Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Coming Out: What About the Kids?

Coming out of a mixed-orientation marriage presents special challenges for gay Mormon men (such as Ben Visser, president of Utah Gay Fathers, pictured above with two of his sons).  I was reminded of this the other day when I had lunch with a group of new friends that included (yet) another middle-aged gay Mormon man who had come out of both the closet and his marriage a few years ago.

Not that I needed to be reminded, really.  As anyone who has followed this blog for a while knows, I have children ranging in age from their early 20’s on down.  I started the process of coming out to my older children in early December, and for the most part, those initial coming out experiences were positive.  Subsequent developments with respect to some of these children, however, have not been quite so positive.

My wife and I always tried to raise our kids to be open-minded and accepting of differences.   Some of them have even paid a price for being tolerant and open-minded among some of their peers here in the heart of Zion:  even in high school, different ways of thinking were and are suspect among the next generation of TBM’s.  As a result, a couple of our kids were labeled and sidelined as being, at best, not quite orthodox enough.

However, we also raised our children to be faithful members of the LDS Church, to seek to establish a personal relationship with God, to follow the prophet, to sustain the general authorities and to basically do what they are taught to do in Sunday School, Seminary and Mutual.

Therein lies the rub.  One of my older children who is probably our most “staunch” child, has not been able to accept my coming out.  I received what I hope will be the most painful letter of my life (because I cannot imagine receiving anything more hurtful) from this child a few months ago, accusing me of a multitude of sins, denouncing me for finally accepting who I am.  

Every sentence of this deeply wounding letter was tinged by a moral standard taught to her by the Church.  It was difficult, in the face of this onslaught, to not retaliate, to not hate the belief system that I had been complicit in instilling in this child.  In a way, I felt like it was the ultimate betrayal by something to which I had given most of my life.

A couple of my other children also currently want little to do with me because of the “choices” I have made.  Again, although there are other issues involved, the prime culprit is what these kids have been “taught” about homosexuality by the Church.  My wife, with whom I am currently in a good place, has tried to encourage me to be patient, to recognize the conflict that these kids face, i.e., how difficult it is for them to accept something in their own father that they have been taught to believe (not by us, but by the Church) is a “choice”, and a deviant, evil one at that.

So, I am working at being patient, long-suffering, understanding and loving in the face of anger, resentment and (frankly) learned bigotry. 

I am also trying to keep a healthy perspective.  Though I have children who do not accept me, I have others who do.  Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, these are the children who – through either life experience or temperament – are less devoted to the Church. 

I am also grateful that things are as good as they are in my own situation.  In talking with my new friend the other day, as well as numerous other gay (formerly active) Mormon men, I heard of some of the challenges he has faced with his children and former wife:  non-acceptance by children; “accepting” a father’s “gay lifestyle,” but never wanting to hear anything about it (don’t ask, don’t tell); double standards applied to homosexual vs. heterosexual “lifestyles”; the insidious non-spoken assumption that gay men cannot be trusted around children (i.e., that they are all pedophiles); the ever-present but carefully hidden belief that homosexuality is a serious sin that automatically transforms a moral, good man (who was, e.g., deemed worthy to serve faithfully in a bishopric) into an immoral, indecent sub-human creature; and, perhaps the worst of all, the invisible hand of bigotry that touches, constrains and sometimes chokes the life out of relationships with his children, his former wife and his former church associates.

I try not to become bitter in the face of such offenses.  In the end, all I can do – which is not insignificant – is to keep trying to not become embittered, to keep reaching out to my own children, to keep seeking to support other men in similar situations, and to keep trying to educate other members of the Church and provide information and perspective to younger gay Mormon men who find themselves on the threshold of a mixed-orientation marriage … and wonder.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Preparing the Way for Change

The other day, I was having a discussion with a new straight friend, Darren.   He is an active Mormon, a husband and father, who within the past year has discovered that two of his closest friends in the world, other members of the Church whom he has known for years, are gay. 

Darren did not turn away from these men.  He couldn’t.  He knew them too well, had shared too many important experiences in his life with them, knew that they were not any different after coming out to him than they had been before doing so.  He accepted them for who they are.  Then, in the months that followed the coming out of these two close friends, Darren and his wife discovered that other men and women in their circle of extended family and friends are gay – and Mormon.

These developments prompted Darren to start educating himself, trying to understand what these and other men had been going through and continue to go through as they try to reconcile two dual but competing identities, i.e., that of being Mormon and gay.  I had to hand it to Darren:  he opened up his mind and heart in ways that many, if not most, Mormon men would not do or would not have done in like circumstances.  It became clear, as I talked with him, that he had given the whole subject of homosexuality in the Church a lot of thought.

That is why I was so profoundly struck by some of the comments Darren made.  As we talked about where the Church is – both as an institution and as a people –with respect to acceptance of homosexuality, we agreed that the doctrine has changed during the past 30 years.  Furthermore, we share an opinion that it will continue to change. 

