Monday, July 15, 2019

Alzheimer's Sucks!

I lost my cool when I was visiting my parents over Christmas. It was after 11 pm and when I went into my room to get ready for bed all my dirty clothes were gone. My mom had folded them and put them away in my dad’s dresser. “Mom, you really messed up. I just wanted to go to bed and now I have to deal with this.” She immediately started trying to fix the mess she’d caused. She grabbed random objects asking, “Is this what you’re looking for?” which easily could have been sweet, but just ticked me off. My mom had no idea what was going on, but she knew I was mad and she knew it was her fault. She looked so sad and my dad just hugged her and said, “Ginny, I love you so much. You are so kind and you didn’t do anything wrong.” I felt like garbage. 

I calmed down, sat at the dining room table, and read 1 Corinthians 13: “Charity suffereth long, and is kind… is not easily provoked.” I hadn’t been kind and I had most definitely been easily provoked. The next morning I apologized to my mother for being unkind and she had no clue what I was talking about. She just told me she loved me. It then occurred to me that I could measure my integrity by the way I treat someone who would have no memory of how I treat her. 

I made a commitment that I wouldn’t be unkind to my mom again, that I would be as patient as I previously thought I was. I spent two weeks at home in May and I did an excellent job (if I do say so myself). The two weeks I was home in July were a little harder. She kept taking my stuff and “putting things away.” Even some of the stuff I hid she found. It was a losing battle that I just gave up on. She’d come into my room wearing my clothes and I’d say, “Oh mom, that’s my shirt.” She’d then change, hand me the shirt she’d just been wearing while wearing a different shirt of mine. I mean, I don’t blame her. I have some rad t-shirts. But it was still maddening. And I’d say to myself, “Be kind, she doesn’t know what she’s doing. It’s just a shirt.”

My mom loves to help so much so I’d give her any tasks she can still do. I asked her to fold my laundry last week (which had been washed this time) and she was thrilled to help. She then dumped it all on the dirty floor. I said, “Mom, why’d you put my clothes on the floor?” And immediately I had the thought, “What’s more important? Your clothes or your mom’s feelings?” I then self-corrected and said, “Thank you so much for folding my laundry, mom. You’re so kind and helpful.” She smiled and said the most genuine “you’re welcome” a human being could utter. 

I’m sure most parents have learned this lesson years ago, but I’m just learning that feelings are more important than my stuff. I told myself this a lot whenever I would start to get frustrated. “Mom’s feelings are more important than your clothes, Ben.” 

When my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s on September 1, 2016 I started to wrap my head around the reality that she would forget me and that we would have the same conversations over and over again. And for some reason I knew I could handle those moments. What I was completely unprepared for was that she would lose her ability to make any sense. The way my mom talks now is like if you repeatedly press the predictive text button on your phone. All the words will run together and flow, but they make no sense. That’s how my mom talks. I generally have no idea what she’s talking about because she uses so many pronouns without ever giving the antecedent. 

On the 4thof July my mom mentioned wanting to do something so we went on a walk. Since we had just been on a trip to the beach I decided to talk about future trips while we walked. “Where would you like to go on our next trip?” Gibberish. “If you could see any place, what would you like to see?” More gibberish. “What places would you like to visit?” Completely unintelligible response. I almost began to cry right there on the sidewalk realizing that my mom, though present, was unable to have a conversation with me about vacations. 

I pulled out my earbuds and put one in each of our ears and I played John Denver’s “Country Roads” because my mom loves that song so much. As usual, she tried to sing along, but mostly just mumbled with a huge smile on her face. I love that song now, too, because it says Virginia (my mom’s name) and momma (no need to explain that word). I played some more songs and she would make comments, laugh a lot, and we did a bit of dancing as we walked down the street. When we got back to the car she said, “Already? I want to keep going.” She just really loves being with me even though she can’t explain where she wants to go on vacation.

I’ve come out to her a number of times because I think it’s fun. But it also makes me nervous because I don’t know how she’ll react. “Mom, I’m gay.” “You’re… gay…,” she says the words slowly trying to understand them. “What do you think about that?” I ask. “Well, as long as you’re happy and you get to do the things you like to do.” That’s what she always says, “Do the things you like to do.” She just wants everyone to be happy and do the things they like to do. “How was your day, mom?” “Well, it was a lot of fun. I just did the things I like to do.” 

A few days ago we were on a walk at the marina. Since she’s not so good at answering questions I’ve started to just tell her things about her life and she’s always so delighted. 
“Mom, did you know I’m your son?”
“Really?! My son?”
“Yep, you actually have four kids. I’m your baby and your favorite.” (If there’s one thing I’ll go to hell for it’ll be constantly messing with my mother and tricking her into saying that I’m her favorite child. I’ve only done it a few dozen times.)
“I didn’t know I have children. Wow!”

