Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Story They Never Told Us

My parents the day they got baptized.
This is my very favorite picture of them.
Yesterday I drove three hours (two hours when there isn't traffic) to Olympia to hang out with Aaron and Amanda. I talked to Aaron's mom for a bit and she told me how great my parents are and how much she misses being in their ward. Then she told a story about them that I had never heard before. She was pretty sure, but not 100% sure, that the story was about my parents. So when I got home late last night I asked my parents if the story was about them and they confirmed that it was. I was shocked they'd never told me or my siblings. Here's what happened.

Buzz and Ginny Schilaty in 1971
My parents got married in 1971 and then randomly bumped into Mormonism the following year and joined the church. They had no children and two incomes so they lived off of one income and put the rest into a college fund for their unborn children (they're planners). In 1975 the church announced that it would build a temple in Seattle and each ward was asked to contribute to the building fund. My parents' ward hosted a dinner and asked people to pledge money. At this point my mom had had a number of miscarriages and she and my dad thought they might never be able to have children. So during the dinner they decided to donated the entire college fund to the temple building fund. My dad told me that it was one of the most spiritual moments of his life and he hasn't regretted it for a second.

When Aaron's mom told me this story my reaction (half joking, half serious) was, "Too bad they didn't keep the money!" because my oldest brother was born the next year. But my parents have taught me over and over again that when you put the Lord first He will take care of you. I remember shortly after I got home from my mission someone gave me $1,000 for school. I asked my mom if I was supposed to pay tithing on that money since it was basically a tuition scholarship. She said, "You're smart enough to figure out the right thing. I don't know what you should do, but I do know that you can never be too generous with the Lord."

It's been 41 years since my parents donated the money intended for our schooling to the Seattle Temple. My parents have four children, we all have master's degrees, and none of us ever had to take out a loan for our schooling. I think my mom was right.

I don't know why my parents never told us kids this story, but it's something I will think about from now on every time I see the Seattle Temple.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Perfectly Single

Four years ago my life was less than ideal. Actually, it kind of stunk. I was just rereading my journal from 2012 and 2013 and boy did I complain a lot. For example, take a look at this entry from 11 February 2013: “I kind of snapped at Kevin last night. He kept talking to me about Allison and how happy he was and I was just feeling crappy. His happiness just made me feel worse. I went to bed feeling pretty sorry for myself. I felt like Eliza from My Fair Lady when she exclaimed, ‘What’s to become of me?’ I just felt lost and sad and hopeless and I may have cried a little.” If you think I sound gay for quoting a musical, you should read the next paragraph of that journal entry in which I quote Anne Shirley.

Kevin was my roommate at the time and he was dating my friend Allison who he later married. They’re two of my very favorite people and in hindsight I’m embarrassed that I couldn’t just be happy for them. Unfortunately, I was too caught up in my own singleness to be happy that they had found love. I was lonely and sad and I feared that I would be alone forever.

What’s interesting is that as I’ve gotten to know more and more gay Mormons I hear the same story and over and over again. While everyone’s story is unique, I’ve heard this same sentiment dozens and dozens of time: “I just don’t want to be alone forever.” The kind of people I hear say this are typically gay men who have tried to date women for years with no success. They love Mormonism and want to stay in the church, but doing so means that they either have to marry a woman or stay single. Since marriage to a woman is unappealing and hasn’t worked the only option left is to remain single if they want to fully participate in the church. In their eyes, they will be alone forever. I totally get this because I’ve felt the same way.

When a gay friend tells me that they don’t want to be alone forever I often say something like this: “Just because you’re single doesn’t mean you have to be alone. You don’t need a relationship to be happy. You’re not half of whole. You don’t need another person to complete you.” And if I’m talking to someone who identifies as a feminist I’ll say, “You’re a feminist and you’re telling me you need a man to be happy?!” I’m not sure saying any of this has ever been helpful, but I’ll continue saying it anyway.

