Silent Notes Taking

Stephen Smoot is a BYU alumnus and current graduate student in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto. He is also a Mormon blogger who writes at Ploni Almoni: Mr. So-and-So’s Mormon Blog. His writings on Mormon topics have also appeared, among other places, with the Interpreter Foundation and Book of Mormon Central. You can catch him on Twitter at @stephen_smoot. We’re pleased he agreed to share this post.

A few days ago I received a message from a friend of mine that I had known since I was a Freshman at BYU. It started out nonchalantly enough with him asking about how much longer I was going to be in Provo before returning to Canada for school. Eventually he got around to dropping some hints that things weren’t quite right. He mentioned feelings of loneliness and being directionless in life, and added that he felt awkward in his YSA ward and struggled with church attendance. He asked if I would be able to chat about some things he had on his mind, since he knew me, had followed me on social media, and felt like I was “a chill guy” he could be safe and somewhat vulnerable with. I happily agreed to be a listening ear.

That’s when my friend let me know that he was gay. He hastened to add that he was not critical or dissatisfied with church doctrine–––not “one of those radicals” who protested on Temple Square–––but that he was nevertheless struggling. He was having a hard time fitting in his YSA ward because of constantly being “drilled to get married in the temple or to go on dates.” My friend also intimated that his family background added a complicated layer to his experience, and how he was coming to resent having to “do it alone” when it came to his career and other life decisions. From what I gathered during our conversation, my friend wanted to find a way to make his religious and sexual identities compatible. That is, he wanted to make being a gay Mormon work . . . somehow. But, he realized the very real difficulties in doing such, as he would have a number of forces pulling him in different directions.

The next morning after our initial conversation, as I was pondering what we had discussed, there suddenly came to my mind a few thoughts in response to what my friend had told me. First, it occurred to me how I had known my friend during basically my entire time at BYU without having even the slightest idea that he was gay. Up until the very moment that he told me, I had never even thought to assume he was not straight. (Shows how good my gaydar must be, amiright?) This in turn prompted me to remember that there are closeted LGBTQ friends and family in our community right now who are looking around to see whom they can trust.

I don’t say this at all to congratulate myself, as I know I have plenty of room for improvement, but my friend reached out to me, as he made clear, because he had known me and observed me over the years and had come to trust me. Again, all without my slightest awareness. I love the hymn “Do What is Right,” and especially the line, “Angels above us are silent notes taking / Of ev’ry action; then do what is right!” The same, it’s safe to say, is true of queer folk who are “silent notes taking” of who is or could potentially be an ally and a friend. As such, I’m convinced it’s critical that we should live our lives in such a way that a closeted queer friend might look to us as someone they might one day be able to come out to.

This means we should be careful with what words we use, what jokes we make, and what comments we make at work, social gatherings, or in church.

This means taking time to hear and understand the experiences, needs, and feelings of LGBTQ individuals.

Very importantly to help at-risk LGBTQ youth, this means standing up to homophobia, bullying, and derision, even when we might think it’s “safe” and no queer person is going to notice our passivity (or worse, participation).

In our Mormon spaces (such as our church meetings), this means following the example of the Savior by showing love and fellowship to LGBTQ members of the church. This means staying current with what the church does (and doesn’t!) teach about same-sex attraction. The Mormon and Gay website is especially important in this regard, as it provides easy access to official church teachings on this matter.

This means paying attention when General Authorities such as Elder Jeffrey R. Holland emphasize during General Conference that we should not assume that sexual orientation will “somehow miraculously change” if you or they just have enough faith, and that “there is room for those with differing sexual attractions” in the church.

This means making church a welcoming environment for LGBTQ members to feel valued and needed. To make them feel like they can and are contributing their talents to the cause of Zion.

This means finding ways that we can “liken” the scriptures so they might speak to the experiences of LGBTQ members “for our profit and learning” (1 Nephi 19:23).

In our YSA wards, this means maybe pumping the brakes just a bit on the sometimes-fanatical drive to focus solely on marriage and dating. This is not to diminish that (heterosexual) marriage is a big deal in Mormonism. Rather, it’s merely to remember that beating a young single adult over the head with the marriage stick–––especially when they might be gay, bisexual, or asexual–––can do a lot of harm and create a lot of resentment. Jesus taught that the two great commandments are to love God with all of our heart, might, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:35–40; Mark 12:28–34). We cannot fulfill the second great commandment if we’re too busy trying to make sure our neighbor measures up to all our immediate expectations.

