Affirmation President Speaks at LGBTQ Interfaith Sunday Service
On October 24, 2021, the Provo Pride Interfaith Service was held at the historic Provo Community Congregational United Church of Christ. Organized by Flourish Therapy and live-streamed by Latter Gay Stories, this service centered on the power in queer spirituality. It was an empowering and uplifting afternoon of prayer, word, and song. Speakers at this event were Tekulvē Jackson-Vann, licensed marriage and family therapist and co-founder of The Black Clinicians; Nathan Kitchen, President of Affirmation: LGBTQ Mormons, Families & Friends and Doctor of Dental Medicine; and Roni Jo Draper, professor of teacher education at BYU, multicultural education/women’s studies, and president of the board of ACLU of Utah. Music was provided by members of the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir and Dave Lewis, organist at UCC. Full video.
Finding the Place which God for us Prepared
by Nathan Kitchen, Affirmation President
I am so grateful to be here with you this afternoon. I am grateful to be part of this conversation we’re having today. I am coming to this conversation as a member of an organization that builds communities of safety, love, and hope for LGBTQIA+ people around the world, and in doing so, we support LGBTQIA+ people as they navigate their own intersections with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is from this space that I will speak today.
Mesa Temple Open House
The Mesa Arizona Temple has been closed for three years for extensive renovation. Recently completed, the church is now conducting an open house for the next month where the general public can come and tour the inside of the temple before it is closed to the general public and before it is dedicated.
The first week of this open house was reserved for the VIP tours that the Church does for the press, political leaders, community leaders, and religious leaders of different faith traditions, all groups the church wants to have a relationship as they work with them in the public sphere.
For the first time I am aware, the church dedicated one evening during their VIP week for leaders of the LGBTQ community. It was actually quite 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.
Now, Elder Gong was our tour guide through the temple. 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 and it was there that Elder Gong seated us all in the sealing room and shared with us authentically and unashamedly what happens in a sealing room—where a man and a woman would be sealed in marriage to one another for the eternities.
Now you can imagine the tension that was in the sealing room. It was a sealing room filled with successful, self-determined, married, transitioned LGBTQ community leaders, some who have gone head-to-head with the church over LGBTQ rights ballot and legislative issues, some who worked with the church to pass local and state Fairness For all Legislation, some who serve communities that the church also has an interest in serving. It was a room full of organizations that the church wanted to build a relationship with—and here we were all just reminded, that once again LGBTQ people who claim the opportunities and equality of their cis-het peers have no place in that sealing room.
When he was finished, you could almost cut the tension with a knife. 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: 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.
And then Elder Gong offered this response:
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. It felt like he had ripped a page in the LGBTQ playbook when he said these words.
Elder Gong’s reply in the sealing room consisted of three parts:
- Unashamed authenticity is respectful.
- We do not own your offenses to our intentions and authenticity.
- We have shared our authentic self in love.
So, let’s talk about what really happened in the sealing room that night.
The Elephant in the Sealing Room
There in the sealing room, Elder Gong was actually speaking to the LGBTQ community as one organization speaks to another organization. It was one organization sharing an authenticity, their ideology with another organization.
It is a completely different relationship than what we experience as LGBTQ individuals in our own faith home and faith home of our families. For all of us currently navigating or have navigated their intersections with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we experience a power differential when leaders speak to us as individuals.
In contrast that night, Elder Gong was speaking to a collective LGBTQ community as equals, and if the LGBTQ community collectively felt the exclusion of the sealing room, then they meant no offense. It was given in love. Afterall, after the tour everyone parts ways. The church goes one direction and the LGBTQ community goes another.
This exchange avoided the elephant in the sealing room. In the face of exclusionary practices, as members of our faith community we simply all don’t go back to our own corners. This is our faith home and we are LGBTQ people and families in the church who actually experience these baked in exclusions on a daily basis that the LGBTQ community happened to feel for just one hour of their tour.
In politics, Fairness For All fixes the LGBTQ community “problem,” but it doesn’t begin to approach the queer children of God, a queer people of faith—and I might add an intense faith—or our families, and it doesn’t make whole the families in the Church who have been blessed to have queer children.
Every hour a precious LGBTQ child is born into Latter-day Saint homes across the world. Literally every hour. The church reported just over 94 thousand births to members of the church in 2019. There are 8,766 hours in a year. With just over 10% of youth ages 18-34 identifying as LGBTQIA+ individuals, we are born into the Latter-day Saint tradition every hour. We constitute a tithe of Latter-Day Saints.
The LGBTQ community is not joining the church. LGBTQ people are born into the church.
The question is not “what are we going to do with the LGBTQ community?” The question is “what are we going to do about our own children?”
As queer people in the church, we are not an organization. We are your children. We are born into your families. We are not an “other people,” we are YOU. What are we going to do with our own children? It is time we approach this question, this elephant in the sealing room, all together. No more beating around the bush.
