Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Time I Almost Left the Church

A few people have asked me what I thought about Elder Holland’s talk during the October General Conference.  Here are my thoughts on that talk.

I loved it. 

The talk, of course, was about the love of mothers and I was reminded of how my own mother was willing to give her life so I would have the chance to be born (I wrote more about that here).  The reason so many people asked me about this particular talk is because a large chunk of it is devoted to how a mother helped her son cope with the burden of same-sex attraction.  I am grateful to Elder Holland for this portion of his talk because he shared some things that members of the church oftendon't understand about same-sex attraction.

First, he explained the real pain the young man was going through.  Elder Holland said, “He was still worthy, but his faith was at crisis level.  His emotional burden grew ever heavier.  And his spiritual pain was more and more profound.  He was by turn hurt, confused, angry, and desolate.”  Yep, this quote perfectly describes my experience as well. 

Second, he stated that the young man's sexual orientation didn’t change and that no one assumed it would.  I hope every member took note of that because people still tell me and my gay friends that being gay is our fault and that if we had more faith we wouldn’t be gay anymore.

Third, he explicitly stated more than once that the young man with same-sex attraction was worthy.  And not only that, he was able to work with the youth as a seminary teacher.  I hope this eases the fears of those who are afraid of having a person who experiences same-sex attraction teach their children.  As someone who loves working with the youth of the church I particularly appreciated that detail. 

Overall I loved Elder Holland’s talk and hope that it helps reshape our perceptions of what it means to experience same-sex attraction and be an active Latter-day Saint.  That said, Elder Holland mentioned that this young man returned to finish his mission after being home for five years.  That’s awesome and I applaud him.  However, the talk made this out to be a success story that had a nice happy ending.  While I agree that this is a success, the thought I had while listening to this talk was that this young man’s life is only beginning.  He's still got a long, difficult road ahead of him. 

People have pointed to me in the past as a success story, as a model for living the gospel while also being gay.  If you were to write out the things a good Mormon does like attending church, going to the temple regularly, reading the scriptures daily, magnifying one’s calling, not swearing, not drinking, and all the other things that Mormons are supposed to do, I do all of those things.  And yet, I have had a lot of moments of hurt, confusion, anger, and desolation.  At the risk of yet again being a little too personal, I would like to share just one of those stories.
I met Allison while I was getting my master’s at BYU.  We were in the same dinner group and became good friends.  When I graduated from BYU and moved away we kept up a long distance friendship through email and phone calls.  One year after graduating from BYU I moved to Tucson.  On a Sunday afternoon in the fall of 2012 I was talking with Allison on the phone.  She got a little bold and asked, “How come we never dated?”  I replied, “Well, I just never felt that way about you.  It just never felt right.”  That didn’t seem to satisfy her and I sensed that I was going to have to tell her I was gay.  My house had paper thin doors so I left the house and got into my car so my roommate Kevin wouldn’t hear me come out to Allison.  A few minutes later Allison again asked why we hadn’t dated because my answer had been so lame and unsatisfactory.  I told her I was gay and that settled the issue. 

After that conversation I feel like we became even better friends because there was no pressure to date each other.  Allison has relatives in Tucson so when she was in town over winter break we hung out.  Before she visited I wondered if maybe, just maybe, we could date.  Allison was super rad, quite pretty, and really hilarious.  And she seemed to really like me (it’s my salt and pepper hair, for sure).  Who better to marry than her?  But when she was here I felt absolutely no physical connection and I scrapped the idea pretty quickly.  She did, however, meet my roommate Kevin who she later married.  She is way better off being married to him than she ever would have been being married to me.  So not marrying me was kind of Allison’s success story.  Even though I was never attracted to Allison I didn’t give up on dating. 

