Land of the Misfit Mormons 

They’re outsiders, but they’re not exactly rebels.

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David Adler thought he had joined the ultimate club. After years spent struggling to fit in, the self-described social outcast scored an invitation to hobnob with the spiritual elite. A former missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he learned all of the temple secrets necessary to gain acceptance anywhere in the world. Adler served a mission to Santa Maria, Brazil, where he prayed daily for God to “fix” him. A devout Mormon, he believed that, with enough sacrifice, the Savior would help him overcome his sexual orientation as a gay man. It turned out that God had other plans.

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Plagued by suicidal thoughts, Adler cut his mission short and returned home to meet with a counselor through LDS Family Services. To his surprise, the church-sanctioned therapist told him, “Sounds like we just need to get you laid.”

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Instead, Adler flew to China, where he taught English, visited historical landmarks and logged countless hours online searching, once again, for a place to fit in. That’s when he found MisfitMormon.com, an online community for Latter-day Saints proclaiming itself a haven for outsiders within the LDS religion. Members distance themselves from LDS culture, challenging stereotypes of how a “good Mormon” should look, act and think, while also upholding the faith’s basic tenets. They won’t light up a Marlboro or shoot tequila but don’t subscribe to blind faith either. It seemed like a supportive audience for his ongoing identity crisis.

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“I felt like they were going to provide me with an arena where I could say, ‘Yes, this is something I’m dealing with,’” he said. At first, his instincts were right on. Members, listed under assumed names, offered supportive comments, noting that as long as he didn’t act on his homosexual urges, he was welcome in the church. After months of intense introspection, Adler arrived at a personal crossroads. He saw only three choices: He could either ignore his emotions and get married, commit suicide or embrace his sexuality. He published his coming-out letter on a personal LiveJournal site read by his friends and family last fall:

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“Well, people, I guess this is as good a time as any for me to just get clear with you all. I’m gay. It’s been a long, confusing road to come to this declaration, and I’m not quite sure where everything will take me in the future. Frankly, it’s been something that I’ve needed to say to those who I’ve led to believe I was straight for a long time. I know that a good portion of you might not understand why I’m choosing to take this road, but let me tell you this: The only choice I’ve made in this matter is the choice to stop fighting that which would have eventually gotten the best of me. I can’t help but feel that this is the way God made me and intended for me to live.nn

Weeks later, Adler announced his sexuality on a post to Misfit Mormon, along with an invitation to participate in FHE Family, an online forum and intellectual group formed in support of gay Mormons at all levels of the community. This didn’t sit well with the other misfits. One disgruntled member accessed Adler’s personal LiveJournal, then cut and pasted Adler’s account of a steamy sexual encounter, the details of which led other site members to such responses as, “Wow. That was genuinely sick. I guess he really did give up,” and “Definitely don’t write things you’re not proud of.” Adler was floored.

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“I felt like a modern-day leper. I asked them, ‘How can you possibly marginalize me when you feel you’ve been marginalized all your life?’” he said, trying his best to stay calm. “I just couldn’t understand how these people, who are supposed to be the most supportive members of the church, could not assist me.”

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Frustrated, Adler blocked the most offensive, or in their case, offended members from his friends list and stopped visiting the site. The experience had him questioning the true meaning of “misfit.” The online forum seemed filled with people who dyed their hair blue, sported piercings and tattoos, and voted as straight-party Democrats against Republican-majority rule. Few members, however, showed any serious dissent against the norm.

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“It’s all a farce, in my opinion,” Adler said. “They aren’t out for any kind of social change. They aren’t standing for anything substantial.nn

Misfit Mormon co-founder Cory Bailey disagrees. The 23-year-old library clerk considers his burgeoning subculture a source of strength for people who might otherwise abandon their relationships with Heavenly Father. Dressed in red-tartan pants and a navy hoodie emblazoned by a hand-painted Misfit Mormon logo, Bailey blends right in at an indie music venue or warehouse art exhibit. His attire is far from shocking, but it’s hard to picture him taking Sacrament in such disheveled gear. Bailey feels his attire means more than mere appearances.

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The Misfit Mormon mission statement includes a quote by LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley stressing the importance of individuality. Site members follow his directive, encouraging each other to flaunt their unique personalities, albeit in a controlled fashion. Think outside the box, but don’t break it in the process. Do that, and you might be confused for an antisocial deviant trying to bring down the dominant culture. Misfit Mormons prize individuality achieved through deep introspection and moderate debate, not pot-stirring rebellion.

