Wednesday, June 12, 2019

"How Are You Really Doing?"

Five years ago I took a summer job working for a nonprofit in Peru. My colleague Eliana and I ran a volunteer program there. We lived in the same apartment, did projects together, and spent loads of time together. I was super excited to spend a summer having adventures in Peru and planned to brag all about it on my blog. However, I only wrote one post my entire time there because my life quickly unraveled. 

We had just spent hours cleaning and assembling
furniture before the volunteers arrived
During our first week in Peru my best friend who I'd fallen in love with chose to end that relationship. He wanted us to date for real and be boyfriends and I told him that I could only be friends. He then decided that it would be best if we just cut things off. I was devastated. And by “devastated” I mean “crippled by unbelievable pain and sadness.” I didn’t know how I could live life without him. 

With my friends and family a continent away, Eliana became my primary support system. No one else in the whole country knew I was gay except for her. She and I talked extensively about my broken heart and how I didn’t know how to move forward with my life. I told her that I was terrified that I would be perpetually lonely and sad and she listened. Since none of the volunteers knew I was gay, we would talk about my life in Spanish and in code which often made us laugh (“I know I’m supposed to like apples, but I just can’t stop craving oranges”). She was my closest friend at a time in my life when I was more depressed and distressed than I have ever been. She could have told me to just buck up and get over it. She could have called me to repentance for falling in love with a man. She could have preached to me. Instead she just listened while we drank cremoladas and ate chifón

Halfway through the summer I went home early. I felt awful for not finishing my commitment. I felt like I was abandoning Eliana and doubling her work load. And I felt like a failure. I remember looking at my “RETURN WITH HONOR” ring as I was packing and feeling like I was going home an inadequate disappointment. But I had to go home. I was an emotional mess and what I thought would be a fantastic Peruvian adventure had turned into a big pile of sadness. 

Celebrating Peru's independence day last year
Eliana and I had this song that we always sung together called Me voy (it’s a super catchy song that I highly recommend)I don’t know how it became our song, but we’d always sing it to each other and laugh. Right before I left to go to the airport I walked into her room singing that song. The lyrics in English say, “I’m not going to cry and say that I don’t deserve this because I probably do, but I don’t want it.” The words were surprisingly fitting. She was lying on her bed crying and I asked her what she was feeling. She said that she wished things could have been different. Not that I hadn’t come, but that I could have been happier there. She thanked me for always being open and sincere with her and said that that made things easier. She said she wished I could stay, but that she wanted me to do what was best for me. She thanked me for sharing the stresses of the job with her and said that I was a hard worker and that I’d done a good job. I had felt exactly the opposite just before walking into her room. Her tears and honest words bound up my wounds of inadequacy. 

I remember distinctly standing with Eliana in front of our apartment building about to get into a taxi to go to the airport and fly home. She and I had always spoken in Spanish together, but when I hugged her goodbye I said, “I love you, Ely. Thank you,” because the words had just a little more meaning in my native language. And I meant them so much. 

Eliana had every reason to be mad at me. I had given her an extra person to worry about while I was there and then I abandoned her. Yet she always made sure I was okay. In the five years since we worked together we have stayed in touch and remained good friends. Last month we got dinner together and she asked how I was doing. I told her how happy I was and all the cool things I was involved in. Eliana was there in one of the darkest periods of my life back in 2014. Honestly, without exaggeration I think that summer really was the worst time of my life. She experienced my emotional distress firsthand. She’s seen me in a way that most people haven’t. She then asked again, “Really, Ben, how are you really doing?” Eliana really wanted to know that I was okay. She had seen me put on a happy face when I was suffering and sincerely wanted to make sure that I was alright. Feeling her heartfelt love for me that day last month was a gift. She invited me to let go of any pretense and just be who I was with her. Who I am is enough for her. 

I’ve had some friends for whom I was their Eliana. I was the person that they needed to lean on in their darkest moments. Having people let me into their hearts has been such a gift. I leave those moments not feeling overwhelmed or burdened by my friend's problems, but grateful that I was able to be there with them. As I've considered my parting moments with Eliana in Peru, I imagine that heaven will be filled with hugs and people saying "I love you" and "thank you" in the ways that are most meaningful to them. Because there we will all really know each other. 

Friday, April 5, 2019

Reconciling a Changed Policy

I am not in a same-sex relationship. I have no plans to marry a man. I have no children. The November 2015 policy said nothing about gay Latter-day Saints like me. And yet it was unbelievably painful. You see, the hurt came from feeling like the church didn’t want people like me. The hurt came from feeling excluded. The hurt came from recognizing that if I chose to be in a same-sex marriage that I would be erased from my people.

