What happens to Mormons who are gay and still have a strong testimony of LDS beliefs? Can they remain active in a church that claims to welcome them but whose policies have been—and continue to be—damaging?
In this guest post, journalism MFA student Kristin Lowe follows a same-sex couple over the course of four months as they move from Hawaii to Washington and learn that “bishop roulette” is very real in the LDS Church.
Because of length, I’m putting up the first section today and the conclusion tomorrow. — JKR
A guest post by Kristin Lowe
Nick Einbender tucked his blue dress shirt into his pants and began tying his tie. Looping it around his neck, his fingers flew intuitively through his Sunday morning ritual until the tie knotted just-so and tightened up under his collar.
This particular tie had been a parting gift on Nick’s last Sunday in the Manoa Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Honolulu. After years of staying away, the Manoa Ward had been a place of returning, a spiritual home.
Nick looked at his husband Spencer—his dark hair combed, his own tie knotted neatly, ready for church. Watching their reflections move side by side in the bathroom mirror, Nick was filled with apprehension for the Sunday morning ahead.
Nick and Spencer were born and raised Mormons in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s no longer a sin to be Mormon and gay, but the church says it is a sin to act on same-sex attraction. Nick and Spencer are trying to navigate the largely uncharted territory of being gay and married and active in the LDS church.
By the church’s standards, they are living in sin and are subject to church discipline. When they got married in Hawaii, they lost the privileges of full membership in the church, and they were forced to accept painful restrictions—no partaking of the sacrament on Sundays, no callings in their ward, no temple attendance, and no wearing of sacred garments.
Still, they believed. Still, they stayed.
Nick said, “I’ve never been able to deny my testimony of the things I’ve loved my entire life. I still have a testimony that all those things are true. This is my tribe. These are my people. This is the common language that I speak with my family, my friends. It has power to be good. It is such a beautiful thing. And when it’s practiced the way Christ practiced it, I think Mormonism is the most beautiful thing in the world.”
On this Sunday, they were about to attend a new ward in Washington, DC. They pulled into the chapel parking lot in their blue 2008 Toyota Camry. They were comfortably on time. Nick is a Major in the United States Air Force and serves as a dentist. His blonde hair is cut short. His athletic build speaks more to his ritualistic 10 mile, 4:30 a.m. runs than his legendary love for food. In the summer of 2016, he learned that after three years of being stationed at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, he would be transferred to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.
The bustling streets of the nation’s capital still didn’t feel like home. Amidst the chaos of moving across the ocean, buying a historic 1908 brownstone home in the Capitol Hill district, and spending $120,000 on never-ending renovations, Nick and Spencer were living through the most stressful months of their lives, not to mention their one-and-a-half-year-old marriage. It was easy to miss the sunny beaches and swaying palm trees of Hawaii, where they left more than the familiarity of island living. They left well-loved friends and a church that became a refuge.
Before moving to Hawaii, Nick spent three years of Sundays not donning a dress shirt and not tying his tie, not going to church at all. He had served a two-year mission for the church, graduated from church-owned Brigham Young University, and tried to date women. He believed with all his heart that the church was true. But, the pressure to date, marry a woman, and eventually have a family—all things he could not see for himself—mounted.
He was determined to fight his battle with being gay on his own terms. That meant silently. He could not reconcile being gay with LDS doctrine. And so, he left. After years of concealing who he really was, he left determined to shake the feelings of shame that shrouded his every waking moment.
He thought being gay, and not LDS, would help fill an empty part of him. And it did for a time. But, the church—the gospel of Jesus Christ that he loved—had been such an integral part of his life. He needed it to be an integral part in any future partner’s life as well. He realized he wanted and needed what seemed unfathomable: to be actively gay and an active Mormon. He came to believe that he needed to be true to his physical and spiritual identity at the same time.
After re-connecting with a close friend and LDS LGBTQ ally, he decided to attend an Affirmation Conference sponsored by LDS LGBTQ members in Provo, Utah with his parents in the fall of 2014.
It was here that things began to change for Nick. He met people who loved the church as much as he did and chose to be in a gay relationship. After years of feeling an immense weight of guilt for who he was, he finally began to feel an inkling of the peace he’d been seeking. “I met spiritual people who love the gospel that chose to be in a gay relationship,” Nick said. “Wait. What? They can make it? They can make it work? I had a thousand questions for them.”
In one session, the instructor opened the class with a question and invited the group to answer. A tall dark-haired man stood and spoke. When the session closed, the dark-haired man approached Nick, stuck out his hand and said, “Hi. I’m Spencer. I want to be your friend.”
Spencer Mickelson came to the conference alone. He came hoping to break free from the nagging feeling his “Plan A” life was void because he had made so many mistakes. He said, “There was something about me that always felt bad for being gay or that I was going to live a Plan B life because I wasn’t strong enough to be straight.”
It wasn’t until the day before he met Nick that he began to feel that it really was okay to be gay. At the time, Spencer had a calling in his ward as the gospel doctrine teacher and attended the temple regularly. He said:
My decisions were very thought out. They were very conscious. It wasn’t just, ‘Oh, I like this guy. I’m going to date him.’ It couldn’t be that casual, because I had thought about what it means to be gay, and what it means to be Mormon. And the reason I was going to the temple and the reasons why I was fine being the gospel doctrine teacher was that I hadn’t met somebody that I was going to get married to. I had my formative experiences. I made my decisions and I was committed to being celibate until I met somebody I wanted to marry.
Within the year, Nick and Spencer dated and married. Spencer moved to Hawaii, and the ward members embraced them both. Although they were not able to hold callings, the bishop and other leaders in the ward found opportunities for them to serve. Nick and Spencer felt they belonged. They were allowed to comment in classes and share their testimonies and life experiences as gay members of the church. Above all, they were loved and accepted.
On Nick and Spencer’s last Sunday morning in August, the Manoa Ward members gathered in a striking white meetinghouse nestled among the tall buildings and palm trees of downtown Honolulu to worship, and to say goodbye. At the close of the first meeting, Nick and Spencer were invited to stand in front of the congregation while over three hundred members expressed their love through song. Their voices rose and fell to the melodic tune of “Aloha Oe.” Nick stood with his husband’s arm around him.
Farewell to thee
Farewell to thee
Until we meet again.
Nick buried his face in his hands and sobbed. The members formed a line and waited for their turn to say goodbye. A petite Hawaiian woman dressed in a colorful floral print dress, her skin pleasantly wrinkled in a smile, was the first. The top of her graying head reached Nick’s torso. She stretched her thin arms up to place a lei of homegrown purple corn blossoms around first Nick’s neck and then Spencer’s, and left them with a faint squeeze of a hug.
There were more hugs and heartfelt well-wishes. Lei piled higher around their necks. Lei of dark brown kukui nuts and clusters of tiny white seashells. Lei of frayed maroon and gold ribbon that mimicked the blooms of some unclassified tropical flower. A men’s neck tie—a spontaneous and heartfelt offering—also hung from Nick’s neck.
Nick and Spencer were known and loved in Honolulu. But, starting all over was difficult. Would they find the same acceptance in a new ward miles across the ocean in the nation’s capital?
To be continued tomorrow . . .
Kristin Lowe is an active member of the LDS Church who loves her faith and her faith community. She is currently a MFA student in the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism studying narrative nonfiction writing, while also learning to embrace the beautiful mess of being a mother of five.