Mitch, you’ve become well known because of how you’ve interacted with the Church, but can you tell us how you found the Church (or how it found you)?
My parents converted to Mormonism when I was really young. I grew up in Idaho, so the culture was already heavily influenced by the Mormon faith. My Mom was always a pretty spiritual woman and she found the missionaries or they found her, I’m not sure which. I grew up inside the Mormon faith despite not being born in the covenant.
When I came out, I left the faith for a while. It wasn’t a friendly or supportive place for me at the time and in retrospect it was the right move for me. Still, being Mormon was a part of who I was, and was certainly part of my family and my cultural heritage.
I tried living life as a gay man without being Mormon, and I was miserable. I tried living life as a Mormon man without being gay, and I was equally miserable. I returned to the church in my mid 20s knowing I would someday have to reconcile the notion that I seemed to be a man with a foot in two worlds, yet belonged in neither.
Over time, I’ve come to recognize that yes—I am indeed a man with a foot in two worlds—and I belong in both.
Spiritual success and happiness for me don’t come from denying one part of myself at the expense of another. Success and happiness come from integrating both my orientation and my faith. That is how I've found my current balance.
When did you develop your current relationship with the Church?
One of the foundational elements of our faith is one of eternal progression—and that applies to how I understand myself in the context of Mormonism and certainly with my Savior. So my relationship with both continues to evolve and I think that’s a good thing.
I’ve been very active and held callings for a number of years, including the several years I was in a committed relationship with my partner (also male). I think being involved with Mormonism in a ward and stake where my orientation was secondary to the fact that I was a brother to every other member made a huge difference for me.
In my ward everyone knew I was gay—I wore a wedding band, most people knew my partner, and it didn’t make any difference. I was completely integrated into the Mormon community and loved not in spite of the fact
I was gay, but really I think because I was gay
I remember once an older couple running up to me in Sacrament Meeting one Sunday. Their excitement was contagious—they told me the night before they’d gone to see a really amazing play. “What was it about?” I asked. “Gay Mormons!” they both said in unison. I remember feeling a flash of shame in the moment and thinking to myself, “Does everyone here know I’m gay?” The more I thought about it the more I realized yes, they do—and it doesn’t matter.
Being part of a Mormon community where my orientation wasn’t scorned but was actually celebrated as part of the diversity of our Savior’s plan was an amazing experience. In fact, looking back on those years, they were a profound blessing from my Savior—I believe I had the kind of Mormon life many straight Mormon couples have in towns like Provo. My ward was not just my community—they became my family.
Our love and respect for one another wasn’t pinned to ethnicity, gender, orientation, or any of the other labels we put on others to mark them “different from us.” I was loved just because I was me.
What is the core of the gospel for you in your life?
There are two things central to me and very closely related—I don’t think I can separate them. The common thread that binds them is love.
The first thing central to me is the atonement
. I often think about this in my quiet moments alone, and admittedly, I still grapple with genuinely understanding it. It’s soul-stretching to me to think that my Savior took upon Himself every potential misstep I could make so that I could return home to my Heavenly Parents.
The depth of that kind of sacrifice and love—it’s hard for me to grasp in my human state. Linked in with this is the notion of how intimately personal it is for each of us, and it ties directly to my concept of self-worth.
The atonement means that my Savior already knows my defects—the most ugly, shameful, selfish and embarrassing parts of me
—yet He still loved me enough to die for me. I matter that much to Him—and every single one of us does, too. And if I matter that much, maybe I don’t have to be so hard on myself and can quiet the voice inside me that so often wants to catalog all the ways I’ve failed to measure up. After all, my Savior sees me as worth working for—shouldn’t I strive to do the same?
The second element that is central to me is building a personal relationship with my Savior
. Granted, this might not be a formal tenet of the gospel, but it’s certainly the pathway toward opening my life to the gospel and applying it to myself and those around me.
When it comes to my personal relationship with my Savior, the atonement helps give me context. Atoning for me required not only an immense amount of love for me, but also intimate knowledge of who I am. And, it means my Savior actively made the choice to atone for me with complete and perfect knowledge of every single defect I have
. So when I approach Him, He meets me where I am.
