Thursday, April 9, 2009

Coming Out in Our Wards

Since posting about my experience a few Sundays ago bearing testimony in my ward, I've had a number of people comment or email me expressing amazement at what a unique and loving and supportive ward I must have. I will not deny that my ward is an amazing, very loving, very reverent and caring group of people. Nor will I deny the fact that my ward may be different from many other wards by virtue of the fact that it is located in a demographically diverse, urban area. This probably predisposes them to be a little bit less uncomfortable with racial or ethnic diversity, or shocked by diversity in sexual orientation. Still, having grown up in the Church and having experienced a number of different wards both in and out of Utah, I will say that my ward is also a very conventional ward in many ways, and more similar to most other U.S. wards than it is different. Furthermore, I believe that due to recent national events and heightened discussion by Church leaders about sexual-orientation-related issues, the membership of the Church as a whole is becoming better equipped to come to terms in a more positive way with the visible presence of gay and lesbian members. I believe that if we give members of the Church the chance, by being willing to be vulnerable and trusting them, they can rise to the occasion of individual members "coming out," and can both minister to us and allow us to minister to them.

The decision to come out of the closet in one's ward is a very personal one. My general perception, however, is that sexual orientation is not an inconsequential aspect of who we are, and that trying to keep this absolutely secret can become a heavy and unhealthy burden for individual gay or lesbian members to bear. If one of the purposes of the Church is for its members to "bear one another's burdens," then I would argue that a culture which stifles gay and lesbian members and keeps them "in the closet" is actually a failure to minister in the way that Christ intends. So I think that in general it is good for people to be out in their wards. I think that as the Church continues to evolve in a healthy direction -- it's already begun evolving in this direction -- it will be easier and more natural for gay and lesbian individuals to come out in appropriate ways and find the support they need.

In the meantime, we should weigh our decisions related to coming out carefully. I do not believe it is ever appropriate to come out in a way that is disruptive or that focuses undue attention on ourselves. Rather, when we come out, it should be for the purpose of strengthening our wards and the mission of the Church within the ward, and enabling others to understand us better so they can minister to us and be ministered to by us in appropriate ways.

My coming out process in my ward first involved coming out to a relatively small number of people -- mostly priesthood leaders who needed this information in order to know how best to counsel me. I was careful to respect whatever restrictions priesthood leaders felt were appropriate, based on my membership status. (Thus, asking my bishop's permission before bearing my testimony.) I gave my bishops explicit permission to let others in the ward know that I was gay -- especially priesthood leaders -- if they felt that was appropriate.

I also came out to close friends in the ward who had shown a personal interest in me and wanted to get to know me better. I always approached this with an ethic of never lying or attempting to give anybody a false impression. I am a gay man living in a long-term committed relationship with a man, and together we are caring for a foster son. Anyone who gets to know me beyond surface formalities will learn this.

I once assumed that by coming out to priesthood leaders and close friends, I would soon automatically be out to pretty much everyone in the ward. Perhaps my ward is remarkably immune to gossip, because that did not happen. Miraculously (and appropriately, I suppose!) information that I shared with other individuals seems pretty much to have stayed with those individuals. There were many members of the ward who "wondered" about me or were "curious" about me, but miraculously (and appropriately, I suppose!) they did not pry or snoop into my personal life. (With one notable exception, that more or less proved the rule!)

There have been, in the almost four years I've been attending my ward, moments when I wanted to share a comment or a thought in Priesthood Meeting or in Sunday School, when to do so would have required me to come out or discuss my relationship with Göran or my membership status. In those situations I chose to keep quiet, because I was afraid that it might be distracting to the class and draw attention to myself in a way I felt was inappropriate. There have actually been moments when I wanted to bear my testimony in such settings, but couldn't because to do so would have "outed" me, and I wasn't ready to deal with that. I recently discussed this with my Elder's Quorum president, and he has strongly encouraged me to always bear my testimony, and never to feel reticent about sharing, especially when to do so can strengthen us as a quorum.

My decision to bear testimony in my ward two Sundays ago was in response to a remarkably strong and undeniable prompting of the Spirit. The prompting was very specific, and included instruction to approach and get permission from my bishop before bearing testimony. It also involved discouraging me from preparing some grandiose "coming out speech," or in any way trying to prepare beforehand what I was going to say. The Spirit led me to share key elements of my story so individuals would know where I was coming from, but not to editorialize on those elements of my story. Then the Spirit led me to affirm what I know: that the Church of Jesus Christ has been restored, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, that the Book of Mormon is true, and that Christ lives. My purpose in bearing testimony, I realized, was no different from the purpose of anybody else bearing testimony; to strengthen the faith of others and to obey the Spirit and foster its work among us. Had my goal in going up been to "educate" people about homosexuality, or challenge official Church teaching in any way, I feel it would have been extremely inappropriate, and (though all things are possible) I can't imagine the Spirit having prompted me to do such a thing.

