Thursday, April 12, 2018

What I Wish People Understood

A good friend of mine at BYU recently asked me what I wished church leaders understood about being gay. Here are my wishes.

My straight friend Dianna who has hosted the support
group in her house since I left Tucson
I wish that we LGBT Latter-day Saints had a place to find each other. We need each other. With the help of my stake president in Tucson I started a support group for gay Mormons modeled after the Genesis Group. The Genesis Group is a monthly meeting for Black members of the church that three apostles helped found in the 70s. It was designed to be a place for them to build their faith in Christ together and create a community of saints with similar life experiences. Starting that support group in Tucson was a life changing experience for me, and it was healing to my soul to spend time with other same-sex attracted Mormons as we built our faith in Christ together and shared common experiences. I have heard too many stories of gay Mormons feeling so isolated and alone that they get on a dating app or on Craigslist just to find someone like them that they can talk to. No one should feel that they need to put themselves in those dangerous situations when there are plenty of super rad LGBT members for them to connect with if they only knew how to find them.

I wish more Latter-day Saints could see the hearts of their LGBT brothers and sisters instead of condemning them. My experiences with being open about my sexuality have been overwhelmingly positive. However, there was that active woman who emphatically accused me of being addicted to pornography because that was the only way someone would develop such deviant thoughts as same-sex attractions. There was the bishop’s wife who compared me to a pedophile multiple times. The church has some amazing resources, but not nearly enough people know about them. It’s easier for them to cling to things that were written in The Miracle of Forgiveness than to open their minds to the further light and knowledge that has been received and will continue to be received. I don’t know what the church should do. It’s not my job to make those decisions. But in my experience, what we’re currently doing isn’t working.

My sister and I taking a mirror
selfie for some reason
I wish that people would stop comparing single gay members to older single women. The first reason is because our situations are so different. My sister is 36 and single and we’ve talked about this a bunch. She gets to date, and flirt, and pray every night that she’ll find a man who will take her to the temple. But my biggest fear is that I’ll fall in love with a man. It's much easier to be an active gay Mormon when I have no dating prospects. The second reason this comparison is unfair is because many of the single women are not doing well. I have many older single friends and I have sat with them as they have cried because they feel no one wants them. I know that many of my single female friends are doing quite well and thriving, but their singleness has brought much sorrow throughout their lives. A few weeks ago I got a call from a single friend in her mid 30s who lives in a different state. When I asked how she was doing she burst into tears and said, “How do you do it? How are you happy single? I’m so lonely.” So being told, “Older single women are happy so you should just be happy single,” is dismissive, invalidating, and not entirely true.

I wish I could label myself as I please. I have been told many times by church leaders to not label myself as gay and I obeyed that counsel during my 20s. I didn’t want to be gay. I didn’t want to be attracted to men. And I hated myself for having those feelings. The times when I didn’t identify as gay were the hardest, darkest times in my life. Choosing to identify as gay has been wonderful and freeing. I’m no longer trying to change something about myself that I can’t change, but I’m acknowledging the unique circumstances of my life and choosing to live in them. My beliefs and commitment to the restored gospel have not changed since I started labeling myself as gay. I live church standards as much as I always have. But what has changed is that I don’t hate myself anymore (I wrote more about this in a previous post). I wish church leaders would honor our agency and grant us the freedom to choose how to define ourselves.
My mom who has always honored my agency

I wish that people wouldn’t try to comfort me by pointing to the next life. I have been told many times that my feelings of same-sex attraction are just an affliction of this life that I won’t experience in the next life. I can see how some people might think this belief is helpful, but to me it wasn’t. I hated my same-sex attractions so much that I yearned to be dead. Death felt like the answer to my problems. During this time, I would have welcomed being diagnosed with cancer because it would have meant the end of my suffering. I would have rather been dead and straight than alive and gay. I have seen how teaching people that they won’t experience same-sex attractions in the next life can lead to thoughts of suicide.

I wish I could be open about who I am. I have been counseled from time to time to not talk about being gay. Someone in my Elders Quorum just a few weeks ago said that people shouldn’t be open about their sexual orientation because it normalizes it and could lead to experimentation. When we got baptized we covenanted to bear each other’s burdens, comfort one another, and mourn together. How can my brothers and sisters bear my burdens, comfort me, and mourn with me if they don’t know what’s going on in my life? Those people who tell me not to talk about my sexuality are acting from a place of fear. For me, being open about who I am in appropriate ways has healed my heart. I no longer feel like a stranger at church, but I feel like I belong.

