Wendy Montgomery was raised, and raised her children, in the Mormon church. She was part of the church's campaign to aid a ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage in California. But her faith was shaken when she found out her teenage son is gay. She talks to Tell Me More host Michel Martin about how she came to accept her son and her faith, and is now trying to change the Mormon Church from the inside.
"Everything I thought a gay person was..."
My husband and I both grew up in very devout, conservative Mormon households and communities. And I remember hearing things growing up like 'AIDS is God's punishment for homosexuality' and that being gay was a choice. It was wrong, it was a deviant lifestyle. So I had a lot of judgments and stereotypes and preconceived ideas coming into this. One of the first thoughts I had when I learned Jordan was gay was that everything I thought a gay person was, he was none of those things.
On watching her son's internal struggles
I had to take a lot of ownership knowing that those thoughts were there because of the way we had raised him, the way I was raised, the church we belonged to. He didn't think he fit into our family. He didn't think he fit into the church that we had raised him into, and he didn't know where he belonged. And he couldn't find a way to make it work and thought because he didn't have a purpose in life that he just didn't want to be here. There's just something not right with a 13 year old having to think that. I found myself being angry that he even had those thoughts in his head and how unfair those emotions were to him.
Keeping the faith
There was no question in my mind, 100%, we would accept him, we would love him, none of that change. If I had to make a choice between my son and my church, it would be my son. There was no question. The part I struggled was, I didn't want to have to chose between my church, I didn't want to have to give my church up. I wanted to make it work in the context of my faith, and that was where it became hard.
No apologies, please
Having a gay son, some people come up and they apologize, they're like "oh, I'm so sorry, that must be awful." And I think, are you kidding? What you look at as a burden has become one of my biggest blessings. I am a better person for having a gay son. Blinders that I didn't even know I was wearing have been taken off. I love people more, I judge people less. My religion didn't teach me how to love, my son did. And I am so grateful for that. ... So when people apologize to me for having a gay son, I say "please don't." My life isn't hard and hard things don't happen because I have a gay son. It's how people treat me because I have a gay son.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we've been getting a flood of responses to two big issues we've talked about this week, the federal government shutdown and dodgeball. We'll find out more in Backtalk in just a few minutes.
But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality and often we talk about how faith influences public policy. Well, one area where faith and politics intersect and often clash these days is the issue of same-sex marriage. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon church, has been instrumental in efforts to maintain this country's long-standing ban on same-sex marriage, particularly, in the 2008 campaign for California's Proposition 8. Lifelong Mormon Wendy Montgomery and her husband were part of it, but their views changed years later when they discovered that their teenage son was gay. She and her husband are now the faces of a growing movement calling for change within the LDS church and how it views sexual orientation. And she is with us now to tell us more. Wendy Montgomery, thank you so much for joining us, welcome.
WENDY MONTGOMERY: Hi, thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So how did you figure out that your son, Jordan - how did you figure out that he was gay? As I understand it - that you started having conversations about this when he was about 13.
MONTGOMERY: Yeah, he was in eighth grade and he started becoming really depressed and he's normally a very happy kid - always smiling, very exuberant, enthusiastic personality. And he stopped eating. He would sleep all the time. His grades fell - becoming really depressed. So we were really, really worried about him. We would try and talk with him. He didn't want to talk to us about it. And he had recently started keeping a journal. So I really felt strongly to go read his journal.
The first and only time I have done that. And he only had a couple entries in it. And in one of the entries he had made a comment that said that he had noticed a boy in his class and he noticed what beautiful eyes this boy had. And it kind of shocked him when he had that realization 'cause he thought of some girls that he knew and their eyes didn't interest him very much. So that was kind of my initial discovery, and there was about two weeks period of time before Jordan was able to tell us. And I kind of count those two weeks as quite a blessing that I'm grateful for because I was able to really do a lot of searching and information gathering so I would know how best to help him and have the right reaction for him when he was able to come out.
MARTIN: What do you think you were bringing to that conversation? I mean, what is it that you were taught and your husband were taught about homosexuality?
