Tuesday, September 5, 2017

One Size Doesn't Fit All

Since I came out on my blog more than two years ago I’ve been sent Josh Weed’s blog post dozens of times. In the post he and his wife Lolly discuss why a gay man and straight woman would choose to get married. It’s a really great post. Josh is very explicit in the post that this is their story and no one else’s. He wrote, “I want to make it very clear that while I have found a path that brings me profound joy and that is the right path for me, I don’t endorse this as the only path for somebody who is gay and religious. I will never, ever judge somebody else’s path as being ‘incorrect’ and I know many people who have chosen different paths than myself.” However, my friends who forward me this post often send a note that says, “See! You can marry a woman! Josh did it so you can, too!” I occasionally hear of people sending my posts to other gay Mormons as a way to correct them or to tell them that they should be living like me. "See! Ben's living his life as a single gay man and you can, too!" This does not make me happy.
Am I really a good model for how to live? I mean,
I regularly travel with this hooligan.

A very good friend of mine is gay, in a loving relationship with his boyfriend, and no longer believes in or attends the LDS church. I’m also friends with his mom. One time he told me, “You’re everything my mom wishes I would be.” Hearing that broke my heart. He knows he’s disappointing her, but he’s just living his life the way he feels is best and his mom wishes he were more like me. This does not make me happy.

There are lots of gay Mormon stories that get passed around on the internet. A video of two lesbians who got divorced so they could be members of the church recently got a lot of attention. I watched the video and I thought it was touching and powerful. They were very explicit in the video that this was their story and no one else’s. They were not recommending that other couples do what they have done. One of them even said that it would be ignorant to think that there is a black and white answer for every gay Mormon. I love what one of them shared, “The only thing that really matters is your relationship with your Heavenly Father and taking advantage of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.” And yet, they are being looked to as examples and their story is being shared with gay friends of mine who are seeking same-sex relationships. They’re being told, “Look at what will happen if you get gay married. You’ll just end up getting divorced.” I wish that the people who saw that video could also read some of my friend Laura Root's stories about being active in the church and being married to woman. Her journey is different and equally as beautiful. 

When I hear powerful stories at church I often think, “Oh, I wish Sister so-and-so could hear this story. It would help her a lot.” What I try to do, instead of projecting these stories onto someone else’s life, is put myself in that person’s shoes and think of what I would do in that situation. If I were married and being faithful meant getting a divorce would I do that? Would I do what the women in the video did? Now put yourself in my shoes for a moment. What would you do if you were a gay Mormon like me? Would you swear off romantic love and move forward as a single person like I have? Or would you choose a different path? We gay Mormons have some tough decisions to make and I hope that instead of telling us what to do that you take some time to really, truly empathize with us.

I don’t want people to live like me. I don’t want to be anyone’s model for how to live. And I would be highly annoyed if anyone used my story as a template for how their gay loved one should live. That said, I still feel it’s important to share my story, but I don’t do it so that others will live how I do. Perhaps I should have been more explicit about that. I share my story because I felt prompted to do so and I will continue sharing. I hope that anyone who has chosen a different lifestyle doesn't take my story as an attack on theirs. There is plenty of room for a diversity of opinions and choices. 

Do you really think people should live like me?
I make questionable choices like hugging saguaros
When I talk to gay Mormons who are struggling I almost always tell them two things. First, they can’t make decisions based on fear. They should choose their path based on hope and faith. Second, they should stay close to the Spirit and courageously follow the promptings they receive. That’s what I try to do and it has led me to a happy, thriving life. But I do not think that my path is the path for everyone. It is my own and no one else’s.  

If you have a gay loved one and you’re worried about the path they’re taking please, please, please don’t use another gay Mormon’s story to tell them how they should live. May I suggest an alternative? In 2 Peter 1, Peter lists nine Christlike attributes: diligence, faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity. I’m kind of surprised that humility didn’t make the list, but whatever, it’s Peter’s list. Then he says: “For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:8). Isn’t that awesome?! I love the idea that being patient brings me to the Savior and that being diligent increases my knowledge of Him.

It wouldn’t take long to find an active member of the LDS church that is seriously lacking in these Christlike attributes (I mean, we could all do better). Nor would it take long to find someone who isn’t Mormon who exemplifies these qualities. I believe that becoming like Jesus is what life is all about and, for me, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the vehicle that I have felt called to to help me develop these traits and build Zion. I worry that sometimes we focus too much on activity in the church as the end goal (i.e. feeling sad when someone has “left the church”) when someone could be active in church and be a terrible, miserable person. And if anyone, in or out of the church, exemplifies the attributes of charity or patience or temperance, shouldn’t we rejoice in that? I hope so.

