As I was growing up my grandmother worked with very young children daily as part of her career, and as a result had amassed a large collection of childrens books which she would frequently read to them. Even well after I had outgrown these books, she would still encourage me to read them with her, if nothing else for the benefit of younger siblings and cousins. One such book was titled Rainbow Fish, an illustrated book about a fish that had shiny scales. All the other fish were jealous, and wouldn’t associate with him, until he decided to start sharing the scales with the other fish. Apparently they’re removable. After this they become friends.
When I reached the point of the story where the fish decides to share his scales the story took a dark turn that I wasn’t expecting. Up to that point it looked like it was going to be a heartwarming story about accepting someone who is different, and being happy about being who you are. After all, on real fish scales are part of the animal’s body that cannot be changed. When he started removing the scales like they were stickers and sharing them then they were no longer an unchangeable part of who he was, but something of a currency that he uses to buy shallow friends with.
I’m certain this was not the intended message. The author probably meant this to be a story about selfishness and sharing, and part of the audience probably did receive that message, but it does illustrate how easy it is for an otherwise positive and uplifting message to backfire.
Shortly after prop 8 I had the opportunity to interact with a number of LGBT ex-Mormons who remember all too well what messages they received. A talk that uses uplifting and encouraging words telling members of the congregation that they are children of God and same-gender attraction can be overcome may come across to most as uplifting, but to people facing that they end up in a vicious cycle of repentance, self-loathing, guilt and fighting their sexuality. When they hear a prophet or apostle say that it’s possible to “change” and they fail then they have failed God. Some have articulated that experience as feeling that God hates you. Think about the psychological consequences of that for a moment. It became clear to me why severe depression and often suicide quickly kicks in for many of these people. Unlike the scales on the fictional Rainbow Fish, homosexuality isn’t something you can just change on a whim and suddenly make things right.
This doesn’t just affect LGBT Mormons. Many individuals are affected by it, stories abound in the ex-Mormon community from people who considered suicide or have friends and family members that followed through over masturbation, premarital sex and in some cases women fell into depression for being called to repentance after being raped; and these are just the incidents I know about. Often, when bringing this up, the response is to “show me the talks. The leadership doesn’t teach that.” Of course they don’t, but what the leaders say and what the members hear are two completely different things.
Even outside of Church, the urge to share didactic stories and teach morals is a desire many of us carry out of Mormonism. But in doing that, it’s important to choose morals carefully, because an uplifting story can become destructive very quickly if it is not carefully thought through in much the same way “you can do it” can become “I’ve failed God.” This obviously doesn’t mean being didactic is bad or dangerous, I can’t imagine anyone thinking friends need to be bought because they read Rainbow Fish, but children reading that book don’t think it’s written by a prophet who speaks directly to God. It doesn’t have the power to destroy lives like a bishop’s talk or a conference talk does.
It’s one thing to say that the church is destructive, and it’s easy to point at the suicides as evidence for this claim, but it’s another thing entirely to describe how they got there.