Monday, December 10, 2018

Creating Sacred Spaces

There are 40 people in my social work cohort at school. 40 people who I’m in class with all the time. 40 people who are some of my closest friends. And I’m the only gay one. Or so I thought.
I share the following story with permission. In class on Thursday one of my classmates came out to 20 of us in the middle of class. It was unexpected and seemingly came out of nowhere. I was pretty shocked, actually. The teacher later said that he saw my jaw literally drop at the announcement (which isn't my most attractive facial expression). In the minutes after this student’s disclosure we had a beautiful conversation about why they decided to share this information with the class. Why they chose to go from four people in their life knowing this secret to suddenly 24. I thanked this student for sharing their heart with us and told them that they were brave and courageous. This classmate mentioned multiple times how my being open had helped them so much to be okay with their sexuality.

Image result for JFSB
Our classroom in the Joseph Fielding Smith
Building is sacred space to me
I don’t know if anyone else in the class noticed, but I started to get really emotional as I sat in my chair. Part of me was so grateful that I had been a help to this person. Another part of me ached so badly at the same time. One thing my classmate said was that they previously didn’t feel it was okay to discuss their sexuality. They didn’t have permission to do so. And I thought about all the people I know who have felt similarly and the pain that that loneliness and isolation causes. And then I thought about the 15 months my classmate and I had sat in the same room together and I had no idea, not even a clue, that they were fighting an internal battle the entire time. And it struck me how many people are dealing with things that they feel they don’t have permission to talk about.
During the discussion, another class member told the class that we were on sacred ground. That having this conversation created a sacred space. And it did feel sacred. It felt holy and real, like we were building heaven on earth. It led me to wonder why it is that when we open our hearts we create sacred spaces.

Here’s a piece of my heart; a sacred space.
I recently really liked a guy. The most I’ve liked a guy in years. I didn’t tell many people about this. I assumed that I would get two responses if I told people I had a super huge crush on a guy. My churchy friends would warn me that I was on a dangerous path and should be careful. My not-so-churchy friends would tell me to stop letting my church hold me back and to just live my life. And so the people I did tell were people that I knew wouldn’t tell me what to do, but would just want to be with me on my journey.
This guy and I became fast friends and I loved having him in my life. I felt like maybe, just maybe we could be super awesome best friends and I’d have someone I could platonically share my life with. I remember sitting with him on my front porch when the nights were still warm and just talking about our days. I thought to myself, this is exactly what I’ve been yearning for. He and I never held hands, or kissed, or anything like that, but I thought that maybe I could be his person and he’d be my person. But that’s not what happened at all.

I want someone who loves me
 as much as this cat does
I told one of my older and wiser gay friends how stupid I felt about the whole thing. “I know better,” I said. “I don’t get to have a special someone and I know better than to think I can. I’m so stupid.” He immediately corrected me. He told me that I can’t pretend like I don’t have a heart. I’m a human and we’re divinely wired for connection. “You have a heart,” he said, “and it’s good to be reminded of that from time to time.”
I often tell people: “I used to think the Atonement of Jesus Christ was supposed to make me straight, but instead it healed my broken heart.” And that is so true. My feelings of brokenness and internalized shame because of my sexuality are gone. My heart doesn’t feel broken or filled with holes anymore. It feels healed and complete. But something is definitely missing, something that I can’t fix on my own. And I don’t know how that will all be made right, but I know that it will.
The thing that is missing is a lack of connection. Yes, I have so many wonderful friends and family members. I’m one of the least alone people I know. But there’s a role that friends can’t fulfill. I know that this lack of connection isn’t unique to gay Latter-day Saints. There are plenty of married people who feel disconnected, too. It’s common to the human condition. What I wish I had was the opportunity to truly connect my heart with another person’s, to knit my heart with theirs.

Over the past few days I’ve been thinking of what Jesus did when He visited the Nephites. After telling them that they were weak and not yet ready to receive all the words He wanted to teach them, He invited the multitude to bring any who were sick and afflicted to Him and He would heal them. The people, who had just been told they were weak, were told that their faith was sufficient that they could be healed. They “did go forth with their sick and their afflicted, and their lame, and with their blind, and with their dumb, and with all them that were afflicted in any manner; and he did heal them every one as they were brought forth unto him” (3 Nephi 17:9).

I hiked a mountain by myself last week. I witnessed many
 people helping their companions up the toughest  terrain.
Christ healed those who were both weak and faithful. I find this scene and the two adjectives He uses to describe the multitude incredibly beautiful, but what has struck me recently is that they were brought to Him. I’ve been asking myself two questions: What does it look like to bring my afflicted loved ones to Christ? What does it look like to allow myself to be brought to Him? And I wonder, can this yearning for a partner I feel so frequently be lessened or erased as I develop a strong connection with the Savior?

The people in 3 Nephi 17 performed roles that created different kinds of healing. There were the physically strong who literally carried the physically weak to Jesus. As the physically weak were healed, their testimonies of the Savior grew in ways different than those who hadn’t needed to be physically healed. What did it do for the physically strong to carrying the physically weak to the Savior to be healed? I can imagine the formerly physically weak, now spiritually strong, sharing their testimonies with those who hadn’t been physically healed. The spiritually strong were then able to strengthen those who Christ had described as weak. Through this shared experience everyone who was weak in some way was strengthened. They brought each other to Christ.

