A Queer Atheist In the Heart of Mormon Country

Last weekend a group of around 400 Mormons marched in the Utah Pride Parade. Calling themselves “Mormons Building Bridges,” they were met with enthusiastic applause. Carrying signs with messages like “Love 1 Another” and “LDS heart LGBT,” they were there to show their support for the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) community and celebrate recent advancements in issues relating to LGBTQ people and Mormons, such as Bishops no longer excommunicating members who come out and the Boy Scouts of America voting to allow openly gay scouts to participate. (LGBTQ adults and atheists still cannot do so openly.)

As I read about Utah Pride in preparation for my remarks this upcoming weekend as the 2013 Boston Pride interfaith speaker, I couldn’t help but reflect on what I learned during a recent visit to Utah.

It was late in the evening when I arrived, and I knew I would be there for only 24 hours. I was met by Alasdair Ekpenyong, a college sophomore who stands at the crossroads of intersecting identities and convictions: black, LGBTQ-affirming, feminist, progressive, a lover of bowties—and deeply Mormon.

Two weeks later, he would speak calmly and decisively at an anti-discrimination rally. But in the car that evening he spoke quickly and excitedly, stumbling over his words a bit but still impressively knowledgeable and articulate, referencing countless texts and ideas I’d never even heard of. I asked if we could stop to pick up some food and, with french fries in our laps, he gave me a quick tour of Salt Lake City, demonstrating an intimate knowledge of the area and the people who call it home.

Alasdair, a student at Brigham Young University (a private university owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, originally established in 1875), was the student organizer of “Intersecting Convictions,” the interfaith conference for which I had come to speak. The conference was held in early March at Utah Valley University, a publicly funded university in Orem, Utah, about one hour south of Salt Lake City. Audience participants and sponsors from both BYU and UVU helped bring the event into being.

During our conversation in the car en route to Orem, I confessed to Alasdair that I wasn’t sure how the event would go.

The student body at BYU is 98.5% Mormon, and UVU is 86% Mormon—the highest single-religion percentage at any public university campus in the United States of America. Atheists are already in the minority in most parts of the country, constituting a small fraction of the religiously unaffiliated in the U.S., but it seemed I was to be an especially odd one out at this event. Or, as my mother once said with a laugh when I was off to speak in Mobile, Alabama: “It’s kind of hip to be a gay atheist [in Cambridge, Massachussetts]. Not so much most everywhere else.”

I was scheduled to speak in an extended dialogue with the evangelical Christian presenter—as an atheist who is also a former evangelical Christian. Additionally, I was to engage other panelists and audience members, most of whom would be religious. As a queer person and atheist, what could I—and what should I—say to people who are members of communities that, both historically and contemporarily, have played a sizable role in not only demonizing atheists and supporting anti-gay ideas, but actively working to prevent LGBTQ equality and civil rights?

Alasdair responded by reminding me that this event was not intended to be a collection of like-minded, progressive people. He told me that he personally holds a liberal mindset alongside an abiding respect for traditional institutions, and that it was important to him to bring an ideologically diverse crowd of liberal and conservative people together for this event.

“I like what Eboo Patel has said about making sure that interfaith work includes conservative subcultures, too, and does not merely become a festival of shared liberalism,” he told me.

And sure enough, as it turned out, we had a lot of different perspectives in the room—and a lot to say to one another. I was there as a liberal queer atheist, but I was just one of four keynote speakers, the others representing Jewish, Mormon, and evangelical Christian perspectives. We offered individual remarks and engaged in an honest public dialogue with one another. Questions of difference loomed that day, and much of the discussion centered around the idea that not only do we have, surprisingly, a lot in common—an important point worth remembering and repeating in a culture that frequently lifts up conflict while ignoring harmony—but that we also carry profoundly important and seemingly irreconcilable differences.

In that sense, the conference left me (and I suspect many others) with as many questions as answers. But these questions are vital—and the idea that we can consider them together, without sacrificing our relationships or the civility that undergirds them, is radical. I certainly don’t believe that the idea of “celebrating different beliefs” should be extended to beliefs that are used to marginalize others—but that tension should be explored, not suppressed for the sake of “getting along.” And calm, compassionate interfaith dialogue can create space to unpack them constructively in a way that shouting matches ultimately cannot.

These differences, of course, exist not only between communities but also within them. The conference served as a reminder that no community is a monolith, and that those of us who wish to see a pluralistic society will need to work with people in many different communities in order to see it realized. There are certainly Mormon people and institutions that have worked against LGBTQ equality, and many continue to. But as was evident at this year’s Utah Pride, there is also a fast-growing number of Mormons who are working for change. They may be less visible—after all, our society, and the media in particular, privilege polarizing perspectives—but these Mormons are there, doing difficult but important work.

