Okay, so, the other day, I posted an open letter to Elder M. Russell Ballard, answering his question, “if you leave the church, where will you go?” A couple people responded, and one of my friends in particular left a comment with some really thoughtful points and questions. I felt like my friend’s comment deserved a more careful response than I wanted to give in a tiny Facebook reply box, so here we are, with another open letter.
It’s probably best to begin by reproducing the comment from my friend, who I will also refer to as M., because that’s his first initial too. I’ve lightly edited the comment for the purposes of protecting several people’s privacy.
I don’t read much that’s linked to on Facebook these days, but I read this. It was well-written and enlightening and very respectful, for which I commend you. However, there’s a couple things I feel like you left out.
First is the fact that you unequivocally WERE wanted in the Church — not unilaterally, certainly (unfortunately), but by many who knew your orientation and accepted you for it. Trying not to presume too much, I think I can list myself, [another friend], [another friend], Brother [Institute director] in that number. (I suspect others, but don’t know them well enough to put words in their mouths.) And while I can’t speak for Elder Ballard, who (I admit) has failed to convince me of profound sympathy for your situation, I believe there are leaders of the Church such as President Uchtdorf, Elder Holland who would count into that number if they knew you.
As a side note, I tried, in your latter Church-going phase, to make Elders’ Quorum a safe place where you could find nourishment to your soul. I tried to conduct lessons that would be open-minded and cater specifically to your interests, but I found you inattentive. I guess it was impossible for you to make your metaphorical mask such a precise filter as to let parts of the Church experience get through while blocking out the bigoted or insensitive comments. That is a shame, when I hope you knew that you could trust me and [another friend]. (Also, know that we were cringing alongside you when you got those kinds of comments in Sunday School, even if we didn’t know any better than you did how to challenge them.)
The other thing you left out is a genuine question I have. You acknowledge that your faith transition has left you devoid of answers about the afterlife … but what about the feelings of personal relationship with Heavenly Father and Jesus that you used to have? That is what I don’t get about you and other friends who have similarly left the Church, because that’s what I can’t figure out what I would do with when I have moments of wanting to facepalm-and-abandon-the-Church myself. (And in defense of Elder Ballard, that’s what his talk was really about — not “where will you go if you leave the Church,” but “where will you go if you leave your personal relationship with Christ.”) If you could extend your blog post’s gracious attitude of self-opening to help me understand this too, I would appreciate it.
M., as I’ve said earlier, this is a good comment with careful thinking in it, and that’s why I’m going to respond quite carefully. I’m going to do it in several parts, and it’s kinda unfortunate that the first part is the sharpest:
#notallmormons / #yesallgays
I’d first like to focus on this part: “you unequivocally WERE wanted in the Church … by many who knew your orientation and accepted you for it.” To me, this comment basically says, #notallmormons; to that, I respond, #yesallgays.
As much as I valued (and value) the generosity of heart of my close friends in the ward, and as genuine as their welcome, love, and friendship were and are, their glasnost can’t make up for the systemic problems facing gay people in the church. The fact that I had close friends who knew me and loved me for who I am didn’t change the fact that the Proclamation on the Family is hanging on the walls, that the purpose of singles wards is to get young people to enter into marriage between a man and a woman, and that, again, any real relationship into which I might ever enter would be viewed as sinful at best and a literal threat to the fabric of society at worst.
Another friend of mine, a gay man who went to the same singles ward at the same time I did, put it this way:
While there are many kind and accepting members at church (yourself included), the overall culture of the church doesn’t want gays like myself and Spencer there. No matter how friendly everyone at church was how could anyone understand how isolating those 3 hours each Sunday could be when it focuses on marriage between a man and a woman and the traditional family and that any other goal was less at best and abhorrent & sinful at the worst. When Mormons lead the drive to block marriage equality why would I ever feel wanted there? Any lesson in Elder’s Quorum isn’t going to soothe the hurt that I felt inside.
(Btw, as a general word of warning to anyone reading this, anyone practicing historical revisionism and trying to claim that the church was not an integral part of the coalition supporting Proposition 8 will find their comment summarily deleted.)
Just like #notallmen ignores the very real problems of systemic misogyny and rape culture that #yesallwomen are forced to navigate on a daily basis, just because of the fact that they’re women, #notallmormons ignores the very real problems of systemic homophobia, heterosexism, and heteropatriarchial structures that #yesallgays are forced to navigate on a daily basis, just because of the fact that they’re gay.
M., I don’t want this section to sound like I’m calling you out. I know that you’re a genuine person and mean this in the best of ways. I hope, though, that this section helps you understand why #notallmormons is a really problematic response.
Be an ally
Okay, so what can accepting Mormons do? What’s a less problematic response? It really comes down to being an ally. M., you said: “Know that we were cringing alongside you when you got those kinds of comments in Sunday School, even if we didn’t know any better than you did how to challenge them.” Cringing is a good first step. The next step is to act.