A few minutes later we’re back in the car. As I drive she puts her hand on my arm and says, “Thank you for telling me what you told me. I didn’t know. I’m just so lucky to have you. You are so nice and so kind to me and just an amazing guy. You are a great son and there’s no one better.” That’s Ginny Schilaty. The most affirming woman in the world. Alzheimer’s has taken so much from her, but it hasn’t taken that. 

Now I’m back in Utah with a mix of emotions. So happy to get back to regular life. Missing my parents and wishing I was home to help out more. But also relieved that I don’t have to. And I feel guilty that I feel relieved. But I know exactly what my mom would say if I told her that. “Don’t feel guilty, Ben. You are such a good son. Just go and live your life and don't worry about us. We’ll be fine. Do the things you want to do.” 

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Pride Is the Opposite of Shame

Pride is the opposite of shame. Thesaurus.com lists the first three antonyms of pride as depression, gloom, and melancholy. Further down the list is humility which I was taught in church is the opposite of pride. Not listed as an antonym for pride is the word shame. But if you look up the word shame, there in the list of opposites is the word pride. 

I have two rainbow pins displayed on my backpack. Each of them containing a symbol that ties them to BYU. They’re rad because they reveal two pieces of me to whomever is standing behind me. I had owned both them for many weeks before attaching them to my backpack. Each pin was placed on my backpack following an incident that made me feel misunderstood as a gay Latter-day Saint. I put them on my backpack because I felt like gay people like myself needed more visibility. 

I distinctly remember walking across BYU campus the day I put the first pin on my backpack, feeling proud to be seen. I walked by the Harold B. Lee library where I had once secretly read a handful of books about how to overcome same-sex attraction. Now, ten years later, I was walking across campus with a small circular object advertising the thing that had brought me so much shame for much of my life. 

I also wear a rainbow ring on my right ring finger. My aunt gave it to me for Christmas. At first I thought it was a bit loud, but now I like it. Maybe because I regularly get compliments about it. I always reply, “Thanks! My aunt gave it to me.” 

I didn’t do anything for Pride month. I don’t really enjoy parades and festivals aren’t really my thing. I just wasn’t interested in going to any pride events so I didn’t. I didn’t hang a rainbow flag, or change my Facebook profile picture, or paint my face. But a lot of people did. I know that Pride makes a lot of people uncomfortable. It might feel “in your face” or flamboyant. While I didn’t do anything to celebrate Pride month this June, I can understand why so many people felt the need to celebrate. 

I remember times in my 20s when I would’ve been relieved if I had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I would’ve been free of same-sex attraction, my suffering would be over, and I could die a hero. Being dead and straight was a better option than being alive and gay. That’s what shame did to me. It made me want to be dead. 

Overcoming that shame took years. The antonyms of pride—depression, gloom, melancholy—were often present in my life whenever I thought about dating, marriage, or my future. I don’t feel those feelings anymore when I think about my sexuality. The shame is gone. I now accept my sexual orientation as something that I couldn’t change. It is a part of me. And I want to live for a very long time. My outlook has completely shifted from wanting to be dead to wanting to live a long, full life. And isn’t that something worth celebrating? 

My story of growing from shame to acceptance isn’t that unique. So many LGBTQ folks have walked a similar path. So when I see a mom hang a rainbow flag from her front porch, I don’t think, “c’mon, keep your life to yourself.” Instead, I imagine a mom who was once uncomfortable and ashamed to have a gay son who is now saying, “I love my son. All of him.” When I see my friends dressed in rainbow colors marching down the street I don’t see them as being flamboyant, but I see them celebrating their desire to live. A desire that they may not have always had. And I’m grateful. 

I’ve only been to one pride parade. It was September 2016 in Tucson, AZ. I had been invited to march with Mormons Building Bridges. Those who march with Mormons Building Bridges wear their Sunday best to let the LGBTQ community know that as Latter-day Saints we want to be at the forefront of expressing love and compassion. I was hesitant to go. I decided to go and then decided not to go a few times. I recall discussing whether or not go with my straight friend Josh. He told me that if I decided to go he would go with me. I even emailed my stake president asking if it was okay for me to march in a pride parade. His simple response was, “I trust you.” About an hour and half before the parade started I felt compelled to go. I texted Josh, we both put on our church clothes, and drove over to the parade area. 

There were only 14 of us in the Mormons Building Bridges group. One of the women who came was from the Spanish branch I was attending. She didn’t speak English and told me that her son had just come out to her and she wanted to walk in the parade so that he knew she loved him. While we were waiting for our turn to march the organizer of the parade greeted us all. She said she had grown up Mormon, but had left the Church in her 20s. She told us how touching it was to see us there. 

Josh and I were asked to hold the Mormons Building Bridges banner. As we walked down 4thAvenue I distinctly felt the presence of the Holy Ghost. Spectators shouted “The Mormons are here!” and we were cheered and cheered. It was a deeply moving experience for me to be in a pride parade dressed as a Latter-day Saint. We could have easily been booed, but instead we were welcomed and praised for our participation. We belonged the least of any group there and yet we still belonged. And those who saw us were adamant that we belonged and that they were glad we were there. No one was ashamed of our presence. One of the parade officials took a group picture of us after the parade. She said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you for coming.” I hope that any LGBTQ person who attends church will feel as welcomed as I felt at that pride parade. 
BYU Museum of Art

I don’t think I’ll be hanging a rainbow flag outside my house. I probably won't wear a rainbow tie to church like my dad does. That doesn’t really feel like my thing. The way I show my pride is by telling my story. I show my pride by allowing myself to be seen. I show my pride by inviting others to walk in my shoes. 