A few people have asked me how I reconcile church leaders saying one thing in 2015 and now saying the opposite in 2019. I’m not going to tell you how to reconcile these things. You’ll need to do your own spiritual and intellectual work for that. But I will show you how I do it.

In the days following the policy release in November 2015 I got so many messages from friends making sure that I knew that I was loved, cared for, and wanted in their church. I wrote about my experience that day in this post. I dutifully recorded many of their names in my journal so that their acts of kindness would be remembered. In the long list of names I included “some random girl who read one of my old blog posts and emailed me.” People were so kind to me.

A few days later I met with the members of the support group I had started two months earlier for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints in Tucson, AZ. We were small back then. Five of us got together that day: an L, a G, a B, and two allies. One of the allies cried as he talked about how painful the new policy felt. I wrote in my journal that week: “I got a little choked up when I commented on how I don’t know what to hope for anymore. My life will be a life without companionship.” Paul, one of the group members, recommended that we share our stories more openly to help people understand the
Me, Paul, and Dianna who were all at that meeting
LGBTQ Latter-day Saint experience. And that’s what we did. The next day I wrote: “I also realized that criticising the Brethren is not the right course of action. The right thing to do is to share how it affects me personally, to tell my story.” And so we talked and shared and hundreds of people in Tucson came to my house and many other homes to hear our stories.

Then in January 2016 when President Nelson called the November 2015 policy revelation I was so confused. The policy had not felt right in my mind or in my heart and having it be called revelation really didn’t sit right with me. But what could I do? I could share my story. And that’s what I did. Again and again.

Two years later President Nelson became the President of the Church. I was uneasy. I was unsettled. Shortly after President Monson’s death a press conference was held with the new First Presidency. I was concerned as I watched it. Some of the things they said did not feel right in my heart. I was troubled and didn’t know what to do. I was so nervous about General Conference and was worried about what would be said about topics that matter a great deal to me. I was not convinced that President Nelson was the right person to lead the church. I needed a witness from the Holy Ghost.

So I got in my car the Saturday morning of conference and drove to a church so I could participate in the Solemn Assembly with other saints, but the church was empty. So I drove to another one and it was locked. And then another one and it was locked, too. By this time I just needed to be somewhere to watch the meeting because it was about to start. So I watched the session on my laptop alone in my bedroom. When the Melchizedek Priesthood holders were asked to stand, I stood up by myself in my room, dressed in a white shirt and tie, and raised my arm to the square to sustain a man that I wasn’t sure I fully trusted. In that moment a wave of the Spirit rushed over me. I felt it in my whole body, but especially in my heart, that he had been called to lead at this time. I sat down and started to weep, grateful for the witness I had been given. And in an exceptionally cheesy moment, two tears landed on my knee and made a heart shape on my pants.

The rest of the conference was amazing and President Nelson’s multiple invitations to the members of the church resonated deeply with me. I had spent three months doubting his call, but now I no longer doubted because the Spirit testified to me that God had called President Nelson to lead the church. Since that day, I have felt the Spirit testify again and again that he is our prophet.

Then yesterday I was sitting in class at BYU when the church announced the reversal of the November 2015 policy. I didn’t know what to do so I stepped out of class and sat down in the hallway. I wanted to feel all my feelings. I felt compelled to say a prayer of gratitude that what I’d been praying for for three years had finally happened. I wanted to cry to just let my emotions out, but they didn’t come.

When I returned to class my teacher allowed me to tell everyone what had been announced. People were shocked and happy and congratulatory and there was joy in the room. I felt all those feelings, too. Throughout the rest of the day I wanted to just deeply feel this experience, but I didn’t. And then last night, as I was writing in my journal, I just began to sob and sob (I believe it’s called “ugly crying”). And this is the memory that finally let me feel my feelings.

After class I sat and talked with a number of my classmates about the announcement and what it meant to have the November 2015 policy reversed. Candi, my 58 year old conservative classmate, gave me a long, long hug and said, “Ben, I want you to know how much I love you and admire you. You have taught me so much.” And then another classmate gave me a hug and told me that the policy had been hard for her, too, and that she was glad we could start to move on. Precious gifts. 

My social work
colleagues are rad
So why did remembering those two hugs finally let me release all my feelings? Because the policy instilled in me a fear that if I made certain choices I would be erased. What I need to know is that I belong. And my classmates made it abundantly clear that I belong in their lives. The Latter-day Saints in my life have made it clear again and again that they love me and claim me.