If you’ve read any of my other posts I hope you’ve noticed that I try to highlight the people in my life who do something right, who behave in Christlike ways. They are the heroes of my story because they act as I believe the Savior would. I hope you’ve seen LeAnne’s charity, Carl’s humility, Craig’s brotherly kindness, my parents’ faith, Paul’s diligence, and my new bishop’s godliness. So please don’t use my story as a model for how to be a gay Mormon. Please don’t use it to tell someone that they should be living like I do. If you’re going to point your gay loved ones to an example of how to live, please just point them to Jesus (I know, I know, I'm being super cheesy, but it's true).

If your gay loved one chooses to attend church then I would be thrilled to have them sit next to me on the pew. And if they choose not to attend church then I would love to have them sit next to me in some delicious Thai restaurant. Whatever path they choose, I hope the people in my life know that I will walk with them. I also hope that whatever path they choose they develop Christlike attributes along the way. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

I Will Not Go Back in the Closet

Last week I stopped by BYU Pack and Ship to mail a letter. As I rifled through my backpack looking for exact change I told the cashier that I just needed to find a quarter. Because of my unavoidable loud voice an attractive woman behind me overheard and offered me a quarter. I turned around and politely declined her offer while we both exchanged smiles. We said a few more words and it seemed like she was flirting with me (which I could totally be wrong about). I found the money and paid the cashier. Then my newly reactivated BYU student instincts kicked in and I casually glanced behind me at the girl’s left hand. No wedding ring. Conclusive evidence that by offering me a quarter she had definitely been flirting. As I walked away I patted myself on the back thinking, I still got it!

This is me saying, "Wait, I moved where?"
I moved back to Provo last week and so much has changed in the six years since I last lived here. I’m 33 now, I look more like a professor than a student, food trucks became a thing in Provo, and I’m gay now. I mean, obviously I was gay when I lived here before, but only a handful of people in town knew that back then. It was a carefully guarded secret. This little experience with the quarter girl reminded me of how I was able to successfully (mostly) pass as straight during my time at BYU. A deep voice and a lack of fashion sense are super-helpful if you want to come off as a straight man.

Everything changed in Tucson in January 2015 when I came out on my blog. As I stopped lying and started to be honest about my sexuality it became common knowledge that I was gay. Everyone in my last ward knew I was gay and I just started expecting everyone to know. It was wonderful and freeing and it was surprising when someone didn’t know. So coming back to Provo where almost no one knows my former secret has felt weird. And having heard a number of horror stories of people being treated poorly in Utah I was a little unsure of what to do. Adding to that worry, a few people explicitly warned me that Provo would not be as welcoming as Tucson and that I should be judicious with whom I told. I decided that it would be best to get to know people first so that being gay wouldn’t be “my thing” and then once people knew me I’d just come out when it came up organically.

A few nights ago I was talking to my roommate who I just met last week. He mentioned having a girl over earlier in the day. My natural reaction was to immediately pry and asked, “Are you in love with her? Did you kiss her face?” but if I turned the conversation towards dating then he might ask me about my dating life. And what if he felt uncomfortable living with a gay guy? What would I do then? I decided to steer the conversation away from dating to avoid any awkwardness. I was afraid of how coming out might affect this new friendship and that’s a fear I hadn’t felt for a long time. 

Then at church on Sunday I was filling out one of those get to know you forms for new members. The last question on the form was: Is there anything you’d like us to know about you? Here I was in a brand new ward where I only knew one person in a super conservative place in the heart of Mormondom. I hesitated for a moment thinking it might be best to not disclose my sexuality so early before people got to know me. Then I remembered what Carol Lynn Pearson had said at LoveLoud the night before. She recited a poem she had written for the event about how a butterfly cannot return to its chrysalis. I considered what that meant for me and then scribbled the words “I’m gay” on the form. 

After the meeting two members of the Welcoming Committee (yep, that’s a thing in my new ward) came over to talk to me. I knew they hadn’t seen the form yet so I considered playing straight just to not make them feel uncomfortable, but as they asked about why I was studying social work and what I wanted to do with that degree it just naturally came out. They were both super cool about it. One of them had attended LoveLoud the night before and had loved it. He said it would be so great to have an out gay person at church. The other one was bummed she hadn’t gone to LoveLoud, but said she was happy to have me in the ward and asked if she could take me to lunch to ask me a few questions. I was super relieved. 

