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.