Larger Reflections & Discussion

How to make sense of these themes across narratives and begin to discern their consequences as they play out over time has been my focus in the main review of themes. The similarities are striking between the influence of these narratives over time and some of the mental health narratives I have explored previously, especially in relation to parents helping a distressed child.[1]

Quick review.  In both cases, the larger narrative begins with a past going along normally, often happily (Theme 16) – until it is interrupted by a pain-point that is visceral and urgent (Themes 1, 14, 15, 24), invoking new and unsettling questions in the family (Theme 2).

The presence of this pain leads families to a place of unique emotional vulnerability. This becomes the backdrop and context for a moment I have labeled elsewhere a “galvanizing moment”[2] wherein a new narrative is birthed. In this case, parents often reach out fervently, and in some case desperately, for new information on what they’re facing (Themes 5 & 25) and are met with loving support from other parents who begin to offer a new way of understanding everything they are experiencing (Theme 26). This new knowledge/new narrative quickly becomes embraced and adopted (Theme 9), which, as many parents admit, immediately begins to unsettle prior understanding, convictions, and beliefs. For many, the adoption of this new narrative entails a radical reformation of beliefs about fundamental reality, including central convictions about choice and identity (Themes 6, 10 & 36). The church community once sincerely loved also becomes seen (and experienced) as dangerously ignorant and hostile (Themes 7, 8 & 17).

Over time, many of these parents subsequently embrace what can only be understood by their former faith family as a new vision of the gospel itself – including basic convictions about human nature and the plan of God (Themes 30 – 33). At the same time these individuals begin to step away from an allegiance to prior religious practices (Themes 3 & 13), and they take up fresh allegiance to other kinds of practices which embody a “living out” of their newly adopted narrative (Themes 11 & 21).

In this way, families begin to act in ways flatly orthogonal to their previous lives and convictions. Under the influence of this new narrative, an almost inevitable, growing family estrangement from one’s old faith life thus develops (Themes 19, 20 & 22). Somewhat predictably, perhaps, prior affection and conviction surrounding the gospel as taught by LDS prophets ultimately collapses (Themes 3 & 13) in a personal and family loss that is often acknowledged as devastating (Themes 14, 15 & 24).

These women thus find themselves in a very different “I-belong-here/these-are-my-people” home community, possessing a very different personal identity and mission (Themes 36-38) as well as a new kind of trust. In particular, this new path involves a unique level of confidence parents place in the insight possessed by themselves and their child (Themes 12 & 34). The son or daughter, in particular, is seen as possessing a profound capacity for self-understanding and very little need for any sort of serious growth, change, or progress (Themes 12 & 30).  This child is also spoken of as being among the greatest blessings and highest priorities of these parents’ lives and deserving of virtually any sacrifice, including walking away from previously precious commitments and passions (Themes 18, 23 & 43).

From within this new narrative, the past is also reinterpreted and revised, with previously cherished beliefs now framed as silly and ridiculously narrow (Themes 4, 44 & 45). By contrast, these mothers consistently self-define as possessing a new, superior level of insight and love (Themes 27 – 29, 35), alongside an incomparably better degree of individual and family happiness, accompanied by new dreams to celebrate (Themes 21, 41, 42). From this place, these mothers cannot help but want to remake their old faith community in the image of their newfound enlightenment (Themes 39 & 40).

As reflected above, this analysis documents a process whereby these mothers experience an intensive socialization and micro-evolution connected to difficult circumstances which prompts (a) the adoption of a particular narrative (b) that plays out in many concrete ways over time and (c) gets maintained by certain postures and perspectives that help reaffirm the legitimacy of the story – e.g., reinterpreting the past and insisting on oneself as happy and loving at a superior level.


1. Different takes on the same narrative. Obviously, many will disagree with my interpretations of the Mama Dragons’ interpretations-of-their-experiences here. My conclusions obviously contrast sharply with those heard from most Mormon LGBT organizations.

In particular, many will no doubt insist that the pain outlined above largely and exclusively emanates from the narrative of the LDS Church itself and its culture that continues to be condemned as hostile  – in which case: (a) socializing away from Mormonism is a positive and healthy step and (b) the Mama Dragon narrative is a legitimate reflection of reality. Who wouldn’t want to walk away from an inherently hostile environment, right?

That’s a no-brainer conclusion within that narrative. But to attribute despair only to certain religious practices or teachings is to ignore a host of other influences – including many explored above.  In particular, I have pointed to evidence of an under-recognized kind of socialization that may be leading individuals and families into a hopelessness similar to what I have worked to document in our prevailing mental health system (see Learned Hopelessness).[3]

This kind of subtle socialization over time is not easy to recognize, and even easier to miss.  Especially when our own experiences are intense and poignant, for instance, we tend to think these experiences speak for themselves. But they can’t – and don’t. Like all “data,” they must be interpreted.

This point is almost always ignored. That’s why it won’t surprise me to see some readers insist that these narrative “themes” are not themes at all – but instead, simply a reflection of reality: How dare anyone suggest the pain and intimate experiences in my family and with my faith would be subject to interpretation. Are you saying they’re just “subjective” or made-up?

Of course not.  As pointed out earlier, no one is saying anything of the sort. The argument here is that the reality you have lived is partially (and significantly) shaped by these complex set of interpretations – but certainly not entirely. While acknowledging the reality of painful feelings and vivid experiences, this exploration focuses on how people make sense of those experience out of a particular narrative framework – and how that narrative subsequently shapes the unfolding experiences over time.[4]

And by the way, this same conclusion about the pervasive influence of narrative applies everywhere and in everything – including in orthodox Mormonism itself.

2. Narrative beings. Something like this could be written about any organization and community, and it probably should. For instance, it’s no secret that many embrace the message of the gospel during a time of pain – and that in many cases, that new narrative (re-storying of life) brings new peace and hope. Subsequently, that story is lived out in many ways, with the past interpreted in light of this new narrative. Like these mothers above, most orthodox Mormons would consider their own narrative as a reflection of reality (aka, true!), rather than reflective of one narrative.

That’s not a problem. It’s how (all our) narratives work!

That being said, in orthodox Mormonism, as with all communities, there may be possibilities of rethinking some of our taken-for-granted assumptions. Elder Holland & President Uchtdorf are famous for introducing fresh “takes” on familiar faith practices in their talks. And if it’s true that Mormon religious practices can be narrated out of different cultural lenses, with different languages – that might be great news, as it introduces additional, creative ways to enrich a faith experience that has started to feel impoverished.[5]

No matter the specific focus, one purpose of this kind of inquiry is to surface the reality of these narratives – making them more tangible and conspicuous, so they can be discussed and weighed in the balance:  Is this what I really believe? And is it leading to the kinds of outcomes I truly want? Are there ways to rethink convictions and expand the narrative directing my life?

Honest questions. Those are some of the questions I would have liked to have asked these mothers myself, face to face. Years into this path now, do your convictions about all of this remain the same? And has this path led to the outcomes you were truly hoping for – for your family and your child?  Is this what you imagine God really wanted and envisioned for your family?

No one can know what you feel in your own quiet moments alone. What we do know is what you say publicly. One mother involved in founding this group claims it has “strengthened my faith and my relationships with others, with my children and with my husband.”

Many of you likewise speak glowingly of the transformation in your lives from this change, including heights or joy and depths of love you didn’t know – witnessing to others that you have found fruit sweeter, better, and of more value than you did before.

That’s what many of you wrote in these essays years ago.

And once again, that makes me genuinely curious:  Do you still feel that way?  Would you say the same now?

