Prophets and politics

Will the Mormon Church decide who gets married in California?

  • Visitors line up for the dedication of the new Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple last February in Rexburg, Idaho, where the population is 97 percent Mormon.

    August Miller, Deseret News
  • BYU-Idaho students, with friends and family, gather at The Rex entertainment center in Rexburg, Idaho, to watch the BYU-New Mexico football game.

    Amanda Smith
  • The streets of Rexburg, where apartment signs show they are approved housing for either “young ladies” or “young gentlemen.”

    Amanda Smith
  • Monday night is Family Home Evening for the LDS Church. Because many BYU-Idaho students are away from their families, they meet with friends every week at 7 p.m. for family-style activities.

    Amanda Smith
  • Prayer

    Amanda Smith
  • Giving devotionals

    Amanda Smith
  • Danny Yandell and his husband, Christopher Jones (pictured from right), who grew up Mormon in Rexburg, chat with Yon Scott about their recent marriage ceremony in California during the Gay Sunday Brunch, held weekly at Dixie’s Diner in Idaho Falls, Idaho

    Amanda Smith
 

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Mart Borg, who describes himself as an inactive Mormon, works as a butcher in an Albertson's grocery store. On the side, he runs a hiking-with-llamas group for gays. He went to California this summer to marry the man he's been with for 20 years. "We exchanged rings 20 years ago; we just wanted to make it legal," Borg tells me.

I get to know other gays and lesbians in Mormon Idaho, and some who have roots here but have since moved on. They're teachers, a city planner, experts in this or that at the nuclear lab, a sales manager at a printing plant, and so on. Many grew up in the Mormon Church, and their accomplishments include serving on missions, serving as church leaders, even singing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They felt the church's pressure to live straight lives. Officially, the church seeks to persuade homosexuals to abstain or be heterosexual, through counseling and pressing them to marry members of the opposite sex. "I saw gay men struggling with their sense of self-worth (in counseling), and I didn't see them as an abomination of God," says John Bonner, who grew up gay in Rexburg and now lives in Salt Lake City. Two of his gay friends committed suicide, and he thinks it was directly tied to their Mormon faith. "They saw it as irresolvable."

They tell me that even the ranks of straight Mormons are not monolithic. Jones realized he was gay in grade school, but "took a long time to come out because people in Rexburg are very judgmental." He had two friends who risked coming out while they attended high school in Rexburg. Their Mormon bishops ex-communicated them -- a big deal for faithful Mormons, because their doctrine says they won't join their families and friends in heaven. Jones' sister outed him to his bishop when he was 21. But "that bishop was a very understanding person," Jones says. "He had the opportunity to ex-communicate me and didn't. He wished I'd been celibate (and not gay), but he wasn't pressing the normal gospel of 'men with men is a sin.' He just said, as long as I live a good life, he was happy for me." Jones, who's worked as a bank teller, a Burger King manager, a grocery manager, and at the Idaho Falls Wal-Mart, also still considers himself a Mormon.

And those who reject the Mormon Church still try to maintain ties to Mormon friends and family, including ex-wives, kids, parents and siblings. Often they're accepted in those ranks. When Jones and Yandell came back from California, they had a wedding reception in Idaho Falls, attended by 52 people, most of whom are straight Mormons. They go to Rexburg for family gatherings with Jones' parents, who are devout Mormons; the parents were wary at first, but now they accept Yandell and include him in Easter dinner and family photos. Some high-ranking Mormons in Rexburg tell me they also have family members and friends who are gay or lesbian.

Some still feel it necessary to keep their sexual identity in the closet -- especially those who live in Rexburg. John Schroeder sees both the positives and the negatives. He converted to Mormonism at age 24, and was active in the church for more than 20 years, struggling over his sexual identity. He married in a temple, served as a church elder, and finally came out. Now he heads the physicians' assistant program at Idaho State University in Pocatello, and lives in Idaho Falls. He's been with Mike Tyacke, who works for the lab, moving spent nuclear fuel around the world, for seven years. Schroeder says: "Homophobic tripe is preached from the pulpit of every LDS church every Sunday (while) gay people in the congregation don't speak up." But he adds, "In my eight years of being a very 'out' person in Idaho Falls, I've been interviewed on TV and done debates on gay marriage. People come up to me in the grocery store and say, 'I saw you on TV.' No one has ever come up to me and said anything negative. It's easier to be out now than it used to be."

A local lesbian who has a white-collar job, and wishes to keep her name out of this story, says that in recent years, "the gay and lesbian community here has really bonded. We're an inclusive group. If we were in a big city, we could afford to have internal prejudices. Here, we can't afford it."

Many agree that the turning point here occurred eight years ago. It was a court battle between Theron McGriff, who'd come out as gay, and his ex-wife, over custody of their kids. McGriff's case began in 2000, and in 2004 the Idaho Supreme Court created an Idaho landmark: The court ruled that homosexuality can't be used against a parent in a custody argument unless it's clearly detrimental to the children. The court awarded custody to McGriff's ex-wife on other grounds, but these days, McGriff and his partner, an inactive Mormon who spent time in Rexburg, are still involved in raising McGriff's kids. "One thing I learned," McGriff says, "is that a judge can't break up a family."

When McGriff's battle began, he and his friends got the idea of auctioning off many of his possessions to raise money to help cover his lawyer fees and his child-support payments. They formed a group called Breaking Boundaries, and it's grown to be both substantial and mainstream. It promotes many kinds of diversity, raising money through various auctions, beer festivals and other events, and spreading the money around through grants for community projects including after-school programs for schoolkids. Breaking Boundaries' biggest fund-raiser is a black-tie dinner and auction every Christmas season that rakes in tens of thousands of dollars. "It's THE event of the year for this community," one of the organizers, Ron Folsom, tells me. It's even surpassed the Firemen's Ball and the Inventors' Ball in popularity.

Last December, Breaking Boundaries held the fancy dinner in the Idaho Falls Elks Club; 40 volunteers served dinner to 275 people, and they estimate about one-fourth were gay or lesbian. They had an Egyptian theme, and a Mormon dance team from BYU-Idaho performed in Egyptian costumes. They've already raised more than $30,000 in advance sales for this year's dinner. It's just one sign of how things are changing, even in Mormon Idaho. Sooner or later, some locals say, gay marriage will be recognized everywhere. They may not say it out loud quite yet, but if you listen carefully, you can hear it between the lines.

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