Sunday, November 4, 2012

Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Wife (or Husband)

One week before participating in a panel on "Marriage" at the Salt Lake City "Circling the Wagons" conference on November 3, 2012, I participated in a conference call with the four other panel participants, Steven Frei, Craig Mangum, Josh Weed, and Jay Jacobsen.  (Jay was the panel moderator.)

The phone call began with each of us simply telling each other our stories, and talking about what our fears and concerns were in relation to the panel.  For those who are unaware, there was a fair amount of controversy leading up to the conference about the planned inclusion of Josh and Steve, since they are both in so-called "mixed orientation marriages," and since Steve is president of North Star, an organization that provides support to individuals who are in similar relationships.

What I remember most about the conversation was just a genuine feeling of warmth among us.  Steve and I have been friends for many years, since we discovered each other through the blogging world.  There have been various times when Steve and I have provided direct personal support to each other, and I've always been very grateful to Steve about his empathetic support through the challenges I've faced as an openly gay man in a 20-year committed relationship who also has a testimony of the Church and has been active in my ward.  That experience of friendship between me and Steve seemed to spread among the five of us as we talked.

One moment that stood out for me during our conversation was when I described how absolutely critical it had been for me through my recent accident and brain surgery to have my partner there close by with me in the hospital, before, during and after the surgery.  Josh and Steve both asked, with concern in their voices, if Göran had experienced any difficulty at the hospital getting unobstructed access to me through this time of crisis.  Both expressed relief when I answered that the hospital had essentially treated us as a married couple.  They really cared about this important right for same-sex couples, I realized, because they personally cared about me.

At the beginning of the conference Josh Weed began his keynote address by apologizing to everybody who had been hurt through the misuse of the story he had published on his blog about his marriage to his wife Lolly.  He told of a story he knew, in which the parents of a gay man had sent their son a copy of Josh's story, and told him that he would be welcome in their home if and only if he had managed to do the same thing Josh had done (i.e., marry a woman).  Josh expressed grief at the widespread use of his story in this manner.  He emphasized that those who used his story in this way had misunderstood its whole point, which was really to demonstrate the importance of unconditional love and acceptance.  He invited anybody who had experienced this type of abuse to contact him, tell him what had happened.  He invited anyone within the sound of his voice, if anyone every tried quoting him or using his story to coerce gay men or lesbians into heterosexual marriage, to tell the people doing that that we had heard, from Josh Weed's own mouth, they should not do that, what they are doing is harmful, and they should stop.

Josh concluded his talk by offering two examples of unconditional love that he had experienced -- from his father and from a friend -- and presenting them as models of how parents and friends of LGBT people should respond to them.  Unconditional love, he explained, means just that -- no conditions.  It is love that is offered no matter what.  Love that grants us the freedom to choose what we want for our lives.  Love that is there and supports us, whatever those choices are, trusting that we are the ones who must decide what we need and what path will bring us the greatest happiness.

The entire gathering let out a collective sigh of relief.  Josh, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

That was the spirit that prevailed as we began our panel in the following session.

Now, a public conversation between two men in same-sex marriages and two men in so-called "mixed-orientation" marriages on the topic of "marriage" -- in the abstract at least -- sounds like an impossible conversation to have, especially in the context of LDS Church life and faith and amidst the minefields of marital politics that plague our nation at the present time.   Given what the LDS Church teaches about marriage, wouldn't there be conflicts of viewpoint and opinion between individuals in this situation that would be impossible to resolve?

But rather than focusing on the seeming conflicts and contradictions, we each simply told our stories.  We each told about the "aha!" moments in our lives, the points at which we made critical realizations that turned us down one particular turn in the road rather than another.

In the telling our stories, we found common ground.  At one moment in the discussion, Josh turned to me and said, "So much of what you've said about your relationship with your husband sounds so much like my relationship with my wife."  He began to enumerate point by point the similarities he saw between our two marriages.  He had been particularly moved by my statement about how some of the happiest moments of my life were after my surgery, when Göran came to my hospital room after work, and simply sat by my side holding my hand while we watched TV together.

Barrier after barrier dropped, like so many scales.  I experienced a full, unconstrained feeling of brotherhood with these other men.

There were some challenging questions that had the potential to push the limits of brotherhood.  I was asked to explain how I could justify personal revelations confirming that my marriage was the right path for me, given that they seemed to conflict so clearly with Church teaching.  Josh was asked to address the viewpoint expressed by many that his marriage couldn't possibly last.  By this point in the dialog, though, I felt as though the other men on the panel had my back.  I wanted to be there to defend them too.  Josh expressed his belief that the Spirit could in fact lead someone like me down the path it had led me.  Steve stressed his feeling that he would never tell someone to try doing what he had done just because he had done it.  We each have different paths that it's up to us to discern.  None of our stories, none of the personal answers we had found should or could or would be used as fodder for a political or religious agenda.

