‘Mormon Stories’ apologizes for detailing church activities of same-sex LDS couple

The popular podcast said it was “sorry” after a backlash accusing it of “surveillance” of the former BYU mascot Charlie Bird.

(Annie Sorensen | Special to The Tribune) John Dehlin presents at a THRIVE conference in St. George in 2022. He and team member Gerardo Sumano issued a joint apology Tuesday morning for sharing with listeners the church activities of a same-sex LDS couple.

The “Mormon Stories” podcast issued an apology Tuesday after a team member attended Sunday worship services to observe a Latter-day Saint man and his husband and aired an episode detailing the couple’s church participation without their consent.

Some activists with ties to the LGBTQ Latter-day Saint community, however, say the statement falls short of fully owning the harms they believe “Mormon Stories” committed not just against the podcast’s subjects but also the queer community generally.

“Everyone — public figures included — deserves a certain degree of privacy,” stated the apology, signed by “Mormon Stories” host John Dehlin and team member Gerardo Sumano. “We are deeply saddened and truly sorry to have played a part in any fear, distress or division within the Utah LGBTQIA community.”

Dehlin took primary ownership over the discussion of the couple’s church involvement, noting that as the host of “Mormon Stories” and executive director of its associated nonprofit, “it is ultimately my responsibility to ensure that our podcast episodes conform with our values. For this episode, I clearly failed — and I want to take full responsibility for that.”

The apology came after backlash from members of the Latter-day Saint and former Latter-day Saint LGBTQ community, who have criticized the decision to air details of the couple’s experience at Sunday services and their volunteer positions within their congregation.

In a joint statement issued Friday, Troy Williams, executive director for Equality Utah, Michael Soto, president of Equality Arizona, and Sara Burlingame, executive director of Wyoming Equality, condemned what they decried as an “egregious example of the culture of surveillance” found increasingly throughout society and called for an apology.

“There is no room in our movement for the harassment of individuals in their place of worship,” they wrote, “or because of their LGBTQ identities.”

Just wanted to ‘celebrate’

(Gerardo Sumano) Gerardo Sumano, a team member of the "Mormon Stories" podcast, said he was acting on his own initiative the day he decided to attend a Latter-day Saint congregation to observe the participation of a same-sex couple.

Sumano, in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, said this description mischaracterized his intentions and activities while attending the Jan. 28 sacrament meeting in Utah of Charlie Bird, who has written and spoken extensively about his life as an active Latter-day Saint gay man, and Bird’s husband.

Sumano, an openly gay former member of the church, emphasized that he did not confront the couple and that he did not record the two men while he was there.

He said a big part of his mission was to witness and “celebrate” the same-sex couple’s acceptance by their fellow congregants — in particular their ability to take the sacrament, or Communion, a ritual that Latter-day Saints consider to be the most sacred portion of weekly church services.

“I wanted to live this experience that,” Sumano said, weeping, “never in my wildest dreams, as a teenager who was going through conversion therapy, thought would ever be possible.”

Burlingame, who called the apology “a chaos machine,” said she believed “there’s a chasm between maybe what they intended and what the actual impact was.”

(Sara Burlingame) Wyoming Equality Executive Director Sara Burlingame referred to the apology from "Mormon Stories" as a "chaos machine."

Included in that impact, according to her and her fellow co-signers: online threats made against Bird, who gained prominence as the Cosmo mascot at church-owned Brigham Young University.

Bird was unavailable for comment.

In Williams’ response to Tuesday’s apology, he pointed to the need for additional action on the part of “Mormon Stories” going forward to make amends with the LGBTQ community.

“In Primary, Latter-day Saint children are taught the four R’s of repentance,” he said. “When you have hurt someone, you must, first, recognize the harm; second, feel genuine remorse; third, make restitution where possible; and fourth, resolve not to harm again. ‘Mormon Stories’ appears to be at step one. I hope they continue the process.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, poses for a photograph at the Utah Capitol in April 2023. Williams says "Mormon Stories" has more to do to make amends with the LGBTQ community.

‘I put on my best clothes’

Sumano said he woke up early the day he decided to attend Bird’s church services.

“I put on my best clothes,” he said, his voice overcome with emotion. “I wore a white shirt that I hadn’t worn in four or five years.”

The idea and his decision to go, he said, were his own, explaining that he did not attend with the purpose of discussing the experience on “Mormon Stories.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ institute manual for college-age students states that “those in authority are not to permit unrepentant transgressors to partake of the sacrament.” The Utah-based faith also has long taught that intimate same-sex relationships and marriages are against God’s commandments.

For Sumano, then, witnessing a couple being allowed to participate in the ritual represented a “sacred experience.”

“Mormon Stories” has almost entirely scrubbed any mention of Sumano’s description of attending Bird’s church from the Jan. 29 episode, in which it originally appeared, as well as from accompanying social media posts (a Jan. 25 episode discussed the church callings of Bird and his husband).

Sumano said he made the decision to remove those details because he felt people were taking them out of a larger context meant to celebrate the win — that of a same-sex couple being permitted to hold callings and take the sacrament — for the queer Latter-day Saint community.

As for the term “surveillance,” Sumano said he and his husband met two years into his studies at BYU-Idaho and that they married while still students. The couple were so afraid of being discovered and kicked out of school that they kept the news from their parents.

No one was invited to their wedding. “If there’s anyone who knows the experience” of being watched, he said, “it’s me.”

Kyle Ashworth, host of the podcast “Latter Gay Stories,” was a guest on the Jan. 29 “Mormon Stories” episode.

While he acknowledged recent events had represented “a learning experience for many of us,” he said he hoped to bring the conversation back to this point of a Latter-day Saint congregation embracing a gay couple.

“I want other queer Latter-day Saints to see themselves represented in pews across Zion,” he told The Tribune. This was his driving reason for participating in the conversation “and why I unapologetically believe we should be celebrating this developing chapter.”

Private vs. public

Still, Burlingame, Williams and Soto all expressed concerns that the actions by “Mormon Stories” reflect an ongoing erosion of civic norms resulting from an increasingly polarized society.

“This practice of watching people in person and online and…reporting and speculating on those activities in the public sphere,” Soto said in an interview, “creates a norm that actually decreases the safety for all LGBTQ people, including the folks who participated in the podcast.”

(Michael Soto) President of Equality Arizona Michael Soto joined with Troy Williams of Equality Utah and Sara Burlingame of Wyoming Equality to call on 'Mormon Stories' to apologize. In their statement, they accused the podcast of promoting a culture of "surveillance" after it shared details of a same-sex Latter-day Saint couple's church activities with listeners.

Williams stressed that such norms are particularly critical in an “age of radical extremism and mass shootings.”

Everyone, he said, has “a responsibility to lower the temperature,” to “show greater grace and compassion, and be wise stewards of our platforms.”

Correction • Feb. 7, 11:45 a.m.: The church’s institute manual offers guidance regarding the administration of the sacrament. A previous version cited an incorrect source.

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