On the power of a congregation to provide for each other, and why I walked away
Yesterday I spoke at the 8th annual mass resignation from the LDS church on the second anniversary of the day that LDS Church insiders leaked to the news media that a new policy had been circulated to Mormon leadership which forbade the baptism of children living with legally married gay parents. Because that makes total sense and isn’t completely fucking asinine. I honestly think that whoever is in charge of PR for the church got their head stuck in a bucket and just haven’t gotten around to having it surgically removed.
My friend Ashley was in charge of organizing the event and asked if I’d speak knowing that I had my name removed from the church rolls earlier this year. Some of you may be surprised to hear that I’ve been counted as a member all these years, and I explain in the speech below why I’d been reticent to do it before now. When I told Leta what I was doing yesterday she asked me, “Does God think less of you now that you’ve done this?”
Without hesitation I answered, “The god I would believe in wouldn’t think less of me, no. She/They wouldn’t require a membership to anything in the first place.”
Leta believes in God, capital G. It is her choice to believe. It’s a choice I wanted to give my children since I’d been denied that choice as a kid and had to work through several years of bitterness as an adult because of it.
I was the last of five speakers, and about 20 minutes into the event the temperature dropped about 15 degrees and it started to drizzle. It was not comfortable to be sitting out there in those conditions. I thought I might cut the speech in half before I took the mic, but as Ashley was introducing me—“Heather and I go waaaaayyy back, back to the days of Beehives and Mia Maids, back before either of us had started our periods—I decided I’d go for it and present the whole thing.
And I’m glad I did given that I didn’t know at the time about what was going on in Texas. The whole notion about the community of church—the power of a congregation to provide for each other in so many physical and emotional ways—is what I miss most about being an active member. I just read that Pastor Frank Pomeroy and his wife Sherri were traveling on Sunday and not at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, when the shooting happened. However, their 14-year-old daughter was, and she is among the victims. Sherri had this to say:
“We ate together, we laughed together, we cried together, and we worshipped together. Now most of our church family is gone, our building is probably beyond repair, and the few of us that are left behind lost tragically yesterday.”
If I haven’t made it abundantly clear, my take on guns is that no one should own one. However, I am a practical human being and understand that this will not ever be the reality in this country. I would happily settle for reasonable gun safety regulation. Like, I don’t know, make it illegal for a person who has a history of domestic abuse to buy a gun. Like, I don’t know, maybe someone who has been court-martialed for assault on his spouse and assault on their child shouldn’t be able to buy a gun. Let’s just start there. It’s a really great place to start. It’s fair. It’s humane. It’s the right thing to do.
What follows here is the speech I gave yesterday. And to Joseph who provided the conclusion I so desperately needed, I wish you had been there to read this aloud yourself. I couldn’t get through it without crying. Thank you for being so generous with your struggle and pain and triumph.
In the late 1950s two Mormon missionaries knocked on a door of a tiny three bedroom home in Bowling Green, KY, where a woman named Geneva Boone was raising her nine children including my mother. Geneva had ten children but her fifth child, Leta, died in infancy. My daughter, Leta, is named after her much to the dismay of my late ex-mother-in-law, a Mormon herself, who upon learning of the choice of this name said, “Way to curse your child from the beginning! When she dies in her crib it’s all your fault.”
Mormon families are fun.
In 2009 one of those Mormon missionaries, now 50 years older, spoke at Geneva Boone’s funeral here in Sandy, UT, where hundreds of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren had gathered to honor her life. Those hundreds of souls had come to know the truth of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ on this earth because of that single knock on that specific door. And this is where a General Authority would slip in a heart-warming story about how he had to share his bed with six pigs and a duck while growing up on a farm in Panguitch, Utah, because his family didn’t have enough money to fix the gate that would keep the animals from escaping. But because his father faithfully paid his tithing every year someone showed up with a screwdriver and toolbox and murdered them all during Family Home Evening.
I haven’t seen general conference in over twenty years so I’m a little fuzzy on the details.
I was one of those hundreds of grandkids in that congregation at my grandmother’s funeral, and at the time I was counted among the flock. Whenever the Church reported its numbers—it’s got to be in the thousands now, at least, right?—I was counted among that number. My name was still on the official rolls even though I had stopped believing in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ on this earth over a decade earlier.
