Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The Love of God in the Toughest of Times

Friday, September 4th, 2015 was one of the worst nights of life. My stake president called me unexpectedly. Over the past six months we had been working and counseling together to form a stake-sponsored group for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints. A member of the high council had been assigned to work with me and we had written a charter for the group. I presented that charter to the stake council which approved it. The area leaders and other stake leaders in Tucson were supportive as well. We were good to go it seemed.

We had our first meeting on Tuesday, September 1st in a church building. The meeting was wonderful and I immediately saw how needed it was. That night I received a Facebook message from an acquaintance who had wanted to come to the meeting, but had been too afraid. He came over to my house the next day and opened his heart to me telling me that he had always been more attracted to men than women. It was the first time he had ever shared those feelings with another person who had a similar orientation. We swapped experiences, we discussed our faith, and we were both strengthened. I immediately experienced how much LGBTQ Latter-day Saints need each other. I felt like I was following promptings from the Holy Ghost and I was pumped to see the group grow and strengthen Zion. 

Then just a couple of days later, my stake president called and told me that the stake would no longer be able to sponsor the group. He told me that church headquarters had contacted him and indicated that stakes could not sponsor such support groups. The group was immediately shut down.  

I was livid and I was so hurt. I had felt prompted to start this group and had felt divine guidance to do so. My stake president also expressed similar feelings of having felt guided in our efforts, and he, too, was saddened by the outcome. We commiserated on the phone and he was so kind. When we hung up, I paced around the house for the few minutes not sure what to do. Then I collapsed on a chair in my living room and sobbed uncontrollably. I wrote in my journal that night: “I haven’t cried like that since I was a kid. It felt like my heart was ripped out. I began to really wonder if I’d been foolish and if there really was no place for me. For the first time I felt rejected by the institution and it really hurt.”

Once I stopped crying, I paced around the house some more. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was about to explode. This couldn’t be happening. This wasn’t real. I stormed out of my house and wandered aimlessly in the night, not knowing where to go or what to do, but knowing I couldn’t just sit. The high councilor I’d been working with called me, knowing that I’d be struggling. He was validating and kind and did his best to make me feel better, but I didn’t feel better. How could I feel good about this?

I got home and kneeled in my room and I raged at God. “You told me to do this! I felt so strongly that I was supposed to do this and I did it because You told me to! You need to fix this! I did exactly what I was asked to do! You need to fix this!”

I woke up angry on Saturday morning. Sunday morning I was still angry. It was Fast and Testimony meeting and as I sat in my pew listening to person after person say that the Church was led by God, I just got madder and madder. When the meeting was over I was fuming and agitated and I was ready to storm out of the church and never come back. The Church had rejected me and I was going to reject it. I was sitting next to a friend who was serving as the Primary president. She asked if I was okay and I told her that I was not and that I was going home. She said, “Just come to Primary with me, Ben.” And I did.

As I sat in Primary and sang those simple songs, my heart began to heal. Sitting in that room, singing about Jesus, the Spirit spoke to my heart. I felt God’s love in a real, tangible way. I didn’t want to feel good. I didn’t want to feel love. I wanted to stay angry. But I felt strongly and boldly accepted and loved by God. I wanted to be mad because I had been so hurt, but as the Spirit healed that hurt, my anger started to fade away.

Romans 8:38-39: “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Not even angels can separate us from the love of God.

Out of all the tough moments I’ve had as a gay Latter-day Saint, this one was the toughest. I had felt so incredibly certain that I was supposed to start this support group and then the Church told me I couldn’t. I was trying to reach out to people in need and the Church said, “No, not like that.” I ached on the inside. It broke my heart. My stake president encouraged me to run the group on my own, independent of the Church, and that’s what I did. And I believe it’s what God wanted me to do. The two years I ran that group were some of the happiest of my life. I’ve written about the group extensively on my blog (like here, here, and here) so I won’t do it again here, but I still think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

Whenever something LGBTQ related happens with the Church, I don’t experience it in isolation. All the other things, including the experience I shared here, bubble up to the surface. I remember the years when I would have rather been dead and straight than alive and gay. I remember the times I heard my fellow saints say awful things about LGBTQ people. I remember the November 2015 policy. I remember all the years of feeling rejected because of my orientation. I don’t spend my days thinking of the pain and sacrifice that come with being and gay member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I don’t spend my days longing for what I can’t have. I don’t spend my days pondering the doctrine of eternal marriage and the necessity of marrying a woman. Mostly life is really, really good and calm. But when tough things happen, it’s like someone amasses all these years of pain into an oozing ball, places it in my hands and says, “Here. Look at this. Deal with this.”

