Is This the Mormon Ambassador to LGBT People?
It’s well known that there are some tensions between LGBT people
and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the
Mormon Church. And that the church’s activism for passage of Proposition 8, the
voter-approved measure that repealed marriage equality in California in 2008,
exacerbated those tensions.
But it’s also true that many LGBT people remain faithful
Mormons — and some of them have risen to leadership positions in the church,
like Mitch Mayne, who says that being both gay and Mormon are “embedded into my
Mayne was recently named executive secretary of the Bay Ward
(similar to a parish) of the LDS Church in San Francisco. The position, he
said, essentially makes him “chief of staff” to the ward’s bishop, Don
Fletcher. “Any time there is an appointment to be made with the bishop,
internally or externally, it goes through me — a marriage, a baptism, a
divorce,” Mayne explains. “I interact with the folks of the ward on a very,
very regular basis. I also, as a member of his staff, participate in
executive-level congregation decisions.”
Those are Mayne’s formal duties, but his informal ones
include helping to build bridges between Mormons and LGBT people — and he says
he was chosen for his position “not despite the fact that I’m gay but because
Mayne, who has a day job in corporate communications —
Mormon clergy and staff are volunteers — spoke with The Advocate about having “a foot in both worlds,” the Mormon
world and the gay one.
Before being named to your position in the Bay Ward, you had been very active
in the Oakland Ward.
Mitch Mayne: I’ve
been in the Oakland Ward for about a decade. I started attending Oakland right
after I graduated Stanford. In about 2009 the Oakland Stake [a larger
institution that includes several wards] began to host a series of meetings
geared toward helping mend the damage caused by Proposition 8. The aim of these
meetings was to begin to heal that rift between the Mormon community and the
gay community. I’ve been part of those meetings, very active and very outspoken
about being an openly gay Mormon.
I was asked to come to a meeting in San Francisco by the San
Francisco Stake presidency. The focus of that meeting was, hey, Oakland, you’ve
been doing a really great job over there of building unity. And here we are in
San Francisco and we want to be that way too. At that meeting I met Don
Fletcher, who was in the stake presidency. Don and I worked really closely
together on how we might replicate in San Francisco what we’d done in Oakland.
Then Don was named bishop of the Bay Ward and he wanted me to serve with him,
not despite the fact that I’m gay but because I’m gay. My leadership sees this
as an opportunity to begin to mend that fence, genuinely, and with someone who
understands both worlds, who has a foot in the two worlds that a lot of people
don’t see as ever intersecting.
You were brought up in the Mormon Church?
My parents converted when I was relatively young. I was
baptized when I was 8, which is traditional in the Mormon faith. My parents got
divorced and fell away from the church, but a seed had been planted. In my mid
20s I returned to it of my own volition, knowing full well that I was gay and
knowing full well what the Mormon faith teaches about gays and lesbians and
that someday I would somehow have to integrate how I saw myself and my faith
and how I understand my orientation.
Was there an internal struggle you went through as far as
your relationship with the church? And also with being gay?
I always knew I was gay. Even before I had the vocabulary to
be able to tell you what I felt, I felt it. When I was in first grade one of my
favorite things to do was to run home from school as quickly as I could and
watch reruns of Star Trek — I had a huge
crush on Captain Kirk. And of course I loved Lieutenant Uhura too, ’cause she
was hot, man! I never really did the whole formal coming-out thing. It was just
a matter of passing the word along as the years went on.
Did I have a “come to Jesus” moment when I had to figure
things out? I did. I had a college boyfriend at Stanford and it was so
difficult trying to come to terms with being an active Mormon and also being
gay. For a while I tried to live as a Mormon without being gay, and I was not
successful. Then for a while I tried to live as a gay man without being a
Mormon, and that was equally unsuccessful for me. Both of them were like trying
to hold a beach ball under water —you can do it for a little bit of time, but
pretty soon that beach ball’s going to spring out and it might hit somebody in
the face. So both of these key cornerstones of my identity, I can’t live
without them. They’re both embedded into my spiritual DNA. I came to a point
where I realized that no one has the right to define my relationship with my
savior other than me. The church is a great guidepost, and Mormonism is my home
where I found my savior and it is my first language when it comes to
communicating with him and him with me. And likewise the gay community is by
and large where I belong — I am emotionally and intimately attracted to other
men. Neither of those communities have the right to determine what my
relationship with my savior is. That belongs to me. No one’s opinion of me
matters more than my own and my savior’s.
How did you feel when members of your church were pouring
money into the campaign to pass Prop. 8?
Prop. 8 was an extremely difficult time for many Mormons,
not just here in the Bay Area. I hear stories from what I would call
traditional Utah Mormons, straight people, my own sister and her family, who
really had a challenge getting behind that, and a lot of them didn’t. For me
what was the most difficult was being authentic, being my genuine self, staying
true to who I know myself to be while watching people in the faith that I love,
and people I love, advocate for something that would keep me from marrying
someone else that I love. It seemed so counterintuitive from what I understand
the gospel of Christ to be about. I don’t think the gospel of Christ is about
law, it’s not about legal challenges, it’s not about public policy, and that
was hard for me to bear.
Many of the major Christian denominations have some
distance to go regarding gay people. Do you see the Mormon Church at some point
embracing the equality of gay people?
