Feared, Pitied, and Honored
After 11 hours of driving I caught my first glimpse of a Latter-day Saint temple. I’d left Tucson, AZ early in the morning anxious to get to Utah. Now that I was entering the heart of Latter-day Saintism I passed temple after temple as I cruised down I-15. Payson, Provo, Mount Timpanogos, Draper, Oquirrh Mountain, Jordan River, Salt Lake, Bountiful. These sacred buildings had always stirred up feelings of excitement in me. They were beautiful and holy and I’d been participating in temple ordinances since I was 12. And then at the age of 30, after spending many hundreds of hours worshipping inside of Latter-day Saint temples, I passed them on the freeway and felt immense sadness. I knew the rules. I knew that only members of the Church in good standing could enter a temple. And I was about to make a choice that would keep me out of the temple forever. I wondered if I was making the right choice, but I felt I had no other choice. I was going to violate Church teachings and enter a same-sex relationship.
I didn’t initially choose to be a Latter-day Saint, but I loved the religion that was chosen for me by my parents. I grew up in the Seattle area far removed from the Book of Mormon belt. My parents joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a year after they got married, twelve years before I was born. My Latter-day Saint roots don’t run any deeper than my parents, but you’d be hard pressed to find two people with stronger faith than them. When I turned eight I reached the age of accountability and I was asked if I wanted to be baptized. With little knowledge of the world or theology, I chose to be baptized because I believed it was the right thing to do. All through my childhood and adolescence I was the kind of kid any Latter-day Saint parent would want. I joyfully attended church and did my best to follow its teachings.
I didn’t choose to be gay either. When I was 11 I started noticing that I was attracted to other guys. Back then I wouldn’t have been able to put into words what I was experiencing. I recall being drawn to male characters in family friendly shows: Chris Kratt from Kratts’ Creatures, Dean Cain from Lois and Clark, and Zack Morris from Saved by the Bell, to name a few. I was a scrawny kid and not someone who could be defined as “conventionally attractive.” So when I saw male peers that were athletic and conventionally attractive I told myself that I wasn’t attracted to them, I just wished I looked like them. I lived in a protective denial that shielded me from a reality I was not ready to face.
As a young man at church I was handed a pamphlet called “To Young Men Only.” It was a print out of a talk given by Apostle Boyd K. Packer in 1976. This pamphlet was printed for 40 years and was handed to me in the late 90s. In the pamphlet, Elder Packer explained that homosexual feelings can arise “in a moment of idle foolishness, when boys are just playing around.” He continued, “Such practices, however tempting, are perversion…No one is locked into that kind of life… No one is predestined to a perverted use of these powers” (Petrey, 2020, p. 88). The teaching was clear. Homosexuality is a perversion, it is my fault that I am feeling these perverted feelings, and it is my duty to fix them.
Just like any good Latter-day Saint kid I looked forward to the time when I would serve a mission. Many LGBTQ Latter-day Saints approach their missions making a deal with God, asking for Him to “fix” them for serving missions. I made no such deal with God. I didn’t think I had to. I thought that heterosexuality would just be a natural outgrowth of my service. After two years serving as a missionary in Mexico I returned home at the age of 21. It hadn’t worked. My same-sex attraction, this unspeakable perversion, remained. Now that my mission was over I couldn’t live in denial any longer. I was gay and it was time to truly show God how faithful I could be so He would reward me with healing.
Not long after returning from my mission I started school at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. The first year after my mission was an incredibly happy time filled with friends, fun, and hope for a bright future. In earlier decades, missionaries heading home were told to get married within a year. This awful advice had ceased by the time I returned home, but the cultural expectation to get married quickly hadn’t. When I hit the two-year mark, I started to panic. The praying to be straight hadn’t worked. The fasting to be straight hadn’t worked. The countless dates with women hadn’t worked. The internal self-shaming every time I saw an attractive man hadn’t worked. What if my orientation wasn’t going to change? I read the words of Church leaders who said that same-sex attraction was a trial, affliction, and temptation of mortality that wouldn’t exist in the next life. I started to wish that I could die. It seemed preferable to be dead and straight instead of alive and gay.
