Op-ed: Queer Eye for the Mormon Bishop Guy
Last year, as a sitting Mormon bishop, I came out publicly as an ally to my LGBT sisters and brothers in and outside the church. In the aftermath of my talk in Salt Lake City apologizing to the LGBT community and LGBT Mormons for the pain that they have gone through and recognizing that all too often that pain has been inflicted in the “house of their friends,” their families, their religious institutions, and their communities, people have asked how I made my journey from an adversary to fence sitter and finally to becoming an ally and advocate.
One of the turning points was when I first began developing personal relationships and friendships with LGBT individuals. For me this came about first in a surprising way. I began watching a television show called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. As is sometimes typical for Mormons on a variety of issues, I was late. I didn’t see it until a year or two ago, when it went into syndication.
What seemed to be a unique twist on the typical makeover show became for me my first significant introduction to the LGBT community. I had never had contact that I knew of or built a friendship with an LGBT person outside of work. The show spoke to me from the start. It had a catchy synth intro that reminded me of the dance grooves we used to club to in the late '80s when I was at Brigham Young University, where I met my wife for the first time.
For me it was much more than watching five gay men help get straight guys’ act together in grooming, home decor, fashion, culture, and cuisine. It began to create a bond for me to these men. They had a certain synergy that kept me wanting to watch more. I liked them as people. I saw them as individuals expressing their God-given talents and trying to make people’s lives and the world a little bit better. As Carson Kressley, the show’s fashion guru, would often say, it’s not a makeover show, it’s a “make better” show.
I would watch the show and imagine what it would be like for them to be in a Mormon bishop’s home, which is probably considered the heart of enemy territory by some in the gay community since Proposition 8. There was something about the spirit of these men that seemed to break barriers of orientation, politics, and even religion. Perhaps like every other fan, I considered them to be more familiar than reality would dictate. Then something that Carson said in his cheeky manner struck me like a thunderbolt. He said, “We are very pro traditional marriage.” Those words echoed in my mind for months and months. It seemed to disrupt and challenge a deeply held belief that the traditional family was under attack by a so called “gay agenda.”
That belief was dismantled at that moment and I realized that these good men had no desire to hurt me, my marriage, or my family. On the contrary, if they were in my home, I could only see them supporting me, my traditional marriage, and my family.
Probably like many fans, I could see in my mind’s eye what they might do if they came into my home. Thom Felicia would definitely see lots of areas for upgrade in home decor and furnishings. Our Restoration Hardware sofa, once my pride and joy and one of the first pieces we bought as a couple, has fallen into disrepair, one of the casualties of raising children for the past 15 years and having a new dog over the past two. We have a good life, but much of what we have to spare financially goes to the kids for their clothes, cell phones and violin lessons and baseball, etc. Whether Thom would accept that excuse or not remains to be seen, but my guess is he probably wouldn’t. Our master bedroom, being the least decorated and most sparse room in the house, would probably drive him nuts.
Carson perhaps would want to look through the “Mormon underwear” drawer, from which I would probably have to redirect him quickly, since Mormons view their garments as sacred. But in the closet he would find fairly boring and outdated business-casual clothing that I wear to work and often everywhere else as well as the formal suit, white shirt, and tie that is traditional Mormon bishop attire and that I wore marching in my first pride parade as a Mormon ally.
Kyan Douglas, whom my 15-year-old daughter now has a crush on, would also have his work cut out for him with my grooming and personal attention to myself. I think he would suggest first and foremost that I need to exercise more and focus on my own health and well-being for once. He would definitely tell me that you can’t be there for others if you don’t take care of yourself. He would also find few products for hair or skin in my medicine cabinet.
Ted Allen would have an easier time with the food situation, since I am fairly comfortable in the kitchen, but would find a major roadblock with the wine, one of his specialties, since observant Mormons don’t drink alcohol.
Then, finally, there is Jai Rodriguez, who would ask me about my marriage and my relationship with my wife. I would tell him that it has been stressful on our relationship since I came out as an ally.
When the story broke that a sitting bishop had flown from Illinois to Utah to call for straight members to do more to reach out to LGBT individuals in and out of the church, the two major newspapers in Utah saw the talk in radically different ways, which created controversy. The reaction continued to be mixed as the story moved to talk radio. Mormons of the more conservative variety called for me to be excommunicated. There was one extremist blog even wishing “apostates could be executed” juxtaposed with my name, my wife’s name, our home address and work address for all to see as well as calling for “blood atonement,” which is primitive Mormon talk for execution.
My coworkers advised me to file a police report and the blog was taken down soon thereafter. The trauma of that experience though has not been easy on my wife or our marriage. I think Jai would recognize that attention needs to be paid to my wife, whom I love deeply, that we should allow our 20-year marriage time, and space to heal, and that it's OK to time away from my LGBT advocacy work to focus on her. I think he would tell me that it is time to replace the lost diamond in her wedding ring.
The “Fab 5” would certainly have their work cut out for them if they came to my home, and I’m sure they would do an amazing job at doing a “make better.” But what I would thank them for most of all is for helping me have a change of heart. That gift is priceless.
After watching their show, I no longer saw the LGBT community as a nameless, faceless entity that I knew little about. I felt spiritually prompted and began to do my long-overdue homework and research and learn all I could about LGBT issues. For me it became a powerful spiritual experience to read books and blogs about the lives of my LGBT sisters and brothers and it caused me to reach out and to try to understand more and more. I was sad and quite frankly embarrassed at how little I knew or understood. When I heard last summer of three separate violent attacks on gay men in Utah, I could no longer shake my head and say “how awful.” I could no longer be silent. I had to speak up and say this is not OK, and we must change things. It is not OK that so many of our LGBT youth end up taking their own lives or end up homeless because of rejection from their families and community. So I came out of the closet as an ally and spoke to an LGBT group in Salt Lake City and apologized and expressed my desire to change and invited others to do the same.
If I could, I would want to thank those five fabulous gay men for getting me started and finally seeing the LGBT community through different eyes, for coming into my home through their show and helping me realize that we are all not that different from one another and we truly should treat one another as God intended — as neighbors and friends. I know the Fab 5 would have treated me that way, and now it is up to me to do the same for our LGBT sisters and brothers.
Mormons say that we try to live by the Golden Rule as Jesus Christ taught us, but now it is time to actually practice it, and I knew that I was ready to do my part thanks in large measure to them, whom I call friends though they probably will never know who I am. They have all gone their separate ways nowm since their show ended several years before I even started watching itm and they have each become very successful since that time. I am so happy for them. They deserve it. Just as much as they would have been supportive of my marriage and family, I would want them to know that I am now equally supportive of them and theirs. Though they have gone their separate ways, I still hope and pray for one day a reunion show and perhaps by some miracle they might come visit a Mormon and former bishop’s home for me to say thank you for doing a “make better” on me. I’m sorry I’m late. But better late than never.
KEVIN KLOOSTERMAN is a former Mormon bishop.