Robyn Burkinshaw is the secretary of her stake Relief Society, and a gay woman. She was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and has always had a love of the Gospel. When she left the Church as a young adult and struggled deeply with depression, she felt a devastating distance between herself and God, believing herself to be unworthy of His blessings. Time, family, and tiny miracles led her back to the gospel and after a twenty-year hiatus, she returned to church. Robyn’s journey is her own. While her story may help LGBTQ people realize the love that God has for them, it is not a guide for their own lives or their relationship with the Church.
Robyn is the CEO of BlytzPay, a financial technology startup. As a woman executive in the financial technology industry, Robyn is used to standing out and raising her voice for positive change. This interview is part of our Tales of Return Series.
Scroll to bottom to listen to the audio for this interview, or find it on The Mormon Women Project podcast.
Will you tell me a little bit about what you do?
Professionally I am the Founder and CEO BlytzPay, a financial technology startup in Utah County. Soon we’re moving from Lehi to Draper, to the other side of the mountain. It started late 2016 to early 2017 and we’re starting to catch some steam. It has been a lot of fun to be a female fintech founder—to be involved in technology as a woman and specifically in Utah—and to make a little bit of a splash. It has been an incredible opportunity and I’m really blessed and very grateful for all of the things that have come my way.
Can you briefly describe in layman’s terms what BlytzPay is?
BlytzPay is a mobile payment technology that allows businesses to invoice and collect via text message. So rather than getting your water bill or your mortgage payment or your insurance bill in the mail, you get it via text message and you can pay right from your phone.
Why did you create BlytzPay? What is your underlying vision there?
It has evolved pretty dramatically. Initially I created it because paying bills is a pain, so I wanted an easier way to interact with merchants. BlytzPay was born of the need to communicate and collect—interaction that leads to transactions between consumers and businesses. But there is an inclusion piece that has materialized as the product has grown and developed. The twenty-first century digital economy excludes people who are underbanked or unbanked—people who are immigrants, the poor and people who are trying to make ends meet—they don’t have the opportunities to participate in the digital economy like people who fit in the bank box. It’s expensive to be poor and needlessly so. Blytz has designed some platforms to allow everybody to participate and everyone to have those conveniences and efficiencies and security.
Blytz really came about during the crash in 2008. I was in mortgage lending when the market crashed, and I was recruited by a law firm that was dealing with distressed consumers. At that point in time, middle America was full of distressed consumers. Many were underemployed or unemployed, and underwater in their homes. That opportunity really gave me a clear vision of the silos that exist in the way businesses deal with consumers. It gets worse when people are scared, and what happens to communication in that kind of a setting needed to be improved.
What’s it like being a women in Utah in fintech?
Fintech leadership in Utah specifically is predominantly male and it has been a challenge—in fundraising, and in being taken seriously. I’ve sat in meetings where I’m answering questions that are posed to my male counterpart sitting next to me—engaging with him but not looking at me. It’s interesting. In my entire career I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Dealing with fundraising and dealing with the financial technology world specifically has been a challenge as a female founder, but it’s one that I absolutely thrive on. The fastest way to get me to do something is to tell me that I can’t.
Do you feel like it’s changing for women in the fintech field?
I do feel like it’s changing, but I don’t feel like it’s changing at the pace it needs to. I think that in order for it to change, people who care about change are going to have to stand up for what we believe in and make ourselves heard, because it’s not going to be handed to us.
I’d like to hear a little bit about your upbringing. Were you raised in Utah, in the Church?
I was born and raised in Midvale, the youngest of five siblings—the closest sibling to me was 16 when I was born, the oldest was 25. I was the family surprise over and over again, as they tell me. My mother wrote my second-to-oldest brother who was serving a mission in Brazil and said, “Oh, by the way, when you get home from your mission you’re going to have a new baby sister!” So it was pretty surprising to him and then just as he got home, my other brother left to serve a mission in Japan. So I was surrounded by adults from a very young age. I was the one to be supervised. I had five sets of parents telling me what to do and how I should do it. All of my siblings were active, more or less. My mom was always fairly active before I was born but my dad never really was, but more or less I was raised in the Church.