Around this time, I came across a song that quoted words from the prophet Isaiah. I clung to those words and listened to that song every day for months. “For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee. In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer… For the mountains shall depart, and the hills removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee…” (Isaiah 54:7-8,10). In these often-dark moments, I believed God was there and that His mercy and everlasting kindness would arrive. I imagined this unmovable divine kindness manifesting itself as a change in my orientation. Instead it was manifest in friendship.
At the age of 23 I found myself walking through a park near BYU with two of my best friends. I’d been wanting to share my struggle with same-sex attraction for months, but had always chickened out. Suddenly I knew that this was the moment. I asked them if we could sit on the grass because I wanted to tell them something. I hesitated, not sure that I could get the words out. I started to get so nervous that I thought I might actually throw up. As I started to plan my retreat, a sweet Spirit whispered to me that my Heavenly Father had orchestrated this moment for me. So I gathered my courage and said for the very first time, “For as long as I can remember, I’ve been more attracted to men than women.” They both responded with love and kindness and asked some good questions. I turned to my friend Craig who was my best friend and roommate and said, “I understand if you don’t want to be my roommate anymore.” He looked surprised and said, “Why wouldn’t I want to be your roommate? You’re the same person you’ve always been.”
His response was the beginning of my healing. If Craig still loved me and saw me the same, maybe I could, too. As I came out to my family and friends over the next few years the shame and internalized homophobia I’d been feeling slowly started to diminish. Each moment of vulnerability shared and then received chipped away at my shame and I learned to see myself not as a broken heterosexual, but as a gay man who was whole the way he was.
When I was 25 I first attempted to pen my gay Latter-day Saint story. I had only written a few pages when I scrapped the project which I had titled Tried as Abraham. At the time, I viewed my orientation as an Abrahamic test. God was asking me to give up the thing I wanted the most in life--a committed partnership with someone I loved--to show Him how faithful I could be. And yet, Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac, but then he got to keep Isaac. Where was my ram in the thicket? Where was my deliverance? Was this all sacrifice and no blessings? On the first page of my soon to be discarded book, I explained that I love to eat Cinnabons, but all I was offered in life was carrots. It felt like life would always be bland, disappointing, and leaving me wanting more.
At the age of 29 I fell in love with a man. I wasn’t dating men or looking for love, Jordan just showed up in my life. At the time he lived in Utah and I lived in Arizona. Initially we started talking as friends, but quickly fell for each other. My journal is riddled with entries about how happy he made me. For years I had tried to date women, but only because I was expected to. I had never wanted to participate in any form of physical affection with those women, but I forced myself to because I was supposed to. Then suddenly dating and courtship made sense. I wanted to kiss him and hold his hand and spend eternity with him. But I wasn’t allowed to want those things. I recall saying the words “I love you” and them not feeling strong enough. Human love could run so much deeper than I had imagined.
Jordan regularly asked if he could be my boyfriend and I repeatedly told him no. “I just can’t have a boyfriend,” I explained, “but we can be really super awesome best friends.” I didn’t realize this at the time, but Jordan was on his way out of the Church and he was trying to bring me with him. Meanwhile, I was trying to stay in the Church and keep him in with me so we could be best friends forever. Our divergent goals could not coexist and the tension finally pulled us apart. Jordan said that if we couldn’t be in a real relationship then our friendship needed to end. I chose the Church over him and things between us ended.
The loneliness and emptiness set in immediately. I missed him terribly. I felt a literal hole inside of me with him gone. My entire life I had been taught about Lehi’s Dream in the Book of Mormon. Lehi, an ancient prophet from Jerusalem, had a dream that included an iron rod that led to the Tree of Life. The iron rod represented the word of God that would guide us safely and securely to eternal life if we would just hold onto it. In all the artistic interpretations of this image, the iron rod was always depicted as a railing at waist height, easy to grab onto. The artists got it wrong. For me, it felt like the iron rod was ten feet in the air, and I was dangling from it trying to hold on. But my arms ached, my hands hurt, and as much as I wanted to continue holding on, I just couldn’t any more. It was too painful to maintain the grip. So out of necessity, I decided to let go.