And if the word pride makes you uncomfortable, here are some synonyms that might be easier to relate to—dignity, self-respect, honor. Gay dignity means that I am comfortable being myself around others. Gay self-respect means that I welcome all parts of me as important ingredients to who I am. Gay honor means that I no longer want to die because of my sexuality.

June was a healing, celebratory month for so many people. I hope that we can celebrate our lives and who we are and who we want to become throughout the year. And I hope that every person, especially those who have been previously weighed down by shame, feel an overwhelming sense of dignity, self-respect, and honor. 

Monday, June 24, 2019

Agency and Same-Sex Attraction

The following essay was recently published in the BYU Studies Quarterly. You can access the online version of the article on the BYU Studies Quarterly website here and even download a PDF version for free! I'm sure your first thought was, man, I really wish I had a PDF version of this article. 

Agency and Same-Sex Attraction
Ben Schilaty

“Next to the bestowal of life itself, the right to direct that life is God’s greatest gift to man.”[1]
 —David O. McKay

I arrived at my parent’s home at 11 p.m. after twenty-six hours of driving. The trek from Tucson, Arizona, to Everett, Washington, had been miserable. My life had become unmanageable, and I didn’t know what else to do but go home. I sprawled out on the living room floor, exhausted from the drive and emotionally worn out. I was too tired to pretend to be happy and too sad to do much besides complain. I was thirty years old, and it felt like my life would be perpetually filled with loneliness.
I had come out to my parents seven years before. I didn’t consider myself gay back then. I was “more attracted to men than women.” My parents responded immediately with love and concern, making sure that I knew they loved me. One of the first things my dad said was, “Well, you’re probably better off being single, because being married is hard.” A very typical thing for him to say. “Things could be worse, so be grateful for what you’ve got” was frequent advice from him.
After our initial conversation, about once a year my dad would ask, “So how’s that whole ‘same-sex attraction’ thing going?” and I’d reply, “Good.” My mom would hug me and tell me she loved me, and that was all we ever said about it. I just didn’t feel like opening up to them.
Now, at thirty years old and seven years later, I was sitting on the same couch that I had sat on when I came out to them, and I just spewed seven years of experiences. I couldn’t keep them in any more. They included the pain of being gay and a Latter-day Saint, wondering what my future would look like, and a hole in my heart that just couldn’t seem to be filled. Church materials used words like afflictiontemptationinclination, and struggleto describe experiences like mine. I felt like I had been tried to the point of breaking. I just couldn’t struggle with my “affliction” anymore.
A recent photo of my mom and me
After listening for quite some time, my mom seemed to grasp how hard the last seven years had been for me. She promised, “Ben, we’re not just on your side. We’re with you one hundred percent. If you need to leave the Church and marry a man, you and he will always be part of our family.” My dad nodded his head in agreement. I didn’t know how much I needed to hear that from my mom. I had felt trapped in a doctrine and culture that seemed to have no place for a gay man like me, wedged between wanting to be in a same-sex relationship and wanting to stay in the Church. Hearing my mom tell me that it was okay to leave set me free. She honored my agency just as my Heavenly Parents do. She also reassured me that if I made a choice that was outside of our doctrine, I wouldn’t be outside of our family. I couldn’t do anything that would remove me from my family. My mother gave me life and then gave me the freedom to live it.
The Lord revealed to Joseph Smith, “All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself” (D&C 93:30). My mother acted within her sphere of influence, as the matriarch of our family, to let me know that I would always be part of the family. She used her agency to give me a supernal gift.
I journaled a lot during the next few weeks, trying to figure out what to do with my life. After a long conversation with my dad in which we both spilled our guts, I wrote, “What I really appreciate about my dad is that he asks really good questions and he listens. He’s also thought deeply about this stuff. It felt so good to be 100% honest with him and for each of us to just share our feelings and be on the same page.” The next day I wrote, “Went to the temple with my parents which was great. However, my mom spends a little too much time looking at me lovingly.”
I did a lot of hard spiritual work at my parents’ house. I searched the scriptures for answers, and the ones I got often weren’t satisfying. I read the words of Jesus in Gethsemane: “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). I thought to myself, I don’t want to be gay. I don’t want to have to choose between being in the Church and being with someone I love. The cup I was given felt so incredibly unfair. And yet the Savior acted in his sphere of influence to drink from a cup that he didn’t want. What cup was God offering me?
Then I opened up the Book of Mormon and read: “Therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves” (2 Ne. 10: 23). It was my choice, and no one else’s. And I should be glad that no one could choose for me. Then the next verse drove me to my knees: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved” (2 Ne. 10:24). I had been focusing so much on my pain, my loneliness, and my desperation, that I had failed to really ascertain the will of God regarding my sexuality. I was so intent on changing who I was that I missed out on being who I was.
