If you had told Bryce Cook a few years ago that in 2016, he would be organizing a support group for family members of LGBT people in the Mormon faith, he probably wouldn’t have believed you.
For a long time, Bryce wasn’t comfortable with the LGBT community, following long-standing positions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that spoke against homosexuality. “I had very un-Christlike feelings toward gay people,” Bryce wrote in a personal reflection several years ago, confronting his longtime lack of understanding.
But slowly, over time, his negative feelings about gay people began to change in 2003, when Bryce and his wife Sara received a letter from their son Trevor.
“Mom and Dad,” the letter read. “I know this will come as a shock to you, but I am same-sex attracted.”
“We called him, and we were flabbergasted and surprised,” Bryce told Freedom for All Americans. “But we told him absolutely that we loved him, that this didn’t change anything, and that he would always be a part of the family. But we still had a lot of learning to do.”
For Bryce, Sara, and the Cook family, learning that Trevor is gay was an important first step on their journey toward more fully understanding the LGBT community – and the discrimination people face, often with few legal protections.
“Hearing my son – who I knew was a good young man, who was faithful in every way to his church and to everything that we taught – made me realize that what I believed or what I thought I knew about being gay was wrong,” Bryce said in a video from One Community Arizona.
But while Trevor came out to his parents, he didn’t come out to his five other siblings and extended family until years later. And when he did, in 2011, he unknowingly made space for his brother, Tanner, to feel comfortable coming out about his own sexuality.
Tanner – who listened to his brother Trevor explain that he is gay via Skype, since he was in Utah at Brigham Young University following his LDS mission – wrote a note to his parents shortly after that conversation. He, too, he explained, is gay.
The two experiences helped catapult the Cook parents into action, determined to share their experiences and help other parents, especially within the Mormon community, to better understand their children and other LGBT people.
“The most important thing we tell people is how important it is to emphasize unconditional love,” Bryce told Freedom for All Americans. “You don’t have to worry about church teachings or doctrines. Your job as a parent is to love your child, to make sure that they are safe, emotionally protected, and well. And you do that by being accepting and loving, not by being rejecting and critical.”
“I count it a blessing,” he said about his sons being open with him about who they are. “It has made me a better person, a better Christian, and a better follower of Christ.”
“My sons’ experiences put a human face to something I had never known anything about, especially in a religion that sort of demonizes it,” Bryce explained.
He and Sara worked with their family to begin ALL Arizona, a community of LDS Church members in Arizona, including LGBT people, their family members, and other allies. ALL is designed to recognize that being both LGBT and Mormon is a challenge – but that there are many supportive members of the LDS Church.
“ALL is really the brainchild of my oldest son Trevor,” Bryce said. “He and some of his LDS gay friends wanted to start a support group, and so we became the first host family to host these monthly meetings or socials. It just grew from there. We began to meet more people, and we became more involved in their lives, and we brought in more allies.”
The community has two objectives – to speak out about the importance of welcoming LGBT members of the Mormon church, and to educate non-LGBT people to help them grow to love, accept, and understand what it means to be LGBT, and why an LGBT identity should not be shunned. ALL now hosts an annual conference committed to these goals.
Last year, Bryce and Sara’s work with ALL earned them recognition from One Community Arizona when the organization chose them as “Change Agent Award” recipients.
Their work also has many intersections with the national fight for LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination protections – laws that would protect LGBT people from discrimination in employment, housing, and public spaces. In Arizona, there are no state-level protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people.
“It really bothers me that there are no protections for people like my son,” Bryce said. “Not only are there no protections, but in 2013 the Arizona Legislature tried to pass a religious freedom bill that would allow people to discriminate based on sexual orientation. They went above and beyond – to allow for discrimination. That was really problematic. I went down to the Capitol building as part of an awareness-raising protest to lend my voice.”
Discrimination, Bryce said, is sadly a reality in the Grand Canyon State. “I know plenty of people who have and would fire employees if they found out they were gay. I know people who wouldn’t want to serve them as customers. So because you know people have that feeling in their heart, then laws are needed to protect gay people, just like they’re needed to protect racial minorities or people of other religions. As long as humans are capable of other-ing people who are different from them, we need laws to protect minorities.”
“I count it a blessing. It has made me a better person, a better Christian, and a better follower of Christ.” – Bryce Cook
Bryce and his friends through ALL and other community members are also active on a municipal level, making the case in cities across Arizona that no one should face discrimination because of who they are or who they love.
“Our effort has now been working city by city, including in Mesa – the third largest city in the state, which is historically very conservative,” he said. “This is vitally important. Just from a moral perspective – we should not allow any kind of discrimination. That’s just wrong.”
“In some ways, I come at this wanting to atone for the misguided feelings I had in the past,” Bryce said. “When Trevor told us and then we began to learn, it was really like I dropped shackles and chains and blinders from my eyes. The more I learned, and the more people I met, it was a wonderful journey. I’m so grateful that I saw the light. I’m grateful I could come to an understanding.”
“I want to be able to tell my grandkids that I was on the right side of history,” he added. “I want to be able to say that I worked to make things better for people – not that I hindered people’s freedom.”
He and Sara regret their initial opposition and failure to understand people with different sexual orientations or gender identities. And after their experiences with ALL, and the time they’ve taken to truly get to know people, they want to help as many other people as they can see the light.
“I want to be able to tell my grandkids that I was on the right side of history.” – Bryce Cook
“Once we met people – my own sons, of course, but even the many other people we met through this process – who are LGBT in and out of the church, we saw that they were no different from any of us. They deserve all of the same rights and privileges and blessings that anyone else does,” Bryce said. “I care about these people. They are my friends. They are my family. And I want to do what’s right.”