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Conditional Love

In the face of the Knight Initiative, an ex-Mormon daughter struggles with faith and family

By Marina Wolf

MY OLDER BROTHER, Danny, and I have always respected each other. Through the storms of adolescence we frequently managed to be civil, and even as we grew into adulthood, our lives sharply diverging, the relationship bloomed.

It must be that respect and love that sends me to church with him and the family whenever we visit. It's only twice a year, a small sacrifice to make at the altar of family feeling. No doubt it pleases them to think that, however sinful my life may be in their eyes, at least I'm still exposed to the saving principles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Of course, there's not a chance I'll ever go back, not after 15 years, including eight and a half years spent with the woman I love. But still, at these church services that resonate in my reluctant soul, I wallow in a weird sort of nostalgia manqué, nostalgia for something that never was, but might have been. Watching the young Mormon women proudly herding their children down the aisle, I think: This could have been my life, too.

My family would love for that to be my life. Instead of struggling with what to tell the kids about "Aunt Lidia," my brother could invite me and my husband to dinner with his friends. Instead of casting bewildered sideways glances at my longtime lover, my mother could occasionally mention me in the family newsletter. But they know enough of my tongue and temper not to argue with my "choices."

In grateful exchange, I go with them to church once in a while.

This Sunday, I sit between my mother and my younger sister during the women's meeting, which is being taught by the ward representative for Proposition 22, the California ballot measure that would prohibit the recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states. The ward rep's daughters take turns reading official church statements about the dire threat that same-sex marriage poses to the family and our country; then the floor is opened for comment.

It is unnerving to listen to these women talk about "perverts," oblivious to my presence. I feel like an escapee, huddled in the bushes outside the prison while the searchlights sear the darkness around me. Surely they will find me out. But they don't. The discussion swirls around me unabated, while I take discreet notes to steady my nerves and my mother flips aimlessly through her scriptures.

One woman relates reading in her psychology textbook about a woman who left her family for another woman. "That's when I understood how serious this issue is," she says, her eyes earnest and wide. "How could she choose someone else over her children?"

The teacher nods her head. "We can't afford to be complacent about Prop. 22," she says. "We want it to pass."

"You can't say that," hisses one of her daughters from her seat; the church--which has encouraged members to donate to the Knight campaign--is being intently scrutinized, from within and without, for any overt political activity in church buildings. But the teacher barely pauses. "It's going to be a knock-down, drag-out fight," she continues, telling the story of the prophet in the Book of Mormon who scrawled slogans on a banner and marched through the streets for God. She's good, she's got a lot of charisma. She has the room in the palm of her hand.

Most of the room, at any rate.

At the end of the lesson, neither my mother nor my sister says "Amen."

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The Knight Initiative: The supporters and detractors of Proposition 22.

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THEY PROBABLY weren't the only ones present feeling a little uneasy, if we go on anecdotal evidence, acceptable assumptions, and basic math. With a worldwide membership approaching 11 million, and between 3 and 10 percent being gay, there could be anywhere from 333,000 to 1.1 million gay men and lesbians in the LDS church. In addition to their parents and grandparents, gay persons from Mormon backgrounds usually have siblings and a large extended family. (Besides my six brothers and sisters, I have, on my mom's side alone, four sets of aunts and uncles, who produced a total of 22 cousins.)

As the numbers go up, the picture becomes clear: LDS policy on "the homosexuality issue" affects more than just gays in the church.

"The church leaders have a tendency to formulate policies, and . . . then they turn away and don't want to talk about it anymore. They do not see the wreckage that's going on," said Kathryn Steffensen in a recent interview with KUED, a Utah public television station, for a documentary on gay and lesbian Mormons. Steffensen is a founding member of Family Fellowship, a support group for families with gay members. She gets to witness the damage firsthand, families who come to them traumatized and fearful for their children's salvation.

Others who are in a unique position to see the "wreckage" are bishops and stake presidents (the local lay leaders in the Mormon church). These men don't establish policy; they simply implement it according to their biases and abilities.

The local leaders are usually the deciding factor in a family's experience with gay issues.

Some are sympathetic. One Central Valley bishop, who had a gay brother himself, was able to speak to my older brother heart to heart about the balancing act he needed to do. In Southern California, literally in the shadow of the Santa Monica temple, the stake president started a monthly meeting of fellowship for gays and lesbians and their families; it ran for seven years before being closed down by the church authorities.