Long-term, short-term. So many important questions cannot be solved with immediate assessments, with full truth only coming out over the long-term.[6]

My dissertation interviewees spoke of a veritable deliverance and redemption from anti-depressants in their past. Years later, however (at the time of my interview), they wept in dependency and desperation for a return of the original dosage effects…not having learned how to work with intense emotion on their own and not being told (convincingly by anyone in authority) that it was ever possible to live well without the drug or find lasting healing.

In a similar manner, I am naturally curious about the later aftermath of your child’s path and your family’s decision – something far beyond the initial triumphant moment of self-expression, self-affirmation, and associated liberation from former constraints.  What happens far downstream?

In retrospect, can you conclude that your life is better and richer than before you lived out this new path? Can you look yourself in the mirror and tell yourself that you and your family have more true joy and peace now than before?  And most importantly, when it comes to your children, are the approaches you are pursuing achieving the outcomes you most want for them?

I suspect many will affirm all of these questions. If you have doubts on these points, we mostly don’t hear that from you. [7]

I admit having my own doubts….because I’ve met some of your children. I’ve read hundreds of their stories – and I’ve observed how many of their lives are playing out.

I’ve sensed their fragility….and frequent turmoil.  And the deep angst.

I’ve watched many of these youth take up sexual attraction as a primary guide to life, with much of their personal self-worth becoming wrapped up in this defining feature of sexual orientation (or gender identity) alone.[8]

I’ve watched individuals I personally know move from softness to hardness as they “come out” – moving into a life of self-absorption far removed from their prior days in the Church. I’ve seen these people cut themselves off from virtually every warm connection they once had in their previous faith community as well.[9]

And I’ve also seen their anger – and yours: an anger that can subside, but never seems far away. Accusing feelings have a seductive power that teachers have warned of thousands of years, including the Buddha who called anger or “ill will” a poison. Some of you would be willing to admit that the intensity of your own judgment has become more fierce, tangible, and visceral than most people you still interact with at Church.

The Church is making me miserable.  And you say, “but of course!  Wouldn’t you feel the same way if your faith forced you toward such a painful place…and if you discovered the faith of your childhood was now harming your own children?!”

 Of course, I would.  A lot would change if that awful reality were true – that is, if the philosophy and community that brought me the deepest joy, peace, and security all of a sudden was revealed as the true tormentor of my own precious child.

That would be a real nightmare for anyone, as it has been for many of these mothers.

At heart, I’m asking you here if that nightmare can pass, however – more like a bad dream? Rather than a reality you simply must accept, I’m making the case here for why this reality has been shaped over time in complex ways, and perhaps could be shaped in new directions in the future.

Forcing a false choice.  In so many cases, as is evident in these stories, this is also a nightmare that you’ve felt has been thrust upon you – without any other options for working with the situation whatsoever.

Who is most responsible for this imposition? Who has convinced you that your child’s experience and core nature is incompatible with Latter-day Saint ideals and teaching?  Who is teaching you that your Mormon dreams must be abandoned?

As you know by now, I’m suggesting it’s more than just the orthodox Mormon narrative responsible for this acute conflict.  Under the influence of this narrative explored above, I have illustrated in the body of the paper how it becomes almost unthinkable to do anything but abandon former hopes for a child. Out of this new story, families are now encouraged-to-encourage-their-child to embrace current sexual feelings as foundational touchpoints of a new identity. The only other alternative – we are repeatedly told – is to act or speak in ways that perpetuate shame.

All of this posits a stark choice:  do you love your faith…or your child more?

Kimberly Anderson summarizes her hope for Mormons encountering the Mama Dragon stories as follows: “Old, damaging traditions can be broken and new ones can be forged in the flames of pure love…As your eyes become open to being able to love your child over and above all else, questioning your long-held beliefs will become second-nature.” She adds: “Let this serve as fair-warning.”

Kimberly leaves one additional warning: “If you are unable [to drop pretenses related to faith]…then you will not progress positively with your child. Your love for your child will always be conditional and they will withdraw even further. If your ego is larger than your love, you will have a difficult relationship with your LGBT+ child. If your relationship with religion is stronger than with your child, prepare for many sleepless nights full of pain. I know all of these things are true because I have heard about them time and time again. Unconditional love is mutually exclusive to ego. You may try, but you cannot serve two masters.”

Translation: you cannot really love your child the way they need unless you lay aside Mormonism (quoting Jesus for good measure).

One woman spoke of being “frustrated at the distorted messages that confuse faithful LDS parents into feeling they need to choose between loving their child or being loyal to their religion” (67)

To reiterate my own sincere question for this mother: From where are those forced-choice “distorted messages” that confuse families coming?

This cannot simply be laid at the feet of Church leadership – at least, not entirely and not honestly. While the prophets have continued teaching a sexual doctrine contrary to the world’s ethos, the sexual dogmas of larger society have evolved considerably.

Are these shifts in LGBT acceptance reflective of inspired developments similar to the 1960’s civil rights movement OR are they reflective of concerning developments similar to the deterioration of society’s overall sexual mores?[10]

This is fascinating question – and it is very understandable why different people would reach different conclusions. The important point here is that we’re not talking a whole lot about this particular distinction at all – at least, not clearly and consistently. Instead, those who take this as a new civil rights movement have (mostly) bypassed critical dialogue while moving quickly to passionately advance, popularize, and promote their newfound convictions, including within Mormonism.

As a result of the stark personal conflict this creates, the Mama Dragons (and their many compatriots across many similar organizations)[11] have sparked a socialization and narrative evolution that has led many to a newfound critical and distant relationship with their previous faith.

And once the distance is there, the interpretation is uniform: “But the Church pushed us out…”

This narrative analysis raises another compelling possibility:  That in many cases, as outlined above, it’s not the Church itself that has pushed anyone away – but a particularly aggrieved interpretation of what the Church has done that plays at least some substantial role in pushing people away.[12]

Different ways to make sense of malaise. From within the Mama Dragon narrative reviewed above, the blame for any heartache rests almost solely on the Church for preaching a message not aligned with the new identity of these youth as they now understand themselves. 

And what if these families are wrong about that identity?  What if, one day in the eternal future, many of these parents are forced to conclude that they supported their child in a dramatic departure from a true view of his or her identity as defined by God?[13]

From that vantage point, an entirely new set of interpretations are introduced. For instance, the regrets  attributed to “wishing I had embraced this new way earlier” might be a deep gut signal that one is making a wrong move.

And rather than merely the social dislocation of leaving a community you used to love, that awful pain you speak of could well reflect the tangible pain of ripping your precious family from the protective sinews of the Kingdom of God.

In that case (if everything suggested above is true), then you should experience intense grief, pain, panic, and despair. That’s what happens when you walk away from crucial truth and turn away from precious realities: it hurts!

Of course there are other ways to work with a child’s pain and conflict in relation to sexuality. There always have been:  gentle ways, loving ways, supportive ways – and ways largely ignored, or minimized, or vilified in public conversation today.[14]

And that’s probably why most people choose another path – one involving a sharp departure from Mormonism.

Despite the profound level of malaise and angst that ought to accompany such a move, many of these individuals go on to learn in organizations like the Mama Dragons ways to craft a new, unique story about the pain. These narratives (reviewed earlier) effectively explain and justify ensuing family choices and actions – actions which, by virtually every orthodox Mormon measure, will be deeply regretted later on.

Sincerely good intentions. Even in saying this, it cannot be acknowledged enough that these parents (like most parents) have done what they’ve done out of sincere love and concern for their children. As mentioned earlier, I deeply believe that sincerely good intentions motivate them all.

