Friday, April 5, 2019

Reconciling a Changed Policy

I am not in a same-sex relationship. I have no plans to marry a man. I have no children. The November 2015 policy said nothing about gay Latter-day Saints like me. And yet it was unbelievably painful. You see, the hurt came from feeling like the church didn’t want people like me. The hurt came from feeling excluded. The hurt came from recognizing that if I chose to be in a same-sex marriage that I would be erased from my people.

A few people have asked me how I reconcile church leaders saying one thing in 2015 and now saying the opposite in 2019. I’m not going to tell you how to reconcile these things. You’ll need to do your own spiritual and intellectual work for that. But I will show you how I do it.

In the days following the policy release in November 2015 I got so many messages from friends making sure that I knew that I was loved, cared for, and wanted in their church. I wrote about my experience that day in this post. I dutifully recorded many of their names in my journal so that their acts of kindness would be remembered. In the long list of names I included “some random girl who read one of my old blog posts and emailed me.” People were so kind to me.

A few days later I met with the members of the support group I had started two months earlier for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints in Tucson, AZ. We were small back then. Five of us got together that day: an L, a G, a B, and two allies. One of the allies cried as he talked about how painful the new policy felt. I wrote in my journal that week: “I got a little choked up when I commented on how I don’t know what to hope for anymore. My life will be a life without companionship.” Paul, one of the group members, recommended that we share our stories more openly to help people understand the
Me, Paul, and Dianna who were all at that meeting
LGBTQ Latter-day Saint experience. And that’s what we did. The next day I wrote: “I also realized that criticising the Brethren is not the right course of action. The right thing to do is to share how it affects me personally, to tell my story.” And so we talked and shared and hundreds of people in Tucson came to my house and many other homes to hear our stories.

Then in January 2016 when President Nelson called the November 2015 policy revelation I was so confused. The policy had not felt right in my mind or in my heart and having it be called revelation really didn’t sit right with me. But what could I do? I could share my story. And that’s what I did. Again and again.

Two years later President Nelson became the President of the Church. I was uneasy. I was unsettled. Shortly after President Monson’s death a press conference was held with the new First Presidency. I was concerned as I watched it. Some of the things they said did not feel right in my heart. I was troubled and didn’t know what to do. I was so nervous about General Conference and was worried about what would be said about topics that matter a great deal to me. I was not convinced that President Nelson was the right person to lead the church. I needed a witness from the Holy Ghost.

So I got in my car the Saturday morning of conference and drove to a church so I could participate in the Solemn Assembly with other saints, but the church was empty. So I drove to another one and it was locked. And then another one and it was locked, too. By this time I just needed to be somewhere to watch the meeting because it was about to start. So I watched the session on my laptop alone in my bedroom. When the Melchizedek Priesthood holders were asked to stand, I stood up by myself in my room, dressed in a white shirt and tie, and raised my arm to the square to sustain a man that I wasn’t sure I fully trusted. In that moment a wave of the Spirit rushed over me. I felt it in my whole body, but especially in my heart, that he had been called to lead at this time. I sat down and started to weep, grateful for the witness I had been given. And in an exceptionally cheesy moment, two tears landed on my knee and made a heart shape on my pants.

The rest of the conference was amazing and President Nelson’s multiple invitations to the members of the church resonated deeply with me. I had spent three months doubting his call, but now I no longer doubted because the Spirit testified to me that God had called President Nelson to lead the church. Since that day, I have felt the Spirit testify again and again that he is our prophet.

Then yesterday I was sitting in class at BYU when the church announced the reversal of the November 2015 policy. I didn’t know what to do so I stepped out of class and sat down in the hallway. I wanted to feel all my feelings. I felt compelled to say a prayer of gratitude that what I’d been praying for for three years had finally happened. I wanted to cry to just let my emotions out, but they didn’t come.

When I returned to class my teacher allowed me to tell everyone what had been announced. People were shocked and happy and congratulatory and there was joy in the room. I felt all those feelings, too. Throughout the rest of the day I wanted to just deeply feel this experience, but I didn’t. And then last night, as I was writing in my journal, I just began to sob and sob (I believe it’s called “ugly crying”). And this is the memory that finally let me feel my feelings.