As I sought his will and turned to Christ, I felt Christ point me to his church. I felt called to keep my covenants. I felt compelled to act within my sphere of influence to choose to live the restored gospel. For the first time in my life, I felt that changing my sexuality was outside of my sphere of influence. God wasn’t asking me to change. He was inviting me to be the person he created me to be. And so, even though it was a bitter decision at the time, I chose to drink in a renewed commitment to a life within the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
After a month of staying with my family, the time came to head back to Arizona and return to real life. But I couldn’t keep doing things the way I had before. It hadn’t worked. My mind and my spirit were both telling me, through the pain I was in, that something wasn’t right. Similar to how our bodies give us hunger pangs to tell us to nourish ourselves, my spirit was telling me that something needed to change.
While keeping my sexuality a secret had been hard on me, the real cancer was the shame it created. What would people think of me if they knew I was gay? Would they hate me like I had hated myself? I couldn’t let fear control me anymore. I couldn’t live with the shame anymore. So over the next six months I came out to every person I was close to in my life. I made a lot of phone calls, had a lot of one-on-one conversations, and wrote a lot of emails. And I sent a few letters.
One of the letters I sent was to the Wrights. They basically adopted me while I was an undergrad at BYU. With my parents and siblings far away in Washington, the Wright family took me in long before they knew I was gay and made sure I always had a place to spend holidays and eat Sunday dinners. I sent the letter, wondering how this disclosure was about to change our relationship. A week later I got a letter back from Cyndi, the mom of the family. It said in part: “Thank you so much for your letter. We really appreciate you sharing your story with us. Nothing changes. We still love you as one of our own.” Cyndi used her agency to choose me. She acted within her sphere of influence to let me know that I was family. Some families choose to reject their children and others for being gay. The Wrights chose to keep me close.
The next time I was in Utah, I stayed at the Wrights’ house. Cyndi and I stayed up talking after everyone else had gone to bed. She reiterated what she had said in the letter; that I was family. She told me that if I left the Church, she would always claim me. I had wasted a lot of time worrying what other people would think of me.
Now, I want to be clear at this point that it was my choice to move forward in the Church. I’m not advocating that anyone should simply accept the way I exercise my agency as the way they should. The God-given gift of agency requires all free agents to do their own spiritual work to reconcile themselves with the will of God, whatever that is for them and their lives. As the Lord speaks to us through his authorized servants, through the scriptures, and through the Holy Ghost, we will be led down the right paths. The key is to be connected enough to heaven that we can be guided on how to proceed in our unique circumstances.
To paraphrase David O. McKay, the most precious gift we have been given, next to life itself, is the power to direct that life. “All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also;otherwise there is no existence” (D&C 93:30, emphasis added). Our Heavenly Parents endowed us with life andwith the gift of agency. If we don’t have agency, we don’t exist. That is, if we cannot act independently of God’s will for us, then we can’t really act upon his will of our own free will either. It must be terrifying even for Heavenly Parents to let their children act for themselves. And yet they enabled us to do so. They gave us existence. They didn’t just create us materially. They gave us power to act for ourselves
I think of them observing me during those weeks I spent with my earthly parents, weeping with me and pleading with me to use my agency wisely. I imagine them cheering for my mom, when, like them, she promised to always honor my agency. I think of them watching Cyndi pen that letter promising to always claim me, and of them saying, “We will always claim you, too, Ben.”
I have not been able to choose whether to have opposite-sex attractions, but I do have a multitude of other choices. As a gay Latter-day Saint, the choice I make again and again is to seek out God’s will for me and then to do it. I believe that the Lord wants us to honor one another’s agency as he does. We can’t exist without agency. Our relationships can’t thrive without the freedom to choose. I was blessed by my loved ones when they explicitly told me that they wanted me in their families no matter what I chose. Hearing them say those things changed my life. Those affirmations took me from a pit of despair and offered me hope. I doubt my mom or Cyndi or the many other people in my life who said similar things recognized the gift they were offering me in those moments. But I know it now. And our Heavenly Parents knew it all along. Let’s allow others to use the gift of agency, and let’s use our agency to choose each other.


[1]David O. McKay, in One Hundred Twentieth Annual Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints(Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1950), 32.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

"How Are You Really Doing?"

Five years ago I took a summer job working for a nonprofit in Peru. My colleague Eliana and I ran a volunteer program there. We lived in the same apartment, did projects together, and spent loads of time together. I was super excited to spend a summer having adventures in Peru and planned to brag all about it on my blog. However, I only wrote one post my entire time there because my life quickly unraveled. 

