The LDS Church’s 2015 policy for same-sex couples is now history. But for LGBTQ members, even in this more helpful and hopeful present, the pain is hardly in the past.
After all, they were the ones labeled “apostates,” even though many of them still loved and lived their faith. They were the ones who were told their kids wouldn’t be able to be blessed or baptized, although some of them may have desired that chance.
So when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rescinded that policy earlier this month, anger accompanied their elation, hurt tempered their happiness, bruises scarred any healing.
This “exclusion policy” triggered a huge uproar, historian Greg Prince says on The Salt Lake Tribune’s latest “Mormon Land” podcast, particularly because it also targeted innocent children.
Instead of “lashing out [only] at LGBTQ people, it was lashing out at their kids,” explains Prince, author of the newly released “Gay Rights and the Mormon Church: Intended Actions, Unintended Consequences.”
While not all gay member couples were disciplined or their children denied rituals — in fact, Prince says, most lay leaders seemed to ignore that instruction — some were.
Still, the policy’s deeper harm may have been an unspoken message behind the written words.
Their church, as these members viewed it, didn’t want them. Or their children. They felt rejected by God, prompting personal agony, soul-searching and disappointment, even depression, not just among LGBTQ members but also among their families, their friends and their allies.
“The biggest impact of the policy seems undeniably the way it hurt people's hearts,” says Kendall Wilcox, a gay Latter-day Saint and co-founder of Mormons Building Bridges, which aims to connect members and the LGBTQ community.
“This is one of myriad reasons why the institutional church and its leaders need to actually apologize for the previous ‘revelation/policy’ and stop gaslighting its membership,” Wilcox says. “Their actions have life-and-death consequences.”
The following four vignettes reveal some of those consequences as LGBTQ Latter-day Saints struggle to stay true to themselves and their faith.
‘I texted the bishop’
In some ways, Taylor and Adam Cash are a typical Latter-day Saint millennial couple.
They met on Tinder in March 2018, dined at Guru’s in Provo on their first date, spent hours comparing notes on their Mormon missions (Oregon and Kentucky, respectively), discussed their devotion to Jesus, and their hopes and dreams for a future family.
Except they’re gay.
So they hiked, ate Crumbl cookies, watched movies and talked about their shared values for the next seven months but did not get sexually involved.
“Even though the church doesn’t treat ours like a marriage,” Taylor says, “we wanted to be married before getting intimate — just like any LDS couple.”
On Nov. 16, the couple wed on the grounds of the Sleepy Ridge Golf Course in Orem in the “most Mormon wedding ever,” says Jody England Hansen, who was there.
Their moms walked them down the aisle, their dads toasted them, Hansen says, siblings were excited, and folks from both sides of the family celebrated with them.
“It was so great,” she says. “Wonderful.”
Then came a whirlwind two-day honeymoon in Salt Lake City. The shortness of their bliss was due to the fact that Taylor Cash (the young men took the same last name) had a teenage foster son, who is autistic, and didn’t want to leave him alone for long.
They were not a couple in 2015, when the LGBTQ policy took hold, but it made them sad individually.
“I hadn’t come out or dated men,” Taylor says, “but I had a lot of hidden emotion about it.”
After they married, the couple took in a second foster son and moved into a new ward in Lehi.
“I texted the bishop to say were were a gay couple and were planning to come to church,” he says. “He was very welcoming and told us if anyone was not kind to let him know, and he would have a conversation with them.”
God placed them “in a unique ward,” Adam says. “We see the blessing of how it was all meant to be that way.”
In January, the stake president, who oversaw a number of Latter-day Saint congregations in the area, came to them and said that he needed to hold a church disciplinary council.
He talked to them about the process in a gentle, loving way, Adam says. “He was just following rules and regulations.”
Taylor adds, the stake president “did everything well.”
The spouses decided not to go to the council but to write a letter with their “testimonies,” Adam says, “and that we were going to stay married.”
They continued going to church with their sons after being excommunicated and “were still accepted and felt a part of things,” Taylor says. “Nothing for us changed.”
Because both of their sons come from the foster system, any decisions about baptism or priesthood would come from their biological parents. The church’s policy would not have affected that.
The day before the recent reversal, however, Adam, who is studying social work, and Taylor, who teaches kindergarten, found out they matched with a birth mother willing to allow them to adopt her newborn.
In the past, Adam had wondered why the church would blame kids for adult choices, barring them from baby blessings and baptism.
The happy couple no longer worry about it, he says. The church’s policy reversal “gave us a lighter load.”
The next baby blessing they attend could be for their own child.
