Friday, November 30, 2007

A Modest Proposal: Mormon Monasticism

When I left the Mormon Church in 1986, one of the many mixed feelings I experienced was relief that I could be celibate. I fasted and prayed for guidance to decide whether celibacy was something I should pursue as an alternative to marrying a woman. Later, in the summer of 1988, I seriously explored celibacy at a Roman Catholic monastery. One of the things I loved about Catholics was, no pressure to marry. The LDS expectation that I must marry literally drove me to despair and deep depression.

Although I ultimately discerned that celibacy was not a calling for me, my experience at the monastery convinced me that had I felt called to live a celibate lifestyle, living it in the intimate companionship and spiritual community of a monastery would have been the most positive, healthy, life-giving context within which to do it.

Now, twenty years later, we have LDS leaders stating clearly and unequivocally that failure to marry in this life will not prevent us from achieving exaltation in the next life. Furthermore, they have clearly stated that lacking strong sexual attraction to a member of the opposite sex, we are specifically enjoined from marrying. For the first time, Mormons are talking about celibacy.

Technically, Mormons should not use the term celibacy. Celibacy connotes a religious calling, and is more appropriately used in the context in which I explored it. What Mormons are really talking about is life-long abstinence.

But if we are serious about life-long abstinence as a way of life for 3-7% of the population of the Church, just telling people that they can never marry and never be in a same-sex relationship is unlikely to work. Here's why:

1) Marriage and family are central to Mormon theology, practice, and community. We are strongly disinclined by Mormon culture to consider celibacy or abstinence viable.

2) Life-long abstinence sounds fine in theory (especially to people who are happily married). But in practice it means being alone. Friends -- no matter how good, close, and intimate -- can't possibly make up for or fill the place in a person's life that is filled by a soul mate and companion.

I suggest that if we are serious about this, we need a real, bona fide Mormon celibacy, not just the default of life-long abstinence. One way to do this would be to develop a kind of Mormon monasticism. Here's what this would look like for me:

1) Community living. You never have to be alone. You live in community with other men, men you are free to love spiritually and emotionally, to spend quality time with, and to bond intimately but non-sexually with.

2) The context of monastic discipline would help prevent "cheating." It would function on the same principle that is used in Mormon missions to prevent missionaries from straying into sexual sin: 24-hour companionship and supervision, and emotional support to remain true to one's convictions in relation to sexual abstinence.

3) Communities could be organized around service and other mission-oriented goals. This would give people who have made the Herculean sacrifice of life-long abstinence the reward of having a valued calling.

4) You would have to feel "called" to this. It would be unlikely to work if you are joining this as a default, or as a way to run away from your sexuality. You would need to embrace this calling based on positive motivations and on the call of the Spirit.

While this would not work for everyone, providing this option, especially if it were publicly blessed by the Church leadership, would do much to demonstrate a real, practical support for those who are being asked to renounce any possibility of intimate relationships in this life. It would demonstrate that being gay and celibate is nothing shameful, but rather that gay people are seen as having a positive contribution to make to the Church.

I believe that until we provide such options, we will naturally find gay Latter-day Saints bifurcating in two directions. A minority will stick with the Church and will continue to strive for marriage, many entering into marriages when they should not. The majority (perhaps the vast majority) will do what they always have done: drift away from the Church and choose same-sex relationships over their faith.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

How Are You a Mormon?

I had a dream the other night.

In the dream a group of Latter-day Saints were asking me how I could consider myself a Mormon, when I was not a baptized member of the Church.

I said that I had a testimony of the gospel, and that I lived the principles of the gospel to the best of my ability. I quoted Richard C. Edgley's last conference talk, in which he said that the thing that qualifies us for baptism is a desire to bear one another's burdens. I was willing to do everything I could to build the kingdom, and to support other Saints in their journey, to bear their burdens, and to be supported by them, to let them bear my burdens. More than anything, I desired to do that. My heart was ready for baptism and it was not my fault that leaders of the Church refused to baptize me. If, in my heart, I was ready, if in my heart I had accepted the responsibilities of baptism, then in the eyes of the Lord I was baptized.

I sensed skepticism among those I was speaking with. I wanted to say more, but I realized there was nothing more I could say.

There is nothing more I can say.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Do You Have Anything Non-Alcoholic?

Last month, I did a really big favor for one of the lawyers I work for, and his way of saying thanks to me was to buy me a $100 gift certificate to a really nice restaurant. So last night I took Göran out to dinner at this really nice restaurant to celebrate his birthday with him. I loved that I could treat him to this without having to worry about what we could order and not order and how much it would cost us. This one was on my rich lawyer friend!

So the waitress came to the table and asked us if we wanted to start off with something to drink. She handed us a wine list. Göran looked it over and he ordered a chardonnay. Then, something miraculous occurred.

Ever since I stopped drinking alcohol (in March 2006), this has become a bone of contention between me and Göran. He has frequently complained bitterly that one of the simple pleasures of our relationship used to be that we could enjoy a good glass of wine together. Every time there's been a situation where he had an opportunity to drink, and I did not join him, this generated a complaint. And I didn't expect last night to be any different.

But without batting an eye Göran looked up at the waitress and, in the sweetest voice, said, "Do you have anything non-alcoholic?"

"We have a sparkling blood orange juice," she replied.

He looked at me and said, "Oh, that sounds really good."

"That does sound good," I said, holding the side of my chair so I would not fall off from shock. "Yes," I said to the waitress, "I'll have a sparkling blood orange juice."

"You see," Göran said to the waitress, "My partner does not drink alcohol."

I know many of you are reading this, and you are thinking this is a ridiculous thing. Some of you think I'm a dolt for making a big deal out of this. (Believe me, I've taken my share of flak from ex- and non-Mormon friends who think I'm silly to live the Word of Wisdom.) And others of you are wondering how it could be a big deal that Göran has finally accepted this. But it is a big deal! It almost brings tears to my eyes now, thinking about it. This kind of acceptance is huge. It is wonderful how, moment by moment, day by day, love does its transformative, healing work in us, and shapes us in the image of Christ.

That was the sweetest tasting glass of sparkling blood orange juice I've ever had.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Comparative Religion

I spent a good part of the Thanksgiving weekend preparing to teach CH 462, "Introduction to American Religious Histories" at United Theological Seminary, starting in February 2008. Mostly I was hammering down the details of my course syllabus (what readings and assignments will be due when, etc.), but I also spent a fair amount of time mapping out the class lectures. The scope of the course is every religion in the history of the United States, from the colonial period to the present, so that always presents certain challenges. Preparing for the class led to inevitable wonder at the strange twists and turns of life, and musings about what I, a gay Mormon, might contribute to the formation of future Protestant ministers.

In preparing to teach this class, I actually sought and received a blessing from my bishop. Before giving me the blessing, my bishop actually quizzed me about the circumstances of the teaching assignment. "Do they know that you are gay?" he asked me. "Oh, yes," I replied, "And they even know I'm Mormon." (He didn't even crack a smile. Though when I told the story to a close friend who teaches at the same seminary, he almost fell off his chair laughing.) Among other things, my bishop blessed me with a quickened mind, and the ability to teach in a way that is pleasing both to God and to me. (I was deeply moved that he felt it was as important for me to be pleased with my teaching as it was for God to be pleased!) He also blessed me to show the same love for my students that my Heavenly Father has shown for me. That is what I have turned over and over in my mind the most, ever since.

For me, there is a particular challenge in teaching people about other people's religion. Faith is such a deeply personal, intimate thing. I'm aware that there is huge diversity in how individual Latter-day Saints interpret their own faith (or individual Protestants, or Catholics, or Jews, or... The list goes on. I'm covering 12 major groupings in my course). The differences between individuals within a faith can be almost as great if not greater than the differences between individuals of different faiths. How do you do justice to the specificity of different faiths and also to the diversity within faiths? How do you present someone else's faith in a way that represents them fairly, when you are not a part of that faith and don't appreciate the nuances that they appreciate?

I had an outstanding professor of Chinese history who once told me, "You cannot begin to approach another culture without much prayer and fasting." What he meant is, teaching about another culture or another faith requires utmost humility on the part of the teacher. It must begin with a contrite acknowledgment of how much we do not know. Having seen how Mormonism has been distorted in the teaching and writing of others, I am more painfully aware of this than most might be in my position. So each time I sit down to work on my course prep, there's always a certain amount of "prayer and fasting."

