I wrote this: Ex Mormon Foundation Talk

I spoke at the Exmormon Foundation Conference back in October. I was thinking about my talk today, so I decided to put it here. Some of it may look familiar to people who read what I write regularly, but some of it is new. I wanted a record of a night I felt very scared, (I can hear my voice shaking throughout the audio of my talk, which you can listen to HERE) but also very brave.

I'm proud of who I am. I'm proud of who I am becoming.

“Dear Mormonism” Ex Mormon Foundation Talk 2015

Hello. My name is Stephanie Lauritzen. Now don’t anyone get up. Despite the fact that a very pregnant blonde woman with a Utah accent is standing behind a podium speaking to you while you eat dessert, this does not mean tonight is secretly a Relief Society meeting. Do not be alarmed. Here’s how you know this isn’t a clandestine church meeting:

No man is presiding over me during this meeting.

That’s it! The fact that I don’t need a (most likely) elderly white dude to be in charge of my talk is the number one indicator that you aren’t at an LDS church function! I hope I’ve eased any of your fears.
I’d like to start by reading to you excerpts from the letter I wrote to my Mormon heritage. It is apparently the piece that earned me an invitation here tonight.  I’ve written a great many things about Mormonism, including several riveting blog posts analyzing Mormon contestants on reality television, and I have no idea why those weren’t taken as seriously as this letter.

Dear Mormonism,
How are you? It’s been a while. The Internet tells me you are doing well, building new temples, writing fancy amicus briefs and trying to figure out what to do with your women. (Hint: Try priesthood.) Anyway, I know you are very busy, but I wanted to tell you thank you.
Thank you for raising me into this inactive misfit Mormon woman. Thank you for making me a feminist and an LGBT ally. Thank you for giving me the tools to raise an independent and kind daughter, thank you for giving me the eyes through which I see the world. I would be ungrateful not to recognize your role in who I am as a woman, a parent and a spouse. Thank you. 
When you taught me to believe that I am a child of God, filled with divine nature and individual worth, I believed you. I believed in my divinity enough that when I grew up, the confines of man-made patriarchy and traditional gender roles paled in comparison with what I knew. A child of God doesn’t need to hearken unto her husband or simply nurture while her husband provides. A child of God sees her worth not just in her uterus, but in her mind. A child of God understands internalized misogyny, and a child of God knows that short skirts don’t rape people, and that the women wearing them aren’t “walking pornography.” 
More importantly, you taught me to “love one another,” another song so familiar that I could never forget this new commandment, even when my days of singing in Sacrament Meeting were over. So I loved. I loved my way through 2008 and Prop. 8, and your stubborn devotion to “The Proclamation to the Family.”
I loved even when my fellow church members told me that “when the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done.” Even when I lost friends, even when I lost my faith in this church—in you, Mormonism—I never stopped loving. Because you taught me that “whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it,” and when I lost my life as an active Mormon, I found myself as an ally, activist and a friend. And when more people find themselves, we save not just ourselves, but the “least of these,” especially the young LGBT people who may have otherwise been lost to suicide and hate crimes and dehumanizing legislation rooted in fear. 
Thank you, Mormonism, for teaching me about my pioneer ancestors, who faced an undue amount of persecution for believing differently from their neighbors and friends. Those guilt-inducing lessons on genealogy taught me that I have defiance and strength written into my DNA, because if my ancestors could leave their homes to chase a promised land, I can leave my home—your home, Mormonism—in search of a more egalitarian and loving Zion. 
Mormonism, I’ve spent my life listening to that still, small voice, hoping that I will be brave enough to listen to the promptings of the spirit, and to follow what it teaches me. I continue to listen, because you taught me that listening to that voice inside me will protect me from evil, especially that tricky sort of meanness that “calls evil good and good evil.” I listen and I know that benevolent sexism, the type that would put me on a pedestal and tell me I’m too pure to get my hands dirty with power, is wrong. I listen, and I know the cruelest evil is that which calls bigotry “religious liberty” and hurts others in the name of God. And when I begin to doubt my new faith, when the siren call of the community I lost and the comfort of fitting in seem inviting, and when I long for the approval of my peers, I do as Uchtdorf tells me, and I “doubt my doubts,” and then I “stop it.” I am a child of God, who loves one another, and listens to the spirit. 
Remember when you taught me about the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, the heroes of The Book of Mormon who made a promise with God never to go to war again and then buried their weapons? They preferred death over a broken promise, and they taught me about the value of sacrifice. I remember them because I too have buried my weapons; I buried my homophobia, my own self-taught brand of sexism and my fear. I buried them and I will not raise them again, even if it means I stand outside the doors of the temple the day my sister gets married. 
I expect you see me as a monster, a Frankenmormon, an unholy amalgamation of beliefs that contradict the perfect Mormon woman you envisioned. But I see a Daniel, who spent her upbringing in the lion’s den of orthodox Mormonism and came out stronger. You raised me to see miracles everywhere, Mormonism, and I do. I see miracles when a teenager fights against the Taliban for her right to an education. I see miracles when Mormons march in pride parades and women ask for a seat in the priesthood session. I see miracles, and I believe in a world that will be saved once more by a Messiah- this time the messiah of equality and fairness and love. This is the world I raise my daughter in, and I see it with wonder and faith. 
So thank you, Mormonism.
Thank you for giving me the tools I needed to leave you, and start a new life.
In many ways, I don’t particularly identify with the title of “ex-Mormon,” no more than I identify as an “ex-homophobe,” or an “ex-apologist for gender discrimination.” I respect the decision many of you made to identify as ex-Mormon. The beautiful thing about leaving the church is the freedom to choose your own identity. If ex-Mormon speaks to you, I honor that. I do tend to prefer the term Frankenmormon, but that hasn’t really taken off the way I hoped.

