Queer Latter-day Saints wonder: Can I date and still be in good standing? And, if so, how?

Can they kiss? Can they hold hands? Ambiguity around policies for romantic relationships and intimacy leave many LGBTQ members with basic questions.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Stacey Harkey, a former actor and writer for BYUtv’s sketch comedy show “Studio C," is pictured in his home among his large collection of houseplants, Dec. 27, 2021. After talking with his Latter-day Saint bishop, Harkey says he had to carve his own path when he decided to date men.

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Stacey Harkey was 30 years old and an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints living in Provo when he approached his bishop to let him know that, for the first time in his life, he had decided to date men.

“I wanted to give him a heads-up so he wouldn’t feel like I was trying to sneak around him,” explained the former actor and writer for BYUtv’s sketch comedy show “Studio C.”

What followed was a confusing back-and-forth as Harkey sought clear guidance on what level of intimacy he was allowed to engage in without jeopardizing his standing in the church.

“My bishop told me if I crossed any lines, we would have to ‘handle it,’” he said. “But when I asked him what those lines were, he just responded with ‘any homosexual behavior.’”

What about holding a man’s hand, Harkey, now 33, wanted to know. Were lingering eye contact and a hug “homosexual behavior”?

Unsure how to respond to Harkey’s specific questions, the bishop took them to the stake president, a regional lay leader. The response that came back was virtually the same. “He just said ‘any homosexual behavior.’”

This, Harkey decided, was his cue to take the tools his Latter-day Saint faith had given him — namely, building a personal relationship with God and seeking answers directly through prayer — to determine his own, unbeaten path forward.

“I kind of felt,” he said, “like Joseph Smith.”

Navigating the ambiguity around intimacy

Interviews with 10 other queer Latter-day Saints ranging from ages 19 to 51 reveal Harkey is far from alone in finding himself in a wilderness of undefined terms and limits when dating outside the traditional model approved by the Utah-based faith of a biological female and male.

“I don’t think that there’s really any guidance,” said Stuart Craig, a pilot and 28-year-old gay Latter-day Saint who is in his first committed relationship with another man, “except that it’s not really encouraged at all.”

A 23-year-old transgender Brigham Young University student, who asked to be identified as James for fear of scrutiny from the school, ecclesiastical leaders and peers, said he wonders constantly about what is and isn’t allowed when it comes to dating as a queer and committed Latter-day Saint.

“I dated another gender-fluid person that was born with male anatomy but viewed themselves as leaning towards female. So sexwise, we matched up,” James, who was born with female anatomy, said. “But less so in gender presentation.”

He wonders if that relationship, or the one he’s currently in with a woman, is more in line with the faith’s teachings and policies.

For some interviewees, including Harkey, this ambiguity serves as a source of empowerment — a chance to explore new territory with God as the primary guide.

“We’re pioneers,” said Calvin Burke, 26, who is gay and works as a media manager for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.

For other interviewees, particularly the youngest, the wilderness feels less empowering and more forbidding, a sometimes hostile place riddled with tripwires and land mines — including the judgment of disapproving fellow Latter-day Saints.

“Doctrinally, there’s nothing sinful about romantic relationships between me and another woman,” said Bee, a bisexual 19-year-old freshman at BYU who also asked that her real name not be used for fear of scrutiny from the school and church leaders. “I’ve read the scriptures and the only thing I could find was that sex comes after marriage. But, culturally, people think it’s a sin if I hold a woman’s hand.”

‘Not about becoming straight anymore’

(Courtesy photo) Taylor Petrey, who teaches religion at Kalamazoo College, says "how chastity is defined [in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] — even in heterosexual relationships — has always been a very, very gray area for members.”

Taylor Petrey teaches religion at Michigan’s Kalamazoo College and is the author of “Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism.”

Petrey traces the current ambiguity in queer Latter-day Saint dating culture to the church’s willigness in recent years to allow members to openly identify as LGBTQ, while at the same time no longer encouraging queer members to try to change their orientation through prayer, faithful living and heterosexual marriage.

“It’s not about becoming straight anymore,” he said. “The new standard is now ‘chastity.’ But how chastity is defined — even in heterosexual relationships — has always been a very, very gray area for members.”

By applying this opaque standard to queer members, Petrey added, church leaders “imported all those gray areas” into same-sex dating relationships.

New language versus new policy

Adding to the ambiguity are recent assertions church leaders have made regarding equality of policy for queer and straight members, a policy that observers like Petrey say is relatively new.

Speaking in 2006, apostle Dallin H. Oaks, now the first counselor in the governing First Presidency, said the church offers “exactly the same” instruction to gay and lesbian members as it does to other single members. “We expect celibacy of any person that is not married,” he said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) President Dallin H. Oaks speaks during the afternoon session of the189th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Sunday, April 7, 2019.

