Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Mormon Wall: Lunch with Brother John

I felt disheartened as I walked away from the restaurant.  I had just had lunch with a former priesthood leader (whom I call “John”) who had responded relatively compassionately to a coming out letter I had sent to a few former close family friends.  His response, among the few I had received, had been the most enlightened.  When he had invited me to lunch, therefore, I had hopes that our meeting would go well.

It didn’t.

I quickly surmised what the tone of the conversation was going to be when he began using the term “SGA.”  I hate that term.  I used it myself when I first came out.  Well, I vacillated between it and SSA.  I couldn’t initially bring myself to refer to myself as “gay.”  And so I understand why a lot of Mormon guys, particularly when they’re first trying to come to grips with their feelings of attraction to men, use these terms.  They seem safer, less “out there.”

But when priesthood leaders in the church use the institutionally-approved term, what it says to me (among other things) is that they are trying to define the parameters of the conversation:  they will take what you say and categorize it according to their filing system, rather than truly listening to you.  They will decide which of your thoughts, emotions and experiences are valid and which are not, those not conforming to their view of the world being relegated to the dust bin.  Of course, I’m generalizing, but this has been my experience.

I got a further indication of how the conversation was going to go when John proceeded to tell me a lengthy story about a former work associate and friend who was gay (and was apparently the only gay person with whom this guy had knowingly interacted).  I emphasize the word was.  John told the story about how, after being inactive in the church for decades, this guy decided to go back.  Long story short, he is now married to a woman and is enjoying “all the blessings of the Gospel.”  Hmmm.

John then proceeded to tell me that he had had a number of experiences in his various callings in priesthood leadership, including that of mission president, that had shown him that there is a wide variation of sexuality, from purely heterosexual to purely homosexual.  I told him that was called the Kinsey Scale.  He said had never heard of that (!). 

He told me, for example, of a young man he had counseled who had confessed that he was attracted to pre-pubescent girls, not mature girls.  “That’s just the way he is wired,” John said.  He then cited another example of his exposure to “alternative” sexualities by citing the case of the man he had counseled who had found himself to be a compulsive flirt, seeking to seduce as many women as possible without acting on his conquests.

I sat across from John, knowing that he thought he was being very open-minded, very compassionate, very understanding; that he was ministering.  I did not want to confront him, both because I knew he felt he was being truly compassionate and because I had respected this man.  However, I felt like throwing my salad at him.  I had not expected this of him; I had not expected him to compare feelings of same-sex attraction to pedophilia and extra-marital lust – all variations on a theme of sexual deviance.

I thought I would try to reach him.  Try to open his mind a bit.  I thought it was worth a try.  I ignored my irritation at having been compared to a pedophile and tried to tell him what had happened to me in the wake of President Packer’s remarks last October.  I mentioned the self-hatred I had experienced for most of my life.  I tried to explain what it felt like to grow up and live with one’s essence being referred to as an “abomination.”

A look of incomprehension came over John’s face.  “Why abomination?” he asked. 

“Because that’s what we were referred to as,” I replied. 

“Well,” he countered, “I’ve been in priesthood leadership positions for 30 years, and I’ve never heard it referred to as that.” 

Now it was my turn to experience incomprehension.  “President Kimball taught that,” I said. 

“I never heard him say that,” he countered. “It’s in his book,” I replied, a slight edge in my voice.

Why was he fighting me?  Why didn’t he just listen.  Why couldn’t he just accept my feelings as genuine?  Filtering.  Filing.  Valid.  Not valid.  No authenticity.  Just filtering and filing.

I talked about praying away the gay.  I related the story of how frustrated I had been when my new bishop had asked if I had ever prayed that my feelings of same-sex attraction would go away.  “Can you imagine,” I tried to explain, “what it must feel like to a guy that already hates himself because of these feelings he has, which he has been taught are very wrong, then to pray and fast that the feelings be taken away, only to find that God hasn’t answered his prayer?  It compounds the feelings of self-hatred and loathing.”

The look of “Oh, that’s easy, I have an explanation for that” crossed his face.  “Well, lots of people experience that.  People with depression for example, which is very real, may ask, ‘Why doesn’t God take this away?’  We are all given trials, and God doesn’t take them away for a reason.  We have to learn to rely on the Savior.”

At this point, I really wanted to scream.  I really did.  I was losing patience.  First, the pedophilia comparison.  Now the comparison to mental illness.  I was beginning to despair.  If I couldn’t get through to this guy – who struck me as relatively open-minded – was there any hope at all of reaching other members of the Church?