Three Points to Begin Addressing the Elephant in the Sealing Room
It is not enough anymore just to acknowledge that there is a rainbow stained-glass ceiling in the church through which LGBTQ people cannot rise, they cannot break through it as they watch their cis-het peers rise in full belonging, blessings, and privilege.
It is time to question why there is a rainbow stained-glass ceiling there in the first place. We need to start asking this question at every chance we get. Why are we holding our queer siblings in a celibate, non-transitioned state under a rainbow stained-glass ceiling?
Why exactly are we capturing our sexual minorities and placing them into the church’s not-so-secret celibate monastic order for life, never to have the opportunity to experience the most profound union of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family and to do so according to their orientation? Why are we erasing—why are we allowing the erasure—of transgender members of the church, placing restrictions upon them, even withdrawing their membership, in their self-determination of transitioning—for simply living one’s gender in authenticity and honesty?
The fact is, our queer children who claim the equality of their cis-het peers will be excluded from the sealing room, the celestial room, their eternal family tree, and the presence of God and we as the body of Christ must not sustain the status quo.
Queer people of faith are not an ideology. We are your children and when we as your children ask for bread, we are often given a stone. And sometimes these stones are thrown at us. We have been told recently that the church needs more stone catchers. I say, enough with the stones. We don’t need more stone catchers. We need more bread makers.
Bread is just not a physical nourishment to sustain our health in this life. Christ is the bread of life. So as LGBTQ people of faith when we ask for bread, we are asking for Jesus, the bread of life. And it is a stone every time we are excluded from our eternal family tree. Why are we denying our LGBTQ children the Jesus of the sealing room, of inclusion in our eternal family?
Question. Question. Ask these questions. God appreciates questions. If a question was good enough to start the Restoration of the Church in 1820, it’s good enough now to begin to make a movement in LGBTQ spiritual equality today. It’s time to put equality in the slogan, “All are Alike unto God!” Just remember that Jesus teaches us that the continual questioning of the importunate widow gets results.
Allies, we love you. We love when you come and you help, and you can go into places that we cannot go, and you can carry our stories in places we do not have access. It’s great to be a part of an inclusive community of family, of friends, of allies, of our own LGBTQ peers and mentors. Together we can do great things.
Remember allies, that Elder Gong did not modify their presentation one iota for the LGBTQ community during the Mesa temple open house tour because they were worried that certain parts might cause offense or be difficult to hear. Do not ignore this signal from Elder Gong.
When you as allies tell our stories and bring them into spaces that we cannot go or spaces that we are excluded in, do not skip our rooms. Do not change our signage because you are afraid that it might cause offense. Share every part of our stories. Just don’t share our triumphs. Unashamedly share our exclusions, our harms, our sorrows leading to joy, and share our families, share our desires, share the way that we experience faith within this life. Boost the experience and voices of the underrepresented queer population in the Church.
The Queer/Latter-day Saint intersection is a pressure cooker and it is messy. Don’t change our signage. Don’t skip any of our rooms. And if this authenticity offends your listeners and followers, then just know that was not your intention because you have given this in love. You have humbly shared our stories in love.
And when you are sharing all of our stories—and all of our stories—the stories of queer faith—just not the stories the church considers “faithful” because they adhere to a prescription of what currently makes an acceptable LGBTQ person in the Kingdom—when you share the entire powerful spectrum of faith of an LGBTQ people that the church struggles to hide, you are literally intersecting with your queer children’s LGBTQ mentors. We have already successfully navigated the kinds of intersections that lie ahead for your children.
Start connecting your queer children and young adults with LGBTQ mentors who have traveled the path before them and who are working tirelessly to make the road easier for them to follow. It is one of the greatest gifts you can offer your children, to connect them with queer mentors. In doing so you will not lose your child; you will strengthen your child and gain a pretty awesome community in the process.
It is time to connect together LGBTQ people of faith, young and old together, in one great network of mentors and peers.
We have an LGBTQIA+ Spiritual Bill of Rights when we stand and exist in a faith community that feels safe and healthy for us, and part of this Spiritual Bill of Rights I will just mention briefly.
1. First, you are not broken and as an LGBTQ person of faith only your heart needs be. When our hearts are broken, we are completely open to the Spirit of God and recognize our dependence on Him for all that we have and all that we are. And what you are is a whole and healthy child of Heavenly Parents who love you. Your choices will define you, but never, ever, let others define you.
You will encounter many choices as an LGBTQ person of faith, but when the choice is placed before you that is different than the choices that is presented to your cis-het peers, question why is that is so. You will get an answer, for when our hearts break completely open to the Spirit of God, we are capable of personal revelation and guidance to take the path that God wants us to take, to walk the spiritual path that God wants us to walk.
