Thursday, August 21, 2014

Conversation with a gay return missionary: Part One

This is an interview I had with my son's best friend from high school; he's a return missionary, gay, and living with his partner in SLC.  I think you will appreciate his sincerity, his struggle to live his religion, and the events that lead to his leaving it.  I hope you will grasp the internal struggle as he honestly recounts his experiences, and no matter how you feel about gay issues, especially Mormon gay issues, I think you will be touched and maybe surprised, at the depth of his commitment to his upbringing, but that holding to those beliefs were leading to feelings of suicide.  He'll tell us the advice that changed his life and allowed him to believe that being who he is was not a sin. This conversation is helpful to any Mormon to better understand the life of a gay member, and especially if you are dealing with this issue in your family.  I've known him more than 15 years, he was a delight to have around our house when he and my son were growing up.  I still find him very delightful and when I was done talking with him, I just had to tell him that I thought he was an intelligent, thoughtful, moral person.  I think you will agree. 

Here's Part One:

Returning home from your mission, what were your hopes, dreams, and desires?

At the completion of my mission, I had an interview with my Mission President, one thing he said to me was, Elder ______, you served an honorable mission, now you need to get an education and get married within six months. I knew I was gay, I'm focused on this one thing: You have to find a wife and get married in the temple. I didn't want to sin, I wanted to be active in the church, I was feeling the pressure to get a wife.

I had suppressed my gay feelings for two years, my biggest fear was that those feelings, to be with another man, would be waiting for me as soon as I got off the plane.

And were they, were they waiting there for you when you got off the plane?

Oh yes, they were everywhere. As soon as I was released as a missionary, I kind of felt liberated in a way, I could go to the movies, hang out with friends, I can listened to "worldly" music. I can feel normal again. Absolutely, the temptation was everywhere, from movies to music, it was so strong it was unreal.

So you're in a really bad situation right, you don't want to sin, you want to be active in the church, so how do you play this out?

I'm really active in the church, I'm the ward mission leader, I'm going out with the missionaries four to five times a week, if I wasn't working I was hanging out with the missionaries, taking them grocery shopping.  I'm doing everything I possible could to not be who I was, to fight the urge. To not "sin" because I didn't want to sin. Little did I know that me wanting to be myself was not sinning.

So anyway, I went to the Singles Ward, and this is another thing that really stands out about the members and how they accept diversity. I always knew in the back of my mind, when I would leave a function at church, people were questioning if I was gay. "Why doesn't he come out, why doesn't he just admit it." I knew that, that was my biggest fear of going to a church function is that I knew people were talking about me. There was one night when I was playing church volleyball and I came out and someone had written "fag" on the hood of my car, in the church parking lot. That was a very defining moment for me when I realized that these people don't love me. And you know the church always teaches acceptance and charity, and the love of Christ. They have no love for me, they have no pure love. If I did come out, they wouldn't accept me.

I hit a very, very low point in my life. I became very depressed, I was suicidal. I eliminated myself from that group, that social life. That's when I really started looking outside the church for friends.

I had a friend, he was an investigator. And maybe this is something that you won't understand, as a gay man you can tell another gay man; you just know that you both are, without having to say the words. Anyway, when I first met him I knew that he was, there was this instant chemistry and attraction. While I never acted upon it, I just always knew there was something about him that was attractive to me. This was a couple of years past my mission, I had never acted upon any of my feelings. I had been attending the temple. So one night he invited me over to watch a movie, just the two of us, and we fell asleep. And we were talking and something just same over me, I said I really like our friendship, I like the idea of our friendship, I would just like to take this one step further. I would like to explore what you and I have together. And that was the first time ever that I had admitted to myself out loud that I was gay. From then on, it was like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. It was like four o'clock in the morning, I had just told another guy that I liked him, that I was gay. Even though I knew that he knew that I was. I had taken that first big step in exposing myself to everyone. I had crossed over that threshold of "coming out" and I can't go back.

I left his house, I'm sitting in my car, I'm thinking this is my chance to tell my parents. So I'm sitting there, I dial my parents phone number; I'm thinking to myself, is this something I really want to do, am I ready for this? Am I ready for what's about to take place in my life, because everything is going to change from this point one.

So I call my parents, my dad answers, he says "hey what's going on?" I said, "I know it's late, I'm sorry if I woke you up." He said, "you know your mom and I have been sitting here watching TV, we have been awake the entire night and something told me you were going to call." I don't know if that was the spirit, but I honestly believe that when I was willing to take that risk, when I decided to be true to myself--I really felt it opened the doors for my family to accept what I'm about to tell them. So I really do believe that it was the right time and the right place to come out to my parents.

