The following first appeared in Public Square Magazine.
In late 2018, one of the founding Studio C actors Stacey Harkey posted a Facebook message, “Here’s your fact of the day: I’m gay.” At the time, LDS Living portrayed this young man as a model and an inspiration to other Latter-day Saint youth in an article entitled, “I’m Not Ashamed of Who I Am”: Studio C Member Comes Out as Gay, Shares Touching Message for LGBT Youth.
Six months later, Stacey mentioned his boyfriend in a talk at the Affirmation conference —with his social media posts increasingly channeling the Mama Dragons/Mormons Building Bridges narrative. It was clear Stacey’s relationship to the Church had changed.
One year later, Ed Smart also declared in a Facebook post his newly found self-honesty that was prompting separation from his wife after 30+ years of marriage; the message included this statement, “As an openly gay man, the Church is not a place where I find solace any longer.”
These departures are not happening primarily due to a failure in love or empathy or compassion. That doesn’t explain why so many are leaving.
What is going on here? Why are so many becoming estranged from their faith after coming out as LGBT+?
Of course, part of the answer is—we don’t know. There are hundreds of influences; and every situation is different, at least somewhat. But if you ask most people, they definitely have an explanation … going something like this:
Well, isn’t it obvious? People are leaving because YOU are not loving enough … the Church isn’t welcoming enough and inclusive enough. If it was, it would accept Stacey and Ed for who they really are—celebrating what makes them happy and embracing who they choose to love. Maybe then they’d decide to stay with you.
Isn’t that about right? Let’s call that the universally popular explanation for why individuals are walking away, along with whole families, you know—“we’ve got to support our dear daughter.”
In this reading, all the estrangement boils down to a failure of compassion. Empathy. Love. Acceptance.
End of story. That’s why these brothers and sisters are distancing themselves. It’s really just that simple.
Scour the far edges of social media, and you’ll hardly hear anything else. But if we’ve learned anything in recent years, Internet Consensus Doth Not The Truth Make. And the full truth dearly matters here … especially if we care about people’s lasting happiness.
Reaching for the bigger picture. So, what is the full truth here? Let’s first acknowledge this: all true Christians can improve on being loving; that’s something all believers would readily admit. But this is not, on the whole, why people are walking away from the Church.
No matter how many times people say it, no matter how adamant and passionate they are in saying it … these departures are not happening primarily due to a failure in love or empathy or compassion. That doesn’t explain why so many are leaving.
There’s another explanation for why people come out and walk away—one that starts with a closer examination of what’s happening when someone “comes out.”
What we almost always hear accompanying a “coming out” story is something like “I’m finally able to share the truth about who I am.… It’s so relieving not to lie about this part of who I am.”
Authenticity. Honesty. Openness.
That’s really all there is to it, right?
Not so fast. There’s something more than “being authentic” going on here. There is something new being added to the equation as well: Something unseen to this point, and which shows up brand-new.
A new narrative. At that moment, our brothers and sisters come to embrace a new story about who they are, about their fundamental identity … as well as about their future and what they need to be happy.
And that new narrative simply does not fit with what they used to believe; in fact, it conflicts pretty severely and directly with some core declarations of the restored gospel.
Especially this one, expressed by President M. Russell Ballard in his spring 2020 devotional at BYU:
I remind you that there is one important identity we all share now and forever, one that we should never ever lose sight of, and one that we should be grateful for. That is that you are and have always been a son or daughter of God with spiritual roots in eternity. First and foremost, you are and always will be a spirit child of God. Those aren’t just words from a beautiful Primary song. They are words of truth. They are imbued with eternal significance for all of us. The foundational fact of heavenly parentage is not just my truth or your truth. It is eternal truth.
And this too, from President Russell Nelson’s remarks at BYU the previous fall of 2019, when he labeled this “truth number one” he wanted students to remember:
You are sons and daughters of God. You already know this. You have sung about it since you were toddlers. But let me clarify a distinguishing characteristic about your identity. You are the children whom God chose to be part of His battalion during this great climax in the longstanding battle between good and evil—between truth and error. I would not be surprised if, when the veil is lifted in the next life, we learn that you actually pled with our Heavenly Father to be reserved for now. I would not be surprised to learn that premortally you loved the Lord so much that you promised to defend His name and gospel during this world’s tumultuous winding-up scenes.
Notice which aspect of identity these prophets are emphasizing and prioritizing: our son and daughter relationship with God. That doesn’t mean other elements of our identity can’t be in our consciousness as well, as President Ballard also clarified: “Now please don’t misunderstand me on this point. I am not saying that we must deny our many identities, including ethnic, cultural, or national heritage.”
