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Gay youths finding their own paths to faith

By ALLISON ROSS
news@ColumbiaMissourian.com

COLUMBIA — Mark Woodward grew up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

His father's side had been LDS, or Mormon, for three generations; his great-great-grandfather was one of the early leaders of the faith, and his father is a Mormon lay leader — a bishop — in Kansas City.

As a teen, Woodward attended early-morning Mormon religious classes every day before high school. His senior year, he was the president in his church district of the Mormon youth religious training program called Seminary.

To everyone who knew him, Woodward seemed like the perfect example of a devout Mormon youth.

But that started to change the year Woodward moved to college and came out as gay to some of his close friends and later his parents.

In the Mormon religion — as in some other religions or denominations — gay and lesbian relationships are viewed as sins, and gays and lesbians are considered sinners. While not all religious groups oppose homosexuality, members of Christian denominations opposing homosexuality interpret the Bible as limiting romantic and physical relationships to those between men and women.

Woodward spent the next several years struggling to reconcile his faith and his sexuality. But after a long spiritual journey, Woodward, now a graduate student in music composition at MU, no longer identifies himself as a Mormon, describing himself instead as an agnostic and a humanist — a person who rejects religious beliefs and focuses on the values and abilities of humans.

"Until college, I was 100 percent true-blue Mormon," said Woodward, now 25. "I'd known I was gay since early adolescence, but it was always something that had to be overcome."

"My parents are Mormon, and they say that to be really happy is to follow the laws of God," he said. "But ironically, no matter how much I put into religion, I never found peace with myself and God."

According to some scholars, the number of gay and lesbian youth like Woodward who consciously forge their own spiritual paths is growing.

Mary A. Tolbert, executive director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., said the age at which people are acknowledging publicly that they are gay or lesbian has become younger during the past two decades.

"The gay political movement is making people more comfortable and aware of their sexuality," Tolbert said.

"The coming-out process itself is a spiritual journey," Tolbert said. "These youth are coming to terms with who they are in the world, and part of that is knowing who we are sexually. If you do it on a conscious level ... it can be a spiritually maturing process."

Family, friends and clergy need to better understand the sexual and spiritual turmoil gay adolescents may feel, she added.

Some, such as Woodward, eventually leave their religious communities, turning away from religion or moving to a faith community more welcoming of gays. Others attempt to change their sexual orientations and reject homosexual attractions. Others embrace both their religious tradition and their sexuality by becoming leaders for reform within their religious traditions.

Long road to acceptance

For Woodward, forging his personal spiritual path was a struggle. After coming out in college, Woodward spent years attempting to reconcile his religion with his sexuality.

"It was difficult because I knew I wanted to be a good Mormon, but I also knew I couldn't think away my attraction to guys," Woodward said. "I knew it was technically ‘wrong' to be gay, but I still believed I was gay and still was part of the church. There was a lot of cognitive dissonance."

In the spring of 2002, Woodward was hit with an unexplained high fever lasting days. He became convinced God was punishing him for his homosexuality. He said he decided, "If I had to be in the closet to be a good Mormon, I would."

Woodward dated a woman who was a Mormon convert. The couple married in 2003, but the marriage lasted only three years. After the divorce, Woodward reaffirmed his sexuality to his family.

Gradually, Woodward said he stopped believing in the Church of Latter-day Saints as a divinely inspired institution.

"For a long time, I was very angry at religion in general," he said. "I felt that a lot of the decisions I made in my life was for this fabricated doctrine."

Today, Woodward said he accepts his sexuality and his decision to leave organized religion. He now dates a man living in Portland, Ore.

"For young people who have been raised in more conservative traditions, they tend to feel they have to make a choice between their religion and sexual identity," Tolbert said. "For many, that choice eventually becomes their sexuality, and they eventually leave their religious tradition."

The Rev. Dick Blount, a retired minister who now runs Open Door Ministry at Missouri United Methodist Church in Columbia, said many gay youth he meets ask the same question: Why does their church reject them?

