Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Time I Almost Left the Church

A few people have asked me what I thought about Elder Holland’s talk during the October General Conference.  Here are my thoughts on that talk.

I loved it. 

The talk, of course, was about the love of mothers and I was reminded of how my own mother was willing to give her life so I would have the chance to be born (I wrote more about that here).  The reason so many people asked me about this particular talk is because a large chunk of it is devoted to how a mother helped her son cope with the burden of same-sex attraction.  I am grateful to Elder Holland for this portion of his talk because he shared some things that members of the church oftendon't understand about same-sex attraction.

First, he explained the real pain the young man was going through.  Elder Holland said, “He was still worthy, but his faith was at crisis level.  His emotional burden grew ever heavier.  And his spiritual pain was more and more profound.  He was by turn hurt, confused, angry, and desolate.”  Yep, this quote perfectly describes my experience as well. 

Second, he stated that the young man's sexual orientation didn’t change and that no one assumed it would.  I hope every member took note of that because people still tell me and my gay friends that being gay is our fault and that if we had more faith we wouldn’t be gay anymore.

Third, he explicitly stated more than once that the young man with same-sex attraction was worthy.  And not only that, he was able to work with the youth as a seminary teacher.  I hope this eases the fears of those who are afraid of having a person who experiences same-sex attraction teach their children.  As someone who loves working with the youth of the church I particularly appreciated that detail. 

Overall I loved Elder Holland’s talk and hope that it helps reshape our perceptions of what it means to experience same-sex attraction and be an active Latter-day Saint.  That said, Elder Holland mentioned that this young man returned to finish his mission after being home for five years.  That’s awesome and I applaud him.  However, the talk made this out to be a success story that had a nice happy ending.  While I agree that this is a success, the thought I had while listening to this talk was that this young man’s life is only beginning.  He's still got a long, difficult road ahead of him. 

People have pointed to me in the past as a success story, as a model for living the gospel while also being gay.  If you were to write out the things a good Mormon does like attending church, going to the temple regularly, reading the scriptures daily, magnifying one’s calling, not swearing, not drinking, and all the other things that Mormons are supposed to do, I do all of those things.  And yet, I have had a lot of moments of hurt, confusion, anger, and desolation.  At the risk of yet again being a little too personal, I would like to share just one of those stories.
I met Allison while I was getting my master’s at BYU.  We were in the same dinner group and became good friends.  When I graduated from BYU and moved away we kept up a long distance friendship through email and phone calls.  One year after graduating from BYU I moved to Tucson.  On a Sunday afternoon in the fall of 2012 I was talking with Allison on the phone.  She got a little bold and asked, “How come we never dated?”  I replied, “Well, I just never felt that way about you.  It just never felt right.”  That didn’t seem to satisfy her and I sensed that I was going to have to tell her I was gay.  My house had paper thin doors so I left the house and got into my car so my roommate Kevin wouldn’t hear me come out to Allison.  A few minutes later Allison again asked why we hadn’t dated because my answer had been so lame and unsatisfactory.  I told her I was gay and that settled the issue. 

After that conversation I feel like we became even better friends because there was no pressure to date each other.  Allison has relatives in Tucson so when she was in town over winter break we hung out.  Before she visited I wondered if maybe, just maybe, we could date.  Allison was super rad, quite pretty, and really hilarious.  And she seemed to really like me (it’s my salt and pepper hair, for sure).  Who better to marry than her?  But when she was here I felt absolutely no physical connection and I scrapped the idea pretty quickly.  She did, however, meet my roommate Kevin who she later married.  She is way better off being married to him than she ever would have been being married to me.  So not marrying me was kind of Allison’s success story.  Even though I was never attracted to Allison I didn’t give up on dating. 

And then LeAnne came along.  Just like Allison she is pretty, talented, spiritual, and just a wonderful person.  LeAnne and I connected quickly on an emotional level and had many great conversations together.  She quickly became one of my closest friends.  And I could tell she liked me.  Usually having an awesome girl like you is cause for celebration and pats on the back, but it just stressed me out.  One day LeAnne got unusually bold and said that it would be okay if I kissed her.  That freaked me out.  As soon as I said goodbye to LeAnne I called Allison and said, “LeAnne wants me to kiss her!  But I don’t want to!”  She replied, “Just being a man and do it.  It’s not a big deal.”  I whined in reply, “But I can’t!”  Allison convinced me that I should kiss LeAnne the next day.

