For the first 18 years of my life, I was a perfect Mormon. I was president of my church youth classes; I always wore shirts with modest necklines; I never cursed out loud (and only typed “Damn it” into my TI-83 calculator when I was very, very upset). I believed.
Then, in 2004, San Francisco allowed same-sex marriage for a brief period. Mormonism required me to think that decision was immoral and destined to drag the West Coast into iniquity.
But I didn’t feel that way. I read and reread the story of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who had met in 1950 and were first in line at the city clerk’s office. There’s a newspaper image of them pressing their foreheads together, eyes closed and smiling in the usually soulless government building. I was simply happy for them.
Mormonism doesn’t tolerate deviation from dogma. If you take one brick away, the whole tower collapses, which is horrible architecture for an actual tower. And so this legal decision, 2,500 miles away from my dorm room, destroyed my faith. And, because Mormonism is such an all-encompassing religion, it also destroyed my sense of self. The person I had been five minutes before disappeared, without leaving me time to create a new person in her place. I was sure that if I looked at my driver’s license, it would be blank—no identifying features, no organs to donate. I was no longer the person I had spent my whole life imagining I was.
The same thing happened two years later, when I realized that I was a lesbian.
I was lucky. I left the church before I understood my orientation. I never had to deal with being a Mormon lesbian—only an ex-Mormon lesbian. I had identified as both ex- and gay for more than a decade by the time the church came out with its latest decree: On Nov. 5, 2015, a leaked document declared gay married people to be apostates, traitors banished from all levels of heaven, whose children cannot participate in church rites unless they disavow their parents.
While I once considered “ex-Mormon” to be a huge part of my identity, in my current life I mostly use it to explain why I haven’t seen R-rated movies from the ’90s and to get liberal struggle-cred. But in the wake of the church’s new policy, I wanted to find a community of other gay ex-Mormons. I spoke to 20 women—women who self-identify as lesbian, queer, pansexual, and bisexual—about their experiences, hoping to form some kind of cohesive narrative. I wanted to take data and arrange it into a story that makes sense, in a situation that doesn’t.
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Most of the women were exemplary kids—“Molly Mormons,” in church slang. Some speculated that this good behavior stemmed from a sense that they weren’t like the other Mollys, although they didn’t quite know why. They wanted to blend in and make up for whatever unknown quality they lacked. “I tried to bury myself and my feelings by being the best little Mormon girl ever,” says Mia, who recently married her partner in Utah.
But offbeat thoughts began to creep in, often when marriage and their future family life came up at church. Mormons cannot enter the highest heaven unless they wed someone of the opposite sex. And of having children, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” an official Mormon statement, says, “We declare that God’s commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force.” Girls are often asked to write letters to their future husbands, which church leaders hand back to them on their wedding days. A woman’s highest calling is to be a mother and support her husband. This didn’t sit well with me or the women I interviewed (or, presumably, with many straight Mormon women).
“Before I was even aware there was such a thing as homosexuality, I didn’t want to have a husband for eternity,” says Virginia, who started dating women at age 25, after leaving the church. “I remember being like, ‘OK, so I have to marry a boy, because that’s how I get kids. But then he’ll die or go away so I can live in a house with my best friend, and she and I raise our kids together, right?’ ”
I remember sitting on a tree branch when I was 12.
“Who would you marry,” I asked my sister, “if you could marry a woman?”
She said she didn’t know, but I had an answer ready, “Oh, I would marry Sister Bancroft,” I said.
Sister Bancroft was my church youth leader. She was 23, had short hair, and didn’t wear makeup. When she moved away, I cried for days and wrote her a letter about how she was the only person around whom I felt truly myself.
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It’s easy to say, “How could you not have known you were gay?” And it does seem obvious now, with signs appearing as soon as I hit puberty. But I didn’t know, not for eight more years, four semesters at a women’s college, and three unrecognized best-friend crushes. But a crush was, by definition, something you had on a boy. So putting a girl’s picture under your pillow wasn’t synecdoche for crush—it was simply best friendship. As Janet, who resigned from the church and married her wife in November, put it, “I had no idea that gay was something you could really be.”
Mormonism also gives gay people convenient ways to explain away their feelings. You are meant to find the one man you were married to in the “pre-existence,” before you were born on Earth. Ambivalence toward the other few billion human men makes sense. The church also teaches that if you put yourself into tempting situations, like letting your arm lightly touch Rebecca’s while you watch Ice Age, because it’s rated G, you’ll feel something you shouldn’t.