But as generations of parents know, the gap between intention and real-life can be large – especially in retrospect (and especially over time). It was in this sense that in a talk nearly 15 years ago entitled, “A Prayer for the Children,” Elder Jeffrey Holland  told the story of a young man who had an agnostic father and a cynically LDS grandfather, “who is now looking desperately for what God had already once given his family!” He cautioned parents who were choosing to “flirt with skepticism or cynicism” to not be “surprised when their children expand that flirtation into full-blown romance.” [15]

Many good-hearted parents have realized much too late that what they thought would be good for their children has (potentially) profoundly damaged their chances at lasting happiness.

Perhaps you’ve seen indicators of this already. If so, consider this an invitation to be brutally honest with yourself about what you’re seeing right now in a child’s life.

Story-induced suffering.  For those whose priority so centers around their children’s well-being, I hope you will insist on staying open to all potential contributors to your child’s pain…including the new beliefs and convictions many of you have come to espouse.

One woman, who had spent a great deal of time in LGBT youth advocacy, began to feel a hesitancy about the Mama Dragon approach.  Her account mirrors much of the socializing process I describe above, so I share a larger excerpt from her blog here:

Last weekend I heard articulate, impassioned declarations that “the Church needs to do this” and “the Brethren need to stop saying that.”  I heard good people firmly declaring what Jesus would or would not be doing and saying if He were here.  I heard much certitude about doctrinal and policy changes that should be made in the Church right now. It was sincere and it was persuasive – I remember last year when I was so new to the world of LGBT Mormons, I remember feeling convinced that everything I heard at the conference was the Truth.

Families who are new to the LGBT Mormon community are desperate for answers and direction to steady them after…everything they once knew to be true about God’s great plan of salvation and happiness is suddenly called into question. To me it felt like I had been thrown into a tumultuous sea and was drowning, desperate for anything to hang on to. I was so vulnerable and needy – those clear and confident voices that I heard at the Conference telling me that the Church simply has to change and that the Apostles simply have to get rid of their outdated homophobic attitudes – those voices were powerfully persuasive and compelling. Only weeks later did I think to wonder if what they said was true.

I have sensed among the Affirmation parents a troubling discontentment with the Church that I fear is profoundly undermining the faith of many of the young LGBT youth whose faith is already so fragile. And I worry that even if and when doctrinal changes come, many of our young LGBT sons and daughters would not choose to be active in the Church, ironically because their faith was undermined by their very own Mama Dragons. While we save their physical lives, let us be very careful that we don’t destroy their spiritual lives, their faith. What a tragic loss to them and to the Church.

It is precisely this loss that has been the primary motivation behind this inquiry. I’ve written in the past about how this narrative can, over time, subtly subvert a more orthodox narrative and draw people, almost magnetically, away from their faith community over time (see Why is gay rights sweeping (too many) thoughtful, good-hearted people from my faith community? or Another perspective on “I just can’t stay in this church anymore…”)

The more I have studied, the more evidence I have found that the narrative embodied in the Mama Dragon approach has effectively sheared many individuals and families away from their formerly precious faith community, slicing them away with striking finality from the protective faith of their fathers and mothers.

Let me speak more plainly. I believe this set of interpretations embodied in the Mama Dragon narratives will one day be widely acknowledged as being centrally responsible for bringing thousands, maybe tens of thousands, to question and even abandon their faith.[16] Connected to this, I’ve also argued in the past (here and here) that this same narrative (and socialization outlined earlier) may be fueling greater despair in these youth.

Shining a light on this socialization is one of my hopes throughout. Speaking as an outside observer of one family influenced by these ideas, one person shared the following about a friend with a teenage son facing gender identity questions:

He has begun wearing female clothing, and the family has largely been supporting his choice and is acquainting themselves with local advocacy groups.  They’re an active, faithful, believing family. But now they’re also part of this world where it seems they are deluged with messaging from folks who are primarily concerned with cultivating their son’s sexual identity at frankly the expense of his “premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”… Perhaps they are now beginning to wonder if indeed it is the brethren who need to “catch up with the world,” so to speak.

By way of context, he added that this family “used to live in a ward which didn’t really know how to respond to the son’s evolution (an awkward situation for many if not most, after all), which could potentially make them more vulnerable to the enticings of the special interest groups who have their own gospel on the matter.”

The hesitant mother cited earlier added this: “Families with gay children do feel very, very vulnerable. But others are waging an ideological war within and without the church, and these hurting families are an excellent source of recruits.”

None of this concern about people’s faith, by the way, means that people like me care any less about suicide in the LGBT community or anywhere else. If we truly care about the suicide problem, we will explore all possible contributors.

Some in this audience will read my message as somehow hostile. For those who might interpret what I’ve said as a threat to you, please hear me out clearly:  this is NOT a threat.

From where I stand, it’s the opposite of a threat! (and an attempt to warn you of the real threat)

If you understand me fully, you will see this as good news – a hint that this isn’t how things have to be. 

I’m hopeful that many parents will find this helpful.

A proposal.  Far more than a critical inquiry, I’m also making a proposal here, especially to those mothers facing these kinds of circumstances.

Namely this:  You don’t have to give up eternal dreams in order to be loving.

You don’t have to weep at every General Conference – and remain tortured by messages that used to be precious and reassuring.

You don’t have to realign your life around the gay rights movement.

You don’t have to define your child’s identity like others insist you must.

And you don’t have to be torn in two between your love for your child and the gospel.

From the vantage point of this analysis, please understand that the only reason you would have to do these things, is if you accept what you’ve heard from the Mama Dragons as wholly, completely true – and a reflection of “things as they are.”

If that is your conclusion and your choice, then yes – the conflict will likely rage on.

I’m proposing you reconsider.

Come home.  Speaking now to the families who feel estranged from the Church:  what would it mean to step away from the anger? What if that doesn’t have to be such a part of your life anymore?

Despite what you may have felt before, what if you do not have to continue in this direction? What if you could come back to the peace you once knew – reinforced by whatever new insights and truths you may have gathered?    

Please reconsider.  We need you back.

Leave the Facebook walls & return to the walls of your churches.

Come back and help us figure this out!  Help become part of another kind of effort to love and support these children within the Church.

Is it time to rebel against your rebellion?! There may be an entirely different way to do this. Let’s find it together.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean you need to abandon truth or new insights you have discovered on this path (about love, goodness, healing, etc.). As Brigham Young taught, bring “all the truth you believe you have found, and bring it (back) to Zion.”

But it might mean fresh eyes and a new heart: something we all desperately need in this dark world.

A better way to fight. This doesn’t mean you stop fighting for your child, by the way. As one mother said, “We were raised to fight for our kids and to nurture our children and to nurture other people’s children. It’s very natural to fight for these kids; most of us wouldn’t imagine a world where we wouldn’t fight for them.”

I believe many mothers have come to adopt the Mama Dragon approach (and narrative) simply because they have not been aware of any other way of doing this – any other way of fighting for their child

What if this was not about whether or not to fight…but how? 

Imagine for a moment a fresh effort to support parents who wanted to follow an approach more like the families of Tom Christofferson and John Gustav-Wrathall.[17]

Imagine efforts to reduce suicide that looked at the full complexity of the picture, while avoiding overly simplistic statements that (people on all sides of this warn) can cause additional harm.[18]

And imagine an effort to reduce homelessness that likewise acknowledges nuance and complexity, as well as positive intentions on all sides.[19]

Instead of doing less to support these vulnerable youth, there might be a lot more we can all do for them with more mothers moving in another direction.

