27 February 2014

Utah State Senate Testimony Session

Today I attended an after hours "session" of the Utah State Senate. There were about 40 members of the Utah House and Senate present, and more than 300 people present representing the LGBT community and their loved ones. This was the first public conversation between our state's legislators and the Utah LGBT community where they had an opportunity to meet people in our community, and to see us as constituents rather than a charade of smoke and mirrors.
I was asked by Equality Utah to prepare a statement to read at the session. In the end, I wasn't chosen to testify at the meeting, but being there to hear the testimonies of the courageous men and women, as well as the reactions of the legislators, meant the entire world to me. To see the tears from Senator Luz Robles, and Representative Jen Seelig, and to hear the sincere words of love and community from these men and women. 

The highlight of the evening for me, was Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox. This man had to leave in the middle of the meeting to give a speech at a conference downtown. No one would have thought less of him if he didn't come back... hell, no one could have possibly known if he would have had enough time to come back. But he came back to listen to us. And that has left a lasting impression on me.
At the end of the meeting, I was able to meet Lt. Gov. Cox. He came up to myself and the woman I was speaking to, to introduce himself personally. He had tears in his eyes as he expressed his regret that he had to leave, and miss out on our stories. It was at this moment, that I pulled out my typed testimony from my bag, and I handed it to him. I told him that there was no greater respect he could have shown to us than to come back to the meeting. It proved that the conversation was important enough for him to come back and understand. 

I could not have asked for a more understanding group of men and women to share my experiences with. Because I didn't have the opportunity to testify publicly, I'm publishing my prepared testimony here. People need to hear our stories and our experiences. No one should live in fear in this state. Ever.

My name is Ellen Koester. I’m 24 years old, and I consider myself to be a pretty normal person. I play the piano, ride a motorcycle, and make the world’s best spaghetti and meat sauce. I take my dog for walks, I spend way too much time on Facebook, and I only ski on the best snow on earth. But simply, I’m me! I’m a full time student, a lesbian and, most importantly, I am an active Latter Day Saint.

In 2009, I was a 19 year old freshman attending Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I was a newly baptized member of the LDS Church, and at semester’s end, I started looking for housing and employment off campus. I soon found that my bishop was a landlord with apartments for rent, and my stake president was looking for another employee for the summer. Both welcomed me with open arms, and I considered myself to be a responsible tenant and a hard working employee.

Ever since I was a little girl, I knew that I was gay, but when I joined the Church, I became hesitant and scared to tell other people. But one day, about a year later, I decided to confide in a roommate about the struggles, and feelings of internal contention I was having. My roommate was less than compassionate, and the next day I received a call from the bishop letting me know that the apartment I had called home would cease to be home in 48 hours. The next day, when I went into work, I was immediately pulled into my supervisor’s office, and told to pack my things.

I was blindsided. I felt betrayed, because I had not violated the contract of my lease, nor had I violated any workplace policies. When I started looking into the legality of what had happened, I was certain that I would find protection in the Civil Rights Act, and in laws passed by the state. But where I found protection for race, color, sex, religion, national origin and disability, I found that protection of sexual orientation was nowhere to be found. I was 20 years old, and I was completely alone.

In the Gospel of John, in chapter 13, verse 34 we read these words, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you.” From these words we learn that because we are all children of God, we are to love each other, and see each other as if we were looking through God’s eyes. From the official Church website, mormonsandgays.org, we hear Elder Quentin L. Cook say, “[L]et us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion, and outreach to those and lets not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle as a result of their feelings about their own gender. I’m sorry, I feel very strongly about this as you can tell. I think it’s a very important principle.”

Senators, I want to thank you for the time you have spent here today, and for coming together with our community to find love and understanding. It is only by standing together that we will find great opportunity for tomorrow.

20 February 2014

What Is Truth?

I encourage people who read my blog to express their opinions on the subjects that I write about. Even (and especially) when those opinions disagree with my own. I encourage people to comment on the posts themselves, or on social media where they're posted. Comments are common, and I love them... it shows that you are speaking your truth, and it's instrumental in my ability to speak my own.