So what do I do with all of this? What do I do when a church leader says something that doesn’t feel right in my mind and in my heart and yet I feel that he’s been called of God? What do I do when I deeply fear being erased and then I’m embraced and loved? Those aren’t easy questions to answer. But the words of Moroni in Mormon 9:31 resonate with me as I consider these questions: “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.” Moroni made mistakes. Mormon made mistakes. All the ancient American prophets before them made mistakes. Can church leaders make mistakes today, too? I try to not condemn, but instead try to be gracious and patient with their imperfections.

While I am thrilled about the recent change, that happiness is muted by the pain and hurt that my LGBTQ siblings are still experiencing. This dramatic shift in policy doesn’t undo the last three years of pain that many experienced. In fact, it brings it all to the surface again for many people. The hurt is real and it is valid, even if I don’t feel it myself. I don’t get to tell them what they should be feeling, I just try to feel what they’re feeling with them. And isn’t that the point of our baptismal covenants? When someone is mourning we mourn with them. I have celebrated in my heart yesterday and today, and I have mourned with friends.

I live in a world of contradictions. I live in a world where the same news can bring joy and sadness. I live in a world where a church leader can say something that hurts me and yet also believe he is a prophet. I live in world where I can be hurt and embraced by my people. My world is a beautiful world of paradox.

Monday, March 18, 2019

You Are the Resources

My dad asked for a rainbow tie for Christmas.
Ginny and Buzz Schilaty are the best resources in the Church.
Last week I spoke at a workshop on how to minister to our LGBT ward and stake members. During the Q&A I was asked by a bishop what resources the church has for same-sex attracted members. I mentioned the site and then was about to say that the Church really doesn’t have many resources. In an unusually clear moment of inspiration, I knew exactly what to say. I was prompted to say something I’d never said before. 

You are the resources,” I said. “The Lord has placed you in your callings so that you can be the resource for any member who feels marginalized.” And then I requoted a line that I had shared a few minutes before from “The most important thing you can do after a member discloses feelings of same-sex attraction is to listen and help them feel welcome.” The resource I’ve needed the most in my life is to be heard, validated, and understood. 

Another person asked me what I thought the Church’s next steps would be regarding its LGBT members. I said that I had no idea and that it wasn’t my job to say what the Church should or shouldn’t do (and thank goodness for that!). Then I said, “What church leaders do is outside of my sphere of influence, but there is so much I can do within my sphere of influence. And I’m going to work as hard as I can to make my ward and congregation the Zion that it is meant to be and the heaven on earth that I know it can be.” We can all labor in our spheres of influence to build Zion by building up the people around us. 

Here’s a simple example. A few months ago I shared my testimony at church. While I was sitting on the stand waiting for my turn, I felt a small prompting to say, “Good afternoon, sisters and brothers,” and invert the typical “brothers and sisters.” Such a small thing, but I did it. When I sat down a dear friend texted me saying that that gesture had meant so much to her, to know that in the eyes of her Heavenly Parents she doesn’t come second. Such a small thing, but it helped to communicate the message the Holy Ghost had for her that day—we are all alike unto God. We can follow small promptings to assist the Holy Ghost in teaching eternal truths.

The desert is the first place I allowed myself to be me
I’ve been back to visit Tucson a number of times since I moved away in 2017. I rarely went to his house when I lived there, but I always make sure to visit my old stake president when I’m in town. As my stake president, he listened and helped me feel welcome in remarkable ways. With no hyperbole, I can say that he changed my life. The details aren’t important, but the effect for me will be eternal. And so, I make sure he knows what a difference he made in my life by acting in his sphere of influence. I always get emotional when I thank him in person, but I’m compelled to thank him every time for being the resource I needed. 

Another person I always visit and thank is my former Institute teacher. In 2015 he asked me to speak at the weekly Institute devotional about my experiences as a gay Latter-day Saint. That was quite a courageous thing for him to do. As I spoke I said something that I had never before articulated: “I used to think that the Atonement of Jesus Christ would make me straight, but instead it healed my broken heart.” I needed that message that day, and so did other people present. Had Brother Bauer not acted in his sphere of influence to tackle a tough topic, many of us would have missed out on that healing moment. 