Kathy Carlston thought Berta Marquez might be too cool for her.
Kathy, a lesbian Mormon (“I knew I loved women when I was 6”), was drawn immediately to another Latter-day Saint, a petite woman she heard on a podcast discussing LGBTQ causes in the church with a fair and evenhanded approach.
The California graphic animator was infatuated with the soft-spoken Spanish speaker before they even talked.
In February 2014, the pair met up in real life, while Berta was working at Equality Utah.
“She was the most brilliant soul I have ever encountered,” Kathy says, “but not so good at organization.”
That’s what Kathy excels at, so Berta asked her new friend to take that on as a volunteer between jobs.
Their first date was to the Broadway Centre Cinemas in downtown Salt Lake City to see “12 Years a Slave.”
Afterward, they talked for hours.
Both had attended Brigham Young University. Both had been reared in conservative but loving Latter-day Saint families. Both were believers.
Before long, Kathy says, the two were “going steady.”
In July of that year, they moved in together, often taking in lost and lonely souls, trying to balance their faith and activism.
Then, soon after the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals removed a roadblock to same-sex marriage, the excited lovers darted down to the courthouse to get hitched.
They married Oct. 13, 2014.
“It was very impromptu,” Kathy says, and after the brief ceremony, they all went to Olive Garden.
About six months later, in April 2015, Kathy and Berta were at the Conference Center downtown when the late Latter-day Saint apostle L. Tom Perry warned about “counterfeit lifestyles.”
They were devastated. “We drove over to the Salt Lake Cemetery and walked around a long time,” Kathy recalls. “We made it to [former church] President [Gordon B.] Hinckley’s grave and Berta was sobbing.”
The two prayed together, hoping “folks on the other side would keep our LGBTQ community safe.”
By late June, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of same-sex marriage for the whole country. Then came the church’s November 2015 policy, and Berta’s anxiety exploded.
Kathy, who had been at Columbine High School in Colorado during the 1999 massacre, sensed a different kind of peril. “I knew I wasn’t in physical danger,” she says, “but it was a similar kind of trauma.”
They started attending funerals for their friends, some of whom died by suicide.
Berta did not “feel safe going back to church with me,” Kathy says. “She believed there was no way she could have done that and kept her membership.”
So the policy, in essence, “blocked her from her church community,” Kathy says, “which was the deepest wound it could inflict.”
In the summer of 2017, Berta got a painful diagnosis, and her emotions spiraled.
“When she needed the church’s support,” Kathy says, “she was on the outside looking in.”
“One of the major concerns weighing on her heart was the fear that she and Kathy had forsaken God and become apostate by marrying one another,” says Kendall Wilcox, their friend. “This was not just a passing fear for her. It was a constant, pressing and painful cause of anxiety.”
In a “sick irony,” Wilcox says, Berta’s worry “was so real that it actually caused her to hang on to life a little longer because she genuinely feared that God would reject her on the other side.”
In the end, though, it was not enough.
Berta died last year.
She hoped God, Wilcox says, would not be “as condemning as the policy led her and so many others to believe.”
Berta herself attributed her death to emotional exhaustion and a “darkness” that she no longer had the energy to fight.
In a note to her friends, Berta graciously pleaded with others “not to use my story or my life as fuel for cultural warfare and personal vendettas against either the LDS Church or the LGBT community. Please leave your weapons of war at the door if you have been part of my story.”
Kathy believes strongly that the church reversed itself on the policy because of her beloved wife.
“Berta was working with [church founder] Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to make it happen,” the widow says, “telling them to protect our people.”
In a special July 2015 church meeting after the high court decision legalizing gay marriage, Nick Einbender and Spencer Mickelson told their Honolulu ward family how they had fought their same-sex feelings and how they had prayed to get rid of such attractions, but had come to realize, through prayer and personal revelation, that being gay is part of their earthly mission and eternal identities.
Many in the room quietly wept and nodded. Afterward, they queued up to greet and hug the couple, Nick quips, as if they were in “a wedding lineup.”
That same month, the two married in Hawaii.
They were not excommunicated but agreed to forgo the weekly sacrament (or communion), hold callings, or wear their temple garments.
The gay men were encouraged, however, to attend services, to pray, and to speak up in classes, in testimony meetings, and over the pulpit.
All in all, they felt loved and mostly accepted.
After three years in Hawaii, the two moved in August 2016 to Washington, D.C., where Nick was stationed as a major in the Air Force and worked as a dentist.
Visiting apostle Russell M. Nelson, who later would become church president, had dedicated the Capitol Hill chapel, where they would be attending.