Let me be clear: I knew exactly how I wanted to challenge “those kinds of comments in Sunday School.” In fact, I did challenge several of them. When I was teaching a lesson on one of those end chapters in the Book of Mormon (I forget if it was Moroni 9 or, like, Mormon 2-8), where all the Nephites and Lamanites are terrible and depraved and killing each other because of how terrible and sinful they are, and when one of the people in the class said that he was afraid that these things would start happening to our society because of how far society was trending away from the words of the prophets, especially on the subject of gay marriage, I shut that down. I said, okay, stop right there, there are many people (both outside and inside the church!) who support marriage equality because of their Christlike values of love, compassion, and equality. I asked this person, what would you say to those people? That conversation sort of went nowhere, and we moved on, but I had stood up for myself and for what I believe. (By the way, this exchange landed me in the bishop’s office, because someone in the class told the bishop that I was, basically, teaching heresy. Again, systemic issues, #yesallgays.)
M., my friend, that challenge could have come from you. It didn’t. It never came from anyone I knew, not in those moments, not in that setting.
I’m sure there are a hundred valid reasons for your silence. The next time you hear one of “those kinds of comments,” I challenge you, set those reasons aside and break your silence for your marginalized brothers and sisters. Be alert to any microaggressions, any “casual degradation of any socially marginalized group” (not just gay people!), and speak out against them.
If change is to come, it’ll come from within. I suspect that the only way the church will ever transcend its institutionalized homophobia is as a result of grassroots efforts from the inside. I’m not on the inside now (if I ever really was) and so I can’t do it. There are those gay people who have remained in the church because they see it as their calling to help the church change. I couldn’t sustainably be one of those people, though I tried for a damn long time. Please aid those people in their efforts. If you don’t know any of those people, then become an agent of change yourself.
I appreciated your efforts in this direction. I did notice that your lessons tended to be more open-minded than others, and I was not unappreciative (though usually by the time Elders’ Quorum meetings rolled around at the end of church, I had already weathered two hours of heightened anxiety, and was thus probably out of energy to really engage). Please build on those efforts.
For a variety of reasons, I don’t think that the leaders of the church will ever really listen to gay people. If change is to come, I think, it will be because our straight allies came on board.
Good without God
The other big question you asked, M., was about my current religious beliefs. Once I left the church, I finally had the freedom to really figure out what I, personally, thought about God and Jesus and religion and whatever. As I said in the previous post, now I was in charge. I wasn’t listening to anybody anymore about what I should believe. This was frightening and freeing in equal measure.
Early on in this process, I had already started to question whether or not I actually believed in God to begin with. This was a really scary question for me to ask myself, because I had always believed in God, particularly as the center of my moral commitments. I wondered how my atheist / agnostic friends (and I had several!) were able to reconcile this dilemma. One of them recommended to me this really good book called Good Without God. The author, Greg Epstein, carefully and sensitively explores the topic of secular humanist morality, without really attacking religion in the vitriolic way that, say, Richard Dawkins (who is frankly kind of a dick) does. I can’t recommend this book enough. If you want to understand my moral philosophy, and that of literally billions of other nonreligious people, this is a good place to start.
I was a grad student when all of this stuff was going on. If grad school teaches you one thing, it’s to subject everything to really careful scrutiny. I did this with my religious beliefs. I’m going to elide a lot of sausage-making here and just tell you that at the end of this process, I came up with the following list of sort of key beliefs:
- I doubt that God exists, but we have no way of knowing that I find epistemologically sound;
- I doubt that there is an afterlife, but we have no way of knowing that I find epistemologically sound;
- I know for damn sure that here and now, I am alive;
- I believe in “whoosh moments” (I think this term was introduced here but I also think I first read about it in Good Without God, linked earlier) – moments in which an experience suddenly becomes transcendent – and thus always strive to be present to allow myself to experience them;
- I believe that humans are capable of both incredible goodness and incredible badness, and I see it as my purpose to strive for the former and to encourage others to do the same.
Monuments and memorials
I think the last two points are both important and kinda inscrutable, so let me illustrate. I went to Washington, D.C. last summer for a conference. Of course I had to do the tourist thing and go to the National Mall and look at all the monuments. I saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, shiny black stone inscribed with the names of 58,000 people who lost their lives in, frankly, a pointless and bloody war. I saw the Korean War Veterans Memorial, commemorating, frankly, another pointless and bloody war. I saw the National World War II memorial, commemorating an entirely justified but equally bloody war.
These memorials were hard on me. They were a reminder of the darkness lurking at the bottom of the human mind. What does it say about us as humans that these are the things we write into stone? What does it say about us that there are so damn many of them? What does it say about us that we chose to fight so many pointless wars? What does it say about us that we had to fight a war against an ideology of racial superiority? That such an abhorrent ideology could gain such political power that it became a force that required the blood of millions and the atom bomb – the most awful (awe-ful?) perversion of elemental forces we clever-ass monkeys have ever come up with – to stop it? That, even after all that, that ideology didn’t go away? That someone is running today for the presidency on an ethnonationalist platform that could have come straight out of Hitler’s playbook?
I went to the Lincoln Memorial. That was a little bit better. In there, the words written in stone are words “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” words about “bind[ing] up the nation’s wounds,” words hoping to “achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace.” But even so, this wasn’t much better. We still had to fight a war to end slavery. What does that say about us?