After the conference, a group of about 20 conference participants gathered for a meal.  I continued the conversation with Steve, and later with Josh.  At one point, Steve said, "I hope things weren't too difficult for Craig."  He explained how out of the four individuals discussing marriage, Craig was the only one whose journey had led him away from the Church.  He hoped that this hadn't left Craig feeling like the odd man out.  Brotherhood was more important.

Could the panel have been harder hitting?  Could we have wrestled with more difficult questions than we did?  Yes, absolutely.  Were we taking the cowardly way out by focussing on personal story-telling and the finding of commonalities?  No, I don't think so.

I told a few friends about the wonderful relationship I have with my husband's Aunt Dottie.  Actually, Aunt Dottie has made it clear to me that she is my Aunt Dottie too, so I should really call her my Aunt Dottie.  Aunt Dottie is devout a southern, black Methodist.  When we finally discovered her and all the other members of Göran's biological family in Memphis four years ago, when Aunt Dottie learned that her long-lost nephew was gay, and in a committed relationship with a white, gay Mormon, she made a fierce decision.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, was going to interfere with her nephew being fully reunited with his family, and experience full and unconditional love from them.  The lost had been found, and she would fight for us.  And she did.  I was getting daily text messages from Aunt Dottie expressing love and longing to meet us, until our joyous, tear-filled meeting in August 2008.

Now Aunt Dottie is a southern black woman who came of age at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.  When we toured the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis with her, she told us some stories that left us weeping by the end of the tour.

Aunt Dottie had some questions that she was dying to ask me about Mormons and blacks.  Everybody out there knows what those questions were.  But she waited two years to ask me any of these questions.  She waited until we were absolutely firm and strong in our relationship.  She waited until she was certain that we could discuss these difficult issues with an unshakeable foundation of love.

I love my Aunt Dottie.  She is an inspiration to me and to my husband.  And we have had some incredible, powerful, amazing conversations.

So did we on our panel about marriage need to go right to the really, really difficult questions?  The very real questions that do in fact need to be answered at some point?  Some day we will have that public conversation, I am certain.  But only after we are certain we have a foundation of love that can allow us to be vulnerable.  Only when we know that our wrestling with these questions is something we can do together, where the person on the "other side" of the question from me is not an antagonist but a friend, there to wrestle with me, not against me.

Last night Steve and I started to have some of these deeper conversations, where we shared openly with each other our doubts as well as our certainties.  I talked about, at some point, feeling envy of those who could be heterosexually married, and who consequently could enjoy full membership in the Church.  He spoke of wrestling with envy of those who could experience a same-sex relationship, with the depth of connection that allowed with a significant other.  I realized, in confiding our struggles and our doubts, it actually helped confirm us in the paths we have chosen.  We should not envy, should not covet another's path.  We are where we are supposed to be.  Where the Lord needs us to be.

I am so grateful.  I pray for these kinds of conversations to fill our families, our wards, our Church, our nation, the world.


Luis said...

Excellent post. I love how you said:

"Barrier after barrier dropped, like so many scales.  I experienced a full, unconstrained feeling of brotherhood with these other men....None of our stories, none of the personal answers we had found should or could or would be used as fodder for a political or religious agenda."

John, I meant to come introduce myself to you at some point throughout yesterday, and wasn't able to get a clear chance.

I have much love, esteem, and admiration for you. You're so full of love and compassion which is evident. THank you for being you.

Anonymous said...

My perspective is a bit different. I am a str8 wife. The man who took me to the Oakland temple and fathered our three children tearfully told me he was gay shortly after our 27th wedding anniversary. That was almost fifteen years and several lifetimes ago for him, for me, for our adult children. I am an avid supporter of the repeal of DOMA. I fought so hard for the defeat of Prop. 8. I understand the choice to include Mr. Weed in the Conference. The person who seems to continue to be left out of this discussion is his wife. I have watched her body language. I have seen her responses, albeit minimal compared to his. I keep seeing that they describe their marriage as "successful". Clearly, their perception is their reality in this case because there is no basis for comparison. The issues of sexual intimacy and his orientation (bi or gay) seem to be fodder for speculation. Here's the thing, sex isn't the only thing in a marriage. That isn't the issue. Intimacy is. I have worked with str8 spouses on a number of forums for more than a decade. In that time I have come in contact with hundreds of str8 wives and str8 husbands. From the perspective of a str8 spouse, only another str8 wife can understand what being married to a man who is not heterosexual can do to one's self esteem. It wasn't until I gave myself permission to become intimate with a str8 man that I learned about The Difference. It was stunning. I learned what I had been missing for three decades. I learned what my husband had been missing for his adult life. I learned that neither of us could offer that to the other, ever, because it required being completely vulnerable at the most basic level two humans can share. It was that experience that changed everything in my grieving process as the marriage I believed I had died.
I loved him enough to want that same thing for him. He deserved it.
Mr. and Mrs. Weed deserve this gift to each other.
Sometimes we must love each other enough to say "enough".
They are doing their children no favor.

