Just in time for Pride Week or Pride Month, we have a story from CNN about a 12-year-old girl coming out to her Latter-day Saints congregation. On May 7, a girl named Savannah stood up during a service to give a brief speech about being a lesbian.
After about three minutes, the leaders turned off her mic and asked her to sit down.
Since then, the story of the girl from Eagle Mountain, Utah, has spread, culminating in an article on CNN a few days ago.
There are all kinds of journalism challenges in this story: The big questions are whether the CNN team is actually interested in what is going on right now, in terms of Mormons adapting some -- repeat, "some" -- of their doctrines to the LGBTQ age. Also, there is this: How stable is the sexual identity of a 12-year-old female?
Let's work our way through this:
(CNN) Savannah, 12, made a decision this January; she was going to come out as lesbian at her Mormon Church. Nothing was going to stop her.
She's a normal almost-teenage girl in Utah: She loves to draw and make art. When she grows up, she wants to be a Disney animator. Her favorite bands are Imagine Dragons and Fall Out Boy.
On June 22, 2016, one day after her birthday, Savannah came out to her parents as lesbian. Mom had suspicions and knew that day might come.
"I looked at her and said, 'OK, I love you. And I'll support you no matter what you do,'" said Heather, her mother.
The family felt strongly that they didn't have the right to prevent Savannah from telling her story publicly, including sharing it with CNN, but asked that their hometown and last names be withheld to give them a measure of privacy.
The story went on to describe -- quoting printed documents, of course -- Mormon policy on same-sex relationships.
Heather (the mom) left the church a year and a half ago after official church policy documents were leaked online in 2015. Those documents, confirmed by the church to CNN to be authentic, apostatize same-sex couples who marry and bar any of their children from blessings or baptism until they themselves reach legal age. They remain church policy.
Official church policy welcomes members of the Mormon faith that have same-sex attractions. They say it's possible to be "Mormon and gay."
Church teaching, however, mandates that members with same-sex attractions cannot act on those feelings. They must remain celibate and they cannot get married to members of the same sex.
The above is a pretty truncated exposition on Mormons and gays, but the aforementioned link goes to an article that ran last year and which better explains the LDS stance.
The piece went on to explain how the family decided to go public. The child put on a tie before she went up and spoke (was the tie a statement as well?) at a monthly gathering known as a "testimony meeting." She got about three-quarters of the way through the speech before she was asked her to sit down. The girl quickly returned to her seat and the family left the sanctuary.
An emailed statement to CNN from the local bishop, Judd Law, said, "It is common for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to stand before a congregation of families and share feelings and beliefs -- a testimony -- during a worship service."
Despite repeated requests to church headquarters and Law, the bishop, they did not explain why Savannah's mic ceased to work.
On a Mormon Church website titled "Mormon and Gay," it offers the following advice on Mormons who want to come out: "If you decide to share your experiences of feeling same-sex attraction or to openly identify as gay, you should be supported and treated with kindness and respect, both at home and in church." …
At this point, I wish the piece had pointed out the strides Mormons have made on accommodating LGBT rights with their theology.
In the emailed statement to CNN, Law took issue with the recorded video, saying it was unauthorized. Additionally, he said that a "group of visitors jubilantly left the service. ... Everyone is welcome and understands the standards of decorum and behavior if they decide to participate. It is unfortunate that this group of adults chose to violate them."
Law said the video was being exploited for "political purposes."…
"This incident has created some tender emotions, first and foremost for a brave young girl," said Law in his emailed statement to CNN. "As a congregation, we continue to reach out, and do all that we can to make sure she knows that we love her and her family."
I had some mixed reactions to the piece. Even if a child feels she is gay, is a testimony meeting the place in which to state it?
I have a 12-year-old daughter. I could no more imagine allowing her to make such a speech than going to the moon. I listened to an hour-long interview with the child on Mormon Stories, a YouTube channel. Yes, she is a very mature girl who is well-versed in how the church has treated blacks and gays. The mom said they didn’t want to refuse her desire to speak as it would have sent a message of rejection to their daughter.
But there are different schools of thought on how developed anyone’s sexual identity awareness is at that age. And the child could have had a coming-out party anywhere. But she made it clear in several interviews that she wanted to confront her own church, plus show the world that gay people are normal.
During the Mormon Stories interview, Savannah’s views on the church’s treatment of homosexuals in their midst echoed what her mother -- a lapsed Mormon -- also thinks.
The girl also revealed that in sixth grade (from 2015-2016), she wondered what it’d be like to kiss a girl. She tried to make herself like boys, then decided she liked girls and came out to her mom, saying, “Mom, I like girls.”
Her mother’s response was an “OK!” Most parents I know would have taken their kid to a therapist to get a more expert opinion on whether the girl truly has same-sex attractions.
I have enough contact with girls to know that lots of pre-teens aren’t crazy about boys. They’re all into their girl BFs and BFFs and to them, boys are creatures on another planet. Couldn’t CNN have shown a bit more skepticism (you know, by interviewing people on the other side of this issue) about this child’s statements considering the emotional make-up of most girls that age?
Were I filming this, I’d be petrified that five years from now, Savannah might have decided that maybe she likes boys after all.
I checked a report from the Salt Lake City Fox TV affiliate on Savannah and they did note that the family violated at least two LDS guidelines on what sorts of testimonies are appropriate and a prohibition against recording or taping meetings.
I understand how Savannah’s speech does fit in with the drift of the culture and that the LDS church –- caught flatfooted by the incident -– is a convenient villain. But as some Mormons have noted in the comment sections of various articles about the girl, a testimony meeting was the wrong venue to choose for these revelations.
For anyone interested, here is the Mormon view of what these meetings entail and why a fair number of Mormons feel that Savannah chose the wrong place to make her statement. And no matter how articulate and passionate this tween was, should the reporter have pressed the mother more on why the child was being used to make such a point? It was not an easy story to do but a few more questions could have been asked.