A knitted rainbow heart from my buddy Liza
Part of the emotion I felt on Thursday in my class was healing. Over the last 15 months my classmates and I have created an environment of trust, one so strong that a classmate felt comfortable disclosing something so personal. It was this person’s vulnerability and trust in us that created the sacred space we felt. I was brought to the Savior that day as I witnessed a measure of healing in my vulnerable classmate. And hopefully they were brought to the Savior as the rest of the class listened and did our best to help them feel welcome. Now this classmate doesn’t have to walk the path alone. We will all do it together. And when there is a burden, it will be lighter because we will bear it together. And when there is rejoicing, it will be more profound because we will rejoice together. Our hearts were knit together that day. Trust and vulnerability knit hearts together.
On the day when I realized my friendship with this guy couldn’t be what I wanted it to be, I made a lunch that I accidentally left at home. I got to work feeling even dumber than I’d already felt. I mentioned how stupid I felt for leaving my lunch at home to a coworker and then without telling me, she drove home and packed me a delicious lunch. I wrote in my journal that night: “It was such a Christlike thing to do on a day that I really needed it.” By making me lunch, my colleague brought me to Christ that day.
I’ve been alive for 34 years. I still have a lot of living and growing to do. I don’t have a lot of things figured out. But one thing I do believe I know is that at some future day, and maybe in the next life, I’ll look back on my life and think, “Wow! So that’s how the Lord did it. That’s how He shaped me into the person I was meant to be. I couldn’t have planned it better myself.” And I will rejoice. It’s easy for me to believe this will happen because when I look back on my 34 years that’s already how I feel. My faith in God and my hope for a better world compel me to believe that there are brighter days ahead filled with peace, love, and connection.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Carrying One Another’s Crosses

I get a lot of phone calls from struggling gay Latter-day Saints. I got two such phone calls last night. And sometimes, like last night, I do a terrible job. My message to both friends was, “Get it together. Suck it up. Who cares what other people think?” Not the message they needed. And I know better. I could blame my poor responses on being tired and busy, which I most certainly was. But both of them were expressing feelings I often experience. Feeling hurt by a system that often acts like it doesn’t have a place for us.

A friend of mine in a YSA stake in Provo recently shared a poignant story with me. Each semester the leaders in his stake host a Q&A and invite members to submit questions. I’m sure you can anticipate the kinds of questions that get asked. How do I know when to get married? How do I know what to study? I am struggling with pornography, how can move past this? The stake presidency and stake relief society presidency spend the entire meeting answering these questions.

My friend submitted the following question: I experience same-sex attraction. I feel unwelcome at times in this church, feeling like I am seen as something less or different. How can I know that I am accepted in this church and in this gospel?

I know that feeling.

I asked this friend if he’d write out what happened so I could share it. He wrote in part:

I approached the meeting with apprehension and excitement. Anonymously I had revealed a critical part of myself, which was a little stressful. I was excited because I hoped they would respond and give me an answer to my question.

The meeting went on as normal, with the stake leaders providing great answers. My question came up and a member of the stake presidency elected to answer it. During previous questions and in this answer he emphasized that we were called to bear one another's burdens. He stated more than once that he believed our personal crosses had handles on them. Designed so that we could help one another and relieve burdens. He invited us all to carry the burdens of those who experience same-sex attraction. He sat down and I thought it was a good answer.

The meeting continued as normal, with questions asked and answers given. After another leader had finished giving answers, the stake presidency member who had answered my question got back up. He stated something like this:

“I feel like I did not adequately answer the question of the brother with same-sex attraction. We are each called to bear one another’s burdens. We are called to bear this brother’s burden. If you are willing to bear this brother’s burden then please stand in support. Show you will bear his burden.”

I remember looking in awe as each member in this giant chapel stood in support of me. They stood in support of my burdens and their willingness to accept and support me. We sat down moments later but this moment has stuck with me for years. They stood in support of me, an individual, a single person.

I love that story. I wish every person who feels marginalized could have a similar experience. I wish my friends on the phone could have that experience. Now, I want to be clear that I don’t think experiencing same-sex attraction is a burden. But being gay and being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be a huge burden. I’ve already written plenty in previous posts about how hard it can be. But it really is so hard sometimes.

Both of my friends on the phone had recently spoken to church leaders who were rather dismissive of their life circumstances. Both friends were incredibly emotional as we talked. And in both cases I tried to fix their problems which was exactly the wrong thing to do. If I had to do it over again, I would have done a better job of just listening. I would have asked questions and just listened to their pain. And there probably would have been times when I would have said, “Yeah, I’ve felt like that, too.” I failed to take a handle of their cross.

And if I could get an ideal do-over, I wish I could talk to those church leaders, too. I wish they knew how much they had hurt my friends that night, because I’m sure that wasn’t their intent. And they probably have no idea of the hurt they caused. Like them, I most often hurt people when I don’t mean to. When we carry another’s cross, we don’t dismiss its weight or say it’s not a big deal. When you carry another's cross, you get a sense for just how heavy it is.

Two weeks ago there was a superb forum at BYU that I attended. Bryan Stevenson told the audience that we need to get close to people that are different from us. A few hours later I got to class early. The only other person there was my classmate Elizabeth who had recently mentioned in class that she was a DACA student. Inspired by the forum, I asked Elizabeth what it was like to be a DACA student. She then told me a bunch of stories including that she was brought to the US from Mexico as a baby and didn’t know she was undocumented until she was 15. My heart expanded as Elizabeth unfolded her life story to me. And then she said, “You’re the only person besides my husband and family who knows any of this. No one else has bothered asked.” An hour later when class was over, Elizabeth turned to me as she walked out the door, “Thank you for asking about my life. It means a lot to me.”

