Monday, November 20, 2017

From SSA to Gay

What defines me? What makes me Ben? What parts of me shouldn’t be calculated when I consider my identity? What does it mean to be a child of God? These questions have swirled in my head recently as my friends and I have been told to not call ourselves gay. Just last night while speaking about LGBT members of the church in a Face to Face event, Elder Oaks cautioned us against using labels to define ourselves explaining that our main identity should be as children of God. I have been told that the term gay refers to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and should not be used to describe people. Despite being told this I currently self-identify as gay and I’d like to tell you why.

I first noticed that I was attracted to other guys when I was in 6th grade. I didn’t worry about my attractions or self-identify as gay because I knew it was something temporary that my mission would fix. However, when I got home from my mission and the attractions remained I decided to be hyper-righteous so those feelings would go away. I still felt no need to call myself gay because I was convinced that I would soon be straight. I began to consistently pray and fast to be attracted to women. I also served in the church, attended the temple, read the scriptures every day, and took a lot of women on dates. During this time I felt no change in my attractions. I also started reading blogs about other LDS men experiencing the same trial. This is how I learned the term SSA (same-sex attraction) and I began applying it to myself.

This is me feeling sad back when I struggled with SSA
 (wearing a BYU shirt)
When I started coming out to people I couldn’t say, “I have SSA,” because no one would know what I was talking about, but I also couldn’t call myself gay because I wasn’t gay. So I would just describe my situation and say, “For as long as I can remember I’ve been more attracted to men than women.” This phrase was rather long and in later discussion with friends I would say things like “my baggage” or “you-know-what” as if my feelings were Harry Potter’s nemesis. I finally invented my own term that I used for about six years.

I never really liked saying I had SSA because if felt like I was disclosing that I had a disease. Also, during the time that I described myself as SSA I was constantly trying to overcome it. SSA was a trial, an affliction, a test, and a battle to be won. I previously wrote a post about how hard it was for me to be in the closet and the fear I felt.

The problem with having SSA is that I was always failing. I’d see an attractive guy at the gym and I’d get mad at myself for finding him attractive. I’d laugh at a witty boy’s joke and hate myself for having a crush on him. I’d steal glances at cute boys in class and then scold myself for doing so. During all this time I never kissed a boy, held hands with a boy, or anything like that, but I still felt like I was an awful person for even being attracted to these people. However, at the same time I knew that the church’s stance was that feelings of same-sex attraction weren’t a choice, but I still felt like a terrible failure for not being stronger than my attractions. To me, saying “I have same-sex attraction” reminds me of this time when I constantly felt miserable for being so weak. So when someone says to me, “Ben, you’re not gay, you have same-sex attraction,” I feel very misunderstood and invalidated. And I’ve been told that many times.

Here's a recent picture of me happy and gay
(wearing a different BYU shirt)
In my late 20s I read a satirical article about how to best wish someone Merry Christmas. You can’t wish someone a Merry Christmas because it offends non-Christians. You can’t say Happy Holidays because it offends people who don’t celebrate a holiday. You can’t say Happy Winter Solstice because it offends people in the southern hemisphere and you can’t say Happy New Year because it offends people who don’t follow the Gregorian calendar. This article really made me think about how adamantly I had tried to not call myself gay for so many years and the psychological harm that did to me personally. So I decided to start calling myself gay. And it was a great choice for my emotional health (and it's fewer syllables).

I have never stopped living church standards even though I now say that I’m gay. While having SSA made me constantly feel guilty every time I was attracted to someone, being gay has removed that guilt. I just see it as one of my traits. And removing the shame from being attracted to men has made me much healthier. Finding someone attractive is natural and normal and instead of feeling guilty, I just accept it as part of me.

