Sunday, November 5, 2017

Remember Remember

Remember remember the 5th of November.

Two years ago today was a rough day for me, my kids and hundreds of our friends. The message from our church was that our queer loved ones were not wanted, nor us as allies and families of LGBTQIA individuals.

I was immediately concerned for my own children, along with children of my friends who were serving missions and choosing baptism and activity in the church. Many of them had gay fathers or mothers that were now remarried to members of the same sex, whom they loved and supported. My daughter wrote a letter of resignation from the church that she only recently sent in a month or two ago.

The following weeks and months were no better, as suicides seemed on the rise. A good friend of mine whom I worked with at Brighton LDS Girls camp and her wife, also a friend of mine, were excommunicated right after their marriage. They were both active in the church, and one was teaching primary and had to say goodbye to her primary children. Why should anyone have to choose between the person they love and the church they love? That is abuse, pure and simple.

But there were tender mercies for some as local leaders differed in their enforcement of the policy. A mission president in Russia assured a father and his husband that their daughter would not be sent home, that she was an amazing missionary, and thanks to the parents who raised her.

I made an appointment with my own bishop, ready to resign myself and all of our children. But his reaction of love and support for Scott and our family, and questions of his own for the policy, calmed my immediate anger a bit.

It was the spirit within my heart that has repeatedly and lovingly prodded me to stay LDS on my own terms, and to continue serving in scouting and giving myself through music. I am a "cafeteria" Mormon, doing what is best for me and my family and those I serve.

It has not been easy as some extended family have specifically declared their support for church leaders, regardless of whom it affects--such as their own flesh and blood--and believing the policy was inspired.

Today my "mama dragon" friends have chosen to call this anniversary "self-care Sunday" and many are not attending church, even if they usually do.

I am attending choir practice and Sacrament meeting (to play the organ.) I am wearing a red-ish cardigan to represent the lives lost over this policy, and the blood of Jesus Christ and the Atonement, which if indeed is a true gift from God, will make up for those of us who have lost our testimonies and ordinances because of this battle.

I recently helped my son celebrate his 20th birthday by getting my own tattoo, to remind me of my strength (the lotus is a flower that blooms best in adverse conditions), my difficult journey of LGBTQIA ally-ship and advocacy, and my love for all of my friends and family, regardless of religious affiliation, belief, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Hugs and peace to all.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Taking a Stand

Fast and Testimony Meeting, July 3, 2016

Kyle (a 21 year old gay man who is renting a room from me) and I planned to bear our testimonies today. Mama Dragon Kimberly Anderson specifically challenged Mama Dragons to do so during this past week as we were all grieving the news that there had been several suicides, some of which were children of mothers that were either in our group or known personally by members of our group.

Kyle and I attended a funeral on Friday for Stockton Powers. It was heart wrenching but beautiful and hopeful. There were so many people there, wearing rainbow ribbons and pins in support of Stockton and his family. Friends had traveled from California and Idaho and Arizona to be there.

I mentioned to Kyle the challenge from Kim in the mama dragon group, and he told me he had already been planning on doing that very thing in my ward on Sunday.

Saturday evening as I finished practicing the organ in the chapel for Sacrament meeting the next day, thoughts started running through my mind of things I could say. I came home and typed them up, crying as I did so. I knew I would cry when I spoke.

Sunday morning, Kyle and I went early so that I could practice and play prelude. I offered to sit in the congregation with him, but instead he chose to sit on the stand with me, hiding behind the organ. While I was playing prelude, a member of the bishopric came up to talk to the chorister, letting her know what he had planned for the month so that she could choose songs to go with the topics. He mentioned that he didn't know who was speaking the last Sunday. Then he turned to me and said, "Do you want to speak? I'll give you a topic. You'll have to be good."

Continuing to play the organ, knowing the plan that Kyle and I had to speak today lie ahead, I laughed and said "I haven't spoken in eleven years. And any topic you give me can be applied to what I strongly believe in, so you'll have to tell me what I can and can't say." We talked about it a bit more, but I needed to play and he needed to sit down for the meeting. Meanwhile, the new stake president walked in and sat on the stand. First he looked at me at the organ and said hello. I turned to Kyle and mouthed quietly, "Damn, that is the stake president!" A look of fear struck his face, probably mirroring my own.

