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To all our friends and family, we feel that it’s time to be open and honest about something that we have kept silent for a long time. Many of you already know this, or may have heard secondhand, so I want you to hear it directly from me (and Sara): our oldest son, Trevor, is gay. You may wonder why we would share this information publicly (and of course it’s with Trevor’s permission). I will tell you why, but first let me share our story.
“Mom and Dad, I know this will come as a shock to you, but I am same-sex attracted.” Those were the words in a long letter Trevor had written to us when he was 18 and a freshman at BYU. “Shocked” did not adequately express how we felt when we read those words. How could this be?, we thought. We were a faithful Mormon family, we had regular family prayer and scripture study, we had a very positive, loving relationship with our children. And how could this happen to Trevor, a young man as honest, upright and moral as any young man I knew? It’s just not possible!
As I continued reading, I saw the great turmoil he had gone through over the last four years while trying to come to grips with this – the feelings of guilt, self-loathing, failure, shame. So strong were those feelings that he couldn’t even confide in his parents. Why didn’t he tell us sooner?, I wondered. Why couldn’t he tell his own parents? We always had a very open and loving relationship and could talk about anything with him. My wife, Sara, remembers a particular time when Trevor was a young man in high school. She saw him in his room looking very down and distraught. She pled with him to tell her what was the matter, but all he could do was look at her and cry; he couldn’t – wouldn’t – tell her about his secret because he didn’t want to shame us. He wanted to bear the burden alone, to spare us the grief.
He was also afraid.
Afraid to disappoint us, to admit he was a “failure” as a son, to acknowledge that he was one of those “awful gays” he had heard me talk about. Yes, sadly, I must admit that up until that time, I was homophobic and had very un-Christlike feelings towards gay people. Even worse, because of my attitudes and feelings, I had probably unwittingly contributed to the silent agony my son had suffered for so long and made him afraid to tell us for fear of hurting us or not knowing how we would take it. By the grace of God, he had not been driven to suicide, as too many gay LDS youth have. The one outlet that perhaps kept him from reaching the breaking point was his decision to tell our Bishop one summer when our family were all away on a back packing trip that Trevor had to miss due to work. While this good Bishop couldn’t answer all Trevor’s questions, he at least assured Trevor that he was not a bad person, that God still accepted him and that he had no reason to feel any shame or guilt. As long as he didn’t act on his feelings of attraction, he was still worthy in the eyes of God and the church and could still go on a mission and serve in any church calling.
From that point, Trevor began to accept himself as he was. He was able to forge ahead with more confidence in himself and continue to plan for college and a mission. When he finally came out to us in that letter almost nine years ago, we were shocked and saddened; but we let him know that no matter what, he was our son and we loved him. We also secretly held the hope that somehow, some way, he might be able to change.
The change, however, occurred in us.
One thing that changed immediately was our attitudes about gay people. We knew that if someone as honest, moral and committed to the gospel as Trevor was could be gay, then pretty much everything we thought we knew about being gay was just plain wrong. So the first thing I did was to educate myself on the subject. I studied some of the scientific research on it. I read church leaders’ statements on same-sex attraction, which in recent years have evolved significantly. And I read and listened to the experiences of numerous LDS gay men and women. These stories – like my son’s experience – are what particularly changed our hearts. From all this study and from my discussions with Trevor, I would like to share with you some of the important things we have learned:
(1) Being gay is not a choice. Science and psychology have recognized this for a long time, and even the church has come to recognize this in recent years. I have read some of the scientific research (mostly from Bill Bradshaw, a BYU biology professor and former mission president), which is quite compelling. But more compelling than the science is the experience and testimony of numerous faithful LDS gay people, including my own son. They sincerely tell us that they never chose to be attracted to the same sex; in fact many have tried in various ways to ignore it, fight it or change it – but it doesn’t go away. Moreover, why would an honest, faithful young man or woman ever choose to be gay in our church and suffer the shame, guilt and rejection that too often come with it? Those who doubt this proposition should ask themselves, did I ever have to make a conscious decision to like and be attracted to the opposite sex, or was it natural and instinctive? Likewise, it is natural and instinctive for those who are attracted to the same sex.
(2) Sexual orientation doesn’t change. Again, the experience of numerous faithful LDS gay people can’t be ignored. As Bill Bradshaw observes, “honesty compels us to consider the experience of a very large number of LDS gay people, who in spite of exhaustive, lengthy, and totally sincere efforts have not been able to change the fact of who they are sexually. A testimony of the gospel, faithful church activity, fasting, prayer, missionary service, temple service – all of these are important, but none, in any combination, has been able to alter sexual orientation.” Any doubters should ask themselves, is there anything that would cause me to lose my feelings towards the opposite sex and be attracted to members of the same sex?