There is nothing in the gospel of Jesus Christ that is homophobic, or which would lend itself to homophobic action or rhetoric, so we should be ever watchful against allowing such to seep into our culture and discourse. Additionally, with our doctrine that “all human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God,” each being “a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents” with “a divine nature and destiny,” we have tremendous potential to be LGBTQ allies by showing queer persons the love, dignity, and friendship they deserve by divine birthright.

When it comes to being supportive of those with same-sex attraction, “nobody should be more loving and compassionate” than the Latter-day Saints, taught Elder Quentin L. Cook. “Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion, and outreach.”

As I was just reminded, there are indeed many seen and unseen who are “silent notes taking.” Both in heaven and around us here on earth.

Comments

  1. MikeInWeHo says:

    Well-meaning members who want to make the “church a welcoming environment for LGBTQ members” should start by acknowledging to that this is not really possible at the present time. I see a lot of denial in a post like this. Until gay couples are welcome in the church, LGBTQ people are not welcome in the church.

  2. Although I have an active online presence, I don’t know that many people in real life. I would also expect that with that online presence being so very Mormon, LGBT friends might hesitate to talk with me. Because I seldom think to speculate about anybody’s sexuality, it is somehow always a surprise to learn that yet another of my few friends is gay, and a surprise to note how often I first learn that when someone comes to my home specifically to tell me he or she is coming out and wanted to tell me in person. I’ve gotten better at responding, I hope, than the first awkward occurrence — awkward only because it was all new to me and I had so much to learn. I’m glad they trust me. I hope that my response is what they hoped for. Our relationships always seem to change because lives are transitioning and new living arrangements and employment and geography mean changes — but not the fact of friendship. I want to be that safe friend. Life is tough enough without making it harder, especially for friends.

  3. (Note that I really dislike every mention of “silent note taking”–I always imagine police state neighbors spying on each other. But that’s a quibble with respect the OP.)
    On a personal level, a statistically impossible percentage of close friends turn out to be LGBTQ but didn’t present that way until long after we knew and trusted each other. So of course I resonate to the overall theme.
    I would also note that in the days when I thought deep thoughts on the subject, beating people of any age and persuasion with the marriage stick seemed like a bad idea with significant unintended negative consequences and little or no upside.
    However, on an institutional level I sense far more interest in (to be crude and blunt) “being ourselves, being just as homophobic as we really feel, and if they don’t like it they can stay away.” I’m not sure if “they can stay away” isn’t the prime objective.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Stephen, was it at the recent Writ and Vision thing that you mused on the possibility of queer readiings on the BoM? I thought that was a great idea that had never occurred to me before. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

  5. Thanks. Especially thank you for reminding everyone who reads this that there are many queer people, especially young people, who are watching, and listening, and suffering in the closet. Anything we can do to make our cultural environment more accepting is desperately needed by these individuals.

  6. I’d extend the carefully pumping of the brakes to the YW and YM especially since August is marriage and family month in the curriculum. Some may feel overwhelmed by the end and that’s all Mormons teach and preach.

  7. Confused says:

    Let me get this straight (no pun intended): the author is vehemently opposed to non-historical readings of the Book of Mormon, but is ok with queer ones? Might I ask what principles guide the interpretive strategies that do or do not get Mr. Smoot’s blessing?

  8. This is an especially important message for YM leaders, YW leaders, and scout leaders. Statistically speaking, most wards with large youth groups are going to have at least one youth who is gay.

  9. EmJen – I married at 34 and can was the object of many unkind and pointed comments/questions about why I was not married. It appeared to me then and on occasion now, that there are many who beat the drum of marriage and family so much that much else about the gospel is left aside. The timing of these lessons is particularly troubling coming at the start of the school year.

  10. Confused, you might ask, but given the facetious nature of your question I doubt you would be entitled to an answer.

  11. re: Tim– and not just large wards. If I count up all of the YW/YM in my ward who were active at some point during my 5 years in YW, it’s less than 20. Two of them have since come out.

