Church Court (For ‘Homosexual Behavior’)*

10 min readFeb 24, 2020


You Gotta Love It Baby, Watercolor, 42.5" x 51", 2000, Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**

By all appearances white, wealthy, male, incestuous, privileged corruption at the highest levels of government had a fabulous week, its best week in decades, maybe ever, in the United States. I express some of my straight-faced thinking on that in General Barr: On Behalf of a Small But Elite Class of Current and Future Criminal Defendants, Thank You

I decided to post about something different this week in light of news of Brigham Young University’s tweak of its Honor Code. I did a double-take over the headline that BYU had removed from its Honor Code the longtime ban on “homosexual behavior.” On closer examination, the change appears to tolerate limited same-sex affection such as hugging, kissing or hand-holding. Same-sex unions remain “serious transgressions,” however, as does sexual intimacy outside lawful monogamous marriage between heterosexuals. A spokesman for Brigham Young University, Todd Hollingshead, explained:

“We believe that removing the more prescriptive language from the Honor Code is helpful for our LGBTQ students,” he wrote. “We want our LGBTQ students to feel welcome and included on our campus.”

With this news my parents, who became strong advocates for LGBTQ acceptance within their Mormon community and beyond, might be reminded of the Martin Luther King quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

My brother Nick turned 50 this month. His “private barter with god didn’t work — he returned from his [Mormon] mission just as gay as he’d left.” I publish this post with his “blessing.” I wish I had our parents’ express approval because this is as much about them and their transformation as it is Nick. Given their public advocacy for their son and the LGBTQ community at large, however, I deem their consent implicit.

I have alluded to this in prior posts, including PENCIVE TIMES: “MAKING AMERICA STRAIGHT (OR AT LEAST CLOSETED) AGAIN”.

“[Our] parents engaged in an advanced form of self-directed conversion therapy, not calculated to change their son but to exorcise from themselves the received homophobia fueled by procreation theocracy and sectarian over-againstness. They, not their son, would become the converted. Richard and Renee renounced ex-gay Mormon ministries. They vowed their son mustn’t be encouraged to identify as or be converted to un-gay. . . . Renee compartmentalized sexual orientation from the other Mormon abominations. Indeed, she and my father provided a well-intended but imperfect sanctuary through Family Fellowship for Mormon members of the LGBT community. Renee passed away . . . having ‘endured to the end’ convinced the Mormon Church got everything right except one. In contrast, Richard was more broadly destabilized by the religious and social hostilities surrounding his son’s gayness. He entered a period defined largely by that disorientation. Don’t misunderstand: when he passed on Christmas 2013, he remained in the faith, albeit somewhat wiser.”

After seeing Nick was committed to that perverse lifestyle choice despite his proper upbringing — Nick having grown up in the church, become an Eagle Scout and served a mission — the church decided it was time to hold court. Appearing as witnesses for Nick at his excommunication trial (aka “court of love”), Dick and Renee read bold, prepared statements in Nick’s defense. They also challenged the church’s views and official position on homosexuality as uninformed, unscientific, bigoted and dangerous — in a Matthew Shepard kind of way. Unchristian, in a word. This was 1993 when people chose to be gay and could un-choose it, according to church leaders who claimed to have direct, exclusive access to the mind and will of an all knowing god on matters of such importance. Wait . . . .

“Causation” was, and in many religious circles continues to be, of paramount importance to the sectarian debate. The fact of homosexuality naturally occurring in a consistent percentage of the population threatens the credibility of deep-seated doctrine, including procreation theocracy and the Plan of Salvation in Mormonism. The cause, therefore, must be fault-based because the alternative is unacceptable. Given organized religions’ preoccupation with sex, it also threw into disarray the notion that sexuality between people of the same gender could be anything but unnatural. It was and is as much about control and the credibility and preservation of the institution which, if you think about it, is the first rule of institutions. And yes, the sun does revolve around the earth which is the center of the universe.

Quoted below are excerpts from Renee’s prepared statement to the priesthood tribunal which included a letter she had sent to Thomas Monson, a member of church leadership who had recently published an article offering hope and solace to those mourning the loss, through death, of a loved one. In a later post I will share excerpts from Richard’s testimony along with portions of a “sermon” he presented to the Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2002 on this subject.

“This is the dilemma, the pain, the anguish. Dick and I have been faithful members of the church all our lives — temple recommend holders with all that implies. This is the hardest issue we have ever had to confront. I am not talking about the issue of homosexuality but the conflict involved in having a homosexual loved one and being active LDS. Let me explain.

“As recently as July 9 of this year, several of our active LDS friends who have homosexual family members, spent quite a bit of time with Dr. Dean Byrd. Dr. Byrd is a psychologist with the LDS Social Services and works in the Church Office Building. He, I am told, helped write the pamphlet which was distributed to church leaders at all levels with a letter from the First Presidency in 1991 reaffirming their 1981 stand on homosexuality, its causes and cure.

“The reason we are on trial, too, is this: The pamphlet puts the blame squarely on the parents and the victim himself. The mother was too strong — domineering, if you please. The father was weak or absent or had a poor relationship with his son. Or the son chose to indulge in masturbation or same-sex activities during his growing-up years. One way or another he chose, and he has not had the faith, the willingness to do what is right. It implies that he is an evil person without faith, without testimony if he is not willing to change, does not change. . . .

“In July, Dr. Byrd again reaffirmed the church’s stand that homosexuality is a choice, that since it is a choice, the offender must repent and choose not to be homosexual. Our pain comes from the fact that our experience (and lately science) collide with the church on this issue. Early this year, I had reached a state of despair. The stress of the conflict between what the church said and what we had lived was eroding my health.