A year later I moved into a new ward and was asked to give a talk. Almost no one in the ward knew me. I asked the bishop if I could come out in my talk and he said, “I don’t see why that would be a problem.” So I did. A few hours after church I got an email from someone in the ward I’d never talked to before. It said in part: “I am glad to see your optimism, and your testimony has helped strengthen mine. You will not be forgotten if you stop coming to church. I will miss your presence. If you ever need to talk or hang out or just grab dinner, you are always invited into our home.” I cried as I read those words from a stranger who became a brother. Hyrum was the resource I needed that day. Such a simple thing to send an email to a new member of the ward, but it was exactly what I needed that day. 

I don’t know what you should do in your sphere of influence to be a resource to those who feel marginalized. But God knows. And I can’t think of a prayer that He would be more anxious to answer. I didn’t realize at the time how much I needed that ministering from my friends in Tucson, but I know it now, and our Heavenly Parents knew it all along. That’s why They inspired them to do what they did. I hope we can all have the courage to act in our spheres of influence to be the resources that others need. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Time I Went to Conversion Therapy

Conversion therapy can take a number of forms. The essential premise is that homosexuality is a pathology that can be treated and corrected. While I’m not sure that I would call what I participated in conversion therapy, I did seek counseling to change my sexual orientation. Here’s the story.
In December 2007 I met a girl. In January we started dating. We got along remarkably well and could just talk and talk for hours. Being together made me happy and she quickly became my favorite person. I was 23, in my last semester at BYU, and it felt like life was finally falling into place. After our fourth date I wrote in my journal: “She’s pretty much perfect for me, except that I don’t find her attractive. She’s pretty, but I’m just not that attracted to her. Honestly, today I really wished that I wasn’t me. I finally find an awesome girl that’s interested in me, but I still have SSA (same-sex attraction).”
2008 when I was trying to get rid of my SSA
She was the 6th person I came out to (I kept track back then) and she responded so well. A week later she told her roommate that I was attracted to men, which I had given her permission to do. Her roommate said I should see a therapist about my attractions and my girlfriend agreed that was a good idea. When she told me this I was a little annoyed. There wasn’t anything that could be done to fix me, I thought.
I called my parents and complained about what my girlfriend had suggested. My mom said that she had spoken to their bishop about my SSA and he told her that Provo had the best counselors in the world to help someone overcome SSA. She and my dad recommended I see a therapist, too. I emphatically told them that I didn’t need a counselor to fix me, that if God wanted me to be different He could just answer my prayers and fix me Himself. My dad, who has had awful eyesight his entire life, calmly respond, “Ben, God could fix my eyes if He wanted to, but instead He gave me glasses.”
The next day a close friend called me and out of the blue said I should see a therapist about my attractions. Five people in two days had recommended the same thing to me. It felt like a sign. So I set up an appointment with a therapist for the following week. I wasn’t thrilled about going, but I was hopeful. I wrote in my journal: “What if this is my chance?” I had enough hope to believe that it could work.
It was my first time ever in a therapist’s office. I filled out what felt like stacks of papers. I wrote on one form that I wanted to become attracted to women and not men. When I walked into the therapist’s office, nervous and unsure, he glanced at what I’d written on the form and said, “Well, this is easy to fix,” and set the form down in a nonchalant way that felt dismissive of the gravity of the situation.
My impression of therapy from TV and movies was that I would constantly be asked, “And how does that make you feel?” That’s not how this was at all. He normalized my attractions by walking me through the different parts of male and female bodies that make them attractive to people. I said very little in the session and I felt extremely uncomfortable. He used words to describe the female anatomy that a gay and naïve Latter-day Saint like me had never heard. I wrote in my journal that day: “He also said that a lot of SSA is environmental and that it can be changed. I don’t know how to feel about that because I can’t think of anything that caused this. Basically, he wasn’t helpful.”
The previous year, before coming out to anyone, I had scoured the BYU library for books about what causes same-sex attraction and how to correct it. There were multiple books and I was certain I’d find an answer in them. I was so afraid that if I checked out one of the books that they would be forever linked to my name so I read them in the library. I’d sit in a study carrel with a few other books so if someone I knew walked by I could quickly conceal the books about the causes of homosexuality under books about Latin America. Then when I was done, I’d carefully reshelf the books and come back later. Going through these books in the quiet corners of the library became an obsession as I neglected school assignments to find answers.
I started this study with aspirations that I could find a way to fix this, because I had to fix it. But then I got really confused. The books discussed multiple causes of same-sex attraction. An overbearing mother and a distant father. Early sexual abuse. A desire to have close relationships with men that became sexualized at puberty. A failure to connect to one’s masculine side. Besides being bad at sports, none of the causes mentioned in the books described my life. So I had already dismissed these theories in my own head when my therapist explained that homosexuality was a learned behavior.
At the end of my first session the therapist told me that we would really get to work in the next session. So a week later I went back. He talked almost the entire session explaining how I had developed a thought pattern of seeing an attractive man and ruminating on his attractiveness. I needed to stop doing that, he said. And instead, whenever I felt aroused to think of the beautiful aspects of a woman’s body. That was the answer. I just needed to train my brain to find women attractive.

