Living Outside the Lines: A Story of Personal Discovery and Self-Acceptance
Second Place, 2004 Affirmation Writing Contest
by Ben Jarvis
I was hopelessly lost. I had spent forty minutes wandering through countless rows looking for two specific people and I had had it. I pulled out the phone and called my parents. For all the things that you can say about Heber, Utah, at least the town has good cellular coverage.
Hello, Dad? I'm in the middle of Heber Cemetery and I can't find
Grandma or Grandpa anywhere. Yeah, I'm here by the road-the third
entrance. Oh, the first entrance? Hold on; let me get there . . .
The Heber Cemetery is not unlike other graveyards in small Utah towns. It is a reverent, well manicured place filled with granite monuments bearing temple engravings and verses from Mormon scripture. Since my roots extend back to the founding of Mormonism on both sides of my family, I probably have relatives in most Utah cemeteries. The question is not if I am related but rather a matter of connecting the dots and figuring out the specific family line and relation.
As a child, Mormonism was simply a part of me. My family was active in our local ward and Latter-day Saint (LDS) principles guided me from my earliest memory. I was born and raised in California, but my life was not all that different from the lives of my relatives who lived in Mormon towns from Arizona north to Idaho. I learned Mormon songs, followed Mormon teachings, and thought of the Church, not as a fast-growing religion, but rather as an extended family where almost everyone was connected if you looked deep enough. I appreciated the Mormon community and was glad to be a part of it. Even so, I took much of my Mormon experience for granted, particularly where my roots were concerned. I was far more interested in spending time at the beach or exploring San Diego County than I was listening to adults talk about their BYU and mission experiences or reminiscing about Mormon ancestors I had never met. I could not relate to stories from places like Snowflake or Talmage. My feelings changed in my twenties, however, when I was forced to confront my Mormon identity head on and decide whether to embrace it or walk away. I chose to embrace it, and in the process, I discovered how strong my ties to Utah and the greater Mormon community really were.
Dad was 800 miles away in California but he knew precisely where I was. He guided me past headstones with familiar names and brought me to the final resting place of my great grandparents. I knelt down, touched their markers, and reflected on the faint memories I had of them. They both died when I was small and I can only remember them in general terms. I remember visiting the homestead in the Uintah Basin and smelling the foul odor of Grandpa's homemade wine. I have more memories of my great-grandmother, including attending her funeral when I was seven. They lived far away from us and I never had the chance to really get to know them, but I was glad that I had at least some recollection. I brushed the grass clippings off the markers and stood to leave.
Son, tell me some of the names on the headstones around grandma
I found a few names and read them to Dad. He told me who those people were and how I was related to them. He then asked me to walk into another section of the cemetery and look for other family graves. I found them. My father shared stories about those buried beneath me. As he did so, the ground came alive as the grave markers morphed into people; real people whom I resembled, people whose blood flowed inside of me. My dad spoke of pride, tenacity, and the independent spirit of our family roots. The traits and stories were familiar. Our family history is filled with accounts of people who challenged authority and practiced Mormonism on their own terms. My ancestors were not afraid to stand against the majority if they felt their cause was just; even going so far as to challenge their Church leaders, an unthinkable act in early LDS history. My family did not fit the typical Mormon mold and I had always been thankful for that but I never thought about how my ancestors' drive and rambunctious spirits were a part of my own personality and psyche. Had my father said goodbye and hung up immediately, I would have left the cemetery and thought nothing more of my side trip to the family plot; but Dad kept talking, introducing me to unknown relatives and telling me about their lives. As he ended the phone call, he unknowingly blindsided me with one of the most significant moments of my life.
Son, these are your people. You are standing among
your ancestors and they are proud of you for who you are and for what
you do for others. That cemetery is your legacy and you belong there.
Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
These are my people. I belong. I am a part of a legacy greater than myself. I had spent years learning who I was and trying to figure out where I fit into the Mormon community; rather, if I fit into the Mormon community. Of course I fit in, it just took some time for me to realize it. I was part of a proud tradition and my experiences and uniqueness added to the rich tapestry of my ancestral culture. I stood amidst my forbearers. I belonged to them as much as they belonged to me. It was an incredible feeling, a sense of homecoming and wholeness.
