- Enrique Limón
Making a headline-grabbing splash in 2015, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' November policy—which deemed same-sex married couples "apostates" and formally excluded their children from blessings and baptisms—represented a clear divide between the institution and its LGBTQ members. Now reversed following "continuing revelation," this is the story of a group of people still affected by it.
Before they were wife and wife, Kimberly and Kelli Hansen-Ennis belonged to the same LDS ward in Eagle Mountain, some 40 miles outside Salt Lake City. "I was the Relief Society president and she was the rebel in the back row," Kimberly says. Back then, both were married to men. During a Relief Society meeting, Kimberly noticed that Kelli looked a little bit down, and asked her if she was OK. "Do you like to hot tub?" Kelli asked. "If you do, come over and I'll tell you what's going on." While hot-tubbing, Kelli explained that she was in the final stages of a divorce mediation, but that wasn't all. She confided in Kimberly she was lesbian and planned to "seek love."
Kimberly never knew a lesbian before. "I was kind of shocked by it," she says. Inwardly, she thought, "I need to really reach out to this sister and be a good friend." As weeks passed, she was there for Kelli, who continued to confide in her. "We grew very close," Kimberly remembers. "Because she was so open and honest, I let my guard down. That allowed me to be completely open and honest, too." The two shared experiences relating to their children and families. Kimberly confided that although she loved her husband, their relationship seemed kind of like he was a brother or a friend. "I had felt like, 'Is this all there is?'"
The two women began working out together. They took long bike rides. Kimberly began to notice there was "a flirtatious quality to our friendship. We were very drawn to each other and wanted to be together all of the time." She adds that while Hollywood movies often make romance appear to be more than it actually is—with bright colors and birds singing—her life began to more closely approach such a reality when she was with Kelli. "I fell in love with Kelli and I knew what love was for the first time," she says.
At first, it was hard to face her feelings. When she was growing up in Utah County, calling someone gay was an insult. "I didn't want to be gay, but I knew I loved Kelli. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. I didn't know how I could do that. I would tell her 'I'm not gay. I just really love you.'" In June 2004, Kimberly kissed Kelli. When she told her husband that she was a lesbian, he responded, "I can't say that I am all that surprised," as if there had been signs along the way. He moved out that September. Kelli moved in the next day.
Kelli and her husband divorced amicably. He stayed in the ward with their children. Because their home was only a block away from Kimberly's, the children could visit whenever they wanted. Both women were excommunicated after Kelli moved in. They were invited to attend their individual church courts, which were held the same night (both declined). "I just knew there was no way I could stand in front of the stake presidency and high council and explain this amazing thing that had happened to me," Kimberly notes. "There was no way I could make them understand. Even though they thought it was bad and wrong, it was perfect for me."
The couple continued to live in the ward area for several years. Kimberly describes her new lifestyle as "social suicide." "Suddenly, it was awkward to go out in the neighborhood." She was shunned there, she says. Her family of origin disowned her. "They didn't speak and I wasn't included in family events." She missed her grandmother's funeral and her sister's wedding. She didn't see her new nieces and nephews after their births. Kelli's family invited the couple over, "but we were like an elephant in the room. They asked us not to hold hands in front of the children." Following the interactions, Kimberly and Kelli quietly went back into the closet for years. "We had been through so much rejection," Kimberly says. "We made a life together and all we had was each other. She was my rock, my home and my world. We were close in ways that a lot of families are not. We totally clung together and supported each other through the devastation of losing my family."
In December 2004, they shared a small, intimate commitment ceremony. "It wasn't legal, but it was real in our hearts," Kimberly says. They used the same vows in their legal wedding in June 2016—on the 12th anniversary of their first kiss. "When we first dated and fell in love, we went up into the mountains. I have memories of me with my arms wrapped around her on a four-wheeler," Kimberly continues. Their legal wedding was also held in a mountain setting.
When the 2015 November policy changes were leaked to the media, "It was devastating to me, my wife and my children," Kimberly recalls. "There was a huge public outcry. I was very concerned about the children of LGBTQ parents becoming marginalized." Today, she feels that she and Kelli were evicted from their home because she shared information regarding this issue on social media. "We got our eviction notice five days after the policy was exposed. I had been posting a lot of things and sharing what people were saying.'"
