Thursday, March 30, 2017

Coming Out to Church Leaders

When I first came out to Mitch and Craig in August of 2007 they recommended that I talk to my bishop about my feelings of same-sex attraction. I agreed that that was a good idea, but since I was moving in a few weeks I decided to wait until I was in my new ward. It took me three months to get up the courage to make an appointment to meet with the bishop. When I called the executive secretary to make the appointment he didn’t ask what the visit was about, only if I’d like 15 minutes or 30 minutes. I didn’t know what to expect so I said 30.

I recently reread my journal entry from the day I came out to my bishop and I was nervous all day. I was petrified because I didn’t know what he would say. When I arrived we made some brief small talk and then he asked me what I wanted to talk about. Unable to look him in the eye I stared at the floor as I told him I was attracted to men. He was extremely kind and validating. He asked me a little about my experiences, assured me I could serve in the church like anyone else, told me that he was still learning about this issue, and that was about it. We talked about my being gay for around 5 minutes and then shot the breeze for another 15. I left early feeling both relieved and confused that it hadn’t been a bigger deal. Part of me expected him to give me a priesthood blessing that would cure me or at least some sage advice that would reshape how I viewed the world, but he mostly just told me that as long as I kept my covenants I could continue serving in the church.

Stock photo from Not a picture of me.
I’ve come out to a number of bishops since then. They typically ask me if I’m living the law of chastity, tell me they love me, and that’s about it. Many of them have also encouraged me to continue dating women and one bishop even set me up on a blind date with his daughter right after I came out to him (I was confused by his timing). Another bishop recommended that a date a lesbian in the ward (once again, quite confusing). After explaining why I thought that was an awful idea he said, “Yeah, that might not work out too well.” Even though none of them has ever said anything that was particularly helpful or insightful, all of my interactions with my bishops regarding being gay have been extremely positive. My current bishop even gave me permission to come out to the ward in a talk and I’m so grateful that he didn't hesitate to allow me to do that.

Unfortunately I’ve met way too many people who have had negative experiences coming out to their church leaders. One of my friends told me that when she told her bishop she was gay his first response, “No, you’re not gay.” Too often the conversation focuses on which terms are and aren’t appropriate to use as labels instead of assessing the gay person’s emotional and spiritual needs. I hear stories like this a lot, of bishops being very invalidating of the gay Mormon experience. I’ve heard a number people say, “My bishop just doesn’t get it,” after coming out to him. Often bishops do a lot of telling instead of listening and learning.

I’ll be moving to Utah at the end of the summer and I'll be telling my new bishop that I’m gay. I’ve thought a lot about what I would say if he says, “No, you’re not gay,” when I come out to him. So here’s what I would do. I would tell the bishop to go to and have him click on the “Same-Sex Attraction” tab under “Ministering Resources”. This is an official site of the church and you need an login and a leadership calling to access it. I would then have him read through the first five paragraphs of that section together with me. Among other things these paragraphs explain that labels mean different things to different people and that it’s okay to identify as gay or lesbian. There are also little gems like this: “The most important thing you can do after a member discloses feelings of same-sex attraction is to listen and help them feel welcome.”

I’d then ask my bishop to scroll down to the next section which is titled “Understand the Situation.” Unfortunately you need to click “expand all” to see all the content. In this section there are some suggested questions listed to better help the leader understand the situation. I would then invite my bishop to ask me each of those questions:
  • Will you please tell me more about your experience? What is this like for you?
  • How have these feelings affected your life? How have they affected the lives of your friends and family?
  • How can I help you?
  • Would you like us to meet regularly to discuss this?
  • Labels have different meanings for different people. What does the word gay (or lesbian, bisexual, SSA, and so on) mean to you?
Considering these questions will open the doors to what would hopefully be a fruitful discussion and would avoid my having to listen to ill-informed advice. And if I was feeling particularly bold I would have him scroll down to the section titled "Use Ward and Stake Resources." I'd point out the second bullet point in that section that says: "Consider discussing the issue in ward council or in a fifth Sunday lesson." Then I'd offer to help him teach that lesson and tell him that I've already done lessons on same-sex attraction in other wards. It's important that church leaders learn how to appropriately respond when church members come out to them. When I first came out to my bishop I was extremely vulnerable. It was one of the most vulnerable and fragile moments of my life. I would have been crushed if my bishop had invalidated my experiences instead of responding with love and concern. From the stories I hear there are still many leaders who do not know who to appropriately respond when someone comes out to them. Thankfully the church has a resource to help them know what to do. If I encounter an oblivious bishop I will simply direct him to that resource so that he can learn with me.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Time I Kissed a Girl

