Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Time I Kissed a Girl


When I talk to straight Mormons about my experiences as a gay Mormon they often try to find experiences in their lives that parallel mine. I think this is a natural way to try to understand, but frequently their “parallels” are nothing like my experiences. For example, a few days ago I said that I kissed a girl and I didn’t like it and one woman immediately said, “My first kiss was terrible, too.” She said this in a way that felt invalidating to my experience. This conversation prompted me to write out the story of my first kiss. I hope that you’ll try and put yourself in my shoes and in Emma’s shoes and imagine what it would have been like for you to go through these experiences.

I met Emma in the Salt Lake airport as we were both traveling home from BYU for Christmas. She and I clicked instantly and when we returned to BYU I took her on a few dates. Our third or fourth date was going to be a double date with two of my close friends who knew I was gay. This was January 2008 and I had only started coming out to people four months before so only a handful of people even knew about my sexuality. But it felt unfair that the girl I was trying to date would be the only person in the room who didn’t know that I was attracted to men. So a few days before the date I mustered the courage to tell her.

I just reread my journal entry about coming out to her and, oh wow, I can be really weird sometimes. Here’s part of what I wrote: “I told Emma today about my SSA. She seems to be interested in me and I’m interested in her and I thought she should know. I didn’t know where we should talk about it so I picked her up after work and we drove to the temple parking lot. As we were driving by the MTC she asked where we were going and I said that we were going to EFO (express feelings openly) which is different than DTR (defining the relationship).” Obviously 23-year-old me was quite the smooth talker.

Her first response after I came out to her was, “That sucks,” said as a statement of fact. She was really understanding and gave me the opportunity to open up about my experiences. She told me that she was willing to give us a try and I said that I was, too, but that I wanted to take things slowly. And so began my first real relationship.

We continued going on dates and one night when we were talking on the phone and I asked her if we were dating (like I said, I was a smooth talker. Smooth as jazz.) and she said yes, but that we weren’t boyfriend/girlfriend because you have to hold hands to get that title. You have to understand that for a 23-year-old Mormon boy it was of utmost importance to me to find a wife and at this point in my life I had never even had a girlfriend. I decided to seal the deal the next day by holding her hand while we were walking to campus. As we walked I asked if I could hold her hand (because you gotta get consent first), but she told me I shouldn’t because I wasn’t attracted to her. I responded that I was working on that and that I did want to hold her hand. In retrospect that was mostly true. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to hold her hand, but that I wanted her to be my girlfriend.

So we interdigitated. And it was awkward. I was glad when we arrived at our destination and I didn’t have to hold her hand anymore. That night we watched a movie at my apartment and held hands again. I wrote my feelings in my journal: “I’m not quite sure how I feel. I love Emma as a person, but I’m just not that attracted to her. I’m going to keep moving forward in the hope that I will develop more feelings for her. I really don’t want to hurt her.” Holding hands got less uncomfortable, but it never felt quite right to me.

A week later we were watching another movie (randomly the first three movies we watched together all had Michelle Pfeiffer in them) and I held her hand again. Halfway through the movie I didn’t want to hold her hand any more, but I felt like I was now trapped for the whole movie. So I got up to use the bathroom even though I didn’t have to go and folded my arms when I sat back down. That night I wrote in my journal: “I got really frustrated with myself. Here’s a girl who is perfect for me and I don’t find her attractive. I don’t know what to do.”

More than a month passed and I still hadn’t kissed her. I’d never kissed anyone and neither had she and she was beginning to get understandably impatient. I knew I was supposed to kiss her, but I just couldn’t get up the courage to do it. One night we went to a BYU men’s volleyball game together and I thought it would be such a great story if I kissed her in the bleachers while we were watching the game. I imagined quickly stealing a kiss and then the whole crowd would cheer and it’d be awesome. She’d love my assertiveness and it’d be a great story to tell our kids, but then there was that whole lack of courage thing going on.