I’ve said the phrase, “You’re not half of a whole, you can be whole just how you are,” enough times that I decided to see if it was true. Over the last week I’ve been searching the scriptures to answer this question: What makes me whole and complete? I feel like the Mormon culture makes us single people feel that to be complete we need to be married. I’d like to share a few of the things that I wish Ben from four years ago had understood.

Like Mary Poppins my mother is practically
perfect. She truly loves everyone.
The first scripture I explored was Matthew 5:48, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Anyone who paid attention in Sunday School will know that perfect means “complete, finished, fully developed.” In other words, to be perfect is to be whole. The five verses preceding verse 48 all deal with how we treat other people. Verse 44, for example, says, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” As I’ve pondered these verses I’ve understood them to mean that if you want to be whole you need to forgive, you need to love, and you need to do good to everyone. In essence, our wholeness is contingent on how we treat other people. Have you ever been mad at someone or something and a friend says to you, “Dude, just let it go and move on”? I’ve been told that and I’ve said it, too (but without the word dude, of course). Mormonism at its core is about progression. If you aren’t forgiving people you aren’t moving on. You are stopping your own progression. As J.K. Rowling has said, “If you want to see the true measure of a man, watch how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” How we treat others matters very much.

Principle 1: I am whole when I treat people in a Christlike way (especially if they don’t deserve it).

The next verses that touched me were Matthew 19:20-21. This is when a rich young man approaches Jesus and asks what he needs to do to receive eternal life. The Savior tells him to keep the commandments and the rich young man is like, “I keep all those commandments already.” And then he asks, “What lack I yet?” In other words, what’s keeping me from being whole? And Christ tells him to give all he has to the poor, but the rich guy just can’t do that and walks away feeling sad and still incomplete.

So what’s the principle here? I’m whole when I give all my stuff away? No, I think it’s deeper than that. I think that each of us needs to have the courage to ask, “What lack I yet? What am I missing?” And then have the courage to do that thing. Here’s an example from my life.

Not long after I wrote the journal entry at the beginning of this post I was feeling super-sad that I was single (that feeling was actually pretty constant in my life for a number of years). As I was driving home from work one day I was praying and expressing to God my frustrations. I pleaded, “Why can’t I just have a family?” I soon felt this answer, “Ben, you already have a family.” And that response was true, I have a great family. I have parents, siblings, nieces and nephews and they’re all just great. I realized that I was already part of an eternal family and that instead of longing for something I didn’t have I should improve the relationships that I already had.

Hanging out with my gay Mormon friends
makes me feel whole
Now, this next part is going to sound crazy to Mormons, but it was important for me. Over the next few years I learned that I had to get rid of the dream I had of marrying a woman in the temple. It had been causing me pain and sadness and it was time for a new dream, a dream that was a better fit for me. I asked God, “What lack I yet?” and through a line upon line process I knew that there was a work God had for me to do. I needed my gay brothers and sisters and they needed me. And so I reached out and formed a little support group of LGBT Mormons. Now I have a little family in Tucson that I love as if they were my actual family. I wrote about how that all happened in my last post. I thought that the only way to be happy was to be married to a woman, but I feel like I was mistaken.

For example, Jesus Christ is our perfect example, right? He was baptized even though He was sinless to “set the example” for us (2 Nephi 31:9). His baptism is mentioned in multiple places in the scriptures because He did it to show us the way. If marriage was so important for me right now wouldn’t He have set the example for me by getting married? (I wrote some more thoughts on marriage and the Plan of Happiness in this post.) The Savior’s familial relationship that is most emphasized in the scriptures is His relationship with His mother as well as His constant striving to do His Father’s will. The scriptures are bursting with stories of how Christ treated everyone with love and respect, especially those that were sick, different, or on the fringes of society. Jesus showed us how love can be universal instead of exclusive. For me, the thing I lacked was reaching out. I was feeling so lonely and sad that I failed to realize that there were other lonely and sad people, too. Once I stopped feeling sorry for myself and started looking outward things got way better. In fact, I think I’m in the best place I’ve ever been.

