One Gay Mormon’s Mission: Building Bridges here in Richmond
Rand Irons looks ready for a black name tag and matching conservative grey suit. But you won’t see him walking door to door with LDS pamphlets in hand, nor will he get his chance to travel the world in the name of his faith spreading the message of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Irons, 22 and a student at University of Richmond, is gay and Mormon, and has found his own message – a message of hope for those who love both their Mormon faith and those of the same gender.
“[I] didn’t really conceive of myself as gay until sophomore summer of college,” says Irons as he sips a cream soda in the front window of Lift Coffee. The early-fall sun bounces off his straight red hair as he opens up about his formative years.
In high school, he chose not to date for religion reasons, so he hadn’t really had a chance to explore his sexuality.
Obviously, again because of his faith, there was no sex, so it gave him a space to avoid the subject altogether.
But after finally having two girlfriends in college, he came to the tough realization about who he was. He was gay.
“It was difficult for me, because of my religion. honestly; because of my faith and what I thought about homosexuality.”
He grew up being taught a pretty specific message. The Mormon faith, until recent departures from some groups within the church, has held fast in its opposition to LGBT people, even until recently promoting ex-gay therapy.
“Sexual activity should only occur between a man and a woman who are married,” states Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of LDS Church, President of Utah’s Brigham Young University (BYU), professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School, and a justice of the Utah Supreme Court.
That’s pretty high up there in Mormon hierarchy – he’s the fifth most senior apostle among the ranks of the LDS Church.
But back to Irons’ youth.
“It wasn’t really talked about… I didn’t know what gay people were until I was in high school,” he says. “It was assumed marriage is between a man and a woman and that’s it… [there was] no room for any other option.”
Irons remembered one time, back when Prop 8 was passed outlawing gay marriage in California. He and his family were attending temple and a group of protesters were set up out front opposing the LDS’s stance against same-sex marriage.
His dad made a mean comment about same-sex marriage “not being right.”
Luckily, when Irons (and his twin brother) both came out as gay, his folks and the rest of his family accepted him.
“It’s not something they really had dealt with,” he says. “But now they are very strong advocates.”
Soon after he and his brother came out, the repeal of Prop 8 opened doors into pro-LGBT activism within the LDS church. Irons saw one group specifically stand out among those concerned with the Church’s support of anti-marriage equality legislation.
“Mormons Building Bridges is dedicated to conveying love and acceptance to those who identify as LGBTQI and those who experience same-sex attraction and asserts that all our sisters and brothers are inherently worthy of love and belonging in our homes, congregations, and communities.”
The group has been around since June 2012. The interesting part of their work is their interest in keeping those who are LGBT in the right with the church. The group, which manifests mainly as an online network for sharing stories, stays a-political and aims to help LGBT Mormons follow their faith as well as their hearts.
“It’s a space about sharing personal stories and building bridges that way,” says Irons. “It does not take any official stance that is contrary to the church’s teachings because they want to allow a space for people who are unsure about how they feel about LGBT people and issues.”
Irons at Pride 2014
But for some, like Irons, their faith is a part of who they are, and they want to stay in line with the faith and help others struggling.
That’s where his local work with Mormons Building Bridges comes in. Families disowning gay youth, local churches bullying gay members… these are issues all too familiar to the recent activist. And his local efforts have already led to his own stories.
Irons said there was a young Mormon in Smithfield, VA, who was being bullied at church and treated poorly by his family. The boy reached out to Irons and his brother via their local Mormons Building Bridges chapter, and they helped support him untill the boy found refuge from a more accepting family member.
Irons admits he has experienced bullying by church leaders locally in his attempts to reconnect with a congregation. He tried to attend one local church with another man he was seeing. Though the younger members of the church seemed okay with them being together, the leaders did not respond so well.
Soon after that relationship dissolved (both with the church and the man he was seeing), Irons swayed away from his faith some. He experimented with caffeine. It’s a cycle he admits happens when he gets this negative feedback.
“I go through phases and periods,” he says, sipping on his cream soda.
This divide among Mormons around LGBT issues is somewhat ironic. The faith is no stranger to less-traditional unions; mainly polygamy - a comparison Irons acknowledges.
“My great-grandfather had four wives,” he admits. “But that was a core tenet of our faith.”
Up until 1890 when the church outlawed multiple wives (plural marriages), about 25% of Mormon families were living in polygamous households.
The issue was so contentious, it was part of the Republican Platform in 1856:
“to prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism: polygamy and slavery.”
As Irons see it, the church evolved because it knew it had to.
“There were other parts of the faith that were more important than [polygamy],” said Irons, but he’s not sure if a similar shift in attitudes around same-sex marriage could occur this time around.
“I think there’s going to be beginnings of acknowledgments, particularly as new leaders come forward who have an understanding of this,” says Irons. “But to have two men or two women sealed in one of our temples under the same ceremony is just mind-blowing. I’d love to see it, but I don’t know when or if that is going to happen.”
The Mormon Salt Lake City Temple
Back to the quote from before, from Elder Dallin H. Oaks. “The Church’s doctrinal position is clear: Sexual activity should only occur between a man and a woman who are married.”- that one.
Well the rest of it gets a little better:
“However, that should never be used as justification for unkindness. Jesus Christ, whom we follow, was clear in His condemnation of sexual immorality, but never cruel. His interest was always to lift the individual, never to tear down.”
So things are getting a little better. Right? Irons says what happens nationally doesn’t always trickle down to the local level.
“It can be a little bit frustrating at times,” says Irons. “We preach these messages of love and acceptance, but then things [happen] like my old bishop having a meeting saying [sexuality] is a choice and [homosexuality] is sinful and wrong and shouldn’t be accepted.”
Irons hopes little things, even his presence at local churches, will help stem the tide of anti-gay attitudes.
“When I’m there and I’m present, it forces them to see me as one of them and see [gays] as not deviant but something that’s a fact of life and something they have to come to terms with,” said Irons. “And that’s something I think can really change hearts and minds.”
But he’s a realist. Irons knows he can’t change the Church’s doctrine. He knows he probably wont get the chance to exchange vows with another man in the temple in Salt Lake City. But he looks visibly torn up when he admits it.
“Marriage is still very important to me,” says Irons. “A temple marriage would be wonderful and something I’d really appreciate and love to do. But marriage itself is something very important to me and something I want.”
But that wont stop him from helping others like him, and hoping change will happen in the future.
“For me being a Mormon is both a part of my identity and a part of my spiritual self,” he says. He admits he’s one of the few Mormons who have stuck through the mistreatment; committed to a faith which has closed the door on him so many times.
“For me, the struggles I have with the church and how I have been treated in some instances are one small part of my entire faith experience and journey.”
He says he wants to stay with the church, even if he’s not a full member; and he’ll wait for the day it makes space for him.
“I hope for that time to come,” says Irons. “And I feel that it will.”
Rand can be reached via email - Randcirons@gmail.com
“We’re really focusing on becoming a lighthouse for the community. We don’t want to be a one-day event anymore, and I think that’s what people want.”October 1, 2014
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