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Thursday, September 8, 2011

An Interview with Mitch Mayne: Gay, Mormon, & Recently Called

by Scott Heffernan (bio)

Over the last several years, Mitch Mayne has been anxiously engaged in a good cause. He has been helping to build bridges between the LGBTQ community and the LDS church. Visit his very cool blog and website to learn more. Recently Mitch made headlines over his announcement of a new calling he received in San Francisco's Bay Ward. He was called to be the Bishop's Executive Secretary, a highly visible leadership position within the LDS church. Mitch's placement into this role is remarkable because he is "openly and unapologetically" gay. It has been absolutely fascinating to follow the unfolding events. Read the story as covered by Joanna Brooks, Peggy Fletcher Stack, the San Francisco Examiner, and even Robert Kirby. Mitch was nice enough to grant us an interview as well.

Image via Mitch Mayne.

Scott Heffernan: Hi Mitch. I just want to say thanks for being willing to interview with me. From what I understand you have been inundated by the press trying to speak to you. It's an honor to have you here on Modern Mormon Men. Welcome! Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Mitch Mayne: Thank you, Scott. It’s my pleasure—I think it’s pretty apparent that this is a topic about which I am deeply passionate, and have been for some time.

First, I wish to mention a couple of points. I am not a spokesperson for the Mormon church—I speak for me, and as such can share my perspectives, my experience, and my hope. Second, I don’t set doctrine—fortunately, that mantle of responsibility does not fall to me. I do believe our faith is led by kind, inspired men who seek to do the right thing, and that gives me great hope.

As for me personally, I believe every single one of us is equal in the eyes of our Savior, regardless of orientation, ethnicity, gender–or any other marker we use as humans to define differences between ourselves and others. As such, I don't believe it is ever my job to condemn, criticize, or mock another. My job, as my Father’s son, is to walk beside you as you learn the lessons life is intended to teach you; to celebrate your joys with you, and to lend a hand when you stumble. The true spirit of love we have for one another is kind, patient, and doesn’t demand it’s own way. It doesn’t scold, condemn, or criticize. I am most certainly an imperfect human–but this is the spirit I think our Savior wants us to strive to achieve throughout the human family, and it is the spirit that I endeavor to bring to my entire life–and most certainly my faith.

And, it is the spirit I bring to this interview with you today.

Scott: Good to state all that right up front. Let me start by asking why your calling is such a big deal? Why do you think this is getting the attention that it is?

Mitch: I think what’s generating the enthusiasm and attention is the direction we’re taking here in San Francisco, and the opportunity that represents to begin to create more peaceful hearts when it comes to the topic of gays and lesbians within the church.

There are literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of LGBTQ people and those who care about them in the membership of the church. In 2010, there were over 14 million people across the globe on the church membership records. Based on an extremely conservative estimate of just 1%, that would mean that there are over 140,000 gay and lesbian individuals within the church. Add to that their families—and that number quickly grows to at least 500,000. Then, add to that their friends, their neighbors, and their priesthood and relief society leaders, those who care about them—that number quickly grows to over a million.

Now, let’s factor in those who have left the church over this issue, and those within the LGBTQ and straight communities alike who listen to what our faith has to say on this matter, and we can extrapolate that there are probably tens of millions of people in the world to whom this is an important topic—tens of millions of people who are troubled, pained, and long for some kind of reconciliation on the question of how gays and lesbians fit within our faith.

Currently, at the local level in San Francisco, we have an opportunity to help begin to build the reconciliation that I believe so many seek. My local leadership is comprised of kind, inspired men who recognize how painful this topic has been in our community, and want to help reach out to those whose souls are hurting. They’ve called me to help, and I’m blessed to be able to play a small role in bringing that to fruition in the San Francisco area. But, I think you can see that this is a topic that dwells in the hearts of many people across the globe—and I think they’re watching with great anticipation, and welcome our efforts. The place of our gay and lesbian brothers and sister isn’t something that just affects those in San Francisco—its impact is felt in every corner of the world.

Scott: One important point of interest is that you self-identify as a “gay Mormon” as opposed to one who “suffers from same sex attraction.” Can you clarify that distinction?

Mitch: I understand my sexual orientation to be a core component of my spiritual identity—not something that has been placed upon me as a burden, test of my faith, or cross I must bear. Orientation encompasses much more than simple attraction; I think to reduce it to that one aspect dismisses how deeply this is embedded in my spiritual DNA.

I am a gay man, just as my Father made me. I am not someone who suffers from same sex attraction. I think the words from one of my first essays on being a gay Mormon called, You know who I am, fit quite well here:

I don’t want to be labeled as “afflicted” or “suffering” or “struggling.” I do not have an illness that requires my soul be mended. I want to be recognized, like you, as a whole person, just as my Heavenly Father made me. I have suffered no affliction by His hand; I have, however, suffered affliction at the hands of others, including my brothers and sisters in the gospel.

