Monday, February 17, 2014

Add the Words

Why sexual orientation and gender identity matter to me

Katie M. (not her real name) was my best friend in high school. Tall, blonde, and beautiful, she introduced her simple, unsophisticated Mormon classmate to foreign cinema and the Smiths, while I returned the cultural exchange with apricot Jello and Wednesday night Mutual activities. A gifted artist, Katie passed me notes that were illuminated manuscripts, masterpieces of satiric humor. Once a month on a Friday, we would skip school and pursue our own education at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts—my mom was more than happy to write a note stating (honestly): “Liza did not feel like coming to school on Friday.” At our Texas high school graduation ceremony, Katie was the only woman in a pants suit—in her muted yellow, wide-legged costume, she looked like a young Katherine Hepburn.

My Dad had already accepted a transfer to Bakersfield, California, and two days after I graduated, Katie and I watched as movers loaded up the contents of my parents’ two-story Tudor style home. I was sad to leave my boyfriend and Katie behind (the boyfriend and I broke up shortly afterward. Katie and I are friends to this day). Katie had already arranged to visit me in July; we had been planning a road trip to San Francisco during our senior year’s final semester.

A week later, I got her letter. Written on thick cream colored paper in her distinctive bold, backward-slanted hand, were words that would change how I felt about sexual orientation forever.

“I can’t keep this a secret from you any longer,” she wrote. “I am gay. I have always been this way. It is not a choice.”

“I know you probably will never speak to me again,” she continued. “I know how important your church is to you, and how they feel about homosexuality. But I have to tell you the truth.”

I put the letter down. And that’s when I realized that knowing what I knew now about Katie didn’t change how I felt about her. Not one bit. I loved her as one of my dearest friends before I knew she was gay, and I still loved her.

I also felt immediately ashamed as I remembered the Mutual activities she had attended with me at the LDS church. In one activity, a leader explained how AIDS (a new disease in those days) was God’s specific curse for homosexuals, a modern day scourge for our nation’s new Sodom and Gomorrah. Had Katie flinched? Had I noticed? We talked about that—and other things—on our road trip that summer. We talked about what it meant to be a gay teenager, about the prejudice and painful stigma. These were things I had never known. My worst experiences in high school had involved a toxic bout of highly visible acne in ninth grade. That was nothing compared to the anguish Katie felt as she realized how difficult her life path would be.

I still love Katie today. And I think she has just as much right to marry her life partner—a lovely, brilliant woman—as I have to marry mine (and he is all guy).

That’s why I spent my lunch hour at the Idaho State Capitol building today.

My state, along with many other states, is in the midst of a new civil rights war. State Senator Lynn Luker, a Mormon from Meridian, has proposed legislation that would allow people to deny services to other people on the basis of their religious beliefs. As Magic Valley Times reporter Kimberlee Kruesi reported:
Under the bill, doctors could deny providing medical treatment to gay people or even unmarried mothers and not lose their medical license. The same would be allowed for teachers to deny educating one of their students if they were gay.  
Meanwhile, the LDS church has joined other religious organizations in actively fighting against the legalization of gay marriage in Utah, claiming that it is not bigotry but concern for children’s welfare that drives their opposition as well as a defense of so-called "traditional marriage" between a man and a woman as the only type of marriage sanctioned by God. I’m sorry, but the whole “It’s not me; it’s my God who is a bigot” statement  just isn’t going to cut it as an argument against fairness, decency, and dare I say it, love.

The God I believe in is all about love. And love—transformational, all consuming, non-judging—is not present in Senator Luker’s bill.  In all fairness to my LDS friends, many of them disagree with Senator Luker’s hateful stance and support former Idaho State Senator Nicole LeFavour’s brave crusade to add the words—see Joanna Brooks’s Ask Mormon Girl, or pretty much the whole gang at Feminist Mormon Housewives.

But this isn’t just a religious or civil rights debate to me. Respecting and protecting people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is a mental health issue. Our children are dying. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for children and young adults ages 10-24. A disproportionate number of these young people are LGBTQ
Our refusal to love and accept our children for who they are is leading to their deaths, as In theParlor blogger and youth pastor Tyler Smither noted:
"We are now faced with the reality that there are lives at stake. So whatever you believe about homosexuality, keep it to yourself. Instead, try telling a gay kid that you love him and you don’t want him to die."
What kind of God would want a young person to take his or her own life because of persecution and rejection? Not the God who said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Another Christian, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin put it bluntly: ““Anybody who doesn’t show love towards gay and lesbian people is insulting God. They are not just homophobic if they do that–they are actually Godophobic because God loves every one of those people.”

When I was a Mormon (a phrase that increasingly feels like “once upon a time” to me), our Sunday School teachers told us that we already knew who would win the great war between good and evil. I can now extrapolate that lesson to this current fight to deny our friends and neighbors, our brothers and sisters, equal protection under the law. We already know how this fight will end; and fortunately, Senator Luker and his supporters are on the wrong side of history.

But I want to make history today. I never want any young person to feel like my friend Katie did, afraid to lose a friendship or a job or even her life, simply because of whom she loves.  Add the words, Idaho! And let there be love now, for all of us.


Rubye Jack said...

Good for you for taking this stand!
It is a terrible puzzle for me how people can say they love some sort of god that does not love all the people he is supposed to have created. I just find it so sad that people can think this way.

Unknown said...

I am from Canada and we are pretty accepting. The fact that this is happening is frightening. Well said! If people don't speak up, hate wins.

Utahhiker801 said...

"We are now faced with the reality that there are lives at stake. So whatever you believe about homosexuality, keep it to yourself. Instead, try telling a gay kid that you love him and you don’t want him to die."

Thanks for including this quote. It's very moving.

wowowow said...

Hi Liza. Thanks for describing me as tall, blond and beautiful. I'll give you $20 bucks next time we get together. -The Real Katie