I tried again.  I tried to describe the agony [just so you know, that’s a real emotion] that young gay Mormons face as they try to reconcile their feelings with their faith (and, I could have said, the growing cynicism that many older married, closeted gay Mormon men face as a sense of betrayal grows in them). 

I could have quoted something I read recently, written by a Mormon guy who has recently accepted his homosexuality:  “For years, the very act of me bowing my head to say my prayers meant immediate feelings of shame, guilt, and inadequacy would wash over me. It was a terrible feeling. Each church meeting, each calling I was fulfilling, each temple session, there was always the underlying emotion of 'my service isn't good enough because God hasn't cleared away the gay yet'.” [Thank you, Chad, for sharing these poignant sentiments.]

But I couldn’t get past the Mormon wall – the wall that is erected to shut out feelings and experiences (whether of others or one’s own) that do not comport with “revealed truth” and/or the “counsel of the brethren.”  Does it hurt to just listen?  Does it challenge one’s testimony just to try to be empathetic?  Or is there no empathy once the moral judgments have been made?  Is all that is left the platitudes about “applying the atonement” and “finding true happiness”?

I was truly discouraged by the end of the meal.  And resigned.  I am quite sure I will not hear from John again.  I could tell he felt like he had failed to get through to me, just as I had failed to get through to him.  I could sense a change at the very end of our conversation.  He was withdrawing from the field, sensing that I was “in the gall of bitterness,” no doubt.  (You know, the term self-righteous Mormons use for people who don’t agree with them?) 

The Mormon wall was up and the gates to the citadel had been closed.  I had – sadly, regretfully, but firmly – been left to “kick against the pricks.”


  1. Martin, moving to WYAugust 2, 2011 at 6:01 AM

    Filtering and filing - yes, that is what they do.
    Linking homosexuality to pedophilia - yes, that is what they do.
    Withdrawing from the field - yes, that is what they do.
    Compassion and empathy - yes, that is what they try to offer.
    Defining parameters - yes, this is what I myself must begin with, every single time, before this type of conversation unfolds.

  2. Well and succinctly put, Martin. Congrats on your move! Looking forward to seeing you soon and meeting Benjamin!

  3. Well, now that you have THAT out of your system, on comes the next phase...


    Although, I warn you, all that bottled up emotion you have now from your little talk, be sure to let it out before encountering the next church leader, or you will end up screaming at them.

    The filters of many are thick, heavy and opaque. You could say they are made out of granite.

  4. Ouch. That was painful. I think that has been the case with far too many people I’ve spoken to, especially those who don’t know they’re talking to a gay mormon boy.

    A friend of mine when I mentioned the uproar that Packer’s talk has caused, made some comment to me about gays just needing to try harder to overcome their homosexuality. I felt like I was hitting my head against a wall. I also wanted to scream, “you just don’t get it!”

    The default setting seems to be “the revealed will of the Lord is this…” without any actual introspection or serious internal discussion or debate. The bad thing is that this type of response is what leads young men to despair or suicide or rejection of all things religious. It leads the hard-line LDS religious to ask, “why are gay people so angry about the church?” And it becomes exhausting to try to keep explaining it to them when they (superficially) ask about it.

    I think one of the problems “the faithful” have in seriously understanding the gay perspective is that if they ultimately understand, then they have questioned the leaders of the church, questioned the concept of revelation, and ultimately questioned the truthfulness of the church.

    I don't think that it has to be that way, but that is how the church has chosen to draw those lines. I hope that as the younger generation assumes leadership roles, this type of thinking is weaned out.

  5. Some LDS members (and leaders) need to know when to learn when to "turn it off"-- Some people only know how to function in the advice and problem fixing mode. I've had to tell some friends that I don't want solutions, just some level of understanding. Sorry this wasn't a pleasant experience for you, sometimes it is just easier to learn and move on.

  6. TGD - Thanks. I think granite is an appropriate metaphor. :)

    Utahhiker801 - Thanks for your comments. Yes, this experience highlights the need for education, but as you point out, how does one educate another if that other believes he/she already knows everything? I don't have an answer to that question ...

    Miguel - Thanks, friend. Spot on re problem fixing mode. I commented to my roommate that "John" was in his "ministering" mode; my roommate, however, pointed out that he wasn't truly ministering because if he was, he would have - as Christ did - meet me where I was, respect that, validate that and then go from there. I think there's another blog post in there somewhere. ;-)

  7. Yeah I have been here. I had one friend ask if pornography and masturbation had helped make me this way, like it says in "the miracle of forgiveness". I assured him that I had always been this way, ever since elementary school when I would mimic others boys answers when people asked who I thought was hot, so I could fit in.