  12. I love this post, but I would argue that homophobic action and rhetoric have long been deeply entrenched in our culture and discourse 😕

  13. The questuon I would always have to ask myself if I was in this position is do I think my friend will be better off in the church living without a life partner or are they in a position where they could attend with a life partner healthily. I won’t deny those situations might exist and I believe in giving the individual the space to make that determination themselves. However, I think it is clear that for the vast majority it isn’t healthy. If it was my kid, for their life and sanity I would encourage them to leave mainstream active Mormon life.

    Honestly, given November 15th the church or any of us have no right to expect or ask LBGT people to give the church the benefit of the doubt. Holland can say all the nice thing’s he wants for whatever purpose he wants to say them. Actions speak louder than words. The brethren are going to have to work out their homosexual issues but !^$/! it if I am going to actively encourage a friend, child or loved one that they should hang around for that. I think of all the nice Mormon kids and adults who tried this route, look OK for awhile and then end up dead or having wasted precious years of their life tormented because we are trying to deny them the basic human need of the type of loving relationship we believe it is of the highest order to crave.

    Until then listen and love first and always. Pray for their lives early and often.

  14. Michael H says:

    “If it was my kid, for their life and sanity I would encourage them to leave mainstream active Mormon life.”

    Same.

  15. “Silent Notes Taking” – a sidebar, detour, or hijack, depending on how directly you think a comment should address the point of the OP – the cited hymntext is No. 505 in the 1857 publication, The Psalms of Life: A Compilation of Psalms, Hymns, Chants, Anthems, &c. Embodying the Spiritual, Progressive and Reformatory Sentiment of the Present Age‎. https://archive.org/stream/psalmsoflifecomp00adam#page/n5/mode/2up
    Until I found the full title of that publication, I had no idea (historical ignorance here) that mid-19th century America considered itself “progressive.” Some BCC readers will be pleased to know that our Church adopted such a progressive hymn at least as early as 1871. See http://hymnary.org/text/do_what_is_right_the_daydawn_is_breaking (I haven’t checked the earlier LDS hymnals for this one.)
    Despite one sacrament meeting long ago in which it felt exactly right that it should be chosen as the closing hymn, I have despised and continue to despise that hymn both for (a) its claim about what angels spend their time doing and the great contrast between its message and the early Mormon “lying for the Lord” and (b) the ridiculous ditty of a tune to which we sing it. Our adopted tune (not the 1857 tune) has a longer and much less illustrious history than the hymn text itself, having originated as a secular song and entered American hymnody with Samuel Wordsworth’s “The Old Oaken Bucket” — not a hymn at all.
    Otherwise, I am sympathetic to the OP and have taken the suggested approach since decades ago in teaching Sunday School and serving in a bishopric. I am unaware of any positive effect as a result, though aware of some such effect for friends who chose to confide in me. Yes, “Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion, and outreach.” But with rare exceptions that does not appear to be enough in the face of the November 2015 policy and the culture it reinforced. Like Christian, “I’m not sure if ‘they can stay away’ isn’t the prime [institutional] objective” of that policy.

  16. “If it was my kid, for their life and sanity I would encourage them to leave mainstream active Mormon life.”

    Without question, hesitation, or pause.

    And that’s a damn shame.

  17. jaxjensen says:

    I finding it hard not to laugh at those saying they would ” encourage them to leave mainstream active Mormon life” yet are bemoaning that the church might be encouraging it as well (““I’m not sure if ‘they can stay away’ isn’t the prime [institutional] objective” of that policy.”) The irony of outrage at an institution for encouraging the same thing that you would encourage is… humorous!

    To be clear, I also agree that “If it was my kid, for their life and sanity I would encourage them to leave mainstream active Mormon life.” But I’d encourage not just my kid, but all others as well, to do the same. But I don’t hold any animosity at the church for their positions, nor do I think that “The brethren are going to have to work out their homosexual issues.”

  18. Nathan Sorenson says:

    I am glad I know God well enough to not let a sexual orientation cause me to recommend that someone stays away from His church.

