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How Homophobia and Transphobia Distort the Gospel

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).

10 thoughts on “How Homophobia and Transphobia Distort the Gospel

  1. Loved this John. Very well written. Too bad this could not be printed in the Ensign and other church periodicals.

  2. Maybe John should submit this article for the Ensign magazine. It needs to reach larger LDS audiences.

  3. Very well articulated John.

    What is very important is we must remember that we are born into our religion. It is already predetermined for us at birth by our parents. We develop further and become more solid with our given religion because of family direction, expectation, and through the milestones in which we engage in within our church and religion. The pressure to conform is greater with the number of generations before you who followed the same lineage.

    There are so many layers when it comes to religion. From the start, we are not given the opportuntiy for genuine freedom of choice, and become so engrained that we feel there cannot possibly be any other source of such spiritual fulfillment or nourishment except from what we were told to believe and how we were raised. In each of us, there is a desire to belong; albeit in the religious family and in our own family. Each providing that feeling of community.

    Then comes this layer that only our LGBTQ brothers and sisters know the full extent of, and that is how their relationship with the church is suddenly re-defined by the very same people who supported and welcomed them BEFORE learning they are LGBTQ. Interesting is that, you can have someone be in an intimate heterosexual relationship and if they were being treated in ways in which they were forced to feel “less” than, unworthy, ashamed, abused, abandoned, etc., people may be quick to say that the person must set healthy boundaries and remove themselves from such a harmful situation, Yet, the same empathy or motivation to help the LGBTQ individual who is being harmed in the very same ways by the church seems to be absent. Are LDS families more ashamed of their LGBT family members who leave the church because it draws attention to their non-conformance? Would they prefer that their LGBTQ loved one be less than authentic and engage in a heterosexual union even if they are not being altruistic and potentially impact the life of another person deserving of receiving someone fully and authentically? Is it that they would rather their LGBTQ family member stay in a religion that requires that person to abstain from the full gift of a lifetime partnership and physical intimacy at the expense of such a deep void?

    It is important that while we are lucky there are so many groups like Affirmation, Mormon’s Building Bridges, Mama Dragons, Dragon Dad’s and more, that we also afford young adults the freedom of choice to adopt a different religion or source in which their spiritual nourishment can derive from while also being their authentic selves without the shame and harm the church brings. Sometimes it is more necessary to not search for ways to keep them in the church even if bringing them comfort and support because in doing so it is trying to keep them in an abusive or harmful relationship with the church, but to say like one would say in which a relationship with a significant other was bringing harm, that there are more “fish” in that vast sea, and to encourage an alternate source for their religous nourishment. I am grateful there are suport groups available, and that Mormon’s are reaching out in wards and during services to say “I will sit with you” and be an ally for the LGBTQ youth and young adults, but we need to remain mindful that in doing so, it can encourage them to be staying in an abusive and harmful situation, and maybe the larger benefit is to help them find alternative resources outside of the LDS church. After all, the church keeps digging its heals in deeper and deeper with its determination to divide their LGBTQ members and in doing so just keeps bringing more separation, at what point do you stop trying to keep these LGBTQ individuals inside a place of harm, and instead help them transition out to a more healthy alternative? What I have seen through many personal stories is that it isn’t until one can separate from the source of their pain, can they really heal and find clarity. And, in some cases after doing so, many LGBT individuals have found an off spring of the LDS church in which they find fulfillment because the warm culture of Morminism exists without its rigidity and judgment that the LDS church brings. Then there are those who find a way, years later, to re-emerge within the LDS church after having that space for clarity to set in, and where they have set personal boundaries in which they can find peace in the church while also maintaining their same sex relationships. Individual freedom of choice is something lacking in the LDS church and maybe it is time that there is more support for this option than anything else.

    May each of you be filled with the blessing of our heavenly father, and NEVER stop believing you are worthy, your life matters, and that your authentic self is loved dearly by Jesus Christ who gave that very life to you.

  4. John, thank you, this is wonderful. It touched a very tender spot in my heart that I’m stil nursing back to health. Thanks for sharing! Hugs!

  5. “Trust in God”, has been something I had to acquire at a young age as my father attempted to throw me out on my 12th birthday. Were it not for a mother of extraordinary strength and fortitude, I and my sister would have been gone from the situation with no regrets. In fact we begged to go, and frequently wonder what would have been the best. I spent most of the following years away from home with friends or extended family members or brothers or sisters. God became the only father that I knew loved me.

    When it came to my sexual orientation, dealing with it on any real level was too painful to even attempt. The only home I had was the church. Even thinking about considering the attraction to men was so demeaning to myself and spirit that I couldn’t acknowledge it until the year I turned 40, when I faced my fathers death and a autoimmune disease that became a death sentence to my daughter. I couldn’t face living without sharing the load with God, the load I had hid and carried inside me for years, driven me to move from town to town, job to job and hide from any real or meaningful relationships outside of my wife and children. Trust, yeah I trusted God everyday that I could live a traditional life and be happy. It was possible, doable and achievable, for with God, NOTHING is IMPOSSIBLE. I had many moments of happiness as a father and the true joy I felt in life was through them. They gave me purpose to live a life I felt was impossible. I love them with all my heart. My wife, bless her heart, my friend since third grade, adored me. With such love I knew if I were to succeed at all in marriage, would be to her credit. Many years we fought, we faced devastating challenges including the death of out daughter, 2 bankruptcies and over 60 physical moves in less than 35 years of marriage. At one point our then Stake President, a psychologist by profession, told me of our “dysfunctional” marriage. We separated for a short while, even talked divorce, but I returned to home and our family committed first to TRUST GOD, then to the friendship of my wife and the mutual love of our children. I remain committed to them but I have learned for myself that I had to include my orientation to God as well. This came through much tribulation and desire to die and leave this world with feelings of inadequacy, failure, and pain. Just the thought of owning my feeling drove shame and anguish into my soul. I had never measured up in the eyes of my father, or siblings, let alone risk disclosure of being attracted to men. I would just as well have signed a warrant of execution from those I loved and cherished most.

