Gay Mormon describes life on brink of excommunication

Salt Lake City Tribune/August 13, 2006
By Peggy Fletcher Stack

Buckley Jeppson married Mike Kessler on Aug. 27, 2004, in Toronto and thought maybe he could have it all - his Mormon faith and his longtime love. Jeppson still attended the Washington, D.C., Mormon ward he had called home since 1997, and several straight LDS couples even came to their wedding reception.

That optimism survived until early this year, when Jeppson's LDS stake president suggested his marriage was incompatible with Mormon teachings and urged him to resign his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or face excommunication.

"I felt I was on the edge of a cliff and he was saying 'jump or we'll push you,' '' Jeppson said at the annual Sunstone Symposium, a three-day independent forum to discuss Mormon issues that ended Saturday. "I've spent 57 years in the church. I wasn't going to jump. It was a matter of conscience."

To renounce his membership would undercut everything he believed in. He refused.

"I wasn't going to say to my family that all my years of service in the church meant nothing, that I no longer believed it," Jeppson said. "I was not making a big statement, not marching or protesting or anything. I just wanted to worship with my tribe every week."

Philosophy instructor Jeff Nielsen, also on the Sunstone panel, faced his own crisis of conscience while sitting in church on a Sunday in May when a letter from the LDS First Presidency was read from the pulpit. The letter declared the church's support for the constitutional amendment on marriage being proposed in Congress and urged Latter-day Saints to write their representatives.

In the past, Nielsen, who was born in 1961, had wondered if he would have been bold enough to oppose the church's ban on blacks holding the priesthood before 1978 or if he would have defended the Equal Rights Amendment even as his leaders were denouncing it in the 1980s. This was his chance.

And so he wrote a letter to The Salt Lake Tribune that was published June 4, calling the church's opposition to same-sex marriage "immoral."

Nielsen does not regret writing the letter even though it cost him his adjunct teaching position at Brigham Young University.

Defending the civil rights of gays, even if it meant publicly disagreeing with his LDS Church leaders, was too important to him, he said Saturday. "Challenging the church's historical claims would be heresy and challenging its theology would be apostasy, but surely it's OK to challenge its politics, I thought."

Nielsen received three types of e-mail responses to his letter: the first came from ex-Mormons cheering him on; the second from gays and lesbians sharing their own painful stories; and the third from "active Mormons who said they, too, were troubled by the church's position and were working quietly towards changing perceptions within the church."

That's good news for the church, Nielsen said.

Jeppson, too, has sensed some baby steps in the church's handling of homosexuality.

Within a month after newspapers reported the threat to his membership, Jeppson's LDS bishop was called on a mission to Mexico and his stake president "got quiet."

Since then, Jeppson has continued to do what he's always done - sit quietly on the back pew in his LDS inner city ward week after week and slip out without causing a ruckus.

"The irony is," Jeppson said Saturday, "I had to go public to be able to worship in peace."

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