Among them is Joanna Brooks, who served as the Mormon panelist at the conference. She has been an advocate for LGBTQ equality and acceptance among Mormons and more broadly (in fact, she was featured earlier this year in The Advocate’s list of “10 Pro-LGBTQ Religious Women You Should Know”), and I am glad for her work. We may not agree on certain issues, including whether or not there is a God, but she has my support. Her activism, her ideas, and her voice reach Mormons that I, as a queer atheist, might not be able to. She speaks to Mormon identity, culture, tradition, and values in ways that I do not understand, and she is a powerful force for change in a community that she is invested in. Her work is just one reason why I am not willing to write off Mormons, or any other group of people, just because some vocal members of their community paint an exclusionary picture of what it means to be a member—and why I despair when members of my own communities dismiss them as possible allies. 

And in the case of people who aren’t yet LGTBQ and interfaith allies like Brooks, I cannot help but hope that the act of encounter with someone who is unfamiliar will bring new ways of thinking to light. After all, support for marriage equality more than doubles among people who know a gay person. The Pew Research Center reports that of the 14% of Americans who went from opposing to supporting gay marriage in the last decade, 37% (the largest category) did so because of “friends/family/acquaintances who are gay/lesbian.” The second largest category, at 25%, said they learned more and became more aware. Only two percent said that they changed their minds because they came to believe that gay people are “born that way.” Visibility and education matter, but positive relationships across lines of difference seem to matter even more.

Whether we are in agreement or not, conversation is greatly needed. The kind of tribalism that causes people to be suspicious of those they think are not like them will be overcome through relationship-building, not through shouting matches on cable news or in online comment threads. Today I strive to build a relationship whenever I can—even with people who think that who I am is innately wrong—because if I refuse to engage, how can I hope for change?

I’m glad I had the opportunity to not only interact with nontraditional Mormons, but also with more conservative individuals and with traditional institutions like the Orem Utah LDS Institute of Religion—to not only build relationships with people and organizations that may not interact with LGBTQ individuals and atheists all that often, but to do so in a way that put my queer and atheist identities at the forefront of our encounters.

My queer identity is one of the reasons I’m passionate about religious pluralism, and advancing it through interfaith dialogue. A pluralistic society embraces all of its members. As a queer person, I reject heteronormativity. As an atheist, I reject theonormativity. But the eradication of heterosexuality or the eradication of religion are not my goals. Instead, I am concerned about privilege, and about fear of the other. Interfaith work can challenge both; it humanizes difference, allowing people to see that there are many ways of being and believing, and recognize that a just society makes space for all people.

I understand that some of this sounds a bit simple and idealistic—I know that appeals for pluralism and tolerance occasionally sound like the musings of a disconnected optimist. I don’t pretend that this work isn’t difficult, or that it will always work. But isn’t it worth trying?

There is a part of me that strongly resists sitting down with members of a community that has actively worked against my freedom. But whenever I can summon the patience to do so, I am glad that I did. This conference wasn’t the first time I have found myself in such a position; I have also spoken at several evangelical Christian colleges that require students to sign agreements that prohibit “homosexual activity” and disbelief in God. These are instituions that would likely expel me were I a student. Agreeing to visit these campuses isn’t easy, but they are communities that perhaps need open conversations about faith and diversity more than many others. Though getting there requires me to deal with my own discomfort, I have never regretted accepting an opportunity to enter into dialogue with members of communities that are discerning how to grapple with internal diversity and with how to engage the world beyond their community. Participating in these discussions may require some compromises on my part—having to part with my desire to say every single thing I might want to, or having to look people in the eye who would vote against my freedom—but it is worth it when I see the conversations that unfold, and realize that I have a chance to build a relationship with someone that could prove to be transformative.

Every day I try to challenge myself to think harder, to listen to others more deeply, to be more loving and patient. Needless to say, I frequently fail. But as an atheist, I don’t think any non-human force is going to intervene and solve our problems for us. Thus, it is up to us to make our world better. As much as I can, I want to leave a space at my table for just about anyone; to see every person as someone who is worth trying to understand, and to try to help others understand me—even when that feels impossible.

But sitting at my table means being willing to share. Some will take more than others, but there must be some give on all sides. In that respect, I am grateful for how much I was given by the people I met and learned from at the conference in Utah, and excited about the possibility for a more constructive and compassionate dialogue between people of all faiths and the nonreligious about how to build a world in which all people, including LGBTQ people, are respected and have equal rights. Though the road to a truly pluralistic society will be long, I learned in Utah that you can in fact build some significant bridges—even when you have less than 24 hours to do so—and I am glad to see that there are more and more Mormons building bridges at Utah Pride and elsewhere.

As I prepared to leave Utah, less than 24 hours after arriving, Alasdair gave me a hug and said: “I hope you’ll come back soon!”

Without hesitation and with the utmost sincerity, I agreed.

cdstedman@gmail.com'

Chris Stedman is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. He tweets at @ChrisDStedman.