Thursday, May 5, 2016

Goldilocks and the Gay Mormon Paradox

I occasionally get messages from well-meaning people explaining to me what’s wrong with my life and how to fix it. “Marry a man,” they say, “You deserve to be happy.” Marry a woman,” say others, “It’s part of God’s plan for you.” I have one group of people telling me that I need to be in a same-sex relationship to be happy and another testifying that an opposite-sex relationship will bring me true joy. I feel like Goldilocks getting a bowl of ice cold porridge shoved in my face followed by a bowl of steaming hot porridge. Both groups are telling to me that I need to get married, but both options require immense sacrifice. One option is too hot, one option is too cold, but I’m looking for the option that is just right. 

On April 23rd I spoke at the Arizona LDS LGBT/SSA conference in Mesa. It was a great experience and I got to meet some awesome people (like my hero Tom Christofferson who has super-white teeth). The gay Mormon community is a very huggy community and I got loads of hugs throughout the day. Part of my bio in the conference program said: “Ben rents a room from two retired lesbians who encourage him to get married more than any bishop ever has. Despite their encouragement to find a boyfriend Ben is 100% single and plans to remain that way for the foreseeable future.” I was chatting with a woman after my talk and she said, “It’s too bad you’re not dating because I know some great guys I’d love to set you up with.” I thanked her and told her that I was flattered she wanted to set me up with her friends. She then said, “We can chat again in a few years when you change you mind.” I was a little taken aback by her comment because she was basically saying that Mormonism is just a phase for me.

I get this a lot from people. A former professor of mine who is gay randomly stumbled upon my blog. He then sent me a Facebook message saying that reading it filled him with sadness and he encouraged me to find love now. He said, “Love is love, and practicing it is the greatest of God-given gifts.” His message was unexpected, unsolicited, and incredibly kind. I really appreciated that he took the time to reach out to me personally. He saw me actively choosing to not be in the kind of relationship I want to be in and he just wanted me to know that I didn’t have to deny myself of the things I really want. His message was caring and encouraging. Other times I feel pitied by people. Actually, I often feel pitied by people not of my faith. I hear them saying, “Your church is holding you back. Just be true to yourself and who you are.”

And then there are the Mormons, another group of well-meaning people who tell me the exact opposite thing. “You’re not gay,” some of them say, “you just experience same-gender attraction. You shouldn’t put yourself in a box by labeling yourself as ‘gay.’” If I just stop thinking about my same-gender attraction then it will diminish. They tell me that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that if I have enough faith and trust in the atonement of Jesus Christ I can find a woman to marry and have a happy marriage and therefore a happy life. They tell me that love is a choice and I can choose whom to love so I should just choose to love a woman. To them, my being gay is just a phase. I do need to say, however, that the Mormons who know me don’t say these kinds of things to me, but I have heard them from well-meaning Mormons who don’t know me personally.

Well-meaning people say the darnedest things, don’t they?

I used my immense artistic talent to make the
kind of box that I'm trying to live in
I feel like people are trying to shove me into two different boxes. In the gay box I don’t get to practice my faith, but I get to be in the kind of relationship that feels natural to me. In the Mormon box I get to live my faith, but I have to marry a woman (which is, to put it kindly, unappealing to me). So what is a gay Mormon to do? Is being gay a phase or is being Mormon a phase? Sorry, everyone, but neither of them feel like phases to me. So I’ve decided to choose neither box (for the foreseeable future) because both boxes don’t feel right in my mind or in my heart. And here’s why. Both groups are telling me that happiness is found in being in a committed romantic relationship. While I agree that being in a relationship has the potential to bring immense happiness, I do not think it’s a requirement for happiness. I’m single and I feel whole and happy just the way I am.

I love so much about Mormon doctrine and Mormon culture, but we are often taught that the whole point of life is to get married and have a family. This emphasis on marriage gave me a skewed perspective of what brings happiness. For example, in the last General Conference President Eyring said that “everything we do should have celestial marriage as its focus and purpose.” Everything we do?! Everything is a lot of things. One year ago in General Conference President Packer said, “The end of all activity in the Church is to see a man and a woman with their children are happy at home, sealed for eternity.” All activity in the church has this goal?! So if I go home and I don’t have a wife and kids there, is my activity in the church not achieving its purpose? I have no problem with our doctrine of the eternal nature of families. I love it, in fact. And I love my family. I love my parents, siblings, sisters-in-law, and my nieces and nephews. They’re just great. But teaching that the whole point of everything is marriage kind of stings for us single people. That doesn’t make it less true, but it also doesn’t make it easy either. And I’ve seen a lot of my single female friends suffer greatly because they’re single. Some of them tie their self-worth to marriage and when marriage doesn’t happen for them it is absolutely devastating.

