In recent months, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has sent mixed messages to its LGBTQ members. Top leaders have shared both the need for acceptance and a warning that gay marriage is an attack on the family. Someone who understands that tug and pull well is Richard Ostler. He’s an active Mormon and former bishop who has become an influential ally for the LGBTQ community.
I came to know about Richard Ostler the same way many people do, through his Facebook posts. Just a few days before Thanksgiving he wrote, “You can be a good Mormon and: A Democrat, Not white, Working on your testimony, LGBTQ, Kind to LGBTQ people, Love your LGBTQ children..."
He goes on listing other qualities that might not fit into the typical Mormon stereotype. This post was shared nearly a thousand times and even created a genuine dialogue in the comments.
“I believe in big tent Mormonism. I believe at the congregation level everyone should welcome, there shouldn’t be any belief or behavior hurdle," says Ostler.
Ostler gets some naysayers, but overwhelmingly his words strike a chord with people. He’s also an unassuming source for these types of inclusive messages. He’s middle aged, short haircut, white, straight. He says he was born into the “bullseye” of Mormon privilege. But he gained a new perspective as a bishop.
Ostler presided over a young, unmarried congregation in Magna. During that time, he let his two counselors handle all the administrative tasks so he could be freed up to focus on meeting with the members in his congregation one on one.
“I had a chance to do often 20 to 30 interviews a week. And they would be Monday night through Thursday night, Friday and Saturday afternoons," Ostler says.
As a business owner, Ostler could give more time than the average bishop. It was basically a full-time job, but he felt it was important to give everyone the opportunity to meet with him, and he felt the best way to serve them was to listen.
It was during that time that three gay men in his congregation confided in him about their faith struggles, and it began to change the way he saw the LGBTQ community.
“I realized that I’m learning things here that are different. I'm realizing that being gay is not a choice. These three men in particular that I met with it was not a choice, they were born this way and they had done everything they knew to become 'ungay.' And they're still gay and it's wonderful. It's a God given gift to them. Everybody’s orientation is a God given gift.”
Ostler realized he was confronting a lot of misunderstanding about what it meant to be gay and Mormon, and he wanted to start from scratch.
"I finally just said I'm wiping my hard drive clean," Ostler says. "I don't know what's good or bad in here regarding my LGBTQ conclusions. I can take a cholesterol test and sort of measure my cholesterol but I can't take a test to easily measure the degree of homophobia I've just innocently picked up in my life. So I just said I'm wiping it clean, and I'm going to go meet with LGBTQ people to help me understand how God wants me to be programmed about LGBTQ people. It's a very simple principle."
Ostler reached out to an old high school friend who was gay and married to his husband. He invited them out for dinner just to chat.
"I just listened to their story. The beauty of their relationship and being together 20 years and all the things that they were doing good returns to give back to our society, and I thought, 'Well this is outside of my doctrine, the same sex marriage, but I recognize this is a wonderful couple doing wonderful things and are great contributors to their society and have a wonderful relationship,'" says Oslter. "There's no need for me to stand up for my straight marriage on the backs of people that are in a gay marriage. I can stand for my own straight marriage on its own merits. I don't have to attack or bring down people that live differently."
Ostler began to feel transformed by these experiences, and he began writing about it. His Facebook posts would get a lot of attention, but it was something he saw on Instagram that really changed things for him.
It was toward the end of his time as a bishop when he saw it - an image of a young man from Davis County with a message from his mother.
"She said something like, 'My son committed suicide. He's a gay Mormon boy, and he felt like a square peg in a round hole and suffered immensely.' And those words just pierced my soul and I just cried," says Ostler. "I can see that picture now. God told me says, 'You've got six months left of your [bishop] assignment, and when you're done, I need you to serve in this area because there's a gap between my restored church and its ability to meet the needs of it's LGBTQ members. I need you to join with others to help fill that gap.' And I just said, 'I'll do it.'"
Since his release a year ago, Ostler has continued talking with LGBTQ Mormons online and in his home. He reminds them he’s not a bishop or a therapist, but he is a good listener. He takes stories of suicidal thoughts very seriously. He connects many of the people he meets with to therapists he trusts.
Although, not all of his meetings deal with sexuality. Sometimes people just want to chat. Ostler says that because people know he loves LGBTQ people, they feel they can talk to him about anything.
Ostler often gets asked about LDS Church policy and doctrine and whether it can change in the future. He’s careful in these situations. He doesn’t want to give false hope, and he doesn’t pretend to know what church leaders will do. He says if the LDS Church’s relationship with its LGBTQ members was a 20 chapter book, that they’re still in the single digits.
“I’m optimistic. I do have hope that there are better days coming, but I also realize there are people living in those missing chapters, the gap, and it’s very painful for them," says Ostler.
Ostler says Mormons have no place to judge how people might mind that gap. He understands when people choose to walk away from the church, but he hopes they stay. He hopes they can work with him to make the tent a little bigger.