But then I went to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. This is a man who was dedicated to “justice, democracy, hope, and love.” The words in the stones are much brighter here. Dr. King challenged us to be our best selves. He told us that only love drives out hate. He told us “to love peace and sacrifice for it.” He told us that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He reminded us that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” He challenged “every nation [to] develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole.” He challenged every person: “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” He challenged us “to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
That, my friend, was a whoosh moment. That was a reminder of the incredible goodness of which we are capable. That was a reminder of the heights to which the human mind can soar. That was a reminder of what I am capable of, if I try.
I cried at that memorial. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I’m crying as I write this. This was one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever experienced.
I hope this helps clarify where I am now, and what I believe in. I hope that you’ll believe me when I say that I’m centered and moral and happy. I hope that you don’t think of me as lacking something because I no longer believe in God. I hope that you understand, and that you’ll act on that understanding.
Yours sincerely, your friend,
Dear Elder M. Russell Ballard (mind if I call you M.?),
This past weekend you delivered a talk in General Conference directed toward those who are struggling with their faith and considering leaving the church. You seemed to earnestly seek to understand our experiences. A bunch of people have started to reply to you, on various blogs and Facebooks and Twitters and so forth. I decided I would add my voice to the growing chorus, even though I doubt that you will ever see this. (I may also doubt the sincerity of your desire to understand us, but I’ll keep those doubts to myself.)
You asked: “Where will you go?” I can answer that question (in a less immediately cheeky manner than suggested by the graphic accompanying this post). In fact, I’ll do you one better: I’ll tell you where I went, because, I’m gone. I’ve been gone for a long time. I formally resigned my membership shortly after you and the other leaders of the church announced your exclusionary policy targeted at the children of gay people. I wrote plenty of words about this at the time, and others have covered the issue in exhaustive detail, so I’ll not spill more ink on the policy in this post. But even though it was only last year that I formally resigned, I had been gone for a long time before that; probably years, to be honest. I went to a lot of different places in that time, and I’d like to tell you about a few of them.
I went away from where I was not welcome
M., I don’t know if I can really explain to you what it is like to go to a Mormon singles ward as a gay man. It’s not particularly fun. It’s not nourishing to the soul. You feel like you are always wearing a mask. You’re always carefully controlling your emotions. You cannot be yourself.
Especially if you are not super out of the closet, people say things that make it clear that you aren’t really welcome there. This happens with surprising frequency. People say that gay people are confused (at best) or sinful (at medium) or child molesters (at worst). People draw comparisons to the time of Mormon and Moroni, in which a civilization collapsed and all the people literally killed each other because they were so unrighteous. People tell you that gay marriage is destroying the fabric of society and boy, couldn’t we just end up like the Nephites, and it’d all be the fault of “the gays.” They say this, out loud, in public, to you, when you are teaching the gospel doctrine class during Sunday school. Nobody challenges them. This is just one of those things that we say in church, because none of us are gay, of course not.
There are reminders posted on the walls that if you’re ever in a relationship it will be one that was never meant to be. You start thinking that maybe you were never meant to be. Every Sunday night, you descend into a pit of self-loathing. Every Sunday morning, you wake up with a lead weight in your stomach, at the thought of going to church again, and putting your mask back on, and hearing all these things, and having to smile and nod along.
(All of these things actually happened, to me, in the span of maybe a couple of months. I promise that I am not making any of this up.)
I left. Of course I left! What else could I have done? I was not welcome, and so I left. M., please don’t try to tell me that gay people are just as welcome in the church as straight people. You know that’s not true. You know that it would be insulting, to me and to everyone like me, to so insinuate.
Based on all the evidence I have, based on all the public pronouncements you have made, M., you do not want me back in your church, and you never really wanted me in it. If I am mistaken, please tell me so. Show me so, in fact. But forgive me if I do not hold my breath.
I went to therapy
Listen, M.: Faith transitions are hard. I think a lot of people who remain in the church don’t really believe that. The prevailing narrative is that people leave the church because they are lazy and want to take the easy way out. That narrative couldn’t be more wrong. Leaving the church was, quite literally, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I was rather depressed for several months. I didn’t know what it would mean for me to not be religious anymore. I lost a lot of certainty about what life means, what happens after death.
I was very fortunate to be attending a university that provided free mental health care. I was very fortunate to be assigned to the excellent Martin Doucett, a consummate professional and general all-around good man. Dr. Doucett grew up Catholic but left the church because he was gay. He understood my experiences, he understood where I was coming from, because he had been there. I don’t want to claim that straight people can’t understand my experience, but it’s much harder, I think. Dr. Doucett helped me a lot. It was an extremely difficult time in my life (for other reasons than just my faith crisis) and it would have been much harder without his excellent, professional, personal help.
I don’t think my experience is all that unique, M. People go to counseling all the time when they leave their church. Not just Mormons, either. It’s a pretty universal experience that faith crises are really hard. We don’t call ’em crises for nothing. And we don’t go through them for nothing either. Trust me, M., this is not a shits-and-giggles kind of experience. It was hard, and scary, and painful, and depressing, and I wouldn’t have gone through it because of laziness, and it’s insulting to me and to everyone else in this situation that you would so insinuate.