A few months ago a church leader said that if we don’t get married the plan (meaning the Plan of Salvation) is halted. This assertion really struck me. Like, it really, really struck me. It struck me so much that I decided to see if it was true. I decided to focus my daily scripture study on the Plan of Salvation as taught in the Book of Mormon (which was written for our day, contains the fullness of the gospel, and is the most correct book, right?). I carefully read chapter after chapter detailing the plan as taught by Nephi, Lehi, King Benjamin, Enos, Abinadi, Alma, and others. As I’ve studied their teachings of the Plan of Happiness I have found zero passages that mention a marriage relationship as a key to happiness. But over and over again they mention our relationship with the Savior and our relationship with those in need. It seems to me, and I’m certain that this is what Book of Mormon prophets were teaching, that happiness stems from becoming like Jesus and building Zion. Can marriage play a huge role in developing Christlike attributes and building Zion? Of course. Strong marriages and families are essential to society and to the progress of the church, but that doesn’t mean that one needs to be in a marriage to be happy. I can testify to that.

The last ten months of my life have been extraordinary. I have done my absolute best to live the principles found in the Plan of Happiness as taught in the Book of Mormon. Let me just share one example of how the words in the Book of Mormon have directly affected my actions. Mosiah 4:16 says, “And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need…” Recently a woman in her 50s needed a ride to church and I was asked to drive her. On the drive to church I learned that she has been anorexic since she was ten, she has cancerous ulcers which make it very painful to eat most things, she lives alone and has no friends, and the previous day had eaten nothing but a biscuit. I looked into her honest eyes and at her 70lbs frame and I felt like I needed to help. So the next day I offered to take her to lunch. She ate slowly, but she ate a lot. We chatted for two hours and had a great time. Out of nowhere she asked, “Are you a writer?” I said, “Well, not really, but I’ve written a lot for school.” She told me that for years she’s wanted to write her life story, but doesn’t have any way to do it. She said that she knew she would be dying soon and asked me if I would write her life story. Without hesitation I said that I would.

The next week I took her to lunch again, but this time I brought my laptop. We sat in the restaurant for nearly three hours and I typed as fast as I could while she told me about her childhood and adolescence and about her love for her father who past away decades ago. She cried multiple times and it felt like a sacred moment as she pulled me into her treasured memories. When I got home that day I reflected on how crazy it is that I have three free hours in the middle of the day that I can dedicate to recording this woman’s story. And I thought about my job and I how I make enough money that I don’t even have to think twice about the expense of buying someone a meal at a nice restaurant. And I thought about how marvelous it is that I randomly met this woman and how being single has given me the opportunity to bear her burdens and make a record of her life. If I had a wife and children, I doubt I would have been able to do these things. I don’t want to at all diminish the amazing work done by wives and mothers, husbands and fathers. But I for sure want to elevate the wonderful work that can be done by single people like me. Because we are still part of families and we are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. And we have a lot to contribute.

As I’ve reflected on the different people on different sides who try to tell me what’s best for me or the ways that I need to change, I’ve been reminded of 1 Corinthians 12:17-23. Here are those verses as they read in my grandma’s old Bible. “Suppose the whole body were an eye—then how would you hear? Or if your whole body were just one big ear, how could you smell anything? But that isn’t the way God has made us. He has made many parts for our bodies and has put each part just where he wants it. What a strange thing a body would be if it had only one part! So he has made many parts, but still there is only one body. The eye can never say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you.’ The head can’t say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you.’ And some of the parts that seem weakest and least important are really the most necessary. Yes, we are especially glad to have some parts that seem rather odd!” I have felt at times like I’m the odd part of the church, like I don’t really fit in to the Plan of Happiness, but we are all necessary. Even those of us who feel like it’s best to stay single.

As a gay Mormon it feels so odd to be tugged in two different directions with people on both sides telling me that the key to happiness lies in a committed, romantic partnership. I believe that relationships are essential to happiness and the relationship that is most likely to bring me happiness is the relationship I have with my Savior. I know, I know, it sounds so cheesy to say it, but it’s true. The times I’m the saddest are the times when I fail to live up to the principles that I cherish and the times I’m the happiest are when I’m successful. The truth is that I’m 100% single and I’m happy. I’m really, really happy. I feel like over the past months I’ve been discovering what it is that makes life so full and wonderful. My only request is that you don’t try to put me a box because I’ve found a way to live my life that works for me. I’m certain it wouldn’t work for everyone, but it feels right in my mind and in my heart. It’s not too hot, not too cold, but it feels just right.