I texted Jordan and told him I was coming for a visit. When I arrived at his house north of Salt Lake I told him how much I had missed him and how I didn’t want to live without him. I told him that I was ready to choose him over the Church. I was willing to sacrifice my good standing as a Latter-day Saint to have a life with him. After I spilled my guts to him and told him I had changed my mind, Jordan said, “Ben, I know you better than that. You would choose the Church over me in the future. This isn’t going to work out.” I am often praised for being such a faithful member of the Church, but the truth is that I was one Jordan’s choice from stepping away. Jordan knew me well enough to know that I was making a choice based on fear, and so he made the choice he knew I would make in the future.
I was crushed. I didn’t know what to do. I sat at Jordan’s house by myself in a daze. Feeling desperate and not knowing what else to do, I changed into my church clothes and drove to the Bountiful Utah Temple. On the drive I prayed out loud, “Heavenly Father, I’m trying so hard to be good. I just want to do the right thing, but my life is falling apart. Can’t you just throw me a bone? Where are you?” As I sat in the temple waiting for the worship service to start, I grabbed a copy of the Doctrine and Covenants which contains modern day revelations for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I randomly opened up to a section penned by Joseph Smith dictating the words of the Lord to him. “Behold, I have seen your sacrifices, and will forgive all your sins; I have seen your sacrifices in obedience to that which I have told you. Go, therefore, and I make a way for your escape, as I accepted the offering of Abraham of his son Isaac” (D&C 132:50). It was as if God Himself were telling me that He had seen my willingness to sacrifice to be obedient to Him, and now He had prepared an escape from the impossible task required of me.
The escape God had planned for me surely was leaving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I thought. It was so obvious. God was saying I’d done enough and now it was okay for me to leave. As I sat in the temple pondering this conclusion, I felt a dark heaviness rest on me. Then an image of my parents came to my mind. As I thought of them I felt filled with light. But I didn’t want to go home, I wanted to stay with Jordan. As I pondered remaining in Utah with Jordan the dark heaviness returned. Then I’d think of my parents and the light would return. So even though I didn’t want to, I made the decision to leave Utah five days earlier than planned, and immediately go home to see my parents. When I got back to Jordan’s house I told him that I would be leaving the next morning. And then I left.
I just wanted to do the right thing. I just wanted to ascertain God’s will for me and then do it. I’d always been a good kid and that’s all I ever wanted to be--just good. As I drove the 13 hours to my parents’ house in Seattle I knew that I couldn’t live the way I had any more. Something needed to change. So when I got home, 30 year old me spewed years of unsaid things onto my parents. I first came out to them when I was 23. They were loving and kind, but they didn’t get it. My mom asked if I thought it was a phase and I said that I hoped it was. My dad said, “Well, you’re probably better off being single because being married is hard.” Over the next seven years they tried to talk about my same-sex attraction with me, but I didn’t want to. They opened up the door for conversation, but I wasn’t ready.
Without telling me, but dad spent years reading stories about gay Latter-day Saints. Even though we weren’t talking about it, he spent many hours educating himself. He had slowly learned on his own the struggles we faced and the challenges we confronted. So when I was ready to talk, he was more than ready. My mom had not done this preparation. She was still hoping that I could live a “normal” life. But when she heard me talk about Jordan and she could see how much I loved him, a switch flipped in her heart. She said, “It just makes so much sense that you and Jordan should be able to be together. I don’t get why you shouldn’t be able to marry him.” She continued, “Ben, we’re not just on your side, we’re with you 100%. If you need to leave the Church and marry a man, you and he will always be part of our family.”
I knew all of this before my mom said it. I knew that no matter what I chose, I would always be family. And yet, hearing her actually say those words was the gift I didn’t know I needed. My parents were explicit that they would honor my agency and that they would cheer me on no matter the path I took. David O. McKay, a Latter-day Saint prophet from the mid-20th century taught, “Next to the bestowal of life itself, the right to direct that life is God’s greatest gift to man” (McKay, 1962). My parents gave me life and then gave me the freedom to live it.
