In 1988, my wife and I moved from Provo, Utah to Washington, DC, where I had an internship in a congressional office. Zina was starting grad school, and I was planning to use my internship as a stepping-stone to move into the world of public affairs and a government job. Neither my wife nor I had ever lived outside of the Happiest of Valleys, so the move to DC was a shock. But what we lacked in worldliness, we more than made up for in idealism. It didn’t take me long, however, to discover that I was not a mover and shaker. I am better suited for the theory than the practice of politics, but I was now committed for at least a few years while Zina finished her graduate degree.
I eventually ended up at the Library of Congress, a place much better suited to my temperament. My colleagues soon became wonderful friends—all nerdy, quirky, and fascinating. We worked in a pressroom atmosphere where we had little privacy and came to know each other well, sometimes too well. Perhaps because of the lack of privacy, we ended up talking about everything, especially the three subjects you’re not supposed to talk about in the workplace: sex, religion, and politics. It didn’t take long for it to come out that I was a Mormon, nor did it take long for me to learn that my trainer was a lesbian. As far as I remember, she was the first I’d ever met. (I realized later, after I discovered other friends and family members were gay, that I simply hadn’t been a safe person to come out to.)
We were friends from the start. But at some point early on, she and I were talking and I made a comment that implied that her being a lesbian was a choice. She stopped me mid-sentence and said, “wait, Boyd, do you really think I chose to be a lesbian? That it’s a choice? Over and over again, I fall in love with people who reject me. I get shunned and shamed. I face prejudice and discrimination. If I could choose, I’d be heterosexual in a heartbeat. I tried to be straight. I dated boys. I tried. I felt like I was a disappointment to my parents. But I have always been this way—that’s just who I am—and it’s not something I chose.” I was stunned. It was the first time I had really put myself in a gay person’s shoes. I had no response. That moment permanently altered the way I see the world. I realized that the idea of her choosing to be gay was about as crazy as my choosing to be straight. I didn’t choose it. I just am.
Growing up in Provo during the 1970s, we often used the word “fag” as an insult, something (ironically) we called the kid who talked to girls when we were in third and fourth grade, something we called the kid who didn’t like scary movies when we were in fifth and sixth, and something we called the kids who liked orchestra or drama in high school. It was also something I was occasionally called because I suck at sports. Today I know that there were gay people at my school and in my neighborhood, but I sure didn’t know any then. My friends and I suspected that Elton John and Freddy Mercury were gay, but we liked them despite their “sexual preference.” Everyone who was gay in 70s-era Provo was in a very confining closet, and the rest of us were completely clueless. It was a different world.
Times have changed. My college students all seem to have gay friends or family members. It’s no big deal. They sure don’t see gay people as a threat or a problem. Nor do they see homosexuality as contagious. In fact, last summer I had three former Marines in my class who had all fought in Afghanistan. They were some of the toughest guys I’ve met and I sure wouldn’t want to mess with them. Once or twice, I caught them saying something racist or sexist to each other before or after class. But when I caught them talking about gay people being in the military, I was dumbfounded. They were fine with it. “It makes no difference to me whatsoever if the guy next to me is gay or straight, as long as he’s got his rifle and he’s on my side,” one said. They all agreed.
Nor do most young people worry much about the causes of homosexuality. And they don’t spend much time thinking about how gay people fit into Mormon theology. They have gay friends and family members. They love them. And that’s that.
Me, I teach Mormon studies classes, so I think a lot about these issues. But I confess that I don’t have a clue about how homosexuality fits into Mormon theology. It’s something I wrestle with. The idea of heterosexual marriage and family are so central to Mormon theology that it is, I believe, much harder for us to accommodate homosexuality into our theology than it is for other religions. But I do know this: Society is evolving to accept and accommodate differences. Now we welcome diversity in our schools and workplaces, we value both women and men, we mainstream the disabled, and we fight for the rights of children as well as adults. The LDS Church has been evolving in similar ways. It’s sometimes a bit slower, sometimes a bit faster. I believe this is both good and necessary.
When I was a boy, the idea that a Black person was not valiant in the premortal world—that they were less noble and less worthy than white people—was not just common, it was taught as doctrine. Today we have repudiated that idea and welcome people of any race into our church. Unfortunately, we still struggle to accommodate gay people.
But accommodate we must, or we’re going to lose an entire generation of young people, both gay and straight. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to lecture Church authorities on how to do their job. As Elder Oaks recently stated, only he and the other members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve are accountable for their actions. But I am accountable for mine. For I too will be judged.
I’ve been hesitant to enter the contentious debate about gay marriage, not because I don’t care or don’t have strong feelings, but because I represent the UVU Mormon studies program and now Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. I want everyone to know that both institutions respect different perspectives and strive for balance. But this is an issue where mental health and even lives are at stake.
So I want to assure my gay brothers and sisters that I will accept and not judge them. I will stand up for and defend them. I will sit with them during church meetings. I will be there if they want to talk. I will sympathize with their pain and suffering. And I will celebrate their joys and accomplishments. In short, I will be a friend. Because that, I believe, is what Christ calls me to do.