Saturday, January 10, 2009

Both Sides Now

I attended a really cool fireside last Monday in Lehi put on by the Matises (or Matis'? I can never pluralize family names that end in s). Stuart Matis was a gay Mormon young man who took his life on the steps of his Stake Center in California back in 2000 during that state's Prop 22 campaign. Now his parents live in Lehi, Utah and do a lot to help Mormons who have same-sex attraction (henceforth SSA) come to terms with it and hopefully still stay active in the church. The speaker was Ty Mansfield, who co-wrote the book In Quiet Desperation: Understanding the Challenge of Same-gender Attraction along with the Matises. It was published by Deseret Book, and while I haven't gotten to read it, I've heard it's really good. I did read the little prologue at the beginning and it's a wonderful little vignette about the scripture that says the Lord sits as a refiner and purifier of silver. It talks about some really cool symbolism behind that, but you'll just have to read the book to get the whole story.

It was really interesting to be one of the very few straight people there. It gave me a small glimpse into how it would feel every day of your life if you have SSA--everybody else is attracted to people that you aren't attracted to and you don't really understand why. It's obviously a bit alienating, just by default. Fortunately for me, everybody was super friendly and welcoming, plus I didn't even have to worry about anyone shunning me or calling me heterosexual epithets if they found out I was straight!

Ty's presentation was really good, he talked a lot about the pre-mortal life and stressed a lot how short this life is in the eternal perspective. I have heard that a million times, but maybe because it was coming from someone for whom this life is a constant struggle to not act on his homosexual desires that it took on a new meaning for me. I can say that my respect and love for anyone who is choosing to remain celibate so that they can stay in the church grew even more after meeting many of them. At the same time, I definitely don't feel like I'm able to judge anyone who leaves the church over this issue. But the faith and determination of Ty and everyone there was amazing and definitely an example to me in all of my own struggles.

Another of Ty's points was about trying to view this challenge in his life as a blessing in some ways. He talked about how he has been able to help out a lot of other people who struggle with these issues and how it has helped him become more patient, meek, and submissive. I'd like to share the first verse (and chorus) of a song I love from a CD my dad gave me for Christmas; it's called "Both Sides Now" by Joni Mitchell, and I think it speaks beautifully to how one thing can be looked at through very different lenses:

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all


Great song, I recommend you go listen to it all ASAP.

It was also fun to hang out with some of the friends I had known before the fireside (as well as some others I met there) at IHOP afterwards. One thing that struck me about that was that at the fireside, it was kind of like the Sunday version of coping with SSA--spiritual, edifying, gospel-centered, etc. Then afterwards, hanging out with all these awesome guys in a totally secular environment was like looking into the day-to-day living with SSA. Just like I don't concentrate on the gospel for three hours in a row on any day except Sunday, they were just friends after the fireside--joking, laughing, sharing stories, talking about school, etc. I think both kinds of support--through the gospel directly and through good friends--are necessary for these guys to stay strong in the church. I have seen how those same two elements have been integral in keeping me active throughout the years, and I'm pretty sure the same thing will help all of my friends from the fireside too.

So, the conclusion: I fear that homosexuality is just a super taboo topic in the church. One friend I met at the fireside told me how just over a year ago he literally thought he was the only guy at BYU who struggled with SSA. I think this subject needs to come out of the shadows, because let's face it: it happens. More than you might think. And it's not just going to go away--these people are some of the most devout, honest, and hard-working Mormons I know, and they still feel attracted to members of the same sex. Their stories of endless prayers to be "changed," their thought process of "if only I work hard enough in my calling and serve well enough in Church I'll be straight" are heart-breaking because despite years of completely earnest effort, they still have SSA. Without any positive role models in their lives, without any friends who can really understand them, it makes it insanely hard to not get pessimistic and depressed.

I wanted to ask anybody who reads this blog, whether you're gay or straight, what thoughts you might have about how to make homosexuality not such a taboo topic among church members. I would first of all encourage you to talk to family and friends about it, just start discussions, try to understand all the points of view, etc. I would also encourage you to watch what you say in everyday conversation, because you don't know if one of your roommates or a member of your Elder's Quorum or your visiting teacher is struggling with this. I was also thinking about writing an article on this subject, perhaps for the BYU Political Review (although I don't want to get into the politics of the subject, so maybe that wouldn't be the best venue for it. Regardless...), to try to increase sensitivity to the topic among straight people and also to let members of the church who struggle with SSA know they're not alone. It is important that they know that there are good, active, temple-recommend carrying Mormons with SSA who they can talk to and get support from and look up to. Any ideas for how to share that? What has been your experience with this subject among church members?

