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Mormons on a

Mormons on a


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the most powerful forces working to defeat gay equality. And openly gay and lesbian Mormons are the most powerful force working to change their church

Struggling with his gay sexual orientation several years ago, Aaron Cloward sought help from the leaders of his local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He didn't get any. "The last [Mormon] bishop I talked to said, 'You are rejecting Christ. You are on the pathway to hell,' " says Cloward. "The way that makes you feel--" He considered suicide. "I walked home and got my boxes of Benadryl," remembers Cloward, now a 28-year-old surgical technician who lives in Salt Lake City. "Fortunately I had the presence of mind to call my mom. She came over and held me as I cried myself to sleep. It made me take a step back and look at the church with a critical eye." Cloward, who served on a church mission to Southern California, quickly left behind the church and its antigay doctrine, which says that its followers can go forward in the religion only if they do not act on their same-sex attraction. He started a support group in Salt Lake City called Gay LDS Young Adults in the hope of helping other gay and lesbian Mormons find comfort and acceptance as they struggle with the church's teachings and long-held traditions. Last year, Cloward stood on a downtown Salt Lake City street corner during Utah's battle over a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He handed out fliers and carried picket signs urging passersby to vote contrary to the church and defeat the amendment. "People will say, 'No, no, the church doesn't tell me how to vote,' " says Cloward. "But I will say that in church I did hear the message: 'These are the values we stand for. Vote accordingly.' " What has become clear to Cloward and tens of thousands of other GLBT Mormons is the harsh fact that although they may have left the church, the church won't stop meddling in their lives. While the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention have grabbed the most headlines with calls to "save traditional marriage," the Mormon Church has quietly become one of the most powerful forces opposing any changes that offer gays and lesbians equality under the law. Not only does it lean heavily on its members to deny their homosexuality and to vote for candidates and ballot measures opposing equality, it's thought to be spending millions of dollars to support antigay initiatives and politicians. The church becomes more powerful every year. With about 5.5 million members in the United States and nearly 12 million worldwide, the Mormon Church is one of the world's fastest-growing denominations--and one of the wealthiest. Some estimates put its net worth at close to $30 billion, although church leaders dispute that figure. The LDS Church is a formidable opponent of gay equality. It's also quite a force to reckon with if you're young and queer and growing up Mormon. The lives of many gay and lesbian Mormons indeed reflect the emotional messiness portrayed in the 2003 indie movie Latter Days. In that film, 19-year-old Aaron "Elder" Davis is sent to Southern California--as was Cloward--on a proselytizing mission, a service expected of all young male (and some female) Mormons. On his own for the first time, Aaron begins to realize he's gay and falls in love with a hunky West Hollywood gay man named Christian. After they spend one night together, Aaron freaks out and flees home to his aghast family, including an LDS-bishop father who recommends "reparative therapy" for his wayward son. "God hates homos," one of the other missionaries declares. When John Hales, 33, of Manti, Utah, served as a missionary in Winnipeg, Canada, in the early 1990s, he had already been struggling with his same-sex attractions for some time. "I thought it was a spiritual weakness," he says. I thought, I can overcome this as soon as I find the right woman." He worked hard to conquer his "weakness" and planned to devote his life and career to teaching church ways. "When I realized that if I did marry, I wouldn't be able to fulfill a woman's needs emotionally, that's when I made the decision to come out," he says. "It was one thing to sacrifice my own desires or happiness, but I realized it wouldn't be fair to a mate." Hales, now a journalist, was born into the church, his family's ancestry dating back to hard-living pioneer times and the dawn of the Latter-day Saints. Founded by Joseph Smith in upstate New York in 1830, the early LDS Church faced prejudice and persecution. Its founder and members fled westward, first to Illinois, where Smith was killed by vigilantes, then to the Utah Territory under the leadership of Brigham Young. It was a disciplined mass migration by wagon, handcart, and horseback, with the adherents eventually taking refuge in the region on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. The long journey, the hard times, and the struggle produced a membership proud of its pioneer heritage. "I have relatives who came across the plains," says lesbian Mormon Sara Jordan, 42, a writer and documentary filmmaker from Salt Lake City. "So it's in my DNA. I have direct ancestry to immigrants who came from England and the Nordic region to join the church soon after the church was established." Held together by filial bonds and the largest possible families--something made easier to produce by the church's early embrace of polygamy, a practice officially abandoned in 1890 but still practiced by many breakaway LDS sects--the church's emphasis on strong families is its core value. "It's a wonderful world to grow up in," says gay actor Steven Fales, 34, a Salt Lake