    He snorted and said that everything in my past made me seem straight. Citing a girl I dated, as if experimenting with that proved that I was straight.

    I think you really hit the nail on the head with how most true believing mormons respond to this issue. And they don't even realize how hurtful they are being. When I say I haven't received any spiritual confirmation of the things the brethren have said on this I am told that I am past feeling.

    I wish more people read what you wrote here. I would post it on my facebook wall, but I am not ready to be that out yet.

  8. So sad - for us, but more so for the gay youth of the church who are being led by people more blind than themselves in this matter.

    I agree that the underlying issue is an unwillingness of many members to even consider anything that goes contrary to what they've been taught in church meetings. They are willing to love you to the point where it requires them to challenge their paradigms and beliefs and no further. The challenge is to be Christ like enough to be more open to truth. For a people who claim that there is much truth out there yet to learn some are pretty closed minded.

  9. When I talk to a bishop, or a family member, I have to ask, "Why am I angry?"
    I think it's the inability to dialogue. It's the wall you feel. I don't know.
    I think what you feel is justified. But what did you expect?
    This priesthood leader is trying to fit you in a box, trying to use his experience, his understanding of life, his paradigm. And you don't fit. God shouldn't make gay people according to his understanding of things.
    I think it's difficult, but I think these conversations have to continue, as painful as they are. Will people change? Not likely. So at times it is just best to walk away.
    But I also think that unless people talk, there's a guarantee that no one will understand.

  10. Wow, it sounds like it was a painful experience. That must have hurt coming from someone you trusted. I'm sorry.

    I do think we have to be careful, however, not to generalize too much. There are a majority, I'm afraid, of active LDS who don't understand how to interpret the gay-mormon thing. I think a lot of gay-mormons took along time to understand their own situation... even putting walls up themselves.

    This is a complicated issue dealing with powerful emotions, sexuality and spirituality. I think it's fair to expect respect. I do not think we should judge people too harshly for not understanding, or failing to try, when it's such a difficult thing for a lot of people. Take one situation at a time, doing your best to do what you beleive is right. I think most people are just trying to do what they think is right.

    You're doing a brave thing, discussing this topic. It's commendable.

  11. The most disappointing aspect of this exchange is the feeling you got that you would never hear from your friend again. I'm sorry you had to go through this.

  12. Allen - Thanks for your comments. It's mindblowingly frustrating to hear that President Kimball's words are STILL being thrown up in people's faces. That book should be publicly burned. According to his biographer son, Spencer himself had misgivings about that book. Ugh! And you're so right: people don't even realize how hurtful they're being.

    Mohoguy: I loved what you wrote: "They are willing to love you to the point where it requires them to challenge their paradigms and beliefs and no further." The thing is, they truly believe this is Christ-like love. Their own sense of self-righteouness kicks in and tells them that they are being so kind and good that it acts as a sort of palliative, preventing them from seeing the truth.

  13. Alex - You ask what I expected. As I mentioned in the post, I had expected this particular person to be more open-minded based on my interactions with him over the course of the past 10 years. In this, I was surprised and disappointed. I have been disappointed by other people, but not surprised. I agree with you: the conversations need to continue. They must - if not for our own benefit, for the benefit of the rising generation of closeted gay Mormons.

    Anonymous - I hear and appreciate what you're saying. But in my mind there is a vast difference between not being able to understand vs. not even trying to understand vs. not even trying to understand AND using that limited understanding as a weapon to seek to destroy what is not understood. It's not the ignorance that is so maddening, it's the zeal to wield this ignorance in the perceived defense of perceived truth.

    MoHoHawaii: Thanks. Fortunately, this isn't someone whom I care a great deal about. The experience was frustrating, disappointing, and somewhat maddening, but not painful.