Then after church I met with my bishop. I had considered not coming out to him when we first met so that he could get to know me first, but I came out to him anyway. And he responded in the best possible way. He asked some great questions and I told him about my blog and the things I’d been doing in Tucson. He pulled up my blog on his laptop right then and said he’d read it. My main worry about coming out to my bishop was that he wouldn’t want to recommend a gay man to be a temple worker. So when I expressed interest in being a temple worker and he said, “I would feel 100% comfortable recommending you as a temple worker,” I was over the moon. 

We didn’t have a lot of time to chat because he had other interviews after me, but he asked if he could take me out to lunch so we could chat more. I replied, “Of course! Free lunch to talk about gay stuff is, like, my favorite thing!” So even if everyone ends up feeling weird around me because I’m gay at least I’m getting free lunches out of it. The bishop then said, “I have one last question. What do you need me to know and understand so that I can serve you better?” What a beautiful question! In the few minutes we spoke it was evident that my new bishop is sincerely trying to serve in a Christlike way and the cynical part of me was pleasantly surprised. He didn't offer any council, he just listened, learned, and empathized. I walked out of the church building a few minutes later invigorated by the Spirit and stunned that things had gone so well. I got in my car and literally shouted for joy and said a prayer of thanksgiving as I drove away. I just couldn’t believe that it had gone so well.

Leaving Tucson last Monday broke my heart. I remember sitting in the Tucson Temple two weeks ago and having an overwhelming feeling that I was among my people. Then at the LoveLoud Festival in Orem I had the same feeling that I was with my people. I felt that same Spirit again as I left my new church building on Sunday. I’m coming to understand that for me to feel like I belong, the people around me have to really know me. There are a lot of people I have yet to meet in Provo and they are going to know the real me. I will not go back into the closet.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

A Letter to Gay Mormons

This is my second guest post. It was written by a friend of mine who wanted to share his thoughts while also remaining anonymous. He and I met through a mutual friend about six months ago. When we first spoke on the phone I was only the third person to learn he was gay. We chatted for about an hour and at the end of the conversation I asked him what I could do to help. He said, "It'd be really nice to talk once a week." I readily agreed knowing how much I was helped by friends who were willing to talk things through with me. We have stayed in close contact since then and even though we don't live near each other we've become close friends. He's new to sharing his journey and I'm pleased to be able to share some of his thoughts here. If you'd like to contact him, you can email him at gay.mormon.anon@gmail.com. Here's what he wrote:

This is a letter to gay Mormons, especially those still in the closet, and even more especially those in denial—you know who you are. I was one of you until very recently.

Dear My Fellow Gay Mormon,

First, I want to tell you that I love you. I don’t know you, and I love you. We are in this together. We will walk this life side-by-side. God loves you, and I love you. Please don’t give up hope. There is so much joy for the taking, and we will find it together, buckets and buckets of it!

But this doesn’t answer many of your questions and problems, does it? Believe me, I could lead my own tour through your bone-crushing loneliness and ossified sense of shame. It isn’t easy to be us, is it? I’ve also cried gallons of nighttime tears, when nobody could see, thinking of the spouseless evenings and childless mornings that will reward me for staying true and faithful to my covenants. However, I have found that focusing on what I can’t have is an exercise in madness. Please join me as we walk through some of the little glimmers of good given to those who have hope and faith.

God loves you. I can’t answer for you why He allowed you to be gay—why couldn’t He have tweaked some gene or hormone in the womb or psychological reaction to avoid this?—but He did, and He hasn’t changed you to be straight (despite your prayers), so for some reason it’s His will that you remain homosexual. We may as well accept it. There is a purpose for this. I suspect it’s for the same purpose as most things, which is to give you the opportunity to serve in a unique capacity. So, take it up with the Father. Ask Him why He allowed this to happen. Go to the temple. Take a drive into the desert or the canyon or the fields. Yell at him. Rage! He can take it. I promise if you do this, you will feel His love if you’ll allow Him to show you. It will be good for you. Somehow, the Love of God can cure a lot of things, including shame and loneliness.

Remember that God is bigger than the Church, and the Church is bigger than its people. Just because a bishop or stake president or mom or apostle or well-meaning high councilor says or does insensitive things doesn’t mean that God agrees with them. It doesn’t mean it’s the Church’s official position. Remember, they’re trying their best, and no mortal’s best will ever be good enough. Return to them the charity you expect in return. You will sleep better at night.