There is something so schizophrenic about this experience. They did what the did because they believed it to be the right thing. The LDS Church continues to have a way of marginalizing women. As a result, all an unsuspecting sweet sister has to hear are phrases like "the priesthood says" or "The Lord told me" or "I'm inspired to tell you that" and she is often conditioned to acquiesce. Been there, done that. I loved my husband, the person I believed him to be, the person he wanted me to believe he was. He loved me, not in the way a str8 man can love a woman, but in the only way he knew how; the way society and movies and magazines told him a man "should" love a woman. I wanted him to be happy. I prayed to die in my sleep every night for months. Alas, his courage, his truth becoming my truth was the best-worst thing that has ever happened to me. It was the most precious gift he ever gave me.

Paraphrasing Emily Pearson, we continue to allow our daughters to be sacrificed at the altar.

Sister Weed will be me one day. The clock is ticking. I'm so sorry for all of them, truly I am.

blj1224 said...

I'm Jay's mom, and an active Mormon. I'm very proud of Jay and of all of you who are such courageous and noble pioneers. I love you all, and I stand with you in this very worthy effort to promote understanding, healing and unconditional love.

Bravone said...

Thank you John for describing the fellowship and love I too felt. It was an amazing conference where differences were discussed in very civil discourse. At the end of the day, we are all God's children, worthy of love and acceptance. I loved spending time with you and deepening our friendship.

Jay's mom, He did a terrific job of setting the tone. I knew he would. He did you and our entire community proud.

Much love,

Larry said...

I'm so glad it turned out so well! I so wish I could have attended. John, thank you so much for this touching summary of the feelings between you Brethren & the general spirit of the conference. Although not knowing Jay as well as I'd like too, I'm sure he did a sincere & wonderful job! Steve, I'm so very proud of you! You are an amazing man, husband, father, son & friend! I'm so grateful to call you friend....

J G-W said...

Luis: I wish you had come and introduced yourself! One of the things that was so amazing to me about the conference were all the discussions and hugs in between sessions. Thank you for accepting my Facebook friend request. I hope we will meet at a future conference.

J G-W said...

Anonymous: All I can say is, first of all, I know Josh and Steve would not only not have objected to the sharing of your experience on the panel, but they would have welcomed it. In a way I wish you had been there, because your telling of your story is so powerful and articulate.

On that note... My one GREAT regret about this panel was that it was all men. I'm sure the dynamics of the panel would have been very different if the experience of straight wives had been included. In fact, I think that's a great idea for a panel at a future conference... You or someone equally articulate sharing on a panel with Lolly Weed, or someone in a similar position to her.

I will point out that our panel did include a gay man (Craig Mangum) who had been married to a woman and ultimately had to end that relationship. So that experience wasn't absent on the panel. Unfortunately, his ex-wife has not been as understanding toward him as you were toward your spouse, and we heard from him about some of the terrible heartbreak of being separated from his children and experiencing very cruel treatment by his wife and other Church members.

One of the main keynote speakers, Joseph Broom, spoke in some depth about the heartbreak experienced in his "mixed-orientation" marriage. You can read his talk here if you're so inclined. There were numerous other presenters, such as Allen Miller, who addressed this problem as well in a variety of ways.

One concern I have is that ultimately, even though you were a straight woman married to a gay man, the Weeds experience may completely different from yours.

Certainly what you've been through is similar to the experience of the majority of mixed-orientation married couples. But each individual is unique. Even mixed orientation couples whose marriages end each have very different paths leading to divorce and following from the aftermath of that.

I unkind and unfair to issue absolute predictions (as if we have a crystal ball and know the future) that the Weeds' marriage will end in disaster and tragedy. Let's let them work this out for themselves.

Also, it is unproductive and unfair to silence the Weeds and exclude them from the discussion. Let's include them (or stories similar to theirs), but also include you (or stories similar to yours). The way forward is not censorship or judgment/condemnation. The way forward is bringing ALL the voices to the table and letting people decide for themselves.

J G-W said...

blj1224 (Jay's mom): Jay is a pretty awesome guy! I've loved him and his voice as a blogger for many years. He's doing fantastic work right now on with the Far Between web site. He was a superb moderator. The panel could not have been a success without him!

J G-W said...

Bravone - I don't think I could express my gratitude and love toward you better than I already have. It was so great seeing you yesterday at the Interfaith Service.

J G-W said...

Larry - hope to see you at a future conference!

J G-W said...

Anonymous - I just emailed one of the conference organizers, and suggested a "wives" panel for future conferences.