I took in the view of Mount Timpanogos and looked southwest to the upper end of Provo Canyon. My journey had been long, but I had found my way home. Although I was a native Californian, life had brought me to Utah when I was a young man and I had a strong personal connection to this place. In high school, I ventured to the Heber Valley many times to swim and rough house in the hot springs or to picnic in the nearby canyons with friends. In college, I returned to those same spots to study or quietly ponder the direction of my life. In that context, my father's comments only affirmed what I already knew: I had a place in this valley. More importantly, I had a place in Mormonism. I was a gay Mormon and had claimed my birthright even when some in my church community would deny me my inheritance; but my Mormon heritage was non-negotiable. I had come a long way indeed.
It was a warm autumn day and I had plenty of time to pause and think about those experiences and realizations that had brought me to this point in my life. Images formed in my mind reminding me of good and bad times, as well as people who made a difference along the way. The memories and emotions flooded back and I was pleased to be reacquainted with them. It had been too long and it was difficult to think that I had not always felt this complete and happy.
Patterns and Structure
Mormonism is a religion of patterns and structure. From the earliest that I can remember, I was taught about the Plan of Salvation and learned that the LDS Gospel was unique in that it treated everyone the same. Regardless of where or when you lived, God loved you and had a plan for you to return to him. The plan applied to everybody and centered on a belief in Latter-day Saint doctrines. If you did not have an opportunity to join the LDS Church in this life, or if you could not perform the required sacred ordinances yourself, there were faithful Latter-day Saints who stood ready to perform those rites on your behalf. God's Plan of Salvation was everlasting, plain, and perfect. It applied to every person who ever lived.
As a child I enjoyed the structure and order of my LDS life. Church leaders provided guidelines and direction. The boundaries were clearly marked and all I had to do was to live my life within the accepted parameters. My Church community provided safety and comfort. I received instructions and obeyed, following my leaders' council to the letter. I participated in Church activities: singing in sacrament meetings, giving talks, and doing whatever else was asked of me. I advanced through my Priesthood offices, graduated from seminary, went through the temple, and served a mission. I looked forward to marrying and starting a family of my own. I learned the rules that governed my adoration of Deity, including the correct way to pray, how to prepare and handle the Sacrament, and what was spiritually and socially acceptable. I also learned that there were restrictions on where and how I could worship. Ordinary church services took place every Sunday in our local chapel and were open to everyone. The most sacred rituals, however, could only be performed in the temple. That made complete sense to me. The temple was a hallowed edifice in an impure world, a place where worthy people could dwell with God.
Like other LDS boys, my ultimate goal was to be deemed worthy enough to enter the temple, first for my own temple blessings, and then later to marry and be sealed to a woman for time and all eternity. That made it all the more imperative that I follow my leaders' counsel and demonstrate my loyalty and dedication to the Church. I dressed and behaved appropriately. When I sinned, I asked God to forgive me. I tithed regularly and contributed money well above what was required and I was glad to do it. I was a faithful Latter-day Saint. I was devoted to God, was active in his Church, and obeyed his servants' commandments.
Sometimes the Church told me to do or believe things that I did not understand or agree with. I could not fathom the significance of the 1978 policy change that allowed all worthy men to hold the Priesthood, and people's outrage over the Church's position on the Equal Rights Amendment eluded me. I was too young to comprehend how those two issues affected the LDS worldview; but other issues hit closer to home. Growing up, many of my friends were non-members and some children in my ward came from divorced parents. I had a hard time believing that their families were less important than mine. I also noticed that there were elements in LDS society that seemed out of place given that we were Christ's chosen people. There were in-group/out-group dynamics and a social hierarchy that resembled a business environment more than a close-knit religious community. Furthermore, some people were viewed as better Latter-day Saints than others. It was easy to distinguish between royalty and the commoners. Mormons were a religious minority in San Diego County and I thought it was silly to focus on our differences rather than what we shared in common. I never understood these quirks of my LDS community, but I did not ask questions. Instead, I became well versed in the Mormon social system and learned to live within its structure.