It was then that he made some statements that I found particularly thought-provoking, all the more so because they were made by a straight, practicing Mormon.  “I don’t believe,” he said, “that the Lord will give more revelation on this subject until we as a people are prepared to receive it.  Look at the Israelites, for example:  they weren’t prepared to enter the promised land until they had wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.”

“In the same vein,” he continued, “look at the revelation on the blacks and the priesthood.  We as a church wouldn’t have been prepared in the 1950’s for what President Kimball presented in 1978.  We as a society had to pass through the civil rights era; people’s hearts and minds had to be softened, challenged and shaken.  Furthermore, consensus had to be established among the brethren and the governing councils of the Church that the time had come to move forward.  Even in 1978, it was difficult for a lot of people to accept the revelation on priesthood, but it likely couldn’t have happened before that.”  (Remember Joseph Smith’s famous phrase about members flying to “pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions”?)

There are a lot of members of the Church who would like to believe that societal attitudes, opinions and beliefs, as well as developments in civil law, don’t play any part in the development of doctrine, let alone the receipt of “revelation.”  All one has to do, however, is look at the events that led to the Manifesto to see that such beliefs are naïve. 

On the other hand, there are many faithful members of the Church who don’t have any problem at all in accepting that it is only natural for human events, decisions and attitudes to affect the course and direction of the Church – which, after all, is made up of humans.

“We as a people were not prepared in the 1950’s to accept the 1978 revelation,” Darren continued.  “Similarly, I think we as a church are not prepared – yet – to accept further light and knowledge on the subject of homosexuality.”

Does this mean we simply sit back and say, “The Lord has already spoken on this subject:  he did so in Moses’ time when he called a man lying with another man an ‘abomination’”?  No.  To do so would make us guilty of the same sin as Elder Bruce R. McConkie when he assumed and assured the Church that the Lord had said all he was going to say on the subject of the priesthood being extended to the blacks.  (He later admitted:  “I was wrong.”)

Does this mean members of the Church are justified in simply sitting back and saying, “Well, I’m not going to change how I feel about homosexuality, gay marriage and gay rights.  After all, the Lord called such things an abomination in the Bible.  He’s going to have to hit me over the head with a baseball bat to get me to change how I feel about it.”  No.

What it means, I think, is that – even in the Church – we can help create the future.  As an increasing number of families in the Church discover that they have gay sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews, we can choose to move forward.

We can move forward in demanding equal civil rights for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation or identity. 

We can move forward in denouncing and eliminating bullying and “gay bashing,” fed as it is by homophobia and heterosexism. 

We can move forward in denouncing bigotry, discrimination and demagoguery, wherever it is found. 

We can move forward in loving and accepting our gay brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers and friends.  We can move forward in efforts to educate and create bridges of understanding.

And we can remove ourselves from the ideological and doctrinal chutes that we allow ourselves to be placed in and move forward in affirming and embracing what the Church proclaims:  that God will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.

I believe that in doing these things, we can help prepare the way for and facilitate doctrinal change.  But even if that change doesn’t ultimately come, we will have moved forward with social change, helping to create a more just, tolerant, enlightened, loving and Christ-like society – an effort that would be worthy of approbation:  

“Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness.”

- D&C 58:27

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Gay Gospel Doctrine Class: Greater Love Hath No Man

This is another in a series of posts that take a lesson from the LDS Church’s (Adult) Gospel Doctrine class and present it from a gay perspective.  Today’s lesson is based on Lesson #20 in the Gospel Doctrine Manual and was prepared by Clive Durham.

Scriptural Background

This lesson finds Christ preparing to enter Jerusalem to suffer his passion and fulfill his ultimate mission through the sacrifice of his blood. He knew the awful ordeal that awaited him and in all likelihood viewed its impending horror with trepidation. He understood the adulation of the crowds that followed him; that ultimately they would leave him and he would stand alone, shouldering the sins of all mankind as a final act of love and surrender.  

The burden of the coming days weighed heavily on him and he suffered. In his suffering, as any man might do, he longed for solace and support, for the companionship and association that comes only from those that know him well and love him as a result of that knowledge. It was this desire to be with friends one last time that led him to the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary.

Based on scripture, we know these three siblings were a family of some means and reputation that lived in Bethany, a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Christ loved them and most scholars consider Lazarus and his sisters to be among Jesus’ closest followers. He wept before raising Lazarus from the dead and acknowledged his love for Lazarus and his sisters openly.

On his last day before the drama of the end began Jesus sought these precious friends and found within their home and embrace, the love and support that strengthened him and propelled him to face what had to be faced.

The Lesson

One of the most basic of human needs involves feelings of belongingness—the desire for friendship and intimacy.  Based on current research, friendship lengthens life, improves brain function, and enhances motor skills. Interacting with friends protects individuals from stress, depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness. According to Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, friendship has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships.

It was for this reason that Christ, in his last days, sought out the companionship of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. He understood the impact his friends could have on his confidence and well-being during the impending trial and suffering that he was about to face.

