Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Coming to Hearken

Acts 12:12-16 tells a story that I originally thought was funny (and an odd choice to be included in the Bible), but has since taught me a profound lesson.

Here’s what happened. Peter is in jail and is miraculously released by an angel. He goes to a house
Me convincingly knocking on a door
where some of the disciples are praying together and knocks at the gate. A damsel, named Rhoda, goes to answer the door, but when she recognizes Peter’s voice she’s so excited that she runs in to tell everyone that Peter is there (I can’t tell you how many times people have failed to answer the door when they realized I was the one outside). They tell her she’s crazy because, obviously, Peter is in jail. Rhoda sticks to what she knows to be true and “constantly affirmed” that it was Peter. The disciples continue to dismiss her by basically saying, “Okay, if you’re so certain you heard Peter then it’s probably just his ghost.” A very logical explanation, right? While they are having this argument in the house, Peter is still outside knocking, probably yelling, “Hellooooo! I’m still out here!” They open the door, see Peter, and are shocked he’s there.

The story of Rhoda presents a clash of beliefs. She knew through personal experience that Peter was at the door. On the other hand, the disciples knew that it couldn’t be Peter because, based on the information they had, he was still locked in prison. They initially thought Rhoda was crazy; then they came up with alternative explanations to what she was saying (“It’s just his angel”). But it wasn’t until they experienced it for themselves that they knew what Rhoda knew all along. 

The whole story might have been different if all of them “came to hearken,” as Rhoda did, the first time Peter knocked on the door. But she had been the only one who went out to listen and attend to the person knocking at the door.

I’d just like to share one quick example from my own life of me “knowing” something that I didn’t actually know.

Growing up I firmly believed that people were poor because they were lazy. If you work hard and apply yourself you won’t be poor, I thought. Prosperity resulted from thrift, labor, and righteousness. If you were poor, it was your fault. I served my mission in Mexico and interacted with many poor people (Is it more polite to say impoverished people?). However, I failed to realize the systemic causes of poverty in that country. I continued to believe that if people just worked hard they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps and prosper. I mentioned these thoughts to my Mexican companions and was often reprimanded and told that I was an arrogant American. I didn’t listen. Even though I knew poor people, I didn’t understand them or their situations. My companions were right. I was arrogant.

A year after my mission I did an internship with LDS Employment Resources Services in Bolivia. Part of my work included teaching workshops to church members who were applying for Perpetual Education Fund loans. These low interest loans would allow them to get vocational training. For the first time, I spent hours talking with people about their dreams for the future and the barriers to those dreams. I learned that at the time the minimum wage in Bolivia was about $50 USD a month, but tuition cost around $40 USD a month. It was nearly impossible for most people to afford tuition without a loan, and loans were not as easy to obtain in Bolivia as they are in the US. It finally sunk in that there were systemic causes to poverty. Some people were basically trapped. 

Me in Bolivia back when my hair
was almost exclusively brown
I remember one particular night talking with a group of these loan applicants. Many for them expressed gratitude for “the church’s money.” I told them that this wasn’t the church’s money, per se, but that people that didn’t even know them had donated money so that they could go to school. After the class a young woman named María came up to me in tears. She said, “Thank you for telling me where the money comes from. I had no idea that it came from my brothers and sisters. Whenever you get the chance, will you thank anyone who sacrificed their money so I could go to school?” I promised her that I would.

I returned to BYU after that internship realizing that I wasn’t as poor as I had thought. I started noticing all the disposable income I had and how María didn’t have $40 to go to school. So I decided to donate $40 each month to the Perpetual Education Fund. It wasn’t a lot of money to me; about the amount I’d spend on a date I was trying to impress (and boy was I impressive). But it was enough to send a Bolivian to school each month. I did that every month for six or seven years.

There was a real problem in the world that I had been explaining away, and because I failed to see the problem I did nothing to mitigate it. Once I “came to hearken” to the knocking, I realized that I could do a very small thing to make the problem just a little better.

