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 mormonsandgays.org 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. 

26 comments:

Kincaid Rabb said...

It was very heartening and interesting to read about your experiences at the intersection of Mormonism and homosexuality, and I really appreciate your ability to be brave enough to tackle these particularly difficult issues. Thank you for being so illuminating.

Amber said...

Thank you for sharing this! I really appreciate your viewpoint. I have a good friend who is gay and I pray that she returns to church someday and that she will be accepted by her ward as well as you have.

Unknown said...

I'm a youth Sunday school teacher and would LOVE a 5th Sunday lesson on Mormonism and same-sex attraction. It would be amazing if you put together an outline or even recording of you giving the lesson that teachers could share!

Ben said...

I don't have a recording of a lesson, but I did record a talk I gave at the Institute. On posted it on my blog last November. I don't know what the specific needs of your youth are, but you can find some great info on mormonsandgays.org.

Anonymous said...

If the ones I love who are gay mention they would like to come back to church, but they are not living church standards, say, in a marriage. How would I discuss the possible disciplinary council with them? I don't think those that I love understand church doctrine well enough to be able to handle a disciplinary council. How can I encourage them to do something, like return to church activity, when I have a fear it might hurt them more than help them? I am a returned missionary, have a testimony and understanding of the doctrines and receiving that letter would even be hard for me to handle. I suppose I just need to have faith that the Lord knows what He is doing with them personally, and love them enough to help them get back within His fold.

Ben said...

I don't know your loved ones so I can't offer specific advice, but since your not the bishop just make sure that you are loving them and welcoming them. Make sure they know that regardless of their standing in the church you want them there and you will walk with them on their journey. Make sure they know they are loved and wanted. And any good bishop, regardless of any disciplinary action he takes, will do the same.

Grandma Marilyn said...

I have a gay son, so i get it. What i DON'T get is why gay people feel they must tell us. I'm not gay, and i don't feel i mudt proclaim that. Why should anyone else feel like they must exclaim their sexual preferance? Must i proclaim i like it better thus or such do i feel better? I just don't get why gays mormons, more specifically you, feel you must "let us know" anout this private part of your life! Fine! Be gay! Who cares? I'll still love you. Don't make no diff to me. Just be yourself. Right?

Dayna said...

So good to read this.

Ben said...

Grandma Marilyn, if you and I were to spend the day together my being gay would probably never come up. It's not something that I shout or force people to talk about. But it is a part of me. And as a believing Mormon it makes my life a lot more complex. The hardest part for me was feeling alone, like no one understood me. I don't want anyone to have to feel alone. Openness and honesty create compassion, understanding and community. I feel like becoming of one heart and one mind means that we understand what it's like to walk in another person's shoes. To me, sharing my faith and experiences is how I build Zion. And if you don't want to get to know this part of my life that's just fine. You definitely don't have to read my blog. But if you do want to get to know me better shoot me an email and we can chat.

Kevin Landeen said...

I will never not share this! This is absolutely amazing and exactly what I needed to hear! I left church last Sunday extremely discouraged by the lesson in Elders Quorum because it was so negative and hurtful. It was all, "Gay is not okay" and it was discouraging. I am out publicly, but I don't think that everyone in the Elders Quorum knows or knows me, so my fault for not saying anything, but all that you have said is absolutely what I have been thinking! Thank you for writing this blog post! Absolutely wonderful! Thank you for taking the time to write this. I hope that a lot of people read this. I know that for me I felt alone and lonely, but discovering that I am not the only Gay Mormon in the world, actively living the gospel and doing my best, has lead to so many blessings! It is absolutely wonderful and I thank you for this blog post!

Anonymous said...

Ben, my Brother, you _get_ it (and are an awesome communicator). Thank you for sharing this! Since it is a public blog, you wouldn't mind me sharing it on social media, etc., would you? Thanks & best wishes.

Ben said...

Thanks for your kind words and feel free to share the post.

Holly Decker said...

thanks for the advice :)

Janae Ficklin said...

