14 September 2014

Modern-day Saints

I am fortunate. No one has abandoned me because I have come out. I have supportive friends and a loving family. This isn’t necessarily the case, however, for other gay individuals who come from strong religious communities. The ugly thistles of intolerance sometimes sprout most vigorously from deeply religious soils. It is disturbing to hear of instances of mistreatment of gay youth by Mormon parents, and yet strongly encouraging to hear that many other LDS parents are forging the opposite course by loving and supporting their gay children. There are true “Saints” working in LDS communities to help young LGBT people feel supported and loved, even if support from the institutional Mormon Church seems sluggish, qualified, or insincere.

Last Sunday I attended a presentation in Berkeley, California with two of those saints – a former LDS Bishop, Bob Rees, and a Catholic professor at San Francisco State University, Caitlin Ryan. The two have collaborated on the Family Acceptance Project, a research and education initiative to help LGBT youth and families in conservative religious communities. The initiative is evidence-based, meaning that is rests on a solid foundation of research about what will truly help young gay people growing up in conservative religious homes.

Dr. Ryan has worked with the LGBT community and their families for decades, as outlined in this recent New York Times article that discusses her work and the Berkeley “fireside” I attended. Together with Dr. Rees, she works to improve the health of LGBT youth within the framework of Mormon teachings, highlighting for instance, that love and support are not anathema to Mormon doctrine. (That message seems obvious with the Mormon theological emphasis on love and family, but it is clearly a message some Mormons have not embraced with respect to LGBT individuals). More specifically, the Family Acceptance Project demonstrates that specific behaviors by parents (listening to their gay children, letting their LGBT children apply their own labels to themselves), go a long way in helping young people who are sexual orientation or gender identity minorities. With more positive support, risky and harmful behaviors by gay youth such as attempted suicide decline.

One highlight of the two hour meeting was a film about a Mormon family in southern California that went through a personal and family transformation as one of the sons in the family came out as a young teenager. Initially distressed because they couldn’t see how her newly-out son could fit in with Mormon ideals of family and fatherhood, the Mormon parents recount how they chose to love, accept and embrace their son. A preview of the film can be seen here.

Dr. Ryan leads the Family Acceptance Project, but Dr. Rees helped to bring an LDS perspective to the work. Interestingly, I have known Bob for a long time, though we did not reconnect until the Berkeley fireside. He was a faculty member and active Latter-day Saint at the university in central California where I was an undergraduate student. At the time I was a relatively new member of the Church – and gay, of course – but I was deeply in the closet about my sexual orientation. My university was very liberal and there was only a small community of active Latter-day Saints who were students on campus. I interacted with Bob somewhat in his (informal) capacity as a mentor of us LDS students and in his interfaith work in the broader community. Bob was a humanities professor (while I was an undergraduate mostly interested in the sciences), but he kindly reviewed some poems I had written at the time. Somewhere I believe I still have copies of those poems – with his encouraging remarks and suggestions handwritten next to my terrible poetry.

For me it was a missed opportunity to talk with Bob about my concerns and fears as a young gay person while I was in college. I probably didn’t know at the time that he had worked with many gay students as a bishop at UCLA prior to coming north to my university. I may not have known much about his personal transformation from holding significant homophobic views about LGBT people to being a compassionate advocate for gay individuals in the Mormon Church. To the extent that I knew of his work with gay Mormons, I was really in no position back then to try to accept my sexuality as a healthy and valued piece of the whole me.

Young LGBT Mormons today have the blessing of modern-day Saints who advocate – through word and action – on their behalf. As more and more Mormons decide to be enlightened by the research and personal journeys of these Saints like Caitlin and Bob, the LDS Church will become a better and healthier community for all. 

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