You know what did it for me? You want to know how I suddenly realized, holy shit, I’ve been brainwashed? Like an OH MY GOD, IS THIS WACO, Y’ALL moment. You want to know what did it? A linguistics professor at BYU. YEP! OOPS! You’ve got to wonder why she got fired two years later.
She wanted me to think. She encouraged me to think when my entire life I had been taught to believe that reason and intellect and asking questions was a hindrance and enemy of The Spirit. She made me deconstruct an essay about 1990’s African American linguistics in Southern California that contradicted all the hours and hours and weeks and months of Rush Limbaugh my parents had subjected me to throughout my childhood.
And wait a minute, I thought Rush Limbaugh had a direct line to God! And that essay that disagreed with Rush? It made sense! I agreed with it! Because it was backed up by facts and science and research. And it wasn’t racist.
She had tripped my critical thinking gene. I’m not proud to admit that it took that long for my critical thinking skills to kick in. I’m not. I’m not proud of the cassette tape I sent to my brother when he was on his mission to Canada in 1993 wherein I recorded myself talking about my high school AP English class and AP Biology class and—oh, by the way, brother, be glad you aren’t in the states where all these horrible liberals voted for Bill Clinton. I couldn’t believe those people. You want to know why? Because Dan Quayle was my man in Washington.
That is an actual quote. I said that.
“Dan Quayle is my man in Washington.”
If I ever get a tattoo, it’s going to be that. And it’ll be a tramp stamp.
I remember my entire worldview changing in that moment, because if my mom and my dad and Rush Limbaugh were wrong about this? What else were they wrong about? What else could they have possibly taught me and groomed me to believe that wasn’t true?
I stopped attending church the day that I graduated from BYU, cum laude. They told me to wear white pantyhose and dress shoes with my gown at graduation. Instead I wore knee high soccer socks and a pair of black Superstar Addidas because fuck your gender norms. I didn’t receive an actual paper diploma because I hadn’t paid off a $20 parking ticket that I’d received on a Sunday when I had to drive to church on campus and couldn’t find a parking spot. And I wasn’t about to pay it off considering YOU HAVE TO ATTEND CHURCH IN ORDER TO GO TO BYU. BUILD SOME MORE GODDAMN PARKING SPACES FOR CRYING OUT LOUD. OR MAYBE DON’T GIVE TICKETS ON SUNDAY. Oops, I caught you making people work on the sabbath, you assholes.
The collections department eventually found my dad in Tennessee, sent him a letter about it and he paid it off. And that telephone conversation went way better than the one he and I had the day that he found my website two days after 9/11 when I had written a diatribe against Mormonism and compared it to fundamentalist Islam. If the Mormon prophet told the members of the church to fly a plane into a building, you think they’d hesitate? Nope!
Yeah, I wrote that.
I’m not particularly proud about it. I’d had a few or several martinis when I wrote it, but my dad was just a tiny bit upset and told me that I was “a disgusting creature who had succumbed to the dark side.” And then he didn’t speak to me for a few years. That’s the thing about leaving the faith, or I guess the thing when your family realizes, oh, this isn’t just a phase she’s going through. She really doesn’t believe it anymore. Satan really did overcome her.
When you leave the faith you leave your family.
I didn’t ever have my name removed because it wasn’t terribly important to me in those first few years after I graduated, but really. REALLY. I didn’t want to hurt my mother. I thought it would completely destroy her world if I did so, and that wasn’t worth it to me. My mother had been my best friend my entire life, although she did eventually tell me over a basket of chips and salsa at Chili’s that our relationship would never be the same without Christ in it.
Chili’s! A sacred space!
I eventually got married to someone who felt the same way about having his name removed—we must protect the mothers!—and I remember when he told his brother that we had eloped. His brother’s response was, “How will you raise children to know right from wrong without the gospel?” My god! So true, you know. All those centuries before Joseph Smith restored the gospel of Jesus Christ, people were just like, FUCKEN A! Let’s all just walk around jacking off in public and steal ketchup packets at McDonald’s without buying anything. Yeah! And let’s gulp coffee like it’s water. CARNAGE! DEATH! AND WORST OF ALL: CAFFEINE AND MASTURBATION!