He gave me some homework that made me feel really uncomfortable and I left the office and scheduled a third session because I didn’t have the courage to tell him I didn’t want to come back. I called the secretary later that day to cancel the appointment. I never went back. I wrote in my journal that day: “I felt pretty lousy afterward. I had put a lot of hope into this and it ended up being an uncomfortable waste of time.”

I wish instead of trying to change my sexuality, my therapist and I had discussed my values. I wish we had discussed the things that are most important to me that guide my decisions. I wish we had talked about the importance of daily bread and living in the present moment. I wish we had talked about acceptance and self-nurturing. I wish we had worked to remove my shame. I wish we had talked about the desire I had to die so I wouldn't have to be gay anymore. There are so many things we could have done that could have helped so much.
23 year old me wishing I was straight
I consider it one of the great blessings of my life that I stopped after two sessions. And I’m so grateful that when I told everyone who had recommended I go to therapy that I had decided to stop that they all supported me in that decision. My parents have apologized a number of times for encouraging me to go.
I don’t know what would have happened if I had continued going, but I’m glad I didn’t. I know that I felt awful after both sessions. I wonder how I would have felt after 12 or 20 such sessions. I wonder what it would have done to me to dutifully do the homework I’d been given and see no change in my orientation. I wonder what it would have been like to be told again and again that change was possible, but that I just wasn’t doing it right or trying hard enough. I imagine that would have done some damage.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I think what saved me was the way I was raised. My parents were so loving and involved in my life that the notion that they caused my homosexuality by being distant or overbearing rang so hollow that I never considered it. I knew intuitively to reject that being sexually abused as a child made me gay because I hadn’t been. Had I not been so lucky, maybe I would have spent years in therapy blaming my parents for my orientation. But that didn’t happen to me.
The thing I find most remarkable about my story is that when I told my parents and friends I wasn’t going back to therapy, they were all supportive of my decision. No coercion. No “just give it a little longer.” They honored my agency and walked my path with me. I’m the lucky one.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Creating Sacred Spaces

There are 40 people in my social work cohort at school. 40 people who I’m in class with all the time. 40 people who are some of my closest friends. And I’m the only gay one. Or so I thought.
I share the following story with permission. In class on Thursday one of my classmates came out to 20 of us in the middle of class. It was unexpected and seemingly came out of nowhere. I was pretty shocked, actually. The teacher later said that he saw my jaw literally drop at the announcement (which isn't my most attractive facial expression). In the minutes after this student’s disclosure we had a beautiful conversation about why they decided to share this information with the class. Why they chose to go from four people in their life knowing this secret to suddenly 24. I thanked this student for sharing their heart with us and told them that they were brave and courageous. This classmate mentioned multiple times how my being open had helped them so much to be okay with their sexuality.

Image result for JFSB
Our classroom in the Joseph Fielding Smith
Building is sacred space to me
I don’t know if anyone else in the class noticed, but I started to get really emotional as I sat in my chair. Part of me was so grateful that I had been a help to this person. Another part of me ached so badly at the same time. One thing my classmate said was that they previously didn’t feel it was okay to discuss their sexuality. They didn’t have permission to do so. And I thought about all the people I know who have felt similarly and the pain that that loneliness and isolation causes. And then I thought about the 15 months my classmate and I had sat in the same room together and I had no idea, not even a clue, that they were fighting an internal battle the entire time. And it struck me how many people are dealing with things that they feel they don’t have permission to talk about.
During the discussion, another class member told the class that we were on sacred ground. That having this conversation created a sacred space. And it did feel sacred. It felt holy and real, like we were building heaven on earth. It led me to wonder why it is that when we open our hearts we create sacred spaces.

