Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Place Where I Found the Courage to Be Me

Last year after giving a presentation at BYU on the LGBTQ & SSA student experience at BYU, a professor came up to me and asked what it was that made me love Tucson so much. I said, “Tucson is beautiful. It’s basically surrounded by national and state parks. But I love it because of the people. Some of the finest people on the planet live in Tucson. And it’s the first place I was able to be myself.” 

I’ll be giving a fireside in Tucson this coming Sunday and I’m super pumped about it. Not only because I’ll get to see some wonderful friends, but because I’ll get to talk about my faith in the place where it really matured. If you're in the area, I'd love to see you. 7:00 pm at 939 W Chapala Dr, Tucson, AZ.

Tucson is the first place that I was asked to talk openly about my sexual orientation. Brother Bauer asked me to take ten minutes of our Institute class to share my story with a dozen of my classmates. I had no idea then that I would talk to way more people in the coming years.

What family looks like
Tucson is the place where I first gave a talk about my faith and my sexuality. When I walked up to the pulpit I said, “I was asked to give a talk about my experiences as a gay member of the Church, but I’m actually here to talk about the Atonement of Jesus Christ.” Later in the talk I first uttered a phrase that I have now repeated many hundreds of times: “I used to think the Atonement of Jesus Christ was supposed to make me straight, but instead it healed my broken heart.” 

Tucson is the place where I started I support group for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints. And the members of that group became my family. I still think that’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I did it for others, but I really needed those people in my life. 

Tucson is the place where I learned that I wouldn’t be treated differently if people knew I was gay.

Tucson is the place where leaders stuck their necks out for me in order to elevate my voice.

Tucson is the place where I first came out to ward members. I hadn’t planned it, but I told the whole Elders Quorum while teaching a lesson. A member of the bishopric told me months later that he watched me closely after the lesson ended. He said that I let out a deep sigh when I sat in my chair and that he saw a visible weight lift off of me.

Tucson is the place where I learned that I could be openly gay and still be trusted to hold a prominent calling.

Tucson is the place where I learned that sharing my story was empowering to others. 
The Minches

Tucson is the place where I met the baby who was middle named after me.

Tucson is the place where I almost left the Church. On a day when I just couldn’t sit in church and was ready to storm out, my friend sitting next to me told me not to go. She said, “Just come to Primary with me today.” I spent two hours sitting on a chair that was too small singing Primary songs in Spanish. And my heart healed and I knew I needed to stay.

Tucson is the place that I learned that my anger damaged me and other people. And that I needed to apologize when my frustrations got the better of me. And that I needed to be patient with others when their frustrations got the better of them.

Tucson is the place where I was shown so much kindness after coming out. Where I came out to my whole congregation unexpectedly and then my branch president hugged me in front of everyone and told them I was his hero. 
Georgina and I 

Tucson is the place where I stopped making decisions based on fear. 

Tucson is the place where I came out to my new ward and I received messages from strangers who would become dear friends telling me they loved me and wanted me in their congregation. 

Tucson is the place where I learned to trust God’s plan for me, even if it meant leaving a place that I loved so much to move to a state that I didn’t want to live in to get yet another degree. 

Tucson is the place that has most felt like Zion to me. My last Sunday in the city the Tucson Arizona Temple was dedicated. I drove my dear friend Georgina to the dedication and we both cried as we waved white handkerchiefs in the air and shouted “Hosanna!”

A few days later I had my last dinner in Tucson at Kevin’s parents’ house. I’d had dinner there hundreds of times during the five years I lived there. I had envisioned the moment that I would walk away from their house by myself and close their gate behind me for the last time as a regular visitor. I imagined I would burst into tears because I so didn’t want to leave. But when the time came to
My last sunset in Tucson
actually walk away, I felt my shoulders square and, instead of being filled with sadness, I closed the gate behind me filled with gratitude and peace. 

The next morning I drove away from the city with my car stuffed with my belongings. The car that my dad had given me when I moved to Tucson because he didn’t want my old car to break down in the middle of the desert. As the sun came over the mountains I once again felt peace and gratitude. I said an audible “Thank you” to the place that had done so much for me and I drove on to the next adventure.

I hope that everyone has or will have a place that was like Tucson for me. A place where you’re loved and encouraged to grow. A place where you’re celebrated for having the courage to be you.

Tucson is also the place where I learned the correct pronunciation of the word saguaro. And what a beautiful word it is!

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Greatest Law is Love

Just over a year ago I participated on an LGBT themed panel at the BYU Religious Freedom Review. During the session a man asked the panel a question that was a bit triggering for me (it was actually more of a long comment than a question). My friend Steve, who was sitting next to me, knows me very well and knew that this question would be hard for me to hear. Steve put his hand on my knee while this man was talking as if to say, “I got you. I’m here with you.” It was such an amazingly simple and kind thing for him to do. 