When I talk to straight Mormons about my experiences as a gay Mormon they often try to find experiences in their lives that parallel mine. I think this is a natural way to try to understand, but frequently their “parallels” are nothing like my experiences. For example, a few days ago I said that I kissed a girl and I didn’t like it and one woman immediately said, “My first kiss was terrible, too.” She said this in a way that felt invalidating to my experience. This conversation prompted me to write out the story of my first kiss. I hope that you’ll try and put yourself in my shoes and in Emma’s shoes and imagine what it would have been like for you to go through these experiences.

I met Emma in the Salt Lake airport as we were both traveling home from BYU for Christmas. She and I clicked instantly and when we returned to BYU I took her on a few dates. Our third or fourth date was going to be a double date with two of my close friends who knew I was gay. This was January 2008 and I had only started coming out to people four months before so only a handful of people even knew about my sexuality. But it felt unfair that the girl I was trying to date would be the only person in the room who didn’t know that I was attracted to men. So a few days before the date I mustered the courage to tell her.

I just reread my journal entry about coming out to her and, oh wow, I can be really weird sometimes. Here’s part of what I wrote: “I told Emma today about my SSA. She seems to be interested in me and I’m interested in her and I thought she should know. I didn’t know where we should talk about it so I picked her up after work and we drove to the temple parking lot. As we were driving by the MTC she asked where we were going and I said that we were going to EFO (express feelings openly) which is different than DTR (defining the relationship).” Obviously 23-year-old me was quite the smooth talker.

Her first response after I came out to her was, “That sucks,” said as a statement of fact. She was really understanding and gave me the opportunity to open up about my experiences. She told me that she was willing to give us a try and I said that I was, too, but that I wanted to take things slowly. And so began my first real relationship.

We continued going on dates and one night when we were talking on the phone and I asked her if we were dating (like I said, I was a smooth talker. Smooth as jazz.) and she said yes, but that we weren’t boyfriend/girlfriend because you have to hold hands to get that title. You have to understand that for a 23-year-old Mormon boy it was of utmost importance to me to find a wife and at this point in my life I had never even had a girlfriend. I decided to seal the deal the next day by holding her hand while we were walking to campus. As we walked I asked if I could hold her hand (because you gotta get consent first), but she told me I shouldn’t because I wasn’t attracted to her. I responded that I was working on that and that I did want to hold her hand. In retrospect that was mostly true. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to hold her hand, but that I wanted her to be my girlfriend.

So we interdigitated. And it was awkward. I was glad when we arrived at our destination and I didn’t have to hold her hand anymore. That night we watched a movie at my apartment and held hands again. I wrote my feelings in my journal: “I’m not quite sure how I feel. I love Emma as a person, but I’m just not that attracted to her. I’m going to keep moving forward in the hope that I will develop more feelings for her. I really don’t want to hurt her.” Holding hands got less uncomfortable, but it never felt quite right to me.

A week later we were watching another movie (randomly the first three movies we watched together all had Michelle Pfeiffer in them) and I held her hand again. Halfway through the movie I didn’t want to hold her hand any more, but I felt like I was now trapped for the whole movie. So I got up to use the bathroom even though I didn’t have to go and folded my arms when I sat back down. That night I wrote in my journal: “I got really frustrated with myself. Here’s a girl who is perfect for me and I don’t find her attractive. I don’t know what to do.”

More than a month passed and I still hadn’t kissed her. I’d never kissed anyone and neither had she and she was beginning to get understandably impatient. I knew I was supposed to kiss her, but I just couldn’t get up the courage to do it. One night we went to a BYU men’s volleyball game together and I thought it would be such a great story if I kissed her in the bleachers while we were watching the game. I imagined quickly stealing a kiss and then the whole crowd would cheer and it’d be awesome. She’d love my assertiveness and it’d be a great story to tell our kids, but then there was that whole lack of courage thing going on.