Here’s a piece of my heart; a sacred space.
I recently really liked a guy. The most I’ve liked a guy in years. I didn’t tell many people about this. I assumed that I would get two responses if I told people I had a super huge crush on a guy. My churchy friends would warn me that I was on a dangerous path and should be careful. My not-so-churchy friends would tell me to stop letting my church hold me back and to just live my life. And so the people I did tell were people that I knew wouldn’t tell me what to do, but would just want to be with me on my journey.
This guy and I became fast friends and I loved having him in my life. I felt like maybe, just maybe we could be super awesome best friends and I’d have someone I could platonically share my life with. I remember sitting with him on my front porch when the nights were still warm and just talking about our days. I thought to myself, this is exactly what I’ve been yearning for. He and I never held hands, or kissed, or anything like that, but I thought that maybe I could be his person and he’d be my person. But that’s not what happened at all.

I want someone who loves me
 as much as this cat does
I told one of my older and wiser gay friends how stupid I felt about the whole thing. “I know better,” I said. “I don’t get to have a special someone and I know better than to think I can. I’m so stupid.” He immediately corrected me. He told me that I can’t pretend like I don’t have a heart. I’m a human and we’re divinely wired for connection. “You have a heart,” he said, “and it’s good to be reminded of that from time to time.”
I often tell people: “I used to think the Atonement of Jesus Christ was supposed to make me straight, but instead it healed my broken heart.” And that is so true. My feelings of brokenness and internalized shame because of my sexuality are gone. My heart doesn’t feel broken or filled with holes anymore. It feels healed and complete. But something is definitely missing, something that I can’t fix on my own. And I don’t know how that will all be made right, but I know that it will.
The thing that is missing is a lack of connection. Yes, I have so many wonderful friends and family members. I’m one of the least alone people I know. But there’s a role that friends can’t fulfill. I know that this lack of connection isn’t unique to gay Latter-day Saints. There are plenty of married people who feel disconnected, too. It’s common to the human condition. What I wish I had was the opportunity to truly connect my heart with another person’s, to knit my heart with theirs.

Over the past few days I’ve been thinking of what Jesus did when He visited the Nephites. After telling them that they were weak and not yet ready to receive all the words He wanted to teach them, He invited the multitude to bring any who were sick and afflicted to Him and He would heal them. The people, who had just been told they were weak, were told that their faith was sufficient that they could be healed. They “did go forth with their sick and their afflicted, and their lame, and with their blind, and with their dumb, and with all them that were afflicted in any manner; and he did heal them every one as they were brought forth unto him” (3 Nephi 17:9).

I hiked a mountain by myself last week. I witnessed many
 people helping their companions up the toughest  terrain.
Christ healed those who were both weak and faithful. I find this scene and the two adjectives He uses to describe the multitude incredibly beautiful, but what has struck me recently is that they were brought to Him. I’ve been asking myself two questions: What does it look like to bring my afflicted loved ones to Christ? What does it look like to allow myself to be brought to Him? And I wonder, can this yearning for a partner I feel so frequently be lessened or erased as I develop a strong connection with the Savior?

The people in 3 Nephi 17 performed roles that created different kinds of healing. There were the physically strong who literally carried the physically weak to Jesus. As the physically weak were healed, their testimonies of the Savior grew in ways different than those who hadn’t needed to be physically healed. What did it do for the physically strong to carrying the physically weak to the Savior to be healed? I can imagine the formerly physically weak, now spiritually strong, sharing their testimonies with those who hadn’t been physically healed. The spiritually strong were then able to strengthen those who Christ had described as weak. Through this shared experience everyone who was weak in some way was strengthened. They brought each other to Christ.

A knitted rainbow heart from my buddy Liza
Part of the emotion I felt on Thursday in my class was healing. Over the last 15 months my classmates and I have created an environment of trust, one so strong that a classmate felt comfortable disclosing something so personal. It was this person’s vulnerability and trust in us that created the sacred space we felt. I was brought to the Savior that day as I witnessed a measure of healing in my vulnerable classmate. And hopefully they were brought to the Savior as the rest of the class listened and did our best to help them feel welcome. Now this classmate doesn’t have to walk the path alone. We will all do it together. And when there is a burden, it will be lighter because we will bear it together. And when there is rejoicing, it will be more profound because we will rejoice together. Our hearts were knit together that day. Trust and vulnerability knit hearts together.
On the day when I realized my friendship with this guy couldn’t be what I wanted it to be, I made a lunch that I accidentally left at home. I got to work feeling even dumber than I’d already felt. I mentioned how stupid I felt for leaving my lunch at home to a coworker and then without telling me, she drove home and packed me a delicious lunch. I wrote in my journal that night: “It was such a Christlike thing to do on a day that I really needed it.” By making me lunch, my colleague brought me to Christ that day.
I’ve been alive for 34 years. I still have a lot of living and growing to do. I don’t have a lot of things figured out. But one thing I do believe I know is that at some future day, and maybe in the next life, I’ll look back on my life and think, “Wow! So that’s how the Lord did it. That’s how He shaped me into the person I was meant to be. I couldn’t have planned it better myself.” And I will rejoice. It’s easy for me to believe this will happen because when I look back on my 34 years that’s already how I feel. My faith in God and my hope for a better world compel me to believe that there are brighter days ahead filled with peace, love, and connection.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Carrying One Another’s Crosses