Sarah who always reminds me to
elevate my vision
I wish we could use our Christlike imaginations more. I wish we could elevate our vision and think of solutions that no one has thought of before. I tried incredibly hard to get married during my 20s. Now I feel like marriage isn’t the right thing for me, at least for the foreseeable future. However, I am regularly counseled to marry a woman. I’ve had multiple priesthood leaders recommend that I marry a woman who also struggles with same-sex attraction. The last time a bishop said that to me I said, “That doesn’t feel like a good idea to me. I think at least one person should be attracted to the other.” It is so discouraging for me and my gay friends to be counseled to just find a woman to marry. That’s what we’ve been doing for years and it has caused a lot of pain and anxiety. My life at 34 is nothing like I imagined it would be. It’s better! I had a narrow vision of what life was all about, but once I started to live by faith I was guided to a life that is more full and more joyful than I could have conceived of on my own.

I wish everyone could elevate their vision, find out what we as individuals need, and then we can go from there. Telling us that we just need to get married is often not the right choice. Just as some prospective missionaries are honorably excused from serving missions, I feel that God has honorably excused me from marriage, for now.
My straight friend Steve who has spent
many hours listening to LGBT stories
But most of all, I wish you could sit with me in my living room and be there during the many times Mormons with same-sex attraction have cried on my couch. I wish you could be there in my office at school as LGBT latter-day saints have unloaded their frustrations on me. I wish you could read all the emails and texts I get. I wish you were there for the phone calls. I wish you were there on the long walks I take with gay friends who want so much to be good and who strive their very best to live the gospel, but who feel lonely, trapped, and isolated. I wish you could hear the many hundreds of stories I’ve heard.

I wish you could be there in those moments when I sit with an LGBT brother or sister of mine. I wish you could hear them share their struggles and also their love for God. I wish you could feel the powerful Spirit that is always in those meetings as we open our hearts to each other and share our lived experiences. Those are some of the moments when I have felt the closest to God in my life. Those are the moments when I have felt like I was part of Zion. I feel that if every church member could experience that we would be a much better people. A more unified and inclusive Zion.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

BYU’s LGBTQ & SSA Student Forum


On March 15, 2018, at 12:30 pm something happened that I never dreamed I’d see. I had just spent the last 90 minutes participating on BYU’s LGBTQ & SSA Student Forum panel with Kait Wright, Sarah Langford, and Gabe Cano. Each of these people is a dear friend, and we were selected to represent each of the letters in the acronym LGBT. I was the G. We had all been vulnerable, honest, and hopeful as we answered questions from the audience, not mincing words as we discussed tough experiences. Then, as the panel ended, the completely packed auditorium burst into applause and a sincere standing ovation. As I watched hundreds of people rise from their seats, my eyes welled with tears at this spontaneous gesture.

As I discussed this moment later with my straight friends, some of them explained what it felt like to be in the audience applauding. They said that they applauded the panelists because of our courage to openly share our stories. They were validating our life experiences and our engagement with faith, belief, love, acceptance, and contradiction. They were celebrating us because of the courage it takes to not give up or feel bitter while reconciling our faith and our unique circumstances.

Later that day I read some news stories about the event, including one from The Salt Lake Tribune. I was deeply disappointed by the content of the article. It focused on the negative things the panelists said while completely leaving out the good. I felt misrepresented. Part of the article stated, “Ben Schilaty is still figuring it out,” referring to my connection to God. I don’t recall saying that, and that’s definitely not how I feel. A number of people who were at the panel told me that the synopsis in the Trib did not reflect the feeling or message of the event.

There were so many beautiful moments that captured the essence of what we were trying to share. Moving messages, like when Gabe recounted his mission companion’s response, when he opened up about his feelings, “You know, we’re walking on holy ground.” The whole student forum felt like holy ground. Or Sarah explaining her mother’s beautiful acceptance of her as a teenager, telling her she didn’t need to label herself. Or the story I shared of the extremely positive responses I received from my students in the Spanish class I teach on campus when I came out to them last semester. Or the inspiring things that Kait said, like how sharing authentic stories is part of building the Kingdom of God.

The behind-the-scenes stories deserve to be told, too. Liza (who uses the plural pronouns they, them, theirs) opened the panel and constantly referred to their “team.” Liza’s team was dozens and dozens of LGBTQ students who wanted to see this panel happen. These students passed out flyers in the cold, and many of them came to the panel wearing rainbow shirts with name tags that said, “I’m gay! Ask me questions!” This event could not have happened without the work that so many students did to put it on. They deserve to be honored for their work. And Liza coordinated almost 100% of it all. Liza got a much-deserved standing ovation for all their work. Liza and their team are my heroes.

