LGBTQ+ Mormons: Stories of personal faith should not be ‘trafficked’ to serve an agenda

When Kevin Randall set out to reboot the “Mormon and Gay” website for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he and his team had papered the walls of their office with 140 photos of LGBTQ+ Mormons: candidates for video stories about their experiences.

“These ranged from people who were in same-sex relationships, who had left the church, to people who were temple-worthy, living in celibacy,” Randall said. “I felt it was necessary to find stories from one end of the spectrum to the other.”

But the walls quickly became less crowded with photos, he said.

“Immediately we got the instruction that we could not include the stories of anyone who was not living (according to) doctrine.” Randall took down the photos of couples, including two men in their engagement portrait.

“It was really difficult to take that story off the wall,” Randall said. “I had come to realize these love stories are real, and they need to be told.”

When LGBTQ+ church members — and ex-members — speak publicly about their experiences, their stories are often wielded by others to advance an agenda that may not have been intended, said panelists at the annual forum of the group Mormons Building Bridges.

“I have seen time and time again, people share their story, it gets blown up and shared, sometimes twisted in a more positive or negative way than it is in reality. And then down the road the person no longer identifies with it. They disappear from the light and don’t want to be asked about their story anymore,” said Emmett Claren — once “the poster boy for Mormon transgender men,” he said.

Claren suffered until he was in his early 20s with his knowledge that he “was a boy in a girl’s body,” he said. “I was depressed and suicidal for years because I felt very strongly that God did not love me and that I was a mistake.”

He said he became more public about his transition to let kids in his position know there is hope that trans boys “can live their life to the fullest as a trans man, and they can do it in or out of the LDS church.” Claren filmed a video diary about his transition with Vice News and shared his story with teens online.

Stories of LGBTQ+ church members who remain active in the faith get a lot of attention, Claren said.

“It’s inspirational. It’s brave. It’s heart- and gut-wrenching. It’s different. And it’s rare. Stories like these are used to show that, yes, you can be LGBTQ+ and Mormon. I happen to fit this mold, and so people started asking me to share my story,” Claren said.

But once you’ve been held up as an inspiration, Claren learned, the pedestal you’re on doesn’t leave a lot of room to change your mind, or escape the judgments of other members.

“Even when my comfort level started to shift within the church, I kept up appearances, because I wanted to still be able to provide hope for other trans men who wanted to stay active,” Claren said. “So I went to church even when I didn’t want to. … I had something to prove. I didn’t want to be perceived as hypocritical or weak.”

Now, Claren said, he’s still a fully believing church member. But he doesn’t attend as regularly as he used to, and he’s not sure whether other members will be able to accept that he might not be the “ideal” they want to point to.

“It’s important that the larger community creates an environment where people feel safe changing paths throughout their journey,” Claren said. “There is a problem when people’s stories are shared in a way that says ‘This is the right way to be trans in the church, or this is the only way to be gay or lesbian or bisexual in the church. This is the best way.’”

The impulse to inflate LGBTQ+ examples in the church can backfire in other ways, too. Tom Christofferson, the brother of Latter-day Saint apostle D. Todd Christofferson, wrote a book about his journey: He asked to be excommunicated from the church, settled into long-term relationship, and then left his partner of 19 years to be rebaptized and live in celibacy.

The church has frequently disciplined members for sexual contact outside of marriage — and does not recognize same-sex marriage as doctrinal, though it reversed a 2015 policy deeming it apostasy. It has waged legal and political campaigns against marriage equality in multiple states, and has continued legal action seeking exemptions to nondiscrimination laws, based on personal religious beliefs.

But Tom Christofferson has said he found acceptance in his own family and hoped that by reconnecting with the faith he could help less-welcoming members set aside their fears involving LGBTQ+ members.

“I tried very hard in the book and in every interview and speech to clearly state that my experience is only that: selected moments, ideas and actions of one individual. But our culture seems to require turning storytellers into role models,” he said. “If someone wants to see me as a role model, they’re setting me up for certain failure … as well as ensuring their own disappointment.”

By being held up as a role model within church teachings — born gay but not “acting on it” — Christofferson said he’s aware his story could be lorded over LGBTQ+ people whose paths are different.

“Does the benefit of opening some hearts and minds within the church outweigh the potential deepening in the hearts of my LDS LGBTQ brothers and sisters of feeling that they are not enough because their journey does not look like mine?” he said.

Meanwhile, some journeys are barely represented in Mormon and Mormon-adjacent media, said Jenn Lee Smith, a bisexual-queer filmmaker who is an active church member. When she set out to create the documentary “Faithful,” about a lesbian Mormon couple, she discovered that stories of LGBTQ+ women and people of color in the church are hard to come by.

“‘Lesbian Mormons? I guess they exist,’” she recalled others reacting. “‘Huh. Huh!’”

Smith said people should not assume they know another’s story until they have done “the hard labor” of listening and studying.

“There is a great feeling of safety and comfort and resolution in certainty,” she said. “Certainty can be a barrier to truth.”

That’s what Randall said he gradually learned as he sorted through the stories of people to film. Initially producing videos for the group North Star, Randall said he had a specific narrative in mind, one that seemed hopeful as he tried to navigate life as a gay member of the church.

“Looking back, I only wanted to hear the stories of faithful Latter-day Saints and that’s because I wanted to maintain that. Any story that was told of someone who had left the church … was kind of viewed by me as a threat. I kind of wanted to ignore that and stay on the path,” he said. “I was sharing the same story over and over again, and it wasn’t helping me.”

When he assembled a more diverse collection of stories for the church’s own website, only to eliminate most of them, the “acceptable” pool continued to get smaller.

“We had to contact the bishop of their ward and make sure they were worthy. And if they weren’t, if they had ‘acted on it,’ they were taken out,” he said. “We whittled 140 stories down to 16.”

Of those 16 stories that first appeared on the website, only four remain, he said — and two of them are not LGBTQ+ people, but parents of children who are.

One of the stories that has been removed is his own.

Working on the website “allowed me to hear their stories and realize they’re valid and real,” he said. “That started my own questioning of my testimony, to figure out what really is going to make me happy in this world.”