I get a lot of phone calls from struggling gay Latter-day Saints. I got two such phone calls last night. And sometimes, like last night, I do a terrible job. My message to both friends was, “Get it together. Suck it up. Who cares what other people think?” Not the message they needed. And I know better. I could blame my poor responses on being tired and busy, which I most certainly was. But both of them were expressing feelings I often experience. Feeling hurt by a system that often acts like it doesn’t have a place for us.

A friend of mine in a YSA stake in Provo recently shared a poignant story with me. Each semester the leaders in his stake host a Q&A and invite members to submit questions. I’m sure you can anticipate the kinds of questions that get asked. How do I know when to get married? How do I know what to study? I am struggling with pornography, how can move past this? The stake presidency and stake relief society presidency spend the entire meeting answering these questions.

My friend submitted the following question: I experience same-sex attraction. I feel unwelcome at times in this church, feeling like I am seen as something less or different. How can I know that I am accepted in this church and in this gospel?

I know that feeling.

I asked this friend if he’d write out what happened so I could share it. He wrote in part:

I approached the meeting with apprehension and excitement. Anonymously I had revealed a critical part of myself, which was a little stressful. I was excited because I hoped they would respond and give me an answer to my question.

The meeting went on as normal, with the stake leaders providing great answers. My question came up and a member of the stake presidency elected to answer it. During previous questions and in this answer he emphasized that we were called to bear one another's burdens. He stated more than once that he believed our personal crosses had handles on them. Designed so that we could help one another and relieve burdens. He invited us all to carry the burdens of those who experience same-sex attraction. He sat down and I thought it was a good answer.

The meeting continued as normal, with questions asked and answers given. After another leader had finished giving answers, the stake presidency member who had answered my question got back up. He stated something like this:

“I feel like I did not adequately answer the question of the brother with same-sex attraction. We are each called to bear one another’s burdens. We are called to bear this brother’s burden. If you are willing to bear this brother’s burden then please stand in support. Show you will bear his burden.”

I remember looking in awe as each member in this giant chapel stood in support of me. They stood in support of my burdens and their willingness to accept and support me. We sat down moments later but this moment has stuck with me for years. They stood in support of me, an individual, a single person.

I love that story. I wish every person who feels marginalized could have a similar experience. I wish my friends on the phone could have that experience. Now, I want to be clear that I don’t think experiencing same-sex attraction is a burden. But being gay and being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be a huge burden. I’ve already written plenty in previous posts about how hard it can be. But it really is so hard sometimes.

Both of my friends on the phone had recently spoken to church leaders who were rather dismissive of their life circumstances. Both friends were incredibly emotional as we talked. And in both cases I tried to fix their problems which was exactly the wrong thing to do. If I had to do it over again, I would have done a better job of just listening. I would have asked questions and just listened to their pain. And there probably would have been times when I would have said, “Yeah, I’ve felt like that, too.” I failed to take a handle of their cross.

And if I could get an ideal do-over, I wish I could talk to those church leaders, too. I wish they knew how much they had hurt my friends that night, because I’m sure that wasn’t their intent. And they probably have no idea of the hurt they caused. Like them, I most often hurt people when I don’t mean to. When we carry another’s cross, we don’t dismiss its weight or say it’s not a big deal. When you carry another's cross, you get a sense for just how heavy it is.

Two weeks ago there was a superb forum at BYU that I attended. Bryan Stevenson told the audience that we need to get close to people that are different from us. A few hours later I got to class early. The only other person there was my classmate Elizabeth who had recently mentioned in class that she was a DACA student. Inspired by the forum, I asked Elizabeth what it was like to be a DACA student. She then told me a bunch of stories including that she was brought to the US from Mexico as a baby and didn’t know she was undocumented until she was 15. My heart expanded as Elizabeth unfolded her life story to me. And then she said, “You’re the only person besides my husband and family who knows any of this. No one else has bothered asked.” An hour later when class was over, Elizabeth turned to me as she walked out the door, “Thank you for asking about my life. It means a lot to me.”

