Fear Not, I Am With Thee; Oh Be Not Dismayed!
This talk was given at the 2022 ALL Conference in Mesa, Arizona, on April 30, 2022. ALL is a community of Arizona members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and others who identify with a Mormon heritage who desire to fellowship with LGBT or same-sex attracted Mormons and their friends and family members. Their primary purpose is to provide love, support, and friendship. Full videos from the conference can be found on their Facebook page. For more information, please visit allarizona.org.
My friends, my neighbors, my colleagues, my beloveds—Fear not! When you sing this hymn, remember, you sing the words of Jesus, and he is speaking directly to you. Fear not, I am with thee, oh be not dismayed.
I have the absolute privilege to serve as the president of Affirmation International, officially known as Affirmation: LGBTQ Mormons, Families & Friends. I come to you today with a unique global perspective—the size and scope of which not only encompasses sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression but geography and generations of time as well.
To my LGBTQIA+ peers here today, you are not only part of a great network of mentors and peers that spans the globe, you are a valuable part of the great heritage of LGBTQIA+ people who have navigated and who are currently navigating their intersection with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
You are not alone. Being alone and being abandoned in our LGBTQness, both in the heavens and on Earth, is one of the greatest fears each of us has. And fear sometimes becomes our motivator. Fear can also be a great manipulator. No matter the flavor, fear is a sure-fire way to shut us down from walking the path God has laid out before us.
If you are prepared, you shall not fear. I want to help prepare you today, share some observations, and perhaps lift your chin to see the Queer joy that encircles round about you. In these next few minutes, I hope to help dispel fear.
First, you—as an LGBTQIA+ person—are full, filled to the brim, “cup overflowing full” of inherent self-worth. No one can bestow that upon you, or deem you worthy of such dignity. You don’t hear that enough here in mortality. In fact, on your journey towards the tree of life, to join your family under the boughs of love in your authenticity, you will often hear the exact opposite as people struggle to exclude you. No matter the scoffing at your authenticity, hold to this truth of inherent self-worth.
Why do we get such pushback and negative feedback as LGBTQ people over showing and sharing our authenticity? There is absolutely nothing shameful about your authenticity. Elder Gong taught that to me in the temple.
Last year, the Church dedicated one night of the Mesa Temple open house for leaders of the LGBTQ community. It was a remarkable moment. Me and my husband, Matthew, were invited to attend, representing Affirmation. I was impressed with the representation of well-known local and national LGBTQ community leaders and organizations, some who flew to Arizona to be part of this event.
Elder Gong was our tour guide. He was a gracious host, prepared and knowledgeable. And it was oh, so familiar. I pondered on this fact, because here I was in this space that is so familiar to the thousands of my LGBTQIA+ Affirmation peers and mentors. Yet that night, for the first time in my life I encountered the temple authentically with my husband. As I tenderly held his hand in the celestial room, it was not lost on me that the faith of my fathers, mothers, grandparents, and ancestors currently has no room for Matthew and I—nor our children—as a family for either time or eternity.
As we descended the stairs from the celestial room, we ended the tour in one of the sealing rooms. Seated, facing the infinity mirrors on either side of the altar, Elder Gong shared with us authentically and unashamedly what happens in a sealing room—where a man and a woman are sealed in marriage to one another for the eternities.
It was a sealing room filled with successful, self-determined, married, transitioned LGBTQ community leaders—and here we were all just reminded, that once again LGBTQ people who claim the opportunities and equality of their heterosexual cisgender peers, have no place in a sealing room. It was the capstone moment of exclusion that many had already started noticing earlier in the tour.
Elder Gong asked if there were any questions. A leader of one of the largest healthcare organizations for the LGBTQ community in Arizona raised his hand and commented on the obvious elephant in the room: You have brought us all into this glorious sealing room, yet here along with the other rooms in the temple there is no place for gay couples. He then pointed out how exclusionary it was that the open house signage around the temple frequently referred to a man and a woman.
