Guest Post: Living in Silence
By Blaire Ostler
I’ve never shared this experience publicly before, but with the most recent changes to the Handbook, also called the Policy of Silence (PoS), I feel compelled to write once again. The recent changes that explicitly and implicitly suggest that queer folks should be silent and blend into a cisnormative, heteronormative illusion will have significant and damaging consequences. I know because this is not the first time my church has asked me to live in silence.
Five years ago, in the fall of 2014, I was called into my bishop’s office. I was serving as the YW Personal Progress leader. I was no longer the Primary President, so the impromptu meeting in his office was unexpected. I went into the meeting innocently thinking he had some project or need in the ward that required my services. I was taught never to say “no” to a calling because it was God asking it of me, not the bishop. Drew and I were reliable resources for ward services and finances. When the bishop called, we came. Drew was the bishop’s secretary at the time and planned to be his next counselor, because the second counselor was moving.
When I entered the bishop’s office, I sat on the small chair awaiting my arrival. Bishop’s brow was heavy with concern as he placed clasped hands on an oversized oak desk. He had read what I had been talking about on social media and was worried about my views on gender and sexuality. I was informed there were multiple complaints from ward and stake members about what I was saying. Question after question, he searched for what went wrong. How could such a faithful sister from ward council become so misguided on LGBTQ+ and feminist issues?
I was not expecting him to ask me such personal and intimate questions about my beliefs, thoughts, and impressions. I was being interrogated. I didn’t know it at the time, but my bishop would later call other YW leaders and young women into his office to question them on whether or not they agree with my ideas on gender equality and LGBTQ+ inclusion. I was scared and taken off guard. It felt like a witch-hunt. Never once had I spoken about my views on gender and sexuality inside the walls of the church, especially in YW. I knew it meant I would lose my calling, not to mention social alienation and isolation. However, I naively thought I could talk about gender and sexual orientation outside the church without serious repercussions. I was wrong.
I was told I must stop talking about the acceptance of feminist and queer values on social media or anywhere else, other than the privacy of my own home. If I continued to talk about gender and sexuality online, there would be a formal disciplinary council to review my worthiness to enter the temple. I was then told this came from the Stake President himself, so any appeals to him would be met with the same response—be silent or lose your temple recommend.
I felt the tears well up in my eyes as my body began to shake. I was betrayed by the patriarchs who claimed to care about me, but equally distressing was the betrayal of the women in my ward who turned me in to the patriarchs.
I quickly left the bishop’s office and found my husband standing in the hallway. He saw my distress and handed me the keys to the car. He said, “Go. The kids and I will find a ride home.” He didn’t know what happened in the bishop’s office, but he knew me well enough to know I needed an escape. I was grateful for his intuition when I couldn’t speak.
I got in the car, drove home, and had my first panic attack. I didn’t even know what it was, because I had never experienced a panic attack before. I didn’t know for the next three years church-induced panic attacks would become a regular part of my Sunday worship. I felt like I was suffocating as I hyperventilated on the kitchen floor. The room spun as I felt a strong wave of nausea. My heartrate quickened uncontrollably and I though my heart might explode out of my chest. The skin on my face felt like it was on fire. If my heart didn’t kill me, I was certain I would burst into flames.
I had never felt so betrayed by my faith community, and I was not a stranger to betrayal. Not only was I being silenced at church, but my life outside of church as well. I couldn’t even talk with my friends from church without worrying about them turning me into my bishop or Stake President. However, that wasn’t even the worse part.
My bishop didn’t even know I was queer. He didn’t know that in all those Facebook posts I was talking about myself. I was threatened with having my temple recommend taken away just for talking about being accepting of LGBTQ+ Mormons. He didn’t know I was one of them. None of them knew, other than my husband.
I sat at home alone on the sofa traumatized. I wondered how much worse the meeting in the bishop’s office had been if he had known I was queer. My ward was not a safe place—not at sacrament meeting, ward activities, play groups, social activities with other moms, or even online. If they found out who I really was, I would surely be cut off from my faith community entirely. Before this experience, I thought about what a relief it might be to “come out” to my ward, but it was clear that would be a serious mistake.
I learned to live in silence. It was a survival mechanism that would take its toll on my mind, body, and soul. My church became a house of fear instead of a house of refuge. I didn’t know which of my friends I could trust so it was safest to distance myself from all of them. Though I faithfully attended all my meetings for the next year, I was utterly alone. Being silenced in such a traumatic way by my faith community contributed to my anxiety and eventually depression. Over the next year, I would become sad. Not just kind of sad, but very, very sad. The only way to cope with the sadness was to shut down and become despondent. A kind woman in our ward once described me as, “Sister Ostler? Oh yes, she’s that lovely, sad girl who always sits in the back of the room.” I suppose I wasn’t very good at hiding my sadness. Most meetings I sat in the back fighting the uncontrollable sobs that were constantly threatening to expose me—my sadness and queerness.
Forced silence was like living a slow death. I became paranoid and fearful—rightfully so. If I slipped up and said the wrong thing I could be brought into a formal disciplinary council. My anxiety got worse and worse, and even after we moved out of the state it followed me. Even in our new ward, I would go out to my car to have a private panic attack. I was afraid to been seen, to be exposed for who I really was. It was only after I left the pews that the panic attacks and anxiety would begin to subside. It didn’t matter how much I believed in Mormonism or how much I wanted to belong to my community, my body had an uncontrollable, negative reaction to being traumatically silenced in church. I tried desperately to belong, but knew I didn’t. How could I belong to the ward when they would never know who I was? It felt like I was slowly and steadily dying. In a way it felt like I was already dead, and the slow decay of my body was simply a biological formality.
The reason I share this very painful and personal experience is to show the damaging effects of forced or coerced silence at church. There is no doubt that my experience, coupled with a lifetime of queer shaming in church meeting houses, has contributed to anxiety, depression, and eventually suicide ideation—although that would come later. Eventually, death would feel more like a friend than foe.
There were so many times I wanted to ask my fellow Saints, “Was I not the woman who taught your children and daughters? Did I not serve you faithfully and give my time, talents, and means to my church? Did I not demonstrate my loyalty and commitment to you? I did what was asked. I followed procedure. Yet, once you got to know me—the real me—you rejected me. You threatened me, punished me, banished me, and asked me to live in silence, just so you could continue about your Sunday without confronting the fact that the woman sitting next to you is queer.”
The latest changes in the handbook are one more way my church has demonstrated that they don’t want me to exist. They want the illusion of cisgender, heterosexual congregations that nod and smile in total compliance. They are trying to erase queerness with silence.
Yet, the truth of the matter is I do exist and I will not be erased. I will not be silenced into submission. My Heavenly Parents gave me a voice for a reason and that reason is to spread the gospel of love. My voice has grown in the last five years, and I’m not afraid to admit that I have struggled with anxiety, depression, and suicide ideation. I am no longer afraid of who I am, what I have been through, and what these experiences have done to me. I’m not ashamed to say I was the victim of ecclesiastical and spiritual abuse, and abusers need to be held accountable for the damage they cause. The brethren need to be held accountable. I have been hurt deeply—even physically. Yes, I’m still healing, but I’ve also never been stronger and more committed to my moral compass. I won’t always do it right, but I will not stop speaking on the behalf of queer inclusion in my faith community no matter where I sit on Sunday.
Blaire Ostler is a philosopher specialized in queer studies, and is a leading voice at the intersection of queer, Mormon, and transhumanist thought. She is an author publishing her first book, “Queer Mormon Theology: An Introduction.” She is a board member of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, the Christian Transhumanist Association, and Sunstone. You can reach her at her website at BlaireOstler.com.