Friday, February 24, 2012

Upon the shoulders of a giant: Bill Bradshaw

Dr. William Bradshaw
True compassion is a rare quality. I like to think that it exists in all of us, but for most of us in this human condition, it’s not something that’s accessed as readily or as often as I think our Savior would like. Sometimes, though, there are those among us who possess this quality with such richness, such depth of character that it often leaves the rest of us in quiet awe.

Such is the case with Bill Bradshaw.

Bill is a former mission president, former member of a stake presidency—and is also the father of a gay son. I had occasion to meet Bill some time ago, and in recent months we’ve reconnected. This week he shared a speech with me that he delivered a few years back as part of a memorial service honoring LGBT suicide victims—and it is one that needs to be read by every human, and most certainly every Latter-day Saint. The message, like that of our Savior, is simple: Love with abundance, and judge not.  

I want to add my voice to the thousands (if not millions) who owe Bill a debt of gratitude. I suspect I would not be in my calling within the church if not for the compassion and conviction to understanding displayed by Bill and people like him—and therefore I would be unable to reach out to others in my situation. It is, indeed, humbling to be standing on the shoulders of this brave, compassionate giant.

I think I can safely say that Bill is most certainly the kind of Dad all of us wish we had as LGBT Mormons. Our paths might have been very different, indeed.

On behalf of all of us, thank you, Bill.

Talk given by Bill Bradshaw as part of the program “Bring them in from the plains.  From despair to hope,” a Memorial Service honoring LGBT suicide victims held at the First Unitarian Church, Salt Lake City, UT, Sunday, October 4, 2009 at 7:00 p.m.

I’m here tonight because I love my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, both in and outside of Mormondom, and feel a very deep sorrow at the loss of any of them.  It occurs to me that I am blessed in this regard, and that blessing takes the form of the exceptional human being who is our gay son, Brett.  Were it not for Brett I would not have become acquainted with other homosexual people, their parents and extended families, and friends.  And without the set of experiences and education that have followed, I would have remained uninformed and misguided and burdened by ignorance and bigotry.  There but for the grace of my son go I.

As a small group of people we’ve come tonight carrying a complex set of emotions and expectations, born of different backgrounds and experiences.  Some of us out of loyalty to a cause, some with a sense of sadness with the names and faces of specific individuals in mind, some seeking support and consolation, some to renew contact with others whose friendships continue to give our lives greater meaning.  It occurs to me that we might benefit in three ways from our attendance here.  One would come in the form of a very solemn spirit, a reminder of a profound sense of loss, a deep sadness with what we believe were the needless deaths of competent, gifted, genuinely good young men and women with the potential for satisfying and contributing futures.  A second might be greater understanding, an increased insight into the nature of homosexuality as experienced by our LGBT brothers and sisters, an enlarged awareness leading to empathy.  Finally, we might hope to leave with a renewed commitment, a dedication to finding ways to be better at overturning misconceptions and misinformation and standing up for love and equality.

Let me suggest that our best hope of realizing these positive outcomes may lie in the human capacity for imagination.  The gifted scientist Jacob Bronowski has suggested that this ability of the mind and spirit separates us from all the other creatures (1).  “It becomes plain,” he asserts, “that imagination is a specifically human gift.  To imagine is the characteristic act, not of the poet’s mind, or the painter’s or the scientist’s, but of the mind of man.”  “To imagine,“ he continues, “means to make images and to move them about inside one’s head in new arrangements. The images play out for us events which are not present to our senses, and thereby guard the past and create the future – a future that does not yet exist, and may never come to exist in that form.”  Perhaps in its most refined form, imagination is that capacity of deity that permitted Christ to “descend below all things” (D&C 88:6) in his effort to understand and have compassion for the full range of human experiences.

A major problem, however, for us in the insensitive heterosexual majority, is our inability to imagine being otherwise.  Our orientation is the orientation, to persons of the opposite sex, and to conceive of erotic feeling for someone of our same gender is – well, unimaginable.  And ironically, our own sexual perspective is one we would defy any program of therapy to change.

Thus it becomes useful for us to listen.  Listen with me now to the words of one man, Andrew Sullivan, in his attempt to articulate his private early encounter with his gay sexuality (2).  “My feelings were too strong and too terrifying to do anything but submerge them completely.  Gay adolescents are offered what every heterosexual teenager longs for: to be invisible in the girl’s locker room.  But you are invisible in the boy’s locker room, your desire as unavoidable as its object.  In that moment, you learn the first homosexual lesson:  that your survival depends upon self-concealment.  The gay teenager learns a form of control and sublimation, of deception and self-contempt, that never leaves his consciousness.  He learns that that which would most give him meaning is most likely to destroy him in the eyes of others; that the condition of his friendship is the subjugation of himself.”  And why, we ask?  It is hard not to imagine that the answer is a terrible sense of not belonging.  Thus the contradiction: “Know the truth – know the truth about your homosexual self – that truth may not make you free.”  All of this inner anguish because you are different.