What was your journey in the Church like, from when you were young?
It was a little bit of a dichotomy. There was always a feeling of spirituality, but I never really related it to the Church or to Church activity. I have family roots that I think anchored me in the gospel even before I was born. I always loved the gospel and always had a love of my Savior, but there came a point where I felt like I had to choose and the gospel and the Church were so intertwined that if I was choosing out of one, I was choosing out of all of it. In my early life, that was a real challenge for me. I struggled. I left the Church in my early twenties.
I’d always known that there was something different about me. Recognizing I was gay came a little later because I didn’t really have a context. I hadn’t grown up around anybody that was gay and so I didn’t understand. I think everybody knew I was gay but me!
So that wasn’t a piece of your leaving the Church?
It wasn’t at the time but it became a piece later. I think at that time being gay was so different that I didn’t believe I could have the Savior and the gospel in my life if I was gay. So I went really, really far the other direction, trying to figure out who I was. It was tough. My family struggled with it quite a bit, they didn’t understand me and I don’t feel I understood them. We spent a lot of time talking past each other—when we were talking, which was rare in those days. My mother passed away a couple of years ago but to her dying day I think she would tell you that I wasn’t gay, that it was a phase.
How did they respond to your inactivity in the Church?
That was tough for them. I think they were worried about my well-being and my safety and my choices, and it was really tough. My mom specifically had a really difficult time. I think they feared for my eternal well-being. I don’t want to speak too far out of turn, but my perception was that they viewed it as a choice I had made, rather than part of who I was. I think over the last 20-25 years we have gained a lot of insight and information about what it’s like to be gay. I think my family at the time felt like I was just going through some wild phase and that it was a decision that I made. And that was really hard to try and explain. These were people that I loved and respected and I wanted them to understand, but I didn’t have the words to articulate it and neither did they.
Were you able to maintain those relationships through that time of misunderstanding?
No. They tried in their own way on a number of different occasions. One of my siblings still hasn’t quite wrapped her head around my journey and where it has gone. She has distanced herself from me but my brothers really did their best and my parents did their best to understand and be supportive where they could. It was a hard time for all of us.
What about your relationship with God around the time you realized you were gay?
Devastatingly distant. I othered myself—I believed that I was different enough that I didn’t have the right to have a relationship with God. And interestingly, He kept reaching, and reaching, and reaching. He wouldn’t let me go and I just didn’t see it. I think I was so convinced that I was less-than, or that I was not deserving of His love and His blessings that I distanced myself there as well.
What are the ways that you now see He was reaching to you?
When I was 23 or 24, I had broken up with my first partner. I was convinced that I was going to lose my family, I was going to lose my faith, I was going to lose everything, and she had had enough of me being a closet case. It was really a tough time. I told my family I was gay, and they didn’t take it very well. I was battling a depression that I couldn’t lift myself out from. Even just to think back to that time, it feels like a fog.
I had had enough, and I made a pretty serious suicide attempt. I was found by a friend that had absolutely no reason to be looking for me, but he felt impressed to leave work and come and check on me. The doors were locked in my house so he climbed in the back window and found me unconscious. To make a long story short he got my parents and called 911. I had stopped breathing. As they were getting ready to load me into the ambulance, my parents’ home teacher and our bishop were driving by. They saw the commotion and stopped and followed the ambulance to the hospital. A couple of weeks ago I found a letter written by my former bishop, who I’m actually still close to now. It was basically him jotting down notes of the blessing he gave me while I was unconscious in the emergency room and they were waiting to see whether or not I was going to live. At that point they didn’t have great hope that if I did survive I was going to be at full capacity. That’s one of the ways that Heavenly Father blessed me. He was able to see the future. He was able to see past the darkness of a young struggling girl that didn’t know which direction was up. In the blessing, my spirit was commanded to return to my body and I was told that Heavenly Father had a great work for me to do in my life and that I would be a tool in His hands to lift and build and strengthen people who had less faith and who needed—I think the words were—“needed to see a light at the end of a dark path.”
