Sister of same-sex couple in Utah speaks out on faith, family, and freedom
February 03, 2014
Last summer, Shana Elmer watched as her brother got engaged to the love of his life.
She watched as her brother's boyfriend arranged the perfect marriage proposal - complete with a flashmob dance performance by all of their family members and friends, a lyrically perfect song that repeated "Somebody Loves You," and she kept it a secret until the big day, when she joined in the fun.
She watched as the proposal between her brother, Dustin Reeser, and his boyfriend, Spencer Stout, exploded onto the Internet, quickly being coined "the Home Depot engagement," garnering over 11 million views on YouTube.
And in the past few months, she has watched as her home state of Utah - where Dustin and Spencer also live - was thrust into the national spotlight when a federal judge struck down laws in the state that ban same-sex couples from marrying.
Shana Elmer has lived in Utah for much of her life - she currently lives in Spanish Fork with her husband, a bit outside of Salt Lake City - and this year, as Utahns have begun a state-wide conversation about why marriage matters to same-sex couples, she has been amazed to see support for the freedom to marry increasing across Utah.
"I was so excited to see that Utah made that step toward marriage quicker than I thought they would," Shana said. "I just kept thinking, 'Wow. Wow'"
At the same time, Shana said it's hard to see the love that couples like her brother and Spencer share at the center of such debate.
"Some of the remarks the government has made have been pretty hurtful," she said, referencing the state of Utah's attempts to block - and now appeal - the ruling. "Since Spencer and Dustin live in Salt Lake, I'm not right there as they are affected by this - I can't see their initial reactions, and I can't even imagine how much this upsets them. What hurts the most is that opponents are making these people - my brother, my friends - sound horrible, when they're no different from anyone else. They're hurting these people by trying to take away their right to be married, and it breaks my heart."
Shana, who along with her brother was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is one of the growing number of Mormons in Utah who have found a way to support the freedom to marry for same-sex couples without compromising belief in faith.
Her support stemmed from her brother coming out to her, their five other siblings, and their parents, when she was a teenager. She was initially surprised by Dustin coming out, uncertain of how to feel.
"I had never really thought much about gay people," Shana said. "I hadn't really questioned my own beliefs - all I had ever known is that you're not supposed to be gay. When Dustin came out, I really worked to understand it and what it meant for me as a Mormon."
"It didn't bother me that Dustin was gay," Shana continued. "What bothered me was that as far as I knew, if you were gay you weren't going to Heaven. And I knew that Heaven without Dustin just wouldn't be Heaven - he was my best friend, I loved him more than anything, and that's why this was so painful. I kept asking myself and meditating on that question: Where will he be when we die? Will he not be beside me?"
"I read books. I talked to people. I meditated," Shana said. "I saw that Dustin was still who he had always been. I came to that realization: If it's not Heaven without Dustin, then Dustin will be in Heaven. He'll be there. It's all going to work out."
After he came out as gay, Dustin moved away from Utah, eventually settling for a few years in Las Vegas, NV. Shana and Dustin remained close, and she would take trips down to visit very often. While she was visiting, Shana became close with some of Dustin's friends, many of whom were also gay.
"They became my best friends, too," Shana said. "They accepted me for who I was no matter who that was."
Becoming close with these other people also encouraged her continued transition in favor of the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.
"Initially when Dustin came out, I didn't even think about him getting married," she explained. "It just wasn't urgent for him at that moment. But as some of our friends began meeting significant others and falling in love, for me it was like, 'Why not? Why can't these guys get married?' It didn't make sense for me why two consenting adults who wanted to share that bond for the rest of their lives shouldn't be able to."
By the time Dustin moved back to Salt Lake City, UT and met Spencer (who was also raised LDS) Shana's support for the freedom to marry wasn't even a question.
"Spencer brings out the most amazing things in Dustin," she said. "They just make sense as a really great couple."
She is hopeful that by the time Spencer and Dustin marry - they have plans to tie the knot in California this year - they are able to legally marry, once and for all, in Utah.
In the meantime, Shana - and thousands of others across the state of Utah - are hopeful that their loved ones will finally be granted the the respect they deserve.
"It's hard to watch my family and friends who are so excited to have that union of marriage be denied," Shana continued. "I just think, what if this happened to me? What if I got married and suddenly it wasn't valid? What if someone told me I couldn't marry my husband?"
Shana is looking forward to the day when no one in Utah - or the rest of the country - is told that their relationship is not valid under law. And until the people she loves - her brother Dustin, her soon-to-be-brother-in-law Spencer, and thousands of others are treated fairly in Utah and beyond - she is excited to continue standing up for the freedom to marry for every same-sex couple in her home state.