I took her home after the game and went back to my apartment feeling so mad at myself for not being able to kiss her. I stewed for a few minutes then grabbed my backpack and went back to her house. She was surprised and happy to see me. The two of us sat on her couch together and studied for a bit. We also talked about kissing and what it meant and she assured me that it wasn’t a big deal. I knew that I needed to stop being afraid and that I couldn’t leave without kissing her. When I stood up to leave she stood up as well and we shared a brief, tender kiss. As I pulled away I looked into her eyes and smiled. I then turned around to grab my backpack and the smile faded from my face and with my head turned from her I let my real emotions show on my face. I started shaking as I grabbed my backpack. As I turned to face her I put a fake smile back on my face and tried to control the shaking so she wouldn’t notice the discomfort I was feeling. I gave her a hug and left her house.

As soon as the door shut I started running to my car. As I ran I said to myself out loud, “What have I done? What have I done? What have I done?” I sat in my car and felt like garbage. I felt like I had just lied to her. That I had expressed something that I didn’t really feel. When I got home I told my roommates I had kissed her and they were all excited and I feigned excitement as well. The next day I was back at Emma’s house talking to her roommates before she got home. They told me that they had heard all about the kiss and how magical it was from Emma. They were so giddy about it, but the thought that kept running through my brain was, “She and I did not experience the same thing.”

I kissed Emma a few more times hoping I’d like it more, but I didn’t. Not long after our first kiss I got the flu and was grateful I had an excuse to not kiss her. And then not long after that she broke up with me. I was pretty upset and very hurt. I loved having her in my life and losing that relationship was painful. I had told her I loved her and that was true, but one of my first thoughts after she dumped me was to hope that she’d be single for a long time so she’d regret breaking up with me. How’s that for love, huh? When you love someone, you don’t hope that they’ll be filled with regret, but that’s what I hoped for. At the time I didn’t realize how selfish I was being.

Loving a woman as a gay man is complicated. A month after Emma broke up with me I moved to Mexico for a summer internship. During the trip my hair gel exploded in my bag covering my journal and rendering some other books in my bag unsalvageable. When I saw my journal covered in goo my first thought was, “Oh no! Emma!” All of my memories of her were written in that book and I was terrified of losing the record of a relationship that had meant so much to me. I was so relieved when I realized that, though damaged, the journal was still readable. I missed her terribly. I missed having her in my life. She had become my best friend. However, the relationship was problematic because I loved spending time with her, but the pressure to show physical affection made me so uncomfortable.

As years passed and as I matured I learned that if you really care for someone you’ll want what’s best for them. And I wasn’t the best thing for Emma. She deserved someone who could love her in ways that I couldn’t, someone who could be more than just a great friend.  When she finally did get married I didn’t feel an ounce of jealousy, hurt, or regret. All I felt was happiness for my friend and her happiness. And I was glad that she dumped me because it was the best thing for both of us.

I can’t say enough nice things about Emma. She is kind, witty, smart, accomplished, and legitimately made me a better person. We haven’t spoken face to face since 2012, but her influence in my life is incalculable. In 2014, months before I had any intention of coming out on my blog I sent her an essay I had written that later became my coming out post. Her response was to quote Esther 4:14 “For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed: and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this.” That scripture hit me like a ton of bricks and it stirred in me a desire to speak, to no longer hold my peace. Emma unknowingly inspired me with part of the courage I needed to be more vocal. In my prayers tonight I will be thanking God for Emma’s presence in my life.

Perhaps your first kiss was uncomfortable just like mine was. Perhaps you felt awkward holding someone’s hand for the first time. Perhaps you loved someone selfishly like I did. If that’s what you experienced, I hope you were able to overcome those feelings and form a healthy, stable relationship. But please know that the challenges that gay people face who are seeking to be in mixed-orientation relationships are not the same as the struggles faced by typical heterosexual couples. There are added layers of complexity and complication that make them inherently challenging, but not impossible. That said, I’m extremely grateful for my relationship with Emma. For the good times we had, for the laughs we shared, and for the lessons I learned.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Remembering Tami

This is a post that I mostly wrote for myself. I just had to say something about my buddy.