I have been blessed, I think, because of my willingness to wait for the right time and the right way to come out to the ward as a whole. Those blessings include:

* knowing that it was the right thing to do, because it was prompted by the Spirit, and because the Spirit's prompting was validated by my Bishop;

* now feeling a sense of comfort and acceptance from members of my ward, who trust me and trust that I am there for the same reasons they are (to learn and grow and be edified by the Spirit);

* now no longer feeling that I need to censor myself in situations where to share would require me to be "out" in some way.

In order to do this, we need to be open and be prepared to handle a variety of responses from members of our wards, including some negative ones, and some that are well-meaning but clueless. If we seek guidance of the Spirit and remain humble and open, those situations will not be overly burdensome to us. We also need to make sure that before coming out to members of our ward we are in a space of being able to trust ourselves and trust our experience. In other words, we need to have come to terms with our own sexuality and be relatively confident enough in our journeys and in our relationship with God not to be mortally wounded if we encounter negativity.

I think the most important thing is to recognize that this is a journey. It requires patience. It requires the acknowledgment that different people are in different places on the journey, and we can only take the step that is immediately ahead of us, not the step that is a mile down the road from where we stand. We should never feel that the need to stay in the closet represents some kind of failure. Rather, it represents being in a space where more growth is required before greater openness is possible. It also can represent trust that God can move us to where we need to be, when we need to be there.


Sarah said...

Thanks, John. I needed this.

You are incredible!

Beck said...

"...this is a journey. It requires patience. It requires the acknowledgment that different people are in different places on the journey, and we can only take the step that is immediately ahead of us, not the step that is a mile down the road from where we stand."

I get frustrated with myself because at times I want to take the bigger step, but in so many ways, my circumstances, and how best to bring my loved ones along with me, will not permit me to leap tall buildings with a single bound no matter how superman I feel inside. Baby steps... line upon line... Some of us take the staircase down one building and up the next instead of just leaping across the rooftops.

"... We should never feel that the need to stay in the closet represents some kind of failure. Rather, it represents being in a space where more growth is required before greater openness is possible. It also can represent trust that God can move us to where we need to be, when we need to be there."

You will never know what comfort and love I feel from you in reading these words. Particularly from a community that so vilifies the "closet dwellers" as being some kind of sub-species, I sometimes vilify myself for living the duality of my circumstances.

Thank you for the comfort and wisdom of this post.

Andy said...

Thank you John.

Evan said...

"Coming out" during testimony is a concept I have been tossing around in my head every now and then, so it was great to read this.

I think the way you approached the idea was very well-done and a great example for a lot of us. Thanks.

J G-W said...

Beck -- I'm glad this is helpful to you. As I've told you before, you are always in my thoughts when I write about this stuff. (WWBD?) I've always believed that all the power in a "coming out" situation should belong to the person whose it is to come out. I've never, ever been a fan of "outing" even in my most radical days.

I might add that "coming out" decisions should also take into account the impact that it will have on immediate family, in your case, your wife and kids. I would never, for instance, encourage a married Moho to come out in any sort of public way without discussing it with his wife and without her being at least OK with it.

Evan - A while back, Affirmation was encouraging people to come out in fast and testimony meeting on a particular Sunday (around National Coming Out Day, I seem to remember...). I'm not sure I agree with something so calculated. I'm not sure I agree with the idea of bearing one's testimony for the purpose of coming out.

But at the same time a testimony is our unique, individual statement of faith, our witness of what the Lord has done for us, and of what we know to be true through the power of the Holy Ghost. And I don't know a single GLBT person for whom wresting with the issues around gender and sexuality that affect us has not been a central part of our faith journeys. So I suspect that it is hard for us to be entirely forthcoming in bearing our testimonies without at least alluding to this fact in our lives.

How we handle this in our wards, given the prevalence of misunderstanding about homosexuality, is a challenge that demands great faith and patience on our part.

I never in a million years would have imagined doing what I did two weeks ago in Church. And until the Spirit pushed me to do it, if someone had asked me whether I would consider doing something like that, I would have said No.

Anonymous said...

my experience is that big city wards outside the mountain west can be more conservative; it's as if in order to protect themselves from their secular, even anti-religious surroundings, church members put on an armor of rigid obedience. whereas in utah, you don't have to prove anything.

J G-W said...

Santorio, you have a point. I don't think we can assume anything about anybody. Whether a ward is rural or urban, whether it's located in the Mormon heartland or in places where Mormons are a small minority, the Saints are capable of extraordinary compassion, understanding and kindness if we give them a chance.

From the beginning of my journey back to the Church, the Spirit has always prompted me not to be afraid, and to trust that I would find friends in unexpected places. I have not been disappointed yet.

Bill McA said...

Thanks again, John, for some much needed and timely counsel.