“Where will you go?”
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.