Again and again, in these tough moments, I have needed to connect with the God and feel His love. That has often happened through other people. On the same Sunday that I attended Primary, I got an email from a counselor in the stake presidency that said, “Ben, you are part of our family and we have been so blessed to have you come into our lives. We love you so much and cherish our relationship with you here in mortality and want it to continue into the eternities.” I cried, of course.

I’m not saying that this is true for anyone else, but it’s true for me. I need to learn to love, forgive, and see the good in people. Even those people who are unintentionally causing me pain.

My hope is that any LGBTQ Latter-day Saint who is feeling pain, can have an experience like I had in Primary where I was able to feel the love of God. Or that some kind Church leader will reach out to them and tell them how much they are loved and valued forever. I don’t know what that will look like for each individual, but I do know that the love of God can be felt in the toughest of times. And if you are in my sphere of influence and you are in pain, come be with me and we can hold that pain together. I mean that.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

I’m (hopefully) Less Racist than I Used to Be

As a tall, white, English speaking, educated male with hair, I’m one of the most privileged people on the planet. And I have a lot of blind spots.

Last Thursday I attended a panel on race and immigration at BYU. The keynote address was given by a former professor of mine. She spoke of her experience as a black immigrant from Africa with poignancy and humor. I felt so lucky that I was able to be her student. After her talk she participated on a panel with black, immigrant students.

The panel of black women spoke powerfully and authentically. One of them spoke about living in a refugee camp for years before relocating to the US. I tried to put myself in her shoes and imagine what it would have been like as a teenager to have to flee my home, live in a camp with an uncertain future, and then move to a place where everything was different. Another panelist spoke of being adopted from an African country at the age of three. She grew up in a white family in Provo, UT. I wondered what it would have been like if I had been adopted by a family that didn’t look like me and grow up in a place where few people at all looked like me. Walking in their shoes for a few minutes expanded my heart. 

I noticed that one of the panelists described herself as Nigerian-American and I wanted to understand what the nuances were for her of identifying as Nigerian-American and not African-American. When the panel started, everyone in the room was told that we could submit questions via an app. I hadn’t planned on asking any questions, but I was suddenly curious about black identities and self-identification. So I pulled out my phone ready to type my question. Then I saw some of the questions that had already been submitted and I was deeply disturbed.

Most of the questions were respectful and inquisitive, but some of them were insensitive, antagonistic, and just plain racist. I was shocked. The auditorium we were in was not big. There couldn’t have been many more than a hundred people in the room. I knew about fifteen people in the room and I wondered, who on earth wrote these questions? I looked down at my right hand, at the rainbow ring on my ring finger, and I felt exposed. I remembered the LGBT panel I had been on at BYU two years before as a student where we had used the same app and homophobic and transphobic questions had been submitted. If there were people in this very room saying these things, what would they say to a gay person in the room like me? I realized that I could take my ring off if I wanted to and play straight. I could leverage all my other privileges and hide my minority status if I wanted to, but the black women on the stage couldn’t do that.

When I was 20 years old and on my mission in Mexico, my Mexican companion told me that something I said was racist. I disagreed and refused to listen. I was a good person. I loved Mexico. How could I be a racist? Unfortunately, I was more concerned with asserting that I wasn’t racist than I was with understanding why he thought I was racist. Now, with 16 years of hindsight, I understand that what I said was totally racist, but I wasn’t prepared to accept that back then.

When I was 29, just six and a half years ago, I wasn’t out publicly. After coming out to a close friend he asked me if I thought I was born gay. I told him that I thought homosexuality was like a mental illness, that there was something wrong with my brain that needed to be fixed. Looking back, I can’t believe that I thought that so recently. Something that seems so offensive to me now was true to me not that long ago. At 29, I had only talked to one other gay person about being gay--in my entire life. What changed my way of thinking was getting to know and getting close to so many other LGBTQ people. I’m grateful to my many friends who let me walk in their shoes because they helped me to understand myself better.