“. . . Let me now read this letter dated February 2, 1993.

“. . . Our son is gay. . . . He will be twenty-three this month. . . . He endured great pain all his growing up years because at about twelve he was at a Young Man’s meeting and President Kimball’s Miracle of Forgiveness was quoted saying that homosexuals are vile. He understood by then what his ‘differences’ were. Therefore, he grew up believing that he was vile! Not for what he had done but for what he was! He had saved ten percent of his earnings for his mission from the time he was about nine. He accepted his mission call with a promise to Heavenly Father that he would give up his schooling for two years, he would give the mission everything he possibly could, and he asked Him to cure his affliction. He fully believed this would take place. He returned thinking it had happened. When he began dating again and entered school, he found out that he was not cured. He had reached such a state of despair and frustration struggling with his secret that he was contemplating suicide one year ago (we learned later). . . .

“We talked to him about it for the first time in late February (1992). We affirmed our love for him and our acceptance of him. We assured him there was no condemnation, nor would there ever be whatever his life’s direction. We have greater understanding for him and for all homosexual people and for their suffering family members since we have ‘sat on the other side of the table.’

“We have read thousands of pages of information from the church, the latest scientific discoveries, books chronicling the experiences of hundreds of gays, lesbians and families, both in and out of the church. We, with our son, talked to [], who works with approximately 90 gay missionaries at any given time. The three of us went to the Evergreen Conference. My husband and I joined a support group for families of homosexuals. We have read the church’s statements about homosexuality which were sent to each bishop (the 1981 and 1991). The main difference between the two, as I remember, was that now one small paragraph that science suggests the origins of homosexuality may be biological.

“On this one subject which could possibly touch the lives of a fourth of the church membership or more, we can find nothing to comfort us. . . .

“Our son’s only option is to be celibate and to tip-toe through life living on the fringes because he cannot in good conscience marry [a woman] and risk destroying more lives. The church now recognizes that it is too destructive to all concerned to encourage homosexual people to marry (“and when they have heterosexual sex they will be cured”). They have, therefore, discontinued this counsel. “As our knowledge of this problem expands, as our acquaintance with more and more homosexual people and their families widens, we are seeing a pattern. Those who are LDS suffer more than those who are not. Our situation is more hopeless. We are placed in an impossible situation. We must choose between our beloved child (whom we know did not choose his orientation) and our beloved church which claims he/she most likely did. If he/she did not ‘choose’ it, he/she was made that way by environment. Our children feel rejected by the church and therefore may leave it. ‘The church doesn’t want me.’ Parents feel abandoned by the church in their greatest time of need. ‘Good’ LDS people as a whole are among the most homophobic we have found and the most judgmental.

“My husband has been bishop for five years, a bishop’s counselor for ten years. He serves in that position now. He has been on the high counsel twice for several years. I have served as Relief Society President twice. The reason I tell you this is so that you will know that we really do love the church and have given our lives to it.

“We feel that he and we are in an impossible situation. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t — literally.

“We have been offended by the glib cop-out — ‘This is your cross to bear.’ Why are as many as ten percent of the population this way? . . . We have so many questions and so few answers. Are our children among the ‘adulterers’ if they choose to love someone — not promiscuity, but same sex monogamy? Are they among the wicked? Are they lost to the Kingdom of God both on this earth and eternally?

“As we have studied this past year we have found that both in and out of the church the . . . homosexual . . .can, through a great deal of counseling and determination change behavior. However, although some of those who work with gays say that they may know someone who knows someone who has actually changed his/her orientation, not one can show any kind of proof that this really happens — even on a limited basis. However, the church has many guilt-ridden, miserable, frustrated men and some women who have tried unsuccessfully for years with or without help. Many, through self-hatred, hopelessness, resort to suicide as the cure.

“Surely the Savior would not leave such a large portion of His Church of Revelation without answers other than ‘It is your cross to bear.’ Your marvelous, optimistic message, ‘Hopeless Dawn — Joyful Morning,’ gives such hope to those who suffer loss through death. Those of us with a homosexual loved one might title a painting of our inner-selves ‘Hopeless Dawn, Cheerless Morning, Despair in the Afternoon and Night of Darkness.’

“Please, Please don’t turn us away. Our hearts are broken. We feel lost, hopeless, helpless. We, both homosexuals and their families, need compassion, understanding from the members of the church and light from Heavenly Father, from the Savior and from the Prophets.”

Renee Dare Hodgson Van Wagoner (emphasis in original)

As a final note, Renee was somewhat judgmental when my girlfriend and I were living together without the benefit of marriage. (We later married.) Our response was that Nick and his partner Jeff lived together and were not married and she seemed fine with that. Her response was they had no choice because the law did not recognize same-sex marriage.

*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to and

**Richard J Van Wagoner is my father. His list of honors, awards and professional associations is extensive. He was Professor Emeritus (Painting and Drawing), Weber State University, having served three Appointments as Chair of the Department of Visual Arts there. He guest-lectured and instructed at many universities and juried numerous shows and exhibitions. He was invited to submit his work as part of many shows and exhibitions, and his work was exhibited in a number of traveling shows domestically and internationally. My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed more than 500 pieces of my father’s work. On behalf of the Van Wagoner Family Trust, she is in the process of compiling a collection of his art work. The photographs of my father’s art reproduced in and are hers




Criminal defense and First Amendment attorney.