Mormon doctrine was strange and peculiar when compared to mainstream Christianity. At school I was sometimes teased because of my beliefs but was told that the ridicule was proof that the Church was true. I was also told that personal doubt likewise testified to the Church's authenticity. It was so unbelievable that it had to be true! I actually bought that line of reasoning. I learned that the stakes were high and that Satan would do anything to discourage Church members and lead them astray. He planted doubts in members' minds and was the source of any information that contradicted Church teachings; he was the father of chaos. I was told to persevere, to have faith, and follow the counsel of Church leaders, even if I did not fully understand the Lord's plan. I was assured repeatedly that my reward would be well worth the sacrifice. The Church provided the necessary structure and guidance to bring happiness to my life. Everyone loved the Church; its teachings were straightforward and universal. The evidence was all around me: smiling faces, strong families, harmony, and a simple order to existence. On the surface, LDS teachings did indeed appear to be comprehensive and complete; but Church doctrine did not bring happiness to everyone, only those who fit the model and who lived their lives inside the lines.
When I was thirteen I had a distinctly non-LDS revelation and discovered that I did not fit the Mormon pattern; I realized that I was different from other people in my Church family. Being different is never a good thing in a strict religious community, and in an instant, the simple truths and precepts of the LDS Gospel became complicated. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the center of my life and I believed that it held the answer for any question I could ever ask; but now I was unsure. I was gay; and as far as I could tell, I was the only one in the Church. I had heard the term "homosexual" many times, always in a negative context. With no basis for comparison, I followed the lead of my leaders and friends and pictured homosexuals as perverts who were mentally ill, who engaged in gross sex acts, and who were members of a sad, desperate community. I never associated my own emotions and thoughts with being gay; but I swiftly grasped the seriousness of my situation. The good feelings I had toward other boys and the attractions I felt to some of the men in my ward were not good at all; they were evil. What came so naturally to me apparently was an abomination in the eyes of God. This meant, of course, that I too was an abomination. Teenage life is hard enough, but my new-found identity was too much to bear. My life went to hell in a single afternoon and I had no idea who I was. It would take more than a decade for me to put the pieces back together.
My structured Mormon world was thrown into disarray and nothing made sense. I was the opposite of who I was supposed to be. Church programs that should have strengthened and edified me instead tore me down and reinforced my feelings of shame and worthlessness. I knew I was different but wanted desperately to be like everyone else. If all things were possible with God, surely I could overcome my affliction. I knew what was right and wanted the same things for my life as the Church did; however, I did not know how to obtain them.
I needed help and wanted to talk to someone about my feelings. I had to find a way through this difficult period of my life. Negative feelings and self-doubt eclipsed my confidence and identity as a child of God. Who was I and why did I have these sexual desires? More importantly, how could I rid myself of them? I reached out to everyone I was supposed to, but found that my religious and youth leaders were not prepared to deal with someone like me. At sixteen, when I finally mustered the courage to talk to my bishop, it was evident early in our conversation that I could not be honest with him. I couched my concerns in vague terms and attempted to veil my fear and apprehension; but it was too much and I could not control the upwelling of emotion. I burst into tears and told the bishop that I was scared and that I did not know what was happening to me. That, of course, was a lie. I knew exactly what was happening. What I did not know was what to do about it or how to stop it.
The bishop was a kind man and he truly wanted to help. I appreciated his concern, but he was clueless as to the nature and severity of my real issue. He told me not to worry and said that I was going through the change that all young boys experience. He recommended that I go out for sports and included the obligatory lecture about the sacredness of sexual intimacy and the importance of remaining chaste until marriage.
Marriage? Chastity? I wanted to yell as loud as I could and tell him
that he did not have to worry about me getting hot and heavy with any
of the girls in the ward. That was the problem. I had no interest in
females. The bishop's advice, along with the Church's standard response
to moral issues, was irrelevant to me. I wanted to ask questions but
I knew that I couldn't. The questions I had were off limits and fell
outside the bounds of discussion topics. I wanted information, but I
did not know where to look. The frustration drove me deeper into despair.
I was totally alone and turned in on myself: I will never be good
enough. I don't fit in. I am so confused.
Depression consumed me and impacted my friends and family. I internalized
my guilt and shut myself off from others, finding comfort in my isolation.
