In the spring of 1986, I had a plan. I was at the end of my junior year at Brigham Young University. By any objective, worldly measure, I had a lot to look forward to. I was a recipient of the Kimball Scholarship, the highest academic award at BYU, a straight-A student, and had just received an award for best undergraduate research paper in History, and had as a mentor and role-model one of BYU's brightest historians. I should have been making plans for graduate school and plotting a career. But my mind was not on the future. At that point, I was pretty sure I had no desire to live any more. So my plan, after returning to my parents' home in Massachusetts for the summer, was to wait until I had been left alone at the house with one of the family cars, and then lock myself in the garage with it and start the engine running, and then just go to sleep. To me, that was a good plan, involving the least amount of pain.
A few years ago, I encountered some Mormon missionaries on the front doorstep of the home of a friend. When I explained to them that I had once been a member of the Church, one of them asked me, “What caused you to lose your testimony?”
I replied, “I didn't lose my testimony. It was because of my testimony I almost killed myself.”
The truth is, I loved the Church. I loved it so much that I could not see a way to live without it. And increasingly, as I came to terms with what it means to be gay, I could not see a way to live in it either. I still love the Church with my whole heart. And I still have a testimony. My whole joy in life has been in finding the courage to acknowledge that still.
More recently, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who is gay and Presbyterian. We were discussing the problem of gay Mormon suicide. In light of the fact that gay Mormons have one of the highest suicide rates in the country, my friend asked me, “Rather than trying to reconcile homosexuality and Mormonism, shouldn't you be helping gay Mormons to leave the Church?”
I replied, “The problem is, suicide is how they are leaving the Church. Finding a way of reconciliation is how we will help gay Mormons live.”
Most of my friends outside the Church don't understand how any gay person would voluntarily remain affiliated with a Church that denies the validity of same-sex relationships, or that, worse, actively works to deny civil rights to same-sex couples, as it did recently (and notoriously) in the successful campaign to pass Proposition 8 in California, banning legal same-sex marriages. Many people assume that to be gay and Mormon is somehow impossible, a contradiction in terms.
True, far, far too many of us saw it as impossible enough that we took our lives. Many others of us have found a way to come to terms with being gay, and to see ourselves and our sexuality as good, and have opened ourselves to the kind of affirmation of humanity that is possible in loving, intimate relationships. And most in that category are living in exile from the Church, having been excommunicated or having left voluntarily, and have totally disassociated themselves from the Church, though not all of us. Some of us, myself included, are finding ways to nurture a genuine Latter-day Saint spirituality, and remain connected to the Church in some way.
Many of us, following the advice of Church leaders of a previous generation, married and had children. And many of those marriages foundered against the rocks of excessive or insufficient passion, but not all of them. So many of us are still working, with varying kinds of success, at making these seemingly gravity-defying, mixed-orientation marriages work, and are getting varying degrees of support from the Church.
And many of us are following the current advice of Church leaders to avoid marriage unless there is a “great” mutual attraction, and to remain celibate. Many find the loneliness of celibacy too much to bear, but not all. Fortunately, in recent years there have been greater attempts to speak openly and more compassionately about the challenges faced by gay Mormons, which has provided some relief and support to those who have chosen this route.
I would say it is not impossible to be both gay and Mormon, but it is very difficult. And the truth is that the choices faced by gay Mormons are not different in kind from the choices faced by very, very many others. I want to speak this morning about taking the difficult path of reconciling seeming opposites, about its dangers and its rewards.
I am a teacher of American religious history. For good or for ill, the American religious landscape and the plethora of diverse religious communities that occupy that landscape have all been shaped by the American frontier experience. There was a time in our history when that frontier was literal and geographical. America began as a place where you went if there wasn't space for you because you were too religiously different. Puritans, Quakers, Baptists, Mennonites, Catholics, Jews, and freethinkers all arrived on American shores in search of a place where they could be unmolested. In the broad open spaces of America, you could flee changing conditions in your homeland in order to preserve the purity of an ancient tradition, or you could leave an old and outmoded tradition behind in search of a new one, like Methodism, or Unitarianism, or the way of the Disciples, or Universalism or Mormonism. And as the religious landscape of the eastern seaboard colonies became increasingly crowded and intolerant, you simply packed your bags and moved West, which is famously what my ancestors did. No place for Mormons in New York, or Ohio, or Missouri, or Illinois? On, westward, to Utah!