Kimberly knew of people who became closeted just so their own children could be baptized. She's aware of multiple suicides that took place after the policy was released. "Kids were listening and if they couldn't share this part of their lives with their parents, in some cases they would rather kill themselves than face their parents or excommunication," Kimberly says. "This policy drew a line in the sand, and obviously, I was on the other side of it." The policy was reversed in April of this year, and children of LGBTQ parents can now be blessed as infants and baptized. The change, however, does "not represent a shift in Church doctrine related to marriage or the commandments of God in regard to chastity or morality," the First Presidency said in an official statement.
Reflecting on the change, Kimberly says she's glad the policy is gone, but she's angry they were evicted and angry for her kids. Because of the way she and Kelli were treated, all of their children have resigned from the church.
- Courtesy Photo
- Kimberly Hansen-Ennis, center-right, and her wife, Kelli, with their family
A Familiar Story
"Rachel" (real name witheld by request) identifies as bisexual. The 23-year-old recently celebrated her first anniversary with her female partner. The couple lives in their first home alongside their two dogs. While still a member of the LDS church, she dated people of "many different genders." Her process of leaving the church was slow, and the separation remains painful. "It began with the exclusion policy. Before that, I was trying to stay in the church and make it work for me," she says. Back then, she still considered herself Mormon. "It was a lot more complicated than that," she admits. "For me—and for all of the other people I loved who were both queer and Mormon—there was a hope that if you stayed in the church and suffered through long enough, things would get better and you could be both. I knew a lot of people who felt like if we stayed, we could make it better from the inside out. Small progress was being made."
Yet when the exclusion policy was issued, "it felt like you had to choose one or the other. I felt like I wasn't recognized as a whole person. It felt like if you were queer, you could acknowledge that as part of who you are or you can be Mormon," she says. "I was torn in two directions, and it felt like I could have this queer part of me and this Mormon part of me and never the twain shall meet." She adds that it felt as if all of the small steps forward were now "10 steps back, at least." She requested anonymity because she isn't out to her entire family. She says that the time after the policy was issued was an emotionally dangerous and volatile time. "We lost a lot of lives in our community and I myself felt suicidal after that," she says. "[I felt] intense pressure being put on me and it was too much for one person to handle. The pressure ended up being what shattered the relationship between the church and me, and it wasn't a clean break."
The story resonates with Joseph Adamson. From the time he understood that he was gay, he became aware of an increasing conflict between his own identity and the faith he and his family had viewed as a safe place for generations. "Growing up in California, when the church was involved in Prop 2 and Prop 8, it became very clear what my faith thought about people who were gay," he says. Today, he feels that the conflict over the policy reversal is heightened by the reality that the two sides aren't always opposing forces, but, rather, they are often different entities within the same church. "When people who are speaking of the LGBTQ community refer to the activities and people as being 'over there'—they don't realize that we are also still part of the LDS community. Our families are still LDS and our lives have been embedded in the LDS community."
As he repressed his own feelings around people he looked up to, that repression turned to self-hatred. His response to that was "to become a perfectionist. I tried to be a good student and the kind of kid in church that other people wished their kids could be." The freelance piano player finds that after his subsequent faith crisis, "There is still a lot of good in life. I find my spirituality through music, prayer, love and kindness," he says. "The church's fingerprints are all over my life and there are a lot of standards I still hold through."
Natalie Phillips (not her real name) grew up in a very sheltered home. Beginning at about age 9, she began having innocent crushes on female friends or teachers. She looked up the word homosexuality in the dictionary and the LDS "For The Strength of Youth" pamphlet and in the classic Mormon book, The Miracle of Forgiveness. "I tried to figure out if that was what was happening to me," she says. "I was too scared to admit that I might be gay. It was the '90s, and the church was ramping up on making sure that same-sex marriage wasn't legal." From what she was hearing, she thought maybe she could be excommunicated for being gay. "I wanted really badly to make my parents proud, to be approved by them and be a good member of the church. Fear paralyzed me, and I shoved it down. I prayed that I would have these impure thoughts taken away and be righteous and obedient." In hopes of being a good Mormon girl who married a man, she went on lots of dates.
She feels she survived by pursuing a strong interest in art and painting. She became an art major at BYU. "I never really felt like I could be myself and I couldn't tell anyone," she points out. Suffering from anxiety and depression, she entered therapy. "I had a good therapist, but I still felt it wasn't safe to tell him I was gay or having these feelings." She feared that if she confessed to being gay, the therapist might prescribe conversion therapy. While at that point, church leaders did not state that getting married was a cure for homosexuality, Natalie still felt that her issues would resolve once she tied the knot. By her own admission, she and her future husband "were friends and it never should have gone past that." Because they were "really good Mormons and very conservative," they shelved the idea of sex before the wedding. "We didn't even come close to having a sexual relationship," she says. "I didn't receive the full brunt of what it would be like to be a lesbian married to a man."
