Social Worker Spreads a Message of Acceptance to Mormons With Gay Children

The New York Times/September 12, 2014

By Samuel G. Freedman

San Francisco -- Late on election night in 2008, Caitlin Ryan sat in her apartment here, cat in her lap, computer at her side, watching the results on television. Sometime after Barack Obama was declared president, briefly lifting her mood, she saw the news she had been dreading: Proposition 8 was going to win, striking down same-sex marriage in California.

Dr. Ryan’s despair came partly from being a lesbian who had been thrilled to see the San Francisco mayor performing gay weddings during the brief window of legality. More so, she was dispirited by the role that the Mormon Church and its members had played in getting Proposition 8 passed — donations, pulpit declarations, phone banks and door-to-door campaigning.

At the time, Dr. Ryan, a clinical social worker with a Ph.D., was writing educational materials to persuade Mormon families to accept their gay children. One of her Mormon allies, a religion professor, Robert Rees, had been temporarily banned from the churches in his region of Northern California for criticizing the official stand on Proposition 8 by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I knew the work would get much harder,” Dr. Ryan, 68, said in a recent email, “and the pain and rancor more bitter.”

Nearly six years later, the same Dr. Rees stood before a classroom at a Christian seminary in Berkeley, the rows and aisles and vestibule filled with Mormon families, maybe 175 people altogether. They were attending a “fireside,” as the open meeting was called, which was sponsored by the Family Acceptance Project, the program that Dr. Ryan was developing that night in 2008.

“This good Catholic sister, who loves us, loves our family, has brought us a great gift,” Dr. Rees said in introducing Dr. Ryan, the project’s director. “I honor her as a true latter-day saint, in the full meaning of the word. We don’t wait until people die. So: St. Cait.”

Applause rose from the audience. Among the crowd was the Searle family, seated eight or nine rows back: the parents, Christy and Greg, and their four sons, including their 15-year-old, Zachary, who is gay. Until the family learned of Dr. Ryan’s program and attended their first fireside, the Searles thought they faced the most harrowing of binary choices. Love their son and lose their church, or love their church and lose their son.

“When Zachary first came out, I prayed for a miracle, that he would be changed,” said Ms. Searle, 43, a medical assistant. “Then the miracle happened that my heart changed, and I saw my son was loved by God. And my prayer is that the church receives that revelation. The gay kids deserve all the same blessing as all the other Mormon kids.”

If such change does come — and there are intriguing signs in that direction — then some part of the credit will surely belong to Dr. Ryan. Her efforts, in turn, have unexpectedly benefited from the Proposition 8 battle. In its wake, the Mormon Church received a backlash of criticism and faced the widespread perception that it was intolerant.

While Mormon doctrine continues to view “homosexual behavior” as contrary to “God’s law,” the institutional church has been striving for a more moderate tone. It introduced the website two years ago. “There is no change in the church’s position of what is morally right,” a statement on the site reads. “But what is changing — and what needs to change — is to help church members respond sensitively and thoughtfully when they encounter same-sex attraction in their own families, among other church members, or elsewhere.” (Asked about Dr. Ryan’s project, a church spokesman made a similar point.)

The effect of such words has been mixed. A nationwide poll conducted late last year by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 53 percent of respondents considered the Mormon Church “unfriendly to L.G.B.T. people.” (Among religious denominations, only the Roman Catholic Church, at 58 percent, fared worse.) Yet even the gay magazine The Advocate has hailed a “minor revolution” of “more humane treatment of L.G.B.T.s” in Mormon communities.

Dr. Ryan’s mission to the Mormons began in her Irish Catholic household, where she was reared on stories of the Easter Rebellion and imbued with the belief that God acted on behalf of the oppressed. From her own coming-out in the 1970s, however, she also learned firsthand the anguish of a family’s rejection in the name of religion.

Having studied gay and lesbian health issues as she began her social work career, Dr. Ryan became involved with AIDS patients in the Atlanta area during the first years of the epidemic. Many of them were from deeply conservative, evangelical Christian homes; many had left or been expelled solely because they were gay. And as Dr. Ryan looked on, these young men, on their deathbeds, and their parents struggled to reconcile.

“I saw something very few people saw,” Dr. Ryan recalled. “This deep, profound connection that superseded dogma and doctrine. I saw the language of the heart.”

Right then, she recognized her calling: to enable those reconciliations during life rather than at the portal of death. As Dr. Ryan received her validation the way scholars do — publication in peer-reviewed journals, six-figure grants as a principal investigator on research projects, a faculty position at San Francisco State University — she conducted extensive field work among homeless gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teenagers in the Bay Area, as well as with parents of gay children. She and her academic colleagues documented a strong correlation between rejection by families and such dangerous youthful behaviors as drug abuse, unprotected sex and suicide attempts.

Along the way, Dr. Ryan also discovered her way into the Mormon world. For all of the church’s longtime, outspoken opposition to homosexuality, Mormons also put a tremendous theological emphasis on family, so much so that they believe a family can be “sealed” together in the afterlife.

What, Dr. Ryan asked herself, if that value system could be used to encourage parents to affirm their gay children? What if Mormon parents could be reassured that even their missteps with those children — believing that being gay was just teenage confusion or could be changed with reparative therapy or was the devil’s work — were acts of love rather than hate? Wouldn’t a loving parent want a gay child to live rather than to die, to be at home instead of on the street?

In Dr. Ryan’s form of evangelism, the gospel consists of data, which wields the calm logic of statistics to show better outcomes for gay children who are embraced rather than excluded. The Family Assistance Project has expounded that message through films, handbooks, research papers and firesides, like the one the Searle family attended last week in Berkeley.

“I’m still a Catholic schoolgirl,” said Dr. Ryan, who regularly attends church to this day. “Modesty and humility were values that were instilled in me. I don’t feel right taking credit. It’s not my work. It’s a spiritual practice and a sacred trust.”

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