Maybe my reluctance to adopt the identify of “ex-Mormon” stems from all my baggage from my years within Mormonism itself, in which ex-Mormon was often used interchangeably with “anti-Mormon.” I don’t feel anti-Mormon, either.  I once compared Mormonism to an old boyfriend. Just because we didn’t work out doesn’t mean I want to spend the rest of my life identifying as anti-Steven or Ben’s ex-girlfriend.

But I do, especially as my faith transition has settled more permanently, feel distinctly that my former church is very much ex-Stephanie. That’s a convenient way of looking at things, right? Next time church members say something derogatory about feminism or LGBT allies, I can dismiss them airily and instruct people not to listen to them, as they are simply “anti-Stephanie.”  Now I don’t have to listen to any criticism of myself or my actions, because anyone who disagrees with me is simply against me. This logic seems to work within the church community. By the way, if you don’t like my talk tonight, you are a Stephpostate. Why don’t you just leave this dinner?

Ah, the Anti-Stephanies, they leave the woman, but they can’t leave the woman alone.

It’s a very human desire to want a formal place in a community. I assume that is why we are all here, regardless of how we identify ourselves in relation to Mormonism, we all chose to be here and align ourselves with fellow survivors. We came here wanting something, whether it was to learn new information about our past, or receive inspiration on how to proceed with our futures, or simply to spend a few hours not feeling so alone.

My decision to speak at tonight’s dinner reminded me of a passage from Chaim Potok’s Davita’s Harp. In the novel, a little girl named Davita is raised by parents who both abandoned the religious upbringings of their childhoods. In many ways, Davita feels lost in the world, and like all of us, seeks stability and community. One day, her Uncle Jacob tells her a story about a gray horse:
“There was a horse that lived in a narrow valley at the foot of a tall range of mountains. This was a young horse, a beautiful horse, gray in color, all gray, even its eyes and mane and hooves and tail were gray. The grayness had about it a special quality: it glowed with a warm, soft light…A young, strong, gray horse, shining as it galloped about during the day, shining as it stood asleep during the night. A very beautiful horse.”