Principle 2: I’m whole when I have the courage to do God’s will.

I love what the Doctrine and Covenants teaches about light. Section 93 is one of my absolute favorites. But D&C 50:24 teaches an important principle, too. It reads, “That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light and that light growth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.” Remember how we agreed that perfect means to complete and whole? Well, I haven’t reached the perfect day yet, but I will if I continue in God and continue receiving more light. God has promised all of us further light and knowledge and to receive it we need to use the knowledge He has already given us and seek for more.

Principle 3: I become whole as I receive more light.

I found a lot of great scriptures about what it means to be whole, but I’ll just share one more thought. Moroni 10:32 says that “by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ…” And referring to those who will attain a celestial glory, D&C 76:69 says, “These are they who are just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant…” In the end, it’s not so much about what I do that will make me whole, it’s about what Christ did. A spouse won’t complete me, but the grace of God will. The relationship that will make me perfect isn’t the one I have with a significant other, but the one I have with Jesus.

Principle 4: I am made whole through grace.

If I could talk to the me of four years ago I would ask him these questions: How do you treat other people? Is there something you feel prompted to do that you haven’t had the courage to do yet? What are you doing to receive more light? What role does grace have in your life? I think if he really thought about it he would realize that he was looking for happiness in some of the wrong places. And then I would encourage him to follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost and his own moral compass and live the life he felt inspired to live. And I would tell him to not make any decisions based on fear (which is what I did for way too long).

I love traditional marriages and families and I believe that they are essential to God’s plan. However, I think that marriage to a woman isn’t the right thing for me at this point in my life. And while I’m very content with my life, I would not prescribe it for every gay Mormon. We all need to figure out what course is right for us. As Joseph Smith taught, “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, 'Thou shalt not kill'; at another time He said, 'Thou shalt utterly destroy.' This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.” I feel that I’ve received revelation on how to live my life and I hope that everyone else will do the same.

I’ve heard many people say things like, “My wife is my rock,” or “Nothing has brought me greater joy than raising my kids.” These sentiments are great and no longer make me feel left out because I’ve found my own rock and my own things that bring me joy. I know people who appear to have great marriages as well as people who feel burdened by their marriage. I also know people who are single and sad and people who are single and thriving. That’s because it’s not our relationship status that completes us. It is who we are becoming that completes us. However, I still get criticized regularly by Mormons and by people in the LGBT community for choosing to stay single. I get it, you have a great life and want me to have a great life, too. But instead of prescribing marriage to me as a way to be whole, I’d prefer you to ask me about my relationship with God. Am I thriving? Am I living a life that brings me joy? Am I driven by a purpose that’s greater than myself? I wish that instead of telling me to find a partner that you would ask me these sorts of questions instead.

Yes, I’m single, but I feel perfectly happy and whole just the way I am.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Creating a Space for Gay Mormons in Tucson

In September 2015 I started the Tucson LDS Same-Gender Attraction group. No one uses the group’s official name and we all just call it Gay Night. Our Facebook group has 19 members and 8 to 12 people typically come to one of our meetings. Two of the members are in mixed-orientation marriages and everyone else is single. Both men and women attend the group and we have people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, and asexual. Not everyone is currently active in church, but most of the group members are. Our monthly meetings are the highlight of my month. These people have become my family and are some of my closest friends. Here’s the story of how the group got started.

On 6 December 2013 I received a mass email titled, “BYU Studies Personal Essays & Poetry Contest.” As I read through the email I suddenly had this huge desire to write an essay about coming out while at BYU. At the time only some of my friends and family even knew I was gay, but the prompting was clear so I took a few hours over Christmas break and wrote the essay. It was promptly rejected by BYU Studies shortly after I submitted it. I was deeply disappointed, but during 2014 I came out to more people than I ever had before and in conjunction with coming out to them I also gave them a copy of the essay I wrote. It ended up being a fantastic tool and I thought, “Oh, this is why I felt prompted to write it.”

