"It feels much more personal than the Church’s previous stance against homosexuality"

Tiffany Christensen was drinking herbal tea on the campus of Arizona State University, where she’s a Ph.D. candidate specializing in medieval and early modern European history, and chattering away about her personal obsessions with Mary, Queen of Scots and public monuments to dead people.

When not teaching undergraduates, Christensen is an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—“I would say, like, super active,” she said. As a Gospel Doctrine Teacher, she teaches the adults in her ward, or congregation, about scripture.

She is also gay.

Most people at her church don’t know this about her. She’s told a few of the people with whom she works closely, and a few friends, but her impulse is to clam up until she can further evaluate someone’s feelings. “It depends on how I think the person will receive it,” she explained.

That’s because there’s always been some tension between her faith and her sexuality. But things really came to a head in November 2015, when the LDS Church was briefly at the center of the news cycle.

At issue was a change to the Church’s handbook—an internal guide to pastoral care—clarifying that people in same-sex relationships are apostates. As such, the children of same-sex couples should be denied rites like blessings, baptism, and priesthood ordination until and unless they turn 18 and choose to disavow their parents.

The Church later clarified that the policy would only apply to children whose primary residence was in a same-sex household. It also later clarified that the policy was no mere administrative tweak—it was the result of a divine revelation to the Church’s prophet and apostles, making it an essential and near-unchangeable tenet of faith.

A lot of news organizations showed up in the aftermath of the announcement—reporting on the mass resignation of Church members in front of the Salt Lake City Temple and the involuntary excommunications of same-sex couples, taking a deeper-than-usual dive into LDS theology.

There was outrage. There were some shrugs—why do gay people want to baptize their children into an inherently homophobic religion, anyway? And then there was nothing at all. The media moved on.

LGBT Mormons could not. They continued to exist. And in many ways, their struggle to exist got harder at just the moment that the rest of us decided that their stories were old news.

This story never left the back of my mind.

I couldn’t let it go, even as our collective national attention turned to the election, and I finally picked it back up a year after the initial announcement by the Church.

I think that, as a queer person of faith myself, the advent of new policies to identify and chase away gay members of a denomination was more real to me than it was for a lot of the other, mostly secular reporters who wrote about the handbook change. It can be hard to find a national audience for a story about church administration, even one related to anti-LGBT discrimination, in publications that mostly address religion as a novelty. And it’s hard to really understand the lived consequences of church administration if your experience of religion is mostly as something from which you can walk away.

But this story was also important to me for another reason. I grew up in rural northern Arizona, and most of my childhood friends were and are members of the LDS Church. As someone who attended Church youth events, followed along with Mormon-led prayers before meals and races with my Cross Country team, and gathered outside the Temple to greet recently-married friends, I have a lot more invested in the internal politics of Mormonism than your average Gentile (most of whom don’t know that Mormons, like Jews, refer to non-believers as “Gentiles”).

So I looked up Tiffany.

She was my eighth-grade English teacher, and one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. Not necessarily because I learned so much in her class—although of course I did—but because of how happy and how welcome that class made me feel. I was supposed to leave ten minutes early every day to walk up the hill to the high school for a math class, but I could never seem to drag myself away and miss the fun. I think I was late for math every day that year.

We read The Diary of a Young Girl together, and at that part where the rest of the class began to giggle and crack jokes—Anne Frank writes about kissing her friend Jacque and asking to touch her breasts—“Ms. Christensen” shut us up.

“If someone tells you that they never questioned their sexuality,” she told us, “they’re lying.”

It meant a lot to me at the time, though I couldn’t have verbalized the reason why.

When I first talked to Tiffany about her experiences as a gay Mormon, immediately after the handbook change, she was a little bit angry and a little bit indifferent. She was serving then as first counselor in the Relief Society presidency, the Church’s internal welfare organization, and she talked about the Mormons—gay and straight—who were fleeing the religion en masse as a political statement.

“Like, that’s legitimate. That never crossed my mind, but that’s legitimate,” she said. “I just see no reason to leave. You know, I’m helping people. There are hungry people, and I’m feeding them.”