That’s all very fine and good, but what does it have to do with being gay? Well, let me tell you. I have often felt like Rhoda. When I have shared my experiences as a gay Mormon I have been called crazy, and people have explained away the realities that I’m trying to share. Some people, however, believe me from the very beginning. Here are three examples of the kinds of interactions I’ve had:

Me: I’m struggling with feelings of same-sex attraction.
Person who doesn’t believe me: No you’re not. A loving God wouldn’t do that to anyone.

Me: I have SSA.
Person explaining away what I’m telling them: Well, that must be because you had an overbearing mother and a distant father. Or you were sexually abused as a kid. You’re probably just addicted to pornography.

Me: I’m gay.
Person who believes me: Really? Okay. Thank you for telling me. What has this been like for you? How can I help you?

I still tell mine and María’s story whenever it is relevant. I’ve told it dozens and dozens of times. I got emotional telling it to my Spanish classes back in February. I tell this story because it taught me about my blind spots and my privilege, but mostly I tell it because she asked me to. I always feel the Spirit, even 11 years later, whenever I comply with her request to thank people who have donated to the Perpetual Education Fund.
María is in the front on the far right. I asked if I could take
their picture to show who receives PEF loans.

I’m not saying you should agree with everything I say. I mean, my opinions shift and change all the time, and I’m wrong a lot. And I’m not asking you to even believe the things I say I know. But what I am asking is that when I talk about my personal, lived experiences, that you believe me—just as Rhoda knew that Peter was there because she recognized his voice. You could call me crazy and explain away my same-sex attraction, or you could just believe me.

Now I have an invitation for you. Whenever someone mentions that we need to love and support our LGBT brothers and sisters in a talk or lesson at church, will you please thank them? And when you hear people explaining away the existence of gay Mormons, will you please gently correct them? María has no idea that I’m still honoring her request to thank people and that I still donate to the PEF. I won’t know if you honor my request either. But if your experience is anything like mine, you’ll feel the Spirit every time you do.

Rhoda knew that Peter was at the door, and she did not back down, even when people said she was crazy. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all “came to hearken” to the people who are currently knocking at our door, and even better, opened the door to really see who’s there? We may be astonished to find out the realities of their existence. And we’ll all be better for it.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

What I Wish People Understood

A good friend of mine at BYU recently asked me what I wished church leaders understood about being gay. Here are my wishes.

My straight friend Dianna who has hosted the support
group in her house since I left Tucson
I wish that we LGBT Latter-day Saints had a place to find each other. We need each other. With the help of my stake president in Tucson I started a support group for gay Mormons modeled after the Genesis Group. The Genesis Group is a monthly meeting for Black members of the church that three apostles helped found in the 70s. It was designed to be a place for them to build their faith in Christ together and create a community of saints with similar life experiences. Starting that support group in Tucson was a life changing experience for me, and it was healing to my soul to spend time with other same-sex attracted Mormons as we built our faith in Christ together and shared common experiences. I have heard too many stories of gay Mormons feeling so isolated and alone that they get on a dating app or on Craigslist just to find someone like them that they can talk to. No one should feel that they need to put themselves in those dangerous situations when there are plenty of super rad LGBT members for them to connect with if they only knew how to find them.

I wish more Latter-day Saints could see the hearts of their LGBT brothers and sisters instead of condemning them. My experiences with being open about my sexuality have been overwhelmingly positive. However, there was that active woman who emphatically accused me of being addicted to pornography because that was the only way someone would develop such deviant thoughts as same-sex attractions. There was the bishop’s wife who compared me to a pedophile multiple times. The church has some amazing resources, but not nearly enough people know about them. It’s easier for them to cling to things that were written in The Miracle of Forgiveness than to open their minds to the further light and knowledge that has been received and will continue to be received. I don’t know what the church should do. It’s not my job to make those decisions. But in my experience, what we’re currently doing isn’t working.

