Several years ago, I moved from my home state of Maine to Salt Lake City, Utah, and started an LGBTQ+ affirming church. As an out and proud bisexual and genderqueer pastor, you may think that the conservative state of Utah is a strange place for me to go. What I found on my journey, however, is Utah shares more in common with Maine than some would expect.

My family roots in Maine go back centuries, to 1635, when the Angel Gabriel, a galleon bringing settlers seeking opportunity and religious freedom, crashed off the coast of Maine near Pemaquid Point. Among the passengers were my ancestors, Ralph and Elizabeth Blaisdell.

From a young age, my parents passed down the story of my family’s journey, which I took to heart. So much of who I am today has been shaped by the ideals that our country’s founders held dear, including my right to worship God as I choose. Over the years, this led me to be active in my church and become an ordained minister.

There is another part of my identity that is also very important. I am now entering my tenth year of identifying as the L in LGBTQ+, a lesbian, very happily married to a woman, with four children.

Together, these two parts of my identity drive my work, which is helping LGBTQ+ people reconcile their faith with their sexual and gender identities. My work includes helping churches and faith communities care for LGBTQ+ people in their pews and in their neighborhoods, whether their theology affirms them as they are, or whether they love the sinner and hate the sin.

During my time in Utah, I ran an LGBTQ+ youth center and worked desperately to prevent rampant suicide and homelessness. Of the 700 LGBTQ+ youth I worked with each month, 30% were experiencing homelessness and almost everyone had lost someone dear to them by suicide.

Over time, we were able to change hearts, minds, and policies. We formed new organizations to help LGBTQ+ homeless youth, we staged rallies, and we marched in the streets. Thanks to legislators and policymakers on both sides of the aisle, laws were changed so that LGBTQ+ youth in Utah could live more safe and secure lives.

Utah eventually passed non-discrimination and religious liberty protections – also known as the ‘Utah compromise’ – and I saw the LGBTQ+ youth I knew move from despair to dignity, to planning for a family and a career. And instead of kicking their kids out of their homes, I saw families emboldened to love and to advocate for their LGBTQ+ children.

Progress did not stop there. The state – deeply conservative and overwhelmingly represented by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – passed hate crimes legislation and a bill to ban conversion therapy. Years later, I see a community that is not perfect, but it is one where transgender kids can thrive.

Over the last several decades, Maine also made progress in protecting the LGBTQ+ community. From passage of legislation in 1993 that amended the Maine Civil Rights Act to protect LGBTQ+ people from hate crimes, to legislation passed this year that clarified that civil rights extend to gender identity, Maine is a leader on LGBTQ+ issues.

We are also fortunate to have two U.S. Senators with a history of supporting our community. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, should be commended for working on issues such as combatting LGBTQ+ homelessness and leading repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, our nation’s shameful ban on gays, lesbians and bisexuals serving the military.

Enacting federal legislation that protects the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans, while respecting religious freedom, is possible this year – and Sen. Collins has the respect on both sides of the aisle that is necessary to get this done. What I have seen in both Maine and Utah is that when we all come together, we can make change for the better and truly save lives. There is hope in action.

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