LeAnne has such great hair
The next afternoon LeAnne and I hung out.  I was nervous the entire morning because I was planning on kissing her later that day.  And I’m not talking normal nervous jitters, I was petrified of kissing this woman who I knew liked me, who was way too pretty for me, and who I had a great emotional connection with.  To calm myself down I pulled out my scriptures and read in 1 Nephi 4 when Nephi says that he shrunk because he didn’t want to do what the Lord had asked him to do.  I empathized with Nephi so much.  I thought that God wanted me to date LeAnne and here I was shrinking from the very simple task of kissing her.  I didn’t want to shrink, I didn’t want to not do something just because I was afraid.  I prayed and prayed for courage to do the right thing and to not shrink, but I just felt more and more nervous.

The moment I saw LeAnne that afternoon all my nervousness suddenly vanished.  It was pretty remarkable.  I had wanted to not feel afraid and in an instant that’s what happened.  As we sat and talked I felt calm and confident.  All my fears were gone.  I had a sudden moment of clarity.  God was not asking me to kiss LeAnne, He was letting me decide what I wanted.  He had given me courage to do it if I wanted to, but the decision to date her or not was my decision to make.  I realized that even though I loved LeAnne, I wasn’t in love with her at all.  She’s very attractive, but I wasn’t attracted to her.  And so, with all my fear gone I decided not to kiss her.  I made the conscious decision, devoid of fear, to just be LeAnne’s friend and all the stress I felt regarding our relationship was gone.

A week later I was back in Tucson.  I moved out of Kevin’s house and into a new house with someone I barely knew and I moved into a new ward.  There was a guy in the ward who I knew previously who I had a huge crush on.  When I got home from church I was thinking about how much I liked this guy and then I thought about how hard I had wanted to like Allison and LeAnne and just couldn't.  Liking girls was such stressful effort, but liking this boy just seemed like so much fun and didn't take any effort at all.  It was one of those moments when I realized that yes, I really am gay.  I'm attracted to men and not women.

In less than a year two women had really liked me and wanted to date me and I'd had no interest in them even though they were ridiculously awesome.  And now I suddenly had a crush on a guy and the fact that I could never date him (or any other guy for that matter) was really frustrating and painful.  I began to wonder if maybe I was doing life all wrong.  I’d been reading a lot of stories about gay Mormons online and listening to a lot of podcast interviews as well.  It seemed like almost every gay Mormon man either married a woman or left the church (and they often ended up doing both things).  I'd spent the last eight years trying to marry a woman and had never really had a serious girlfriend.  Perhaps it was time to date someone I actually wanted to date.  Of course, I could stay single and celibate for the rest of my life, but from the dozens and dozens of stories I’d read and listened to, not one of them was able to do that successfully.  Do you know any older, never married men who are active in the church?  I didn’t know of any and so it seemed like I had two choices.  I’d been making one choice for eight years with no success so I figured it was time to try something new. 

At this point I hadn't missed church once in 11 years and I thought maybe it was time to end the streak and take a break.  Almost no one at church knew me so I wouldn't be missed if I didn't attend.  And after a year of living in Tucson I had very few close Mormon friends.  My family lived far away and they wouldn't even have to know I wasn't going to church.  It seemed like the perfect time to step away because no one would miss me.  So I decided that I wouldn’t leave for good, I’d just take a sabbatical.

Six days after making this decision I was up in Mesa for Kevin and Allison’s wedding.  I walked into the temple thinking that I probably wouldn’t be back for quite a while.  And then something life changing happened to me.  It’s hard to describe very spiritual experiences, but this is more or less what I experienced.  As I watched two of my best friends kneel at an altar and make covenants with each other and with God I got this powerful feeling that this was all real.  The promises they were making and receiving were real.  The priesthood power that was sealing them was real.  The potential to be together forever was real.  The whole restored gospel felt real and palpable and I didn't want to give that up.  The best way to describe the feeling was that it felt like heaven.  I was in a sacred place with people that I loved it felt like home.  I thought to myself, "Whatever happens, I always want to be able to come to this place with these people." 

Allison, Kevin, and I with big smiles on their wedding day
No one at the wedding knew that I'd been considering taking a break from church.  When the sealing was done I was feeling pretty overwhelmed.  Not only was I extremely happy for Kevin and Allison, but I had just been reminded that the path I should choose was the one that would allow me to be in the temple.  So filled with love for my friends and new clarity about life I hugged Kevin and Allison and told them how much I loved them.  It took all the manly testosterone I could muster to keep myself from bursting into weepy mess because I was feeling so much love and peace.  That night I wrote in my journal, "They are forever friends and I love them so much." 

And that's the long story about how I almost left the church and didn't.  And this wasn't the only time.  Just over a year ago I once again contemplated leaving the church, but I'm still here.  The reason I share this story is because I don't want people to get caught up in happy endings.  For example, we're so happy when someone gets married, and then a few years later they get divorced.  We're so happy when someone has a baby, and then they feel stressed and overwhelmed and cry because they don't feel like a good mother.  We're so happy when someone graduates from college, and then they can't find a job.  We're so happy when a man with same-sex attraction serves a faithful mission, and then eight years later he feels "hurt, confused, angry, and desolate." 