Me and Stacey on a recent hike
Yesterday I had different and yet parallel experience in the BYU Marriott Center. President Nelson spoke of the love of God and His laws. Some of what he said was hard to hear. No one put their hand on my knee, but the moment after thousands of people said, “Amen,” my friend Stacey turned to me and asked, “How are you doing, Ben?” knowing that I likely wasn’t okay. Once again, a simple and kind thing for her to do. 

When President Nelson walked into the room before the devotional I felt a wave of the Spirit. I’ve had that same feeling in similar settings many times. And I had a very profound experience 18 months ago when the Spirit taught me that he is God’s prophet today. His talk was unsurprisingly very polarizing. I saw people online say that it was beautiful and wonderful and perfect and full of love. I saw other people say that it was hurtful and unkind and another blow to LGBT Latter-day Saints. I walked out of the Marriott Center still sorting through my feelings and feeling pretty unsettled. 

Much of the talk really resonated with me. I believe that God gives us laws because He loves us. I’ve seen the positive fruits of living those laws. I’m so grateful that President Nelson said the words gay, lesbian, and LBGT so many times instead of saying “’so called’ gays and lesbians” like I used to hear. It was refreshing to hear the prophet use the term I use to describe myself. I love that President Nelson invited us to seek our own confirmation that he and the other apostles are God’s prophets. I’ve done that and I believe that they are. I’m also grateful that he shared how Church leaders saw the pain caused by the November 2015 policy and that they wept with us. Because my goodness, those were tough days. (Here’s a post I wrote about that day back in 2015.) I’ve done a lot of things in my life out of love that ended up causing pain to others. Being motivated by love doesn’t always mean that that love is felt or received or immediately leads to the best course of action. 

I walked out of the Marriott Center not feeling mad or angry. I didn’t feel happy or joyful either. I felt sort of neutral. I saw students holding hands as they walked back to class and I heard people say how amazing the talk was. As I shuffled along in the crowd of thousands I felt very alone, wondering if anyone else had experienced that talk the way I had. I realized that I felt dismissed. In a talk that was largely about LGBT folks I didn’t really find myself as an active, gay member of the Church mentioned in it. I totally understand that not every talk is about me, but this one felt like it could have been. 

The content of the talk wasn’t hard for me, but the reactions to the talk were. It felt like some students who had attended were saying, “All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth.” And I wished that President Nelson had quoted President Ballard who two years ago from the same pulpit said, “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.” Certainly we must do better because all is not well with the Church’s LGBT members. And I worried that so many BYU students walked away feeling good about themselves and the Church’s position instead of feeling called to love and listen and understand better. That weighed on my heart. 

I went on a walk a few hours after the talk to just clear my head. I prayed and asked for clarity. Then some of the words of the hymn we sang at the beginning of the devotional flooded into my heart. “We’ve proved [the Lord] in days that are past.” I’ve see too much of God in my past to have any doubt that He’ll be there in the future as well. “And we know that deliv’rance is nigh.” This line caused me to pause and consider what I’m hoping to be delivered from. I used to want to be delivered from being gay, but instead I was delivered from shame and self-loathing. I nearly started to cry as I walked along a brick path on Maeser Hill, remembering how dark my life used to feel and how bright it feels now. Then I thought of what happened this past Sunday. 

Me giving an LGBT presentation at BYU 
I gave a lesson in a wonderful ward in Salt Lake about how to minister to LGBT members of the Church and I shared much of my own story. Every personal story I shared was tied to a gospel principle and the counsel I gave came directly from Church resources. It was a beautiful and sacred experience. However, knowing that some people would be uncomfortable with my message, the bishopric arranged an alternative Sunday School class for those who didn’t want to come to my lesson. How would you feel if you were invited to talk about your life and your faith and an alternate class was offered because some people would feel uncomfortable with what you had to say? The deliverance I am hoping for now is deliverance from ignorance and misunderstanding. I’m looking forward to the day when I can be seen as I am and when my life and my choices aren’t triggering to members of my Church. 

When I got back from my walk I did some work, but was still really in my head. I just felt a little off. Towards the end of the day one of my new colleagues knocked on my door and asked if we could talk about my reaction to President Nelson’s devotional. I hadn’t quite articulated it in my own mind, but that is what I had been wanting all afternoon, someone to just sit with me and ask what I was feeling. 

We talked for more than 20 minutes and I just opened up my heart to Darren whom I’ve known only professionally and only for a few weeks. I told him that exaltation, as I understand it, doesn’t sound like heaven to me. The idea that I’ll be married to a woman for all eternity and perpetually have children just doesn’t sound that appealing. I admitted that I see through a glass darkly and that I really have no concept of what exaltation looks like. And so, I press forward on the covenant path unsure of what the destination will be like, but trusting it’s a destination that I want to arrive at. I told him that I often feel treated like a broken heterosexual, that I just need to be patient and faithful and someday I’ll be “fixed.” And he listened and he empathized and he asked questions. And I felt delivered from some of the weight I’d been carrying that afternoon. It’s an interesting thing that a devotional that left so many feeling light left me feeling weighed down. 

