As controversy has swirled around this conference for the past two weeks, I have been reminded of how much we as individuals and as a community need to be able to speak our truth. So often in life, people are not willing to listen, truly listen, to other people’s truth. They prejudge, they criticize, they make up a huge story in their own mind about what the other person is really saying and are unable to hear that other person’s truth, let alone try to understand, let alone empathize.
I’ve been reminded that it’s a terrible feeling, being shouted down, being attacked for trying to be authentic. If we cannot voice our truth, we might as well be back in the closet where we keep our truth to ourselves, afraid to come out for fear of being attacked. There are all too many people who decide for themselves what the truth of a situation is, regardless of the facts. As any LGBT person knows, it’s an intensely frustrating experience, maddening even, to not be heard, to not be validated, to be constantly misjudged, misconstrued and/or marginalized because others ignore the facts, deciding for themselves what our truth should be.
The purpose of Circling the Wagons is to provide a safe place where LGBT/SSA members of the Mormon community can speak their truth. Different perspectives will be presented this afternoon on how to address issues of faith and sexuality, and each speaker and panelist has been asked to speak authentically and respectfully about their own experiences.
Some members of our community may be drawn more toward one perspective than another as they continue their journey. That choice is theirs. However, the only real choice available to family members and friends of such persons, is to love and support them, regardless of whether they agree with their loved one’s choices. It is the lack of such love and support that often – all too often – leads to dark places, to division within families, and to heartache and pain, all of which members of the gay community are all too familiar.
Today, I’m here to share a bit of my truth with you.
From the time I went through puberty, I knew that I was attracted to men, not women. However, like most men in my situation at that time, I repressed these feelings. Then, in my mid–20’s, I was introduced to the LDS Church. Among the many reasons I joined was that the Church taught – at that time – that being gay could be overcome through effort and through marriage.
Though, at long last, this is no longer taught openly by general authorities, it is a belief that unfortunately permeates LDS culture and all levels of priesthood leadership. For example, I was recently made aware of the story of a young gay man who – within the past year – sought out advice and counsel from two different bishops here along the Wasatch Front after having sexual experiences with other men. Both bishops advised him to put his same–sex attraction aside and focus on finding a nice LDS girl to marry.
I took these teachings of the Church to heart. I went on a mission when I was 26, but it was in France that I realized that, as hard as I prayed, or as long as I fasted, I could not overcome the fact – the fact – that I was gay. I had tried to root out the manifestations of being gay, tried to divorce myself from my innate sexuality; but I didn’t realize then, or for most of my life, that I couldn’t change what and who I fundamentally am. I could filter, I could control, I could censor; but it was not metaphysically, biologically or psychologically possible to change who I am.
When I was in Paris on my mission, it seemed like each and every day presented new challenges. I was sinking in despair, until one night I had a very vivid dream in which I saw the Savior across a crowded room, then found myself alone with him, sitting staring into the most beautiful loving countenance I had ever seen, almost consumed by the love I felt radiating form him. I poured out my soul to Him, recounting how I had struggled, how difficult it was, how I had tried without success to change. He listened patiently, lovingly, and then simply said, “It’s ok.”
Unfortunately, though this experience provided me with a temporary psychological and spiritual boost, I could not bring myself at that time to put into the dream the credence I should have; the contrary teachings of the church were too strong. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that the most sublime spiritual experience of my life had centered on divine acceptance of me being gay, and that I had been taught a very important truth that April night in Paris.
As it was, after a great deal of soul–searching, both on my mission and afterwards, I decided that I really wanted to get married, to have a family and to live the gospel as best I could. This represented the highest goal in Mormonism, the ultimate seal of approval on my life – a seal that I desperately sought and wanted.
And this is what I did: I devoted the next 24 years of my life to being the best Mormon husband and father that I could possibly be, all the while dealing with the tension and resulting self–loathing that was created by the conflict between what I “should” be and what I was. I had thought – as do most men then and now in my situation – that I could be strong enough to do what I had to do, what I wanted to do. But this was hubris of the highest order, a fatal flaw which, like in a Greek tragedy, ultimately led to heartache.
I had confided with my future wife during our engagement that I had experienced attraction to men, but neither she nor I really understood the nature and extent of these feelings, and the subject was never again discussed. I put my faith in what the Church taught. Both my wife and I believed that we had received a testimony that we were supposed to get married and that, because of this, things would work out.