I don’t speak for the church, but I can share my own
experience and my own hope in that regard. Our policy on gays and lesbians is
relatively clear, but it has also changed over the course of the years. Just a
year or so ago, in the handbook of instructions that we give to stake
leadership, we removed the language that says that homosexuality is something
that should be referred to a therapist. It is no longer viewed as an illness,
and now we just encourage people to live a life of celibacy and stay within the
Commandments. So there are steps being made toward progress, and I think that’s
a very good thing. The other thing we really bank on in the Mormon Church that
I think makes us different from other faiths is we really believe that the
gospel of our savior is alive. It’s a living, breathing entity. We have a
little creed we call the articles of faith, and in the ninth article of faith
it actually states that God has revealed a lot of great things about his
kingdom and he’s going to reveal more. Will this be one thing that falls into the
category that he reveals more on? I sure hope so.
Are you able to be an advocate for gay equality within
the church, or is it more that you try to serve as a good example of how one
can be gay and Mormon?
I think my real opportunity here is not only to build
outreach to gays and lesbians as a Mormon and but also to build outreach to the
Mormons as a gay man. My great opportunity is talking to these straight Mormon
families in Utah or Idaho or Wyoming, who have really felt that they haven’t
had permission to think differently about this but have been troubled by it. By
me putting a human face on this and saying I have great faith in my savior and
I love my church and I do understand what our policy is today, but it doesn’t
mean that I still don’t love it. So being able to allow those people to begin
to ask those questions differently — is that an advocate? I don’t know. I think
it’s definitely an opportunity to effect cultural change. Another key point to
make here is that this isn’t just the Mitch Mayne show. I’m being asked to do
this by fairly senior leadership in the church who see this as the same
opportunity that I see it as, a chance to soften hearts, to increase
understanding, to open dialogue, to be more supportive of one another as equals
in the eyes of our father. I’m just the quarterback who gets to execute; my
senior leadership, they’re writing the plays, they direct the game — I’m just
the feet on the ground.
What kind of reaction have you received over your years
of being both an active and faithful Mormon and an openly gay man?
I think I’m sort of a living example of the kind of change
that we not only want to see in the church but we are seeing in the church in
small pockets. I’ve come out to bishops and stake presidents no less than three
times in my career as a Mormon. All three times I have been unceremoniously
shoved back into the closet. And gosh, now here I am as a gay man who’s not
only out and open and public about it but being called into a senior priesthood
leadership position because I’m gay. That’s progress. The reactions that I’m
getting from the Mormon community I’d say are 85% to 90% positive. And it’s
coming not just from gay Mormons who are either still in the church or out of
the church, but it’s coming from straight people. What this says to me not only
is our community ready for this — they desire it. This is a cultural shift and
a conversation that people want to have.
What sort of reaction do you get from other gay people?
There may be people who ridicule your faith.
I do run across a little of that, and I have had those
difficult conversations. The criticism, regardless of the source, is not about
me. The criticism is about the pain around this issue. Interestingly, though
most of my gay friends are very supportive. They feel like they’re actually
learning a lot. I was at a party last weekend and a friend of mine said, “I had
no idea that Mormons were really like this. I think it’s so cool what you’re
doing. I feel like I really understand Mormons now.” It gives me goose bumps,
man, I’m so humbled.
Women cannot hold clergy positions within Mormonism. Do
your foresee that there would be additional progress toward equality for women
in the church?
I don’t know the answer to that, but it is, like our ninth
article of faith states, a lot more is going to be revealed. The church has
changed over its history. Our faith is very much alive and it does grow and it
does change. The admission of African-Americans into the priesthood [in 1978]
for example is a great benchmark of that.
You broke up with a partner about a year ago, for reasons
unrelated to your religion. Would you be allowed to serve in your executive
secretary capacity if you got into another relationship?
No one from the Mormon community told me I had to leave him.
No one said in order to maintain your relationship with this church you must
not be with a man. Which I think is a great thing. But I was put into this role
exactly as any heterosexual single man would be and I am committed to uphold
the exact standards of chastity any single male heterosexual would, and I think
both of those things are equal and fair. If I were to enter a relationship, I
would have to be honest with my leadership and what would happen, I’m not sure.
I think I probably would step down. We’ve come a way, but we haven’t come all
A heterosexual single man who fell in love with a woman
would have the option to marry, and you do not.
I have not agreed to a life of celibacy. My commitment is to
uphold the identical standards we ask of any single male in a leadership role.
And given that I just ended a relationship, I don’t get to really know what the
future holds for me…
You might not be in that much of a hurry to be in another
I don’t want to leave people with the impression that I am
changing my orientation to be Mormon. Or that I am changing my faith to be gay.
Neither of those things is true. I am a gay man, and gay men are emotionally
and intimately attracted to other men. That has not changed, and it won’t change.
And likewise, part and parcel of being Mormon is I’ve always strived to live my
life in accordance with what I understand my savior’s will for me to be, and
that hasn’t changed either. Both of these things are just embedded into my
What do you see in your future?
If you would have told me a year ago I’d be doing this, I
would have laughed at you. My experience with being gay and being Mormon has
been at times glorious and at times horribly painful. With this position I have
the unique opportunity to take my own pain and my own suffering and make things
a little bit better for other people so they don’t have to go through it. How
can I be a disciple of my savior and not do that? So whatever happens to me
individually, whether it is taking an additional leadership role in the church
or having something happen in my romantic career, I don’t get to know, but
whatever it will be, I can guarantee you that I will always find a way to serve
my Mormon fellows as well as my gay fellows.
I’ll close with something lighthearted. Have you seen The
Book of Mormon?
I travel to New York at least monthly for my
professional job and I have never been able to get tickets to it, but I have
seen some stuff on YouTube about it and I think it’s absolutely fantastic. I
think that any time we have the ability to chuckle at ourselves, our savior
smiles too. It’s a great way to show the rest of the world that maybe Mormonism
isn’t this big serious scary thing that everybody thinks it is. I don’t think
we could have asked for better public relations.