  14. Unfortunately, the experiences you are having are very common and have happened to almost all of us who came out over the last 40 years. Back in the 80's when I came out, I experienced all the same feelings of frustration and demagoguery and ignorance as have you. It is sadly almost a right of passage for Gay and Lesbian men and women, who having grown up Mormon must find there way out of a box they have been in for their entire life. It is almost as if we experience "The Church" as a false Garden of Eden and now we are cast into the world. Some people find their way into creating new spiritual foundations and others may be repealed and seek other methods of coping. But, it is important to remember that the church is not the only game in town, even though we were lead to believe so. There are many other traditions that have opened up to me as the world is a spiritual smorgasbord. Perhaps I was lucky, I had a grandmother that taught me to "stand on your own light and not the light of others". I instinctively new that our leaders were self appointed men, who had no counseling expertise or training and were not professionals. I listened to Joseph Campbell as a missionary in the MTC give a speech on the religions of the world, something hard to believe today...I experienced "the spirit of god" in all sorts of places on my mission and later and new that some form of truth must be present, because if not, the foundations of anything could be false including the church. I found as a Young Ambassador at BYU traveling with Gordon B Hinkley what an absolutely uninspired man I thought he was; seemingly more interested in all his business dealings and money making for the church then in bearing any witness of Christ. I met other young me struggling with the same things, we fondled and grouped our way into understanding the naturalness of our passion and love for one another. I left Utah and all it represented, fought for my family to understand, succeeded with a few and failed with many. Found my way to San Francisco Gay Mecca and to some form of unity... Affirmation helped me transition and eventually I found my way into Zen, Meditation, Buddhism, Hinduism, metaphysics, science and my own personal discovery that no matter where and what you are, you are always part of God, you and who you are for better or for worse, make God all that it IS in this very moment of time. It is impossible to not be part of the Great Universal Spirit of all things. So, hold fast to your own thoughts, your own inner voice and flow down the river of life and one day you will look back and be as happy as anyone in this world is... happiness comes and goes, waxes and wains and we find contentment in the end. May you find yours!

  15. D Fisher - Thank you for sharing a bit of your own experience and for your kind words! As I read what you have written, I thought of all the strands of light of people such as yourselves who have embraced their sexuality as well as their innate spirituality, and I can't help but think what a powerful force all those strands of light would make, concentrated and united and focused ... for the benefit of others as well as ourselves. So again, thank you for sharing!

  16. I think one of the other frustrating things about this situation is that your former bishop, and those like him, speak to us as though they are offering new information that perhaps we haven’t considered; that their comparison of being gay to pedophilia or mental illness or alcoholism will somehow give us greater insight into our “condition”, and how the atonement can help us in our continued suffering.

    He fails to realize that because this issue affects us so deeply and on such a personal level, we have likely read and studied every piece of information on the topic inside and outside the church.

    That was why your former bishop was surprised to hear that gays have felt wounded by the “abomination” label when he had never heard that. He can’t comprehend how cumulatively damaging the religious name-calling from church leadership is for gay members.

    When I came out to my mom, I mentioned several experiences from my youth and our interactions that made me think that she probably knew I was gay (i.e. like when she saw me staring at the men’s underwear section of a catalogue and asked if I was interested in any of the clothes). She told me that she never thought that, and she didn’t even remember any of the experiences I mentioned. She explained, “Those experiences were significant to you, but not to me.”

    Your former bishop is unaware of the affects of the church’s position on homosexuality because it is not significant to him, but it is to us.

  17. Utahhiker801 - Once again, you have perceptively hit the proverbial nail on the head. The arrogance of it all is astounding. Thanks so much for your comments.

  18. TO EVERYONE - I just want to note that I have been astounded by the response to this post. It has received more pageviews within the first 24 hours than any other post since I began my blog. It obviously has struck a nerve and resonated. I'd love to hear from more of you as to what, if anything, about this post speaks to you.

  19. I'm going to second what Utahhiker801 said.

    What your friend doesn't realize is that you are as Mormon as he is. You understand as fully and as deeply the orthodox LDS position on this issue as he does and have spent decades trying to fit your life into that framework. He acted as if the ideas he promoted to you were unknown to you, as if you were not a fully acculturated Mormon man. It's so weird.

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  21. I have run into this wall many times, including--unfortunately--with my own family.

    This post confirms that my remarkably insightful bishop was spot on correct when he said the following:

    This is the single most difficult issue facing the LDS Church today. There are only three choices for gay Mormons:

    1. Live a celibate life, which is impossible for most people and thus at best unrealistic to expect;

    2. Marry someone of the opposite sex and grit your teeth and hope it works, which is so often disastrous that even the church has now recognized the damage this causes and now advises against it;

    3. Leave the church.

    Mind you, I did not volunteer these for the bishop to simply agree with. He's the one who said all this. And the stake president later agreed with him.

    I have found his insight to be correct.