I don’t think being gay is my defining characteristic, but it is an important part of me because it shapes my life in profound ways. But like my hair color, height, or deep voice, it’s not something I chose. I think the things that define me the most are the things I choose. The way I treat people, the way I respond to situations, and how I spend my time define me much more than traits I didn't choose. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Stain and the Dance

Recently I was chatting with a dear friend and she shared a dream with me that she had had some time ago. I was struck by the beautiful message contained in her brief experience. The following day I spoke at an Ally Night at someone's home and shared this story with the 20 people present. After the meeting two people came up to me and said that my retelling of the dream was the most impactful part of the whole night ("Ben, your stories were fine and all, but your friend's story was AMAZING!"). Since those two women found her experience to be valuable I thought it would be worth it to share it here as well. So with my friend's permission, I am sharing the experience she had in her own words. 

My husband and I have four wonderful sons. Four Eagle Scouts, four returned missionaries, all smart and handsome and really great men.  One of them, while living with us, decided he wanted to leave the church. This was beyond difficult for me. I prayed, I fasted, I attended the temple and read my scriptures and then I prayed more, for inspiration and help for my son. Yet, as the days and weeks went by he was getting farther and farther away from the gospel. In a word, this was brutal. I felt despair, discouragment, and doubt. I didn’t doubt my testimony, but I doubted my abilities as a mother to save my son. One day, after a very difficult conversation with him, I went to my bedroom, closed the door and fell to my knees. I pleaded with the Lord, “I can’t do this anymore. Please help me!” I was hoping for inspiration on how to “fix” my son.

The following night, I had this dream. I was at a dance. It was very much like a gym at the church. A famous rock band was there to play for our dance. There were a lot of people there: friends, neighbors, single, married, old, young. All of us together and all happy and excited, except me. I had a weight of responsibility on my shoulders. I felt a huge burden. A young man who lives down the street from me got a stain on his white Sunday shirt. I offered to clean the shirt since I have much experience with cleaning white shirts for young men. I had the shirt soaking in the kitchen sink. In the gym, the band started to warm up and everyone started dancing and cheering with excitement. With a heavy heart, I turned and walked out of the gym and said, “I better go take care of that stain.”  

Just then, my alarm went off. I was awake and thinking about my dream. A voice said to me, “Go to the dance!”  I was also inspired to understand that Christ would take care of the stain. In fact, there was nothing I could do about it. And, that Christ had already done the hard work, it was taken care of. I felt that Heavenly Father did not want me to ruin my life over this. I was hoping for inspiration about how to “fix” my son and I didn’t even realize that it was me that needed fixing.

In 2 Nephi 31:3 it says: "For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding."

I always believed this meant Spanish or English or Chinese or whatever language a person understood.  While that is true, I think that it means more than that. I was given understanding in a language that I understood: laundry, responsibility, and dancing. My testimony is that God knows us. He understands our joys and sorrows and He will answer “unto our understanding.” 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Choosing to Be Straight

I was raised to be straight. My family, my church, and society all expected me to be straight and pointed me in that direction. Being straight comes with all kinds of benefits like fitting in in a heteronormative society, following LDS doctrine, and having biological children. Children might just be a good enough reason to be straight. I mean, I’m tall, I have thick hair, and a metabolism that works like a charm. These traits totally deserve to be passed on to the next generation. Being straight seemed like the logical choice. Being gay is hard and being straight is way easier.

During the last transfer of my mission a number of missionaries and I were on a long bus ride traveling to a meeting. We were discussing what life would be like for me when I got home and how quickly I’d get married. The consensus was that I wouldn’t last a year single. I was a little more conservative in my estimate and predicted that I’d be married in a year and a half. I figured I’d get home at the end of February, head back to BYU in the fall where I’d meet some girl in my FHE group, we’d date that semester, get engaged in the spring, and married in the summer. It felt like a good plan.

I had previously thought that my mission would cure me of my same-sex attraction and I felt forsaken when I got home and it remained. Still, I felt it was a temporary thing that I could overcome. I started regularly praying and fasting that God would change my heart. I wrote in my journal a few years later: “What is the reason for this trial? I know that someday it will end and I pray that God will hasten the day.” I felt that I needed to do my part to have a change of heart so I went on a lot of dates. Like, a LOT of dates. So many, in fact, that I was regularly accused of “leading girls on.” Since no one knew that I was gay and I was taking many women on dates it looked like I was toying with hearts. 

