Mormon Secret Holy War: Mormons Flailing in a Modern World

In the final installment in this five-part series, Karen Ocamb reports on the mass defections from the Mormon Church over its once-secret policy of denying services to children of queer people. Find part one here.

“I AM DONE!” read a huge yellow sign carried by Mini Flower as she joined hundreds of protesters crowding into Salt Lake’s City Creek Park on Nov. 14, 2015, protesting a new policy from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regarding children of same-sex couples.

“My wife and I have kids in the church and we’re concerned they’re going to be ostracized. This is a major issue,” said Flower.

“Major issue” is a major understatement. In the 10 years since the ugly battle over Prop 8 and the ensuing backlash and PR nightmare, the Church quieted down, stopped funding anti-gay marriage initiatives, and even supported LGBT anti-discrimination laws in Utah.

But when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, the LDS Church responded. First came a June 29 letter that was to be read in all church meetings on July 5 reaffirming Church doctrine.

“Changes in the civil law do not, indeed cannot, change the moral law that God has established. God expects us to uphold and keep His commandments regardless of divergent opinions or trends in society,” the letter says—an interesting note, since the LDS Church has publicly renounced polygamy as a practice but not as doctrine.

“Homosexual behavior violates the commandments of God,” the letter says. “For us, the issues are not simply ‘tolerance’ and ‘equality.’ The issues are the nature of marriage and the consequences of redefining a divinely established institution. In addition, redefining marriage in the law can have profound consequences for society, particularly for children.”

Then came a bombshell. Former Mormon John Dehlin, the excommunicated founder of the Mormon Stories podcast, posted a screenshot of a new definition of apostasy added on Nov. 5, 2015, to Handbook #1, a private guide for Mormon leaders. As KUTV reported, “being in a same-sex marriage is considered a form of apostasy”—refusing to faithfully follow a religious belief.

“No one should be forced to choose between their faith and loving companionship,” Dehlin wrote on Facebook. “We are all diminished by this unfortunate action. As the LDS church continues to paint itself into a corner, it risks becoming increasingly irrelevant to the developed world.”

But the new policy change toward children of same-sex parents was devastating.

“A natural or adopted child of a parent living in a same-gender relationship, whether the couple is married or cohabiting, may not receive a name and a blessing,” the policy said. Children can be baptized at age 18 but only if they disavow same-sex cohabitation or marriage and stop living within the same-sex household—and only with the approval of the church’s First Presidency.

The change led to mass membership resignations on Nov. 14, 2015. “This just seemed so out of sync with everything the church has been doing for gays recently and with the gospel as a whole,” a Utah mother and Brigham Young University graduate who describes herself as “100 percent in” the faith, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “I am not willing to silently sit there and pretend I agree with the policy, which I believe is harmful.”

George Frey/Getty Images
Protesters at the Mormon temple after many submitted their resignations from the LDS Church in response to policy towards married LGBT same sex couples and their children on November 14, 2015 in Salt Lake City.

Others didn’t understand the controversy. “An essential part of being LDS is accepting the members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as actual prophets and representatives of the Lord,” Syracuse resident Brandon Bowen told the Tribune. “If I were to believe they were wrong about any particular policy, that would create an apparent (logical) conflict with my acceptance of them as true prophets to begin with.”

The Church tried to explain the policy change as being an act of compassion stemming from “a desire to protect children,” Elder D. Todd Christofferson said. “We don’t want the child to have to deal with issues that might arise where the parents feel one way and the expectations of the Church are very different.”

But the change conflicted with a basic tenet of the religion: “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” Children of same-sex parents were being punished for something they did not do.

And then came the reckoning. Wendy Montgomery, a co-founder of the Mama Dragons, a group of Mormon mothers with gay children, reported in mid-January 2016 that she had been told that 32 young LGBT Mormons had committed suicide since early November, according to the Deseret News. By July 2016, Montgomery told NPR, “It’s absolutely epidemic the level of suicide.”

The Utah State Health Department reported that July that the suicide rate for youth ages 11 to 17 had nearly tripled in Utah since 2007—jumping from 3 out of every 100,000 youth to 8.5.

Getty

“We have been closely watching our rates since various events that happened in Utah relating to the LDS Church,” suicide prevention specialist Andrea Hood told KUTV. “We have not seen an increase tied to those announcements.” However, Hood noted, that might be because of the “huge barrier” to collecting data if the deceased is not reported to have been LGBT in the police report.

