Of the 75 or so articles that RaiseAChild.US wrote this year for our Huffington Post Gay Voices “Let Love Define Family™” series, the readers’ response to our interview with Wendy Williams Montgomery amazed us. That story surpassed all expectations by earning over 50,000 Facebook “Likes.” It was just a simple interview with a mom who was doing her best to raise her five children in a small town in California’s Central Valley with her husband. Yet, Huffington Post readers were moved by this woman’s honesty, her heart and her passion to find a balance between her love for her Mormon religion and her devotion to her gay son.
To close out 2014, RaiseAChild.US celebrates the success of our partnership with Huffington Post Gay Voices by providing you this link to the original interview and a new interview with our LGBT community’s favorite Mormon mom, Wendy Williams Montgomery.
Rich Valenza: You set out to make a change within the Mormon Church for your gay son and other LGBT youth. You want to help those children and the Mormon families they came from. How do you think you are doing with that?
Wendy Williams Montgomery: This is hard to measure. There has been change in our own family. There’s been a little change in our local community. There’s been change on a broader scale. The change in our family is mostly with my son Jordan. He rarely attends church anymore and that is helping him. Our church is just a spiritually unsafe place for him to be. For example, we asked the local leaders in our congregation to include him in the preparing of the sacrament, which is part of the duties of teenage boys his age. We’ve asked for two years and it’s never happened. He’s made to feel very awkward. We were told early on in this journey by one of our local leaders, “You’re just one family. We can’t upset the whole apple cart for just one family.” I don’t think he understands that there are thousands of gay Mormons and hundreds of thousands of Mormons who love their gay family members and feel conflicted. They don’t know how to handle it or what to do because there is no leadership from the top on this issue. So we may be just one family -- we’re one of the few that are willing to speak about this -- but there are so many in our situation.
I think the church feels like this affects such a small number of people that it’s not worth addressing. They couldn’t be more wrong. We receive over 100 messages a week, either through emails or Facebook from Mormon LGBT youth and young adults, and sometimes their parents as well, who are deeply struggling. These kids ask me for a reason to keep living. These parents ask me if kicking their gay child out of their home to “protect their other children” is the right thing to do. I’m a mom of five kids. I can’t keep up with the demand of all of this. But I really try. I go without sleep all the time trying to keep up with all of this because I know how they’re feeling. I watched my son go through this. And from the parents’ point of view, I know how the parents are feeling. If I could send them a message that keeps their family intact and they don’t kick their kids out, or help this kid hold on a little bit longer knowing that somebody loves him and understands, [that makes all the difference]. There needs to be more help from our leaders and it’s just not happening.
Part of me is really frustrated and angry because I feel like I’m doing their job. They’re supposed to be the spiritual leaders for these people, and they’re not! There are some areas of the country where there are kind-hearted, compassionate Mormons doing what Jesus would do. But there are other parts of the country where they’re cruel and mean to our gay brothers and sisters. It all depends on the leadership of that area. There’s no unified direction from the top, so these local leaders are on their own to figure it out. Even in our own state of California there is a wide variety -- we have absolute acceptance and extreme non-acceptance.
For example, not that long ago the wife of one of my previous leaders came up to me and said, “You know, Sister Montgomery, you make a lot of people uncomfortable with what you do, so it might be good if you just don’t come back to church for awhile.”
Rich: Wait. And this was the new congregation that your family felt you needed to move to?
Wendy: Yes, this was the new one. Honestly, I really don’t know if what we’re doing is changing anything on a higher level. But I have seen hearts softened and eyes opened just through one-on-one interactions with people. A conversation. A visit to a home. I see changes one person at a time or one family at a time. That feels frustratingly slow but maybe that’s how something like this is going to happen. If the leaders aren’t willing to put out a statement to the church as a whole about how we should be loving and inclusive of our gay brothers and sisters, nothing will change. Mormons are taught to follow their leaders implicitly.
Rich: You have been to Salt Lake City several times this year and you have met with leaders of the Mormon Church. What’s the nature of those meetings? Have you met with the right folks there? Are you making change?