My friend Tami Boyens passed away yesterday. I woke up this morning to news of her passing. Grief is a funny thing. At first I felt just fine and then I just started sobbing. Usually when I cry I cry because I’m joyful or something touches me, but today I’ve been crying because I’m devastated. I’ve cried more tears today than in the whole last year combined.

Tami and I were in the same PhD program. She was a year ahead of me and one of the first people I met in Tucson. She was always so kind and good to me. We’d frequently complain about school together. Every time we ran into each other on campus she’d give me a big hug and we’d stop and chat. She was one of those people who I knew cared about me. I went to her dissertation proposal defense and brought a dozen donuts. I remember waiting with her in the hallway after the defense and chowing down on donuts while we waited to hear if she had passed or not. And then when she passed we cheered and hugged.

She loved the carrot smoothie even though it was terrible
She was a great writer and was so witty. She also swore like a sailor. After repeatedly saying the F-word while talking to me she’d frequently apologize. I always told her not to worry and to just be herself. But she knew I didn’t care for swearing and she cleaned up her language around me anyway. We would often meet up to chat at coffee shops, but since I don’t drink coffee I recommended meeting up at Jamba Juice and that kind of became our thing. Tami and I are both ENFPs and she would always say that I was just the Mormon male version of her. 

This last year was particularly rough for Tami. It felt like she was flickering out. She would message me and tell me that she was having a tough day so I’d make her go out and do something with me. One night I made her come to a Thanksgiving dinner with me at the LDS Institute. She’d never been there before and didn’t know anyone else there but me. After dinner they had an open mic sort of thing where anyone could get up and say what they were thankful for. I wrote the following in my journal: “At first no one stood up and I jokingly told Tami to say something. She said, 'Okay,' and then walked up to the microphone. She said that her friend Ben had invited her, that she’d never been to the Institute before, and that she was thankful for Institute because everyone had been so friendly and kind and shared food with her. It was actually really touching and then everyone clapped for her. It was awesome.” Tami was super ballsy.

One of the last times I hung out with Tami was in early December. She hadn’t been able to leave her apartment all day and asked if I could bring her a burrito. I got her a California burrito at Nico’s and instead of eating it right away she set it down because she had so many stories to tell me first. Tami definitely knew how to talk. I took over a bunch of papers I had to grade and we laughed and talked for hours while I graded. When I left she gave me $10 for the burrito. It only cost $6 so I tried to give her change, but she said, “Keep the change, I’m sure you’ll be bringing me food in the future.” It hurts that I won’t get that opportunity to share a meal with Tami again. I think I will take those $4 and get a Jamba Juice.

Today I lit a candle in Tami’s honor. The only candle I had was a Santa candle and I think Tami would have laughed that I lit a Santa candle to remember her. I know Tami didn’t believe in an afterlife, but I do. And I’d like to think that if there is an afterlife, that my grandma Dorothy Schilaty found Tami today and introduced herself. I just like the idea of Tami being with someone I know right now. Tami always told me that I was "Schilawesome" and I know that she would think my grandma was, too. I will miss Tami fiercely. I will remember her gumption, her humor, her love, and most of all I will remember how good she was to me. She is one of a kind.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Story They Never Told Us

My parents the day they got baptized.
This is my very favorite picture of them.
Yesterday I drove three hours (two hours when there isn't traffic) to Olympia to hang out with Aaron and Amanda. I talked to Aaron's mom for a bit and she told me how great my parents are and how much she misses being in their ward. Then she told a story about them that I had never heard before. She was pretty sure, but not 100% sure, that the story was about my parents. So when I got home late last night I asked my parents if the story was about them and they confirmed that it was. I was shocked they'd never told me or my siblings. Here's what happened.

Buzz and Ginny Schilaty in 1971
My parents got married in 1971 and then randomly bumped into Mormonism the following year and joined the church. They had no children and two incomes so they lived off of one income and put the rest into a college fund for their unborn children (they're planners). In 1975 the church announced that it would build a temple in Seattle and each ward was asked to contribute to the building fund. My parents' ward hosted a dinner and asked people to pledge money. At this point my mom had had a number of miscarriages and she and my dad thought they might never be able to have children. So during the dinner they decided to donated the entire college fund to the temple building fund. My dad told me that it was one of the most spiritual moments of his life and he hasn't regretted it for a second.