I went on dates
I mean, I had been on dates before, but they were with girls. Me dating a girl would be like you dating a guy: super weird for everybody involved. When I left the church, I finally allowed myself to sign up for OkCupid as a gay guy. I went on several really fun dates that way, dates that actually felt like dates, with people I actually wanted to kiss. A wonderful, caring, Mormon friend of mine ended up setting me up with her brother. That turned into a serious, long-term relationship, the first one I had been in that ever felt right. Later on, I met the man who would become my husband. You know what that feels like, M., to meet the person who will become your spouse. You know how right it feels. Please don’t try to tell me that my feelings don’t count like yours do. It would be insulting to me and to everyone else in this situation.
I went to coffee shops and taprooms and bars
I don’t know if I can really explain to you the simple pleasures of coffee, tea, and alcohol. You know how food can be really, really good? So can coffee. I will always remember my first coffee. I got it from a place called Dark Horse in San Diego. It was made with Guatemalan beans in a French press. I put a little cream and a little sugar in it. It was one of those beautiful rainy days that San Diego gets some times. The coffee was delicious. It tasted roasty, and warm, and like chocolate, and like freedom. My car smelled like coffee for the rest of the day. It was wonderful.
I was fortunate to be in San Diego when I left the church. San Diego is a wonderful, wonderful place to drink beer. There are literally hundreds of craft breweries that make really good beer. I’m not interested in getting drunk, but I am interested in drinking things that taste really, really good.
I didn’t leave because I wanted to drink coffee and beer. That’s another overly simplistic narrative that a lot of members of the church like to tell themselves. “Oh, he only left because he wanted to sin.” Don’t fool yourself, M. It’s way more complicated than that, as I hope you can tell after reading the earlier parts of this blog post. It would be insulting to me and to all the many others like me for you to so insinuate. This isn’t about beer and coffee. Beer and coffee, though, have been a really nice side benefit. :)
I found humanity, and I found myself
If you wonder what I believe in now, M., I’ll tell you: I believe in myself. I believe in people. I believe in the goodness and humanity and inherent decency of us amazing humans, and I find joy in our capacity for love and compassion and zeal for justice, and I find sorrow in our capacity to do terrible and monstrous things to each other.
I’m in charge now, M. It has been a long and difficult road, but I am in the driver’s seat. This has been difficult, but ultimately, I emerged from the night that covered me. My soul, it turns out, if there is such a thing as a soul, is unconquerable. I’ve been wounded to the core, bludgeoned and bloodied, but now I do not bow my head to anyone, because I do not have to. I, by myself, because of who I am, am good enough. Despite the fact that I don’t believe I know, anymore, what happens after death, the menace of the years holds no power to make me afraid.
I am the master of my fate, M. I am the captain of my soul.
I’m going to keep thinking about this topic, M., but I feel like 1700 words is plenty of electronic ink to spill on this subject. If I think of any more things to tell you, or any other places I’ve gone, I’ll tell you. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll listen, and find out something real about me, and about us.
Here are three songs that I’ve been listening to a lot lately, and which remind me of each other. Two are new and one is old, and I’m pretty sure that the new ones are at least partially inspired by the old one.
(You should listen to this whole album, btw; it’s really good.)
And, as a bonus, here’s a different recording of that last one!
So at one of our favorite restaurants, they have a burger called the Bolo Burger. It’s a lovely Southwesternish burger with cream cheese and ham and lots of peppers. It’s really good, so I decided to kinda copy it but with my own modifications. Here is my not-exactly-a-recipe!
You will need:
- n burgers worth of beef
- n buns, lightly toasted, whatever kind you like best (I like brioche)
- some breadcrumbs
- some cream cheese
- n/2 canned chipotle peppers
- n/2 poblano chiles
- n slices of Canadian bacon
Some discussion about ingredients:
- What kind of beef should you get? It depends on how you are going to cook the burgers:
- If you are going to cook them on the grill, get 80% lean or 85% lean, otherwise they will be too dry (because the fat drips off and is lost). I prefer the 85% lean personally.
- If you are going to cook them in a pan, get 85% lean or leaner, because otherwise they will be too greasy (because the pan holds the drippings).
- What is this nonsense with the breadcrumbs? Counterintuitively, working breadcrumbs into your burger results in a juicier burger, because the breadcrumbs will absorb juices that will otherwise flow out and be lost. For this recipe, I recommend panko breadcrumbs, but I have also made a really good cheeseburger with some crumbled-up-and-toasted cornbread (and then I put a runny fried egg on top, which, wow).
- Chipotle peppers come in a can that always has way too many peppers in it for whatever you are doing. This is annoying, but they freeze well, and are actually easier to work with frozen, especially if you’re mincing them, which we are.
- Poblano chiles are wide, flattish, dark green, and very shiny. They tend to turn up at the tip, which makes them look like shoes for elves. They are often incorrectly labeled as pasilla peppers in U.S. grocery stores. (Pasillas are actually skinny long peppers that are difficult to find anywhere but in specialty Mexican markets.)
- Pre-heat your grill or pan (cast iron is always a good choice if you’re going this route).