Ward members told the couple, Spencer says, that “half the choir members were wearing rainbow pins on that day.”
Because so many congregants supported LGBTQ rights (“We could not have asked for better ward members, people who would go to bat for us, to succor and mourn with us”), the bishop felt he needed to make an example of Nick and Spencer for not “living the standards.”
He asked them if they would be willing to divorce “in order to be OK with the church,” Spencer recalls, to which he replied, “I didn’t think the church was in the business of breaking up families.”
The bishop was just trying to unify a ward, Nick adds, “but at the expense of what? Half the ward members just wanted to go along with the policy and the other half were barely hanging on.”
The lay leader repeatedly called the two into his office, under the guise of getting to know them while urging them to follow the “law and policy of the church.” He said they should meet with the stake president.
After months and months of such exchanges, Nick and Spencer had had enough. They stopped going to church.
But they miss it.
Now they have been transferred again — this time to Panama City, Fla. And, for the first time, they soon will be living in a place without a Latter-day Saint community to call their own.
“That frightens me,” Spencer says. “It’s always been a built-in community and people to socialize with.”
They don’t drink or party. They still pray together every night.
“I feel most validated by deep discussions with other people,” Spencer says. “When you sit down once a week with others and talk about goodness, morality and high concepts of humanity, you develop rich friendships.”
They’ve tried other churches, but it’s not as easy to plug into as a Latter-day Saint ward, Nick says, or to feel spiritual connections to God as they did before.
All their gay Mormon married friends have been excommunicated, but Nick doesn’t want his name off the membership rolls (“I made commitments to God, not to the church”).
Spencer doesn’t care either way.
“It’s laughable,” he says, “that church leaders believe they can dissolve a person’s promises to God.”
Or to each other.
‘Holy cow, I’m gay’
Laura Root didn’t acknowledge she was lesbian — even to herself — until five years ago, when she was 44.
The longtime single woman in a mostly married Latter-day Saint congregation in Boise had been focused intensely on gospel living and beliefs, often serving in leadership positions, including president of the all-female Relief Society.
Finally saying out loud, “holy cow, I’m gay,” allowed Root to see pieces of her personality coming together as never before.
It did, however, thrust her into a year of profound depression and agony about how she could live with the contradictions of her church’s teachings and her sexual orientation.
After much prayer and pondering, Root felt a divine prompting that she should date women with the goal of marriage.
Much like anyone with no romantic experience, Root quips, within 18 months she married the first woman she fell for.
“My whole life I wanted a family where we all learn Christlike qualities,” she says. “When this opportunity came along, I still believed I would learn all the things that married people learn.”
During the courtship, Root says, she attended church and met often with her bishop. She didn’t want him to think that she took these steps lightly or impetuously.
“I told him I was following answers to prayers,” she says.
Before the wedding, the bishop held a church disciplinary council. She was disfellowshipped — one step short of excommunication — and barred from church callings, taking the sacrament and speaking in church. Her name, though, remained on membership rolls.
The bishop, she recalls, “never felt like he needed to do anything more.”
About a year ago, that man was released as a lay leader and a new man stepped into the role.
The new bishop began excommunication proceedings immediately, heeding what he believed the policy required. She wrote a strong letter, which she read at the council, sharing her faith in church teachings, the spiritual experiences that guided her choices, and the role God and Jesus Christ play in her life.
“Two different bishops with two different feelings about how to respond to exactly the same thing,” Root notes. “The first council felt loving, and I left feeling loved.”
Before the second hearing, the new man told Root if she would stop attending Latter-day Saint services, he wouldn’t pursue discipline.
“He seemed to think he needed to make an example,” she says. “It felt like I was being punished for continuing to come to church.”
Today, Root — even as an ousted member — still finds herself in the pews.
“I want to worship with a group of Saints,” Root says, “and, even though I’ve been kicked out, it still feels more comfortable for me than to go somewhere else.”
The Idaho woman, who is divorced, was angry when first she learned about the policy being reversed.
“I have personally experienced a lot of pain, and so have my family and friends who have gone through this with me,” she says. “So many horrible, heartbreaking things."
It didn’t, she says, have to happen.
Tribune editor David Noyce contributed to this story.
Help is available
Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts is asked to call the 24-Hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Utah also has crisis lines statewide, and the SafeUT app offers immediate crisis intervention services for youths and a confidential tip program.
Correction • April 14, 10:40 p.m.: Laura Root, who is now divorced, attended her second church disciplinary council. A previous version incorrectly stated otherwise.