Group Holds Service for Gay Mormon Suicide Victims, Survivors

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A group seeking reconciliation between the LDS Church and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and otherwise queer people held a service honoring gay and transgender suicide victims and celebrating those who have integrated their faith and sexuality at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City on Oct. 4.

Peter Danzig, Communications Director of the Foundation for Reconciliation (also known as LDSApology.org), opened the ceremony with a reading of Adrienne Rich’s poem “In Their Honor” and a call to end “rejecting behaviors on all sides of the issue [in the battle between the gay and transgender community and the LDS Church over same-sex marriage rights].”

The evening featured a number of speakers including gay and transgender-affirming members of the LDS Church, former gay and lesbian Mormons, and the children of gay LDS parents.

Dr. William Bradshaw, a retired BYU professor of molecular biology and co-chair with his wife Marge of the gay-affirming LDS Family Fellowship, spoke first. The parent of a gay son, Bradshaw said that he loved his “gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in and out of Mormondom and grieves at the loss of any of them.”

Quoting gay political blogger Andrew Sullivan, Bradshaw discussed the trials faced by gay and lesbian Mormons in adolescence, including “a terrible sense of not belonging,” a feeling that acknowledging the “truth of homosexual self … will not make you free,” and a feeling of being forsaken by family and by God. He called upon all straight people in the audience to imagine themselves as “being part of the effort to change” such a world, or their part of that world at least.

“We must comfort and bear one another’s burdens,” he said. “We must speak, we must act, we must stand for something. We will not allow the uninformed [about gay and transgender people] to remain ignorant.”

Next, Carolyn Ball, an “excommunicated Mormon lesbian” and a 5th generation Mormon described growing up in the closet in Idaho.

“I do remember, at the age of 14, feeling a lot of hatred for myself and that hatred became very deep,” she recalled.

To stop hating herself, Ball said that she served the church as hard as she could and got married twice, including once to a gay man — a marriage that she joked “lasted three days.” She described eventually coming out to her family (who accepted her) as “part of healing for me.” Her 17 nieces and nephews, said Ball, helped her to learn to love herself, including one niece who drew the Human Rights Campaign’s equality sign flag for a class project in which students were asked what they would like to tell President Obama.

“She drew a picture of the HRC flag and below it wrote, ‘I would help fight for equality.’ This is a six-year-old girl,” said Ball.

“I can’t change that the church doesn’t want me,” Ball said in closing. “I want them. I wanted them. But they don’t want me. But I can love people around me. In my excommunication letter, the last line said, ‘We pray that your hear may be softened and that you repent and return to the Savior.’ I ask the church to do the same. That they will return to the Savior and love all the Saints, including the LGBT Saints.”

LDS actor Will Swenson, star of such films as The Singles’ Ward, addressed the assembly in a video titled Bring Them In from the Plains. The 11 minute film, narrated by Swenson, described a famous incident in LDS pioneer history: Church Leader Brigham Young’s suspending of all LDS Conference business to exhort Utah Mormons to rescue the Willie and Martin handcart companies from being stranded in a snow storm on the Great Plains. The daring and successful rescue operation is a source of pride for many Latter-day Saints, as is Young’s famous quote from which the film derived its title.

The film drew comparisons between the stranded company and gay and transgender Mormons, who have been “driven far from home by family and communities who failed to understand them” and by church leaders who will not acknowledge their pain or offer them help.

“They [church leaders] cannot give us back our sons, daughters, brothers and sisters lost to suicide … but they can help us with the healing we seek,” said Swenson. The film closed with the names, biographies and photos of many gay Latter-day Saints (mostly men) who committed suicide, and to all of the unknown victims “because there is silence instead of a name.”

Emily Pearson, an actress, author and daughter of acclaimed writer Carolyn Pearson, concluded the service. In tears herself, Pearson described that the pride the handcart story inspired within her, and how she left the church after leaders told her gay father that “he would be better off dead than as a homosexual.”

Although Pearson was disheartened by the passage of California’s Proposition 8 last November, she said that the re-banning of gay marriage in the Bay State, “weirdly restored my hope in good Mormon people of the world.”

“I have hope because they are changing. They are listening and letting go of prejudice and listening to what He who is the leader of their church told them to do: to love. We will be all right. Our people are born pioneers.”

The service also included a candle-lighting ceremony and musical performances by Allison Herbert and Mona Stevens and Jani Gamble of the band Sister Wives, Karen Andrews of The Saliva Sisters, and Danzig himself leading the assembly on banjo in a rendition of “Come, Come Ye Saints” which included a verse about gay and lesbian Mormons written by Sikoki Layton.

Visit the Foundation for Reconciliation at LDSApology.org.

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