Annalaura Solomon was raised by lesbian mothers and joined the Church 12 years ago, at the age of 18. In this interview, Annalaura describes her love for her upbringing and offers her perspective on the new policies added to Handbook 1 on gay couples and their children.
Podcast version and text interview are both included below.
Would you please introduce us to your personal situation as the daughter of lesbian parents which is of course a particular interest to us this week with the new policy that was added to Handbook 1 and to which there has been much discussion over the past couple of days. So we are very interested in learning about how you were raised and how you found the church and how that process worked in your life individually?
Sure! I am 30 so to gloss over thirty years in both cultures is not an easy thing to do, but my parents were together for several years before they decided to have kids. They got flak from both sides even inside of the gay community. I think a lot of homophobia still existed within the gay community itself, thirty years ago. It was pretty unclear whether or not gay people would “mess up kids.” So some people were thinking, “what if we do?”
By the community, you’re talking about the gay community right? Your parents weren’t Mormon?
Right! They were really building the lesbian community in Southwest Michigan. It definitely didn’t have as large of a structure or as solid a foundation as the gay community now. A lot of things were still pretty underground. Anyway, they decided they did want to bring children into the world. One of my moms talked about how she felt like it was one of the greatest and first gifts she could give me to bring me into a home where my opinions would always matter, where my ideas would always be heard, where my achievements would not always be overshadowed, which spoke to some of her experience with various family relationships. I think we are talking to a largely Mormon audience right now, so I was basically raised in like a really big lesbian Relief Society and they were really well connected. One of the stories I tell on a regular basis is when I rode my bike to a friend’s house, and helmets I think throughout time have been seen as uncool so I didn’t want to wear a helmet, and I came home to my mom sitting at the table saying, “Annalaura, where is your helmet?” And I said, “It’s sitting by my bike in the garage and I was wearing it a few minutes ago,” and she said, “Well, that’s not what Maria said.” Of course, one of my mom’s friends had seen me riding and called her right away. So, it was a close-knit group of people trying to help each other build.
And to be clear, you are the biological daughter of one your mothers?
Yeah absolutely! So they tried to get pregnant through artificial insemination, which was not nearly as common then, for about five years, each sort of taking turns and eventually Diana, who is my biological mom, got pregnant with me. I was the only child until I was about 10. I have two younger sisters who are both adopted from China. They’re 10 and 11 years younger than me. My biological mom was a nutritionist and a supervisor for the WIC program in Southwest Michigan and retired early, and then River was a bookstore owner for 18 years and has done tireless work in Southwest Michigan to help the gay/lesbian community find its footing. So that’s been a life work and an occupation.
How did you find the Church?
I was about 17 when I met a friend my senior year in high school who was basically in every single one of my classes, so I couldn’t have avoided him if I tried. And he did a mock mission week for his seminary class, so he was doing early morning seminary. They all dressed up as missionaries and followed mission rules while they were at school. He was the only one who was in our school. There were probably only ten people in this early morning seminary class but he was the only one who went to my school, so he was the only one visible, but he was visible to me all day long. We ended up asking each other lots of questions and he lived a block and half from my parents’ house and always needed rides everywhere, so I basically learned about the Gospel in the front seat of my car taking him where he needed to go. He invited me to early morning seminary with him, and despite the early hour I agreed to go with him once he said he needed a ride. I found out later that was not true, Ha!
Up until this point they had been very casual conversations about the Church. I grew up sort of with a Pagan/Unitarian Universalist religious background, so I didn’t have a lot of scriptural experience or even terms like “prophets” and the lineage of who was prophet when, and things like that. We were starting from ground zero. It was all very interesting to me. Obviously having two moms meant that I was instantly opposed to the church’s stance on homosexuality, and a number of other things, mostly social justice or general practice things and not doctrine or theology-based concerns. One of my biggest concerns was really the idea of what a Mormon woman would look like. I had a picture in my head that was pretty narrow. She had a limited scope of influence and there were things that she could and could not do, and getting an education wasn’t really one of them. I guess if you asked anybody what they thought a Mormon woman looked like on the streets where there weren’t very many Mormon women, my answer would’ve probably fit in well 12 years ago. This seminary teacher was well educated, socially conscious, and active in her community and was an exceptional teacher. She’s still one of the best teachers I have ever had. And her husband would get up and make bread for us while we were there too. So, the challenge to my pre-conceived notions of the gender roles in action was right in front of my face every morning.