We had just spent hours cleaning and assembling
furniture before the volunteers arrived
During our first week in Peru my best friend who I'd fallen in love with chose to end that relationship. He wanted us to date for real and be boyfriends and I told him that I could only be friends. He then decided that it would be best if we just cut things off. I was devastated. And by “devastated” I mean “crippled by unbelievable pain and sadness.” I didn’t know how I could live life without him. 

With my friends and family a continent away, Eliana became my primary support system. No one else in the whole country knew I was gay except for her. She and I talked extensively about my broken heart and how I didn’t know how to move forward with my life. I told her that I was terrified that I would be perpetually lonely and sad and she listened. Since none of the volunteers knew I was gay, we would talk about my life in Spanish and in code which often made us laugh (“I know I’m supposed to like apples, but I just can’t stop craving oranges”). She was my closest friend at a time in my life when I was more depressed and distressed than I have ever been. She could have told me to just buck up and get over it. She could have called me to repentance for falling in love with a man. She could have preached to me. Instead she just listened while we drank cremoladas and ate chifón

Halfway through the summer I went home early. I felt awful for not finishing my commitment. I felt like I was abandoning Eliana and doubling her work load. And I felt like a failure. I remember looking at my “RETURN WITH HONOR” ring as I was packing and feeling like I was going home an inadequate disappointment. But I had to go home. I was an emotional mess and what I thought would be a fantastic Peruvian adventure had turned into a big pile of sadness. 

Celebrating Peru's independence day last year
Eliana and I had this song that we always sung together called Me voy (it’s a super catchy song that I highly recommend)I don’t know how it became our song, but we’d always sing it to each other and laugh. Right before I left to go to the airport I walked into her room singing that song. The lyrics in English say, “I’m not going to cry and say that I don’t deserve this because I probably do, but I don’t want it.” The words were surprisingly fitting. She was lying on her bed crying and I asked her what she was feeling. She said that she wished things could have been different. Not that I hadn’t come, but that I could have been happier there. She thanked me for always being open and sincere with her and said that that made things easier. She said she wished I could stay, but that she wanted me to do what was best for me. She thanked me for sharing the stresses of the job with her and said that I was a hard worker and that I’d done a good job. I had felt exactly the opposite just before walking into her room. Her tears and honest words bound up my wounds of inadequacy. 

I remember distinctly standing with Eliana in front of our apartment building about to get into a taxi to go to the airport and fly home. She and I had always spoken in Spanish together, but when I hugged her goodbye I said, “I love you, Ely. Thank you,” because the words had just a little more meaning in my native language. And I meant them so much. 

Eliana had every reason to be mad at me. I had given her an extra person to worry about while I was there and then I abandoned her. Yet she always made sure I was okay. In the five years since we worked together we have stayed in touch and remained good friends. Last month we got dinner together and she asked how I was doing. I told her how happy I was and all the cool things I was involved in. Eliana was there in one of the darkest periods of my life back in 2014. Honestly, without exaggeration I think that summer really was the worst time of my life. She experienced my emotional distress firsthand. She’s seen me in a way that most people haven’t. She then asked again, “Really, Ben, how are you really doing?” Eliana really wanted to know that I was okay. She had seen me put on a happy face when I was suffering and sincerely wanted to make sure that I was alright. Feeling her heartfelt love for me that day last month was a gift. She invited me to let go of any pretense and just be who I was with her. Who I am is enough for her. 

I’ve had some friends for whom I was their Eliana. I was the person that they needed to lean on in their darkest moments. Having people let me into their hearts has been such a gift. I leave those moments not feeling overwhelmed or burdened by my friend's problems, but grateful that I was able to be there with them. As I've considered my parting moments with Eliana in Peru, I imagine that heaven will be filled with hugs and people saying "I love you" and "thank you" in the ways that are most meaningful to them. Because there we will all really know each other. 

Friday, April 5, 2019

Reconciling a Changed Policy

I am not in a same-sex relationship. I have no plans to marry a man. I have no children. The November 2015 policy said nothing about gay Latter-day Saints like me. And yet it was unbelievably painful. You see, the hurt came from feeling like the church didn’t want people like me. The hurt came from feeling excluded. The hurt came from recognizing that if I chose to be in a same-sex marriage that I would be erased from my people.

A few people have asked me how I reconcile church leaders saying one thing in 2015 and now saying the opposite in 2019. I’m not going to tell you how to reconcile these things. You’ll need to do your own spiritual and intellectual work for that. But I will show you how I do it.

In the days following the policy release in November 2015 I got so many messages from friends making sure that I knew that I was loved, cared for, and wanted in their church. I wrote about my experience that day in this post. I dutifully recorded many of their names in my journal so that their acts of kindness would be remembered. In the long list of names I included “some random girl who read one of my old blog posts and emailed me.” People were so kind to me.

