Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Literally Standing as an Ally

Dianna and I (with Fun Laura and Lindsay photobombing)
Last week I met up with two married BYU students who I know through a mutual friend. They’re in a mixed-orientation marriage in which the husband is gay and the wife is straight. They were absolutely delightful and I loved swapping stories with them, learning what brought them to this point in their lives, and their plans for the future. We chatted for 2 ½ hours and they were so engaging that we easily could’ve chatted for longer (but I had hours and hours of homework still to do because grad school is the worst).

That evening the wife texted me a bit to ask some more questions. After talking about gay stuff for a while she texted: “Also, random question, who are your heroes?” I responded, “Well, there are the obvious ones like my parents, but the people in my life who are my heroes are the people who have been there for me in my tough moments.” There are dozens and dozens of people that I could’ve mentioned as examples so I hope no one will feel bummed that I didn’t mention them, but the name that immediately came to mind was Dianna. Let me tell you why she’s my heroine (female hero, not the illicit drug).

Dianna's smile here is definitely forced because she
 was not happy I made her walk down that hill
About three years ago I decided to stop lying about being gay and most of people in my life were unaware of my orientation. Dianna and I had carpooled to a young single adult activity on Mt. Lemmon and as we drove down the mountain we chatted about all kinds of random stuff. I mentioned my friend Laura who we all call Fun Laura. Dianna asked, “Does Fun Laura have a nickname for you?” I replied, “Yep, she calls me Gay Mormon Ben,” to which Dianna responded, “Why does she call you that?” and I said, “Because I am both of those things.” Dianna seemed a little stunned by this revelation. I wrote in my journal about the experience: “I’ve wanted to tell Dianna I’m gay for a long time and I was glad to finally tell her. She was cool about it, but she lamented that she’s had a crush on me and she always has crushes on gay guys.” It’s true, her track record for liking straight guys is pretty bad. 

Dianna had never had a gay friend before and she didn’t really know what to say at first. She didn’t seem interested in having a conversation about it right then because she was pretty caught off guard so I just put on some music and we sang songs for the rest of the drive. I tried to have a conversation with her about my gay Mormon experience a few days later, but she didn’t really know what to say or how to have that conversation. This was all brand new to her. Not long after, we drove to the temple together which is nearly a two hour drive each way. On the drive up she asked me a question about being gay and then we chatted about my experiences the rest of the drive up. When we got back in the car she said she’d been thinking about me the entire time we were in the temple and we talked about gay stuff the whole drive back to Tucson. From that day on Dianna really seemed to understand and she was all in. Her heart grew three sizes that day. (I wrote another great example of how rad Dianna is in this post.)

When I decided to start a support group for gay Mormons in Tucson I didn’t even need to ask Dianna if she would be involved. It was just a given. She was there at the first meeting when it was just me and two other gays. Since then the group grew and grew. My house and Dianna’s house became gay Mormon central. People from the group were always hanging out at Dianna’s house and she hosted numerous Ally Nights. She was always willing to open up her house to the people who needed a place (unless it was late ‘cause Dianna needs her sleep). She and Whitney often lamented that their house was always full of boys, but none of them were straight.

Me, Lindsay, and Dianna. Lindsay's a hero, too.
She is a super ally. I have been so proud of her as she’s told stories of standing up for us and helping others understand. As I was preparing to leave Tucson I was wondering what would happen to the gay group when I was gone. One night it suddenly occurred to me that Dianna would keep it going when I was gone. When I mentioned that to her she said that she’d already decided that she’d run it when I was gone and was just waiting for me to tell her I’d decided that, too. It meant so much to me to know that my gay friends (who feel more like family than friends) will know that they have place where they are loved for who they are, where they can be themselves, and where they will know they have someone they can talk to. That place is Dianna’s house.

On Sunday Dianna posted on the Tucson gay group’s Facebook page: “In Relief Society today we had to stand up, say our name, where we're from, and something interesting about us. I took that opportunity to say I'm an ally and anyone can reach out and talk to me. I hope that helps at least one person in the future.” I’m sure Dianna from five years ago would have been super confused if you had told her all the work she’d be doing with gay Mormons, but as she has learned more about the needs of this community she has done her part to reach out.

Dianna and I have had a pretty rad friendship so far. Multiple visits to amusement parks, a trip to Europe, hundreds of shared meals, many hikes, and loads of TV shows. All of those things make her a good friend. But she’s my hero because she’s been there for me when I needed her and she’s been there for my friends, too. Dianna is as committed to the LDS church and the restored gospel as anyone I know. I believe that her commitment to the gospel has increased her desire to reach out to her gay brothers and sisters and given her the courage to stand up for them.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Best Book that Wasn’t Written for Me

Over the past year and half I’ve gotten to know Tom Christofferson pretty well. What a pleasure it has been! He is kind, wise, spiritual, and just a great human being. Tom has many friends and I’m honored to be counted among them. I recently read his book, That We May Be One: A Gay Mormon’s Perspective on Faith & Family. It was an excellent read and my copy is filled with highlights (It’s also not terribly long which is a plus.).

As a gay Mormon I was dealt the easiest hand of cards. I have a loving and supportive family, friends at my side, and ward families that have openly embraced me. My gay Mormon journey has been easy compared to many. In Tom’s story I saw similar stories of people reaching out with unconditioned love. As I read his book there were times when I thought, “Yes! This is how a family should treat their gay loved one! Yes! This is how a ward should respond to a gay ward member!” The book is full of great anecdotes that teach powerful principles. Here is just one.  

Tom was going to bring his boyfriend to a family reunion which made some of his siblings uncomfortable. Because Tom would be there with his partner they weren’t sure if they should bring their families. Tom’s mom said to the family, “The most important lesson your children will learn from how our family treats their Uncle Tom is that nothing they can ever do will take them outside the circle of our family’s love.” Right on, Sister Christofferson! She set the example and the family followed. Tom and his partner were part of the family were treated like anyone else.

The book is full of little gems that really made me think. Like this one: “My resolve is that I might see the spark of the Divine in each person I encounter.” While that would make a great Pinterest meme, it’s an even better daily goal.

Tom’s book left me feeling inspired and uplifted. I wish every church member would read it because it gives real life examples of how we can love and care for someone who may be living their life in a way that doesn’t align with our beliefs. It’s a truly beautiful book. However, the book isn’t written for me. It doesn’t read as “how to be a gay Mormon.” In fact, Tom is very clear in multiple places that he doesn’t offer his life as an example, but that each person should seek their own path. I found beautiful principles in the book and was moved by the stories, but the book isn’t written for a gay Mormon like me. I see it as a book for the straight members of the church who want to reach out in love to their gay loved ones. I would totally recommend this book to the parents of a kid who just came out. I hope that every straight person in the church will read Tom’s story, especially if they work with youth. Bishops, Young Men's and Young Women's leaders, and other leaders will gain a broader perspective by following Tom and his ecclesiastical leaders on their journey. 

And now a recommendation. I would not recommend giving a copy to your gay son or lesbian friend who no longer attend church. Although well intentioned, this kind of gesture could be seen as saying, “You see! Tom lived the gay lifestyle and then returned to the church. You can, too!” If I were no longer in the church and someone gifted me this book it would feel like an attack on my life choices. But this book isn’t for gay Mormons, it’s for those with gay family members and those with gay friends. This book is an excellent resource to better understand one gay Mormon’s journey.

I highly recommend this book and hope that many, many church members will read it. I’ll happily lend you my copy, but I hope you’ll purchase a copy so we can vote with our dollars and show Deseret Book that we want more excellent content like this. 

You can buy Tom's book at Deseret book or here

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.