Thursday, February 28, 2013

No More Strangers: LGBT Mormon Forum

A few weeks back, we launched No More Strangers—an online forum focused on LGBT issues inside the Mormon faith. The contributing authors to this blog are both well-known and informed emerging voices that help us understand more deeply the issues surrounding what it means to be a gay Mormon or an ally. 

Each of us is in different places in terms of our relationship with the LDS Church.  Some of us are active in the Church and fiercely committed to our testimony and to the Gospel. Some of us wrestle with doubt and/or faith. Some are firmly post-Mormon, though concerned about the state of affairs in LGBT Mormondom.  We bring with us expertise as teachers, scientists, writers, coaches, therapists, activists, theologians, and thinkers.

We seek to address a range of topics, in diverse voices and styles.  Some of us bring an edgier, more political perspective to the table.  Others rely on laughter to dispel demons. Some of us love digging into the scriptures and bringing theological reflection to real-life struggles.  Others bring a more devotional, more spiritually connected perspective.

We will reflect on the LGBT Mormon experience, but we will also examine larger questions in our Church and society from our unique perspectives, bringing our faith and our wrestling with issues related to sexuality and gender identity to our reflections on current events and the human condition. We hope to challenge ourselves and our readers.

And I think I love this part of our mission the best: Our one overarching commitment is that whatever we are or ever were to one another, the one thing we are no more and will never more be is strangers.

Some of the authors include:
·         Berta Marquez
·         Carol Lynn Pearson
·         John Dehlin
·         Erika Munson
·         John Gustav-Wrathall
·         Morris Thurston
·         Bob Rees
·         Bill Bradshaw
·         Hollie Hancock
·         Scott Holley
·         Tom and Wendy Montgomery

Bookmark the No More Strangers forum—and join us today.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Shepherd of Israel

Eighteen months ago, I was called to serve closely with Bishop Don Fletcher in the Bay Ward here in San Francisco, as his executive secretary. In my Mormon career, I’ve had the great blessing to have had some amazing bishops, but this has been my first opportunity to really see a “bishop-in-action,” and be privy to some of the details of how an individual can manage this calling in a way that expands on it, grows the faith of those around him, and enables him to increase his own faith. It’s been a pretty remarkable experience.

Bishop Fletcher has been an outspoken ally of LGBT Mormons. In the past 18 months alone, he’s written a powerful op-ed supporting the evidence based research of The Family Acceptance Project advocating for a scientific approach to keeping our gay Mormon youth safe and healthy; he’s spoken in several LGBT Mormon forums and shared his own experience, strength, and hope; and was the primary driver of creating a welcoming congregation for everyone in our ward boundaries—gay, straight, or anywhere in between.

And while his mission to the LGBT community is clear, his message of inclusion extends beyond gay Mormons—and at its core, is a message for all Mormons who feel ‘on the outside looking in’ for whatever reason. At our first Ward Conference over a year ago, he stood in front of the ward and stake leadership teams and said, “Everyone who wishes to come participate in our family of faith is welcome here—every spot, stripe, and pattern our Father created. Everyone has a place inside this church—and our doors are open to all of them.”

His inclusive, optimistic outlook is difficult not to like—and difficult to not like being around. I do believe, too, that this kind of optimism and kindness is contagious. In that spirit, I want to take the opportunity to share some of the things I’ve learned from him over the past 18 months. And while this list is by no means comprehensive, my hope is that it stands as a small—yet incomplete—tribute to a man I not only admire, but also love very much.

It is quite possible to be well liked, and well respected.
“No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care,” is one of Bishop Fletcher’s philosophies. As an ophthalmologist, Bishop Fletcher often works with students to teach them what he calls ‘the art of medicine,’ meaning that his instruction includes the idea that it’s quite okay to endear yourself to people as you tell them things they need to hear—even if it’s unpleasant. The same, be believes, is true for him in his role as a Bishop: Even if you’re telling the truth, you never have license to be unkind.

Humility has nothing to do with humiliation.
One of my mantras for many years, I admire the way Bishop Fletcher puts this into action. “An old stand-by in medicine,” he told me, “is instruction through intimidation and embarrassment. That model doesn’t work for me in my career, nor in my calling. My role as a Bishop is not about shaming—it is to uplift and edify. You can’t accomplish that if you shame your fellows.”

This gives everyone the freedom to speak their truth without fear of retribution, and helps make our congregation a genuinely safe space for all our brothers and sisters.

There is no place for gossip in a healthy community of Saints.
“Words can harm, or words can heal,” he’s said to me, recounting the story of two patients with heart conditions—one who died in large part because he heard the wrong messages from people who matter.

Recognizing the power of words, Bishop Fletcher’s rules on this one are pretty simple: Before repeating anything, ask yourself:
  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it fair to all concerned?
  3. Does telling it build up good will and friendship?
  4. Will telling it be beneficial to all concerned?

