I've always had a minor obsession with Mormons, but I only recently realized it's been linked to my sexuality all these years. (The skeptical among you may be thinking, "Why do gays always have to link everything to their sexuality?" But I think this link is actually valid.)
I grew up in southern California and went to high school with a relatively large Mormon population. During senior year I became friends with a Mormon girl whom I'd known from afar all four years of high school, because she was from a prominent family of 13 children. She was a cheerleader, and she was in my calculus class -- to me, that was an oxymoron. She was pretty in a traditional way, funny, charming, and had a sass to her that was intriguing. In short, I had a schoolgirl crush on her. To me, as a child of a Vietnamese immigrant mother, cheerleading represented the great American female archetype and defined traditional femininity -- neither of which I felt I embodied but desperately wanted to. Being friends with her would bring me closer to those ideals.
But I also was a burgeoning lesbian. I knew I had passionate, heartfelt emotions over girls, but I didn't associate them with sexual or romantic feelings; I just thought I wanted to be friends with them, be close to them. Previously, I had had a crush on another cheerleader, a blonde, tan, Farrah Fawcett type, but she didn't have as much to offer in the way of substance. The Mormon calculus enthusiast, on the other hand, was interested not only in football games and math but history, foreign languages, and reading. She also was a faithful member of what I considered a mysterious church with a fascinating backstory in the tableau of America the Beautiful. To others at our school, I think, she was a regular, everyday girl. But to me, a single daughter of a divorced, single mother from another country, she was the North Pole. I also found her ascetic moral values something to which I could aspire.
And so I pursued the cheerleader, as a friend. Though not openly gay in high school, I was outspoken as a feminist and was ready to debate. As I spent more time with my new friend, she would talk to me about the Church of Latter-Day Saints, her family, and their role within the church. I expressed interest, because 1) I wanted to be closer to her; 2) as the daughter of an Asian-Buddhist mother, other religions intrigued me; and 3) I was a provocateur, and on some level wanted to spar with her. Reason 3 was clearly an early form of flirting, but I wasn't sophisticated enough to realize it yet.
My friend gave me a copy of the Book of Mormon, some of which I did read (and I'm ashamed to say I probably read more of that than any of the numerous Bibles I had received over the years -- peer pressure is a great motivator). She took me to at least one church service (not one of the ones inside the holy temple where only LDS members were allowed admission) and several youth functions in the church, and she invited me to family gatherings that convened fellow church members. Everyone I met was warm and generous and kind (and white and wealthy, but that was more a product of where we grew up, I think, than the homogeneity of the LDS). I debated with her about what I viewed as inherent racism in the church (such as the story of the Lamanites, known as a nation of rebellious people whose skin God turned dark as a punishment for their disloyalty to God), and about the church's denunciation of homosexuality, and she managed to defend her religion as best as she could while still maintaining enough faith to stay in it. She maintained a stance of tolerance, as did I. We agreed to disagree, and we stayed friends.
We graduated from high school, and she went on to a Mormon college, and I to a midwestern university where I would come out about a year later. In hindsight, I don't think I was actually romantically attracted to her but to a persona that was so different from mine, an identity that seemed pure and confident, and burnished within the history of America.
Years later, I saw my old friend again at our 10-year high school reunion, and we still hit it off. She knew I'd come out, but we never discussed it. A year or two later, my partner and I traveled to Salt Lake City for a snowboarding vacation. I looked up my old friend, who lived there then, and she met up with us for a visit. She couldn't have been warmer toward me and my partner, nor less judgmental of us as a lesbian couple, it seemed. Who knows what she really thought of us, or of gay couples, or of gay families, or what she now thinks of same-sex marriage.
Recently members of the LDS Church in Salt Lake City marched in a Pride parade, supporting the gay community there, and in some way I felt connected to that old cheerleading friend once again. I know my impressions are one-sided, and I have no idea of her politics today (I'm trying to track her down), but I can't help but think of her again as our first Mormon presidential candidate has a serious run, and as same-sex marriage gains traction throughout our country and may appear before the U.S. Supreme Court next year. It's painful to acknowledge that members of the LDS Church donated many millions of dollars to help pass Proposition 8 in California, banning gay marriage and invalidating the marriages of some of our friends in the state my friend and I grew up in. If the personal is political, is it not also true that the political has to be personal? How could you continue to be a part of an institution that is actively fighting to take away the equal rights of people you know and respect and are fond of? For me, Obama, who belatedly and finally came out in support of gay marriage, once represented the hope for the revival of the American dream -- an idea that I believe is closely held in the heart of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. I imagine many Mormons now feel this way about Mitt Romney, but, all other problematic politics aside, how could anyone who knows and loves me -- or any other gay person -- get behind a candidate who could dismiss out of hand our hopes and expectations of equal rights as American citizens?
I know it's a simple (and maybe at this point outdated) adage, but I'm reminded of how most people's impressions of homosexuality are formed by knowing someone close to them who comes out as gay or lesbian. I remember at least one gay Mormon kid from high school, and how hard it must have been for him to come out, given his upbringing. I hope that my cheerleader friend's kids -- now approaching high-school age themselves and, I assume, still practicing Mormons -- are the generation that will be the bridge between people like her and people like me. And I hope she reads this, and emails me, and we start debating it all over again.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated that the LDS Church reportedly donated 50 percent of the campaign funds behind Proposition 8. The church itself did not directly donate money to the Prop 8 campaign, but some $22 million in funds supporting Prop 8 came from individual Mormon donors, including top officials in the church, accounting for more than 50 percent of total contributions to the Prop 8 campaign.