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Singing Loud And Proud: Choir For LGBT Mormons Breaks Out

Dec 14, 2012
Originally published on December 17, 2012 1:13 pm

Growing up in Utah, Ross Owen watched the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on television every Sunday with his family.

"It was almost like watching a rock concert, and I thought, 'Oh, I'd love to do that,' " he says.

But by the time Owen was old enough to join the choir, he was no longer a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; he had been excommunicated after he came out as gay.

"I almost feel like I've been mourning giving up that foundation that was there for me for the first 20 years of my life," Owen says. "So, now I'm searching for that spirituality and how to get that spirituality back in my life."

Today, he's a part of a new choir — one that's open to gays, lesbians and Mormons. The ensemble of roughly 15 members, called the One Voice Choir, is not officially part of the LDS church in Utah, but they've been invited to perform at a Mormon church-sponsored outreach event for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

For their first rehearsal, the group congregated at a historic LDS chapel near downtown Salt Lake City. Bryan Horn, the group's musical director, resigned from the church after coming out as gay, but says he's still a Mormon in his heart.

"The primary purpose is to create a space where everybody is loved and everybody is welcome — to simply come together, and as Mormon Christians and non-Mormon Christians, to worship Jesus Christ and proclaim our testimonies of Jesus Christ," Horn says.

Catherine Jeppsen, a self-identified ally, accompanies the group at the rehearsal. She's an adjunct faculty member of gender studies at Brigham Young University and says she's met a number of students suffering from a sense of exclusion.

"I just really feel for people who don't feel accepted in the one place they should," Jeppsen says. "And I want to do everything I can to show them that there are people in the Mormon church who do love and accept them, and want them to feel welcome."

Rexene Pitcher, another member of the group, tears up when she talks about her gay son who withdrew from the church when he no longer felt accepted.

"I'm really happy to see people of the Mormon church coming out and saying we love you just the way you are, and being willing to show it," Pitcher says.

Unlike Pitcher's son, 18-year-old choir member Grayson Moore says he hasn't felt compelled to leave the church. Moore identifies as a female-to-male transgender and holds a Temple Recommend — meaning he's a church member in good standing.

"Most people who grow up in the church, when they transition, they just say, 'I'm not allowed to be LDS anymore', and they just give up and walk away," Moore says at a rehearsal. "I want to show people that you don't have to walk away, that just because it can be hard to be LDS and transgender, that doesn't mean it's not worth it."

Before Moore finished his thoughts, an official from the church where the choir was rehearsing requested that the group end practice and leave.

They were told to no longer use that church as a rehearsal space. The local branch president declined to talk about the decision, but said he didn't want the group's presence to become political. Though a church spokesman later apologized to the choir, the doors remain closed.

The rejection was disheartening for Horn, who says it slowed the momentum of the group.

"Honestly, after that I thought about scrapping the whole idea, and I'm like, you know what, that's the sign that God gave me that this is not right at this time," he says.

But luckily, the choir found a new rehearsal home three weeks later at a nearby Methodist church. The group has been prepping for an LDS church event called Outreach Fireside — an occasion Horn notes as a significant stride for the ensemble.

"I think it's showing the church that we're not the enemy. We're just here to sing," he says. "So, the fact that we're being invited to this Christmas Fireside for LGBT Mormons and straight allies, and even curious people who don't know how to handle this topic in the church, it's a great step in the right direction."

Since the choir was formed, the LDS church launched a new website urging Latter-day Saints to reach out more to gay and lesbian members.

Copyright 2013 KUER-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kuer.org.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Mormons are known the world over for their Tabernacle Choir. Well, now, a group of Latter-day Saints in Utah has formed a new choir, one that is open to gays and lesbians. The One Voice Choir is not officially part of the LDS church, but they've been invited to perform this weekend at a church-sponsored LGBT outreach event.

ANDREA SMARDON, BYLINE: Andrea Smardon of member station KUER in Salt Lake City reports the road to this weekend's concert has not been an easy one.

Growing up in Utah, Ross Owen watched the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on TV every Sunday with his family.