After the opening hymn and the sacrament hymn, I climbed down from the organ bench and sat next to Kyle. He said "I'm still going to do it." I replied, "Then I am too." I asked Kyle if he wanted to go first or if he wanted me to. He said he didn't care. So finally I told him that I wanted him to go first and I was so nervous that I wanted to get it over with, so he better go soon.

After a couple of testimonies, he finally got up. He was calm. He told everyone that he is gay, that he came out 3 three years ago, and then he was abused by someone in his ward. He talked about Stockton's funeral, listing many of Stockton's awesome qualities, but also that he was gay. He talked about struggling so much that evening, after the funeral, that he asked for a priesthood blessing--something he hasn't done for several years. He talked about the peace he felt following the blessing and of God's love for him.

I planned to get up right after, but a teenage girl beat me to it. She mentioned how she wished her brother had been there today to hear Kyle's testimony. When she was done, I got up.

I said something jokingly(sorta) about the bishopric probably being nervous that I was getting up. Then I talked about Kyle, how he had adopted me as his mom, and what a blessing his testimony was to me. I mentioned an article in the newspaper about how youth suicides had tripled in Utah since 2007. About how teachers all have required suicide prevention training as part of recertification. I said that no matter who they are or how they identify or what they've done in their lives, whether they are straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, that God loves them and knows what it is in their hearts. I talked about being the advisor of a gay/straight alliance at Kearns High School, of how much I loved those kids, of how many of them did not feel loved by their families and desperately wanted to feel loved by their families.

I mentioned that since many changes had happened in our ward over the last 8 years, that some of them may not be aware of my situation, that they might not even know that I have five amazing children. I talked about Scott coming out over the pulpit in testimony meeting. I talked about feeling his mother's love for him that afternoon, hugging him and telling him it was from her. I mentioned how it became more difficult for our family to come to church, and that he had eventually resigned. But that he is still a wonderful father and man.

I talked about how Scott is really struggling lately for various reasons, and that the shooting in Orlando had been very difficult for him, that a couple of weeks ago when he and I were going to the courthouse to finish our divorce paperwork, I watched him struggle with panic attacks. That evening I cried and cried over his pain and struggles, worrying about him and wishing and wondering if there was more I could do. I also wondered why I was feeling this love and concern for him so strongly, because even though I did love him, I wasn't still in love with him. It occurred to me that maybe once again, I was feeling the emotions of his mother. That thought was confirmed, and then I said out loud, "Ok, Cheryl. Leave me alone! I need to calm down and get some rest." (The congregation chuckled.) I felt prompted to message his little sister and tell her of my experience, and then I was able to calm down and rest. I had my tonsils out the week before and crying and stressing out was not helping me feel better in the least.

I talked about how I know there are angels amongst us, that our forefathers and ancestors were around us, along with God and Christ, cheering us on and wanting us to be happy. I talked about that there is a place in this church for anyone who wanted to be there, and even if it didn't feel like it sometimes, that there would always be a place there, sitting next to me if needed.

I cried the entire time I spoke, and I saw people in the congregation smiling and crying as well. Kyle said he was also crying.

Afterward, many people came up on the stand to talk to us and thank us. To welcome Kyle to the ward and let him know he was welcome there. All three members of the bishopric thanked me, and I asked the one I had been talking to before the meeting if I had said anything out of line. He said no, that what I said was perfect. That it was the elephant in the room that needed to be talked about, but that hardly anyone wants to talk about. That it is a perspective that the people needed to hear.

The stake president was busy talking to other people who had gone up to greet him, so he and I didn't talk at all afterward. I will look forward to sometime being able to talk to him further. He is a fairly new stake president, that I don't know very well, and I'm not sure where he stands on this issue with our stake.

