Losing Religion/Keeping the Faith

Holly Mullen

Holly Mullen

by Holly Mullen

Originally published in the Salt Lake City Weekly. Reprinted with the author’s permission. © Holly Mullen

A couple of weeks ago, Connell O’Donovan e-mailed my husband an invitation to the 30th anniversary celebration of Affirmation, a worldwide support group for gay and lesbian Mormons. We accepted the offer—partly out of curiosity, but mostly due to the uniquely human need for reconciliation.

Almost 20 years to the day earlier, on June 1, 1987, my husband had sat in judgment of O’Donovan, then age 23 and openly gay, with two other LDS priesthood holders on a “bishop’s court.” Several months before, O’Donovan had publicly come out to the Emigration 2nd Ward, an LDS singles congregation in Salt Lake’s Avenues neighborhood. In keeping with Mormon teachings, it wasn’t O’Donovan’s admitted homosexuality that was the problem. It was the fact that he moved beyond the church’s required celibacy of gays and had sex with another man. And when the bishopric—of which my husband was the first counselor—learned of O’Donovan’s transgression, the “court of love,” as the church calls it, was thus engaged.

O’Donovan offers a beautiful rendition of the court’s decision to place him on probation, and of his eventual church excommunication in a 2005 essay titled “Losing My Religion—Or, How I Baked a Custard Pudding and Lost My Belief in Mormonism.” O’Donovan—now a writer and historian who teaches summer classes at University of California Santa Cruz—notes how the bishop’s court that day actually saved him from languishing as a half-human in the church and from eventually committing suicide. He was clinging to his religion, his battered self-image, his very life just that tenuously.

His account of the leniency afforded by my husband and the others is stunning. And also very funny. Go here and see for yourself.

So here we are, a few days out from the 2007 Utah Pride celebration. Utah’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community has, besides simply sponsoring a screaming good time, always used the combination parties/parade/interfaith service/film festival as a teaching tool for the mainstream community. As in: “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.”

But there are miles to go. Thoughts of that distance between the gay and straight populations bring me, again, to the Holladay United Church of Christ, a pro-gay congregation that offered its building for the Affirmation event.

It was an evening of song, biographical sketches, reminiscing around poignant moments of deciding to embrace or to quit Mormonism. Utah artist Trevor Southey, who recently filled lengthy screen time in the PBS documentary The Mormons, described his split with the faith after years of trying to “de-queer” himself as a younger man through grueling sessions of church-supported aversion therapy. For Southey, who served an LDS Church mission, married and fathered children, much of his life has been a battle between “defying nature and trying to accommodate nurture.”

Because what the successful painter wanted—what everyone who attended the celebration that night wanted—was to be seen as complex, conflicted and worthy as any other human being. Southey, for instance, has spent his adult life juxtaposing the labels “father” and “gay.”

“I have concerned myself with how do I bring [those two labels] together,” Southey said. “Because, you see, it is an ongoing battle to maintain the truth of ourselves.”

I suppose that reaching for truth of self was another reason we found ourselves driving to the Affirmation celebration. In 1987, the year my husband helped take that “loving action” against Connell O’Donovan, he was the Democratic candidate for Utah governor. He also was a devout Mormon. It was no small conflict, then, for him to reconcile his liberal soul with a religion that denies gay people and women full equality and recognition of their humanity. It is no longer a central conflict, though he keeps hoping—hasn’t given up on the prospect—that the church hierarchy will someday be moved to accept everyone, for exactly who they are.

In a perfect 21st century moment, it was the Internet that reintroduced O’Donovan and my husband. Earlier this year, a friend e-mailed him O’Donovan’s essay. My husband immediately sat down and wrote his former congregant a long electronic letter, part of which included an explanation of how time and experience had changed his heart forever. The fight for gay rights is centered in the understanding that all people are equal and deserve fair and humane treatment, he wrote. “I am sorry for the pain my action caused you.”

I walked into that Affirmation celebration wondering why anyone would devote so much time and energy to what seemed a lost cause. Why turn such organized effort toward being “affirmed” by this religion? I, for one, would never seek membership in a club that wouldn’t be proud to have me (apologies to Groucho Marx for roughing up his joke). But then I’ve never stood on the outside looking in. Not really. Not in any fundamental way.

So then, Utah Pride still matters. Happy humanity.