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In the Aftermath: Personal Reflections

Man Shadow Reflection

by Michael Haehnel

Submitted to Affirmation following The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint’s reversal of their November 2015 policy changes that prohibited children of LGBTQ parents from being blessed and baptized and characterized members of the church entering into same-sex marriages as apostates. These changes became known within the LGBTQ Mormon community as the “exclusion policy,” “policy of exclusion,” or “PoX.” The day after the reversal of this policy was announced, Nathan Kitchen, President of Affirmation, invited anyone willing to and share their authentic feelings and all their stories of grief, anger, relief, sadness, happiness, confusion, whatever they may be that surround the rescinding this policy. “As President of Affirmation, I want to be sure Affirmation does not hide you or your stories as we move forward,” wrote Kitchen in his invitation. If you have reactions or a story to share about the reversal of the exclusion policy, please send to submissions@affirmation.org. You can also read other stories and reactions to the reversal of the exclusion policy.

So it is over.

Over, but not over. The exclusion policy’s destruction of lives and relationships remains. What horrific devastation lies in the wake of these last forty-two months. Is there an ecclesiastical equivalent of FEMA to assess the wreckage and enact some kind of relief effort? I do not see that Church leaders acknowledge the damage. Disaster recovery begins with a public declaration that a disaster is a disaster. That is not happening that I can see.

The policy’s damage to the Church also continues. Onlookers wonder exactly what Latter-day Saints mean by “revelation.” That was revelation, and now this too is revelation? Explanations, long and convoluted, don’t do well in the modern Twitter-ized information age. They especially do poorly when they simply are not true.

Moreover, a bright light now shines on Church doctrines that marginalize queer people. The Church leaders turned on that bright light three and a half years ago, and the present reversal does not turn it off. There is no getting around this simple fact: Church teachings are queer-phobic. Leaders continue to say, “The doctrine will not change.” In effect, they turn the light up brighter still.

So where does that leave me?

One: I am glad the policy is over. I am glad that that oppressive stone has been lifted and taken away. So, so glad.

Two: When the policy went into effect, I forfeited my temple recommend, resigned all my callings, and turned down any callings that were offered to me afterward. Now that the policy is rescinded, I remain where I am. I am a queer man who could easily receive callings and qualify to attend the temple. But others, who are more deserving in God’s eyes than I am, are still seen as “serious transgressors.” No. Only when the Church as a whole 1) seeks and gains an inclusive understanding of the Plan of Salvation, and 2) honors the agency and recognizes the worth of queer people—only then will I choose to participate fully.

Three: In the meantime, I will keep going to Church.

Friends and family members question that last one. More than question—some doubt my sanity.

Understand: I have grappled with this.

  1. I have been to counseling with a therapist who had no sympathy at all for the Church and asked me hard questions. I am very grateful to that therapist; he helped me reframe my life from a closet mentality to an out mentality.
  2. I have listened to good friends who have had my best interests at heart. I am very grateful to those friends; they have shared truths that have significantly improved my quality of life.
  3. I have examined my beliefs. I have discarded some of them. Others I haven’t discarded—but not for lack of trying.

The fact that some of my beliefs endured, even after I purposely tried to expunge them, showed me that they were intrinsic to my entire system of values and to my way of navigating the world.

Here is my personal paradox: some of the things I have come to believe as a Latter-day Saint were the very things that helped me get out of the closet and into a healthier, fuller life. As I endeavored to ditch my Church-fostered beliefs wholesale, I came face-to-face with the realization that that would mean dumping some of the beliefs that became my lifeline as I was sinking into closet despair.

Think of my membership in the Church as a bush.

I have trimmed it quite a lot. But I haven’t ripped it out of the ground. It still has worth. To me.

I understand those who have gotten rid of the thing. I hear their reasons for doing so; “It’s invasive.” “Its roots were sucking the life out of everything else in the garden.” “It was an eyesore.” “It didn’t fit into the landscape anymore.” “It was dangerous.” All valid reasons. I am glad others recognize what they and their families need and have taken action accordingly. I applaud them.

At the same time, I request: please recognize that I don’t rip it out because it still has worth to me.

