Monday, November 21, 2016

Creating a Space for Gay Mormons in Tucson

In September 2015 I started the Tucson LDS Same-Gender Attraction group. No one uses the group’s official name and we all just call it Gay Night. Our Facebook group has 19 members and 8 to 12 people typically come to one of our meetings. Two of the members are in mixed-orientation marriages and everyone else is single. Both men and women attend the group and we have people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, and asexual. Not everyone is currently active in church, but most of the group members are. Our monthly meetings are the highlight of my month. These people have become my family and are some of my closest friends. Here’s the story of how the group got started.

On 6 December 2013 I received a mass email titled, “BYU Studies Personal Essays & Poetry Contest.” As I read through the email I suddenly had this huge desire to write an essay about coming out while at BYU. At the time only some of my friends and family even knew I was gay, but the prompting was clear so I took a few hours over Christmas break and wrote the essay. It was promptly rejected by BYU Studies shortly after I submitted it. I was deeply disappointed, but during 2014 I came out to more people than I ever had before and in conjunction with coming out to them I also gave them a copy of the essay I wrote. It ended up being a fantastic tool and I thought, “Oh, this is why I felt prompted to write it.”

A year later I was listening to a podcast about the importance of telling stories and I once again felt inspired to share the essay I’d written, but this time on my blog. I searched my feelings for a few days, talked to all the people mentioned in the essay to get their approval to share it, and a week later I posted it on my blog. I was totally unprepared for the flood of responses I would receive. I started getting emails from gay Mormons in places as far away as Italy and Tasmania who felt lonely, sad and isolated. My heart hurt for these people who felt they had no one they could reach out to except for this stranger on the internet. I responded to all the emails I received, but that was about all I could do for them.

It suddenly dawned on me that there were probably gay Mormons here in Tucson that were also struggling and while I couldn’t do much to help the people who lived far from me, I could for sure help the people in my city. I wanted to form a group patterned after the Genesis Group. If you haven’t heard of the Genesis Group, you can read it's history here. Basically, in the early 70s church leaders took notice of all the Black members of the church who were leaving. The Genesis Group was a monthly fireside-like meeting where they could strengthen their faith in Christ together and build a community of people with similar life experiences and struggles. It was started by three apostles and was under the direction of the priesthood. I wanted to do the same thing, but for LGBT Mormons in my area.

In March 2015 I emailed my stake president about forming a stake sponsored support group. He and I didn’t really know each other at the time, but he set up a time to meet with me. During that initial meeting we talked about already established support groups like Affirmation and North Star and the resources currently available in Tucson (there were none). He was interested in starting a support group, but was cautious. He wanted to do some research before we settled on anything which made good sense. Then he shocked me by extending a calling to serve in the stake Sunday School presidency in that same meeting. As I wrote about the experience in my journal that night I couldn’t hold back the tears. Years of shame about being gay made me feel like I would be rejected by church members if they knew I was gay. And now my stake president was well aware of my orientation and he had called me to a stake calling anyway AND he wanted to reach out to gay Mormons in our stake. I felt so loved and he made me feel like I belonged.

Over the next few months we met a few times to discuss forming a group. The stake president asked a high councilor to work with me and the two of us collaborated to write a group charter. Our two goals as a group would be to build our faith in Christ together and form a community of people with similar circumstances. The group would be both LDS affirming and LGTB affirming and it would be open to people who weren’t currently active in the church. We would meet once a month for a gospel lesson and then have some kind of social activity during the month as well. The stake president and high councilor chose to name the group the Tucson LDS Same-Gender Attraction group. I didn’t love the name, but I was okay with it. I created a secret Facebook group with that name for announcements.
 
I found this decades old slip of paper
tucked into my grandma's old Bible.
She's been gone for 21 years, but she
still encourages me.
On the first Tuesday in September 2015 we had our first meeting of the Tucson LDS SGA at a local church building. I was super-nervous, but it went well. Only three of us from the LGBT community were there so we started out small (technically, we had one G and two B’s). When I got home that night I had a Facebook message from a man that I knew from the LDS Institute, but didn’t know well. He told me that he had gone to the church parking lot for the meeting, but didn’t have the courage to go inside. I invited him over to my house to chat and the next night this near stranger told me his whole life story for two hours. He kept apologizing for talking so much. I told him not to worrying and to keep going. Before talking to me he had only come out to two bishops and this was his first time talking to someone who could really relate to his experiences as a gay Mormon. He called me the next day to thank me for talking with him for so long and said how helpful it had been. Someone in Tucson had needed a gay Mormon friend and I was thrilled to fill that role.
A few days after our first group meeting the stake president learned that stakes are not allowed to sponsor support groups for LGBT members so we were no longer allowed to meet at a church. The high councilor offered to let us meet at his house once a month and the stake president encouraged us to continue even though he wouldn’t be officially involved. And that’s what we’ve been doing since then. Every month either I or another group member chooses a talk that we all read (well, are supposed to read) beforehand and we discuss it as a group and how it relates to us. Our most recent meeting was on November 3rd and I wrote the following in my journal that night (please excuse all the cheesiness): “My heart is so full tonight… As we talked after and hung out I just wanted to cry. We are a family and I’m so honored for the role I played in the creation of this family. I’m just so grateful that we are all able to be together at this time and place. This is God’s work and it brings me so much joy.”

Wow, that was terribly cheesy, but it’s true. Being together strengthens us and builds us up. As one member recently told me, just talking to other people like her reduced the anxiety and depression she was feeling. We have needed and will continue to need each other. 

