Thursday, May 24, 2018

Church and Gay: Ever the Two Shall Mix?

Alum's journey to marry religion with sexual orientation 

Long before there was “Hug A Gay Mormon” or “Family Home Evening with A Gay Mormon” – two very public, personal outreach initiatives of Peter Moosman’s – there was a deeply closeted, increasingly depressed gay man trying to figure out where he fit in with his cherished faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The year 2015 brought at least some of the answers he desperately needed. He was 27.

“I spent my whole life denying it and trying to get rid of it,” Moosman says. “I didn’t ask for help – I didn’t want anybody to know.”

He now recalls how the “2015 Peter,” a person who had until that time considered ending his own life as he was still trying to “pray away the gay,” was a lot different than the “2018 Peter,” who is out not only as a gay man, but more precisely an active Mormon who is also gay. He lives in Salt Lake City and works for Salt Lake Community College as a coordinator with Student Life and Leadership. Life is better now, but new struggles have emerged.

Moosman, a 2011 SLCC alum, was raised in the predominantly Mormon Davis County, specifically North Salt Lake. He knew from a “young age” he was gay, but he also read in scriptures while growing up in the LDS Church that homosexuality was an “abomination.” He didn’t want to bring shame to his family. He didn’t want to give up his faith. So, he hid being gay.

Moosman thought he was “broken.” He tried to “fix” himself by dating, but only after serving an LDS mission in Louisville, Kentucky. “My mission was almost an escape from that,” he says. “I didn’t have to worry about dating or people asking if I’m in a relationship. It was a refuge from misery.”

But when he came home from his mission, he had to face it all again – to face trying not to be gay. He dated a female friend and told her up front that he was not attracted to women but that he understood his “path to salvation,” as his church taught, states that he needs to marry a woman. They gave it a shot. “I couldn’t even kiss her,” Moosman recalls. “We both realized there was no way we could make it work.” They remain friends to this day.

Moosman tried to “swear off love,” to look the other way when he noticed an attractive man. He slowly sank into a deeper depression. By Christmas, 2014, he wondered if it might be his last holiday – ever. “There has to be something that will end all of this,” he thought at the time.

Moosman’s metamorphosis started a few weeks later with the serendipitous gift from an SLCC colleague of two tickets to the 2015 Sundance Film Festival to see the documentary, "Larry Kramer: In Love & Anger," in which filmmaker Jean Carlomusto focused her lens on the gay rights activist during the height of the AIDS epidemic. And then another movie, "The Normal Heart," came along when Moosman needed it most. Larry Kramer wrote the screenplay for that movie, starring Mark Ruffalo, Jim Parsons, Julia Roberts and Alfred Molina.

Just the simple act of renting "The Normal Heart" wasn’t easy for a closeted gay LDS man in a mostly Mormon community. Moosman picked out some “church” movies and some comedies to try hiding the fact that he was about to watch a movie about gay people. Living at home with his parents at the time in North Salt Lake, he went to his room, locked the door and turned the volume down low to watch the movie. Then something clicked, and over the course of two hours and 12 minutes, his depression lifted. “As I was watching, there was this overwhelming warmth, a peace,” he says. “I was in tears. I was a mess. At that moment I realized I don’t need to feel shame – I don’t need to hide. I felt like I had God’s stamp of approval.”

“It was an incredibly spiritual experience,” Moosman adds. “It was my first time seeing gay people as developed characters and not just comedic relief. They had emotion.” Before those movies, Moosman had only heard that coming out as gay meant mostly that you were “ruining” families and announcing your “lust” for members of the same sex. “I decided I needed to tell my parents,” he says.

Terrified, he worked up the courage to start with his mother. Moosman found a helpful pamphlet from the Family Acceptance Project, which helps LDS families support their LGBT children. He handed the pamphlet to his mom, told her his faith was “renewed” and that he was finally able to embrace who he is. He was on “Cloud 9,” relieved he had finally come out to someone. Later the same day, he told his father, who replied, “’How can I support you in this?’”

After that, he spent the rest of 2015 coming out to everyone at a time when same-sex marriage had become legal in Utah. It was a time when people, particularly within his own church and community, had been exposed to more public conversations about homosexuality, discussions based more in facts rather than hyperbole and falsehoods. Friends distanced themselves from him. He was called a “lost cause” and someone who had gone off the “deep end.” One day he logged on to his LDS Church membership account and discovered that his ward had been changed. It marked a pivotal point in his “faith crisis.”

Moosman searched for a way he could have conversations with Mormons, to tell them queer people exist in Mormonism and “that it’s okay.” He found a YouTube video of a Muslim man who set up with a sign in a public space and told people that, if they trusted him, they could give him a hug. “I was touched by that idea,” he says. And Hug a Gay Mormon was born.

In April, 2016 Moosman brought a big poster board with the words “Hug a Gay Mormon” to General Conference, right in the middle of where thousands would be entering and exiting the LDS Conference Center for sessions designed to bolster their faith. He also used the poster to alert people to a social media hashtag he created with the same words. He was scared, uncertain how he would be received.

“It was phenomenal,” Moosman recalls. Strangers young and old hugged him, some whispering in his ear things like, “Here’s a hug from a bisexual Mormon” or “Here’s a hug from someone with a gay son.” A young female who told Moosman she is pan sexual wanted to know how to tell her bishop. People took photos with him. The hashtag became a way for people to reach out and “message” him in private. Moosman uses Google Translate to speak with people from around the world including, most recently, a lesbian from Taiwan who needed help finding the right words to talk about who she is.

“People ask me how to make it work between faith and sexuality,” he says. “’I can’t be gay and Mormon. How do you make that work?’” they ask.

Moosman is still figuring it out. He’d like to marry a man someday, but he knows that would mean excommunication from the church. He likes the sense of “community” the church offers. He likes the familiarity of his faith and the comfort it brings. His family is LDS, and he doesn’t want to risk losing that common bond he shares with them. And certain aspects emphasized by his religion, like serving others and doing good works, very much appeals to him.

Moosman with cast members from the musical The Book of Mormon

So, in looking for answers along the journey of making it work between his faith and sexual orientation, Moosman heads out for each General Conference with his sign. He keeps the conversation going amid all of the hugs.

In 2017 he also started something called Family Home Evening with a Gay Mormon. For that he gets a permit from Salt Lake City, sets up on Main Street near the sky bridge of the LDS Church-owned City Creek Center mall and invites people to sit on his couch or chairs and talk about being Mormon and gay. It’s a disarming approach that has attracted scores of passersby to stop and chat. When the musical "The Book of Mormon" was in town, cast members sat down and wanted to learn more. “I can officially say that I’ve had Joseph Smith over for Family Home Evening on my couch,” Moosman smiles.

The couch and chairs will be back on Main Street this summer. And Moosman will be back later this year with his sign for another General Conference. He would love it if eventually he felt the LDS Church could be a “safe place” for gay people. If he is someday excommunicated, he is already armored with the idea the church doesn’t have to be “the end all to be all” of spirituality. For now, he will continue going to church services. And he will keep the conversation going.

“This is not about me as much as it is a jumping off point so that people can have conversations,” he says. “I want people to see that there are queer Mormons and that they have to face that.”