One of my favorite books is the timeless classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. It's one of those books we read in middle school, but don't genuinely come to appreciate until we get older and realize the complexities of operating in a world that doesn't always do the right or kind thing. And, it gives us an unlikely hero: Atticus Finch, a white attorney who defends a black man unjustly accused of raping a white woman.
Atticus Finch has a deep loyalty to his community, even though his moral compass sometimes puts him at odds with it. When he takes on the case of defending the accused (who has already been convicted in the town's court of public opinion), he prepares his daughter, Scout, for the turmoil ahead without demonizing his opponents:
Remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they're still our friends and this is still our home.
Inside the Mormon community there are individuals just like Atticus Finch: those who have a deep sense of loyalty to their Mormon roots, but also an unrelenting desire to do the right thing -- even when it means they may face cultural pressure inside their own communities by so doing.
It doesn't take much more than a quick web search to realize the Mormon culture is changing rapidly when it comes to the LGBT issue. And we have a long way to go before we're where our Savior would have us be, but change is happening nonetheless. As an openly gay Mormon -- and one who just completed a calling as a priesthood leader in my congregation as my authentic self -- I'm keenly interested in how my Mormon fellows understand their LGBT brothers and sisters, and how they're beginning to act differently toward them.
So here's a look at a handful Mormons who, like Atticus Finch, are standing up for what is right, sometimes in the face of criticism from those within their families and religious communities. But for those of us who are gay Mormons -- and for the larger gay community itself -- it's important to understand that there is diversity among even the Mormon ranks, and that there is a growing number of allies who stand up for LGBT inclusion, safety and equality.
Former Bishop Donald C. Fletcher
During his tenure as Bishop of the San Francisco's Bay Ward (the local congregation that includes the city's Castro District) from 2011 to 2013, Bishop Fletcher made it his mission to reach out to the LGBT directly. Bishop Fletcher's message was simple, but powerful: Please come back.
Among his first moves as Bishop was to call me, an openly gay man, to serve in a leadership role with him. And among the first tasks he gave us his leadership team: Draft a letter campaign targeting inactive Mormons -- and especially gay Mormons -- inside our ward boundaries. The campaign's message: You are welcome in the Bay Ward, wherever you are in your personal life.
For gay Mormons, that means we can shrug off the cloak of fear we often wear, because we no longer face excommunication or church discipline, whether we're single and living inside the confines of the Church policy as we understand it today, married with a partner of the same sex, or anywhere in between.
In addition to creating a welcoming and safe congregation (a direction which many Bay Area wards have taken), Bishop Fletcher authored a powerful op-ed supporting the evidence based research of The Family Acceptance Project advocating for a scientific approach to keeping our gay Mormon youth safe and healthy; and he spoke at several LGBT Mormon forums and shared his own experience, strength, and hope.
Bishop Fletcher relocated to the Midwest late in 2013, but his legacy lives on. The Bay Ward continues to welcome LGBT Mormons back into their family of faith. Because of Bishop Fletcher's inclusive vision and his ability to inspire others to do the right thing, that inclusiveness is now embedded into the fabric of who we are as Mormons in the Bay Area.
An answer to Sherri's prayer, "Sit with me Sunday" was born when this retired teacher (who still volunteers her services) found herself face-to-face with a lesbian student expressing how much she missed church--but had no one to go with her. Sherri responded by creating "Sit with me Sunday," an event which occurs several times throughout the year and consists of a traditional Mormon volunteering to be a church companion on a Sunday for a returning LGBT Mormon -- who may otherwise not feel comfortable going back. Last December almost 400 Mormons in congregations across the country participated, and the event garnered local media attention.
In 2013, Sherri and her husband Thomas partnered with The Community Foundation of Utah to establish the "Sit with me Sunday" scholarship fund, as well. The scholarship helps cover tuition at community colleges and two-year degree programs for gay students who have baptized into the Mormon faith -- whether or not they're still active. Sherri and Thomas gave $5000 of their own funds in 2103 -- an amount they've committed to annually -- to provide five $1000 education scholarships for young LGBT Mormons.
Dr. Caitlin Ryan
I'm always surprised when I learn some of my LGBT fellows don't know Dr. Ryan's name, or the name of her organization, the Family Acceptance Project. She's among the chief pioneers in LGBT youth and young adult health and mental health issues, and has been awarded dozens of honors by professional groups for her decades of work in the LGBT community, including recognition last year from the American Psychiatric Association for major contributions to LGBT mental health.