The Brethren are aware of us. I know this personally. I recently met with a member of the Twelve and another general authority, and I can assure you: they pray for us, cry with us, and want us to have a place in the Church . They are working to set a place for us at the Lord’s banquet, which has blessings that exceed all expectations. They are actively seeking revelation on how to help their gay brothers and sisters. They know they have treated gays wrongly in the past, and they are repenting and improving just like the rest of us (Sure, you could argue that they can be a little tone deaf at times. But they're certainly not malicious.). The media and ex-Mormon community are incorrect in their portrayals of the Brethren. I am a firsthand witness.

If you, like I was, are terrified to come out, I promise this: you will be shocked at the love you feel from all the important people in your life. I hear you talk about girls and dating and marriage, always hedging around as to why someone as eligible as you isn’t married. I feel your pain of going on dates, even dating seriously, and just not “feeling it.” I’ve been there. I dated some awesome girls, too. I promise that if you come out, this huge stress in your life will disappear, and you will be instantly happier. Just do it! I waited 27 years to come out. I wish I had done it earlier. It will be good for you, I promise, and I give you that as an absolute guarantee. If it’s too hard to tell your parents and close friends, tell somebody on the periphery of your life that you know loves you. The first time is the hardest. It gets easier. I also promise that your life will change in wonderful, unexpected ways. Don’t be afraid! It’s time.

Perhaps most importantly, focus on the present. Don’t worry about the future, bleak as it may seem. Experience joy here and now! If you can be happy right now, don’t ruin it thinking about an unhappy future. I assure you—and I’m mainly reassuring myself here—that we can find happiness wherever we are and in the most unexpected places. Adam fell that we might have joy, and that means you can find it right now.

So, my dear, dear friend, my darling, my deeply-loved fellow gay: Love others. Serve God. Be happy. If you do this, you will change hearts in the Church, and you will change the world.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Conversation I Wish We Were Having

I spent the last week in Cincinnati grading Spanish AP tests. My week was spent hanging out with friends, exploring the city, endlessly grading papers, and watching people cast figurative stones on the internet.

On an evening stroll in downtown Cincinnati
I wasn’t on social media much this past week, but when I did get on I saw the same video pop up again and again of a 12-year-old girl who came out to her ward by reading some prepared remarks during testimony meeting. A priesthood leader asked Savannah to sit down before she finished her testimony. This video has been extremely polarizing. I’ve seen people casting stones at the leader for not allowing Savannah to be her authentic, courageous self. And I’ve seen people casting stones at Savannah and her parents for doing something that they feel was inappropriate. The media reported on the story largely painting the church in a bad light while Fair Mormon posted an article highlighting everything Savannah did wrong.

I’m not at all interested in debating the rightness or wrongness of what happened in that meeting here. The finger pointing, the blaming, and the stone throwing are unproductive. Blaming is easy. Pulling people down is easy. Finding fault is easy. Let’s be better than that. I wish that instead of all the blame, that as a faith community we could discuss the heart of the issue. Consider the following questions:

Why would a church member who experiences same-sex attraction want to share that information with their ward family?

Can a ward benefit if a member comes out to them? 

What is the appropriate way for a gay person to come out to their ward?

How should ward members respond when members publicly disclose feelings of same-sex attraction?

I’d like to share three stories about how I came out to three different wards. I don’t offer these as examples or templates, but they can illustrate how things can go right.  

Elders Quorum

When I was 30 I posted my coming out post on my blog. A few days later I was teaching Elders Quorum in my singles ward. When I began the lesson I had no intention of telling my quorum that I was gay, but I felt prompted to say something so I did. I awkwardly blurted out “I’m gay” towards the end of the lesson without much build up. The unexpected way those words came out must’ve been jarring for some people in the room. I shared a few stories, ended the lesson and sat down. I remember feeling the comforting presence of the HoIy Ghost as I bore my testimony at the end of the lesson and contemplated what had just happened as I sat in my chair. I was recently talking to one of the bishopric members who was present at that lesson. He said that what he remembered most was watching me sit down. He said, “You looked lighter and more relaxed. You looked so relieved. It was evident in your body language that you felt a burden had been taken off your shoulders.” He is exactly right. That’s how I felt. I had been lying to people and hiding an important part of my life story from my quorum and it was such a relief to just be honest and not have to hid anymore.  

Spanish Branch

Not long after this lesson I turned 31 meaning that I graduated from the singles ward without honors. I started attending a local Spanish branch and retreated back into the closet. It was awful. Members of the branch couldn’t understand why I was single and when they tried to set me up with their cousins, nieces, and friends I would always say I was too busy with school to date. I hated lying to them, but I didn’t feel comfortable telling them the truth.

