As the composer and lyricist of “Nephi’s Courage,” Lisa Hansen’s influence is felt in Primaries across the Church. But it is her work as the leader of a gay choir in Utah County that now occupies much of Lisa’s time. As a Marriage and Family Therapy graduate student at BYU, Lisa is a counselor for gay LDS youth and the author of a curriculum for LDS families of gay youth.
You’re a grandmother and yet you have gone back to school, working on your PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy. How did you decide that you wanted to go back to school?
Yes, I have seven grandkids. I’ve always known that I wanted to do something to help couples. Relationships seem to be more difficult than ever to maintain and I worked in a law office for 20 years, watching relationships fall apart, and that gave me even more motivation.
I finished my bachelor’s degree when I was eight months pregnant with child number six. I took a hiatus from school until child number seven, my youngest, was in college. I applied for master’s programs, but I think it took a little convincing to let schools know that someone over fifty who hadn’t been in school for ages could do a master’s degree program. I went to BYU and got my master’s in the marriage and family therapy program.
Has it been hard to study as an older person?
I study differently than I did when I was younger. I find it hard to study late at night, so I basically study all the time. When I wake up I study a little bit, and study some more and if I don’t remember things, I say oh well, and I just keep going.
I still have my master’s thesis to finish off before I can start the PhD program. My thesis is on the effect of children’s attachment to parents, especially when the parents have conflict. My research is showing that the more attached children are to their fathers, the less deleterious the effects when there is conflict in the marriage. Children tend not to do well when there’s parental conflict, but if they have a lot of bonding and affection, they tend not to do as poorly. It seems to be that the fathers that have the more protective influence.
For my PhD, I am interested in looking at women on missions and the attitude of mission presidents towards sister missionaries. I want to see if there is a link between the physical and mental outlook of women on missions and the attitudes of presidents towards sister missionaries. Some sisters do well and some are more likely to come home early. Some missions organize districts of sisters and some sisters feel subordinate to male missionaries. Some treat them as equals; in fact, there are missions where a sister and an elder both assist the mission president. Now that women can serve at a younger age, there will be many more women serving, which will likely change some of the assumptions about women missionaries, and will likely affect the way they are viewed by men and women alike. I suspect we will see beneficial change as we become more aware of the effects of mission service on a larger population of women.
You act as a counselor on the Brigham Young University campus for gay youth. What motivated you to use your psychology skills in this way?
I have always felt a resonance, an empathy, a sense of what it’s like not to belong when you want to belong so desperately. Being aware of my own intense psychological states growing up often made me feel separate from other people. And then psychological separation creates a labyrinthine world that stretches out the days and minutes of growing up into a constant winding inward, ending up feeling essentially inadequate. I began suspecting that gay and lesbian members of the church felt the same way.
It just seems to make sense to me: that young people who grow up in the Church want what has always been promised to them, which is that sense of belonging. If they have been faithful, they’ve been promised the kind of relationship and family interaction that leads to eternal hope: the plan of happiness. But it seems that it is only available to members of the church if you can manage to be straight. And I feel deeply for those young people who try so hard to be straight and then eventually come to an understanding that it isn’t going to work well for them. I know for some who have started out with some gay feelings, they find ways they can still have a marriage relationship that fits in with the gospel plan. And I don’t mean to detract from that at all, because I’m glad for those who have been able to make that work; I’m happy their dreams are coming true. But I believe there is a significant number of young people who find they are not able to do that with integrity. And then they feel that that they cannot participate fully in what the Church teaches and offers, because they feel like an abomination even if they maintain celibacy and are faithful to what they have believed.
In what ways have you felt the Lord lead you down this path of helping gay LDS youth?
Like most of us, gay and lesbian people surround me. Their desire for community touches me. Their desire to be in community with me is an honor. I have watched many young people in my neighborhood grow up and have felt pain because what they have to offer has been dismissed because it was gay, didn’t fit, was feared, and finally rejected. These have been some of my favorite people with some of the tenderest souls who, in order to survive and thrive had to move away from my community (both figuratively and literally). And heaven knows, if each of us gave of ourselves to be supportive emotionally and spiritually to the people we know who are struggling to belong, that would be a great work.