In 2019, Oaks, who is next in line to assume the church presidency, stated that going forward “the immoral conduct in heterosexual or homosexual relationships will be treated in the same way.”

Later that year, current church President Russell M. Nelson echoed this same language in a BYU devotional, saying “that homosexual immorality would be treated in the eyes of the church in the same manner as heterosexual immorality.”

Whether this language opens the door for queer single members to engage in the same romantic behavior acceptable for straight Latter-day Saints remains unclear. When asked about this topic, the church declined to comment.

The way Burke sees it, statements like these embody “a brand spanking new concept” responsible for creating new opportunities surrounding dating for queer Latter-day Saints

Kendall Wilcox — a 51-year-old gay member of Mormons Building Bridges, a grassroots movement aimed at affirming LGBTQ Latter-day Saints — is less convinced.

“The operative word in the new General Handbook isn’t ‘heterosexual’ or ‘homosexual,’” Wilcox said. “It’s ‘immoral.’ And the church still considers all homosexual behavior immoral.”

Faith, a bisexual BYU student who asked to go by her middle name to avoid unwanted attention from the school and ecclesiastical leaders, also pushes back against the idea that the church has softened its stance when it comes to romantic behavior between queer Latter-day Saints.

“I feel like the messages I’ve received are very clear,” she said, “in that there’s no sort of romantic or sexual interactions that are supposed to be happening.”

Supporting Wilcox and Faith’s view is a 2020 statement issued by Paul V. Johnson, a general authority Seventy who previously served as commissioner of the Church Educational System that oversees BYU’s campuses.

Earlier that year, the school removed the section titled “Homosexual Behavior” from its Honor Code, apparently rolling back its restrictions on same-sex couples engaging in the same intimacy allowed straight students, including kissing and holding hands.

Not long afterward, Johnson issued a short letter refuting the idea that the new language in the General Handbook or BYU’s Honor Code constituted a loosening or shift in the church’s stance on intimacy between same-sex couples.

“There is and always has been more to living the Lord’s standard of a chaste and virtuous life than refraining from sexual relations outside of marriage,” he wrote. “Same-sex romantic behavior cannot lead to eternal marriage and is therefore not compatible with the principles included in the Honor Code.”

Dancing in the gray

BYU’s Honor Code may not be changing, but the queer dating culture among the church’s North American membership is. As evidence, Petrey pointed to the students’ response to the school’s perceived policy change.

“It felt very normal for many queer students to say, ‘I’m going to apply the same sexual standards for my single heterosexual peers to myself and fulfill the obligations of lifelong chastity,’” Petrey said. “‘But that doesn’t mean I can’t hold hands or can’t kiss.’”

Burke has also witnessed what he believes is a tectonic shift in the freedom of LGBTQ Latter-day Saints to explore relationships outside of the traditional biological male and female model.

“The queer Mormons who are venturing onto the dating field right now,” he said, “are doing so in a way that our queer progenitors could not possibly think or conceptualize.”

As an example, he pointed to singer David Archuleta, who, in a 2021 interview with the Deseret News, explained that he dates men the same way he used to date women — “‘not in a sexual way.’”

“I just love this gray area he’s dancing in,” Burke said.

Wilcox, too, has seen a rise in the number of queer Latter-day Saints who are choosing to date. But not all are given equal treatment along the way, he warned.

“If you’re a white guy, you’re getting away with it way more than females, trans folks and people of color,” he said. “That’s just a very ugly fact.”

The other wild card, he said, is a person’s bishop.

‘Bishop roulette’

Again and again, bishops emerged as playing pivotal roles in determining whether those interviewed felt they had the freedom to date — further evidence of the lack of clarity afforded queer members.

Richard Ostler is a former bishop of a young single adult ward and the host of the podcast, “Listen, Learn & Love,” which centers on stories of LGBTQ members.

He said he knows of some bishops who apply the BYU Honor Code standard to their queer members, disciplining them for any expression of same-sex intimacy. Others, he said, apply the same rules to their straight and queer single members when it comes to romantic behavior, regardless of their partner’s sex or gender.

“There’s a bishop roulette,” he said.

Christian Harrison, a 50-year-old gay Latter-day Saint living in Salt Lake City, says he has benefited from this deference to local lay leaderships.

“When I came out,” he said, “I was a BYU student and my bishop said, ‘I have no idea what we’re supposed to do here. What do you think we’re supposed to do?’”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Christian Harrison in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021. Harrison says under Latter-day Saint teachings, LGBTQ members don't have the hope of marriage unless it's in a union between a man and a woman. “I know plenty of wonderful heterosexual co-religionists who did all the right things and dated and never found someone,” Harrison said. “But there was the hope of marriage.”

He continued: “Each of my next four bishops said the exact same thing. And as I matured, my answer to that question changed. But the amazing thing is, whether it was just desperation or the whisperings of the Spirit, those bishops really did understand their role in the kingdom. They didn’t stand between me and God. They stood next to me as I made my own path forward. And it’s why I’m still active in church.”