During the panel, three lesbian members of Liza’s team sat in the front row just 10 feet from me. I know them well, and I know that they are no longer sure what they believe about the church. Whenever a panelist said a comment they really liked, they would raise their hands in the air and snap, demonstrating their approval. After the panel, they asked if their snapping was distracting. I said, “I actually appreciated it. I’m super Mormon, and it was nice to know that you were agreeing with what I was saying. I’m sorry that I’m so churchy all the time.” One of them put her hand on my arm and said, “We love that you’re so Mormon, Ben. You be you.” While our belief systems may currently differ, they respected me enough to celebrate mine.  

This event couldn’t have happened without a number of stars aligning. Many of those stars were school administrators who, after taking the time to understand us, worked tirelessly for this event to take place so the campus community could hear our life experiences. Two weeks ago, we had a tense few days trying to make a decision relating to the forum. One of the administrators invited all of us over to his house on a Sunday night. A dozen of us LGBTQ students chatted for about two hours with him until we came to a decision on what to do. He showed us a picture his six-year-old daughter drew that day that included a rainbow. She said she drew it because she knew some of daddy’s friends love rainbows and because they make her happy. The story I see from this event isn’t that BYU treats gay students poorly, but that a BYU administrator gave hours upon hours of his time for this event to happen. He has become a dear friend through this process to many of us.

While I was waiting my turn to answer the last question on the panel I got a strong impression to tell the audience that this event wouldn’t have happened without the support and help of administrators at BYU. Then, like a dummy, I totally forgot to mention them in my closing remarks. As the last two panelists spoke, I felt a pit in my stomach knowing that I had missed an important prompting. As one of the moderators was sharing her final thoughts, Sarah leaned over to me and said, “I feel like we need to say something about the work the administrators have done to make this happen.” Incredibly relieved I said, “I just felt the exact same prompting!” Sarah replied, “By the mouth of two of three witnesses.” As soon as the moderator finished speaking, Sarah turned on her mic and explained to the room, “I felt really compelled to say this. I need all of you to know in this room that Liz [Darger] and Steve [Smith] are just a small sample of the administration and faculty and staff here at BYU that are doing everything they possibly can to make this a better place for the LGBTQ members here at BYU. I am a witness that there are people here advocating for you at every level of this university and that you can trust them. And I just wanted to say thank you publicly.” That was the message the Holy Ghost wanted everyone present to hear, and I’m thankful that Sarah had the courage to say something.

One of the last moments of the event was when Liza Holdaway asked anyone in the room who identified as LGBTQ or same-sex attracted, and who felt comfortable doing so, to stand. Probably about a fifth of the room stood, nearly 100 people, and the audience erupted into applause. I nearly burst into tears watching my straight peers clap for my LGBTQ & SSA family. How on earth did that moment not make it into the news? Liza was quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune as saying, “LGBT and [same-sex-attracted] students don’t only exist at the BYU, they belong at BYU.” I felt the truthfulness of their words as I watched the applause.

Straight members of the audiences applauded, I later learned, for the courage it took to stand up and be seen. There was a recognition that everyone wouldn’t be walking out the doors that day with the same beliefs and understanding, but that there would continue to be a diversity of experiences and opinions. However, the LGBTQ & SSA students left feeling loved, validated, and a little better understood. I believe it was a healing evening for students who no longer wish to engage in Mormonism. There was an understanding that day that, until we see each other as brothers and sisters, we’re not yet where we need to be. This event felt like that start of a campus-wide conversation that will continue to happen.

The real news is the years of work that LGBTQ & SSA students have done at BYU to have this important conversation on campus. The real news is that a room full of BYU students gave a standing ovation to four LGBT students who unapologetically told their stories. The real news is that a whole auditorium of straight students applauded their LGBTQ & SSA peers for having the courage to stand up and identify themselves. The real news is that the LGBTQ & SSA students of BYU worked tirelessly to get this event to happen successfully. And the real news is that BYU administrators were part of the entire process and were visibly moved at the end of the event.

The world hasn’t felt different to me yet. My world feels pretty much the same. And yet it’s not the same. The campus community at BYU is having a conversation that I have not really seen happen before. I can’t wait to see what having this conversation will do for all of us, as we listen to and love and serve each other as individuals. There’s more real news to come.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

I Have Not Chosen to Be Celibate

The following exchange happened in a professional meeting with more than a dozen people in attendance.

