Caught between apostasy and heartbreak: a Mormon lesbian love story

With their religion a key part of their lives, Celeste Carolin and Kathleen Majdali struggled with their decision to come out. Now they’re preparing for marriage – a celebration that could result in excommunication

Guardian, UK/November 15, 2015

By Kseniya Sovenko

Celeste and Kathleen: 2014

Celeste Carolin woke up, her face flushed red. She was lying on the floor of a Chicago hotel, having fallen asleep on the phone during a long conversation with her friend Kathleen Majdali, who was expressing fears about coming out to her parents.

“I fell asleep for just a second, right? A minute? How long was it?” she asked Kathleen, who was still on the other end.

Celeste had a 5am flight to Seattle; her business trip had been cut short by news that her beloved grandmother was dying.

“Celeste, you’ve been asleep for an hour.”

“What?” she exclaimed, “Why didn’t you hang up?”

“It brought me a lot of comfort that I could stay on the phone with you. I was also a little worried you would miss your plane.”

“Oh no,” thought Celeste. “I like this girl.”

A year later later, Kathleen and Celeste found themselves alone inside a beautiful Italian restaurant during a holiday. Everything was perfect, but Kathleen was strangely fussy. A special ring was burning a hole inside her pocket.

After the meal, she made several futile attempts at luring Celeste into picture-worthy settings. Her final effort placed them face to face on a balcony. Coated in a thin film of sweat, the words finally left her lips as tears trickled down her freckled cheeks.

“Celeste, will you surf all of my waves with me?”

Celeste began to cry. Kathleen pulled out the ring, and Celeste agreed to marry her.

As a Mormon, Celeste loves the idea of making a commitment to her beloved in front of all her family and friends.

New church policy, however, won’t let them have their wedding cake and eat it too. Partners in a same-gender marriage will now be required to appear in front of a disciplinary council charged with handling serious transgressions within the church (other offences range from infidelity all the way to sexual abuse and murder).

“When I found out, I felt like I got punched in the gut,” Celeste said. Choosing between her faith and sealing her love with marriage is like considering whether to cut off her left or right hand.

Others are hurting, too. Since the announcement last Thursday, hundreds of members have contacted Utah lawyer Mark Naugle to permanently scratch their names off church records. Backlash from LGBT Mormons and their allies is expected to culminate in a mass resignation march in Salt Lake City.

Many feel the draconian additions falsely chastise the children of gay parents, who will no longer receive a name or blessing, whether natural or adopted. Kids of LGBT Mormons can participate in Mormon rituals only after reaching legal age, abandoning their parents, renouncing homosexuality, and pleading their case to the Office of the First Presidency.

Celeste and Kathleen fear losing the possibility of raising their children in the church that has served as the backbone of their lives.

Celeste: 1994

Celeste grew up in Conrad, Montana, population 2,500. As a child, she thrived in the tight knit community, attending church service every Sunday.

Two older women, Mary and Agnes (not their real names), usually sat in the back of the little Mormon church. Young Celeste thought the pair was adorable: they were always snickering, looking like they had a lot of fun.

Once, somebody suggested the two ladies might be gay.

“Oh no,” Celeste remembers thinking. “That’s really bad.”

A decade later, at Brigham Young University – Idaho (BYUI), Celeste shared a house with a real cowgirl. She had chocolate brown hair, wore a hat and wranglers, and drove a big Ford truck. Celeste was awestruck. At the same time, she noticed her patterns of behavior meant she might like-like girls. Before long, she felt strong urges to kiss her.

Recalling Conrad’s small town gossip about Mary and Agnes, Celeste felt broken. The deep-seated turmoil forced her to confess her secret crush. Despite being empathetic, the cowgirl suggested Satan was to blame.

After consulting with their bishop, who advised the girls to leave each other alone, Celeste tried to “pray the gay away”. She bailed on her friendship, started to teach Sunday school, and allowed church to swallow all her time.

Celeste: 2004

It was the middle of the night and Celeste couldn’t sleep. All she wanted to do was kiss her new roommate Emily (not her real name), who was sharing the same twin sized bed. They had fallen asleep reading Mormon scriptures, and a Bible resting on the covers reminded Celeste to leave her sleeping companion alone.