After class I sat and talked with a number of my classmates about the announcement and what it meant to have the November 2015 policy reversed. Candi, my 58 year old conservative classmate, gave me a long, long hug and said, “Ben, I want you to know how much I love you and admire you. You have taught me so much.” And then another classmate gave me a hug and told me that the policy had been hard for her, too, and that she was glad we could start to move on. Precious gifts. 

My social work
colleagues are rad
So why did remembering those two hugs finally let me release all my feelings? Because the policy instilled in me a fear that if I made certain choices I would be erased. What I need to know is that I belong. And my classmates made it abundantly clear that I belong in their lives. The Latter-day Saints in my life have made it clear again and again that they love me and claim me.

So what do I do with all of this? What do I do when a church leader says something that doesn’t feel right in my mind and in my heart and yet I feel that he’s been called of God? What do I do when I deeply fear being erased and then I’m embraced and loved? Those aren’t easy questions to answer. But the words of Moroni in Mormon 9:31 resonate with me as I consider these questions: “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.” Moroni made mistakes. Mormon made mistakes. All the ancient American prophets before them made mistakes. Can church leaders make mistakes today, too? I try to not condemn, but instead try to be gracious and patient with their imperfections.

While I am thrilled about the recent change, that happiness is muted by the pain and hurt that my LGBTQ siblings are still experiencing. This dramatic shift in policy doesn’t undo the last three years of pain that many experienced. In fact, it brings it all to the surface again for many people. The hurt is real and it is valid, even if I don’t feel it myself. I don’t get to tell them what they should be feeling, I just try to feel what they’re feeling with them. And isn’t that the point of our baptismal covenants? When someone is mourning we mourn with them. I have celebrated in my heart yesterday and today, and I have mourned with friends.

I live in a world of contradictions. I live in a world where the same news can bring joy and sadness. I live in a world where a church leader can say something that hurts me and yet also believe he is a prophet. I live in world where I can be hurt and embraced by my people. My world is a beautiful world of paradox.

Monday, March 18, 2019

You Are the Resources

My dad asked for a rainbow tie for Christmas.
Ginny and Buzz Schilaty are the best resources in the Church.
Last week I spoke at a workshop on how to minister to our LGBT ward and stake members. During the Q&A I was asked by a bishop what resources the church has for same-sex attracted members. I mentioned the mormonandgay.lds.org site and then was about to say that the Church really doesn’t have many resources. In an unusually clear moment of inspiration, I knew exactly what to say. I was prompted to say something I’d never said before. 

You are the resources,” I said. “The Lord has placed you in your callings so that you can be the resource for any member who feels marginalized.” And then I requoted a line that I had shared a few minutes before from counselingresources.churchofjesuschrist.org: “The most important thing you can do after a member discloses feelings of same-sex attraction is to listen and help them feel welcome.” The resource I’ve needed the most in my life is to be heard, validated, and understood. 

Another person asked me what I thought the Church’s next steps would be regarding its LGBT members. I said that I had no idea and that it wasn’t my job to say what the Church should or shouldn’t do (and thank goodness for that!). Then I said, “What church leaders do is outside of my sphere of influence, but there is so much I can do within my sphere of influence. And I’m going to work as hard as I can to make my ward and congregation the Zion that it is meant to be and the heaven on earth that I know it can be.” We can all labor in our spheres of influence to build Zion by building up the people around us. 

Here’s a simple example. A few months ago I shared my testimony at church. While I was sitting on the stand waiting for my turn, I felt a small prompting to say, “Good afternoon, sisters and brothers,” and invert the typical “brothers and sisters.” Such a small thing, but I did it. When I sat down a dear friend texted me saying that that gesture had meant so much to her, to know that in the eyes of her Heavenly Parents she doesn’t come second. Such a small thing, but it helped to communicate the message the Holy Ghost had for her that day—we are all alike unto God. We can follow small promptings to assist the Holy Ghost in teaching eternal truths.