A year later I was listening to a podcast about the importance of telling stories and I once again felt inspired to share the essay I’d written, but this time on my blog. I searched my feelings for a few days, talked to all the people mentioned in the essay to get their approval to share it, and a week later I posted it on my blog. I was totally unprepared for the flood of responses I would receive. I started getting emails from gay Mormons in places as far away as Italy and Tasmania who felt lonely, sad and isolated. My heart hurt for these people who felt they had no one they could reach out to except for this stranger on the internet. I responded to all the emails I received, but that was about all I could do for them.

It suddenly dawned on me that there were probably gay Mormons here in Tucson that were also struggling and while I couldn’t do much to help the people who lived far from me, I could for sure help the people in my city. I wanted to form a group patterned after the Genesis Group. If you haven’t heard of the Genesis Group, you can read it's history here. Basically, in the early 70s church leaders took notice of all the Black members of the church who were leaving. The Genesis Group was a monthly fireside-like meeting where they could strengthen their faith in Christ together and build a community of people with similar life experiences and struggles. It was started by three apostles and was under the direction of the priesthood. I wanted to do the same thing, but for LGBT Mormons in my area.

In March 2015 I emailed my stake president about forming a stake sponsored support group. He and I didn’t really know each other at the time, but he set up a time to meet with me. During that initial meeting we talked about already established support groups like Affirmation and North Star and the resources currently available in Tucson (there were none). He was interested in starting a support group, but was cautious. He wanted to do some research before we settled on anything which made good sense. Then he shocked me by extending a calling to serve in the stake Sunday School presidency in that same meeting. As I wrote about the experience in my journal that night I couldn’t hold back the tears. Years of shame about being gay made me feel like I would be rejected by church members if they knew I was gay. And now my stake president was well aware of my orientation and he had called me to a stake calling anyway AND he wanted to reach out to gay Mormons in our stake. I felt so loved and he made me feel like I belonged.

Over the next few months we met a few times to discuss forming a group. The stake president asked a high councilor to work with me and the two of us collaborated to write a group charter. Our two goals as a group would be to build our faith in Christ together and form a community of people with similar circumstances. The group would be both LDS affirming and LGTB affirming and it would be open to people who weren’t currently active in the church. We would meet once a month for a gospel lesson and then have some kind of social activity during the month as well. The stake president and high councilor chose to name the group the Tucson LDS Same-Gender Attraction group. I didn’t love the name, but I was okay with it. I created a secret Facebook group with that name for announcements.
I found this decades old slip of paper
tucked into my grandma's old Bible.
She's been gone for 21 years, but she
still encourages me.
On the first Tuesday in September 2015 we had our first meeting of the Tucson LDS SGA at a local church building. I was super-nervous, but it went well. Only three of us from the LGBT community were there so we started out small (technically, we had one G and two B’s). When I got home that night I had a Facebook message from a man that I knew from the LDS Institute, but didn’t know well. He told me that he had gone to the church parking lot for the meeting, but didn’t have the courage to go inside. I invited him over to my house to chat and the next night this near stranger told me his whole life story for two hours. He kept apologizing for talking so much. I told him not to worrying and to keep going. Before talking to me he had only come out to two bishops and this was his first time talking to someone who could really relate to his experiences as a gay Mormon. He called me the next day to thank me for talking with him for so long and said how helpful it had been. Someone in Tucson had needed a gay Mormon friend and I was thrilled to fill that role.
A few days after our first group meeting the stake president learned that stakes are not allowed to sponsor support groups for LGBT members so we were no longer allowed to meet at a church. The high councilor offered to let us meet at his house once a month and the stake president encouraged us to continue even though he wouldn’t be officially involved. And that’s what we’ve been doing since then. Every month either I or another group member chooses a talk that we all read (well, are supposed to read) beforehand and we discuss it as a group and how it relates to us. Our most recent meeting was on November 3rd and I wrote the following in my journal that night (please excuse all the cheesiness): “My heart is so full tonight… As we talked after and hung out I just wanted to cry. We are a family and I’m so honored for the role I played in the creation of this family. I’m just so grateful that we are all able to be together at this time and place. This is God’s work and it brings me so much joy.”