Today, I got my first email. I didn't think too much of it, until I got to the subject line. The email, while polite and courteous, spent almost a full typed page telling me that I create doubt rather that build faith... and honestly, I was surprised. This last conference, President Uchtdorf taught us that, "A question that creates doubt in some can, after careful investigation, build faith in others." The things that create doubt in me, can build strength in others. These things that are creating doubt in this person, create strength and stability for me. And that's ok!
I'm used to being labeled. And believe it or not, I really like labels. They're linear, and structured, and I need a little bit of that in my crazy, messed up life. I'm labeled as not having enough faith... and sometimes that's true. I'm labeled as spiritually stunted because I rely on my brain AND my faith, instead of on my faith alone. I'm labeled as a "Doubting Thomas" and quite honestly, I carry that as a badge of pride.

I don't blindly follow the Church. I don't believe it's honest to believe in something, simply because a Church leader told that you it is. Brigham Young said, "I am ... afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self -security. ...Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates." Way too many people do this... me included!
President Dieter F. Uchtdorf gave a CES Fireside in January 2013 titled "What Is Truth?", where he tells us, "Latter-day Saints are not asked to blindly accept everything they hear. We are encouraged to think and discover truth for ourselves. We are expected to ponder, to search, to evaluate, and thereby to come to a personal knowledge of the truth." 

I feel like it's hypocritical to "fall in with the party line" when you don't believe in it, and I believe it's contrary to the message in James 1:5 to ask of God when you lack wisdom, or truth. It's hypocracy, and I firmly believe that there is only one thing that God disapproves of, and it's being a hypocrite.
So... anonymous letter writer... I'm Mormon. I know it. I live it. I love it. I'm Mormon because it's where I belong. I'm Mormon because doctrinally, I believe more often than I doubt. Personal revelation, and promptings from the Holy Ghost have led me to stay in the Church, even while surrounded by hurtful doctrines, and teachings. I'm not going anywhere, better get used to me. ;)

15 February 2014

Doubt Your Doubts

I absolutely love President Dieter F. Uchtdorf. That man is amazing. His talks in General Conference, and articles in the Ensign feel like the are written specifically for me, and no one else. He is the rock that holds my testimony in place. I strive to have the faith that he has, and the love and compassion he has for everyone; not just the members of the Church.
This last conference further strengthened my love for him. He validated my emotions and my concerns about my doubts in Mormonism. He reaffirmed my personal revelation that I needed to stay in the Church. He reaffirmed my place. He pushed aside the people that are unwilling to give me a seat in their pew, and said, "There is a place for you. You belong here." There is nothing about President Uchtdorf that I could dislike. He makes airplane jokes! What's to hate about that?

What I can't stand, however, is the Church's obsession with ignoring EVERYTHING in his talk, and instead only quoting the one-liner, "Doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith".

I see it everywhere. I see it on Facebook, I see it on Twitter. I see it on the wall in the foyer of the Institute Building, and I hear it from all my friends as a catch all cure for all my doubts and questions.
It. Drives. Me. Nuts.

When I see these signs and pin ups, all I think of is: Doubt your doubts about the Church's lack of transparency on its history. Doubt your doubts about the lack of importance of women. Doubt your doubts that the Church had it absolutely WRONG about the Priesthood ban on blacks, polygamy, and now homosexuality. Stay firm in your beliefs, and if concerns arise, doubt your doubts and continue to stay firm in your beliefs. The cycle is never ending.
People assume that "doubt you doubts before you doubt your faith" only applies to doubts about official Church teachings, doctrines and positions, but how many times do we doubt ourselves about something that we know down to our very bones to be right? How many times do we doubt the personal revelation we receive? How many times do we doubt our own inspired and prayerful interpretations of our patriarchal blessings and other Priesthood blessings?

Answer? All of the time.

We see these things as something that we cooked up during our less-than-lucid moments when we're on the brink on sleep, or in the torturous moments before fully waking up. We see them as moments of weakness... confusion, or even the Adversary tempting us into doing something wrong. These things happen, don't get me wrong... but it's not always the case.