Steve: (referring to something from the 1980s) “Sorry, I’m really dating myself here.”
Me: “Steve?! You’re a gay Mormon, too?! Because the only person I’m allowed to date is myself.”
Everyone else in the room (including Steve): (impressed with my zinger) “Wow!”

When other Mormons learn that I’m gay, active in the church, and not pursuing a relationship with a woman I often get asked, “So you’ve chosen to be celibate?” I’ve been asked this and similar questions many dozens of times. I assume it stems from the three possible paths we typically think are available to gay Mormons: find an opposite-sex partner and stay in the church, leave the church and find a same-sex partner, or stay in the church and be celibate. The question doesn’t really annoy me because people are just trying to figure me out. However, asking me if I’ve chosen to be celibate is reductive and inaccurate.  

Asking if I’m going to be celibate makes it seem as if my life choices revolve around whether or not I’m going to have sex. Imagine someone excitedly announcing their engagement to you and you respond, “Congratulations! So you’ve decided to have sex?” Kind of silly, huh? In this situation, the typical response is to be thrilled that this person has found their life companion with no mention of their sex life. We might even buy them a pillow with embroidered letters that read, “I MARRIED MY BEST FRIEND.” For some reason, though, my life choices are often boiled down to whether or not I’m planning on having sex.

Somehow this is the level of discourse we’ve arrived at when discussing what the life of an active, gay Mormon looks like. So I’d like to offer some alternatives. Here are some questions you could ask instead of asking your single, gay Mormon friends if they are going to be celibate:

“What are your plans for the future?”
“What do you want your life to look like?”
“How can I help you thrive on the path you’ve chosen?”
“Man, you must be so sad and lonely all the time, right?”

Okay, that last one is just a joke. I’m perfectly happy and willing to talk about my future and what I think it will look like within Mormonism. But celibacy has never been part of my life decisions. I fully admit and understand that no sex is what my future will look like if I plan to move forward in the church, but at no point was sex any part of the equation for me.

Gay Mormons have to make sacrifices, no matter what we choose. Unfortunately, we are regularly shamed for whichever choice we make. “Oh, you chose to leave the church and break your covenants, did you?” “I see, you’re a victim of patriarchy and you’re allowing your church to force you into an inauthentic relationship.” “No sex, huh? I couldn’t live like that. It’s only a matter of time before you change your mind.” So yes, celibacy is part of the package of the life I have chosen, but it is not the main part of the package, nor is sex the thing I feel like I’m giving up.

Here’s the sacrifice I feel like I’m making. My mom has Alzheimer’s and her memory is getting
My parents and I over Christmas
pretty bad. It’s been extremely stressful on my dad, and the amount of time we spend searching for things she has misplaced is astronomical. I wrote this in my journal when I was visiting my parents over Christmas. “This evening has been tough. Dad asked me to help him learn how to use mom’s phone, but it’s been put on some weird settings that I don’t know how to fix. Then we tried to use her computer, but the mouse was missing. Mom started searching the house not sure what she was looking for. Dad finally just hugged her, told her he loved her, and that she didn’t have to search anymore… Tonight I wished I had a partner. Not because I was lonely or sad, but because I wished I had someone to talk to about all this.”

I remember sitting in my parents’ rec room alone that night just yearning for a partner. Watching my parents’ decline is tough, and it’s tougher to do it alone. My mom was getting stressed as she searched the house not even knowing what she was looking for. It was so tender to see my dad’s response to her stress. He just hugged her and told her he loved her. I needed someone to do that for me in that moment. I know that I have plenty of friends who I could have called to talk to, but in that moment I didn’t need a friend—I needed a partner. I sat there feeling sorry for myself for a few minutes, and then I called my sister because she’s the closest thing I have to a partner.

My sister and I decided to make a Christmas card this year
That is what I’m sacrificing. I’m not choosing to be celibate, and I’m not choosing to give up sex. I’m choosing to live life without a partner. I’m not saying that so that you’ll pity me, and I’m not complaining either. I’m just explaining my reality and the choices I’m making. And I have made these choices based on what feels right to me in my mind and in my heart.

Steve, a straight Mormon and my friend, told me after the meeting that my “perfectly timed and delivered” riposte (his words) had brought him a step closer to beginning to understand what my life’s choices meant. So if Steve ever asks about my dating life he'll just get to hear me talk about myself.

