Monday, August 17, 2020

How to Avoid Being a Jerk to Gay People


My mom gets cold easily

I don't know about you, but I have a lot of experience being a jerk. I rarely behave like a jerk on purpose, it happens most frequently with the people I love, and almost always because I lack empathy.  


For example, I’ve been a total jerk to my dad. His life has gotten considerably harder since my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s four years ago. I have recommended to my dad multiple times that he move my mom to an assisted living facility. The solution is so obvious to me that I can’t help but tell him what to do over and over again. But he doesn’t listen to me, so I watch him choose to make his life harder by keeping my mom at home.  

Classic Buzz and Ginny
A few months ago, I was staying with my parents for a few weeks. I don’t recall what prompted it, but I decided to take a mental journey. I imagined what it would be like to do what I had so often recommended--to take my mom to an assisted living center. I pictured us packing her bags. I pictured us driving her to her new home. I pictured us helping her set up her room and telling her how much she was going to love it there. I pictured us hugging her, saying goodbye, and leaving her. I pictured us driving away and getting home and sobbing. And then I pictured her alone in an unfamiliar place. After thinking through that possibility, I realized in that moment that I was telling my dad to do something that I couldn’t do. 

My advice to my dad had been the wrong advice because I didn’t truly take the time to understand the implication of my advice on my mom. That night I wrote a long entry in my journal praising my dad. He was giving my mom the best gift he could by allowing her to be in her home, and he was doing it at great personal sacrifice. I had been so focused on fixing his problem that I failed to understand his commitment to his wife.  

In Acts 15, amid the rapid influx of gentiles into the church, the leaders of Christ’s Church had a meeting to figure out what to do with all the new members. Some of the Pharisees in attendance insisted that the Gentile converts needed to keep the law of Moses. I don’t know if they this took this position because of centuries of tradition, or because the Gentiles were different from them and made them feel uncomfortable. Whatever the reason, these Pharisees were kind of being jerks. 

In the midst of their lively debate, Peter rises from his seat and asks, “Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” In essence Peter asked: Why are you asking them to do something you couldn’t do? Peter asked them to take a mental journey—to put themselves in the position of the new converts—and really try to understand what they were asking of the Gentiles. Peter wanted them to understand that they would not be capable of making the sacrifice that they were advocating for.

A lot of well-meaning people have been truly unkind to me and other LGBTQ Latter-day Saints. I attribute this unkindness to ignorance and not to malice. So if you are not a gay Latter-day Saint I’d like to make an invitation. Take some time, some real solid thinking time, to go on a mental journey. Put yourself in the shoes of your LGBTQ brothers and sisters and ask yourself what you would do if you experienced their challenges. Here are some situations to consider that reflect some of my lived experience: 

What would you do if you were taught that the whole point of life was to marry someone that you weren’t attracted to? 

What would you do if you fell profoundly in love with a person (who by some miracle seemed to love you even more), but if you were to marry them you’d be barred from heaven?  

What would you do if people at church thought of you and even called you a pervert? 

What would you do if people told you that your orientation was the result of sexual abuse and bad parenting? 

What would you do if you wanted to move forward in the Church and be with a partner, but you knew you couldn’t do both things? 

Agency is contextual and our decisions are not made in a vacuum. The majority of my LGBTQ Latter-day Saint friends have distanced themselves from the Church in some way. I know very few like me who are committed to a life of singleness and committed to moving forward in the Church. Why are there so few of us? Where are all the happy, thriving, single gay Latter-day Saints? Of the LGBTQ Latter-day Saints you know, how many of them have stepped away from the Church? Why is that? What isn’t working? I think that part of the way that we are unintentionally being jerks is by completely blaming their leaving on them. 

That's definitely my shirt
I know they’re not meaning to, but parents can really be jerks to their LGBTQ children. I worry that some parents are afraid that the Atonement won’t work for their kids. So they push them to make the “right” choices. They can’t understand why their kids would make choices different from the ones they have made. 

If parents and have taught their children truth, and have helped them have experiences with the Spirit, then they just have to trust that their kids can find their path. I have been able to make the choices I have made because my family gave me the freedom to make hard choices. Because there was no one putting a yoke on my neck. When parents express confidence in their children’s ability to receive revelation then they are more likely to seek that revelation and follow it. If we push people to do what we want them to do all we’re really doing is pushing them away. And we’re kind of being big jerks. 

