Like many young adults, 20-year-old Brynn is on a journey to determine what she stands for and why. But for her, this is no easy task. Raised in a Christian restorationist sect known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (also known as the LDS, or Mormon, church), spirituality had always been a strong component of her life. “I grew up very faithful, the leader [among other Mormon youth] in every aspect of the church,” she tells Bustle.
When Brynn came out to herself as gay, crucial aspects about her identity were thrown into question. The love she felt towards women in her life gave her “massive guilt complexes” and uncertainty about what her future held, in terms of romantic relationships or religious beliefs. She experienced heartbreak and stress as two important elements of her identity collided in a way she didn’t know how to reconcile. “I've gone through quite the rollercoaster,” she says, “as far as spirituality is concerned.”
Queer Mormons often face internalized conflict between their faith and their sexuality, especially when they sense tension from their fellow worshippers. Although the Mormon church is working to understand its queer members, even updating its LGBTQ resource page to reflect inclusivity, some members can display gross ignorance towards the struggles their queer members face.
This past June, 12-year-old member Savannah came out during a church meeting only to have her microphone turned off as she was excused from the stand. Her congregation’s reaction reflects the silence and isolation LGBTQ Mormons face from their peers. Because both their queer and religious identities are so inherent to who they are, losing either seems unthinkable. But without a culture where all members feel safe at church, queer members can feel as if they don’t belong.
“My existence makes church members uncomfortable; I am an R-rated experience,” Gabriel, a 22-year-old trans man who attends a young adult congregation, tells Bustle. “[This treatment at church services] is alienating ... it makes me feel less human.”
Although LDS doctrine on socially and medically transitioning is flexible in theory, many trans members report inferior treatment in their wards. Aggressions that these trans Mormons face can range from other members deliberately using the wrong pronouns to being asked to leave for dressing as their identified gender. Transgender woman and former LDS architect Laurie Lee Hall even faced excommunication in 2017 for socially transitioning, despite having broken no policy.
“Friends of mine have experienced things that I cannot even put words to. Some have been abused by those members of the church that should be taking care of them. Another was told by her own children that they rather she kill herself than come out as transgender,” says Gabriel. “The wounds of the community are my wounds, and I am angry at the institution that has taught individuals such rigid rules over basic acceptance and love.”
Horror stories that trans members report arguably undermine the LDS church’s mission to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. Imagining the same Biblical figure who urged his followers to love one another and whose disciples proclaimed that “there is no male or female ... for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” condoning this behavior is jarring. Yet herein lies the contradiction of LGBTQ-LDS culture: the church may welcome queer members in theory, but too many queer Mormons are met at their congregations not with open arms, but with cold shoulders.
23-year-old Jaclyn, a bisexual Mormon, came out in part to acquaint her congregation with the queer LDS experience and erase harmful stigmas. “As a woman married to a man, I felt like I could be a relatively non-threatening, out LGBT Mormon. But I was also afraid that they would use my experience against other LGBT people (e.g. ‘I know a bisexual [person] who’s married to a man, why can’t you just try harder to do what the church says,’ etc.).”
Even members with good intentions can spread the message that LGBTQ members are different without meaning to. JD, a 24-year-old queer man, noticed a strange tendency among his Mormon friends. When they talked to him about his LGBTQ identity, they’d ask, “Are you doing okay? How’s the struggle? Are you struggling with your same-sex attraction?”
“And that really pisses me off,” JD tells Bustle, “because I’m not struggling. I was struggling when I was sixteen. I’m not in a perpetual state of angst and struggle. I’m happy, I love myself, I don’t have a problem with my sexuality.”
Mormon culture can be described as homogenous, partially because of its belief that in following Jesus Christ’s example, people can find lasting happiness in life. Some members warp this doctrine by preaching that there can only be one way to imitate Christ and that any deviations have no place in the religion: “There’s this idea we have cultivated that if a person’s not living the exact same way as I am,” JD says, “they cannot possibly be happy because I’m happy and if I’m happy, then nobody else can be unless they’re doing the same thing ... That’s not how life works. Everybody’s different.”