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But before members can wave their freak flags, they must pinpoint the factors that lead them to misfit status and how they might reconcile deep-seated differences with spiritual beliefs. Such discoveries are hard to come by, which is why members log significant time online discussing topics ranging from premarital sex to unsubstantiated rumors about Brigham Young plucking the scriptures from a hat. For the most part, their online conversations steer clear of fashion.

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“It’s not all about the way you look,” Bailey said, scratching his prickly blond beard. “A misfit is someone who struggles with the dominant culture of Mormonism and is in need of an outlet or subculture. We’re here to pick up people who are living in sin and to help them through hard times.”

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Bailey launched Misfit Mormon in 2002 after hitting rock bottom. He had just returned from an abbreviated LDS mission. Like Adler, suicidal thoughts sent him packing for Utah. Only Bailey’s problems had nothing to do with sexuality. He struggled with bipolar disorder, a battle his bishop advised taming with scripture and hymns.

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“That just doesn’t suffice, honestly,” he said, scoffing at the notion of treating severe depression by reading Matthew, Luke or Alma. “You need people who understand what you’re going through. Living in general is really tough without the proper support group.nn

Growing up in Blackfoot, Idaho, Bailey never wanted for support. He placed his trust in the LDS Church, respecting strict Mormon parents by “choosing the right.” When Bailey’s siblings rebelled by experimenting with Pabst Blue Ribbon, he bowed his head against temptation. His belief in God never wavered. However, he slowly lost his connection with his church-going peers. In high school, he gravitated toward non-LDS classmates, preferring their company to that of hypocritical Mormon teens who partied on the weekends. Disgusted by drugs and alcohol, he joined the local Straight Edge movement, eschewing illegal substances and promiscuous sex. But when his clean-living friends started busting skulls to solve their problems, he opted out. “I wanted something more in line with my spiritual beliefs,” he said.

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Bailey turned his ideal toward the Internet. Along with Misfit Mormon co-founder Eric Bennion, he developed a thriving online support network based on religious devotion. Newcomers log on with an explanation of their misfit status, usually followed by specific questions about the culture. One member posed the following query:

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“When I first joined the church, I had a lengthy discussion with a high priest in my ward about eternal sex. He sat me down (I was 16 years old) and explained sex in the Celestial Kingdom and so on. He wrapped it up by saying, ‘So when it comes down to it, our whole purpose here on earth is to have sex.’ I’m wondering if there is anyone here who has heard of this and has some info they could share with me. I think it makes sense, but I’d like to hear from some of you guys, if possible.nn

Responses ran the gamut. “My friend said this is not doctrine. She also said that just because prophets say it is so does not make it doctrine,” wrote one respondent. “What’s wrong with eternal sex anyway?” asked another. “Many people outside the church get a real kick out of saying we believe in eternal sex and pregnancy, but official LDS doctrine does not justify such claims, while it does not explicitly rule them out,” another wrote.

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Despite the obvious emphasis on Mormonism, the forum is open to people of all religions and even to atheists. Respect the site’s strict policy against Mormon-bashing, and you, too, may participate.

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“I really do believe in freedom of speech,” Bailey said, adding that he tries to run the site on a democratic platform. “I think you need conflict of opinion in order to progress.”

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Conflict is in ready supply on Misfit Mormon’s discussion boards. For the most part, arguments unfold as respectful debates. But when it comes to heated topics including abortion and homosexuality, all bets are off. Bailey thinks this tension stems from fear'and ignorance.

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“When I first heard about homosexuality, I took on a sort of slippery-slope philosophy, like, ‘What’s next? Animals getting married?’” he said, shaking his head and adding that he no longer jumps to such wild conclusions. “I don’t exactly agree with the lifestyle associated with being gay, but I need to learn a lot more about it.”

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Bailey generally follows the church’s stance on homosexuality, however he’s always willing to support those struggling to reconcile sexual desire with spiritual beliefs.

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Bennion also sides with the church. However, until recently, he wasn’t clear on its official position.

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“I never really had to think about it,” he said, adding that casual attitude changed when his father came out three years ago, ending a 25-year marriage, leaving him with many unanswered questions. Then a student at LDS Business College, he approached his seminary teacher who showed him the church’s position set down in a bishop’s handbook.

