Helping LGBTQ/SSA churchgoers feel welcome in an LDS environment

0
78

If you’re a straight member of the LDS Church, slip off your shoes for a minute and step into someone else’s. Imagine that you identify as same-sex attracted, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.

Here’s what that might look like. You came out publicly a few days ago, and you initially feel empowered. You’ve received an outpouring of support online and within the LGBTQ community. You still cling to your testimony of the LDS Church. You remain a worthy temple-recommend holder. You’ve mustered the courage to step into hazy territory: reconciling being same-sex attracted/LGBTQ with your faith in the LDS gospel.

Dan Bunker (second from the left) is an openly gay BYU student. Here he is pictured with his siblings. (Samantha Gannaway)
Dan Bunker (second from the left) is an openly gay BYU student who felt socially ostracized at church when he came out. Here he is pictured with his siblings, who he says are a great support. (Samantha Gannaway)

You hope that fellow Church members will show you love. But then you attend sacrament meeting at BYU for the first time after making your announcement.

Your peers meet your presence with loaded glances and a lack of formal acknowledgment. As you attend Sunday school, most people avoid you, and no one dares speak to you about coming out. No one dares speak to you about anything.

Should you be surprised?  Probably not. BYU ranks as the fourth most LGBT-unfriendly university in the country, according to the Princeton Review. And the impacts might cause concern. Seventy-four percent of LGBT BYU students have suicidal ideation, and 24 percent attempt suicide, according to a survey of 100 LGBT students conducted by the Understanding Same Gender Attraction group (USGA). This club, unaffiliated with the university, is filled with BYU students who identify as LGBTQ. The group averages 80 people per meeting every week.

Forget about your stance on LGBTQ/SSA issues. Whether you are a supporter or non-supporter of specific LGBTQ/SSA topics, how can you treat other people with kindness?

Members of USGA and influential individuals in the Mormon LGBTQ/SSA sphere shared suggestions on how to show sensitivity and support to the LGBTQ/SSA members in an LDS community:

1. Review the Church’s statement.

The LDS Church emphasizes a need for loving, understanding and reaching out to gay and lesbian members.

“The experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people,” says the LDS Church’s website mormonsandgays.org. “The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is. Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them. With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”

2. Assess your perspective.

Mitch Mayne, an openly gay Mormon, served in an LDS bishopric for two and a half years. Mayne said his stake wanted to reach out to the LGBTQ/SSA community, and calling an openly gay man to a bishopric certainly helped the cause.

“Like any heterosexual man, I was interviewed and found worthy through the identical process we ask of our straight members in callings,” Mayne said.

He received an honorable release when the rest of the bishopric dissolved. Mayne said he holds a current temple recommend. Members of the Mormon LGBTQ/SSA community look to Mayne’s blog and website for support.

In Nov. 2010, Mayne published a post on his blog, seeking to alter people’s perspectives on LGBTQ/SSA issues. Mayne emphasized that outlooks involving “pity,” “tolerance” and “acceptance” cloak skewed perspectives:

“I don’t want pity. To pity me is to make me a victim. I want understanding. To understand me, is to love me as an equal.

I don’t want tolerance. If I am tolerated, I am disliked or feared in some way. I want respect as a fellow striving child of God—an equal in His eyes.

I don’t want acceptance. To accept me is to graciously grant me the favor of your company. To accept me is to marginalize me with the assumption that I am less than you. I am your peer. I am neither above you nor below you.”

3. Don’t make it a point to avoid the topic, or the person, for that matter.

Dan Bunker, a BYU student and the USGA Faith Committee chair, came out as gay on social media on Nov. 4, 2013. His experience strikes parallels with the hypothetical scenario described in the first portion of this article. Immediately following his coming out, he felt showered with support. Every few minutes, his phone lit up with an encouraging text, Facebook message or email from a friend or family member.

“The outpouring of love and support was a tidal wave that lasted the entire week,” Bunker said. “I couldn’t see through my tears of relief well enough to write my programming code for school or work projects.”