My sister and I taking a mirror
selfie for some reason
I wish that people would stop comparing single gay members to older single women. The first reason is because our situations are so different. My sister is 36 and single and we’ve talked about this a bunch. She gets to date, and flirt, and pray every night that she’ll find a man who will take her to the temple. But my biggest fear is that I’ll fall in love with a man. It's much easier to be an active gay Mormon when I have no dating prospects. The second reason this comparison is unfair is because many of the single women are not doing well. I have many older single friends and I have sat with them as they have cried because they feel no one wants them. I know that many of my single female friends are doing quite well and thriving, but their singleness has brought much sorrow throughout their lives. A few weeks ago I got a call from a single friend in her mid 30s who lives in a different state. When I asked how she was doing she burst into tears and said, “How do you do it? How are you happy single? I’m so lonely.” So being told, “Older single women are happy so you should just be happy single,” is dismissive, invalidating, and not entirely true.

I wish I could label myself as I please. I have been told many times by church leaders to not label myself as gay and I obeyed that counsel during my 20s. I didn’t want to be gay. I didn’t want to be attracted to men. And I hated myself for having those feelings. The times when I didn’t identify as gay were the hardest, darkest times in my life. Choosing to identify as gay has been wonderful and freeing. I’m no longer trying to change something about myself that I can’t change, but I’m acknowledging the unique circumstances of my life and choosing to live in them. My beliefs and commitment to the restored gospel have not changed since I started labeling myself as gay. I live church standards as much as I always have. But what has changed is that I don’t hate myself anymore (I wrote more about this in a previous post). I wish church leaders would honor our agency and grant us the freedom to choose how to define ourselves.
My mom who has always honored my agency

I wish that people wouldn’t try to comfort me by pointing to the next life. I have been told many times that my feelings of same-sex attraction are just an affliction of this life that I won’t experience in the next life. I can see how some people might think this belief is helpful, but to me it wasn’t. I hated my same-sex attractions so much that I yearned to be dead. Death felt like the answer to my problems. During this time, I would have welcomed being diagnosed with cancer because it would have meant the end of my suffering. I would have rather been dead and straight than alive and gay. I have seen how teaching people that they won’t experience same-sex attractions in the next life can lead to thoughts of suicide.

I wish I could be open about who I am. I have been counseled from time to time to not talk about being gay. Someone in my Elders Quorum just a few weeks ago said that people shouldn’t be open about their sexual orientation because it normalizes it and could lead to experimentation. When we got baptized we covenanted to bear each other’s burdens, comfort one another, and mourn together. How can my brothers and sisters bear my burdens, comfort me, and mourn with me if they don’t know what’s going on in my life? Those people who tell me not to talk about my sexuality are acting from a place of fear. For me, being open about who I am in appropriate ways has healed my heart. I no longer feel like a stranger at church, but I feel like I belong.

Sarah who always reminds me to
elevate my vision
I wish we could use our Christlike imaginations more. I wish we could elevate our vision and think of solutions that no one has thought of before. I tried incredibly hard to get married during my 20s. Now I feel like marriage isn’t the right thing for me, at least for the foreseeable future. However, I am regularly counseled to marry a woman. I’ve had multiple priesthood leaders recommend that I marry a woman who also struggles with same-sex attraction. The last time a bishop said that to me I said, “That doesn’t feel like a good idea to me. I think at least one person should be attracted to the other.” It is so discouraging for me and my gay friends to be counseled to just find a woman to marry. That’s what we’ve been doing for years and it has caused a lot of pain and anxiety. My life at 34 is nothing like I imagined it would be. It’s better! I had a narrow vision of what life was all about, but once I started to live by faith I was guided to a life that is more full and more joyful than I could have conceived of on my own.

I wish everyone could elevate their vision, find out what we as individuals need, and then we can go from there. Telling us that we just need to get married is often not the right choice. Just as some prospective missionaries are honorably excused from serving missions, I feel that God has honorably excused me from marriage, for now.
My straight friend Steve who has spent
many hours listening to LGBT stories
But most of all, I wish you could sit with me in my living room and be there during the many times Mormons with same-sex attraction have cried on my couch. I wish you could be there in my office at school as LGBT latter-day saints have unloaded their frustrations on me. I wish you could read all the emails and texts I get. I wish you were there for the phone calls. I wish you were there on the long walks I take with gay friends who want so much to be good and who strive their very best to live the gospel, but who feel lonely, trapped, and isolated. I wish you could hear the many hundreds of stories I’ve heard.