“In the mountains along the valley lived a herd of black horses. These were powerful creatures who always went racing about in the gulleys and crevices and along the shoulders of the hills…They were entirely black… the black was a deep black, with no glow, no light, a flat, strong black, like a night without moon or stars. Sometimes it stormed in the hills and the gray horse would see the black horses running in the rain and outlined against the sky when lightning lashed. They were awesome seen like that, running in the lightning and the rain.”

“The little valley where the gray horse lived emptied into a broad sandy plain. Here lived another herd of horses that grazed peacefully in the oases that grew out of sand watered by underground streams. White was the color of these horses, a white that hurt the eyes. Every part of them was white-their eyes, manes, their tails, their hooves. Pure, clean, dazzling white. On dark nights their whiteness was seen for miles, each horse a pulsing glow of light.”

At first, Davita’s Uncle Jacob tells Davita the story about the three types of horses, and lets her decide who she is in his imaginary universe.

I imagine if you are here at this dinner tonight, you are here in part because you are also gray horses, or once were.  

The thundering testimonies and absolutism of our fellow black horses may have awed you, but also frightened you with their power to hurt and to maim. Maybe you tried to fit in with the black horses, but failed and felt the sharp beating hooves on your shoulders when you couldn’t stay with the herd. How many gray horses are lost after refusing to comply with the dictates of the herd?

Perhaps you were once comforted by the purity of the white horses, with a clear and simple answer for everything, and with no desire to leave the oasis.  Despite the recent appointment of three new Caucasian apostles to church leadership I’ll avoid the temptation to make too many jokes about race. But maybe it was comforting to be surrounded by people who believed all the same things. How many of us once felt secure knowing that the “church was true,” and that no matter where we traveled we could find people like us in any local ward building?

But we were never black or white horses, and like the horse in Davita’s Harp, we knew we were different. Later, Davita’s uncle tells her the fate of the gray horse.

“As the years went by, [the gray horse] began to feel more and more disturbed by the thought of being forever between the light of the peaceful white horses, and the darkness of the powerful black horses. He did not understand why living that way should disturb him; but he knew that it did.
He was lonely. Perhaps that was the reason for his unhappiness. There is no feeling more terrible than loneliness, no feeling worse than the sensation of being locked inside your own heart. And so one day, he decided to leave his little valley and go off in search of other gray horses like himself.”

One of my biggest fears when I began my transition out of the church was my fear of loneliness. I knew what it felt like to be locked inside your own heart.  Anyone who endures the process of leaving the church recognizes the suffocating feeling of realizing Mormonism isn’t sustaining you anymore, but feeling trapped and betrayed by their own heart- unable to break free from the fear of isolation and ostracization that comes from leaving the faith tradition of your childhood.

 I worried I wouldn’t know how to rebuild my life or my identity without the structure or guidance of the LDS church. I worried that my inability to be a black or white horse represented some inherent personality flaw. So naturally, I decided to wear pants to church, and I’d tell other people to wear pants. We’d make a day of it! Solution!  Maybe if I found enough women like me, I could find the other gray horses and find a way to navigate a path through Mormonism without the terrible weight of loneliness breaking my heart each Sunday.

Before I continue, I need to confess something: I can’t take full credit for Wear Pants to Church Day. It was a group effort, and looking back, most of the stuff that was good and effective and thoughtful about Wear Pants to Church day is because other good, effective, and thoughtful people were behind the scenes doing their best to manage the shit-show that Mormon Feminists later referred to as the Pantspocalypse.

I suppose what I can take credit for is forming the Facebook group behind the event, and for being really angry at people who consistently told me there was no place for me in the church, and talking a lot. I am the definition of a social-media slactivist, I guess.  I had my friend read this part of my talk. She reminded me that at the time, Wear Pants to Church Day was bigger, and more liberating than I’m describing it. It probably was. All I know is that the church I had loved, and had dedicated my life to, was strangely silent as the death threats, the irate emails and countless phone-calls, and outraged messages poured into my life and gutted my soul. I knew that asking women to take a stand, to wear a visual symbol of their questions, and even their discontent, was risky. I also knew it had the potential to be empowering and meaningful.

