Bio: LeiLoni is a single mom, working professional and activist who has lived for a long time in rural Utah.
And it came to pass that I said unto them that I knew that I had spoken hard things against the wicked, according to the truth; and the righteous have I justified, and testified that they should be lifted up at the last day; wherefore, the guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center. – 1 Nephi 16:2
The nuance between these words are intricately woven together in the realm of Mormonism and its history. Nearly as intricately woven together as they are to my upbringing as a black, queer, woman in the LDS faith. My perspective of the LDS faith twists, turns, and is rooted in rare intersections that are not often talked about in mainstream or fundamentalist spaces of Mormonism. However, every horrific past is most often muddled with whitewashing, Patriarchal oppression, cover-ups of the misdeeds of men, and get spun into stories of triumph, success, and righteousness. Oddly enough, the mormon faith made me who I am today and this is my story.
I hope to convey this perspective as detailed as possible for those who are unfamiliar with the faith. My experiences are complex and complicated as I find that extremes can exist on the same plain simultaneously. Family and fear. Love and guilt. Curses and floods. Typical Sunday school lesson content that turn into everyday subconscious thought and feelings. Again, these complex issues are my perspective and my perspective only. Mormonism has shaped and changed my life forever. This is my story.
Families can be together forever….
In 1992, I was born to a Polynesian teen mother whose mother was a faithful member of the LDS faith. Now, as one can imagine, being pregnant as a teen at any time is a difficult experience. Add the barriers of living in Utah, being a woman of color, and having ties to the LDS faith, and that difficult situation becomes an embarrassing hellish nightmare. My birth mother, who is an incredible woman and still an active member of the LDS faith today, was sent away at 16-years-old to live with an LDS family during her pregnancy. This was a difficult decision for my birth mother as she loved me deeply but wanted the best life for me. She received a lot of support from her ward and the LDS community around her and made the decision to put me up for adoption through LDS family services. My birth dad, a black man from Pensacola, Florida, was the son of an air force officer and at this time his family was getting relocated to Colorado. At 17, and having no resources to raise a child, he agreed to the terms of adoption my birth mother presented to him. Both of them loved me and both of them had the best intentions for me.
However, intentions and impact are not always linear.
Simultaneously in 1992, in a small rural farming town in Utah, my adoptive parents and their four sons were desperately trying to adopt a baby girl to add to their all-boy line-up. They were a devout white Mormon family. My dad was a faithful priesthood holder who was kind and caring He served an LDS mission in Argentina in the 60’s-70s and had served on numerous bishoprics most of his adult life. My mom was a housewife who could sew anything with perfection and cook the most delicious food. They knelt together for prayer every night, bowed their heads to thank god for another meal at every mealtime, and got dressed in their Sunday best every Sunday, and drove down to the local LDS chapel for church services. They were your typical mormon family. Mainstream for their time but, doctrinally, just as fundamental in ideology as the rest of them. My parents felt impressed by their god that their family was not complete. They dreamt of a little girl with dirty blonde hair and blue eyes to join the family. A little girl who reflected their own children’s outward appearance. At the time, they only qualified to adopt a child with a disability but to them, this was no issue.
At two days old, I was adopted into this family under the circumstances of being a “special needs” child. I had no physical or mental delays, no chromosomal abnormalities, I had ten toes, ten fingers- a healthy baby girl all around. However, my diagnosis via the LDS church was simple. I was a black child. That was my disability under the terms and definitions set by the LDS church. For people familiar with the faith, we know the long-standing belief the church held about black skin being a curse. They withheld their most sacred ceremonies and positions in the church from black people til 1978. Some speculate that the LDS church leaders were forced to include black members in all of their services as the U.S. government tFor a church being founded in 1830 this belief was common. Sadly, now in 2022, this belief has still not been publicly addressed My adoptive family was ecstatic to have me join the family. I wasn’t the white and delightsome version they dreamt about but I was a healthy and a girl so I made the cut.
My upbringing was, for the most part, fun-filled and intertwined with love, friends, and family. I know without any doubt that my family loved and still loves me deeply. My mother was the kind of person who made crafts with me every day and had a home-cooked meal on the table for dinner every night. To this day, my mom is someone I consider to be one of my best friends and know she will always be there for me. Unfortunately, trauma doesn’t cease to exist because there is love present in relationships. Trauma most often exists simultaneously with Love. Adoption is trauma. Religion is trauma. Being black, queer, and/or a woman in America is trauma. Dealing with all of those things at once within the LDS faith? It becomes the type of trauma that has taken me decades to heal from and is still a journey of healing that I am on.
“If you are certain if you are that certain, you know nothing, sir.”