As I have sifted through the resources available to me to teach this course, including the various texts and monographs I will assign my students to read, I have been aware of the very intellectual, very academic framework I am forced to use to approach this. And part of me squirms at the thought of this. This of course must be an intellectual, academic exercise. That's the nature of the beast when teaching any graduate level course. But if it is only that, I believe I will have failed my students.

One of the first things you learn when you start to study religions comparatively is that one function shared by all religion -- no matter what type -- is centering oneself in relation to the divine and to the cosmos, and then, from that centered space, defining and the exploring boundaries. This is what we will be doing in this class, and this is a fundamentally spiritual process. It will make it even more challenging that my "centered space" as a gay Mormon will be different in fundamental ways from the "centered spaces" of my mostly (but not all) Protestant, mostly (but not all) white, mostly (but not all) straight men and women students. It will mean in a significant sense that every class will be an exercise in comparative religion. And I believe that in order for that to work, a unique kind of spiritual practice is required, one that will include learning to understand who we are, even as we approach, with humility and openness, the faith of others.

United Seminary is a very open, inclusive, tolerant place (thus, the gay Mormon teaching American religious histories). Still, I am incredibly grateful for my bishop's blessing. Because more than anything else, this endeavor will require the illuminating guidance of the Spirit, and it will require love.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Gift

In reading the blogs over the past week, I've encountered some, hmm, interesting ways of characterizing same-sex relationships. I've encountered once again the speculation that since same-sex attraction will vanish in the next life, I'll be left with a partner I can't and won't possibly want to be in a relationship with, and so I'll have nothing and be lonely for all eternity. I've made note of the ever popular comparison of my relationship with my partner to bestiality and child-molesting. And the related characterization of same-sex sexuality as an abomination deserving only God's inevitable wrath. And of course the suggestion that while same-sex orientation is OK, same-sex relationships are evil and society is going to hell for tolerating them and for considering the legalization of same-sex marriage.

I want to argue. It is true. But what basis is there to argue? And the only real purpose in arguing, I have realized, is to cover up my own insecurity, my own residual, nagging fear that maybe those characterizations are true. That's why I argue. To make something right. To convince myself I am right, by trying to convince someone else. Except that arguing never convinces anyone. I've never seen an argument end in which the arguers weren't afterwards each more entrenched in their arguments than they were before. Well, more entrenched in their insecurities as well. More angry that the idiot they were trying to convince can't see the clear, obvious truth of their position. (Except if it were so clear and obvious, they would have been convinced, wouldn't they?)

So there is only one way to move forward in the face of such nagging fear. Not by fighting the fear. Not by arguing with it. Not by getting angry. Rather, by moving into the fear. By opening oneself up. By listening. So this means having to go through life learning to accept a certain level of ambiguity. Accepting that I might be wrong. Living with the possibility that if I want to be happy, I might need to reevaluate, I might need to make changes. Not fighting, listening.

So that's where I was earlier this afternoon. Eternal mismatches. Bestiality. Child-molestation. Abomination. Evil. Is homosexuality really like that? Could I be so blind? Can there be truth in that? They're troubling thoughts.

Those thoughts were still there in the background of my mind, leaving me slightly depressed as I went about my business at work. Then after work, I had other, practical things to attend to. A birthday! Göran is turning 43 next Tuesday. There's a particularly special gift I'd been thinking of getting him for some time. I went shopping and managed to find it. I probably spent a little bit more on it than I should have, but all I could think of was the look I knew I would see on his face when he opened it.

And then I bought him something else special, to celebrate a new reality in our lives. The reality that after an eight-year-long search, we have finally found his birth certificate, and now he can apply for a passport, and we now know the names of his parents. He can be a citizen of the U.S., a citizen of the world, and he now has a place, ancestors, a history... After the new year, he's planning to contact his biological father (and his grandfather, who is apparently still alive!). I bought him something simple as a token of this altered reality. Nothing expensive, just a little book. And then before wrapping everything, I inscribed it. I sat down and thought about it, and about him, and then I wrote something in the cover that expressed what I feel for him.

And as I wrote, I realized something wonderful. This shared life I have with him, this relationship we have built, this interweaving of our lives, this love... This is real. Not the fear. Not the language of abomination and evil and hate. This love, this is truth. This is what we live life for. The Spirit was present again. I felt peace. Tears came to my eyes. This is real. This is eternal.

And I found this without anger. Without argument. Without even the least hint of bitterness toward those who used those words and made those characterizations. Only joy, peace, and the wish that, whatever paths others are pursuing, they might find wholeness and happiness as complete as what I have experienced on my own path. So in a strange way, that is a gift I received from them, and the only gift I wish to offer back.

If I live my life with an open heart, that will happen every once in a while. Someone will say something that provokes, that hurts, that dredges up all the old fears and anxieties. That's the nature of life. But that is the incredible thing about love. True love swallows all that up, and turns it into beauty. That is what the atonement was: taking in hate, anger, death, and returning for it love, peace and life. That is God's gift to us, the greatest gift of all.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Grandma, 1906-2007

I feel very sad right now, but also thankful.

This morning, while I was sitting next to Göran on the bus on our way to work, I got a call on my cell phone from my dad. He told me that about an hour earlier, my grandma had passed away.

It was logical. It made sense. Grandma turned 101 in October. Over the last couple of years her health had slowly been declining to the point that she was completely bed-ridden, had congestive heart failure, and was constantly getting pneumonia. So I knew this day was coming.

So I asked Dad a few questions. He promised to call me soon to give me more information about funeral arrangements. Then I went to work. Gradually over the course of the day it sunk in. Grandma died. And I found it really difficult to focus on my work, and I found my thoughts constantly going back to her. Maybe I should have gone home, taken the day off. I told a few friends, and the word spread fast. Friends were coming up to offer hugs and condolences. My closest friends know how important she was to me, because I keep a photograph of the two of us right in front of my desk on the wall in my office. The Human Resources manager told me the firm wanted to send flowers to her funeral, and could I give her an address. I guess I was grateful for people's kindness, but it only made it harder for me. Talking about it somehow only made me feel sadder.

One of the things grandma always used to talk about was how she could hardly wait to see my grandfather again. Death separated them over forty-five years ago. But no more. I kept having this image in my mind all day, of my grandpa Jay, waiting there for her just beyond the veil. I never knew him. He died before I was born. But I so want to meet him, to see the two of them together finally.

Grandma's love and her example have really been a beacon to me. And in the last two years, I have made special efforts to let her know how much I loved her, and she did the same. I know she was disappointed that I could not become a full-fledged member of the Church. That broke my heart. Though I also know she was proud of my efforts to become reconciled to the Church and to begin to live as much of the gospel as I could. My parents read her some of the articles I've written in which I bore my testimony, and she told them how much she liked them. And on my last two visits to see her in February and October 2006, I had some very powerful experiences with her that have grounded me spiritually and given me great hope. I am so glad I made those visits now. Whenever I am tempted to feel sad, I think back to those recent visits, and the promises she made me, and then back to all my other memories of her, and I feel a great sense of peace and gratitude and happiness. I'm really pretty lucky to have had such an incredible woman in my life for so many years.

I will miss her very much. But in another sense, she will always be very near me. Thinking of her has always motivated me to do better, to be a better person, to be more humble and loving, to love myself, and be grateful for life. I want to continue to do that, to live a life of faith, love and hope as my way of honoring her and everything she did for us. That was her greatest gift to me, and I want that to be my greatest gift back to her, the only one she can still receive.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Missing Muffy

I recently read something on Original Mohomie's blog about an experience he had attending an AIDS benefit in Salt Lake, and it just got me to thinking.

I've been around and out of the closet and involved in the gay community long enough to have had a number of good friends who have died of AIDS. I had a friend in our UCC congregation, a much loved, much respected leader of our church community who died of AIDS. Both he and his partner had had AIDS, and his partner died first, which was an incredible loss for him and left him feeling very lonely. He survived his partner by many years, and he lived long enough to see some of the new treatments come available, but by the time they came along, he was too advanced with various AIDS-related illnesses to benefit much from them. With the availability of the new treatments developed in the early 1990s, the mortality rate has dropped quite dramatically. It was over a decade ago when this friend from church died, and we thought maybe we had seen the last of AIDS-related deaths among close friends of ours.