22 comments:

  1. In response to your last paragraph:

    All the things you suggested are good ideas. Some of us have been talking for awhile, and helping quietly to raise awareness within the church membership. Some things I have done:
    1. Talked openly with my children and raised them to be aware of homosexual people and the things that complicate their lives. This was also done so they wouldn't be shocked when they learned that I am homosexual. And when they were told, it was not a big deal to them. They asked questions, talked about it with my husband and I and are quite comfortable with my sexual orientation.
    2. Invited SSA individuals to speak at training meetings and firesides about their perspectives of living with SSA within the church, and to help clergy learn how to support them as they strive to live the gospel. Then I did a follow-up meeting a couple of weeks later, in which I spoke of the things we learned from the SSA speakers, and also discussed ways to help members who cope with accompanying problems such as abuse issues and depression.
    3. Clearance has finally been given for a specific calling in this area: Family Services Missionaries with the assignment to educate church leaders on the subject of SSA, and train them how best to help members who come to them for support and guidance. Also, to work directly with member in need who have SSA. And I am elated that Darrin and I are the first companionship to receive this calling. Yay!! If we do things right, there will me more people called to help us. Until that time, we will travel throughout our region and anywhere else we are asked to go, to work with church members in this capacity. And I can't tell you how happy I am that this calling was given to an SSA person, not another straight couple asked to talk about something they cannot possibly understand. We finally have an official voice.

    And now that my comment is nearly as long as your post, I'm shutting up.

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  2. Just speaking up when people say stuff!! Like, I hate when people say "that's so gay" as a put-down. I still remember the one time I was sitting at a church function and heard a lot of negative things about gays from a sister who I really like(d). I still regret not speaking up and correcting her misperceptions, and I hope no one who was struggling with SSA was sitting at our table. I think this kind of thing stems from the fact that a lot of Mormons have trouble discussing grown-up topics - sexuality in general. On the other end of Church experiences, I also remember a seminary lesson where a brother brought in a picture of his wedding, asking us to point out which of his friends was gay. When we couldn't do it (obviously) - he said that was just the point, that we should love our friends no matter what. And we never know who's struggling with SSA.

    Also, I just wish I understood better this aspect of Church doctrine. Why do some people struggle with this? It seems so unfair to have some people go through life without the opportunity to have a life partner they truly love and stay in the church. I know life is short, but it must seem long to know your whole life will go unfulfilled in that way.

    P.S. I love that Joni Mitchell song! I'll be singing it now :)

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  3. Samantha, thanks for your input. That's a really positive development that the Church now has an official calling to do kind of exactly what I'm talking about here (though the name of the calling is quite a mouthful :) ). I wish you all the best and hope you can magnify that calling! It kind of reminds me of the founding of the Genesis group in the church.

    Diana, thanks, I agree 100% I'm really appreciative of my roommates who have stopped using the word gay to mean stupid. And yes, I definitely wish I understood the issue better within the context of the gospel too. It'll definitely be at the top of my list when I die.

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  4. I have met so many people that struggle with their sexuality, faith and family.
    They always ask me what they should do.
    Why they ask me? They say because I have Mormon cousins.
    I try and give my advice as much as I can but it doesn't seem the same.
    Having to come out as homosexual to family members can be much different then coming out to your mother and/or father, no matter what your religion or race.
    Sadly there is still so much homophobia between religions and races that it is hard to tackle them all.

    I am so glad that you went to this Austin. I always wondered what homosexual Mormons went through since I cannot experience that for myself.

    I hope to see you soon Austin!

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  5. Julia, I agree, there's still way too much homophobia in the world, and I'm sad to say that religion has played too big a role in that. Which is especially sad because basically all religions, when correctly practiced, teach us not to judge or be homophobic or hate. But I do see a lot of positive change ocurring; sometimes it's slow, but it's real and it gives me hope.

    You know I love you and always will and I'm glad you're my cousin. Thanks for stopping by my blog!

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  6. It is sad that it often cannot be a topic of conversation because whenever the word is mentioned the immature go on a giggling rant that kind of takes the wind out of a teaching moment

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  7. I think the church has already started to take some steps to address SSA. I remember comments made in general conference about how church members need to remember that those with SSA struggle terribly and they need brother/sisterhood in the church--not condemnation for something beyond their control. That said I have just a few ideas.

    1) Church members need to realize that sexuality is complicated and not easily controlled. To a degree, people cannot simply choose whether to be gay or straight the way they can choose to abstain from alcohol.