When Aaron's mom told me this story my reaction (half joking, half serious) was, "Too bad they didn't keep the money!" because my oldest brother was born the next year. But my parents have taught me over and over again that when you put the Lord first He will take care of you. I remember shortly after I got home from my mission someone gave me $1,000 for school. I asked my mom if I was supposed to pay tithing on that money since it was basically a tuition scholarship. She said, "You're smart enough to figure out the right thing. I don't know what you should do, but I do know that you can never be too generous with the Lord."

It's been 41 years since my parents donated the money intended for our schooling to the Seattle Temple. My parents have four children, we all have master's degrees, and none of us ever had to take out a loan for our schooling. I think my mom was right.

I don't know why my parents never told us kids this story, but it's something I will think about from now on every time I see the Seattle Temple.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Perfectly Single

Four years ago my life was less than ideal. Actually, it kind of stunk. I was just rereading my journal from 2012 and 2013 and boy did I complain a lot. For example, take a look at this entry from 11 February 2013: “I kind of snapped at Kevin last night. He kept talking to me about Allison and how happy he was and I was just feeling crappy. His happiness just made me feel worse. I went to bed feeling pretty sorry for myself. I felt like Eliza from My Fair Lady when she exclaimed, ‘What’s to become of me?’ I just felt lost and sad and hopeless and I may have cried a little.” If you think I sound gay for quoting a musical, you should read the next paragraph of that journal entry in which I quote Anne Shirley.

Kevin was my roommate at the time and he was dating my friend Allison who he later married. They’re two of my very favorite people and in hindsight I’m embarrassed that I couldn’t just be happy for them. Unfortunately, I was too caught up in my own singleness to be happy that they had found love. I was lonely and sad and I feared that I would be alone forever.

What’s interesting is that as I’ve gotten to know more and more gay Mormons I hear the same story and over and over again. While everyone’s story is unique, I’ve heard this same sentiment dozens and dozens of time: “I just don’t want to be alone forever.” The kind of people I hear say this are typically gay men who have tried to date women for years with no success. They love Mormonism and want to stay in the church, but doing so means that they either have to marry a woman or stay single. Since marriage to a woman is unappealing and hasn’t worked the only option left is to remain single if they want to fully participate in the church. In their eyes, they will be alone forever. I totally get this because I’ve felt the same way.

When a gay friend tells me that they don’t want to be alone forever I often say something like this: “Just because you’re single doesn’t mean you have to be alone. You don’t need a relationship to be happy. You’re not half of whole. You don’t need another person to complete you.” And if I’m talking to someone who identifies as a feminist I’ll say, “You’re a feminist and you’re telling me you need a man to be happy?!” I’m not sure saying any of this has ever been helpful, but I’ll continue saying it anyway.

I’ve said the phrase, “You’re not half of a whole, you can be whole just how you are,” enough times that I decided to see if it was true. Over the last week I’ve been searching the scriptures to answer this question: What makes me whole and complete? I feel like the Mormon culture makes us single people feel that to be complete we need to be married. I’d like to share a few of the things that I wish Ben from four years ago had understood.

Like Mary Poppins my mother is practically
perfect. She truly loves everyone.
The first scripture I explored was Matthew 5:48, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Anyone who paid attention in Sunday School will know that perfect means “complete, finished, fully developed.” In other words, to be perfect is to be whole. The five verses preceding verse 48 all deal with how we treat other people. Verse 44, for example, says, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” As I’ve pondered these verses I’ve understood them to mean that if you want to be whole you need to forgive, you need to love, and you need to do good to everyone. In essence, our wholeness is contingent on how we treat other people. Have you ever been mad at someone or something and a friend says to you, “Dude, just let it go and move on”? I’ve been told that and I’ve said it, too (but without the word dude, of course). Mormonism at its core is about progression. If you aren’t forgiving people you aren’t moving on. You are stopping your own progression. As J.K. Rowling has said, “If you want to see the true measure of a man, watch how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” How we treat others matters very much.