If your answer is anything other than yes, then whatever you’re planning to say is likely best left unsaid.

Stand up for what you believe in.
Bishop Fletcher has created a ward environment where people are free to express their opinions and beliefs, even if they fall outside the norm of what we understand as Mormons. His caveat, however, is that there is a way to stand for yourself without standing against your fellows—another philosophy I support and try to live.

“Speak your own truth,” he advises, “But also understand it is not necessary to create an enemy when you do so. Tolerance,” he adds, “doesn’t mean I’m tolerant of only those who share my point of view.”

And I have seen him put this into action—he’s a master at disagreeing without being disagreeable in the process.

A Christ-centered life is more fulfilling than a rule-centered life.
“Rules matter,” Bishop Fletcher tells me, “But we don’t have to look too deeply into our Savior’s life to see that indeed, the rules are good—but building a life embedded into the spirit of the law goes so much further than one embedded into the letter of the law.”

His philosophy is similar to that of Joseph Smith—teach people correct principles, and they will effectively govern themselves. While it’s prudent to obey the rules, the rules alone aren’t enough. It’s far more prudent to understand the spirit in which they were meant.

And after all, if we get the first couple right—love our Savior, and love one another—the rest pretty much follow.

It’s okay to not be perfect. And it’s okay (and sometimes desirable) to say, “I don’t know.”
“President Hinckley was a man I greatly admired. One of the things I liked best about him is he wasn’t afraid to admit there were things he simply did not know, even in his position. If a prophet of the church can display such honest humility, how then, can I not follow his example?”

I think it’s safe to say Bishop Fletcher has a general disdain for pompous, self-righteous individuals who have a need to come off as knowing all the answers. Much more effective for him, he believes, is admitting the fact that he doesn’t know everything—and often enlisting the aid of those around him to help him figure things out.

“Often, we tend to fall into the very human desire to create an image of ourselves as someone who has all the answers,” he said. “But just because we’re called as bishops or leaders doesn’t mean our calling enables us to dispense all the answers. It is, after all, a sign of strength—not of weakness—to be honest, even if the answer is ‘I don’t know.”

Gratitude is critical—independent of where we are in life.
“As an eye doctor, many of the patients I see are keenly focused on the difficulties they face as a result of losing their sight. Often, they transfer this anger to God, another human, or the medical profession. With that, they are ripe to fall into a deep despair as a result of not being able to live their lives in the ways to which they’ve become accustomed.

“In each of these instances, I advise my patients to keep a Book of Abundance—where they record five good things that happen to them each day. The book is kept under their pillow, and I ask them to record their list at night before they sleep, so they can reflect on their day and close their day on an optimistic note. Moreover, if they know they have to record these five items before they sleep, their attention throughout the day will be guided to look for the hand of our Savior even in their current circumstance—and as a result, their perception of a more abundant life will flourish.”

Often a topic of our Bishopric meetings, gratitude is a quality Bishop Fletcher displays in all his affairs. Whenever a situation seems to take an unexpected turn for the worse, he can be counted on to find the silver lining.

“When I look for the blessings of my Savior, I find them. Conversely, when I look for the negative, that is also what I find. My life is much more peaceful and much sweeter when I make an active effort to guide my own perceptions.”

Bishop Fletcher isn’t perfect—like all of us, he has his share of human limitations. But what is remarkable, I think, is his willingness to admit that those do exist—and display a pretty good knowledge of what those limitations are. And with that, takes a huge step toward eroding their ability to impact his capacity as a human, a bishop, and as my friend.

Thank you, Bishop Fletcher. You are indeed a shepard of Israel. We need more like you.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Life lessons from Mom

I’ve shared pretty openly about my tumultuous history with my parents when I told them I was gay—my Mom, in particular. And while it was difficult at first, I witnessed a change in my Mom that was nothing short of remarkable. Over time, she made the transition from someone who wished I hadn’t been born at all (out of fear of how difficult my life would be), to a woman who not only loved me as her gay son—but advocated for and celebrated me. 

This past week I ran across the letter I wrote her as part of her memorial a few years ago. I want to share it here today because I think it stands as an example of how hearts can change—and delivers my very imperfect homage to one of the humans I loved most in this world.

Most of all, I hope there are a few Moms of gay Mormons out there who read this and realize the same thing my Mom did—if you allow it to be, having a gay child can be a blessing unlike any other. Often, parents of gay kids are given opportunities to develop Christlike unconditional love, compassion, and forgiveness that others are not offered. No, it is not an easy path—but if it is navigated with guidance from our Savior and His gospel, it can be one of the most rewarding any human can travel. 

Dear Mom-

I know you’re aware how my heart groans today, how much losing you hurts me, and how unprepared I feel to continue on without you. But I want you to know how glad I am for your release from your struggles here.