"Many of them do feel rejected, with good reason," Blount, 80, said. "Many young people are leaving whatever church it is that does not personify, in its teaching and relationships, the values of love and acceptance."

Blount said that, from his experiences with adolescent gays, it's hard for many young people to leave the religious traditions they grew up with. He counsels anyone who comes to him to find the place or religious identity that fits each best, whether that is finding an inclusive movement within their faith or denomination or embracing another faith.

Synthesizing tradition and sexuality

Unlike Woodward, who lost his faith, some gays remain comfortable in their faith traditions.

As a child raised Catholic, Trevor Turner, 20, attended Mass every Sunday and embraced the main tenets of the faith.

But when he decided to come out in college, Turner began questioning whether it was possible to be both gay and Catholic. So he studied the Bible cover to cover. He prayed. He said he reflected on Jesus' message and on his own emotions and inner spirituality.

Finally, Turner found a spiritual path that made his Catholic faith fit him and his life.

"I had to think about whether I wanted to be a Catholic quite a bit," said Turner, a political science major at MU. "I can't believe everything the Catholic Church says, because if I did, I would have to believe what I am is wrong, and I definitely don't believe that. I've made a personal ... way of worshipping God in the church. It makes me happy."

Turner said it is a misconception that gays aren't religious or don't attend church.

"A lot of people think gays are anti-religious because of all the anti-gay sentiment in a lot of churches," he said. "But you'll find that's not true. ... Gay people crave spirituality just as much as anyone else."

To some in the Catholic Church, Turner's assertion that he is a gay Catholic is a contradiction; official church teaching denounces homosexual acts and relationships. But Turner said he just wants a religion that fulfills him spiritually while allowing him to be true to his inner identity.

"There is nothing wrong with incorporating stuff you like into your religion. People have been doing that for thousands of years," Turner said of the way he rejects church teaching that condemns homosexuality while still finding comfort and spiritual support in Catholic life.

A spiritual journey similar to Turner's led 23-year-old Justin Cannon to become a pastor and to create a Web site called inclusiveorthodoxy.org.

After struggling with the contradictions between church teachings and his search for a meaningful spiritual life, Cannon wrote a Bible study outlining his belief that nothing in the Bible prohibits loving, committed, monogamous gay relationships. Now Cannon is studying to be an Episcopal priest at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Calif.

Cannon's mission is to help gay and lesbian Christians understand his belief that they, too, are loved by God.

"We can remain true to the Christian faith in its fullness and still be inclusive," Cannon said. "I want people to see they can still hold on to all that, to the liturgy and their religious traditions, and still embrace themselves."

But Cannon's interpretation of Christian theology is not embraced by all Christians or all faiths. Exodus International, with 270 associated ministries worldwide, is the largest and best-known ministry aimed at changing gay and lesbians from gays and lesbians to practicing heterosexuals. Exodus Youth, with a presence on MySpace, is aimed specifically at teens and young adults just beginning to understand their spiritual and sexual identities.

The issue has created conflict in nearly every mainline Protestant denomination and within some segments of Judaism. In August, Anglicans worldwide met in London, as they do every 10 years, while about 300 Anglican bishops who disagree with church reaction to gay ordination met earlier in Jerusalem. The issue has led some Episcopal congregations in the U.S. to seek leadership and church authority outside the country.

Cannon believes in being a national leader in efforts to help people of faith accept both their sexuality and their spiritual institution of choice. In 2006, the gay publication OUT magazine named him one of the top 100 influential gay people of the year.

"In terms of your spiritual journey as a gay person, don't let anyone tell you how things are," Cannon said. "Don't let your parents tell you what God thinks. Don't let your friends tell you what the Bible says."

Turner agrees with Cannon's advice for gay and lesbian youth on a spiritual search.

"You won't find the perfect religion. But you can find one that fits best in your life and make it work for you," Turner said.