- Cut up the poblano chiles into two or three pieces each, such that each piece is pretty flat. Trim off the ribs and the thing that holds all the seeds. (The white stuff on the ribs and the seed-holder-thing is analogous to the placenta, and it’s where the capsaicin glands are. Swoosh!)
- Finely mince the chipotles and mix them into the cream cheese. I usually use about two chiles for an 8oz. container of cream cheese (that’s the smaller tub). You can add more of the sauce they come in to increase the smokiness without really increasing the heat.
- Pat your beef out thinnish, and dump some breadcrumbs on top. You want probably about a 2:1 ratio of beef to breadcrumbs (or even more breadcrumbs). Add kosher salt and fresh-ground black pepper on top, and mix the breadcrumbs into the beef thoroughly. Form the beef into n patties. (A wide, uniformly thin patty is usually better, because it’ll cook more evenly than one that’s too thick in the middle. Bread analogy: think pancakes rather than buns.)
- Put the burgers on the grill / pan, and the poblanos too, skin-side down. The burgers probably want 3-5 minutes per side, and you can leave the poblanos alone the whole time.
- ONLY FLIP THE BURGERS ONCE OR THEY WILL TURN INTO SOCKS AND YOU WILL BE SAD.
- After the flip, put the Canadian bacon on the grill or pan. We’re just looking for warmed through (if you cook them too much, they turn into leather). If you’re grilling, go until you juuuust see grill marks.
- The poblanos are ready to come off when the skin has big dark-brown blisters. If you want, you can peel the skin off (some people get a bitter / soapy taste from the skin). Slice the pieces up into strips, say 1/2″ wide maybe.
- Assemble the burger. The arrangement I’ve found produces minimal slippage is, from bottom up:
- bottom bun
- cream cheese
- poblano strips
- Canadian bacon
- moar cream cheese?
- top bun
- Devour, then wish you had another one.
(So this is the part where I talk about some reasons why I think the new policy doesn’t make sense.)
I’m a mathematician by trade; I’m thus really good at figuring out when things are internally consistent. That’s what mathematicians do: we posit some axioms that are to be taken as true, and then we figure out what other facts we can deduce from those axioms.
So, I tried to do this with the new policy. I mentally accepted as true all the other scriptures and doctrines of the church, and then tried to see if the new policy “fit” with everything else. It didn’t. There are many examples of scriptures and doctrines of the church with which the new policy does not fit, but I will focus on three.
I’ll start with the second article of faith: “We believe that man must be punished for his own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” This is a nice, neat encapsulation of one of the fundamental differences between Mormonism and other Protestant sects (and Mormonism is most definitely a Protestant sect): Mormonism repudiates the doctrine of original sin. The new policy is inconsistent with the second article of faith, because it punishes children for the sins of their parents.
Moroni 8:8-10 elaborates on this point:
“Listen to the words of Christ, your Redeemer, your Lord and your God. Behold, I came into the world not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; the whole need no physician, but they that are sick; wherefore, little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it hath no power over them; and the law of circumcision is done away in me. 9 And after this manner did the Holy Ghost manifest the word of God unto me; wherefore, my beloved son, I know that it is solemn mockery before God, that ye should baptize little children. 10 Behold I say unto you that this thing shall ye teach—repentance and baptism unto those who are accountable and capable of committing sin; yea, teach parents that they must repent and be baptized, and humble themselves as their little children, and they shall all be saved with their little children.”
Again, the new policy is inconsistent with this scripture. If anything, to be consistent with this scripture, the policy should be that it is especially important to allow the children of gay parents to be full members of the church, so that they can exert a positive influence toward repentance on their parents.
Moving on to a different point, Doctrine and Covenants 68 is a section of almost constitutional importance to the church. I’ll focus on verses 25-27 (emphasis mine):
“25 And again, inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents. 26 For this shall be a law unto the inhabitants of Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized. 27 And their children shall be baptized for the remission of their sins when eight years old, and receive the laying on of the hands.”
Again, the new policy is inconsistent with this scripture.
I’ll end this discussion, and this letter, with one last scripture, whose import I believe is self-explanatory:
Mark 10:13-16: And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them. 14 But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.15 Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.16 And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them.
Okay, so I’m writing my resignation letter soon, and I just need to get some thoughts out so I can organize them into a more coherent narrative when I get around to writing the actual letter. So this blogpost is a scratchpad for that letter. This is really Part 1, about some feelings; Part 2 will examine some reasons why I think this policy doesn’t make good logical sense. This is a living document and subject to editing. Here goes:
I thought I was done being hurt and angry about how the church affects me as a gay man.
That hurt and anger started early. When I was sixteen, I was attending the University of Utah. I remember one particular fall morning when I was sitting on the bench at the bus stop at the local grocery store, waiting for the bus to the university to come. I remember praying earnestly for God to tell me that I wasn’t gay. I remember the desperation, the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, the fear that I was really broken in this particular way that I had been told so many times was terrible. I remember the many lessons where I was taught that sexual sin was the most abominable above all other sins. I remember feeling vile, the lowest of the low. I don’t remember feeling like God answered that prayer.