No question, there are plenty of times when Mormon parents have acted poorly – and it’s good that Church leaders have addressed this extensively over recent years.[20] And more broadly, as Sister Neill Marriot pointed out, it’s worth recognizing how the effort to secure additional protections for the LGBT community has arisen following, “centuries of ridicule, persecution, and even violence against homosexuals.”[21]

No one denies that Christians can continue to improve in their ability to love – and that past overt hostility, bullying, and persecution was wrong. As Elder Ballard recently acknowledged that Mormons need to “listen to and understand what LGBT members are feeling and experiencing. We must do better than we have in the past until all feel they have a spiritual home … a place to worship and serve the Lord.”

But that kind of a statement doesn’t seem to be enough for many critics. At the very least, we might acknowledge the very different ways to think about possible improvements or “reforms” within the Church.[22]

All in all, Kimberly Anderson shared the following statement that we all might agree upon, noting that these suicides “should create within us empathy and inspire us to reach out in a spirit of love to those who are hurting. It should also be something that forces us to look inward, on our own hearts and see if our behavior has indeed been painful to those whom we profess to love.”

Yes – let’s (all) agree to do that!

Beautiful examples.  For those seeking another way, there are some vivid and lovely examples of how to love, support and inspire a child who identifies as gay/SSA[23] – from the loving and faithful examples of Tom Christofferson and John Gustav-Wrathall’s parents, to the determination of Ty Mansfield and many in the North Star organization to stick with covenants and prophets they had grown to love.  Other parents such as Christie Frandsen and Becky and Scott Macintosh offer great models of proactive efforts to ensure a child is safe, loved and supported. Other women like Laurie Campbell and Jessyca Fulmer could be mentioned, as well as courageous stories that mirror Tom’s courage, including this brave former couple.

Rather than speak of these as a legitimate pathway to be encouraged, however, active Mormons tend to talk with wariness and extreme delicacy, saying things like “this worked for him, but it definitely may not work for everyone…who am I say this applies to anyone else?”

To the degree this sensitivity helps preserve space and agency, while reducing pressure, it should be applauded.  But where is the example for teens to emulate?  With all the apologies and qualifications, however, teens encounter a very hazy, fuzzy, and unclear message – hardly competing with the other bold and crystal clear invitations and messages around them.

While Ty, Tom and John would all resist being characterized as examples (for reasons outlined above), for the other reasons outlined above, I feel no such hesitance. I believe it’s time to cease being apologetic for these kinds of stories – at least if we really want youth and families to have real choices in front of them.

Contrary to the prevailing and popular public narratives on this question, let’s be more upfront about our belief that the gospel path is not simply for those lucky enough to fit a predefined path. As Nephi made clear anciently, the gospel path is one for all – reflecting a beautiful kind of celestial-level inclusiveness.[24] What this means is that how Tom and John’s parents responded is not just an idiosyncratic pattern that worked for them. And the paths of Ty Mansfield and Tom Christofferson are not narrowly restrictive paths to be cautioned against, as if they were the exception rather than the rule.

In summary, as unpopular as it sounds, the pathway of faithfulness to the gospel is a possibility for all.[25] How that looks will vary – all the way from John Gustav-Wrathall’s efforts to be as actively engaged as he can, to Tom Christofferson’s return to full activity, to Ty Mansfield’s persistence in faithfulness.

Once more:  I believe it’s time to hold up and look toward these individuals as examples of faith and courage – and to raise their families as models that others can confidently emulate, admire, and follow.[26]

It’s important to point out that there are Mama Dragons stories worthy of emulation by Mormon parents within the Church as well, such as one woman who shared this beautiful vignette: “Being a Mama Dragon means understanding that my daughter and I are never going to see eye to eye on everything, but if I don’t ask her to change what she feels are fundamental parts of herself, she will do the same for me. Where we meet in the middle is love. I love my gay daughter and she loves her Mormon mother.”[27]

Preserving freedom to choose.  Some will hesitate with these ideas above, worrying what these messages might mean to vulnerable gay youth. I’ll tell you what they could mean: that “hey, maybe I might be able to stay faithful to the Church after all!”

Are gay-identifying youth hearing that right now?

Not very loudly. And not very clearly.

In our hesitance to offend or hurt (and in the confusion created by activist narratives), we say very little.

If we are to preserve the option of faithful activity for these youth, they need to hear more – not less – from active Mormons.

And once again, those speaking more loudly capture their attention. And in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, they are pressed to step away…and to abandon any possibility of keeping their covenants.

This should be a concern for everyone involved. Even those who would not share my interpretation might agree on the issue of pressure.  When I met with John Dehlin for a heart-to-heart following my publication of concerns last year with his research, I was struck at how much we agreed on a space for real agency and choice among people to make decisions they feel best about…

What that space looks like (what constitutes it, how best to preserve it) and how possible it is to achieve that are entirely different questions.[28]

But the point here is that virtually every one of the LGBT leaders and conversation partners I have agree on the need for an authentic space for inquiry and choice. Kendall Wilcox’s Circles of Empathy have aspired to instantiate that space in an elegant way.

It’s one thing to say we want the space – and quite another to actually live and speak in a way which contributes to that.  So let me operationalize two ways we can increase this space.

A fresh effort to support parents.  In order to have a real choice, parents need to be presented with more than one option. If there are merits to my arguments above, I am wholly transparent about earnestly hoping to persuade some of the Mama Dragons to change course – and support another approach entirely.

I believe we need another kind of organization – distinct from the Mama Dragons. I’m imagining a counterbalancing force that also provides support to mothers and fathers in this situation.

I don’t know that you need a special name. Or even a special Facebook group.  But you need to know each other:  a new aggregation of parents – mothers and fathers – banding together to support their children.

Maybe we can just call it the Church?  Or maybe it’s a North Star arm.

Either way, having another visible option would help.

Representing our disagreements fairly. It’s easy for any of us when angry to speak of the object of our anger in wildly distorted ways. Just look at any divorced couple and ask yourself:  are they being fair in their evaluations of each other?

As we have all experienced at different times in life, anger has a power to captivate to such a degree that virtually all our thoughts and feelings are colored and skewed by the intensity of the feeling. If we cannot find some way to let the feeling pass, C. Terry Warner has written about how almost inevitably we end up distorting the whole world to justify those feelings of anger: validating our rightness in feeling the way we feel. Perhaps then, it’s only natural to have distortion creep into a conversation where so much anger, fear, and hurt currently reside.

In light of feelings that exist on both sides, it would be a tremendous step forward for all of us if we could only agree on one thing:  working hard to not misrepresent others’ beliefs – and do our best to represent contrast between beliefs fairly. I’ve tried to do that here – and I’m sure others can teach me where I might need to improve.

David Blankenhorn calls this kind of hard work “achieving disagreement.”  No doubt, active Mormons also need to continue to improve on how we speak of those who disagree with us on this issue. Elder Oaks, Elder Cook, and Elder Ballard have all spoken to this powerfully.

Speaking directly to those who identify as Mormon LGBT allies, I would ask you to stop misrepresenting what LDS people actually believe. This shouldn’t need to be a request – but it has to be, due to how consistently this is happening.

From a Mormon perspective, you are perpetuating a misunderstanding of what Mormons believe about identity to your children. For instance, contrary to your public commentary:

  1. We do not believe these children are broken, damaged, sick, or evil.
  2. We do not believe they have simply “chosen” to feel attracted to the same gender (or that they can simply “choose” to not feel the way they do).
  3. We do not believe their future is destined to be hopeless and lonely.
  4. We do not believe they must simply be “fixed” through therapy or other means.
  5. We do not believe that celibacy is their only option if they stay in the Church.