Wow, that was terribly cheesy, but it’s true. Being together strengthens us and builds us up. As one member recently told me, just talking to other people like her reduced the anxiety and depression she was feeling. We have needed and will continue to need each other. 

Ally Night

The scriptures define Zion as a people that is “of one heart and one mind” (Moses 7:18). I don’t think this means that we all think and feel the same the things, but that we understand one another and what is in each other’s hearts. This is the purpose of Ally Night, to build Zion through understanding. Last November my buddy Paul was troubled by the church’s new policy regarding members in same-sex marriages and their children. He realized that this policy was either going to push him further into the closet or force him out. He decided to come out.

Paul and I in my living room
Paul decided that the best way to affect change was to tell his story. So he asked if he could have some friends come over to my house so he could share his story with them. Eight people came over to my house on 9 November 2015 (just four days after the policy was leaked) to hear Paul’s story. He was open, authentic, and very personal. When he was done he let people ask him questions and then a wonderfully beautiful conversation emerged. The Spirit in the room was strong and I was moved by the level of compassion that Paul’s friends had. They really wanted to love and support him. It went so well that Paul invited a different group of people over ten days later. Then we decided that we should both talk and we started calling the meetings Ally Night because it was a way for us to build allies by giving them access to our hearts.

We’ve held dozens of Ally Nights since them, always in someone’s home. We start them out by having two gay Mormons briefly tell their stories and then we let people ask questions. That typically lasts about an hour. Then we end with introductions. Everyone in the room says their name and comments on one takeaway from the night. This is usually the most touching part of the evening. We also begin and end the meeting with a prayer. We’ve had six different presenters so far who are all single and either gay or bi. Soon we’ll be having an asexual person tell their story as well as a lesbian in a mixed orientation marriage. It’s been ridiculously rewarding to watch my friends grow in confidence and share their stories.

We’ve had loads of support for Ally Night. My stake presidency and bishop have attended in the past. Another presenter’s stake president and bishop have come as well. One leader sent me a note following Ally Night that said in part, "You and Paul are doing good work...don't stop." One of the Young Single Adult wards in Tucson has been especially welcoming (actually, nearly half of the members of the support group come from this one ward). Each of the members of this bishopric have hosted an Ally Night in their home. These men and their wives are my heroes.

We’ve had very positive experiences result from Ally Night. On three separate occasions someone told me that the day after attending Ally Night someone they knew came out to them and because they had come to the meeting the night before they knew how to respond. Often people stay long after the meeting to ask further questions and just to get to know one another better. It has deepened friendships and created many more.

There are a lot of positive stories that I could tell about Ally Night, but I’ll just share one. Both I and another Ally Night presenter invited a woman we know from the Institute to attend Ally Night. She said she was busy and couldn’t come. I invited her to the next Ally Night and she again said she was busy. Since we do Ally Night frequently and on different nights I asked, “Well, when are you free? We can plan it around your schedule.” She replied, “I’m pretty busy most nights,” which I took to mean, “Allow me to politely tell you that I’m not interested in attending.” It turns out she did what to come because she came to an Ally Night not long after that. At the end of the meeting as everyone was sharing their takeaways she thanked me and the other presenter and said that everyone just wants to be understood. She had previously told me that she has depression which is often misunderstood (like when people tell her to just be choose to be happy).  