With what she refers to as her husband's porn addiction thrown into the mix, she didn't view sex in a healthy way. "It got to the point where I dreaded having sex with him," she says. So, she'd either "numb myself out or imagine having sex with a woman."
Natalie became pregnant just two weeks after they married. "I felt really trapped," she says. "I hadn't finished my degree and I had a newborn baby on the way." A year into their marriage, she told her husband she was attracted to women. "I was scared he would end the marriage. I didn't know what I would do financially," she recalls. "He acted as if it was a little odd. I think he figured it was just a temptation I had, rather than a full-blown orientation. He didn't want to talk about problems with our sex life." They were married for 10 years. Today, she feels that mixed-orientation marriages are harmful to both parties. "It reached the point where I was depressed enough that I began having suicidal ideations," she says. "What pulled me out of that was the fact that I had three kids that I loved. I wondered if it was better that I commit suicide to take care of my being gay, or come out as gay and let my kids still have a mom."
She went with the latter. Her prayers shifted from asking for the gay to be taken away to stating that she had tried everything she could and asking if it was OK that she was gay. She felt an overwhelming comforting feeling she attributed to a higher power. "I felt a huge relief that He loved me for who I am and that being gay was not a temptation; it was who I was," she reminisces. Still married to a man, she was trying to make her mixed-orientation marriage work while simultaneously affirming herself as a gay woman.
A therapist who had worked with previous LGBTQ clients helped her embrace her true self. "It was a healing time for me," she says. Not long after, she filed for divorce. At the time, she was teaching at a Montessori school and returned to school herself, pursuing a technology degree with plans to graduate in May 2020.
While at school, she befriended "Amy," who would eventually become her wife. At the time, both needed support because they each had family members who struggled with the fact they were gay. Amy had returned from a mission where she "had several spiritual experiences," but also, "figured out that she was gay and that this was a part of her ... the church and gospel were important to both of us. At the same time, we found that we were falling in love with each other." She continued to consult with her bishop about her belief that God had confirmed to her that being gay "was part of how he made" her, along with discussing her growing feelings toward Amy, as the pair's relationship had progressed from friendship to dating. She describes her bishop as being very compassionate. "He felt like he was at a crossroads, and was just supposed to help me along in my path, which wasn't what I expected. I ended up continuing to see him and it got to the point where we needed to hold a disciplinary council."
Through prayer, she felt a confirmation that a disciplinary council would take place; that she would be excommunicated; and that it would all be OK in the end. "There were hurtful aspects about the church and I needed to make a clean break, something that would help distance me, then I would rebuild my relationship with God in a healthy way and live the gospel as a healthy person," she confesses. "I could see myself rejoining the church if the policies changed." While she felt that being excommunicated was the right answer for her at the time, she also felt the loss of the church community in which she was deeply involved. "When you are excommunicated, you are not allowed to hold a calling, take the sacrament or go to the temple," she sighs.
Today, Natalie feels that divorcing her wife would be detrimental to both of their well-being. "I can say that being married to a man and being married to a woman are night-and-day different," she says. "So many things have made me a better person since I have been married to my wife." Natalie and Amy married last January. Her oldest child, a daughter, was baptized before the nuptials. Last January, when Natalie's twin sons turned 8, she sat down with them and broke the news that they would not be getting baptized. "I didn't vilify or excuse the church," she says. "I said that some things are out of our control, and we have to do the best with what we are given." One of the twins, who attends church every week with his father, was disheartened and upset. Her ex-husband sought special permission for the two boys to be baptized. "I told the boys' bishop that if they wanted to be baptized, I would support them in it," she says, adding her stress was relieved when the church reversed course. She doesn't believe she'll ever have an answer from the church whether it realizes the policy was hurting families.
- Enrique Limón
At a Crossroads
"On the outside, I apparently was a girl. But I didn't feel like a girl," 32-year-old Kris Irvin says. He knew he was transgender from an early age, an issue he felt he couldn't discuss with his parents. "I think my spirit is a boy that got put into a girl's body," 9-year-old Irvin told his primary teacher when the LDS Proclamation on the Family was issued. The teacher quickly shrugged it off. "I tried really hard to be a girl," Kris says. His patriarchal blessing mentioned being a woman and doing womanly things. He asked his bishop if a new blessing could be issued and his response was no.