And then LeAnne came along.  Just like Allison she is pretty, talented, spiritual, and just a wonderful person.  LeAnne and I connected quickly on an emotional level and had many great conversations together.  She quickly became one of my closest friends.  And I could tell she liked me.  Usually having an awesome girl like you is cause for celebration and pats on the back, but it just stressed me out.  One day LeAnne got unusually bold and said that it would be okay if I kissed her.  That freaked me out.  As soon as I said goodbye to LeAnne I called Allison and said, “LeAnne wants me to kiss her!  But I don’t want to!”  She replied, “Just being a man and do it.  It’s not a big deal.”  I whined in reply, “But I can’t!”  Allison convinced me that I should kiss LeAnne the next day.

LeAnne has such great hair
The next afternoon LeAnne and I hung out.  I was nervous the entire morning because I was planning on kissing her later that day.  And I’m not talking normal nervous jitters, I was petrified of kissing this woman who I knew liked me, who was way too pretty for me, and who I had a great emotional connection with.  To calm myself down I pulled out my scriptures and read in 1 Nephi 4 when Nephi says that he shrunk because he didn’t want to do what the Lord had asked him to do.  I empathized with Nephi so much.  I thought that God wanted me to date LeAnne and here I was shrinking from the very simple task of kissing her.  I didn’t want to shrink, I didn’t want to not do something just because I was afraid.  I prayed and prayed for courage to do the right thing and to not shrink, but I just felt more and more nervous.

The moment I saw LeAnne that afternoon all my nervousness suddenly vanished.  It was pretty remarkable.  I had wanted to not feel afraid and in an instant that’s what happened.  As we sat and talked I felt calm and confident.  All my fears were gone.  I had a sudden moment of clarity.  God was not asking me to kiss LeAnne, He was letting me decide what I wanted.  He had given me courage to do it if I wanted to, but the decision to date her or not was my decision to make.  I realized that even though I loved LeAnne, I wasn’t in love with her at all.  She’s very attractive, but I wasn’t attracted to her.  And so, with all my fear gone I decided not to kiss her.  I made the conscious decision, devoid of fear, to just be LeAnne’s friend and all the stress I felt regarding our relationship was gone.

A week later I was back in Tucson.  I moved out of Kevin’s house and into a new house with someone I barely knew and I moved into a new ward.  There was a guy in the ward who I knew previously who I had a huge crush on.  When I got home from church I was thinking about how much I liked this guy and then I thought about how hard I had wanted to like Allison and LeAnne and just couldn't.  Liking girls was such stressful effort, but liking this boy just seemed like so much fun and didn't take any effort at all.  It was one of those moments when I realized that yes, I really am gay.  I'm attracted to men and not women.

In less than a year two women had really liked me and wanted to date me and I'd had no interest in them even though they were ridiculously awesome.  And now I suddenly had a crush on a guy and the fact that I could never date him (or any other guy for that matter) was really frustrating and painful.  I began to wonder if maybe I was doing life all wrong.  I’d been reading a lot of stories about gay Mormons online and listening to a lot of podcast interviews as well.  It seemed like almost every gay Mormon man either married a woman or left the church (and they often ended up doing both things).  I'd spent the last eight years trying to marry a woman and had never really had a serious girlfriend.  Perhaps it was time to date someone I actually wanted to date.  Of course, I could stay single and celibate for the rest of my life, but from the dozens and dozens of stories I’d read and listened to, not one of them was able to do that successfully.  Do you know any older, never married men who are active in the church?  I didn’t know of any and so it seemed like I had two choices.  I’d been making one choice for eight years with no success so I figured it was time to try something new. 

At this point I hadn't missed church once in 11 years and I thought maybe it was time to end the streak and take a break.  Almost no one at church knew me so I wouldn't be missed if I didn't attend.  And after a year of living in Tucson I had very few close Mormon friends.  My family lived far away and they wouldn't even have to know I wasn't going to church.  It seemed like the perfect time to step away because no one would miss me.  So I decided that I wouldn’t leave for good, I’d just take a sabbatical.