But in each case, you insist that we do.[29]

A great start to something better for all of us would be agreeing to begin describing disagreements honestly.

Here are two lists that can help that happen:

And here is one summary of this point in more detail: Misrepresenting LGBT/Religious Conservative Disagreements: Pleading for an Honest Conversation about What (Really) Divides Us

Here’s what I’d like to see:  parents who have adopted the Mama Dragon set of interpretations sharing with others, “Listen, because of some things that have happened in our family, I now have a different understanding of love, choice, sexuality, and even what the gospel itself is. Would you like to talk about it?”

That would be an honest, transparent, productive conversation. Is that the conversation we’re currently having?

Not by a long shot.  In most cases, however, the fundamental differences in perspective are not openly acknowledged. When they do come up, rather than reflecting a legitimate disagreement between competing perspectives (from equally thoughtful people), the contrasts that do exist are almost always framed as an issue of hatred.[30]

Certainly, some of you will be ready to newly apply that label to me. I’ve been surprised to watch individuals gently raising thoughtful questions about some of these same interpretations receiving ugly reactions in return. [31]

Unfortunately, that’s what many religious conservatives have come to expect from the gay community and their allies. Because of the intensity of feelings around these issues, I anticipate personal outrage by some at how someone would dare to suggest that these women – “the only people really doing anything for these kids” – might have anything to do with some of the longer-term difficulties they end up facing. The powerful label of “victim blaming” will be used to suggest that any such critical analysis of minority groups should be off the table. 

The word “anti-gay” will probably also come up. Because the general public rarely thinks anymore about what this word actually means (or should mean), it functions as a rhetorically powerful way to discredit – lumping someone like me in with others who beat up gay people outside of bars.

In lieu of engaging my arguments, I also anticipate attacks on character and credentials. Those with research backing will likely write scholarly exposés of a methodology they will insist holds no merit.

And of course, I believe some – hopefully many – will  actually hear me out. The patterns that I’ve identified deserve attention and discussion – a conversation I believe could benefit families grappling with these questions greatly.

Despite what I’ve repeatedly said, some will likely protest that I’m saying all their experiences are “subjective” or “made up.” To reiterate once more, rather than the narrative entirely creating our reality (as some social constructionists do argue), I believe these narratives partially create our reality:  they have an influence in shaping it.[32] That is what I have argued and illustrated above.

None of what I’ve said denies the centrality of sexual experience or the legitimacy of people’s feelings – or that the suffering people experience is real.  The question here is how do we make sense of intense sexual feelings or sorrow: what narrative or interpretation do we put on top of it.

Admittedly, it’s not easy to grasp the influence of narratives, which remain largely invisible to most people.  The process of adopting any narrative typically proceeds so subtly that not even those individuals living it can see it.

As best as I could, the intent here has been to peel back the story in a way that allows us to see the experience separate from the interpretation itself. Rather than examine just what happened (as an objective reality), the central thesis has focused on examining how any experience or happening is interpreted, responded to, and lived out.

We might rightfully disagree on the precise role of narrative and how/whether this narrative (or that) takes us in an ultimately good direction. All of that is good. But when we cease to pay attention to – and talk about – that underlying layer of language, interpretation, and narrative…I believe we lose any opportunity of understanding what is actually happening.

That’s why I hope whatever write-up happens telling people what he is really saying (or what’s really behind this monograph), won’t ignore the narrative differences I’m raising. Rather than reiterating a belief that Mormon teaching is the sole, exclusive organization to blame for the hurt and pain of LGBT-identifying youth[33], at the very least acknowledge that there are different explanations (and narratives) for that suffering on the table. Maybe you could even acknowledge that those of us disagreeing on those points are trying to love gay people in different ways.[34]

Why do I say all this about my predictions?  To invite however I can the public conversation to move toward more robust and honest disagreement, however vociferous it may be.

Defending honest disagreement. If you find yourself disagreeing deeply with what you read and maybe even feeling angry, know that I welcome even vociferous disagreement. Some of the dearest people in my life believe almost nothing that I do – and they tell me why I’m wrong!

So much depends upon how we disagree. There is a large difference between how John Gustav-Wrathall objects to something publicly (or Bryce Cook and Kendall Wilcox as other generally positive examples), than the many who simply lambast and impugn those who see things differently.[35]

As best you can, trust that my intentions are similar to yours regarding the welfare of these youth – and that people-like-you and people-like-me can seek together for greater insight. It takes hard work – but it’s worth it if it makes a difference. Among other things, this kind of “contestation” and  “disagreement practice” can help lay bare what really divides us.

I believe there is great value in that.  As the Prophet Joseph Smith once taught, “by proving contraries, truth is made manifest” (HC 6:248).

Given the current state of the discourse, I’ve become convinced that any real possibility of dialogue depends first upon turning some critical attention to narratives that have become dominant enough in larger society so as to “render other options unthinkable” (Antonio Gramsci paraphrased).[36]

Please know that I did not enjoy writing this piece. I didn’t want to do it and resisted a feeling for over a year that I should. Like my Dehlin essay last year, I felt urged to do it by what I would call a prompting. It has been an emotional burden to get it ready – especially in anticipating the ugly response it will predictably receive.

All that being said, I am not responsible for the emotional responses of readers.  I would only ask people to do their best to characterize what my actual arguments are.

Let’s also acknowledge that people on all sides of these questions are trying to show love and consideration.   In other words, you are not remarkable for “loving your children.”

That’s something other Mormon parents do too. They’ve just reached different conclusions about what love should look like.  And parents with different philosophies are simply choosing to “love” in very different ways.

Staying open to being surprised by God. Years ago, I came across a write-up somewhere from members who now identified as gay and felt hurt and estranged. Rather than lambaste and lash out, they wrote a powerful and lovely summary of the questions they hoped the Brethren would take to the Lord. There was such a different spirit about it, and I found it such a powerful example of sincere pleading, humility, and openness.[37]

It would help a great deal if we could all flirt more with curiosity, uncertainty, and a radical openness to being surprised (and learning something more).  This runs contrary to the tendency to gather any evidence that supports you – and dismissing the rest. The same woman who expressed reservations about the Mama Dragons, also wrote “I worry about the tendency to see and hear and share only what supports the comforting position that love, God’s and our own, is the only consideration. Recently a beautifully designed meme spread through the online community of LGBT Mormons featuring a quote from Joseph Smith that reads: Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive.”

She continued, “It’s a beautiful quote, one I know well and have in fact quoted often in the classes I teach. There’s only one problem – this is only half of the quote![38] Joseph Smith goes on to say: and at the same time [Heavenly Father is] more terrible to the workers of iniquity, more awful in the executions of His punishments, and more ready to detect every false way, than we are apt to suppose Him to be.  It’s not surprising that this part of the quote was cut, of course.  But I worry that screening out the more challenging teachings of the Restoration, however comforting and well-intentioned the motive, does a disservice to our ultimate goal.  Jesus is Love and Mercy, yes, but He is also Law and Truth.  And only His Truth, His whole Truth, brings Life. Not partial truths or my truth or the Mama Dragon’s truth.”

