On the day in May that Savannah stood up to speak in front of her Mormon congregation, she did not get through everything she had wanted to say.
The 12-year-old was telling other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that she is a lesbian. “No part of me is a mistake,” she said during a testimony meeting, a monthly event at her church in Eagle Mountain, Utah. “I do not choose to be this way, and it is not a fad.”
As Savannah, now 13, was nearing the end of her comments, after she had come out to her fellow worshippers, her microphone was switched off. She tapped it and then looked to a church leader to see what had happened.
He told her that she could return to her seat.
“I think they did that because they didn’t want my message,” Savannah said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I don’t want to be mean to them if this isn’t true, but I felt like they were scared of me and what I was saying.”
The story of Savannah’s speech began to spread beyond Utah after the blog “I Like to Look for Rainbows” — named after the lyrics of a Mormon song, and dedicated to “queer Mormon experiences” — featured an interview with Savannah on a podcast episode in May. It has highlighted an issue that gay Mormons have been struggling with for years: how to balance their sexuality with the teachings of a church that prohibits gay relationships.
The blog’s founder, Britt Jones, said he was surprised the story went on to get so much attention.
“The whole reason I did this was to try to amplify the voices of queer Mormons,” he said. “So if she can get her story out, I think that’s pretty good. Her story is superinspirational and super-necessary at this time.”
The bishop at Savannah’s church did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. A spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had no comment.
Savannah first told her parents she was gay shortly after she turned 12, said her mother, Heather Kester, who asked that Savannah’s last name not be identified to protect her privacy.
At testimony meetings, which are often held by Mormon churches on the first Sunday of every month, worshippers are encouraged to give “verbal expression of what he or she knows to be true concerning the divinity of Jesus Christ, the restoration of the fulness of his gospel in our time, and the blessings that come from living its principles,” according to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.
Kester said that her daughter had been asking for months to identify herself as a lesbian at one of these gatherings.
“Eventually we decided to let her do it because we didn’t want to keep her voice from her,” she added. “And if we taught her now that she wasn’t allowed to speak, then she might keep that with her for the rest of her life.”
Savannah said she decided to make her speech because life can be difficult for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
“There’s been a lot of homicides or deaths, and a lot of them have been kicked out from their house because they have not been accepted by their parents, and that’s really hard,” she said. “So I wanted some change.”
The Mormon church considers it a sin if two people of the same sex get married or “violate the law of chastity.” But in recent months the church has been fine-tuning its language on the permissibility of what it calls “same-sex attraction.”
In October, the church’s official website rolled out a new section dedicated to gay or bisexual Mormons and their families. “Identifying as gay, lesbian, or bisexual or experiencing same-sex attraction is not a sin and does not prohibit one from participating in the Church, holding callings, or attending the temple,” the website says.
But that language came less than a year after the church unveiled a policy equating gay marriage with apostasy and barring children of gay parents from joining the church until the age of 18. That policy has not changed, which means that Savannah’s comments at the meeting last month, which included her dreams of getting married as a lesbian and raising a family, were in conflict with official Mormon doctrine.
Some critics of Savannah’s coming-out speech have objected to more than just its content, arguing that a testimony meeting is no place for prepared speeches, and that Savannah is too young to understand the full effect of her words, now immortalized in a video online.
“This isn’t about whether a girl is struggling with her sexuality, or about how a Church leader handled it,” wrote Scott Gordon, the president of FairMormon, a nonprofit organization that defends the Mormon faith from its critics, in a blog post. “This is a clear case of hijacking a meeting, promoting false teachings, and exploiting a child’s inexperience to create a media event.”
Comments like those have been hurtful, Kester said. “It’s been hard, but in the ultimate scheme of things, I think positive change in the church can happen because of this,” she added.
In the last part of her written speech — the part that was never delivered at the testimony meeting — Savannah, who still considers herself a member of the church, explained that she was thinking about how to find happiness.
“I had dreams of going to the temple and getting married, and was very sad when I found out that would never happen for me,” she wrote in her prepared notes.
“Today I choose to find my joy outside of my old dreams from when I was little. I have new dreams and I know my earthly parents and my Heavenly parents love and accept me just the way I am. Amen.”