“We stand with Natasha,” chanted a group of about 30 people outside the offices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in downtown Salt Lake City on Friday afternoon.
People in the group held signs with messages including “sexuality is not a sin” and “excommunicate shame, not heroes.” They gathered to protest the decision by local lay leaders last month to revoke the membership of sex therapist Natasha Helfer, who has publicly opposed the church’s stances on masturbation, same-sex marriage and pornography.
Helfer, who did not organize the rally but attended it, told The Salt Lake Tribune that she doesn’t expect her appeal of that decision to the faith’s governing First Presidency to be granted. Helfer said she believes church leaders above the Kansas stake (regional) presidency, which revoked her membership, knew about her case.
Still, she believes the appeal should be granted. Helfer said she still isn’t clear about why, exactly, she was ousted from the Utah-based faith, but she suspects the church is upset for reasons to do with her clinical expertise, which she said should not be a reason for her removal.
Local leaders have denied that was why they acted.
“Your professional activities played no part in the decision of the [membership] council,” stake President Stephen Daley wrote to her in a letter. “Rather, as stated in my prior letter to you, the sole purpose of this council was to consider your repeated, clear and public opposition to and condemnation of the church, its doctrines, its policies and its leaders.”
He added that the council decided to “withdraw your church membership” for “conduct contrary to the law and order of the church.” (Leaders used to term this penalty excommunication.)
Helfer said Friday the support she has received has been humbling as it has come from a wide spectrum of Latter-day Saints. She described losing her membership as difficult and “emotionally draining.”
“I have been serving my faith community for a majority of my professional career, and I have also been active in my faith community for most of my life,” she said. “I have many spiritual, social and professional experiences that are very valuable to me and continue to be. To be, in essence, kicked out of your home, whether you agree with your leaders or all the people who belong to the home, it’s still obviously traumatic.”
Helfer said she feels motivated and excited to use the support she has received to rally for causes she cares about, such as sound clinical mental and sexual health practices within the Latter-day Saint community. She said she believes Mormonism isn’t the only place where science and religion can collide, pointing to debates over reproductive rights and transgender rights in various states.
“It’s a small chapter in a big story,” she said of her own experience. Helfer wants to keep working toward providing people with health care, particularly youths who might not be able to step out of their religious or cultural communities on their own to seek help.
Friday’s rally was organized by Lauren Rogers, who started a petition to ask the church to reverse its decision.
Rogers said her brother was removed from the faith while she was serving her mission.
“That was really traumatic for me,” she said, “to feel like my eternal family was taken from me, like my brother wasn’t going to be included in my family anymore.”
Rogers said she and Helfer are fighting for the same causes — the LGBTQ community and sexual health.
Rogers asked the rally attendees to take a moment of silence in honor of people who have died by suicide. The attendees also chanted “people are dying,” “act like you care” as a call and response in reference to LGBTQ people and other youths who die by suicide in whole or part because of “shame-based-rhetoric found in the church.”
The rallygoers also sang the Latter-day Saint children’s hymn “I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus.” Rogers said Christ did not turn away people who wished to stay with him.
Eva Bell, who carried a sign stating she is the proud parent of a “rainbow child,” said she officially left the church last year. A big part of her decision was because she has a 23-year-old transgender child she felt was being treated badly.
“I could see how my child was treated,” she said, “and I’m not OK with that.”
Church member Aubree Stevens worries that because Helfer had her membership revoked, other Latter-day Saints won’t seek evidence-based treatment and therapy.
“I personally was damaged by purity culture,” she said, “and I don’t want that to happen to more members and future members.”