Sunday, February 27, 2011

Jordan's Letter

A common thread that seems to run through the psyche of many gay Mormons is a sense of “aloneness:” the fear (or reality) of being ostracized by our brothers and sisters in the gospel for being gay. And, the anxiety of being criticized and condemned by the larger gay community for our devotion to a church that, admittedly, has caused much strife in the lives and families of gay individuals—irrespective of faith. 

Intellectually, I know that I am not alone in my quest to integrate my sexual orientation with my faith. Yet at an emotional level I, too, am haunted at times by this same sense of aloneness, which, over time, leads me to feel defeated in my purpose to create change for what I feel is right.

Typically for me, this happens most frequently when I learn of senior or local church leadership making comments that make my journey more difficult; when I am criticized for speaking out or told that what I’m trying to accomplish is futile; or when another gay Mormon—especially our youth—takes their own life over this very issue. 

I am not without my critics, nor did I expect to be when I began to speak openly about the challenges of being a gay Mormon. Still, it stings when I’m told my passion for this work is pointless, that I am nothing more than a modern-day Sisyphus for struggling to create change within the Mormon Church. It stings when the words of my Savior, whom I dearly love, are used against me to try to demonstrate that I—and my work—are reviled in His eyes. It stings to watch other human souls suffer—or die—because of their sense of isolation and hopelessness. 

Yet, time and time again, when the feeling of being defeated encroaches on my spiritual peace, I am blessed to touch the life of another, and through this service, renew my commitment to the change I seek. The letter below, from a 14-year old boy whom I will likely never meet, is one such blessing. He expresses gratitude for the courage he sees in me for telling my story; and I wish to express mine for his. Learning that my struggles can ease the adversity of another reignites my passion for this work, and reminds me that my sense of aloneness—my sense of being defeated—is an illusion. 

Maybe I won't succeed in softening the hearts of those who fear or misunderstand our LGBT brothers and sisters overnight. But I will succeed in letting people know that they are not alone--and that, in and of itself, is success.

The game belongs to those who remain on the field—and my feet are firmly planted on the field. 

And there they shall remain. 

 Jordan’s Letter

Hello, Mitch.
I am a 14 year old boy who is an active member of the church and has been all of my life. I am very vigilant in keeping up on my scripture study, make sure I’m living righteously and worthily for future temple ordinances, and try to set good examples for my younger siblings. 

You’d say that I am living a very good religious lifestyle but I fear that I may have the same problem as you but less severe. I have had homosexual attractions for as long as I can remember and I have been very confused with what I should do. 

I have just recently decided to act upon this challenge through fasting by asking what I should do. I have not told anybody about this before and this is the first time I have disclosed this information to anybody. Reading your story has enlightened me with the fact that me having these attractions is not the end of the world. You are a hero in my eyes. Thank you so much for telling your story.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

My brother’s keeper

One of the best parts of doing the kind of writing I do is the opportunity to meet and speak with gay Mormons around the world. Some are firm in both their faith and their sexual orientation; but most struggle with understanding how and where they belong as part of the Mormon Church. When I’m extremely blessed, I get to witness someone take a great leap toward understanding themselves and their place within their faith.
Such is the case with my friend Kevin. 

Kevin is a soft-spoken, intelligent 23 year-old gay Mormon. Like many, he grapples with integrating his faith with his sexual orientation. Recently, he hit a period of great depression and doubt—a time when he felt genuinely unwanted, unnoticed, and even resentful toward the faith that he and his family had practiced his entire life.  And like many, he struggled largely in silence—not feeling safe enough to share openly with his bishopric, or worse, fearing retribution for his honesty. Nonetheless, despite his challenges, he continued to pray and do what he could to stay close to his Savior.

Then it happened.

One Sunday, after missing about two months of church consecutively, there appeared an anonymous, hand-delivered note in his mailbox.  “We missed you again today. We hope you come back soon.” It was a plain, blank note card with nothing remarkable about it—except a powerful message from an unnamed individual who noticed Kevin’s absence, missed him, and most importantly—took the time to let him know.

This remarkable story made me think about all the instances where I’ve noticed someone could use encouragement, and across my mind flashed the idea to do something about it—and I let it pass.

How often have each of us had the prompting to lift up another, but passively dismissed or ignored it because we were pressed with other obligations? How many times have we missed the chance to show a small kindness to another—and thus missed the chance to have a tremendous impact on another’s life—or faith? 

As Mormons, one of the covenants we make with our baptism into this church (and renew each Sunday when we take the sacrament), is to take the name of our Savior upon us. And as part of that covenant, we vow to shoulder the burdens of others, using our Savior as our example. 