    Still today there is an associated fear to be acknowledged in the arena of being “gay”. I have learned however to deal with it in a way where I can enjoy the company of many gay friends and have also found family members that are gay. Wonderful people whom I love and treasure and respect in many ways. As I understand the gospel of Jesus Christ the first and greatest commandments all deal will love, the second as well, and the greatest commandment of all is charity, which is the pure LOVE of Christ, which again has to do with love. Yes, there are many correct principles in the gospel that teach important things, but none are more important than love.

    We are told judgement is God’s and we are not to judge people in that way. TRUST again comes in that God will judge and that that judgement will be just, merciful, and fair. It is important to remember here that GOD, does not think as man thinketh, he is no respecter of persons, and that only he can pronounce a perfect judgement.

    What is the most sad in all of this is that so many hide, closeted, in the church, because they don’t feel that unconditional love, that acceptance. I have know men in Bishoprics, Stake Presidencies and other high offices of the church who hide the feelings they have for fear of reprisal and loss. I recently visited with friends at a meeting where I was introduced to yet more. My heart pained deeper as I seen them struggle and even question the existence of God and the testimony they have in him. But what we have here is not a result of faith, it is the result of fear. Fear of facing feelings buried alive that I am only too familiar with myself. Have you ever read “Feelings Buried Alive Never Die”, by Karol Kaufman. I suggest you do. Another book key to my healing was ‘You can Heal Your Life” by Louis L Hay. Is it any wonder suicide among the members of the church is at an all time high, suicide in youth is outrageous and the “joy” “Men are meant to have in life as the scripture states cannot be found. i know it because I have lived it. Trust in God.

    So much of life we have to learn to trust ourselves first, and be honest with ourselves. This is a lifelong process for some, it is harder than others. We grow line upon line, precept by precept, here a little, there a little. We are all a work in progress. I am grateful for my marriage as it has taught me service, sacrifice, and the joy of parenthood, but what it can’t do or hasn’t done is replace my orientation. There is not a day goes by that I am not aware of it and I find myself more and more TRUSTING GOD in the decisions I make to help me find the support I need and the associations I need to feel love expressed in a way that is fulfilling to me. I have often struggled as I have listened to others talk about how it isn’t fair to the wife to have a gay husband. She blames herself for his inattention and lack of interest. I even question this in how much my wife has taken upon herself in this regard as she has cancer and many claim this has root in the psyche as to relationships with the men in their lives. I do not know. What I do know is that I started this marriage with sharing with her my love for her as a sister, as a friend, whom I would always love. She gave me the love I needed when I couldn’t even love myself and felt that no one else could either. What kind of friend would I be if I stopped trying to keep going now. Just because there is more discussion, more general acceptance of gay people can I forsake my commitments to her for my own happiness or fulfillment. I think not. Does it mean I should have no joy, no friendship in association with men, I think not. Does it mean I have betrayed God if I find fellowship that feeds my soul with other men. Does it mean I am having extramarital sex if I have gay friends? Hell No!!! But despite what the world thinks, the local church hierarchy, or the nation for that matter, what matters most is your relationship with God. HE ALONE IS THE JUDGE, fear not what man can do. TRUST HIM.
    “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and LEAN NOT UNTO THINE OWN UNDERSTANDING, in ALL thy ways, acknowledge him and he shall direct thy paths. Ps 3:5-6 “Look unto me in every thought, doubt not, fear not” D&C 6:36

    WITH GOD ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE
    I love you my dear brothers and sisters, may you all find the peace of God to be with you and direct your souls in the everlasting trust of our GOD. If I can ever help or encourage any, please feel free to reach out. I lost a sister to suicide for what ever the reason, that is one suicide to many, don’t join the statistic. There is hope.

  6. John, thank you for your courage and your vulnerability in the heartfelt words. I only wish more LDS people would become familiar with your beautifully written line, “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.” Thanks John, best Justin

  7. We have been taught in the church since little children that we are here on earth to gain a body. It seems a lot of people don’t realize that our perfect spirits from the heavenly union are put into a mortal body that is subject to vast differences from other mortal bodies. Individual hormones, genetic predispositions, mental issues, health issues, disabilities, and gender or sexual identities are not equal. It’s pretty easy to see physical differences, but the core feelings (or our spiritual feelings) have to be told to others to reveal our feelings. And some don’t want to accept those differences or believe they exist, or think they can be prayed away or with enough faith can be changed. We should treat our bodies with respect and live healthy lives, but it doesn’t seem necessary to have to change our core–our spirit. We should actually focus on our spiritual lives. We should do good works. We should live according to the spirit’s whisperings of personal revelation. We should seek knowledge. God judges our spirit in the end. We are judged on how we treat others, including those who don’t fit expectations.
    As another popular saying goes, ‘We are not mortal beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a mortal experience.”

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