Gay Mormons Grapple with Faith, Sexuality

For Ben Jarvis, the tension between Mormon teachings and his sexuality led him to leave the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. But Affirmation, a support group for gay, lesbian and bisexual Mormons, has helped Jarvis and others retain and share traditions, whether or not they are "officially" church members.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ANTHONY BROOKS, host:

And I'm Anthony Brooks.

Homosexuality and the church. It's an issue that splits denominations and families. In a moment we'll hear from an evangelical Christian leader who has grappled with the transition from gay to straight.

BRAND: First though, we'll look at that Mormon Church and its attitude toward gays.

NPR's Alex Cohen has the story of one Mormon man who has struggled with his sexual identity.

ALEX COHEN: For Ben Jarvis the trouble began in seventh grade during a sex ed class, when his teacher brought up the topic of homosexuality.

Mr. BEN JARVIS (Affirmation Member): And all of the other boys in the class laughed, but I just sat there completely stunned because I finally had a word for what it was that I was feeling.

COHEN: It was then that Ben realized he was gay. At the time he picked up a 1971 Mormon Church publication, which stated next to the crime of murder comes the sin of sexual impurity as expressed in its many manifestations: adultery, fornication, homosexuality. But, Ben says, it also stated that these sins could be overcome with restraint and repentance.

Mr. JARVIS: For a struggling teenager, you know, okay, I'm being faithful. I'm going to church. I'm doing all the things I need to do. Why isn't this going away? The book taught me to be afraid of my feelings. It taught me to be afraid of my body. It was just a very confusing time.

COHEN: Ben tried not to be gay. He served his mission. He went to Brigham Young, the Mormon university, met a nice girl there. He was even briefly engaged to her. But it didn't last. Later, in the mid-1990s, Ben was going to graduate school in Irvine, California. And he came out. At first Ben was low-key about it, and he says things were fine.

Mr. JARVIS: The minute that I started letting my gay identity grow within me and to start expressing myself, that's when I started to run into trouble. Everything culminated with an interview that I had. I was called in by the stake leader there in Orange County. And at the end of the interview, I was given a choice to pretend to be straight, to toe the line, or I could choose to leave.

COHEN: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints would not agree to an interview with NPR despite repeated requests. They did share this excerpt of a talk given by its president, Gordon Hinckley. Here's what he had to say about homosexuals.

Mr. GORDON HINCKLEY (President, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints): We love them as sons and daughters of God. They may have certain inclinations which are powerful, and which may be difficult to control. If they do not act upon these inclinations, then they can go forward as do all other members of the church. If they violate the law of chastity and the moral standards of the church, then they are subject to the discipline of the church.

COHEN: As for Ben Jarvis, he left his local church and joined another Mormon group in L.A., one which he says was much more tolerant. But eventually he decided to leave the Mormon Church entirely because of the stance it took on a proposition to make gay marriage legal in California. Leaving the church wasn't easy for Ben, a seventh generation Mormon.

Mr. JARVIS: You're not just walking away from a church and you're not just questioning a church. You're questioning the origin of the universe. You're questioning reality. You're questioning everything that you thought was unquestionable.

COHEN: But then Ben found Affirmation, an international support group for gay and lesbian Mormons. Olin Thomas, Affirmation's executive director, says the group provides members with emotional support and a chance to share the cultural aspects of the Mormon tradition with others.

Mr. OLIN THOMAS (Executive Director, Affirmation): When people in Affirmation get together, people want to sing the songs that they sang in primary, which is what we call Sunday School for children. They want to talk about the movies, the filmstrips and all that were shown in their wards. People make jokes about green Jell-O. I don't know if you know that Utah has like twice the national consumption of Jell-O because Jell-O salads are a really big thing at Mormon functions.

COHEN: Memories of Affirmation also lobby on behalf of gay rights for Mormons. And, says Ben Jarvis, maybe years from now the Mormon Church will become more tolerant of gays and lesbians. In the meantime, he says, he focuses on what he sees as the important part of the Mormon tradition, being honest.

Mr. JARVIS: Great. Tomorrow's your Friday, huh?

PAT (Affirmation Member): Uh-huh. I have to go early.

COHEN: Ben and his partner Pat sit down to eat vegetarian pizza, in the house they've shared together for nearly 10 years. Even though he's no longer officially a member of the church, Ben says he will always be a Mormon.

Mr. JARVIS: Here I am today probably more Mormon and certainly a far better Mormon as an atheist vegetarian than I ever was when I was an active Latter Day Saint. And while that might sound strange, to me it makes perfect sense. I know who I am today. I'm not hiding who I am from my fellow humans. I know who I am. And I like that person.

COHEN: Alex Cohen, NPR News.

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