It’s hard for me to share that story publicly but I think it’s important for people struggling for any number of reasons to know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Suicide is something we need to talk more about in the Church and as a community especially with LBGTQ members. There’s no shame in having challenges and struggles, even serious ones. There is hope even when you don’t fit the mold.
There were always people around that were there to support and sustain me as I walked my path. I recovered and Heavenly Father continued to reach for me. It was always very difficult for me internally because I felt a pull back to the gospel. I felt a pull to my Heavenly Father, and I think some of that probably was from the other side. I think some of that was grandparents, and I had a sibling that passed away, and aunts and people who were always there to make sure that I didn’t go so far over the side that I couldn’t be brought back.
Thank you for sharing that. What was your “light at the end of a dark path?” What was it that finally led you back?
There were a number of things. In 2008-2009 when the market crashed, I was in a position where I was looking for work and work was pretty scarce. An opportunity materialized that couldn’t have been anything but the hand of God in my life. From that point I made a commitment to start paying my tithing. It was a little strange to be in the position that I was in—I was in a relationship at the time and completely out of the Church. I just felt that Heavenly Father had blessed me so abundantly that I needed to reach out.
The day after Christmas in 2013, my dad hadn’t been feeling well and had really kind of declined. He was in his eighties. On Christmas Day he wouldn’t let me take him to the doctor. We took him the day after Christmas, and the next day we found out that he had acute myeloid leukemia with just a very, very short period of time to live. It was devastating to me. I didn’t always have a great relationship with my parents and I didn’t have a relationship with him that was very good. It was like the door had closed. He passed away the night of New Year’s Eve, just shortly after 11:00 p.m. My brother had driven from Oklahoma where he was living at the time and there was a peace to him that I didn’t have. He had an understanding—I understood it but I don’t think I had a testimony of it. I think the fear overwhelmed me.
To watch the difference between my brother’s response to my dad’s passing and the rough tide that was just raging in me, was pretty significant. My mom had been diagnosed with dementia and was pretty out of it. She didn’t have a lot of comprehension as to what was going on, so my dad was kind of the last anchor I had to my parents. I’m the baby. It was a challenge. I think that started the serious journey.
Over the course of the next year we had to put my mom in an assisted living facility because she wasn’t able to care for herself. We had to sell the family home and all of these things. I’m pretty sentimental by nature and so to watch some of those things unfold was pretty tough; to watch my mom take her last steps out of her home that she had lived in the majority of her married life was devastating. It was a pretty rocky year for me. We began to prepare the home for sale and I was going through some documents that my mother had saved. I found a letter that she had written in 1962 or 1963. It was very clearly for me. A little bit of background: my mom and dad were not married in the temple and had had some struggles in their marriage and some struggles each personally and so weren’t ever super active. So about 18 months before my dad passed away, they were endowed and sealed in the temple and all of my siblings were able to participate but me. I very literally stood outside the doors of the temple and waited. I was pretty upset. So when I found this letter, it was pretty interesting. My mother wasn’t married in the temple and I think she carried that regret with her but her mother, my Grandma Bateman, was very, very active and my mother loved and revered her mother just like all my siblings. I never met my Grandma Bateman as she passed away before I was born, but this letter is about her. My mother wrote:
One night I stood outside the temple gates and waited for mother who was inside. I waited quite a time, and in those moments, I saw and pondered many things. I looked upon the solid stately walls which separate Temple Square and set it from the world apart, then upward to the lighted spires and upward until my eyes rested upon that grandest pinnacle, atop which stands that glorious likeness of the Angel Moroni. Above, the sky was black in contrast, filled with glimmering stars. Upon the street were many a hurried footsteps, couples, arms entwined, or holding hands, walked forth in eagerness, faces alive with purpose, to enter, and be welcomed through the gate. Groups of every age, hurrying, intent on the joyous task at hand poured through the gate. A bride, carrying a bouffant wedding dress, careful lest it be crushed, made her exit from those doors, the realization of her dreams written upon her face. Her husband beside her, their parents close at hand. Young and old, I thought, here are the faithful. Then I saw my own dear Mother approach, her face alight with the inspiration she had felt within those walls, of the worthwhile accomplished, buoyed up and generated by covenants renewed, eyes shining from the burning of the spirit within. Out the heavy doors she came, down the path to the outside world, carrying an essence of heaven with her.