Thank you for being a such willing and open pioneer. I can only imagine the struggles you have faced to make you such a strong and faithful leader. Being Mormon and being gay is not an easy set of circumstances to have been sent here with. You are helping lead those in our faith to a truer understanding of the Savior's commandments. Thank you for your willingness to be so bravely authentic and open and for remaining faithful. We need you! I know the blessings of Heaven will be yours.

David said...

I just posted this on my Facebook account because I am out to my ward and stake as a homosexual male in a mixed orientation marriage and fully participating in the church. I believe that hard choices are made by many individuals as they strive to remain faithfully engaged in their pursuit of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I want to help others experiencing homosexuality know that it is not a sin and that it is not our Savior intent for us to be misfits or outcasts in the church. There is a place for everyone in the church. We may have to be pioneers in forgiving and loving as Christ has counseled--but it will be worth it.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but there is a fine line here for those who want to live the gospel and set a good example. This fine line is loving one another but also having healthy boundaries. This especially pertains to raising children. As a mother myself, I certainly don't want to promote to my children and set the example that the act of being Gay is ok. Because it is not. The healthy boundary here is not to teach children that being Gay is ok but in loving one another. So in regards to having a 5th Sunday lesson on Gays and Mormons, if the discussion was just to adults and referred to how we as members need to love one another but do not accept the act of being Gay, then this may be productive. Again, I certainly want my children to love one another and treat everyone with kindness. This being said, I do believe that those who are Gay should be welcomed at church and have callings depending on their membership standing with God.

Alex Lindstrom said...

Just a note, in this article, gay only refers to being same-sex attracted. You are using "gay" to refer to actually acting out sexually. There are many people who are SSA or gay, but live worthy of the blessings of the temple. In this context, yes it is OK to be gay, and there are many ways to "be gay" within the bounds the Lord has set.

Of course we'd never want to teach children that breaking the law of chastity is moral, but as you said, it is important to create a space for everyone at church.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, I'm sorry for you that you don't see how you cannot truly love others with your self righteous and judgemental attitude. Especially after reading this article, I would hope you would feel more compassion. Your 'boundaries' and fine lines' are unloving and judgemental. The Church's website, mormonsandgays.org, states very clearly that being gay is not a choice nor is it a sin. So why is it 'not ok'? People are born gay and straight, short and tall, blue eyes or brown, etc. Would you tell a child their blue eyes are not ok? How would that make your child feel? I am also a mother and I have a wonderful daughter who is gay. If I have any regrets they are that I wish I would have been more careful with my attitude and words I used before she told us she is gay. Your attitude about 'boundaries and fine lines' and your words saying 'gay is not ok' cause hurt and heartache among your family and friends. I guarantee you love someone who is gay but they will never feel comfortable enough with you to tell you unless you learn to love as the Savior taught. Please educate yourself and soften your heart. Lives depend on it.

Anonymous said...

In response to Anonymous Reply, ironically your response is the one who is judgmental. You cannot say I am judgmental, self righteous, or do not love as the Savior does, if you do not know me. Just because I disagree with the "Act" of being Gay, does not mean I do not love everyone with a Christ like love. If stating you are Gay means you struggle with Same-sex attraction then that is one thing, but if one is acting out the sexual act and is stating that it is alright to do this, then in God's eyes it is wrong and immoral. Agency is the first gift that was given to everyone but when that agency affects the influence of young children, "stating to them that it is ok to act out like this" then this is where it is wrong.

erin said...

Stay rad forever Ben and keep on sharing! I am learning a lot from you!

Ben said...

To the arguing Anonymouses,
Both of you have valid concerns that you are free to share. However, the name calling and hyperbole are not constructive and do not contribute to a productive dialogue. Let's all be a little more like Alex who responded to Anonymous's comment in a positive and effective way. I'm happy to talk to anyone who has concerns with what I wrote, but I'm not happy when commenters are rude to each other in the comments section. You are welcome to your opinions and you are welcome to express them, but please use a kind, respectful tone. Thanks and feel free to shoot me an email if you're still annoyed by any of the comments. benschilaty@gmail.com

jacob p said...