But it’s clear that none of these, according to prophetic teaching, should be the central emphasis—not compared to our awareness of a core, filial affection with God. President Ballard added, “I plead with each of you to please keep your divine identity at the center of everything you do.”
A profound shift in story of self. Now, honest question: Is that what happens when someone comes out of the closet? Is that where the emphasis goes?
Not at all. Just listen to any coming out story. It will be obvious what is—and is not—central to this person now.
In fact, it’s arguably this very shift in emphasis at the heart of coming out: whatever else may have been important to your identity previously, something else now takes center stage, as announced to the whole world. A new identity centered around your own particular configuration of sexual attraction and romantic longing.
It’s arguably this very shift in emphasis at the heart of coming out: whatever else may have been important to your identity previously, something else now takes center stage.
This becomes your new central focus, around which everything centers. And with that change in emphasis, so much else changes. Instead of charting your course around eternal possibilities that come from your relationship with God, everything gets oriented around your own unique experience of sexuality.
And as we’re seeing over and over in the lives of precious brothers and sisters around us, the direction those feelings point to, the demands they raise, the priorities they advance, often conflict with the covenant path. Indeed, in so many cases this new narrative of self generates an impossibly difficult paradox in a disciple’s life (a paradox you will be reassured is intrinsic to your newfound honesty, rather than arising in any way from shifting self-conceptualizations).
Something’s got to give.
A dramatic shift in future expectations. The starkness of this interpretive shift and its pervasive rippling effects shouldn’t be underestimated—as reflected perhaps most vividly in the narratives of parents describing what the coming out of a child meant for their families. As one mother put it, “We tucked him into bed, told him for the hundredth time that we loved him, then went to our room and fell apart. [My husband] started crying at this point. We just looked at each other with devastation in our eyes. Mission, gone. Temple marriage, gone. Grandbabies, gone. It was almost unbearable.”
With remarkable speed, whatever future dreams had been imagined for a son, now turned to grief for many parents:
- “In … first few seconds, I could see my grandbabies float away like a whisper on the wind. As if I never really had them to begin with. I was devastated. I was confused.”
- “I began to mourn the dreams I had for my son—temple marriage, biological grandchildren.”
- “I mourned the milestones that I would miss. No mission. No temple wedding. No daughter-in-law.”
- “[I was] mourning the loss of everything I knew. My beautiful little boy would not go on a mission, get married in the temple, or any other thing that I had pictured for him. I cried for a good month. I couldn’t control my emotions.”
- “[This moment] would forever change the life I thought he would have. A church service mission. A fairytale wedding with a beautiful bride. And, what about grandkids?!”
Other parents grieved the prior dreams of their daughters’ futures after she came out admitting her “true identity”:
- “Sadly, I realized the big wedding she always dreamed of and planned for was gone, her Temple Marriage was gone. My heart hurt for the grandchildren I would never have.”
- “I had waves of grief as I thought about the mission she’d always wanted to serve. Her temple wedding. Her husband. Children. Every part of her [Latter-day Saint] plan was suddenly uncertain.”
- “Despite loving words from some ward members, the reality is there will be no Girls Camp for [my daughter], no callings as she becomes a married woman, and no temple marriage.”
- “From that time, it was not easy for me. I cried a lot. I cried at commercials and TV programs that showed beautiful brides being cherished by a husband.”
- “I spent many days, and all Sundays, crying. I was grieving the loss of the future I had envisioned for her.”
As you can see, these responses are quite conclusive. Rather than a possibility to be explored, the gospel path is presented as a near impossibility—despite the desperation with which many of their teens still yearn for it. As one mother said, “I held my sobbing teenager that night in the kitchen, as he chanted over and over, ‘I just want to be normal, go on a mission, get married, like everyone else.’”
Once again, the intensity and finality of this process are striking. One mother recounted how “when my son came out to me and my husband, I knew I needed to get rid of everything that I previously thought.” Another mother’s account illustrates the rapid finality with which this grieving process commences: “In the span of a few choice seconds, I watched my daughter die … and even worse, I saw her cease to exist. I saw every single iconic girl milestone pass before my eyes. I cringed as the thought of shopping for her first bra was thrown away. I hurt when the idea of her first prom dress, spun in pink, plummeted that day.”