I was alone. I alone had waited outside that night. With the waiting, the seeing, the feeling, came a clear realization of how my own choice had placed me there, of how those years ago, I thought that love could win the desires of my heart and soul without a doubt. Now only God could know the yearning of my heart. My love of husband even stronger now, and with four children, Kim, Jeffrey, Mark, and Laurie, ours to love and guide, I knew the truth: True love cannot be fulfilled that does not encompass the gospel of Jesus Christ. On then, to dinner with Mother for whom I’d waited, to sit about the table and hear her conversation, feel the strength she had derived from her loving service for the dead. See the emotion and almost into the souls of the family who had been sealed that very night. Twelve years had passed since my wedding day, years of hope, faith, love, learning, and a vast multitude of experiences. And yet how long the journey and how steep the pathway I did not know. Onward, then, with tools of love and understanding to strive, and earn with faith, to qualify, with the one I love for eternal life. If I could leave one message for my children, it would be this: Never make a choice in life that leaves you waiting outside the House of God. For if you do, it may be you will find yourself and those you love outside for eternity. Nothing in the world could compensate for the loss of this, the greatest of all blessings.
—Joyce B. Burkinshaw
At a time when my mother didn’t have the capacity to deliver that message to me, Heavenly Father made a way. That was my call to come home.
What an amazing story. What was your journey back like? How did you take those steps?
My first step was I think talking myself into it. I hadn’t stepped into a church for over 20 years and that was a pretty daunting experience. It took me until January of 2015, and one Sunday I gathered my strength and found the one skirt that I owned in the back of the closet that I hadn’t even thought about for years, and traipsed myself to sacrament meeting. I was terrified. I walked in the doors and sat in the back. It was fast and testimony meeting, the first Sunday in January, and I sat hiding in the corner, hoping that nobody would see or notice me. During fast and testimony meeting I felt compelled to bear my testimony about the Plan of Salvation and the fact that I didn’t know anything about anything, but that I was grateful that Heavenly Father had instituted a way for us to be together. From there I all but ran to the door. I was mobbed by members of that ward who wanted to know who I was and what I was and where was I going and why was I going so quickly. It took me a couple of months of going to really commit. In years past I had investigated other religions and had tried to find that peace, and it didn’t exist, at least for me.
That’s one of the things I want to make really clear in this interview, that my story is very different than everybody else’s, my path is very different. One thing I don’t want to happen is for my story to be used as a weapon against others who are struggling with some of the same challenges. My path is my path alone and it doesn’t represent the same choices and same challenges or opportunities that others face. People are people, everybody has their own path and their own opportunity to learn and to grow in a way that is designed specifically for them. The Atonement was focused by our Savior and our Heavenly Father on the individual. He atoned for each one of us personally and individually and He knows our path and He doesn’t compare our path to anybody else, even if the challenges are similar. I want to make sure that I communicate this clearly: my path is not for everyone.
Thank you for stating that with such clarity. What teachings of the Church resonate most deeply with you? What really drew you back?