But then Sunday rolled around. In ward council, he noticed one person particularly avoided contact with him.

“I didn’t think anything of it,” Bunker said. “I thought, ‘Maybe she’s having a bad day; after all, we had joked around and talked quite a bit before.” But after the meeting she quickly shuffled off. Every time they crossed paths during the day, she checked her phone, switched sides of the hallway or struck up a conversation with anyone standing nearby. Bunker felt ignored. This peer’s avoidance was obvious.

Bunker headed to sacrament meeting, where one friend came up to him and said she was “here for him,” and another embraced him and said, “So brave.” These interactions left him feeling warm and welcome.

“But apart from these two, nobody else mentioned a thing, not even those who had interacted with my social media post,” Bunker said. “I guess, in those people’s minds, church wasn’t the place to discuss such a thing.”

This didn’t sit well with Bunker. He expects his peers to internalize and act on the LDS Church’s statement on same-sex attraction.

“The Church has made it clear that attraction is not a sin, but if you make it a point to avoid talking about it, it sure feels like one,” Bunker said.

4. Choose your words carefully.

Dr. Roni Jo Draper, a BYU professor of teacher education, gave a lecture at a USGA meeting at the Provo library in October. The lecture described ways to make LDS wards and communities queer/SSA-friendly.

Draper suggested that people watch their words. Whether jabs at the LGBTQ/SSA community are made with malicious intent or not is irrelevant.

“Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, I didn’t mean to hurt,’ Draper said. “But if I poke you with a stick, will it hurt less than if I said, ‘I totally didn’t mean to poke you’?”

Jokes aren’t the only source of offense. Become familiar with LGBTQ vocabulary to avoid using offensive terminology. Know that different individuals prefer different titles (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer, to name a few). Try not to lump all members of the LGBTQ community in one category in your mind. People are individuals with their own situations. Others should respect the titles they’ve chosen and respect their individuality.

Words like “struggling” and “suffering” can poke at sore spots as well. It’s best for people not to tell someone they’re “sorry they’re suffering from/struggling with” same-sex attraction. Doing so shows an assumption that they’re in a certain stage of reconciliation.

Mitch Mayne speaks at a press conference on LGBT issues in front of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. (San Francisco Chronicle)
Mitch Mayne speaks at a press conference on LGBT issues in front of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. (San Francisco Chronicle)

“In my case, I went through stages of denial, coming out to myself, coming out to friends, family and publicly,” Bunker said about his process of coming out. “These stages included struggling with same-gender attraction, dealing with same-gender attraction, enduring same-gender attraction, being gay and now thriving instead of just enduring being gay.”

Although “struggling” was a part of Bunker’s process, the casual observer can’t safely assume it’s the stage any particular person is in right now. “Now I’m in a much better place,” Bunker said.

Mayne prefers never to be labeled as “afflicted,” “suffering” or “struggling.”

“I do not have an illness that requires my soul be mended,” he said in his Nov. 2010 blog post. “I want to be recognized, like you, as a whole person, just as my Heavenly Father made me. I have suffered no affliction by His hand; I have, however, suffered affliction at the hands of others, including my brothers and sisters in the gospel.”

5. Don’t make judgments or offer unsolicited advice.

Often, it’s best to show love and understanding rather than offering unsolicited advice.

“I’m pretty sure the purpose of the gospel is to improve myself and love others,” Draper explained at her lecture. “Not to love myself and improve others.”

Because people instinctively offer advice for things they perceive to be problems, Bunker said that talking openly with others about his sexual orientation can be difficult.

“Sometimes when I do, people rationalize away my feelings, and that puts me off,” Bunker said. “Of course, if you’re my bishop and it’s your job to counsel me, that’s understandable, but it should be done with sensitivity.”

Mayne offered a few words that bring peace to minds unsettled about LGBTQ topics.

“Just because we as humans haven’t figured out how our LGBT brothers and sisters fit in our Heavenly Father’s plan doesn’t mean our Savior hasn’t known all along,” he said.