The frontier was geographical, but it was also psychological and spiritual and political. The political frontier was embodied in the First Amendment, abolishing religious establishments and protecting free religious expression. In the First Amendment, Americans unprecedentedly made every man and woman the ultimate arbiter of spiritual truth, allowing us to part ways from each other in as many different directions as there are citizens. The psychological frontier is reflected in our sense that religion is a private affair, making every American an island. The spiritual frontier is reflected in our belief that every man and every woman chooses his or her own destiny. Old style Calvinist notions of predestination died quickly and unceremoniously in the fires of American revivalism. Every American, in a sense, now sits on the “anxious bench,” the fate of their eternal soul hanging in the balance of a decision they alone can make.
And yet, the frontier – both the literal one and the figurative one – was a fiction. In the American imagination the frontier is uninhabited. There is plenty of room there for each to go his or her own way. But there were no uninhabited spaces in America, not really. In order to make it so, we had to deny the existence of Pequods and Powhatans and Creeks, Iroquois and Delaware and Cherokee, Shawnee and Ojibwe and Lakota and Kiowa and Arapaho, Shoshone and Dine and Ute, and Klamath and Nez Perce and Chinook. And in the process, we also had to deny everything that connects each and every one of us to each and every other one of us. We invested in the fiction that what I do, the way I live my life, has no effect on you, is unconnected to the way you live yours.
To fail to see the ways in which we are connected, to act as if we are not connected, when in fact we are profoundly connected, when in fact our attitudes, our words, our deeds have profound impacts on others, is the definition of hell. So perhaps it is that true freedom, true faith, true life consists not in fleeing our problems for some imaginary frontier, but rather in standing our ground, coming to terms, facing our fears, wrestling our demons and ultimately coming to see ourselves in the perplexing, unfathomable, irreducible other.
Sometimes that other is ourselves. As a gay man, the demon I first had to wrestle was that image of me as apostate and rebellious, as promiscuous and degenerate, as selfish and irresponsible. But I can't ultimately face those fears if I deflect them by viewing those who disagree with me as dogmatic and autocratic, prudish and intolerant, pitiless and rigid. To stereotype and scapegoat others is an evasion that prevents me from fully loving myself. Once I let go judgment – of myself and of others – I am finally able to truly connect and to be real with them. This is as true of my relationships with my husband and with my son, as it is of my relationships with co-workers, as it is of relationships with the members and leaders of my Mormon ward, as it is of my relationship with God.
The day it was most difficult for me to attend Church in the Lake Nokomis Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was Sunday, November 9, 2008, the Sunday following the passage of Proposition 8 in California. My husband and I were legally married in Riverside, California the preceding July 25. Our wedding was attended by my entire family, and it was one of the most joyous occasions of our lives. So we had a personal investment in the outcome of that particular vote. I didn't know what it would be like for me to be there in my LDS congregation, the Sunday after the success of a campaign that the LDS Church had so disproportionately contributed to for the purpose of erasing my marriage. Would the pain and sadness that I felt about Proposition 8 taint my ability to love, and learn from, and worship with the Saints?
There was a moment after Sunday School, when a casual conversation between two members caught my ear. A sister was uncritically repeating one of the assertions of the “Yes on 8” campaign that gay rights activists wanted to force the schools to teach children acceptance of homosexuality. A brother accused gay rights protesters of religious intolerance. I already felt wounded. These comments were like salt in my wounds. Wasn't it enough to take away our marriage? I didn't want to take anything away from them. I had no desire to diminish them in any way. How could they not see the hypocrisy in what they were saying? I wanted to say something. It felt like a kind of dying to keep my peace. It feels like a kind of dying to admit now that I said nothing.