Perhaps a little bit of background might help to explain.

My mother joined the Church when I was five years old. My father did not. We lived outside of Boston at the time and moved shortly afterward to Vermont. I grew up in a part-member family in a community where Latter-day Saints were, quite literally, few and far between. Throughout most of my childhood and teens, my siblings and I were the only active Latter-day Saints in our multi-town school district.

My father was not in favor of our church involvement. We did not live in a community that strongly favored religion of any kind, much less The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most of my teachers were agnostic; some were outspoken atheists.

I had many good reasons not to believe. So conversion was not a casual thing. I thought hard about it.

My mother was a steady Latter-day Saint—one of those people who acts out of a deep core. But she did not try to force our devotion to the Church. That has never been her style. She is one of those Latter-day Saints who really, truly believes in agency, and honors it throughout. So my conversion was solely my project—no one else’s.

For me, point A was “Is there really a God?” That is not the question I was taught to ask. The prescribed trail of belief was to start with the Book of Mormon, which would lead to everything else. But for me, the starting place was God.

Mine was an individual, solitary, spiritual quest. So when I found God, it was a singular, personal moment.

For me, the profound realization that there really is a God did not suddenly spread to a wholesale belief in everything the Church teaches or in the Church itself. At the point of finding God, my outlook was this: “The Church encourages us to find out for ourselves. I found out about God for myself. I’m grateful the Church encouraged me to do that. Period.”

From there, as I established a connection with God, I learned to recognize when things rang true. Over time, a number of things that the Church taught rang true. So I let them in. A number of things I learned outside the Church also rang true, so I let those in as well. My belief spread slowly, organically. It spread outward as I believed more and more things. In spread inward as my thought processes and ways of viewing the world incorporated and merged with my belief.

I developed the habit of reading scripture at an early age and continued it for most of my life. I learned to test scripture against my connection with God, rather than rely on Church commentaries or ad hoc interpretations. Scripture, more than policy or word-of-mouth, helped inform the spread of my belief.

The gradual, organic spread of my belief also allowed for revisions. Since my belief in the Church was not monolithic, if something I learned from Church butted up against an experience that strongly contradicted it, I could let go of the specific belief without discarding everything. Some might disparage this as a cafeteria approach to the Church. So be it. “All or nothing” never worked for me.

At the same time as my belief system was forming, I became aware of my sexual orientation. Fortunately for me, in our little corner of the Church, no one made it their business to decry the perils of homosexuality. I accommodated my sexuality within my growing belief system with little outside interference. That doesn’t mean I did a good job of it: I had to do a lot of revamping later when I came out of the closet. But I didn’t totally muck it up either. I was compassionate enough toward my sexuality that I didn’t turn against myself.

To make a long story short, I am a believer.

My accrued beliefs are deeply wired into my thought processes and my approach to life. My Church-based beliefs are largely informed by resources that the Church has made available to me, including the body of scriptural works and the ongoing encouragement to find things out for myself. My beliefs are also informed by those moments when someone says something that rings true to me, which continues to happen fairly regularly at church meetings. No label is entirely accurate or comprehensive, but it comes closest to say that a major portion of my beliefs are Latter-day Saint beliefs.

To extricate those beliefs would be to extricate part of myself. Those beliefs have become part of my identity. I do not wish to lose my Latter-day Saint identity any more than I wish to lose my gay identity. I choose coexistence. It is the only way to be the person I value as me.

When it comes to the present moment, I view it with curiosity.

And anticipation. Moving forward, things are sure to be interesting, to say the least.

I also view the present moment with the belief that God knows all, loves all, and will make all things right. I wish for some kind of reckoning in the here and now, but failing that, I believe an accounting will be had. Those who have hurt others will someday comprehend in explicit spiritual detail the damage they have done. If they do not willingly repent sooner, anguish will overtake them later.

I expect unfolding events to inform my beliefs in ways I cannot now foresee. I choose to take it all in from my chosen perch: attending Church as a conscientious objector. And while I have no calling, that does not mean I have no voice or that I cannot serve. I can still be the change I want to see in the Church. That works for me.

Maybe some people can’t understand that. At least, please respect that.

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