Sunday, August 18, 2019

Spiritual Nudges

Below is the text of a talk I gave at my stake conference last night. 

I am an optimist by nature. In spiritual terms, I was given the gift of hope. While I believe that in my case much of the hope I experience is indeed a gift from my Heavenly Parents, it is also the result of many experiences. As the hymn Be Still, My Soul beautifully teaches: “Be still, my soul: Thy God doth undertake / To guide the future as he has the past / Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake / All now mysterious shall be bright at last.”

At the age of 30 it felt like my life was over. How could I ever be happy as a gay Latter-day Saint? The future didn’t just feel mysterious, it felt bleak and hopeless. I spent some precious moments with my parents discussing my options and much time praying and searching the scriptures. If you had told me then, five years ago, that I’d be where I am now and doing what I’m doing, and that I’d be loving life more than ever before, I would have said you were crazy. A happy, thriving life just didn’t seem possible. There was no big revelation. No moment when my future was unfolded before my eyes. As the Lord said: “I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little…” (2 Nephi 28:30). My path has been guided by small nudges of the Spirit, often facilitated by the counsel of loved ones, that pushed me in the right direction.

Almost three years ago I was beginning the final year of a PhD program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I started looking for jobs as a Spanish professor which is what I had trained to do. Every time I searched for jobs I felt sick to my stomach. Then one day my friend Reyna asked me to proofread a letter of intent she had written for a master’s in social work program. As I read the letter I felt an undeniable nudge from the Spirit to also pursue a master’s in social work. It was odd and unexpected. I drove two hours to the Gilbert, AZ temple to seek inspiration and felt the Spirit confirm within those sacred walls what I had already felt in my home—I needed to do a master’s in social work at BYU.

It was a very embarrassing thing to do, to get a PhD in one field and then immediately get a master’s in another. People accused me (in jest, I hope) of being an eternal student and not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. But that wasn’t it at all. I was simply obeying what I had felt prompted to do.

The last two years since I started and finished my MSW at BYU have been two of the most remarkable years of my life. The experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve met, and the things I have learned are well worth the embarrassment I felt, the rigorous assignments, the boring readings, and the tuition I paid. God guided me to the place I needed to be. As Proverbs 3 teaches: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all they ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6).

In August 2017, the week before I moved to Provo, the Church expanded who was eligible to volunteer as a temple ordinance worker. The expansion included single men over 30 like me. I had wanted to be a temple worker for years, but had always rationalized that I was too busy and would do it later. At the age of 33 I called my dad who had spent 11 years as an ordinance worker in the Seattle temple. He is an incredibly pragmatic man so when I asked him if I should work in the temple while also doing a full-time master’s program at BYU I expected him to say, “You don’t have time right now. Focus on your studies. You can be a temple worker later.” But that’s not what he said. He went
into teaching mode and instructed me, “Ben, God can do anything. He can make time elastic if He needs to. If you put Him first you will be able to do everything you need to do and more. You don’t have the time to notwork in the temple.” I listened to my father’s nudge and spent 20 months as an ordinance worker in the Provo Temple. Tuesday evenings became one of my favorite times of the week. There were multiple weeks that I walked up to the temple thinking that I would tell my shift coordinator that I needed to be released because I didn’t have time, and then while I served the Spirit would nudge me to stay. And I’d walk out of the temple with my shoulders squared, invigorated and ready to face another week. I needed that time in the temple. My dad was exactly right.

As the Savior taught in the Sermon on the Mount: “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?” That is a comforting and humorously delivered teaching. God takes care of birds and so he’ll surely take care of us because we’re better than birds. So if you ever feel bad about yourself, just remember that you’re better than birds.

When we listen to inspired Church leaders we will often feel spiritual nudges. I was recently reading President Nelson’s talk from the priesthood session of General Conference about repentance. He encouraged, “Experience the strengthening power of daily repentance—of doing and being a little better each day.” He continued, “The Lord does not expect perfection from us at this point in our eternal progression. But He does expect us to become increasingly pure.” When I read these lines I thought, what can I do to be a little better today? And then the answer came—make your bed. Such a small nudge, but I committed to do it.

The next morning I woke up barely lucid which is pretty normal for me (I’m not a morning person at all), but I remembered my goal. I was in a rush to get ready and get out of the house, but I said to myself, “No, you committed to making your bed.” So I did. And I’ve done it every day since. My bedroom could hardly be considered tidy, but it’s tidier than it was before. And that little step is making me a better person, if only because I’m following through on a personal commitment. And the next nudge will do even more.

God will nudge us to serve each other. Last fall I was doing an internship at LDS Family Services in Salt Lake. The commute was long and I was gone for most of the day. One morning I made my lunch and accidently left in on the kitchen counter. That day was harder than usual and I was feeling inadequate at work. And then I realized I’d left my lunch at home. I kicked myself for being so careless and felt so stupid. One of my coworkers was there when I noticed I hadn’t brought my lunch. Without telling me, she drove ten minutes to her apartment, made me a sandwich, filled up a bag with baby carrots, and grabbed a bag of cookies. At lunch time Amy gave me this sweet gift. Making lunch for me was such a small thing, but it changed my day. She had felt nudged by the Spirit to do a good deed. And while the lunch literally fed me, what really fed me was knowing that I was seen, and noticed, and cared for.