But Göran and I attended an AIDS funeral again early this year. This friend's name was Michael, but he was known to all his friends as "Muffy." He was Göran's best friend for many years, the person who had most consistently been there for Göran from when he first moved to Minneapolis. When Göran and I had a wedding ceremony in 1995, Muffy was Göran's best man. Like almost all of Göran's closest friends back in those days, Muffy was a drag queen. He was sweet, considerate, and quiet (which you wouldn't expect from a drag queen!), but he also had a really sharp sense of humor. He was charismatic, and just naturally drew people around him. Everybody who knew him loved Muffy. Göran and Muffy were both founding members of the local chapter of the gay fraternity, Delta Lambda Phi, and for many years, Muffy was the heart of that organization.

When Muffy got sick, I think he felt deeply ashamed at some level. He tried to hide it for a long time. When it was no longer hide-able, he left the Twin Cities and retreated to the trailer home his mom lived in in rural Minnesota. Muffy's fraternity brothers continued to visit him and comfort him, but it was extremely difficult for him. He didn't want people to make a fuss about him, and he didn't want to be seen "that way."

Muffy's mom loved him very much, but unfortunately she was also deeply homophobic. After Muffy died, she tried to plan the funeral without telling any of his friends. Göran and others found out about the funeral, and even though we had been uninvited, Göran insisted that he could not let Muffy's funeral pass without at least trying to go. They found out where it was taking place. Göran and I put on our Sunday best, and showed up at the funeral home, not knowing what would happen.

Muffy's mom intercepted us in the foyer and told us that we could go view the casket but that we had to leave before the funeral started. This was extremely painful to Göran, but we felt that if that was all the family would allow us to do, that was what we would have to do. But then Muffy's aunt intervened. She told her sister, "These were Michael's friends. They loved Michael. They have a right to be here. You can't tell them to leave." There was some discussion, and in the end, Muffy's mom grudgingly agreed to let his friends stay for the funeral.

There were more gay people in the sanctuary than straight family members. Muffy was much loved by the many people in the GLBT community who had come to know him over the years. But we all sat in silence at the back of the sanctuary. The funeral itself was depressing, not necessarily because it was a funeral, but because it was a funeral that had nothing to do with Muffy. Of course, none of the people who had really known and loved Muffy for the last twenty years of his life were allowed to speak. A Catholic priest got up and uttered some generalities about the love of God and the resurrection. One of Muffy's sisters-in-law took the stand, and talked about how her faith in Jesus helped her face adversity. Not a single story was told about Muffy. Who he was. What he'd done. The people he'd loved and helped. Nothing.

After the funeral, once again the mother came and told us that now the funeral was over, it was time to leave. We were uninvited from attending the graveside ceremony. Once again, the sister intervened and convinced the mother to let those of us who wished attend.

A few stalwarts attended the graveside ceremony (it was cold out and there was snow on the ground). After the ceremony was finished and the family had dispersed, a number of us were still hanging around, talking about Muffy, telling stories about him, things that we all remembered that felt important to share. The priest actually came up to us and apologized to us. He said he wished he had had a chance to talk to some of us before the funeral so he could have said something more meaningful about Muffy's life. Unfortunately, Muffy's mother had refused to give the names of any of his friends to the priest when she asked him to perform the funeral. He said he was very sorry. He stayed and listened to us talk for a while as we shared some of our stories. We thanked him for doing the best he could, and for saying at least some generous words of comfort during the ceremony, reminding us that Muffy was loved by God and that he would be welcomed in God's kingdom.

Afterwards, a number of Muffy's friends went to a restaurant together and reminisced. That was the real funeral for us. It was when Muffy could be remembered the way he deserved to be remembered.

One of the things that was hardest for Göran was seeing Muffy in the open casket. Muffy was in his early forties when he died, but he looked like he was eighty. AIDS had really ravaged his body. It was almost unbearable to Göran to think that he had died the way he had, so full of shame, and away from all his friends. As unkind as his mother was to us, we were at least grateful that she had taken care of him in the final months. I guess she had a certain image of him, and wanted to keep that image for herself, and didn't want to be reminded of his life as a gay man. All the pictures that were on display in the funeral home were pictures from more than twenty years ago, pictures of what Muffy had been in high school. There were actually pictures of him with a prom date. If you didn't know better, you'd think a heterosexual teenager had died, not a gay man in his early forties.

Apart from the personal loss for Göran, the funeral was a reminder to us that the AIDS epidemic is not over, even though there are incredible new treatments available. Somehow it felt to us like something had gone terribly wrong. Muffy shouldn't be dead. He should still be here. And then there was the anguish of the disconnect between Muffy's friends and his family. It was also a reminder to us of how important family is, and how painful it is for those of us who are gay when our families can't seem to reconcile themselves to this fundamental aspect of who we are.

We miss him, and we still love him, and we wish things had somehow gone better. But we are grateful too for the friendship we were blessed to have with him. Gratitude will just have to get us by until we meet again.

Friday, November 16, 2007

We Know Each Other's Weaknesses

There's a lot of anguish being expressed on the Moho blogs right now, accompanied by a crescendo of complaints that things have changed for the worse since the new Moho bloggers have come on the scene.

As one of the "new" bloggers, I'll try not to take that personally, especially since I have never attacked a fellow blogger, and have tried to avoid posting anything that might give offense to anyone else. That doesn't mean I couldn't have written something that inadvertently gave offense. If I have done that, I wish someone would tell me, so I can figure out how to avoid doing that in the future.

It has also always been my intention to encourage faith, and to encourage people to love each other. That's what I'm trying to build my whole life on lately, and that path has given me a lot of joy, joy that I wish for all others.

Everyone wants happiness. And those of us who believe in eternity want eternal happiness. But whether you believe in eternity or not, the fact is Mormons have never been pie-in-the-sky Christians. We've never believed happiness was for some beatific next life only. We've always believed that happiness in this life is secured by building our lives on principles that will secure happiness in the next.

Those principles include: love, faith, hope, family, and sacrifice.

No one promised this would be easy. And if you're gay, you get to pick your version of hard knocks. Depending which route you go -- marriage, celibacy, same-sex partnership -- you get a unique set of heartaches and challenges. Somehow, to me, if we beat others up for making a different choice from our own, we've failed the most fundamental test. So let's please start by being kind to each other. Let's start by acknowledging that the other guy, the one who took a path different from my own, has his own sets of pains and heartaches, and let's have enough empathy to want him to succeed, even if that's not where we want to go.

Most bloggers in this community have shared enough about themselves that we all know more than anyone has business knowing what buttons to push to hurt each other. We know each other's weaknesses. Let's try to grow our hearts big enough to make that sharing an opportunity for healing.

MoHo World War II Flying Aces

I had a very interesting dream back in September.

In this dream, all of the MoHo bloggers were World War II fighter pilots. You were all there... -L-, Beck, Abelard, Geckoman, Chedner, Elbow, Tito, Forester, Mohohawaii, everybody. We were all flying these various missions both in the European theater and on the Pacific.

In my dream, at first I figured we would be doing various bombing runs, to bomb Axis oil fields and factories. But when we got our orders, we were told that we must at all costs protect German, Italian, and Japanese wheat fields. As soon as we got the orders, we understood why. Once the war was over, our enemies needed to eat. We were fighting a war not to destroy, but to save lives.

I woke up with the most incredible feeling of peace. I realized that this is what I want for us in real life too. We are all involved in our individual struggles. We each have our own idea of what we need to do in order to be individually happy, and we are going about that in the best way we know how. But I hope and pray for there to be some kind of unity too, some kind of sacred brotherhood, some sense that we each are rooting for the others, some shared sense that what we must all be about is protecting and fostering life.

So I keep each of you in my prayers. I read your blogs carefully, and I try to get some sense of what you are struggling for, what you want, what will make you happy. And I am praying for you to achieve that. I hope you will pray for me in the same way.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Get Up Off Your Knees

I'm a when-it's-late-leave-the-dirty-dishes-till-the-morning kind of guy. Göran, on the other hand, is a do-the-dishes-now-and-wake-up-to-a-clean-house kind of guy. So we've had our occasional disagreements about when to do the dishes.