Principle 1: I am whole when I treat people in a Christlike way (especially if they don’t deserve it).

The next verses that touched me were Matthew 19:20-21. This is when a rich young man approaches Jesus and asks what he needs to do to receive eternal life. The Savior tells him to keep the commandments and the rich young man is like, “I keep all those commandments already.” And then he asks, “What lack I yet?” In other words, what’s keeping me from being whole? And Christ tells him to give all he has to the poor, but the rich guy just can’t do that and walks away feeling sad and still incomplete.

So what’s the principle here? I’m whole when I give all my stuff away? No, I think it’s deeper than that. I think that each of us needs to have the courage to ask, “What lack I yet? What am I missing?” And then have the courage to do that thing. Here’s an example from my life.

Not long after I wrote the journal entry at the beginning of this post I was feeling super-sad that I was single (that feeling was actually pretty constant in my life for a number of years). As I was driving home from work one day I was praying and expressing to God my frustrations. I pleaded, “Why can’t I just have a family?” I soon felt this answer, “Ben, you already have a family.” And that response was true, I have a great family. I have parents, siblings, nieces and nephews and they’re all just great. I realized that I was already part of an eternal family and that instead of longing for something I didn’t have I should improve the relationships that I already had.

Hanging out with my gay Mormon friends
makes me feel whole
Now, this next part is going to sound crazy to Mormons, but it was important for me. Over the next few years I learned that I had to get rid of the dream I had of marrying a woman in the temple. It had been causing me pain and sadness and it was time for a new dream, a dream that was a better fit for me. I asked God, “What lack I yet?” and through a line upon line process I knew that there was a work God had for me to do. I needed my gay brothers and sisters and they needed me. And so I reached out and formed a little support group of LGBT Mormons. Now I have a little family in Tucson that I love as if they were my actual family. I wrote about how that all happened in my last post. I thought that the only way to be happy was to be married to a woman, but I feel like I was mistaken.

For example, Jesus Christ is our perfect example, right? He was baptized even though He was sinless to “set the example” for us (2 Nephi 31:9). His baptism is mentioned in multiple places in the scriptures because He did it to show us the way. If marriage was so important for me right now wouldn’t He have set the example for me by getting married? (I wrote some more thoughts on marriage and the Plan of Happiness in this post.) The Savior’s familial relationship that is most emphasized in the scriptures is His relationship with His mother as well as His constant striving to do His Father’s will. The scriptures are bursting with stories of how Christ treated everyone with love and respect, especially those that were sick, different, or on the fringes of society. Jesus showed us how love can be universal instead of exclusive. For me, the thing I lacked was reaching out. I was feeling so lonely and sad that I failed to realize that there were other lonely and sad people, too. Once I stopped feeling sorry for myself and started looking outward things got way better. In fact, I think I’m in the best place I’ve ever been.

Principle 2: I’m whole when I have the courage to do God’s will.

I love what the Doctrine and Covenants teaches about light. Section 93 is one of my absolute favorites. But D&C 50:24 teaches an important principle, too. It reads, “That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light and that light growth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.” Remember how we agreed that perfect means to complete and whole? Well, I haven’t reached the perfect day yet, but I will if I continue in God and continue receiving more light. God has promised all of us further light and knowledge and to receive it we need to use the knowledge He has already given us and seek for more.

Principle 3: I become whole as I receive more light.

I found a lot of great scriptures about what it means to be whole, but I’ll just share one more thought. Moroni 10:32 says that “by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ…” And referring to those who will attain a celestial glory, D&C 76:69 says, “These are they who are just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant…” In the end, it’s not so much about what I do that will make me whole, it’s about what Christ did. A spouse won’t complete me, but the grace of God will. The relationship that will make me perfect isn’t the one I have with a significant other, but the one I have with Jesus.

Principle 4: I am made whole through grace.

If I could talk to the me of four years ago I would ask him these questions: How do you treat other people? Is there something you feel prompted to do that you haven’t had the courage to do yet? What are you doing to receive more light? What role does grace have in your life? I think if he really thought about it he would realize that he was looking for happiness in some of the wrong places. And then I would encourage him to follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost and his own moral compass and live the life he felt inspired to live. And I would tell him to not make any decisions based on fear (which is what I did for way too long).

