[Guest post for Pam’s House Blend by Eric Ethington]
This past week, I read an article in the Salt Lake Tribune about an openly-gay man in San Francisco who has just been named as a member of the Bishopric in his local Mormon congregation. Needless to say, I immediately tracked him down for an interview.
Most of our readers know that I have a complicated past with the Mormon, or LDS, Church. I was raised as a member in Utah but was thrown from my house when I came out at 17 by an intolerant and bigoted Father who believed that I was an embarrassment because I wasn’t following the Mormon doctrine. I eventually rejoined the Church and went back into the closet (long story) and was married to a woman in the Mormon temple in SLC. Obviously, that didn’t last long. Since then, I have been an outspoken critic of the Mormon Church and their policies and attitudes towards the LGBT community. This does not mean that I am anti-Mormon, I do not wish to see them disbanded nor do I want to see the government ever force them to change. What I want is them to change themselves. Protest after protest, I’ve called for them to change their own attitudes so that no child ever has to go through the trauma and horror that I did just to stay alive.
So when I heard about Mitch Mayne, an openly-gay man who was called to the Bishopric of this local Mormon Ward (aka congregation), I was intrigued. How does someone who’s being open and honest with and about themselves still find happiness being part of a religion who’s doctrine tells you that you cannot be who you are?
I thought about editorializing my interview with Mitch. But the more we talked, the more I’ve decided that I’m just going to give it to you raw, and without any additional commentary.
Eric: Mitch I very much appreciate you taking the time to speak with me, I have many questions for you and I want to try and understand more about your situation. So question 1: When did you receive your calling as Executive Secretary. And what does that position entail? [cont’d.]
Mitch: I officially received the calling during the second week of August. Don Fletcher–now the Bishop–was serving in the San Francisco Stake Presidency. He was called to be the bishop of the Bay Ward, and then he and the stake president called me to serve as Don’s executive secretary. And I wish I had a detailed job description to provide you, it would be helpful to me, as well. I will be the interface between our congregation and Don–so anytime anyone wants to meet with him, I’ll be the point of contact. In our ward, the executive secretary and the ward clerk are viewed as an integral part of the bishopric. And as such, I’ll also continue to participate in ward callings for other service positions, setting those individuals apart, and participate in congregational executive-level decision-making.
Eric: How did you come to belong to the LDS faith? Were you raised as such? Have you always been Mormon?
Mitch: I was baptized when I was eight, but fell away from the church shortly thereafter, due in large part to my parents rather acrimonious divorce. I reconverted when I was in my mid 20s, knowing full well I was gay, and knowing I would have to somehow find a way to integrate my faith with my sexual orientation.
Eric: I read that you only received this calling once you and your partner had been separated for a year, did the Church have something to do with your break-up?
Mitch: If it’s ok, I’d really rather not go into that. I still deeply care for him and it’s not a subject I like to breech. Suffice it to say, it ended due to no direct pressure from the church; no one asked me to leave to remain part of the Mormon faith.
Eric: So as an openly gay man who is also an active member of the Mormon faith, how did Prop 8 effect you? How did it make you feel to watch your church be involved the way they were?
Mitch: Prop 8 was probably among the most challenging times in my Mormon faith. I felt first-hand the sorrow this caused. And, I felt it from within my very own spiritual family. Watching my Mormon brothers and sisters advocate for an issue that would keep me from marrying the man I loved tore at my heart. It was difficult to maintain my personal integrity and, at the same time, stay close to the home where I found my Savior.
Eric: Were those feelings aggravated again when the Mormon 2nd-in-command, Boyd K Packer, made his now infamous statements last fall claiming that anyone can change their sexual orientation?
Mitch: What Packer said hurt a lot of people, and yes, I was included in that group. I have a lot of respect for that man, I’ve read a lot of his work–some of his writings and talks are spiritually amazing. I think that maybe made this hurt even more.