Wow! She continued, “I saw the visions of dates, boys, dances and witnessed her future engagement disappear. I stood by and idly cried when I watched with my mind’s eye, the dream of her perfect wedding dress fade. I saw the grandchildren she could have had, and then saw they were no longer there. I saw my little girl, her big blue eyes, her smile, and her braided brown hair, then in the next moment, she was no longer there.”
It’s possible to experience anything compassionately, without judgment, and without labeling.
Can you see what a remarkably dramatic shift in perspective is taking place here, as acknowledged by these parents themselves?
My heart throbs in pain for these families. In the next moment, my mind lasers into the confusion as to what’s causing so much grief.
The overlooked source of this profound shift. My question for these parents voicing despair over this child’s future—and anyone who loves one of these beautiful souls grappling so much: who taught you all of this?
I would venture to say no Latter-day Saint leader has ever taught that aspiring after these covenantal dreams is no longer possible for these children. If so, then where is that message being learned? Who is encouraging parents like this to let go so conclusively and with such finality to hopes and promises held on to for so many previous years?
It’s not God. And it’s not his prophets. That’s for sure. Look around on social media for a millisecond, and you start to get a clear sense of where the despairing, accusing, confusing messages are coming from. Teens and adults alike are hearing a narrative so seductive that even beautiful, amazing followers of Jesus are getting swept into it … and coming to see their whole future—and their core self—through the vocabulary and assumptions this new narrative provides.
No, this is not about simply confessing the “reality” of who someone is; it’s never been that simple. If it’s true that a new narrative of self is at the heart of coming out, then that new interpretive framework must be understood as being at least partially behind the profound shifts that follow in its wake.
All this is, of course, quite a contrast to what people usually say and believe.
Let’s imagine you had gathered 300 Latter-day Saint teenagers—all of whom experienced same-sex attraction. We take 150 of these teenagers—and invite them to one EFY-style event with socialization and inspiring education … and then do the same with the other 150 teenagers in another separate EFY-style event. The only difference between these two events becomes the precise message they end up hearing from an array of speakers.
At the first event, the teens heard a message like this:
You are beautiful sons and daughters of God. These sexual attractions are not a sign of pathology or sickness. Neither, however, are they necessarily indicative of who you are eternally—or a path you must take ahead. Like all people, you have some important choices ahead of you. Though you will face some challenges in your future path in the gospel, so does everyone. While appreciating the unique dimensions of your struggles, we want to encourage you to see that they are workable—and that if you choose, you can still find real happiness on the covenant path, both now and in the eternal future.
At the second event, they hear this message instead:
You are beautiful sons and daughters of God. These sexual feelings are not a sign of pathology or sickness. They are a reflection of who you are—and a beautiful part of you! As you embrace this and discover what it means in your future, you may have some painful choices ahead. We’re here at this conference to support you in this difficult experience of having grown up in a church atmosphere that doesn’t understand this part of you—and may never comprehend it. Everyone is different in how they navigate the difficult paradoxes between a faith you love and these feelings so core to who you are. You’ll know what is best for you—and others should support you in doing what is right for you.
Although the messages are similar (in not pathologizing or fighting against the inclinations—and reinforcing the profound value and worth of everyone there), clearly there are some very important differences. Especially this: The first message is not neutral about embracing the gospel as central to future happiness—while the second is. And the second message is not neutral about following these sexual attractions as central to future happiness—while the first resists going this far.
The real difference in these messages would show up in how they are “lived out” over time. So, imagine we then followed these teens forward and observed how the next 10-15-20 years turned out. Would there be any meaningful differences?
Which group would be more likely to stay closely involved in the Church and hold to their covenants? Which group would be more likely to stay open to covenant marriage—and more likely to end up being a parent? We might also ask about the level of spirituality, happiness, and emotional/physical health.
I can’t personally imagine a scenario where the first group isn’t substantially higher than the second in virtually all these categories. Would you disagree?
If not, maybe it should be a concern that it’s the second message most Latter-day Saint teens (and adults) are hearing almost everywhere they go, including from well-intentioned support groups and professionals.
No wonder people end up feeling like they cannot help but distance themselves—from sacred covenants with God and from parents or former spouses. Embedded within this story of self—taking for granted its assumptions about who we are and conditions on which our future happiness depends—perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to hear a kind of inevitability to the direction someone needs to go. After all, “this is just who I am … and my future happiness depends on it … and if I go against it, I may be suicidal.”
People do have a choice in the matter— not in terms of their immediate feelings sexually … but in the story they adopt about what those feelings mean.
Who could stand against that rationale? Clearly, there’s no choice in the matter!
But as you can see, that’s actually not true at all. People do have a choice in the matter— not in terms of their immediate feelings sexually … but in the story they adopt about what those feelings mean.