MONTGOMERY: Well, I grew up - my husband and I both grew up in very devout, conservative Mormon households and communities. And I remember hearing things growing up like AIDS is God's punishment for homosexuality and that being gay was a choice, it was wrong, it was a deviant lifestyle. So I had a lot of judgments and stereotypes and preconceived ideas coming into this. You know, one of the first thoughts I had when I learned that Jordan was gay was everything that I thought a gay person was, he was none of those things. So I had to immediately let go of all of these - what I thought a gay person was, and unlearn all of these old stereotypes and relearn what it meant to be gay.
MARTIN: And was that an instant process for you or - was it kind of a eureka moment for you or was it something that you came to over time?
MONTGOMERY: It pretty much was a eureka moment. It was within a matter of days, I had just gone almost a 180 where there was no question in my mind 100 percent we would accept him, we would love him, none of that changed. If I had to make a choice between my son and my church, it would be my son. There was no question. The part I struggled with was I didn't want to have to choose between my church. I didn't want to have to give my church up. I wanted to make it work in the context of my faith and that was where it became hard. So a lot of my research was trying to make it work and trying to find an example of, you know, another Mormon family that had made it work. And I couldn't find any.
MARTIN: So - well, I want to talk about that if you would for a minute.
MARTIN: But I also want to talk a little bit about what was at stake for you. In part because part of your research led you to the understanding that suicidal thoughts and that, in fact, suicide attempts for many young people is tied to the discovery of their sexual orientation and their fears that they would not be accepted by their families and communities as a result. I mean, I know it's painful and I apologize for bringing it up, but you and your family were featured in a short documentary by the Family Acceptance Project. That's a group that aims to help LGBT children within conservative traditions find acceptance. And in it Jordan talks about the fact that he had some struggles. I just want to play that short clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FAMILIES ARE FOREVER")
JORDAN MONTGOMERY: I was thinking I would just, like, get all the pills, take them all at once and die right then.
MARTIN: He's not the only one. So what was it like for you to hear that?
MONTGOMERY: Going through that and knowing that he had those thoughts and I had to take a lot of ownership knowing that those thoughts were there because of the way we had raised him, the way I was raised, the church we belonged to. He didn't think he fit into our family. He didn't think he fit into the church that we had raised him into. And he didn't know where he belonged, and he couldn't find a way to make it work and thought because he didn't have a purpose in life that he just — he didn't want to be here. And there's just something not right with a 13-year-old having to think that. And I found myself being angry that he even had those thoughts in his head and how unfair those emotions were to him. And that was the thing that knowing he was even thinking those things, it just - it was some of the most devastating moments I've ever had. And as a mother, thinking that your child is thinking those things, there is not a thing in this world you wouldn't do to stop those feelings from entering your child's heart and head.
MARTIN: I'm sorry to take you through that. I apologize.
MONTGOMERY: No, that's OK. It's OK.
MARTIN: One of the things that struck me is that you have - you as a family - you and your husband have made the decision to stay in the church. And I apologize, for some people it's a ridiculous question but for some people it's an obvious question - which is why?
MONTGOMERY: Well, it's the church that I was raised in and there are so many things that are beautiful that I really like about the Mormon church. There are things that are unique to it that I don't know if I could find in other places. But some of the reasons that we choose to stay besides it being something that I believe in very strongly, because it's so difficult to be gay and be a Mormon, we want to stay to help those that are in the same situation because there's a lot that are and there's not very many people that they can turn to for help. And it seems that when people leave the church, they kind of lose their voice and any influence they would have. So if we were to leave the church because that feels easier to us or less confrontational for other people, if we were to leave the church, people would not listen to our experience and it would make it so that they would discount our experience and we want to be able to change things for the better as much as one family can.
MARTIN: I'm speaking with Wendy Montgomery. She is a mother of five, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and we are talking about how her faith was tested when she discovered that her son is gay. And we're talking about her struggle to reconcile her faith and her desire to stay within her faith tradition. So how has it been? Have you been able to stay? Are you able to go to church? Are you welcomed when you go?
MONTGOMERY: Yeah, we go. We're there every week. We have had to recently change wards, which is - it's the congregation that we go to. We had been in that ward for about 10 years. We changed a few months ago because it was getting really hard. There had been a lot of really, really hateful things that were happening so we're trying to go to a different ward. And it's making things really difficult for Jordan, you know.
MARTIN: Why is that? Do people say things to him or is the issue...
MARTIN: ...The subject of preaching that's hard to hear or do people say mean things or do they refuse to sit with you or what's...