Yes, I’m giving up a lot by deciding to move forward in the church, but there is also a lot I’m gaining. I’ve already addressed this topic in this post and this post. I fully expect to be asked about my celibacy many times in the coming years and that’s fine, but there are so many better things you could ask me about. Ask about my participation in church. Ask about my work in the temple. Ask about my home teaching (okay, don’t ask about that one). Ask about what I’m studying in the scriptures and the insights I’ve gained (which is actually one of my favorite topics of conversation). Ask how I’m reaching out to the people around me. Ask about my job and my studies and my family. And if you really, really, really want to know how much sex I’m currently having and plan to have in the future, fine, ask about that, too.

Monday, November 20, 2017

From SSA to Gay

What defines me? What makes me Ben? What parts of me shouldn’t be calculated when I consider my identity? What does it mean to be a child of God? These questions have swirled in my head recently as my friends and I have been told to not call ourselves gay. Just last night while speaking about LGBT members of the church in a Face to Face event, Elder Oaks cautioned us against using labels to define ourselves explaining that our main identity should be as children of God. I have been told that the term gay refers to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and should not be used to describe people. Despite being told this I currently self-identify as gay and I’d like to tell you why.

I first noticed that I was attracted to other guys when I was in 6th grade. I didn’t worry about my attractions or self-identify as gay because I knew it was something temporary that my mission would fix. However, when I got home from my mission and the attractions remained I decided to be hyper-righteous so those feelings would go away. I still felt no need to call myself gay because I was convinced that I would soon be straight. I began to consistently pray and fast to be attracted to women. I also served in the church, attended the temple, read the scriptures every day, and took a lot of women on dates. During this time I felt no change in my attractions. I also started reading blogs about other LDS men experiencing the same trial. This is how I learned the term SSA (same-sex attraction) and I began applying it to myself.

This is me feeling sad back when I struggled with SSA
 (wearing a BYU shirt)
When I started coming out to people I couldn’t say, “I have SSA,” because no one would know what I was talking about, but I also couldn’t call myself gay because I wasn’t gay. So I would just describe my situation and say, “For as long as I can remember I’ve been more attracted to men than women.” This phrase was rather long and in later discussion with friends I would say things like “my baggage” or “you-know-what” as if my feelings were Harry Potter’s nemesis. I finally invented my own term that I used for about six years.

I never really liked saying I had SSA because if felt like I was disclosing that I had a disease. Also, during the time that I described myself as SSA I was constantly trying to overcome it. SSA was a trial, an affliction, a test, and a battle to be won. I previously wrote a post about how hard it was for me to be in the closet and the fear I felt.

The problem with having SSA is that I was always failing. I’d see an attractive guy at the gym and I’d get mad at myself for finding him attractive. I’d laugh at a witty boy’s joke and hate myself for having a crush on him. I’d steal glances at cute boys in class and then scold myself for doing so. During all this time I never kissed a boy, held hands with a boy, or anything like that, but I still felt like I was an awful person for even being attracted to these people. However, at the same time I knew that the church’s stance was that feelings of same-sex attraction weren’t a choice, but I still felt like a terrible failure for not being stronger than my attractions. To me, saying “I have same-sex attraction” reminds me of this time when I constantly felt miserable for being so weak. So when someone says to me, “Ben, you’re not gay, you have same-sex attraction,” I feel very misunderstood and invalidated. And I’ve been told that many times.

Here's a recent picture of me happy and gay
(wearing a different BYU shirt)
In my late 20s I read a satirical article about how to best wish someone Merry Christmas. You can’t wish someone a Merry Christmas because it offends non-Christians. You can’t say Happy Holidays because it offends people who don’t celebrate a holiday. You can’t say Happy Winter Solstice because it offends people in the southern hemisphere and you can’t say Happy New Year because it offends people who don’t follow the Gregorian calendar. This article really made me think about how adamantly I had tried to not call myself gay for so many years and the psychological harm that did to me personally. So I decided to start calling myself gay. And it was a great choice for my emotional health (and it's fewer syllables).

I have never stopped living church standards even though I now say that I’m gay. While having SSA made me constantly feel guilty every time I was attracted to someone, being gay has removed that guilt. I just see it as one of my traits. And removing the shame from being attracted to men has made me much healthier. Finding someone attractive is natural and normal and instead of feeling guilty, I just accept it as part of me.