I wish you could be there in those moments when I sit with an LGBT brother or sister of mine. I wish you could hear them share their struggles and also their love for God. I wish you could feel the powerful Spirit that is always in those meetings as we open our hearts to each other and share our lived experiences. Those are some of the moments when I have felt the closest to God in my life. Those are the moments when I have felt like I was part of Zion. I feel that if every church member could experience that we would be a much better people. A more unified and inclusive Zion.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

BYU’s LGBTQ & SSA Student Forum


On March 15, 2018, at 12:30 pm something happened that I never dreamed I’d see. I had just spent the last 90 minutes participating on BYU’s LGBTQ & SSA Student Forum panel with Kait Wright, Sarah Langford, and Gabe Cano. Each of these people is a dear friend, and we were selected to represent each of the letters in the acronym LGBT. I was the G. We had all been vulnerable, honest, and hopeful as we answered questions from the audience, not mincing words as we discussed tough experiences. Then, as the panel ended, the completely packed auditorium burst into applause and a sincere standing ovation. As I watched hundreds of people rise from their seats, my eyes welled with tears at this spontaneous gesture.

As I discussed this moment later with my straight friends, some of them explained what it felt like to be in the audience applauding. They said that they applauded the panelists because of our courage to openly share our stories. They were validating our life experiences and our engagement with faith, belief, love, acceptance, and contradiction. They were celebrating us because of the courage it takes to not give up or feel bitter while reconciling our faith and our unique circumstances.

Later that day I read some news stories about the event, including one from The Salt Lake Tribune. I was deeply disappointed by the content of the article. It focused on the negative things the panelists said while completely leaving out the good. I felt misrepresented. Part of the article stated, “Ben Schilaty is still figuring it out,” referring to my connection to God. I don’t recall saying that, and that’s definitely not how I feel. A number of people who were at the panel told me that the synopsis in the Trib did not reflect the feeling or message of the event.

There were so many beautiful moments that captured the essence of what we were trying to share. Moving messages, like when Gabe recounted his mission companion’s response, when he opened up about his feelings, “You know, we’re walking on holy ground.” The whole student forum felt like holy ground. Or Sarah explaining her mother’s beautiful acceptance of her as a teenager, telling her she didn’t need to label herself. Or the story I shared of the extremely positive responses I received from my students in the Spanish class I teach on campus when I came out to them last semester. Or the inspiring things that Kait said, like how sharing authentic stories is part of building the Kingdom of God.

The behind-the-scenes stories deserve to be told, too. Liza (who uses the plural pronouns they, them, theirs) opened the panel and constantly referred to their “team.” Liza’s team was dozens and dozens of LGBTQ students who wanted to see this panel happen. These students passed out flyers in the cold, and many of them came to the panel wearing rainbow shirts with name tags that said, “I’m gay! Ask me questions!” This event could not have happened without the work that so many students did to put it on. They deserve to be honored for their work. And Liza coordinated almost 100% of it all. Liza got a much-deserved standing ovation for all their work. Liza and their team are my heroes.

During the panel, three lesbian members of Liza’s team sat in the front row just 10 feet from me. I know them well, and I know that they are no longer sure what they believe about the church. Whenever a panelist said a comment they really liked, they would raise their hands in the air and snap, demonstrating their approval. After the panel, they asked if their snapping was distracting. I said, “I actually appreciated it. I’m super Mormon, and it was nice to know that you were agreeing with what I was saying. I’m sorry that I’m so churchy all the time.” One of them put her hand on my arm and said, “We love that you’re so Mormon, Ben. You be you.” While our belief systems may currently differ, they respected me enough to celebrate mine.  

This event couldn’t have happened without a number of stars aligning. Many of those stars were school administrators who, after taking the time to understand us, worked tirelessly for this event to take place so the campus community could hear our life experiences. Two weeks ago, we had a tense few days trying to make a decision relating to the forum. One of the administrators invited all of us over to his house on a Sunday night. A dozen of us LGBTQ students chatted for about two hours with him until we came to a decision on what to do. He showed us a picture his six-year-old daughter drew that day that included a rainbow. She said she drew it because she knew some of daddy’s friends love rainbows and because they make her happy. The story I see from this event isn’t that BYU treats gay students poorly, but that a BYU administrator gave hours upon hours of his time for this event to happen. He has become a dear friend through this process to many of us.