I pull up to their house, I stopped the car and I'm thinking, okay you haven't actually told your parents that you're gay, you don't have to tell them, you can say something else in your life is going on, that your not very happy, if you don't really want to do this. So I go into to my parents house, they are both sitting there, I'm sobbing, my mom is saying, "what's wrong, what's going on?" I tell them, "there's something I want to tell you, but I don't know how to say it." She's saying, "please just tell us." Literally every time I tried to tell my parents that I was gay, the words just wouldn't come out. It was like those dreams where someone is chasing you and you are trying to scream, but you can't scream, that's just what it was like. So I sat there saying "I have something to tell you but I don't know how to say it," probably 20 or 30 times I said, "I don't know how to tell you." Finally my mother grabs my arms and says, "whatever it is, just say it, we will still love you." So I sit there with my head in my hands, I'm so ashamed, and I say, "I'm gay."

The first thing that my mother says is, "how do you know?" And at that time, it was so new to me, how was I going to explain me knowing that I was gay to my parents, I didn't even know what that meant. I've never kissed a guy, I've never held hands with a guy, I've never gone on a date with a guy. Did I even know myself what that meant to be gay?  I don't think that I did. Even to this day, having been several years after that, I'm still trying to figure out what that means to me.

So, my dad says, "we'll get you the best treatment, you need to see a doctor, is there some kind of therapy we can put you in? We need to set you up with a counselor, we need to call LDS family services, we need to contact the bishop, the stake president, we need to start you on something so we can take care if this. I think members of the church think this is some kind of a disease, not who you are as a person.

So my parents set me up with a counselor at LDS family services, I'm talking to this guy, I will never forget him, I actually think that he was gay. Anyway, the counsel I was given is that I needed to force myself to fall in love with a woman. That I needed to force myself to go on a date with several different girls every single week. And force myself to develop emotional and sexual feelings for a woman even though they were never there.

Implying that you can force yourself to change your sexual orientation, because it's supposed to be a man and a woman, right, and if God sent you here that way, that wouldn't be fair, so you have to be choosing this, right? 

Yes, I remember very clearly, my therapist, he would take the family proclamation off the wall in his office and he'd have me read it over and over again. And we would say, "anywhere in the proclamation do you see where it says it's supposed to be a man and a man, or a woman and a woman?" And I was just like, "well no." He was like, "well then that teaches us that living a gay life style is sinning against God. It's not what he created us to be, he wants us to be a man and a woman, and to be able to procreate, and to be sealed in the temple. Anything that doesn't fall into that is against what God has taught us to believe. So here I am, I had just come out, I don't even know what that means to come out, and they are already teaching me that I am going against God and that I'm sinning and even though I hadn't acted upon those feelings, I was still sinning.

And here's another kind of thought to that, I don't know if you know much about, SSA or SGA, the church doesn't use the word homosexual or gay, they use the term SSA which means same sex attraction, or SGA, which means same gender attraction. So basically, SSA is that you have the attraction, but you have never acted upon it. So if you have never acted upon the attraction, you are not considered gay, you have SSA. Isn't that interesting?

So, here they are trying to classify all the righteous members who only have the attraction, but have never acted up it, they aren't gay, they only have the attraction. But as soon as you act upon it you're gay. That's how the church differentiates the terminology.

So my therapy is to force myself to kiss a woman, to go out on several dates with them. I thought this was interesting, my therapist says, "I want you to go out this next week, and do activities that are considered masculine." Isn't that so funny? So I said, "well can you clarify that, I don't know what you mean" He said, "I want you to go out and throw a football with one of your straight buddies or I want you to go to the gym and play basketball with all the guys at the gym." And I'm thinking, this is going to help me be straight?

But I'm still a member of the church and I'm thinking, if I'm going to beat this, I have to have faith that what he is teaching me is going to help me not be gay. If I have faith in what this man is telling me to do, I will be on a road to a cure. I thought, I'm going to the temple and if I'm reading my scriptures, and I'm fulfilling my calling as the ward mission leader, if I'm helping the missionaries, if I'm serving other people, and I'm forgetting myself in the Lord's work, he's going to take care of the rest. I fully believed that.

Okay, when did that fall apart for you?

As I became more and more ingrained with my therapist from LDS services, it just became more and more apparent, every single week, that this was doing nothing for me. I was more confused then I already was, and I thought to myself, why can't I feel that what he is telling me is best for me? Something inside of me, just my own intuition, me knowing me as a person, everything he was teaching me was fighting against who I was, and who I knew I wanted to be.

I never told my therapist, that I was going to find a psychiatrist that wasn't LDS, so just on my own, not telling my parents, not telling my bishop, I found a therapist that wasn't LDS, that was very liberal, very gay friendly, I started going to see her and she was actually a lesbian herself. So a couple of weeks go by, I tell her I was so suicidal, because the therapist from the church is telling me to date girls, and I'm trying to date as many girls as I can, but I guess I'm not feeling it, I'm not attracted to them, and I can't get myself to follow along. I keep thinking, I'm having faith, I've been going to the temple, I've been going to the temple, once if not twice a week. So I'm thinking to myself, okay, something is going to happen. Then I would think, well maybe I'm not going with enough faith, maybe I'm not going with an open mind. And maybe I'm not listening carefully enough to the temple ceremony, or the endowment session, maybe I'm doing this wrong. I kept beating myself up thinking, if I hadn't received an answer by now, if the Lord hasn't taken my attraction to other men away from me, I'm obviously doing something wrong.