Her roommate woke up to kiss her back.

Their relationship became a burden, simultaneously beautiful and heavy. The young women carried their shame as they sneaked around to kiss and be together. Utterly unacknowledged, the relationship progressed slowly but never stopped.

Celeste thought of suicide often. Every day, she wanted to die. Being gay meant she didn’t deserve the love of her friends, the love of her family, and, most importantly, the love of her god.

Her heavy heart urged her to follow her roommate’s move to Boston, where they would continue to live and lie together for six years. Sometimes, they would be best friends; sometimes, they would be more.

Celeste wanted to marry her roommate, but being trapped between love and her roommate’s indecision was not the space she wanted to occupy anymore. One morning, Celeste sat on her bed feeling the weight of a Clayton Christensen book. She thought about how she could change her life. Inside that 110-year-old house, she finally found clarity.

“If I could change anything, I would break up with Emily and move across the country to hang out with my 89-year-old grandma,” she remembers thinking. This was the third friendship in her life ending with a breakup, and it felt like a divorce.

Two weeks later, she moved to Seattle.

Kathleen: 1993

Eleven-year-old Kathleen hated Sundays. She had a problem with going to her Mormon congregation. Classes at church were divided by age, and Kathleen had the misfortune of being the only girl in a classroom full of rowdy boys. As soon as the California girl turned 12, she entered the Young Women’s program and fell in love with girls’ camp. Her faith was miraculously restored.

For two years, being Mormon was Kathleen’s lifeline. Instead of entering high school as a sophomore, she took to homeschooling. To compensate for the lack of human interaction, she became a legendary marathon churchgoer, attending three back-to-back congregations every Sunday.

Then, one summer, Kathleen left the lowest rung of the social ladder and successfully climbed to the top. Returning to public high school as a cheer squad newcomer, she began dating seriously her senior year. Her first boyfriend towered at 6ft 6in above the entire basketball team. It was a match made in teen sitcom heaven.

But even Kathleen couldn’t have predicted the plot twist. Struggling to gain some sense of intimacy with her basketball-star boyfriend, she quickly realized she had more feelings for a girl. Thoughts of locking lips with her best friend constantly swam into her mind. As the two grew closer, those dreams became reality.

“It occurred to me I might be bisexual,” admitted Kathleen. “But I never thought gay and definitely not lesbian.”

Kathleen: 2012

Playing hot potato with her laptop, Kathleen was clearing her browser history. She was mining the internet for information about homosexuality.

Ten years ago, she had kissed her best friend on the lips, and had vowed never to tarnish a friendship by letting her feelings get in the way again. Now she lived in Salt Lake City, intent on pursuing a potential husband but struggling to keep focus. For years, she had chosen to date men, falling in love with female roommates and girlfriends along the way.

The inner dissonance catapulted her into severe depression.

“I was trying to do as much as I could to live a good Mormon life,” said Kathleen. “But part of that is being honest; I never felt like I was living with integrity because I was hiding this part of myself.”

After a few rocky months of soul searching, Kathleen moved to Seattle and decided to be honest. With a degree in art from Brigham Young University – Hawaii, she began working at Zulily, where conversations of crushes and home life with same-sex partners dominated workplace dialogues. She wanted to feel at peace participating in those conversations. She was bisexual and she had to come out.

“I’ve searched high and low, lived in multiple cities and been around hundreds of Mormons,” said Kathleen. “There was nothing I could have done to make myself like boys more or girls less.”

Celeste: 2007

Before she left for Seattle, Celeste had a heated conversation with a friend. “If you hate it so much, why don’t you leave?” she asked the friend as they sat in their kitchen. Her body language closed up as the two argued about Mormon culture.

Silence followed as she processed the question, but the answer was simple: she didn’t want to. She wasn’t done with church.

“Being Mormon is part of my DNA,” said Celeste, reflecting on the scene. “So often in the Mormon community, nobody knows anyone who is gay because they’ve left or they’re hiding. No one is saying: ‘I’m gay and I’m not broken about it.’”

In Seattle, Celeste wanted to be that person – a trailblazer. Though she had been gay for a long time, she had no idea how to be out. She started by being honest.