In his early teens, the Irvins uprooted to Florida. There, Kris met and made friends with the first openly gay people he ever crossed paths with. "It was a fun experience for a sheltered Mormon kid," he says. For almost 13 years, he has been married to a straight cis male. "We met at BYU in the science fiction nerd club," he says. "We were friends for eight months and then he asked me out. I thought, 'If I don't break up with this guy, I am going to marry him." He says he tried to explain the experience of being trans without knowing the word. "I thought it was something I was over," he says. "For the first several years of our marriage, I read lots of feminine blogs and books. I tried to be feminine, but never felt comfortable." He came out as transgender a month before the exclusion policy was released. "I felt that Jesus didn't say, 'Suffer the children to come unto me unless their parents are queer.'" Kris didn't tell his son about the policy until after it was reversed. Attending his son's baptism was the last time he wore a skirt. "I will never wear one again."
He fears the further he travels on the path to be his true self, the more removed he'll become from his faith. "The church will never see me as male," he says. "My bishop says that if I have top surgery, it is a reason for church discipline. For me, that is non-negotiable." His surgical procedure is scheduled this month. When his son asked if he was gay, Kris explained that he is trans. He told his son, "This is why I don't like to wear dresses and don't like to wear makeup." In the Pride parade, Kris' son carried a sign that said, "I love my transgender mom." Even while feeling perpetually ostracized, Kris has stayed in the church as long as possible because, "There are other kids out there who will need a mentor like me."
Marshall Shearer knew he was supposed to be male as long as he can remember. Like many, he initially didn't plan to transition because he didn't want to jeopardize his standing in the church. Shearer first thought he was gay. "When I met women, I would say, 'I'm gay, but I'm not attracted to you, so don't freak out,'" he admits. In his first year of teaching, those words rang false when he told his classroom aide that he wasn't attracted to her. "That was the first time I knew I was attracted to her." Today, Marshall and his wife, Adrienne, are the adoptive parents of five children ranging in ages 9 to 19. "We tried for a long time to keep everyone in the church," until the exclusion policy was originally announced, that is. All of the children had been baptized by this time except for his 9-year-old daughter. "We were heavily involved in callings, service and Scouts," he says. His ward allowed his three eldest sons to keep the priesthood, "because they had kind of been grandfathered in." But when his 8-year-old daughter wasn't allowed to be baptized, the little girl got upset. And when his trans daughter wasn't welcome unless she was wearing a suit, he thought, "that child does not exist. That was the last straw for me." He said the hardest part of leaving the church was "losing that sense of community, that built-in purpose that comes along with being a member of the church. It's your whole life. Most of your time is filled with church callings, church activities, looking out for other church members." He pauses. "I still feel sad that my son won't be going on a mission."
Finding Their Tribe
John Dehlin, host of Mormon Stories podcast, who has a Ph.D. in clinical and counseling psychology and is himself an excommunicated Mormon, says that humans are tribal creatures and that there are emotional consequences from being separated from one core group. "We have evolved over millennia to find comfort, safety and personal development in social groups," he says. "Being cut off from our 'tribe' can lead to significant feelings of fear, loneliness, isolation, depression and even suicidality." He adds, "No one should be forced to choose between their community and intimate companionship. It is inhumane for the Mormon church to force this choice upon its LGBTQ members." (The LDS church did not respond to two requests for comment regarding this story.)
Dehlin describes the original exclusion policy as "perhaps the most significant public relations fiasco in the history of the Mormon church. Instead of releasing the policy with an explicit public announcement, combined with thorough leadership training, it was 'sneaked' into the Handbook of Instructions—as if no one would notice—with no leadership training and without any communication plan." He adds that once the policy change was discovered and leaked online, LDS leadership and the PR department were completely unequipped to respond in a timely manner. "Many members believed that the policy change was a prank or a mistake until they learned it was legitimate," he says. Dehlin adds that it's astounding that church brass would reverse a policy only 3.5 years after declaring it to be a revelation. "It took the church over 50 years to abolish polygamy and more than 100 years to reverse the ban on people of color receiving the priesthood and attending the temple." he says. Dehlin considers the swift reversal resulted not from concern over LGBTQ church members, but rather because the church's heterosexual membership—particularly millennials—is sinking. According to the church's 2018 statistical report, its overall yearly growth has shrunk from 2.03% in 2013 to 1.21% in 2018. As for millenials, its retention rate was just 46% compared to 72% for baby-boomers, according to a report from Religion News Service. "The church felt desperate to stop the hemorrhaging," Dehlin says.