Might as well just leave our babies in the woods and let them be raised by wolves, I guess. What would we ever do.
What we did is we raised two girls here in Utah with a network of friends and colleagues as diverse as possible, and I will never forget the first time I took my older daughter to the Pride parade. It was hot outside, and she didn’t want to get out of the air conditioned car because she was being and asshole and asked, “I just don’t get it. Why is there a parade for gay people?” After I told her that gay people are far superior to plain, boring, privileged, horrible heterosexuals who only have sex in one position and don’t really engage in ‘butt stuff’ when ‘butt stuff’ is some of the best stuff, I explained the whole issue and she just shook her head and kept repeating, “But that doesn’t make any sense. That is so stupid. It’s just love.”
Turns out the wolves didn’t maul the baby to death!
I had considered removing my name during the Prop 8 debacle in California in 2008, but my family and I had overcome our rift at that point and looming thoughts of destroying my mother’s life kept me from taking the stand I should have taken. And then, on Nov 6th 2015—the day after Nov 5th 2015 for those who don’t have a calendar on hand—I traveled to Los Angeles for business and asked my good friend, a fellow professional blogger, if I could borrow her couch for a couple of nights. When I showed up to her house I didn’t even have to ring the doorbell. She was standing outside waiting for me and yanked me and my luggage up three flights of stairs.
“WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?” she yell-whispered at me since her kids were asleep for the night. You see, she’d made a name for herself as a Mormon blogger, or I guess, a blogger who happened to be Mormon. That was part of her cachet. A significant part of her audience liked the idea that her content was being created from a Mormon perspective. Except… she’d had her name removed from the roles during Prop 8. No one knew about this. She could seriously hurt her business if she revealed this. Except now? NOW? She was trying to broker deals with huge international brands who might be reading about a new policy that had been circulated to Mormon leadership which forbade the baptism of children living with legally married gay parents, despite gay marriage having been ruled to be Constitutionally protected in the United States, and despite gay marriage having been legal in many other countries for over ten years.
And this could seriously hurt her business.
“What if these brands think that I believe this bullshit?” she whisper-shrieked at me.
“Welp!” I said. “You’ve got yourself one hell of a dilemma. Now, I’ve been traveling all day, do you have some bourbon on hand YOU SECRETIVE FORMER MORMON.”
Turns out she and her husband had saved his resignation for something exactly like this. He’d be removing his name from the rolls over this incident. When I asked her why he waited she said, “There is always going to be another shoe that drops with the church, and we’ve wanted to use our resignations to protest as many of those shoes as possible.”
She was not wrong.
On December 22, 2016, the president-elect Donald Tump’s team and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir announced that the choir would be performing at his inauguration. And the delicate and innocent “oh my god I am going to lose my planet because I’m 17-years-old and finally kissed a boy and felt feelings I should only feel when wed to my eternal companion” Heather who grew up an earnest Mormon in Tennessee—she who had spent her entire upbringing in the church watching her mother conduct the ward and stake choirs—shattered into a million pieces that could not be put back together.
When I grow up, I want to be a mother
And have a family.
One little, two little, three little babies of my own!
Of all the jobs, for me, I’ll choose no other.
I’ll have a family.
Four little, five little, six little babies in my home!
I’m a Mormon, yes I am!
And if you want to study a Mormon I’m a living specimen.
Maybe you think I’m just like anybody else you see,
But trust in my word,
You’ll quickly observe,
I’m different as can be!
I can quote every single line in Saturday’s Warrior because I watched the VHS tape so many times in the 80s that I melted the tape.
Zero population is the answer my friend!
Without it! The rest of us are doomed!
I taught myself how to play piano as a kid and the first song I learned was “As I Have Loved You”. The first song I ever learned by studying the notes, one by one by one, was “If You Could Hie to Kolob”. My mother has conducted the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and several other choirs who sang in front of prophets at the dedications of temples.
My only sadness in bringing up my two girls outside of the Mormon religion has been…the music.
