Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Empathy As A Path To Activism

My dear sister has become a powerful voice and advocate within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) on behalf of marriage equality and LGBT issues in general. In a piece she recently wrote for a Mormon-oriented website she shares her evolution and offers some personal reflections. I offer a long excerpt from that piece below, both as a celebration of Pride Month and as a tribute to a remarkable woman who I’ve known since she was born.

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My sister, holding a sign at last year’s Pride Parade in San Francisco

I have always loved the beatitudes, especially the “mourn with” and “comfort those” verses. As a pediatric oncology nurse I have mourned with and comforted parents of dying children more times than I can count over the years. And yet, I have come to realize that until my son Ross came out six years ago at age eighteen, and my feet were set on a path I never chose, my understanding of this most Christ-like of attributes was not complete. I am not speaking of the empathy I felt for Ross, though as his mother, his pain was indeed my own.

I did not, and still do not know how it feels to be a gay Mormon, any more than I know what it is like to lose your child to cancer. What I do know intimately is what it feels like to be the MOTHER of a gay child; more specifically, a gay Latter-day Saint child. To yearn for him to feel a “part of” instead of “separate from”, to feel whole, complete and just the way God made him. Over time, as a byproduct of this knowledge, my thoughts have turned to other families like mine, other children like my own, and specifically to their suffering mothers.

I have always had some cognitive dissonance related to what I perceive as the more dogmatic tenets of the gospel, and the built in bigotry toward homosexuals is certainly one of them. I grew up doing musical theatre, so TRULY some of my best friends were gay, including my own brother who came out in his late twenties. Yet, despite having prided myself on my accepting, open-minded approach to life, I now realize that I really did not grasp it until my nuclear family lived it: until I witnessed the suffering of my firstborn son.

To be sure, the injustice of it all had always nagged at my brain and at my heart, and when pressed for an opinion I freely gave it. Thus, I am not one of those people who radically changed their view of homosexuality in the church when it landed in their own back yard. I was more than halfway there already.

What did radically change for me was my ability to empathize, not just with those who faced similar trials, but with anyone who is made to feel “less than”. These children, in particular, now feel like MY children because it happened to my child. Their mothers could be ME because it happened to me.

Though I am still (as are we all) “seeing through a glass darkly” on this issue, I have learned a few things on this journey. One of the more salient lessons for me has been in regards to the inability of some in the church to empathize enough to shift their paradigm. Why are they not as outraged as I over the suicide rates of gay teenagers? Why aren’t they agitating for change, marching in pride parades, sharing their stories?? Oh wait… because they don’t HAVE a story! It hasn’t happened to THEM….

It is a quirk of human nature that until an experience lands squarely in our laps, it is just someone else’s experience. I was not spurred into any kind of action until it became mine to act upon. This realization has moved me to be more patient with my fellow saints when they don’t, for example, immediately embrace the idea of marriage equality by promising to do the flowers for my son’s imagined future gay wedding. I have learned that we must meet each other where we are; to show understanding to my friends who have not yet “arrived”. After all, I was once waiting at the station for someone else to start the engine before my own train went off the track.

Most of us who work to bring about change are spurred to action by a personal connection, usually in the form of a loved one. We are, of course, in awe of the straight allies who freely empathize and act without a nudge. They are brilliant and rare and need to be cloned (or at least canonized). As for the rest of the world — not everyone can be lucky enough to have a gay child, but everyone can be lucky enough to LOVE a gay child.

What I now know for sure is that it is incumbent upon those of us who have tapped into our empathy the hard way and suffered the pain under our own roof to be a voice in what feels, at times, like the wilderness. To stay and to share our stories; to put faces and names to this urgent issue. When those who care about us feel even a smidgeon of empathy; a sliver of a “that could be my child” kind of thinking, then hearts will soften and minds can change. It is our best and brightest hope.


  1. slksfca

    …I will be cheering her on from the sidelines as she marches again in San Francisco’s Pride Parade.

    Thanks for reading.

  2. Kysen

    and thank your sister for them!

    Your nephew is a lucky young man…doubly so. He has an obviously strong and supportive mom…and an amazing uncle to look up to (and probably more than doubly so…something tells me there are more wonderful family members who love and support him).

    Pride SF is a blast…y’all have fun now, ya hear?


  3. Her support is so welcome. It must be moving for the people who know her well.

    I’ve known my youngest brother is gay for a long time. I sympathized with him about many issues we discussed. It was only a year ago that I heard him tell the deepest and most painful stories of how he felt through his years of growing up. That opened my eyes a lot wider. I think I am closer to being able to say ‘I empathize with him.’

    The slow and almost imperceptible movement of society to greater acceptance is good to see. Sometimes there are lurches forward and big steps backward. But the progress is in the right direction. I am confident that the younger generation will see it more as a non-issue in their lives.

    Give your sister a hug from all of us June 30th. Have one yourself.

  4. It is a quirk of human nature that until an experience lands squarely in our laps, it is just someone else’s experience.

    There are some people who hear the stories of others lives and empathize but most people need a closer connection. The good news is that people who know your sister may learn acceptance from her story … and pass it on … and so the world will be changed.

    Thank you for sharing her words here.

  5. Jk2003

    The smarts seem to run in your family.  And the ability to write those thoughts down.  Thanks again and have a great time at the parade!

  6. Portlaw

    do know that you are all fierced. Biggest goes to your sister, for her heart and her writing skills. The power of love can change the world. It’s the strongest agent of change.  Best to all for the Parade. On another note, she is an oncology pediatric nurse…how blessed her patients and those who love them are.  

  7. HappyinVT

    But I see it runs in the family.

    And I freely admit I have trouble with this:

    I have learned that we must meet each other where we are; to show understanding to my friends who have not yet “arrived”.

    I consider them overdue.  🙂

  8. wordsinthewind

    this with us silks, your sister is an amazing person. Hope you have a great time cheering her on at the parade.  

  9. GlenThePlumber

    she chose to come out with her new understanding…activism…in a community that is not so open to her message…shall we declare her fierce..!!..I’d say so.

    we would love to meet your sister…but instead will spend the day with a bunch of 9 y.o. girls…riding horses. :7(

  10. … and which I did not have a chance to respond to earlier in the week, is that there is often intolerance on both sides.

    Liberals should not reflexively hate Mormons any more than people with religious convictions should reflexively hate gay people.

    The people with the religious convictions probably came to them honestly and, unless they actively harm others, are certainly entitled to their opinions (although they are not allowed to have their opinions codified into law). Maybe one day they will have an epiphany, perhaps when a loved one comes out or when a loved one is treated in an awful way simply because of their sexual orientation.

    When both sides of any issue practice tolerance and discuss things in a reasoned way, we can make great strides towards consensus.

    So many issues get wrapped up in religion and take on a lot of baggage in the process … when really the issue is simply about accepting the worth of every human being. The issue of marriage equality (and the legal protections that provides) and the issue of discrimination against gays in housing and employment are civil rights issues, not religious issues. Those were rights that were also denied black people, some of it based on biblical interpretations, until the law stepped in to declare that illegal.

    I was also pleased to see that this could be discussed online because it is the kind of discussion that we all benefit from. Thank you for bringing it here.

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