We pledge to be our brother’s keeper.

I would argue that this same principle applies to each of us within the human family as a whole—irrespective of faith. By reaching out to help others in small, even insignificant ways, we move beyond our own problems and learn to give unconditionally. Looked at this way, every moment we spend as part of the human family can be an opportunity to serve, and an opportunity to positively impact our own lives—and perhaps, like Kevin’s anonymous friend, an opportunity to change another’s.

When Kevin returned to church the following Sunday, another note arrived. “Hello, Kevin. We were excited to see you at church today. We’re glad you came!” Subsequent weeks brought more notes, each one an affirmation to Kevin that he was noticed, he was loved, and most importantly that he had something that mattered to his church: his spirit. Because of this simple act—because someone was willing to be an instrument in the hands of our Savior—Kevin was brought through a difficult and dark time.

Toward the end of sharing his story with me, Kevin remarked: “Being a gay Mormon has been rough, even in a ward of 400 people. It’s easy to feel like you don’t matter, like you’re invisible, and like you don’t fit in. I was praying for help and guidance through this whole period, and I sincerely feel like these notes were a big part of my answer. This is my Savior’s handiwork. He answered my prayers through other people—and He does want me here!”

I wish to add my voice of gratitude to Kevin’s. To his anonymous friend, I’d like to say, “thank you.” You may never realize the impact you had on Kevin, on me, or on anyone who reads this. Your singular, simple act has been magnified to touch hundreds of lives. What a blessing you’ve been to people you may never even meet—all because you heeded a prompting to do a small act of kindness…because you were willing to be your brother’s keeper.

Today, I will pay special heed to any voice inside me that prompts me to perform a kind act, regardless of how insignificant it may seem. And in doing so, I will bless my own life through service to another, I will do my part to make the world a more peaceful and loving place, and I will let a fellow traveler on this earthly path know they are loved, they are valued, and that they matter.

Will you be your brother’s keeper today?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

An ally in our midst: Elder Marlin K. Jensen

In September of last year, Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Quorum of the Seventy (the third tier of church leadership) was assigned to speak to the Oakland Stake during our stake conference. At the request of my Stake President, Elder Jensen agreed to meet with a few us to talk about the topic of homosexuality, and more specifically, about the Church’s involvement in Proposition 8. I also had the opportunity to speak with Elder Jensen privately.

Elder Jensen is well known in both Mormon and political circles as an outspoken liberal, encouraging the church membership on all areas of diversity—political, ethnic, and cultural. It was, of course, no small coincidence that Elder Jensen was the one assigned to speak at the Oakland conference—and no coincidence that he was asked (and agreed) to meet with me and others on this topic. 

Elder Jensen is a kind, amazing man full of love and energy of spirit. As we spoke privately, I told him of my personal struggle—that being gay and being Mormon are both entwined in my soul, and I could not remove one or the other without destroying who I am. I have developed a deep, soul stretching relationship with my Savior here, and while I might be able to build that same relationship in another church, Mormonism is now (and will always be) my first language and native tongue when it comes to communicating with and understanding my God.  

I went on to explain that often, I feel like a man with a foot in two worlds that belongs in neither. But as I have grown in my testimony and my understanding of myself, I have come to realize that I am indeed a man with a foot in two worlds—and I belong in both. 

I am needed in this church, and I am exactly where my Savior wants me to be. While it might be an easier path to turn my back on the Mormon Church, I shall not do so. If change is to occur—and it must—it has to happen from the inside. I will not to come to the end of my life and meet my Savior with cowardice on my conscience. I will not look at Him at the end of my journey and shrug my shoulders and say, “Sorry, it just got too hard.”  While my work and my honesty may cost me my church membership, it is something that will have to be forced upon me, and I believe, answered for eventually.

Upon sharing this with Elder Jensen, I noticed his eyes had welled up with tears. He shook his head vigorously, indicating his distaste at the idea of someone revoking my church membership based on my sexual orientation. It was remarkable to have a man with this authority display such emotional gratitude for my honesty and testimony—and, at the same time, be humble enough to never interrupt me verbally. I felt heard, I felt validated, and I felt respected by this man. 

 At the end of the larger group session, Elder Jensen committed to sharing what he learned with the remainder of senior church leadership. He reiterated that there are many in our senior ranks who care deeply about this topic—and are genuinely concerned that there are gay people among our flanks who feel that they have no place in the Mormon Church. Our allies in the church leadership feel broken hearted that there are so many souls who feel they have no home here.