Eric: But is it hard to believe in anyone who makes statements like his? Not just from last October, but his earlier writings advocating violence against LGBT people?
Mitch: I think that’s a very fair question. I look at it this way: I can’t very well go around and ask the Mormon community to lend compassion and kindness to the LGBTQ community without granting others that same degree of compassion. We’re all three dimensional mortals, every single one of us. And as such, we each have strengths–and flaws. There is not a human on this Earth that is exempt from that, it’s simply our human state.
Eric: Do you ever find people who feel that they have to end relationships if they wish to be fully embraced by the church. What do you tell people who feel that a life without the love of someone is at odds with the doctrine of the Mormon faith?
Mitch: If I am to follow my Bishop’s example and directions–and I shall do so with absolute pleasure–I welcome them into the congregation, just as they are. That’s the thing that’s really great here–the direction we’re taking. Everyone is welcome, regardless of where they are in their personal lives!
Eric: But what about people who are in relationships with their partners and don’t want to give them up? Doesn’t LDS doctrine say that they cannot be full-members (meaning no temple ordinances or callings)?
Mitch: No, doctrine has not changed. But no one will ask you to give up your partner to attend. That means anyone can come to our congregation and be part of the ward family. There are a lot of things that hold straight people back from getting temple recommends and holding callings as well, and they’ve always been welcome in our flanks. That same welcome is extended to everyone here. Is it a doctrinal change? No. Is it a great and wonderful softening of the perception of all of our Savior’s children as our brothers and sisters? Will it help mend families? Will it help people who want the feeling of being in a community of faith? Absolutely! I met three gay men last week alone who came to church because they were starting to feel welcome. Each of them is in a different spot in terms of how deeply he wants to develop his relationship with the church. And each one is welcome! I got told today of a straight investigator in the Oakland Stake who heard my talk–the gay and lesbian issue was a sticking point for him–and now he feels more comfortable moving into full fellowship.
Eric: You seem to be in a unique position there in San Francisco. Being openly gay, and yet still fully-accepted into the church as long as you do not have a relationship with another man. There are many many stories of people however, in other wards across the country who were immediately excommunicated from the Mormon Church when they came out, even if they intended to remain celibate. There are even reports of straight Mormons who were kicked out just because they opposed Prop 8. What is it about your ward that makes it so unique and accepting?
Mitch: I’ve heard these stories as well, some of them first-hand. They also pull at my heart. In my farewell speech to my home ward in Oakland, I shared the story of a man who I called Cliff, who experienced this exact thing. The goal was to help others understand how truly difficult it can be for gay and lesbian Mormons, and the challenges we encounter. And yes, you’re right: I am a blessed man to have what I have, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t hear a story that reminds me that I am. I want to bring that to others. Prop 8 was a divisive time in our history; true, it affected people everywhere, but I think the bay area was hit especially hard. For example, within the ward boundaries of the Bay Ward alone, there are hundreds of endowed, single members on the record books who don’t attend church. Many of these members are our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. I am being led by a local leadership of kind, wise men–who understand how important this topic is to our local community. I am following their instructions when it comes to opening the doors and reaching out–I am part of a team, not an individual long-distance runner on this one. I think because of their kind hearts, and the recognition that this topic is especially important locally is one thing might make things a little different here. It’s not just me doing this; my leadership wants this as well, and from the feedback I’m getting from the ward membership, they’re elated and stand ready with open arms! It’s a great time to be a Mormon, and I am humbled to be part of this!
Eric: As you know, there are also thousands, if not hundreds of thousands (myself included), of LGBT children who have been thrown from their homes by Mormon parents. Many of them end up homeless or in suicidal situations, and all of them end up feeling scarred physically or mentally. What do you say to those who have been put in those situations?