City native. "It is not just a religion. It is a worldview, a world community, a family."Cloward also claims "direct pioneer ancestry." He grew up in Mount Pleasant, the geographic center of Utah, population 2,000. Both he and Fales knew at an early age they'd serve as missionaries. "From the earliest age you are indoctrinated," Fales says. "You grow up saving for your mission, putting pennies in a jar." To become missionaries, Mormon youths must prove their worthiness and undergo intensive studies in language and scripture, both the Judeo-Christian Bible and the church's own Book of Mormon. From the central training center--the U.S. facility is in Provo, Utah--young Mormons embark on an unpaid two-year term of service. Some 60,000 missionaries serve throughout the world, putting in long, regimented days calling on prospective converts. Missionaries travel and live in same-sex groups of two to four, but still they remain isolated--young men and women in unfamiliar locations, separated from friends and family, calling home just twice a year, on Mother's Day and Christmas. "You can't help but experience miracles," says Nate Currey, who served two years as a missionary in Vilnius, Lithuania. Currey, who grew up in Denver, was a teenage convert to the LDS Church, attracted to the spirituality, the structure, and the fellowship. He struggled through adolescence and young adulthood to understand and adhere to the church's "love the sinner, hate the sin" approach to homosexuality. "I thought if I was out there [on my mission] doing my best, doing what God expected me to do, being obedient and following the rules, that this attraction would go away," he says. "But I saw eventually that it wouldn't." Currey had his first gay experience while on his mission. "It's not something that I'm proud of," he says. "That's not the reason that I was there, and it is probably one of the true regrets that I have in my life." Church authorities found out. Just weeks after Currey completed his missionary work and enrolled at the LDS-operated Brigham Young University, he was called before a panel of 16 church leaders who inquired in explicit detail about his homosexual activity--with whom and how many times. "I was emotionally drained--fried," he says about the experience. Ousted from the church, Currey went home to Denver to deliver his parents a triple whammy: "I've been kicked out of the church, I withdrew from school, and, by the way, I'm gay." It was more traumatic for him than for his family, Currey says: For a while he couldn't pass a church without breaking into tears. As Fales puts it, Currey had "lost his smile"--his optimistic, Osmond-like LDS outlook on life. But Currey, now 26, found a new smile. He got married last May--but the union took place at Toronto City Hall, not in an LDS temple, and he married a Mormon man, not a Mormon woman. "We just did it with a justice of the peace," says Currey, who lives with his partner in a college town in northern Utah. "Back here we had a reception--my family, his family. You could feel the love. And I knew then I could be happy and have a fulfilling life in Logan, Utah." Currey still cherishes his Mormon identity. He expresses respect for the church, a love for its people, a belief in its God. "It's been good for me to come back to the state where I was excommunicated, to come back to succeed, to be happy, to find a partner and have a good life--a super life," he says. The LDS Church projects a powerful image of comfort, family, and mutual support--it's one of the chief selling points young missionaries use to win recruits to the Mormon lifestyle. A pro-LDS Web site,, promotes the church's belief in a family-centered afterlife with the slogan "Families Can Be Together Forever!" With so much riding on a warm and loving public perception, it's easy to see why the church is hesitant to trumpet its rabid opposition to equality for gays and lesbians. Just as a panel of elders--led by his own furiously angry father--confronts Aaron in an atmosphere of secrecy in Latter Days, the church itself keeps its antigay activism largely under wraps. While other religions have leaders who constantly preach against gay equality and warn of damnation and social collapse if they're opposed--say, the Reverend Jerry Falwell or Pope John Paul II--the Church of Jesus Christ has 94-year-old president Gordon B. Hinckley. Also known as the church's chief "prophet, seer, and revelator," since receiving messages directly from God is part of his job description, Hinckley is an unassuming, grandfatherly figure who makes the occasional appearance on such shows as CNN's Larry King Live to try to gently dispel stereotypes about the Mormon faith. "You will not see Mormon [Church] leaders go in front of legislators," says Olin Thomas, executive director of Affirmation, a growing international network of gay and lesbian Mormons. "But they will suggest members act individually. It's somewhat low-key." Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney--who is doing everything he can to stop his state's legal same-sex marriages and even opposes civil unions--rarely discusses the fact that he is a member of the LDS Church. Ditto Utah's powerful U.S. senator Orrin Hatch. Low-key action doesn't yield low returns. It only takes a gentle reminder--a statement from LDS headquarters, a few words at Sunday service, a church bulletin--criticizing same-sex marriage to yield Election Day votes and big money for antigay groups. Excommunicated Mormon and LDS scholar D. Michael Quinn of Los Angeles has likened church members following LDS leaders' instructions to an army of ants taking orders from above. "The organizing power of the church is kind of like the military, and it has political clout far in excess of its actual size," Quinn says. The church began spending money to fight gay marriage in the 1990s, when Hawaii was expected to become the first state to legally wed same-sex couples. In 1998 the church invested an estimated $600,000 in the campaign to ban same-sex marriage in Hawaii as well as $500,000 in Alaska, the site of another major marriage dispute. "They were right up there as one of the leading funders and leading instigators of antigay attacks in Hawaii. And then there was California," says Evan Wolfson, the founder of Freedom to Marry and, when he was with Lambda Legal, an attorney in the Hawaii lawsuit that sparked a national dialogue on marriage. By the end of 2006 as many as 15 states--including New Mexico, Arizona, Alabama, Iowa, Kansas, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Tennessee, and of course Massachusetts--are expected to debate constitutional amendments outlawing same-sex marriage. LDS spokeswoman Kim Farah tells The Advocate, "There are no efforts under way for or against these proposed amendments" and that the church was not actively involved in the 2004 ballot initiatives outlawing same-sex marriage that passed in 11 states in November. That's not strictly true. In the midst of the state ballot battles, the office of the LDS First Presidency--Hinckley's office, charged with relating God's own messages--issued a brief statement in July 2004 about President Bush's push for an antigay federal amendment: "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints favors a constitutional amendment preserving marriage as the lawful union of a man and a woman." Three months later, on October 19, the church issued another statement: "As a doctrinal principle, based on sacred scripture, we affirm that marriage between a man and a woman is essential to the Creator's plan for the eternal destiny of his children. The powers of procreation are to be exercised only between a man and a woman lawfully wedded as husband and wife. Any other sexual relations, including those between persons of the same gender, undermine the divinely created institution of the family." Less than a month later, voters in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Utah approved constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. "The church is an incredibly private organization. There's no annual report. You'll never know how much money they have or where it is going," says Michael Mitchell, executive director of Equality Utah, a gay rights group. "But the church came out with the statement and the voters responded." Gay rights advocates in the new battleground states who are familiar with the church's tactics anticipate that LDS leaders will get involved in their fights--perhaps, as in 2004, late and without warning. "We know they have been involved in initiatives in other states and that they tend to get involved later in the game," says Steve May, a former state lawmaker and cochair of the Arizona Human Rights Fund. May is a former LDS Church member, whom the Army Reserves tried to expel because he's gay. Arizona lies in the Mormon Belt, which stretches across the vast American West from the Colorado Rockies to the Pacific Ocean, reaching up into the Canadian prairie provinces and down into Mexico. It's in this belt --especially Utah, the big buckle--that Mormons are most influential in U.S. politics. "The church has significant numbers there," says Affirmation's Thomas. "They can sway a close election." The church's strategy and motivation in fighting against gay and lesbian equality appears to be modeled on its campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, the passage of which the church said would result in "encouragement of those who seek a unisex society, an increase in the practice of homosexual and lesbian activities, and other concepts which could alter the natural, God-given relationship of men and women."

The church employed an effective top-down chain of command in that battle, from headquarters to church leaders in 20 states, and that remains the approach in the LDS fight to support antigay discrimination, says Mormon scholar Quinn. "The organizing power of the church is such that it can produce incredible numbers in states, even where it only has 1% or so of the population." Even where its voters are far outnumbered, the church may still exercise the power of the purse. During the 2000 fight over Proposition 22, the ballot measure to outlaw same-sex marriage in California, church leaders urged members to donate money and volunteer. A letter from one church leader, Douglas L. Callister, outlined the LDS strategy: Participation was voluntary, he wrote, but "this is a moral issue, rather than political." Solicitation of funds, he added, should begin with more affluent members, and "many of these members will be asked to provide telephone and other grassroots efforts near election time." Timothy Cavanaugh, development director for Equality California, served as finance director in the unsuccessful campaign to defeat Proposition 22. He recalls, "On Sundays, in church bulletins and publications, it was a high priority to get Mormons to work to ensure that the ballot initiative passed. It was preached from the pulpit. And there were huge amounts of money." The considerable LDS effort on Proposition 22 prompted gay state legislator Mark Leno of San Francisco to call for an investigation into the church's tax-exempt status with the IRS. It also proved so painful for one gay Mormon that he committed suicide. Stuart Matis, 32, shot himself in a walkway behind an LDS church building, leaving a suicide note saying, "I am now free. I am no longer in pain and I no longer hate myself. As it turns out, God never intended for me to be straight. Perhaps my death might be the catalyst