I don’t think being gay is my defining characteristic, but it is an important part of me because it shapes my life in profound ways. But like my hair color, height, or deep voice, it’s not something I chose. I think the things that define me the most are the things I choose. The way I treat people, the way I respond to situations, and how I spend my time define me much more than traits I didn't choose. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Stain and the Dance

Recently I was chatting with a dear friend and she shared a dream with me that she had had some time ago. I was struck by the beautiful message contained in her brief experience. The following day I spoke at an Ally Night at someone's home and shared this story with the 20 people present. After the meeting two people came up to me and said that my retelling of the dream was the most impactful part of the whole night ("Ben, your stories were fine and all, but your friend's story was AMAZING!"). Since those two women found her experience to be valuable I thought it would be worth it to share it here as well. So with my friend's permission, I am sharing the experience she had in her own words. 

My husband and I have four wonderful sons. Four Eagle Scouts, four returned missionaries, all smart and handsome and really great men.  One of them, while living with us, decided he wanted to leave the church. This was beyond difficult for me. I prayed, I fasted, I attended the temple and read my scriptures and then I prayed more, for inspiration and help for my son. Yet, as the days and weeks went by he was getting farther and farther away from the gospel. In a word, this was brutal. I felt despair, discouragment, and doubt. I didn’t doubt my testimony, but I doubted my abilities as a mother to save my son. One day, after a very difficult conversation with him, I went to my bedroom, closed the door and fell to my knees. I pleaded with the Lord, “I can’t do this anymore. Please help me!” I was hoping for inspiration on how to “fix” my son.

The following night, I had this dream. I was at a dance. It was very much like a gym at the church. A famous rock band was there to play for our dance. There were a lot of people there: friends, neighbors, single, married, old, young. All of us together and all happy and excited, except me. I had a weight of responsibility on my shoulders. I felt a huge burden. A young man who lives down the street from me got a stain on his white Sunday shirt. I offered to clean the shirt since I have much experience with cleaning white shirts for young men. I had the shirt soaking in the kitchen sink. In the gym, the band started to warm up and everyone started dancing and cheering with excitement. With a heavy heart, I turned and walked out of the gym and said, “I better go take care of that stain.”  

Just then, my alarm went off. I was awake and thinking about my dream. A voice said to me, “Go to the dance!”  I was also inspired to understand that Christ would take care of the stain. In fact, there was nothing I could do about it. And, that Christ had already done the hard work, it was taken care of. I felt that Heavenly Father did not want me to ruin my life over this. I was hoping for inspiration about how to “fix” my son and I didn’t even realize that it was me that needed fixing.

In 2 Nephi 31:3 it says: "For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding."

I always believed this meant Spanish or English or Chinese or whatever language a person understood.  While that is true, I think that it means more than that. I was given understanding in a language that I understood: laundry, responsibility, and dancing. My testimony is that God knows us. He understands our joys and sorrows and He will answer “unto our understanding.” 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Choosing to Be Straight

I was raised to be straight. My family, my church, and society all expected me to be straight and pointed me in that direction. Being straight comes with all kinds of benefits like fitting in in a heteronormative society, following LDS doctrine, and having biological children. Children might just be a good enough reason to be straight. I mean, I’m tall, I have thick hair, and a metabolism that works like a charm. These traits totally deserve to be passed on to the next generation. Being straight seemed like the logical choice. Being gay is hard and being straight is way easier.

During the last transfer of my mission a number of missionaries and I were on a long bus ride traveling to a meeting. We were discussing what life would be like for me when I got home and how quickly I’d get married. The consensus was that I wouldn’t last a year single. I was a little more conservative in my estimate and predicted that I’d be married in a year and a half. I figured I’d get home at the end of February, head back to BYU in the fall where I’d meet some girl in my FHE group, we’d date that semester, get engaged in the spring, and married in the summer. It felt like a good plan.

I had previously thought that my mission would cure me of my same-sex attraction and I felt forsaken when I got home and it remained. Still, I felt it was a temporary thing that I could overcome. I started regularly praying and fasting that God would change my heart. I wrote in my journal a few years later: “What is the reason for this trial? I know that someday it will end and I pray that God will hasten the day.” I felt that I needed to do my part to have a change of heart so I went on a lot of dates. Like, a LOT of dates. So many, in fact, that I was regularly accused of “leading girls on.” Since no one knew that I was gay and I was taking many women on dates it looked like I was toying with hearts. 