Do you want to know what a saint Elizabeth is? She later saw on Facebook that I was going to an event for LGBTQ BYU students. She messaged me and asked if she could come with me. Of course! I was so thrilled she wanted to come! I had stepped into her shoes and now she wanted to step into mine. What a gift.

I don’t have the answers. I don’t know what the practical application of carrying one another’s cross will look like. But what I do know is that we need to do better. I need to do better. Too many hearts are breaking for us to not be so much better. So much of what I see happening feels so unfair. And in my moments of frustration, I do what I can to lean on the Savior knowing that all that is unfair about life will be made right through Him.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Listen with Christlike Curiosity

My friend Josh called me last year when I was still living in Tucson. He asked me what he should say when someone says something unkind about the LGBTQ community at church. He didn’t want to make things uncomfortable or confrontational, but he also didn’t want misinformed comments to go unaddressed. I thought for a second and said, “You tell them that you have a friend named Ben who is gay and that you love him like a brother.” And then I got a little emotional knowing that that’s exactly what Josh would do. 

A few months ago, I gave a lesson on same-sex attraction in a ward that I’m not a member of. During the lesson, someone asked a question similar to Josh’s. “What can I do to support gay members of the Church?” I get asked this a lot, but hadn’t found a satisfying answer. I answered that question the way I usually do. “I don’t know what you should do,” I said, “but the Holy Ghost knows. Pray about this question and spend time pondering it and you’ll know what to do. And then courageously follow the promptings you receive.” 

I’ve heard a lot of people answer the same question by saying, “Just love everyone.” That’s great and true, but vague and hard to know how to put into practice. I could tell that the people asking that question wanted some practical guidance. Wanting a better answer, I reached out to some friends who are wiser than me. Kendall gave me a beautiful answer. 

Kendall said to “tell them to seek out and really listen to LGBTQ+ people. Go out of their way to find the LGBTQ+ voices and stories and listen. Digest them. Cultivate empathy for them with curiosity and wonder; asking open and honest follow-up questions to better understand. Do not try to fix, save, persuade, debate, teach, counsel, challenge or change them. Let their lived realities sink into their bones so that they have a visceral familiarity with what it is like to be LGBTQ+ and Mormon. And then brace themselves for the dissonance they will surely feel.”

If it was heard to digest that advice in paragraph form, here’s what you can do in bullet point form:
·     Seek out LGBTQ+ people
·     Listen to their stories
·     Cultivate empathy with curiosity and wonder
·     Ask open and honest follow-up questions
·     Don’t try to save or fix or counsel or change
·     Let their realities sink into you
·     And then see how you feel

Mitch and Emilie were among the first four people I came out
to 11 years ago. They've been listening with Christlike
curiosity ever since. 
Kendall gave one more piece of advice. He said, “It all starts with humble Christlike curiosity.” Isn’t that beautiful? Christlike curiosity. The kind of curiosity that leads you to really get to know someone and walk in their shoes. The kind of curiosity that leads to understanding. The kind of curiosity that expands your soul as you enter into another’s reality. 

Last week Stephen W. Owen, Young Men General President, said this at a BYU devotional: “When you and I were baptized, we entered ‘the fold of God.’ We became ‘his people.’ And that means we ‘are willing to bear one another’s burdens, . . . to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort’ (Mosiah 18:8–9). In other words, when we joined this church, we pledged that we would no longer be concerned only about our own comfort and problems. We committed to uniting with a people who take care of each other.” Part of building Zion is becoming a people of one heart. In order for Zion to be fully established I need to understand what’s in your heart and you need to understand what’s in mine.

I am extremely open about my story, and I really appreciate when those in my life approach me with Christlike curiosity to get a glimpse of what it’s like to be me. Other people are much more private and it is important that we respect their choice to not share their stories. That said, I am so grateful for the people in my life who have employed their Christlike curiosity to better understand me. 

One of those people was my bishop last year. When I came out to him in our very first meeting he asked, “What do I need to know and understand so I can serve you better?” Since this was only a five minute get-to-know-you meeting he asked if he could take me to lunch to understand my situation better. He has taken me to lunch four times since then and I left each of those conversations feeling loved, understood, included, and edified. My journal has many entries expressing my gratitude for my good bishop who followed the counsel of President Ballard: “We need to listen to and understand what our LGBT brothers and sisters are feeling and experiencing. Certainly, we must do better than we have done in the past so that all members feel they have a spiritual home where their brothers and sisters love them and where they have a place to worship and serve the Lord.” President Ballard has invited us to be better. I know that we will be better because we must be better. And we will be better as we listen more. 

Sunday, September 30, 2018

My Mom Stole a Cat

I’ve cried three times since my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. When I got the email from my dad about her diagnosis, the day before her 68th birthday, it felt like a punch to the gut. But it didn’t make me cry. I was in Arizona at the time, hundreds of miles from my family. I reached out to some people who live nearby and asked them to check in on my parents. Just sending those two messages made me cry, knowing that there were people who could look out for my parents in ways that I couldn’t. Those were tears of gratitude. 