Unfortunately, this decision would exact a terrible toll over the years on me, on my wife and on my children, all which I deeply regret. It was only after coming out that I realized the degree to which the repression of my sexuality and my identity and the resulting self–hatred had affected our marriage from day one. I had deliberately chosen to ignore warning signs, seeing them rather as challenges that I somehow had to overcome – and could overcome – because my wife are I were “supposed” to be together.
We experienced problems throughout our marriage not directly related to my repressed sexuality and were, in fact, on the brink of divorce as we approached October 2010 General Conference. During that conference, I was blindsided by the following words spoken by President Boyd K. Packer:
“We teach a standard of moral conduct that will protect us from Satan’s many substitutes or counterfeits for marriage. We must understand that any persuasion to enter into any relationship that is not in harmony with the principles of the gospel must be wrong. Some suppose that they were preset and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impure and unnatural. Not so! Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Remember, He is our Heavenly Father.”
I had never contemplated – even remotely – coming out; my hidden sexuality was something that had to be repressed and managed. Period. But these words – spoken by the second most senior apostle of the Church, the man who stood in line to succeed President Monson – unleashed a chain reaction inside myself that blasted me out of the closet. They echoed talks that he had given in the late 1970’s as well as the writings of President Spencer W. Kimball, carrying me back in time to a dark place of shame and self–loathing. Not only did I hear President Packer call me, and those like me, “impure and unnatural,” he poured salt in open wounds by saying, in so many words, that God would not and could not ever make such a depraved person as me, and that God didn’t love me for who I am – that even before GOD, I could not be my true self because my true self was not acceptable.
Then, as if this wasn’t enough, there was the added injury caused by thousands of members of the LDS Church who “rallied” to President Packer’s side to “support” him, revealing the wide and deep homophobia that exists in the Church. I was aghast as I read deeply hurtful comments that many members had left on Facebook and in response to newspaper articles.
The thing is, I knew that what President Packer was saying was not true. What he was saying did not reflect the evolving position of the Church on homosexuality, and it was not in harmony with the most sublime spiritual experience of my life.
The spiritual dissonance caused by Packer’s address and what happened in its aftermath led directly to me coming out. I decided I could not and would not stay in the hole of self–hatred where I had lived for most of my life. I was going to affirm who I am: a gay man. A man who did not choose to be gay, but was born that way. After nearly a lifetime of despising myself, I was instead going to affirm and embrace who I am and – yes – LOVE myself for who I am.
Every mixed–orientation marriage is different. In mine, after I finally – for the first time in my life – spoke the words “I am gay,” both to myself and to my wife, the proverbial camel’s back was broken. My wife told me she wanted a divorce, and I agreed. I know, despite the pain that ensued, that it was the right thing to do, and I’m actually grateful to her for forcing the issue.
I had begun blogging, under the pseudonym “Invictus Pilgrim,” as I started the process of coming out, as a means of self–therapy, of letting out that which had been contained for most of my life. Within a short time, I discovered that there were growing numbers of people reading my blog, leaving comments and offering words of encouragement. I corresponded with many men who were either in mixed–orientation marriages or had recently left them, as well as with young Mormon men who were struggling to come to terms with their sexuality and/or with life decisions such as whether to go on a mission or whether to get married to a woman.
I also learned about various groups such as Affirmation, North Star, and Evergreen, and I met a number of gay men who, like me, had formerly been married and were Mormon, but had since left the Church and who were forging a new life.
All of this was new to me, and I was very fortunate to come across a group of friends who helped me along my way, who accepted me where I was, and who didn’t try to tell me what I should believe, how I should self–identify or where I should place my “allegiances.” They recognized that each man within the Mormon world who is struggling to accept the fact that he is gay has to make his own journey, traveling his own path in his own way and at his own pace. They were simply there to support me as I made that journey, and I am immensely grateful for that.
In the summer of 2011, I met John Dehlin and Anne Peffer with Mormon Stories. A month or so later, I found myself sitting at lunch with John and a friend, discussing issues facing gays and lesbians in the Mormon community. In the course of that conversation, the concept of a Gay Mormon Stories Conference was born. Over the next several months, I worked very closely with John and with Anne Peffer to put together a program.
