Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Line in the Sand

On Thursday, November 5th I drove to California to visit my friends Ian and Amy.  It had been more than a year since I'd seen them so while we ate dinner and caught up on our lives I ignored my phone buzzing in my pocket.  When I finally pulled it out I had a few messages from friends in Tucson saying that the Mormon internet was exploding with news of new policy from the church.  I had no idea what they were talking about.  After some more chatting with Ian and Amy and playing with their kids for a bit I got online to see what was up.  When I read that a new policy stated that entering into a same-gender marriage was now considered apostasy I was stunned.  Most of the reactions I saw online were either anger and betrayal or simply disbelief or confusion.  Since the announcement hadn't come directly from the church a lot of people thought it was a hoax or misinformation.  I fell into that camp and decided to wait for official word from the church.  

Even though I've known Ian and Amy for years I only came out to them last year via email.  We hadn't seen each other since then so we spent some time talking about my experiences as a gay Mormon and what that has meant for me.  We also discussed the new policy at length.  When the interview with Elder Christofferson was posted I watched it alone with anxious anticipation.  I was hoping that he would repudiate the policy, apologize for the misinformation, and talk about how awesome his gay brother Tom is.  But instead he justified and explained the policy.  I felt sick.  Ian hadn't watched the interview yet and he asked me what I thought.  I just responded with my gut reaction, "I didn't care for it."

My initial thought after watching the interview was, "I don't want to do this anymore.  I just want to be dead."  The Brethren drew a very clear line in the sand which only leaves two options for me as a gay man if I want to stay in the church: marry a woman or stay single for the rest of my life.  Both of those options sounded terrible and at the moment I didn't feel like trying.  I should also say that at no point was I suicidal, I just felt extremely discouraged.

You see, deep down I want to be an apostate.  And by saying that I don't mean that I want to turn away from the truth, but that I really, really want to be in a committed relationship with a man that I love.  In fact, I want that so bad that it's the second most thing I want in this life.  The only thing that trumps it is my desire to do God's will.  And that's where the desiring death comes in.  If I want to stay in the church I can't have a committed relationship to a man.  Not only is it considered a sin, but it's a sin so bad that I'd be considered an apostate.  This was perplexing to me because I'm human and I know what it's like to feel sorrow when I sin, to want to repent, and the joy that comes when I feel I've become a better person.  But there was a time when I really fell for a guy.  And not just a crush, but like really, really loved another man and loving him didn't feel like a sin to me.  In fact, it felt really awesome.

Two years ago I totally fell for my best friend and he fell for me even more. He was smarter, funnier, and cuter than me. We would talk for hours on end and I just always wanted to be with him. My journal is riddled with entries where I express how happy I was to have him in my life. I was baffled that someone so handsome and cool was interested me. And what was even crazier was that he felt the same way about me. He felt like I was getting the raw end of the deal and that he was the lucky one. I was completely committed to keeping the commandments and especially committed to keeping the covenants I had made with God. I thought that my best friend and I could share our lives and have a platonic friendship. I naively thought that we could make that work. One day he asked if I'd be his boyfriend and even though I yearned to say yes I said no. A few weeks later he asked me again and with more pain than before I again told him no. A little more time passed and he once again asked if I'd be his boyfriend and even though I loved him more than any of the girls I had dated and I wanted very much to say yes, I told him no. He told me that he didn't want to be someone's Abrahamic sacrifice. He didn't want to be the sacrifice that someone made to show God how faithful he could be. And yet that is what my best friend had become to me, the thing I was willing to sacrifice for God. Since we couldn't have a real relationship he said that we needed to part ways and we did. Losing him from my life was one of the most painful things that has ever happened to me because I really loved him and wanted to date him, but I knew I couldn't. My heart told me one thing and my church told me another. I had to choose and I chose my church.

On Valentine's Day 2009 I took "The Sound of Music" tour by
myself in Salzburg, Austria (I know, such a super gay thing to
do).  This is me in front of the famous gazebo wondering,
"Where's my significant other?"
The story I just told is incredibly reductive.  There's no way I could do justice to one of the most important and formative experiences of my life in a paragraph.  But I tell that very simplified story so that people will see that to me it didn't feel like a sin to love another man.  It felt wonderful and good.  All those cheesy movies and love songs suddenly made sense to me even though they hadn't for the first 29 years of my life (I know, such a cliché thing to say, but it's true).  And I was willing to give it all away to do what I felt to be God's will.  The memories of this time flooded into my mind after I listened to Elder Christofferson's interview.   I realized that if I wanted to stay in this church and hope for the eternal life and future that it promises, that I wasn't allowed to hope for this thing that I wanted so bad.  And knowing that I wasn't allowed to hope for that made me think that I'd be better off dead.