I took her home after the game and went back to my apartment feeling so mad at myself for not being able to kiss her. I stewed for a few minutes then grabbed my backpack and went back to her house. She was surprised and happy to see me. The two of us sat on her couch together and studied for a bit. We also talked about kissing and what it meant and she assured me that it wasn’t a big deal. I knew that I needed to stop being afraid and that I couldn’t leave without kissing her. When I stood up to leave she stood up as well and we shared a brief, tender kiss. As I pulled away I looked into her eyes and smiled. I then turned around to grab my backpack and the smile faded from my face and with my head turned from her I let my real emotions show on my face. I started shaking as I grabbed my backpack. As I turned to face her I put a fake smile back on my face and tried to control the shaking so she wouldn’t notice the discomfort I was feeling. I gave her a hug and left her house.

As soon as the door shut I started running to my car. As I ran I said to myself out loud, “What have I done? What have I done? What have I done?” I sat in my car and felt like garbage. I felt like I had just lied to her. That I had expressed something that I didn’t really feel. When I got home I told my roommates I had kissed her and they were all excited and I feigned excitement as well. The next day I was back at Emma’s house talking to her roommates before she got home. They told me that they had heard all about the kiss and how magical it was from Emma. They were so giddy about it, but the thought that kept running through my brain was, “She and I did not experience the same thing.”

I kissed Emma a few more times hoping I’d like it more, but I didn’t. Not long after our first kiss I got the flu and was grateful I had an excuse to not kiss her. And then not long after that she broke up with me. I was pretty upset and very hurt. I loved having her in my life and losing that relationship was painful. I had told her I loved her and that was true, but one of my first thoughts after she dumped me was to hope that she’d be single for a long time so she’d regret breaking up with me. How’s that for love, huh? When you love someone, you don’t hope that they’ll be filled with regret, but that’s what I hoped for. At the time I didn’t realize how selfish I was being.

Loving a woman as a gay man is complicated. A month after Emma broke up with me I moved to Mexico for a summer internship. During the trip my hair gel exploded in my bag covering my journal and rendering some other books in my bag unsalvageable. When I saw my journal covered in goo my first thought was, “Oh no! Emma!” All of my memories of her were written in that book and I was terrified of losing the record of a relationship that had meant so much to me. I was so relieved when I realized that, though damaged, the journal was still readable. I missed her terribly. I missed having her in my life. She had become my best friend. However, the relationship was problematic because I loved spending time with her, but the pressure to show physical affection made me so uncomfortable.

As years passed and as I matured I learned that if you really care for someone you’ll want what’s best for them. And I wasn’t the best thing for Emma. She deserved someone who could love her in ways that I couldn’t, someone who could be more than just a great friend.  When she finally did get married I didn’t feel an ounce of jealousy, hurt, or regret. All I felt was happiness for my friend and her happiness. And I was glad that she dumped me because it was the best thing for both of us.

I can’t say enough nice things about Emma. She is kind, witty, smart, accomplished, and legitimately made me a better person. We haven’t spoken face to face since 2012, but her influence in my life is incalculable. In 2014, months before I had any intention of coming out on my blog I sent her an essay I had written that later became my coming out post. Her response was to quote Esther 4:14 “For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed: and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this.” That scripture hit me like a ton of bricks and it stirred in me a desire to speak, to no longer hold my peace. Emma unknowingly inspired me with part of the courage I needed to be more vocal. In my prayers tonight I will be thanking God for Emma’s presence in my life.

Perhaps your first kiss was uncomfortable just like mine was. Perhaps you felt awkward holding someone’s hand for the first time. Perhaps you loved someone selfishly like I did. If that’s what you experienced, I hope you were able to overcome those feelings and form a healthy, stable relationship. But please know that the challenges that gay people face who are seeking to be in mixed-orientation relationships are not the same as the struggles faced by typical heterosexual couples. There are added layers of complexity and complication that make them inherently challenging, but not impossible. That said, I’m extremely grateful for my relationship with Emma. For the good times we had, for the laughs we shared, and for the lessons I learned.