Two months before she was diagnosed, I was on a road trip in eastern Canada with her, my sister, and our friend Laura. Even though she hadn’t been diagnosed, it was obvious something was going on. I wrote the following in my journal in Hubbards, Nova Scotia:

“Mom’s memory is not good. She’s pointed out the 100 kph signs multiple times to say that that’s way too fast. I explain to her that it’s kph and not mph and she understands and we move on. This has happened at least a dozen times. Tonight mom and I went on a walk along the beach by our house and it was wonderful. She seemed fully there and we just had a wonderful chat as we walked and enjoyed the sunset. A lot of times lately mom has felt absent, like she wasn’t really there, but on this walk she felt completely present. I told her how much I love her and gave her a big hug. I hope she continues to be present because I will miss her. She knows that her memory is going and that it’s frustrating to dad. She so doesn’t want to be a burden. I’ve had a lot of great times on this trip, but walking with mom on that beach was the best one so far.”
A picture from our walk in Nova Scotia
It wasn’t until I pulled out my journal that day that I realized it was my parents’ 45th wedding anniversary. The perfect day for a dear experience. 

Last summer our neighbor’s cat Jack started stopping by my parents’ house. My mom, thinking he was her cat, started feeding him and loving him in the pure way that Ginny Schilaty loves. Mom calls him Simon because she thinks he’s our old cat who died three years ago. When I was home for Christmas I went to the neighbors' house to explain that my mom had accidently stolen their cat. Like typical hipsters living in a Seattle suburb, they said, “We just want him to be happy.” So now my mom has a cat who we all call Jack and whom she calls Simon. 

She loves that cat so much and he loves her. They cuddle on the couch all the time and she lets him in and out of the house dozens of times a day. He, however, hates me. I’ll reach down to pet him and he’ll bend down and squirm away to avoid my hand. I preferred the real Simon. 

I regularly get asked how my mom is doing. I typically say, “She’s as happy as she’s ever been. She is content with life and so cheerful all the time, but she has no idea what’s going on.” We have really good neighbors. Becky, without being asked, started bringing my parents dinner every Saturday. This is nothing new. When my mom was super sick when she was pregnant with me, Becky took care of my parents then, too. 34 years later she’s still watching out for the Schilatys. It’s people like that who make me cry tears of gratitude. It’s people like Becky whose hearts compel them to serve. 

The third time I cried about my mom’s diagnosis was when Kevin’s dad called me. I emailed all of Kevin’s family to tell them that she had Alzheimer’s. He called just to see how I was doing. I tried to be strong and said we all saw it coming and that I was fine. And then I told him how much my mom loves to serve people and how I’ve seen her capacity to serve diminish as her brain has slipped away. Then I told him that I was so looking forward to the day that she would be whole again and she could serve in all the ways she wants to. And then I shed tears of gratitude. 

My mom and I over the summer
Alzheimer’s is often called the long goodbye. My mom is still physically present. I talk to her twice a week. But she’s not the same and it’s devastating. But I’m grateful that she’s still here even though she’s a little more gone every time I return home for a visit. This last visit she ironed all my dirty clothes for me. When I told her they needed to be washed, she washed them and ironed them again. Every day I’m home for a visit she asks me what I want for dinner with no concept that she is no longer capable of making of meal. That’s who she is. She serves people. My hope in the Atonement of Jesus Christ compels me to believe that she will be spending eternity building people up. 

It’s so weird to think that in a year or two my mom won’t know who I am. “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:15-16). It is the character of God that He always remembers us. My mom’s character has emerged even more clearly than before as her mind fades away and she becomes more childlike. She is always cheery. She always wants to help. She constantly expresses gratitude for her family and how great it is to be with us. We’re grateful to be able to be with her, too. 

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Freedom to Be Open about My Sexuality

On Wednesday, Elder L. Whitney Clayton gave the keynote address at BYU’s Religious Freedom Annual Review. His words resonated with me as he described religious belief as a key component of the identity of people of faith. Elder Clayton explained that to religious people “faith is marrow to the very bones of who and what they are.”

I saw this delightful saying on a wall last week
Elder Clayton continued, "One cannot check religious identity at the church or synagogue exit or the door of one's home any more than one can check their race or ethnicity. Religious identity cannot be compartmentalized and stuffed into a box labeled 'private.'" He made it very clear that religious people should be free to be open about their religious beliefs, and I totally agree. If there’s one thing you know about me it’s probably that I’m Mormon. And if there are two things you know about me, the other one is probably that I’m gay. 

I couldn’t help but think about these two core identities that I hold as Elder Clayton spoke. There have been times in my life when I have been ridiculed for being open about my faith. And there have been times, many times, that members of my own faith have chastised me for being open about my sexuality. I have been told by multiple people that discussing my sexuality at church is inappropriate because it might “lead people to sin.” 

There are, no doubt, ways to discuss one’s sexual orientation that would be inappropriate. Like, if a woman stood at the pulpit to give her testimony and said, “I will now list which parts of the male body I find attractive.” But at the same time, it would be totally acceptable for her to say, “I’m so happy to be marrying my fiancé next week. He’s so sweet and handsome.” Right there, by addressing someone’s attractiveness, this hypothetical sister is discussing her sexuality.  

Heterosexuals discuss their sexuality in religious settings so much that I don’t think they realize they’re doing it. Yet when we homosexuals bring up our sexuality at church, we’re often told it’s not appropriate. For example, let’s imagine a bishop saying, “It’s so wonderful to have my beautiful wife with me today.” Did he just call his wife beautiful?! That’s a pretty sly way of announcing that he deals with opposite-sex attraction. Straight people talk about whom they’re attracted to all the time. In fact, they even have huge parties to celebrate that they found someone they love and are attracted to and then we cheer when they kiss and we buy them gifts (which reminds me that I owe someone a wedding gift). 

