As a junior at Brigham Young University, John Gustav-Wrathall was struggling with his sexuality, he was suicidal, and devastated over the idea of leaving behind the Mormon church that had been his entire life.
“It was one of the most painful things that I ever went through,” he said.
That year, he did leave the church and discovered himself over the next few years, finally coming out. Today, he is happily married to his husband and works with Affirmation, a group for LGBT Mormons.
At Affirmation, LGBT Mormons can find support, and they are encouraged to discover a balance between their sexuality and religious beliefs in a way they feel most comfortable with.
“We as an organization don’t really prescribe for people how they need to make that reconciliation, but we do provide support and we’re a community,” said Gustav-Wrathall, now the senior vice president.
The group began in 1978 at the BYU main campus in Provo, Utah, as a gay and lesbian group. They used a pseudonym to maintain confidentiality, as it was a tough time to be gay for many students throughout the country.
“That was a very difficult time and you could be expelled from the campus just for being gay,” Gustav-Wrathall said. “It was very risky to be out at BYU and out in the church at all really.”
Times have changed since the 70s, and now, the school has an openly organized LGBT group, Understanding Same-Gender Attraction (USGA) that meets weekly.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints preaches that there is no acceptable sexual expression outside of a heterosexual marriage. However it does not condemn members for their same-sex attraction and believes that it’s the act of same sex, which is the sin, just as it is for unmarried heterosexual partners.
“The Church’s standard for morality is the same for everyone, no matter which gender one feels attracted to,” according to the church’s website. “Neither the Lord nor His Church can condone any behavior that violates His laws. Again, we condemn the immoral behavior, not the person.”
Anna Empey joined Affirmation a little over a year ago and now serves as the social media outreach lead. She learned about the group while at school at BYU and was encouraged to share her story at an Affirmation conference. Finding the group was “too good to be true,” she said, finding comfort in being around people who weren’t telling her how to live her life and instead gave her unconditional love.
It wasn’t until she was almost done with college at BYU, and having suicidal thoughts, that she came to terms with her same-gender attraction. Her coming out was positive with her parents, but she has lost a few friends.
“I just knew that I was different and that scared me,” Empey said. “I can’t tell you how hard I prayed for God to change who I was, to fix me because I really felt like I was broken.”
Empey is still deciding whether to be with a woman, or marry a man, an option she said she would only take if God wants her to.
Gustav-Wrathall’s battle was during the 80s. He left the church his junior year of college and then came out a few years after. In 1992, he met his husband, who is not Mormon.
However, the church had been a major part of Gustav-Wrathall’s life — he served missions for the church in France and Switzerland and had dreamed of becoming a church historian. In 2005, he had what he called a “spiritual experience,” wanting to return to the church. Through prayer, he says God told him he did not need to leave his husband but that he should return to the church.
“On the one hand, feeling very committed to my relationship with my husband and feeling like that was blessed by God, and on the other hand, feeling that I needed to be close to the church and get as involved in it, as active in the church as I could,” he said.
He found Affirmation that year and served as the contact for his state, Minnesota, and found a Mormon ward where he could worship, even though he is not considered a member in full standing.
“The members of that ward and the bishop of that ward were very happy to have me come back to the church, which kind of shocked me,” he said, although there were a few members who were uncomfortable with his homosexuality.
While there has been progress in the Mormon Church — more than 300 straight and gay Mormons joined Salt Lake City’s Pride parade in 2012 — there have also been setbacks. The church has been supportive of ordinances providing protections for gay couples, but was also strongly in support of California’s Proposition 8 in 2008, going so far as to provide much of the funding to make sure the proposition passed, which banned gay marriage. Affirmation has chosen not to get involved in politics.
“The primary mission of our organization is really focused on that reconciliation that individuals need to make within themselves and also helping to further reconciliation and dialogue between gay and straight Mormons,” Gustav-Wrathall said. “We have a free speech policy, so individual members can certainly speak out and say what they think about things like that, but we as an organization have been pretty deliberate about avoiding taking an organizational position on things like that.”
For members like Empey, her goal is to reach out to others who were in her place just a few years ago, confused about their sexual feelings and how it fits into the church. Although she’s still in her journey of reconciliation, she’s made a new goal to attend church more often and to only tackle one problem at a time.
“I know that I have contemplated committing suicide, and I don't want anyone else to think that they should do that because this is a part of who they are,” she said. “Sometimes you want to give up, but I just want them to know that they have other choices.”
Visit Affirmation.org for more chapter locations and for more information.