Former YSA bishop and Utah businessman Richard Ostler served a mission in England for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints almost 40 years ago.
Little did he know at that time, he would be reunited decades later with one of his fellow missionaries — who happened to be a priest, gay and married.
“He was living out of the circle of our doctrine, but he’s not living out of the circle of our love and our concern and our interest,” Ostler said during a presentation at Utah State University on Tuesday night. “That was very helpful to me as I started to get a little reprogrammed with LGBTQ.”
Ostler gave his hour-plus speech on campus, but it was not sponsored by the university or the LDS Church. In fact, that was one of the points Ostler made at the beginning of his remarks.
“I’m not here representing the Mormon church. I’m not here representing Utah State. I’m just here speaking as an individual as I’ve come to understand better LGBTQ,” Ostler said. “Thank you for being willing to engage on this.”
Ostler became interested in LGBTQ issues after learning of a gay teen’s suicide in his community.
“I cried. I don’t know why it affected me so much,” Ostler said. “The thought came into my mind there’s a gap between our restored church and its ability to fully meet the needs of its LGBT people.”
Ostler helped found Listen, Learn & Love, a nonprofit not affiliated with the LDS Church that provides resources for Mormons who want to learn more about those who are LGBTQ. The organization’s website has information for LGBTQ support groups, therapists, books, articles and a suicide prevention hotline.
“We’re not an activist group trying to change things in the LDS Church — we’re all committed Mormons just wanting to engage more on this topic,” Ostler said in an interview.
Beyond establishing an organization, Ostler has participated in countless interviews, maintained social media pages, a blog and podcast — all with the aim of creating a dialogue between members of the LDS Church who are not LGBT and those who are.
Ostler understands some Mormons might have questions about whether hanging out with a gay person or attending a same-sex marriage ceremony is a violation of their faith. After all, those are the same questions he grappled with as he came to know his gay friends.
But Ostler assured audience members, “You can be an LGBT ally and a faithful member of the church — those aren’t in any way conflicting.”
He asked them to start by hearing the stories of LGBTQ people, because they’ve had a lasting impact on him.
“We all have crosses we’re carrying,” Ostler said. “To understand someone’s cross, we’ve kind of got to go there with them, listen to their story, and then we’re fully able to mourn with them or comfort them or walk with them.”
Ostler also pointed to gospel teachings, such as the Good Samaritan, as reasons for LDS Church members to accept LGBT people.
“LGBT people are saving me,” he said. “I can’t just become the disciple of Christ God wants me to become by being around straight people. I need LGBT people in my life to help me understand only things they can teach me.”
There is a balancing act between accepting LGBT people versus remaining true to the teachings of the LDS Church, according to Ostler. He supports the law when it comes to gay rights, but he does not advocate for gay marriage. He will support someone who chooses to enter into a same-sex marriage, but he will not perform a ceremony.
“That’s just how I’m navigating this road as a faithful Mormon,” Ostler said.
The LDS Church’s position is firm: Those who are attracted to a person of the same sex can be an active member so long as they don’t act on their attraction.
Church leaders have spoken out on the issue of same-sex attraction to offer clarity for its members, as Elder M. Russell Ballard of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve did at a devotional last year.
Ballard called on church members to “listen to and understand what LGBT members are feeling and experiencing. We must do better than we have in the past until all feel they have a spiritual home.”
On Tuesday night at USU, Ostler said Ballard’s remarks felt like a “a new chapter that was created” in the LDS Church’s journey to be more accepting to LGBT people.
Several people who came to listen to Ostler at USU on Tuesday had already heard of him and his message.
Among those was USU student and Mormon Brigitte Hugh, who told The Herald Journal after Ostler’s presentation that it was not until she was 19 that she became more accepting of LGBT people.
“I had a friend who came out to me, and I had to face that in myself and overcome my internal homophobia,” Hugh said. “It’s been a long process, listening to people who are LGBT+ and learning from them. … Realizing that I don’t deal with these things, so I have to put myself in their shoes a bit more.”
Hugh said she came away from Ostler’s presentation understanding how to be a better LGBT ally.