Ted Fairchild, who is openly gay, has HIV and serves as a part-time LDS missionary in the Bay Area, left the love of his life to return to church activity. Linda Schweidel wondered why her bright, successful returned-missionary husband still was not ready for children after eight years of marriage. That’s when he broke down and told her he was gay.
Diane Oviatt held her sobbing gay son in a darkened kitchen as he poured out years of grief at the secret he had been carrying for 18 years and wondered how he would get to heaven without marrying.
These were among the anguished stories several Mormons shared during emotional church services Oakland LDS Stake held last summer to heal rifts caused by the faith’s activism in the Golden State on behalf of traditional marriage.
In June 2008, the LDS First Presidency asked all California Mormons to give their time and money to Proposition 8, a ballot measure striking down gay marriage. Many members did so with gusto, circulating petitions, raising money, sending e-mails to church lists and putting up lawn signs.
That left other Bay Area Mormons, particularly those with gay friends and relatives, feeling embattled and alienated. Some stepped away temporarily from church; others left for good. Those who remained often felt at odds with fellow believers.
Oakland Stake President Dean Criddle, a respected lawyer and gentle leader, sensed the ripples of collective pain and wanted to reunite his flock, says Matt Marostica, bishop of the Berkeley Ward.
So Criddle and his counselors assembled quotes and speeches from LDS general authorities that stressed love and compassion for those with same-sex attraction. They then asked each of the 10 wards in the stake to hold a joint meeting of adult members during church services on either Aug. 30 or Sept. 6 to hand out the quotes and listen to personal stories from area members.
The response in Oviatt’s suburban Moraga, Calif., ward was electric, Oviatt says. “Everyone in the audience was weeping. Men came up to my husband, crying, and hugged him, saying, ‘We love you and we love your son.’ ”
A couple of the more ardent ballot supporters apologized to Oviatt for having Prop 8 signs on their lawns, saying, “We never knew.”
Several people told Berkeley’s bishop, Marostica, how much they appreciated the meetings, including one woman who said, “I am so glad we did this. This is the church I know and love.”
[s]Till they have faces » The authorities’ statements and church setting provided a comfort level to Mormons who rarely discuss homosexuality openly, except to condemn it as a social trend or satanic tool. By all accounts, though, it was the stories that were transforming.
One man, who outed himself from the pulpit during one of the meetings, talked about a life of being scorned, bullied and accused by other Mormons of bringing on the AIDS pandemic. Still, every week when he takes the sacrament bread and water, God’s voice whispers to him: “You belong here.”
It’s the same voice Fairchild has heard over and over since becoming active in the LDS Church as a 17-year-old in Pullman, Wash., in 1970.
He served a two-year mission in Mexico, earned a degree at Brigham Young University and married a woman because, he says, she was pretty and could play the piano. The couple had two daughters.
But Fairchild always knew he was gay and eventually couldn’t continue the lie. He fell for a man.
“It was the only time,” Fairchild says, “I have ever been physically, emotionally and spiritually in love.”
By 1986, he and his partner were diagnosed with HIV, which at the time was a death sentence. Elder Richard G. Scott — then an LDS Seventy, now an apostle — gave Fairchild a blessing in which he asked God to build a protective wall around his cells. In that moment, Fairchild believed he needed to live by Mormon standards. He broke up with his love and returned to the church.
“Once you’ve experienced the Holy Ghost,” he says, “there’s no other feeling like it.”
More than 20 years later, Fairchild is relatively healthy and at peace with his decision. He believes he was born gay and a child of a loving Heavenly Father, twin qualities that make him a more effective “worker in God’s kingdom.”
Letting go or holding fast » That doesn’t work for Oviatt’s son, Ross Oviatt, who has not been back to church.
He attended BYU for a few semesters, she says, but it was a “toxic environment.” The Prop 8 fallout — which continues in California with the ballot measure now before a judge – proved difficult for Ross as he tried to weather homophobic slurs and keep his secret. He misses his Mormon experience and friends, but the association is too painful.
It hasn’t been easy for the rest of the family, either.
“We had to re-examine our place in the church,” Oviatt says. “We are not leaving, but it’s hard to stay in a religion that does not embrace our child. If we had to choose between the two, we’d choose Ross.”
Some Mormons in the stake see only one choice: following church edicts.
“I am a faithful Latter-day Saint, happily married with children, striving to live up to my temple covenants, fulfill my calling, be a good father and all the other things which active members of the church try to do,” one man wrote to Criddle in between the two joint sessions. “According to your definition of homosexuality, I am also a homosexual. I have had strong attractions to men (and exclusively men) my whole life.”
But homosexuality is not his identity, just a temptation he refuses to act on, the writer said. He thought the stake should have included more emphasis on heterosexual marriage as the core of Mormon teachings.
Criddle shared the letter (without identification) in all the wards.
Coming back » In what she calls, the “dark days of Proposition 8,” Schweidel took a “leave of absence” from the church.
She didn’t know if she could return. But when Criddle and Marostica asked her to tell her story at one of the joint sessions, she readily accepted.
She has been attending and involved ever since.
“The special meeting made me want to be part of a positive change in the church,” she says. “I want to talk to people, to explain why I feel like I do, and help them try to understand.”
That may work in Berkeley, but how about Bountiful?
Schweidel is hopeful. There are two kinds of Mormons, she says, quoting a friend: those who know gay people and those who don’t know they know gay people.
The task, she says, is to move more members from the second to the first category.
“If my mom in Orem had gay neighbors next door, I know she would love them,” Schweidel says. “The Mormons I have spoken to make an effort to understand. They totally get it.”