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.”