Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Gay Mormon Spiritual Autobiography

I've shared different parts of my story in detail on my blog.  These are the major milestones in my spiritual autobiography.
I was born in Provo, Utah in 1963, though I didn't really grow up in Utah Mormon culture. On my dad's side I am a fifth-generation Mormon, but my dad's parents moved from Utah to Pennsylvania during the Great Depression, and my dad was born in Pittsburgh in 1936. My mom was from Finland, and was a convert to the Church. I was basically a BYU baby. When I was four, after my dad finished his graduate degree in Chemistry at "the Y," we moved back out east.  I grew up in upstate New York, a few miles from Palmyra; near the Sacred Grove, the Joseph Smith Home and the Hill Cumorah.

The Church was everything to me growing up. My family were very active and very committed to the Church. Growing up in an area where Mormons were only a very small minority (I was usually the only Mormon, or one of two or three other Mormons in my school), we didn't take anything about our faith for granted. I did experience some teasing and bullying in junior high – first for being Mormon, later for being perceived to be gay.

I first became aware of my feelings of attraction to members of my same sex at about the age of 10 or 11. It wasn't till I was 14 that I consciously made the connection between these feelings and being a “homosexual.” (I looked that word up in a dictionary, and concluded that that was what I was.) At about that time, like many gay boys in the Church, I became much more serious about my faith, hoping that my faithfulness would help me overcome or banish my feelings of same sex attraction. I became a star seminary pupil and began seriously studying the scriptures and praying every day. At the age of 16, I started going on bi-weekly splits with the missionaries and began preparing myself mentally and spiritually for a mission. When I was 18, I went to BYU on a Kimball Scholarship. I majored in history, having prayerfully come to the conclusion that one of my callings in life was to become a Church historian.

I served my mission in the Swiss Geneva Mission. My feelings of attraction to my companions were a source of anguish at first. My first night in the mission field I wept as I prayed to God, asking him how I could possibly serve him with these feelings. The Spirit reassured me, and I made it through my mission, serving honorably and baptizing five new members in a mission where the average at the time was one baptism per missionary per mission.

After my mission, I came back to BYU, where my first BYU bishop informed me that my number one duty was to get married and start building a family. Basically, that's when things started to fall apart for me. My feelings of same-sex attraction were stronger than ever. I had no interest in dating. I did essentially force myself to participate in the BYU dating scene, and dated a number of women. But I slowly sank into a depression. In my junior year, my bishop took away my temple recommend, denied me a ward clerk calling, and told me to stop taking the sacrament until I could be masturbation free for four months. When I asked him how I could possibly do that, he told me to get married as soon as possible. After that, I basically gave up. I couldn't bring myself to pray any more. I went through the motions attending Church, but didn't think I believed in anything any more. By the time I went home for the summer at the end of my junior year, I had a plan to commit suicide.

I was deterred from this plan by the loving attention of a next door neighbor who was an Episcopal priest. Later that summer, while on an internship in Helsinki, Finland, I felt the Spirit inviting me to pray. I got on my knees and poured my heart out, and essentially “came out” to God. God told me he already knew I was gay because he knew me from my inmost parts, he knew how I was made. There was nothing wrong with me, and he loved me and was pleased with me. After that, I began to pray and read the scriptures and attend Church with a renewed sense of hope. Though later that summer, I had another experience in which, as I wrestled in prayer with what to do about my homosexuality, what my place was in the Church, I had a visionary experience, in which I was standing with my ancestors before the throne of God. The Lord told me I needed to leave the Church for a time. I was astonished and upset and wept, and was worried about my family, but the Lord reassured me my family would be taken care of. Later that summer, I resigned from the Church. I also left BYU, fearing that if I went back, I might become suicidal again. In response to my letter resigning from the Church, a formal Church court was held on my behalf (in absentia) in my home stake (at that time, in eastern Massachusetts), and I was excommunicated from the Church.

My Finnish heritage led me to become active in the Lutheran Church for a time. I finished my undergraduate degree at Northern Michigan University, and then went on to grad school at the University of Minnesota, completing a Ph.D. in American History, with an emphasis on religious and social history.

In the fall of 1987, during my first semester in grad school, I began a fast. I told the Lord that I would drink water, but I would not eat until I had the answer to a question: Should I seek to marry a woman, or should I be celibate for life? (Being in a same-sex relationship was not on the table in my mind.) The answer came to me on the third day of my fast, as I was crossing a foot bridge over the Mississippi River on the University of Minnesota campus. A voice speaking in my mind and heart very clearly said to me: “Be open to all your options.” I wasn't entirely sure what that meant, but I felt a sense of peace, and I accepted it as the answer I sought from the Lord. Later that evening, after I had broken my fast, I met an openly gay man – the first I had ever known. I was attracted to him and realized I was interested in dating him, and it was at that point I understood the full meaning of what the Lord had told me about being open to all the options.