Nothing had been wrong with my relationship with Jordan. The only reason it ended was because of the Church. I was furious, I was damaged, and I was ready to be out. I had been trapped for long enough in a doctrine and cultural that had no room for a gay person like me. And with my parents’ permission to leave, now was the time to go. Even though I had just decided to say farewell to the Church, I wasn’t going to say goodbye to God. So I committed to continuing to study His word. Days after I decided to leave the Church, I opened up the scriptures and found myself reading the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed, “Oh my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt 26:39). I continued reading and noticed something I hadn’t noticed before. Jesus said this same prayer three times. He really didn’t want to die for the sins of the world, but more than that He wanted to do His Father’s will.
I got down on my knees and said one of the sincerest prayers I have ever uttered. I told God that I didn’t want to be Mormon any more, that it was too hard, that I was tired and worn out, terrified of being alone forever. And then I tried to be like Jesus and said that I would do whatever He wanted me to do, no matter how painful. In that moment of sincere pleading, I was ready to be hung on a cross if my Father deemed that necessary. Then in a moment of peace and annoyance, the Spirit of God whispered to me to move forward in the Church. Not to stay in the Church, but to move forward, grow, and become a better me in the Church. It was not the answer I wanted, but the divine provenance of the message was undeniable.
During the three weeks I spent at home I learned that the escape God had prepared for me wasn’t an escape from the Church, but from shame and self-hatred. After lots of praying, pondering, and many honest conversations with family, I headed back to Arizona to resume normal life. As I passed the exit to Jordan’s house in Utah, I turned my head, but kept driving. On the long drive I realized that I had been living so much of my life based in fear. Fear of being alone. Fear of rejection. Fear of being seen as gay. I made a solid commitment that I wasn’t going to let fear control me anymore. I was going to make choices based on faith. And I was going to actively seek out God’s will and then do it.
The first thing I felt inspired to do was to be authentic. When I returned to Arizona I made a commitment to come out to everyone in my life that I was close to. Over the next few months I came out to about a hundred people. I came out in conversations, emails, text messages, and I even wrote a few letters. Once that was done, I felt this terrifying prompting to come out on my blog. I’d been blogging for six years about funny things that happened in my life. It was a humor space and not a place for serious content like a coming out post. And as the only Ben Schilaty on the internet I was very Google-able and once I put that information out there I couldn’t take it back. But the prompting was clear. So in January of 2015 I came out the world. My personal reaction was immediate. The anxiety of sharing something so personal so publicly was quickly replaced with relief. I didn’t have to hide anymore. I could be myself and be loved as an openly gay person.
A few weeks later I was teaching a lesson at church. The familiar feeling I felt when I knew it was time to come out bubbled up inside of me. So in the middle of the lesson I pivoted and came out to everyone present. It was an empowering moment for me. After the lesson a bisexual man who was attending for the first time approached me. He told me that he thought Mormons were homophobic and wouldn’t accept a bisexual person like him. He was glad to see that he had been mistaken. A few months later, one of the leaders of the congregation told me what he had witnessed that day. After the lesson he watched me sit down, releasing a deep sigh. He said he saw an almost literal weight come off of me. He could tell that what had happened was a deeply moving and freeing experience for me, exactly the kind of thing that he felt should happen in his flock.
A year later I moved to a new congregation. The bishop had heard of me and knew I was gay. I was asked to speak in church a few weeks after I started attending. I asked him if I could come out in my talk. He said, “I don’t see why that would be a problem.” So I walked to the pulpit later that day and came out to a room of mostly strangers. I didn’t come out just to come out, but to share how my experiences as a gay man had taught me about divine love. After the meeting there was a receiving line of about half a dozen strangers. One by one they welcomed me to the congregation, often with tears, telling me how happy they were I was going to be part of their church family.