But when you adopt this new story of self—when you take for granted what it says about who you are—we shouldn’t be surprised to see that profound shift in self-concept ripple outward through everything else.
In family relationships. In faith commitments. In future plans.
Once again, that sharp detour off the covenant path is, of course, not presented as a choice. But instead, as something you Must Do.
For your own happiness! For your mental health! For love’s sake! For authenticity’s sake!
Swept away by incredible momentum. In the end, this is more than just a new emphasis and a new story. When people start to identify with that new string of letters, they get connected to a new “LGBT+” community. And a new “LGBT+” movement of rights, freedom, love, etc.
And to state what should be obvious by now—that new force to which people are attaching has some major momentum. Is it possible to stay in the “good ship Zion” while connecting oneself to this new force?
Sure, but for anyone so identifying, holding onto the Church might feel a bit like this:
More likely, it goes like this:
Not because being swept away is inevitable. But because it’s most likely—even predictable—once you’ve identified with this new name. And new self. And a new future.
A better way. Let’s be clear that the alternative to all the foregoing is not to deny any part of the internal experience you’re having. Rather, it’s possible to relate to that experience in a new way—approaching it compassionately, without taking the additional step of insisting upon an identity.
I’ve written about this at length with friends who experience same-sex attraction here: A Mindful Approach to Sexuality—Part I; Misconceptions about Mindfulness and Sexuality—Part II.
Can someone who experiences same-sex attraction find happiness, connection, intimacy, joy, and fulfillment on the covenant path? Why don’t you ask Jeff Bennion, Ty Mansfield, Julio Ospina—or any of the thousands of Latter-day Saints who participate in North Star every year. (Big time yes!)
Nicholas and Jordan Applegate’s story was recently featured internationally, after he posted on Facebook the following:
I am a gay man married to a wonderful wife, and I openly support The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its doctrines, and its leaders. However, at the core of myself, I am not a gay man; I am a child of God, a priesthood holder, a husband, and a father. I am not denying my true self by living the tenets of the Church. I would be denying my true self by not living the gospel and leaving the Church to live a gay lifestyle. I saw in my life that as difficult as it might be to be a gay man not living a gay life, it would be more difficult to live a gay life that did not include active and worthy membership in Christ’s church (emphasis my own; See also, A Valentine’s Note to Ty & Danielle and ‘Impossible’ (‘Mixed-Orientation’) Marriages Everywhere).
Bottom line: there is another way to work with and experience a wide spectrum of sexual feelings, without either identifying with them—or feeling beholden to center your whole life and future around them.
And that way entails a whole lot less suffering … which is precisely what the Buddhists would anticipate, in their ancient teaching about how identification can cause suffering. Taking this kind of a mindful approach, it’s possible to experience anything compassionately, without judgment, and without labeling. However counter-cultural this may seem, this way is available.
Fair warning, though, once possessed by this new view of self, it can be hard to feel like you belong anywhere else—including back where you once started. Some might remember the moment Harry Potter is faced with the serious possibility of being kicked out of Hogwarts—the place he had found belonging connected with his true identity as a budding wizard. At that moment of uncertainty, the narrator says this of Harry: “he could not return to living full-time with the Dursleys, not now that he knew the other world, the one to which he really belonged.”
Now that they know this other “LGBT+” world, the one to which they’ve been persuaded they “really belong,” many LGBT+-identifying youths look with wary eyes on their own families and the Church of Christ itself as foreign, scary, unsafe.
How tragic is that! Hence, the urgency in encouraging a bigger conversation about what’s going on here—a place from which we can really investigate the source of all this profound estrangement.
As simple and satisfying as it may be to place the whole of this at the feet of those not sufficiently enlightened to embrace these new insights about selfhood … that’s neither fair nor true.
Yet as Alexis de Tocqueville once said, “It is easier for the world to accept a simple lie than a complex truth.” May we not give up on pursuing that bigger, richer picture of reality. Speaking of what this true understanding of their core identity could mean to his audience of young people, President Ballard stated:
Understanding this truth [about who we are]—really understanding it and embracing it—is life-changing. It gives you an extraordinary identity that no one can ever take away from you. But more than that, it should give you an enormous feeling of value and a sense of your infinite worth. Finally, it provides you a divine, noble, and worthy purpose in life.
May every young person anguishing about their worth, their happiness, and their future, find this same foundation and rediscover for themselves the thrill and beauty of this same prophetic vision.
The richness of their life—eternally and mortally—may well depend on it.