I have written in the past about the need for friends (go here) and intimacy (go here) and the positive role friends can play in the coming out process. Just as Jesus relied on friends for support prior to his passion, our friends can serve a profound positive role as we transition from the closet. Nurturing those friendships and building those relationships into something that is lasting is essential.

It is interesting, however, how difficult it is for some people to establish friendships. Let me suggest a few pointers to facilitate the process.

  • Get out and about. If you want to make friends, you need to put yourself in situations where you are going to meet people who are like you. If you are a gardener, join the Alternative Garden Club. If you sing, there is the Salt Lake (Gay) Men’s Choir. If you like to dance and party, there is always Jam or Try-Angles on the weekend. Ultimately, you’ve got to walk away from your computer games and get involved in something constructive.
  • Talk to people. While starting a conversation with someone you don’t know can seem daunting, all you really have to do is ask a question or two to get things going or to offer a sincere compliment or positive observation.
  • Introduce yourself. Sometimes this is the most difficult part of an initial meeting. It can be accomplished by simply saying, “Oh, by the way, my name is….” Typically, the other person will follow by offering his name in return. Once you know the other person’s name, remember it by calling the person by name several times during the conversation.
  • Initiate a follow-up meeting. This can be a quick time out for lunch or coffee or an invitation to attend a club meeting, sports activity, church or concert.
  • Don’t pressure someone into being friends. Take friendship slowly and don’t force intimacy.
  • Be a good friend yourself. Do your part to build and sustain a friendship by initiating activities, asking about feelings, and remembering birthdays or other special events.
  • Show respect. If you say you’re going to do something, do it. Don’t be late. Don’t take advantage. Treat your new friend with the respect and consideration you would expect from him.
  • Show loyalty and integrity. Part of being a friend involves a willingness to sacrifice time and energy to support your friend. It also involves being honest and trustworthy. You’ve got to be willing to do what it takes to make your friend your friend and build the relationship.
As I have said in a previous post, I thank God daily for my friends and the charity, that pure love of Christ, they have shown me. My life is good because of them. My life is rich because of them. I am confident and at peace because of them. My life has meaning because of my love for them.

I hope that each of us can be a friend to others as my friends have been to me. That small deed would add so much love and hope to our lives and to the world in which we all often struggle.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Moderation, Tolerance and Sister Dottie

I have decided to make comments on my blog un-moderated, i.e., to remove the pre-approval requirement.  I added this requirement in the early days of my blog because of a very condemning comment left by an apparently active Mormon woman that shook me up a bit.  (What she was doing reading my blog, I don’t know.) 

In those days, I was paranoid about people finding out about me and my blog and linking the two.  Of course, in those early days of coming out, I was paranoid about a lot of things.  I was very unsure of myself and the slightest cross-wind would send me running for cover.  So, among other things, I wanted to make sure that nothing appeared on my blog by way of a comment that would upset my very wobbly apple-cart.

In the months since then, I have rarely not published a comment.  I can think of maybe three instances (one where the comment consisted of “eye roll”).  But it’s the principle of the thing.  I recently decided that I had “grown up” enough to the point where I no longer felt the need to pre-approve comments.  Mind, I still have the ability to delete offensive comments, but I envision that ability being used only sparingly.  So, look over my scribblings, then (please) comment away!

In other news, last night was the opening night (sold out!) of the two-night run of the annual Salt Lake Men’s Choir spring concert.  At the Wednesday night dress rehearsal, we had the opportunity for the first time to hear some of (mistress of ceremonies) Sister Dottie S. Dixon’s comments, though we didn’t see and hear the full picture until last night. 

I was deeply impressed by something that Sister Dottie said in a sermonette about differences.  “Tolerance,” she said [paraphrasing], “means that I can believe you to be inferior without anyone else knowing.”

Wow!  That comment really hit me.  Coming out has, among many other things, caused me to look at life and our society in very different ways than I did before coming out; and this comment on tolerance made me look at this concept, as applied in a societal construct, in a very different way than I had previously. 

In our culture here in Utah, “tolerance” is generally seen as something that supports a sense of enlightened self-righteousness, i.e., that we glam on to make us appear as even better people than we already believe ourselves to be.  Sister Dottie’s comment, however, pulls back the curtain to reveal what is really going on:  a façade that is intended to convey enlightened acceptance, but in reality hides a forced, grudging accommodation. 

What I learned from this comment is that we as a community should not accept mere “tolerance.”  Of course, tolerance is better than discrimination and hatred; but it is not the same as acceptance, let alone celebration (as Sister Dottie points out).

So, when we meet with “tolerance” in our culture, masquerading as it often does as enlightened self-righteousness, I hope I/we have the presence of mind and courage to point out that we are very well aware of the fact that the emperor is not wearing any clothes.  In other words, to call a spade a spade, or a bigot a bigot.

End of sermon, with acknowledgement to she who inspired it, Sister Dottie:

P.S.:  Tickets are still available for tonight’s fund-raiser concert, which begins at 6:30 at the State Room on South State in Salt Lake City.  For ticket information, see www.saltlakemenschoir.org.