Other local leaders can be much less supportive. Jake, a Central Coast gay man who remains a member after four years of church discipline, remembers his former stake president as a compassionate man: "He was doing what he thought was right."

Among the right actions the stake president took when Jake came to him in torment in 1985 was to tell Jake's parents about their son's homosexuality, without his consent.

MARYANNE RECALLS what happened when she and her husband told one of their former bishops about their gay son: "He said that if he had a gay son he would ban him from our family, and that if he had a gay person move in on his block he would move."

Though Maryanne and her husband knew that their feelings of acceptance were correct, they were still disheartened by the bishop's response. In true Mormon fashion, Maryanne went to the temple and had a revelation. "I was off in the corner in very deep prayer when a voice and a presence came in front of me and said, 'Love your children.' I looked up and didn't see anyone, so I bowed my head again in prayer, and the voice said, very firmly and louder, 'Love your children.' "

And so she and her husband did, turning their energies to the local chapters of Affirmation and Family Fellowship, which began as a study group for six confused parents in 1993 and has since grown to include 1,300 households on a mailing list.

Many in Family Fellowship who have reached acceptance of their gay relatives view the challenges they've faced not as a tragedy, but as a journey leading them to greater understanding and togetherness as a family. The Watts family, for example, has suffered through two gay children leaving the church, one voluntarily and one through an especially harsh and rapid excommunication.

But their mother, Mildred Watts (or Millie, as her fans call her affectionately), says the suffering has only brought them together.

"I have just been stunned by how solid and united our family has been," said Mildred in an interview for the KUED documentary. "We have friends in Family Fellowship who can't even get their families together for Christmas. If the gay sibling's going to be there, then the others don't want to come. . . .

"I'm just grateful that all our kids have been so good."

TRULY, sometimes our families can surprise us. When I sent my coming-out letter to the family newsletter, the first surprise was that the letter got in at all. Then one cousin wrote in and said not to assume that they would all have problems with my sexuality. My parents, who could barely look me in the eye in the months after I came out, now send Christmas packages addressed to both me and my lover.

My grandparents have demonstrated the strangest contrasts of all. The week before my commitment ceremony, I got a letter from my grandfather, who was blind and mostly paralyzed from a series of strokes, but still managed to dictate a denunciation to my grandmother. Meanwhile, my grandmother, a quietly devout woman, had photocopied the announcement of our ceremony and sent it out with the family newsletter, with an apology that the photocopy "wasn't as nice as the original."

A few years ago, I took my partner to visit them in southern Utah. While Grandpa dozed in the back bedroom, Grandma shyly showed us around the lodgelike house. "You could sleep upstairs, it's quieter, but the beds are small and they aren't that comfortable. Or you could sleep in here," she continued as she led us to a room off the main room. "It's a lot more comfortable. I'll leave it up to you."

Grandma trotted off to fix lunch as we stared at the king-sized bed.

None of this necessarily means that my family has really accepted me or my life. It's just that they want to keep the family together. Mormon emphasis on family feeling makes the threat of its dissolution that much more disturbing. To make matters worse, those family ties are meant to carry on to the afterlife, which means that cutting them because of deliberate sin, as homosexuality is perceived in the church, often feels like a final farewell.

ADVICE FROM CHURCH authorities isn't much help to families struggling with this situation. I don't know what else my mother's bishop told her when she went to him about me, but the thing that stuck out in her mind was the need to beg me to take my name off the records of the church. If I did not, she said, it would affect her standing in the afterlife, as a parent who had been remiss in raising me.

Other potential sources of support are equally confusing. One article in the September 1999 issue of the church magazine Ensign recommends moderating response to the news: "Keep in mind that this is the same person you have always known: a child of God. Be grateful that this individual is willing to share his or her burden with you." But further down the page, the author highlights the real challenge of the situation: "While maintaining a loving concern for the person, reiterate the Lord's position that homosexual relations are sinful, and don't lose sight of this gospel truth."

Love the sinner, hate the sin, in other words.

As in other conservative religions, estrangement and outright disownment over a family member's homosexuality are not unheard of in Mormon circles. But mostly families just end up not talking about it. Lori, from the Bay Area, came out 10 years ago and hasn't talked with her family much about it since. They live on the other side of the country, and when they do visit, the subject is more or less closed.

"They're not angry. They've just put up some barriers; that's how they function," she says. "It's not a close relationship, and it's not an honest one.

"And that's upsetting."


Family affair: The Wolf clan, circa 1977--Marina, age 7, is in upper left-hand corner.