He spoke of personally knowing and loving many gay and lesbian individuals, and remarked how he always marvels at the talent, abilities, kindness, and depth of soul of those he considers to be in his inner circle. He then tearfully wondered aloud if we, in fact, might all just simply be God’s special and unique creations, with a path to walk different from the rest, whose purpose may yet be undiscovered.

He stopped short of doing an about face on the formal position of the church on the issue of homosexuality—and I expected nothing less. However, toward the end of our meeting, he offered—within his power to grant—a heartfelt and teary eyed apology on behalf of the Church for all the pain and divisiveness caused by this position and the work around Proposition 8. 

He ended with this: “I am committed to going back to Salt Lake and sharing what I now know and what I have learned today, and I will influence to the best of my abilities. Through meeting with you today, my aversion to homophobia has grown, and that needs to happen in the lives and hearts of every single Mormon.”

From my side, I left spiritually elevated and enthusiastic—and feel the same in sharing this now. The kindness, love, and honesty with which this topic was addressed was heartening—and an incredible step in the right direction. I don’t know when change will happen, or if I will see in my lifetime the kind of change I want to occur. Yet, my feet (and the feet of others) are pointed in the right direction. And, I firmly believe that it matters less how fast you travel, and more in what direction you are headed.

We are indeed headed in the right direction.

Humility vs. Humiliation

I have a friend I watched rise from underprivileged and abusive roots to achieve much of what the world would call success: He secured a good education, found a job that paid handsomely, married and had a healthy son, and bought a beautiful home and expensive cars.  Through it all, though, he carried with him a small, almost indiscernible sense of entitlement and victimhood—as if his thorny past entitled him to these things.

Not so many years later, I also watched as he was, one by one, stripped of each of these things. The job was lost in a shameful scandal, the marriage ended acrimoniously and custody of his son was granted to his ex wife, and the home and the cars were all eventually repossessed.  The previous sense of entitlement and victimhood now pressed to the forefront of his character. Bitterness, blame, and resentment became hallmarks of his personality. One day, he remarked to me sullenly, “Why is this all of this happening to me? Now, I have truly been humbled.”

“No,” I thought to myself. “You have not been humbled. You have allowed yourself to be humiliated.”

Growing up as a gay Mormon, I—like many of you—experienced probably more than my fair share of humiliating situations. From this, and from watching the rise and subsequent fall of my friend, I began to wonder about the nature of humility versus humiliation for all of us. What, really, is the difference between these two words which sound so much alike to the causal listener—and arguably, have definitions that somewhat overlap?

Humiliation is something that shames; it heaps a burden of disgrace, dishonor, and embarrassment upon its subject. It is a condition of pessimism, of victimhood, and more importantly—of weakness. Humility, by contrast, is a position of strength. Humility is gratefully recognizing our complete dependence upon our Savior—through the good times, and the bad. It means we know our strength actually resides within our dependence—and helps us know that we are never alone, despite how we may feel or how our circumstances may appear.

Humiliation breeds fear; humility instills courage. 

When we feel humiliated, I think it is a sign that something is spiritually out of balance—that somehow, in some small way, we’ve lost sight of our rightful place with our Savior and with our fellow humans. Instead of recognizing our dependence—and gaining the courage to be found there—we’ve placed our own pride and self-will in its stead, and resultingly, the potential for shame that it brings.

Such was the case for my friend. To him, the journey of life was akin to climbing a ladder. Everyone was either above him—to be admired, awed, and envied—or below him, to be scorned and judged. When we hold this view, our thoughts, words, and deeds become driven by actions that will move us higher up the ladder—we lose focus on our dependence on our Savior, esteem secular achievement over spiritual growth, and often end up knocking other people off the ladder—or being knocked off ourselves.

A healthier view for me is to view life as a journey with my fellows as peers, each of us pressing onward on our prescribed paths, to learn the lessons that life is intended to teach us. None of us is ahead of another—so there is no need for envy. None of us is behind another—so there is no need for judgment and scorn. True, each path is unique to every traveler—some may appear easier than others, and others, conversely, seem more arduous and demanding. But if viewed through the lens of humility, it becomes clear that each path is geared to teach each of us what we individually need to know to come to rely upon our Savior, and, eventually, return to our Father.
Today, when my life’s journey brings me to a situation that feels humiliating, I will choose to view it through the lens of humility. This will lend me a peaceful heart, and a courageous spirit. It will help me see myself, my situation, and others in true perspective, and keep my mind open to the truth.

How will you choose to view your journey today?