A few days later, I began coming out publicly to friends and colleagues in grad school, and at the Lutheran Church where I was a member.

Despite the fact that I was now open to dating men, I took the “all options” part of the revelation I had received seriously. I had continued to date women at the University of Minnesota. There was a woman who still showed interest in me even after I had come out of the closet to her. We were on a date one evening, and we talked about the possibility of a relationship. I could tell in the way she spoke that she felt a kind of intensity of desire toward me that I knew I would never, ever reciprocate. My heart broke. I went home that night and thought about it, and then, later that week, hard as it was, I told this woman we could not date again. I scratched that option off the list.

I made arrangements to spend the following summer in a Roman Catholic monastery in France, where a former missionary investigator of mine had become a brother. I realized that if I wanted to consider the possibility of life-long celibacy, there would be no better place to learn about it. I got dispensation from the head of the order to ask any brother any question I wanted, so I talked to them about their sense of call (what led them to want to join the order), and how they managed the celibacy requirement. All of them told me that celibacy was not for me if I were “running away from my sexuality.” Life-long celibacy would only work if I had it as a gift, if I literally felt called to it. At the monastery, I had 4-5 hours a day of prayer, scripture study and meditation, which was ample opportunity for me to petition the Lord and seek my answer about this option. By the end of that summer, it was clear to me that if celibacy was a gift or a calling, I did not have it. Shortly before leaving the monastery, I went for a walk with my friend and former investigator, and we had a conversation about this. After I described to him my sense that celibacy was not my calling, he shared with me that he agreed.  “You have a more apostolic calling," he told me.

Having explored the first two options, and feeling convinced that they were not right for me, I decided it was time to explore the third and final option: a same-sex relationship.

Dating in the gay community was messy. At that time, more casual attitudes toward sex were prevalent. A lot of guys basically initiated a dating relationship with a hook up. You saw someone you were attracted to (at a bar or at some other social event), you'd go to bed with him, and then, if you still liked each other, you'd exchange phone numbers and see where it went from there. You could take a more traditional approach – go on a nonsexual date first. But, basically, if you hadn't fallen into bed with a guy by the second or third date, he was starting to wonder if you were really interested in him.

In all my time dating, I met and dated one guy who seemed to have a more traditional attitude. I was very attracted to him – head over heels infatuated with him. We used to go out country western dancing every Sunday night. We dated for a few months without it ever getting sexual. I began to wonder if he was really attracted to me. Ultimately, he ended up moving to Washington, DC, and we lost touch without me ever really knowing if he reciprocated my feelings at all.

I ultimately entered into the gay dating scene with the attitude, “If I'm going to do this, I'm going to do this.” So I accepted and played by the rules as I understood them. Basically, it sucked. It was jarring to share myself with someone physically, to open myself up totally in this sense, only to have my need for a spiritual or emotional connection spurned. To call someone I thought I'd connected with, only never to get a call back.  It left me feeling really empty much of the time. In order to go on, I had to kind of desensitize myself to the emptiness.  I had to start thinking about sexuality more casually.

I was essentially “saved” from this scene by my husband and life partner, Göran. Göran and I met in the expected way – at the Gay 90s, a major gay bar in downtown Minneapolis. We'd seen each other around. I'd been attracted to him and he to me, but neither of us had acted on it until he invited me to dance one night. We went home together.

But Göran early on made it clear that he wanted much more from this relationship than just sex. He still insists to this day that he knew from the beginning I was “the one.” It took me longer to figure out. We dated for a couple of months. Then I broke up with him. Then we started dating again less than a year later after a chance encounter on the University campus.  We've been together ever since. By the time we started our second round of dating, I realized that I was ready for a relationship, and I knew he was the one too. We moved into an apartment together after we'd been dating for a few months.

After living together for a couple of years, Göran insisted he wanted to “get married.” So in 1995, we had a commitment ceremony that was attended by my parents, a couple of my siblings and my grandmother, as well as Göran's mom, stepdad, and siblings, and about a hundred other of our friends from all walks of life. A year later, we bought a house together, the house we currently live in.

Göran and I created a stable life together. Shortly after moving into an apartment together, we started attending Church at a neighborhood UCC congregation. Over the years, we found better and more stable work situations, though, after completing my PhD in 1994, I was unable to find a full-time teaching position, a source of great personal disappointment. Both our families accepted our relationship, and we participated fully in family reunions and holiday celebrations and so on.