Me in my early 20s.
Such a heartbreaker.
I was making a concerted, valiant effort to be straight. And besides the cognitive dissonance going on in my head, I was straight. I didn’t talk about liking boys, I didn’t write in my journal about it, I didn’t flirt with guys, or date guys, or hold hands with them, or cuddle with them, or kiss them, or anything that a gay person might do. On the contrary, I did all that with women. And I was pretty smooth, too. Six months after being home from my mission I wrote in my journal about a girl I met at church who I thought was super cool and a clever plan I devised to get to know her. I asked her if I could borrow a DVD to watch on my flight home for Thanksgiving. I wrote: “I returned the DVD to her today and we talked for a while. She’s really fun to hang out with. I asked her if I could borrow a DVD because not only would I have to go over to pick it up, but I’d have to return it too. Two excuses to see her. It worked well.” Like I said, smooth as butter.

I met a girl in my FHE group my first fall semester back at school after my mission. She and I got along great and she was exactly the kind of girl I would want to date. I wrote on 17 October 2005: “We’ve been seeing quite a bit of each other and we talk every day. I like her and it has become more obvious that she likes me.” Good news, right? I continue writing about a walk that this girl and I went on: “Kyle had told me to make a move (exactly what that entails, I don’t know), but not only was I scared to, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to.” Basically I wanted a girlfriend, I just didn’t want to have to touch her. In hindsight I just wanted an awesome best friend, not a kissing buddy.

This girl and I didn’t date that semester. Then winter semester rolled around and I was coming up on my year mark of being home from my mission and I was freaking out that I was almost 22 and had never dated anyone. So I decided to rekindle my relationship with the girl whose hand I didn’t want to hold, but this time I’d have the guts to just do it. I invited her over to watch a movie 100% committed to holding hand, something I’d never done before with anyone. I was so incredibly nervous that I purposefully waited until the last ten minutes of the movie to grab her hand. Once we were interdigitating I relaxed a bit because the pressure was off and she actually seemed excited about holding hands with me. I, however, was feeling a bit uncomfortable. I drove her home shortly after the movie ended which included no more hand holding and a good night hug that I could’ve given to my sister. I then drove home and told everyone that I had a girlfriend.

The next day this girl and I were hanging out and she told me that she didn’t want to be exclusive. But I had already told loads of people we were dating. So I did what any person who desperately wants a girlfriend does, I convinced her that we should date and she agreed. As I left her apartment that night she gave me a much longer hug. It was like she didn’t want to let go. She just kept hugging and hugging so I kept hugging her back not really getting the point because I was ready to leave.

The following day she got cold feet again and I again had to convince her to date me. Then we cuddled on the couch and I just sat there not sure of what I was supposed to do while she snuggled with me. The following day she yet again said that she thought we should just be friends and we broke up. My journal entry about the break up is pretty funny. I wrote: “So we officially broke up after going out for four days… Aaron says that I’ve taken it really well. I think that I just realize that we’ll both end up with other people and be happier in the end.” Nice try, 21-year-old Ben. It’s so obvious now what was going on then. I wasn’t heartbroken because I wasn’t interested in her. What I was interested in was having a girlfriend because that’s what I was supposed to be doing and it was so embarrassing that I had never dated anyone.

I still count this girl in the list of women I’ve dated even though it only lasted for a handful of days. Mostly because saying I’ve had three girlfriends sounds much cooler than just two. Looking back on this experience more than a decade later, it’s interesting how committed I was to walking the path I was told to follow. I dated a girl I wasn’t attracted to just because I was supposed to. In my very first journal entry about being gay I wrote: “It sucks and I’d change things if I could.” I did not want to be gay and my actions were completely consistent with that desire. I actively chose to “live the straight lifestyle” for the entire decade of my 20’s.