I’m not sure how long ago it was that I was just sitting at a desk and suddenly the idea popped in my mind, “Why not start a choir for gay people in Utah County?” There is not much here for you to participate in if you’re gay without feeling like you’re separating yourself in a way that might make others raise an eyebrow and suspect you mean to be in everyone else’s face as a gay person. So I organized a choir. I think some people do raise their eyebrows at the choir, but we sing uplifting music and spiritual music. I think the very first song we sang was Lead Kindly Light? And this past summer we sang “I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus,” as well as a repertoire of other fun songs. The choir means to be uplifting, in both a social and a spiritual way.
Tell me about your involvement in the Understanding Same-Gender Attraction group at BYU.
The Understanding Same-Gender Attraction group has been meeting for about three years, and I just became involved with it about two years ago. Anyone can get involved simply by attending their Thursday night meetings. Gay, lesbian, and supportive straight people are welcome.They don’t advertise on campus, but if you look for the group online you can find it, and it’s fully supported by the administration. USGA’s goal is to “strengthen families and the BYU community by providing a place for open, respectful discussions on the topic of same-gender attraction.” Those who know about it and attend it seem to feel that it is helping.
As part of my master’s work, I interned in the Women’s Services Office—where we mostly saw women who dropped in for counseling—and at the Comprehensive Clinic, where I saw both men and women and worked on marriage and family issues. As a counselor on the BYU campus, I counseled a fair number of gay students whose campus experiences were made considerably happier by knowing about the USGA group. I also know of people who did not know about it and felt they had to leave campus because they didn’t feel like they belonged and could find no supportive community. So it’s performing an important, if unsung, service.
The gay and lesbian clients I’ve worked with did not list being gay or lesbian as the reason they were seeking counseling, so my seeing them was not the result of any particular therapeutic assignment. Silence seems to still be the rule of survival for many gay and lesbian young people, particularly those who are struggling to conform to the straight plan of happiness. But since the plan of happiness for gay and lesbian members seems out of reach in this life, they are likely to experience levels of depression and anxiety that are greater than the general public. We may be more likely to see them in counseling situations, particularly when they have a faith that motivates them to belong among the saints.
Are the gay people you counsel able to find happiness in the gospel without going the direction of marriage and family?
I believe in the future that there will be a wave of gay members who are able to maintain activity. But, right now, as soon as young men feel they are gay or have these strong feelings, they are not welcomingly talked about in a ward setting. I still regularly hear trivializing and demeaning comments about gays and lesbians in church that embarrass me, including the “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” quip so often, I wonder if some children think it’s scripture. To realize that you have homosexual feelings and that you are not really wanted and valued is a tough row to hoe. To find some kind of happiness, they have to negate part of themselves—church or sexuality—and that’s hard for mental health. Those who faithfully attend but feel a stigma at church may be opening themselves to anxiety and depression unless they have tremendous support.
What do I do in counseling with gay and lesbian young people? The guiding principle is that I encourage them to find out what God wants them to do. I encourage them to look at the consequences (internal and external) of their choices, and ask how they feel about them. Choosing to find new parts of the self in a spiritual community with covenants and eternal promises, while leaving other parts of the old self behind, can be freeing and empowering, but it can also be devastating. Choosing to leave old spiritual parts of the self behind to come into new spirituality can move people in different directions.
At BYU, I can use the young person’s relationship with God as a beacon toward the kind of life the young person’s best self most dreams of: a life of connection and service and community. That has taken different pathways for different clients. There are no easy answers.
Currently, in the Church, Ty Mansfield is the best example we have of someone who has experienced homosexual feelings and is married and who has found a place of peace with this. He is working with the North Star organization, a support organization for LDS individuals and families with same-sex attraction, to get information to those who may follow in his footsteps and find some success. He has a new book out, a compilation of essays that are meant to help people in that situation. It is published by Deseret Book and called Voices of Hope. His first book is In Quiet Desperation. Both books offer a great deal of hope.
