Monday, October 23, 2017

Choosing to Be Straight

I was raised to be straight. My family, my church, and society all expected me to be straight and pointed me in that direction. Being straight comes with all kinds of benefits like fitting in in a heteronormative society, following LDS doctrine, and having biological children. Children might just be a good enough reason to be straight. I mean, I’m tall, I have thick hair, and a metabolism that works like a charm. These traits totally deserve to be passed on to the next generation. Being straight seemed like the logical choice. Being gay is hard and being straight is way easier.

During the last transfer of my mission a number of missionaries and I were on a long bus ride traveling to a meeting. We were discussing what life would be like for me when I got home and how quickly I’d get married. The consensus was that I wouldn’t last a year single. I was a little more conservative in my estimate and predicted that I’d be married in a year and a half. I figured I’d get home at the end of February, head back to BYU in the fall where I’d meet some girl in my FHE group, we’d date that semester, get engaged in the spring, and married in the summer. It felt like a good plan.

I had previously thought that my mission would cure me of my same-sex attraction and I felt forsaken when I got home and it remained. Still, I felt it was a temporary thing that I could overcome. I started regularly praying and fasting that God would change my heart. I wrote in my journal a few years later: “What is the reason for this trial? I know that someday it will end and I pray that God will hasten the day.” I felt that I needed to do my part to have a change of heart so I went on a lot of dates. Like, a LOT of dates. So many, in fact, that I was regularly accused of “leading girls on.” Since no one knew that I was gay and I was taking many women on dates it looked like I was toying with hearts. 

Me in my early 20s.
Such a heartbreaker.
I was making a concerted, valiant effort to be straight. And besides the cognitive dissonance going on in my head, I was straight. I didn’t talk about liking boys, I didn’t write in my journal about it, I didn’t flirt with guys, or date guys, or hold hands with them, or cuddle with them, or kiss them, or anything that a gay person might do. On the contrary, I did all that with women. And I was pretty smooth, too. Six months after being home from my mission I wrote in my journal about a girl I met at church who I thought was super cool and a clever plan I devised to get to know her. I asked her if I could borrow a DVD to watch on my flight home for Thanksgiving. I wrote: “I returned the DVD to her today and we talked for a while. She’s really fun to hang out with. I asked her if I could borrow a DVD because not only would I have to go over to pick it up, but I’d have to return it too. Two excuses to see her. It worked well.” Like I said, smooth as butter.

I met a girl in my FHE group my first fall semester back at school after my mission. She and I got along great and she was exactly the kind of girl I would want to date. I wrote on 17 October 2005: “We’ve been seeing quite a bit of each other and we talk every day. I like her and it has become more obvious that she likes me.” Good news, right? I continue writing about a walk that this girl and I went on: “Kyle had told me to make a move (exactly what that entails, I don’t know), but not only was I scared to, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to.” Basically I wanted a girlfriend, I just didn’t want to have to touch her. In hindsight I just wanted an awesome best friend, not a kissing buddy.

This girl and I didn’t date that semester. Then winter semester rolled around and I was coming up on my year mark of being home from my mission and I was freaking out that I was almost 22 and had never dated anyone. So I decided to rekindle my relationship with the girl whose hand I didn’t want to hold, but this time I’d have the guts to just do it. I invited her over to watch a movie 100% committed to holding hand, something I’d never done before with anyone. I was so incredibly nervous that I purposefully waited until the last ten minutes of the movie to grab her hand. Once we were interdigitating I relaxed a bit because the pressure was off and she actually seemed excited about holding hands with me. I, however, was feeling a bit uncomfortable. I drove her home shortly after the movie ended which included no more hand holding and a good night hug that I could’ve given to my sister. I then drove home and told everyone that I had a girlfriend.

The next day this girl and I were hanging out and she told me that she didn’t want to be exclusive. But I had already told loads of people we were dating. So I did what any person who desperately wants a girlfriend does, I convinced her that we should date and she agreed. As I left her apartment that night she gave me a much longer hug. It was like she didn’t want to let go. She just kept hugging and hugging so I kept hugging her back not really getting the point because I was ready to leave.

The following day she got cold feet again and I again had to convince her to date me. Then we cuddled on the couch and I just sat there not sure of what I was supposed to do while she snuggled with me. The following day she yet again said that she thought we should just be friends and we broke up. My journal entry about the break up is pretty funny. I wrote: “So we officially broke up after going out for four days… Aaron says that I’ve taken it really well. I think that I just realize that we’ll both end up with other people and be happier in the end.” Nice try, 21-year-old Ben. It’s so obvious now what was going on then. I wasn’t heartbroken because I wasn’t interested in her. What I was interested in was having a girlfriend because that’s what I was supposed to be doing and it was so embarrassing that I had never dated anyone.

I still count this girl in the list of women I’ve dated even though it only lasted for a handful of days. Mostly because saying I’ve had three girlfriends sounds much cooler than just two. Looking back on this experience more than a decade later, it’s interesting how committed I was to walking the path I was told to follow. I dated a girl I wasn’t attracted to just because I was supposed to. In my very first journal entry about being gay I wrote: “It sucks and I’d change things if I could.” I did not want to be gay and my actions were completely consistent with that desire. I actively chose to “live the straight lifestyle” for the entire decade of my 20’s.

I spent thousands of dollars and countless hours dating women during those years. And yet, I still occasionally get told by well-meaning people (and occasionally just your average rude person) that being gay is a choice. The exact opposite has been true for me as I tried as hard as I could to be straight. My personal experience has taught me that marriage to a woman probably isn't the right course for me. Choosing to be straight caused me a lot of anxiety and discomfort. I felt like I was lying and the inherent dishonesty of showing interest in people I wasn't interested in really weighed on me. Around the time I turned 30 I made a conscious decision to stop dating women and move forward in life as a single person. Not only did this decision make logical sense based on my life circumstances, but I have felt divine approval of this decision. And now I get loads of free meals which I'd like to think is the universe paying me back for all the meals I bought for women who have long since married other people.

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