I love traditional marriages and families and I believe that they are essential to God’s plan. However, I think that marriage to a woman isn’t the right thing for me at this point in my life. And while I’m very content with my life, I would not prescribe it for every gay Mormon. We all need to figure out what course is right for us. As Joseph Smith taught, “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, 'Thou shalt not kill'; at another time He said, 'Thou shalt utterly destroy.' This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.” I feel that I’ve received revelation on how to live my life and I hope that everyone else will do the same.

I’ve heard many people say things like, “My wife is my rock,” or “Nothing has brought me greater joy than raising my kids.” These sentiments are great and no longer make me feel left out because I’ve found my own rock and my own things that bring me joy. I know people who appear to have great marriages as well as people who feel burdened by their marriage. I also know people who are single and sad and people who are single and thriving. That’s because it’s not our relationship status that completes us. It is who we are becoming that completes us. However, I still get criticized regularly by Mormons and by people in the LGBT community for choosing to stay single. I get it, you have a great life and want me to have a great life, too. But instead of prescribing marriage to me as a way to be whole, I’d prefer you to ask me about my relationship with God. Am I thriving? Am I living a life that brings me joy? Am I driven by a purpose that’s greater than myself? I wish that instead of telling me to find a partner that you would ask me these sorts of questions instead.

Yes, I’m single, but I feel perfectly happy and whole just the way I am.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Creating a Space for Gay Mormons in Tucson

In September 2015 I started the Tucson LDS Same-Gender Attraction group. No one uses the group’s official name and we all just call it Gay Night. Our Facebook group has 19 members and 8 to 12 people typically come to one of our meetings. Two of the members are in mixed-orientation marriages and everyone else is single. Both men and women attend the group and we have people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, and asexual. Not everyone is currently active in church, but most of the group members are. Our monthly meetings are the highlight of my month. These people have become my family and are some of my closest friends. Here’s the story of how the group got started.

On 6 December 2013 I received a mass email titled, “BYU Studies Personal Essays & Poetry Contest.” As I read through the email I suddenly had this huge desire to write an essay about coming out while at BYU. At the time only some of my friends and family even knew I was gay, but the prompting was clear so I took a few hours over Christmas break and wrote the essay. It was promptly rejected by BYU Studies shortly after I submitted it. I was deeply disappointed, but during 2014 I came out to more people than I ever had before and in conjunction with coming out to them I also gave them a copy of the essay I wrote. It ended up being a fantastic tool and I thought, “Oh, this is why I felt prompted to write it.”

A year later I was listening to a podcast about the importance of telling stories and I once again felt inspired to share the essay I’d written, but this time on my blog. I searched my feelings for a few days, talked to all the people mentioned in the essay to get their approval to share it, and a week later I posted it on my blog. I was totally unprepared for the flood of responses I would receive. I started getting emails from gay Mormons in places as far away as Italy and Tasmania who felt lonely, sad and isolated. My heart hurt for these people who felt they had no one they could reach out to except for this stranger on the internet. I responded to all the emails I received, but that was about all I could do for them.

It suddenly dawned on me that there were probably gay Mormons here in Tucson that were also struggling and while I couldn’t do much to help the people who lived far from me, I could for sure help the people in my city. I wanted to form a group patterned after the Genesis Group. If you haven’t heard of the Genesis Group, you can read it's history here. Basically, in the early 70s church leaders took notice of all the Black members of the church who were leaving. The Genesis Group was a monthly fireside-like meeting where they could strengthen their faith in Christ together and build a community of people with similar life experiences and struggles. It was started by three apostles and was under the direction of the priesthood. I wanted to do the same thing, but for LGBT Mormons in my area.