And that’s when things started to change. I had her as a person to talk with about things on a level that lots of other people wouldn’t understand and she became a very close confidant quickly. I lucked out really, and have had several very strong female influences in my regular Relief Society now.
You said you were 17 at the time, which is very close to the new 18 year old age [for children to join the church from gay families]. Do you think that your friend, the seminary student or teacher would have been less forthcoming or less encouraging or less open with you if todays policy were in place 12 years ago or do you think that that experience would’ve been similar?
You know, I think that it would probably have been very similar. The history of the Church is a very nuanced and complicated thing and there were controversial issues 12 years ago that my friends discussed openly with me then: women’s roles in the Church and racial issues in the Church were things we talked about then and that I was very concerned about. And they were very forthcoming and interested in having conversations with me on all of those topics.
Do you have any advice for members who encounter children of gay couples today? Should they refrain from talking about the Church? Be as open as your friends were with you?
I guess I’d just say that there are many reasons someone’s ordinance timeline can look different from the “norm”, and this is only one. If someone is worried about how the new policy will affect these children, they might consider what they can do to improve participation for all of the children who have non-traditional timeline and make participation easily accessible. When you actually meet children of gay couples, I’m always in favor of openness, but I don’t think it means you lead the conversation with what you think about all this stuff. Coming from vastly different cultural experiences, why not take time to learn about the other person first? No matter when church comes up in your conversations, relationships should always be about more than the missionary opportunity, so it might be better to focus on getting to know them with genuine interest and honest representation of yourself, of course. That’s hugely important work, being truly present with others, I mean.
I was 17 when this all started happening, and it was actually my parents who asked me to wait until I was 18. I thought that was a reasonable request and out of respect for them I decided to do that.
And why did they do that?
Well, they were upset for different reasons and wanted to be sure that I wasn’t just caught up in a new thing, or that I would start turning against them in conversations, which actually I kind of already did. I was kind of a brat and I picked fights with them on a regular basis about all kinds of things like, “I don’t want to do the dishes,” because, well I was a teenager, and that kind of happens to everybody. They just wanted to be sure this was my own decision. They wanted the chance to be the parents they still wanted to be, so waiting gave them that.
So were they particularly concerned about the church’s position on gays at that time? Was it the Mormon Church specifically or any church’s stance on homosexuality at that time?
It was probably any church’s stance on homosexuality at that time. I had been to a few different Christian churches that were openly accepting of gay members and had been in their youth groups and things like that, and that didn’t seem to bother my parents too much. They’re not huge fans of Christianity in general, so they would always kind of raise an eyebrow, but the homosexuality stance in churches was definitely something they were looking at when I was going different places.
And how did you reconcile this new-found faith and the institution housing this doctrine with your upbringing, which was clearly full of love and very happy experiences? How did you reconcile those things at that age?
It’s a struggle, like a dance my family has been sort of carefully doing for 12 years, sometimes with better success than others. I think it’s something that you have to give yourself flexibility with. That’s a tradition in my family in general: being flexible. So, at first I was really upset [about the Church’s stance]. I used to have a really bad swearing problem and would let fly several times in the car with my friend really frustrated. A lot of that emotion came from a place of feeling like it was unfair. I spent a lot of time feeling like if only President Hinckley, who I love dearly, if only he knew a few more gay people like I did, then maybe he would not feel the way he did about homosexuality because I know so many wonderful people and because they gave me so many gifts as a young child and brought me up in such a safe place. And it hasn’t been easy for my parents either. Some times got too hard for them too, and they chose to create some distance between us. They didn’t attend my baptism for instance. But every time they needed space the rest of the ‘mothers’ they gave me in that women’s community stepped in. As a result, I have never wanted for love or support. It’s never going to be cut and dry for anyone, really. Comfortably holding ambiguity like that takes some degree of maturity, and takes a person some time to sort out.