More so the music that is less propaganda and deifying Joseph smith than the music that celebrates the actual spirit of the man named Jesus, born in the land of Jerusalem, he who cared for and helped the sick and the poor and the different among him and urged his followers to live the same way.
When I found out that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was going to sing at the inauguration of a self-professed sexual predator and unadulterated bigot, I realized that the biggest tie I have to my faith is music. And that night, December 22, 2016, I submitted my name for removal at quitmormon.com. And I posted about it on Facebook. And whoa, Facebook can be almost as fun as Mormon families!
There were supportive comments, stunned comments, a comment from a person I had cut out of my life 11 years ago wondering why I wasn’t returning her emails, and then many, many, many comments that said something like this, “Wait a minute, this is the straw? This is what pushed you over?”
There was one woman in particular who wouldn’t stop with this line of criticism. She initially said:
“After all the stuff you’ve said about Mormons, THIS is the limit for you? A singing gig?”
To which I replied:
“This is public show of support for a self-professed sexual predator by an institution that shames its members for the slightest sexual thought outside of a heterosexual marriage and has shamed women for speaking out about being sexually assaulted. This issue is deeply personal to me. So, yeah, a fucking singing gig.”
To which she responded:
“Why hasn’t the Mormon church’s loooooong and gross history of blatant racism and anti-gay bigotry been a good enough reason for you to have your name removed? That is what is confusing. It’s *surprising* because it seems like the church’s hypocrisy is more disgusting to you than their horrible treatment of POC, queer folks, and sexual assault victims.”
To which I responded:
“Because having my name removed could potentially destroy the ties I have with my still-very-Mormon family who are my only support system. This will crush my mother who is the closest person to me in my life. I have always said that I would have my name removed after she dies, but this COUPLED with the church’s gross history of blatant racism and ongoing anti-gay bigotry has pushed me to the point of risking my relationship with the most important people in my life.”
To which she responded:
“But I hope you can see how exasperating it can be for members of oppressed groups have to hear that it took *this* to make you say ‘ok this is toooo much’. Being an ally means hard work and doing uncomfortable things that can be detrimental to personal relationships. It isn’t just lip service.”
To which I responded:
“*This* being that I am a victim of sexual assault has made me say *ok this is toooo much*. Should I have done it years ago? Yes, absolutely. I’m accountable for that.”
Finally an online friend of mine from Seattle jumped into the thread. Let’s call him “Joseph, The Fabulously Intelligent, Absurdly Amazing Father of Weimaraners, He Whose Skills With Plants Make Me Embarrassed That I Ever Aspired to be a Homemaker.” He wrote what I will leave you with, what I think should be required reading before the beginning of any sacrament meeting, and I wish he were here himself to share with you this empathetic brilliance:
“About 7 years ago, home teachers came to my house that I shared with my now husband. I think my parents kept my records up to date, allowing for the church to locate me over the years. When I opened the door and they introduced themselves, I politely and very genuinely explained my situation and let them know, they wouldn’t need to keep me on the schedule of visits. One of them said, you should have your name removed from the records. I looked at him and said, you consider doing the same thing and get back to me. My point is simply, as a lifetime member of the church with deep emotional ties to individuals within its mass, it is the only thing that symbolizes my attachment, and one of the things that matters so very much to them. Illogical, but there it is. I despise the church in its corporatized existence, but I love the small town ward that raised me, I love its members who still show me love and respect for who I am and what I represent. Those of us who have not defected 100% will do it in our own time and in our own way. We are still capable of standing up for and against persecution, we can advocate for and support those who need our unconditional love and compassion, but more importantly, others can look deeper into individual reasons for decisions to do or not to do things that they don’t understand or agree with.”
A couple of month’s later when I received the PDF that the church had sent to Mark Naugle of quitmormon.com, I printed it out and hung it over the laundry basket where I throw my dirty panties. My mother found out about it when I posted a screenshot of it on my website. She’s still alive and her world did not crumble around her. And she is still my best friend. I love her, she who raised me and respects all that I am and represent.
I love you, Mom, and I love this critically thinking brain you blessed me with.
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.