Others, including Craig, described similar experiences. “In conversations I’ve had with my bishop, he’s more or less just said, ‘I can’t technically encourage you to be in a relationship, but you deserve every right to be happy and pursue that if that’s something you feel like you should do.”

In contrast, Jill Pope, a 21-year-old bisexual BYU student, said she knows a woman whose bishop told her she no longer could take the sacrament, or Communion, after holding another woman’s hand.

According to Burke, this leverage given to bishops follows a larger pattern within the church in which high-ranking officials release policies and leave it to local leaders to implement them based on their own discretion.

“It could change at any time,” he said, “but, at the moment, church leaders are very deferential to the priesthood keys that bishops and stake presidents hold for discipline.”

This means he has personally watched queer members disciplined for watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a reality drag competition, while others attended church and served in callings while living with their partner.

Fostering a double standard

One point that all agreed was completely unambiguous was the fact that church leaders’ assertion that the faith holds straight and queer single Latter-day Saints to the same sexual standard is false.

“It’s great P.R.” Harrison said, “and utter rubbish.”

The greatest discrepancy most cited was that of the promise of marriage available to Latter-day Saints who are straight and single.

“I know plenty of wonderful heterosexual co-religionists who did all the right things and dated and never found someone,” Harrison said. “But there was the hope of marriage.”

Adam McLain, who is gay, put it even more bluntly.

“The promises aren’t the same,” the recent 29-year-old graduate of Harvard Divinity School said. “Single members can go up to the point of chastity before marriage, but the queer person can’t get married.”

Pope, who recently married a man, said she had thought about dating women, but decided against it “because of the double standard.”

“It’s something I gave thought to, but decided not to because of all the barriers put in place,” she said, noting that her family was not “very accepting.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jill Pope at her home in Provo, on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022. A 21-year-old bisexual BYU student, Pope said she thought about dating women but recently married a man.

Many cited a lack of clarity regarding whether BYU’s Honor Code represents the standard for all queer members — regardless of whether they are a student at the church-owned school. This ambiguity, they said, represented yet another example of the standard’s uneven application.

When asked whether this policy applies to non-BYU Latter-day Saints, the church declined to comment.

Other interviewees noted practical and safety concerns unique to trying to date as an active, queer Latter-day Saint.

Take, for instance, queer BYU students who choose to date, Harrison said. All it takes is one person in the relationship to feel guilty and threaten to out the other.

“Even if you’ve minded your p’s and q’s, you are at an extreme political disadvantage because the word of this one person who is now hurt and angry and scared can completely derail your academic, social, religious and economic life,” Harrison said. “And that’s simply not the case for straight kids.”

Both on and off campus, Burke said, the fact that many queer Latter-day Saints don’t feel like they can be open about their relationships gives room for predators to flourish.

“My first semester at BYU, when I was just starting to come out,” he said, “I felt harassed by an older gay man.” Burke said he was lucky — there was never any physical contact and the man never knew his address or general whereabouts.

Nonetheless, he said, it was “terrifying.”

“A healthy relationship involves you introducing the other person to your friends and you get their opinion and feedback because they can see things you don’t,” he said. “But the element of secrecy means none of that happens.”

Questions for President Nelson

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Russell M. Nelson speaks at General Conference on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021.

When asked what, if anything, they would ask President Nelson, those interviewed offered a range from the practical to the theological, as well as the personal to the institutional.

Nearly all focused around a hope for greater clarity about their place in the faith.

“What do those of us who are transgender or gender fluid, what do we do?” James wanted to know.

Bee and others had even broader concerns. “If I could talk to President Nelson,” Bee said, “I would ask him to ask God why he made some people who don’t have the option to be fully happy in life and fulfill all the steps the church lays out for its members.”

Craig was even more concise. “Where do I fit in the church, the plan, the great scheme of things?”

Others, like Burke, focused on the effects they’ve seen of church leaders’ current stance on LGBTQ issues.

“We see the fruits of the policies and the way that we treat queer Latter-day Saints,” Burke said. “Those fruits are suicide, heartbreak, broken homes, broken families and shattered dreams. If I were to meet with Nelson personally, I’d ask him: Is there something more that God is trying to tell us because of this? Is there something that we’re not yet listening to?”

Harkey echoed this sentiment, saying, “People are dying — children are dying — because of the way that we talk about these issues. I would just want to know why anything else comes before that.”

Finally, McLain wanted to know how the church’s prophet-president has gone about learning about queer issues. “Has it just been through reports delivered to him and the brethren?”

He then added, “I don’t think any change can come until people actually meet people they’re afraid of — or seem to be afraid of — and talk in deep, heartfelt, spiritually torn, and painful ways.”

Editor’s note If you or someone you know is at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255. The Trevor Project also has a 24-hour suicide hotline for the LGBTQ+ community at 1-866-488-7386.