I woke up the next morning to a text message from a friend in Utah expressing her love for me and telling me how much she wished that we lived close to each other so she could see me regularly.  She wrote in part, "What a great blessing that would be to me to have such a good friend in my life.  You're the best."  Over the next 24 hours I got Facebook messages, emails, texts, and phone calls from dozens of people asking how I was doing, expressing love for me, and telling me how much I meant to them.  All these messages reminded me of how great my life is and the desire for the grave I had felt the previous night left and shows no sign of returning.  The visceral response I initially had went away as I saw and felt all the love and empathy that exists in my community.  And the future looked bright and happy again. 

That day I spent a lot of time with Ian, Amy, and their kids.  Their three year old constantly tried to get my attention by asking me silly questions like if I'd like to eat a whale.  Then he'd yell, "Look at my sock!" and I'd look.  Then he'd yell, "Look at my other sock!" and I'd look again.  It was pretty adorable.  Amy told me how much she hoped I'd get a job in California so I could live close to them.  Ian said, "I know you haven't left yet, but when are you going to come back?"  Amy then suggested that I visit twice a year and Ian offered that I visit at least once a quarter.  It was hard to be annoyed or angry at a policy when so many wonderful people were telling me how much they wanted me in their lives. 

Over the weekend both Ian and Amy expressed a lot of empathy for the choice I have to make between being part of the church and marrying a man I love.  During one of our conversations Amy said, "If the church brought back polygamy I just couldn't do it.  I don't think I could live like that."  I've heard a lot women in the church say similar things, that polygamy is a deal breaker for them.  They would refuse to participate in it.  However, I think they're looking at things a little too simplistically.  I think that most of them, if they felt they were being commanded by God to do, would do it.  They would weep, they would struggle, they would get mad at God, but they would obey trusting that their Heavenly Father knows best.  Some would leave, of course, but I think many would have their hearts broken and would remain in the church that they believe is true.  And this scenario isn't too crazy.  The doctrine of plural marriage still exists in our scriptures and could theoretically be reinstated any day. 

I feel like I'm being asked to live polygamy.  Now obviously I haven't been asked to have multiple wives (and thank goodness for that!), but just like the men and women of 19th century Mormonism, I have made decisions relating to marriage that have broken my heart because I believe the tenets of my religion.  I'm sure that many of the men and women who entered into polygamous marriages because of their faith in "the principle" as they called it would have preferred to be in monogamous relationships.  And there are gay members of the church who would prefer to marry someone of their same gender, but who remain single and celibate because of "the policy."  If you want to have a little taste of the choices we gay members of the church have to make, take some time to imagine how you would respond if you were asked to participate in a plural marriage. 

Is it fair that my religion requires so much of its members?  That's for each individual to decide.  Those who don't believe would say that I'm being foolish.  I have felt pitied by those not of my faith for the choice that I make to stay single.  But if I entered into a same-sex marriage my church would condemn me.  Elder Perry would have described the love I'd have for my husband as "counterfeit love."  I have heard rational people say to me, "Stop living your life according to the rules of your homophobic church.  Just be yourself."  And I have heard others say, "Just follow the prophet, he knows the way."  But it's not that simple.  There are two things I want and I can't have them both.  So I pray and I fast and I read and I ponder and I serve and I try to figure out what God wants me to do.  And I feel called to live my life the way that I am living it. 

I simply ask that you don't pity those of us who decide to be celibate and stay in the church.  We're simply doing what we feel is right.  I ask that you don't condemn the gay members who choose to leave.  I have many friends in that situation and I know that they are simply doing what they feel is right.  We all turn away from the truth when we sin which technically makes all of us apostates.  As President Uchtdorf has said, "Don't judge me because I sin differently than you do."  Especially if that sin is being in a committed relationship with someone that they love.

I wrote a blog post in June in which I described a lot of the loneliness I've felt.  That was true for me back then, but the last five months have been incredible, easily one of the happiest times in my life and I have rarely felt lonely.  I could go on and on about all the great things I do that bring me meaning and happiness, but the things that have been the most meaningful to me are the outreach I'm doing in my area.  I now hold a regular support group for gay Mormons.  A friend and I started Ally Night where we talk to straight members of the church, share our stories, answer their questions, and try to expand the empathy and compassion they feel for gay members.  And I had the singular privilege of addressing a group at the Tucson LDS Institute for fifty minutes about my experiences as a gay Mormon.  I feel like that is one of the most important things I've ever done.

