For 45 years, Gilbert dentist Nathan Kitchen lived the life of a devout Mormon. He had a wife, five kids, and was an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But unbeknownst to his family, Kitchen is gay.
And two years ago, when he came out to his family and endured a painful divorce, he was shunned by the Mormon Church — which recdently announced a major policy change labeling members in same-sex marriages as apostates and prohibiting their children from becoming members of the church.
Kitchen eventually found solace in Affirmation — a Mormon lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender support group for such members and their families.
But the church’s new rule, stating that members in same-sex marriages can be excommunicated and that their children must wait until they’re 18 and disavow homosexual relationships to be baptized, has broken Kitchen’s heart.
“I was devastated. It was very shocking and very sad,” says Kitchen, now 47. “What if, by chance, some day I get married? It puts my children in a difficult position where they would have to disown their father and what he did.”
For the growing faction of LGBT Mormons, like Kitchen, the revision of church policy has caused them to lose faith in the LDS church. Hundreds of LDS members, gay and straight, abruptly resigned from the church. Protests and candlelight vigils were held across Phoenix and around the country to show support of gay Mormons.
Meanwhile, the LDS church has disseminated the handbook changes to local church leaders — a move spurred by the recent legalization of gay marriage.
“We recognize that same-sex marriages are now legal in the United States and some other countries and that people have the right . . . to enter into those, and we understand that,” church Elder Todd Christofferson said in a video posted on the Mormon Newsroom website. “But that's not a right that exists in the church. That’s the clarification.”
The LDS church long has opposed same-sex marriages but had no policy against the children of same-sex relationships until the announcement.
"Any attempt the church made to change their tone about the LGBTQ population has been thrown out the window,” says Todd Richardson, Affirmation's senior vice president. “The official church now seems hostile to me. When before it seemed there were glimpses of hope when it came to acceptance."
Before coming out as gay in 2013, Kitchen’s life centered on the church. He was raised LDS, baptized at 8, and at 18 served on a mission. But all the while he felt he was concealing a shameful secret.
“I knew as a young child I was gay,” he says. “But I was taught as a young child that it wasn’t acceptable. And I wanted to be the best Mormon that I could be.”
So he suppressed his sexuality and was told by his bishop that he could overcome “evil urges” by marrying a woman and dedicating his life to the church, which is what he did. After 20 years of marriage, however, he could no longer deny the truth.
“Eventually, you say to yourself, 'I have to deal with this,'” he says. “'I have to open this box I closed as an 18-year-old and face this person that I hate.'”
His wife was hurt beyond belief; his children struggled with their dad's new identity. Kitchen lost friends and patients. People who didn’t know him called to leave messages of hate.
“I felt I was alone," he says. "I felt I was the only one who this happened to."
Feeling rejected and unwelcome, he stopped attending the church.
“I found the church to not be a very safe place,” he says.
Among major religions, Mormonism is one of the least accepting of homosexuality, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.
Only 36 percent of Mormons said homosexuality should be accepted by society in the center's poll done last year. And just 25 percent of LDS members approve of gay marriage.
“There are a lot of horrible experiences [in the LDS church] where [LGBTQ] people are meant to feel unwelcome and unsafe,” says Richardson. “And there are some church leaders [who] are actively seeking to make things difficult for them."
Earlier this year, Kitchen joined Affirmation and now serves as a leader of a group of gay fathers. He says the organization was a "lifesaver," and helped him accept the person he always was.
“It was beautiful to meet people who had done the same things that I have done," he says. “Affirmation has given me the confidence to move forward knowing I’m not alone.”
Established in the 1980s, Affirmation has tens of thousands of members across the world and an active chapter in Phoenix. The organization supports members by assisting them in dealing with the church, their families, friends, employers, and work associates. In addition to holding regular conferences and meetings, the organization offers support groups on Facebook.
“In a very real way, it has saved people’s lives," says Richardson. "We provide a place of non-judgment. We provide a place where we can be accepting of one another."
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Although Kitchen no longer attends church, he says he hopes that someday the Mormon Church will welcome its gay congregants. And he dreams of the day he will be accepted by the LDS community.
“I would really love to go back and sit in the pews again," he says. "It’s a very big loss to me. I’m at a loss because I’m gay.”