Later in relief society, an older lady shared with me that she had a gay sister, who had passed away last year. During the lesson, the daughter of another lady in our ward spoke up and said that later after church she and her husband were going to talk to their eight year old about finding a balance between loving and accepting LBGT, and understanding God's unchanging laws. I flinched a little bit. I hope that eight year old is not gay. But at least the conversation is happening. Yay for small victories.

So there it is, more or less. I can't remember exactly what I said. I was so nervous and emotional. But I do know that if even one soul, one life is better because of it, it was worth it.

Many other Mama Dragons also spoke in their Sacrament Meetings. Can you imagine these testimonies and tears and pleading for love happening all over that day? What a beautiful beautiful thought.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Utah's Suicide Crisis

There have been five known suicides in Utah over the past few days. One of my Mama Dragon friends, Debra Coe, checks with the health department and other sources and verifies details and numbers. The details she shared included their ages and locations, and whether or not they were known to identify as LGBTQ. Four of the five did, ages 17, 17, 18 and 20-something (BYU graduate). For one 13 year old, it is unknown.

The following article appeared in the paper:

Utah officials unsure why youth suicide rate has nearly tripled since 2007
By MICHELLE L. PRICE The Associated Press
First Published     •    Last Updated Jul 03 2016 11:56 am
Report » No clear cause identified, but some risk factors are found more often in the region. 
Utah health officials are grappling with a rising youth suicide rate that's nearly tripled since 2007 and is now the leading cause of death among 10- to 17-year-olds in Utah. 
A state report released this month shows Utah's youth suicide was 8.5 per 100,000 people in 2014, the most recent data available. 
In 2007, the rate was 3.0 per 100,000. 
Health officials, suicide prevention advocates and educators have been working to curb suicides, but officials don't know why Utah's child suicide rate is more than double the national rate and climbing.
State health officials haven't been able to find any clear causes of the state's growing rate, but the health department is working to launch an in-depth study, said Andrea Hood, a suicide prevention coordinator at the Utah Department of Health. 
Hood said there are some risk factors found more frequently in Utah and other Rocky Mountain states that may explain why suicide rates are higher in those states than the national average. 
Residents in Utah move more frequently, which could leave them with fewer social connections and support. There are also theories that lower oxygen levels at higher altitudes can contribute to higher suicide rates and a western, rugged mentality of self-reliance may keep some from seeking help for depression. Utah and other Rocky Mountain states also have higher rates of gun ownership.
Firearm owners aren't more likely to die by suicide, but people who commit suicide are more likely to use guns if they own them than any other method, Hood said. 
That extends to children, as nearly half of the youth who have died from suicide in recent years used a firearm. To try to prevent that, advocates are encouraging gun owners to ensure their weapons are secure and last year, Utah began distributing 40,000 free cable gun locks. 
Much of the work to combat youth suicides is done in public schools. The state has worked to get prevention programs in every school, offering help to parents, teachers, administrators and students about watching for signs of depression, risk factors for suicide and intervention. 
State law requires all teachers to undergo two hours of training about youth suicide prevention, and Utah lawmakers in 2013 required the state office of education to hire a full-time suicide prevention coordinator. 
The goal is to train "the gatekeepers, the people that are on the front lines with the kids," said Cathy Davis, the suicide prevention specialist with Utah's state education office. 
"You want to create this great safety net for kids because it's really taking all of us to help prevent suicide," Davis said. "It's just making everybody alert to the signs of suicide, what to look out for, what signs of depression are in youth." 
Davis and other advocates are also pointing to a new smartphone app Utah lawmakers voted to create last year called SafeUT, where people can have confidential and anonymous chats with crisis counselors at the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute. 
Officials say the app helps technologically savvy young people connect with help outside of a traditional phone hotline. In addition to using the app to text, call or submit tips about depression and suicide, the app allows students to speak to someone about bullying, threats of violence, drug problems and more. 
"Students need skills to know how to navigate the terrain of adolescence. It's a tough area, I think for a lot of kids," Davis said. "That gives them a safe way to text and access help."
As usual, Scott posted this link on Facebook along with his own articulate commentary, with which I cannot argue.