The concept was revolutionary. At no previous time had a public discussion of gay issues within the Mormon community been organized that didn’t come at the subject with only one set of beliefs and attitudes. The conference would stand independent of not only the LDS Church, but also of various groups, organizations and constituencies within the gay Mormon world. While we would adopt a very gay–affirmative stance, we would also invite persons with various views on the subject to share their stories.
In the end, the conference was a pioneering event that blazed a trail that was not previously there. I think it can fairly be said that this conference catapulted the subject of homosexuality into the public consciousness of the Mormon community, not only here in Utah, but in the larger Mormon community as well.
Meanwhile, I was dealing with challenges and developments in my personal life. I was in the middle of a divorce. I had met and fallen in love with the man who became my partner, and I had painfully reached a decision to resign my membership in the LDS Church. Prior to coming out, I had been an active temple–recommend–holding member ever since joining the Church; but President Packer’s words had shattered my trust in the Church and shook my belief to its very foundations. After wrestling with the issue for a year, I felt that resigning was something I needed to do in order to move on with my life, and I have absolutely no regrets in doing so.
My life did move on. My divorce was finalized, and I began building a new life with my partner, Mark, helping my children adjust to their new reality and to understand and accept that their father is gay and is in love with his partner.
Most of my children do accept this and have developed, through Mark’s efforts as well as my own, a genuine affection and love for him. I, in turn, feel that I am a much better father than I ever was and am able to have much more authentic relationships with my children because I am living authentically, and because I no longer carry around the ponderous ball and chain of self–hatred forged over decades of internalized homophobia. I am extremely pleased, proud and blessed that my partner and two of my sons are here today to support me.
So, when Anne Peffer, who had done the lion’s share of the work in organizing last year’s conference, approached me about helping this year, she began her conversation with, “I know you’ve moved on, but …” There had been a time when I would have declined, but my journey had brought me to a point where I felt I should accept Anne’s offer.
I did, however, ask myself, “Why bother? You’re no longer LDS, you’re out, you’re in a loving relationship with a fantastic guy who is not nor ever has been Mormon, things are going reasonably well in your family. Why get involved? Why stick your head into the buzz saw of divisions within the Mormon community?
Furthermore, speaking at this conference has outed me as the author of my blog and has put my reputation as a blogger at stake. It has also made me subject to publicity that may potentially have adverse effects on my children and on my career. So, again, why bother?
As I thought about it and wrote about it, answers started coming.
Because: Even though I am no longer LDS, I was a part of the Mormon community for 27 years, my children are LDS, and I still live in and interact with this community.
Because, I care about young people who are coming of age in the LDS Church and are or will be struggling with their sexual identity, recognizing that one or more of my own children might someday be part of that group.
Because: I believe there is a place in the greater Mormon community for something like Circling the Wagons that, without sacrificing its core principles, can work at providing greater affirmation and understanding within that community of issues relating to sexual identity, bringing it out into the open where it can be discussed, rather than hidden.
Because: Circling the Wagons respects all journeys and doesn’t try to tell LGBT/SSA Mormons that one way of approaching their sexual identity at any given point in time is more valid than another, respecting where each person is on their individual journey.
Finally, I bother because I believe that no one group, constituency, or organization within the LGBT/SSA Mormon world has a monopoly on the “only true and living” way to address issues relating to sexual identity, and because I believe that no one person, group or constituency has a monopoly on, and can claim ownership rights to, pain that has been experienced within the Mormon community as a result of historical LDS teachings regarding sexual identity.
Pain is the one thing that is shared by all who have ever grappled with issues relating to sexual identity and faith. It is ubiquitous. It is sharp, it is deep, and it is real.
It is the desire to address and alleviate this pain and to support and love those who experience it, that Circling the Wagons was born. It is why we are here today.
During the past two weeks, as controversy has swirled around this conference, I have been forcefully reminded of why I bother as I contemplate the following passages from Circling the Wagons’ Statement of Purpose, adopted last year, with which I will close:
“No issues strike more deeply than who we love and how we understand and honor God. These issues carry an especially profound weight in Mormon communities and have been the source of a great deal of misunderstanding, judgment and hurt … In convening this conference, we are inviting LGBTQ/SSA Mormons and their families and allies to step beyond historic divisions … We welcome all who wish to participate in a spirit of fellowship and openness, with condemnation for none and compassion for all …”