While I was waiting my turn to answer the last question on the panel I got a strong impression to tell the audience that this event wouldn’t have happened without the support and help of administrators at BYU. Then, like a dummy, I totally forgot to mention them in my closing remarks. As the last two panelists spoke, I felt a pit in my stomach knowing that I had missed an important prompting. As one of the moderators was sharing her final thoughts, Sarah leaned over to me and said, “I feel like we need to say something about the work the administrators have done to make this happen.” Incredibly relieved I said, “I just felt the exact same prompting!” Sarah replied, “By the mouth of two of three witnesses.” As soon as the moderator finished speaking, Sarah turned on her mic and explained to the room, “I felt really compelled to say this. I need all of you to know in this room that Liz [Darger] and Steve [Smith] are just a small sample of the administration and faculty and staff here at BYU that are doing everything they possibly can to make this a better place for the LGBTQ members here at BYU. I am a witness that there are people here advocating for you at every level of this university and that you can trust them. And I just wanted to say thank you publicly.” That was the message the Holy Ghost wanted everyone present to hear, and I’m thankful that Sarah had the courage to say something.

One of the last moments of the event was when Liza Holdaway asked anyone in the room who identified as LGBTQ or same-sex attracted, and who felt comfortable doing so, to stand. Probably about a fifth of the room stood, nearly 100 people, and the audience erupted into applause. I nearly burst into tears watching my straight peers clap for my LGBTQ & SSA family. How on earth did that moment not make it into the news? Liza was quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune as saying, “LGBT and [same-sex-attracted] students don’t only exist at the BYU, they belong at BYU.” I felt the truthfulness of their words as I watched the applause.

Straight members of the audiences applauded, I later learned, for the courage it took to stand up and be seen. There was a recognition that everyone wouldn’t be walking out the doors that day with the same beliefs and understanding, but that there would continue to be a diversity of experiences and opinions. However, the LGBTQ & SSA students left feeling loved, validated, and a little better understood. I believe it was a healing evening for students who no longer wish to engage in Mormonism. There was an understanding that day that, until we see each other as brothers and sisters, we’re not yet where we need to be. This event felt like that start of a campus-wide conversation that will continue to happen.

The real news is the years of work that LGBTQ & SSA students have done at BYU to have this important conversation on campus. The real news is that a room full of BYU students gave a standing ovation to four LGBT students who unapologetically told their stories. The real news is that a whole auditorium of straight students applauded their LGBTQ & SSA peers for having the courage to stand up and identify themselves. The real news is that the LGBTQ & SSA students of BYU worked tirelessly to get this event to happen successfully. And the real news is that BYU administrators were part of the entire process and were visibly moved at the end of the event.

The world hasn’t felt different to me yet. My world feels pretty much the same. And yet it’s not the same. The campus community at BYU is having a conversation that I have not really seen happen before. I can’t wait to see what having this conversation will do for all of us, as we listen to and love and serve each other as individuals. There’s more real news to come.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

I Have Not Chosen to Be Celibate

The following exchange happened in a professional meeting with more than a dozen people in attendance.

Steve: (referring to something from the 1980s) “Sorry, I’m really dating myself here.”
Me: “Steve?! You’re a gay Mormon, too?! Because the only person I’m allowed to date is myself.”
Everyone else in the room (including Steve): (impressed with my zinger) “Wow!”

When other Mormons learn that I’m gay, active in the church, and not pursuing a relationship with a woman I often get asked, “So you’ve chosen to be celibate?” I’ve been asked this and similar questions many dozens of times. I assume it stems from the three possible paths we typically think are available to gay Mormons: find an opposite-sex partner and stay in the church, leave the church and find a same-sex partner, or stay in the church and be celibate. The question doesn’t really annoy me because people are just trying to figure me out. However, asking me if I’ve chosen to be celibate is reductive and inaccurate.  