There seems to be an unfortunate human inclination such that when you look across at another person who is different from yourself, you make the decision that that person is not as good as you are.  If that person is black, you must be superior.  If that individual speaks Chinese, well, of course, English is better, never mind more than a fourth of earth’s population.  If that person is a woman whom you could best in a fist fight, well, men are incomparable.  This in spite of who was responsible for managing the family on that meager income in the early years, who remembers when the anniversary is, and finds the car keys you’ve misplaced when they are in plain sight.  Is it possible that this capacity for unrighteous judgment was the one trait that God most hoped would disappear from his spirit children during their mortal sojourn?  If so, and based on the historical record, He must be terribly disappointed.

It is suggested that no other human can imagine the depth of Christ’s agony in the Garden, not withstanding the graphic imagery of “bleeding at every pore.”  But I can imagine that the heavy weight of sins not His own was made endurable, at least in part, by the knowledge that His sacrificial atonement was made in behalf of billions; it was for a very good cause.  I am less able to imagine a counter-balancing feeling of comfort, when at the low point of his experience, He would utter His anguished cry, “My God, Why hast Thou forsaken me?”  Forsaken.  Is that ultimately the perception of those of our homosexual brothers and sisters who take their own lives?  Forsaken by man, by God, by family, by friends?  Bereft of optimism for this life, of trying any longer, believing sadly that the only hope for peace lies across the threshold of death?

I return again to Andrew Sullivan, who freely acknowledges that his experience may not be the same as that of other gay men, or especially of lesbian women, but who argues as follows.  “It’s possible, I think, that whatever society teaches or doesn’t teach about homosexuality, this fact will always be the case.  No homosexual child, surrounded overwhelmingly by heterosexuals, will feel at home in his sexual and emotional world, even in the most tolerant of cultures.  And every homosexual child will learn the rituals of deceit, impersonation, and appearance.  Anyone who believes political, social, or even cultural revolution will change this fundamentally is denying reality.  This isolation will always hold.  It is definitional of homosexual development.  And children are particularly cruel.  At the age of eleven, no one wants to be the odd one out; and in the arena of dating and hormones, the exclusion is inevitably a traumatic one.” 

While agreeing with Sullivan’s description of the inner turmoil in the souls of at least many gay adolescents and young adults, and acknowledging the reality of the cruelty, I find myself imagining that his assessment about the inevitability of isolation, deceit, and impersonation is too pessimistic.  I imagine myself being part of an effort to change that world, at least my part of that world, at least for one person, or perhaps for five, or maybe for several dozen, at least for those several dozen at an earlier time in their emergence from that terrible closet, in time to point them away from a mind set in which they imagine the possibility of talking their own lives.  And, in fact, more than that, of opening up their imaginations and those of their families and loved ones to lives of possibilities and fulfillment, to lives of goodness, and family, and happiness.

The record states that in ministering to the little children of the Nephite people Jesus spoke words so “great and marvelous” that they could not be verbalized nor written by others, so we are left to our imaginations in fathoming their content.  What happened next, however, suggests that the themes were love, both divine and human, and mercy.  Having wept, “he took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them.  And when he had done this he wept again (3 Nephi 17:9-22).”  Knowing what we know today, we have to believe that among those children were a few who later, as young adults, would have to confront and cope with their homosexuality.  I can further imagine that they would not have forgotten that extraordinary experience from their childhood, and that the memory of the Savior’s great love for them would have assuaged their efforts to deal with their recognition of being different, and they would have known that they did belong, to Him and to all the rest of the human family.