    2) Church members need to understand that a person's identity is not limited to their sexuality (though sexuality necessarily plays an important role). Just because a person struggles with this issue doesn't mean they don't have great gifts to share. After all, people who struggle with addiction, depression, or anger are also welcomed in the church.

    3) Church members should sympathetic. We don't all understand the struggles of homosexuality, nor can we. However, I'm confident that every member of the church has secret struggles they wish would go away, but rarely are the struggles on the same scale as SSA. We should appreciate the efforts of those who struggle every day to keep their convenants.

    Three is a tidy number, so I'll wrap it up here. Good post Austin!

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  8. Austin,
    Thanks so much for writing this. I've been meaning to comment on this for the past few days, but I've been caught up in other things.
    Thanks to those of you that have commented about what members of the church can do. I love those of you who are understanding of us and our situation.
    Our situation isn't necessarily harder than anyone else's. It is different, and I think the hardest part about it is that it is easily misunderstood. That is all I want. I don't want people to tell me it is okay or that I can make it through this struggle. I just want people to tell me that they love me for who I am. I want people to see me for what I really am, not for my struggle.
    Thanks again for writing this. As always, I love reading your posts.

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  9. Susanna, thanks, those are great things to keep in mind. Glad you stopped by!

    Hidden, that's definitely true. It goes along with Susanna's comment that you are defined by one heck of a lot more than your sexual orientation. You don't need anyone's pity or to be anybody's project, so I guess my hope is that we as a church really can learn to just love and accept you the way you are, not treat you any different than anybody else since we all have struggles, questions, and concerns.

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  10. Austin, I can't say it enough: you're a good man! I wish I had some profound advice about how to end homophobia in the Church, but I don't. If anything, I think much of the work needs to be done by people like you (the straighties). We who experience SSA are usually too fearful of being outed by speaking up. I don't know how many times I've been in a church meeting or work meeting when the topic comes up and people start making all sorts of nasty comments about homosexuals.

    And a lot of work has to be done by us who deal with the attractions. We have to be willing to let our examples be seen. It's incredibly hard. It's incredibly painful. I'm always afraid of which friends I might lose or which family members might turn on me. The loses, at least from my perspective, are less for those who don't deal with homosexual attractions -- you always have the straight card to fall back on!

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  11. Austin,

    Thanks for posting this. The thoughts and comments of others is much appreciated as well. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed the fireside. It has been said by the Matis' that those who struggle with SGA and try to remain active and faithful in the church are pioneers for so much good but I think the same is to be said for open-minded, good people such as yourself. Just as each one of us struggles with our own vices, and we're afraid to let anyone know, it's so risky letting anyone know you struggle with SGA. That creates a very lonely world for a lot of us and people like are very refreshing. I hope you know you are welcome at the firesides as often as you're able to attend. Thanks again.

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  12. I've been planning to leave a comment here for quite some time. I'm not very familiar with this topic cause like you said, it's a taboo at church and even bigger taboo in Estonia. I don't personally know anyone who's struggling with it but having experienced a certain psychological problem myself, a problem that makes other people giggle or say impolite things, I kind of understand the whole issue, at least psychologically. I agree with others who've spoken before me that the most effective thing is to talk openly about it. When you're having a conversation and someone's saying bad things, you can say that you don't agree, that you have some experience or that you know someone who's struggling with it and you know the real facts and the emotional burden people have with it. Ma usun, et rääkimine tõesti aitab. Üks mu sõbranna ütles mulle, et inimesed, kes kogevad suuri raskusi, on sageli need kõige erilisemad ja andekamad, aga nende raskused on need, mis teistele silma jäävad. Ma soovin, et inimesed oleksid vähem pinnapealsed, ka kirikus.

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  13. Austin, thank you for being a part of the small (but thankfully growing) minority of Latter-day Saints who are willing to set aside preconceived notions and look at this subject with an open mind and an open heart. People like you make it easier for people like me to step out of the shadows.

    Hopefully we're both part of a feedback loop that will snowball into something grand and unstoppable: As more members become more understanding and less quick to judge their gay(*) brothers and sisters, more gay members of the Church will be willing to make their presence known, and as more of us become visible and it becomes more apparent that it is possible to be a faithful gay member of the Church, there will be an increase in understanding and acceptance among the general membership.

    I was impressed to share an experience in last November's testimony meeting that could not be explained without outing myself to my ward. Although it seems that a few members of the ward have distanced themselves from me slightly since then, there have not been any negative reactions overt enough that I can be sure I'm not just imagining things, and the majority of the ward has not altered how they treat me or how they interact with me in the slightest. I've been glad to know that prejudice isn't as prevalent as I had assumed.