Asking if I’m going to be celibate makes it seem as if my life choices revolve around whether or not I’m going to have sex. Imagine someone excitedly announcing their engagement to you and you respond, “Congratulations! So you’ve decided to have sex?” Kind of silly, huh? In this situation, the typical response is to be thrilled that this person has found their life companion with no mention of their sex life. We might even buy them a pillow with embroidered letters that read, “I MARRIED MY BEST FRIEND.” For some reason, though, my life choices are often boiled down to whether or not I’m planning on having sex.

Somehow this is the level of discourse we’ve arrived at when discussing what the life of an active, gay Mormon looks like. So I’d like to offer some alternatives. Here are some questions you could ask instead of asking your single, gay Mormon friends if they are going to be celibate:

“What are your plans for the future?”
“What do you want your life to look like?”
“How can I help you thrive on the path you’ve chosen?”
“Man, you must be so sad and lonely all the time, right?”

Okay, that last one is just a joke. I’m perfectly happy and willing to talk about my future and what I think it will look like within Mormonism. But celibacy has never been part of my life decisions. I fully admit and understand that no sex is what my future will look like if I plan to move forward in the church, but at no point was sex any part of the equation for me.

Gay Mormons have to make sacrifices, no matter what we choose. Unfortunately, we are regularly shamed for whichever choice we make. “Oh, you chose to leave the church and break your covenants, did you?” “I see, you’re a victim of patriarchy and you’re allowing your church to force you into an inauthentic relationship.” “No sex, huh? I couldn’t live like that. It’s only a matter of time before you change your mind.” So yes, celibacy is part of the package of the life I have chosen, but it is not the main part of the package, nor is sex the thing I feel like I’m giving up.

Here’s the sacrifice I feel like I’m making. My mom has Alzheimer’s and her memory is getting
My parents and I over Christmas
pretty bad. It’s been extremely stressful on my dad, and the amount of time we spend searching for things she has misplaced is astronomical. I wrote this in my journal when I was visiting my parents over Christmas. “This evening has been tough. Dad asked me to help him learn how to use mom’s phone, but it’s been put on some weird settings that I don’t know how to fix. Then we tried to use her computer, but the mouse was missing. Mom started searching the house not sure what she was looking for. Dad finally just hugged her, told her he loved her, and that she didn’t have to search anymore… Tonight I wished I had a partner. Not because I was lonely or sad, but because I wished I had someone to talk to about all this.”

I remember sitting in my parents’ rec room alone that night just yearning for a partner. Watching my parents’ decline is tough, and it’s tougher to do it alone. My mom was getting stressed as she searched the house not even knowing what she was looking for. It was so tender to see my dad’s response to her stress. He just hugged her and told her he loved her. I needed someone to do that for me in that moment. I know that I have plenty of friends who I could have called to talk to, but in that moment I didn’t need a friend—I needed a partner. I sat there feeling sorry for myself for a few minutes, and then I called my sister because she’s the closest thing I have to a partner.

My sister and I decided to make a Christmas card this year
That is what I’m sacrificing. I’m not choosing to be celibate, and I’m not choosing to give up sex. I’m choosing to live life without a partner. I’m not saying that so that you’ll pity me, and I’m not complaining either. I’m just explaining my reality and the choices I’m making. And I have made these choices based on what feels right to me in my mind and in my heart.

Steve, a straight Mormon and my friend, told me after the meeting that my “perfectly timed and delivered” riposte (his words) had brought him a step closer to beginning to understand what my life’s choices meant. So if Steve ever asks about my dating life he'll just get to hear me talk about myself.

Yes, I’m giving up a lot by deciding to move forward in the church, but there is also a lot I’m gaining. I’ve already addressed this topic in this post and this post. I fully expect to be asked about my celibacy many times in the coming years and that’s fine, but there are so many better things you could ask me about. Ask about my participation in church. Ask about my work in the temple. Ask about my home teaching (okay, don’t ask about that one). Ask about what I’m studying in the scriptures and the insights I’ve gained (which is actually one of my favorite topics of conversation). Ask how I’m reaching out to the people around me. Ask about my job and my studies and my family. And if you really, really, really want to know how much sex I’m currently having and plan to have in the future, fine, ask about that, too.