And as I grew in my membership in the Church and grew into myself a bit, I’ve had too many thoughts on this to count, some I keep and some I don’t. I think that having a pattern of equal visibility for men and women is an eternal principle, that neither receives exhalation without the other satisfies much of my concern for an eternal pattern of women’s equal worth in the church. That there is a mother there, the LDS belief in Heavenly Mother, sort of complicates how we look at marriage in mortality. We can’t afford to over simplify or settle for empty justifications either. I’ve sort of hung my hat on that a few different times. This weekend was hard for everybody. Even if it was hard for other people in a different way than it was for me, the baptismal covenants that I made when I was 18 and that I read about when I was preparing to be baptized include mourning with people who are mourning. Sometimes it is just enough to let yourself feel things that are hard. I wouldn’t say I ever landed on one sort of thing that explains it all, but it comes and goes and I think that should be okay.
Tell me about your process of joining the church. It’s clear that these people that were influential in your conversion knew where you were coming from. How did your family situation impact meeting with ecclesiastical leaders at that time? Did they ask you in the language to disavow your parents’ marital situation?
I would be surprised, even after the policy is added to the handbook, if any of the ecclesiastical leaders will actually use the word “disavow”.
Why do you say that?
I feel like it’s not a word that easily finds itself in the middle of conversation. Nobody really knew what to do with me at first, I think. There wasn’t a policy in the handbook about something like this. There wasn’t a program or any box checked that fast tracked any part of the process, so there was some waiting for me, even if I had gotten the green light from my parents right away. The missionaries that I met with talked to their mission president and I had a baptismal interview from district leaders who were over the missionaries I had been meeting with and a few conversations with the mission president. It’s actually also something that comes up in every temple recommend interview that I have ever had. I am always the one to bring it up when I’m asked about family or organizations that I support. I always say, “Let’s have a conversation about this.” It has always been done with kindness and I’ve had really exceptional conversations.
So the “disavow your parents marital situation” sort of conversation wasn’t about making sure that I was prepared to separate myself in every way from my parents who were ostensibly doing some horrible thing. Instead it became a really interesting space for my voice to be heard. I was able to ask questions and voice my perspective and get feedback from these people who I considered to be of high standing and who had thought about the Gospel longer than I had. We were able to meld our two experiences and it’s reasonable to want be sure that I understood the church’s stance on [homosexuality] and was okay with aligning myself and accepting and living by the teachings of the church. Not having that conversation would have been negligent.
Do you think without a policy in place that others would’ve had positive experiences? Or do you think there have been instances where other ecclesiastical leaders have abused that relationship between a child that wants to be baptized in the church and his or her parents? What’s your feeling about the consistency about that positive experience up until now?
I definitely count my blessings that it has been a positive experience for me. I can’t say that I have run into too many other people who have needed to have that same conversation! But on a broader look at the way policies are handled in the Church, I think once it’s written down on paper, any number of experiences can happen. I do know that there have been times that people have walked away feeling like they’ve had bad experiences. But enacting policy is always a difficult thing: where is the line between personal interpretation and exercising the mantle of the calling that you hold? My sister has responded poorly to this idea of mandatory disciplinary council stuff; it sounds really bad. I have some friends who have had bishops show up at their houses, or cornered them at the end of an activity and just said, “Please don’t bring your partner back with you to another activity. If you do I will have to ask you to leave.” And that is not in line with any policy that we have or had then when it happened. None of this policy speaks to outcomes exactly.
What do you mean by that?