I published my book, Take the Young Stranger by the Hand (a history of gay men and the YMCA) in 1998 with the University of Chicago Press. After that, I began to work on a variety of creative writing projects. I was struggling with depression, and my way of working through my depression was my writing. Even though Göran and I were active in a church, I was also struggling with doubt again (as I had been as a young student at BYU), not sure if I believed in God. I couldn't deny the various spiritual experiences I'd had in my life, though I wondered if there were purely psychological explanations for them. My fiction writing dealt with religious and spiritual themes, at first in a very abstract way. But as time went on, I found myself wanting to deal explicitly with my heritage as a Latter-day Saint. As a form of research for my fiction writing, I started reading non-fiction: Mike Quinn's Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, his books on The Mormon Hierarchy, and Fawn Brodie's No Man Knows My History. I was self-publishing some of my creative writing attempts (and some autobiographical essays and sermons I had preached in my UCC congregation) on a web site on line.

In late 2004 and early 2005, I was contacted by a former missionary companion of my Dad, who had found me through the web site. We started corresponding on the subject of Mormonism. Actually, our correspondence was mostly in the form of an extended argument. He was encouraging me to consider Mormonism again, and I was explaining to him all the reasons why, as an out gay man in a committed relationship that would be utterly impossible.

In August 2005, on a trip to Utah, I learned that a former BYU professor of mine, Mike Quinn, was going to be speaking at Sunstone. Mike Quinn was one of the few Mormons I'd stayed in touch with more or less continuously in the 19 years since I'd left BYU after almost committing suicide. I had always liked and admired Mike. As a student I had confided in him about some of my spiritual struggles, and I had always been inspired both by his testimony and his historical scholarship. Mike and I agreed to meet at Sunstone, and I decided to attend some sessions of the conference while I was there.

At Sunstone, while attending a session where Lavina Fielding Anderson was speaking, I had a spiritual experience that was so powerful, I could not explain it away in terms of "feelings" or "psychology." There was an undeniable presence of a being I had recognized from childhood as the Holy Spirit. Only a few times in my life had I felt it so strongly. The Spirit spoke to me very clearly and distinctly, and told me it was time to come back to the Church.

I was very troubled and angry about this revelation. I wanted to argue with God. Why now, when there was so much water under that bridge? Furthermore, the Saints would never accept me back. What would this mean for me and my relationship? And so on. I argued for several months after having that experience, but I could not deny the experience. And the Spirit continued to press me. I felt such a sense of peace and happiness when the Spirit spoke to me, and I wanted more of that. And ultimately, I realized, my desire for that peace of the Spirit in my life was greater than my fear of going back to Church. So I started attending the LDS Church again in October 2005. In January 2006, at the prompting of the Spirit, I began to read the Book of Mormon again. By then I had also begun to incorporate prayer back into my life.

I met with my bishop, to discuss my situation with him. I was afraid to meet with him at first. I called my parents and asked them to fast and pray with me before my first meeting with him. (By this time, I had come out to my parents about my renewed testimony.)  It turns out I had nothing to be afraid of. My bishop responded to me with great love and encouragement. He did not pressure me in any way to leave my relationship with my husband. He encouraged me to be as faithful as I could in living gospel principles given the constraints of being excommunicated. That I have done ever since then to the best of my ability.

For some time, after I'd begun attending Church, I continued to wrestle with the question of my relationship with my husband. Each Sunday I attended Church in my ward, I was having powerful spiritual experiences. The Spirit was present in my life in a way I had never, ever experienced before. I realized, I had a profounder testimony of the gospel than I'd ever had in my life. I had a testimony of the Book of Mormon, of Joseph Smith, of the Restoration, but also of the fact that those leading the Church today were called by God. And yet, my relationship with my husband – which I'd entered into as the end result of equally powerful spiritual experiences many years before – seemed to fly in direct contradiction with what those divinely called Church leaders, of whom I had a testimony, were teaching. This created a new kind of spiritual crisis for me.

At first, when I would pray, if my mind wandered into that area of concern or doubt, the Spirit would simply nudge me away from the question. The Spirit would say: Don't worry about that. Just keep doing what you're doing, attending Church, studying the scriptures, praying, living the Word of Wisdom, and so on. That's what the Lord asks of you right now. Don't worry about that other stuff.

There were times when I also had prayed to the Lord and said, in essence, “Thy will be done. I'm not sure if I could leave my partner, but if you require it of me, I trust there will be a way for me to deal with that.”