But the situation had prompted everyone around her to start asking the questions that had been left unsaid for so long. Her bishop asked her how she was holding up, a gesture that she appreciated. And her brother’s boyfriend asked her how she could be part of an organization that didn’t want her, “and that’s a valid question,” she admitted. “But I don’t feel unwanted.”

Ultimately, when I left her last January, she seemed like she was trying to ignore the tumult and move on her life.

“I feel like I should care more, because they’re both extremely important parts of my life,” she said. “I am LDS. But I’m also gay. Those things are the core of who I am.”

Part of the shock of the handbook change, for LGBT Mormons like Tiffany and for observers like me, was that it felt like an about-face in a trend of things getting better.

The Church had publicly supported a compromise LGBT non-discrimination bill in Utah earlier in 2015, and Church leaders announced that members should not fear recrimination for supporting same-sex marriage on social media platforms and in their private lives.

Then, out of nowhere, four months after the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage nation-wide prompted the Church to release a statement affirming its theological status quo, everything changed. Suddenly, marrying a partner of the same sex was akin to murder and incest in the Church’s disciplinary guidelines—with its mandated excommunication, it was worse than attempted murder or domestic violence, for which “Church discipline may be necessary.” In fact, under the new guidelines, marrying a same-sex partner is worse than engaging in same-sex promiscuity.

That, for Christensen, is the real rub of it. The children of people who have been excommunicated for adultery continue to attend meetings and activities. “They sit in my classes every week!” she said. “And why wouldn’t they?”

For no other sin, no matter how serious, are children punished on behalf of their parents. It’s an inconceivable position for a faith that rejects original sin, affirms individual agency, and believes deeply in the necessity of the Holy Ghost for righteous living—a blessing which is conferred in Confirmation, one of the rites forbidden to the children of queer parents.

I decided I needed to talk to the child of a gay Mormon, so I called on Sophie Bushman,* a 25-year-old University of Minnesota student and old friend.

The Bushmans—all ten of them—lived next door to me growing up.

I was the unofficial ninth child. They had a TV, and I had a basketball hoop. Mrs. Bushman took me on their family picnics and invited me for split pea soup on Sundays, Mr. Bushman let me join in games of sardines in the family furniture store, and my parents took Ashley,* Sophie’s little sister, on amusement park vacations.

Those were the happiest years of my childhood.

Sophie is a little older than I am, and when I was a freshman in high school, she left to study abroad in Sweden.

“In 2006, [before I left],” she said, “I would have told you that I knew beyond any doubt that the Church was true, that every teaching within it was perfectly correct.”

But while she was in Sweden, two things happened.

She had her first sexual experience—with a girl.

“There is a scripture in the Book of Mormon that became close to a mantra for me at the time,” she told me:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. (Mosiah 3:19)

And then, when she was already struggling, she got a call from her dad.

“He told me that he was gay, that he always had been, and that he couldn't pretend not to be anymore,” she said.

Mr. Bushman removed himself from the Church membership rolls, resigned from his role in the local Boy Scouts, and sold the furniture store. By the time Sophie would return home, everything she had known would be gone.

It was a shock for her. “My dad had always been very involved, active, strong in the Church,” she said. “He had served a mission, been sealed [married] in the Temple, and baptized and blessed all of his children.”

Looking for comfort, Sophie went to her bishop at the ward she’d been assigned in Sweden.

“He told me that it would have been better if my father had died before committing this sin,” she remembered. “That was the turning point. […] My very identity, which had been very much founded in my faith, was destroyed. I didn't know anything anymore.”

She didn’t share with her dad what she had been learning about her own sexual identity, but she does think it made it easier for her to heal in the aftermath of his announcement.

“I think I was able to fully accept my father immediately and without question because I understood on a much smaller scale what he had gone through,” she reasoned. “He grappled with his sexuality for forty years. He was exactly what the Church wanted him to be for all those years.”

And even though she didn’t face the same pressures for as long or as deeply as her father, Sophie still feels that, “in some ways, the Church taught me to hate myself because I could never possibly live up to the standards it set for me.”