Well, disciplinary council really just means a bunch of people meeting in a room. It isn’t about getting in or staying out of trouble. It’s just the call together for a needful and meaningful conversation. How those priesthood leaders decided to handle a situation after they’ve had a conversation with a person varies to enormous degrees. I think it would be time well spent to try demystifying some of the procedures in the church. Do we know what it’s like to get first presidency approval for something, or how long it takes? Things like that. In this case, I think we are stepping away from the possibility of one individual person speaking out of turn when we have a formal setting with more than one person involved. It means that we have more than one person’s experience informing that conversation.
So you see that as a positive?
Yeah, I really do. I wouldn’t try to convince someone that disagreed with me about that because they are entitled to their own opinions, but the more people we have in a conversation the more level headed it’s bound to be, and the easier it is to track if something goes wrong.
Are you glad that you were 18 when you joined the church?
I really am. I don’t know if there is a huge difference in terms of cerebral ability to have different conversations between 17 and 18. But if you’re going to compare 8 and 18 years old there’s definitely a question about what that time does for a child. And if I could tell a little bit of a story which sort of illustrates my point. I went to private school from kindergarten to 8th grade and it was sort of a hippie preppy school. I thought it was really to put me in a place that would be most conducive to a positive and safe environment so that I wouldn’t be bullied or I would be less likely to be bullied, that sort of a thing. Recently, I was having conversations with my parents and this came up. My mom actually told me being in that school was less about me and a great deal more about her and River and that they were able to openly parent the way that they wanted to. So, they participated in fundraisers and PTA meetings and things like that that they wouldn’t have been able to openly do at a regular public school when I was that age. And I think there are all kinds of kids who are different ages who reach some sort of maturity where conversations that are typically hard become possible. When I was 17 and I started looking into the church, I had had a whole childhood with my parents being in the driver’s seat, about how they wanted to parent and the way that they wanted to educate their children. I am really grateful for that.
If you could use any standard by which you would measure exceptional parenting, my parents would be on the top of the list. I am glad that they had that time to do what they felt like they needed to do. It was a Joseph Smith quote that I heard first from President Hinckley in general conference in which he said, ‘bring all that you have that is good and let us add to it’, and the more time that I had with my parents the more good that I had to bring with me. I’ve had a really enriching experience bringing pieces of that Relief Society experience to my membership in the church. It’s a unique perspective to be sure, but it wasn’t too hard to translate it into something really beautiful.
Let’s talk a minute about your parents’ reaction when you did decide to join the Church. Did that change your relationship with them and if so how? And were there any moments of softness and harmony over your decision to join the Church?
Yeah, so I will jump around a little bit. When I first decided to join the church, which was a little over 12 years ago, both of my parents had different reactions. Neither of them were really positive. Diana, who is my biological mom, was tapped in pretty emotionally. She was worried about me being barefoot and pregnant and living in the kitchen all of the time or living in a cave or being dragged around by my hair. They were things she probably really knew were not going to happen, but she was experiencing a sense of loss and worried about a new community and culture that she didn’t know anything about and probably not feeling very welcome in. River, because I was the kind of child that I was, kind of just brushed it off and thought it was a phase. She said, “She liked Xena Warrior Princess for a while and she grew out of that, so this will pass.” And she was willing to wait it out. Six years later when I met my husband a lot of things came up again. They were concerned about if we had kids, would our kids be allowed to see them: things that were very emotionally charged. I don’t think there is any part of my experience with them in those six years that would make them think I would keep my kids from them, but they were hypersensitive to all of the possibilities, so we had very open conversations about that.
And by the time I got married, their attitudes had changed, too. Diana, who I felt like I was a little more close to and felt like I could speak a little more freely with, we had had lots of conversations about the Church and things I had been doing, callings I had, activities I had been to… so it sort of made her feel a little more comfortable. She was getting to know the community a little better, she had met a few of my friends. She actually told me a story one time where she and River were at a pool party with some friends where someone said something about, “Oh, those crazy Mormons. They worship Joseph Smith.” I had actually talked to Diana about Joseph Smith and she said she piped up and said, “Oh, actually they don’t! I know this!” like it was a Trivial Pursuit question that she had an answer for. It was like a little educational moment for people who probably didn’t really care, but she knew something and she was excited about it.