When I hear people say homophobic things, I try to be patient and remind myself that not too long ago I could’ve said something similar. I’m not trying to excuse ignorance or say that it’s okay to say hurtful things. It’s just that I know what it’s like to be incredibly rude without realizing it. And I’m so sorry for the ignorant things I’ve said and done (and most certainly unknowingly still say and do).

I’ve read a lot of articles about the panel last week and it is such a shame that a few rude, antagonist people hijacked a beautiful event. It’s disappointing that many of the articles focused on the racist comments while failing to highlight the powerful things that were shared by the panelists. I walked away from the panel wondering what I can do to help refugees and how I can be more inclusive of people whose backgrounds are different from mine. I walked home wondering what I can do to make my community better. I wish that the news had better highlighted how those in the audience felt a call to be better instead of those people who were trying to pull others down.

I have spent nine years at BYU. First as a closested undergrad, then as an out graduate student, and now as an employee. I have found that most people at BYU are so so good. And when they know better they do better. I’ve encountered a few people who are more interested in talking than in listening and understanding, but they are the minority. As a person of immense privilege, I understand how easy it is to miss my blind spots, but I’m trying hard to be better. One of the ways I try to be better is by elevating the stories of others. I have a painting of Jane Manning James hanging in my office. I tell almost every student who comes to my office about this faithful, black pioneer woman who is my hero. She, like so many others, deserves to be remembered.

I want to thank the courageous women who shared their stories at the panel last week. I’m a richer person because of their stories. And I’m so sorry that there were people in attendance who came to demean instead of be edified. I have no idea what it’s like to be a racial minority at BYU. I don’t know what it’s like to not look like everyone else. I don’t know what it’s like to feel judged because of my race. But I do know what courage looks like. And that’s what I saw in the panelists last week.

Monday, October 21, 2019

There Will Be No Conversion Therapy in Zion

The incomparable Buzz and Ginny Schilaty
In 2007, at the age of 23, my parents became the 5th and 6th people I told that I was attracted to men. They were immediately loving and kind. During our initial conversation my mom asked if I thought it was a phase. I responded, “I hope so.” My dad also said, “Well, you’re probably better off being single because being married is hard.” The next day they brought up the topic again. They thought that the problem was that I’d never really dated anyone, and that if I just had a girlfriend the feelings would go away. Having been on lots of dates I wasn't so sure. I ended the conversation as quickly as I could because I felt like they didn’t get it. Two months later my parents called me. Their bishop had encouraged them to encourage me to see a therapist to change my orientation. I followed their counsel and I went to two conversion therapy sessions. I wrote more details about that experience here

The issue here wasn’t the existence of conversion therapy. The problem was that my parents, their bishop, and I all thought my orientation could be changed. When I said I didn’t want to go to therapy anymore, my parents were extremely supportive. They never brought it up again. And then, years later, when I opened up to them and told them my gay Latter-day Saint story, they finally knew what it was like to walk in my shoes. When they saw into my heart, they knew that trying to change my orientation was not the right thing to do. They have apologized multiple times for encouraging me to go to therapy to change my orientation. They were offering the best solution they had. They were acting with the best of intentions. The existence of conversion therapy wasn’t a problm. The problem was that we all believed my orientation was a phase. 

Last week the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a statement explaining their opposition to “a proposed professional licensing rule governing sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts.” The statement went on to say: “The Church denounces any abusive professional practice or treatment.” The Church didn’t clarify in the statement what these practices or treatments are. However, the therapy arm of the Church, Family Services, issued a very long statement saying they don’t practice conversation therapy or anything like it (anymore). The Church, as an institution, is no longer promoting conversion therapy. But that doesn’t mean that all is well in Zion. 

The root of the problem is that many Latter-day Saints still believe that being LGBT is a choice and a phase and that it is changeable.

I don’t blame any Church member for believing this. I mean, I believed it. I was taught and believed that being gay is a trial. I was taught by Church leaders that it’s an inclination and temptation that won’t exist in the next life. It’s just an affliction of mortality. In my mind, I wasn’t gay, I just wasn’t straight yet. And if I was faithful enough I could be fixed. If not in this life surely in the next. I have a copy of The Miracle of Forgiveness on my shelf right now that says that my same-sex attraction can and should be cured. Many Latter-day Saints still hold on to outdated statements that reflect limited understanding of the issue and are unaware of more current teachings that reflect the further light and knowledge we’ve received. 