As a people, Latter-day Saints are focused on building Zion, a holy people dedicated to God and to each other. A latter-day scripture translated by Joseph Smith teaches that Zion is a people “of one heart and one mind” (Moses 7:18). For the first time in my life I was attending church without hiding this important piece of me. And I was loved and embraced. That Latter-day Saint congregation was Zion to me and I could have stayed there and had such a happy life.
The second thing I felt inspired to do was to reach out to other LGBTQ Latter-day Saints. As my coming out blog post began to get shared around, I started to get emails from strangers. I received a few dozen of these. They each basically said, “I’m also a gay Latter-day Saint. No one knows, but I read your post and thought I should reach out to you.” I responded to all of these emails, but there wasn’t much I could do to help these gay men in far flung places. Then it occurred to me that I was the only gay Latter-day Saint I knew about in Tucson, AZ, and statistically there was no way that I was the only one. What I had wanted for so long was to connect with people who understood what it was like to be, and I thought other people might need that, too. So I started an LGBTQ group for Latter-day Saints.
In the two years I ran the group it grew to a few dozen members. I initially envisioned formalized monthly meetings with a monthly social. The socials were immediately scrapped as we all became the best of friends and there was no need to organize hang outs. The group members clicked in a powerful, meaningful, organic way. LGBTQ Latter-day Saints really do have a blast together. But more than that, there is something special that happens when I am with someone who so deeply understands these two integral parts of my identity, who understands things about me that are often acutely misunderstood. It’s so easy to be me in these settings.
One night after a group of us had been hanging out, a newcomer to the group lingered and chatted with me and another friend. He opened up about how much he hated himself and felt God hated him, too. Then, in a demonstration of faith in a God that he believed had abandoned him, he asked the two of us to give him a blessing. Like ancient prophets and apostles, two gay men laid their hands on the head of another gay man and spoke words of comfort and healing as directed by the Holy Spirit. It was a powerful moment in which three gay Latter-day Saints combined their faith to channel the power of God to mend a shattered heart. Something special happened in that room that I don’t think could have happened if we didn’t all share the same faith and orientation.
The third thing I felt guided to do was to educate others about the LGBTQ Latter-day Saint experience. After my time in Tucson, I returned to BYU to pursue a master’s in social work. I had just completed a PhD in one field and it was deeply embarrassing to immediately get a master’s in another. And yet it felt like the right thing to do. Two months into my degree my dream job opened up in the Spanish department at BYU. Four professors encouraged me to apply and I knew I had a good shot of getting the job. Around this time an administrator friend invited me to lunch. I told her that I was considering applying for the position and dropping out of the social work program. I told her that I already had two graduate degrees and I was too old and too tired to get another one. She thought for a moment and then said, “Ben, there are 100 people who could do that Spanish job and only one person who can do what you’re going to do. And you need to be trained to do it. You can’t quit your program.” I listened and I finished my MSW. I use the skills I learned in that program every single day. I regularly ask myself, “What can I do that no one else can do?” And then I strive to do that thing.
During my two years in the MSW program at BYU I was asked to be part of an LGBTQ working group with a number of BYU administrators. As part of this work I helped plan the first campus wide LGBTQ student forum. The event included four panelists, an L, a G, a B, and a T. I was lucky enough to be the G. The auditorium was filled to overflowing with students sitting on the floor and filling up overflow rooms. Audience members submitted questions and for 90 minutes we shared our stories with our peers at BYU. When the event was over, the moderator asked the audience to thank us for being so brave. The audience burst into a standing ovation and I started to cry. Never in a million years did I think that I’d be able to openly share my story at BYU and then be applauded for it. After mingling with people after the event, I found a room and sat by myself. “Was that real?” I asked myself. “Did that really just happen?”
As I approached my mid-30s, the pain, hurt, and shame of earlier years was mostly gone. I attribute that change to a conscious decision to no longer make decisions based on fear. The shift in thinking changed my world and led me to make choices that sometimes violated the cultural norms of my community regarding speaking openly about sexuality, but that brought me so much peace and joy. I arrived at a place in which I stopped worrying that I would be lonely and sad forever, and learned to trust that God would always be there to guide my next step. I couldn’t have imagined five years ago that I could hold the position I currently have at BYU as an openly gay person. Much has changed.