Elder Gong offered this response. And it was a masterclass in unashamed authenticity.
He said: Our understanding tonight was that we were going to be authentic with one another, and skipping rooms and changing our signage or script for your group because it might cause offense would not be authentic. You received the same tour as our Muslim groups and our Jewish groups. To be authentic with the LGBTQ community, we decided it was most respectful to give you the same tour with the same signage that everyone sees and if that caused you offense, that was not our intent. Tonight, we have offered our authentic self to you, and it was done in love and we hope you can understand that it was offered in love.
It was a moment of unscripted candor. And it was an absolute teaching moment for every LGBTQIA+ Latter-day Saint who fears sharing and showing their authentic self.
Elder Gong’s reply in the sealing room consisted of three parts:
1. Unashamed authenticity is respectful.
2. We do not own your offenses to our intentions and authenticity.
3. We have shared our authentic self in love.
To every LGBTQIA+ Latter-day Saint, follow the example of Elder Gong during his tour of the Mesa temple. Do not fear your authenticity. Do not be ashamed of your authenticity. Know ye not that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? For heaven’s sake do not change your script, do not change your signage, do not skip any of your rooms out of fear that that part of your temple might be offensive to others. Fear not! Stand in the places that feel safe and healthy for you. Stand tall and proud, unapologetically with your whole authentic self.
Elder Gong did not apologize that evening to the LGBTQ community in that sealing room in the Mesa temple. He said: And if this authenticity has caused you offense, then that was not our intention because we have given this in love.
This is how we approach our own authenticity as an LGBTQIA+ person. Unashamedly and unapologetically walk with full authenticity into your faith spaces, into every space that you want to be that feels safe and healthy for you, with no fear, and know that if that causes offense to someone else, that was not your intention because you have shared your authentic self with love.
Let me bring in our allies to this conversation with us now. The invitation by Jesus to “Come Follow Me” is not an intellectual exercise. It is a practical, flesh and blood, corporeal journey where we take upon ourselves the very name of Christ and become the physical manifestation of His Love as we follow in His footsteps and go about doing good in this world. “Come follow me” is made alive by incorporating the gentleness of Love within our daily discipleship. IIn the primary song, “He Sent His Son,” we sing that God’s ask of us is that we live like his Son, to help others on their way.
John the Beloved writes, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” In his later writings, John reflects upon this love, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.”
We know that Christ is Love, we know that Christ was given in Love, therefore, we practice Love as the fruits of our personal discipleship.
What this practice looks like is different for everyone, because on our particular road we may encounter any number of “others on their way:” be it the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned—the least of these, as Jesus says. In our mortal journey, we also encounter those who have been “othered” on their way. Those who bear some sort of mark, that separates them from the power centers and opportunities of either society or religion. Jesus spent much time with those who had been othered in his mortal ministry.
Who are the “others” and “othered” today? In our wards and stakes we are surrounded by LGBTQ Latter-day Saints who are greeted with rejecting messages and far too often, peer bullying. In his speech to faculty and staff at BYU last year, Elder Holland recognized that much of the world is a hostile place for our LGBTQ people.
For those who are not LGBTQ, it is hard to fully understand how a church building full of covenant people could cause harm. It is a phenomenon I see time after time around the world as the president of Affirmation. Even a covenant people can bring prejudice and acts of prejudice with them into places of community worship. We have a section in the Handbook now specifically calling on Saints to cease with prejudice and acts of prejudice. That’s gonna take some time.
LGBTQ people, especially our LGBTQ youth need the gentleness of discipleship in their spiritual home right now. You alone cannot change doctrine, but you can in your daily discipleship show love towards LGBTQ people, amplify their voices, advocate for them, listen to them, affirm them, support them in their spiritual decisions, connect them with their peers, and help them get to places that feel safe and healthy for them. Importantly, this includes recognizing the power of peer support and peer groups. LGBTQ people will feel alone in a group of straight cisgender peers and allies, no matter how strong the empathy, no matter how fun the activity, no matter how good the refreshments. If you do not facilitate connections with LGBTQ peers and mentors, then you are effectively isolating LGBTQ people. Isolation is dangerous for LGBTQ people of any age.
