Gay ex-Mormon finds peace, joy; others seek to change same-sex desires

The Salt Lake Tribune/September 16, 2009

Even as a 3-year-old, Russ Baker-Gorringe sensed he was different from the other boys he watched playing kick the can in the street.

But, as a Mormon, he grew up believing that faith could heal what he later realized he was feeling: He was gay. He served a mission, married a "beautiful" woman in an LDS temple and had four children.

"I knew I was attracted to men," Baker-Gorringe says. "My core belief, in every step I took in my church activities, was that there was something wrong with me. ... But with God all things are possible, and this could be fixed."

Experiences like his will be discussed at two conferences this weekend held by Evergreen International and Affirmation: Gay & Lesbian Mormons. Both groups work to support Latter-day Saints who experience same-sex attraction, but they vary widely in their approaches.

Evergreen, which offers referrals to therapists, aims to help people "overcome homosexual behavior" and "diminish same-sex attraction." Affirmation supports Mormons - active and former members of the faith - in being openly gay, calling their sexual orientation a "special gift from God."

Last month, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution advising mental health professionals against telling their clients they can change their sexual orientation through therapy or other treatments. No solid evidence exists that such efforts work, the APA concluded, and some studies suggest the potential for harm.

But the organization acknowledged the role that religion often plays in one's desire to pursue sexual-orientation change. An APA task force recommended that therapists "respect the client's religious beliefs" and help him or her "consider possibilities for a religiously and spiritually meaningful and rewarding life." Such possibilities could include celibacy or switching churches.

Baker-Gorringe, 55, was one of Evergreen's first board members after its creation 20 years ago. The Salt Lake City resident helped pen the group's initial mission statement. In a way, he says, the organization was a "godsend," because he finally learned he was not alone.

"There were others who had felt this way their whole life - just like me," recalls Baker-Gorringe, who served in an LDS bishopric and a stake presidency. "I had felt so long like I was the only Latter-day Saint that must have to deal with this."

But even with that support and the help of a "very understanding" wife and children, Baker-Gorringe became severely depressed when his continued efforts to change - including through prayer, scripture study and obedience to LDS teachings - did not work.

"I always felt I was never quite good enough," Baker-Gorringe says. "I felt like I had the faith required for the miracle - but was being denied the miracle."

A decade ago, he was hiking with his wife and four kids in Glacier National Park and decided to take his own life. He wanted it to look like an accident to spare his children the sorrow of a suicide.

He stood on a rope bridge, strung above a deep ravine, and swung one leg over. Gazing at the backs of his family, hiking ahead of him, he bid a silent farewell. In that moment, his then-14-year-old daughter, Emily, turned around. She ran to her father and pulled him away from the edge.

"I saw the look on his face, and I knew he was going to do it," Emily Fuchs, now 24, says. "I told him, 'Dad, I don't care that you're gay. I think you're exactly how you're supposed to be. I love you.' "

Baker-Gorringe began to question some of his beliefs about homosexuality. Ultimately, he and his wife decided to divorce.

He met his partner, Joe Baker, a few years later. The two married in a religious ceremony at Holladay United Church of Christ - a congregation that Baker-Gorringe left the LDS Church to join - in 2005. Fuchs and her three siblings walked their father down the aisle. They, too, left the LDS Church, Baker-Gorringe says, after feeling like their dad was stigmatized and watching their grandparents disown him.

The Baker-Gorringes - Russ and Joe share a hyphenated last name - received a state-recognized marriage license in pre-Proposition 8 California in 2008.

"I know what joy is now," Russ Baker-Gorringe says. "I just thank God that my daughter turned around ... or I wouldn't be here. I would never have come to a point of peace with who I am."

The LDS Church has softened its stance on homosexuality in recent years. It teaches that same-sex attraction is not a sin, only acting on it is. Sex is to be reserved solely for those in a heterosexual marriage. (The church strongly opposes gay marriage.) Parents should not be blamed if their kids are gay.

The church no longer officially advises that someone with same-sex attraction should marry someone of the other sex. Baker-Gorringe received that counsel from multiple priesthood leaders when he returned from his LDS mission in Indiana.

"Marriage is not an all-purpose solution," Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, writes in a 2007 Ensign article. Some "attempts have resulted in broken hearts and broken homes."

Still, David Melson, executive director of Affirmation, says "there's no consistency" in the way the guidelines are implemented by lay clergy in LDS congregations. Some still are advising marriage to gay members, he says, or even telling parents to kick their gay kids out of their homes so as not to "contaminate" siblings.

"The church has done tremendous damage to families, to individuals," Melson says. "The breaking up of families, the homelessness, the suicide has to end. We would like to work with the church to do that, but, with them or without them, we would like to make an effort to end the damage now."

Evergreen, executive director David Pruden says, tries to help Mormons with "unwanted" same-sex attractions live "lives that are consistent with gospel principles," but it does not encourage them to get married. As many as 40 percent of adults who contact Evergreen seeking help with same-sex attraction, Pruden says, already are married to someone of the other sex.

"Obviously," Pruden says, "a person shouldn't get married until they are ready to live in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship in a healthy way."

But his group, which will feature at its conference one of the nation's leading advocates for so-called "reparative therapy," does believe that sexual orientation can "change," Pruden says.

Salt Lake City resident Rebekah Mohr says Evergreen helped her "diminish" her same-sex attraction. A mother of two, she at one time considered leaving her husband.

But her belief in the LDS Church, ultimately, led her to stick with her marriage. She has a "strong testimony," she says, of the church's teachings that families - led by one man and one woman - can live together in the eternities.

Mohr, 42, says therapy that taught her "coping skills" and "life skills" helped. She also leaned on a friend she met at Evergreen.

"I was fortunate enough to diminish [feelings of same-sex attraction] to a point that it's not a bother any more," Mohr says. "I understand that some people can't get that far."

Lisa Diamond, a psychology professor and researcher at the University of Utah, says many women experience "fluidity" in their attractions to men and women - falling in love with the person, not the gender - but their underlying sexual orientations don't change.

Treatments that purport to change someone's orientation or attractions, she says, raise concerns about truth in advertising.

"Most accredited psychologists don't approve of such therapies," Diamond says. "There's a lot of concern that people are still being given the message that they can change their orientation through these sorts of techniques when there's really no evidence that that's true."

Behaviors might change, Diamond says, but the "attractions, themselves, don't appear to go away."

The "longstanding consensus" of the behavioral and social sciences, the APA reports, is that homosexuality is a "normal and positive variation of human sexual orientation."

For Fuchs, seeing her father finally fall in love has been the "most healing thing" since she watched him nearly take his own life. For months after the incident, she was like a "leech," clinging to her father, even checking on him in his sleep to ensure he was OK. She told herself it was her responsibility to keep him alive.

She's happy her mom has remarried, too.

"They can finally have the love they're supposed to have," she says. "My mom and my dad."

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