I fought it for a while. I didn’t want to be gay. I didn’t want to be broken. I didn’t want to be vile. Who would? I talked to the bishop about it and went to some counseling through LDS Family Services. I remember thinking on my mission that I wasn’t gay anymore. When I got back, I eventually realized that wasn’t the case. I then thought I could go the Josh Weed route. It became clear that that wasn’t going to work either.
During graduate school, I went to therapy for about a year. It wasn’t just about the gay-and-Mormon thing (there was also some dissertation stress bound up in there), but that was a large part. I was very, very lucky to have as my counselor an excellent man named Martin Doucett, who was also gay and who was also raised religious and who also walked away. He helped me work through some of the most painful and frightening experiences in my life.
I chose to walk away from the church at around that time, because in the end, that was the less painful of the two options available to me. I haven’t been to church now in basically two years. And I felt much, much better after leaving. It’s hard to breathe through a mask; it’s hard to be constantly on edge, constantly guarded, constantly waiting for someone to say something unintentionally unfeeling; it’s hard to hate yourself every Sunday night. When I left, those things went away.
However, I don’t want to make it sound like it was all rainbows and sunshine for me after I left. I mourned, because I lost a community. I lost a connection to a tribe that I’d been part of my entire life. I lost part of my identity. It was like cutting part of my body off, and the fact that it needed to go, and the fact that I was the one in control, the one wielding the knife, didn’t make it hurt any less. My relationships with my family, and especially my mother, became all fraught and complicated and emotional and angry.
Things eventually got better. It took time. Healing takes time. I met a very good man named Matt. That helped. We dated for a while and eventually broke up because of distance and situation. That hurt, but it was a refreshingly normal kind of hurt. I met another very good man named Eric. That helped more. We live together now in a house that we bought together. We wear each others’ rings; even though we’re not officially married yet, we’re planning on tying the knot soon. My family and I have reconciled. My mom likes Eric. I was at peace; even though I occasionally missed my friends and my community at church, I was happy; I thought I had moved on and exorcised my demons and gotten rid of the hurt and the anger.
But then this happened. Last Wednesday, news broke that the church had instituted a policy that the children of gay parents aren’t eligible for baptism until they are 18 and formally disavow their parents’ relationship; even then, they can’t be baptized without permission from the First Presidency. This policy is exclusionary and terrible and it has reopened old wounds. I’m hurt and angry all over again. And it’s the kind of hurt and angry that’s like eating really spicy food: at first you’re like, hmm, piquant, but then it escalates, and then you’re like, my goodness, this is in fact quite painful.
I don’t know what to do about this. I don’t know how to move on. I thought I had, but I guess not. However, one thing has become clear to me: I can no longer allow my name to stay on the membership rolls of an organization that doesn’t want me there. I can no longer even tacitly support policies that discriminate against people like me.
I’ve decided to offer my services as as a freelancer making and editing Khan Academy-style videos for various math classes, particularly calculus. If you find yourself interested in such services, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I don’t know what this song is supposed to be about, but if this song is not about a gay Mormon becoming aware of his sexuality, attempting to deny it, struggling and failing to resist “temptation,” looking for help in trying to live the straight life, hearing and attempting to follow (or cope with) well-meaning advice from more-or-less sympathetic people around him, and ultimately deciding to accept himself and make his own decisions, then I don’t know what it is about. And that, my friends, is my story. Today, on National Coming Out Day, I’m going to tell you some of that story.
I’m sorry, mother / I’m sorry I let you down
The very first person I told was not my mother, but my bishop. I was eighteen, I think, and I had been “struggling with feelings of same-gender attraction,” as the clinical language employed to hold these yucky, sinful feelings at the end of a pair of surgical tongs would have it, for at least four years. I did not want to be this way — gays were bad and terrible and succumbing to this temptation was letting the “natural man” win. I remember sitting on a bus stop bench on my way to school one crisp fall morning, all but crying, pleading with God to tell me that I wasn’t really gay (even though I had a crush on my (male) math professor). Finally I mustered the courage to confess my sinful feelings to my bishop. He was very kind. He said, “That is serious,” and recommended professional counseling. He also recommended that I tell my parents. So the very second person I told was my mother. I walked home, sat on the kitchen counter in my church clothes, and said, “Mom, I have been struggling with same-sex attraction.” She was surprised but promised to help me overcome these sinful impulses. I was grateful; that’s what I wanted to hear at that time. I wanted to hear that I could get through this, and that I wasn’t doomed to be gay.
Over the course of the next eight years, many things changed. I gradually came to accept myself, and to realize that these feelings weren’t sinful. My being gay, and accepting myself as being gay, has been hard on my mom, and I’m sorry about that. I wish it wasn’t that way, but it is.