A few days later I met with the members of the support group I had started two months earlier for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints in Tucson, AZ. We were small back then. Five of us got together that day: an L, a G, a B, and two allies. One of the allies cried as he talked about how painful the new policy felt. I wrote in my journal that week: “I got a little choked up when I commented on how I don’t know what to hope for anymore. My life will be a life without companionship.” Paul, one of the group members, recommended that we share our stories more openly to help people understand the
Me, Paul, and Dianna who were all at that meeting
LGBTQ Latter-day Saint experience. And that’s what we did. The next day I wrote: “I also realized that criticising the Brethren is not the right course of action. The right thing to do is to share how it affects me personally, to tell my story.” And so we talked and shared and hundreds of people in Tucson came to my house and many other homes to hear our stories.

Then in January 2016 when President Nelson called the November 2015 policy revelation I was so confused. The policy had not felt right in my mind or in my heart and having it be called revelation really didn’t sit right with me. But what could I do? I could share my story. And that’s what I did. Again and again.

Two years later President Nelson became the President of the Church. I was uneasy. I was unsettled. Shortly after President Monson’s death a press conference was held with the new First Presidency. I was concerned as I watched it. Some of the things they said did not feel right in my heart. I was troubled and didn’t know what to do. I was so nervous about General Conference and was worried about what would be said about topics that matter a great deal to me. I was not convinced that President Nelson was the right person to lead the church. I needed a witness from the Holy Ghost.

So I got in my car the Saturday morning of conference and drove to a church so I could participate in the Solemn Assembly with other saints, but the church was empty. So I drove to another one and it was locked. And then another one and it was locked, too. By this time I just needed to be somewhere to watch the meeting because it was about to start. So I watched the session on my laptop alone in my bedroom. When the Melchizedek Priesthood holders were asked to stand, I stood up by myself in my room, dressed in a white shirt and tie, and raised my arm to the square to sustain a man that I wasn’t sure I fully trusted. In that moment a wave of the Spirit rushed over me. I felt it in my whole body, but especially in my heart, that he had been called to lead at this time. I sat down and started to weep, grateful for the witness I had been given. And in an exceptionally cheesy moment, two tears landed on my knee and made a heart shape on my pants.

The rest of the conference was amazing and President Nelson’s multiple invitations to the members of the church resonated deeply with me. I had spent three months doubting his call, but now I no longer doubted because the Spirit testified to me that God had called President Nelson to lead the church. Since that day, I have felt the Spirit testify again and again that he is our prophet.

Then yesterday I was sitting in class at BYU when the church announced the reversal of the November 2015 policy. I didn’t know what to do so I stepped out of class and sat down in the hallway. I wanted to feel all my feelings. I felt compelled to say a prayer of gratitude that what I’d been praying for for three years had finally happened. I wanted to cry to just let my emotions out, but they didn’t come.

When I returned to class my teacher allowed me to tell everyone what had been announced. People were shocked and happy and congratulatory and there was joy in the room. I felt all those feelings, too. Throughout the rest of the day I wanted to just deeply feel this experience, but I didn’t. And then last night, as I was writing in my journal, I just began to sob and sob (I believe it’s called “ugly crying”). And this is the memory that finally let me feel my feelings.

After class I sat and talked with a number of my classmates about the announcement and what it meant to have the November 2015 policy reversed. Candi, my 58 year old conservative classmate, gave me a long, long hug and said, “Ben, I want you to know how much I love you and admire you. You have taught me so much.” And then another classmate gave me a hug and told me that the policy had been hard for her, too, and that she was glad we could start to move on. Precious gifts. 

My social work
colleagues are rad
So why did remembering those two hugs finally let me release all my feelings? Because the policy instilled in me a fear that if I made certain choices I would be erased. What I need to know is that I belong. And my classmates made it abundantly clear that I belong in their lives. The Latter-day Saints in my life have made it clear again and again that they love me and claim me.

So what do I do with all of this? What do I do when a church leader says something that doesn’t feel right in my mind and in my heart and yet I feel that he’s been called of God? What do I do when I deeply fear being erased and then I’m embraced and loved? Those aren’t easy questions to answer. But the words of Moroni in Mormon 9:31 resonate with me as I consider these questions: “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.” Moroni made mistakes. Mormon made mistakes. All the ancient American prophets before them made mistakes. Can church leaders make mistakes today, too? I try to not condemn, but instead try to be gracious and patient with their imperfections.

While I am thrilled about the recent change, that happiness is muted by the pain and hurt that my LGBTQ siblings are still experiencing. This dramatic shift in policy doesn’t undo the last three years of pain that many experienced. In fact, it brings it all to the surface again for many people. The hurt is real and it is valid, even if I don’t feel it myself. I don’t get to tell them what they should be feeling, I just try to feel what they’re feeling with them. And isn’t that the point of our baptismal covenants? When someone is mourning we mourn with them. I have celebrated in my heart yesterday and today, and I have mourned with friends.

I live in a world of contradictions. I live in a world where the same news can bring joy and sadness. I live in a world where a church leader can say something that hurts me and yet also believe he is a prophet. I live in world where I can be hurt and embraced by my people. My world is a beautiful world of paradox.