It is a gift of the Restoration to enjoy personal revelation. Know that as an LGBTQ person of faith, you are not broken. Stand tall in the great heritage of Saints who gift a broken heart and a contrite spirit. Such is the privilege of every Christian in every age. Do not let other’s offer your broken heart in your behalf, and do not allow others to weigh your heart in the balance and declare it wanting.
2. Second, you are not required to erase yourself or to become small in your faith community. It is true that we are to become a new creature in Christ. But this does not mean we are required to erase ourselves to become something new and on beyond recognition to where we don’t even recognize ourselves. We don’t lose the spiritual gifts, talents, personalities, expressions, orientation, or gender that we come with.
Becoming a new person in Christ is just becoming the best version of ourselves and we will know Christ when he comes again because we will recognize him not because we have given up our identity, but rather as Blaire Ostler shows in Queer Mormon Theology, we will recognize Him because we will recognize the best version of our selves within him. Christ represents the best version of all ourselves in the family of God.
3. Third, you have a right to stand and exist in places that feel safe and healthy for you. Do not only stand, but stand tall and proud with your whole authentic self. Remember Elder Gong. He did not apologize to the LGBTQ community in that sealing room. He said: And if this authenticity has caused you offense, then that was not our intention because we have given this in love.
Authentically and unashamedly walk into your faith spaces and know that if that causes offense to someone else, that was not your intention because you are offering yourself in love as you personally worship within your faith spaces.
Apologies are for the repentance process. They are not for you; your existence, presence, or identity. You do not have to apologize for who you are; you apologize for what you may have done when you have offended the two great commandments.
4. Fourth, your family is of God and you have the right as a child of God to be part of your eternal family. In our family-centered/church-supported era, your family is to be supported by the church and the body of the Saints. Insist on this right. Unfortunately, right now, as fast as parents can add their queer children, their same-sex married children, to their family tree in the church’s FamilySearch family history program, we have stake presidents who are removing by excommunication these same queer children, these same-sex married children, from their eternal families—It’s such a disconnect what is happening here. It’s the eternal tree that matters. The Family Search tree is fine, but it is not what matters in the end.
Insisting that we return to our heavenly home with our families intact is the same desire that every pioneer had as they came to the Salt Lake Valley. That they might reach that valley with all of their children alive. Expect that. And know that when you ask for this, you’re asking for bread. And we know from the scriptures that God will deliver.
5. And finally, you have a right to experience joy, just not joy in some undetermined point in the future, or after this life. You do not need to wait until your faith community figures it all out. In this life, churches think in centuries, but we experience mortality in decades and within this timeframe, we have a right, it is our reason for being, to be able to experience joy right now. Lehi teaches that we are, we exist, so that we may have joy. We exist in mortality to have joy, and it is here for you.
As I walked the rooms of the Mesa temple for the open house tour, I was reminded of this fact. It behooves us as we find our joy as LGBTQ people, to internalize the lessons of our first parents that are taught in the temple. This lesson is that sometimes to find joy you have to make hard decisions about what your joy is and where your joy is found. And sometimes your joy is not found in Eden. And I often wonder if our first parents left Eden with poise and certitude that they had made the right decision and I believe they had. I believe they knew exactly what they were doing. If you find yourself being driven from your own Eden by prejudice, harassment, or discrimination, understand that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is bigger in time and more inclusive in vision than any one person, administration, or policy. In time, people, administrations, and policies return to the dust, but Christ has risen from the dust, eternal in His love and care. And it is through Christ that you will rise from the dust alive in Him.
One of my absolute favorite hymns is “Come, Come, Ye Saints.” The very first words we sing in this hymn encourage us to have no fear in our journey, but to have joy. This can seem difficult to do at times, because many of the spaces we encounter in our journey as an LGBTQ person appear to be unsafe and uninviting. But this hymn gives us all a very important clue about how we can find joy as we live our life. The clue is in the lyrics. We do not sing this hymn in the singular person. There is no “me” or “I” in this hymn. Instead, we sing using the plural pronouns “us” and “we.” We sing this hymn as the hope of an entire community.
And as an entire community of faith let’s look out for one another, and for our families—and not accept that our families may not be with us under the boughs of love.
Being part of a supportive community is one way that we can find joy in this life. And as we do, may we discover that in this supportive community, we are actually under the boughs of love. The same boughs that Lehi and Sariah stood under as they called to their children to join them, to partake of the fruit of the Tree of Life, which is the love of Jesus Christ.
May we find ourselves under this tree, heavy with the fruit of the love of God, surrounded by our own families and our friends in joy. After all, this is our birthright, to have joy.
I am grateful that you are a part of my community, my supportive community. There is great spiritual power and strength when we experience this together, when we ask the questions together, and when we exercise our right to be a part of shaping our faith community and how it interacts with each one of us.
And together let us find the place which God for us prepared.
And I leave that with you, in the name of Jesus Christ,