Once again, orthodox Latter-day Saints (and any human being) can do something similar – prioritizing a hearing to that what we trust and dismissing others. In all cases, a greater measure of humility would go a long way. This woman goes on to say that she is not “as sure that any of us can be so certain that we have the answers and the Truth, God’s truth.  And THAT is what I am interested in – discerning what God believes and wants for His LGBT children. I already know what we all believe and want for our LGBT children – I want to know what God wants.  And I humbly suggest that no one knows that yet, not even the most passionate Mama Dragon. And I believe the best way to get those answers, the true answers, is to work together as a Church, as the body of Christ, and show Him that we all, gay and straight, lay members and leaders, are learning how to love and respect each other, and that we are ready for the answers to come, whatever those answers might be.” She continues:

I have spent my life studying the history of God’s dealings with His children on this earth, and our quest to discover truth.  A dominant theme emerges from all that study: we never know as much as we think we do. And that should make us all profoundly humble and compassionate toward each other as we await God’s revelation. And meanwhile, until that revelation comes, I would like to invite a greater variety of voices at our meetings – not only voices of activism and change, but also voices of faith and voices of hope and confidence that the Lord certainly knows what is happening in His Church and in the lives of our LGBT sons and daughters. Perhaps even voices who help us see how we can better follow the counsel of our leaders and not just challenge or criticize them.  Being strong advocates of our gay daughters and sons does not mean we have to become enemies of the Church. I invite a little more humility, softer voices, more patient and faithful understanding of and appreciation for the tremendous burden our Apostles carry in trying to keep this Church Christ’s Church and not a Church fashioned after the image of man or Mama Dragons.  I call for humility and compassion, for everyone.

Amen, sister! I am open to being wrong. And my conversations with Kendall, John G-W & others have persuaded me that it’s plausible there are other aspects of salvation we do not yet know. If that is true, I believe the prophets will reveal it one day (and not ’cause the Mama Dragons finally pressed them to accept it!) (:

Let’s all seek His will beyond what we see – and let’s cultivate conversations where humility and passion, uncertainty and conviction are allowed to coexist. My wife and I love of the sermons of Pastor Francis Chan in that regard. He was recently asked his views on gay rights and the Christian message.  I’ve been so impressed with his approach to difficult questions like this, and recommend them as very relevant to this conversation (see write-up here: If You Disagreed With God…What Would You Do?)



[1] e.g., “Prozac Saved My Life” Vs. “Prozac Ruined My Life”: Investigating the Adoption, Constitution and Maintenance of Distinct Interpretations associated with Depression and its Medical Treatment (for other examples, click here).

[2] These are described in a previous study as “episodes that appear to have galvanized the current narrative—turning points leading to the adoption of the narrative” (p. 32).  This is later summarized in more detail: “Interpretive decisions thus occur against a backdrop of intense emotional states and regular influence from family and friends–ultimately galvanized for some by dramatic experiences with life crises or medical treatment itself. Over time, this complex mixture of states and experiences fore-structures individuals‘ ongoing and evolving interpretations, decisions and further experiences in the crafting of their own unique narrative” (p. 125; “Prozac Saved My Life” Vs. “Prozac Ruined My Life”: Investigating the Adoption, Constitution and Maintenance of Distinct Interpretations associated with Depression and its Medical Treatment)

[3] In this case, this reflects what psychologist Martin Seligman would call an explanatory style (defined as how people explain to themselves why they experience a particular event) that is both personal and permanent.

[4] This is referred to in modern philosophy as a philosophical hermeneutic standpoint. In contrast to strong constructivism or realism, hermeneutics sees language as neither “reflecting” nor “producing” experience, but instead partially constituting it [Taylor C. (2002). Gadamer on the human sciences. In R. J. Dostal (Ed.), The Cambridge companion to Gadamer (pp. 126-142). New York: Cambridge University Press]. As a viable alternative to both essentialist realism and anti-realist relativism, a hermeneutic approach to research has become increasingly common within psychology [Martin, J. & Sugarman, J. (2001). Interpreting human kinds: Beginnings of a hermeneutic psychology. Theory & Psychology, 11(2), 193-207]. A hermeneutic analysis of sexuality narratives thus moves beyond an attempt to grasp the “objective experience” of something itself to understand how individuals frame and interpret/narrate the experience. In this way, rather than seeking a reality “behind” the narrative—i.e. ‘what really happened,’ understanding is sought for the way individuals come to make sense of happenings through distinct interpretive frameworks.

That certainly doesn’t mean the actual physiological, contextual details of these happenings are not important. On the contrary, since interpretation is an embodied act, its study cannot be neatly abstracted from attention to known variation in physical phenomena. As meaningful physiological and contextual conditions change over time, individuals make ongoing choices in how to think and be, adjusting overall interpretations in the process. In 1984, Altman and Rogoff proposed a “transactional model” that called for “the study of the changing relations among psychological and environmental aspects of holistic entities”—the unit of analysis being “holistic entities such as events…not composed of separate elements but a confluence of inseparable factors that depend on one another for their very definition and meaning” (p. 24). [Altman, I., & Rogoff, B. (1984). World views in psychology: Trait, interactional, organismic, and transactional perspectives. In D. Stokals & I. Altman (Eds.), Handbook of environmental psychology (pp. 1-40). New York: Wiley]. In this way, this inquiry approaches these narrated experiences as holistic events, constituted by biological and contextual aspects interpreted as they develop and change over time. Here, I have attempted to examine the complex ways that human interpreters navigate through the host of these objectively diverse experiences via the lens of interpretations themselves. In doing so, rather than minimize external factors, the aim is to seek to better understand the interpretive backdrop against which they become significant.

[5] For example, the difference between “saying a prayer” and “communing with God” – or “getting a session done” vs. “stepping away from the world to be still (and not just do more stuff).” President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Elder David A. Bednar, and others have made similar points at how our cultural assumptions don’t always awaken the richness of our religious practice. These will be summarized in a Mindfully Mormon I’m preparing for release in early 2018 that also details how active Latter-day Saints have benefitted by infusing greater silence and stillness into their faith practice: Faith in Stillness, Silence & Solitude:  Re-Storying the Gospel of Christ from a Contemplative Lens.

[6] A part of my research has focused on exploring and documenting the difference between short-term and long-term effects. For instance, this 2011 paper with Jeffrey Lacasse at Florida State University on treatment for youth with mental/emotional challenges: What Does It Mean for an Intervention to “Work”? Making Sense of Conflicting Treatment Outcomes for Youth Facing Emotional Problems

[7] The narratives embedded in these essays, of course, are crafted and shared for a particular reason – with a specific end in mind and with a defined persuasive goal.  As such, they naturally reflect an emphasis on some things and not on others.  There is less attention to how happy or peaceful people are years later, for instance. For those who do pay more attention to the long-term outcomes, I recognize that my own analysis here flatly conflicts with the conclusions of someone like Bryce Cook (whose recent analysis I found thoughtful, productive, and fascinating – even while ultimately disagreeing with most of it). After painting an especially dour and dark picture of the lives of gay individuals who are active in the Church, Clark highlighted glowing illustrations of those who had stepped away from it to embrace everything about their new identities and lives within the gay community. Here, I’m taking issue with both the dark-and-dour interpretation of Life in the Church, and what feels like an excessively cheery view of Post-Mormon life – suggesting that there is much greater despair and suffering in that later life than is being admitted, and much more underlying joy and peace (despite the legitimate conflict) in the former life than is being acknowledged.

[8] And when their own malaise is pointed out, we are supposed to believe that it derives “solely” from the teachings of orthodox Christian churches.

[9] One openly gay man acknowledged, “I worry that sometimes the larger narratives [in our community] invite a kind of fragility and lack of resilience in our gay youth.  At times, we can fall into oversimplified language and inadvertently undermine their ability to hear hard questions from those around them.” He added, “and you know, those questions are right there in their heart!” He continued, “We are not healing from this – and it almost seems to be getting worse. People seem to be caught in a vicious cycle.  When you cut yourself off from your previous faith community, you have no healthy way to engage anymore.  Instead of a dialogue, it’s like there’s this monologue going on in your head….I’m not seeing the healing. I’m seeing people really in pain.”