In my lifetime I have seen the Latter-day Saint community experience three phases in our approach to LGBTQ folks. First, homosexuals were feared. Pious members were afraid of us for being deviant, perverted, and carnal. We were perceived as actively defying God’s laws and could change if we wanted to. Then we were pitied. We were discussed as having struggles, trials, and inclinations. We were to be loved, but not to be talked about. No one knew where our problem came from, but they knew we had a problem. Now we’re approaching a third phase in which we can be honored for the unique contributions we can make to the Kingdom of God. We have definitely not arrived there yet, but that destination is on the horizon. And yet things are still bad. The majority of LGBTQ Latter-day Saints I know still feel feared or pitied in some degree. We have much to do to improve.
Church leaders are guiding us to the hopefully near future when LGBTQ Church members will be honored. Apostle M. Russell Ballard said at a campus wide BYU devotional in 2017, “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." That is how the change will occur, when we listen and understand.
In a lot of ways, I’m already in this world of being honored. The Church’s publishing house Deseret Book recently published my book A Walk in My Shoes: Questions I’m Often Asked as a Gay Latter-day Saint. It’s one of only a handful of books they have published written by an openly gay person. I also cohost the podcast Questions from the Closet with a gay friend of mine. Every day I receive messages from LGBTQ folks and straight folks thanking me for my book and the podcast. I am regularly praised and celebrated for my contributions. It’s a lovely position to be in, that only a precious few of us experience. One that I experience because I have an unusually tidy story that has led me to a place that most Church members are comfortable with. I have tried very hard not to be a poster boy, but to elevate other voices so that listeners and readers can truly “listen to and understand [their] LGBT brothers and sisters.”
Ten years ago, if you had told me I’d be doing what I’m doing now, that I’d be thriving and loving life, I would’ve thought that you were crazy. I often marvel that my life has ended up so differently than I could have ever imagined, and yet I have ended up doing so many meaningful, wonderful things. That’s what happens when I look at the past. As I look to the future, I have no idea what I’ll be doing ten years from now. I have no idea how or if I’ll be participating in the LGBTQ Latter-day Saint world. But I hope ten years from now I’ll be irrelevant. Or that I’ll at least have been replaced by many others. I hope ten years from now people won’t ask, “Can you be gay and a Latter-day Saint?” because that question will sound so silly. I hope ten years from now it won’t be a family tragedy when a child comes out. I hope ten years from now having an openly LGBTQ person in a congregation will be the norm and not a novelty. Things are better than they have ever been for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints like me, but they’re still bad. And I want help make things better. To paraphrase the teachings of Hillel the Elder, “If not you, who? If not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14). Joseph Smith taught that we should “waste and wear out our lives” (D&C 123:13) bringing truth to light.
I truly stand on the shoulders of giants. So many people who paved the way for me to be able to do what I’m doing today. I hope that I can lay a few pavers for those that come after me. I lay a paver when someone reads my book or listens to my podcast. I lay a paver when I’m asked to publicly share my experiences as a gay Latter-day Saint. I lay a paver when I share my experiences organically in small settings. But the most important pavers I lay are when LGBTQ students stop by my office and I listen to their stories and encourage them. I tell them that the future isn’t bleak, that it is brighter than they could possibly imagine. That they will thrive as they align their choices with their values. And I tell them that they are not broken heterosexuals, but they are whole as LGBTQ people. I don’t know what I’ll be doing ten years from now, but I hope that those kids who now come to my office in despair will get to live in a world in which they aren’t feared or pitied, but that they are honored for the good people that they are. That is the world that I am trying to build. In Latter-day Saint vernacular we call that world Zion.
Ballard, M. R. (2017, November 14). Questions and Answers. BYU Speeches. https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/m-russell-ballard/questions-and-answers/
McKay, D. O. (1962, February). Free Agency… The Divine Gift. The Improvement Era, 86.
Petrey, T. G. (2020). Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism. UNC Press Books.