But then, in true Jarvis form, I fought back with a vengeance. I regrouped
emotionally and sprung back stronger than ever, over compensating and
sending myself into a manic state. I fed on LDS precepts and molded
my life to fit a prescribed definition of success. I was a child of
God, a valiant soul who had been saved in the pre-Earth life to usher
in the last dispensation of time. The Adversary knew my worth was great,
that is why he worked so hard to bring me down. Why did I let him get
to me? I knew that his ultimate goal was my soul's destruction. If I
had misgivings about the Church or my place in it, the problem was with
me, not with the Brethren in Salt Lake City or my local leaders. My
conscience fought to keep my sexual feelings in check and to keep my
life firmly grounded in LDS principles: Get with the program. The
Church is true! Show the Lord that his sacrifice wasn't in vain. You
can do it; you have to do it!
My Mormon framework could not accommodate my emerging gay identity. This resulted in a fierce internal conflict. I was unable to sleep, I lost interest in friends and school work, and my emotions gravitated to opposite ends of the spectrum. Up, down, but never in between. That was me during my adolescent years. I was an overachiever with failing grades, an extrovert who hated being around people, and I ardently defended a faith that made me miserable. I could not make sense of anything in my life and did not know what to do. The answers I found only raised more questions. Life was not supposed to be like this. What had happened to the plain and precious truths of the Gospel? Why was my life so complicated?
Nothing I did diminished my same-sex desires. The harder I tried, the greater the turmoil. I searched for answers but found none. I needed a change, a fresh start. The opportunity came late in my junior year of high school and I devised a plan. Somehow, I convinced my parents that I knew what I was doing and they went along with it: I was going to leave home, set out on my own, and start over. The reasons I gave were logical and persuasive, but my real motive was to run and get as far away from my life in San Diego as I could. As long as I had a clean slate to work with, I was sure that I could pull my life together, overcome my gay feelings, and finally be the Latter-day Saint I wanted to be.
I was seventeen when I left my parents' care and set out on my own adventure. I moved to Utah, found a job, rented a room, and began my senior year at Provo High School. I was surprised that all the issues I had in San Diego followed me to Utah. I really thought that I could out run them, redefine who I was as a person, and start my life anew. All these years later, I look back and chuckle at my naiveté, but that was how I felt at the time.
Moving to Utah was a positive development in my life, probably one of the best decisions I ever made. True, my emotions remained polarized and I was no closer to understanding my sexual identity; still, I found a sense of well-being in Provo that had evaded me in California. No one knew me, hence there were no expectations for me to live up to. I liked school, made friends easily, and enjoyed the responsibility of living on my own and making my own decisions. My year at Provo High School gave me a chance to be an individual; and for a short time, my successes outweighed my feelings of guilt.
Something else happened my senior year that changed my life forever: I came out for the very first time. It happened late one night during a conversation with a good friend. We came out to each other and shared the secret we had both carried for years. Instantly, our burdens were lifted. Someone finally understood. Because we were both active in the Church and came from strong Mormon families, acting on our feelings was out of the question; besides, we did not want to be gay. Instead, we wanted to follow the traditional path: serve our missions, attend BYU, and have our own families one day. Knowing that I had a friend who now knew the truth about me, I thought I had a good shot at accomplishing my goals. Looking back, I know that was an impossible dream; but it didn't matter. I had shared an intimate secret with someone I cared deeply for, and he returned the confidence. We were only teenagers, but after that evening, we were bonded for life. We remain close friends to this day.
Coming out to my friend relieved some of the guilt and anxiety I had, but it did not solve the problem. I was still gay. I graduated from high school that spring and immediately entered Brigham Young University for the summer term. My friend received his mission call and left for his field of labor. I was alone once again. My brief respite at Provo High was over. My religion classes and new life at BYU was a harsh reminder that I was still not the Mormon I should be; I was still evil and a burden to the Church rather than an asset. I think it is very sad that anyone could ever feel that way, let alone an adventurous 18-year-old who lived on his own and who, in all other areas of his life, was enormously successful and seemingly happy.
Running away had worked well in high school and I saw no reason to change the game plan. I again found myself with an unsolvable problem, dealing with feelings I was not supposed to have and being a person who shielded his true self from others. Thinking I had not other option, I bolted again; this time, to my mission. I went through the temple early and entered the Missionary Training Center just as I turned nineteen. I felt sure this was it, that serving the Lord full time would give me the edge that I needed to cast off my homosexual feelings once and for all; but when my mission ended seven months later, I was as gay as ever, only with added stigma. Earlier in my life I wondered whether or not I fit into the LDS community. As a nineteen year-old returned missionary, I had my answer. My mission was a complete failure by LDS standards, yet the experience opened up avenues and vistas that I never knew existed. My mission tempered me. I was a long way from accepting my sexual orientation, but was better able to tackle my personal issues at the end of my mission than I had been at the beginning. During my mission I was faced with questions that had no correct answers and had to make complex decisions that would affect me and my family for the rest of our lives. Somehow, I survived. I packed a lot of personal growth into those seven short months. I learned that I could not run from who I was and that it was impossible to control all the factors that affected me in my life. That was a breakthrough. Sometimes life throws you a set of circumstances and you simply have to make the best of it and let the chips fall where they may. That realization started the long process of accepting myself as a homosexual human being.