"Well, let’s see... 
I came out in 2008, very shortly after LDS leadership sent a letter to local leaders in California—to be read over the pulpit—directing members to give abundantly of their time and money in order to ensure the passage of Prop 8 (which would eliminate the right, recently granted by the courts, of same-sex couples to marry). 
This marked the beginning of the LDS church’s very public fight against the LGBTQ community (it had been fighting marriage equality behind the scenes since the mid 1990s, but had managed to keep its efforts secret for over a decade). Almost overnight, Mormonism became synonymous with homophobia. 
Despite occasional token (and public-relations-driven) overtures toward the LGBTQ community (like the SLC anti-discrimination ordinance that the church supported after ensuring that it was exempt), as society at large became ever more accepting of gay people, LDS leadership dug in its heels and became increasingly dogged (and vocal) in its anti-gay rhetoric and policies. They paid lip service to the importance of loving LGBTQ friends and family members, while continuing to denigrate LGBTQ individuals and their families both explicitly and implicitly. 
Most recently, the LDS church amended its policy manual with a declaration that any gay member who married someone of the same sex was to be considered apostate—an enemy to the church—and was to be excommunicated. Worse, their children were to be denied rites of passage like baptism and ordination to the priesthood until they reached adulthood and explicitly denounced their gay parent’s marriage. 
Gay youth in the LDS church are constantly and aggressively bombarded with a message of rejection. They are made to understand quite clearly that they are broken, that the love they may feel for a partner is counterfeit, and that they (and their future children) will be rejected and shunned if they ever dare to start a family (and this, in a culture that idolizes family, marriage, and parenthood above all else). 
Their parents and siblings have also gotten the message loud and clear, and many of them allow fear and blind faith to guide their reaction when a gay family member comes out. It is tragically common in Utah for an LGBTQ teen to be thrown out of their home when they come out, and even those who are allowed to stay often face the constant rejection inherent in a “love the sinner, hate the sin” mindset. 
Not all young people who commit suicide in Utah are LGBTQ, but a dramatically disproportionate percentage of them are (when compared to the percentage of LGBTQ individuals in the general population), and while suicide is complicated, it’s not the least bit unreasonable to suggest that the virulently anti-gay church that dominates Utah culture can be assigned a lion’s share of the blame."

Another Mama Dragon friend, Kimberly Anderson (Editor and Photographer for the Mama Dragon Story Project), wrote a very blunt op-ed for the Salt Lake Tribune, which was published yesterday. She also fiercely challenged all Mama Dragons to get up and say something in their church congregations today, which is fast and testimony meeting, so there is an open pulpit to do so. I plan to act on that invitation. Here is her article:

We have seen a tremendous tragedy here in the state of Utah. Four bright young people, three of them teenagers, have died by suicide. All are known to have intersected both the LDS and the LGBT communities. These were shining lights with potential to illuminate the universe. They have been snubbed and silenced. More families will struggle for the rest of their lives asking what more could they have done. An entire support community will rally around them and ask, "What can we do?" The dear friends who knew and loved them will be forced to ask difficult questions.  
The time for talk is over. The time for action is here. Individuals will react in various ways, but hopefully their reactions will result in awareness, visibility, outreach, community-building and unconditional love for their queer children and extended LGBTQIA community.
I condemn in the strongest possible language the environment and culture that is leading to self-loathing, self-hate guilt and shame. The culture that these children are saturated in has led tragically to more than just the suicides this week. The history of Utah and the legacy of the LDS Church is splattered with the blood of dead queer youth and adult members. 
I have reached out to my ward bishop twice in the past two days. My repeated pleas to find out what my ward and stake in Riverton are doing are met with predictable testimony bearing of the Plan of Salvation and an incredible vacuum of silence. Small, cautious steps on the local level are being taken. At least one stake in Lehi is taking an incredibly proactive role in educating their congregations, an effort led by the stake president and bishops. Information is being shared with them through an incredible woman who is a silent force from the membership of the Mama Dragons. The absence of a church-wide program of outreach and education is reprehensible. 
I personally know three incredible women, each a Mama Dragon, who have lost sons to death by suicide. Each is tragic. Each is preventable. All are surrounded by a culture of intolerance and exclusion from the LDS Church. Platitudes, lip-service and meaningless testimony sharing by the highest levels of LDS Church leadership must stop. Announcing a hollow love for all yet condemning these beautiful children to a life of hopelessness and pain must end now. Both are done in the same breath. Renouncing all past teachings that do not align with current medical and mental health standards and practices needs to happen immediately. Resources that have not been devoted to the queer community must be released. Materials to reach out and extend a hand of love and inclusion must be created. 
We have seen honorable and real outreach to other communities that are marginalized here in Utah and around the world. It is time to look inwardly honestly and without fear. The corporation that has created an environment where individuals seek the comfort of death over the sting of life needs to change. Attitudes of love and acceptance must replace bigotry, hate and a false persecution complex. Hearts of parents, congregations and leaders need be touched. Attitudes must be changed and lives must be saved. 
Anything less is an admission of guilt. 