I was literally beating myself up, I was so unhappy, I made the decision then and there that I was going to stop seeing the LDS therapist. And I was just going to continue to see my therapist that wasn't a part of the church. So I go to her and tell her, "you known, this church teaches me that I am a sinner and I'm this horrible person, me wanting to be with another man is going against God and I'm going to hell, and I won't be sealed to my family in the temple if I live my life this way."

She said, "you know what, all I'm going to tell you is you are at a very vulnerable time in your life, where you really have to decide, am I going to listen to other people and have them tell me how I should be and how I'm going to live my life? Or are you going to listen to your own heart and follow that." That's when I really said, "I'm not going to listen to anyone else, I'm not going to a therapist any more; I know who I am. I knew I wanted to be in a relationship with a man, have a family, that is what I want."

So that's when I stopped going to church and stopped going to the temple. That's when I decided to explore going on dates with men, and having a healthy relationship with a man. That's when I decided to really explore that side of who I was.

That's when you decided to stop going to church, was that hard to do?

Oh yeah, my bishop was wanting to meet with me every week, he wanted to know what I was doing. And I gave him that respect and I went in and saw him. He said the church doesn't have any doctrine or advice for a bishop for dealing with someone who is having trouble with homosexuality. There is no training, there is no teaching, he said at this point, I really don't know what to tell you anymore. I don't know what to say, I don't know what's right, I don't want to tell you something that's wrong. That was almost 6 years ago, I don't know what a bishop would tell a young man today, I would be curious to know what the church tells a young man or woman now, compared to what I was told back then. So that was the very last time that I saw my bishop.

How did you feel about your bishop?

I think he was sincere, I really appreciated that he told me, "I don't even know what to tell you. I don't want to tell you one thing and have it be wrong." I really felt that he was sincere in saying "I don't know what other counsel I can give you." I felt right there, that was enough of an indication to me, that the church was not prepared for this. They don't know how to deal with this. There are no teachings that I have heard of even to this day of how a bishop is counseled to deal with this.

So, the stake president's secretary had been calling me for months, after I had told my bishop that I was gay. He wanted to meet with me, he wanted to make an appointment with me. My last visit with my bishop, and this is something I will never understand about the church, he wanted to know how far I had gone with another man, what I had done. And I told him that was none of his business. Then he said, "are you willing to change? If you are willing to change then we can certainly work with you; but if you have no desire to change-- then I have no choice but to excommunicate you." I said, "well if you think you have that kind of power over me, then I'm leaving," and I got up out of my chair, and I walked out and I have never been back since. That's the last time I have ever been to church.

What is your faith, and how does it shape your life?

You and I were taught that in order to be worshipping, you have to go to a church building and worship with other members of the church. I don't believe that in order to worship God or have a relationship with God, I have to sit for three hours at a church building. I don't believe that at all. I believe me having a relationship with God, is me being a decent person, having healthy relationships with other people, being honest, respecting my parents, just being a good person. That to me is more of a relationship with God, than sitting in a church every Sunday. Even just going on a hike and appreciating the beauty around us, that to me is my relationship with God, it's not having to read the Book of Mormon for 30 minutes everyday. It's not having to read the Bible. It's all around me, it's not in a certain place.

BYU has now come out and said, we accept those that struggle with SSA, we welcome you with open arms. You are worthy to attend our university. But if you act upon it you are no longer allowed. Well, you know, someone who has the attraction is still gay, whether or not they have acted upon it. So now that I have lived the life style, I'm no longer worthy as opposed to those who only had the thought in their heart to be with a man. That's the differentiation, that's what makes them better I guess, better than I.

My mom once asked me, kind of just thinking out loud, "if the church ever allowed you to have a partner, to be in a relationship, to have a calling and have a temple recommend, would you ever come back?" I said, "No, why would I want to be a part of something that's based on conditions, why after all these years that they didn't accept me, why would I want to go back? Sure it would be great for other members of the church, but I just would never go back. I would still have the feeling that members would look at me and think, oh he's one of them." Not like, hey we welcome you to family home evening, to ward temple night. Not that I think that will ever happen, I just would never want to associate myself with something that has excluded me for so long for being who I am.

Did your mother ask you that because she is worried about your salvation?

Oh, yeah for sure. She's worried that I'm not going to be sealed to them and that she won't be my mother after this life. She worries about that all the time. But I also know that now that my mom has seen me not have to struggle with that and struggle with that fight. That's the point I was going to make, I think for the very first time I have seen my mom kind of question the church. Not that I ever think she will leave, because I don't think she will, but I think she is struggling with the fact that she loves and believes in something so much, but they hate my son. So I don't know how she works it out in her mind, if she does, but that's in her own time, her own schedule.

Even being downtown, so close to Temple Square, the members of the church here are so much more liberal, and accepting in their thinking, but as you get closer to Provo, it's like night and day.

End of Part One, of a three part series.


1 comment:

  1. When I told my mom about being bisexual, she had a similar reaction. It is very hard to feel accepting of yourself when the people you love think you are sinning and need help to get fixed. My heart goes out to everyone who experiences this.