Monday, February 8, 2016

How to Be a Gay Mormon's Hero

After a blog post I wrote back in June an anonymous commenter wrote: "Thank you for a well written post. Your impassioned writing had me.... right up until the very last sentence where you say, '...and create more of a place for me and other gay Mormons in His church.' This commenter then went on to say that we can't expect God to bend His will to our appetites because that's just not part of His plan. The commenter obviously thought that I meant that I was praying for the church to allow gay marriage, but that's not what I was implying at all. I know many gay members who feel like they don't fit in at church and wish they had more of place. Here are some ideas I've had on how we can create more of a place for gay Mormons within the framework of our current doctrine and policies:

1. Allow gay members be honest about their sexuality (if they want to be)

In March 2015 I emailed my stake presidency about starting a support group for gay Mormons in the stake. A few weeks later the stake president called me in for a meeting. At the time I didn't know him very well. We discussed my idea for a little while which I thought was the whole point of the meeting. When we finished talking about the group I wanted to start he shocked me by extending a calling as a member of the stake Sunday School presidency. I was floored, just floored. Part of me wanted to say, "But don't you realize I'm gay? I can't have a stake calling." But I didn't say that and I was ashamed that part of me thought I would never be able to hold such a calling if I was open about my sexual orientation. The whole stake presidency knew I was gay and they didn't care. Being open about being gay was not an issue. That night as I wrote about the event in my journal I cried. I cried because it meant so much to me that they trusted me, an out gay Mormon, to hold a stake calling.

Last month my new bishop called me in to his office and asked me to be the ward mission leader which I accepted. I barely knew my bishop and assumed he knew nothing about me. After chatting for a few minutes he said, "I want you to know that I know about your situation (please see point #6 for a discussion on how Mormons have no idea what to call gay people) and I really admire you." He then praised me for a few minutes and told me how excited he was to work with me. I was going to speak in church that day and I told him I was planning on mentioning being gay in my talk. I asked him if that would be okay. He said, "I don't see why that would be a problem." So at the beginning of sacrament meeting the entire congregation sustained me in my new calling. And then a few minutes later I was standing at the pulpit telling them all that I'm gay. After my talk about a dozen people came up to talk to me. Their comments included words like "brave," "courageous," and "thank you so much for your honesty." I know a lot of gay Mormons and many of them are told by their families and church leaders to keep being gay to themselves and to not tell anyone. To me that seems very unhealthy and it robs of them of the opportunity to be authentic and to be told that they are brave and courageous. That night I cried again as I wrote in my journal. I cried because my entire ward was now aware that I was gay and everyone seemed totally cool with it. I remembered all the fears I had about being rejected for being gay and in that moment I just couldn't understand how I'd managed to be so lucky. Continuing to actively participate in the church while also being honest about my sexuality has made me so happy. I wish more people could have the church experience that I do. 

Also, allowing gay members to be honest will be blessing to people still in the closet. For years I had thought that I was the only gay Mormon. I felt lonely, isolated, and terrified. Having an older, happy, gay Mormon role model would have made life so much easier, but I had no one to look up to. I recently received a message from a good friend that said in part: "I was shocked to read your story and finally see that there was someone that had somewhat similar experiences and wanted to live the gospel. I had prayed for 3 years to be able to talk to someone that could understand exactly how I felt, tell them how I felt, and support what I wanted to do. I really didn't think someone like that existed." There is no need for anyone in the rising generation to feel alone and scared like my friend and I did. So let's allow people to be honest about their sexuality.

2. Get to know a gay Mormon

You might already know someone who is a gay Mormon (me, perhaps?). That's great and good for you for not calling them a heretic or banning them from talking to your children. I hope you make an effort to really get to know them. Have you ever known someone for a long time and then suddenly you have a deep conversation with them and learn loads about them that you never knew before? I experienced that just this past weekend. It's easy to assume that just because we know someone we really know them, but that's often not the case. I first came out to my parents when I was 23. About once a year my dad would say, "So how's that whole 'same-sex attraction' thing going?" I'd say, "Good," and we'd talk about something else. That was the extent of our conversations about my sexuality. It wasn't until I was 30 (seven years later!) that I really spilled my guts to my parents and siblings. It was one of the best things I ever did. They already knew me very well and they knew I was gay, but up until two years ago they really had no idea what I was going through. So get to know a gay Mormon. We're pretty cool and I think you'll like us.

3. Watch what you say

Ever since I started telling people I'm gay I've had the same thing happen to me dozens of times. After learning I'm gay I'll get an email or a text or a Facebook message from a friend apologizing for some rude comment they made in my presence about gays years ago. It usually goes something like this, "Two years ago I made a joke about gay people and you heard it and I had no idea you were gay and I'm so sorry." This happened to me once again two weeks ago. A friend at church pulled me aside and with a look of sincere remorse on his face apologized for something he had said about gays two years before. I said, "I honestly have no recollection of that happening, but thank you for having the courage to apologize. I totally forgive you." He had known I was gay for more than a year and it took him that long to say he was sorry. It had obviously weighed on his conscience for some time. I don't want anyone to have to apologize to their gay friends for things they said in the past so let's avoid the whole situation by just not saying anything rude. 