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Elie Wiesel

If you google Elie Wiesel today, you get this list of awesome quotes. (I'd never even heard of him.)

Rest in peace, Mr. Wiesel. Thank you for leaving a legacy of love.
  • We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
  • The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.
  • There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.
  • No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them.
  • Friendship marks a life even more deeply than love. Love risks degenerating into obsession, friendship is never anything but sharing.
  • Peace is our gift to each other.
  • There are victories of the soul and spirit. Sometimes, even if you lose, you win.
  • When a person doesn't have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. A person can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude.
  • Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe.
  • I have not lost faith in God. I have moments of anger and protest. Sometimes I've been closer to him for that reason.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Peace of General Conference

A few years ago I had a really difficult time watching and listening to conference. Every little comment that might be construed to be against anything I believed--about homosexuality or same-sex marriage or even about the fact that my local leaders were handling everything wrong--made me really angry. I spent the days prior to conference ridden with anxiety for what was to come. Some conferences I cried. Some conferences I skipped. Some conferences I yelled at the TV and then my kids would turn in off because I wouldn't get up and do it myself. I would always try to listen to President Uchtdorf because he never said anything to make me angry, and usually said something that made me say ah-ha or amen.

But this year I watched or listened to nearly every minute. I spent Saturday with the TV on while cleaning my house. I missed a little bit of the conference here and there. I cringed a few times, especially during Saturday morning, every time "marriage is between a man and a woman" came up. But it didn't get to me. It may not be what I believe, but it is the current doctrine of the church, and with the way same-sex marriage has become legal in Utah and will soon be throughout the country, I would honestly be surprised if it did not show up in some of the talks. So it was said, and so I listened and said "yeah, yeah, yadda, yadda" in my head, but then between those phrases I gleaned treasures about the importance of family, things I whole-heartedly believe in for all families and all marriages.

It wasn't until later in the day when one of my friends texted me to ask if I was watching conference that I found out the internet/Facebook was exploding with anger and frustration at what had been said. It was then that I realized that I have finally started coming down a really high mountain. There have been hills and valleys along the way, steep upward portions and easy flat ones, times when I've beaten my own path through the bushes, and then with scratches and bruises have come upon other damaged travelers that I could help. Sometimes I got lost in the woods and would stop and cry, about to give up, when another traveler off the path helped me up and let me walk with them for a while, helping me to bush-whack our own path. In all of those difficult pathways there have been beautiful flowers and trees and birds and butterflies and waterfalls and sunsets. So many treasures of knowledge and enlightenment and peace in the midst of the frustration and pain.

But conference weekend, for once, was a beautiful meadow with plenty of shade to rest in, permeated with peace. That's what it was for me, while for others, it was the most difficult path they have been on yet. I didn't feel guilty about my beliefs that vary from things that were said. I did not feel guilt or fear about the fact that none of my children attend church. I only felt peace and hope. I felt love for the speakers, for the leaders who are struggling with their health and are daily attacked by the words of those who are angry with them and don't believe them. I felt a confirmation that they are doing the best they can with what they understand.