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“The interesting part to me is that homosexuality is no different from the sin of adultery,” he said. “It’s not a sin until you act on your urges.” The Misfit Mormon community operates on a similar philosophy. Abide by their rules, and you’ll always be welcome. So people like Adler can jump on and express themselves, but only to a certain extent.

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Adler doesn’t mind playing by the rules. He understands that the church is only as perfect as the people who fill its pews.

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“I’m not going to judge the church because a few individuals happen to be freaks about certain issues,” he said. “I know the church has a hard time with things like feminism, intellectualism, homosexuality and a lot of scientific theories. But there is a lot to be said about leadership and the difficulties of controlling people.nn

Paul Toscano knows full well what happens when “controlling people” get out of control. The Salt Lake City bankruptcy lawyer was excommunicated from the LDS Church in 1993 for publishing contentious scholarly articles. One of the so-called “September Six,” the group of six Mormon intellectuals tossed out of the church for challenging its teachings on feminism, authority and history, Toscano’s story grabbed headlines for years. The experience exacted a harsh toll on his family. His wife Margaret was later excommunicated in 2000 for professing feminist beliefs. He’s still cautious.

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“I shouldn’t have agreed to discuss this,” he said. “This is going to get me in trouble.nn

After logging onto MisfitMormon.com, Toscano was not impressed. The comments seem very uninformed, he said, adding that most of their questions could be answered with a quick trip to the library. In fact, he believes everyone, misfit or not, could benefit from researching the church’s history on their own.

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“We [Mormons] tend to change without admitting that we’ve changed,” he said, adding that while the church has shifted its position on issues like birth control and polygamy, its leaders prefer to downplay new policies. “It’s a tough deal, because change like that means that we were wrong, and how could we be wrong when we’ve been led by God this whole time?nn

Toscano believes such loaded questions motivate LDS Church leaders to discourage members from expressing doubt of any kind. Participation in church governance is often frowned upon. He adds, however, that their intentions are good and pure.

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“They are narrow-minded because they want to do God’s will,” he said. “But there’s room in the Scripture for both views, and there should be room in the church for the people who hold them.nn

Toscano doesn’t regret publishing his controversial papers. He still respects LDS teachings but wishes the experience could have yielded a different outcome. A dialogue with church leaders would have been better than getting kicked to the curb.

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“If this is the true church, it’s not going to fall apart when Paul Toscano writes an article,” he said. “If God is for us, he cannot be against us.nn

While the members of Misfit Mormon are in no way challenging church doctrine, they engage in debates centered on serious doubt. Toscano is encouraged by their willingness to discuss taboo topics'even if their conversations unfold under a cloak of anonymity.

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“To the extent that any Website or group of Mormons gather in the name of Christ to better understand their religion is a very good thing,” he said, adding that exchanging information is productive whether or not it leads to social change. Besides, just as he doesn’t have the power to bring down the church with one head-turning paper, Misfit Mormon likely won’t create a shift in the dominant culture. “I don’t mean to be judgmental, but it seems to me that they’re straightening deck chairs on the Titanic,” he said.

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Considering the majority of those logged onto Misfit Mormon treat the term rebel as a near-obscenity, it’s obvious they aren’t trying to rock the boat. When a City Weekly query addressed to one member leaked onto the open forum, the backlash spoke volumes. “Tell them that if they are looking for sensationalistic anti-Mormon stories that they need to look elsewhere,” one wrote. Other, more reactionary statements, expressed the same goal: Far from children of the revolution, Misfit Mormon members simply want to be recognized as individuals who strive to maintain true to the gospel.

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Dan Wotherspoon, editor of Sunstone magazine, a publication which advocates and facilitates open exchanges about the Mormon experience, doesn’t think Misfit Mormon promotes any kind of rebellion. He sees the site as symptomatic of a larger trend, mainly the need to self-identify as the next generation of Latter-day Saints.

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“They’re just standing up for who they are,” he said, adding that their cause is similar to the one taken up by young members of the Jewish faith informally known as Generation J, a hip label that refers to 20- to 35-year-old Jews who sometimes question a faith they are expected to embrace. Unlike their parents, they face unprecedented options in an increasingly secular world. Like the members of Misfit Mormons, many seek answers that will bring them closer to God. Wotherspoon adds that labeling them as “Generation M” might be a bit premature. Compared to religions dating back thousands of years, Mormonism is barely old enough to walk, let alone encourage widespread exploration of its central message. He’s certain that the need for Mormons to stand apart from the greater culture will fade as more and more Latter-day Saints develop a stronger sense of self.