We had some friends over a couple of weeks ago, and Göran is also a pull-out-all-the-stops kind of host. So after our friends left, as usual, we had lots of dishes. And of course it was late. And did I mention, we don't have a dishwasher? (Or I should say, the dishwasher is Us.) I was tired, so I went upstairs, brushed my teeth, and retired to the bedroom for the evening. Before going upstairs, I had noticed that Göran had that "let's clean up now" look in his eyes, but I deliberately ignored it. I could tell he was a bit annoyed, but I thought, "Sometimes we could do this my way. And I don't feel like doing dishes till the morning!"

So I'm on my knees praying, and I can hear the water running in the sink downstairs, and I can hear the dishes starting to clatter. And I'm trying to focus on my prayers. And the Spirit very distinctly said to me: "John, get up off your knees and go downstairs and help your partner do the dishes!" And that's what I did.

Sometimes the best way to pray is standing.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

"God Loveth All Children": Seattle Sunstone Panel

Check out this post on the Sunstone blog. There are videos of a panel discussion at the Seattle Sunstone Symposium responding the the pamphlet "God Loveth His Children," featuring Ron Schow, Clark Pingree, and Clark's brother Dan.

Here are my observations on the panel discussion:

Ron said he felt the new Church literature on this subject described homosexual orientation as a “core characteristic” of individuals. It is true that the pamphlet “God Loveth His Children” acknowledges that homosexual orientation encompasses emotional and social elements, not just physical/sexual. But the thrust of the new literature is to suggest that homosexuality is not part of our eternal natures or selves. I suspect the general authorities who’ve made recent statements — Elder Oaks, Elder Wickman, Elder Holland — would not describe homosexual orientation as “core.” It has been explicitly suggested that homosexuality will vanish in the next life.

Ron correctly points out that this is a brand new theological position. In fact, I think it runs contrary to fundamental Mormon understandings of the continuity of human character between this life and the next. See, for example, Alma 34:34: “that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.”

This is where Clark’s testimony is important. He and many other gay men and lesbians (and I include myself) have experienced our sexual orientation as a core aspect of who we are. When we embrace this aspect of ourselves, we find peace, we feel closer to others and to God, and we find true joy in loving relationships with members of the same sex. When we reject this aspect of ourselves, we experience intense conflict, anguish, depression, and become alienated from friends, family, and from God. To us, this feels like part of our “created,” God-intended selves, as Clark repeatedly emphasizes throughout his talk. So many of us still feel a fundamental disconnect between some of the official statements, and our deepest, profoundest experiences.

I have a testimony of the Church. I feel drawn to Church fellowship, and have been attending Church regularly for two years now, and have sought to live as many principles of the gospel as I can, while also honoring my 15-year loving commitment to my same-sex partner, and given the restrictions of being excommunicated. Clark apparently has a testimony as well, though he acknowledges that he has distanced himself from the Church in significant ways.

Another piece of Clark’s presentation that I can totally relate to is his very strong sense of connection to his Heavenly Father — the love and guidance and comfort he feels he has received from God in coming to terms with this. I have experienced this as well, and an incredible outpouring of the Spirit as I have returned to regular Church attendance and incorporating regular prayer, scripture study, and the word of wisdom into my life, and as I have applied the principles of chastity to my relationship. I have felt completely embraced by God and supported in this path.

I do not feel any obstacles at all or any contradiction at all between the fundamental principles of the Gospel, or between my life as a spirit child of our Heavenly Father, and my loving relationship with my partner. There are obvious disconnects between my experience and current Church practice. I’m not sure what to make of those disconnects, but I pray that the Church will willingly listen to our experiences and be willing to wrestle with the disconnects as a community, so that we don’t have to wrestle with them painfully and alone, as we have had to do for so many years.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

No More Beards?

I actually attended the panel at the 2005 Salt Lake City Sunstone Symposium where I saw the presentation of the paper published in the October 2007 issue of Sunstone, "Clean-Shaven: No More Beards." The author's talk actually made me squirm a bit. Not because I particularly disagreed with her central argument -- that gay men and women should be allowed to choose to marry a same-sex partner if they wish -- but because of the angry tone. The predominant emotion I felt at the time was relief that I was not one Ben Christensen, some hapless homo who had earned her wrath by marrying a woman and then compounded the sin by daring to write about the experience in Dialogue. And what was worst of all when he married was he knew he was gay, and so did his fiancée! And apparently, after publishing his article in Dialogue, so did everybody else!

Now as you can see from this recent picture, I rather like beards, and so does my partner. (I've tried to shave it on numerous occasions, but he won't let me because he likes it.) We're not anti-beard in this household. But we're talking about literal beards, not the figurative type which is a pejorative term applied to the wife of a gay man. In the classic sense of this meaning of "beard," a gay man marries a woman in order to create the false impression that he is heterosexual, and then he fools around with men behind her back, all the while enjoying the benefits of heterosexual social privilege. We are not so fond of that kind of beard.

But obviously, neither is Ben Christensen. Or, maybe he just didn't get the instruction manual, because he failed to acquire a proper beard on at least two counts. He forgot that when you marry a woman, you are not supposed to announce to the whole world that you are gay. That sort of defeats the purpose of marrying a woman in order to hide your sexual identity. Second, you don't remain faithful to your wife, and make infidelity extremely difficult by announcing to her and to everyone else in advance that you are gay, thereby building a certain kind of accountability into your marriage. That to me seems like guaranteeing that you will get the worst of both worlds: public skepticism about you caused by homophobia, and private inability to experience the same-sex sexuality a very important part of you craves. It does also, on the other hand, help to ensure that your marriage is based on something like total honesty and genuine affection. Now call me crazy, but if a gay man wishes to marry a woman, he should do it exactly the way Ben did.

Now this essay did express concerns about marrying under such circumstances that I find quite legitimate. One concern is that the time for announcing your gayness to a potential opposite-sex romantic interest is early rather than late in the dating process, preferably on or before the first date. Why? Because once a woman becomes emotionally invested in a relationship, once she falls in love with someone, she is not likely to be able to think as clearly as she ought to about the realities of marrying a person of differing sexual orientation. And if you don't think that it is possible to become emotionally invested in a relationship after a single date, then you've never dated at BYU. The time for her to decide if this is really something she wants to get mixed up in is when she has zero emotional investment, and is therefore totally free to decide, "Yes, the difficulties will be worth it," or, "No, this is not what I've envisioned for me."

A second concern she expressed is that in a society and in a Church where there is such extreme bias against homosexuality, and where there are still lots of folks talking about and believing in the possibility of voluntary change in sexual orientation, it is still possible to have dangerously unrealistic attitudes going into such a marriage. Again, I agree. There's disclosure, and then there's disclosure. Telling a potential significant other that you once struggled with same-sex attraction and then leaving it at that is probably not sufficient. Encouraging a potential significant other to think in terms of life-long conditions, and maybe even pointing her to educational resources providing real-life stories of marriages that failed and marriages that succeeded under such circumstances probably is closer to what I'd consider full and fair disclosure. Inviting her to read MoHo blogs, for instance, might be a great starting point for such disclosure.

A third concern she expressed is one I agree with only partially. She complained that no one who's ever getting married has any clue what they're getting into. But no person on the verge of getting married -- gay or straight -- ever thinks seriously in terms of the possibility that this might fail. To the contrary, young engaged folks are almost always bubbling over with the we're going to take on the world and succeed where all others have failed mentality. They probably are not normal if they do not also occasionally have attacks of the what can we possibly be thinking mentality. This just goes with the territory of the two conditions of youth and marriage. And life just is not (or should not be) about always playing it safe.

I admire Ben/Mr. Fob a lot. I also respect his fundamental motives for getting married, which are obviously not (to anyone with eyes and a heart) trying to somehow wrongfully claim heterosexual privilege that doesn't/shouldn't belong to him. His motives as I understand them, as he himself has clearly explained, include wanting his own biological family, and that is an understandable, even admirable, motivation. He clearly loves FoxyJ a lot. And there are certain things about marriage that should be held sacrosanct, one of which is namely that how Ben/Mr. Fob and FoxyJ work things out between them to make their marriage thrive and be happy is their business.

There is a heartache for me, though. It is to do with the fact that while Ben and others who pursue the particular path of love he has pursued are guaranteed protections and privileges and even a certain social status, my partner and I find ourselves facing very real disadvantages and discrimination because of the path of love we have pursued. I understand our choice is evil and all that, so we probably deserve whatever we get. But still, when you truly love someone, you hate to think that he might be imprisoned just because he can't establish his citizenship through you, or that he might get really sick and be hospitalized, and you would not have the fundamental right of helping to ensure that he gets the medical care he needs, and so on. And I am aware that folks feel obliged to deny me and the love of my life those kinds of fundamental human rights, because apparently the success of the entire Western-Civilization-thing depends upon coercing us to marry heterosexually. But it is a heartache nonetheless.

