Nathan Kitchen remembers the week of Nov. 5, 2015, with exceptional clarity.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church, had just announced that it was branding LGBTQ members in same-sex relationships as apostates and barring their kids from being baptized.
Kitchen, a gay, lifelong Mormon, remembers gathering his children around him and explaining what had happened. He remembers tears streaming down his face when his youngest child asked, “Why do they want to do that to us?”
“For the first time in their lives my children felt exclusion from their church,” Kitchen told HuffPost this week. “It was confusing and crushing.”
“I don’t know a lot of things in this life, but having lived in that moment, I know that was not love,” he added. “I recognize it as a lot of other things, but I do not recognize it as love.”
But the church’s top leader, President Russell M. Nelson, sees the now-defunct policy differently.
During an address to students at Utah’s church-owned Brigham Young University on Tuesday, Nelson admitted that the controversial 2015 mandate had “created concern and confusion for some and heartache for others.” However, Nelson, who was part of a top governing body when the decision was made, insisted that the policy ― and its 2019 reversal ― were “motivated by love.”
“We feel the depth of God’s love for His children, we care deeply about every child of God, regardless of age, personal circumstances, gender, sexual orientation, or other unique challenges,” the 95-year-old leader said.
But for some queer Mormons and ex-Mormons, as well as allies, Nelson’s words were further proof that the church has a long way to go in understanding the suffering of its LGBTQ members.
Watch a video of President Russell M. Nelson’s speech at Brigham Young University below.
In 2015, the church adopted a policy that prohibited children of same-sex couples from being baptized until they turned 18 ― at which point, they would need to move out of their parents’ homes, disavow their parents’ relationship, and get approval for baptism from church leadership. The 2015 policy automatically treated married same-sex couples as apostates, which meant the couples would be forced to go through disciplinary hearings that could lead to excommunication.
These disciplinary measures carried a significant amount of weight within the faith since members consider family relationships to be of central importance ― both in this life and in the afterlife. Church leaders said at the time that the move was intended to help reduce confusion for children, who would be hearing dueling messages about their parents’ marriages at church and at home.
Over the next few years, the policy caused extensive damage to families, according to Affirmation, a support group for LGBTQ Mormons, of which Kitchen is president. The group claims same-sex couples were actively sought out, brought before church disciplinary councils, and excommunicated for apostasy. The policy reportedly sparked custody battles between divorced, mixed-orientation parents, fueled by the straight parent’s desire for their child to be a church member. The policy also stigmatized children of same-sex couples and fractured families that felt forced to choose between supporting queer loved ones or obeying church leaders, the group said.
It wasn’t untilApril 2019, after years of fierce criticism from LGBTQ Mormons and their allies, that the policy was rescinded. At that point, Affirmation began collecting stories about the negative impacts of the policy.
Kitchen said he has no doubt that Nelson genuinely believes the policy was given and removed in love. But that is not how LGBTQ Mormons received it, he said.
“When I read these stories of life under the policy by LGBTQ Mormons, I do not discern the fruits of love,” Kitchen said.
“The reasons and concerns he stated are valid, however when it came to the execution of resolving such concerns through policy and governance, they just did not have the educational resources to make a fully informed decision concerning the pastoral care of LGBTQ Mormons and their families,” he added.
The church previously characterized the 2015 policy as a “revelation,” which carries special weight in Mormon theology as a mandate that comes straight from God. On Tuesday, Nelson clarified that there’s a distinction between church doctrine ― which still states that same-sex relationships are a sin ― and church policy, which can be adjusted “when the Lord directs us to do so.”
Erika Munson, a straight ally and co-founder of the support group Mormons Building Bridges, noted that while Nelson’s address on Tuesday contained an explanation of leaders’ reasoning, it did not contain an apology for the incredible amount of harm the policy caused.
An apology is necessary, Munson said, and it should be accompanied by action ― by training local leaders on how to welcome queer members, for example. While some congregations are affirming of LGBTQ members, that is not the case throughout the country.
“A long term commitment to reconciliation is what we need,” Munson said. “It needs to be more than even a one-time apology, it needs to be a way of being in the church where leaders can listen to stories of LGBTQ people and sit with them in their pain.”
Kathy Carlston, an ex-Mormon from Salt Lake City, told HuffPost that the 2015 policy caused “profound pain” in the lives of people she loved who were already suffering ― people like her wife, who had depression and died by suicide in 2018.
“While her pain had dozens of complex sources, she expressed several times to me that she felt profound sorrow in being cut off from the church she loved,” Carlston said.
Carlston said she withdrew her church membership this May after the policy was rescinded without apology or restitution. She told HuffPost she now feels a “great deal of anger” about Nelson’s suggestion that the policy was motivated by love.
“Abusers may feel that their actions are inspired by love, but their acts are still abuse,” Carlston said. “People were profoundly hurt by this policy. People questioned their value as human beings. People were cast off by their families, disowned by their children.”
She said she’s particularly angered that Nelson gave his speech at BYU. With thousands of students in the audience, Carlston believes it’s likely that hundreds of young, closeted queer Mormons were listening.
“When Russell Nelson could have offered real comfort, he chose to give a collective kick in the teeth,” she said.