Before 1977, many groups of gay Mormons informally met together in secret because it was dangerous to do so otherwise. One of these informal groups was BYU students. Between 1976 and 1977 two of these students submitted to electroshock therapy in an attempt to cure their orientation. When the therapy failed, they became overwhelmed by feelings of massive unworthiness, which they felt they could only resolve by taking their own lives. Both had been counseled by ecclesiastical leaders to cut off contact with all gay friends as part of their “recovery” process—thus cutting themselves off from a network which might have been able to provide the support necessary to prevent their deaths. In that moment, this group of friends determined that a formal support network was essential and lifesaving for gay and lesbian Mormons—and Affirmation was officially born.
In the ensuing 45 years, Affirmation has grown in size and scope around the world, because where ever the Church is, Queer people are also. Today, encompassing sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, we build communities of safety, love, and hope around the world for LGBTQ people who occupy the same kinds of intersections our siblings did in 1977—and true to our founding roots, we still to this day look out and care for our friends.
In 2014, Wendy Montgomery, a member of the Board of Directors of Affirmation, found me online. I had come out in isolation and thought I was the only person in my situation. After 5 years, I was still falling out of the closet and it was unsettling. Wendy introduced herself, asked a few questions, and said, I know just where you need to be. I know where your people are. She then added me to the main Affirmation site.
And of course, Wendy was right. Here was an organization of my peers that completed the support I needed. I now had a peer group in Affirmation. This is what was missing. Here in Affirmation, no one was prescribing my path, they honored my feelings, my journey, my testimony, my impossible choices I had to make. It was like having an instant group of friends, an instant cheerleading squad, who stood up for me and listened to me, and reinforced the truth that I am smart enough to figure all these things out in ways that feel safe and healthy for me. I went from falling in isolation to having a refuge to land and to heal. And I was doing it among friends who affirmed my journey and believed in me. It was a lifesaving experience. In that moment, Wendy was my angel.
In the scriptures, when angels appear, they have two messages. Be it Zacharias in the temple, Mary with child, the Marys at the tomb, or the shepherds abiding in the field, the first message is “Fear not!” and the second is a message bringing “good tidings of great joy!”
Angels teach us that fear robs us of our joy. Angels cast out fear, before imparting the good news. That is the work of angels.
Elder Holland taught us that “not all angels are from the other side of the veil. Some of them we walk with and talk with—here, now, every day. Some of them reside in our own neighborhoods…Indeed heaven never seems closer than when we see the love of God manifested in the kindness and devotion of people so good and so pure that angelic is the only word that comes to mind.”
Angels can come in times we are afraid, in our anxieties and trauma. Lehi teaches us in the Book of Mormon that we are–we exist– that we may have joy.
Find your angels who not only admonish you to fear not, but to also have joy! In the spirit of Elder Holland, be those angels who minister in times of fear and who are anxiously engaged in bringing about joy and in doing good.
As one another’s angels, Christ is not asking us to judge our neighbor, to “other” our neighbor, for it is to the “others” that we run towards, to greet and to lift. We all are weary peers walking together, equally reliant upon God to sustain us no matter where we were born, who we were born to, the color of our skin, our gender, our gender identity, our sexual orientation, our ability or disability. There is no room in the gentleness of Love for a Rameumptom, for ARE we not ALL sinners and all fall short of the Glory of God? In the end, it is the Love of God that will welcome each one of us home, and it is our bearing of His gentle Love that helps others along the way. We become one another’s angels.
So, I close today and again say, “Fear not! God is with you, be not dismayed.” Let not fear be your motivator or your manipulator. I leave you with these good tidings of great joy from a poem I wrote years ago.
I see you, Queer person of Faith.
As your authenticity shines
Even as circles are drawn to exclude you
You will always be
Still exactly in
The intersection where