In March 2015 I emailed my stake president about forming a stake sponsored support group. He and I didn’t really know each other at the time, but he set up a time to meet with me. During that initial meeting we talked about already established support groups like Affirmation and North Star and the resources currently available in Tucson (there were none). He was interested in starting a support group, but was cautious. He wanted to do some research before we settled on anything which made good sense. Then he shocked me by extending a calling to serve in the stake Sunday School presidency in that same meeting. As I wrote about the experience in my journal that night I couldn’t hold back the tears. Years of shame about being gay made me feel like I would be rejected by church members if they knew I was gay. And now my stake president was well aware of my orientation and he had called me to a stake calling anyway AND he wanted to reach out to gay Mormons in our stake. I felt so loved and he made me feel like I belonged.

Over the next few months we met a few times to discuss forming a group. The stake president asked a high councilor to work with me and the two of us collaborated to write a group charter. Our two goals as a group would be to build our faith in Christ together and form a community of people with similar circumstances. The group would be both LDS affirming and LGTB affirming and it would be open to people who weren’t currently active in the church. We would meet once a month for a gospel lesson and then have some kind of social activity during the month as well. The stake president and high councilor chose to name the group the Tucson LDS Same-Gender Attraction group. I didn’t love the name, but I was okay with it. I created a secret Facebook group with that name for announcements.
 
I found this decades old slip of paper
tucked into my grandma's old Bible.
She's been gone for 21 years, but she
still encourages me.
On the first Tuesday in September 2015 we had our first meeting of the Tucson LDS SGA at a local church building. I was super-nervous, but it went well. Only three of us from the LGBT community were there so we started out small (technically, we had one G and two B’s). When I got home that night I had a Facebook message from a man that I knew from the LDS Institute, but didn’t know well. He told me that he had gone to the church parking lot for the meeting, but didn’t have the courage to go inside. I invited him over to my house to chat and the next night this near stranger told me his whole life story for two hours. He kept apologizing for talking so much. I told him not to worrying and to keep going. Before talking to me he had only come out to two bishops and this was his first time talking to someone who could really relate to his experiences as a gay Mormon. He called me the next day to thank me for talking with him for so long and said how helpful it had been. Someone in Tucson had needed a gay Mormon friend and I was thrilled to fill that role.
A few days after our first group meeting the stake president learned that stakes are not allowed to sponsor support groups for LGBT members so we were no longer allowed to meet at a church. The high councilor offered to let us meet at his house once a month and the stake president encouraged us to continue even though he wouldn’t be officially involved. And that’s what we’ve been doing since then. Every month either I or another group member chooses a talk that we all read (well, are supposed to read) beforehand and we discuss it as a group and how it relates to us. Our most recent meeting was on November 3rd and I wrote the following in my journal that night (please excuse all the cheesiness): “My heart is so full tonight… As we talked after and hung out I just wanted to cry. We are a family and I’m so honored for the role I played in the creation of this family. I’m just so grateful that we are all able to be together at this time and place. This is God’s work and it brings me so much joy.”

Wow, that was terribly cheesy, but it’s true. Being together strengthens us and builds us up. As one member recently told me, just talking to other people like her reduced the anxiety and depression she was feeling. We have needed and will continue to need each other. 

Ally Night

The scriptures define Zion as a people that is “of one heart and one mind” (Moses 7:18). I don’t think this means that we all think and feel the same the things, but that we understand one another and what is in each other’s hearts. This is the purpose of Ally Night, to build Zion through understanding. Last November my buddy Paul was troubled by the church’s new policy regarding members in same-sex marriages and their children. He realized that this policy was either going to push him further into the closet or force him out. He decided to come out.

Paul and I in my living room
Paul decided that the best way to affect change was to tell his story. So he asked if he could have some friends come over to my house so he could share his story with them. Eight people came over to my house on 9 November 2015 (just four days after the policy was leaked) to hear Paul’s story. He was open, authentic, and very personal. When he was done he let people ask him questions and then a wonderfully beautiful conversation emerged. The Spirit in the room was strong and I was moved by the level of compassion that Paul’s friends had. They really wanted to love and support him. It went so well that Paul invited a different group of people over ten days later. Then we decided that we should both talk and we started calling the meetings Ally Night because it was a way for us to build allies by giving them access to our hearts.