The Church was also taken aback by the suicides. “We mourn with their families and friends when they feel life no longer offers hope,” a church spokesperson told the Deseret News.

“Family rejection is the most important factor in lowering suicide risks to our youth,” says Dr. Caitlyn Ryan, a clinical social worker and director of the San Francisco–based Family Acceptance Project. In an interview with NewNowNext, she notes that up to 40% of homeless youth are LGBT, their challenges compounded by family rejection and that LGBT youth between the ages of 15 and 24 are eight times as likely to attempt suicide as heterosexual youth.

“Even if you disagree, even if you don’t understand, if you’re struggling, [you can be a support] because you love your child,” Ryan told parents at an April 18, 2017, suicide-prevention conference in Salt Lake City.

Ryan is reaching out to Mormon families with Dr. Bob Rees, a former Mormon bishop and professor of Mormon studies at Graduate Theological Union who was silenced by the Church for one year for publicly opposing Prop 8. Their compiled education resources, Supportive Families, Healthy Children, “will save lives, keep families together, and give Church leaders a resource for helping families support their LGBT sons, daughters, and other family members,” Rees says.

“I think interaction is essential to facilitate any change. I started doing social-change work in Appalachia in the 1960s, where I learned a great deal about entering cultural worlds—including engaging very conservative faith traditions,” Ryan tells NewNowNext. “Many parents and families think they have to choose between a gay child and their deeply held beliefs—a choice no parent should ever have to make.”

NewNowNext asked for comment in two separate emails and phone calls to the LDS Public Affairs Department. Media Relations senior associate Karlie Brand Guymon replied by pointing to the LDS Church’s official LGBT-welcoming website, MormonAndGay.LDS.org, “outlining doctrine and beliefs surrounding the LGBT issue and exploring stories of members who identify as gay or lesbian. It features articles and videos, including videos from Church leaders discussing this issue.” She specifically recommended the opening video, “God Loveth His Children,” from Elder L. Whitney Clayton. “This is the best resource we can provide on this issue,” Guymon said in an email.

While sunny and welcoming, the website still says homosexuality is a sin and does not recant its anti-LGBT apostasy position or its belief that homosexuality can be changed. Indeed, although the Church’s position on homosexuality over the years seems to have changed from its being akin to murder to now simply a seriously sinful behavior, Apostle Boyd K. Packer’s 1976 sermon “To Young Men Only,” published as a pamphlet in 1980, was only discontinued in 2016.

“There is a falsehood that some are born with an attraction to their own kind, with nothing they can do about it. They are just ‘that way’ and can only yield to those desires,” Packer said. “That is a malicious and destructive lie. While it is a convincing idea to some, it is of the devil. No one is locked into that kind of life.”

In April 1987, counselor in the First Presidency Gordon B. Hinckley recommended in “Reverence and Morality” to follow “the example of the Lord, who condemned the sin, yet loved the sinner.”

As a tax-exempt organization, the LDS Church exercises its policies and political power with the tacit consent of the American taxpayer—which Fred Karger believes is unfair. His website MormonTips.com is gathering information about its anti-LGBT political policies and its billions of dollars from for-profit enterprises to mount a challenge with the IRS. “We are fighting back against Mormon Church leaders on behalf of its LGBTQ members who cannot,” Karger tells NewNowNext. “We will hold the Mormon Church accountable for its actions as it causes so much pain and suffering for its LGBTQ Mormons and their families.”

Given the current political climate and the religious right’s stranglehold on the IRS, Karger’s complaint may fall on deaf ears. But even if Mitt Romney heeds the call to run for the Senate and “save” the establishment Republican Party from Donald Trump, the LDS secret holy war against LGBT people will be exposed and the LGBT community can better decide who better serves the community’s needs—Trump/Pence and the evangelicals, or Romney and the Mormons—in the next power grab for votes.

***

With the country careering toward Trumpian-inspired chaos and Republicans buying into the cult of Trump for fear of a primary backlash in voting districts back home, Democrats are hyperventilating over the upcoming 2018 elections, eager to retake the House and Senate to put a check on the uncontrollable president. But the question of how to define “religious liberties” is still up in the air, and a political compromise that carries with it a continuation of a secret crusade against LGBT people is neither impossible nor unimaginable.

Karen Ocamb is a veteran LGBT journalist based in West Hollywood, Calif.