By: Peggy Fletcher Slack | The Salt Lake Tribune
From Brigham Young University’s Honor Code to mission requirements to church discipline, LGBTQ and straight Latter-day Saints face unequal treatment. In every case, church-imposed penalties are stiffer for the former than the latter.
Any public sign of affection on BYU’s campus between two men or two women — a seductive peck on the cheek or strolling hand in hand — could result in expulsion.
Kissing another man could cost a gay missionary applicant a three-year delay — or the chance to serve at all.
And sexual relations between consenting gay adults could prompt disfellowshipment or excommunication — as well as a red flag on their membership records in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The annotation instructs local lay leaders who see the membership records to call church headquarters in Salt Lake City.
Many of these local leaders also have interpreted this note on a membership document as a reason to ban gays from interactions with children or teens — as if they were pedophiles — even though the flagged activity was consensual and with adults.
This mark could follow members throughout their lives. Think of it as a kind of Latter-day Saint sex-offender registry — without any illegal offending.
How did homosexual sex and pedophilia become so linked? In a word, history.
In the late 1960s, the church began to make notations on membership records of gay Latter-day Saints, says John Gustav-Wrathall, a gay member who has been studying the roots of this practice.
It was done, says Gustav-Wrathall, executive director of Affirmation, a support group for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints, “for the purpose of notifying the next bishop in the event of a move. The policy, at that time, was to remove an annotation once the person was informed of it in his new ward.”
Beginning in the late 1990s, such flagging became virtually permanent, he says, meaning only the faith’s governing First Presidency could erase it.
In the minds of many church leaders, same-sex involvement seemed much more grievous than heterosexual relations.
Thus, the current Handbook 1, which details policies and procedures for the church’s lay clergy, lists “repeated homosexual activities (by adults)” with “incest, sexual offense against or serious physical abuse of a child, plural marriage, an elective transsexual operation … predatory conduct, or embezzlement of church funds or property” as sins that automatically require an “annotation” on their membership.
Nowhere does the book spell out the prohibition on LGBT members being around children, but some members were told that was the expected consequence.
That was “standard practice,” Gustav-Wrathall says. “It is possible that there are bishops who don’t know that or ignore it. For the most part, though, once your record is annotated, you can never be involved with youth.”
That is based on an “antiquated stereotype that homosexuals are more likely to be predators, which is not true,” he says. “And the church has never revisited the issue since the 1960s.”
Researcher Gregory Prince, who is writing a book about the history of LGBTQ members and the church, has documented several cases in which the annotation was nearly impossible to blot out.
Prince reports a case in which a young teen told his bishop of his same-sex attractions, and, despite having had no sexual activity, that bishop flagged the boy’s membership record.
“While the intent of the annotation has been to protect church members [from predators], misuse of it can lead to lasting trauma to the annotated,” Prince writes in his forthcoming volume, “Gay Rights and the Mormon Church: Intended Actions, Unintended Consequences.”
The system has become, he says, “Mormonism’s Scarlet Letter.”
‘It wasn’t right or true’
Some years ago, these annotations became personal to a gay Latter-day Saint in the Northwest.
When introducing himself to his bishop in Portland about 12 years ago, Jon Hastings recalls saying, “I’m not sure what you know about me.”
The bishop replied, “Well, all I know is that you can’t work with children. There’s something on your record, and I called church headquarters to find out what it meant.”
At first, Hastings was “confused,” he says, “then devastated.”
He had been disfellowshipped for intimacy with men some years before but had been “re-fellowshipped.”
The assumption that he was a threat to children “had been tacked onto me,” Hastings says. “It wasn’t right or true.”
The gay member would later serve as an elders quorum president in a Young Single Adult congregation, where he met his future husband.
Today, Hastings and his husband are no longer practicing Latter-day Saints but are parents of a 4-month-old baby girl.
Even still, the episode remains painful for him.
Some say that, though the handbook statement remains, the practice of annotating records of homosexual members may be waning.
Indeed, on the church’s Newsroom site, the statement about marking the records of disciplined members is almost identical to the handbook graph, but homosexual intimacy is never mentioned in the description meant for the media.
During his five-year tenure as a Latter-day Saint bishop in Riverton, Paul Augenstein never saw a single membership annotation for an LGBTQ member.
Nor did he add one.
“You weigh each case individually as they come to you,” Augenstein said. “You try to use the spirit of the law rather than just the letter of the law.”
What about missions?
To be called as a missionary, Handbook 1 says a heterosexual member who is involved with “adultery, heavy petting, fornication …” will have to prove he or she has repented sufficiently, which could take one to three years.
A straight applicant who has been “promiscuous with several partners or one partner over an extended period of time… will not be considered for missionary service.”
Language about prospective LGBTQ missionaries is similar but with subtle differences.
A candidate “who has participated in homosexual activity during or after the last three teenage years will not normally be considered for missionary service, especially if the person has [had] several partners or one partner over an extended period of time.”
In rare cases, it says, an exception can be made “if there is a strong evidence of genuine repentance and reformation … of at least one year and may be as long as three years if the acts occurred several times or over an extended time or if the person was the aggressor.”
Of course, there are many gay and lesbian young people serving full-time missions who haven’t been involved in sexual activity or who have repented.
Zachary Ibarra was told his wait to serve a mission would be three years — because of a kiss.
Ibarra joined the Utah-based faith in 2013, when he was a high school senior in Ohio.
The new faith answered the religious questions he had, and the folks in his Latter-day Saint congregation were warm and welcoming. He had come out as gay with family and friends but kept it somewhat quiet with those in his newfound spiritual home.
“I knew what my new church thought about it,” Ibarra says now. “But it never worried me. I trusted that it would work out.”
Then he went to BYU and, during his freshman year, decided to he wanted to serve a full-time mission.
It didn’t go well.
When he told his bishop he had kissed a boy, the lay leader said that any homosexual involvement — no matter how little — would delay him three years.
That was the first time Ibarra felt inhibited about being gay.
“I had been going on temple trips, taking the sacrament, and doing everything everyone else could do,” he says. “This felt disproportionate and unfair.”
He fell into a deep depression, dropping out of school and returning to Ohio, where he wound up in a psychiatric hospital, contemplating suicide.
“I should just kill myself now without having sinned and go to the Celestial Kingdom,” he reasoned, “or I could live until I am 40 and will definitely sin.”
With therapy and help, Ibarra returned to Provo to complete his education. As a BYU sophomore, he came out as gay, he says, “so people stopped asking me why I didn’t serve a mission.”
Help is available
Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts can call the 24-Hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Utah also has crisis lines statewide, and the SafeUT app offers immediate crisis intervention services for youths and a confidential tip program.