Even more important than your feelings are the feelings of the closeted gay kids who are suffering in silence. They overhear friends and family making fun of gay people and are terrified of having those same things said about them if they ever come out. The hymn "Lord I Would Follow Thee" sums up exactly why we should watch our words: "In the quiet heart is hidden / Sorrow that the eye can't see" (Hymns #220). Before I came out on my blog there were a number of people that I felt I should tell personally because I didn't want them to find out in a public way. The very last person I told was a friend I've had since I was kid. Shortly after we returned home from our missions I was struggling internally with being gay. He had no idea and he said something that was extremely dismissive of gay people and their feelings. His comment made me think that he wasn't someone I could trust with my secret so I finally came out to him seven years after I started telling people. What messages are you sending with your words? Are you sending the message that you're someone a gay person can trust or are you sending the opposite message? So watch what you say because you don't know which of friends, acquaintances, siblings, or children you are damaging with your words.

 4. Hold a 5th Sunday Lesson on the topic of same-sex attraction

The intersection between being LGBT and Mormon is an important topic right now. And it's one that isn't going to go away because Mormon parents are going to keep having gay children. We need to do a better job of educating ourselves about this topic because it affects so many members of the church. In my experience, most of the time homosexuality is brought up in church it's in the context of same-sex marriage being bad. We can do a better job than we are currently doing in our local congregations to educate ourselves.

Don't worry, this saguaro is a girl (and she's not even
hugging me back)
I'm a single man so you probably wouldn't want to approach me for marital or parenting advice. I mean, I might be able to give you some good advice, but you'd probably be better off asking someone who is married with children (one time I was alone in my brother's van with his three kids for one minute and in those 60 seconds my two year old nephew got his head stuck between the seat and the center console). Similarly, it would be best to have a lesson about Mormonism and same-sex attraction taught by someone who experiences same-sex attraction or a family member of someone who does. I would be thrilled if a church leader asked me to teach such a lesson and, let me toot my own horn for a moment, it would be the most uplifting and inspiring 5th Sunday lesson you would have ever attended. Instead of watching the clock wishing for church to be over, people would be so engaged that they would wish the lesson could last longer. I'd happily teach a 5th Sunday lesson in any congregation that would have me that's within driving distance of Tucson. I have now spoken at two LDS Institutes of Religion about being gay and Mormon and they were some of the most uplifting experiences of my life. In both instances we didn't have time to address all the questions people had and I spent a good chuck of time after talking with people who wanted to learn more. Mormons want to have these conversations at church so let's take some time and do it.

5. Leave the judging to the judges

If you want to be a member of the church there are certain standards you're required to live. To be a temple recommend holding member of the church is not easy and there are many people who attend our congregations who do not live those standards. Do we shun them and ask them to leave? Of course not! We just love them for who they are and rejoice that they are trying to be better just like we all are. It is not our business what anyone else's standing in the church is. We don't cast the first stone, we just love them and walk with them.

However, we have bishops and stake presidents who are called as Judges in Israel who are required to maintain the boundaries of the church. They have the unenviable job of administering church discipline when someone's conduct is not consistent with the teachings of the church. When someone does need to be disciplined for not keeping church standards Doctrine and Covenants 121:43 tells us exactly what to do: "Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved..." Showing an "increase of love" naturally presupposes that you were already showing love. If you're a Judge in Israel then you are called to uphold the doctrines of the church and you are also called to do a lot of loving.

I was recently chatting with a friend of mine who lives far from Tucson. He is in a same-sex relationship and hasn't been to church for some time. He told me that he's been feeling a pull to go to church again. I said, "In Mormonism we call that a 'prompting.'" He told me that he would have to be honest with everyone about how he's living his life and he was worried that people wouldn't treat him well at church. I told him that I thought his congregation needed him and he needed them and that I hoped he would return. And I especially hope that instead of casting stones at my friend for not living all the standards of the church, they would embrace him and welcome him back. So let's show the same-sex couples in our congregations that we take the Savior at His words and show an increase of love towards them. And let's leave the judging to the judges.

6. Let gay members choose how to define themselves

When I first started coming out there was no way I would have labeled myself as gay. At first I said that I "struggled with same-sex attraction." Saying that sounded awkward so I would sometimes say things like "my baggage" or "my issue" (which are also awkward). After a few years I finally just started calling myself gay and that feels comfortable and good to me. Twice when I've told bishops I was gay they said, "You're not gay, you have same-gender attraction." For some reason in the church we equate the term "gay" with "living the gay lifestyle," but we don't do that with the term "straight." If you overheard a 17 year old boy at church say he was straight would you say, "Now, Tommy, you're not straight, you have opposite-gender attraction." Doing that would be pretty absurd, right? Well, I've been told multiple times that I shouldn't call myself gay. To me, being gay isn't about my behavior, it's about the deep desire I feel to have a relationship and connection with another man. And just to further justify why it's okay to say I'm gay, the church has an official website called and in a press conference in January 2015 two apostles used the term "LGBT" and the G in that acronym mostly certainly means gay. So if someone wants to say they have same-sex attraction or SSA, let them define themselves that way. And if someone wants to define themselves as gay, let them self-identify in that way too. I choose to identify myself as gay, but the identity that I feel most strongly is as a child of God (I know, super-cheesy, but also very true).

7. Be a hero

In each of the blog posts I've written about being gay and Mormon over the last 13 months I've always included one of my heroes. In my posts I purposefully highlight straight people who, in my opinion, have done things the right way.  I do this so that anyone reading my posts will have an example of how to be a friend to the gay people in their lives. I have many heroes like my parents, Mitch, Craig, Dianna, LeAnne, Hyrum, and my bishop and stake president. Be like them. Be a hero. Create a safe space for gay Mormons in your congregation.