To continue my comparison to the horses in Davita’s Harp, I already knew I could never be a white horse. Grazing peacefully is not something I am capable of doing. But with Pants, for a very small moment, I had a degree of power and influence, and whether they agreed with me or not, people were listening to me. It felt good to be a gray horse with the ability to command power like a black horse.
At the end of his story, Davita asks her uncle if the gray horse ever found other horses like him.

“No. He is no longer looking.”

“What happened to him?”

“He searched for a long time and could not find another gray horse. He returned to his valley.”

“Is that where he is now?”

“No. He decided one day to join the black horses in the mountains. One night during a terrible storm he was struck by lightning. The lightning turned burned him black, all black. He was killed.”

Sorry. That is a horribly depressing story. Thanks Chaim Potok! I believe Sue told me my talk was supposed to be light-hearted and funny. I am terrible at being funny on demand.  Go eat more dessert! This isn’t a church meeting, but you are absolutely allowed to continue self-medicating with sugar if you feel sad.

Anyway, over the years many people have told me how meaningful and important it was for them to wear pants to church. They have found the other gray horses in their lives and congregations, and they’ve found a balance between peace and power that allows them to remain in a very beautiful valley of Mormonism. I see them making the church a better, safer, kinder place. I think this is really wonderful. I’ve learned I don’t have any business telling people what they should wear to church, or how they should navigate their faith.

But for me, Wear Pants to Church Day was a bolt of lightning. It forced me to realize that despite the beautiful things I learned from Mormonism: love, empathy, conviction, strength, going back to Mormonism wasn’t the right place for me. I’d die there, spiritually and emotionally. It isn’t for me. For a long time, this felt like a second failure. I failed as a Mormon, and a Mormon activist. Maybe there truly was something wrong with me. I felt charred and blackened.

So I don’t know how I identify in relationship to Mormonism. Nothing feels right. But maybe that is my problem. As long as I continue to try and identify my soul in relation to a faith that no longer speaks to me, I’m denying myself the opportunity to see my worth simply for what I am. I am a good partner, a good Mom, a hard-worker and a decent friend when my introvert tendencies don’t manage to convince me that ignoring phone calls and text messages is socially acceptable
When I couldn’t attend my sister’s temple wedding a few years ago due to my heathen ways, lots of people were very sad. I like making people happy. It was hard to let them down. But in a strange way, it helped me recognize something important:  This isn’t my problem. It’s not my fault that the LDS faith doesn’t see me the way I see me. If being a good partner, a good Mom, a hard-worker and a decent friend aren’t enough, it’s not my fault. It’s okay. I am not missing out on being a good person by not being Mormon, but the church is certainly missing out on having a good person as a member.
It was worth it to wait outside the temple.  To quote Mark Twain’s Huck Finn when he decides to leave the South rather than be raised by people who won’t love his friend Jim as he does- “All right then, I’ll go to hell.”

That’s admittedly what it felt like the first few years after I left Mormonism.  I know many people here might feel the same way. Even when I knew Mormonism wasn’t right for me, for a long time I wondered if Mormonism would ever stop haunting me. I connected deeply with a poem by Nikki Giovanni titled “Alone.”

I can be
Alone by myself
I was
Lonely alone
Now I’m lonely
With you
Something is wrong
There are flies
Everywhere I go.

Every conference talk criticizing those who doubt, or a friend telling my husband how “sad” it was that I no longer went to church, every micro-aggression felt like another buzzing fly. I was still lonely. I may not have been trapped in my own heart anymore, like Davita’s gray horse, but I was just as lonely without Mormonism as within it. There were flies everywhere I went. I read about PTSD associated with leaving one’s religion. I felt very much the weight of a series of emotionally traumatic events weighing me down. Even now being inside a church building makes me feel anxious. I sit and look at people who seem nice and friendly, and I know many of them are. I know lots of nice Mormons. A Mormon guy has managed to knock me up not once but two times. But I also know it was Mormons that told me I should leave the church, that I was an unwelcome disgrace, and in the most extreme case-someday someone like the person  sitting next to me in the chapel should come and shoot me in the face. So I get nervous at church. I tend to sweat through my shirt uncontrollably.  It’s all very glamorous, the life of a maybe ex-Mormon.