In a church where marriage is so frequently mentioned, it is logical that our sexualities will be part of the conversation. However, in a heteronormative society we just aren’t used to noticing when opposite-sex attractions are talked about. Mentions of heterosexual attractions go by unnoticed, but those of us bringing up our same-sex attractions are viewed with suspicion. 

I was in a class once at BYU and all the students did brief introductions on the first day of school. I managed to be one of the few single people in the class. As the married students were introducing themselves, they regularly mentioned their spouses and children. It is totally normal and expected for someone to be open about their spouse and children because they are such an integral part of their life. A few students said something along the lines of, “I don’t know what I’d do without my wife. I couldn’t live without her.” This feels like a reference to their opposite-sex attractions. When it was my turn, I said, “My name is Ben, and I know exactly what I’d do without my wife because I live every day without her.” 

Later in his talk Elder Clayton made this poignant remark: "My point is that misconstruing religious faith as a mere choice or preference, as something that can be adopted and discarded at will, radically misconceives the nature of religion in the lives of millions of faithful people. ... It reduces a way of life and a state of being to a pastime.” I love that! This resonates with me deeply. Now let me restate what Elder Clayton said to reflect another of my identities: My point is that misconstruing sexual orientation as a mere choice or preference, as something that can be adopted and discarded at will, radically misconceives the nature of sexuality in the lives of millions of faithful people. ... It reduces a way of life and a state of being to pleasure-seeking.

In February I gave a fireside titled "Finding My Place in the Kingdom as a Gay Mormon" at a stake in Atlanta, Georgia. After the meeting a woman came up to me in tears. As she hugged me she said, “I thought you were going to teach me what it’s like to be gay and Mormon, but instead you taught me about the Atonement.” I love that being free and open about one part of myself, my sexual orientation, can help people understand what lies at the core of another part of myself, my faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement.  Asking me to not talk about my orientation is like asking me to hide part of my heart. Speaking honestly and appropriately about who I am and what I believe allows me to be a whole person. 

**If you've read this far and would like to see how I discuss my faith and sexuality, you can listen to an interview I did here.**

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Coming to Hearken

Acts 12:12-16 tells a story that I originally thought was funny (and an odd choice to be included in the Bible), but has since taught me a profound lesson.

Here’s what happened. Peter is in jail and is miraculously released by an angel. He goes to a house
Me convincingly knocking on a door
where some of the disciples are praying together and knocks at the gate. A damsel, named Rhoda, goes to answer the door, but when she recognizes Peter’s voice she’s so excited that she runs in to tell everyone that Peter is there (I can’t tell you how many times people have failed to answer the door when they realized I was the one outside). They tell her she’s crazy because, obviously, Peter is in jail. Rhoda sticks to what she knows to be true and “constantly affirmed” that it was Peter. The disciples continue to dismiss her by basically saying, “Okay, if you’re so certain you heard Peter then it’s probably just his ghost.” A very logical explanation, right? While they are having this argument in the house, Peter is still outside knocking, probably yelling, “Hellooooo! I’m still out here!” They open the door, see Peter, and are shocked he’s there.

The story of Rhoda presents a clash of beliefs. She knew through personal experience that Peter was at the door. On the other hand, the disciples knew that it couldn’t be Peter because, based on the information they had, he was still locked in prison. They initially thought Rhoda was crazy; then they came up with alternative explanations to what she was saying (“It’s just his angel”). But it wasn’t until they experienced it for themselves that they knew what Rhoda knew all along. 

The whole story might have been different if all of them “came to hearken,” as Rhoda did, the first time Peter knocked on the door. But she had been the only one who went out to listen and attend to the person knocking at the door.

I’d just like to share one quick example from my own life of me “knowing” something that I didn’t actually know.

Growing up I firmly believed that people were poor because they were lazy. If you work hard and apply yourself you won’t be poor, I thought. Prosperity resulted from thrift, labor, and righteousness. If you were poor, it was your fault. I served my mission in Mexico and interacted with many poor people (Is it more polite to say impoverished people?). However, I failed to realize the systemic causes of poverty in that country. I continued to believe that if people just worked hard they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps and prosper. I mentioned these thoughts to my Mexican companions and was often reprimanded and told that I was an arrogant American. I didn’t listen. Even though I knew poor people, I didn’t understand them or their situations. My companions were right. I was arrogant.

A year after my mission I did an internship with LDS Employment Resources Services in Bolivia. Part of my work included teaching workshops to church members who were applying for Perpetual Education Fund loans. These low interest loans would allow them to get vocational training. For the first time, I spent hours talking with people about their dreams for the future and the barriers to those dreams. I learned that at the time the minimum wage in Bolivia was about $50 USD a month, but tuition cost around $40 USD a month. It was nearly impossible for most people to afford tuition without a loan, and loans were not as easy to obtain in Bolivia as they are in the US. It finally sunk in that there were systemic causes to poverty. Some people were basically trapped. 

Me in Bolivia back when my hair
was almost exclusively brown
I remember one particular night talking with a group of these loan applicants. Many for them expressed gratitude for “the church’s money.” I told them that this wasn’t the church’s money, per se, but that people that didn’t even know them had donated money so that they could go to school. After the class a young woman named María came up to me in tears. She said, “Thank you for telling me where the money comes from. I had no idea that it came from my brothers and sisters. Whenever you get the chance, will you thank anyone who sacrificed their money so I could go to school?” I promised her that I would.

