“I Died Inside.”

Emmett C. is a twenty-year-old community college student in the Pacific Northwest.  Last year, he applied to serve as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a religious obligation he had long prepared for and looked forward to fulfilling. But in the course of preparing his missionary application, Emmett came out to his local LDS Church leaders—not as a gay man, but as a straight Mormon who believes that LGBT people are equal in the sight of God and should treated the same as straight members of the LDS Church. And on these grounds, he was told that he would not be permitted to serve.

 

You were born and raised in the LDS Church. Did you grow up singing the Mormon children’s song “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission?”

Yes, the whole bit. I raised my hand when they asked our class of six-year-olds who was going on a mission. I was always active in Church. And scouting—I received my Eagle Scout. I received the priesthood [all worthy Mormon men are ordained to the lay priesthood at age 12] and served in the leadership of my priesthood quorums. And I was preparing to serve a mission. This was what I was supposed to do: the next step on the ladder.

The ladder? Do you mean, the ladder of lifetime Church service expected of Mormon men?

Yes. Exactly.

Growing up a faithful and observant Mormon child, you were also raised in a family that tended to be more open and accepting on LGBT issues.

I come from a family with eleven children. I have one gay brother and one gay sister. My sister came out when I was three or four. Then, my brother—the second oldest in the family—came out a year after he got back from his mission, during his second year at BYU. I was three or four years old. Both said they had always known that they were gay, but it took a long time to come out. At first, it was really hard for the family, but my parents really decided to stand with their children even as they continued as active and faithful Mormons. That’s how I was raised.

But I knew there was tension. When the Church’s Proclamation on the Family came out, I felt it was aimed at gay issues. And it scared me. When I turned twelve and was ordained, I became more serious about my faith, started reading my scriptures, and really became more responsible for my duties in the Church. That’s when I started facing the tension between what the Church was teaching and the reality of the lives of my brother and sister. 

The tension must have been scary. You were twelve. You loved your Church, and you loved your brother and sister. How did you sort it out for yourself?

The Church was my whole life. The only way I could figure out how to make it all fit was to believe that I had a purpose in helping the Church figure this out, to become a more aware and understanding place—from the inside. That was my hope. I wanted to stay in and help.

So you prepared for a lifetime of Church service, starting as most young men do with two years of missionary service. You had a plan to work and pay for your mission. You started your paperwork. You met with your bishop. And when you did, you brought up gay marriage. Why?

I brought it up because I was afraid of being sent out on a mission and the issue of gay marriage coming up and not being able to preach that it was wrong. I didn’t want to be sent home. I wanted to get it sorted out before I left.

But Emmett, every Mormon who supports LGBT equality knows you’re supposed to keep such views to yourself! 

I know! And I was going to do that. And I saw it necessary sacrifice in order to fulfill my purpose to serve the Church. I was fully ready to be quiet so that I could serve. But my senior year I realized how important it was to my mental health—was a mission going to be a good environment if I was in fear of expressing myself? What if it came up in a missionary lesson and if I couldn’t speak out for what I consider a human rights issue? 

You asked your bishop for advice on your inner conflict.

I’m close to my bishop. He’s a friend and a wonderful man. I asked to speak to him privately and shared my worries. He sincerely didn’t know what to do and asked for time to talk with the Stake President [his ecclesiastical supervisor]. I spoke to the Stake President a week later. I shared my concerns and told him about my family background—how it had changed my views, my perspective on gay marriage. At this point, he wanted me to be more specific about my beliefs. It became clear that mine was more than a political belief in marriage equality—we are allowed to have our own political views in the Church. It was actually doctrinal, because I believe that gays should be allowed to get married in the Mormon temple. That was the wrong thing to say. My entire life I had always relied on being sort of vague when interviewed. Interview questions are usually pretty direct, and I can truthfully answer them all. But I don’t go into detail. It’s like “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” But he wanted me to get more specific. I had to open up, and it became clear that I disagreed with the Church on a doctrinal issue. He gave me a lecture. I didn’t argue with him.

So even though in all other respects, you are pretty much in agreement with Church doctrine, at the conclusion of your interview, the Stake President informed you that you would not be able to serve a mission.

Yes, his conclusion was that I would not be able to serve. I would have to fast and pray until I realized that I was wrong and had to change my beliefs in order to support the Church leadership in their decisions. He also said that he wouldn’t allow me to have a temple recommend if I kept these beliefs, which struck me even harder than being denied a mission. That meant my priesthood—which I honor—my hope of marrying in the temple. This really brought home the reality of my situation as someone who believes that gays are equal but can’t be open about it.

You’re facing what gay Mormons face every day.

That’s what my gay brother said. I don’t see myself as being able to comfort him at all. What gays have had to go through in the Church—it’s far greater than what I’ve faced. But my brother says I am looking into a window onto what he has experienced.

And not being able to serve a mission feels like a real loss to you.

It meant everything to me. I totally broke down and I had to start over. I died inside. I pulled down the blinds. I wouldn’t even get out of bed for a month. For a long time, during my depression, I was filled with angry feelings, but I’ve been able to restart and be more appreciative. This experience is just a small part of my testimony, my faith life. But I can only imagine for gay people—it’s everything.

I think of when the Church finally started to ordain black people. Church leaders said, “It’s all behind us now; we’re moving on.” But how many people suffered in the process? How many had to give up their lives for the change to happen? Serving a mission was everything to me, and it still is. 

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.