for some good." Official church policy on homosexuality is best expressed by President Hinckley, who at a General Conference of the church in 1998 said, "People inquire about our position on those who consider themselves so-called gays and lesbians. My response is that we love them as sons and daughters of God. They may have certain inclinations which are powerful and which may be difficult to control.... If they do not act upon these inclinations, then they can go forward as do all other members of the church. If they violate the law of chastity and the moral standards of the church, then they are subject to the discipline of the church, just as others are." Hinckley did not go on to explain that God's punishment for a sin as grievous as homosexuality would likely be fiery damnation for all eternity. That would not have been grandfatherly. To avoid exile from the mother church on earth and hellfire in the afterlife, many gay Mormons have been encouraged by their church to undergo various forms of "ex-gay" therapy. Some join the LDS-backed Evergreen International, a program that encourages people to "turn away" from homosexuality; some undergo shock treatments. Such therapy did not work for Steven Fales. He struggled with being gay throughout a two-year mission to Portugal, graduation from BYU, marriage to a Mormon woman, and fathering two kids. In the end, he got divorced, was excommunicated, and, he says, "threw God out" of his life. He turned briefly to a life of prostitution and drugs, then to theater, writing, and performing an autobiographical one-man show titled Confessions of a Mormon Boy. A downward spiral after coming out is not unusual. Sudden separation from the regimented and pervasive support structure the church's focus on the family encourages can leave gay and lesbian Mormons feeling intense isolation and shame. Many have committed suicide rather than face life outside the church. To counteract that emotional trauma, gay and lesbian Mormons have formed several pro-gay support groups, including Cloward's Gay LDS Young Adults in Salt Lake City, Family Fellowship, and Affirmation, which has chapters throughout the country. Some in these groups seek to make peace with the church. Some seek to change the church. Many seek both. "My heritage is a vital part of me," says writer and filmmaker Jordan. "I embrace that. But it's not all of who I am. As I process what going back to church means, I know that church culture is such that, as a lesbian, I would have to leave an essential part of who I am at the door. And I won't." Still, she adds, "I don't believe that the Christ that I have come to know and love would ask me to make that choice." Affirmation leader Thomas is optimistic about the church's evolution. "The Mormon Church has a long history of being a generation behind society," Thomas says. "Really, at this point, no mainstream church is embracing gays. And the Mormon Church will be behind the mainstream churches, just as it was on the race issue. It will wait for the dust to settle." Utah activist Mitchell sees signs that some voters are wriggling out from under the church's thumb. He points out that the state's 2004 constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage received about 66% of the vote--not as low as the 58% in Oregon and the 59% in Michigan, but not as high as the 86% in Mississippi. "That's surprising," he says. "Everyone assumed we would lose by an 80-20 spread. But we ran a good campaign. We got our Mormon attorney general to come out against the amendment. So, while the church has been in the way, there is change." The most important place to fight for change may be at the very the heart of Mormonism: within each family. Aaron Cloward's boyfriend of several years, Stephen Shroy, started attending LDS services at age 6, in Central Point, Ore., and stopped when he came out three years ago. "My family is very LDS," he says. "So it's still hard for my parents--though it has gotten a lot better. From their point of view, I've made choices that preclude me from being with them through all eternity. I used to very strongly believe that. Now I don't believe that God would keep a family apart." Cloward has had a somewhat easier time. "Most [of my family] are no longer active in the church for their own various reasons," he says, adding that his mother is a lesbian and that he, in fact, had encouraged her to change her sexuality. "I thought being gay was a horrible spiritual problem, and I thought I needed to change my orientation," Cloward says. "So I went through the Mormon ministry for reparative therapy and reorientation [and] I was also trying to get [my mother] to change her orientation. Eventually, though, as I finally came to accept myself, I came out to her and barely got the words out before a river of tears came and I bawled like a baby." For some younger Mormons, coming out does not mean abandoning their heritage. Brent Brazelton, a 21-year-old English major at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, did missionary work in Taiwan for nine months. But he cut his service short, returning home with a tremendous sense of shame but also relief. "I realized I was no less gay than when I left," he says. "I had come to terms with it and went home early." His mission president, who "threatened fire and brimstone," was displeased, but Brazelton has been embraced by his family. After attending church for several months after returning from Taiwan, Brazelton became inactive, returning to services only on holidays, if at all. Nevertheless, he says, "I'm culturally a Mormon. That means you don't drink, you don't smoke, and you joke about Jell-O. I still live the lifestyle, aside from my boyfriend."

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