MONTGOMERY: Yeah, it's kind of all of that. A couple examples is in our church the 12-year-old - 12 and 13-year-old boys pass the sacrament to the congregation. It's - the sacrament can be compared to like Catholic communion. And there were some people that wouldn't take the sacrament when my son passed it to them and would only take it from other boys. There were - you know, there were some people that told me I should have my children taken away from me and given to somebody that would teach them to follow the prophet better. I taught Sunday school to 15 and 16-year-olds and my husband was the elders quorum president, which is kind of over the men of the ward. And we were just getting a lot of complaints about the lessons that we were teaching, even though we never even brought up our son or homosexuality at all. You know, they just didn't want us working with their children.
MARTIN: There are those who argue that - that there is change within the church, however slow it may seem. For example, the church did not take the stance that some expected it might in relation to the Boy Scouts' policy, that Boy Scouts have now agreed to allow openly gay youth to serve, and the church has accepted that, some thought that they would not. And there's a website dedicated to conversations around the issue. Do you see that as kind of moving in the direction that you hope, or not?
MONTGOMERY: Yes. No, I actually - I'm actually very hopeful. In fact, a good friend of mine that is gay and has been working on this issue for a long time made the comment he said, you know, in the last year there has been more movement on this issue inside the Mormon church than there has been in the past 40 years. He said it feels like God has his finger on the fast-forward button. So I am hopeful. There is this - the new website which is Mormonsandgays.org. There is a lot about it that I absolutely love that's really great. For the first time ever, the Mormon church has come out and said we recognize this is not a choice.
And I know this is common knowledge to many, but this is a big deal at least in our church because I was taught that it was. And that is still something that we run into, that people look at my son and say he's choosing this. And when they realize that this is not a choice, then they stop treating him like this dirty sinner and they will start treating him with compassion and empathy.
MARTIN: What do you say, though, to those who argue that if you want to biblically lead - that you need to be biblically lead, even when you don't agree? I mean, there are people who say that they abide by commandments in other areas that they might not wish to, but that they do because they're faithful and this is just, just - forgive me, just another one. What do you say to that? I know that that's an argument, what do you say to that?
MONTGOMERY: I have two thoughts about that. It's virtually impossible to be a Bible literalist and to follow every commandment in the Bible because they contradict themselves so often. And there are so many - I mean, it's thou shall not kill and there are so many instances in the Bible where God commands them to kill people. Or there's a lot of commandments in the Bible that we don't necessarily keep anymore. I mean, we don't stone children for being disobedient and we eat shellfish and we wear mixed fiber clothing. And, you know, things of that nature. But I go back to the New Testament where Jesus Christ was on the Earth and he said - he was asked what is the greatest of the commandments and he said to love God and the second is like unto it, and that's to love your neighbor, which I define as loving everyone. So I find it a fairly easy thing to reconcile that if we just love God and love everyone else and we save the judging of each other for God, that's it. We just love. And it becomes a lot easier and a lot clearer to see things.
MARTIN: How is Jordan?
MONTGOMERY: Oh, he's doing really well. He's such a naturally happy kid. Even with all of the negative, he's in such a better place now than he was before he was out two years ago, 'cause he knows that we know the real him now and that he has our complete and total support and that we love him a hundred percent. And, you know, I think family, love and support goes a really long way in healing the hurts from other parts of our lives where things aren't as good.
MARTIN: How are you doing?
MONTGOMERY: I'm good, most of the time. It's - having a gay son is - I mean, some people come up and they apologize to me like, oh I'm so sorry, that must be awful. And I think are you kidding? You know, what you look at as a burden has become one of my biggest blessings. You know, I am a better person for having a gay son. You know, blinders that I didn't even know I was wearing have been taken off. You know, I love people more. I judge people less. I just, you know, my religion didn't teach me how to love, my son did. And I am so grateful for that. I mean, it's a blessing I wouldn't have had if I didn't have Jordan, if I didn't have a gay son. So when people apologize to me for having a gay son, I say please don't. You know, because - and it's not - my life isn't hard and hard things don't happen because I have a gay son, it's how people treat me because I have a gay son.
MARTIN: Wendy Montgomery joined us from her home in Bakersfield, California. Wendy Montgomery, my very best to you.
MONTGOMERY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.