IF FAMILIES often put up barriers between themselves and their gay members, the wall between the family and the larger community of the church can be nearly impenetrable. "I found it virtually impossible to attend church. I never knew when a song, or a word, or the sight of a loving friend would bring uncontrollable tears," writes one woman in the Family Fellowship newsletter, Reunion. "Many times, I rushed from the church building engulfed in unspeakable sorrow and grief. I knew that once the tears started, they would never quit, and I knew at the time that I could not share the feelings of my heart with anyone."

Another newsletter contributor wrote bitterly of her spiritual exile. "Unfortunately, my comfort has not come from my church associations. In fact, they have been a tremendous sorrow because I have always expected them to be my greatest support. Instead, I have felt abandoned."

Those families who are "outed" as having a gay or lesbian relative, or who decide to reveal the fact of their own accord, can find themselves facing a social network that is damaged beyond repair.

At this point, a Mormon family can deal with the challenge in one of three ways: fight, flee, or flounder in the miserable status quo.

Many do choose to remain in the church and fight. The Wattses write letters to the church authorities several times a year. Maryanne and her husband regularly speak out in meetings. In politically charged times, this is a difficult decision. Church officials say that no one will be subject to discipline for opposing the church's position on homosexuality and same-sex marriage, but a look at the chronology of church involvement in the Knight Initiative reveals that the pressure is on.

Dave Combe, a former Mormon who collects this information via online reports from members, believes that members are justified in their fear of retribution.

For instance, one member, not even in California, made a comment in a priesthood meeting and was released as the priesthood instructor. Another member was initially denied a temple recommend (a document from the local church leader attesting to her worthiness) because she "associated with apostates"--that is, she hung out with her gay brother. (The ruling was overturned by the stake president.)

Other families end up leaving the church because the conflict is simply too much. Gary and Mildred Watts write of this often in their letters to church authorities. "The continuing characterization by our ecclesiastical leaders of our gay children as 'evil,' as 'being of the devil,' and as 'perpetrators of the unraveling of the fabric of human society' is painful," they wrote in one letter from 1995. "For some it severely tries their loyalty to our church, which heretofore has occupied a significant role in all our lives."

Says Maryanne, "A lot of parents drift from the church when their children come out. We meet them all the time. They've drifted away from the church because they can't deal with the church thinking they're not going to be an eternal family."

Lavina Fielding Anderson agrees: "This is the family church. We invented it, we have a monopoly on it. They have invested themselves and their marriage, in the hopes that their children will have the same kind of happiness, that they will replicate this family pattern, here in mortality and in the next life."

Anderson collects anecdotes of spiritual abuse for the Mormon Alliance and has talked with many gays and their families in the course of her work. To her mind, the church's actions in this and other political campaigns about gay issues definitely border on spiritual abuse, in that they can seriously damage members' relationship with the church and with God.

"Some people are able to sort out the message that they're getting from the church and say, 'That's not the message I'm getting from God,' and still feel validated in their spiritual journey.

But many people can't make that distinction, so to save themselves, they have to walk away from the church.

"But they end up walking away from God, too."

EVEN IF MORMONS with gay relatives do manage to stay in the church, says Anderson, they can never go home again to the church that had formerly been the rock of their faith. "They may still look as though they're in the mainstream, they may still be in the same row in church," she says, "but they're hearing the message with different ears."

When the dissonance is too much to take, some members are choosing to have their names formally removed from the records of the church. Kathy Worthington, who left the LDS church 30 years ago over its refusal to grant black males priesthood privileges, now serves as an unofficial counselor for others wanting to leave the church.

Usually, says Worthington, she gets one or two requests a year; since the church came out with its announcements in May, she has received 116 photocopies of letters, from both gays and straights, that have requested removal of names.

USUALLY the distancing on both sides is more subtle. Mark has a brother who came out as gay, and while the whole family is completely comfortable with that, says Mark, they can never be themselves with the family of the church, especially with homosexuality being such a hot topic in church these days. "When we share our beliefs, it makes [the other members] uncomfortable to be around us, and it makes us uncomfortable to be around them as well, because we can't really talk about that issue."

This is the silent middle, the gray area where members don't know exactly what to do, but can't shake the feeling that what the church is asking them to do just isn't right. It's a difficult place to be in a church where things are either right or wrong, God or Satan. Those caught in between feel the pressure.