I don’t have to conjure up some manufactured version of false perfection before I can reach out in prayer and meditation. Sure, I can talk to Him when I’m at my best, but I can also approach Him (and probably should) when I’m at my absolute worst—when I’m angry, selfish, full of pride and resentment. When I put my relationship with Him in the context of the atonement, I recognize that I don’t have to hide a single part of myself from Him. That means I can pull him into the most intimate and personal areas of my life—areas that we as Mormons often consider too taboo to bring to God.
These two concepts are critically important to me because they help me begin to grasp what unconditional love is all about. When I realized my Savior loves me unconditionally—warts and all—I begin to understand that’s the same kind of love I’m supposed to offer myself. It doesn’t mean I slack on my path to being a better disciple, and it doesn’t give me an excuse to make the same mistake repeatedly and purposefully.
It does mean I don’t have to waste time berating myself for imperfections and missteps because they’ve already been accounted for. My job, instead, is to dust myself off when I stumble, reach out and take my Savior’s hand, treat myself gently, and continue to walk my path.
Only when I get this right for myself, am I in any kind of position to offer unconditional love to my fellows.
If you had to pick a commandment or a guideline as the most important for where you are in your life’s journey right now, what would it be?
It would be our Savior’s second great commandment: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” In fact, I’d venture to say that’s always been one of my fundamentals and probably will be as long as I walk this path. You see, I think it’s easy for us as humans to remind ourselves to “love thy neighbor.” But we tend to forget the second part of that commandment: “as ourselves.”
Following this commandment can be an incredibly challenging thing to do as a gay Mormon—or as anyone inside our faith who has been made to feel like ‘the other.’ I think the conservative rhetoric around marriage equality and the recent BSA announcement are good examples of how I strive to put this commandment into action.
There were a lot of hurtful comments both from Church leaders and from my conservative fellow Mormons on social media around both issues, and it was very easy to get triggered by those words and actions—but if I allowed myself to pause for a moment and try to look at what was really happening, I began to understand what I was hearing was fear
. And I know that fear is the opposite of faith.
This enabled me to have empathy and compassion—because as a gay Mormon, I know what it’s like to live in fear. I know what it’s like to feel like the world (and maybe God Himself) is standing against me. That is a terrifying place to be spiritually and emotionally—and it’s when I’m most disconnected from my Savior.
Just because my fellows are hurling angry, hostile words my way doesn’t mean I’m exempt from my Savior’s commandment to love others as myself. I don’t get to practice this commandment only when it’s convenient for me. In fact, I think the true test of my capacity to offer unconditional love to my fellows is if I can do it when it’s most inconvenient
Just because my fellows are hurling angry, hostile words my way doesn’t
mean I’m exempt from my Savior’s commandment to love others as myself. I
don’t get to practice this commandment only when it’s convenient for
me. In fact, I think the true test of my capacity to offer unconditional
love to my fellows is if I can do it when it’s most inconvenient.
Anger is our human response. Love, however, is always our Savior's. And I think it's most important we show the love, compassion, and kindness we wish to have shown to us--even (and maybe especially) to those who seem unable to give those qualities in return.
I cannot ask for inclusion, kindness, unconditional love and understanding if I am not among the first to grant them to others.
Where do you see your relationship with the Church headed in the next five to ten years?
I’m always going to be a Mormon—which to me, means actively engaged in my religion in some capacity. One of the things I like best about being Mormon is our idea of continuing revelation as outlined in the ninth Article of Faith. I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t get to predict our future as a religion, but I do see the hand of our Savior at work inside this Church.
We’re undergoing significant cultural change when it comes to LGBT individuals with some wards and stakes coming out publicly to welcome LGBT members back to Church exactly as they are—the Bay Area, Seattle, Boston, just to name a few. I suspect that will continue, since the great thing about continuing revelation is it’s not always a top-down experience. Sometimes it comes from the bottom up.
The game belongs to the players who stay on the field—and I have every intention of staying on the field.
What current projects or causes are you engaged in?
I’m definitely one of those people who has a difficult time sitting still, so I tend to be involved in a lot of different activities. In addition to my day job, I also sit on the San Francisco Human Rights Commission LGBT Advisory Council. On that commission we look at a broad spectrum of human rights causes across the city and the world, from larger scale issues like the BSA movement towards more inclusivity to local initiatives to help LGBT families who are displaced because of skyrocketing real estate prices in the city.