Nice post. You look quite attractive too. Not to take away from what I said--namely that this was a nice post, but... hmmm... You start off talking as if you were only talking to Mormons. I was thinking a few footnotes would help. Then in point #5, you started explaining what any insider would already know. lol I get the church discipline thing. But this 5th Sunday...hmmm.... What???? Ok this must be a very raw occasion but you speak of it as if it happens every month. I mean how many 5th Sundays are there in a month?

Labels-- I get what you are saying about straight. that is a good comparison. However, I focus on function. The term gay just doesn't function the same way. its a loaded word. Perhaps at some time in the future, the word will mellow out and it be seen more descriptive of our feelings than our lifestyle. "Gay" also implies you are happy with this "way of being." While I'm content, I would not say I'm unabashedly "proud" in the sense that some use it. I have no gay rights agenda. I want to completely separate myself from anything associated with that and any ambiguity.

While I accept non-Christians "gays" as gay and LGBT people, I see it as a negative term. People need to know that there is a distinction. Also it should be noted that not all people who have same-sex attraction want to have sex with the same-sex. For some of us that is not much of a concept. Thus I prefer same-sex attraction as a description of my attractions. I'm a man with SSA. When people see me, I don't want them to even consider that I'm a sympathetic to the more radical agenda of the gay rights movement.

Not being called "gay" also fits into my worldview. I don't believe people are born that way. Even the gay-rights leaning APA acknowledges this. I'm on the nurture side. Thus I see myself again as a man with emotional wounds.

So its difficult. I would find it difficult to call you gay. You are a beautiful, handsome son of God with some deviant thoughts. I'm committed to my worldview and my stance on this issue because I think the Gay rights movement is going too far and exploiting people with same-sex attraction for their own agenda. There is need for further dialog on this issue.

Lastly, I'd like to say that an organization founded by Mormons, People Can Change, has been of lasting benefit to me. Before I discovered PCC I thought I could never date or marry. It just seemed impossible! The whole I idea was preposterous! I no longer have those views. (I do understand that these organizations and the therapy they provide are not for everyone. Besides the fact that its a lot of work. But they do work!) Thus brave Mormons who speak up are doing a world of good for people like me who were looking for hope, community and a way out!

Thanks! I hope I don't cause an offense. Best wishes. My hope is that at least it provides a different perspective and shows some complexity regarding these issues.

Ben said...

Thanks for you comment, Jacob. I'm super glad that you've found peace and fulfillment in your journey. That's what I hope for everyone. The respond to your first comment, yes, this post was intended for a Mormon audience.

You and I see a lot of things differently and that's okay. You seem committed to living the restored gospel just like I am and that should be the thing that unites us. I don't know where you live, but where I have spent the majority of my life (Washington and Arizona) the term "gay" doesn't feel like a loaded term to me. When I call myself gay and when other people call me gay I don't think anyone is talking about my sexual activity (since there would be none to discuss, anyway). And if you want to say you have SSA I'm totally cool with that. I don't want to force any labels onto anyone else, but I also want to choose how to define myself. And I wouldn't force you to call me gay if that made you feel uncomfortable.

Also, I'm glad you've found People Can Change to be beneficial. For me, the years I spent trying to change my sexuality were dark years for me (you can read about that in my previous posts) and I feel a lot happier being open and honest about myself. And more than that, I feel God's approval with how I'm living my life and that's important to me.

I take no offense from your comment, Jacob and I appreciate you sharing a different perspective in a respectful way.

jacob p said...

Same here. I grew up in the Bible Belt. So I'm from a much more conservative background.

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Monica Sterling said...

I'm amazed that the Church is now accepting gay people. I actually left the Church years ago over it. I'm straight, but when I was 17 I had many friends that identified as gay or bisexual. I made the mistake of mentioning this at a Wednesday night meeting and was called into the Bishop' s office. He gave me a talk about how associating with such people would "lead me down the path of unrighteousness". I tried to tell him that talking to gay people didn't make you gay. And if it did, so what? I don't believe God would punish anyone for loving someone else. He wouldn't listen to me. That was the end for me. I've had no desire to go back ever since.