I returned to BYU after that internship realizing that I wasn’t as poor as I had thought. I started noticing all the disposable income I had and how María didn’t have $40 to go to school. So I decided to donate $40 each month to the Perpetual Education Fund. It wasn’t a lot of money to me; about the amount I’d spend on a date I was trying to impress (and boy was I impressive). But it was enough to send a Bolivian to school each month. I did that every month for six or seven years.

There was a real problem in the world that I had been explaining away, and because I failed to see the problem I did nothing to mitigate it. Once I “came to hearken” to the knocking, I realized that I could do a very small thing to make the problem just a little better.

That’s all very fine and good, but what does it have to do with being gay? Well, let me tell you. I have often felt like Rhoda. When I have shared my experiences as a gay Mormon I have been called crazy, and people have explained away the realities that I’m trying to share. Some people, however, believe me from the very beginning. Here are three examples of the kinds of interactions I’ve had:

Me: I’m struggling with feelings of same-sex attraction.
Person who doesn’t believe me: No you’re not. A loving God wouldn’t do that to anyone.

Me: I have SSA.
Person explaining away what I’m telling them: Well, that must be because you had an overbearing mother and a distant father. Or you were sexually abused as a kid. You’re probably just addicted to pornography.

Me: I’m gay.
Person who believes me: Really? Okay. Thank you for telling me. What has this been like for you? How can I help you?

I still tell mine and María’s story whenever it is relevant. I’ve told it dozens and dozens of times. I got emotional telling it to my Spanish classes back in February. I tell this story because it taught me about my blind spots and my privilege, but mostly I tell it because she asked me to. I always feel the Spirit, even 11 years later, whenever I comply with her request to thank people who have donated to the Perpetual Education Fund.
María is in the front on the far right. I asked if I could take
their picture to show who receives PEF loans.

I’m not saying you should agree with everything I say. I mean, my opinions shift and change all the time, and I’m wrong a lot. And I’m not asking you to even believe the things I say I know. But what I am asking is that when I talk about my personal, lived experiences, that you believe me—just as Rhoda knew that Peter was there because she recognized his voice. You could call me crazy and explain away my same-sex attraction, or you could just believe me.

Now I have an invitation for you. Whenever someone mentions that we need to love and support our LGBT brothers and sisters in a talk or lesson at church, will you please thank them? And when you hear people explaining away the existence of gay Mormons, will you please gently correct them? María has no idea that I’m still honoring her request to thank people and that I still donate to the PEF. I won’t know if you honor my request either. But if your experience is anything like mine, you’ll feel the Spirit every time you do.

Rhoda knew that Peter was at the door, and she did not back down, even when people said she was crazy. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all “came to hearken” to the people who are currently knocking at our door, and even better, opened the door to really see who’s there? We may be astonished to find out the realities of their existence. And we’ll all be better for it.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

What I Wish People Understood

A good friend of mine at BYU recently asked me what I wished church leaders understood about being gay. Here are my wishes.

My straight friend Dianna who has hosted the support
group in her house since I left Tucson
I wish that we LGBT Latter-day Saints had a place to find each other. We need each other. With the help of my stake president in Tucson I started a support group for gay Mormons modeled after the Genesis Group. The Genesis Group is a monthly meeting for Black members of the church that three apostles helped found in the 70s. It was designed to be a place for them to build their faith in Christ together and create a community of saints with similar life experiences. Starting that support group in Tucson was a life changing experience for me, and it was healing to my soul to spend time with other same-sex attracted Mormons as we built our faith in Christ together and shared common experiences. I have heard too many stories of gay Mormons feeling so isolated and alone that they get on a dating app or on Craigslist just to find someone like them that they can talk to. No one should feel that they need to put themselves in those dangerous situations when there are plenty of super rad LGBT members for them to connect with if they only knew how to find them.

I wish more Latter-day Saints could see the hearts of their LGBT brothers and sisters instead of condemning them. My experiences with being open about my sexuality have been overwhelmingly positive. However, there was that active woman who emphatically accused me of being addicted to pornography because that was the only way someone would develop such deviant thoughts as same-sex attractions. There was the bishop’s wife who compared me to a pedophile multiple times. The church has some amazing resources, but not nearly enough people know about them. It’s easier for them to cling to things that were written in The Miracle of Forgiveness than to open their minds to the further light and knowledge that has been received and will continue to be received. I don’t know what the church should do. It’s not my job to make those decisions. But in my experience, what we’re currently doing isn’t working.

My sister and I taking a mirror
selfie for some reason
I wish that people would stop comparing single gay members to older single women. The first reason is because our situations are so different. My sister is 36 and single and we’ve talked about this a bunch. She gets to date, and flirt, and pray every night that she’ll find a man who will take her to the temple. But my biggest fear is that I’ll fall in love with a man. It's much easier to be an active gay Mormon when I have no dating prospects. The second reason this comparison is unfair is because many of the single women are not doing well. I have many older single friends and I have sat with them as they have cried because they feel no one wants them. I know that many of my single female friends are doing quite well and thriving, but their singleness has brought much sorrow throughout their lives. A few weeks ago I got a call from a single friend in her mid 30s who lives in a different state. When I asked how she was doing she burst into tears and said, “How do you do it? How are you happy single? I’m so lonely.” So being told, “Older single women are happy so you should just be happy single,” is dismissive, invalidating, and not entirely true.

