Mormon and lesbian activist sisters set example of tolerance
December 5, 2014
Park City High School teacher and debate coach Sharon Ellsworth-Nielson is a self-described devout Mormon and has been her entire life. Her sister, Kate Kendell, is not only gay, she’s the Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR).
For two sisters fervently attached to organizations with fundamentally different perspectives on gay marriage and gay rights, the path to understanding wasn’t easy. However, despite their ideological differences that caused years of tension the pair say they are "as close today as two sisters can be." In a state that has struggled to define marriage, their example is one of acceptance and respect.
Their relationship first became strained when Kendell came out during college and worsened when Kendell moved to San Francisco, while Ellsworth-Nielson was focused on raising her family.
"There was physical distance and then there was emotional distance because I really broke her heart," said Ellsworth-Nielson.
Recalled Kendell, "I knew that my coming out as a lesbian was going to be a point of controversy for my family because even though, back then the Mormon church didn’t have an explicit anti-gay position, it still was something I knew would not be acceptable to the Church. As it turns out, my mom was great and early on Sharon was good too, but her first husband had issues with it. Once she had children things got more tense."
"I remember quite vividly when she told me she didn’t want me to be spending time with my niece and nephew and I remember being shocked and angry and hurt," said Kendell.
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Explained Ellsworth-Nielson, "Kathy is a magnetic person. Aunt Kathy worked hard to be the favorite Aunt and my first husband really had a hard time with this. I felt really torn."
Ellsworth-Nielson’s first marriage ended in divorce, giving her the opportunity to decide independently how to face Kendell’s sexuality. She said that it wasn’t until several years later, when she had a personal spiritual breakthrough after a difficult phone call, that the sisters were able to repair their friendship.
"Kathy and I had had a recent conversation. I remember thinking Kathy is all upset because she wants us to accept her, but she’s got to recognize that if she makes these choices, she’s got to accept the fallout," said Ellsworth-Nielson.
"This was the 90s and it was still commonly accepted that homosexuals were ‘made’ not ‘born,’" she added.
While reading a section in Luke 6, "Judge not and ye shall not be judged," Ellsworth-Nielson said she was "smacked" with a thought that told her she should be focusing on her own selfishness and not her sister’s sexuality.
"A voice — not mine — clearly spoke, right in the middle of my self-righteous rant: "Perhaps your selfishness with your time is more troublesome to Me than anything your sister might be."
"It was like a punch in the gut and I realized maybe I needed to look at myself more and not her. As I continued reading there was this whole beautiful imagery of how not judging fills your life. I was very repentant. That kind of changed things for me."
Since then, absolute respect and tolerance for each others’ beliefs have kept the sisters close. On Dec. 23, 2013, Ellsworth-Nielson was a witness at Kendell’s daughter’s marriage to her partner.
Kendell has shown the same respect to Ellsworth-Nielson’s faith.
"She really works hard to find common ground with everyone and I think that’s one of the reasons she’s been successful with NCLR and that’s one of the reasons she’s just fun to be around. Nobody feels like she’s an enemy," said Ellsworth-Nielson of Kendell.
Their story has inspired others whenever they share it.
Ellsworth-Nielson was approached by her Stake President to share her story at Stake Conference last March. After her talk several people emailed to thank her, including a gay LDS man who said he was ready to leave the church until he heard her speak.
In November, Kendell visited PCHS for an after-school session with PCHS’s debate team and Gay Straight Alliance Club where she discussed acceptance, respect, and the constitution in the context of her relationship with her sister. Her speech earned a standing ovation from the students.
"I feel incredibly lucky that (Ellsworth-Nielson) is my sister. I adore her, I respect her, and I feel lucky every day that she is in my life," said Kendell.
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