By John Gustav-Wrathall
President, Affirmation: LGBT Mormons, Families & Friends
Large numbers of LGBT Mormons have become disaffected from the LDS Church, and the majority of these generally do not reconnect with any sort of religion after they have left Mormonism. Many of these individuals were so traumatized by their experience in the church, that any contact with Mormonism, no matter how benign, can trigger difficult emotions and intense pain.
While many members of the church find peace, comfort, encouragement and affirmation in LDS doctrine, for individuals who have experienced this kind of trauma, words like God, faith, and repentance have condemning, rejecting, and invalidating associations. God is seen as an unmerciful judge. Faith is something we are constantly told we lack. Repentance is associated with a feeling of never being good enough, or with acceptance of perpetual inferior status. This is some of the fruit of homophobia and transphobia in our religious culture.
When church leaders demand repentance for something that is a core attribute of who we are, it distorts the fundamental meaning of repentance. Repentance is action we take in order to correct a wrong that we’ve committed. We repent for causing harm to others or for behavior that displays ingratitude in the face of God’s generosity toward us. Repentance is about living more deeply into the way of Christ-like compassion. It is not about changing or “overcoming” some core aspect of our created natures. God is portrayed in scripture as not making the least allowance for sin. So if you were taught to associate a core aspect of who you are with sin, you will internalize a view of God as a being who will never accept you.
The most common word in the Greek New Testament that we translate as “faith” actually also has the meaning of “trust.” When I learned this, it dramatically transformed my understanding of the nature of faith. Faith in God is not about believing in his existence, it’s about trusting him. Our ability to practice faith is taught in all relationships of trust, and the first teachers of faith are our family and our church leaders. When our family reject us merely for having discovered that we are gay, lesbian, bi or trans, or when church leaders promise us that our sexual orientation or our internal gender identity will change if only we have sufficient faith, the rejection and the failed promises shatter our trust and our ability to exercise faith in God.
Scriptural teaching about the character of God, and about faith and repentance is liberating and powerful. The problem for LGBT people is not the doctrines in and of themselves, but incorrect teachings about our nature, and about the nature of our sexuality or of our gender identity. Homophobic and transphobic teachings have garbled and confused the Gospel message. The applications of the Gospel that flow from homophobic and transphobic teachings, instead of lifting us up, leave us feeling broken, rejected, and perpetually unworthy.
The damage is compounded when LGBT individuals lose faith and leave the church because of the way the Gospel has been misapplied in their lives, and then are accused of lack of faith or disobedience for leaving. It becomes a vicious circle. It also does not help to argue that one’s sexual orientation or one’s gender identity are not core aspects of who we are; to suggest that LGBT identity is not real or not valid; and to accuse individuals who experience it as a core aspect of themselves of lack of faith. These are all common knee-jerk reactions of members and leaders of the church that add to the harm. There is a lot of behavior in the church that is motivated by homophobia and transphobia that is needlessly cruel or callous. For instance, a lesbian Mormon acquaintance of mine found a note on the windshield of her car after church, telling her she should go to church somewhere else where the standards of morality are “lower.” That type of behavior is among those offenses that Alma warned against when he told Corianton: “When they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words” (Alma 39:11).
When faith has been shattered or trust broken in this way, how do we recover real faith in God? How do we reclaim the powerful principles of faith and repentance?
For many of us – perhaps for most of us – you have to hit some kind of a reset button. In my case, I separated myself from the LDS Church for 19 years. I needed that time to explore my relationship with God in my own way, and in environments that affirmed me as good and whole. I had to be free to make mistakes. For instance, I had to learn through hard experience that just because my sexual orientation is not a sin, it does not mean that there is no such thing as sin. I had to learn through trial and error what is sin and what is not, and when repentance is needed. As I began to experience the need for grace in my life, I rediscovered Jesus Christ as my savior. Once I no longer had false expectations that faith in Jesus would make me heterosexual, his atonement for me took on new life and meaning. Once I rebuilt a relationship with God that was based upon correct principles, it opened up my heart and my soul, it enabled me to trust God wholeheartedly again, and it afforded me the grace and the peace and the new life that are the natural fruits of the Gospel.
Many LGBT individuals will never come back to the church. The depth and nature of the trauma they experienced in the church, the intensity of the rejection they experienced from family, church members and leaders have made it impossible for them to trust in that setting again.
It is impossible for us to have a meaningful relationship with God, if we do not at some fundamental level believe in and accept ourselves. So the most important thing we can do to repair the harm caused by the distortions of homophobia and transphobia is reassure people that they are good and perfect and whole as they are. It is also impossible to have a meaningful relationship with God, if our individual agency is not vigorously defended and respected. No choice is meaningful unless it is free. Every choice that an individual makes is sacred.
When we affirm the worth and value of every soul unconditionally, and when we honor their agency without strings attached, then we are beginning to live the Gospel in the pure sense that Micah described when he asked: “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8).