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.