Well, these days I’m fine / No, these days I tend to lie
I wore a lot of masks for a lot of years, and eventually those masks started to chafe. When I lived in San Diego, I went to a singles ward. For those of you unfamiliar with this idea, the plan is that you throw a bunch of young single adults together into a church organization, and then hopefully marriages happen — heterosexual marriages, of course. There’s an expectation hanging in the air that everyone should be dating, and if you’re not, then you are not taking your duties as a young single Mormon seriously. It was during my time in San Diego that I came to accept that I was gay — but before this acceptance, I lied to myself, and to the girls I dated, that everything was totally okay with this situation, and after this acceptance, I still put on my straight mask every Sunday and acted cheerful and bit my tongue whenever a wave of anti-gay sentiment would break over me (and this was in the thick of the first few post-Prop-8 legal fights over gay marriage, so there were plenty of those waves sloshing around). I was not fine, but my mask made me feel a little more safe. It could only ever be temporary, though. There is only so much lying you can do. Masks are heavy, and they make it hard to breathe.
Just by my left brain / Just by the side of the Tin Man
For a lot of years I tried to let my mind overrule my heart. It was important to me to have a wife and a family and a white picket fence and a dog and 2.3 children. It was important for me to stay Mormon. It was going to be okay, because there were people who had made it work. People can change. People are awesome; they can do lots of things. I was going to make it. Even though it was going to leave a lot of needs unfulfilled, it would still fulfill a bunch of other needs, and that complicated calculus was going to work out in my favor somehow. (I wrote that D&S post, btw. I’m done being anonymous about it.)
Eventually, though, I realized that I had a heart all along and I needed to listen to what it said.
“Your time will come, if you wait for it” / It’s hard – Believe me, I’ve tried / but I keep coming up short
The party line of the church when it comes to gay people is that yes, some people are born gay, and we don’t know why, but acting on those impulses is bad, and everything is going to work out in eternity. There seems to be the understanding that being gay is an unfortunate condition of mortality that will magically go away once immortality happens. In other words, it’s pathologized. Something is wrong with you, like if you were born without a foot or something. Don’t worry, you’ll get that foot back when you are resurrected.
The well-meaning advice given to me by a succession of Mormons trying to be sympathetic and understanding while toeing the party line was thus: “Just don’t act on it in mortality. It’ll all work out in heaven, you’ll see.” And, you know, for a long time, that was comforting. But once I started to think about the subtext, it started to feel less like sympathy and more like condescension. “Oh, you poor broken thing, you’ll be fixed after you die.” It started to rankle.
The other thing that really rankled about this was that I felt like these people did not understand how hard it was, and how saturated the world is with heteronormativity. Every straight couple cuddling in church or walking down the street holding hands, every “what’s-your-type” or “who’s-your-celebrity-crush” conversation with the guys, every Valentine’s day commercial where the guy plants a beautiful piece of jewelry in the girl’s coat pocket, every failed relationship with a girl who you actually really like but just can’t love — they’re all reminders that you are not normal, no matter how hard you try. You will always come up short.
I’m sorry, lover / I’m sorry I bring you down
And on that subject: The hardest coming out I ever had to do was to my girlfriend. We had been dating, pretty seriously if long-distance, for eight or nine months. She was from a part of the city that is usually considered to be the blue enclave in an otherwise very red area, and had expressed some pretty liberal views about the church, and so even when I admitted to myself that I was gay (this happened during the time we were dating), I wasn’t too worried. I thought she might be someone I could be Josh Weed with.
One day, though, she told me a story that made it clear that that was not really an option, and I knew that I was going to have to tell her, and that our relationship would end as a result. I still remember that phone call. I was so nervous; my heart was pounding. But it was what needed to happen, for the both of us.
(The fact that I awkwardly bumped into her two weeks later at a restaurant where we’d gone on a date the previous winter was just an amusing bit of cosmic lagniappe.)
Kinda thought it was a mystery / and then I thought I wasn’t meant to be / You set yourself fantastically, “Congratulations, you were all alone”
Why was I gay? Why did I have to struggle with this? Was it some cosmic mistake? Just a big sign from the heavens that I was supposed to spend my life alone, without companionship of the meaningful sort that everyone else gets to experience, and then when I died God would pat me on the back and say “congratulations, you did it, you were alone forever just like I wanted you to be”?
Fortunately, as it turns out, no.
“Your time will come if you wait for it” / … But I won’t wait much longer / ’cause these walls start crashing down
As I’ve alluded in the rest of this post, I am done waiting. Those walls are now rubble on the ground. I broke through the barriers that kept me from accepting myself as myself. It was hard, and it took a long time, and several rounds of counseling, but it was worth it. I make my own decisions now. I have a serious boyfriend now, and it is wonderful — I couldn’t believe how big of a difference there is between this relationship and relationships I have had in the past. The rain falls for the both of us; the sun shines on the both of us. I am happy.
Believe me when I say / that I wouldn’t have it any other way.
(WordPress just said “Beep beep boop” while it prepared this page for me. That made me happy. I always need more deliberate whimsy in my life.)
On Sunday I jumped in the car and drove to my new home for the next year at least. I’ve been collecting some thoughts, observations, and stories over the last week or so about the move, with the aim of compiling them in a blog post. So here goes!
- I drove I-80 through Cheyenne and then down I-25. I was originally going to go US-40 through Vernal and then to US-34 through Rocky Mountain National Park, but I ended up getting a later start than I wanted, so I took the quicker route.