Lastly, Heavenly Father sends us temptations, to test us. “I just thought I had feelings of attraction for this other girl, and it was a one-time thing,” says Janet of her junior year in high school. “She was just a one-in-a-million person.”
Rachel, who is still in school at Brigham Young University, often found herself daydreaming about holding a girl’s hand. “And it would scare me to death,” she says. But the church had taught her that if she stayed strong and waited it out, the feeling would go away, like indigestion. She threw herself into the religion, trying to be faithful and keep her side of the deal. “It chipped away at my faith to feel that He wasn’t keeping His,” she says, when the daydreams didn’t dissipate.
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To all of us, finally, came the attraction we couldn’t ignore, the one we couldn’t rationalize away. The one that proved the previous girl we “admired” wasn’t one in a million. She was just a girl, and so were we, and that was why we felt this way.
My final straw came in the form of a chain-smoking fiction writer who lived across the hall. Like the demise of my faith, the demise of my identity as straight girl happened in an instant. All of a sudden, after one toe-scuffing, flirtatious conversation, I knew.
I felt, again, like I had become blank. Like the person I’d been five seconds before stood to my left, and she had betrayed me; the person I was about to become stood to my right, and I didn’t know her at all. In between was just a void.
Still, somehow, things seemed to snap into place, like dominos righting themselves when I didn’t even know they’d been knocked down. As Lindsey, who still attends church, says of her own realization, “It all just made total sense. All the pieces I had scattered around me came together, and I could make sense of everything.”
The sky was bluer; sonnets meant something. At this point, the Molly Mormons could picture a future that made sense, instead of being unable to imagine one at all.
“Once I got involved with a girl, I made a total turnaround,” says Camille, who suspects she might still be defending the church and its policies if she herself were not gay. “If what I was doing was wrong, why didn’t I feel bad about it? Everything just felt so right.” Lindsey expressed the same. “If being gay and liking girls in a healthy way was wicked,” she says, “why would I feel so much happiness?”
Still, the road to self-acceptance usually wasn’t lined with roses. Mel, whose Mormon heritage goes back to the handcart pioneers, points out the double dose of difficulty with family and friends. “It took me a while to accept being gay simply because leaving the church had been so hard that I almost couldn’t bear having to ‘come out’ again,” she says.
Some were angry at their delayed realizations. “I am mad that I’m figuring out this stuff that I should have figured out years ago, before being married with two kids,” says Melissa.
And while the communities surrounding some of the women I spoke to were accepting, others were kicked out of houses, thrown out of marriages, and left companionless.
“I truly wish I were exaggerating here, but we were entirely alone,” says Laura about the consequences of the (true) high-school rumors that she had a girlfriend. “I lost every friend I had ever had.”
“We lost everyone,” says Camille.
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The women are at various points in their own timelines—some still in college and coming to terms with their identities for the first time; some in decadeslong partnerships and long gone from church. But all of them felt capsized when the Mormons’ new policy was revealed.
Thanksgiving weekend, a few weeks after the announcement, I was driving home, thinking how glad I am to be an out ex-Mormon adult, and not a closeted Mormon girl sitting in the front row of Sunday school. But thinking of that Mormon girl, I turned off CHVRCHES and turned on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The song “Abide With Me” played over the car speakers.
I remembered all the words, even the obscure verses, even the alto part, which I used to sing in choir. “The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide,” the lyrics say. “When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.”
And despite my distance, despite my atheism, despite my satisfaction with my life as it is and my peace with my life as it used to be, I cried, hard, about what my former religion thought of me. It had failed and fled, for the final time.
“I think I’m good, I’m over it, and then the church pulls a sucker punch like this policy,” says Melissa. “And it brings the hurt back to the surface, and I have to deal with it all over again.”
Lindsey fell backward, too. “It’s like I took all these huge steps forward, fought to find peace and balance within my faith and within myself and have come so far,” she says. “With one announcement, it’s like I lost it all.”
As the hymn played in the background, I felt like I was looking back on a long-ended, dysfunctional relationship, to which I would normally say, “Good riddance.” But this time, I remembered for a minute—really remembered, in the flashes of an emotionally manipulative movie montage—what that person once meant to me, and what I once meant to them. I mourned, for the first time in years, how they, and that, are gone forever.