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Wotherspoon thinks that the Bloggernacle, a name that has been adopted by the LDS blogging community to describe the Mormon portion of the blogosphere, has given young, faithful members a way to unite and announce, “We are not our father’s Mormon church.” Wotherspoon understands the drive to carve a separate identity, but he views their path as somewhat misguided.

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“There’s a sense that they’ve bought into the stereotype that the only real Mormon is the kind you see portrayed through the general conferences'the missionary with the white shirt and tie,” he said. “This may be a sort of self-hating move. In other words, even though they declare affection for the church, there’s got to be some part of it they are really, viscerally against. Otherwise, they wouldn’t need these types of qualifiers to define what kind of Mormons they are.nn

However, it might be necessary for the church to redefine itself. Certain social movements have forced LDS leaders to revisit official proclamations that, as Toscano pointed out, are not set in stone. If the church wants to recruit new members, perhaps it should keep with the times.

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Dennis Potter, a Mormon theologian and professor of philosophy at Utah Valley State College, is optimistic such change is possible, albeit at a slow, steady rate.

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“Don’t expect massive change too quickly. You have to remember that Mormonism is fairly new when compared to most other religions,” he wrote by e-mail. “That said, two decades after the civil-rights movement, the church abandoned its racist policy regarding the priesthood. That’s fast when compared to changes that took centuries in the Christian church.nn

Potter doesn’t necessarily agree with the notion that Misfit Mormons are uncomfortable in their own skin. In fact, he thinks they might be more confident than members too timid to show their stripes.

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“I believe there exists a much wider variety of Mormons than we normally acknowledge,” he said. There are less-active Mormons who still accept the basics of the Mormon narrative. There are practicing Mormons who don’t accept all of the narrative and/or practice. There are self-identified Mormons who attend other churches. There are Mormons who are orthodox and practicing but who wear earrings and tattoos.

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Bennion can relate to those afraid of revealing their true identities. As a teenager, he put on a front to please his parents. He wore all the right clothing, said all the right things and stood as a fine example for his younger siblings. For a time at school, however, Bennion dropped the act and joined his friends for drinks.

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“I had a buddy who kept a container of rum and Coke in his locker,” he said, noting that he was the sort of young LDS hypocrite Bailey shunned in Blackfoot, Idaho. “I spent the whole year buzzed.nn

Bennion cleaned up his act before serving an LDS mission. Now, he steers clear of alcohol. However, he doesn’t pretend to be perfect. He doesn’t pretend to be an example.

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“I’m a very liberal person and that just doesn’t fit into LDS culture,” he said, adding that his political and social views in no way drain his spiritual strength. “Do I go to church and feel good about being there? Yes. Do I have to be a conservative thinker? No.nn

Neither Bennion nor Bailey apologize for who they are. If Bailey wants to wear red-tartan pants to church, he can still honor the word of God. When he protests the war in Iraq, he’s not breaking an article of faith by going against kings, rulers and magistrates.

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“Part of being subjects in our democratic society is questioning those who are making wrong decisions'especially when those decisions affect our brothers and sisters and are killing them,” he said. “I feel we should even pray every time the prophet gives counsel. A lot of people think the prophet is infallible. That’s not the case. We need to continually question our beliefs and seek answers.nn

Adler wonders why such questioning isn’t applied to gay Mormons. He thinks that if the church can re-evaluate its position on birth control, polygamy and priesthood for African-Americans, then certainly it can reconsider its policies on homosexuality.

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“According to the process of revelation, the prophet had to pray about such significant changes,” he said. “Well, based on what I’m seeing now, I don’t think the leaders have really prayed or asked the right questions about whether or not it’s OK for God’s gay sons and daughters to be involved in the church as active, temple-attending members.”

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If LDS teachings change only under severe societal pressure, Adler will be waiting a very long time. Even if that day arrives when every state legalizes gay marriage, the church may never yield its position. For now, Misfit Mormons will love the sinner but hate the sin.

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Adler takes comfort in the idea that while he’s unique, his struggles are not.

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“I had to come to a place where Adam did. According to the Mormon tradition, Adam was faced with a decision to either stay in the Garden and never progress, or go against one commandment and further the world’s population,” Adler said, adding that either way, Adam risked enormous loss. “You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

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