12-year-old Mormon girl comes out as a lesbian in her church
Savannah is 12 years old, a Mormon, and a lesbian. And she is brave.
In May, Savannah (Mashable is withholding her last name for privacy) came out to her Utah congregation during a testimony — a public declaration of faith and belief. Given the Mormon church’s complicated and often oppressive view of same-sex desire and attraction, coming out was a risk that took courage well beyond her years.
“I believe I was made the way I am, all parts of me, by my heavenly parents,” she says in a video of the moment. “They did not mess up when they gave me brown eyes, or when I was born bald. They did not mess up when they gave me freckles or when they made me to be gay.”
“They did not mess up when they gave me freckles or when they made me to be gay.”
Savannah’s bold testimony was captured on video taken by family friends, and has since gone viral a month later. But the 12-year-old’s moment is just the latest in a long line of queer Mormon resistance.
The video shows the visibly nervous girl in a red tie declaring her identity, with church leaders cutting off her mic in the middle of her testimony, silencing her for unapologetically coming out.
The footage of her being told to “take a seat” by an adult male leader has brought a new wave of attention to the experiences of queer Mormons, which has long been a topic of conversation in LGBTQ activism, theater, and beyond. Savannah and her story are at the center of the conversation, which has proven to be a lot of pressure for the girl and her family.
Mashable has been in touch with the family, who says they are taking a break from the media attention on Savannah’s story. That isn’t a surprise, given that Savannah’s bravery has single-handedly put national attention back on the Mormon church’s view of LGBTQ identity. But the family did tell Mashable they wanted Savannah’s experience to continue to be told.
That experience all began nearly one year ago on June 22, 2016, when Savannah came out to her parents as a lesbian. It was one day after her birthday.
“I looked at her and said, ‘OK, I love you. And I’ll support you no matter what you do,'” her mother, Heather, told CNN in a recent interview.
Heather’s support for the LGBTQ community extends further back than her daughter’s coming out. In fact, Heather made the decision to leave the Mormon church in 2015, after official church documents were leaked and exposed the church’s view of same-sex families. The documents said that married same-sex couples can’t be members of the church, and their children can’t receive blessings or baptism until they reach 18. At that age, children are expected to denounce their parents’ relationship in favor of their faith. These standards remain in church policy.
“I want them to know that it’s OK to be Mormon and be gay.”
Savannah and her father, Josh, however, remained members of the church, even though Heather left. And Savannah wanted to be honest with her church community, electing to tell them about her identity through testimony. The young girl wanted to be true to herself, but also had a strong desire to reach closeted members of her congregation.
“I want them to know that I’m an ally, that they’re safe with me,” Savannah said before her testimony, according to her mother. “I want them to know that it’s OK to be Mormon and be gay.”
Savannah’s parents were both apprehensive at their daughter’s desire to come out to her church. After all, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) — the official name of the Mormon church — is notoriously homophobic.
“We came to the conclusion it wasn’t our place,” Heather told CNN. “We couldn’t silence her. It would be giving her a bigger message that she wasn’t allowed to speak or there was something wrong with her.”
The church says same-sex attraction is a “complex reality and part of the human experience.”
The official LDS website states that “[s]exual relations are reserved for a man and woman who are married and promise complete loyalty to each other. Sexual relations between a man and woman who are not married, or between people of the same sex, violate one of our Father in Heaven’s most important laws and get in the way of our eternal progress.”
But to remain in good standing with the faith, queer members of the church must remain celibate and can’t marry. If members do, they risk excommunication from the church. Though harsh, the policy mimics expectations of many faiths, including Christianity. Some places of worship across faiths, however, have relaxed their policies in recent years, especially in areas where LGBTQ identity is embraced.
In her testimony, Savannah pushed against the expectation that she would have to reject dreams of marriage and family for her faith.
“I hope to find a partner and have a great job,” she said in her testimony. “I hope to get married and have a family. I know these dreams and wishes are good and right. I know I can have all of these things as a lesbian and be happy.”
“I hope to get married and have a family… I know I can have all of these things as a lesbian and be happy.”
Under official policy, the church “welcomes” members who have same-sex attractions, saying that same-sex attraction is a “complex reality and part of the human experience.”
The Mormon faith, however, distinguishes between same-sex attraction and “homosexual behavior” — the latter being unacceptable.
Shortly after that statement, Savannah’s microphone was unplugged by church leaders. Though she didn’t defy Mormon belief by coming out, she did “threaten” to defy Mormon policy by saying she hopes to fall in love and marry.
“I thought [the mic] was broken at first,” Savannah told CNN. “So, I turned around to talk to him. And then he [a church leader] told me to sit down.”
This silencing of queer Mormons isn’t rare. In fact, activists have fought for more representation and voice within the church, especially since 2015’s document leak. In the aftermath, activists organized highly visible protests, including in Utah, to push against the idea that acting on same-sex desire would compromise their faith.
Despite the silencing, Savannah said she “felt accepted” by her church.
Indeed, the Mormon church does accept portions of Savannah’s identity. But her story has brought attention to what acceptance (with conditions) looks like in church community.
And, for many queer Mormons, that brand of “acceptance” isn’t enough.
WATCH: The best advice to LGBTQ young people from community elders