Wendy: I think we’ve met with the right folks. My husband and I have had three different meetings with one of the 12 apostles. How the hierarchy of our church is set up is that there’s a prophet and he has two counselors. They’re considered the first presidency. Right under them are the 12 apostles. They are also considered prophets. They help direct and lead our church. We met with one who has a gay brother who he loves and respects completely. He was wonderful for us to talk to. I know this particular apostle was very influential in helping with the www.mormonsandgays.org website, so I am very grateful for the work that he has done.
But at the same time, he is only one of 12 men and they do things by a unanimous vote. Everything that changes in our Church has to be because all 12 of them want it to change. It’s not a majority rules policy, so that makes it difficult. Most of them are in their late 70s or early 80s and have some very, very old-school ways of thinking and ideas. But when we meet with him, he’s wonderful. He’s compassionate. He’s loving. He cries with us. He understands and knows what it’s like. He shares personal stories of his own family growing up with a gay brother and how his parents were so loving of his gay brother. One quote from his mother (paraphrasing), “we may not do everything perfectly, we may not know how to handle this perfectly, but we will always love him perfectly,” which I felt was beautiful. I hear statements like this in private meetings. We have begged him to please talk about this in General Conference, which is a twice a year meeting broadcast that every Mormon watches. There’s a monthly publication that comes out called The Ensign, and we asked him to talk about it in an article there -- let the members of the church hear you talk about how much you love your gay brother. That’s not changing church policy or doctrine. None of these things have happened. I don’t know if he’s not able to because he’s a junior apostle. It’s so frustrating. We even met with the head of the church public affairs. They’re in charge of media relations and any public message that the church puts out. They’ve put out lots of damaging messages, especially when marriage equality became the law in Utah a year ago. There were several messages from the church saying things like “marriage should only be between a man and a woman” or “homosexual relations are a sin.” There’s several comments like that. From some of the LGBT centers and homeless shelters in Utah, we can track many of the suicides and the homeless rates.
The average is one gay youth suicide a week in Utah alone. And there’s usually one kid kicked out of their home a week for being gay in Utah.
The hospitals there treat 2–3 suicide attempts a day. It’s hard to know if all of these are LGBT-related because the parents, especially if they’re Mormon, won’t admit to it. So it’s really difficult to have accurate statistics. But the homeless shelters out there track these statistics as closely as they can, and the weeks that comments like “marriage is between a man or a woman” are made or something comes from our top leadership about traditional marriage or anything that feels anti-gay, the suicide and homeless rates dramatically jump.
There was a talk that was given last year by one of the apostles that was really harsh against gay people. Suddenly, there were four suicides and five homeless kids that week. I shared these statistics with the leaders when we met with them. I said, “You cannot say these things. I’m not coming here asking you to change the church doctrine or policies. As much as I would love for that to happen, I’m just asking that you say, 'Love your gay brothers and sisters. Keep them in your homes. Let them come to church. Let them sit by you.'” Those are the messages that need to get out -- because they don’t feel welcome at church, and there’s not really a place for them. It’s heartbreaking. Mormons have the highest rate of gay teen suicides in the country. That is appalling to me. We say that we are Christ’s Church, but the Christ I know would never be okay with this.
Rich: Especially in 2014, you and your family became very visible with your "Family Acceptance Project" documentary. Were you prepared for this? Where do you find the energy for it?