Monday, March 18, 2019

You Are the Resources

My dad asked for a rainbow tie for Christmas.
Ginny and Buzz Schilaty are the best resources in the Church.
Last week I spoke at a workshop on how to minister to our LGBT ward and stake members. During the Q&A I was asked by a bishop what resources the church has for same-sex attracted members. I mentioned the mormonandgay.lds.org site and then was about to say that the Church really doesn’t have many resources. In an unusually clear moment of inspiration, I knew exactly what to say. I was prompted to say something I’d never said before. 

You are the resources,” I said. “The Lord has placed you in your callings so that you can be the resource for any member who feels marginalized.” And then I requoted a line that I had shared a few minutes before from counselingresources.churchofjesuschrist.org: “The most important thing you can do after a member discloses feelings of same-sex attraction is to listen and help them feel welcome.” The resource I’ve needed the most in my life is to be heard, validated, and understood. 

Another person asked me what I thought the Church’s next steps would be regarding its LGBT members. I said that I had no idea and that it wasn’t my job to say what the Church should or shouldn’t do (and thank goodness for that!). Then I said, “What church leaders do is outside of my sphere of influence, but there is so much I can do within my sphere of influence. And I’m going to work as hard as I can to make my ward and congregation the Zion that it is meant to be and the heaven on earth that I know it can be.” We can all labor in our spheres of influence to build Zion by building up the people around us. 

Here’s a simple example. A few months ago I shared my testimony at church. While I was sitting on the stand waiting for my turn, I felt a small prompting to say, “Good afternoon, sisters and brothers,” and invert the typical “brothers and sisters.” Such a small thing, but I did it. When I sat down a dear friend texted me saying that that gesture had meant so much to her, to know that in the eyes of her Heavenly Parents she doesn’t come second. Such a small thing, but it helped to communicate the message the Holy Ghost had for her that day—we are all alike unto God. We can follow small promptings to assist the Holy Ghost in teaching eternal truths.

The desert is the first place I allowed myself to be me
I’ve been back to visit Tucson a number of times since I moved away in 2017. I rarely went to his house when I lived there, but I always make sure to visit my old stake president when I’m in town. As my stake president, he listened and helped me feel welcome in remarkable ways. With no hyperbole, I can say that he changed my life. The details aren’t important, but the effect for me will be eternal. And so, I make sure he knows what a difference he made in my life by acting in his sphere of influence. I always get emotional when I thank him in person, but I’m compelled to thank him every time for being the resource I needed. 

Another person I always visit and thank is my former Institute teacher. In 2015 he asked me to speak at the weekly Institute devotional about my experiences as a gay Latter-day Saint. That was quite a courageous thing for him to do. As I spoke I said something that I had never before articulated: “I used to think that the Atonement of Jesus Christ would make me straight, but instead it healed my broken heart.” I needed that message that day, and so did other people present. Had Brother Bauer not acted in his sphere of influence to tackle a tough topic, many of us would have missed out on that healing moment. 

A year later I moved into a new ward and was asked to give a talk. Almost no one in the ward knew me. I asked the bishop if I could come out in my talk and he said, “I don’t see why that would be a problem.” So I did. A few hours after church I got an email from someone in the ward I’d never talked to before. It said in part: “I am glad to see your optimism, and your testimony has helped strengthen mine. You will not be forgotten if you stop coming to church. I will miss your presence. If you ever need to talk or hang out or just grab dinner, you are always invited into our home.” I cried as I read those words from a stranger who became a brother. Hyrum was the resource I needed that day. Such a simple thing to send an email to a new member of the ward, but it was exactly what I needed that day. 

I don’t know what you should do in your sphere of influence to be a resource to those who feel marginalized. But God knows. And I can’t think of a prayer that He would be more anxious to answer. I didn’t realize at the time how much I needed that ministering from my friends in Tucson, but I know it now, and our Heavenly Parents knew it all along. That’s why They inspired them to do what they did. I hope we can all have the courage to act in our spheres of influence to be the resources that others need. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Time I Went to Conversion Therapy