  19. Jax Jenson (and Nathan Sorenson, I guess, if I have to),
    Perhaps they are saying they’d send young gay folk away because they worry about their ability to navigate current doctrinal waters (hopefully temporary) without falling into depression or worse. That they’d love to invite them to church, but are worried, not because the messages they’d hear there (as the OP discusses) might drive them away (although that would be bad), but because those messages might drive them to make decisions that could lead to self-harm. And, honestly, I don’t believe that the Church or the Brethren are actively trying to drive LGBTQ folk off (if they are actively trying to do that) out of a deep concern for their temporal, physical well-being. I suppose it is possible, of course, but that seems to go against their own messaging, where they emphasize being welcoming to all, even those folks who can’t fully participate in the gospel do to their own current policies.

  20. Another thing I know some LGBTQIA Mormons are taking silent notes about: supposed allies who won’t support them in their commitment to remain faithful (i.e., celibate) or will try to railroad them into their own presumed narratives of queer Mormon life. As is evident in some comments here, sadly.

    So they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, with people on both sides of the culture wars who allow none to attempt a reconciliation. It’s a terrible situation.

  21. So I’m a YSA gay Mormon, and I’ve been uniquely privileged in a lot of ways. I’ve sat down with a few General Authorities to talk about my experience, and I’ve received nothing but empathy from them. Each member of the Twelve and Seventy I’ve met has encouraged me to make my own path within the covenant life. I feel perfectly welcome in the Church, both big-C and little-c. From my experience, the Mormon people have been extraordinarily supportive.

    The hardest part is so-called allies (as well as detractors) who have opinions on what my life should look like. Leave the Church? Marry a woman? Be the Token Gay in some ward somewhere? Be the beloved uncle? None of these options appeals to me, and there are few good role models. I sincerely hope that people will stop opining long enough to listen, and stop trying to force me (and others) into what they view as the best – or only, in their mind – path.

    We want empathy, not pity.

  22. Michael H says:

    MCS, key words in some of these comments (including mine) is “If it were my kid.” I’d have no right to suggest you stay active or not unless you asked me for advice.

  23. Hi Again,
    First, let me say what I neglected to in my first comment. This was an excellent and important post, and I’m grateful there are people like Stephen and his friend in our community. Thank you.

    Second, I admire and am grateful for our LGBTQIA brothers and sisters who choose to remain in active, mainstream Mormonism. I wouldn’t presume to offer anything but my love and support to those brave brothers and sisters. I do feel responsible for giving advice to my children. If speaking hypothetically about what I’d do if one of my own children came out to me constitutes a lack of support for members of the LGBTQIA, then I am guilty and I am sorry. I’ve seen too many friends and people I grew up with become too hurt and too miserable. I wouldn’t want either of my daughters to live life without the benefit of marriage to a person she was in love with, and I wouldn’t want her to constantly feel guilty for wanting that. If that reflects negatively on my relationship with the Almighty, so be it.

    And when we lose an LGBTQIA brother or sister or one of their allies who feels, with cause, he or she can no longer be a part of mainstream, active Mormonism, those of us who stay are poorer as a result. And I see nothing remotely humorous about that.

    Also, what John C. said.

  24. I think it’s worth unpacking Nathan Sorenson’s comment about knowing God well enough not to recommend anyone stay away from His church.

    At some point, you have to realize the disconnect between the promise of Mormonism’s Gospel for straight and cis people (hetero family forever), and its promise for queer and trans people (die and be replaced by someone who’s fundamentally different from you). He’s saying that his god is okay with that, that he doesn’t see any disconnect between the two messages, and that “you need to die” is a message of hope to a group of people that’s already at disproportionate risk of suicide.

    That’s either callous, ignorant, or irresponsible. Maybe you’re not ready to hear others’ prayers and petitions, but any God worth the capital G is.

    There’s also the fact that in a church as experiential as the Mormon one, where the key to conversion is supposedly having a personal testimony, it’s kind of arrogant to suppose that you’re the only one in the discussion thread who knows God. The god who saved me when I almost killed myself is the opposite of Nathan’s, and of the November proclamation’s. But that god was also a lot closer to the one I sang about in Primary, who hears children’s prayers and suffers them to come unto him. And who will walk with you if you don’t walk as most people do.

    What I’m saying is, there are at least two versions of Jesus in the church. One of them wanted me to die, both body and soul, for my failure to live the Mormon sexual lifestyle. And the other asks what profit it is to gain worlds without end, if you lose your soul in the process.