Mitch: Oh, man…I know so well those stories. Mine wasn’t terribly dissimilar. I think what troubles me the most about these stories is they really seem to be so counter what I understand we want our faith to be about: the family. One of the things I want to focus on here (with the support of my leadership) is working to develop supportive, healthy, nurturing ways that parents and loved ones can help LGBTQ youth. Caitlin Ryan, the Director of Family Acceptance Project, has just done some powerful research and actually has a toolkit for parents of these youth that they can use, and do so in keeping with our Mormon faith. I’ve posted about this in my blog before, and I’m working with Caitlin to speak at a meeting of our local bishopric and stake leadership where we can share that with them–and they, in turn, can share it with parents. Here’s a great quote from one Mormon mother had when she discovered this information: “The Church teaches us that no success can compensate for failure in the home, and when we realized that included our relationship with our gay son, we knew that, with God’s help, we could do whatever was necessary to make our home a safe and loving one.” What an amazing opportunity we have, Eric, to keep what happened to us and so many others from continuing to happen. Our LGBTQ youth–and their families–need our support, our help, and our outreach. We can’t unring the bell on what happened to us; but we can help keep it from happening to others. And to those who’ve experienced that trauma, you, too–and perhaps most especially–are welcome among our flanks.
Eric: Do you yourself support full equal rights for lgbt people, up to and including marriage?
Mitch: I believe every single one of us is equal in the eyes of our Savior, regardless of orientation, ethnicity, gender–or any other marker we use as humans to define differences between ourselves and others. I don’t speak for the church here. But I don’t believe it is ever my job to condemn, criticize, or mock another. My job, as my Father’s son, is to walk beside you as you learn the lessons life is intended to teach you; to celebrate your joys with you, and to lend a hand when you stumble. The true spirit of love we have for one another is kind, patient, and doesn’t demand it’s own way. it doesn’t scold, condemn, or criticize. I am most certainly an imperfect human–but this is the spirit I think our Savior wants us to strive to achieve throughout the human family, and it is the spirit that I endeavor to bring to my entire life–and most certainly my faith.
Eric: That doesn’t really answer the question though. Do you personally support equal rights, not under the LDS church but under civil law, for LGBT people? And for that matter, do you also believe that your (and every other person’s) sexual orientation and gender identity are innate and cannot be changed.
Mitch: Absolutely. As Mitch Mayne, absolutely and without question.
Eric: Glad to hear it. You know, the longer we’ve continued our questions.. there’s still something that is sticking in my head. I believe that to be happy in this life, you need to fully embrace yourself for who you are. That includes finding someone you love to spend the rest of your life with. How can one do that and still be a member of the LDS Faith. According to Mormon Doctrine, every member needs to work to be “temple worthy,” and for LGBT people that means not being with the people they love.
Mitch: I understand that question. I live that question, just like you and so many of us. I don’t get the ability to write doctrine, I don’t have that blessing nor that responsibility–it’s a daunting job, and I’m grateful that mantle does not fall to me. I do know, though, that our gospel is very much alive–and as such, will continue to grow and expand. In fact, our 9th article of faithtells us that God will “yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” Is this something that will fall into the category of more revelation? I don’t know. I’m not blessed with any more psychic abilities than any other average mortal. What I do know is what feels right in my heart. And what we’re hoping to accomplish in the San Francisco Bay Area–and the Bay Ward specifically, feels *right.* Bringing families and those who share our faith a little closer together feels right. Opening the doors and allowing everyone to come in feels right. Building strength in unity and in faith feels right. Is it perfect for everyone? Perhaps not. But it sure feels like the right direction to me. What has worked for me–and again, this is sharing my own personal experience–is staying close to my Savior and striving to do what I understand His will for me to be. I think that’s the best any of us really can do–and if I don’t misunderstand my scriptures entirely, I think that’s all He asks us to do.
Eric: It’s well documented that when equal rights are finally achieved, that has no bearing on what any religion is required to teach or the ordinances they perform. Why do you think it’s so hard for many members of the LDS Church to understand the difference between equal civil rights, and their religion being FORCED to change their doctrine?