The desert is the first place I allowed myself to be me
I’ve been back to visit Tucson a number of times since I moved away in 2017. I rarely went to his house when I lived there, but I always make sure to visit my old stake president when I’m in town. As my stake president, he listened and helped me feel welcome in remarkable ways. With no hyperbole, I can say that he changed my life. The details aren’t important, but the effect for me will be eternal. And so, I make sure he knows what a difference he made in my life by acting in his sphere of influence. I always get emotional when I thank him in person, but I’m compelled to thank him every time for being the resource I needed. 

Another person I always visit and thank is my former Institute teacher. In 2015 he asked me to speak at the weekly Institute devotional about my experiences as a gay Latter-day Saint. That was quite a courageous thing for him to do. As I spoke I said something that I had never before articulated: “I used to think that the Atonement of Jesus Christ would make me straight, but instead it healed my broken heart.” I needed that message that day, and so did other people present. Had Brother Bauer not acted in his sphere of influence to tackle a tough topic, many of us would have missed out on that healing moment. 

A year later I moved into a new ward and was asked to give a talk. Almost no one in the ward knew me. I asked the bishop if I could come out in my talk and he said, “I don’t see why that would be a problem.” So I did. A few hours after church I got an email from someone in the ward I’d never talked to before. It said in part: “I am glad to see your optimism, and your testimony has helped strengthen mine. You will not be forgotten if you stop coming to church. I will miss your presence. If you ever need to talk or hang out or just grab dinner, you are always invited into our home.” I cried as I read those words from a stranger who became a brother. Hyrum was the resource I needed that day. Such a simple thing to send an email to a new member of the ward, but it was exactly what I needed that day. 

I don’t know what you should do in your sphere of influence to be a resource to those who feel marginalized. But God knows. And I can’t think of a prayer that He would be more anxious to answer. I didn’t realize at the time how much I needed that ministering from my friends in Tucson, but I know it now, and our Heavenly Parents knew it all along. That’s why They inspired them to do what they did. I hope we can all have the courage to act in our spheres of influence to be the resources that others need. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Time I Went to Conversion Therapy

