Rob & Kathryn Steffensen
Salt Lake City, Utah
To whom it may concern from Kathryn and Robert Steffensen:
We are both fifth generation Latter-Day Saints and descendants of Mormon pioneers. We met at the University of Utah and have been married forty eight years. We are parents of three sons and twin daughters. All have graduated from college. Our two oldest sons and one daughter have law degrees. Our other daughter is a pharmacist. Our youngest son, Erik, graduated first in his class from Otis-Parsons School of Art and Design. He is gay.
Our four straight children served LDS missions in Brazil, Germany, Japan and Holland. Both of our daughters have passed away. Our two oldest sons married in the Salt Lake Temple (as did we) and have enriched our lives with eight grandchildren. These sons and their families live in Salt Lake and one lives in our Ward, the Monument Park 14th ward in the Monument Park Stake. We enjoy attending church with them. Erik lives and works as an artist in Los Angeles.
We are both retired educators. Kathryn was born in Logan, Utah in 1931. Her father, Dr. Franklin L. West, was a physics professor and dean of the faculty for twenty-eight years at the Agricultural College (Now Utah State University). In l934 he was called by President Heber J. Grant to be the Church Commissioner of Education, a position he held until he retired eighteen years later. He is the author of five books. Three are texts for use in the seminaries of the Church: Discovering the Old Testament, Jesus, His Life and Teachings, and The Apostles and the Early Church. His Sunday evening radio addresses were compiled into the book, The Fruits of Religion. He also wrote a biography of his grandfather, Franklin Dewey Richards.
Kathryn’s father grew up in Ogden, Utah next door to his grandparents, President of the Q Quorum of the Twelve Franklin D. Richards and Jane Snyder Richards. Kathryn remembers the vivid stories her father would tell of his relatives’ involvement in the affairs of the Church and of their intimate acquaintance with the Prophet Joseph Smith. He was particularly impressed by his gallant ninety-eight pound grandmother who drove her own wagon team during the exodus from Nauvoo because her husband was on a mission. She is the quintessential pioneer woman and her tragic journey to Winter Quarters has been the basis of Sesquicentennial plays in Iowa and in the documentary, “Trail of Hope” where her words, “I only lived because I could not die” represented the courageous spirit of the pioneers. Her words are still inspiring to her descendants whenever they begin to lose heart.
Kathryn’s mother, Violet Madson West, was nurtured by the entire Danish immigrant community in Brigham City, Utah. Everyone was Cousin This and Uncle That. She was known as the most beautiful girl in Box Elder County, and she caught the eye of Franklin West at the annual Peach Day Celebration. She was as beautiful inside as out, and was a wonderful mother to Kathryn and her three siblings.
Kathryn graduated from the U. of U. with a B.S. in Home Economics. After her children were in school she went back to the U. of U., earned a M. Ed. and taught second grade for twenty years.
Robert was born in SLC in 1926. He attended South High School, the U. of U., BYU, and the U. of U. receiving a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. respectively. He taught Seminary at Olympus High School, was a counselor in Granite School District, and an information system designer at the Utah State Office of Education. He was an adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Education at the U. of U. He served an LDS mission to Norway, loves the gospel, and currently is an instructor in the High Priest’s group in the Monument Park 14th ward.
We are telling you about our early lives and the influences which shaped us to illustrate that nothing prepared us for the possibility that one of our children might be gay. We lived our entire lives in a very insular community with little exposure to diversity. We accepted our culture’s messages that homosexuals were confused heterosexuals and had chosen to live an abnormal lifestyle. We didn’t think that they should be persecuted and harmed but we thought that they should be encouraged to change and should not be around children. Actually we didn’t think about homosexuality very much.
We recognized that Erik was different from his brothers when he was a small child. We felt some concern, but since we were fairly confident in our parenting skills, we didn’t think that we fit the stereotypical absent father and overbearing mother who might cause a child to become homosexual–a Freudian notion. We communicated through subtle messages that we did not approve of homosexuality. We were convinced that Erik was such a fine person that he would never make such a choice. All of this did not prevent Erik from being gay, but it did prevent us from being any support or help to him during a very important part of his life.
His teenage years were very difficult. He thought he was the only gay person in his high school. He had no positive role models. He had serious moments of despair. He later told us that if he had believed the things that our culture was telling him, he would have killed himself. But he did not believe that he was evil. He believed he was a person of worth. This innate belief in himself sustained him through those years of isolation. In the meantime we continued to socialize all of our children as heterosexual and idealized temple marriage. As a result, the subject of homosexuality was never openly discussed. Erik suffered through this on his own.
As parents, we carry a burden of guilt because we were not prepared to help and support him through this difficult period of his life. We unquestioningly accepted our society and church’s public disapproval of homosexuality. Erik did not feel we could be trusted with his terrible secret. He feared that we would throw him out of our home as he knew other parents had done. Or we might enroll him in the reparative therapy programs of electric shock and aversion therapy which were conducted at BYU. Consequently he struggled alone. He did not talk with his siblings, friends, teachers or anyone. He did not see how he could ever hope for a life of dignity and purpose. However, his high school years were filled with personal accomplishment. He had a group of outstanding friends who were admired for their academic achievements and their extracurricular activities. He did not experience any overt gay bashing. He was a Sterling Scholar in art and attended the U. of U. on an academic scholarship. He graduated from Otis-Parsons School of Art and Design in Los Angeles.
When he was twenty-two he told us that his only hope for a productive life was to accept the reality of who he is and to stop trying to become something he isn’t. With tears streaming down his cheeks he said, “I don’t think I am an evil person.” These words broke our hearts because he was and is one of the finest persons we have ever known. We had suspected his homosexuality for a long time, but thought if we ignored it, somehow it would go away.