I spent thousands of dollars and countless hours dating women during those years. And yet, I still occasionally get told by well-meaning people (and occasionally just your average rude person) that being gay is a choice. The exact opposite has been true for me as I tried as hard as I could to be straight. My personal experience has taught me that marriage to a woman probably isn't the right course for me. Choosing to be straight caused me a lot of anxiety and discomfort. I felt like I was lying and the inherent dishonesty of showing interest in people I wasn't interested in really weighed on me. Around the time I turned 30 I made a conscious decision to stop dating women and move forward in life as a single person. Not only did this decision make logical sense based on my life circumstances, but I have felt divine approval of this decision. And now I get loads of free meals which I'd like to think is the universe paying me back for all the meals I bought for women who have long since married other people.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Literally Standing as an Ally

Dianna and I (with Fun Laura and Lindsay photobombing)
Last week I met up with two married BYU students who I know through a mutual friend. They’re in a mixed-orientation marriage in which the husband is gay and the wife is straight. They were absolutely delightful and I loved swapping stories with them, learning what brought them to this point in their lives, and their plans for the future. We chatted for 2 ½ hours and they were so engaging that we easily could’ve chatted for longer (but I had hours and hours of homework still to do because grad school is the worst).

That evening the wife texted me a bit to ask some more questions. After talking about gay stuff for a while she texted: “Also, random question, who are your heroes?” I responded, “Well, there are the obvious ones like my parents, but the people in my life who are my heroes are the people who have been there for me in my tough moments.” There are dozens and dozens of people that I could’ve mentioned as examples so I hope no one will feel bummed that I didn’t mention them, but the name that immediately came to mind was Dianna. Let me tell you why she’s my heroine (female hero, not the illicit drug).

Dianna's smile here is definitely forced because she
 was not happy I made her walk down that hill
About three years ago I decided to stop lying about being gay and most of people in my life were unaware of my orientation. Dianna and I had carpooled to a young single adult activity on Mt. Lemmon and as we drove down the mountain we chatted about all kinds of random stuff. I mentioned my friend Laura who we all call Fun Laura. Dianna asked, “Does Fun Laura have a nickname for you?” I replied, “Yep, she calls me Gay Mormon Ben,” to which Dianna responded, “Why does she call you that?” and I said, “Because I am both of those things.” Dianna seemed a little stunned by this revelation. I wrote in my journal about the experience: “I’ve wanted to tell Dianna I’m gay for a long time and I was glad to finally tell her. She was cool about it, but she lamented that she’s had a crush on me and she always has crushes on gay guys.” It’s true, her track record for liking straight guys is pretty bad. 

Dianna had never had a gay friend before and she didn’t really know what to say at first. She didn’t seem interested in having a conversation about it right then because she was pretty caught off guard so I just put on some music and we sang songs for the rest of the drive. I tried to have a conversation with her about my gay Mormon experience a few days later, but she didn’t really know what to say or how to have that conversation. This was all brand new to her. Not long after, we drove to the temple together which is nearly a two hour drive each way. On the drive up she asked me a question about being gay and then we chatted about my experiences the rest of the drive up. When we got back in the car she said she’d been thinking about me the entire time we were in the temple and we talked about gay stuff the whole drive back to Tucson. From that day on Dianna really seemed to understand and she was all in. Her heart grew three sizes that day. (I wrote another great example of how rad Dianna is in this post.)

When I decided to start a support group for gay Mormons in Tucson I didn’t even need to ask Dianna if she would be involved. It was just a given. She was there at the first meeting when it was just me and two other gays. Since then the group grew and grew. My house and Dianna’s house became gay Mormon central. People from the group were always hanging out at Dianna’s house and she hosted numerous Ally Nights. She was always willing to open up her house to the people who needed a place (unless it was late ‘cause Dianna needs her sleep). She and Whitney often lamented that their house was always full of boys, but none of them were straight.

Me, Lindsay, and Dianna. Lindsay's a hero, too.
She is a super ally. I have been so proud of her as she’s told stories of standing up for us and helping others understand. As I was preparing to leave Tucson I was wondering what would happen to the gay group when I was gone. One night it suddenly occurred to me that Dianna would keep it going when I was gone. When I mentioned that to her she said that she’d already decided that she’d run it when I was gone and was just waiting for me to tell her I’d decided that, too. It meant so much to me to know that my gay friends (who feel more like family than friends) will know that they have place where they are loved for who they are, where they can be themselves, and where they will know they have someone they can talk to. That place is Dianna’s house.

