Visions of an Inclusive LDS Faith
"The very fact that we are here as gay Mormons and allies in the Kirtland temple assures us that there is a place in the Mormon story for all of us."
By Joanna Brooks
An address delivered in the Kirtland Temple on September 18, 2011. Brooks was the closing speaker of a devotional held as part of the 2011 Affirmation Conference.
Joanna Brooks on her experience attending the conference
Joanna Brooks at the Mormon Stories Conference (Video, start at 7:42 for introduction or at 9:58 for her address)
I consider it a real honor to speak here today, at the close of this wonderful conference. I grew up in a very observant and conservative Mormon home in Orange County, California. Mormonism meant everything to me—I truly loved the powerful sense of purpose the gospel brought to my life, and I especially loved the Mormon vision of Zion as a place of refuge and understanding for the pure in heart. When I was 17 years old, I went away to Brigham Young University. There, I deepened my appreciation for the richness of the Mormon tradition. I met intellectuals like the great Eugene England, feminist professors, and, for the first time, gays and lesbians. It was at BYU that I began writing about Mormon life, including homosexuality. And it was at BYU that I "came out" as a Mormon liberal, a feminist, and a gay ally.
When I was 20 years old, one of the apostles gave a talk that many of us know, declaring gays and lesbians, feminists, and intellectuals three great "dangers" to the Church. That talk, along with the excommunication of six feminists, intellectuals, and gays and lesbians in the fall of 1993, made me feel as if I'd been exiled from my spiritual home in this world. I'm sure you know the feeling. But it also marked for me the beginning of a long search to make sense of the profound feelings of love and joy Mormonism gives me even when it troubles and to reclaim a place in the tradition for myself and others like me, and like you.
I want to express my love to the Affirmation community and to all of the LGBT people—Mormon and non-Mormon—who have played pivotal roles at just about every step of my own faith journey. I feel a great sense of humility standing here today, not only to stand in such a historic space built at great cost and sacrifice by our ancestors, but to stand before this company. For in the 20 years that I've been writing about Mormon life—including homosexuality—I have learned so very much from gay and lesbian Mormons. And when I write I feel a profound sense of responsibility to tell a version of the Mormon story that put gay Mormons at its very center. For your lives are the next great proving grounds of this faith tradition.
Today, we sit in the first temple built by Mormon people. When they built this space, our ancestors had no idea that they would be leaving it just a few years later, or that a decade on a significant number of them would make the journey across the plains to Utah. When they sat here, they could scarcely envision the frontiers ahead.
Now we sit here, striving to envision the next frontiers for Mormonism. For if we have ever been a pioneering people, then full inclusion and acceptance for LGBT Mormons is one of our 21st century frontiers.
And here is my vision of that frontier:
When you and your beloved have as much freedom to sit and hold hands in sacrament meeting as I do with my beloved, we will have an inclusive Mormonism.
When not a penny of Mormon money is spent to prohibit the full and free exercise of LGBT human rights, we will have an inclusive Mormonism.
When Mormon families no longer feel compelled by their religion to reject a gay child, we will have an inclusive Mormonism.
When gay Mormons no longer feel obliged to choose between loving relationships and religious community, we will have an inclusive Mormonism.
When the stories of faith, devotion, courage, dignity, and sacrifice by LGBT Mormons over the last 180 years are acknowledged as part of the larger Mormon story, we will have an inclusive Mormonism.
When every element of our organized religious life as Mormon people declares that all are alike unto God, we will have an inclusive Mormonism.
When will it come? 100 years? 500 years? Will it ever come? I do not know. None of us know.
What we do know is that there is no easy fix to the theological issues that now bar LGBT people from full inclusion in LDS institutional ritual and worship.
And we do know it is impossible to expect any gay Mormon to permanently give up a full and god-given dimension of their being to participate in LDS institutional life.
And we can't direct the actions of the LDS Church. Only the leadership of the LDS Church directs the actions of the LDS Church.
But Mormonism is a different story: Mormonism is a family of religious and social movements that includes all of the religious groups that descended from this place and this moment, a culture, a tradition—something shaped by all of the people who have ever belonged. It encompasses all of the diverse lives, hopes, fears, and experiences, and stories of all the people who call themselves Mormons. Mormonism belongs to all of us.
So, if there is to be an inclusive Mormonism, we must create it ourselves. Our ancestors passed down to us a rich, robust, and complicated American religious movement. And we are the ancestors of the future forms of Mormonism as well.
