A couple of weeks ago, Alex and I started a conversation about Mormonism and the LDS Church’s position on homosexuality. A lot of that discussion revolved around what the Church has to say about gays. But what do gay Mormons have to say about the Church? Today’s post will be the first of a three-part series that will spotlight a few gay Mormons and former Mormons.
Robert Parker is your typical Mormon guy. He’s clean cut and affable, he’s actively involved in his neighborhood organization, and he speaks very highly of his children. I asked Bobby to tell me a little bit more about his experience as a Latter Day Saint.
Bobby is a convert to the Church. He was born in 1944 in West Virginia. His family moved to Arizona when he was eighteen months old because his father, who ran a crane over the galvanizing vats in a steel mill was diagnosed with emphysema and the doctor thought the Arizona weather would be better for his health. “When I was growing up,” explains Bobby, “my dad was a school bus driver and my mother worked in the school cafeteria. They were the poorest paid workers in the district.” Combined, Bobby’s parents made about $200 a month to support a family of 6.
When I ask Bobby to describe himself as a child, he says, “I was called a sissy in those days. Today I would probably be referred to as ‘sensitive.’ I think I could have been athletic, but because my dad had emphysema he was always very sick and couldn’t play sports with me. I ended up being a momma’s boy.” His mother always expected him to be at the top of his class and Bobby graduated as salutatorian from Parker High School. In fact, Bobby was the first person in his family to graduate from college.
Bobby describes his efforts to fit in with the rest of the boys, including participating in Boy Scouts. He participated in scouting all the way through high school and was a Life Scout. “I even attended the National Jamboree in 1960. There were 56,000 Boy Scouts there and President Eisenhower drove by in a car to visit us. I rode on a special train from San Bernardino, CA with 300 other Boy Scouts to Colorado Springs, CO for the Jamboree. That was the craziest time! After the Jamboree, we went to the Cheyenne rodeo. Then we took the train to Salt Lake City and toured the Mormon Tabernacle. At the time, I didn’t even know what a Mormon was.”
Bobby explains that he joined the church much later, after he was married to his wife and they had a three-year-old daughter. Bobby says he was working for the railroad at the time and he had a friend at work who was a Mormon. “I asked him what the Book of Mormon was about,” says Bobby, “which was the Golden Question. He referred me to the missionaries and my wife and I were taught the missionary lessons by two elderly sister missionaries. At the time, I smoked four packs of cigarettes a day.” Since Mormons don’t smoke, the missionaries challenged Bobby to give up cigarettes. At first, he wasn’t interested. But when his wife decided to join the Church, “she asked me to read the Book of Mormon and pray about it, so I did. And I heard a voice tell me that Joseph Smith was a prophet and the Book of Mormon was true. After that, I quit smoking cold turkey.”
After joining the Church, Bobby and his wife had two more children. Like most Mormon parents, Bobby speaks very highly of his children, all of whom have served in various roles for the Church. His son served a two year mission. When Bobby recently decided to come out in the local paper, his family was very against it. “But I knew I had to do it. I was ending a decade’s long career as a neighborhood activist and this was my one chance to speak out while I am well known in the community and church. I was active in our school district and helped to found the D.A.R.E. drug abuse prevention program and advocated for a gifted and talented program in the district because of my daughter. So I thought because of all those years I had earned the right to have a voice.”
But before Bobby could come out in the newspaper, he had to come out to himself. That finally happened when the movie Brokeback Mountain was released. “I had a friend who told me how to download it off of the internet. And I would watch it at home for 20 minute snippets at a time after my wife had gone to bed. Tears would roll down my cheeks because I could really identify with the loss of love and possibilities and being unfulfilled.” Bobby eventually discovered an online forum for fans of Brokeback Mountain and developed “an alternate universe separate from my wife” through the friends he met online. “When I told my wife and kids in January that I was gay, they didn’t take it too well. Since then it feels like they’ve decided to choose the Church over family. What hurts so much is that I taught them to act this way because that is the church line, and it is so wrong.”
However, Bobby remains hopeful that the Church will change its position on homosexuality. “You have to understand that the Church has had major changes before. But the members and the leadership had to be ready for change. When the Church leaders decided to give blacks the priesthood in 1978, the American public was already at a tipping point in favor of the civil rights movement.”
One thing that distinguishes the Mormon faith from other religions is the belief in modern day revelation. Mormons believe that the head of the Church is a living prophet who receives revelations from God on behalf of the Church and its members. In 1978, Spencer W. Kimball was the President of the Church. “He had to bring the other leaders around and the Church members saw the prophet praying for a solution to this issue,” says Bobby. “The Church was beginning to send missionaries to Africa and so the issue of blacks holding the priesthood had to be resolved. Revelation can be a practical solution to a sticky problem. I believe there will be another important tipping point someday on gay rights and a revelation will provide an answer as it did in 1978 for Black members of the church.”
When I ask Bobby if he thinks the current Church leaders are praying about the issue of same-sex marriage, he says no. “I don’t think President Hinckley is praying about it. He’s too old. But some of the younger leaders will come around eventually. They have to.”
The Mormon Church currently advocates celibacy for gay and lesbian members who wish to remain in good standing with the Church. This is a struggle for many gay and lesbian members to reconcile, because as Bobby explains, “there’s no way they can tell me that the Lord wants me to be without a companion and alone for the rest of my life. The Lord doesn’t want me to be unhappy just because I’m gay. He made me this way. It was not a choice for me.” Bobby says that he is going to have to make a choice about the morality of the Church’s position. He wants to stay active so that he doesn’t lose his family, but it is very difficult to reconcile the differences between where he is and where the church is on gay rights. “I’ve served the Church faithfully for 32 years. They’re losing a good one if they lose me,” laughs Bobby.
When I asked Bobby what he would say to Gordon B. Hinckley, the current President of the Mormon Church, if he had the opportunity, he hesitates. He tells me he would rather speak to one of the younger members of the Church’s hierarchy. “But I would like to know why I have to be celibate and unhappy according to his God. Because I don’t believe that. I still believe in the Book of Mormon and that Joseph Smith was a prophet. The Church is good and it does a lot of good stuff. I just don’t think that God wants me to be unhappy.”
Check back tomorrow for another installment of this series. I’ll be spotlighting my favorite lesbian couple and you don’t want to miss that!