This post may feel a little disjointed with stories that might not seem to connect, and I’m sorry about that. For me as a gay Latter-day, whenever LGBT topics are discussed by a high-ranking Church leader I don’t experience that talk in isolation. Previous talks and life experiences all percolate together which is why I likely experienced yesterday’s talk differently than many straight members did. 

Next month I will raise my arm to sustain Russell M. Nelson as a prophet and I am looking forward to being able to do so. And I have no doubt, that if President Nelson had been sitting next to me yesterday during the devotional he would’ve put his hand on my knee to say, “I got you. I’m here with you.” I just wish those words could've been explicitly said from the pulpit to LGBT BYU students who so desperately want to know that they belong. I’m grateful for his reminder yesterday to follow the laws of God because that is something I earnestly strive to do. And what greater law is there than the commandment to love God and love our neighbor? I don’t know how you’ll live the law of love, but I have no doubt that you will strive to do so. Steve, Stacey, and Darren lived the law of love by being present with me, sincerely asking me how I’m doing, and seeking to understand me. Love was what I needed to feel yesterday and I felt it from my friends. 

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Gift My Mom Forgot to Give Me

As I write this post it is my mom’s 71st birthday. Three years ago she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s the day before her birthday. Two years after her diagnosis I was visiting home. I wanted to get some details about the story of my birth from her while I still could. While the two of us were walking along the Stillaguamish River at Cascade Park I asked her some questions. She didn’t seem to know what I was talking about and just gave some rambling, nonsensical answers. It felt like the memories were all gone and I’d have to rely on my own memory of what I’d already been told. 

At church the next day I saw Becky who has been friends with my parents for decades. At the time my mom was pregnant with me Becky was her visiting teacher. I approached her after church and asked if I could ask her some questions about my birth. She responded, “You know, Ben, it’s the craziest thing. Just a few days ago I had a feeling you’d ask me.” That week my parents and I walked over to Becky’s house and had a 30-minute conversation with her that I recorded. She gave me permission to share the stories she told. 

The remarkable thing about the stories that Becky told was that they matched perfectly with my dad’s memory of the events, and with what I’d been told by my mom before. Becky told stories of the sacrifices that were made during the 45 days that my mom was on bedrest in the hospital trying to keep me alive. She told of a woman from the ward who visited my mom in Seattle every day. She told of sisters in the ward who would rotate bringing the family food. She told of Relief Society sisters who would come over to clean the house and my dad would say that he could handle things on his own only to have them politely push by him and clean anyway. She told of two sisters who regularly drove my three siblings all the way to Seattle from Everett so they could visit my mom, allowing my dad to get some sleep. She told of my dad’s courage and all the sacrifices he made to keep the family together. My dad said that Becky literally saved my life. Always humble, Becky said, “It was a community effort.” So many ministering angels helped my family out. Too many stories to tell in this post.

As the conversation ended I asked if there was anything else she wanted to say. She added that during the 45 days my mom was in the hospital that she did a cross stitch of a woman praying. My mom had tried to give it to the Relief Society to thank them for all they had done to help the family, but Becky wouldn’t let her. She was worried that as time passed people would forget who had given it to the ward and why. She told my mom, “Save it for your kids for when they’re big. Save it for Ben. That’s your story to keep.” Then she told me, “Find that stitchery thing. That’s yours. That’s your story.” 

I had no idea where this cross stitch was. My sisters-in-law had been helping my dad organize the house so I told them about it in case they came across it. I started looking through random boxes hoping to find it. I wasn’t even sure it still existed or if we’d ever find it. And then I walked into one of the bedrooms and there it was on the wall. How many thousands of times had I seen it without having the faintest idea of what it meant or the stories it told? I took a picture of it and sent it to Becky to ask if this was the stitchery she was talking about. She replied, “Yes!! That’s it!” 

Last week I had this intense desire to get this cross stitch and hang it up in my office. It’s something that I want to see often. I sat in my living room last week thinking about this creation of my mom’s and how I had seen it so many times without understanding it’s profound meaning. I walked to my living room window where I have a great view of the mountains and I asked myself, “What message am I missing in this creation?” I wondered what messages of love and sacrifice there are all around that I just don’t see yet. I wondered what message of love and sacrifice there is in a smashed piece of bread and tiny cup of water. I worry that I miss that message more often than not. I feel like I miss so much. I want to be able to see the messages in creation that are all around me. 

When I look at the woman praying, I think of Becky. When she found out that my mom had Alzheimer's she started dropping off dinner at my parents' house every Saturday. No one asked her to do it, she just does it. Charity never faileth.

Today on the phone I told my dad that I’d like to take the cross stitch home with me to Utah after my next visit to their house. He said that was a great idea. I want to hang it in my office and see if every day. It won’t be the prettiest piece of art in my office aesthetically, but it is something that my mom created while she was sacrificing to save me. She made those stitches as her muscles atrophied so much that my dad had to carry her into our house when she came home. It represents her selfless sacrifice and her willingness to give up her life for mine. And yet, that's not the only story it tells. It represents the people who stepped up and ministered to my family in their time of need. What could be more beautiful than that?