I have sort of given up on the worldly marriage thing. I have gradually grown in the awareness that whatever society says and does, there comes a point where you have to grow up, face your feelings, and take responsibility for your moral choices and your relationships. You have to figure out who you are, what you want, and then accept the risks and consequences of pursuing the path that you know is right for you. In Mormon circles, there's a special term we have for that: Free Agency. I admire Ben (and Beck, and Abelard, and Geckoman, and -L- and others) for having done that, and I pray for the grace and the love and the courage to do the same.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Relative Good

The relative good of every human achievement is always threatened by the chaos of evil and by the judgment of a good God who destroys man's imperfect handiwork in order to make room for something better.

-- Reinhold Niehbuhr, Beyond Tragedy

Freedom, Part II

Today Göran received his amended birth certificate in the mail. Finally, he is free. We are free. We can apply for passports now. We have no money for big travels! But it's the principle of the matter. Once we get the passports, we might celebrate by driving up to Thunder Bay, Canada, and having dinner in the Finnish quarter at the Hoito.


Thursday, November 8, 2007


I first started to date men in the fall of 1988. This was after I had spent a summer in a Roman Catholic monastery, exploring celibacy as a life calling, and after much fasting, prayer, and discernment, I had come to the conclusion that celibacy was not my calling. I had had a very important spiritual experience during my coming out process, in which I had been praying for God to help me discern whether I should seek to marry a woman, or whether I should live a life of celibacy, and the Spirit said very clearly to me: "Be open to all the possibilities." So after ruling marriage out and exploring celibacy, I felt free to explore the possibility of a relationship with a man.

I was 25 years old, and had never really dated. Not really. I had gone on dates with women, but those dates had been infrequent, and I had never dated anyone I was interested in having anything more than a casual friendship with. When I opened myself to the possibility of a relationship with a man, I suddenly found this huge reservoir of emotion bursting forth: excitement, eagerness, anxiety, fear, relief, longing. Whereas I had always been a casual, uninterested participant in dating with women, now I felt I had a huge investment. Now I had a potential to enter into something that would have huge personal significance.

I began with the idea that I was going to find "Mr. Right," and enter into a life-long, monogamous commitment with him. At the same time, I had no idea practically how to do that.

The first gay groups I got involved in were the various religious groups -- Lutherans Concerned, Dignity (Catholics) and Integrity (Episcopalians). But most of the participants in these groups tended to be older men, men I wasn't so attracted to. I also got involved in the University Gay Community, the group for gay men at the University of Minnesota. But most of these men were 4-8 years younger than I was -- not an age difference that seems like much to me now, but then seemed huge. In most significant ways, these guys were much less mature than I was. But they were also much more sophisticated than I was when it came to dating and relating to other gay men. I guess it would be generous to say that I was introverted, intimidated, and socially awkward in that setting, and found it extremely painful to try to meet men I might date there.

My first real gay friend was involved in none of these groups. I had met him at Lutheran Campus Ministry, though he was only marginally involved in this group. His approach to gay dating was: Cruise the gay bars downtown, find a man you think is hot, and convince him to take you home with him and have sex. If the two of you manage to go on a second date, you're on your way to a relationship! Most of the time, a second date never materialized. There were an awful lot of guys in that scene who considered love or commitment the ultimate turn-off. My friend Paul frequently took me with him out to the bars, and I watched this activity going on all around me, though I couldn't bring myself to participate in it... at first.

One of the problems I was encountering as I began the painful process of going on my first dates was the almost universal expectation that sex would happen very early in the dating process; most often on the first or second date. I had assumed -- from my limited heterosexual dating experience -- that sex would happen only after we had gotten to know each other very well and felt almost certain that we wanted a committed, monogamous relationship with each other. I discovered that, in the words of one friend, "Having sex is to gay men what sniffing butts is to dogs." I realized that if I said no to sex, I risked giving the impression that I was not really interested in dating, no matter how much I protested to the contrary.

I also found that my moral framework for resisting this kind of behavior was seriously eroded by a couple of basic facts.

Basic Fact Number One: getting married is not an option. How does this erode the moral framework for resisting promiscuity? Because marriage gives you a specific, concrete, publicly, commonly acknowledged boundary inside of which sexual activity is blessed, and outside of which sexual activity is frowned upon. Marriage is a solemn commitment you enter into with the intention to make it last. It is a moment when both partners clearly and publicly define their relationship to each other, and to all their gathered friends and families. If marriage is not an option, then how do you know when a relationship is serious enough for sex? Determining that becomes a much more slippery process, much more susceptible to rationalization.

Basic Fact Number Two: homosexuality is considered beyond the moral pale. When you come from a background where no homosexual behavior is ever considered moral no matter what the context, then you are left with the corollary that all homosexual behavior is equally immoral (or moral). Once you get to the point where you are open to considering a same-sex relationship, it is easy to find yourself questioning whether any norms of sexual morality apply to you any more. If the Church was wrong about being gay, why wouldn't it be wrong about sex and marriage? (Oh, yeah, we can't get married anyway.) Why wouldn't it be wrong about monogamy? (Oh yeah, the Church used to believe in polygamy.) It's easy to sink into extreme cynicism and moral relativism. It's easy to convince yourself, or allow yourself to be convinced, that nothing is wrong any more.

Then you enter a scene where that "nothing-is-wrong" notion is the operative assumption, and you start to feel that if you want any chance at happiness, you pretty much have to accept those terms. Or let me own it, that is how I came to feel. I accepted those terms.

I think at the beginning my approach was something like this: you want a relationship with a man. The circumstances under which you have the possibility of getting one aren't ideal. But you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs; you can't plant a garden without getting your hands dirty. So just take the plunge. Live life. There was a great quote by Martin Luther that I loved: "Sin boldly!" The idea was, if you are constantly worried about being perfect, you cannot live. You will hide in a corner your whole life trying to avoid mistakes, when you should be out living. Accept that you will make mistakes. Learn from them. Move on. The chance at finding love is worth it.

So I did. I started dating. I had sex. I enjoyed myself. And then love struck.

I met a guy through the University Gay Community, actually. He was a grad student like myself. We were a similar age, at a similar place in our coming out processes. He was gorgeous. He was intellectual. He was an activist. He was perfect. I fell hard. We started dating. We had sex on our second date, and the sex was incredible. Sex with him was always incredible, a transcendent experience for me. And I was convinced I had found the man I wanted to be with for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, I only gradually realized, when we met he was sort of rebounding from a break-up with some guy named Daniel. In the course of our relationship, he would bounce back and forth between ecstasy that I was the true love of his life, and being wobbly and uncertain and stand-offish. Finally, he called it quits. He told me the relationship was over. "We can still be friends," he told me.

I was shattered. I was so sure this was the one. For the first day after the break-up, I was in shock. I literally couldn't stop crying. I showed up at work at the University Archives, and then I hid back in the stacks where no one could see me, the tears running down my face. I ended up having to go home early. I think I was still in some form of mourning for at least a month.

Gradually I got over it. But before I had really gotten over it, I was already back in the dating scene. I could find another Mr. Right, I thought. And find him I did... I thought. But then I had my second Mr. Right break up with me. Then I started dating another Mr. Right. But eventually he broke up with me too.

When the third Mr. Right broke up with me, he told me that he didn't really believe in relationships. He thought there were really great (non-sexual) friendships, which could last a life-time, and then there was sex, which you got wherever you could find it. But you didn't expect anything from sexual partners but sex. He didn't want anything more from me than that. My interest in a commitment left him feeling trapped. He wanted the relationship to end before it got too serious.

That shattered me in a different way. At that point, I was losing not just a boyfriend, not just a relationship. I was losing faith that it might ever be possible for me to find a relationship that I could fashion into the great love of my life, into a life-long commitment.

Following that break-up, I met Göran, the great love of my life.

