” and awkwardness.
There were no women on the panel, but a woman named Connie elected to speak from the audience, saying, “I have had SGA [Same Gender Attraction] all my life. I have been silent all my life.” After ending that silence, she said, she had encountered “a lot of harshness, a lot of fear,” in her Mormon community.
She called for a softening of dialogue and a push to educate fellow church members about same-sex attraction.
That’s one of the stated goals of North Star’s Voices of Hope series, which features 50 stories from men and women, some of whom are in heterosexual marriages, who have “experienced” same-sex attraction, which North Star abbreviates to SSA.
Ferguson says the acronym SSA pathologizes being gay to the point that the “outcome is one of fracturing and disengaging with the reality of one’s integrated self.”
North Star president Ty Mansfield declines to discuss Ferguson’s views, but agrees that certain uses of the acronym SSA, such as “I have SSA,” can sound like “I have cancer,” he says. But he emphasized that “everybody in the conference was coming from a different place” to talk about same-sex attraction in the context of LDS beliefs and practices.
In February 2014, North Star absorbed Evergreen International, a controversial group dedicated to reducing same-sex attraction and “homosexual behavior” through reparative therapy. The conference sessions themselves didn’t mention reparative therapy, but it was touted by what Mansfield calls “third-party vendors” who had paid for tables at the Provo conference center to promote services or products that Mansfield says are not “explicitly contrary” to LDS doctrine.
A Virginia-based organization called People Can Change promoted Journey Into Manhood weekends. According to its brochure, “the psychodynamic principles that underlie the JiM weekend are completely in accord with reparative therapy.”
A panelist at the morning session talked about having renounced his same-sex feelings to stay with his family, and how he now hopes to show his gay son “an example” of how an LDS man “with SSA” can be happy.
The conference’s final panel discussion was on “creating safe and open dialogue” for “SSA youth in our wards and stakes.”
Several women expressed concern and frustration that their questions about their children are ignored by their bishoprics. A mother whose daughter is a lesbian said, “I don’t know how to go to the council and the bishop when they don’t want to talk about it.”
Panel moderator and former North Star president Jeff Bennion suggested that she seek allies in the congregation, while another panelist suggested using social media to educate her ward.
One woman asked what the panel suggests wards do when children encourage other children to explore their “SSA.” A panel member who’s a high school teacher and basketball coach noted that children come to junior high ready to “self-identify” as gay or lesbian.
“They post things on social media supporting gay marriage. The world they live in says ‘You’re a hater, a bigot’ ” if you don’t, he said. “They feel that pressure.”
Bennion responded that leaving the children to the influences of the outside world would prove counterproductive. “If we don’t talk about these issues, basically we’re saying to the Adversary [Satan], have my kids, go for it,” he said. A panelist added that one answer is to encourage gay youth who are dating to “keep the standards of the church,” and, for example, ask them to go out on group dates.
A young bishop talked about his former fear of talking to gay youth because “I had no idea what do try to do to help.” When he did counsel a young man, he says, the youth told him, “I’m broken and I’m a freak.” The bishop, concerned the young man’s life was in peril, spent many hours talking with him. He told the audience that whatever decision the youth makes in terms of being gay and being Mormon, “If he uses his free agency to choose a different way, this bishop is still to going to love him.”
Others spoke of less loving experiences. A man on the panel talked of his cousin’s son, who disclosed to his bishop that he was gay—it was the first time he’d come out to an adult. At the follow-up meeting, the man said, the bishop told the youth that it was “very important you have no contact with any of the Primary children [those 11 and younger] in our ward.”
The teacher on the panel told the audience that when a girl came out to her bishop, the bishop told her that she could not attend girls camp.
“That’s not clear thinking, that’s dogma, puritanical silliness and fear,” the teacher said.