Scott: Your story has been met with some skepticism—on both sides of the spectrum. I kept an eye on some of the reactions to the news of your calling and they were interesting, to say the least. I can imagine that you are receiving some criticism as well. Care to share any stories? Would you say the overall feedback you are getting is more negative or more positive?

Mitch: Positive, hands down. The outpouring of support has been humbling, to say the least. Not a day goes by now that I don’t get a couple hundred emails from people around the world expressing how happy they are to see this happening. For example, I got a note from a straight, married Mormon man who told me that he and his wife had been praying for years now for some kind of movement toward reconciliation on the topic of gays and lesbians and the church—that they had experienced much spiritual discord over the topic. The news of my calling—and the direction I’m following from my Bishop and Stake President to outreach to the gay community—strengthened their testimonies of both the church and our Savior. The volume of email and messages are astounding—it tells me people genuinely want heartfelt reconciliation on this challenge. Our faith community is not only ready for this, they’re desirous of it.

I am seeing it locally as well. My first Sunday in the Bay Ward, where I’m serving my new calling, I was approached after speaking in Sacrament Meeting by several straight members with similar stories. And, I was approached by at least three gay men—some of them new to the ward—who are also happy to see movement in this direction. In the Oakland stake, an investigator heard me speak about this work and called the Bishop and said he was ready to move forward into full fellowship—that the gay and lesbian issue had been a sticking point with him.

It’s been overwhelming, but in a very good way.

Scott: People are having very public conversations speculating about the details of your private life. That has to be fun. Some of the flak you have been given is because you haven’t committed to a life of celibacy, which some people interpret as you "planning to sin" and are therefore unrepentant and unworthy. Could you explain this?

Mitch: There’s been a lot of attention on what my romantic future may or may not hold, and I understand that.

First, my commitment is to uphold the identical standards we ask of any single male in a priesthood leadership role while I have this calling; that is fair, and I do so with full purpose of heart. I was interviewed, deemed worthy, and sustained in the identical fashion as any other single male would have been. That is also fair.

Beyond that, I simply don’t know. I don’t have any increased psychic abilities as a result of taking this position. I don’t get to know what life will bring me—romantically, professionally, or otherwise. I am a gay man, and gay men are emotionally and intimately attracted to other men. That hasn’t changed. And, I have always strived to live my life in accordance with what I understand my Savior’s will for me to be. That hasn’t changed, either. Both of these qualities are part and parcel of my DNA as a gay Mormon.

I think we, as humans, tend to get ourselves in trouble when we use the terms “always” and “never.” As far as I know, there has been only one unchangeable, perfect human who always made the right choices. The rest of us aren’t perfect, and life comes to us in ways we often don’t expect. I think the best any of us can do is hold good intentions, stay close to our Savior, and do our level best. And if I haven’t misread my scriptures entirely, I think that’s all He asks us to do.

Scott: I understand you were called because you are gay, not in spite of it. Is that accurate? What unique qualities do you plan to bring to your calling as a gay Mormon? What do you view as the mission of your calling?

Mitch: My mission in my calling is to follow the orders of my Stake Presidency and my Bishop, Don Fletcher. Within the ward boundaries of the San Francisco Bay Ward alone, we have 2500 members; only 500 members actively attend. Many of those who are inactive are single men and women—some of whom have served missions, and honorably so. Their families are still members. And many of these are our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, who feel like they have no place among our flanks. I’ve been asked to help build a bridge between these two communities, and it is my pleasure to do so.

My Bishop’s direction is this: The doors of the church in San Francisco are open to any and all, regardless of where people are in their lives; partnered, single, monogamous, dating, celibate—there’s room for everyone in our congregation. Bishop Fletcher said the other day that he wants our biggest problem to be lack of seating in the chapel on Sunday, and a challenge in keeping people from talking to one another during Sacrament Meeting because they are so darned glad to see one another. What a great goal! How could I not want to be part of a team like that?

Yes, I was called in part because I am gay. I have a foot in both worlds, Scott. I’m a gay Mormon, and one who is comfortable living with what so many see as two irreconcilable perspectives. And that gives me the unique ability to help my leadership understand what we go through as gay Mormons, and also speak to the gay community about our faith. That’s a great thing, and a pretty impressive blessing I’ve been given. I’m grateful for it.

My mission is simple: Follow the guidance set forth by my leadership. They’re the coaches. They write the plays. They direct the game. I’m just the quarterback who executes.

Scott: Wow. Your leaders sound amazing.

You've been fairly public about announcing your calling. Even before your calling you have been a very vocal gay Mormon. How does that play into your goals for this calling?

Mitch: One of my goals has always been to help people understand that it’s our similarities that bind us—not our differences that separate us. We’re all children of our Father. He loves us for exactly where we are, and exactly who we are.