Though at that point I did not know it yet. When I met Göran I was completely jaded about relationships. Göran and I dated for about a month, and then I broke up with him, using the same shallow lines that had been used on me in my last break-up. I didn't feel I really wanted a commitment. I just wanted friendships. Sex was something you did to satisfy a hunger, to fill an ephemeral need, that's all. You shouldn't invest yourself in it really, any more than you'd invest yourself in the hamburger you're going to eat for dinner. That was really how I'd come to feel.

For about a year following my break-up with Göran, I lived my life very promiscuously. There were a lot of one night stands. I met men anonymously at gay beaches and t-rooms and at the gym and in cruisy parts of town.

I'd like to say I was terribly unhappy, but I was not. I was actually fairly contented with my life because I had lowered my expectations to match what I was getting out of life. "Oh, so this is as good as it gets. Oh well. I can live with this."

And then I met Göran again. And at the point in my life where I met him again, I realized that in fact I could enter a relationship with him, and that maybe that relationship could be a good thing. I could do with it, I could do without it, I thought. I didn't need it. But it could be a good thing. So we started going steady. And going steady evolved into moving into an apartment together. And then one day in August of 1995, we got married. Göran had this crazy notion that had just not entered into my thick Mormon skull that it didn't matter that we couldn't get legally married, what mattered was our commitment to each other. I was skeptical about the benefits of that corrupt heterosexual institution. But once we actually went through the ceremony, I can say there was a tangible difference in the quality of our relationship. It really did matter. It really made a difference.

Almost immediately after Göran and I had made some sort of commitment to each other, I realized how being in a relationship that truly works, where there is true love and reciprocity and sharing and commitment, is infinitely more joyful than the rootless, promiscuous lifestyle I had once settled for. What I did not realize was the depth of joy that could become possible in this relationship. That has taken me much work and many years to fully appreciate.

I realized that I had settled for a lie in accepting a promiscuous life-style, a lie that I told myself to mask the pain I had experienced when earlier relationships had not worked out. What I also realized is that the promiscuity was damaging in fundamental ways I had never anticipated it would be. It created patterns of thought and behavior that caused real problems in my relationship with Göran. To his credit, his love for me was greater than those problems. We have worked through those issues together, and I gradually began to discover the true joys of commitment. Repentance is possible. There is grace and atonement. My loving partner has taught me that.

Then came the call of the Spirit. Since returning to the Church, the Spirit has essentially said to me: "You have found a good way. Now let me teach you a better way." Like the moon is brighter than the stars, my relationship with Göran was more joyful than the promiscuous lifestyle I had once lived. But as I have recommitted myself to apply the principles of chastity in thought and in my heart, as I have set pornography aside and guarded my heart and sought to practice restraint, and given myself completely to Göran, the glory of our relationship now to the way our relationship once was is like the light of the sun is to the light of the moon. I anticipate that our future will only continue to grow and deepen and get better and more glorious in every way imaginable.

I'm inclined to say that sex is a good thing. It is an inherent, intrinsic good, and when we enjoy it even under circumstances that are not ideal, it is still a gift of God. But the goodness of it can be relative. And it is worthwhile to strive to experience it and appreciate it under circumstances that afford us the greatest possible good.

In October 2006 I spoke on a panel at the Affirmation Convention in Portland. I spoke about these experiences. One of the participants raised his hand and expressed frustration that, in entering the dating scene, he was discovering the same problems that I had experienced years ago in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He wanted to date in a more restrained, ethical manner. But he just didn't know how to do that. There are so few in the gay community at large who share those kinds of values. And if he limited himself to those who did share those values, his choices would be impossibly limited.

I didn't have much good advice to give him. I could hardly point to my own life as exemplary. In many ways, I feel as if my happiness is the result of dumb luck. I often behaved in ways that were almost calculated to deprive me of any happiness at all. Sometimes I feel I do not deserve to be happy. Yet here I am, happier than I could ever have imagined I would be.

But I've had time to re-think my answer to this question. I think we can hold on to our values, I think we can keep a moral compass. I think we do have to live life. We have to be OK with making mistakes. And if you are a gay man, you may find you have to seek a relationship under circumstances that are not ideal. But we still need to remind ourselves that accepting non-ideal circumstances is not the same thing as saying that our values don't matter, or that all behavior is morally equivalent. And there are certain places we just shouldn't go and that we don't need to go. How to navigate these waters is not easy. Each of us will have hard choices to make that ultimately we alone bear the responsibility for. I have learned this the hard way.

I realize that I went an extreme route in some ways. Not everyone experiments or explores their sexuality to the extent or in the way I did. Again, I feel lucky. Dumb, undeserved luck. Some people go that route and they don't make it back. When General Authorities warn against behavior that is immoral, this is incredibly wise advice that we should seek prayerfully to implement as best we can. I have lived to experience deep sorrow for the things I did. I do not believe promiscuous behavior to be "victimless." It hurt me and it hurt others. It was not necessary for me to learn in this way. This is one reason I have become a firm advocate for same-sex marriage and for developing broader social support and role models for gay men to build relationships in healthy ways that respect ourselves, respect our bodies, and respect our sexuality. Mohohawaii has posted some good advice on his site for gay men considering dating other men. We need more discussions about this that acknowledge the good, the bad and the ugly, and always take us closer to the good.

Religious opposition to social supports like same-sex marriage I feel to be terribly, profoundly misguided. Such opposition contributes to the moral anomie that is destroying the lives of many, many gay men. Promiscuity does not serve God's purposes. It desensitizes us, it erodes our capacity for genuine love. It cuts us off from the Spirit. It dehumanizes us. This serves Satan's purposes, not God's. The people of God should support anything that helps put safeguards in place and that pulls brothers (and some sisters) back from that brink of destruction.

Our sexuality is sacred, far more sacred than most of us realize. Restraint, self-control, waiting for the right person and the right time is a good thing. It refines us and enables us to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit more clearly. Commitment makes life worth living. Whatever is good becomes far better when we stick with it and work at it. And love is the sacred fabric of the Universe, the beginning and end of our existence and the source of our divine being. Sex that serves love's agenda is the only kind of sex really worth having.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

He that is Left in Zion Shall be Called Holy

Isaiah 4 describes a time when "Zion" will be stripped and cleansed. The obvious referent is the Babylonian captivity. But as we are wont to do in reading Isaiah, we can see the events of two and a half thousand years ago as a foreshadowing of our own times. Having just read Revelation, I am still thinking about the times of trial we are promised before the Savior comes again; so I see in the description of what Zion went through in the Babylonian captivity as a foreshadowing of what Zion will go through before the Savior comes.

This chapter describes a cleansing and a purging process, whereby "filth" is washed away, and "blood" is purged by judgment and burning. What is left behind after the purging will be "holy."

This is a process we see at work in cyclical fashion throughout the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon promises that when the people of this land are righteous -- when we are humble, when we show concern for the poor, when we honor the principles of Zion (i.e., we are one with each other and with the Lord), we will thrive. When we are wicked -- when we are lifted up in pride, when we stop caring about the poor, when we become obsessed with false divisions and status, we will experience catastrophe. This is the Lord's way of helping us achieve holiness.

This text in Isaiah applies these principles specifically to Zion -- to the Church, to the people of God. It warns us that there will be a time of trial coming, after which Zion will be purged, and only those who are holy will remain. To me, this is a warning to watch my heart, to cultivate now the virtues of holiness while there is day, while there is time.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Do Men Need to be Tamed?

I finally just got the latest issue of Sunstone in the mail. For some reason, Minneapolis is the last state in the Union to get Sunstone subscriptions. This issue is devoted to "Women's Voices." I eventually want to comment in a different post on Holly Welker's piece, "Clean Shaven: No More Beards," which is a critique of mixed-orientation marriage, and which aims very particular criticism at our own Mr. Fob. But before I comment on that piece, I wanted to address a very different piece, with very different implications by Tracie A. Lamb, "Why Do We Need Each Other? A Personal Search for God's Odd Juxtaposing of Male and Female."

Lamb begins her essay by talking about how as a girl and as a maturing young woman she was afraid of men. She feared and disliked men because, in a word, they were emotionally retarded, crude beasts. They mocked her and made fun of her and they sexually objectified her (an uncle actually felt her up, though she called him on it and nipped any further sexual abuse in the bud). She gradually overcame her fear of men as she came to accept the notion that men are fundamentally different from women because of biology. She gained insight into her relationships with men from a book, Michael Gurian's A Fine Young Man, and from various articles on biology and gender. The fact that adolescent men have as much as 20 times the amount of testosterone "surging" through their bloodstreams as women accounts for their aggressive and sexually promiscuous behavior. As she came to understand men, she realized she pitied them and decided that in fact it was women's task to civilize the beast and help men make themselves productive members of society through familial commitments. Women, she said, cannot abdicate this civilizing role by leaving the home, or the rest of society falls to pieces.