There are a couple of things that really spoke to me. Elder Holland has a special place in my heart. It feels like every time he talks, he is talking specifically to me. My brother sent me a link to Elder Holland’s talk, “Remember Lot’s Wife: Faith is for the Future.” This was after my dad died but before my path started back towards church. That resonated with me, that faith looks forward, that we take the embers and not the ashes from our past and we are able to grow from those. He talks about the future that is yet to come and the forgiveness that can be wrought from that. That gave me a hope and a sense of belonging that I really needed and hadn’t had. I think it started to clarify for me that I was worthy and had the opportunity to find God even though I was different, even though I wasn’t what you would consider the storybook member of the Church. That was significant to me. There was another talk that I found by Brad Wilcox called “His Grace is Sufficient.” In that he talks about the art of playing the piano—essentially we are beginning piano players and as we go through life’s experiences, we’re going to hit wrong keys, but it doesn’t mean that we are not to be piano players, it means that we are learning. That resonated with me as well.
What teachings of the Church are challenging for you?
The night before I was endowed, my family had flown into town and my mother had recently passed away. I was preparing to be endowed on November 6. The day before, November 5, 2015, the Church announced the changes to Handbook 1 that limited children of same-sex couples from being blessed and then baptized. I crawled into bed to read the news, as is kind of my custom, and to see that news was a kick in the gut to me. Literally not 12 hours before I was to be endowed. I thought, I can’t do this, I can’t do this. I can’t join something that is this exclusionary to people who don’t have a choice and who don’t fit the traditional mold. That was very, very difficult and very painful for me. That was a struggle.
I ended up being endowed, but being endowed with the goal to raise my voice—for whatever that was worth—to be a voice for change and a voice for temperance and a voice for kindness and inclusion. Change within the Church, so that everybody is welcome and that everyone deserves the love of God and the blessings of the Atonement and the recognition of His hand in each one of our lives.
The sociology of the Church I think is changing, but there are still some tough challenges that weigh on me. There are conference talks that are given across the pulpit that are sometimes painful. I’ve gotten to where I don’t listen to conference live, I listen to it after the fact and I’ve got amazing, supportive people that give me the guidance of what to listen to and what to stay away from. It’s not the doctrine, it’s the way the doctrine is delivered. We are a church of lay leaders—imperfect lay leaders with opinions and experiences and differences, and that can be challenging.
There was a time just after I was endowed that I was sitting in Relief Society. Nobody really knew my background. There were a very select few who even knew that I was gay, my bishop and his counselors and maybe one other person. Because of the conversation and the derision that the changes to Handbook 1 had caused, everybody had something to say but there wasn’t a really good forum in which to say it, so it came out in these really weird ways, like in Relief Society. So we’re in Relief Society, and we’re having a lesson called “Feed My Sheep,” and “Feed My Sheep” turns into “Should I feed the gay sheep?” There were a couple of sisters that started going back and forth about whether they should support family members and attend weddings of gay family members or gay friends. I sat kind of white-knuckled in my seat, not sure what to share and what not to share, and I just sat there silent. I walked out, pretty upset with myself that I had stayed quiet, because I’m not much for being quiet, but I wasn’t sure what to say! I had been called that year as a Relief Society teacher and happened to be teaching that next week. The lesson was called “Faith is not by Chance but by Choice,” and I shared my story. And you could have heard a pin drop. I read the letter from my mother and I asked, “If you had known I was gay, would the conversation have been different? Would you have thought that I would have returned? Does it change your opinion of me? Does Heavenly Father want us to feed just the sheep that look like us and talk like us?” I talked a little bit about the Savior’s life and who He was. That was a wake up call to me.
There are always people that say things that I don’t think mean harm—they don’t think through completely what they’re saying or who may be in the room that might be affected. But the truth, at least for me, has been that my faith is not by chance but by choice. That I choose to believe in the gospel and believe that Heavenly Father will sort it all out, eventually. I don’t have to carry the weight on my shoulders, and not that that absolves me of a responsibility to be a voice for change, and to speak up when I see something that’s wrong, but that I don’t have to feel responsible to change everything in a finite period of time. He is aware of us and aware of the things that are happening, and blesses us accordingly.