Me in my early 20s.
Such a heartbreaker.
I was making a concerted, valiant effort to be straight. And besides the cognitive dissonance going on in my head, I was straight. I didn’t talk about liking boys, I didn’t write in my journal about it, I didn’t flirt with guys, or date guys, or hold hands with them, or cuddle with them, or kiss them, or anything that a gay person might do. On the contrary, I did all that with women. And I was pretty smooth, too. Six months after being home from my mission I wrote in my journal about a girl I met at church who I thought was super cool and a clever plan I devised to get to know her. I asked her if I could borrow a DVD to watch on my flight home for Thanksgiving. I wrote: “I returned the DVD to her today and we talked for a while. She’s really fun to hang out with. I asked her if I could borrow a DVD because not only would I have to go over to pick it up, but I’d have to return it too. Two excuses to see her. It worked well.” Like I said, smooth as butter.

I met a girl in my FHE group my first fall semester back at school after my mission. She and I got along great and she was exactly the kind of girl I would want to date. I wrote on 17 October 2005: “We’ve been seeing quite a bit of each other and we talk every day. I like her and it has become more obvious that she likes me.” Good news, right? I continue writing about a walk that this girl and I went on: “Kyle had told me to make a move (exactly what that entails, I don’t know), but not only was I scared to, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to.” Basically I wanted a girlfriend, I just didn’t want to have to touch her. In hindsight I just wanted an awesome best friend, not a kissing buddy.

This girl and I didn’t date that semester. Then winter semester rolled around and I was coming up on my year mark of being home from my mission and I was freaking out that I was almost 22 and had never dated anyone. So I decided to rekindle my relationship with the girl whose hand I didn’t want to hold, but this time I’d have the guts to just do it. I invited her over to watch a movie 100% committed to holding hand, something I’d never done before with anyone. I was so incredibly nervous that I purposefully waited until the last ten minutes of the movie to grab her hand. Once we were interdigitating I relaxed a bit because the pressure was off and she actually seemed excited about holding hands with me. I, however, was feeling a bit uncomfortable. I drove her home shortly after the movie ended which included no more hand holding and a good night hug that I could’ve given to my sister. I then drove home and told everyone that I had a girlfriend.

The next day this girl and I were hanging out and she told me that she didn’t want to be exclusive. But I had already told loads of people we were dating. So I did what any person who desperately wants a girlfriend does, I convinced her that we should date and she agreed. As I left her apartment that night she gave me a much longer hug. It was like she didn’t want to let go. She just kept hugging and hugging so I kept hugging her back not really getting the point because I was ready to leave.

The following day she got cold feet again and I again had to convince her to date me. Then we cuddled on the couch and I just sat there not sure of what I was supposed to do while she snuggled with me. The following day she yet again said that she thought we should just be friends and we broke up. My journal entry about the break up is pretty funny. I wrote: “So we officially broke up after going out for four days… Aaron says that I’ve taken it really well. I think that I just realize that we’ll both end up with other people and be happier in the end.” Nice try, 21-year-old Ben. It’s so obvious now what was going on then. I wasn’t heartbroken because I wasn’t interested in her. What I was interested in was having a girlfriend because that’s what I was supposed to be doing and it was so embarrassing that I had never dated anyone.

I still count this girl in the list of women I’ve dated even though it only lasted for a handful of days. Mostly because saying I’ve had three girlfriends sounds much cooler than just two. Looking back on this experience more than a decade later, it’s interesting how committed I was to walking the path I was told to follow. I dated a girl I wasn’t attracted to just because I was supposed to. In my very first journal entry about being gay I wrote: “It sucks and I’d change things if I could.” I did not want to be gay and my actions were completely consistent with that desire. I actively chose to “live the straight lifestyle” for the entire decade of my 20’s.

I spent thousands of dollars and countless hours dating women during those years. And yet, I still occasionally get told by well-meaning people (and occasionally just your average rude person) that being gay is a choice. The exact opposite has been true for me as I tried as hard as I could to be straight. My personal experience has taught me that marriage to a woman probably isn't the right course for me. Choosing to be straight caused me a lot of anxiety and discomfort. I felt like I was lying and the inherent dishonesty of showing interest in people I wasn't interested in really weighed on me. Around the time I turned 30 I made a conscious decision to stop dating women and move forward in life as a single person. Not only did this decision make logical sense based on my life circumstances, but I have felt divine approval of this decision. And now I get loads of free meals which I'd like to think is the universe paying me back for all the meals I bought for women who have long since married other people.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Literally Standing as an Ally

Dianna and I (with Fun Laura and Lindsay photobombing)
Last week I met up with two married BYU students who I know through a mutual friend. They’re in a mixed-orientation marriage in which the husband is gay and the wife is straight. They were absolutely delightful and I loved swapping stories with them, learning what brought them to this point in their lives, and their plans for the future. We chatted for 2 ½ hours and they were so engaging that we easily could’ve chatted for longer (but I had hours and hours of homework still to do because grad school is the worst).