Now I'll start by saying this is not a new argument. It is, in effect, a twenty-first-century restatement of an argument that first came into being in the Victorian age, at the time when the industrialization of western societies was provoking concern that traditional social structures and familial roles were falling apart. I'll let others debate the particular merits of this argument and its premises. But I was intrigued by the thesis that men and women are essentially different species. Because if true, it seems to me that based on the evidence she offered in support of this argument, it is no less reasonable to argue that gay men and straight men are as alien to each other and as much different species from each other as women are from men.

Based on my personal experience, and the experience of many, many gay men I've come to know over the years, we just don't behave like straight men in any sense that makes it reasonable to generalize about us in the same category. I'll offer some of my own experience growing up, and let other gay men pipe in if they feel they can relate.

As a boy child, I did not own (or want) typical boy toys. I had no interest in cars, trucks, speed racers, etc. I despised war-toys: G.I. Joe disgusted me; I hated and refused to play with toy soldiers of any kind. (That might have been a function of some of the graphic images of war I saw on T.V. growing up in the Vietnam era.) On the other hand, I liked dolls, and played frequently with my sisters' Barbies (even when they complained bitterly to my parents). Obviously I never got my own set of Barbies.

When no one was around the house, I played "dress up" with my mom's clothes and make-up. I once got severely scolded when my dad arrived home from work to find me prancing about on the front lawn, poking holes in the sod with my mom's high heels.

A favorite game I used to play with my younger brother was "Mr. Bear" and "Mr. Rabbit." I was Mr. Rabbit, he was Mr. Bear. The game consisted of Mr. Rabbit preparing cakes and rolls, and then inviting Mr. Bear over for tea. Then Mr. Bear would reciprocate.

I hated competitive sports, and avoided them like the plague. I will never forget getting severely scolded by my parents when the neighborhood boys tried to recruit me into a game of touch football, and I just ran home rather than subject myself to that. Whenever the T.V. channel got turned to sports, I usually withdrew -- to my room to read a book or to the kitchen with the women folk.

I tended to be a sensitive and introspective boy. I both laughed and cried often. I was artistic and I loved books. I excelled at school, despite being taunted by other boys. I was pretty much tortured by my peers in Junior High; my mother talks about how I came home from school every day in tears during my first year in high school. I befriended those I felt were outcasts. I established close friendships with girls as well as boys.

My comfortableness with my own emotions also uniquely equipped me for religion. I was aware of the Holy Spirit speaking to me at the age of eight, at which time I acquired a testimony and began to frequently bear it in Sacrament meeting. My relationship with the Church would be another essay, but suffice it to say, the Church played a central role in my life from the time of my baptism on. I was not afraid of being viewed as "different" at school because of my spirituality. There were not many other Mormons in my school in upstate New York, but my observation was that the few there were tended to keep a low profile about their religion, and tried to blend in with their peers. I did not. I was openly Mormon, gave Books of Mormon to my friends and teachers, and spoke openly about my beliefs and values in classes.

I could go on, but I think I've made my point. How many other gay boys are there out there -- from many different religious backgrounds, not just Mormon -- who grew up quiet, sensitive and spiritual, artistic or bookish, uninterested in typical boyish interests and pursuits? We were not the playground bullies, we were the playground victims. We were not the classroom-challenged, the rebels, the bad boys wanting to sow our wild oats, we were the Sunday School teacher's pets, the angelic kids, the good boys who self-consciously set an example for the rest. We didn't need women to civilize us, we were the vanguard of civilization among our sex, willing allies of the womenfolk in their desperate attempts to tame their unruly men.

Which brings us to the question of sex and marriage. According to Lamb, women and the Church work together in harmony to civilize men. Women use men's sexual attraction as bait to reel men into a life of familial responsibility. The Church uses a regimented and hierarchical priesthood organization to give men the structure, discipline, and role-models they need in order to become adequate providers for their families.

But wait! Sexual attraction and connubial bliss may be the reasons why straight men marry straight women. And straight men may become civilized in the bargain. But the cart is before the horse in the case of gay men who marry women. Gay men marry women in spite of the fact that they are not attracted to women at all. Gay men do not marry women in order to become more civilized, they marry women because they already have a highly developed sense of civic, familial and spiritual responsibility. They marry out of a sense of duty, and a highly self-sacrificial sense of duty at that.

The problem for straight men in our society has always been to convince them to buy a stake in civilization. Lamb in her essay suggests that institutions such as the Boy Scouts, organized sports, and the military, and -- in the LDS Church, the Priesthood -- help to reward men for investing in society with camaraderie and social status. Upholding strict sexual morality and allowing sexual expression only within the confines of marriage is a tool for ensuring that dangerous male sexuality is kept in check.

I would argue that the problem for gay men has always been the opposite. We love and are attracted to and always (covertly) become the mainstay of every homosocial male organization that aims to uplift and civilize men. (My book is about how we did that in the case of one such "civilizing" organization, the Young Men's Christian Association.) Our problem is not that we are insufficiently attracted to civilizing influences, the problem is that civilization despises us, tortures us and excommunicates us the moment they realize we are gay. Gay social anomy -- promiscuity, chemical abuse, suicide -- is the product of homophobia, not of our gayness.

For those of us who choose marriage or celibacy, the challenge, I believe, is to provide sufficient emotional, psychological and social support to help deal with the pain and the challenge of living without the kind of sexual intimacy human beings naturally long for. For the rest of us, having been excommunicated from civilization, we need to develop non-homophobic role-models, structures and social support to help channel and discipline our sexuality into stable, committed relationships, to nurture our spirituality, and to empower us to use our time and resources in the service of the common good.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Letter to a Concerned Evangelical Friend

Recently I received the following letter from a dear friend, from another life-time.

Dear John!

It has been a while since we have written. Not much new here and we are fine. However I felt that I had to write as I learned of your decision to return to Mormonism. I am deeply saddened and confused by this. I will never forget your struggle and the pain you had and the joy you felt on leaving Mormonism. Those reasons are still there and the Holy Spirit would not lead you to such. I know this angers you that I speak such but I must speak. You KNOW that the Mormon faith is not real. Scripture speaks so clearly on this. Of course you must do what you must do but I will keep you in prayer that you would realize the severity of what you are doing. I am in tears, John, tears of frustration for such a beautiful soul as yourself. Do not deny your salvation and the promises you made to Jesus in your Christian baptism! You are in our prayers!


I wrote the following letter in response:

Dearest Mark:

Since your email, I've wanted to respond for some time in more depth, but have not really had the time to sit down and respond in the way I have wished until now.

I want to preface my comments by reiterating that your email did not anger me. Nor did it completely surprise me. You were a true friend to me at a point in my life when I was extremely vulnerable and in a lot of pain. When we first met, I had recently been suicidal, and it was literally life-saving to me that day when you assured me: “No matter what anyone tells you, never let anyone make you believe that anything can come between you and the love of God.” This assurance of yours is still a cornerstone of my life, and always will be.

For a time your parents became in a very real sense surrogate parents to me, when my decision to leave the Mormon Church caused a major breach between me and my own parents. Your mom and dad housed me, they loved me and reassured me, and they helped me get resettled at a time when I had literally lost everything and was all alone in the world. I still have – and wear with pride and happiness – the hand-knit sweater your mother made and gave me. I will never forget your parents' Christian kindness toward me.

Having said this, it is necessary for me to point out to you that you do not now, nor have you ever had any adequate understanding of Mormonism. I never challenged your misconceptions when I was in close contact with you because my unique circumstances at the time left me very vulnerable. It was indeed necessary for me to leave the LDS Church for a time. Some of the reasons you know well, and some you do not know so well. I want to clarify these reasons now so that there is no further misunderstanding.

At the time we first met, I was indeed laboring under the burden of “works righteousness.” But this was not a consequence of my Mormon faith or upbringing. It was the result of homophobic attitudes which are held in common by Mormons and Evangelical Christians alike. Most conservative Christians share the belief or the attitude that homosexuality is a sin, and that a gay person must “overcome” his homosexuality in order to be saved. Though believers of many stripes and persuasions are beginning to understand the falsehood in this attitude, it is still predominant in all conservative churches, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Mormon. This attitude, which I had internalized, left me in a state of despair. It left me believing that I must perform the colossal work of becoming something I am not in order to be worthy of God's gift of salvation. In a word, works righteousness, whose end product is always despair.