We are all far from our happy endings.  Am I a success story?  Of course not.  Because my story is far from over.  I still have a long road ahead of me and so does the young man Elder Holland mentioned.  But what I want everyone to understand is that I try very hard to live the gospel.  I try really hard.  And for the most part I have a very happy life, but that doesn't mean I don't get mad and sad and wish that things were different.  I want all the straight Mormons to know that we gay members who try hard to live the gospel have tough times that we often don't talk about.  Sometimes we leave church and wonder if being bored for three hours on Sunday is worth giving up our sexuality.  Sometimes we wonder where God is and why He has forsaken us.  And sometimes we feel like we've found Him.

I'm in a really good place right now.  The last year has been exceptional and one of the happiest of my life.  But I'm no dummy.  I'm sure that I'll have moments in the future where I get mad and frustrated and just want to leave my religion behind.  But I'm one of the lucky ones.  I'm the lucky one who has so many people who have my back.  Just four weeks ago I had a really tough day and two members of the stake presidency called me to make sure I was okay and then sent me emails expressing their love for me.  I'm one of the lucky ones.  When I told people that I wanted to start a group for gay Mormons in Tucson so that no one with same-sex attraction had to feel alone everyone was on my side and wanted to help (well, almost everyone).  And I trust that the love people have for me isn't conditional to my activity in the church. 

As I was listening to Elder Holland's talk I thought, "This young man has a long road ahead of him, but he's got a mother who loves him no matter what.  That'll make all the difference."  And so, if when you heard the story of this young man completing his mission you felt like it was a success story, I hope you remember that the real success what that this man was loved unconditionally.  And I hope you remember my story.  That even the gay Mormons who want to stay in the church face extremely trying moments that they likely won't tell you about.  You're job is to love us. 

Allow me to end by being overly cheesy.  If you want to know how to help a gay Mormon, just read the words of this Primary song written by Carol Lynn Pearson (who, by the way, has done more for gay Mormons than almost anyone).

If you don't walk as most people do,
Some people walk away from you,
But I won't! I won't!
If you don't talk as most people do,
Some people talk and laugh at you,
But I won't! I won't!
I'll walk with you. I'll talk with you.
That's how I'll show my love for you.
Jesus walked away from none.
He gave his love to ev'ryone.
So I will! I will!
Jesus blessed all he could see,
Then turned and said, "Come, follow me."
And I will! I will!
I will! I will!
I'll walk with you. I'll talk with you. 
That's how I'll show my love for you


Steve and Melissa said...

Ben, I've always thought you were such a great guy with a solid testimony. I love your blog. Your faith inspires me. Thanks for letting me feel the spirit as I read this. You're awesome!

Zinah said...

I love reading your blogs. They are helping me be more understanding of others. And I love that song! And Elder Holland's talk too! He knows how to say it like it is. I love how you said that it's not a complete succcess story. No one's life really is until it's over. It made me think of a man we met this week who was an active member of the church his entire life, and then suddenly, after over 35 years of marriage, it ended in a very painful divorce, and he is currently inactive because of all the heartache and problems that came from it. You could have called his life a "success story" up until then, but now it's a little shaky. I hope it eventually becomes a success story again. Our job is to love each other and be supportive. So true.

erin said...

You're so brave and awesome Ben! I think you're a good example to so many people or having faith and a positive attitude even when it would be easier not to. Keep on my friend!

David said...

Ben, you write with an honesty and humility that are so inspiring. I deeply appreciate your point of view and your reflections on life and all the struggles it holds. You've helped me see things more clearly than I would have otherwise and you do it in such a gentle, inviting way. You are an excellent teacher! Thank you

Bridget said...

Thanks Ben, you don't know me but your family does and we have mutual friends who posted the link to this post on Facebook. I was actually visiting my brother's ward a couple of months ago and your father spoke. Anyway, I appreciate your perspective. Especially the part about happy endings, or the lack thereof. I like to read books and watch movies that don't always have a happy ending. I'm chastised for this a little bit when my friends say the story stunk and why wasn't I bothered by the ending? Quite frankly, I get a little annoyed when things work out too perfectly. That's not life. Ever. It's mostly our attitudes that make beginnings, middles and endings happy.

While your road ahead will surely include more crisis in faith, know that you're not alone. I have them, too. Just for different reasons. May God continue to bless you.

Tom Montgomery said...


tebazele said...

God bless you for sharing your testimony! I really needed to hear tonight what you said. Thank you! I think we all need to refresh our testimonies regularly and your story has inspired me to renew mine.

Aidee Soltero said...