That evening the wife texted me a bit to ask some more questions. After talking about gay stuff for a while she texted: “Also, random question, who are your heroes?” I responded, “Well, there are the obvious ones like my parents, but the people in my life who are my heroes are the people who have been there for me in my tough moments.” There are dozens and dozens of people that I could’ve mentioned as examples so I hope no one will feel bummed that I didn’t mention them, but the name that immediately came to mind was Dianna. Let me tell you why she’s my heroine (female hero, not the illicit drug).

Dianna's smile here is definitely forced because she
 was not happy I made her walk down that hill
About three years ago I decided to stop lying about being gay and most of people in my life were unaware of my orientation. Dianna and I had carpooled to a young single adult activity on Mt. Lemmon and as we drove down the mountain we chatted about all kinds of random stuff. I mentioned my friend Laura who we all call Fun Laura. Dianna asked, “Does Fun Laura have a nickname for you?” I replied, “Yep, she calls me Gay Mormon Ben,” to which Dianna responded, “Why does she call you that?” and I said, “Because I am both of those things.” Dianna seemed a little stunned by this revelation. I wrote in my journal about the experience: “I’ve wanted to tell Dianna I’m gay for a long time and I was glad to finally tell her. She was cool about it, but she lamented that she’s had a crush on me and she always has crushes on gay guys.” It’s true, her track record for liking straight guys is pretty bad. 

Dianna had never had a gay friend before and she didn’t really know what to say at first. She didn’t seem interested in having a conversation about it right then because she was pretty caught off guard so I just put on some music and we sang songs for the rest of the drive. I tried to have a conversation with her about my gay Mormon experience a few days later, but she didn’t really know what to say or how to have that conversation. This was all brand new to her. Not long after, we drove to the temple together which is nearly a two hour drive each way. On the drive up she asked me a question about being gay and then we chatted about my experiences the rest of the drive up. When we got back in the car she said she’d been thinking about me the entire time we were in the temple and we talked about gay stuff the whole drive back to Tucson. From that day on Dianna really seemed to understand and she was all in. Her heart grew three sizes that day. (I wrote another great example of how rad Dianna is in this post.)

When I decided to start a support group for gay Mormons in Tucson I didn’t even need to ask Dianna if she would be involved. It was just a given. She was there at the first meeting when it was just me and two other gays. Since then the group grew and grew. My house and Dianna’s house became gay Mormon central. People from the group were always hanging out at Dianna’s house and she hosted numerous Ally Nights. She was always willing to open up her house to the people who needed a place (unless it was late ‘cause Dianna needs her sleep). She and Whitney often lamented that their house was always full of boys, but none of them were straight.

Me, Lindsay, and Dianna. Lindsay's a hero, too.
She is a super ally. I have been so proud of her as she’s told stories of standing up for us and helping others understand. As I was preparing to leave Tucson I was wondering what would happen to the gay group when I was gone. One night it suddenly occurred to me that Dianna would keep it going when I was gone. When I mentioned that to her she said that she’d already decided that she’d run it when I was gone and was just waiting for me to tell her I’d decided that, too. It meant so much to me to know that my gay friends (who feel more like family than friends) will know that they have place where they are loved for who they are, where they can be themselves, and where they will know they have someone they can talk to. That place is Dianna’s house.

On Sunday Dianna posted on the Tucson gay group’s Facebook page: “In Relief Society today we had to stand up, say our name, where we're from, and something interesting about us. I took that opportunity to say I'm an ally and anyone can reach out and talk to me. I hope that helps at least one person in the future.” I’m sure Dianna from five years ago would have been super confused if you had told her all the work she’d be doing with gay Mormons, but as she has learned more about the needs of this community she has done her part to reach out.

Dianna and I have had a pretty rad friendship so far. Multiple visits to amusement parks, a trip to Europe, hundreds of shared meals, many hikes, and loads of TV shows. All of those things make her a good friend. But she’s my hero because she’s been there for me when I needed her and she’s been there for my friends, too. Dianna is as committed to the LDS church and the restored gospel as anyone I know. I believe that her commitment to the gospel has increased her desire to reach out to her gay brothers and sisters and given her the courage to stand up for them.