So while Sophie agreed with Tiffany that the handbook change seemed to come out of nowhere—“It felt much more personal than the Church’s previous stance against homosexuality,” she said. “Bringing the children into it didn’t make sense to me.”—she recognized that the widely touted theory that the Church had been getting better on homosexuality is based on a very relative interpretation of “better.”

Kids have always been affected by the Church’s stance against homosexuality.

According to a feature in The Advocate last year, there are 2,100 queer youth experiencing homelessness in Utah at any given time, 42% of the total youth homeless population. The majority of them come from LDS households.

In the same article, The Advocate reported that Utah ranks in the top five for youth suicide rates and, by some measures, is number one in LGBT youth suicide. That means that, in a normal year, 64 LGBT kids kill themselves in Utah. But after the handbook change announcement, local community groups reported 32 suicides in the span of a single month. These things are notoriously difficult to measure because of families’ reluctance to posthumously publicize their child’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or cause of death, but the reports from Utah’s LGBT Mormon groups at the time clearly indicate that they felt as though they had entered a state of emergency.

I wanted to know if this reaction among gay Mormons had been felt among rank and file straight Mormons, so I hit the road for another interview.

Sarah Cluff served her mission in Vancouver, Washington, where she loved the people but hated the weather. These days, she’s living in Mesa, working at In-n-Out Burger, and taking classes toward a sociology degree and TESL certificate from ASU. She hangs out between classes by Old Main because she likes to watch the lovebirds (literal lovebirds, not gross college couples), and she recently started studying Korean because of an obsession with Korean dramas, although, for the longest time, she had wanted to learn Portuguese.

I know these things about her because she’s one of my best friends in the world.

And in that spirit of friendship, I broached a topic she and I don’t talk about very much.

“I found the handbook change to be really good,” Sarah began right out of the gate, speaking like a true missionary. “My religion stresses dedication to God and to family. A small child still young enough to need support and strength from their parents should never be put in a situation where they have to choose between their God or their family. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a child.”

Still, she recognized that the announcement didn’t go over well. Many people, including those within her own ward, were “hurt and confused and angry,” and it represented an opportunity for the church leadership to enter into a dialogue with younger members like her. “They talked to us often and openly about the whys and whats of the handbook change,” she said. “The tone changed, too.” But she doesn’t fault the leaders for the initial confusion—“I think mostly they had the same outlook as I do,” she said, “and didn’t think of how it might appear to others.”

There’s been a slow and steady cultural change in the Church, she argued, that has made future misunderstandings less likely.

“I don’t know that the changes I’ve seen come from a change in the handbook,” she told me, “or a change in location—because Payson [our hometown] wasn’t the best place to be gay—or a change in environment, but being gay and Mormon isn’t uncommon anymore.”

It’s not exactly common, either, she admitted, but “the YSA culture”—Young Single Adult wards, where young adults are grouped together for worship and socialization—“tends to be much more accepting of all kinds and sorts, and those who are gay are very open about it.”

“I have rarely seen gay Mormons in a family ward, but then again, the last family ward I attended was in Payson when I was still in high school. Growing up, these people were definitely hidden and it was a big source of scandal when they did come out.”

She’s referring, in part, to Mr. Bushman. For most of us growing up in Payson, he was the first person we ever met who openly admitted to being gay.

Sophie isn’t the only Bushman kid to have reevaluated her relationship with the Church after her father’s announcement—her two older siblings have stopped attending Sunday meetings, too.

But her five younger brothers and sisters are all still active. The youngest boy, Tom,* was preparing to leave on his mission at the time of the handbook change.

“He will still go on his mission,” Sophie told me. Because the new guidelines only affect children whose primary residence is a same-sex household, and because Tom only spent weekends and school holidays with his dad, there weren’t any additional hoops for him to jump through, something for which Sophie was grateful. She wanted her brother to serve a mission because that was what he wanted—but that didn’t mean she didn’t still struggle to understand his choice.

“When I've asked Tom about it,” she explained, “he says that, to him, Dad is gay and the Church is true, and that’s all that can really be said with certainty.”

Sophie tells me that her brother believes “sometimes you have to have faith in something you don't completely understand, because you trust in a Heavenly Father that does—and if you believe that Heavenly Father is loving and kind and all-knowing, then you believe he has a reason for things that we cannot understand.”