I wish I could label myself as I please. I have been told many times by church leaders to not label myself as gay and I obeyed that counsel during my 20s. I didn’t want to be gay. I didn’t want to be attracted to men. And I hated myself for having those feelings. The times when I didn’t identify as gay were the hardest, darkest times in my life. Choosing to identify as gay has been wonderful and freeing. I’m no longer trying to change something about myself that I can’t change, but I’m acknowledging the unique circumstances of my life and choosing to live in them. My beliefs and commitment to the restored gospel have not changed since I started labeling myself as gay. I live church standards as much as I always have. But what has changed is that I don’t hate myself anymore (I wrote more about this in a previous post). I wish church leaders would honor our agency and grant us the freedom to choose how to define ourselves.
My mom who has always honored my agency

I wish that people wouldn’t try to comfort me by pointing to the next life. I have been told many times that my feelings of same-sex attraction are just an affliction of this life that I won’t experience in the next life. I can see how some people might think this belief is helpful, but to me it wasn’t. I hated my same-sex attractions so much that I yearned to be dead. Death felt like the answer to my problems. During this time, I would have welcomed being diagnosed with cancer because it would have meant the end of my suffering. I would have rather been dead and straight than alive and gay. I have seen how teaching people that they won’t experience same-sex attractions in the next life can lead to thoughts of suicide.

I wish I could be open about who I am. I have been counseled from time to time to not talk about being gay. Someone in my Elders Quorum just a few weeks ago said that people shouldn’t be open about their sexual orientation because it normalizes it and could lead to experimentation. When we got baptized we covenanted to bear each other’s burdens, comfort one another, and mourn together. How can my brothers and sisters bear my burdens, comfort me, and mourn with me if they don’t know what’s going on in my life? Those people who tell me not to talk about my sexuality are acting from a place of fear. For me, being open about who I am in appropriate ways has healed my heart. I no longer feel like a stranger at church, but I feel like I belong.

Sarah who always reminds me to
elevate my vision
I wish we could use our Christlike imaginations more. I wish we could elevate our vision and think of solutions that no one has thought of before. I tried incredibly hard to get married during my 20s. Now I feel like marriage isn’t the right thing for me, at least for the foreseeable future. However, I am regularly counseled to marry a woman. I’ve had multiple priesthood leaders recommend that I marry a woman who also struggles with same-sex attraction. The last time a bishop said that to me I said, “That doesn’t feel like a good idea to me. I think at least one person should be attracted to the other.” It is so discouraging for me and my gay friends to be counseled to just find a woman to marry. That’s what we’ve been doing for years and it has caused a lot of pain and anxiety. My life at 34 is nothing like I imagined it would be. It’s better! I had a narrow vision of what life was all about, but once I started to live by faith I was guided to a life that is more full and more joyful than I could have conceived of on my own.

I wish everyone could elevate their vision, find out what we as individuals need, and then we can go from there. Telling us that we just need to get married is often not the right choice. Just as some prospective missionaries are honorably excused from serving missions, I feel that God has honorably excused me from marriage, for now.
My straight friend Steve who has spent
many hours listening to LGBT stories
But most of all, I wish you could sit with me in my living room and be there during the many times Mormons with same-sex attraction have cried on my couch. I wish you could be there in my office at school as LGBT latter-day saints have unloaded their frustrations on me. I wish you could read all the emails and texts I get. I wish you were there for the phone calls. I wish you were there on the long walks I take with gay friends who want so much to be good and who strive their very best to live the gospel, but who feel lonely, trapped, and isolated. I wish you could hear the many hundreds of stories I’ve heard.

I wish you could be there in those moments when I sit with an LGBT brother or sister of mine. I wish you could hear them share their struggles and also their love for God. I wish you could feel the powerful Spirit that is always in those meetings as we open our hearts to each other and share our lived experiences. Those are some of the moments when I have felt the closest to God in my life. Those are the moments when I have felt like I was part of Zion. I feel that if every church member could experience that we would be a much better people. A more unified and inclusive Zion.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

BYU’s LGBTQ & SSA Student Forum

On March 15, 2018, at 12:30 pm something happened that I never dreamed I’d see. I had just spent the last 90 minutes participating on BYU’s LGBTQ & SSA Student Forum panel with Kait Wright, Sarah Langford, and Gabe Cano. Each of these people is a dear friend, and we were selected to represent each of the letters in the acronym LGBT. I was the G. We had all been vulnerable, honest, and hopeful as we answered questions from the audience, not mincing words as we discussed tough experiences. Then, as the panel ended, the completely packed auditorium burst into applause and a sincere standing ovation. As I watched hundreds of people rise from their seats, my eyes welled with tears at this spontaneous gesture.

As I discussed this moment later with my straight friends, some of them explained what it felt like to be in the audience applauding. They said that they applauded the panelists because of our courage to openly share our stories. They were validating our life experiences and our engagement with faith, belief, love, acceptance, and contradiction. They were celebrating us because of the courage it takes to not give up or feel bitter while reconciling our faith and our unique circumstances.

Later that day I read some news stories about the event, including one from The Salt Lake Tribune. I was deeply disappointed by the content of the article. It focused on the negative things the panelists said while completely leaving out the good. I felt misrepresented. Part of the article stated, “Ben Schilaty is still figuring it out,” referring to my connection to God. I don’t recall saying that, and that’s definitely not how I feel. A number of people who were at the panel told me that the synopsis in the Trib did not reflect the feeling or message of the event.