President Ballard taught in a CES devotional way back in 2014: "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that 'the experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is. Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them. With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including [those with same-sex attraction] (emphasis added).'” This is a complex reality. This isn’t a choice. We should be reaching out in love to God’s LGBT children. From my experience, the truths taught by President Ballard are not yet understood by many in the Church. This is a problem. 

A very flattering picture of me giving a presentation
I speak about my experience as a gay Latter-day Saint a lot. Fifth Sunday lessons, firesides, trainings, class presentations, this blog. After these events someone will often approach me and say, “I came here today thinking that being gay is a choice. Now I know that it’s not. Thank you.” And then something else happens, but much less frequently. Later that night or the following day I’ll get an email from someone who attended. They’ll tell me that they learned so much from my fireside and thank me for my time. Then they’ll tell me that the Atonement can do anything. That if I just believe enough God will help me to live a happy life. That I can be married to a woman in this life and have a family and be truly happy. I always respond by thanking them for taking the time to write because I know that it comes from a place of sincere kindness. And then, if I have the energy, I’ll respond and try to let them walk in my shoes a bit.

Last week I spoke at a YSA stake FHE. After telling the story of my birth, I said: “I tell this story because people often ask me if I was born gay. I don’t think that’s the right question. I think a better question is, did I come to earth the way God intended me to be? I know that I did. And I believe you came to earth the way God intended you to be, too.” It’s a beautiful thing to feel that you are the way your Heavenly Parents want you to be. And yet, all of us need to change. We all need to be better versions of ourselves. All of us can more fully develop Christlike attributes. 

Last week a gay friend and I shared our stories at another friend’s house. Then we let people ask us questions. My friend and I talked about the November 2015 policy for a few minutes until someone raised his hand to interrupt us to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what the November 2015 policy is.” Then someone else said, “Yeah, I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” I was stunned, quite frankly, that this thing that has affected my life so intensely wasn’t even on their radar. The events of November 5, 2015 are seared into my memory and I spent the next four years talking about them regularly. Why didn’t these people know what the November 2015 policy was? Because it didn’t affect them. It wasn’t about them.

I want conversion therapy to stop. I think for that to happen, members of our community need to really listen to the LGBT people among us and understand our lives and stories. We need to really get to know the people in our lives. Not so we can change them, but because knowing them will change us. If all parents believed that being LGBT isn’t a choice or a phase, then no one would be sending their kids to conversion therapy. Zion is a people of one heart and one mind, a people where we truly see into one another’s hearts and minds. When my parents saw into my heart, they knew conversion therapy was the wrong course for me. I like how Elder Holland put it in October 2015. Speaking of a mother's gay son he said, "And, I must say, this son's sexual orientation did not somehow miraculously change--no one assumed it would. But little by little, his heart changed."

I hope that we will all take time to build Zion by getting to know and understand people who are different than us. I hope that we can listen with a Christlike curiosity. I hope that those who feel marginalized will feel empowered to share their stories and safe enough to do so. I will do everything I can in my sphere of influence to teach and educate anyone who is willing to listen and understand. I am grateful for the many LGBT Latter-day Saints who are sharing their stories with those in their circles of influence. I know that not everyone has the ability to do that like I do. We end conversion therapy by helping people understand our lives. 

Tucson was Zion for me
Usually when I give a presentation I quote Alma 33:23 and then say, “I used to think the Atonement of Jesus Christ was supposed to make me straight, but instead it healed my broken heart.” Let’s focus on what is broken and work as a community to heal.  Broken things like feelings of intense shame, self-loathing, and wishing that death would come soon can be healed. I experienced all of these. After years and years of sincerely trying to change my orientation, I didn’t experience even a small change. But I have learned to be happy and thrive in my God-given circumstances. Good therapy can do that. Good therapy can help people to thrive. But it wasn’t therapy that cured me of my self-loathing. It was being in a community of people who loved me, accepted me, and sincerely sought to understand me. And that community was a community of active Latter-day Saints. It was a community of people that I call Zion.