[10] This is actually a good question – and very understandable why different people would reach different conclusions. The important point here is that we’re not talking a whole lot about this particular distinction clearly. Instead, those who take this as a new civil rights movement have moved quickly and passionately to advance their newfound agenda and conviction.

[11] As noted earlier, by implication, the questions I’ve raised about this group pertain to other unofficial Mormon organizations promoting a similar narrative or using similar tactics. This includes other organizations that have popularized this same essential story, and become a bridge for many to pass over in an exodus from the Church.

For instance, a similar narrative has been embodied in Affirmation for many years, and more recently in groups like Understanding Same Gender Attraction in Provo and Mormons Building Bridges online. In different ways, each has popularized and normalized the larger LGBT narrative as good, right, and true, in a way that has encouraged increasing numbers of Latter-day Saints to embrace it. (Whether, in fact, this course of events is ultimately good, right, and true is obviously a question central to this paper).

[12] To understand this argument in more detail, see here: Another perspective on “I just can’t stay in this church anymore…” or Why is gay rights sweeping (too many) thoughtful, good-hearted people from my faith community?

[13] Of course, a similar question could be asked of Mormons: what if you realize your view of identity is wrong one day in the future? It’s a fair question to ask.  “What would happen if you found out your core beliefs were wrong” is sweet conversation starter for all of us.

[14] Many of the options and possibilities represented in North Star International continue to be misrepresented as aggressive attempts to fix or force, rather than the compassionate, mindfulness-oriented approach it legitimately offers.

[15] Elder Holland continues, quoting Elder Richard L. Evans as sayingif a parent goes a little off course, the children are likely to exceed the parent’s example.” The he adds, “To lead a child (or anyone else!), even inadvertently, away from faithfulness, away from loyalty and bedrock belief … is license no parent nor any other person has ever been given.” He concludes, “In matters of religion a skeptical mind is not a higher manifestation of virtue than is a believing heart, and analytical deconstruction in the field of, say, literary fiction can be just plain old-fashioned destruction when transferred to families yearning for faith at home. And such a deviation from the true course can be deceptively slow and subtle in its impact. As one observer said, ‘[If you raise the temperature of my] bath water … only 1 degree every 10 minutes, how [will I] know when to scream?’”

[16] Whether it is the orthodox Mormon “narrative” or the prevailing LGBT “narrative” more responsible for pushing people away is a matter of obvious disagreement (and perhaps contingent on the two narratives in question). For many reasons, I make no apologies about wanting the hemorrhaging of people away from faith communities (Mormon and otherwise) to stop – and my hope that people will jump less quickly to a full divorce from the preciousness of their prior religious commitments.

[17] Both families have shown genuinely love for their sons while continuing to love and serve in the Church. And both of these men have later attested to what a crucial role this choice by their parents played in the unfolding of their own lives (see footnote 26). The most likely home to support parents who want to follow this path would be North Star.

[18] One mother rightly calls the reality of suicide a deeply painful and personal reality for many families a “tragedy” and something that should “move us to action.” Out of a justified urgency to reduce suicide, it’s been common to hear things from your group such as: “Mama Dragons doesn’t want to destroy the church, we want the church to stop destroying our kids.”  Or accusations that the Church “has created an environment where individuals seek the comfort of death over the sting of life needs to change” – often involving dramatic statements such as: “The history of Utah and the legacy of the LDS Church is splattered with the blood of dead queer youth and adult members.” On two previous occasions, when Wendy Montgomery & Tyler Glenn made similar claims, I have joined people like Kendall Wilcox in making public requests for greater care to how we frame the conversation [Yes, let’s please have a serious conversation about suicide! Questions for the public conversation; Can we stop pretending there is only ONE reasonable explanation for the tragic suicides of LGBT-identifying religious youth?]. In one of those essays, I argued that your own rhetoric that pushes people away from the Church may be directly influencing suicidal thoughts and behavior. My openly gay classmate read it and was initially furious. But then he wrote me, and reversed course, saying the following:

After thinking about this some more and reading the article again, I do now feel that Tyler’s message could be harmful to our young Mormon LGBT kids, who we are all worried for…I come to this conclusion now reluctantly as a gay man who was raised in the 80s and 90s in a very Mormon community and still feel some lingering resentment about the church. As a teen, I didn’t have social media messages making me question my faith and embrace my sexuality. I felt depression about my situation and how I didn’t know what my place in the church was, but I didn’t have the outside pressure to leave the church at the time. I wonder if suicide for me would have been more probable if I agreed to listen to these outside messages of the villainy of church leaders…Coming out too early and rejecting your foundation can be very harmful.

[19] Homelessness is another issue we ought to be able to find some common ground to work together. Once again, however, the degree of oversimplification and public accusation complicates matters. For instance, Kimberly Anderson states that “Nowhere in LDS doctrine, scripture or General Conference addresses does it state that parents of LGBT+ children are to shun them. …Still, the reality is that homeless youth in Utah largely come from LDS homes and of those children a large portion of those are LGBT+.” She continues, “This is a pox on the culture that the church has created and should be an embarrassment to anyone who considers themselves to be a member of the church and a disciple of Jesus Christ.” As reflected here, readers are left with a clear message:  the heartlessness of Mormon families alone is what’s kicking kids from home. The image is one of brutal, benighted parents showing their own children the door, perhaps justified by prophetic teaching. This image is reflected on media reports on mothers who “open their homes to gay Mormons fleeing their families for fear of retribution or shunning. They invite lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kids over for dinner on holidays or anytime the young people feel lonely or, sometimes, suicidal.”

The realities of both diagnosis and prescription are much more complex, as usual. For instance, as seems clear from the analysis above, you have successfully helped the teen adopt a narrative within which they no longer feel welcome in the Church.  Why, then, would they be comfortable in a Mormon home? I was recently involved in a situation where a child was so intent on getting away from her Mormon family, that the parents were doing everything they possibly could to figure out to encourage her to stay. Once she was out on her own couch surfing, of course, that was not the narrative. Just like they suddenly no longer feel comfortable in a congregation, they don’t want to be in a home. Is that because the house (and congregation) suddenly became hostile – or because of a clash-of-identity narrative that makes it impossible to see a place anymore?

If we really want to decrease homelessness and suicide, we desperately need a more productive public conversation where different stakeholders can truly understand each other across differences. In this case, for instance, we might understand that both sides see the other as contributing to the problem, what are we going to do about that now?  In the face of these clashing narratives, is there anything we can still do together to impact real lives?

[20] There is evidence for real responsiveness on the part of Church leaders here. As recounted in the Salt Lake Tribune: This past February, Oviatt [a Mama Dragon mother] posed a question to apostle Dallin H. Oaks, who was speaking at a women’s meeting associated with her LDS stake conference (a regional gathering of Mormon congregations).”I stood up and told him that gay Mormon kids are killing themselves and stalwart families are leaving the church over this,” Oviatt writes in an email. “I asked him if he could please stand up in General Conference and at least tell parents not to kick their kids out, to love them as is, because people won’t listen until it comes over the pulpit at conference.” In the October 2012 conference, Oaks addressed that concern. “Young people struggling with any exceptional condition, including same-gender attraction, are particularly vulnerable and need loving understanding — not bullying or ostracism,” he said. “With the help of the Lord, we can repent and change and be more loving and helpful to children — our own and those around us.”

[21] She went on to say: “Ultimately, most of society recognized that such treatment was simply wrong and that such basic human rights as securing a job or a place to live should not depend on a person’s sexual orientation.”