There were so many beautiful moments that captured the essence of what we were trying to share. Moving messages, like when Gabe recounted his mission companion’s response, when he opened up about his feelings, “You know, we’re walking on holy ground.” The whole student forum felt like holy ground. Or Sarah explaining her mother’s beautiful acceptance of her as a teenager, telling her she didn’t need to label herself. Or the story I shared of the extremely positive responses I received from my students in the Spanish class I teach on campus when I came out to them last semester. Or the inspiring things that Kait said, like how sharing authentic stories is part of building the Kingdom of God.

The behind-the-scenes stories deserve to be told, too. Liza (who uses the plural pronouns they, them, theirs) opened the panel and constantly referred to their “team.” Liza’s team was dozens and dozens of LGBTQ students who wanted to see this panel happen. These students passed out flyers in the cold, and many of them came to the panel wearing rainbow shirts with name tags that said, “I’m gay! Ask me questions!” This event could not have happened without the work that so many students did to put it on. They deserve to be honored for their work. And Liza coordinated almost 100% of it all. Liza got a much-deserved standing ovation for all their work. Liza and their team are my heroes.

During the panel, three lesbian members of Liza’s team sat in the front row just 10 feet from me. I know them well, and I know that they are no longer sure what they believe about the church. Whenever a panelist said a comment they really liked, they would raise their hands in the air and snap, demonstrating their approval. After the panel, they asked if their snapping was distracting. I said, “I actually appreciated it. I’m super Mormon, and it was nice to know that you were agreeing with what I was saying. I’m sorry that I’m so churchy all the time.” One of them put her hand on my arm and said, “We love that you’re so Mormon, Ben. You be you.” While our belief systems may currently differ, they respected me enough to celebrate mine.  

This event couldn’t have happened without a number of stars aligning. Many of those stars were school administrators who, after taking the time to understand us, worked tirelessly for this event to take place so the campus community could hear our life experiences. Two weeks ago, we had a tense few days trying to make a decision relating to the forum. One of the administrators invited all of us over to his house on a Sunday night. A dozen of us LGBTQ students chatted for about two hours with him until we came to a decision on what to do. He showed us a picture his six-year-old daughter drew that day that included a rainbow. She said she drew it because she knew some of daddy’s friends love rainbows and because they make her happy. The story I see from this event isn’t that BYU treats gay students poorly, but that a BYU administrator gave hours upon hours of his time for this event to happen. He has become a dear friend through this process to many of us.

While I was waiting my turn to answer the last question on the panel I got a strong impression to tell the audience that this event wouldn’t have happened without the support and help of administrators at BYU. Then, like a dummy, I totally forgot to mention them in my closing remarks. As the last two panelists spoke, I felt a pit in my stomach knowing that I had missed an important prompting. As one of the moderators was sharing her final thoughts, Sarah leaned over to me and said, “I feel like we need to say something about the work the administrators have done to make this happen.” Incredibly relieved I said, “I just felt the exact same prompting!” Sarah replied, “By the mouth of two of three witnesses.” As soon as the moderator finished speaking, Sarah turned on her mic and explained to the room, “I felt really compelled to say this. I need all of you to know in this room that Liz [Darger] and Steve [Smith] are just a small sample of the administration and faculty and staff here at BYU that are doing everything they possibly can to make this a better place for the LGBTQ members here at BYU. I am a witness that there are people here advocating for you at every level of this university and that you can trust them. And I just wanted to say thank you publicly.” That was the message the Holy Ghost wanted everyone present to hear, and I’m thankful that Sarah had the courage to say something.

One of the last moments of the event was when Liza Holdaway asked anyone in the room who identified as LGBTQ or same-sex attracted, and who felt comfortable doing so, to stand. Probably about a fifth of the room stood, nearly 100 people, and the audience erupted into applause. I nearly burst into tears watching my straight peers clap for my LGBTQ & SSA family. How on earth did that moment not make it into the news? Liza was quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune as saying, “LGBT and [same-sex-attracted] students don’t only exist at the BYU, they belong at BYU.” I felt the truthfulness of their words as I watched the applause.

Straight members of the audiences applauded, I later learned, for the courage it took to stand up and be seen. There was a recognition that everyone wouldn’t be walking out the doors that day with the same beliefs and understanding, but that there would continue to be a diversity of experiences and opinions. However, the LGBTQ & SSA students left feeling loved, validated, and a little better understood. I believe it was a healing evening for students who no longer wish to engage in Mormonism. There was an understanding that day that, until we see each other as brothers and sisters, we’re not yet where we need to be. This event felt like that start of a campus-wide conversation that will continue to happen.

The real news is the years of work that LGBTQ & SSA students have done at BYU to have this important conversation on campus. The real news is that a room full of BYU students gave a standing ovation to four LGBT students who unapologetically told their stories. The real news is that a whole auditorium of straight students applauded their LGBTQ & SSA peers for having the courage to stand up and identify themselves. The real news is that the LGBTQ & SSA students of BYU worked tirelessly to get this event to happen successfully. And the real news is that BYU administrators were part of the entire process and were visibly moved at the end of the event.

The world hasn’t felt different to me yet. My world feels pretty much the same. And yet it’s not the same. The campus community at BYU is having a conversation that I have not really seen happen before. I can’t wait to see what having this conversation will do for all of us, as we listen to and love and serve each other as individuals. There’s more real news to come.