Do you want to know what a saint Elizabeth is? She later saw on Facebook that I was going to an event for LGBTQ BYU students. She messaged me and asked if she could come with me. Of course! I was so thrilled she wanted to come! I had stepped into her shoes and now she wanted to step into mine. What a gift.

I don’t have the answers. I don’t know what the practical application of carrying one another’s cross will look like. But what I do know is that we need to do better. I need to do better. Too many hearts are breaking for us to not be so much better. So much of what I see happening feels so unfair. And in my moments of frustration, I do what I can to lean on the Savior knowing that all that is unfair about life will be made right through Him.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Listen with Christlike Curiosity

My friend Josh called me last year when I was still living in Tucson. He asked me what he should say when someone says something unkind about the LGBTQ community at church. He didn’t want to make things uncomfortable or confrontational, but he also didn’t want misinformed comments to go unaddressed. I thought for a second and said, “You tell them that you have a friend named Ben who is gay and that you love him like a brother.” And then I got a little emotional knowing that that’s exactly what Josh would do. 

A few months ago, I gave a lesson on same-sex attraction in a ward that I’m not a member of. During the lesson, someone asked a question similar to Josh’s. “What can I do to support gay members of the Church?” I get asked this a lot, but hadn’t found a satisfying answer. I answered that question the way I usually do. “I don’t know what you should do,” I said, “but the Holy Ghost knows. Pray about this question and spend time pondering it and you’ll know what to do. And then courageously follow the promptings you receive.” 

I’ve heard a lot of people answer the same question by saying, “Just love everyone.” That’s great and true, but vague and hard to know how to put into practice. I could tell that the people asking that question wanted some practical guidance. Wanting a better answer, I reached out to some friends who are wiser than me. Kendall gave me a beautiful answer. 

Kendall said to “tell them to seek out and really listen to LGBTQ+ people. Go out of their way to find the LGBTQ+ voices and stories and listen. Digest them. Cultivate empathy for them with curiosity and wonder; asking open and honest follow-up questions to better understand. Do not try to fix, save, persuade, debate, teach, counsel, challenge or change them. Let their lived realities sink into their bones so that they have a visceral familiarity with what it is like to be LGBTQ+ and Mormon. And then brace themselves for the dissonance they will surely feel.”

If it was heard to digest that advice in paragraph form, here’s what you can do in bullet point form:
·     Seek out LGBTQ+ people
·     Listen to their stories
·     Cultivate empathy with curiosity and wonder
·     Ask open and honest follow-up questions
·     Don’t try to save or fix or counsel or change
·     Let their realities sink into you
·     And then see how you feel

Mitch and Emilie were among the first four people I came out
to 11 years ago. They've been listening with Christlike
curiosity ever since. 
Kendall gave one more piece of advice. He said, “It all starts with humble Christlike curiosity.” Isn’t that beautiful? Christlike curiosity. The kind of curiosity that leads you to really get to know someone and walk in their shoes. The kind of curiosity that leads to understanding. The kind of curiosity that expands your soul as you enter into another’s reality. 

Last week Stephen W. Owen, Young Men General President, said this at a BYU devotional: “When you and I were baptized, we entered ‘the fold of God.’ We became ‘his people.’ And that means we ‘are willing to bear one another’s burdens, . . . to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort’ (Mosiah 18:8–9). In other words, when we joined this church, we pledged that we would no longer be concerned only about our own comfort and problems. We committed to uniting with a people who take care of each other.” Part of building Zion is becoming a people of one heart. In order for Zion to be fully established I need to understand what’s in your heart and you need to understand what’s in mine.

I am extremely open about my story, and I really appreciate when those in my life approach me with Christlike curiosity to get a glimpse of what it’s like to be me. Other people are much more private and it is important that we respect their choice to not share their stories. That said, I am so grateful for the people in my life who have employed their Christlike curiosity to better understand me. 

One of those people was my bishop last year. When I came out to him in our very first meeting he asked, “What do I need to know and understand so I can serve you better?” Since this was only a five minute get-to-know-you meeting he asked if he could take me to lunch to understand my situation better. He has taken me to lunch four times since then and I left each of those conversations feeling loved, understood, included, and edified. My journal has many entries expressing my gratitude for my good bishop who followed the counsel of President Ballard: “We need to listen to and understand what our LGBT brothers and sisters are feeling and experiencing. Certainly, we must do better than we have done in the past so that all members feel they have a spiritual home where their brothers and sisters love them and where they have a place to worship and serve the Lord.” President Ballard has invited us to be better. I know that we will be better because we must be better. And we will be better as we listen more.