This letter was written for the benefit of LGBTQ people who are victims within one of the remaining bastions of organized homophobia in our society - religion. The context of my journey through the homophobic landscape of religion is fundamentalist Christianity and Mormonism, but this quest for freedom extends to every LGBTQ person, regardless of kindred or creed.
Last week, I met with my Stake President, a regional leader among eight Mormon congregations. At the conclusion of our meeting, I handed him this letter along with my temple recommend, a card granting exclusive access to the holiest places of worship for Latter-day Saints.
This letter, in part, documents my journey toward self-acceptance as a gay man.
As you may recall, I was not born in the covenant, but was reared from an early age in a fundamentalist Christian church. While there was some good in that tradition, there was also much fear associated with my religious upbringing. I was taught from an early age that the majority of mankind would be condemned to eternal damnation in the lake of fire. Homosexuals were at particular risk of receiving the severest of eternal punishment. By the time I began to recognize my attraction to the same sex, I had already internalized a deceptively dangerous, homophobic self-hatred. This perpetual state of self-loathing would affect my emotional well-being for years to come.
Around age ten, I began seeking a gentler faith. I discovered Mormonism, and rejoiced to learn the Latter-day Saint belief that "through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved." In the LDS view of the afterlife, I discovered three levels of glory, with the lowest level of glory described as far surpassing the greatest beauty on earth. The majority of mankind would receive one of these levels of glory. In the LDS Church, I met kind people who loved me and welcomed me into their homes, and included me in their lives.
During this period of my youth, my experience of attraction to the same sex calcified into a miserable and frightening reality. My greatest wish was to live the ideal Mormon life, but I was incredibly fearful that being gay would not avail me that opportunity. I sought, through many avenues, the cure to homosexuality. I found no cure through Mormonism, and eventually returned to my father's fundamentalist church.
As a young adult, after coming out to my father, I subjected myself to several sessions of exorcism with the purpose of cleansing me from homosexual desire. My father and members of his church were not only disgusted by homosexuality, but they were also threatened by my involvement with the LDS Church. Ironically, I experienced a disturbing session of exorcism in which an individual attempted to cast out the "demon of Moroni." Additionally, I was sent to a reparative therapist who, likewise, tried to cure me of homosexuality. These traumatic experiences affected the course of my life for years to come.
My internalization of homophobia was so entrenched that I tried on many occasions, unsuccessfully, to find a woman to marry. In retrospect, I was using these women in futile efforts to be cured of what I perceived to be a filthy disease. As you know, I eventually returned to Mormonism. While I do not regret returning to our community of faith, I must acknowledge that, in part, returning to the fold was a continuation of my neurotic quest to remove an integral part of my being.
Upon returning to the church, I found an institution that appeared to have evolved on matters pertaining to homosexuality. I discovered the Mormons and Gays website promoted by the Church, and I met many likeminded people who encouraged me on my journey toward self-acceptance. I was called into a leadership position among the single adults in the Stake, and was relieved to be affirmed by leadership, even after divulging my sexual identity. I find it beautifully ironic that I credit my return to Mormonism with being a major stepping stone toward finally achieving a measure of peace regarding my sexuality.
It was, therefore, a disheartening shock to my soul when an institutional policy revision was made to the handbook in regards to gay members of the Church and their families. Members of the Church who discover meaningful lives in monogamous partnership through marriage with an individual of the same sex are subject to church discipline. To add insult to injury, their children may not participate in meaningful ordinances until they are eighteen, at which point they must disavow their parents' marriage. Not only does this cause me great sadness, but I am convinced that this policy and subsequent ecclesiastical actions promote shame and perpetuate dysfunctional patterns of thinking and behaving.
I was further disheartened by President Russel M. Nelson's declaration on January 10th to the young adults of the church at a BYU-Hawaii devotional that this policy revision was the "will of the Lord." My sadness was intensified by Elder David A. Bednar's comment to an audience in Chile on February 23rd in response to a sincere question about homosexual members of the Church. Elder Bednar stated that there are "no homosexual members of the church."
In a 2011 General Conference address to the body of the Church, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf said that "at times we may even feel insignificant, invisible, alone or forgotten. But always remember - you matter to Him!" Do homosexual members of the Church really matter to God? How can we matter if we do not exist? For gay members of the Church, feelings of insignificance, invisibility and loneliness can be unbearable, and they can lead to dangerous and self-destructive places within sensitive minds and hearts.
I would like to clearly and compassionately respond to the Church's trajectory on LGBTQ issues:
• Modern scientific studies are abundantly clear that homosexuality is a legitimate, biological orientation. One does not choose homosexual attraction. The research is complex, but compelling.
• Rhetoric like, "there are no homosexual members of the church," is the type of rhetoric I held onto fiercely for years as I tried to rid myself of attraction to men, to the detriment of my mental health.
• Oppressive statements and policies like these have been used for decades by a variety of religious and political traditions, to the detriment of the emotional well-being of countless LGBTQ people.
• Homosexuality is not a mental health disorder, but there is strong documentation that individuals who find it impossible to reconcile their sexuality with their religion, suffer an array of mental health disorders, leading to suicidal ideation, and in some tragic instances, suicide.
President, I have great love for members of the LDS Church. Mormons are among some of the kindest and most generous people with whom I have had the good fortune of associating. I am not resigning from the Church, though at this time in my life, I choose not to be an active participant in an institution whose current policies and doctrines, on some points, demean, demoralize and marginalize.
I take to heart the Article of Faith which states that "many great and important things" will yet be revealed. May the revelation of equality for gay members of the Church come quickly! When that time comes, I will reconsider offering my time, energy, heart and other resources to the Church. Until then, I must exercise my agency and follow the counsel of my favorite Article of Faith, seeking to worship God according to the dictates of my own conscience.
With this letter, I am returning my temple recommend. I hope that in my lifetime equal access to the most sacred ordinances and covenants of the Church will be extended to all people, not the least of which are married, gay members and their children. Until then, it is more important that I live with honesty and integrity in this world, leaving my eternal state in the hands of my Creator.
Jonathon Sawyer is gay. Among Jonathon's many passions are removing the masks of his heart, shedding light on homophobic religious doctrines and practices that masquerade as spirituality, reflecting on many facets of the human experience, hiking in majestic mountains, biking the winding roads, gazing into the heavens, photographing scenes that cause him to feel, reading body language and books, playing trivia games and of course, writing. Upon graduating high school, Jonathon plummeted into a pressure cooker of religious fanaticism in Southern California during which time he made audacious efforts toward changing his sexuality with zealous prayers, ruckus exorcisms and even a little sprinkling of reparative therapy. When that didn't work out, Jonathon threw his heart and soul into hospitality, eventually working in management for Starwood Hotels and Resorts. While surrounded by many attractive men during his decade in the hotel business, Jonathon continued his ardent quest through the bizarre landscape of conservative religion and republican politics to become a "normal," straight man with a wife, a white picket fence, two kids and a golden retriever. When that didn't work out, Jonathon returned to one of his many loves, music and studied saxophone performance at the University of North Texas, home of the Grammy nominated One O'Clock Lab Band. While making his way through college, Jonathon taught saxophone lessons to many amazing kids. He now works in higher education and resides in Boulder, Colorado. Today, Jonathon is contentedly gay, liberal and is still open to children, a white picket fence and a golden retriever.