The focus on the church’s announcement, however, obscures a key fact: a religious exemption in the bill, known as the Respect for Marriage Act, actually protects the church from having to perform or sanction same-sex marriages. At church-sponsored Brigham Young University, students noted that the rights of the church always trump the rights of the LGBTQ community. Such attitudes and policies surrounding issues of gender identity fuel a crisis of faith among many Mormons of my generation.
Since 2008, when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supported California Proposition 8 to ban same-sex marriage, the church tried to shed a homophobic reputation. Yet church support for current legislation does not necessarily reflect incremental change. Because the bill includes an amendment allowing religious organizations to deny “services, facilities or goods” for same-sex marriages, the legislation is ultimately protective rather than threatening.
Thus, the church pivoted in its approach but not in its practices. Rather than fight a losing battle against the legalization of same-sex marriage, as they did in 2008, Mormon leaders have changed tactics, but not attitudes.
As a straight man, I was surprised that my experience at BYU was significantly impacted by LGBTQ issues. During my first week on campus, a prominent church leader called a BYU valedictorian for “requisitioning” a microphone that was “meant to represent everyone” because, during his graduation speech diplomas, he had come out as gay. Should we infer that only the views of straight students are representative of our campus values?
Some gay BYU students say they felt more accepted at school than at home. At home, they feel responsible for breaking the mold of an ideal Mormon family, but at school, they find supportive classmates and faculty members. I spoke to a student who recently came out as bisexual to her parents. They responded that same-sex attraction is only acceptable if it “doesn’t act on those feelings” and expressed relief that she was bisexual rather than lesbian. She said that although she tries to maintain a relationship with her parents, she feels a greater sense of belonging at school.
Caleb Kemsley, a queer student who has been studying at BYU since 2020, told me he appreciates his fellow students’ efforts to honor his identity even when they cannot fully identify with him. “It’s just nice when people listen and try to understand,” he said. But as Mormons make these efforts in growing numbers, Kemsley and many others believe their church has no place for them. The so-called Respect for Marriage Act “strengthens the church’s ability to discriminate against us”.
I asked Kemsley what the church should do to show real progress on this issue. He said that while there are “many amazing people in the church”, he sees no reason to celebrate “until the church recognizes that our path to happiness is not a sin”.
LGBTQ Mormons aren’t the only ones alienated by church politics. A majority of Utah Mormons support same-sex marriage rights; support is strongest among young Mormons who grew up with openly gay friends, classmates, and family members. Because Mormonism is a faith that requires total commitment, many young members wonder if they can be all right with a church that excludes their friends, their families, themselves.
There is a crisis among Mormons of my generation, many of whom are making painful exits – or watching their friends do so. People leave not only in a state of discontent but also in a state of sadness. It’s not just anger, but a real sense of loss for everyone involved. From the church’s perspective, the laws of God do not change. But neither does sexual identity.
Hierarchical religions are not democracies; their systems are not designed to be consulted, especially not by their young members. Unfortunately, history has shown that trying to change the church more often than not leads to an exit ramp. When it comes to the LGBTQ issue, many of my friends, including Kemsley—whom I served with on a two-year mission in South America—find out that the only way to vote is with your feet.