    So while I remain concerned for my gay brethren and sisters who are still in the church and trying to find reconciliation (particularly the youth), personally I've moved on. I've reached resolutions, and I no longer care what Mormons like John think, nor what his church thinks. I am not willing to put my life on hold and sacrifice my own happiness just because a handful of octogenarians can't see past their own cultural prejudices.

    Since reaching these resolutions, my life is far better, happier, lighter, more colorful, and more peaceful than ever before. The Mormons certainly don't have a monopoly on God, or spiritual growth, or happiness, or love, or service, or Christian living. The world is SO much wider, more marvelous and more amazing than people like John suspect.

  22. This made my heart hurt on so many levels--I read a comment you posted on Google+ and wanted to find out if it was tongue-in-cheek, or if you were actually saying you ought to "put GAY in a box and crush it". :)

    Now I understand that it was probably both. On one hand, that small piece of you that still struggles probably wishes you could make it go away. Another part of you, the part that is growing and learning self-love and acceptance is saying "oh PLEASE, why don't they accept me and grow the f*** up."

    The reason you and Brother John would have never, ever seen eye to eye, no matter how compassionate he was or how patient and clear you were, is simple: your very existence challenges his entire world view. There is no way he will ever see gay men and women as part of the Whole because to allow, even for one moment, the idea that you "belong here AS IS" is to subvert the paradigm of his daily prayer, weekly meetings, monthly temple attendance, the covenants he took, the family he hopes to retain after death, and his own expectations of Godhood.

    Imagine. He accepts you are YOU, perfect and appropriately oriented and his entire paradigm of the God he thinks he knows is completely blown away. Which blows away Jesus, which blows away scripture, prophets, Joseph Smith, today's leaders and latter-day revelation, Priesthood, and the plan of eternal salvation.

    So while I understand you are disheartened, understand that you were seeking something much bigger than just a simple meeting of minds and souls at lunch, and I hope you are mindful of this should it ever arise again. To ask a Mormon--ANY Mormon, and I feel completely at ease in generalizing--to truly accept a gay person's rightful place on this planet is to ask them to forfeit their entire belief structure.

    Now, some Mormons say "don't generalize, man, some of us are cool...." don't be fooled. They may indeed BE cool. They may be able to over-look, treat you the same and perhaps even withhold judging you. But when push comes to shove and you ask them point blank: "Do you believe God loves and accepts us, ALL of us, as is, and He has no intentions of demanding we change our lifestyle to match your gospel teachings?" Watch them squirm.

    Thanks for the post and sorry for the long comment.



  23. Julie Ann - Thanks for your comments! The comment about putting it in a box and crushing it probably originated with another commenter on a cross-post of this post at http://latterdaymainstreet.com/2011/08/03/mormon-wall/. She was referring tongue in cheek to the song from the "Book of Mormon Musical," "Turn it Off."

    What you have written above is, unfortunately, I think totally true. Completely. Any true believer in the (conventional) Plan of Salvation cannot allow gays. Their existence - my existence - is an affront to their concept of the just, beautiful and true Plan of Happiness. Though, of course, I don't see it that way. I have essentially said I don't want exaltation - which is absolutely incomprehensible to 99% of all Mormons. There is much that could be written on this .... Another post, another day. :) Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

  24. IV and Julie, I no longer subscribe to Mormonism or plan of salvation as they outline it, but certainly they believe in eternal progression, so it seems that being gay could be allowed under the umbrella, if they infact believe that principle in their faith... then in eternity there seems to be "time" for all to progress on whatever course their God has in mind or more importantly their divine blue print has as a course. Certainly there must be the helpers in the paradigm of salvation... room for all as I see it. But I understand this Mormon need for perfection and getting it right, but really I see their believe in Eternal Progression as more in keeping with Reincarnation, that is reincarnation not taken in a linear sense but in a timeless sense of all things happening at once. It is therefore possible to be Gay, Lesbian, Bi, Married, God, Goddess, Saint, Sinner, Prophet, Yogi, Swami, disciple etc... all under the umbrella of ones larger souls progression.. we are not an eternal personality in my belief but part of a collective whole, a sum of parts. Julie is right there are many wonderful mormons who strive not to judge and leave things up to god but still have their own sense of things.. I have a cousin that is VERY Mormon and yet when it comes to the Gay issue, she says, "its not my place to judge, there is room for everyone and things we may not understand but that are part of the Universal plan." So we leave it there. I say, "why can't their be room for all". Don't get me wrong, I don't really want to be a part of it any longer but still there are those that do. Make some room. Gay People are some of the most gifted people, so in the end it is their loss but not everyone can find their way out of the box and some need a box to be comfy.