Whenever a Mormon moves to a new ward, they set up a meeting to acquaint themselves with the bishop. Over the phone, Celeste asked to bring her partner, a new girl she was seeing, to the meeting at the West Seattle ward. Celeste thought they understood what partner implied. They didn’t.

“You do understand the doctrine of the Mormon Church?” the bishop asked, perplexed.

“Yes,” she replied with annoyed hesitation.

“If you do come, we want to limit the amount of physical interaction between you two around the children,” said the bishop, still visibly struggling to understand why Celeste had called a woman her partner.

Celeste and Kathleen: 2014

Celeste first noticed Kathleen lurking in one of the long halls of the Elliott Bay ward, which covers Seattle’s downtown and Capitol Hill neighborhoods. This girl was too cool for school, matching frilly dresses with chucks and snug gray beanies.

Kathleen was familiar with Celeste, both inspired and terrified by the open dialogues she was having about her sexuality. Desperate and needing to foster change, Kathleen sent Celeste a message on Facebook, asking if they could discuss LGBT issues.

“I think I’m bisexually attracted,” said Kathleen.

“That’s a made up term,” responded Celeste. “Do you plan on dating women?”

“No, never.”

“Why are you coming out in this culture then? You’re still planning on dating men?”

“Yes,” said Kathleen.

“If you’re going to come out, can I call and check up on you?” asked Celeste, who was about to leave for a six-week business trip.

The two quickly developed a game plan. Kathleen made a list of all the people she needed to come out to. Her youngest brother topped that list; he had come out nearly two years before. Kathleen apologized, feeling guilty for not taking the brunt of their parents’ disappointment. Whenever she crossed a name off her list, she’d call Celeste, who gave nothing but support and congratulations.

Later that year, Celeste stood at a podium to speak at a special LGBT-focused sacrament meeting. The 80 people who normally attend church on Sunday were replaced by a crowd pushing 300. The room was radiating with love and energy. This marked the Seattle North Stake’s fourth LGBT community outreach event that year; Mitch Mayne, a gay Latter-day Saint from San Francisco, was invited to Seattle to help lead these initiatives.

Kathleen swelled with pride watching Celeste speak. It wasn’t until she followed Celeste’s example that others in the church felt safe coming out to her. Becoming a positive example to others was worth any hardship, vulnerability or anxiety, she thought.

The meeting didn’t end well.

Celeste and Kathleen: 2016 and onward

Kathleen and Celeste are getting married next summer. Their wedding day will also be the day they will be labeled apostates. As soon as they leave the aisle, they will be on the list for excommunication.

After the supreme court’s ruling on same-sex marriage this summer, the Council of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles issued a letter to be read in all church meetings across the country. It reads:

Changes in the civil law do not, indeed cannot, change the moral law that God has established. God expects us to uphold and keep His commandments regardless of divergent opinions or trends in society. His law of chastity is clear: sexual relations are proper only between a man and a woman who are legally and lawfully wedded as husband and wife.

“No, I don’t want to be kicked out of the church,” said Kathleen, with sadness in her voice. “But I don’t want to be married to someone I have halfway feelings for. It is my belief that I will have the best life with Celeste. I would have a better life with her than alone, and I would have a better life alone than with a man I don’t really love.”

The two women will get a phone call or an email from their bishop, who previously gave them his blessing. He will say that the church will be holding a disciplinary hearing at a prescribed time and date, and will invite them to attend.

A group of men will hold a church court. They will gather evidence around Kathleen and Celeste’s apostasy. The two women will be able to bring forth some character witnesses, and then the men will decide whether they’re in or out.

Celeste and Kathleen will likely be accused of sexual cohabitation, being in a same-gendered marriage, and having sex outside of wedlock (despite their legal marriage). In all likelihood, they will have to discuss their private, sexual relationship with a group of heterosexual men in somewhat inappropriate detail and then will be shunned from participation in their community.

Excommunication is said to be done out of love, to “save the souls of the transgressors”. Eventually, repentance brings the former members closer to God. If Celeste or Kathleen ever attend church, they will wear an invisible scarlet letter.

“For us, what are we supposed to repent of?” asked Celeste. “Am I supposed to divorce my wife, estrange my family, ruin all of our lives? The process no longer makes sense.”

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