Conversion therapy can take a number of forms. The essential premise is that homosexuality is a pathology that can be treated and corrected. While I’m not sure that I would call what I participated in conversion therapy, I did seek counseling to change my sexual orientation. Here’s the story.
In December 2007 I met a girl. In January we started dating. We got along remarkably well and could just talk and talk for hours. Being together made me happy and she quickly became my favorite person. I was 23, in my last semester at BYU, and it felt like life was finally falling into place. After our fourth date I wrote in my journal: “She’s pretty much perfect for me, except that I don’t find her attractive. She’s pretty, but I’m just not that attracted to her. Honestly, today I really wished that I wasn’t me. I finally find an awesome girl that’s interested in me, but I still have SSA (same-sex attraction).”
2008 when I was trying to get rid of my SSA
She was the 6th person I came out to (I kept track back then) and she responded so well. A week later she told her roommate that I was attracted to men, which I had given her permission to do. Her roommate said I should see a therapist about my attractions and my girlfriend agreed that was a good idea. When she told me this I was a little annoyed. There wasn’t anything that could be done to fix me, I thought.
I called my parents and complained about what my girlfriend had suggested. My mom said that she had spoken to their bishop about my SSA and he told her that Provo had the best counselors in the world to help someone overcome SSA. She and my dad recommended I see a therapist, too. I emphatically told them that I didn’t need a counselor to fix me, that if God wanted me to be different He could just answer my prayers and fix me Himself. My dad, who has had awful eyesight his entire life, calmly respond, “Ben, God could fix my eyes if He wanted to, but instead He gave me glasses.”
The next day a close friend called me and out of the blue said I should see a therapist about my attractions. Five people in two days had recommended the same thing to me. It felt like a sign. So I set up an appointment with a therapist for the following week. I wasn’t thrilled about going, but I was hopeful. I wrote in my journal: “What if this is my chance?” I had enough hope to believe that it could work.
It was my first time ever in a therapist’s office. I filled out what felt like stacks of papers. I wrote on one form that I wanted to become attracted to women and not men. When I walked into the therapist’s office, nervous and unsure, he glanced at what I’d written on the form and said, “Well, this is easy to fix,” and set the form down in a nonchalant way that felt dismissive of the gravity of the situation.
My impression of therapy from TV and movies was that I would constantly be asked, “And how does that make you feel?” That’s not how this was at all. He normalized my attractions by walking me through the different parts of male and female bodies that make them attractive to people. I said very little in the session and I felt extremely uncomfortable. He used words to describe the female anatomy that a gay and naïve Latter-day Saint like me had never heard. I wrote in my journal that day: “He also said that a lot of SSA is environmental and that it can be changed. I don’t know how to feel about that because I can’t think of anything that caused this. Basically, he wasn’t helpful.”
The previous year, before coming out to anyone, I had scoured the BYU library for books about what causes same-sex attraction and how to correct it. There were multiple books and I was certain I’d find an answer in them. I was so afraid that if I checked out one of the books that they would be forever linked to my name so I read them in the library. I’d sit in a study carrel with a few other books so if someone I knew walked by I could quickly conceal the books about the causes of homosexuality under books about Latin America. Then when I was done, I’d carefully reshelf the books and come back later. Going through these books in the quiet corners of the library became an obsession as I neglected school assignments to find answers.
I started this study with aspirations that I could find a way to fix this, because I had to fix it. But then I got really confused. The books discussed multiple causes of same-sex attraction. An overbearing mother and a distant father. Early sexual abuse. A desire to have close relationships with men that became sexualized at puberty. A failure to connect to one’s masculine side. Besides being bad at sports, none of the causes mentioned in the books described my life. So I had already dismissed these theories in my own head when my therapist explained that homosexuality was a learned behavior.
At the end of my first session the therapist told me that we would really get to work in the next session. So a week later I went back. He talked almost the entire session explaining how I had developed a thought pattern of seeing an attractive man and ruminating on his attractiveness. I needed to stop doing that, he said. And instead, whenever I felt aroused to think of the beautiful aspects of a woman’s body. That was the answer. I just needed to train my brain to find women attractive.

He gave me some homework that made me feel really uncomfortable and I left the office and scheduled a third session because I didn’t have the courage to tell him I didn’t want to come back. I called the secretary later that day to cancel the appointment. I never went back. I wrote in my journal that day: “I felt pretty lousy afterward. I had put a lot of hope into this and it ended up being an uncomfortable waste of time.”

I wish instead of trying to change my sexuality, my therapist and I had discussed my values. I wish we had discussed the things that are most important to me that guide my decisions. I wish we had talked about the importance of daily bread and living in the present moment. I wish we had talked about acceptance and self-nurturing. I wish we had worked to remove my shame. I wish we had talked about the desire I had to die so I wouldn't have to be gay anymore. There are so many things we could have done that could have helped so much.
23 year old me wishing I was straight
I consider it one of the great blessings of my life that I stopped after two sessions. And I’m so grateful that when I told everyone who had recommended I go to therapy that I had decided to stop that they all supported me in that decision. My parents have apologized a number of times for encouraging me to go.
I don’t know what would have happened if I had continued going, but I’m glad I didn’t. I know that I felt awful after both sessions. I wonder how I would have felt after 12 or 20 such sessions. I wonder what it would have done to me to dutifully do the homework I’d been given and see no change in my orientation. I wonder what it would have been like to be told again and again that change was possible, but that I just wasn’t doing it right or trying hard enough. I imagine that would have done some damage.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I think what saved me was the way I was raised. My parents were so loving and involved in my life that the notion that they caused my homosexuality by being distant or overbearing rang so hollow that I never considered it. I knew intuitively to reject that being sexually abused as a child made me gay because I hadn’t been. Had I not been so lucky, maybe I would have spent years in therapy blaming my parents for my orientation. But that didn’t happen to me.
The thing I find most remarkable about my story is that when I told my parents and friends I wasn’t going back to therapy, they were all supportive of my decision. No coercion. No “just give it a little longer.” They honored my agency and walked my path with me. I’m the lucky one.