Ally Night

The scriptures define Zion as a people that is “of one heart and one mind” (Moses 7:18). I don’t think this means that we all think and feel the same the things, but that we understand one another and what is in each other’s hearts. This is the purpose of Ally Night, to build Zion through understanding. Last November my buddy Paul was troubled by the church’s new policy regarding members in same-sex marriages and their children. He realized that this policy was either going to push him further into the closet or force him out. He decided to come out.

Paul and I in my living room
Paul decided that the best way to affect change was to tell his story. So he asked if he could have some friends come over to my house so he could share his story with them. Eight people came over to my house on 9 November 2015 (just four days after the policy was leaked) to hear Paul’s story. He was open, authentic, and very personal. When he was done he let people ask him questions and then a wonderfully beautiful conversation emerged. The Spirit in the room was strong and I was moved by the level of compassion that Paul’s friends had. They really wanted to love and support him. It went so well that Paul invited a different group of people over ten days later. Then we decided that we should both talk and we started calling the meetings Ally Night because it was a way for us to build allies by giving them access to our hearts.

We’ve held dozens of Ally Nights since them, always in someone’s home. We start them out by having two gay Mormons briefly tell their stories and then we let people ask questions. That typically lasts about an hour. Then we end with introductions. Everyone in the room says their name and comments on one takeaway from the night. This is usually the most touching part of the evening. We also begin and end the meeting with a prayer. We’ve had six different presenters so far who are all single and either gay or bi. Soon we’ll be having an asexual person tell their story as well as a lesbian in a mixed orientation marriage. It’s been ridiculously rewarding to watch my friends grow in confidence and share their stories.

We’ve had loads of support for Ally Night. My stake presidency and bishop have attended in the past. Another presenter’s stake president and bishop have come as well. One leader sent me a note following Ally Night that said in part, "You and Paul are doing good work...don't stop." One of the Young Single Adult wards in Tucson has been especially welcoming (actually, nearly half of the members of the support group come from this one ward). Each of the members of this bishopric have hosted an Ally Night in their home. These men and their wives are my heroes.

We’ve had very positive experiences result from Ally Night. On three separate occasions someone told me that the day after attending Ally Night someone they knew came out to them and because they had come to the meeting the night before they knew how to respond. Often people stay long after the meeting to ask further questions and just to get to know one another better. It has deepened friendships and created many more.

There are a lot of positive stories that I could tell about Ally Night, but I’ll just share one. Both I and another Ally Night presenter invited a woman we know from the Institute to attend Ally Night. She said she was busy and couldn’t come. I invited her to the next Ally Night and she again said she was busy. Since we do Ally Night frequently and on different nights I asked, “Well, when are you free? We can plan it around your schedule.” She replied, “I’m pretty busy most nights,” which I took to mean, “Allow me to politely tell you that I’m not interested in attending.” It turns out she did what to come because she came to an Ally Night not long after that. At the end of the meeting as everyone was sharing their takeaways she thanked me and the other presenter and said that everyone just wants to be understood. She had previously told me that she has depression which is often misunderstood (like when people tell her to just be choose to be happy).  

A few weeks after that I ran into her at the Institute. She told me that she had just been in Utah visiting some friends. Some of her friends had said that people choose to be gay. She took a deep breath and said to herself, “Okay, time to be an ally.” Then she shared the insight she had had at Ally Night with her friends and helped them understand what she had learned. Just like it wouldn’t be right to tell a person with depression to just choose to be happy, it wouldn’t be right to tell a gay man to just choose to marry a woman. My heart swelled with gratitude for this friend of mine who had not only taken the time to learn about our experiences, but had stood up for us and corrected misinformation. She’s my hero, too.

We had an Ally Night at a bishop’s house this past Sunday. One of the guys from Gay Night shared his story for the very first time. As we went around the room sharing our takeaways from the night, a woman who I hadn’t meant before said, “I want to thank you two for being so open and honest tonight. I want you to know that I am going to be an LGBT ally and I will support you whether you stay in the church or leave. I know many of you don’t have families in town and I will be your Tucson mom if you need one. Call me anytime, day or night, and I will be there for you. The doors to my home are always open to you and you are part of my family now.” After the meeting she gave us both big hugs and thanked us for being so brave and reiterated that she would be there for us. I wish every gay Mormon could feel the love and support we have in Tucson. I wish they could hear the message that I consistently hear from straight Mormons at Ally Night. “We love you. We claim you. You are one of us. You belong in this church.” We don’t go into Ally Night expecting these kinds of compassionate responses, but they are simply the natural reaction to understanding our stories.

Ally Night is a small, grassroots initiative started by my buddy Paul, but it’s affecting a lot of people and it’s making Tucson a much more welcoming place for LGBT Mormons. We’ve only just begun and we still have a long way to go, but with courageous people like Paul in the church things are only going to get better.

I’d just like to end this really long post with a primary song that exemplifies the pioneering work we’re doing here in Tucson.

You don't have to push a handcart,
Leave your fam'ly dear,
Or walk a thousand miles or more
To be a pioneer!
You do need to have great courage,
Faith to conquer fear,
And work with might for a cause that's right
To be a pioneer!

1 comment:

Reade C Gloeckner said...

Absolutely a great story and what a fabulous stake president who is listening to the spirit rather than relying on a handbook. This will help so many other folks both faithful members of the LDS faith as well as those who may identify as LGBT. Awesome!