Wendy: No, I was not prepared. We met Dr. Caitlin Ryan of the Family Acceptance Project in April of 2012 -- Jordan had just come out that January. She took us out to breakfast. I didn’t realize she was subtly interviewing us, I thought she was just being friendly. She called us later that month and asked if we wanted to do this film project with her. She said she had looked for eight years for the right Mormon family and felt she found it in us. I didn’t realize at the time that our documentary was going to be sent to the far corners of the world and entered into countless film festivals. I really didn’t think it would become this big thing. But now, I feel like this work to help LGBT youth in the Mormon Church has become a mission for us, or a role that God wants us to play. It didn’t necessarily have to be our family. We were just the luck of the draw. There’s not anything special about us. But there’s just such a need. I feel it personally when I hear of kids that kill themselves. There was a suicide about a month ago of a boy that I knew personally. I’ve attended funerals of these gay teen suicides and it undoes me. It wrecks me. My own son was suicidal. In every one of them I see my life and I see my son. I am NOT okay with this happening! We don’t get paid for anything that we do -- this is all coming out of our pocket and I still have to be a mother to five kids and be a wife. So I have my normal family responsibilities that require a lot from me. But I just feel a real urgency because these kids are dying.
Rich: How do you keep yourself, your husband and your kids grounded in this work that you’re doing?
Wendy: My husband and I talk with all of our kids about this. Our younger kids are not affected by a lot of this because most of the time it is just me or my husband, Tom, going to events. To be honest, it’s not hard to stay grounded when so often we are the recipients of some pretty hateful words and actions. The times where it’s wonderful and people tell you how great you are, that kind of refuels you and pumps you up for going to church on a regular basis where it’s just super hard and deflates you.
Rich: You were telling me that you’re a hairstylist. And you’ve mentioned before that this path you’re on has changed your family and changed different things. That’s changed as well?
Wendy: I work out of our home and have a salon in our home. I haven’t worked full time since we started having kids. I’ve probably worked around 25 hours a week or so. I used to have lots of clients. I’d be scheduled out about two weeks in advance. But once Jordan came out and it became more well-known that we supported and loved him, my business went down to nothing. Now it’s only about one hour a week because most of my clients were Mormons and, through word of mouth, news of my son spread quickly. I do have clients that are not Mormon and it doesn’t bother them at all. Some of them didn’t say anything and just stopped coming. Others called and told me why they wouldn’t come anymore, which was hurtful. From their point of view they wanted to be upfront and honest, so I appreciate where they were coming from. But recently there’s been a couple that have come back. When they came back they apologized and said they misjudged the situation. These women have said that that their decision to leave was hasty. I am grateful that some have come back.
Rich: Let me ask you a tough question. When the Catholic Church came out in favor of Prop 8, I took a long look at the religion I grew up with. I decided to step away from the Catholic Church. As a mother of a gay son, what do you feel inside that keeps you within the Mormon Church?
Wendy: I think the short answer is that I stay because this is my home. It is my church, too. From my earliest memory, Mormonism is the language that I was taught and used to communicate with God. There are many religions. There are many spiritual languages. But this is the one that feels comfortable to me. There’s still much that I love deeply and believe in about my faith. Today, one reason I stay is to help other gay people. I can look around my congregations and even though I don’t have super great gaydar, there are those I can look at and just know that they are. I wear a rainbow ring every week to church. I don’t necessarily speak about gay issues at church. I don’t think that’s the right place because we should be speaking about spiritual things. But when I’m asked, I absolutely do. I’m open about it on Facebook and I make sure these kids see me there. I smile. I hug them. I don’t out them at all, but I just want them to know that they have a friend there.
The bottom line for me is that staying silent serves no one. It doesn’t help my son. It doesn’t help us as his family. It doesn’t help other LGBT Mormons. This is why we speak out. This is why we are vocal in our hope and our pleading that change happen within the Church. Mormons with LGBT loved ones need support and families like mine need help. The leaders of our Church are staying silent. And I can tell you from personal experience, it is serving no one.
“Families are Forever,” the award-winning Family Acceptance Project documentary featuring the Montgomery family will soon be available for purchase here.
Rich Valenza is the founder and CEO of RaiseAChild.US, a national organization headquartered in Hollywood, California that encourages the LGBT community to build families through fostering and adopting to serve the needs of the 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system. Since 2011, RaiseAChild.US has run media campaigns and events to educate prospective parents and the public, and has engaged more than 2,500 prospective parents. For information about how you can become a foster or fost/adopt parent, visit www.RaiseAChild.US.