- Enrique Limón
- Troy Williams, left
A New Hope
Susie Augenstein isn't LGBTQ. She doesn't have a gay or transgender child. But this self-described LGBTQ ally and her husband are dedicated to providing the connection to others that they sense queer Mormons feel when they step away or are excommunicated from the church. Bubbly, outgoing Susie was raised in an LDS family "where it was OK to question." Feeling inclined to learn more about the LGBTQ community, she began to volunteer at Encircle, a resource center for LGBTQ youth, their families and their community that provides friendship circles, individual validating therapy, and programming designed to equip them with all the tools they need to thrive, according to Griffin Hendrickson, the organization's content strategist. Inspired by the words of LDS Apostle M. Russell Ballard, who in 2017 said, "We need to listen to and understand what our LGBTQ brothers and sisters are feeling and experiencing," Susie invited Encircle attendees to a game night at her home. Twelve people attended the first game night (the next two iterations generated 15 and then 20 attendees). Knowing that many who attended game night no longer went to church, she also sensed some might appreciate an opportunity to attend an "affirming religious meeting."
In that spirit, Susie and her husband, Paul, then an LDS bishop, began holding Sunday School at their home. Today, their Sunday School program is held weekly in four different homes. In January of last year, the Augensteins got permission from their stake president to host a two-hour gathering in their Riverton ward building. She asked five people to speak—two gay men who are still active in the church, a couple who had lost a child to suicide and a married lesbian couple. While that gathering was originally intended just for her ward, she also invited a few kids from game night—attendance swelled to about 140 extra people. "Our ward sat in the front with all the others behind them, and on the sides it was standing-room only," she says. Today, the Augenstein's list of participants has grown to 300 people. "That number tells me this is needed," she says. The momentum helped her create a Facebook page called "Let's Love Better," which lines up perfectly with a goal of hers. "If it can spark someone in another area, say, California, to provide a similar program, until we can figure out in the church how to make it better, it will save lives and keeps people close to God," she says. "Leaving the church and leaving God are two different things. If we can keep them close to spiritual power, we can keep them close to our families."
In the end, many see mediation as key. Droves of LGBTQ Utahns grew up in LDS homes, "so there is no us-versus-them; there is only us," Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, says. A former Mormon and returned missionary, he adds, "LDS communities are some of the most loving cohesive communities there are. When we are exiled from our faith community and our family members, there is great risk to our mental health. We need to look at the spheres of interest in our families, churches and schools that interface with the LGBTQ community, and ask ourselves if their policies embrace or exclude. If it's the latter, we need to create change." On March 12, 2015, Gov. Gary Herbert signed Senate Bill 296 into law. This milestone legislation added the words "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to Utah's Anti-Discrimination and Fair Housing Acts, which has helped protect LGBTQ Utahns against discrimination at work and in the housing market.
"Equality Utah worked closely with the church in helping to promote that bill. It was the first time LGBTQ people were included," Williams explains. This year, the group also collaborated with the church to help draft legislation in hopes of ending the practice of conversion therapy. However, he says, the exclusion policy's emergence in November 2015, "was a source of great turmoil in LDS homes. It pit family members against each other. The fact that it has been reversed is a positive step. For true healing to happen, we have to acknowledge the pain that was caused." Williams says he has been overwhelmed by the number of rank-and-file Mormons who have reached out with love and compassion toward the LGBTQ community. He adds that when LDS organizations such as the Mama Dragons and Mormons Building Bridges "embrace equality, they are the fiercest allies we have."
In the end, he says, the opportunity for compassion and empathy are eternally present. "The reason Heavenly Father sent so many gay and trans children to Mormons, was to teach them to love more than they ever knew they could."
Dehlin agrees. "LGBTQ make up over 10% of the population," he concludes. "These beautiful, delightful, talented people are your grandparents, parents, siblings, children, neighbors, friends, church leaders, teachers and bosses. If you have not become personally acquainted with an LGBTQ person, you will be soon." He pauses. "Fortunately, the answer for how to treat them is super simple: Love them equally."