    Anyway... thanks again! My wife and I have felt driven to help spread understanding, and it's thrilling to know that there are others (especially other straight people) who share the same goal!

    (*) My own experience in coming to terms with my orientation has given me a reason to prefer the term "gay" over the Church-preferred "SSA" or "SGA". I don't usually make any apologies for this, but I've noticed that in the post and comments there's a decided slant in the other direction, so I thought I would at least explain that I do have personal reasons for this preference.

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  14. What thoughts you might have about how to make homosexuality not such a taboo topic among church members.

    It's good for people to talk about it. But, unfortunately, that only reaches a very small subset of the church population. To move beyond taboo, I fear, will have to come from the top down as our mormon culture isn't very conducive for grass roots efforts. So, we need to pray for our church leaders that they will have increased understanding.

    btw, I added you as a "friend of the family" on my blog - I hope you don't mind.

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  15. Thanks all for the comments! I try to respond to them all since they're all great.

    Ryan: It's true, I don't have anywhere near as much to fear as you, so I want to do everything I can to help out. It will definitely take a lot of gay and straight mormons working together to bring some more understanding to bear on this issue.

    Andy: Thanks, I feel like I'm not even doing anything substantial, but maybe that's a good lesson: it doesn't take all that much to just speak up a bit and discuss these issues in an honest way.

    Caterpillars: Thank you so much for dropping by. I tell all the other returned missionaries from Estonia about your blog, it's great. You're exactly right, even when we can't empathize exactly with someone, we have our own trials, and when we try not to compare or rank tribulations we can all come together in a super warm cozy (and perhaps cheesy) unity and love! Ja ka tanan, et kirjutasid molemas keeles :)

    Scott: Amen! I like the snowball image (partly because I'm mad about the rain (!) we're getting in Provo now--it needs to be snow). And that is awesome about your testimony story--I am glad you felt impressed to share it and were brave enough to go through with it. And I'm even happier that you've had very minimal negative reaction. That gives me hope that this issue really isn't all that hard to talk about it once it comes up, especially when people can put a face of a loved one to it. And finally, I find the whole terminology discussion on this issue among Mormons kind of fascinating in it's own right. I, as somewhat of an outsider, tend to just use whichever term the people I'm talking to are most comfortable with, defaulting to SSA/SGA for people in the church, gay for those not in the church.

    Abelard: I see your point, and I think it will take more action from the church leadership to truly eradicate homophobia from the church, but I think that they might not feel compelled to act until we as a church have started making headway on our own, showing that there are a lot of people who are concerned about this issue. (That last part sounded like I'm disagreeing with you, but I'm more just clarifying what I think we both agree on) As we all begin a positive, faithful dialogue on the subject, it will be more and more in the minds of church leaders at all levels. And of course you can add me as a "friend of the family"--I'm honored! I've read a bit of your blog before and it was very cool, I just read too many blogs and news sites to subscribe to all of them!

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  16. I would like to reiterate your comment:
    "I would also encourage you to watch what you say in everyday conversation..."
    I am very straight (perhaps too much so), but my best friend of decades lives with SSA. I didn't know about it, though, for over a decade. It explained alot, and I can still remember some of the homophobic comments I made in his presence. At least I can also remember standing up for him on the bus in Jr High when he was being ridiculed and called gay. I guess they were right, but I was right in standing up for him and against their cruel comments.
    Since I found out about his struggles I have had to re-examine how I judge others. I value his friendship and support in my own struggles (which while different may not be any less difficult). There are gay people I can call my best friend, and others who I would rather not to be around because of how they act.
    But I have come to believe that only God can judge us--we can't even judge ourselves. We understand so little about what drives us and what early experiences have shaped us, so how can we judge another that we know so little about?
    As for the church as a whole, I know that there are groups and church organizations helping. My friend attends the Evergreen conference each year, and the church website can refer you to addiction recovery groups for pornography and sexual addiction, alchohol and substance abuse, eating disorders, and more. These groups are run by local members called as part-time missionaries and peer-facilitators who have struggled with the addictions and achieved a level of sobriety.
    Addictions in the church are probably more prevalant than even those who struggle with them realize. But there is hope.

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  17. Marco: Thanks, that reminds me of one of my favorite hymn's lyrics: "In the quiet heart is hidden / sorrow that the eye can't see."

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  18. It seems to me like there is a lot of talk for people to make their SSA public or openly discussed as part of having SSA. I don't really understand this. Just like I wouldn't deem it important or even appropriate for my brother to make sure people know he is a struggling alcoholic. Can someone explain this to me?