But I kept my peace. These members of my ward know that I am gay and in a same-sex relationship. One of them was my Sunday School teacher for a time and appreciated my comments in her class. The other I had assisted by volunteering in a genealogy project. To argue with that brother or that sister in that setting would immediately have put a chasm between them and me, which I'm not sure we would have had the power to bridge after that. It would be hard for them to see me after that other than through the offense I had taken; hard for me to see them after that other then through the inevitable defensiveness a reaction from me would have provoked. It was better for us to continue to see each other as brothers and sisters; easier for them to figure out for themselves what went wrong when the time is right. More importantly, to lose patience and to argue then would have been to lose trust in the larger truth that my humanity and my dignity do not depend on what they say in ignorance, nor on what I might reply in anger to defend myself.
Do we have to be perfect in order to love one another? Does our love have to be perfect to be real? Or is love like a seed, least perfect when we first put it in the ground, and growing more perfect as it sends roots into the soil and sprouts up toward the light? The frontier mentality in me wants me to pull up and leave, find someplace more congenial. But this is how we learn faith: when our heart aches, but still we stay put, and we keep watering, and we wait to see if there can be growth.
So let me tell you about the moment, in August of 1986, when I first realized that I no longer wanted to kill myself. I had been so angry at God, ever since the moment it sunk in to me that no matter how much I fasted and prayed, no matter how many good works I did, no matter how good a missionary I was, no matter how faithfully I attended Church or paid my tithing or served in every calling that my bishop asked me, no matter what, God would not change me and make me straight. I was so angry. It was so unfair. Why would he not do this for me? Wasn't this a righteous desire? Didn't God want me to be straight? How could God expect me to be straight and then not give me this blessing that I wanted? So when God did not give me what I asked for, I stopped praying and I began wishing for death.
I did not want to speak to God any more, but God did not stop speaking to me. After I went home to Massachusetts with that plan to end my life, I met an Episcopal priest who befriended me, and whose kindness helped ease some of the anxiety and pain I felt. But the moment I felt the Spirit most strongly was later that summer, in Helsinki, Finland in a student exchange program. I was alone in a dormitory on a small college campus just to the north of Helsinki, when I had an incredible sense of the love of God just enveloping me. Letting go my anger and pride, for the first time in months I knelt down and began to pray. And I heard the voice of God telling me clearly and lovingly that there was no part of me that he did not know; he knew me from before I was born; he knew me from my inmost parts. He knew that I was gay. And he loved me unconditionally.
It seems strange to me now, but I had almost given up everything, I had been willing to kill myself, because I had taken for granted that God judged me and condemned me and hated me for being gay. I had never bothered to ask God; and I had never listened for an answer.
This is why heading for the frontier often cannot help us: because it is so often our own limitations that need to be worked through in order for us to grow.
I am certain that we sometimes need the psychic space that separation gives us. I'm not saying that it's always bad. With God's blessing, I left the LDS Church for nineteen years, and in that time I went to grad school, came out of the closet, became an activist, met my husband of seventeen years now, and continued to wrestle with faith. It was all part of a necessary process of growth. Then, in another dramatic communication of the Spirit which came to me while I was at a conference of Mormon intellectuals in Salt Lake City in August 2005, I was reminded that I still had a testimony, and it was time now for me to go home and finally learn the lessons that had been postponed when I left the Church nineteen years earlier.
The Old Testament scripture for today is a key text for Mormons. These words of Malachi were quoted in slightly different form by the angel Moroni when he appeared to the prophet Joseph Smith in 1823:
Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.
Without the children, the parents can't be saved, and without the parents, the children can't be saved. If we forget our covenants to each other, if we forget each other, the whole world is wasted.
For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
We can't save ourselves. We can't save our own souls, for as Jesus said:
Whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
I pray that, when the time comes, we will all find the courage to face those difficult moments that come to each of us when we need to exchange our lives for our souls.
I pray in Jesus' name.