On Sunday Dianna posted on the Tucson gay group’s Facebook page: “In Relief Society today we had to stand up, say our name, where we're from, and something interesting about us. I took that opportunity to say I'm an ally and anyone can reach out and talk to me. I hope that helps at least one person in the future.” I’m sure Dianna from five years ago would have been super confused if you had told her all the work she’d be doing with gay Mormons, but as she has learned more about the needs of this community she has done her part to reach out.

Dianna and I have had a pretty rad friendship so far. Multiple visits to amusement parks, a trip to Europe, hundreds of shared meals, many hikes, and loads of TV shows. All of those things make her a good friend. But she’s my hero because she’s been there for me when I needed her and she’s been there for my friends, too. Dianna is as committed to the LDS church and the restored gospel as anyone I know. I believe that her commitment to the gospel has increased her desire to reach out to her gay brothers and sisters and given her the courage to stand up for them.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Best Book that Wasn’t Written for Me

Over the past year and half I’ve gotten to know Tom Christofferson pretty well. What a pleasure it has been! He is kind, wise, spiritual, and just a great human being. Tom has many friends and I’m honored to be counted among them. I recently read his book, That We May Be One: A Gay Mormon’s Perspective on Faith & Family. It was an excellent read and my copy is filled with highlights (It’s also not terribly long which is a plus.).

As a gay Mormon I was dealt the easiest hand of cards. I have a loving and supportive family, friends at my side, and ward families that have openly embraced me. My gay Mormon journey has been easy compared to many. In Tom’s story I saw similar stories of people reaching out with unconditioned love. As I read his book there were times when I thought, “Yes! This is how a family should treat their gay loved one! Yes! This is how a ward should respond to a gay ward member!” The book is full of great anecdotes that teach powerful principles. Here is just one.  

Tom was going to bring his boyfriend to a family reunion which made some of his siblings uncomfortable. Because Tom would be there with his partner they weren’t sure if they should bring their families. Tom’s mom said to the family, “The most important lesson your children will learn from how our family treats their Uncle Tom is that nothing they can ever do will take them outside the circle of our family’s love.” Right on, Sister Christofferson! She set the example and the family followed. Tom and his partner were part of the family were treated like anyone else.

The book is full of little gems that really made me think. Like this one: “My resolve is that I might see the spark of the Divine in each person I encounter.” While that would make a great Pinterest meme, it’s an even better daily goal.

Tom’s book left me feeling inspired and uplifted. I wish every church member would read it because it gives real life examples of how we can love and care for someone who may be living their life in a way that doesn’t align with our beliefs. It’s a truly beautiful book. However, the book isn’t written for me. It doesn’t read as “how to be a gay Mormon.” In fact, Tom is very clear in multiple places that he doesn’t offer his life as an example, but that each person should seek their own path. I found beautiful principles in the book and was moved by the stories, but the book isn’t written for a gay Mormon like me. I see it as a book for the straight members of the church who want to reach out in love to their gay loved ones. I would totally recommend this book to the parents of a kid who just came out. I hope that every straight person in the church will read Tom’s story, especially if they work with youth. Bishops, Young Men's and Young Women's leaders, and other leaders will gain a broader perspective by following Tom and his ecclesiastical leaders on their journey. 

And now a recommendation. I would not recommend giving a copy to your gay son or lesbian friend who no longer attend church. Although well intentioned, this kind of gesture could be seen as saying, “You see! Tom lived the gay lifestyle and then returned to the church. You can, too!” If I were no longer in the church and someone gifted me this book it would feel like an attack on my life choices. But this book isn’t for gay Mormons, it’s for those with gay family members and those with gay friends. This book is an excellent resource to better understand one gay Mormon’s journey.

I highly recommend this book and hope that many, many church members will read it. I’ll happily lend you my copy, but I hope you’ll purchase a copy so we can vote with our dollars and show Deseret Book that we want more excellent content like this. 

You can buy Tom's book at Deseret book or here