Jana Riess: Hulu’s ‘Mormon No More’ rings true

While not perfect, this heartfelt docuseries skillfully centers the painful experiences of LGBTQ Latter-day Saints.

(ABC News/Hulu) "Mormons No More" tells the story of two Latter-day Saint women who fell in love, divorced their husbands and got married.

“We all learn through difficult things,” says one of the main protagonists in the new ABC series “Mormon No More,” now streaming on Hulu. “This is all an opportunity for growth.”

The can-do phrasing sounds like it comes straight out of the mouths of 21st-century Latter-day Saint leaders, who routinely try to encourage followers by saying life is a test and every challenge is a chance for further spiritual growth. As a famous passage of Latter-day Saint scripture attests, any seemingly insurmountable circumstance “shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7).

What’s especially interesting is that in this case, the Mormon-sounding pep talk is given by someone who has left The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Which goes to show you can take the girl out of Mormonism, but it’s harder to take the Mormonism out of the girl.

Or in this case, girls, because the series follows the love story of two female best friends who met when they were both married to men, fell in love with each other and are now raising their seven children in a newly configured family.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed “Mormon No More.” Sally and Lena, the couple in question, come across as loving and thoughtful. A major part of the series is about their attempts to make peace in their families, including with their ex-husbands and, in Sally’s case, parents who are still very much in the church.

The series skillfully weaves the stories of Sally and Lena with other LGBTQ Latter-day Saints and former Mormons, including Matt Easton, the Brigham Young University alum who came out as gay in a valedictorian speech, and David Matheson, a prominent therapist who counseled hundreds of gay Mormon men in “conversion therapy” to try to change their sexual orientation before recanting that harmful approach in 2019.

We also get to know Brad Talbot, a gay former BYU student who risks arrest for organizing a “light the Y” celebration that attempted to offer hope to LGBTQ students by illuminating the university’s famous “Y” sign in rainbow colors. These and other stories keep the series’ focus on how difficult it is to be a gay or trans Latter-day Saint, and how much these members have tried to live their faith, even to the point of believing their lives are not worth living. (Every episode ends with a hotline page, encouraging LGBTQ viewers who may be considering suicide to get help from groups like The Trevor Project.)

The series is not a hit job on the church; it generally resists cheap shots and focuses instead on individual people’s deeply human stories of love, faith and loss. There are a few moments when the show becomes more heavy-handed in making its point, such as when it zooms up close on the face of a Latter-day Saint leader who is saying something homophobic in a church meeting.

The filmmakers could have made this point without the added zoom-in effect, but the snippets of speeches they’ve chosen to include are, in my opinion, fair game. If a documentary is about people who say they have been harmed by Mormonism, it’s the documentary’s job to demonstrate what kind of messages continue to pour forth from the pulpit in Salt Lake. So we get Dallin Oaks proclaiming the evil of same-sex marriages, Russell M. Nelson warning members not to listen to the complaints or experiences of people who’ve left the church, and Jeffrey R. Holland singling out the aforementioned former BYU valedictorian Easton for attempting to “commandeer” the occasion of his graduation to come out to the audience. (For the record, Easton’s speech had been cleared by the church-owned university in advance, including the part about his sexual orientation.)

As someone who is part of a team researching and writing a book about former members, a great deal about “Mormon No More” rings true to the patterns that have emerged in our interviews and data. In Sally’s case, we see a common paradigm of several family members leaving one after the other — first her husband, then a brother. Sally’s faith crisis led to a sense in which everything was on the table for reexamination, including her sexuality: She left the church first and only then began acknowledging she might be gay.

This pattern of exploration has proved to be far more common in oral history interviews than the church’s narrative that “people leave because they wanted to sin” (not to imply that being gay is a sin). My point is that there is, as a character in the series observes, a recognizable domino effect: once the profound unmooring of leaving Mormonism begins, it can be a catalyst for other major life changes as well. It’s not about “wanting to sin.” It’s about discovering previously buried aspects of a self.

Another recognizable aspect of these women’s stories is how contented they are with their post-Mormon lives. In the first wave of our data, 93% of former Mormons surveyed said their emotional state was closer to “freedom, possibility, and relief” than it was to “anger, loss, and grief.” The few who said they were unhappy were often those still in the most dislocating, immediate context of a faith crisis, having only very recently left the church. In general, it seems to be a process that is emotionally tumultuous at the start before settling into a new kind of normal.

One of the most universally recognizable tropes in the series is the way former Mormons’ exodus from the church causes conflict when some or all of their family members still belong to the church. It’s clear Sally adores her parents, especially her mom, and craves a deep relationship with them. Meanwhile, her mother initially takes the news of Sally’s leaving Mormonism as though there’s been a death in the family. In one of the show’s most vulnerable moments, she confesses that committing to a life of faith was the single most important lesson she ever wanted to impart to her five now-grown children — and that in this, she feels she has failed.

Part of the joy of the series is watching that mother-daughter relationship take root again — and seeing just how far Sally’s parents are willing to go to be a loving presence in their daughter’s life.

Overall, “Mormon No More” is a celebration not just of individual people finding the freedom to be themselves, but of the deep and eternal love of family.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)