I’m in the middle of reading Saints, the newly released history of the Church, and I came across a story that was just bonkers. Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards were on a mission in England. Heber was married, and Willard, despite being 33 was not (I can totally relate). Heber met and baptized a woman named Jennetta Richards (no relation to Willard Richards). Heber wrote Willard in a letter, “I baptized your wife today.” Quite a bold thing for him to say about someone Willard had never met. But things only get bolder. Willard later met Jennetta in person and while walking to a Church meeting with her said, “Richards is a good name. I never want to change it. Do you, Jennetta?” She replied, “No, I do not. And I think I never will.” They soon got married. A bold statement from Heber was the nudge that helped to unite Willard and Jennetta.

The people who have nudged me in the right direction have altered the course of my life, and I’m so grateful for them. But just because someone nudges you in a direction doesn’t mean it’s the right thing. I’ve had people recommend wives and careers and housing and lots of life choices that I didn’t take. The Holy Ghost will confirm to us when counsel or guidance or a simple nudge are the right course. The key is to be connected enough to Heaven that we can discern which direction to take.

Our Exemplar, Jesus Christ, showed us how to follow promptings. He said over and over again that He was about His Father’s business and doing His Father’s will. I’ve been keeping up with the Come, Follow Me reading this year which has greatly blessed my life. I’ve learned things and noticed things that I’d never seen before.
 
In Matthew 26 the Savior is in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” And then a few verses later He prayed a second time, “O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, they will be done.” And then two verses later it says that the Savior gave the same prayer a third time. I had never noticed that the Savior made that plea and promise to His Father three separate times. It’s very human to not want to do the hard thing, but it’s a Christlike attribute to do it anyway.

This example of the Savior and His ability to choose to do the Father’s will, even though it would be hard, gives me courage. Because God has asked me to do some truly hard things. And when times of decision come, and I feel nudged in different directions, I try to connect with God and go in the direction that He is calling me to go.

I have seen a lot of this beautiful world and interacted with some of the finest people in it. I’ve had a life filled with joy and I often marvel at how I got to be so lucky. I’ve had some truly stellar moments. But the best feeling I’ve ever had is when I ascertain the will of God and then have the courage to do it. That is truly the best feeling.

I testify that God is watching over us. He knows our needs. I believe that at some future day, and maybe not until the next life, I’ll look back on my life and say, “Oh, so that’s how He did it. That’s how God shaped me into the person He wanted me to be.” Our Heavenly Parents have guided our pasts and They will surely guide our futures. All that is now mysterious will make perfect sense. Jesus Christ lives. He is our Savior. And all of this is possible through Him. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Monday, August 5, 2019

12 Years Since Coming Out

August 12th marks the 12 year anniversary of my first coming out. I’ve told that story hundreds of times at Ally Nights, in one on one conversations, in trainings for church leaders, in firesides, lessons at church, class presentations, and on my blog. I’ve told it so many times that it’s become a story I tell and the actual memory of the event has become a little obscured by the constant retelling. 

Craig and I from that summer
As August 12th approaches I started to wonder what that day was actually like in 2007. And if I had a video recording of that conversation, would it match how I tell the story? So I pulled out my journal and read what I wrote that day. Memories flooded in as I read my own handwritten words. I remembered the orange glow of the streetlight as we sat on the grass and talked. I remembered how about 15 minutes after coming out we started walking home. Mitch and Craig shifted the conversation back to more standard topics and I couldn't understand how they could do that so fast because my world had just changed so much and I still had so much I wanted to say. 

I’m glad I took the time to write out what happened that day so that these memories could be preserved and rekindled. It was also nice to see that my telling matches what I recorded about the experience. Here’s what I wrote in my journal that day:  

August 12, 2007 Sunday

I’m going to write about something that I hadn’t planned on writing about. I’ll write more about it later. For as long as I can remember I’ve been more attracted to boys than to girls. It sucks and I’d change things if I could. I will never act on it. I’ve been struggling with it on my own for a while and I decided that that wasn’t healthy and that I should tell some trusted friends about it. I’d decided to tell Craig and Joleen, but I kept chickening out. I finally decided that I’d tell Craig today. 
            
I was talking to Mitch on the phone tonight and he wanted to hang out tonight because Emilie’s out of town. I dragged Craig along to visit Mitch and determined that I would tell them about my struggle with same-sex attraction (SSA). So we went on a walk and sat down in a park and I told them that I wanted to tell them something. At this point I was so nervous that I was feeling physically ill. I almost didn’t tell them, but I finally blurted out, “For as long as I can remember I’ve been more attracted to guys than girls.” I explained how I wasn’t going to act on it and how I wished I didn’t have it and how hard it was. Mitch spoke the most at first and asked what he could do to help. I said that he really couldn’t do anything except support me and let me share my feelings with him. Craig shared a lot of encouragement and advised me to read my patriarchal blessing and to speak with the bishop. I’ll do that. I also said how I hoped that he wouldn’t feel awkward knowing that his roommate was attracted to men. I don’t remember the words he said, but he basically said that he’d always be my friend and that this wouldn’t change anything between us. That’s what I needed to hear. 

I felt a big burden lifted off of my shoulders when I told them and I’m so grateful that they were understanding and supportive. I’m glad that I can discuss my problem with someone and that they will support me. I’m also glad that Craig still wants to be my roommate. 

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 chif√≥n

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.