Way in the Closet, Serving the Lord: Judith Mehr’s Story
Updated: Jul 24, 2018
I am a well known artist in the Mormon community and have received numerous commissions to paint portraits of LDS general authorities, produce illustrations for Church curricula, feature Mormon values and lifestyle by depicting scenes of everyday life in paintings now hanging in a variety of locations owned by the Church.
I grew up in the LDS Church, attended BYU, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1974. Subsequently thereafter I spent 26 years painting artwork for the Church on commission. During that time I also worked with the church art conservator helping preserve the Church’s historical art collection, cleaning and restoring artwork in the Salt Lake Temple and Museum of Church History and Art.
About halfway through that 26-year period I discovered that I was a lesbian. Okay, I didn’t just discover it then, I finally accepted this discovery that I was a lesbian because I had always had inklings of this knowledge about myself, never acting on it when I had previously felt attachments to others, until I was finally ready to accept it at a time when I met someone with whom I fell deeply in love and was forced by this discovery to confront this issue head on.
The journey of accepting my sexuality in the context of believing myself to be a beloved child of God was excruciating. There was lots of prayer, lots of reviewing of personal history to see where things had veered off course, lots of wondering how I could possibly be “one of those!” I had always had an extremely strong sense of self-worth and belief in my mission as a servant of God, growing up with a conviction that using my talents to further the work of the Lord was what was required of me and for which I dedicated myself with all of my heart. But, now, how could I view myself? How could I be this beloved servant of God and also be homosexual?
I tried to understand the societal preconception I had that I would now be referred to as one of the lowest types of human beings on the face of the earth, having to claw my way back up, by fasting, prayer, scripture reading, sack cloth and ashes (flogging, scourging, wailing and knashing of teeth, etc., etc.) just to get to the level everyone else (heterosexuals) was on and then somehow be “changed” by these efforts back into heterosexuality.
Somehow, throughout this self-discovery process, an amazing thing happened and I could never feel this “condemnation” in my soul (even though I tried to feel it). I could never believe that I was “that bad!” This image of me as a horrible being with this horrible condition just wouldn’t root in my soul as a description of myself! Subsequently, the answer came strongly and clearly to me from the God I knew and loved: Heavenly Father loved me just as I was and, furthermore, instructed me to remain in Salt Lake City with my new love, instead of fleeing to remove myself from temptation!
For 27 years thereafter, I was with my partner. We were both severely “in the closet” while I continued my painting career with the Church. We attended our ward together. I helped her raise her four children in the Church, the oldest boy eventually going on a mission to the Philippines. She was a divorcee, going back to school to become an elementary education teacher. She finished her degree and got a job as an elementary school teacher where she has been teaching for 22 years. We lived in separate houses, two blocks apart, so as to maintain an illusion of “just friends” to the outside world.
We lived in a ward that was a bit suspicious of any single woman (“oh, married women, watch out for the predatory single woman who will steal your husband!”) At times I felt that we were both viewed somewhat curiously by the Relief Society ladies. My own quirkiness of personality, liberal artsy attitude, and bits of masculinity were initially met, as I began attending this ward, with suspicion. Later, I was finally accepted when members found out I was that “Judith Mehr,” the famous church artist whose work was gracing their curriculum media materials.
Both of us held various jobs in the Church. I went around giving lectures, showing slides of my church related paintings to various missionary groups, ward groups, stake groups. I had many wonderful experiences with ward members who became friends. My partner and I felt that we could actually pull off our fabrication of life-style successfully, even though I was finding that being duplicitous about my behavior was causing me a lot of personal pain. I was “aunt” Judy to my children. They did not know about their mother’s true relationship with me. She continued to date men occasionally in order to maintain the correct “picture.” She never wanted any of our true relationship to be known by her family, friends or school colleagues. Eventually, I came out to my own family. They knew that my relationship with my partner was very positive for my own life happiness and accepted me. My partner could never tell her family and we continued “in the closet,” with her family and friends, for our 27 years together.
While I accepted myself as a lesbian personally and privately, I did not know how to maintain a closeted deception indefinitely. I longed for some sort of acceptance by the Church because I knew I was accepted by God, so why couldn’t there be some acceptance and answer from the Brethren about it? I did propose marriage to my partner, even though I knew that wasn’t legally possible at that time. We exchanged rings as a symbol of our personal commitment to each other, even though we could never acknowledge this to the outside world. Our personal discussions as partners were never able to find a mutual solution in bridging the distance between fear of discovery and living truthfully in the open as a couple.