But after my sister’s wedding, I drove home from her reception on a beautiful May evening full with the realization that not carrying a temple-recommend wasn’t an indicator of my value. I am grateful now, for that experience. I am grateful every time I survive an attack on my soul’s worth, which seems to happen surprisingly often when you leave the church. Every day I grow a little stronger. 

Leaving Mormonism allows me to watch myself grow up again, this time with a little more knowledge, wisdom,  and strength- things  I didn’t have growing up as a Mormon youth. That’s some crazy Benjamin-Button type shit right there. I get to grow up again. I get to see the world through new eyes and discover exactly what it is I believe.  I can reject that which I find harmful and poisonous, instead of trying to slowly build up immunity to toxins, trying to endure to the end.  I don’t have to wonder why Mormon God doesn’t seem to care very much for women like me; I don’t have to feel broken and wrong when I don’t match up with Mormonism’s definition of femininity.

Now when I make mistakes, I start over, and I grow up again. I learn again. I don’t spend my life trying to fit into a one-size-fits-all definition of goodness.  I may have given up any hopes in reaching the Celestial Kingdom, but I traded in an eternity of hearkening, baby-making and polygamy for a lifetime of making my own choices, and raising my own soul. Perhaps most importantly, my heart doesn’t break every Sunday, and I feel so glad.

Long before Disney created Elsa and her anthem beloved by toddlers everywhere, e.e. cummings wrote a poem called “let it go.” I promise it is better than the Frozen version, and it won’t be stuck in your head all night.

let it go – the
smashed word broken
open vow or
the oath cracked length
wise – let it go it
was sworn to
let them go – the
truthful liars and
the false fair friends
and the boths and
neithers – you must let them go they
were born
to go
let all go – the
big small middling
tall bigger really
the biggest and all
things – let all go
so comes love

However you identify, or do not identify with Mormonism, what I see here, and what I have experienced in our community is love. People willing to deal with the flies buzzing, the black and white horses, all of the sadness and hurt, every lonely Sunday, all in order to give love a bigger space in our hearts. That sounds very sentimental. I generally don’t like sentimentality, or broad declarations regarding the human experience. But I thought it was worth mentioning. An ex-Mormon isn’t an anti-Mormon. It isn’t a bitter person who can’t leave the church alone. In my experience, an ex-Mormon is a person who is willing to give up all their preconceived beliefs: about the Book of Mormon, about our history, Joseph Smith, and even church leadership.  We give up the broken vows, the false friends, the small and the big. We give these things up; we let the go, and in return, make room for love.  We make room for a love of self, a love for the outsiders in our communities, a love of shopping on Sunday, and most importantly, a love for one another.

That’s my talk. I have tremendously unmediated Attention Deficit Disorder and this is the longest period of time I have ever spent talking about one thing. I hope you enjoyed it, even though I told the depressing horse story. I always like to close my talks in the name of my family. So in the name of Stephanie, Dan, Clara, and fetus Lauritzen,  Amen.


Breanne said...

Love, love, love. I love this.

Vapid Vixen said...

What Breanne said. Thank you for sharing this and sharing your heart with so many people. You really are truly brave.

Zipdinger said...

Meow gray horse here. What I find fascinating is that the gray horse ended up truly black in the end, but not in an expected way. If black horses represent power, and the gray horse became black by an act of God, rather than just birth rite, what does that say about us and Gods' love for us? Also, what does it say about true power? Something to ponderize ;)

Meg Walter said...

I am so sorry that you were treated so poorly by so many people who should have known so much better. You're an amazing writer. Thank you for sharing this.

Cocomo said...

Excellent speech Steph. I too know the feeling of being shut off from my own son's marriage ceremony not unlike what you experienced when your sister was married. What other religion does this? I have yet to find one.

megan said...

Loved this, thank Stephanie.

Krystina said...

Slow clap, followed by a one-woman standing ovation. This resonates so well with me.