She also played the harp and there are a few hymns that she ended up really liking. I lived in Kalamazoo up until six years ago when I moved to Utah to go to BYU. I would come by the house on weekends and sometimes I would come downstairs to Come, Come Ye Saints or Come Thou Fount, and I thought it was the radio and then I would turn the corner and there she was with the little green book open playing her little heart out. She passed away three and a half years ago and she requested to hear those songs before she passed away. Those two in particular stayed with her. So, she got more and more comfortable.
River realized it probably wasn’t a phase so she got more and more anxious in a lot of ways. It was lucky that they had each other to balance each other out a little bit. One of my favorite “cross over” moments was when Diana got her first cancer diagnosis and she was reaching out for all manner of curative experiences and alternative medicines. Things like that were pretty common in my house growing up. She approached me about a Priesthood blessing and she said, “Is that a thing people outside of the Church can access, or what’s the deal with that kind of opportunity?” And I said, “Oh, of course it’s totally fine!” She had been to our branch building and even played a few special musical numbers on her harp. She came over after our church meetings, and my branch president, who in a lot of ways is like a father to me and had been a good family friend to both my parents and my sisters, administered that blessing. I don’t remember much of it except for the gentle spirit that was there, but Diana remembered several details. When she received a second cancer diagnosis in 2012 and was eventually in hospice, she sat and talked to me a little bit about that blessing. She said, “You will have to thank him for that blessing. I’ve thought about it a couple of times and I’ve seen a lot of things that were mentioned come to pass in my life in various ways and I’ve been thinking about getting another one.” I perked up and thought, “This is the perfect time. People do this. This is a normal, perfect time to get another blessing.” I started breaking out the calendar but before I got to voice that, she said, “But I am still using the one that I have.” And I couldn’t really explain to you how she got that understanding. I never understood the use of priesthood blessings in that way before that point. And she used it right up until she walked away from all of us, you know? That was a sweet moment for me.
Thank you for sharing that. That is a really sacred moment for you. So up until this point we have been talking about your point of view as a child in regards to the new policy. Of course there is a second part of the policy, which of course you do not have any personal experience with because your parents weren’t members of the church, but would you share from your knowledge of the community what you think about married gay members being labeled as apostates?
I’m not sure that seeing it written down in paper is all that surprising. It’s a teaching of the Church that has been around for a while. But I think that the emotions we are seeing right now really come from that idea that people were thinking that the conversation was changing a bit, and the surprise is really one of the biggest pieces. I hesitate to get on my soapbox about this, but I would say for myself I’ve found going through the actual documents to be helpful. I had questions about how this will affect me, and if there are people listening to this thinking “How will it affect me?” it’s vague and ambiguous enough to require an open conversation. So I’ve already met with my bishop and gone through this document saying, “Let’s talk about a few of these things,” and again, it was a positive experience for me. Whether you agree with the answers or not, just having the conversation is so helpful.
But because I have found some sense of personal peace with a lot of the policy, I don’t think it gives me the right to use that peace to devalue someone else’s sorrow. One of my favorite parts of the baptismal covenants that we have all made, if we are members of the Church, is that we mourn with those that mourn. So, regardless of the personal peace and revelation that brings understanding, regardless of whether someone is willing to wait a minute and see how it rolls out a little bit, none of that gives anyone the right to explain away the pain of someone else. And it speaks more to our Christ-like attributes to be willing to say, “I’m sorry that you’re hurting.” That’s maybe the most important conversation to be having right now. And it’s less important to try to debate with each other what’s really right or wrong or what should be different.
