Mormon from My Eyes: Denise Hamblen
Just As God Intended - Making Peace With My Mormon Heritage
Words by Denise Hamblen
â€śIt would be easier to bury my child than to have them tell me they were gay.â€ť
I canâ€™t count the times I heard those words come out of my momâ€™s mouth. As a devout Mormon, she sat next to me in church and listened to the same condemning words regarding homosexuality. As a parent, death would be a blessingâ€”if it happened before anything of a â€śsinfulâ€ť nature had taken place. Any acting out on â€śthoseâ€ť feelings would result in expulsion from the presence of our Heavenly Father in the next life, and the end of an eternal family.
With words like â€śabominationâ€ť and â€śouter darknessâ€ť flooding my mind, I focused on church. I thought that would cure me. But it started a dangerous cycle: If I am good enough, God will take this awayâ€¦ (Still there, so must not be good enough!) Try harderâ€”fail againâ€”try harderâ€”fail again. It was a soul-destroying cycle. I was taught that God couldnâ€™t be wrong and my church leaders were called of God, so that put all the blame on my 13-year-old shoulders.
A religious instructor told me that serving an honorable and faithful mission would wash away my sins. It would be as if I were baptized again. I finally had some hope. At age 21, I served a full-time proselytizing mission in Germany. I gave my mission the very best I had. Eighteen months later, when I walked off the plane in Salt Lake, the person who was my first crush stood there with my family and friends. When I saw her, the old feelings returned. I believed I had blown my only chance, that I hadn't served well enough for that blessing to be mine.
The dangerous cycle began again. After a while, my prayers were no longer to change me. I stopped asking God to make me worthy of all his blessings. I started asking him to make the feelings stop. I was tired of feeling lonely and longing for companionship. I wanted those feelings to end before I did something that would be unforgivable.
For me, membership in the church was more than Sunday services. It was the foundation of my relationship with my father. Outside of church, we had little in common and little interest in each otherâ€™s lives. In fact, the only words my father has spoken to be about my sexuality were â€śwe will get you through this.â€ť Once it was clear I did not intend on â€śgetting throughâ€ť anything, every conversation about the issue stopped. It has been difficult to accept my fatherâ€™s choice to support a total stranger who is considered a prophet in the church, rather than support me. Disappointment is a mutual feeling between us.
Leaving the church came after one of the most painful experiences of my life. Kris, my dearest friend and surrogate big sister, started a foundation in Salt Lake that helps people coming out of prison and those dealing with addictions. One day, a young man arrived who was broken more than anyone I had ever seen. He was only 30 but his body was ravaged from the affects of drug use. He was on the waiting list for a liver transplant. When he introduced himself, he sat in the chair and sobbed.
â€śYou just don't know what it is like to be Mormon and gay,â€ť he said, more than once. His family had kicked him out, told him he would be allowed back when he had changed. I watched him suffer, and said nothing. I was so afraid of my truth that I could not reach out and help him. He thought he was alone, and I let him think that. Kris spent so much time encouraging me to open up and help him, but before I could get beyond my fear, he took his life. My fear had kept me from reaching out to him and he died thinking that no one understood.
At his funeral, I listened as his family painted a picture that was full of lies, and when I left his service I decided I needed to start doing something. I could not bear anything like that again. Being there for the next broken soul who crossed my path meant I had to find my voice and finding that voice put me in opposition with church leaders. Mormonism boldly testifies that it is the only true church on the face of the earth. To say church leaders are wrong when they teach that homosexuality is contrary to the will of God is considered apostasy. To many, I am an enemy to God.
I made the choice to leave the Mormon church, but there are many things I cling to tightly: I learned to be of service in the church; I was taught to be compassionate; I learned that I had a responsibility to stand for truth and choose the right; and as a young child, I learned that I was a child of God and that family was most important.
I use those lessons every day in my authentic life. I seek out opportunities to serve within the gay community. Being involved in the political environment through the amazing work of Equality Utah can be frustrating in such a conservative state. With my spiritual foundation, I recognize how important it is that every person feels safe in their community. Today, when my path crosses another wounded soul, I rush to their side rather than retreat deeper into the closet. I consider it an obligation to testify to them that they are just as God made them. Their task is to embrace their life and live it to the fullest. In all their gayness, they are perfect reflections of Godâ€™s love.
Balancing sexuality and spirituality does not have to be difficult and no one has to choose one or the other. My family today bears little resemblance to the family of my youth. It is made up of people who know my soul and still love me. And I hold tightly to the Mormon doctrine of continuing revelation. I do believe the time will come when, within our society and within the Mormon church, the exclusion of gay members will be viewed with disbelief.
Denise with her niece, Kimmee. Denise says, "She is a beautiful kid. She has been such an amazing support to me since coming out. She marches in every protest and demonstration, loves Pride and joined the Gay-Straight Alliance at her school."