But at a certain point, I could no longer live with ambiguity and uncertainty. One night we were having a party, and Göran had sent me on some errands, to pick up food for the party. As I went I was in agony. I began pleading with the Lord, and I said, “I need to know. If I'm supposed to leave him, I need to know. I just can't put this off any more. I can't remain in uncertainty.” And at that moment, the Spirit spoke very clearly and unequivocally to me. It told me: Do not, under any circumstances, leave your partner. To do so would be a great sin. Be faithful to him. Take care of your relationship with him. Do everything you can to nurture and care for him. Do not do anything that would push him away or cause him to leave you. That is your duty and your obligation.

In the spring of 2007, Göran and I decided to become licensed foster parents, and in December 2007, our foster son Glen was placed with us. In February 2008, I began to teach American Religious History at United Theological Seminary in New Brighton, Minnesota, finally fulfilling at least in part that sense of calling I had had as a freshman at BYU. In June 2008, Göran made contact with his biological father (and the rest of his biological extended family) in Memphis, Tennessee – an answer to prayers both on my part and on his family's part. (There's a long story behind this, but the short version is that at the age of four, Göran had been kidnapped by his mother, who took an alias and denied Göran any knowledge of or contact with his biological family. She passed away in 1996, and in 1999 we began a search for information about his past that nine years later led to this discovery.) From the time that the California Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in California in the spring of 2008, Göran and I knew we wanted to go to California to be legally married, which we did in July 2008, at a religious ceremony that was attended by my entire immediate family. In August 2008, we drove to Memphis, Tennessee where Göran and I experienced a joyous, very emotional reunion with his family. At the time I was distinctly aware that all these tremendous blessings that were poured out on me and Göran were a direct result of my willingness to exercise faith and follow the promptings of the Spirit to be active in my ward and to bear my testimony of the Church.

I have continued to grow spiritually as a result of my commitment to my husband, and my commitment to the Church. It has not always been easy to reconcile the contradiction between what I've experienced personally in my relationship with God and in my relationship with my husband, and what Church leaders currently teach about homosexuality. I have sometimes wondered, for instance, if the Lord was holding me to the commitment I'd made to my husband, because it was wrong for me to break a promise, even though being in a homosexual relationship would mean that I could not achieve exaltation in the next life.

I've sought answers to these questions from the Lord, and have gotten nothing specific. Sometimes I got a very specific answer that the Lord would not give me specific answers to such questions!  However, though the Lord has not answered all my questions, he has given me very specific assurances. My relationship with my husband is blessed by him and is a blessing from him. Our efforts to build a family as a couple and with foster or adoptive children who come into our life will ramify and continue to grow and be blessed in the next life. We will not be disadvantaged in any way in the next life as a result of being excluded from Church membership or other ordinances. If I have faith and am patient, the Lord will work all of these things out eventually, and all I need to do is trust and wait on him. These things I know.

I feel incredibly blessed and encouraged by the tremendous growth of understanding, and what seems like a geometric growth in dialog around the place and role of LGBT people in the Church that is happening among Latter-day Saints today. In June 2012, I marched with a contingent of Latter-day Saints in Twin Cities LGBT Pride. I continue to see signs of hope, as members of the Church who were once closed off around this issue are opening up and experiencing changes of heart and mind.

I think the best is yet to come.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful post. I am older by about a decade, so these changes we see happening are simply nothing short of incredible. Thank you for your tireless efforts in behalf of all of us. -Dennis

Anonymous said...

I, too, have enjoyed this post. I still wonder if I will ever fit back into the Church and stand at the side now and watch.
Thanks so much for sharing.
- Aaron

Erin said...

Beautiful. Simply (yet very complexly) beautiful. Thank you for sharing your story.

J G-W said...

Dennis: While visiting family in Utah, I've had a chance to connect with some openly gay and lesbian BYU students, and hear them talk about the student group on the BYU campus, which regularly attracts about 100 students to its meetings. I started attending BYU two or three short years after the last documented electroshock treatments for homosexuals were performed there. (I guess that would have been your generation.) When I was at BYU, the kinds of things happening now with the student group there would have been completely unimaginable. If someone had predicted it, no one ever would have believed it.

It is truly incredible.

Aaron: Thank you. Wherever you are now, and whether you ever fit back into the Church, you already and always will fit into God's kingdom of Love.

J G-W said...

Erin, thank you!

Dolly Wilson said...

Awww....I cannot tell you Thank you enough for sharing your story ...I felt such strong spirit while reading your story, you are truly an blessing to us all and what a great role model you are for all of us. It is so important to share all our journey and story, you are one of my answer in my life right now, there's times I was totally tearful while reading your blog, so many EXACT feelings and story as what my son has experienced....thank to you and your courage and willingness to follow God's direction, reading your story gives me such peace and hope so I can better helping my son who is 18 and who is gay. You Are Awesome!!