To quote Disney’s Pocahontas, “If you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.” If you want to avoid being a jerk to the LGBTQ people in your life, never ask them to do something that you yourself couldn’t do. If you want to avoid being a jerk, take some time to really put yourself in their shoes. If you want to avoid being a jerk, imagine how you would employ your agency given the context of their lives. Imagine how you would want someone you love to react to your difficult decisions—decisions that might seem completely foreign to them. We can never really know what it’s like to be someone else, but it’s a real gift when we try. And we can trust the Savior to guide our actions, and the paths of those we love.

Monday, July 27, 2020

I Work in Building Named after a Man Who Said Homophobic Things

Me in front of the Wilk in 2018

Disclaimer: Like all my posts, I speak only for myself here. I do not speak for my employer nor do I speak for other queer people associated with BYU. And I certainly don’t speak for the many people who are calling for buildings to be renamed and monuments to be removed. You have not yet understood my message if you attempt to use my words to silence or diminish the voices of those who are expressing pain and hurt and are asking for change.  

 

“Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” I read the first question from the 36 Questions that Lead to Love to my brother. When it was my turn I responded, “Ernest L. Wilkinson.” 

 

“Who?” my brother asked.

 

“He was president of BYU in the 50s and 60s, and he said some pretty homophobic things. I think if he got to know me, I could change his mind.” 

 

Despite spending nine years of my life at BYU, I really know very little about Ernest L. Wilkinson. Most of what I know about him I read in a biography about someone else. During my eight years as a student I was in a building named after him almost daily. And now as an employee, I sit in an office in a building that bears his name. 

 

It occurred to me one day while I was sitting in my office in the Wilkinson Student Center, that I was sitting in building named after someone who I don’t believe would have supported the hiring of an openly gay person like me. I tried to sit with this feeling and explore it. As I sat in my office chair, swiveling back and forth, I recognized that the feeling I was experiencing was hope. 

 

I don’t know how all the LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff at BYU feel about regularly entering a building named after someone who said homophobic things. In fact, I’m confident that others feel quite differently than I do—and that’s okay. But to me, working in a building named after Ernest L. Wilkinson feels like a victory. It feels like progress. And it feels like a small bit of redemption.

 

Not everyone was homophobic in Wilkinson’s day. It would be unfair to dismiss what he said because of the time he lived in. I believe he could’ve been more kind and I wish he had been. From a quick Google search, I learned that he died six years before I was born. We didn’t even get the chance to know one another. 

 

When I review my journals from my early 20s, I find a lot of homophobic things that I believed and wrote. It’s frankly quite disturbing the things that I believed about homosexuals, and I’m the gay one. Had I died at 23, the only writings I would have left on LGBTQ issues would have been rather embarrassing. My views on same-sex attraction didn’t start to seriously change until I neared 30. That’s when I really started to get to know some gay people. I could hate myself just fine, but once I started to really get to know LGBTQ folks, my heart shifted and changed rapidly. In the last seven years I have experienced a monumental shift in my thinking simply because I really got to know people that I had judged and misjudged. Ernest L. Wilkinson died 42 years ago. I wonder how his heart would’ve changed with an added 42 years of growth and experience. 

 

I believe in redemption. I believe that most people, when given the chance, will do better and be better (I mean, that’s the whole message of The Good Place). I’ve seen this happen again and again. I don’t ever ask for it or expect it, but a lot of people have apologized to me since I came out. They apologize for things they said or did that I usually don’t even remember. But they remember, and they want me to know that they’re sorry and are going to be better. I don’t know exactly what dinner with Ernest L. Wilkinson would look like, but I imagine there would be some sacred moments of growth for both of us. 