I was saved from that despair once I came to internalize an understanding that Mormons and Evangelical Christians alike also share in common: the understanding that salvation is a gift of divine grace. That message of grace was clearly communicated to me by you, and by other Evangelical Christians in a way that I had found it difficult to accept in the faith of my upbringing. But this message, so beautifully, so uncompromisingly, so purely expressed in some of the great, classic formulations of Evangelical faith, was retracted by those same Evangelical Christians once they came to know that I was gay. Once I came to accept my gayness and live my life more openly as a gay man, suddenly Evangelicals were eager to correct my apparent misperception that salvation was an act of grace apprehended through faith. Instead, I needed to understand that if I wished to be saved, I needed to overcome or suppress or deny my sexuality.

I will always be grateful to Evangelicals for helping me clearly understand the nature of God's grace. Having received that gift, I will not relinquish it... to Evangelicals or to Mormons.

Shortly after we met, you invited me to view with you The Godmakers, a film that allegedly exposed “the truth” about Mormonism. This was a terrible film, packed with lies and extreme anti-Mormon propaganda. The film alleged, among other things, that Mormonism was secretly a Satanic cult, and that Satanic ritual was covertly embedded in the Mormon temple rituals. At the time that we met, I was in a fragile state of mind from my recent near suicide. I felt mortally wounded by the church of my upbringing, and felt neither able nor inclined to defend it, even against unreasonable attacks. I was also extremely vulnerable to the allegations about Satanic influence because for some time during my last year at BYU I had in fact been tormented by panic attacks and by nightmares of Satanic possession. Unfortunately, the Satanic “attacks” and experiences continued for some time after I left the Mormon Church and became an Evangelical Christian. They finally came to an end only once I came to accept myself fully and unequivocally as a gay man.

I believe that it was extreme homophobia – both in the Mormon and in the Evangelical Christian communities – that left me vulnerable to the Satanic torment I experienced. A book that helped me gain some perspective on this is a book I would recommend to anyone exploring some of the roots of Christian homophobia: Sexuality and the Devil: Symbols of Love, Power and Fear in Male Psychology, by Dr. Edward J. Tejirian. I believe in Satan. I believe he is a real being who has real power in this world, and whose goal is to separate us from God and make us unhappy. I believe Satan makes masterful use of lies and fear tactics to pursue that agenda. Having come to accept and love myself as a gay man has enabled me to experience the love of God more fully than I ever have in my life, and that perfect love has cast out all fear. My self-understanding and self-love – true self-love which is based on an understanding of who I am and what my relationship to God is – has enabled me to fully appreciate and accept the efficacy of Christ's atonement in my life and to grow into the full stature of God's creation in me.

Telling lies about the LDS Church and promoting fear of Mormons and Mormonism – as the film The Godmakers did – is a tactic of Satan. I am fortunately now strong enough emotionally, psychologically and spiritually to recognize those tactics for what they are and to unequivocally reject them.

Let me now tell you a little about what Mormonism means to me, and why I feel drawn back to the LDS faith as I have matured spiritually as a Christian. Mormons believe in modern day revelation. This means we believe that God still speaks to and guides human beings. We believe that the Holy Spirit is alive and active in the world today, and we believe in all the gifts of the Spirit, including the gift of prophecy, and the ability to receive modern-day scripture, which is why we have the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. Anyone who is skeptical about the congruity between LDS scriptures and the Bible is free to read and judge for themselves.

As a natural extension of our belief in modern-day revelation, we also believe that every human being is entitled to personal revelation and guidance. The testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of Prophecy. We seek a witness of the Holy Spirit to strengthen our faith in Christ's atonement. But we also believe that if we listen, the Spirit will lead us and help us to make every major important decision in our lives. I have experienced the presence of the Spirit in my life, reassuring me of God's love for me, and testifying that Christ lives.

I know that Christ lives. Thanks to his atonement – which is a free gift to me and to all who turn to him in faith – I have new life and am a new being. Each day, I strive to “put on Christ” by living more and more like he lived when he was on the earth. I am not – I cannot be – saved through these efforts to sanctify my life. I cannot, nor will I ever be able to, earn or be worthy of the gift of salvation that has come to me through the atonement. I am and always will be a beggar in relation to God, a beggar who is utterly and completely dependent on the infinite, eternal love that God has given me through Christ's sacrifice for me. That is the heart of my faith, and it is the heart of the faith of millions of other Latter-day Saints. While LDS have distinctive beliefs about scripture, modern revelation, Church organization and priesthood authority, we share this faith in Christ with millions of other Christians. You need have no fear or concern for me or for my salvation on this account.

I have experienced the healing touch of Christ in my life. I consider myself a witness of him. My love for my partner, my love for my family, my love for all those who are my friends and neighbors, is a natural extension of this love that God has poured out on me so abundantly.

I am grateful for you and I love you, and I always have. Be at peace. Do not be afraid for my soul. If you feel so inclined, if you think I am lost, pray for me. Pray whatever you wish for me, because I trust the God who answers those prayers.

I am (still) your brother in Christ,


Thursday, November 1, 2007

Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting

Friends of ours are in crisis right now. So one of the most important things I feel I can do right now is to be a friend. This is not easy. It is not easy to witness suffering in those you love deeply. And since this particular crisis includes (but is not limited to) a separation and an impending divorce, another challenge is not to get drawn into taking sides. I have struggled to try to see things objectively, but also to be fully present.

On Monday, I got an email from our social worker, informing us about a child who was available for placement. This child has a significant disability, which includes certain behavioral issues. Göran and I sat down together that evening. We found ourselves doing research on the Internet to learn more about this particular disability. We talked. We wrestled. And gradually we realized that we did not have the experiential or the physical or financial resources to successfully take this child in. We had to say no.

And these experiences have left me reflecting on the nature of love, and also on my own limits and failings. Love means going the distance. I'm there for someone, no matter what. When they really need me, I drop whatever is happening and I help. I give of myself completely. I stay until the job is done. Limits mean I only have so much strength. I can only do so much. I do the best I can, I give till I can give no more, then I have to stop. I have to accept that I cannot solve every problem in my life, so I have to focus on solving the ones I can. Failings mean I have screwed up. I have done things that hurt me, that hurt my loved ones. I blinded myself, I denied my role in wrong-doing, I did not take responsibility.

How do we know the difference? How do we know when to say we will go the distance no matter what the cost, and when to acknowledge that we've gone as far as we can go? How do we know when we are incapable of doing what is demanded, and when we are capable but just don't have the will? How do we find the will?

Life is messy. Faced with circumstances such as these, I have found myself on my knees frequently, praying for help. Praying for God to help me and to help those I love: give us strength, help us see clearly, give us courage to face what we have to face. Praying to help us not get overcome with the fear that paralyzes, that sends us running when we need to stand firm. And this morning as I prayed, as I was aware of my own weaknesses, I realized I need to fast now too. I need the clarity and the humility and the calm that comes with fasting. I realized that some problems demand that seriousness. The real problems in life we just can't solve without prayer and fasting.

But then on the bus ride to work this morning, I was blessed with a moment of peace and clarity. Göran had a little puzzle book. He opened it up, and he and I worked on a puzzle together. That seemed like an image to me of how to move forward. In that moment, I realized that even when life seems too complex and too messy to get a handle on, it is also exceedingly simple. It boils down to just being present in the moment that is given to us, just focusing on one thing at a time, on the problem at hand, and being grateful for the people in our lives. Recognizing the good all around us, even when the bad seems in the foreground.

Yes, I've made mistakes. I've screwed up. I don't know why the wrong things I've done didn't do more harm than they did. How was I so lucky? And yes, life can hurt sometimes. It can hurt so bad we think we can't survive. But we can survive. We can find the strength we need, even when it's not obvious. Yes life is messy. Yes, we often don't know how to move forward. But yes, love is worth it. And yes, if we pray for understanding and strength, if we put ourselves on the line, if we are willing to fast, if we give our whole hearts, we can even transcend our limits. Miracles can happen.

It is time for some fasting and prayer.