- It’s been a while since I’ve driven I-80 through Evanston, so I had forgotten how pretty the stretch just past Echo Reservoir is. The highway follows a cut through red rocks and pine trees, which is a lovely combination — especially because I’m more used to the drive through southern Utah, where it’s just plain red rocks (and maybe some sagebrush if you’re lucky).
- The drive through Wyoming is a whole lot of boring flatlands punctuated by sudden moments of ridiculous beauty. As soon as you get past Evanston, there’s a solid hour of nothing interesting, but then suddenly at Green River there’s this ridiculous bluff that pops up out of nowhere and a cool tunnel through a mountain, and then there’s nothing again for two hours, and suddenly there’s this really interesting mountain that just stands out all by itself, and then an hour of boring, and then you climb out of Laramie through this gorgeous red rock pass, and on top of the pass there’s this plateau with these neat rock outcroppings all over.
- I’m always amused by flipping through radio stations out in the middle of nowhere, just to see what’s on the dial. Usually, at any given point in Wyoming, there is a Jesus station, an NPR station, and some country music.
- On that subject: I think that in order to understand country music, you really have to drive through some flatlands under that clear blue sky you only get in the summer. I don’t particularly like country music (with the exception of Johnny Cash and sometimes Garth Brooks), but I do appreciate how it captures the feeling of expanse that’s found in these places.
- When I got my uhaul box I found that my spice box had fallen over and disgorged its contents all over everything else. Not a big deal, except for the fact that my cumin is in a bottle whose lid has been broken for quite a long time. So now a bunch of my stuff smells like cumin. I wish it had been basil or something because damn but cumin is pungent.
- My landlord is basically the coolest.
- I now own a kitchen table and six chairs. SIX! That means I can invite five people over and have chairs for all of them! There is not room in my kitchen for six chairs so I’m going to have to scatter a few throughout my house.
- I also now own a coffee table and it makes me feel like an adult at least a little bit.
- Have been feeling a little insecure lately because my new town is a little smaller, a little countrier, and maybe a little less tolerant than San Diego.
- Have also been feeling really lucky and really happy lately, for other reasons that I don’t particularly feel like disclosing.
Running out of steam. Maybe more later.
(That’s right, I’m mixing several languages in my post title. flex)
About a year and a half ago, By Common Consent published an interesting post entitled “A darn shame“. The gist of the post is that the author firmly believes that the church is the way to God, and the instrument to build the kingdom of God on the earth, but:
I cannot, in good conscience, recommend that my gay friends investigate the church. This sickens me. As far as I can tell (a very limited distance), to join the church as a member of the LGBT community is to consign yourself to misery. Since we are, that we might have joy, I cannot suggest it.
This seems to be the seed around which my thoughts on the excommunication of Kate Kelly have crystallized. Even if I were a believing Mormon once more (I’m not, for a variety of reasons, but I don’t count myself among the bitter exmo crowd), I would be unable, in good conscience, to recommend the church to many of the friends I’ve made in graduate school. They ask questions and want good answers that have good reasons besides “because I said so,” and recent events indicate that the church climate is once more growing colder for questioners.
Recently, it looked like the church was taking steps to distance itself from the Proposition 8 fiasco (though contra this narrative, see here for an example of local leaders involving themselves in the fray in their official capacities), grapple with its views on gay people, extend a welcoming hand toward those who doubt, and frankly address sensitive issues in church history. I and others saw these developments as steps toward greater glasnost and willingness to engage with the murky business of life in a pluralistic, evidence-based society. I was hopeful.
To see why this looked like a pivot toward glasnost, it’s useful to look a little further back in the church’s recent history. Starting in, say, the early 1980’s (or maybe earlier, perhaps as a result of the correlation program beginning in earnest in 1972), there seemed to be a trend toward anti-intellectualism, and in my reading, Boyd Packer was at the center of this movement. In 1981, he gave an address to church educators entitled “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect“, in which he said that “some things that are true are not very useful.” Many have read this as a shot across the bow of Mormon historians who feel it is important to develop the most factual accounts of church history possible. Another address, given by Boyd Packer in May of 1993, is even more direct:
There are three areas where members of the Church, influenced by social and political unrest, are being caught up and led away. … The dangers I speak of come from the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement… and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals.
(Speaking as someone who’s all three of those things, back when I was struggling with how much I wanted to be involved with the church, it wounded me more than a little to hear that I was considered a danger to the church.) This period of strong anti-intellectualism culminated in September 1993 with formal church discipline of six intellectuals who had spoken publicly to express their doubts about the status quo. With this history in mind, it’s more evident why the recent actions of the church looked like an opening up to hard questions on thorny issues, and why I was hopeful.
Imagine my surprise (and dismay), then, when news came that disciplinary proceedings had been initiated against Kate Kelly, John Dehlin, and Rock Waterman. (And if you think that the timing is a coincidence and that local leaders didn’t have marching orders from Salt Lake, then would you like to buy this neat bridge?) I had hoped that the church was more willing to substantively address questions, even difficult ones. I had hoped that well-meaning doubt, backed by the spirit of inquiry, would no longer be stigmatized. I had hoped that we had left 1993 behind us. It looks, though, like I was wrong. And that’s a darn shame.