“The dark skin was placed upon the Lamanites so that they could be distinguished from the Nephites and to keep the two peoples from mixing,” – Joseph Fielding Smith
When I was nine-years-old, a young and curious mind, my mom told me about the curse of Cain and the curse put on the Lamanites. I had asked her why my skin was darker than hers and the rest of my older siblings and I can still vividly hear the sadness in her sigh. She said, “I’ll tell you but you are not going to like the answer.” She then went on to explain that God had punished the seed of Cain as well as the Lamanites with dark skin so everyone would know the evil they had done.
I had a flashback of this conversation while watching Under the Banner of Heaven. The words Allen Lafferty uttered in the first episode resonated with me as I now back on the words I wished I had the education and intellect to say to my mother when I was that none-year-old little girl. I didn’t though. My perspective with fundamental mormonism and mainstream mormonism is unlike most people who can relate to the Lafferty’s chilling web of lies and cover ups. My parents were not anti-vax, anti-education, or “old school” in the ways you see on the screen. However, they did believe every word the prophets uttered. We had a sign that hung above the front door in my childhood home that still remains in place today. It reads, “ When the prophet speaks, the debate is over.” In my deepest heart of hearts, I know this is a phrase my parents hold as doctrine. An undeniable truth. A truth they were willing to defend without question over the mental trauma, racism, and internalization of their daughters. (My younger sister is also a black transracial adoptee.)
Patriarchy does a funny thing when intersected with racism. Patriarchy gives men power. Racism gives white men power. And thus it created tiers of patriarchal hierarchy where white men stand on the backs of all, men of color stand on the backs of women and women, especially BIPOC women, are left on our knees holding everyone up without acknowledgement, power, or a sense of self.
As I got older, I matured into a beautiful young woman. I knew I was different from the rest of my peers in rural Utah but just how different was I? I started noticing that I thought girls were pretty at a fairly young age. As much as my girl friends were talking about kissing boys, I was dreaming about what it would be like to have a forbidden kiss with a girl. Avril Lavigne, Rihanna, even the green chick on Kim Possible, were women that would make me feel strange… but I was also listening. In my community the phrase, “that’s so gay!” was a common phrase used. Girls with short hair were called lesbians, boys who wrestled in the hallways were accused of being gay, and when we sat too close to our friends on sports trips even some parents would tell us we looked “gay” in disgust. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I what I wanted, I couldn’t have. Who I was, was a sign of evil. All of this information I internalized, shoved down and assimilated as best I could to fit in.
In the fall of 2010 a missionary I had been writing returned home. He was the first person to tell me that I wasn’t cursed. He validated my feelings and I could express to him the pain and loneliness I had felt as a child. He was kind, caring, and funny and he became my very best friend. We loved each other and I thought that was what love was supposed to be. This man also happened to have an interesting history with the LDS faith as he was a direct descendant of John D. Lee. His family line had been severed from the church for decades due to the bitterness they felt towards the church for executing Lee and blaming him as the sole person who carried out the Mountain Meadow Massacre. Just as the Lafferty’s misdeeds were concealed, the mountain meadow massacre, where 120 emigrants from the Oregon trail were murdered, followed a similar coverup of many members who took part in such a horrific scene. My, now, ex-partner’s father was the first of the Lee’s to completely return to the faith. As for my ex, he saw the history for what it was. A sham.
“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” – John 13:34
If there is one thing I have taken from my LDS upbringing, it is definitely this scripture. I was taught to lead with love. That loving other people comes first. And that is exactly what I did.
Eventually both my spouse, at the time, and I left the LDS faith around 2014. We could no longer reconcile the racism, homophobia, misogyny, whitewashing, and misinformation we had found. We then searched for authenticity with ourselves and learned that love begins with self-love. In 2019, my partner and I separated and I came out as a lesbian, no longer able to deny who I was. I now live with my girlfriend in Salt Lake City where the history of the LDS faith still beats strong. However, the hearts of humanity beat stronger. There are some amazing people who are LDS and spirituality is a personal issue that no one can define for another person. We all find our soul and who we are in different spaces. My hope is that as we enter various spaces, we need to remember that some spaces need some cleaning up.
All of this to say- the root of my trauma is embedded in the patriarchal hierarchy created by white men. They constructed narratives against my very identity to shame people like me to fall in line. The difference between mainstream and fundamental LDS views surrounding race and the priesthood, homophobia, and misogyny are still on the same plain. Women should cleave unto their husbands, Priesthood holders lead their families, same-sex marriage is a sin, and the issues with racism are just not talked about. The Lafferty’s story is one of many. While not every Mormon story is going to reflect the harm and crimes they committed, all of our beliefs stem from the same tree. Maybe it’s time to trim some branches, rake up some old leaves and plant some new seeds that will shed light on truth.
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