Mitch: I can only speculate here, but I think what we’re seeing is a human characteristic, not a Mormon one. I think being a human is an exhilarating and simultaneously scary thing. There are a lot of unknowns. I think we find safety in categorizing and labeling things: good, bad, black, white, gay, straight. Change of any kind requires we think differently, and that’s tough for many of us–and sometimes it’s frightening. The great thing is at least in the San Francisco area, people now have permission to begin to see things a little differently, to think a little differently, to be a little more open. And I think that is a tremendous blessing! God gave us critical thinking skills to use, it’s part of the plan! I think we offend Him when we don’t use them. Here’s a chance to open hearts and minds and understand things in a new way–as a closer human family. That’s a good thing for every single one of us!
Eric: Do you view yourself and your new position as a bridge between the two communities? There’s a long and extremely painful relationship between the LGBTQ community and the Mormon Church. Do you think you can use your position to try to heal the wounds?
Mitch: I sure hope so. I think I have a unique opportunity, Eric. I’m a man with a foot in two worlds that most people don’t think intersect–but they do. There are hundreds of thousands if not millions of LGBTQ Mormons and those who love them. I’m just a single individual–but I am maybe one who is comfortable being more open than many others feel comfortable with. I understand full well the difficulties between the two communities; I have experienced many of those first-hand. But, I also think there is an amazing opportunity here, to stand up as an openly gay man, recognizing that is how my Father made me, and let my personal story speak for many who have felt silenced. And, I think there is even a greater opportunity for me to play a part–however small–in reconciliation between these two groups. What makes this truly astounding is I am following the direction of my Bishop and Stake President: They are the ones who are opening the doors here. How great it is to be part of a team like that!
Eric: You say you’re following the directions from your Bishop and Stake President. How so? What type of outreach have they asked you to attempt?
Mitch: I’ve been pretty heavily involved in a series of outreach programs and events we’ve run in the Oakland Stake with the goal of healing the wounds from Prop 8. Those have been very well received. And while we’re still in the formative stages of figuring out specifically what we’re going to do on this side of the bay, I do want to replicate the success we’ve had in the Oakland Stake. I think this quote from my Bishop Don Fletcher states our end goal pretty clearly: “I want to reach out to gays and let them know that they are welcome in the ward, wherever they’re at,” Fletcher said. “If they are, like Mitch, living the commandments, they’ll be put to work. But everyone can get spiritual recharging and feel the savior’s love by worshipping with us.” To me, that means the doors are open!
Eric: Any final thoughts?
Mitch: Ha! That’s a dangerous question, my friend! Millions of final thoughts! But I’ll limit it to this: I know who I am. I know I am my Father’s son, and I am just as He made me. And I know he wants me to be here doing this right now, in the company of a ward and stake leadership that I am honored to serve with. He loves each of us for exactly where we are, and exactly who we are. I’ve said this to a few friends, but think it bears repeating here. It takes a strong spirit to be gay in this world; it take a remarkable one to be a gay Mormon. To my brothers and sisters out there, don’t ever doubt that you are, in fact, remarkable.
This was no small interview for me, it dug into some very personal and painful memories that I’ve tried to forget. I can’t say that I agree with everything that Mitch says and believes, but I think it reflects change, change in the Mormon church. And although it’s moving ever-so-slowly (and you know how glacial-paces thrill me), any change is positive.
I don’t know if the Mormon Church will every change their doctrine, but I think that it’s individuals like Mitch Mayne who make those small differences within their own circles – attitudes begin to soften, hearts open, and perhaps someday we can hold up these Mormon families as models of how good parents should treat their LGBT children.
You can learn more about Mitch at his blog. MitchMayne.com.
Eric Ethington is the founder of PRIDEinUtah, an LGBT political blog and activist group (prideinutah.com). He’s also the Chairman of the Utah State Democratic Party Progressive Caucus and co-host of the radio program “The Left Show” (theleftshow.com). He’s organized over 20 protests for LGBT rights in Utah, and has been honored as Utah’s top Citizen Journalist.