[22] On one hand are calls from voices like John Gustav-Wrathall, Tom Christofferson and others, for more welcoming love for openly gay individuals visiting a church and less reactive judgment for those who experience same sex attraction (whether or not they identify as gay). On the other hand, more of a welcome is insufficient, with a need for more of a profound revision of Mormon doctrine and an admission that our teachings have done grave harm. For these individuals (who have adopted the narrative explored above), nothing short of a full acceptance of responsibility for a great deal of the past or present misery, suffering, and suicide among Mormons in the LGBT community will likely satisfy their desire for progress and reform.

[23] Whether or not they identify with this attraction as fundamental to who they are.

[24] It seems clear in the conversation that there are very different ways of thinking about “inclusiveness.” Here is the LDS version: “Wherefore, he commandeth none that they shall not partake of his salvation. Behold, doth he cry unto any, saying: Depart from me? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; but he saith: Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price. Behold, hath he commanded any that they should depart out of the synagogues, or out of the houses of worship? Behold, I say unto you, Nay. Hath he commanded any that they should not partake of his salvation? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but he hath given it free for all men; and he hath commanded his people that they should persuade all men to repentance. Behold, hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden.” (2 Nephi 26:33)

[25] I’ve spent many hours with members of the North Star community active in the Church. There is a sweetness and joy, a light and a presence, in these men and women that I find unique among voices in this conversation. I have felt a unique level of insight and spirit in John Gustav-Wrathall as well.

[26] As summarized by one reporter, Tom Christofferson also recalled his mother saying to one of his brothers, “If we only have Tom in this life, we’re going to enjoy every minute we have with him.” She eventually came to the conclusion “that she would leave the resolution of his life and their eternal family to God.”  John Gustav-Wrathall has described publicly how, at one point, he demanded his parents leave the Church in order to show they loved him. They did not – and currently John has a level of insight, compassion, humility, and connection with God that is remarkable. Who would John (and Tom) be today without parents having chosen to remain faithful to something higher and broader than only their child’s immediate happiness?

[27] While this woman identified at one point as a Mama Dragon, I suspect her experience wasn’t as cozy of a fit within the larger Mama Dragon narrative.

[28] Like many, I’ve become much less confident that achieving this kind of space is possible in any broad sense within this toxic broader cultural context. For those interested, there are real and vibrant possibilities to inspire us forward, as I’ve outlined in my book with Arthur Pena:  A Third Space: Proposing Another Way Forward in the LGBT/Religious Conservative Impasse (Disagreement Practice, Treasonous Friendship & Trustworthy Rivalry in the Face of Irreconcilable Difference).

[29] “But wait – the church has taught this.  Let me find you the references.” A few thoughts: In regard to quotes taken from the 60’s and 70’s, let’s be clear that a level of disgust and harshness was not uncommon among an older generation towards the gay community. Evidence of a word “pervert” or harshness is not a reflection of actual church doctrine – nor can it honestly be taken as representative evidence for the Church’s position today. A fair assessment would also acknowledge that therapeutic practice then (and now) frequently has an aggressive “let’s make this go away” mentality (certainly not unique to this issue) – and that it’s only more recently that a more gentle, mindfulness-based approach to support has become more mainstream. In summary, much (not all) of what is cited as damning evidence of Church bigotry is a reflection of bygone cultural and therapeutic practice.

All that aside, of course, there is the actual teaching of the Church on identity, sexuality, and family – that, removed from these harsher references, is often portrayed as inherently threatening as well. While this has merit, it too is often overstated.  While clarifying that same-sex attraction is not a diseased state or a reflection of evil, prophetic teaching has continued to caution individuals against taking same-sex attraction as a central linchpin for who you fundamentally are – and teach that living out these inclinations is not God’s highest plan for you. Most observers would have to admit that this teaching is not the same thing as saying someone is broken or fundamentally deficient.

[30] I wrote about this with Kendall Wilcox here: World Congress of Families as an Opportunity for Dialogue. See also: My question for people (more and more) convinced of inherent Mormon bigotry

[31] In response to Christie Fransen’s reservations about the Mama Dragons, her own gay son decried the online barrage of “mean-spirited” and “vitriolic reactions” she received, that included “personal attacks, shaming, cyber-bullying.”  He raised particular concern with “people not careful enough to even try to understand what my mother was getting at” before stating: “I know that discussions of any issue connected to the LGBTQ Mormon topic will be fraught with emotion, and I understand why passages of this piece elicited strong internal responses for some readers. That response, however, does not justify the kind of abusive treatment that my mother received in the wake of this article.”

[32] Once again, my purpose is to document how (like all human beings, and all human experiences) these mothers undergo a complex evolution of their own narrative and interpretative frame over time – which changing narrative interacts continuously and seamlessly with experience itself, shaping and influencing that experience in various ways.  See footnote 2 for more detail on this.

[33] Per this response from Thomas Montgomery to some critical questions about the Mama Dragons, “The untenable situation of LGBT youth suicide, homelessness, depression and the broken and challenged faith of everyone who truly studies this issue lies solely on the Church….I fully reject that the parents of LGBT youth are responsible for the religious outcomes of their children when in every ward and stake I have been in…I have to beg for a safe Church environment for my son. Just once, can a Church leader/member take ownership for the devastation that has been wrought on generations of gay and lesbian Mormons….to lay that charge at the feet of the wounded, the rejected, the marginalized and defeated – is wrong…. Don’t blame the discontentment on the mothers while the Church (collectively and individually) mistreats and abuses their children. That discontentment has been earned.”

[34] Remember, I’ve never denied the sincerity, love and faith of the women whose stories I am examining. I am arguing that these thoughtful women have unwittingly (and in many cases, largely unconsciously) adopted a narrative that is leading them to a place they may not (ultimately) want to be.

Similar to what these parents have experienced themselves, I’ve observed a forced choice bifurcation in the Mormon LGBT conversation – as in “do you care about the youth or the Church?”  For instance, in response to Christie Frandsen’s concerns about the Mama Dragons, she was accused of caring more about the Church than youth well-being – aka, “the Church doesn’t need protecting, vulnerable youth do.” She responded, “By not attacking the Church, I am not ‘protecting the Church’ but in fact trying to preserve my son’s faith in the saving doctrines and covenants.” Like Christie, my concern about these youth being ripped from Church is a concern for the youth.  They are not separate in my mind. Remember, I’ve never denied the sincerity, love, and faith of the women whose stories I am examining. I am arguing that these thoughtful women have unwittingly (and in many cases, largely unconsciously) adopted a narrative that is leading them to a place they may not (ultimately) want to be.

[35] In the former case, in Mormon terms, I believe God can lead us all to greater light and knowledge through the Spirit.  In the latter case, the Spirit departs. No truth is even possible.  That’s why someone like me will read Bryce, Kendall & John any day – and seriously consider their arguments.

[36] I have learned from years in this dialogue that Mormons, especially those in Utah, often have the opposite perception – as if they are facing a “dominant narrative” (within Utah and Mormonism) that renders the progressive options they have embraced as “unthinkable.” While I understand and respect that, this overlooks the fact that the overarching cultural narrative in society with the greatest momentum is, by and far, the gay rights narrative espoused by the Mama Dragons.

[37] Does anyone know what I’m talking about? I haven’t been able to find it since.

[38] This kind of selective citation happens in accounts of history as well. For instance, the frequent mentions of BYU electroshock studies with homosexual individuals fail to acknowledge that not only were similar studies conducted with all kinds of unwanted conditions at the time, from obesity to smoking, but that aggressive interventions like electroshock continue to be (unfortunately) mainstream psychological treatments today.  For a more nuanced view of this history, check out this report.