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  19. Anonymous, I understand what you mean. I can't speak for all the people who struggle with SSA, but it seems to me that in most cases they don't want to tell everyone they meet about their personal battles. Just as your brother doesn't introduce himself as a struggling alcoholic, I don't think anyone with homosexual feelings would introduce themselves in that way.

    As I see it, the difference is that when people find out someone is an alcoholic, there is generally more understanding about the matter. Most people today realize that it's not something your brother has chosen or that he just doesn't have a strong enough desire to quit--he's truly addicted and it's an extremely hard thing to resist. With homosexuality, however, there is much, much less understanding. In the worst case (which is distressingly common), friends will turn their back on you if they find out you're gay. You might be shunned by your own family members. Even if no one finds out, you'll still have to listen to people all around you talking about how homosexuals are evil sexual deviants. Now, I'm not saying that there aren't any people who would shun an alcoholic, but I believe it's much less common than shunning people who experience SSA.

    So my goal isn't necessarily to get everyone with SSA to tell the entire world about it, but rather to create the kind of environment where gay people, especially gay Mormons, would not have to fear telling their best friend or their mother that they're gay. With personal struggles, you really need someone to talk to, but I fear that right now a lot of Mormons who experience SSA just don't feel comfortable talking to anyone about what they're going through. And that is terrible.

    I hope that explains a bit of where I'm coming from. Please let me know if that answered your question at all, or if you think my (our) efforts are misguided and why. I do appreciate your comment, and hope you'll continue asking questions. Through dialogue I hope we all can better understand each other.

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  20. It seems to me like there is a lot of talk for people to make their SSA public ... I don't really understand this.

    First of all, I assume that you are not family (i.e. gay). As such, I'm not sure its even possible for you to truly understand.

    From all external appearances, I am a typical american straight male. I'm an active member of the LDS church; I'm married (to a woman); I have children, and even grandchildren. But, regardless of the facade I've built up and carry with me - deep down, I'm gay, I like guys. I've never been with a man sexually, I'm a gay virgin if you will. But, that doesn't change the fact that I have an unfulfilled yearning for male companionship.

    I am not broken - like being an alcoholic or a drug addict. This is not a defect - like being blind or deaf. It's more like being tall or having red hair - it's just part of who I am.

    But, the only people who know me by my real identity and know about this part of me are my wife and a handful of of trusted friends I've met on the internet. Nobody who knows me locally know about this part of me. My own children do not truly know their father.

    I still cower in the dark recesses of my closet because my wife wishes it to be so. But, it pains me that I cannot be honest about who I really am. It's not like I want to start prancing around wrapped in a rainbow flag. I just want it to not be a big deal. I don't want to feel like I should be ashamed about who I am.

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  21. Austin,

    Your efforts are much appreciated and I wish you the best of luck in continuing the conversation. As a gay person, it means a lot to have voices like yours.

    There are some really great suggestions in all of these comments, and in general, your impression about the taboo status of homosexuality in the church is spot on. We can't make progress without talking about it.

    I, along with Scott, also prefer the word 'gay' to 'SSA' for a few reasons. First and foremost, I think SSA looks and sounds like a disorder or a medical condition, when it is not. I know that's not what it's intended to be, but it comes off that way. Second, I am not particularly a fan of isolating churched homosexuals from unchurched homosexuals. Mormonism adds a unique twist, but Mormon gays are not all that different from Evangelical gays or atheist gays.

    The concept of "overcoming" unless carefully defined, also seems a bit problematic. Although there may, potentially, be some flexible persons whose orientation can shift, "overcome" is problematic. Sexuality is a deeply rooted part of identity. We have to be careful not to make it the sole defining trait of a person. (There is a healthy middle ground somewhere between trying to 'exorcise' attraction from a person making it separate from them and making it the central feature of personhood) That which is to be "overcome" is often a formative part of a person's identity that likely will not go away. It also seems to set up a pass-fail standard on a persons life, which, as you can imagine, is torturous.

    Not sure if that's helpful, but I tried to express my thoughts clearly. :) Thanks again.

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  22. Enkrateia: I understand your qualms with the term SSA. Sometimes I feel the same way. But again, in a church context, it is the more accepted one, so I tend to default to it, for better or for worse.

    I also agree completely with your analysis of "overcoming" homosexuality. From the (albeit limited) experience I have with gay Mormons (and non-Mormons), it seems to be rare that a person can successfully shift their sexuality more towards the hetero side of things, and it's definitely a bad idea to put that up as a measuring stick for success in dealing with homosexuality within Mormonism (or in any other context).

    Thanks for stopping by, I like your blog!

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