That June same-sex marriages became legal nationwide and each LDS congregation was asked to spend the third hour of a meeting in July reviewing some materials about marriage sent from church headquarters. I had been home visiting my parents the first week in July and had had that lesson with my parents in their ward. The next week I was back in Tucson and they had chosen that week for the marriage lesson. I almost went home after Sacrament meeting because I didn’t feel like having that lesson again, but I stayed anyway. As I walked into the Relief Society room I said a fervent, silent prayer. I told Heavenly Father that I wasn’t going to make any comments, but that if He wanted me to say anything He’d have to make it very clear.

About halfway through the meeting the Branch President asked if there were any comments and without even realizing it my hand shot up in the air. I said, “This might be sharing too much information, but there are a lot of gay members of the church who want to keep the commandments and stay active and I’m one of them.” I then talked about the need to love everyone and how the love and acceptance of family and friends had helped me to stay active. Earlier in the meeting we had talked about “the gays” as if they were some group apart from us Mormons, but after my comment the tone shifted. I wrote the following in my journal: “The rest of the meeting was great. The overarching theme was loving everyone as the Savior would. The Branch President mentioned through tears that his daughter is a lesbian and has left the church. He pointed to me and said that he loves me and he loves us all. It was very touching and I just felt enveloped by love. These people who I barely know felt like my family.”

Tucson Temple open house
I remember in that meeting we sang Families Can Be Together Forever. I didn’t always feel like I fit in in the Spanish branch, but as we sang that song the Spirit spoke to my heart and told me that they were my family. Two weeks ago I was volunteering as an usher at the Tucson Temple open house and a number of people from my old branch came through. They greeted me as enthusiastically as a person could be greeted and I got handshakes and hugs from people I hadn’t seen in quite some time. They know I’m gay and they are still my family.

Campbell Ward

Towards the end of 2015 I started attending an English-speaking family ward. In January 2016 I was asked to give a talk about the purpose of the church. Before the meeting I was speaking with the bishop who barely knew me at the time. I asked him if I could mention that I was gay in my talk. He said he didn’t see why that would be a problem. In the talk I shared how difficult it has been at times to stay in the church as someone who experiences same-sex attraction. I shared the story of Kevin and Allison’s sealing and how that experience encouraged me to stay. I wrote the following about that talk in my journal: “After the meeting about a dozen people thanked me for my courage and commitment. I was grateful to be so well-received. After church Hyrum Allen sent me an email. I’d never talked to him before, but he told me that he and his wife will be there for me whether or not I stay in the church. He also invited me over to dinner. I feel like that’s what Jesus would do. It feels so good to be open with everyone.”

The year and a half since I came out to my whole ward have been awesome. The Campbell Ward has become my spiritual home and the people there have become my family. It feels incredibly freeing to be open and honest with everyone. I don’t mention being gay all the time because I don’t want that to be my thing. There are other important parts of me (like my penchant for dad jokes and puns). I do, however, often mention being gay in lessons or when I bear my testimony if it’s relevant to my spiritual journey, which it often is. And I have felt no pushback from ward members for being so open, only love and gratitude.

Looking Forward

In Mosiah 18 the prophet Alma explains that when we are baptized we covenant to bear one another’s burdens. Keeping this covenant, I feel, is essential if we want to become like the Savior. But how can we bear one another’s burdens if we don’t know what they are? Verses 21 and 22 explain, “And he commanded them that there should be no contention one with another, but that they should look forward with one eye, having one faith and one baptism, having their hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another. And thus he commanded them to preach. And thus they became the children of God.

I think these verses are just beautiful and they speak to the kind of community that I want to help build. A community where our hearts are knit together and where we can become something divine together. I have sensed a lot of anger related to this video of Savannah’s testimony and I validate those feelings. I also felt angry reading comments where people with different viewpoints were quite unkind to each other. We can use this anger to tear others down or we can channel it into productive energy to build something better. And so I invite you once again to consider these questions:

Why would a church member who experiences same-sex attraction want to share that information with their ward family?

Can a ward benefit if a member comes out to them?

What is the appropriate way for a gay person to come out to their ward?

How should ward members respond when members publicly disclose feelings of same-sex attraction?

I am 100% in favor of gay members being open with their wards if they want to be. I know from personal experience how healing it can be. I have experienced an increased measure of love, acceptance, and wholeness as I have been honest with the people in my congregations. I wish that everyone could experience those same feelings. So let's talk about how we can make that happen.