That is beautiful and I think a really compassionate view of the people who surround you in the Church. It must be some kind of a burden to be a gay member of the Church and feel like there is a responsibility to be the one that speaks up and that represents and that explains. Does that become tiring?
I wouldn’t say tiring, I would say I want to make sure that I deliver it in a way that’s loving and that’s appropriate and that’s kind. Because we don’t need any more division, we need unity. I think it’s overwhelming at times, and it’s easy to feel insecure about being able to deliver that message. I think of Moses—I’m not comparing myself to Moses—but I think of people who have been called to duties and responsibilities that they don’t know how on earth they are going to fulfill. It’s scary; it can be challenging and overwhelming that Heavenly Father would allow me to share my voice and my experiences and to believe am I the right person for that.
Do you serve in a calling right now in your ward?
I do. I am the Secretary in the stake Relief Society. It has been an incredible opportunity. When they called me in to offer me the calling, I thought I was in trouble. Much to my surprise they called me to the stake and I think that speaks volumes to the change that’s happening. My ward and my stake are incredible. Our stake Relief Society President is one of the most gifted, kind, loving people that you could ever ask for, so to be called to serve with her has been phenomenal. But there aren’t many lesbian members of the stake Relief Society presidency so it’s been pretty cool.
I’m going to ask just because that’s my same calling—what do you feel like your purpose is in that calling?
I think especially now, and I don’t know if it’s just more visible than it has been in the past, but I think now there are a lot of feelings in the Church about “is this the place that I should be? Am I doing the right thing?” There were a lot of people that left over the changes to Handbook 1 and, and I think if anything, I want to show that change is possible, and that people are trying and that the only way change will happen is if people are willing to stay and do the hard work and raise their voice but there are days where it’s hard.
What message do you have for other LGBTQ people who wish to be active members of the Church?
You have your path to walk, and only you know what direction that path will take. Very clearly I want to articulate that Heavenly Father, whether you’re an active member of the Church or not, Heavenly Father loves each one of us individually, He knows us individually, He knows us intimately, and it doesn’t change based on your sexual preference or your ethnicity or your religious beliefs or your standing in a community or your job or any of those things that we sometimes look at ourselves and judge ourselves in accordance with. If you want to be a disciple of the Savior, there are two great commandments. Number one is love God, and number two is love your neighbor. I think we stack a lot of other stuff on top of the gospel and it’s time to get back to basics. It’s time to get really clear about who we are and what’s important to us and what we’re doing and how that impacts the world and the people around us. Anything else is just a lot of noise.
You talked about how there was a time in your life where you felt really distant from God and maybe unworthy of God’s blessings. What is your relationship now with God?
Gratitude. I try really hard to pay attention to His hand in my life daily. There are so many opportunities that He puts before me and for all of us, things that are just tiny, or things that are large and miraculous, but He’s there. He’s there in the details. I would say I am learning to trust Him, I’m learning to trust. I think it’s a matter of remembrance—remembering the times that He picked me up on my road to Damascus and sent me on my way.
There are two stories about the Savior that come to my mind often. The first is the story of Peter just after the Savior was crucified. Peter went back to fishing and I’m sure was unsure of what to do going forward, and scared, and all of the emotions that those early disciples felt. The Savior asks Peter three times “Peter, do you love me?” Peter answers, “Yea Lord thou knowest that I love thee.” Three times in repetition—I think in very deliberate proximity to what Peter’s denial of the Savior was—He asked three times and wanted to make sure that Peter knew what he was saying. I think it was almost as much a testament to Peter as it was to the Savior. The second one is Jesus asking His disciples “Will ye also leave?” And their response is “To whom shall we go?” And that’s the truth, for me. The only option, the only place that I have to go is to the Savior and to our Father in Heaven, because He knows. He knows me, and He knows what I need to be the person that I want to be, and that He knows that I can be.