One year ago, I attended my sister and her girlfriend’s wedding. It was a beautiful ceremony that took place among fragrant pine trees in the mountains of Montana — but that’s not what I remember most about it. What I remember is witnessing pure joy in the countenance of someone I care for deeply, someone who has been through immense pain and many trials, someone who is finally living her truth.
I was born into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or Mormon church) and was an active member for most of my life. There are many things that I love about the LDS church. It’s where I was taught that people should love one another. It’s where I learned about the value of honesty, integrity and the importance of helping others. It’s where I was taught never to judge another person and that we are all flawed. Living the life of an active member worked for me, but that was partly because all the people I loved most fit the mold of a church member the same way that I did ... until they didn’t.
Although I have always struggled with the church’s hard-line stance against homosexuality and same-sex marriage and believed myself to be one who doesn’t discriminate, I was naive. Naive because it was easy to say, “I can love someone and not agree with their lifestyle,” which was something I had heard spoken often in church. The reality is I had never experienced same-sex attraction or even witnessed anyone close to me experience it, so it was easy for me to say that I didn’t agree with it.
A turning point for my sister and my faith came after the horrific shooting that took place at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on June 12, 2016, where 49 people lost their lives. The senseless violence had a profound impact on my sister, who saw herself in those targeted for being different. She sent our entire family a heartfelt message the following day. She told us that she was gay and ready to live her truth. The news shifted something deep inside me. Up until that point, my life had mirrored my sister’s in many ways. We both married men in our early 20s, and we both had three sons. My sister was now divorced, and I had watched her suffer through many challenges. I had also witnessed her close connection to another woman, whom she had described as her best friend, developing for many years. I often wondered if their relationship could be more than friendship, but as an even more devout church member than I ever was, she had never revealed her true feelings for her girlfriend to our family, and she steered us away from conjecture.
Although I have always struggled with the church’s hard-line stance against homosexuality and same-sex marriage and believed myself to be one who doesn’t discriminate, I was naive.
Her confession and subsequent marriage shook my faith ― a faith that had already been wavering. At the time, I was attending church infrequently. My husband had left the church, and I found myself struggling with many doubts and questions. In truth, when I did attend church, it was more for my children than for me. I told myself that it was good for them to go because it was the way my husband and I were raised and because I have always believed the most important lessons I learned in church were taught to me in the children’s primary program.
The church also offered them the opportunity to make many friends in our community, but then they began to ask questions. They wondered if their dad was bad because he no longer went to church, and I knew that one day they would have questions about their aunts as well. I began to realize that I was no longer comfortable with all the messages they were receiving from the church and wasn’t sure if the positive things they were learning there truly outweighed the negative.
Before coming out, my sister and her girlfriend were very active members of the church. In fact, they were completely devoted to their faith and accepted any calling (or voluntary position) that was asked of them, and they visited the temple multiple times a month.
Hearing their stories of pain, the pain of attempting to put aside their feelings for each other, moved me deeply and made me wonder. If two people that devoted were not “worthy” to be members after coming to an acceptance of who they are, as the Mormon church declared, what did that mean for someone like me? Mostly it broke my heart. I happen to be blessed in a very happy marriage and cannot imagine living a life in which I was told that it was sinful for us to be together. I can’t comprehend having to choose between the church I love and the person I love, and I won’t judge another who is forced to make that decision.
After my sister’s wedding, she received a letter of excommunication from the LDS church. “I do not hold blame or ill will towards the church,” she told me. “They have to decide what they stand for, and I can respect that. But I can also hold my boundaries, which has given me so much peace in my life.”
I happen to be blessed in a very happy marriage and cannot imagine living a life in which I was told that it was sinful for us to be together.
That is what I have noticed most in her over the last year ― that she is at peace, a peace that I am striving for as well. She has let go of the “pain and shame,” as she described it, of trying to live as a church member. She said the church made her feel as though God’s love were conditional upon her doing or being something. It seems to be a consistent issue I’ve noticed with religion. The spiritual can get lost in the specific aspects of worship, with the “faithful” feeling they need to complete a checklist for worthiness rather than focus on basic principles and what really matters.
Truthfully, I’m in a complicated place with my faith. I have found that I am no longer comfortable attending a church that I feel turned its back on my sister. A funny thing happens when you take a step back from a church that plays such a central part in its members’ lives. You begin to question everything. You strip away all you thought you knew to be true and must dare to ask yourself, “What do I really believe?” It’s a place of uncertainty and even fear.
For now, I am trying to focus on being more spiritual, as opposed to religious. As a friend and church member recently told me, “You don’t have to go to church to be a good person.” I haven’t been to church in a long time, a decision that has been both liberating and painful. When you stop attending the Mormon church, you get the label of inactive. You begin to lose friends and (in Utah especially) an entire community support system. It can be hurtful and has been confusing for my children.
Most of my extended family members and my children’s friends are active in the LDS church. That has been the hardest part for me as a mother. How do I navigate what will be best for my sons? I realized that I needed to be honest. I told them upfront that while I feel that there is a lot of good the church has to offer, I have stopped wanting to attend because of the church’s stance on same-sex marriage. They have a close relationship with their aunt and were receptive to my message. I also told them that I would not take away their choice when it came to church and that I would drive them to church if they want to attend.
My upbringing may have taught me that a homosexual ‘lifestyle’ is wrong, but my life experience has changed my perception.
One thing I do know is that if they are not receiving the good messages I want them to learn from attending a church, it is up to me to make sure that they are learning them at home. I continue to pray with my children and encourage their spirituality.
I am hoping to find my way, and it all keeps coming back to one thing: love. I witnessed love the day of my sister’s wedding and every time I have been with them since. My sister is happier and healthier than she has ever been, and that has fundamentally changed me ― and the way I view religion. She is someone who I know I can always go to with any problems I face in my life and will be met with endless love and compassion. And that is what I want to offer to her and all LGBT people. I want them to know they are always welcome in my heart and my home. My upbringing may have taught me that a homosexual “lifestyle” is wrong, but my life experience has changed my perception.
Attending my first same-sex wedding changed me, and ultimately it gave me more perspective. Perspective that I hope to pass on to my three boys by teaching them to love and accept everyone as they are and instill in them the valuable lessons that I was taught at church and outside church; everything else I hope to figure out in time.
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