Yes, I have been very public about being a gay Mormon for a long time—talking about not only the struggles we face, but also the joy we get from the gospel. That won’t change with this new calling. But the great thing now, is I get to be able to be part of a team of kind, compassionate and inspired men who want to do the right thing. And I get to leverage my history as a gay Mormon to do it—to hopefully create a better future for all of us.

But this really isn’t about me—it’s about the opportunity for all of us within our faith to come a little bit closer to demonstrating the kind of unconditional love our Savior has asked us to emulate. True, I am more open than many others feel comfortable being. In the end, we all need to stop declaring our individual identities over the pulpit and just focus on being disciples to our Savior. But until the invisible among us are recognized and respected, I think it’s incumbent upon me to do a little more identity sharing.

Scott: What is a straight ally? Why should we be one? And what should we do? Can one be a straight ally and still sustain the leaders of the church?

Mitch:This is a great set of questions—so many people have asked me what it is and how they can become one. I think in most ways they already are by virtue of simply asking the question, quite frankly. A straight ally is someone who recognizes exactly what we’re trying to accomplish here in San Francisco: that we’re all children of our Father, and there’s room for every one of us at His table. And someone whose actions and words speak that vision of equality among our brothers and sisters. The great news is so many people are asking the question—and how amazing that is!

I’m teaming up with Caitlin Ryan of the Family Acceptance Project in the next few weeks to begin to put together a package for those who are interested in learning more. It will cover things like how parents can talk to LGBTQ children, how Bishops and leaders in the church can support LGBTQ folks, and what the role of the congregation is—all in ways that are in keeping with the guidance our faith provides. So stay tuned, there is much more to come on this topic as well.

And can you be an ally and still sustain the leaders of the church? Absolutely! Our faith is built on the gospel of our Savior, and one of the cornerstones of His gospel is the commandment to love one another. I think this direction goes hand in hand with His mandate to us.

Scott: Homosexuality is a very controversial/sensitive subject within the LDS church. Being gay, has it been difficult to maintain activity in and a testimony of the church?

Mitch: I think one of the best things that’s happened since this announcement is the volume of people who’ve begun to ask questions like this: How does it work for you? Is it challenging? How can you be both gay AND Mormon? Maybe, for the first time, people are beginning to understand what it is like to hold two seemingly irreconcilable perspectives in their heads and hearts. To them I say, “Welcome to a small glimpse of what it’s like to be a gay Mormon—we have to grapple with this every day.”

It’s not an easy task, being a gay Mormon. And, I don't think it's supposed to be easy...our Savior sent us here to grapple with difficult choices, seemingly competing perspectives, and challenging situations. That's part of the plan. But He also blessed us with the spirit, the ability to communicate with Him (and Him with us), and critical thinking skills. I think we offend Him when we don't bring those gifts to bear on every matter, not just the rough ones. That's also part of the plan—and what a great one it is!

I’ve been blessed with a unique faith community here in the bay area. I could live a quiet, healthy, happy life as a member of my church here—fully accepted for exactly who I am. But, I think my Savior had a different plan in store. He blessed me with some marginal communication skills (which He augments every time I speak or write!), and gave me a pathway to share what I have—by helping create it in other wards. True, I could have declined and probably had a much more peaceful life than I’ll have now, but to decline it would be toss back into my Savior’s face all the blessings and opportunities He has given me. And given how much I owe Him, I can’t possibly refuse.

Scott: Earlier you mentioned that in your area, "the doors of the church are open." What exactly does this mean? What is different in your ward and stake?

Mitch: “The doors are open.” This is a quote from my leadership. It means that everyone—independent of where they are in their lives—is welcome in the Bay Ward. There is no authorization interview to sit in our chapel on Sunday. There is no test to take to qualify for our love, support, and kindness.

True, doctrine as we understand it today has not changed; but no one will ask you to give up your partner or change your life to attend. Is it a doctrinal change? No. Is it a great and wonderful softening of the perception of all of our Savior’s children as our brothers and sisters? Will it help mend families? Will it help people who want the feeling of being part of a community of faith? Absolutely!

Scott: What an inspiring message you bring with you today, Mitch—a message I think we can all benefit from. I hope we can all grow in unconditional love and empathy for our fellow brothers and sisters. I’m excited to see such a big step in this direction, and I know a lot of my fellow Mormons feel the same way. Thanks so much for stopping by!

One last question: The goatee—did you have to shave or did they let you keep it?

Mitch: Hahaha! I love this question! No, no one has asked me to shave it. In fact, in one of my lighter moments a few months back I put up a before/after photo of me with and without the goatee on Facebook, and opened it up to a poll to help determine whether or not I should keep it. I think there was only one vote to shave it off. I suspect it hides some of my face, so I can understand the requests, and shall follow suit. I am, after all, here to serve my fellows—facial hair and all.

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