(3) Being gay is not just about sex – any more than being heterosexual is just about sex. Gay people are no different than straight people when it comes to relationships. Like all human beings, they desire emotional, spiritual and physical attachment. They feel the same compulsion to fall in love, find a companion and share their life with someone. The desire for physical intimacy is just one aspect of the spectrum of feelings and emotions that humans, whether gay or straight, experience in a relationship.
As we learned these things, we became comfortable with who Trevor was; and we no longer felt a need to hope for things that were not to be. As for Trevor, he served a great mission, graduated from BYU and is now on his way to China, working for the U.S. State Department. He is still an active, temple-going Mormon – and of course he is still gay.
So now we come to the part where you may be wondering why I feel the need to share this with everyone. As I learned more about my gay brothers and sisters, actually met them and talked with them, I came to love them. I also gained great empathy for them. I have seen too much pain and suffering, mistreatment and rejection – all because of ignorance, fear and misunderstanding. As long as this subject is taboo and people are too afraid or intimidated to speak about it, then young gay people in the church will continue to suffer as Trevor did. There will be bullying, fear and self-loathing – even suicide. We will continue to lose too many wonderful gay men and women (and often their families) because they feel unwanted and unwelcome among us.
This should not happen in the church. This is why Sara and I have decided that we can no longer be silent, closeted parents. We don’t want to be a part of the problem. We want all gay people, particularly that young man or woman in our midst who is silently suffering with nowhere to turn, to know that we love them and support them. We are there for them and for their family if they need help, encouragement or understanding. The church at this time has no official outreach or instruction on this subject, other than a few statements over the years and a pamphlet. Local leaders are mostly left on their own on how to counsel gay members. Among other things, my wife and I have spoken with our local church leaders about our willingness to be a resource to help educate fellow members and especially to help individuals and families who just need someone to talk to. As we have begun to reach out and be more public, we have been able to help other LDS people dealing with this issue. Here is a personal note I received a few days ago after sharing this story in another post:
I thought your post on the Mormons Building Bridges website today was AMAZING!!! As a member of a bishopric of a ward in [withheld] with many gay members, I have a handful of young men who struggle with the feeling that it would be better to take their own lives than to have their parents find out. I have shared your story with them in hopes that it will give them the courage to talk with the people that love them most and that the response will be as loving as yours was.
The next day, I received a follow-up message that made me gasp, and reinforced how important it is to be more open about this topic:
I have a 23-year-old returned missionary I have been trying to help for the past couple of months wrestle with this issue. So far, I had been the ONLY person he had told and he had been agonizing over when/if he should tell his parents. Early yesterday afternoon, I sent him your post from the MBB wall. Soon thereafter, he sent me an email back, confessing that, just yesterday morning, he had gone out and bought a gun because he had convinced himself that that would be a better option than bringing shame and disgrace to his family. However, after reading your post, he resolved instead to tell his parents and hope they would be as understanding as you were. I totally see God's hand in the timing of this sequence of events to reach down and use the tools at his disposal to save the life of one of his hurting children. When the stress of that conversation was over, I couldn't help but weep at how many OTHER people there might be out there now, contemplating a similar fate, with no one to turn to.
Now there is probably a tendency to believe that we don’t really have that many gay people in our church here locally, so why all the fuss? Sure it’s an issue in Los Angeles, the Bay area and other urban areas, but not in our conservative, religious community, right? I think you would be surprised if you really knew. We know because we have met a number of LDS young gay men who are from here. These are wonderful young men who have served missions, who are talented, kind and loving and who have so much to offer the church. Sadly, the majority of them are outside the church, even those who still believe and identify as LDS. Which brings me to my final point.
To be members of the church in full fellowship, gay members must make a sacrifice of supreme proportions. They are not allowed to fall in love, show physical affection, or be married to those to whom they are naturally attracted. They are required to be completely celibate. Some might argue that their situation is no different from people who are handicapped or who never had the opportunity to marry; such a comparison is not accurate. Unlike those who lack the emotional/mental capacity or people to whom the marriage opportunity never came, gay people are just as capable as heterosexual people of having a loving, monogamous relationship.
To give it a personal perspective, if you were told that you could not marry or that you had to give up your spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend in order to retain your membership in the church, how would you choose? Thankfully, most of us don’t have to make such a difficult decision. But most gay people do. And because falling in love and having someone to share your life with is such a major part of our earthly experience (and a major focus of the church), the great majority of gay people at some time or another choose that path.
My only purpose in bringing up this point is so that we might have an extra measure of empathy and compassion for our gay brothers and sisters. So that we might welcome them with open arms into our congregations, without judgment or condemnation, but with love and acceptance, no matter their status or circumstances. I’m simply asking that we love them as the Savior does. That, my family and friends, is my plea.
While this has probably been too wordy already, there are many things that have been left unsaid. If you have any questions, please feel free to talk to me, Sara or Trevor.
With love, Bryce and Sara Cook