"I'm a strong member of the Mormon church, and I'm not trying to find fault with the church leaders," says Mark. He then sighs nervously. "I'm not trying to make it a big issue. But with the whole Knight Initiative becoming very popular with the first presidency [the top leaders of the church], I definitely feel that they're forcing me to choose between the church and my brother."

I don't understand how my own brother holds these two mutually opposing concepts and thought patterns--gay sister, gay-hating church--in his head without exploding, but he does. Of all the Wolf kids, we've always been closest--in age, geography, and feeling--and that hasn't really changed. If we lived any closer, I'm sure he would probably have my lover and me baby-sit about twice a week.

But at the same time, he will be contributing to Prop. 22.

I ask him about it one Sunday evening, the day of that awkward women's meeting in my brother's ward. I shouldn't ask if I'm not ready to hear the answer, but there it is. Might even do some precinct walking, he says. That hurts. He speaks so easily about this, about voting for it. What's worse, he prays for me. Even though I have been with my lover as long as he has been married, he hopes that I will change.

I ask whether he gets sad thinking about me, and the silence is horrible, ringing and eternal. His eyes are red and watery as he gazes out the kitchen window into the black night. "A little," he finally says. I stare at him, paralyzed by confusion. I want to shake him and hug him, cry and shout, beg him not to worry about me in the afterlife. "I'm a good person!" I want to say. "Your god will let me in!"

But he won't believe me anyway, and I can't bear to beg. So I just sit and look away from his tears and think about the choices we both have made in order to sit at the same table.

IT IS ONE THING to go to church out of family obligation. It is quite another to be drawn to it out of my own soul-felt need.

The desire to go back to church had been building in me for months, ever since I started writing this article. Mormons might call it the still small voice, the prompting of the Holy Spirit. I couldn't call it that, but I also couldn't shake the feeling that I needed to go. I wanted to put a face on the "homosexual menace," maybe plant a seed of understanding.

But more than that, I wanted to finally speak my truth in front of a Mormon congregation.

Fast-and-testimony meetings are supposedly held for this exact purpose. On the first Sunday of every month, members fast all day and then have the opportunity at church to stand up and bear witness to their beliefs. This almost always has to do with the truth of the gospel as it was revealed to church founder Joseph Smith and all the Mormon prophets since. But every once in a while someone will get up at this spiritual open mike and say something unexpected.

That was my intention when I set out a couple Sundays ago to a local ward's testimony meeting. I half-expected some burly guys in dark suits to drag me away from the podium, but the room was utterly still as I unfolded a slightly sweaty paper and read from it, my throat rough and dry in the oppressive air.

I talked briefly of my family and how they had a hard time matching me with the picture that is painted in church of deviants and destroyers of the family. I ended my statement with these words:

"I don't know exactly what has been discussed in this chapel, or amongst yourselves in the lobby, but if it's anything like in my family's home wards, then some thoughtless and hurtful things have probably been said. Like many Mormons with gay relatives or friends, my family is afraid or embarrassed to speak up, which means they suffer in silence.

"On behalf of them and others like them, I beg you: do not cause further pain in a situation that is already hard enough. Be sensitive when you speak of homosexual issues. You do not know who among you has a gay friend or relative, or who is gay themselves.

"Harsh words on this subject, especially in a church environment, are cruel, and cruelty toward other human beings can never be Christian.

"If you are able to think before you speak, you can also think before you vote. If you don't know any gay people, think of me and my family. There are many people whose lives and hearts are affected by your actions. I wouldn't dream of arguing morality or politics with anyone here. I can't dictate how others should act in matters of conscience or love.

"But I know one thing, and I came here today to testify to its truth: nothing is as simple as it seems.

"In a matter that is portrayed as 'us vs. them,' some of them can be us."

I COULDN'T FIGURE out what to say at the end, so I just stared at my paper for a few seconds and then stepped down. Not being a religious person anymore, I didn't want to say, "In the name of Jesus Christ," and I sure didn't want to say "amen" and have no one say it afterward.

The church member who stood up after me thanked me for reminding him to love unconditionally. And at the end of the meeting, I was thronged by people wanting to shake my hand and thank me for coming.

One older woman said, "I'm so glad you came today. I used to live next to two gay men, and they were the most wonderful people. They were the souls of charity. I think it's wonderful that you came and spoke today."

Several people invited me to come back, and I said thank you. What could I say? "Didn't you hear me? I've been with my lover for eight and a half years. Why would I want to come to a church where so many people are against civil recognition for our relationship?"

No. I didn't say that. But I wanted to.

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From the February 17-23, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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