 

The lyrics from this short song from Steven Universe encapsulate the message I would have for the man that the building I work in is named after:

 

I don't need you to respect me, I respect me
I don't need you to love me, I love me
But I want you to know you could know me
If you change your mind
If you change your mind
If you change your mind
Change your mind

 

I’ve spent so much time in this building. As a gay student, I sat on a stage in the Wilkinson Student Center with three other LGBTQ students as we shared our experiences as sexual and gender minorities. As a gay student, I sat in the Wilkinson Student Center as a panelist at BYU’s Religious Freedom Annual Review and spoke about being LGBTQ at BYU. As a gay employee, I’ve sat in my office in the Wilkinson Student Center with numerous LGBTQ students as I have heard their stories. And as an openly gay employee working in the Wilkinson Student Center, many people have now had the chance to get to know me. 

 

Fun photos, huh?

Even for the students who don’t get to know me personally, I have tried to make the Wilkinson Student Center more welcoming and beautiful. The hallway leading to my office was just bare, white walls when I was hired last August. At the end of last year, I volunteered to choose pictures to be hung on the walls. I chose seven stock photos of BYU campus that I thought were beautiful and fun. My hope is that the pictures will bring a smile to the faces of the students who walk down the hall. This corner of the Wilkinson Student Center is a little better because I work here, and that feels like a victory to me. I believe that as more openly LGBTQ people are hired or come out at BYU, and as all of us who work and study at BYU, whether we’re LGBTQ or not, try to make campus more beautiful and welcoming, that the campus will be more and more enriched. And I believe that if Ernest L. Wilkinson could get to know all of us, and in particular learn how integral to our BYU community our LGBTQ members are, that he would be thrilled to have us working in a building that bears his name.


I was unaware of the homophobic things that Ernest L. Wilkinson said until just a few years ago. It was painful to come across and read his words. I hurt for the LGBTQ students who heard him say those awful things back when he was university president. And I felt grateful that those words were no longer being said. I also wondered if his homophobic words were better kept hidden in the past or if it would be best to bring them to light again. I’m still not sure, but I purposefully haven’t shared them here. 

 

Now, as I think about Ernest L. Wilkinson regularly, I don’t feel a need to rename the building I work in (although there is no building I’d rather work in than the Jane Elizabeth Manning James Building). Personally, working in the Wilkinson Student Center reminds that I need to let people know me and that I need to be seen. I need to share my own story and experiences as a gay person and I need to elevated the stories of other LGBTQ people at BYU. I believe that most people who say homophobic things would change their minds if they took the chance to get to know us.  

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The Love of God in the Toughest of Times


Friday, September 4th, 2015 was one of the worst nights of life. My stake president called me unexpectedly. Over the past six months we had been working and counseling together to form a stake-sponsored group for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints. A member of the high council had been assigned to work with me and we had written a charter for the group. I presented that charter to the stake council which approved it. The area leaders and other stake leaders in Tucson were supportive as well. We were good to go it seemed.

We had our first meeting on Tuesday, September 1st in a church building. The meeting was wonderful and I immediately saw how needed it was. That night I received a Facebook message from an acquaintance who had wanted to come to the meeting, but had been too afraid. He came over to my house the next day and opened his heart to me telling me that he had always been more attracted to men than women. It was the first time he had ever shared those feelings with another person who had a similar orientation. We swapped experiences, we discussed our faith, and we were both strengthened. I immediately experienced how much LGBTQ Latter-day Saints need each other. I felt like I was following promptings from the Holy Ghost and I was pumped to see the group grow and strengthen Zion. 

Then just a couple of days later, my stake president called and told me that the stake would no longer be able to sponsor the group. He told me that church headquarters had contacted him and indicated that stakes could not sponsor such support groups. The group was immediately shut down.  

I was livid and I was so hurt. I had felt prompted to start this group and had felt divine guidance to do so. My stake president also expressed similar feelings of having felt guided in our efforts, and he, too, was saddened by the outcome. We commiserated on the phone and he was so kind. When we hung up, I paced around the house for the few minutes not sure what to do. Then I collapsed on a chair in my living room and sobbed uncontrollably. I wrote in my journal that night: “I haven’t cried like that since I was a kid. It felt like my heart was ripped out. I began to really wonder if I’d been foolish and if there really was no place for me. For the first time I felt rejected by the institution and it really hurt.”