Conversion therapy can take a number of forms. The essential premise is that homosexuality is a pathology that can be treated and corrected. While I’m not sure that I would call what I participated in conversion therapy, I did seek counseling to change my sexual orientation. Here’s the story.
In December 2007 I met a girl. In January we started dating. We got along remarkably well and could just talk and talk for hours. Being together made me happy and she quickly became my favorite person. I was 23, in my last semester at BYU, and it felt like life was finally falling into place. After our fourth date I wrote in my journal: “She’s pretty much perfect for me, except that I don’t find her attractive. She’s pretty, but I’m just not that attracted to her. Honestly, today I really wished that I wasn’t me. I finally find an awesome girl that’s interested in me, but I still have SSA (same-sex attraction).”
2008 when I was trying to get rid of my SSA
She was the 6th person I came out to (I kept track back then) and she responded so well. A week later she told her roommate that I was attracted to men, which I had given her permission to do. Her roommate said I should see a therapist about my attractions and my girlfriend agreed that was a good idea. When she told me this I was a little annoyed. There wasn’t anything that could be done to fix me, I thought.
I called my parents and complained about what my girlfriend had suggested. My mom said that she had spoken to their bishop about my SSA and he told her that Provo had the best counselors in the world to help someone overcome SSA. She and my dad recommended I see a therapist, too. I emphatically told them that I didn’t need a counselor to fix me, that if God wanted me to be different He could just answer my prayers and fix me Himself. My dad, who has had awful eyesight his entire life, calmly respond, “Ben, God could fix my eyes if He wanted to, but instead He gave me glasses.”
The next day a close friend called me and out of the blue said I should see a therapist about my attractions. Five people in two days had recommended the same thing to me. It felt like a sign. So I set up an appointment with a therapist for the following week. I wasn’t thrilled about going, but I was hopeful. I wrote in my journal: “What if this is my chance?” I had enough hope to believe that it could work.
It was my first time ever in a therapist’s office. I filled out what felt like stacks of papers. I wrote on one form that I wanted to become attracted to women and not men. When I walked into the therapist’s office, nervous and unsure, he glanced at what I’d written on the form and said, “Well, this is easy to fix,” and set the form down in a nonchalant way that felt dismissive of the gravity of the situation.
My impression of therapy from TV and movies was that I would constantly be asked, “And how does that make you feel?” That’s not how this was at all. He normalized my attractions by walking me through the different parts of male and female bodies that make them attractive to people. I said very little in the session and I felt extremely uncomfortable. He used words to describe the female anatomy that a gay and na├»ve Latter-day Saint like me had never heard. I wrote in my journal that day: “He also said that a lot of SSA is environmental and that it can be changed. I don’t know how to feel about that because I can’t think of anything that caused this. Basically, he wasn’t helpful.”
The previous year, before coming out to anyone, I had scoured the BYU library for books about what causes same-sex attraction and how to correct it. There were multiple books and I was certain I’d find an answer in them. I was so afraid that if I checked out one of the books that they would be forever linked to my name so I read them in the library. I’d sit in a study carrel with a few other books so if someone I knew walked by I could quickly conceal the books about the causes of homosexuality under books about Latin America. Then when I was done, I’d carefully reshelf the books and come back later. Going through these books in the quiet corners of the library became an obsession as I neglected school assignments to find answers.
I started this study with aspirations that I could find a way to fix this, because I had to fix it. But then I got really confused. The books discussed multiple causes of same-sex attraction. An overbearing mother and a distant father. Early sexual abuse. A desire to have close relationships with men that became sexualized at puberty. A failure to connect to one’s masculine side. Besides being bad at sports, none of the causes mentioned in the books described my life. So I had already dismissed these theories in my own head when my therapist explained that homosexuality was a learned behavior.
At the end of my first session the therapist told me that we would really get to work in the next session. So a week later I went back. He talked almost the entire session explaining how I had developed a thought pattern of seeing an attractive man and ruminating on his attractiveness. I needed to stop doing that, he said. And instead, whenever I felt aroused to think of the beautiful aspects of a woman’s body. That was the answer. I just needed to train my brain to find women attractive.

He gave me some homework that made me feel really uncomfortable and I left the office and scheduled a third session because I didn’t have the courage to tell him I didn’t want to come back. I called the secretary later that day to cancel the appointment. I never went back. I wrote in my journal that day: “I felt pretty lousy afterward. I had put a lot of hope into this and it ended up being an uncomfortable waste of time.”

I wish instead of trying to change my sexuality, my therapist and I had discussed my values. I wish we had discussed the things that are most important to me that guide my decisions. I wish we had talked about the importance of daily bread and living in the present moment. I wish we had talked about acceptance and self-nurturing. I wish we had worked to remove my shame. I wish we had talked about the desire I had to die so I wouldn't have to be gay anymore. There are so many things we could have done that could have helped so much.
23 year old me wishing I was straight
I consider it one of the great blessings of my life that I stopped after two sessions. And I’m so grateful that when I told everyone who had recommended I go to therapy that I had decided to stop that they all supported me in that decision. My parents have apologized a number of times for encouraging me to go.
I don’t know what would have happened if I had continued going, but I’m glad I didn’t. I know that I felt awful after both sessions. I wonder how I would have felt after 12 or 20 such sessions. I wonder what it would have done to me to dutifully do the homework I’d been given and see no change in my orientation. I wonder what it would have been like to be told again and again that change was possible, but that I just wasn’t doing it right or trying hard enough. I imagine that would have done some damage.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I think what saved me was the way I was raised. My parents were so loving and involved in my life that the notion that they caused my homosexuality by being distant or overbearing rang so hollow that I never considered it. I knew intuitively to reject that being sexually abused as a child made me gay because I hadn’t been. Had I not been so lucky, maybe I would have spent years in therapy blaming my parents for my orientation. But that didn’t happen to me.
The thing I find most remarkable about my story is that when I told my parents and friends I wasn’t going back to therapy, they were all supportive of my decision. No coercion. No “just give it a little longer.” They honored my agency and walked my path with me. I’m the lucky one.