A few weeks after that I ran into her at the Institute. She told me that she had just been in Utah visiting some friends. Some of her friends had said that people choose to be gay. She took a deep breath and said to herself, “Okay, time to be an ally.” Then she shared the insight she had had at Ally Night with her friends and helped them understand what she had learned. Just like it wouldn’t be right to tell a person with depression to just choose to be happy, it wouldn’t be right to tell a gay man to just choose to marry a woman. My heart swelled with gratitude for this friend of mine who had not only taken the time to learn about our experiences, but had stood up for us and corrected misinformation. She’s my hero, too.

We had an Ally Night at a bishop’s house this past Sunday. One of the guys from Gay Night shared his story for the very first time. As we went around the room sharing our takeaways from the night, a woman who I hadn’t meant before said, “I want to thank you two for being so open and honest tonight. I want you to know that I am going to be an LGBT ally and I will support you whether you stay in the church or leave. I know many of you don’t have families in town and I will be your Tucson mom if you need one. Call me anytime, day or night, and I will be there for you. The doors to my home are always open to you and you are part of my family now.” After the meeting she gave us both big hugs and thanked us for being so brave and reiterated that she would be there for us. I wish every gay Mormon could feel the love and support we have in Tucson. I wish they could hear the message that I consistently hear from straight Mormons at Ally Night. “We love you. We claim you. You are one of us. You belong in this church.” We don’t go into Ally Night expecting these kinds of compassionate responses, but they are simply the natural reaction to understanding our stories.

Ally Night is a small, grassroots initiative started by my buddy Paul, but it’s affecting a lot of people and it’s making Tucson a much more welcoming place for LGBT Mormons. We’ve only just begun and we still have a long way to go, but with courageous people like Paul in the church things are only going to get better.

I’d just like to end this really long post with a primary song that exemplifies the pioneering work we’re doing here in Tucson.

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!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Unconventional Evangelizing

Last month three friends and I stayed at an Airbnb in Anaheim while spending two days at Disneyland. Our hostess Leena was super nice. She and I chatted a few times about her kids, seeing God’s miracles in her life, and how great it is to live in southern California. The day we left and I packed up my things I had a nagging feeling that I was forgetting something, but I looked under the beds and in the bathroom and there didn’t seem to be anything that I hadn’t packed. It wasn’t until I was back in my house in Arizona that I realized I had left all my dirty clothes in a drawer in California. At first I was super bummed that I had left some of my favorite clothes in another state (I mean you, purple shirt). But I had driven through the night and had not yet slept at all so I crawled into bed figuring I’d address the problem in a few hours.

I texted Leena that afternoon and explained the situation. She was totally understanding and offered to mail my clothes to me and I offered to send her some money for her trouble. All was right with the world. And then a few hours later I got a text from her that she had meant to send to her mom. It read: “So the last bnb guest left a bunch of clothes on accident and asked if I’d mail them. Of course I will but they were dirty so I brought them home to wash the first and all the undies were like really long and the white shirts slightly off. Then I remembered they were a group of four MORMONS. I washed the special undies in my washing machine.”

She immediately realized that she had accidently sent the text to me and I soon received two texts that said, “Oh God, humiliation,” and “Forgive me.”

I burst into laughter, of course, but knowing that she was probably feeling mortified I texted her saying not to worry, that I’ve sent the wrong text to people loads of times, and that she needn’t feel embarrassed. I then thought it might be nice to explain why my undies are so weird so I sent her this video from the church with a message that said, “Here’s a quick video on what the clothes mean to us Mormons.”

Here’s the rest of our conversation.

I could not stop laughing and all the hilarity made me feel like this near stranger who had just told her mom about my underwear was a good friend. A few days later I received a package in the mail with all my clothes nicely folded with a note that said, “I’m a mom first so these have been through the wash.” Leaving my clothes in one state and then having them arrive at my house laundered and folded was actually pretty sweet. Laundry by mail should be a thing.