Once I stopped crying, I paced around the house some more. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was about to explode. This couldn’t be happening. This wasn’t real. I stormed out of my house and wandered aimlessly in the night, not knowing where to go or what to do, but knowing I couldn’t just sit. The high councilor I’d been working with called me, knowing that I’d be struggling. He was validating and kind and did his best to make me feel better, but I didn’t feel better. How could I feel good about this?

I got home and kneeled in my room and I raged at God. “You told me to do this! I felt so strongly that I was supposed to do this and I did it because You told me to! You need to fix this! I did exactly what I was asked to do! You need to fix this!”

I woke up angry on Saturday morning. Sunday morning I was still angry. It was Fast and Testimony meeting and as I sat in my pew listening to person after person say that the Church was led by God, I just got madder and madder. When the meeting was over I was fuming and agitated and I was ready to storm out of the church and never come back. The Church had rejected me and I was going to reject it. I was sitting next to a friend who was serving as the Primary president. She asked if I was okay and I told her that I was not and that I was going home. She said, “Just come to Primary with me, Ben.” And I did.

As I sat in Primary and sang those simple songs, my heart began to heal. Sitting in that room, singing about Jesus, the Spirit spoke to my heart. I felt God’s love in a real, tangible way. I didn’t want to feel good. I didn’t want to feel love. I wanted to stay angry. But I felt strongly and boldly accepted and loved by God. I wanted to be mad because I had been so hurt, but as the Spirit healed that hurt, my anger started to fade away.

Romans 8:38-39: “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Not even angels can separate us from the love of God.

Out of all the tough moments I’ve had as a gay Latter-day Saint, this one was the toughest. I had felt so incredibly certain that I was supposed to start this support group and then the Church told me I couldn’t. I was trying to reach out to people in need and the Church said, “No, not like that.” I ached on the inside. It broke my heart. My stake president encouraged me to run the group on my own, independent of the Church, and that’s what I did. And I believe it’s what God wanted me to do. The two years I ran that group were some of the happiest of my life. I’ve written about the group extensively on my blog (like here, here, and here) so I won’t do it again here, but I still think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

Whenever something LGBTQ related happens with the Church, I don’t experience it in isolation. All the other things, including the experience I shared here, bubble up to the surface. I remember the years when I would have rather been dead and straight than alive and gay. I remember the times I heard my fellow saints say awful things about LGBTQ people. I remember the November 2015 policy. I remember all the years of feeling rejected because of my orientation. I don’t spend my days thinking of the pain and sacrifice that come with being and gay member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I don’t spend my days longing for what I can’t have. I don’t spend my days pondering the doctrine of eternal marriage and the necessity of marrying a woman. Mostly life is really, really good and calm. But when tough things happen, it’s like someone amasses all these years of pain into an oozing ball, places it in my hands and says, “Here. Look at this. Deal with this.”

Again and again, in these tough moments, I have needed to connect with the God and feel His love. That has often happened through other people. On the same Sunday that I attended Primary, I got an email from a counselor in the stake presidency that said, “Ben, you are part of our family and we have been so blessed to have you come into our lives. We love you so much and cherish our relationship with you here in mortality and want it to continue into the eternities.” I cried, of course.

I’m not saying that this is true for anyone else, but it’s true for me. I need to learn to love, forgive, and see the good in people. Even those people who are unintentionally causing me pain.

My hope is that any LGBTQ Latter-day Saint who is feeling pain, can have an experience like I had in Primary where I was able to feel the love of God. Or that some kind Church leader will reach out to them and tell them how much they are loved and valued forever. I don’t know what that will look like for each individual, but I do know that the love of God can be felt in the toughest of times. And if you are in my sphere of influence and you are in pain, come be with me and we can hold that pain together. I mean that.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

I’m (hopefully) Less Racist than I Used to Be


As a tall, white, English speaking, educated male with hair, I’m one of the most privileged people on the planet. And I have a lot of blind spots.

Last Thursday I attended a panel on race and immigration at BYU. The keynote address was given by a former professor of mine. She spoke of her experience as a black immigrant from Africa with poignancy and humor. I felt so lucky that I was able to be her student. After her talk she participated on a panel with black, immigrant students.