As a clinical social worker who's worked with LGBT youth for nearly 40 years, one of her formative experiences was working with homeless LGBT youth -- many of them Mormon. She noticed that the sense of loss and desperation experienced by homeless gay Mormons appeared more profound than that experienced by kids from other faiths. The reason? Because as Mormons, we believe our families aren't just people we're attached to in this life -- they're relationships we carry with us into the eternities. Losing our families here means we lose them forever. Once those ties are severed, hope diminishes not only for this life -- but for life eternal.
Okay, so maybe she's not actually Mormon, but Dr. Ryan's dedication to the Mormon faith is among the most Christ-like I've seen. In 2012, Dr. Ryan published a version of her family education booklet "Supportive Families, Healthy Children," that shows Mormon families how to respond to their LGBT kids in ways that keep them safer from serious risk -- including homelessness, depression and suicide. And, this work is evidence-based, meaning it's grounded in science, not opinion. Adding to her growing list of resources for Mormons is "Families are Forever," a riveting award-winning short documentary that tells the story of a devout Mormon family's journey from supporting Prop 8, to unconditionally loving and supporting their gay teenage son -- all while remaining true to the best parts of their Mormon faith.
Laura Compton, Scott Holley and Spencer Clark
In 2008, during the height of the Prop 8 debacle here in California, devout Mormon Laura Compton (a straight Mormon wife and mother) started a small website called, "Mormons for Marriage," as a resource for active Mormon families who loved their faith -- but respectfully disagreed with the Church's involvement in Prop 8. It wasn't long before the website grew and transformed, and in 2011, Scott Holley, another straight married Mormon with a family, took the reigns and created "Mormons for Equality." Under Scott's management the organization became fully structured, and with the help of long-time member Sara Long, the group began marching in Pride celebrations to show their support for their LGBT brothers and sisters. In addition to the Pride marches, the group began actively coalescing in states that had marriage equality initiatives on the ballot, and staffed phone banks and engaged in letter writing campaigns in multiple states to show Mormon support for LGBT marriage equality.
In 2012, Spencer Clark began running the organization, and transformed the organization once again to its current state as Mormons for Equality. The group continues today, marching in Pride celebrations around the country and actively engaging in public policy initiatives to help secure marriage equality for the LGBT community -- including filing an amicus brief supporting marriage equality in Utah, alongside over 40 other businesses and organizations. And yes, there is room inside the Mormon faith to disagree with the Church on a public policy issue. In a recent interview in the Salt Lake Tribune, Cark stated: "The church can define what it views as marriage. The question is how we determine the best policy for the country. It's a political question, not a doctrinal one."
Growing up as a conservative straight Mormon in Texas, there was little in John's upbringing that would have predicted he would become an ally for LGBT Mormons. But in 2006, this former tech guru began to talk openly about some the more challenging historical and social issues in Mormon history -- including the LGBT issue -- when he launched Mormon Stories Podcast Series. The podcast series--which has been highlighted on Good Morning America and The New York Times--includes interviews with high profile LGBT Mormons and allies, giving voice to a once silent subset inside the Mormon faith.
In 2009, John enrolled as a Ph.D. student in Clinical, Counseling, and School Psychology with and emphasis on the nexus of religion and mental health -- closely examining the LGBT Mormon experience, including the effects of sexual orientation change therapy.
Most recently, John was invited to deliver a TEDx talk late last year called, "The Ally Within," in which he shares how he became an LGBT ally as a Mormon. Why is this important? Because we have tens of thousands of Mormons out there today who are beginning to think and act differently when it comes to their LGBT brothers and sisters. Hearing the story of how a married father of four made the full transition to becoming an ally will inspire others to make it, too.
Like Atticus Finch, these active Mormons don't always have the easiest path inside their own community of faith. Indeed, some of them face sharp criticism -- but those who make cultural change generally do. And like Atticus Finch, they still take action -- not only because it's the right thing to do for the LGBT community, but because it's the right thing to do for the Mormon community, even if their Mormon peers haven't recognized that quite yet.
In the end, these individuals make both communities a better place. And then things get a little bit better for all of us.