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 lds.org. 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 ministering.lds.org 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 lds.org 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.

1 comment:

Shelley Colton said...

You are moving to Utah at the end of the summer? Yay! Please check in! You need to come see our new house and join us for Sunday dinners. Don't be a stranger!