We’ve held dozens of Ally Nights since them, always in someone’s home. We start them out by having two gay Mormons briefly tell their stories and then we let people ask questions. That typically lasts about an hour. Then we end with introductions. Everyone in the room says their name and comments on one takeaway from the night. This is usually the most touching part of the evening. We also begin and end the meeting with a prayer. We’ve had six different presenters so far who are all single and either gay or bi. Soon we’ll be having an asexual person tell their story as well as a lesbian in a mixed orientation marriage. It’s been ridiculously rewarding to watch my friends grow in confidence and share their stories.

We’ve had loads of support for Ally Night. My stake presidency and bishop have attended in the past. Another presenter’s stake president and bishop have come as well. One leader sent me a note following Ally Night that said in part, "You and Paul are doing good work...don't stop." One of the Young Single Adult wards in Tucson has been especially welcoming (actually, nearly half of the members of the support group come from this one ward). Each of the members of this bishopric have hosted an Ally Night in their home. These men and their wives are my heroes.

We’ve had very positive experiences result from Ally Night. On three separate occasions someone told me that the day after attending Ally Night someone they knew came out to them and because they had come to the meeting the night before they knew how to respond. Often people stay long after the meeting to ask further questions and just to get to know one another better. It has deepened friendships and created many more.

There are a lot of positive stories that I could tell about Ally Night, but I’ll just share one. Both I and another Ally Night presenter invited a woman we know from the Institute to attend Ally Night. She said she was busy and couldn’t come. I invited her to the next Ally Night and she again said she was busy. Since we do Ally Night frequently and on different nights I asked, “Well, when are you free? We can plan it around your schedule.” She replied, “I’m pretty busy most nights,” which I took to mean, “Allow me to politely tell you that I’m not interested in attending.” It turns out she did what to come because she came to an Ally Night not long after that. At the end of the meeting as everyone was sharing their takeaways she thanked me and the other presenter and said that everyone just wants to be understood. She had previously told me that she has depression which is often misunderstood (like when people tell her to just be choose to be happy).  

A few weeks after that I ran into her at the Institute. She told me that she had just been in Utah visiting some friends. Some of her friends had said that people choose to be gay. She took a deep breath and said to herself, “Okay, time to be an ally.” Then she shared the insight she had had at Ally Night with her friends and helped them understand what she had learned. Just like it wouldn’t be right to tell a person with depression to just choose to be happy, it wouldn’t be right to tell a gay man to just choose to marry a woman. My heart swelled with gratitude for this friend of mine who had not only taken the time to learn about our experiences, but had stood up for us and corrected misinformation. She’s my hero, too.

We had an Ally Night at a bishop’s house this past Sunday. One of the guys from Gay Night shared his story for the very first time. As we went around the room sharing our takeaways from the night, a woman who I hadn’t meant before said, “I want to thank you two for being so open and honest tonight. I want you to know that I am going to be an LGBT ally and I will support you whether you stay in the church or leave. I know many of you don’t have families in town and I will be your Tucson mom if you need one. Call me anytime, day or night, and I will be there for you. The doors to my home are always open to you and you are part of my family now.” After the meeting she gave us both big hugs and thanked us for being so brave and reiterated that she would be there for us. I wish every gay Mormon could feel the love and support we have in Tucson. I wish they could hear the message that I consistently hear from straight Mormons at Ally Night. “We love you. We claim you. You are one of us. You belong in this church.” We don’t go into Ally Night expecting these kinds of compassionate responses, but they are simply the natural reaction to understanding our stories.

Ally Night is a small, grassroots initiative started by my buddy Paul, but it’s affecting a lot of people and it’s making Tucson a much more welcoming place for LGBT Mormons. We’ve only just begun and we still have a long way to go, but with courageous people like Paul in the church things are only going to get better.

I’d just like to end this really long post with a primary song that exemplifies the pioneering work we’re doing here in Tucson.

You don't have to push a handcart,
Leave your fam'ly dear,
Or walk a thousand miles or more
To be a pioneer!
You do need to have great courage,
Faith to conquer fear,
And work with might for a cause that's right
To be a pioneer!