I constantly am doubting my doubts. I doubt my own personal revelation. I constantly push back against it, because the majority of the Church sees it as something I made up in my head, because I wanted so badly for it to be true... some even see it as bordering on apostasy. I doubt that God loves me. I doubt that They love me for being gay. I doubt that God made me this way. I go back and forth with myself. I go back and forth with the dogma I was taught to believe with unwavering certainty, and they knowledge I know to be true, by going to God directly... just like Joseph Smith.
When we pray, we turn toward God. When I pray, I feel comforted, not confused. When I pray I am strengthened, not filled with contention. When I pray, I may be scared, but I finish with a level of understanding. Faith isn't faith if we doubt our ability to hear God, or doubt Their ability to deliver us from adversity.

Therefore, my dear sisters and brothers—my dear friends—please, first doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith. We must never allow doubt to hold us prisoner and keep us from the divine love, peace, and gifts that come through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf

11 February 2014

Discrimination Goes Both Ways

Outside the Governor Gary Herbert's office yesterday was a group of 13 men and women, protesting the Utah Senate's refusal to hear SB100, a bill that would make it illegal to refuse housing and employment to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people, based solely on their identity and orientation. Here's the article from The Salt Lake Tribune.

Last week, the House Republican caucus, in a closed door session, decided to kill SB100, (a bill that had a 72% approval in a recent Deseret News poll) along with other bills, by refusing to hear any bill addressing LGBT issues, in order to take the safest course of action so as to not harm the State's position in their appeal of Judge Robert Shelby's decision. House Speaker, Becky Lockhart is quoted by the Tribune saying, "Maybe we should take a step back and see how things go in court. What is the right thing to do in terms of where we are in this process? Where we are right now is the court has it, so let the court deal with it." 

All of this has gotten me thinking... What if I owned my own business, or was a manager for a company and had the authority to fire an employee? What if I was a landlord, or worked at a bank as a mortgage manager, and had the authority to evict a person or a family?

That employee and that family live an alternative lifestyle from my own. Heterosexual relationships are as backwards, unappealing, and unnatural to me as homosexual relationships are to the heterosexual, not to mention that they violate my own personal religious convictions.

Under the current laws in the State of Utah (local laws aside for simplicity's sake), I would be completely within the law to fire and evict them, based solely on the fact that they are straight, and I believe that it's wrong.

Would this ever happen in Utah? No... discrimination against the majority rarely (if never) happens, and even if it would happen, there would be riots in the streets. But perspective is everything... non discrimination bills go both ways...

06 February 2014

"Lord, I Would Follow Thee"

"Who am I to judge another, when I walk imperfectly? In the quiet heart is hidden, sorrow that the eye can't see. Who am I to judge another? Lord, I would follow thee."

This is the second verse of Hymn 220 Lord, I Would Follow Thee from the LDS Hymn Book. We sang this hymn at the opening of my Teachings of President Thomas S. Monson Institute class last night, and after all the hell that has gone on in this class, Brother Butler has really redeemed himself.

The entire lesson was about how we are to be our brother's keeper; not picking out their flaws, and shortcomings, but loving them without judgement or scorn. We talked about President Monson's time serving as the Bishop of the 6th & 7th Ward, and his overwhelming generosity he expressed to his ward members. He gave love and service to his ward without a second thought.
Brother Butler then wrote on the whiteboard these 7 words: Vision, Patience, Balance, Effort, Understanding, Courtesy, and Love. He asked us to pick one of those words and search the Scriptures for references that meant something to us. I immediately turned to the Topical Guide to find something for UnderstandingProverbs 3:5-6 popped out at me first, "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths." For the word Love, I immediately thought of Doctrine and Covenants 18:10, "Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God."

People tend to believe that because someone's lifestyle or opinions don't match our own, we are right in our excuse to not understand them. And because we are excused from understanding them, we excuse ourselves from our duty to love them. We are wrong in doing so. Every soul is of worth in the sight of God! Lean not unto your own understanding about them, and go seek them out in compassion.

The final verse in the Hymn, "Lord, I Would Follow Thee" begins like this, "Savior, may I love my brother as I know thou lovest me," We are to lift the fallen, not to figure out if they deserve to be lifted. We are to heal the hurting, not to judge whether or not they are worthy of the healing. We are to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and to do so without hesitation nor pause. For inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of my brethren, ye have done it unto me. - Matthew 25:40