The panel of black women spoke powerfully and authentically. One of them spoke about living in a refugee camp for years before relocating to the US. I tried to put myself in her shoes and imagine what it would have been like as a teenager to have to flee my home, live in a camp with an uncertain future, and then move to a place where everything was different. Another panelist spoke of being adopted from an African country at the age of three. She grew up in a white family in Provo, UT. I wondered what it would have been like if I had been adopted by a family that didn’t look like me and grow up in a place where few people at all looked like me. Walking in their shoes for a few minutes expanded my heart. 

I noticed that one of the panelists described herself as Nigerian-American and I wanted to understand what the nuances were for her of identifying as Nigerian-American and not African-American. When the panel started, everyone in the room was told that we could submit questions via an app. I hadn’t planned on asking any questions, but I was suddenly curious about black identities and self-identification. So I pulled out my phone ready to type my question. Then I saw some of the questions that had already been submitted and I was deeply disturbed.

Most of the questions were respectful and inquisitive, but some of them were insensitive, antagonistic, and just plain racist. I was shocked. The auditorium we were in was not big. There couldn’t have been many more than a hundred people in the room. I knew about fifteen people in the room and I wondered, who on earth wrote these questions? I looked down at my right hand, at the rainbow ring on my ring finger, and I felt exposed. I remembered the LGBT panel I had been on at BYU two years before as a student where we had used the same app and homophobic and transphobic questions had been submitted. If there were people in this very room saying these things, what would they say to a gay person in the room like me? I realized that I could take my ring off if I wanted to and play straight. I could leverage all my other privileges and hide my minority status if I wanted to, but the black women on the stage couldn’t do that.

When I was 20 years old and on my mission in Mexico, my Mexican companion told me that something I said was racist. I disagreed and refused to listen. I was a good person. I loved Mexico. How could I be a racist? Unfortunately, I was more concerned with asserting that I wasn’t racist than I was with understanding why he thought I was racist. Now, with 16 years of hindsight, I understand that what I said was totally racist, but I wasn’t prepared to accept that back then.

When I was 29, just six and a half years ago, I wasn’t out publicly. After coming out to a close friend he asked me if I thought I was born gay. I told him that I thought homosexuality was like a mental illness, that there was something wrong with my brain that needed to be fixed. Looking back, I can’t believe that I thought that so recently. Something that seems so offensive to me now was true to me not that long ago. At 29, I had only talked to one other gay person about being gay--in my entire life. What changed my way of thinking was getting to know and getting close to so many other LGBTQ people. I’m grateful to my many friends who let me walk in their shoes because they helped me to understand myself better.

When I hear people say homophobic things, I try to be patient and remind myself that not too long ago I could’ve said something similar. I’m not trying to excuse ignorance or say that it’s okay to say hurtful things. It’s just that I know what it’s like to be incredibly rude without realizing it. And I’m so sorry for the ignorant things I’ve said and done (and most certainly unknowingly still say and do).

I’ve read a lot of articles about the panel last week and it is such a shame that a few rude, antagonist people hijacked a beautiful event. It’s disappointing that many of the articles focused on the racist comments while failing to highlight the powerful things that were shared by the panelists. I walked away from the panel wondering what I can do to help refugees and how I can be more inclusive of people whose backgrounds are different from mine. I walked home wondering what I can do to make my community better. I wish that the news had better highlighted how those in the audience felt a call to be better instead of those people who were trying to pull others down.

I have spent nine years at BYU. First as a closested undergrad, then as an out graduate student, and now as an employee. I have found that most people at BYU are so so good. And when they know better they do better. I’ve encountered a few people who are more interested in talking than in listening and understanding, but they are the minority. As a person of immense privilege, I understand how easy it is to miss my blind spots, but I’m trying hard to be better. One of the ways I try to be better is by elevating the stories of others. I have a painting of Jane Manning James hanging in my office. I tell almost every student who comes to my office about this faithful, black pioneer woman who is my hero. She, like so many others, deserves to be remembered.

I want to thank the courageous women who shared their stories at the panel last week. I’m a richer person because of their stories. And I’m so sorry that there were people in attendance who came to demean instead of be edified. I have no idea what it’s like to be a racial minority at BYU. I don’t know what it’s like to not look like everyone else. I don’t know what it’s like to feel judged because of my race. But I do know what courage looks like. And that’s what I saw in the panelists last week.