by Chelsea Gibbs
This one’s for the girls.
Maybe you’ve noticed that LGBTQ issues often seem centered around men. I remember hanging out with progressive Mormon friends of mine when the Prop 8 debacle was going on, and a lot of them would say things like, “Who cares if my son wants to marry a guy someday? He should be able to!” These were friends who had daughters as well, but there was never mention of the possibility that those daughters might like girls. I’m sure it wasn’t an intentional oversight, but I noticed.
When I first started seeking out gay Mormon support a few years later, I couldn’t find testimonials by queer women. There were women all right, and I’d get excited every time I clicked on a thumbnail to watch her speak, only to have my heart sink in disappointment every time she announced herself to be a straight ally for her gay brother or uncle or another male relative.
It’s not at all my intention to bash allies or say we don’t need them, because we certainly do. It’s just that I was lucky enough to already be in a position to know that there were Mormons out there who wouldn’t be homophobic. What I wanted to know was that there were other women like me. It took me a long, long time to find them but I finally did. We may be outnumbered (and everyone has their theories why), but we’re here.
So, ladies, you are not alone! My cis sisters and trans sisters you’re not alone. Trans brothers, we see you. Non-binary pals, you aren’t alone, either. It’s true that most general queer events you attend will have a predominance of our wonderful cis gay brothers (and depending on the space, allies), but that doesn’t mean you don’t belong there. The first time I attended Affirmation three years ago, I went to a breakout session for queer women and gender minorities. It was my favorite part of the conference because I got to be with my people, people who got me. It was exciting even though there were less than ten of us in the room. At last year’s conference, there was more than triple that number in our session. Consciousness is ever-growing!
Part of that growth, I hope, is related to people having their “aha!” moments at younger ages. As I was figuring myself out, I frequently drifted back to assuming I was straight because, even just in my mid-twenties, I felt like I would’ve known by then if I was queer. Again, this may be because to this point most of my understanding of queerness came from cis gay guys, who have been conditioned not only by the church but by society at large to be more aware of sex/their sexuality than girls are. Girls are also societally expected to be more touchy-feely with their friends, to bond emotionally more with their friends, and be able to compliment the looks of other girls much more than men “can” with other guys. A girl cuddling another friend or telling her how hot she looks is just how straight girl friends interact. A guy doing the same thing with a guy would be labeled gay. Stuff like this made me question how “gay” I could really be. Furthermore, when I was coming of age, media representation didn’t love lesbians much more than the church did. What I saw in movies and television sent the message that queer women were predatory, gross, laughable, and totally undesirable. What girl would want to associate herself with that?
Even though I felt that the church’s insistence that queerness is something you have (“he struggled with same-sex attraction”) rather than something you are (“labels are dumb! The World wants you to call yourself gay! The only identity that matters is that we’re children of God!”) was limiting and incorrect, I think I must have internalized the notion. Fleeting thoughts of “huh, she’s pretty” could go ignored because they never led to anything substantial.
My story’s a long one, but basically, in grad school, I realized that I had fallen in love with a friend of mine who happened to be a girl. Not admiration, not a crush, full on head-over-heels, all-the-songs-make-sense love. The church thinks it’s simple to just say “don’t act on your same-sex attraction!” But the underlying idea there—insidious if unintended—is “don’t fall in love.” And that, of course, is never a choice people consciously make.
One of the first people I came out to was the bishop of my home ward, my former Youth Sunday School teacher. One year when I was in college and home for the summer, he called me to teach the youth. Since he’d been so great in the calling, I asked him for some advice. He said, “Ideally, you’ll get some kind of gospel takeaway in there. But the most important thing is that you make it a place they want to be.” Remembering that made him someone I felt like I could come out to, someone who was less concerned with, “I must indoctrinate you!” than with, “Do you feel happy here?”
I was in his office for over an hour, and there were a lot of tears. He didn’t recite the party line to me. He affirmed my feelings. He understood that I felt torn between my spiritual identity and the orientation it said I could not have. He knew me as an eager seminary student with a great attendance record, an enthusiastic speaker in sacrament meetings and stake conferences, an engaged Sunday school teacher, someone who loved visiting her home ward because they truly felt like family.
He knew there was not really a good answer for me. He and the ward could be as affirming and welcoming as could be (which they are), but that wouldn’t necessarily be the case in every ward I went to. And besides, there were rites I would be excluded from if I wound up with a partner who wasn’t a man. Instead of trying to scare me onto the straight and narrow or punishing me, he ended our talk by saying, “I hope whichever path you take in life, the church can be helpful to you in some way.” Not, “I hope you see the light and give up this lifestyle choice.” Not, “The church will fix you.” Just an acknowledgment that it might not be the best place for me and that didn’t mean I was a bad person; an acknowledgment of hope that I could find a baby in the bathwater to help me if I ever wanted it.
Though I’m not very active these days, I still have a lot of good takeaways from the church. Mormonism formed the basis of my spirituality, and there are many parts of it I’m grateful to have learned. I’m grateful to have personal revelation beyond the Bible. I’m grateful to believe in eternal progression and mercy that extends beyond our lives on this Earth. I’m grateful for the many wonderful relationships formed in the church.
When I hear that an apostle has said something homophobic, I’m saddened not because I’m scared he’s right, but because I’m scared of the effect his words and policies will have on people whose families take literally his every word as, well, gospel. I have taken profound comfort in the words of Chieko Okazaki, the only Mormon leader whose works I routinely share and recommend. She once said, “Part of our spiritual independence is simply shaking off wrongful messages about who we are. We get them from people who don’t know us but who judge us, from people who restrict us from being who we are.” When I realized that summed up my relationship with (most of) the brethren, their words stopped affecting me.
I felt inspired to take after one of my Biblical heroes, Esther, and speak up for myself and my queer siblings in a church setting. People ought to be made aware that there’s a very good chance there’s a queer person sitting in their class, closeted or not, and I’m grateful to be at a place in my life where I can make sure they’re aware of it. I speak up not just in hopes of educating straight Mormons (well-meaning and not), but also to let anyone in the closet know they’re not alone. That owning one’s queerness is far from the end of the world; that being queer is a great identity; that they are not a broken straight person who might one day be fixed.
Trusting that God did not make me queer in error, this perceived weakness—what some might call “struggling” with “same-sex attraction”—has become one of my greatest sources of strength. Communing with other queer people of faith, to find joy in the journey of self-realization and self-acceptance, is my favorite kind of spiritual experience.