Todos luchamos quizas con diferentes Goliat's... Gracias por tu valentia, no solo al expresarte en este post, no solo al dar tantas explicaciones en tus intentos de querer enamorarte de una manera "normal" . Como sabes, hasta la fecha estoy soltera, me encantan los hombres!! pero he tenido que lidiar con otro tipo de emociones que han entorpecido el encuentro de un compañero eterno... sin embargo, mi alma a sido pulida, al tener esos momentos de desolacion que mencionas, me han echo tener mas empatia hacia los que pasan por ese tipo de situaciones.. me hatocado ver omo es que te preocupas por los demas. Igual que tu, tuve una experiencia similar a la tuya en un sellamiento... SE PERFECTO QUE NUESTRO PADRE CELESTIAL esta al pendiente de ti y de mi, de nuestros pesares y sueños. Deseo y oro porque siempre el te sotenga y fianlmente pueda saciar tus angustias y tristezas. Si tu no existieras y vivieras como lo haces, que seria de toda esa gente que necesita de tu amor y comprension? Animo Ben, las mejores bendiciones para tu vida!!

Unknown said...

I had a moment of clarity after years and years of praying for my best friend to "not be gay." He loves the Church, and he loves his husband. They've been together longer than my husband and me. Besides a very personal revelation after years of personal soul searching and prayer, a moment came to me clearly one time in the temple. My best friend and his husband will have this opportunity some day. There is no reason why that shouldn't happen.

Beth Blair said...

I was good, reading this... until the end. Tears of gratitude & joy are flowing. That primary song has many meanings for me. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

Ariel said...

I'll admit, sometimes I wonder why I keep going to church when I feel like it's just boring. But then, I remind myself that I have just been going to say I went, without my heart in it. Or I remind myself that I believe in the temple and want to always be worthy of going there because it is heaven on earth.

You're not alone, Ben. Thank you for sharing!

Ariel said...

I'll admit, sometimes I wonder why I keep going to church when I feel like it's just boring. But then, I remind myself that I have just been going to say I went, without my heart in it. Or I remind myself that I believe in the temple and want to always be worthy of going there because it is heaven on earth.

You're not alone, Ben. Thank you for sharing!

Elisa Beckman said...

Oh my gosh I agree with everything you said and my heart goes out to you! Keep up your hard work and I hope you continue to always have the love and support you deserve. Thanks for your honesty and sharing so much of your deeply personal feelings.

debbie said...

Thank you for sharing your testimony. It helped me today!

peggysmith847 said...

Ben, you are a spokesman for many, and you have so many wonderful gifts and strengths. If you DIDN'T have this challenge your life might be practically perfect (and who has that?). Thank you for your candor, and for being at our daughter Allison's wedding. It meant a great deal for her and Kevin, and us, to have you there. You have been a terrific friend and blessing to us all. I especially appreciate your sharing about your very personal and tender experience at their wedding, at which I was all in tears as well. We have just completed working in the temple for two years, and have upped for two more. We have learned that all those wonderful temple-worker friends we have made have had MAJOR challenges in their lives as well; I would trade places with none of them. Despite their significant and on-going trials, each one of them has served faithfully in the temple, some for MANY years, and my goal is to be like them when I grow up. I look forward to your being in the temple again with our family any time you can. Its blessings in my life have been immeasurable on so many levels. Will you please join us for Allison's birthday party at our house next Sunday evening if you are free?

ET said...

I had a similar experience recently...for the first time in a long time I felt like if I wanted to, I could have kissed a girl I have been seeing. But, I decided not to. At first I thought I was afraid...but after reading your post I realize that I made a clear choice not to do it, because it is not what I really wanted. And after reading, I am beginning to realize that that is OK. Thank you for sharing your feelings...I was beginning to be confused about the experience I had and now I have more clarity.

Unknown said...

I don't know you, and the chances of us meeting on earth are slim to none, but I want to thank you for sharing something so personal and revealing. I love the song you quoted at the end. I remember this song from my childhood, and it helped me through a lot of lonely times. I never fit in...anywhere, but I always knew I fit in with our Heavenly Father and Christ. Thank you, again. God be with you'til we meet again!

Unknown said...

My feelings exactly, Blair!!!
I love this song!! It got me through a lot rough times growing up.

Holly Decker said...

i love this post, thank you.

Unknown said...

So many people out there need you! I have no doubt that you have been given a very special mission by God. Reading your posts is the very first time I feel like I finally "get it". I can now understand how hard it must be for those who struggle with same gender attraction and I want nothing more than to love them and show them the same love and support that you have received. I have probably been wrongfully judgmental at times but you have shown me a much better and more Christ like perspective that I will always be grateful for.

Natalie said...

Beautiful testimony!