ROSS OWEN: It was almost like...

(LAUGHTER)

OWEN: ...watching a rock concert, and I thought, oh, I'd love to do that.

SMARDON: But by the time Owen was old enough to join the choir, he was no longer a member of the church. Owen says he was excommunicated after he came out as gay.

OWEN: I almost feel like I've been mourning, giving up that foundation that was there for me for the first 20 years of my life. So now, I'm searching for that spirituality and how to get that spirituality back in my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE CAN I TURN FOR PEACE")

ONE VOICE CHOIR: (Singing) Where Can I turn for peace? Where is my solace when...

SMARDON: Owen is hoping that the One Voice Choir might help in his search. On this evening, he joins about 15 other singers at a historic LDS chapel near downtown Salt Lake City for their first rehearsal. The group's musical director, Bryan Horn, has resigned from the church but says he's Mormon in his heart.

BRYAN HORN: The primary purpose is to create a space where everybody is loved and everybody is welcome, to simply come together and as Mormon Christians and non-Mormon Christians worship Jesus Christ and proclaim our testimonies of Jesus Christ.

SMARDON: Accompanying the group is Catherine Jeppsen. She's a church member, and she teaches gender studies at Brigham Young University. Jeppsen says she's met many students who are suffering.

CATHERINE JEPPSEN: I just really feel for people who don't feel accepted in the one place they should, and I want to do everything I can to show them that there are people in the Mormon Church who do love and accept them and want them to feel welcome.

SMARDON: Another member of the group is Rexene Pitcher, whose adult son is gay. Pitcher tears up when she talks about how her son did not find acceptance in church.

REXENE PITCHER: So I am really happy to see people of the Mormon Church coming out and saying we love you just the way you are and being willing to show it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You ready? Three, four, gently.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVIOR MAY I LEARN TO LOVE THEE")

ONE VOICE CHOIR: (Singing) Savior, may I learn to love thee, walk...

SMARDON: Eighteen-year-old Grayson Moore is singing tenor in the choir but moves over to join the sopranos when they need help. Moore identifies as female-to-male transgender. In an interview after the rehearsal, he says people at church have been surprisingly accepting. Moore says he holds a temple recommend, meaning he's a member in good standing.

GRAYSON MOORE: Most people, who grow up in the church, when they transition, they just say I'm not allowed to be LDS anymore, and they just give up and walk away. I want to show people that you don't have to walk away, that just because it can be hard to be LDS and transgender, that doesn't mean it's not worth it.

SMARDON: Moore begins to talk about the way it feels to sing in a choir like this, but before he can finish his thought, he's interrupted.

MOORE: I love the spirit here. It's just acceptance and love. It's a great feeling of...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hello. We're going to have to ask you...

SMARDON: Someone from the church, where the choir is rehearsing, opens the door and tells us it's time to leave. Later, musical director Bryan Horn was told that the choir could not rehearse there anymore. The local branch president did not want to talk about the decision but admitted he was worried the group's presence there would become political. Later, a church spokesman apologized to the choir for the situation. Horn says losing a rehearsal space was discouraging.

HORN: Honestly, after that, I thought about scrapping the whole idea, and I'm like, you know what, that's the sign that God gave me that this is not right at this time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEARER, MY GOD, TO THEE")

ONE VOICE CHOIR: (Singing) Nearer, my God, to thee.

SMARDON: But three weeks later, the choir found new rehearsal space at a nearby Methodist church, where they've been practicing for their upcoming concert. It's an LDS church event for gays and lesbians called an outreach fireside, and Horn says it's a significant move for the choir.

HORN: I think it's showing the church that we're not the enemy. We're just here to sing. So the fact that we're being invited to this Christmas fireside for LGBT Mormons and straight allies and even curious people who don't know how to handle this topic in the church, it's a great step in the right direction.

SMARDON: Since the choir was formed, the LDS church has launched a new website, mormonsandgays.org, that urges Latter-day Saints to reach out to gay and lesbian members.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Smardon in Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.