How do you see the families of gay members working together to support them?
As part of my work at BYU, I created a family support group curriculum. But so far, we have had no takers. We advertized at BYU and through various stake presidencies. I am guessing that this is private enough and tender enough that families are reluctant to talk openly about what is going on with their child and how they feel about it, especially with strangers.
Families are where we need to do the most work. A number of parents still believe that you can encourage your homosexually-tended child to be more heterosexually attracted by engaging in certain behaviors. They say things like, “Don’t hang out with your gay friends. Don’t research being gay on the Internet.” The Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco University has reported on a longitudinal study which found that gay and lesbian youth whose parents tried to do that actually felt rejected by their parents, and that kind of rejection had a significant and measurable effect on their suicide and depression rates and their likelihood of using drugs. Behaviors that some parents think will help their child end up increasing the risk of awful outcomes. I hope eventually that families become involved in the family support group curriculum.
If you could suggest any helps for families, what would they be?
There are two good organizations, the PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbian and Gays) and then there is LDS Family Fellowship, an LDS organization supporting families who have gay members. The thrust of both programs is to love and not reject your child, which of course would contribute to lowering suicide rates.
There needs to be greater love and acceptance within our ward families, too. I know of families that have chosen to be accepting, and yet going to church is still a painful experience for them and for their child, increasing the child’s self-loathing. It’s a common experience for kids to say, “It’s either suicide or I have to quit going to church, I am so loathsome to the Lord they want me to believe in.”
Is this topic addressed in the curriculum that you helped produce?
What happens at church and the experiences of young people at church are an important discussion in the curriculum. Young people who believe their families understand them and defend them are more likely to keep attending church. But families are trying to process new information about their child against the backdrop of a judgmental and non-accepting society. Trying to see things from the child’s point of view may be difficult because we are so used to seeing homosexuality from the point of view of being temple-worthy people. Every active LDS parent’s hope—it’s in every baby blessing—is that the child go to the temple some day. And if your child is gay, that goal seems at risk.
What are your reactions to the Church’s new website, mormonsandgays.com?
I’m delighted first of all that official talk about this topic addresses people as lesbians and gays, and not just people suffering from same-sex attraction. The terms “gay” and “lesbian” are associated with less depression and anxiety. I am also delighted that the website makes the subject less taboo for open discussion. Perhaps we can move the discussion out of the primary domains of the bishop’s office and the corners of the meetinghouse and into the Relief Society, quorum and Young Men and Women’s meetings. We need to welcome and value our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, and I think the website helps us start to do that. I also hope for much more understanding than is currently available, even on the website. The mental health of our gay and lesbian young people is in our power to do something about. We can reduce the suicides that plague this population.
Tell me one more interesting contribution you have made.
Well, my sister told me I had to share this in this interview: My husband and I wrote the primary song, “Nephi’s Courage”–“I will go, I will do…” We wrote the music and lyrics together. He played the piano a lot while the kids were growing up. If Dad thinks being musical is cool, then kids seem to engage in it more often. Both my experience and my academic research have shown me the kids are more likely to think it is wonderful when Dad is involved.
At A Glance
Lisa Tensmeyer Hansen
Location: Payson, UT
Marital status: Married 35 years to Wilford (Bill) Hansen
Children: 1) Mike, 34; 2) BJ, 32; 3) Amelie, 30; 4) Maggie, 27; 5) Melanie, 25; 6) Nels, 22; 7) Rachel, 20; 8 ) F.E. Student Serena, 32; 9) F.E. Student Chu Man-Chi; 21; 10) Foster Daughter Meisha, 18; 7 grandchildren
Occupation: Legal Secretary; Ph.D. candidate, BYU Marriage and Family Therapy
Schools Attended: M.S. BYU, 2012, Marriage and Family Therapy; B.S. BYU, 1990 (pregnant
with child #6 at graduation); Broad Ripple High School in Indianapolis (where alumnus David
Letterman is still legendary for some actions that actually happened and some that are surely
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “Lord, We Come Before Thee Now” (Hymns #162)