Six days after making this decision I was up in Mesa for Kevin and Allison’s wedding.  I walked into the temple thinking that I probably wouldn’t be back for quite a while.  And then something life changing happened to me.  It’s hard to describe very spiritual experiences, but this is more or less what I experienced.  As I watched two of my best friends kneel at an altar and make covenants with each other and with God I got this powerful feeling that this was all real.  The promises they were making and receiving were real.  The priesthood power that was sealing them was real.  The potential to be together forever was real.  The whole restored gospel felt real and palpable and I didn't want to give that up.  The best way to describe the feeling was that it felt like heaven.  I was in a sacred place with people that I loved it felt like home.  I thought to myself, "Whatever happens, I always want to be able to come to this place with these people." 

Allison, Kevin, and I with big smiles on their wedding day
No one at the wedding knew that I'd been considering taking a break from church.  When the sealing was done I was feeling pretty overwhelmed.  Not only was I extremely happy for Kevin and Allison, but I had just been reminded that the path I should choose was the one that would allow me to be in the temple.  So filled with love for my friends and new clarity about life I hugged Kevin and Allison and told them how much I loved them.  It took all the manly testosterone I could muster to keep myself from bursting into weepy mess because I was feeling so much love and peace.  That night I wrote in my journal, "They are forever friends and I love them so much." 

And that's the long story about how I almost left the church and didn't.  And this wasn't the only time.  Just over a year ago I once again contemplated leaving the church, but I'm still here.  The reason I share this story is because I don't want people to get caught up in happy endings.  For example, we're so happy when someone gets married, and then a few years later they get divorced.  We're so happy when someone has a baby, and then they feel stressed and overwhelmed and cry because they don't feel like a good mother.  We're so happy when someone graduates from college, and then they can't find a job.  We're so happy when a man with same-sex attraction serves a faithful mission, and then eight years later he feels "hurt, confused, angry, and desolate." 

We are all far from our happy endings.  Am I a success story?  Of course not.  Because my story is far from over.  I still have a long road ahead of me and so does the young man Elder Holland mentioned.  But what I want everyone to understand is that I try very hard to live the gospel.  I try really hard.  And for the most part I have a very happy life, but that doesn't mean I don't get mad and sad and wish that things were different.  I want all the straight Mormons to know that we gay members who try hard to live the gospel have tough times that we often don't talk about.  Sometimes we leave church and wonder if being bored for three hours on Sunday is worth giving up our sexuality.  Sometimes we wonder where God is and why He has forsaken us.  And sometimes we feel like we've found Him.

I'm in a really good place right now.  The last year has been exceptional and one of the happiest of my life.  But I'm no dummy.  I'm sure that I'll have moments in the future where I get mad and frustrated and just want to leave my religion behind.  But I'm one of the lucky ones.  I'm the lucky one who has so many people who have my back.  Just four weeks ago I had a really tough day and two members of the stake presidency called me to make sure I was okay and then sent me emails expressing their love for me.  I'm one of the lucky ones.  When I told people that I wanted to start a group for gay Mormons in Tucson so that no one with same-sex attraction had to feel alone everyone was on my side and wanted to help (well, almost everyone).  And I trust that the love people have for me isn't conditional to my activity in the church. 

As I was listening to Elder Holland's talk I thought, "This young man has a long road ahead of him, but he's got a mother who loves him no matter what.  That'll make all the difference."  And so, if when you heard the story of this young man completing his mission you felt like it was a success story, I hope you remember that the real success what that this man was loved unconditionally.  And I hope you remember my story.  That even the gay Mormons who want to stay in the church face extremely trying moments that they likely won't tell you about.  You're job is to love us. 

Allow me to end by being overly cheesy.  If you want to know how to help a gay Mormon, just read the words of this Primary song written by Carol Lynn Pearson (who, by the way, has done more for gay Mormons than almost anyone).

If you don't walk as most people do,
Some people walk away from you,
But I won't! I won't!
If you don't talk as most people do,
Some people talk and laugh at you,
But I won't! I won't!
I'll walk with you. I'll talk with you.
That's how I'll show my love for you.
Jesus walked away from none.
He gave his love to ev'ryone.
So I will! I will!
Jesus blessed all he could see,
Then turned and said, "Come, follow me."
And I will! I will!
I will! I will!
I'll walk with you. I'll talk with you. 
That's how I'll show my love for you