The Brethren have drawn a line in the sand and I have chosen my side.  I'm committed to doing all I can to making my side of the line the happiest and healthiest place it can be.  And to those of you who have chosen the other side of the line, know that I love you and respect you.  I do not condemn you.  In fact, I often envy you.  I just ask that you don't pity me because I am happy on my side of the line. 

We Mormons talk about our pioneer heritage a lot.  We're proud of those people who left homes and families to establish their Zion in the west.  They were required to sacrifice a great deal for their faith.  For many, that sacrifice included being in polygamous marital relationships that tested their faith and broke their hearts.  I feel like what is being asked of me isn't all that different and I'm happy to sacrifice for what I believe is the truth. 

I'm going to end this post by being a little too cheesy and quoting a primary song that encapsulates how I'm trying to live my life.

You don't have to push a handcart,
Leave your fam'ly dear,
Or walk a thousand miles or more
To be a pioneer!
You do need to have great courage,
Faith to conquer fear,
And work with might for a cause that's right
To be a pioneer!


Angela Hatch said...

Ben, I love reading your articles because you seem to have such a clear view of what you want and how you want to get there. I admire that you share your struggles and triumphs so openly and unapologetically. It takes courage to be vulnerable and honest with others, but even harder sometimes, ourselves. I feel like you have found an amazing place in your life where you can be so honest and open, and I know that it helps me, and I'm sure a lot of other people.

I wish you all good things, and know that your posts help me to see the world a little more clearly and to understand from a perspective so different from mine. It helps me to become more empathetic, more kind, and more understanding, and for that I'm extremely grateful.

Good luck on your journey. I look forward to hearing more from you. You have important things to share, and I'm glad to have known you in my life.

Dave Brodhead said...

Thank you, Ben. You are challenging and expanding my perspectives. Keep sharing!

Unknown said...

You're a gifted writer and a deep thinker. It hurts me to think that you might be suppressing your inner voice and heart and real desires based on what an organization tells you is God's will. I learned a while ago to always translate "God's will" to "the brethren's will." It sure clarifies the seemingly absurd things they tell you to do. Only you can determine God's will for you. And listening to your heart is a great way to start.
I wish you love and joy in your life. This is all we're guaranteed.

Becky said...

Wow Ben. Your story is inspiring. I am inspired by your faith, love and trust in God. We all have our own challenges in life and you share yours with the world and love others as they struggle with their own. Thank you for sharing this. Thank you for helping me see this perspective.

Anonymous said...

This deeply touched me. I've thought about the comparison to polygamy before and think it's very apt. I think the issue we all have--every member of the Church--is we don't actually believe God requires real sacrifices of us. Not all of us have to sacrifice in the way you do, but in order to be like God, each of us has to have a heart that would make an Abrahamic sacrifice if it were asked of us. Thank you for your wise words and your faithful heart. You give me hope for Zion.

Trisha said...

Thank you for your well written and thought out words that include such a strong faith. The polygamy thing- I have thought about it a lot (as somehow I have had dreams that my husband had to take on more wives). I know I would do it as my husband is a strong and faithful man. I might not like it but I would do it.

Mr. H. said...

Ben, I have the utmost respect for you. Why do we have trials? Why do some seemingly have more difficult trials than others? Of course, we kind of know why in a generic way, but we will not know specifically until later on as we travel through this eternal time line. Your trial--I can't even begin to imagine how difficult it must be. Yes, a pioneer, you are definitely one. You are also courageous. You are also a valiant disciple of Christ. Thank you for your blog, good brother. You are an inspiration to us all.

Brad Hayashi

Javier said...

Hola Schilaty muestras muy clara la diferencia entre creer en Dios y seguirle. Creo que la mayoría de nosotros solo sabemos creen en Él pero seguirle...

Saludos y gracias por compartirlo.

Javier Ramos

Misión México Chihuahua (2003-2005)

Carole said...

Thank you.

Peggy said...

Hi Ben. I am Tyler's mom. He shared this post with me. BTW Tyler thinks your are great! So do I, especially after reading this deeply thoughtful and insightful message. I admire your faith. I had never thought about the polygamy parallel... If ever called upon to obey that command, your message would help me obey. Thanks.

Sabrina said...

I really enjoyed hearing your story. Thank you for sharing and being vulnerable and courageous.

Deb said...

You just might be the strongest person I have ever come across. Thank you for your story.

Unknown said...

I consider myself to be so blessed to have the privilege of knowing you. Your faith, strength and example are blessings to everyone around you. I can't wait to see where you go and what you do in the coming years.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the repost Ben! It is very true that so many members have an incredible amount of empathy for your situation. It is also true, that many don’t care to understand it at all. I still pray for light and knowledge to come to me to know how to best love and support those in your situation. It truly breaks my heart.