Many years ago I made a promise that I was too young to understand.  It was a covenant to be “willing to bear the burdens of other people, to mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.”  What can we imagine it means to “mourn with those that mourn?”  Surely that vow will not be satisfied by waiting patiently in the line at the viewing until one is able to express a few words of condolence to the bereaved.  Several years ago Marge and I, along with a few other Family Fellowship parents, attended the funeral service of one of the young men we remember tonight.  It was a joyless hour.  None of the members of the family participated on the program, this apparently an accurate reflection of their relationship with their son and brother.  The first talk, given by an ecclesiastical leader was insensitive, actually cruel in its tone and content.  I hope that such services will disappear from our midst.   I mourn for the spirit of that young man, whom I can imagine crying, “Why was I forsaken?”  I mourn for his family.  I mourn for other parents, who learn that a son or daughter is gay, and whose world is unnecessarily turned upside down by that unexpected revelation.  I mourn because of the mistaken notion that one’s sexual orientation is chosen or the insidious assertion that it is the result of imperfect parenting.  I mourn for the failure to consider the strong evidence that one’s sexual orientation is, in fact, in one’s DNA.  I mourn for the existence of public policies that demean and exclude.  I mourn for the existence of private beliefs that provide a rationalization for unchristian treatment of other human beings.  I mourn for the lack of a public acknowledgement of the fundamental goodness, decency, and accomplishments of my LGBT brothers and sisters.

Mourning, then, can take the form of recognition of a need.  It can be an internal activity, accomplished in the privacy of one’s mind and home.  But the “comforting” part of what I promised I would do cannot.  To comfort and bear one another’s burdens we must go outside of those private places; we have to speak, we have to act, we have to stand for something.  A dear friend, Duff Hanks, whose wisdom and example were important guides at needful times in my life, is today unable to speak at any gathering such as this.  I think he would not mind if I were to quote some of his words tonight.  “In the most personal of His parables the Savior identified himself fully with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned (see Matthew 25:35-36).  So many are burdened with earthly care, the stain of sin, poverty, pain, disability, loneliness, bereavement, rejection.  The promise of Christ’s mercy is sure and certain to those who find Him and trust Him.  He who stilled the winds and waves can bring peace to the sinner and to the suffering Saint.  And we as His agents are not alone to declare His word but also to represent Him in doing unto the least of His brethren that which He himself would do were He now here (3).”

So what form might our comforting take?  It might be that we refuse to remain silent when in casual conversations or during lessons delivered in church or in any other setting we hear errors in fact or judgment  We will not allow the uninformed to remain ignorant or the unintentionally unkind to remain unaware of the harmful impact of their words and attitudes.  It might be that we pray with greater frequency and greater fervency for God to promote change in the hearts of those with governmental and religious authority.  We might make the phone calls, visit the homes, issue the invitations for lunch, and otherwise make contact with closeted families paralyzed with fear and uncertainty.  We will celebrate the humanity of our homosexual children, friends, and neighbors – honor the goodness of their lives – advertize our pride in their accomplishments.  We will take great care in our efforts with those with whom we disagree not to be guilty of the same hubris, insensitivity, hostility, or lack of compassion that may have been directed at us or at those we love.

It seems to me appropriate that tonight we invoke the spirit of the most famous speech given in our country in tribute to the dead:  “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”  Mr. Lincoln spoke these words during a terrible conflict, that divided our young nation and inflicted wounds of all kinds that were very difficult to heal. Although the causes of that tragic war were complex, at its heart was the need to uphold and protect the inalienable rights conferred by God on His children, all of whom He deemed deserving of equal access to all of life’s best possibilities.  At its heart, our cause tonight is the same.  May Heavenly Father grant us the will and the strength to persevere.  In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.


1.         Jacob Bronowski.  1967.  The Reach of Imagination, in The Norton Reader,
10th Edition, L.H. Peterson, J.C. Brereton, and J.E. Hartman, Eds.  W.W. Norton and Company, New York, NY.  Pages 233-235.

2.         Andrew Sullivan.  1995.  Virtually Normal, Vintage Book, New York, NY.  Pages 12-13.

3.      Marion D. Hanks.  1991.  Bread Upon The Waters, Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, UT.  Page 39.

About Bill Bradshaw

Dr. Bradshaw is a former mission president, former member of a stake presidency, has written about the biology of homosexuality elsewhere, and was covered by BYU’s Daily Universe here.  He is also the host on a short video entitled, “Embracing our Homosexual Children.” He is also one of the founders of Family Fellowship, which offers support and strength for families of LGBT Mormons.


  1. Thanks for the links to this man's work. It is refreshing to read thoughtful, well organized writing on the subject expressed by a scientific man.

  2. I, too, give my thanks for Bill Bradshaw, and for all who take true compassion on LGBT individuals. Let's hope his bright flame lights a fire in the lives of many!

  3. Mitch, I just listened to Bill Bradshaw's interview with John Dehlin on Mormon Stories. I can see why you love and respect him so much. I would think his writings and testimony would greatly help LDS parents and siblings understand their LGBT family members better. Thank you for sharing his work. What an incredible example he is.