Beautifully said. Elder Christofferson’s brother Tom Christofferson said in an interview that he was disappointed by the grouping of the gay community as this sort of faceless mass, rather than treating individual situations like yours on a case by case basis. What is your reaction to that idea that this policy groups all people that have had your similar experiences into one policy rather than taking them on a case by case basis? You spoke a little bit before about how you see a need to establish a criteria or standard for how cases like yours are handled, but what about the idea of making the gay community an “other” or a group rather than taking it individually?
I think that with any kind of church policy there are very good things that happen and there are negative or unforeseen consequences, or possibly even foreseen side effects of something. I really identify with that idea of grouping and being the “other”. We get in an us-versus-them mode and what I would hope to have happen is that the idea of mourning with those who mourn, and all of the other Christ like attributes that we study on a regular basis, those things take precedent over any type of “other” grouping. That’s a hard thing to do, and that’s a hard thing to ask a large society to do, so we are all just flexible with each other, I hope, as we work on that.
I love that you’re using River and Diana’s emphasis on flexibility to bring that to help all of us be better.
You know, it was my first Christmas away from home as a married person and we were doing the melding of family traditions thing. In my house growing up, we did Hanukah, Kwanza, Festival of Lights, Chinese New Year and all kinds of things. Winter Solstice was kind of our big winter holiday and it was not Christmas. We did so many things and varied throughout the years that I called Diana panicking saying, “I don’t have any traditions! What am I doing?!” And so Diana was so tender and kind listening to me and she finally said, “Well, Annalaura, your holiday tradition is flexibility, and thank goodness for that,” and I thought, “Oh you’re kind of right!” That works because you do different things celebrate different holidays, but it also works when you burn something that you’re planning to serve for a church potluck. You’re okay with going to get a pizza and not looking like the best homemaker ever because my family tradition is flexibility, so I’m going to be flexible!
Are you willing to share how did you learn about the new policy and what was your initial reaction?
Well I have a friend I heaven’t heard from in several years who sent me a Facebook message of the PDF she had seen on John Dehlin’s Facebook page. Then she saw a Salt Lake Tribune article about it and she sent those my direction and said, “I automatically thought about you and wondered what you thought.” I’m not even going to tell you how many Facebook messages I had in the next 24 hours that were basically that sort of sentiment. Not that the amount of messages and people wondering what I thought was a burden. I think that the people that got in touch to say, “How are you?” is that kind of Christ-like attribute that I was talking about. They weren’t saying, “Tell me your perspective on this because yours is the only one that is important,” or “I’m going to gauge how I feel about it based on how you are”… It was just, “How are you?”
I wasn’t sure if it was for real, honestly, and it took my breath away for sure! It is new language for all of us. I knew that it would make the holiday season, going home to visit, a little more difficult, a little more tender. I had to sit down a little bit and take a breath. But, I didn’t hop on social media anywhere and say what I thought. Again, with flexibility not making assumptions, wanting to be well informed and having an educated something to say is important, and important to a lot of my friends. I was surprised to see so many people being so well informed so quickly! Even if it had only been a half an hour after it was leaked. People had already formed iron-clad opinions about it. That was surprising to me. I purposefully took a lot of time to process. The emotions are fresh. It was hard to hear and it was confusing. Honestly, taking time with my ecclesiastical leaders has been really valuable, to be able to go carefully through each thing and ask questions of all kinds.
Probably the greatest emotion I have is a feeling of loss that we all have experienced: the loss of the opportunity to see how the priesthood leaders, the apostles, and the first presidency, how they might have so tenderly gone about talking to their people about this. People that they love about these things. And that is a loss we all share. I thought a lot about Elder Bednar’s talk from last General Conference, he said over and over again, “From a man that I love….” And these are men I do love, and I do think that they love all of us. And that means it will take a little time to understand and be able to see that love. For some people, they may never be able to see it, and that is also a loss we all share because those people are precious.
Thank you! This has been a gift to me to hear your perspective from the inside and a very different place than I am coming at it from. I know it’s a gift to our readers and listeners so I really appreciate you sharing these sacred thoughts with us.