RELIGION, LIKE POLITICS, draws strong dividing lines. You're blue or you're red. You're moral in the eyes of God, or you're doomed to hell like the rest of us.
Last fall's Proposition 8 campaign hammered the nation's political and religious rifts deeper. The Mormon Church funneled millions into overturning California's same-sex marriage law, sending the clear message that to be Mormon was to be anti-gay.
But at the head of a Portland protest march last month clamoring for same-sex marriage rights was a crowd most Americans would find contradictory: gay Mormons for equal rights.
For some strange reason, Portland is home to an unusually large population of queer Mormons. Proximity to Utah and status as a liberal city help, says Jason Giles, leader of the Portland chapter of LGBT Mormon group Affirmation. Giles says that in his experience, Portland's gay Mormon community is more robust, cohesive, and visible than in similar cities like San Francisco. The Portland branch of Affirmation has over 100 people on its mailing list and 20-30 regularly show up for the group's monthly field trips and discussion groups.
Mormon doctrine leaves no gray area for gays. "Sexual union is lawful in wedlock, and if participated in with right intent is honorable and sanctifying," said former Mormon President Joseph F. Smith. "But without the bonds of marriage, sexual indulgence is a debasing sin, abominable in the sight of Deity."
Living queer and Mormon means building an identity from contradiction. Either you live within the church and remain celibate for the entirety of your earthly life, or you follow your heart and risk losing family, history, and home.
But Portland's queer Mormons are getting tired of living invisibly. Here, three of Portland's queer Mormons explain how they learned to love themselves, accept their roots, and hold out hope that their church will learn the error of its ways.
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Robert Moore grew up in a small house in a small town outside Salem with his brother, sister, aunt, cousins, and grandmother. He always knew he was different.
As a teenager, he realized that difference had a name: He was gay. "I always knew that at some point it would come down to leaving the church," says Moore, a surprisingly chipper and optimistic 21-year-old. "But it was never an option not to be gay."
When Moore was 17, his 18-year-old brother came out as gay, blurting the words out during a fight with their aunt. He was immediately kicked out of the house and to this day, Moore rarely sees him. After his brother left home, Moore was hauled into the bishop's office and interrogated about whether he had known about his brother's secret, whether he knew anyone else who was gay. He said no and no.
A year later, as Moore describes it, his aunt searched through his belongings and found a note from a friend that included the line, "You're the coolest gay guy I ever met."
"My aunt said, 'You can't stay at my house, you're not welcome in my family,'" says Moore. He packed a bag and bought a bus ticket to Portland, where he spent his first night sleeping under the Burnside Bridge. It was a cold January.
After two nights on the streets, Moore moved into a shelter at New Avenues for Youth and worked with Outside In to land an internship. That gig eventually became a paying job at a youth career center.
It took another year for his grandmother to see the note. She called him up immediately. "I was very close to my grandmother, she had raised me since I was one and a half," says Moore. He didn't know how she would react to his secret.
"She started reading [the letter] out loud to me and as she got near the line, I remember cutting her off because I knew what the next word was and I couldn't hear her say that. She was like, 'Well is it true?' I remember sitting there for what felt like hours, 'Do I say yes, do I say no?'" His silence told the truth, but unlike his aunt, his grandmother responded to his secret with compassion, telling him she would love him no matter who he was. "She was very devoted to the church, but she came to the realization of, 'I'm not going to let anyone tell me who to love,'" says Moore.
For years, Moore would dutifully return home for the holidays and to visit his aging grandmother—sometimes with a boyfriend in tow. He says the family settled into a routine: Moore would ring the doorbell, his family would wordlessly let him in, and ignore him until he slipped into his grandmother's room. If he stayed until dinnertime, there would be no place set at the table for him. On Christmas Eve, his family would stand around talking and laughing, but never acknowledge his presence.
These days Moore considers himself "culturally Mormon." He does not go to church, but he still doesn't drink and tries to uphold strong values of courtesy and respect. He found out about Affirmation after Googling "gay Mormon" and was drawn to the strong, familiar community. "Being a Mormon is more than a religion, it's a whole history," says Moore. "I had to abandon my whole family history. I was starting totally new, by myself."
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Alex Dean grew up in Downey, Idaho, population 613. Only two families in the valley weren't Mormon, says Dean, and everyone knew who they were. In regard to his own identity, though, he wasn't so sure. Born female, today Dean lives as a man.
