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Born this way

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NOVEMBER 14, 2023

Content warning: mention of suicide, homophobia

We are all products of our environment. After leaving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) a few years ago to embrace my inner heathen, I hope I can break free from my past.

If you are a Mormon, I do not mean that to be offensive, but at the same time, I would say there are valid reasons for my concern. It may not be the experience of every church member, but this is why I personally can no longer associate with my former faith.

Starting with the early foundations of the LDS church, I no longer find it acceptable that Joseph Smith — the founder of the church — had multiple teenage brides. I no longer believe that he used a rock in a hat to translate The Book of Mormon. I no longer believe the book’s story of a family fleeing Jerusalem around 600 BCE, building a boat and sailing to the unpopulated Americas.

But I used to.

I also used to accept, without question, that the church denied Black people temple ordinances until 1978, used electroshock therapy on gay people through the ‘70s and continues to keep all women from positions of authority. 

At the time, none of these affected me, so I kept quiet and minded my own business.

Being raised in a faith that teaches you to see the world in black and white also taught me not to question what I am told by church leaders. I felt that everything they told me was true, and to reject their teachings was to reject God.

That is why I believed them when they told me it is better, in the eyes of God, to kill myself than to exist as a queer person. Every day for years, I almost followed this teaching.

I wonder sometimes if mine is an extreme case or if that is the standard treatment towards queer Mormons. Based on the suicide rates of queer LDS people, I would say my story is not an exception.

I came out on April 22, 2020, with the mask of COVID-19 to keep me out of the public eye as I faced backlash from my old friends — fellow Mormons who made up over 10% of my class. The people I had been raised through school and church with decided knowing all of me was reason enough to cut ties — or worse.

During the summer of 2020, following my coming out, I was lying asleep at the beach when my former friend’s dad, one of the local church leaders, raised a Yeti cooler full of drinks over my head and threw it down on me. Confused and in pain, I walked away because I had been raised with the idea that a church authority figure should not be questioned. Anything they do or say is true, no questions asked.

Or so I had been told.

COVID-19’s isolation also gave me room to experience a life without the LDS church. I explored many religions for a while, hoping one would satisfy the gap in my life that came with rejecting a part of me that had always been so important. 

I found some truth to every religion, but I also found flaws. After reading many major religious texts at least once, I came to understand organized religion was not something I wanted or needed anymore.

So, I settled into agnosticism and defined my own belief system. I would define what that is for me, but to put my beliefs in writing is exactly the problem with organized religion. My perspective and beliefs are for me, not you. The one belief I will share, however, is that I will never subscribe to “group think.”

The community that raised me told me to hate myself with the infamous Mormon smile described in the Broadway play, “The Book of Mormon.” I still get PTSD from religious conversations and around church music. I struggle to share parts of my new life with my family members who remain in the church.

Through it all, however, I am grateful for the trauma; it made me who I am — and I love who I am. I would not have believed this was possible a few years ago. I did not deserve to go through what I did, but I can heal from the pain now that I have left its source.

Religion is not inherently bad. It provides community, hope and answers in a world that seems to lack any clear guidebook — yet I question how much power any single religion should hold. 

The single most important lesson I learned from growing up religious was that it is often easier to follow the belief system you are born into than to risk losing it. We inherit generational biases, prejudices and traumas because we absorb our predecessors’ beliefs, politics and worldviews. 

Watching the world in pain over such issues reminds me how much we need to break these generational curses to find peace and progress between people and our planet.

I still have a lot of unlearning before I can fully escape my past, but I know we can be both products of our environment and forces to change it. Let’s change it for the better.

Gavin McAlpin writes Monday's column about being a chronically unprepared child thrust into the adult world of college life. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter

NOVEMBER 14, 2023