Aaron Brown is an early founder of BCC.
One year later, I have a story to tell:
— November 5, 2015. I’m at a conference in San Francisco, scrolling through my Facebook feed on my iPhone. I happen upon a discussion in a private group created for LDS leaders interested in ministering to the needs of LGBT church members. A participant — a current LDS bishop and friend of mine — is talking about the contents of an email he’d received from LDS church headquarters either that morning or the night before. He’s saying something about a new policy in the Church Handbook of Instructions (CHI) that declares same-sex married church members to be “apostates”.
— This is disheartening but not surprising to me. I’m a High Councilor in my Seattle stake, where I’ve been specifically tasked with spearheading “LGBT outreach” by my stake president since late 2013. I’ve previously wondered if the Church wouldn’t adopt a policy around disciplining married homosexual church members since the SCOTUS decision in Obergefell earlier that summer. In fact, in a hyper-orthodox LDS Facebook group I frequented, I’d recently argued that senior Church leaders would NEED to adopt such a policy if they wanted local leaders to handle such cases in a relatively standardized way. But because some group members had strenuously disagreed with me on this point — believing the CHI was sufficient-as-written to mandate church discipline in these cases — I decide to head over to the group and mention the new policy.
— An ex-Mormon I didn’t know at the time who also frequents this group — one Ryan McKnight of Las Vegas — sees my post and immediately reposts it to the ex-Mormon Reddit and the Mormon Stories Facebook group where it starts to go viral. Among many others, excommunicated Mormon and well-known podcaster John Dehlin sees the post and starts to make inquiries.
— Meanwhile, I return to the LGBT-themed private group for LDS leaders and resume conversation with my LDS bishop friend. He hints that the new same-sex marriage/apostasy policy is not the whole story, that there are more CHI changes, potentially even more controversial ones. He starts referencing the children of same-sex couples, restrictions on ordinances, disavowing family members, etc. I finally ask the bishop to just forward the email from church HQ to me. I want to see it for myself. Realizing that the nature of my church calling makes the new policies very relevant, he obliges.
— I open the email and quickly read the entirety of the new CHI provisions, contained in an attached PDF-document. I am stunned. I instantly recognize that I’m holding a nuclear bomb. I never would’ve anticipated the baby blessing and baptism policies. I cannot imagine how the Church formally adopted them without laying any groundwork in the press, without somehow involving LDS Public Affairs in their dissemination. It’s as if they don’t anticipate any explosion at all.
— I am aware that discussion of the new policy’s “apostasy” provisions is already happening publicly (I don’t believe Ryan’s posts were its only source, but I am unsure), but I haven’t seen ANYTHING about the much more controversial provisions regarding children. I recognize that I have the option of posting the policy on my wall via a quick “copy” and “paste” from the PDF the Church circulated.
— I am not interested in embarrassing the Church. I take the Church’s imminent embarrassment to be a foregone conclusion. Someone is obviously going to publicly reveal the policy language, and soon. Will it happen tomorrow? Later this afternoon? Ten minutes from now? The only question I’m asking myself is, “Aaron, what do you want your relationship with this fact to be?” I can sit back and wait for the public scandal to erupt, watch the policy go viral. I certainly cannot stop it from happening (even assuming I’d wanted to). Alternatively, I can ride the first wave of the inevitable explosion by posting it first, by hosting a public discussion of it on my Facebook wall. I have long used my wall to publicly promote outreach events in my stake, and to initiate discussions of LGBT Mormon issues as part of that outreach. Discussing the new policies will be consistent with the role I play regularly.
— I post the baby blessing and baptism provisions of the new CHI policy to my Facebook wall at 4:35 pm PST. (This happens 30 seconds after I see someone else post the same provisions in the private group for LDS leaders). I offer no personal reaction to the policy, but I do point out that it is “effective immediately”, per the Church’s own declaration in its PDF-document. Unsurprisingly, my wall explodes.
— Exactly 21 minutes later, John Dehlin has seen the post on my wall, and he posts the policy language to his own wall, tagging me as his source. This leads to an even bigger explosion, as you might imagine. And things only snowball from there.
So there you go.
In the days following November 5, the Utah press briefly took an interest in the identity of the “leaker”. A Utah television station wanted to interview the guilty party. John Dehlin approached me about doing the interview, but after brief consideration, I declined. I was still a stake High Councilor, and felt it would be inappropriate to publicly embarrass my stake president. I also asked Dehlin to keep me anonymous for the time being. He agreed. A short time later, Dehlin and McKnight were interviewed by television stations in Utah and Nevada, respectively. Neither mentioned my involvement.
It was both bewildering and amusing to watch the subsequent discussion unfold online. So many rumors were flying about the initial “source” of the leak. (As if we were reliving Watergate, and “Deep Throat” must be exposed!). My favorite was the instructor at a Utah seminary teacher training who is said to have told his assembled teachers that a disgruntled employee at the Church’s law firm, Kirton & McConkie, had disseminated the document without permission. LOL. There were other rumors too.
What’s funny is that anyone who bothered to exert a little bit of effort could have identified me easily. Dehlin’s role was well-known, and anyone examining his Facebook history from Nov. 5 could have seen that he tagged me as his source for the baby blessing and baptism policy language. The guys at “Infants on Thrones” outed me almost immediately on a podcast. Ryan McKnight, when pressed to reveal HIS source, acknowledged it was me in conversations online (and presumably would’ve told anyone else who asked). Various ultra-conservative church members on social media knew of my role and regularly and publicly chastised me for it. John Dehlin did not reveal my identity in any of his podcasts for several months, per my request (he would eventually do so, with my blessing, after I left the High Council). Instead, he said he had “three sources” when asked, without giving names (I was one of these sources directly, and at least one of the other two indirectly, via Ryan).
Despite all this, let me be very, very clear: The identity of “the leaker” should’ve been obvious to everyone from Day One. The “leaker” was …. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the internet age, when you send an email to thousands of recipients, YOU’VE LEAKED YOUR OWN DOCUMENT. It is therefore absurd to fret about the singular source of a public dissemination, as if there couldn’t be 99 separate sources. But if you want to get technical about it, you can say that I was the first person to put the baby blessing and baptism portions of the November 5 policy in a publicly-accessible space online. That would be accurate, as far as I know.
I want to reiterate that my motives were not malicious. I wasn’t interested in damaging the Church. I have critics who are determined to believe otherwise, who insist I should be experiencing — or even AM experiencing — extreme guilt. Whatever. I’m not losing any sleep over these reactions.
Other voices have argued that the “timing” of the leak was very unfortunate, that it’s largely what drove the public backlash. That if the Church had only been able to roll out the policy at a time and in a manner of its own choosing, much of the resulting public angst and turmoil could’ve been avoided. This is preposterous. There’s no way a leak could have been avoided once the policy had been disseminated, but even if it had, the contents of the policy would’ve proved explosive even under the best of circumstances. Denying saving ordinances to minor children for 10 crucial years, prohibiting their receipt of the Gift of the Holy Ghost during their entire adolescence, was destined to create a firestorm no matter when and how it was announced. And the Church’s own email informed local leaders that the policy was for “immediate implementation”. So a small number of families were guaranteed to learn of the policy immediately when their church leaders suddenly cancelled their baptisms or baby blessings that weekend. (This is, in fact, exactly what happened in a few reported cases). Had no leak occurred in the first 48 hours, does anyone really believe none of these families would’ve caused a public stir, instigating the very same public backlash we saw on Nov. 5? The very notion boggles the mind.
Anyway, there’s a lot more I could say about the policy and my feelings about it, but this will do for now. Thanks for reading.