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Opinion Young Mormons aren’t fooled by church support for a gay marriage bill

Brigham Young University student Kate Lunnen joins several hundred students protesting near the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints headquarters in Salt Lake City on March 6, 2020, to show their displeasure with a letter that clarified "same-sex romantic behavior" is not allowed on campus. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

Addison Graham is a junior at Brigham Young University majoring in American Studies and Spanish.

The Mormon Church surprised many people with its stand in favor of a bill to protect same-sex marriage from possible challenge in the newly conservative U.S. Supreme Court. Having passed the Senate, the bill now moves to the House of Representatives, where Mormon support may make it easier for Republicans to vote yes.

Attention to the church’s announcement obscures a key fact, however: A religious exemption in the bill, known as the Respect for Marriage Act, actually shields the church from having to conduct or sanction same-sex marriages. At church-sponsored Brigham Young University, students have noted that church rights still take precedence over the rights of the LGBTQ community. Such attitudes and policies surrounding issues of sexual identity are fueling a faith crisis among many Mormons of my generation.

Since 2008, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints backed California’s Proposition 8 to ban same-sex marriage, the church has been trying to live down a homophobic reputation. Yet the church’s support for the current legislation does not necessarily reflect progressive change. Because the bill includes an amendment allowing religious organizations to deny “services, facilities or goods” for same-sex weddings, the legislation is ultimately a protection rather than a threat.

Thus, the church has pivoted in its approach but not in its practices. Rather than fight a losing battle against the legalization of same-sex marriage, as they did in 2008, Mormon leaders have changed tactics — but not their attitudes.

As a straight male, I have been surprised that my experience at BYU has been dramatically impacted by LGBTQ issues. My first week on campus, a prominent church leader called out a BYU valedictorian for “commandeering” a microphone that was “intended to represent everyone” because, during his graduation speech, he had come out as gay. Were we to take from this that only the views of straight students are representative of our campus values?

Some gay students at BYU say they have felt more acceptance at school than within their families. At home, they feel responsible for breaking the mold of an ideal Mormon family, but at school they find supportive classmates and faculty members. I spoke to one student who recently came out as bisexual to her parents. They responded that same-sex attraction is acceptable only if she does not “act on those feelings” and expressed relief that she is bisexual rather than lesbian. She said that although she tries to maintain a relationship with her parents, she feels a greater sense of belonging at school.

Caleb Kemsley, a queer student who has studied at BYU since 2020, told me he appreciates his fellow students’ efforts to honor his identity even when they can’t fully relate to him. “It’s just nice when people listen and try to understand,” he said. But while Mormons are making those efforts in increasing numbers, Kemsley and many others believe their church has no place for them. The so-called Respect for Marriage Act “reinforces the church’s ability to discriminate against us.”

I asked Kemsley what the church would have to do to show real progress on this issue. He said that, although there are “many amazing people in the church,” he sees little reason to celebrate “until the church acknowledges that our path to happiness is not sinful.”

LGBTQ Mormons are not the only ones alienated by the church’s policies. A majority of Utah Mormons support same-sex marriage rights; support is strongest among young Mormons who have grown up with openly gay friends, classmates and family members. Because Mormonism is a faith that calls for full commitment, many young members find themselves wondering if they can be all-in for a church that excludes their friends, their families, themselves.

There is a crisis among Mormons of my generation, many of whom are making painful exits — or watching their friends do so. People are leaving in not only a state of disgruntlement but also a state of sadness. It is not simply anger but a real sense of loss for all involved. From the church’s perspective, the laws of God do not change. But neither does one’s sexual identity.

Hierarchical religions are not democracies; their systems are not designed for input — especially not from their young members. Unfortunately, history has shown that trying to change the church more often than not leads to an off-ramp. Where the LGBTQ issue is concerned, many of my friends, including Kemsley — with whom I served on a two-year mission in South America — are discovering that the only way to vote is with their feet.