It’s an admirable attempt to resolve a complicated question—for Latter-Day Saints, there is more than heaven and hell. The Church teaches that there are three kingdoms of salvation: Celestial, Terrestrial, and Telestial, which are likened to the sun, moon, and stars. And then there’s outer darkness, for people who have completely rejected Christ and his teachings—but even outer darkness is not a permanent state, unlike most orthodox views of hell.

The Church teaches that LGBT folks are not necessarily bound for outer darkness, but marriage is uniquely important in LDS theology in that only people who have been sealed to a spouse in the Temple can reach the highest degree of salvation. Souls will continue to procreate and produce spirit children there in the Celestial Kingdom.

As The Atlantic explained to its readers during its coverage of the initial controversy:

Salvation in Mormonism occurs at the level of families rather than individuals. […] Family members must be sealed to each other through ceremonies in LDS temples. The loss of any family member from the faith breaks this chain, yet it is not at all clear how gays or lesbians would fit into the grand family scheme of heaven.

In August 2016, Tom (“Elder Bushman”) began his two-year mission in Federal Way, Washington, teaching and recruiting others to this theological system that excludes his own dad.

“I think Tom just has a deep faith that everything will work out,” his sister told me.

There are three basic responses to being a queer person of faith in a denomination that doesn’t accept you.

There are those who become defiant about their exclusion. Tiffany knows a lot of these people.

“Some people are staying to be spiteful,” she said, “like, ‘You can’t make me leave. I’m here.’ [There were] people sitting in the pews the Sunday after the handbook change was announced wearing rainbow ties and stuff.”

There’s a second group who—like Sophie and her father—leave entirely.

This is often understood as a rejection of faith, but I don’t think that’s always quite right. In many ways, it’s a sign of too much respect for the faith to ask it to bend to fit you.

And even after you leave a religion—especially one like Mormonism, with its deep ties to family and culture—it never leaves you. Sophie continues to describe the Church as a member of her family, “like a sibling who has hurt me, a sibling who I do not agree with, but a sibling that I still love and will defend.”

“I can't fully explain that part,” she admitted, “but I think it is because my family is still very much a part of the church.”

And then there are those, like Tiffany, who stay. Who are quiet in their staying. Who make their home in the liminal spaces of their theology—the spaces where God’s bigness and mercy are louder than anything else.

But even Tiffany says she feels like she’s one Act of God away from leaving the Church. She recognizes that she’s a bit of an exception to a rule—“there is an overwhelming amount of support and respect that I feel from everybody every time I go to church,” she said, but she knows that hasn’t been everyone’s story.

“I have a friend who—he and I are best friends because we’re in the same position, but we actually legitimately like each other, so it’s not just the two token homosexuals in the ward,” she laughed. This friend was also a Gospel Doctrine Teacher in her ward. Let’s call him Jesse.*

“Jesse fell quickly in love with a man he met on the Internet, and their relationship became sexual,” she said, so he went to meet with their bishop.

Mormons confess serious sins to their bishop, a member of the laity who is called for a period of time to a leadership position.

“When he met with our bishop—who is an amazing, loving man, who is an ally—the bishop’s hands were tied and he had to take away Jesse’s temple recommend, release him from his calling, and start disciplinary procedures,” she recounted. The disciplinary procedures could result in anything from long-term restrictions on his level of participation in the Church—taking the sacrament (communion), leading prayers, teaching Sunday school, performing baptisms or temple rituals—to dis-fellowship or excommunication.

And then, in the midst of these procedures, that bishop moved up the chain of command and a new bishop was called—one whom Jesse perceives as less understanding on this issue.

“I know he feels further isolated in this very difficult process,” Tiffany said.

And then, coming back from her story to the question I had asked, about her perceptions of her own future in the Church, she paused.

“I don’t know that I’ve learned anything from Jesse’s experience, but it has established the baseline of possibility for me,” she said. “Right now, if Princess Charming fell from the sky, I would face a very difficult decision.”

But, “as long as I am able to preach the gospel, I will continue to find peace in my circumstances and peace in the Church,” she decided.

God only knows what will happen when that changes.

*Name has been changed for privacy considerations

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