In wake of Ed Smart’s coming-out, here are steps the LDS Church can take to keep LGBTQ members

In Ed Smart’s personal and poignant coming-out letter, the father of kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart voiced an all-too-familiar cry of agony: The religion he belonged to his whole life is no longer a place of “solace.”

Smart’s faith community, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-days Saints, teaches that being LGBTQ is not against the doctrine, but acting on it is.

The Utah-based faith has a website, mormonandgay.org, and leaders offer regular admonitions to love LGBTQ members, even as the church staunchly insists on a life of celibacy or marriage to a person of the opposite sex as the only moral choices.

Kendall Wilcox, a gay Latter-day Saint filmmaker in Utah, shares Smart’s assessment of the current conditions in the church.

“It continues to be a predominantly unhealthy space for most LGBTQ people to practice their faith,” says Wilcox, co-founder of Mormons Building Bridges, a gay-friendly grassroots group. The church’s “two-pronged message toward LGBTQ people — the doctrine is what it is and will never change, but we love you — has always been little more than cold comfort to most LGBTQ people.”

At the heart of any inhospitality, he says, are the church’s “core doctrines around chastity, marriage and family that many believe are eternal and unchangeable.”

Without revising, or at least expanding, those beliefs, Wilcox says, the best tack church leaders can take is to “listen to us and try to empathize with us and then let that empathy unsettle their settled assumptions about the doctrine.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Kendall Wilcox, co-founder of Mormons Building Bridges.

They need to “acknowledge how painfully hard it is for most LGBTQ members in the church,” he says, “and openly take responsibility for the fact that teaching the exclusionary doctrine perpetuates that pain.”

Other commenters added their own suggestions for making Latter-day Saint worship a more welcoming place for gays, even given the unlikelihood the church will alter what it believes are basic values:

Change the conversational tone

Calvin Burke, an openly gay Brigham Young University student and active Latter-day Saint, would like leaders to see him and others as believers and regular participants — not as “the enemy.”

“Encourage and provide ways for gay members to serve missions, work with youth and hold callings,” Burke says. “Stop othering LGBTQ saints, especially with things like placing an asterisk beside their names on membership records. Stop assuming that being LGBTQ automatically means worthiness issues. Especially stop treating LGBTQ members as if they are pedophiles.”

Members should stop concentrating on everything that LGBTQ saints cannot have — marriage, love, children, he adds. “Listen to them and value their opinions and perspectives.”

Treat LGBTQ members the same as others

“When I served as a YSA bishop and had stewardship responsibility for a couple of gay men in my ward,” says Richard Ostler, who led a congregation of young single adults in Utah, “I no longer saw them as this outside group of people, but our own members doing their best to come unto Christ through our restored church as they walked a very difficult road.”

Assume there are LGBTQ members in Latter-day Saint wards and families, he says. “They are listening to everything we say about people like them.”

Call LGBTQ members by their preferred terms and let them tell their stories

Members should be respectful of the words LGBTQ saints use to identify themselves, Burke says. “Stop describing us as ‘suffering’ from ‘same-gender attraction,’ especially when the vast majority of LGBTQ saints don’t use those identifiers.”

The struggle Burke and others experience, he says, “comes from the way the church culture treats us, not from our sexual orientation.”

In a church that provides a monthly opportunity for personal sharing, LGBTQ members should be urged “to speak openly about their journeys, their feelings and their testimonies,” Burke says. “Encourage them to talk about how they see their identities fit into the gospel.”

Recognize all contributions

“Find ways to use LGBTQ members’ time and talents, rather than focusing on what’s ‘wrong with them,’" Burke says, “or on how they must live lives of celibacy, with no hope of an eternal family.”

Everyone on the sexual identity spectrum “has a lot to teach us about healthy living and healthy relationships,” says Lisa Tensmeyer Hansen, clinical director at Flourish Therapy in Provo. “Allow them to teach us and tell us the authentic stories, without assuming that they’re not healthy.”

Learning to see the contributions of LGBTQ members “can help us become the body of Christ that Paul talks about,” Ostler says. “Harmony infers differences that come together to create beauty. Our LGBTQ members often have an increased abundance of Christ-like attributes, allowing them to have more insights to ministering to and meeting the needs of those on the margins.”

The onetime bishop recently heard a story of a Latter-day Saint mission president asking his charges in a training meeting what the mission could do to improve.

One of the missionaries said “stop the gay jokes,” Ostler reports. “The mission president (who was not the source of the gay jokes) agreed and invited the mission to stop these jokes.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Richard Ostler, a former bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

There might have been “closeted LGBTQ missionaries in that mission who heard these gay jokes,” he says, and “who were hurt by them while they were consecrating everything to bring people to Christ.”

Theology can help or hurt

“Quit trying to explain how LGBTQ attractions and identity will be fixed in the hereafter or by marrying a person of the opposite sex,” Hansen advises. “Let God be God.”

Instead, use Mormonism’s bedrock teaching about “eternal progression” to describe how “the restoration [of Christ’s church] is ongoing,” Burke says, “and that God has more to reveal about the place of all his children in the plan of salvation. ... I’ve heard some leadership say there is a place for LGBTQ saints in the church; I hope that same leadership will also be willing to make that safe place for us.”

Such authorities, Burke adds, should condemn “death threats, bullying and harassment of LGBTQ saints from the pulpit, especially in General Conference.”

Stop making assumptions

“Allow people to be in relationships that we might not approve of,” Hansen says, “allowing two gay people to hold hands at church and don’t assume they are breaking the law of chastity.”

Members need to learn to hear “LGBTQ,” Ostler says, “and not assess someone’s commandment-keeping. We don’t do this for our straight members. … We have many LGBTQ members who identity as LGBTQ who hold temple recommends and serve in many ways. Let’s learn to separate orientation from behavior.”

What gay agenda?

Burke would like Latter-day Saints to stop talking about the “gay agenda.”

Earlier this summer, Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the governing First Presidency and next in line to lead the global faith, lamented the “increasing frequency and power of the culture and phenomenon of lesbian, gay and transgender lifestyles and values” during a speech at BYU-Hawaii.

“My gay agenda,” Burke says, “is attending BYU, going to church each Sunday, and reading the Book of Mormon every night before I fall asleep. The gay Latter-day Saint agenda involves us doing everything in our power to belong to and attend the church we love.”