"I didn't know what a lesbian was until I was out of high school. I had no concept that maybe I was a boy. I had no words for it. I tried to stick by the gender line, but I just couldn't do it," says Dean. All he knew growing up was that he resented dresses and hair curlers. He had always acutely felt that the church's gender roles were unfair.
Though his mom bought him a doll for his fourth birthday, Dean's favorite toy was a toy gun he fashioned out of an old toothbrush.
"In youth group, the girls would have a lesson about how to be a lady, about how to live worthy so you could marry a returning missionary. You're taught that your job is to support your husband when you got married. You answer to him and he answers to God. All the time we're sitting in there listening to that, I could hear the thump, thump, thump of a ball outside, because the boys would be out there playing basketball. And that's always where I wanted to be."
Dean grew up, stopped believing in his faith, left home, moved to Oregon, and quit the Church. But Mormons kept knocking on his door, coming by to check up on him at his parents' request. The first time he saw two women kiss was in Portland's lesbian bar Primary Domain, and subsequently, in 1982, he requested that the church excommunicate him.
"My dad was really angry with me. I told him I didn't like the way women were treated and he said, 'Do you think that I don't treat your mother right?' And I lied and I said, 'No.'" It took Dean years to come to terms with having hurt his parents so deeply.
"It was unthinkable to be excommunicated and it was way unthinkable to be gay."
Despite the disagreement and the anger, Dean still kept in contact with his parents even when he came out as a lesbian and then as transgendered, and, finally, after he transitioned to his current gender.
Mormons believe that families are sealed together for eternity, so being excommunicated meant Dean would be eternally separated from his family.
"I finally got to the point where I just didn't believe it—because what kind of a God would do that?"
Dean agrees with Moore that at some point, it will become politically and socially impossible for the church not to make the transition to acceptance.
"I think it'll happen—but I don't think it'll happen until gay marriage is legal on a federal level."
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"I don't know when I figured out the words 'homosexual' and 'gay,'" says Jason Giles, the soft-spoken child psychologist who heads up the Portland Affirmation group. "It was only talked about as this huge evil thing—so I couldn't be gay."
In his early 20s, after fulfilling his mission trip to Europe, graduating from a good Mormon college, and asking a perfectly nice German girl for her hand in marriage, Giles was on the verge of a breakdown. He flew to Germany to seal the deal with a wedding ceremony, and instead of joy his first thought when he stepped off the plane was, "Oh shit."
"I did lots of praying and fasting. I was constantly praying to God to not have those attractions," says Giles. He and his fiancée prayed together. They begged for a sign. The only sign they got was that after hours of intense questioning piled upon years of intense doubt, Giles was still the one thing he couldn't be. He was still gay.
Giles and his fiancée broke things off and he began attending Portland State University, where the culture shock from his small "very, very Mormon" Utah hometown and sheltered, closeted lifestyle hit him. He signed up to lead a local nondenominational youth group, but the Portlanders in charge were initially wary.
"They had no problem with me being gay, they were really worried about my Mormon background," laughs Giles. Stumbling across Affirmation helped give him the courage to come out—which meant not only explaining himself to two sets of parents, but 11 siblings.
"At first I thought, 'A group for gay Mormons? That's crazy!' But it was this nice balance of people who were on the same journey I was. And it didn't hurt that they had green Jell-O at the meeting," says Giles, recalling what he refers to as a "Mormon staple food."
Giles' family didn't disown him, but he quickly lost the feeling that he belonged in church, which crushed him.
"Your whole life you devote to this calling. And when the church says you're out, it's awful. That's why there's a lot of suicide within the church."
Now Giles along with Affirmation are working to influence both local church members as well as higher-ups to take less of a "fire and brimstone" view of LGBT people. The most important change, says Giles, will be preaching family acceptance rather than excommunication.
"We don't want this to be something people are killing themselves over. We want the church to be teaching love above all else," says Giles. He believes he has reason to hope: For the first time in Affirmation's 30-year history, in 2009 the official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) recognized the existence of the group and has agreed to meet with its leaders.
The church changes slowly, says Giles, but he believes it will move as the needle of mainstream American public opinion shifts in favor of the LGBT community. It took until 1978 for the LDS church to accept black people as bishops, he points out. Gays cannot be too far behind.
Until that time, Giles has erased his name from the Mormon registry.