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.
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.”