We didn’t know where to turn for help. We grieved because of the loss of our expectations. We were (and still are) fearful of the reactions of our friends, family, and members of the church. We are alarmed by the level of hateful speech directed toward gays. We are horrified by acts of violence. We fear for Erik’s safety. For several years we kept this matter to ourselves. We were voiceless.
While we were living in silence and isolation, Erik was embracing life and opportunities. We were stagnating and he was flourishing. He decided we needed to meet some other parents. We didn’t think that there were any other parents of gay children in Utah and certainly not in the Church. We were laughably naive. He called the national headquarters of P-Flag and discovered there was a small group of people who met in the home of Gerry Johnston each month. They were known as “People Who Care.” He insisted that we attend. It was the first time we had openly stated that we had a gay son. Gerry introduced us to the editors of a newly published book, Peculiar People. We began meeting each month with Marybeth Raynes and Ron and Wayne Schow. This led to the first Conference on Sexuality co-sponsored by the Graduate School of Social Work at the U. of U. We were on the committee for that conference in l993 and thus began our journey out of ignorance and into gradual understanding and enlightenment. It was not easy to shed all the myths and misinformation with which we were so comfortable. We read voraciously, and we discussed the subject endlessly. We became friends with wonderful gays and lesbians who were leading productive and meaningful lives. They were not the miserable, hopeless people we had expected them to be. We grew to love the L.D.S. parents with gay children whom we met at social and educational events. They became our dearest friends and truly a life line during our odyssey.
Ron Schow asked us in l993 if we would be willing to be part of a gay-friendly group of L.D.S. people who could extend a hand of friendship to the gays and lesbians in our community. The first meeting of the group which would become Family Fellowship was held in our home. We didn’t really have an agenda. We didn’t agree on what the Church’s response to its gay members should be or how gays and lesbians should live their lives. But we could all agree that families should not reject their gay members, and that all of God’s children should be loved and valued. In the ensuing years the official Church pronouncements on the subject have seemed harsh and hurtful. But to our knowledge never has a General Authority publicly advised parents to turn their gay children out of their homes and cut them out of their lives. So we think that our original intention to build bridges and offer unconditional love is still consistent with the official Church teachings on the subject.
After so many years of prayerful study and thought, we are very different people than we used to be. We are more compassionate, less judgmental, more dedicated to community service, and more grateful. We are concerned about social injustice. We have grown as human beings. We have come to believe that the cause of homosexuality is very complex, consisting of genetic, neurobiological, and hormonal factors. We believe that it is involuntary and immutable. The term “lifestyle” connotes choice. Neither heterosexuals nor homosexuals choose their sexuality. They discover it. Many researchers have concluded that sexuality is determined at the early age of two to four years. We do not believe that therapies designed to change orientation are effective or morally defensible and can even cause serious harm.
Since Family Fellowship does not include advocacy for human rights in its mission statement, we began to seek out groups which work for social justice. We have been members of the Salt Lake City P-Flag group since its beginnings. We have made our services available to the National Conference of Community and Justice which is the oldest anti-discrimination organization in the U.S.A.
We are supporters of the Gay and Lesbian Center in S.L.C. We were featured in a KUED documentary, “Friends and Neighbors – A Community Divided.” This documentary recently won a gold medal in an international competition. We speak at the Sunstone Symposiums, which is one of the few public forums with L.D.S. connections which addresses this issue. We are quoted in the newspaper. We have become accidental activists.
As we became aware of the intolerance and discrimination toward gay students at East High School by students, administration, and parents; we sensed the need to form a Coalition for Safe Schools which involves concerned members of our community. We have been heartened by the success which a relatively small number of dedicated citizens have been able to achieve in reducing discrimination and raising awareness of a systemic problem. This effort has placed us on a first-name basis with the Salt Lake City Supt. of Schools, the principal of East High, and the members of the Community Council. Recently a juvenile judge assigned The Coalition for Safe Schools responsibility for overseeing the community service hours which were ordered by the judge as part of the sentence of a student convicted of strong armed robbery and assault on a lesbian student at East High. We were able to assist this girl to complete her graduation requirements in spite of her fear of attending school because the principal refused to guarantee her safety. The girl’s mother was very grateful for our assistance.
We are often asked about our relationship with the LDS church. As we have already mentioned above, we are currently active in the church and have participated in church activities all our lives. We expect this to continue. Some of our friends who have gay children have not been able to do this because they have been made to feel that supporting their gay children is contrary to the policies of the church–namely, homosexuality is chosen and can be changed; homosexual behavior is sinful; partnerships between two homosexuals (i.e. marriage) is not sanctioned by the church and is grounds for excommunication. While these policies are troubling to us because of what we have learned about homosexuality, we are not deterred from activity. Furthermore, because our local church leaders know all about our positions and participation in support groups and other groups which promote equal opportunity under the law, we have been able to maintain temple worthiness. Some of our friends who have gay children are temple workers. Some are BYU professors. All are some of the finest people we have ever known. We admire them for their church service and worthiness.
Because the main problem regarding homosexuality is ignorance, we have made a concerted effort to find several documents and research information which we have organized into a “packet” of information. In this packet, we have documented our experience with our son, Erik, and have mailed or distributed same to all of our relatives, friends, members of our ward, our bishopric, and stake presidency. The common response given by most is that “we don’t really know much about this.” Upon distributing the packet, we have received an overwhelmingly positive response. Each member of our stake presidency personally thanked us for the information and encouraged us to continue our efforts.
We believe that the restoration of the gospel and our God-given children are totally compatible. We intend to continue our activity in the church and we absolutely intend to embrace and love our children. We hope that all LDS parents of gay children will do the same.
With kindest regards,
Kathryn and Robert Steffensen
2500 Promontory Drive
SLC, Utah 84109
Phone: (801) 467-3773