How do you choose between two parts of your identity without becoming half of a person?
Queer Mormons don’t always feel like their fellow members truly love them or celebrate their happiness no matter what they choose. Rather, LGBTQ members often feel like the support they receive could be taken away at any moment. 24-year-old Sammi, a gay Mormon woman, describes her relationship with her Mormon peers as “walking a tightrope.”
“We’re making strides toward acceptance within the LDS community,” says Sammi, “but that acceptance is still entirely conditional. I feel a lot of pressure to be the ‘right’ kind of gay and I have to work especially hard to earn credibility with my Mormon peers. It’s scary to feel like I’m always on the precipice: one wrong move and I could lose the compassion of my faith community. One wrong move and I could lose my home.”
Risking your home and community is a steep price to pay for authenticity, especially when letting go of either your belief system or your sexual orientation is akin to losing your identity. Sammi has heard from non-Mormons and members alike that if she doesn’t accept the church's standards, then she should just leave. But her choice is not that simple: “Many of us LGBT Mormons feel that our faith and our orientation are both inseparable parts of who we are. How do you choose between two parts of your identity without becoming half of a person?”
Living as half of a person, especially when separated from your belief system and community, is hardly living at all. Utah is currently experiencing a significant rise in youth suicide rates, having tripled over the past decade. Factors surrounding suicide rates are complex and, while no one factor carries the blame, some Utahans note the tensions surrounding the LDS and LGBTQ communities.
In November 2015, the LDS church passed a policy that banned children of LGBTQ parents from receiving baptism rites until they turn 18. Although proponents of this policy claimed that the intent was to keep children from turning against their LGBTQ parents, many queer members saw this policy as a message that they did not belong. 2015 saw a spike in suicide rates among every age group under 50 as hurt and a deep sense of loss spread throughout the queer Mormon community.
Some LDS members believe that the way to mend this pain is through communication and compassion. On August 26, Imagine Dragons frontrunner Dan Reynolds held a benefit concert (called “Love Loud Fest”) in northern Utah to raise awareness for the challenges LGBTQ youth face, to which the LDS church responded with a statement of support. Reynolds, a member of the LDS church, described feeling shame towards how Mormon culture treats their LGBTQ followers. He hoped Love Loud would give voice to the dialogue between the queer and Mormon communities, which traditionally has been polarized.
“If you're LGBTQ and Mormon, you get pulled from every side,” Brianna, a transgender Mormon, tells Bustle. “You get the Mormons saying you can't be LGBTQ because you're Mormon and you get the mainstream LGBTQ culture saying you can't be Mormon because you're LGBTQ.”
Which raises the question: how can LGBTQ Mormons integrate their spiritual and queer identities in a healthy way? Perhaps the burden should not lie on their shoulders but on the culture that they currently feel is excluding them. Queer Mormons do not always feel like leadership or congregation members understand the unique challenges that come with their dual identity. Perhaps more LGBTQ members will find peace as their peers strive not to judge, but to listen.
30-year-old Kris, a non-binary and asexual Mormon raising their family in the church, urges fellow Mormons to think about the queer members who might be attending their congregation: “The most painful thing for me is hearing otherwise good, upstanding LDS members saying negative things toward LGBT+ people. You never know who might be listening — and if the person who can hear you is a queer LDS teenager, your negative thoughts might be the straw the breaks the camel’s back.”
Others, like Gabriel, feel that open conversation and better queer representation is the key to bridging rifts between the two communities. “If the church can get to a point where LGBTQ issues can be discussed completely openly, and when the voices being listened to are the voices of LGBTQ individuals,” he says, “then we will have a church body that is not only comfortable with the issues, but a church body that begins to listen to real people, and hopefully begins to understand an experience alien from their own.”
Like so many LGBTQ Mormons, Brynn is at a crossroads with her queer and spiritual identity. Where her path will take her, she cannot say: “Whether I leave the church or not, this isn't a decision that I take lightly.” As she navigates her identity, she and other LGBTQ Mormons can only hope that as communication opens between the LGBTQ and LDS community, this choice will leave her with a peaceful heart and community filled with unconditional love.