In the early ‘90s, I was asked by the Church to paint a portrait of Apostle Howard W. Hunter for the Church’s Museum of History and Art. When I entered Elder Hunter’s office to meet and photograph him for this portrait, I was met by the most intense feeling of perfect love and acceptance directed straight at me coming from this man. It was overwhelmingly positive and so personally fulfilling that I could hardly talk. I have met many general authorities during my painting career, painted portraits of several prophets and apostles, but this meeting was incredible and I knew I was accepted and loved, both by Elder Hunter as a representative of Christ and by God. The photos I took that day provided me with a bit of that glow from his face that I was able to capture in the portrait I painted of him.
Later, when he became the Prophet for a short time, I fantasized that he would institute some form of marriage for homosexuals. Maybe he would make a special ruling or something, or get a revelation that would provide a way for us to be in pairs as eternal partners. I had felt his love and I knew that it was possible. He was only the Prophet for eight months, passing away suddenly and unexpectedly. But, I knew he was spiritually way out in front of all of the rest!
Little by little, sometime in the early 2000s, the deception and pain, doctrinal inconsistencies, cultural misogynistic issues began to take their toll on me and I chose to become inactive. I continued painting for the Church from time to time, but those commissions became less frequent and I didn’t aggressively pursue them. My partner continued in her church activity for a while after I left, but slowly she also let her activity go as the children grew up and went on their way. It was so much less painful for me now not going to church, although I missed the singing of hymns and the spirit of worship. I knew that I still had my relationship with Heavenly Father. I knew that He loved me. I knew that He would continue to direct my paths. I knew that it was O.K. with Him that I take myself out of that pain and constant reminder of the impossibility of melding the church with my life issues.
So, I moved on in my mind, always having a backward glance at what was happening in the Church, paying attention to any hint of change, any outrage of action against homosexuals (Prop 8), any possible signs of softening. Meanwhile, Gay Marriage became legal nationally! I thought that maybe, finally, I should now actually get married! Then, after thinking, along with the rest of the Utah gay quasi-Mormons, that after the public nightmare brought to the Church from the Prop 8 debacle, the Church was softening up a bit by assisting in passing legislation in the Utah Congress that included civil rights protections for gay people, the Church slammed the door shut on our hopes with the November 2015 policy change pronouncement! Such horrible thoughts began running through my head, knowing that to be considered an apostate was the most egregious of titles to be applied to a member of the Church. My first inclination was to hide again, get back deeper into the closet, forget about the marriage idea altogether. I became fearful that if the Church found out about my double life that somehow all of my paintings, my life’s work and contributions to the Lord, would come under scrutiny and possible removal. I was really distraught. Furthermore, I knew that tender young LDS people who were discovering their gayness would be in danger of hopelessness and have possible suicidal thoughts. Indeed, after a very short time, the suicides started mounting up.
After discussing my feelings with my partner, a number of gay friends and some of my relatives, I decided to reverse my fearful course and publicly “out” myself to the Mormon community, using my art work and modest fame to draw attention to the possible tragic unintended consequences that this policy change was going to cause. I wrote an Op-Ed that appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune on January 30, 2016, essentially imploring the LDS community to love their gay children, relatives and friends and, at the same time, revealing my sexual identity to this group.
Fortunately for me, this action has not produced any backlash that I am aware of. My paintings are still in their places, as far as I know. I have been welcomed and embraced by many Mormon friends and relatives. The policy, ne revelation now, has caused extreme distress for countless souls! It has also made it quite clear to me that I have been discarded, like a dirty old rag, from a society that I once believed truly wanted to become like Christ. I, however, continue to love and honor Jesus Christ. I consider myself a Christian in the truest sense, embracing all of God’s children.
It was entirely freeing and personally gratifying to “out” myself! Since that time, I have allowed more of my true personality and feelings to be expressed, finding immense strength and purpose in new painting images and activities. I still watch “the Church” and follow the “one step forward, two steps back” faltering progress, or lack thereof, of Church actions. I wish them well. There is great potential there for positive humanitarian assistance and action, if they would only heed the call to love, include and, indeed, embrace, all of God’s children.