From the Mormon side, my emphasis has shifted a bit from working exclusively with LGBT members and their families (in large part to the growing groundswell of informed groups on social media) to working more with Bishops and Stake Presidents around the country on the LGBT topic.
Many of them have an interest in shifting the culture of their local wards and stakes to something similar to what we’ve done in the Bay Area and Seattle—formally opening the doors for all members who want to be part of the ward family, without fear of excommunication and regardless of where they are in their personal lives.
I had a gay co-worker who had an interest in the Church and wanted to read something. I gave him a copy of Believing Christ by Robinson. If you were asked the same question what book would you suggest?
I face this situation quite often—in fact, I’m working with a potential convert from the east coast right now. I think the book you suggest is a good one to get an understanding of what the core of the gospel is supposed to be, and how it’s supposed to be practiced.
But for potential LGBT members it’s really important to hear the experience of other LGBT members, their families, friends, and allies. Usually I suggest they join a few select private Facebook groups—that way, they get a broad brush look at how many Mormons deal with LGBT issues even if they don’t have supportive leadership.
The groups provide a dose of “real life” mixed with our traditional Mormon optimism—and hearing the stories of others and how diverse our experiences can be gives potential members a level of insight (and often new friendships) that can help them make a much more informed decision about joining the Church.
If you had one piece of advice for our readers when it comes to understanding LGBT individuals, what would it be?
Abandon the “love the sinner, hate the sin” philosophy. And not just for LGBT individuals who cross your path—with everyone. I don’t think we as humans ever do a really good job of separating actions from personalities. Meaning, we aren’t particularly successful at “hating” parts of people—invariably, we end up just not liking them based on the parts we don’t care for. More important, “love the sinner, hate the sin” puts us in the judgement seat—that’s not our job. In fact, our Savior was pretty adamant about not judging others.
A much better philosophy would be something like, “love the sinner, because you’re one too.” Then remember we do a lot better as disciples of our Savior when we focus a little more on our own salvation, and a little bit less on everyone else’s sins.
Abandon the “love the sinner, hate the sin” philosophy.
You’ve had a fair amount of press contact, and a fair amount of publicity. What is the one question you wish you had been asked, and what is the answer you would have liked to have given.
A much better philosophy would be something like, “love the sinner, because you’re one too.”
There’s one question I don’t think I’m asked frequently enough—and that is how to keep Mormon LGBT youth safer from serious health and mental health risk, like depression and suicide.
There’s a thriving debate over the extent to which we lose our LGBT Mormon youth to suicide. Compounding our lack of clarity is the fact that Utah does not collect data on religion or orientation when an individual commits suicide—so exact data on the extent of LGBT youth suicide inside the Mormon community is impossible to uncover. However, those of us who work with and have contact with these families know the risk and the problem is very real—and very pervasive.
Many parents misunderstand our Church teachings on how to respond to LGBT children, and reject their child—and often feel like they must choose between their Church and their child. But that isn’t what we teach inside our faith.
Rejecting your LGBT child is the exact opposite of the counsel we get from our leaders, most recently on www.mormonsandgays.org
. There, we learn that orientation is not a choice, it cannot be changed—and we should keep our families together.
Yet, we still see rejection of LGBT youth in Mormon homes across the country—due in large part to the fact that we’ve missed the opportunity on this site to teach parents how to support their child, rather than simply advise not to reject them.
I would ask our Church to formally adopt and make available the research done by the Family Acceptance Project [http://familyproject.sfsu.edu/
], specifically the LDS version of their research booklet http://familyproject.sfsu.edu/publications
]. You can download it there for no cost.
This research provides the missing link for parents. It helps parents understand what reactions help keep their child safe and close to the family, and which ones hurt and put them at risk. The research also tells us that LGBT kids who experience high levels of rejection are:
- More than 8 times as likely to attempt suicide;
- Nearly 6 times as likely to report high levels of depression;
- More than 3 times as likely to use illegal drugs;
- More than 3 times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and STIs
I think one of the things I like best about the research, though, is it teaches parents how they can support their child and avoid these kinds of outcomes—while still staying true to the best parts of our Mormon faith.
Supporting our Mormon LGBT children doesn’t require we change or abandon our doctrine. It simply requires that we live it.
Supporting our Mormon LGBT children doesn’t require we change or abandon our doctrine. It simply requires that we live it.