I want to share with you today the story of one of my Mormon "ancestors"—not an ancestor by genealogy, but an important influence on the kind of Mormonism I've lived. His name is Jeff Clute. When I was a young girl growing up in Southern California, Jeff was a member of our ward—and he befriended our family. He was single, in his 30s. He had a gorgeous head of black hair and a great laugh. And he was an incredibly gifted pianist. He'd come visit our family on Sunday nights and sit at the piano and play.
On my seventh birthday, Jeff Clute gave me one of the most important gifts of my childhood. He gave me the entire set of Little House on the Prairie books. How did he know how very hungry I was for books? How did he know how I would find myself and my Mormon pioneer ancestors in those pages? How did he know how much I needed a heroine like Laura—who was not, as you may remember, the angelic blonde girl (like her sister Laura) but a scrappy, freckle-faced, dark-haired girl. The other one. The different one. How did he know I needed such a role model?
I tell myself now that Jeff Clute was a person of a certain perceptiveness who could see in me a girl hungry for words. And he gave me the gift through reading of a profound connection with Mormon pioneer heritage. A gay Mormon man gave me a version of my Mormonism that made a profound impact on me.
In the years that followed, my family moved, and we lost touch with Jeff Clute. Many years later, when I started to comb my memory for gay Mormon ancestors, I remembered him and I finally recognized who he was. "What happened to Jeff?" I asked my father. "He died," my father admitted. "It was AIDS."
I hesitate to tell this story because we have too many dead gay Mormon stories. Too many. And each death is a loss not only to Mormon families but to the entire Mormon tradition.
What I want is more living gay Mormon stories. I want more stories of living, breathing gay Mormons in community with straight Mormons!
Gay people have always been a part of the Mormon tradition—as missionaries, parents, bishops, bishops counselors, Relief Society presidents, teachers, temple sealers, and, yes, choristers and pianists.
Given decades of rejection gay Mormon people have experienced, it is so important that you have claimed this space as Affirmation to affirm who you are and to give each other support, comfort, and courage as gay Mormons.
But I'm asking you to envision with me today a different space of inclusiveness. Where today are the spaces where openly gay Mormons and straight Mormons can look each other in the eyes and recognize each other in our full personhood? Where are the spaces where we can enjoy our shared tradition together, where we can pray together, sing the hymns of the Restoration together? Where are the spaces where we can call each other brother and sister, without apology and without fear? Where can you and your children be in community with me and my children? I want my children to recognize you as their ancestors!
I think of the powerful words of the Mormon hymn: Now let us rejoice in the day of salvation, no longer as strangers on earth need we roam.
What will this day of salvation look like? Surely any vision of an inclusive Mormonism must address the segregation, the unpardonable estrangement that exists within Mormon families and within the larger Mormon family.
If we want a more inclusive Mormonism, we must unapologetically claim for ourselves a space in the Mormon story, the Mormon tradition, if we want it. Being a gay Mormon, or an unorthodox Mormon, or a Mormon feminist does not mean that we do not belong. Our lives, our experiences, are an important part of the larger Mormon story. The very fact that we are here as gay Mormons and allies in the Kirtland temple assures us that there is a place in the Mormon story for all of us. Those of us who still wish to identify as Mormons must offer spaces of refuge to each other, spaces where gay and straight Mormons can say to each other: I hear you, I recognize you, I claim you: gay, straight, liberal, conservative, bad, good, perfect, imperfect, literal, non-literal, agnostic, atheistic. We are all still Mormons. And we must create spaces where we can pass all of this down to our children—be they gay or straight—the version of Mormonism we cherish. During the last year, I have had the powerful experience of attending Mormon Stories community events where openly gay Mormons and straight "open Mormons" have gathered together to share our tradition, and sing our hymns, and tell our stories. The Mormon Stories movement gives me a sense of possibility for an inclusive version of Mormonism.
I want to close by honoring the vision Joseph Smith had here in the Kirtland temple 175 years ago, on January 21, 1836, when he saw the "transcendent beauty" of the world beyond the veil, and saw his dead brother Alvin, and learned for the first time of that beautifully inclusive Mormon doctrine that those who die without a knowledge of the gospel will not be left outside the kingdom.
May God be equally merciful to all of us Mormons who have lived and died without a knowledge of how harmful divisions in our community are, including the segregation and exclusion of gay Mormons. May we not be kept from one another. No longer as strangers on earth need we roam. May we connect—gay and straight—around the most beautiful version of the Mormon story our ancestors gave to us: a story of otherworldly beauty, spiritual seeking, angels, ancestors, pioneers, courage and community and hurt and sacrifice—a story that has always included and will always include LGBT people.
And may that day come soon. And if does not come during our lifetimes, may we be ancestors to generations of Mormonism who claim this tradition and carry it on towards more inclusive frontiers.