Mom, you left me a soul stretching legacy. One of the most profound was passing to me your life long love of education. You inspired me to levels of achievement I could never have accomplished on my own. When we were small children, you set a goal for yourself to return to nursing school. How difficult this time must have been for you —two small children to raise, very little money, and in order to survive you needed to clean houses on the weekends and in the evenings. When you weren’t studying the rigorous nursing curriculum, you were in the home of a stranger, stooped over cleaning their floors —   to make a better life for yourself and your family. But you never complained. How proud I am of you for that.

When I was contemplating graduate school some years ago, I thought of many choices. You encouraged me to aim high, just like you did when you decided to return to school, and with that encouragement I chose Stanford University, certain that I would be rejected. How could they be interested in a poor kid from a small town in Idaho? But they accepted me. That accomplishment is not only my own, Mom—it is yours, as well. Without your example and encouragement, I would not have made it to that milestone in my life. 

When I left for school, I know it broke your heart. I saw it in your eyes. Your words and countenance projected a bravado I knew was false, but in order to make my departure easier you hid your sorrow. You knew that when I left, I would not return. You would not have your youngest son at home any longer…but you let me go, wished me well, and assured me that I could do this —   that I could reach this goal —   in spite of your  heart breaking as you watched me drive away in the moving van. Thank you for setting me free, mom, when I know it took all your strength to do so.

As my life and career took root in San Francisco, I turned to you often for counsel and advice. Often I would dismiss the wisdom you shared with me, but more often than not I would regret doing so. I talked to you almost every day, Mom. Sometimes I would call with nothing really to say—a commentary on the weather, or something else insignificant—but you always made time for me even when my conversations had to be less than interesting. I drew comfort knowing you were there—just simply, perfectly, there. 

When I told you I was gay, it created a rift in our relationship—but mercifully, that rift was temporary. Years later, when you came to not only understand what it meant to have a gay son—but also recognized it as a gift—you shared a story with me that I’ve never forgotten. 

“Years ago,” you said, “my best friend Adele discovered she had a brain tumor. Her initial diagnosis was dire—but also, fortunately inaccurate. When I heard about Adele’s choices for treatment, I felt that she should pursue specific avenues she’d ruled out. I grew increasingly impatient with her choices until I read an article in a medical journal written by someone I respect, suggesting the avenues I had been championing could do more harm than good.” 

“That’s when I realized the limits of my own understanding. Not just when it came to Adele, but when it came to you, as my gay son. In both cases, my sense of urgency to push you both into care that could harm you stemmed not from certainty, but from fear. I learned that my only honest course of action was to turn my fear, my love, and each of you over to the care of your Savior—and to love you both for who you were. I could no longer pretend to know what is best.”

“I’m not a genius, a philosopher, or a wizard. Even if I were all three, I’d still find myself looking off the edge of my own understanding into the vast unknown. And when I recognize my limitations, I am more grateful than ever for a Savior who is free from such restrictions."

"I’m sorry our road was rough. I’m sorry I didn’t always see what a wonderful blessing you are to me and to our family. Today, I am grateful to have you as my gay son—and I love you.” 

What I learned from you that day is that people can change their minds—and that often their hearts then follow. I learned that like you, as a human I don’t know what’s best for anyone, either. My only job is to stick close to my Savior, make the best decisions I can, and to allow others the dignity to do the same—and to love them just the way they are. Thank you for being an example to me again, Mom. 

Two weeks ago at Christmas was the last time we were all together as a family. As I drove you home Christmas night, you told me you didn’t want to me to come up with you to your place. But I needed to; I needed to help you carry your gifts upstairs. I dismissed your request and took you upstairs anyway. Inside your apartment, I turned to find you crying by the front door…tears flowed down your cheeks from behind the reading glasses that were too large for the frame of your tiny face. 

When I asked you why you were crying, you said it seemed extra hard to say goodbye to me this time, and it felt like it would be a long time before you got to see me again. I just grabbed you and hugged you, and I said, “Sssshhh…it’s okay. Don’t worry, Mama. Don’t cry--I’ll see you later.” You looked me in the eyes and said, “Okay…okay. If we can say, ‘I’ll see you later,’ I’ll be alright with that. But I won't say goodbye to you.” 

I hugged you again, kissed your forehead, wiped your tears, and walked away. That was the last time I saw you. Part of me regrets not staying and spending more time with you, but another part of me recognizes that it happened exactly as it should—that in the opportunity to tell you, “I’ll see you later,” our Savior was at work as well, reminding us that this isn’t really goodbye at all.  Our final moments together had our Savior’s fingerprints all over them. For that, I’m also grateful. 

You weren't perfect, Mom--but you were the perfect Mom for me. I know in this world, this phrase often carries a negative connotation. But Mom, I am, and always will be, a Mama’s boy. And I’m proud to be one. 

I won’t tell you good-bye, Mom. But I will close with this: “I love you mom. That will never change. And you can bet that I will, indeed, see you later.”

With much love, your gay son,