I returned to BYU, was active in the campus community, and worked in the Provo Temple. I struggled with my homosexual feelings and looked for the smallest sign of change. I dated regularly, had a steady stream of girlfriends, and even proposed to a woman I truly cared for. Meanwhile, I came out to more and more people and discussed gay and lesbian issues openly. My life progressed on very different paths. One led deeper into Mormonism with the hope that I could change my sexual orientation. The other headed toward self acceptance and the belief that I needed to follow my heart. They were roads in two separate directions. When I finally graduated from Brigham Young University, my two paths crossed; but instead of choosing a direction, I languished. I was drawn toward the path of personal honesty but fought fiercely to go in the other direction. I told myself repeatedly that I loved the Church and that I wanted everything it had ever offered me; but that was not true. The reality was that I loathed Church structure and longed for freedom, an autonomy that was unobtainable in my current situation. I had to choose, but there was no clear decision. Each option carried with it benefits and drawbacks, and neither alternative provided everything that I needed for my personal happiness. I was going to have to compromise and make tradeoffs, but I did not know exactly what I would have to give up or what I would gain; I only knew that life was not as simple as the Church had taught and that I was headed into uncharted waters. Mormon and gay. Who would have thought I would ever use those two words to describe myself? I wondered how my story would play out, how my life would change, and how I would fare in the process. I did not have to wait long to find out.
Jolted into Reality
My life changed quickly after I left BYU, I could hardly keep up. I enrolled in a graduate program that fall at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). Graduate school was an incredible experience and I loved the challenges it brought me. Walking onto the UCI campus reminded me of the first time I walked the halls of Provo High School. I did not know anyone and I looked forward to meeting people and making new friends. My arrival at UC Irvine commenced a new phase of my life. I was not starting over like I did my senior year or on my mission, this was different. I was not running from anything and I viewed my graduate program as a means to enrich my life, not an attempt to redefine it. Ironically, that is precisely what happened.
Although I grew up in San Diego County, I had never actually lived with non-Mormons. My roommates had always been church members and our shared LDS beliefs provided a bond between us. That wasn't the case at the University of California. The UC environment was diverse and people came from many different cultures and religions. Strangely, I fit in almost immediately. I lived on campus, had affable roommates, and quickly made friends with other students. I related differently to my UCI friends than I had to BYU students or members of my ward. During our conversations they routinely challenged my opinions and viewpoints. It was uncomfortable because I was used to people politely nodding and agreeing, not confronting me. My campus friends were not rude or mean spirited, they just wanted to know why I felt the way that I did and wondered what life experience I had based my opinions on. Ouch. I should have been asking those questions all along.
When I thought about it, I was astounded by how many of my opinions and beliefs were based, not on my firsthand knowledge or personal observation, but instead on what I had been told by others; be it in church, at home, or wherever. I was amazed at how little I really knew and just how narrow-minded my viewpoints were. This was particularly true of my religious beliefs. I claimed to know and to believe certain things, but did I really? The simple answer was no. I could quote scripture and recite the Church's position on any number of issues, but when I looked deeper, I found that the Church's opinion and my viewpoints did not always coincide, especially on major issues that directly affected my life. I had some thinking to do.
I wish I could say that I changed on my own, but I didn't. I merely reacted as life closed in around me. I was forced to ask questions, to wonder who I was, and to think about whether or not my life was headed down the right path. I was not used to making those sorts of decisions. The Church usually provided that kind information for me. It was time for me to start thinking on my own and to find my own way. During my stay at the university, there were two events that caused me to take a serious look inside myself and decide what kind of a person I wanted to be. One event helped me see that I had a place in this world and that homosexuals had dignity and humanity; the other was a blunt example of what can happen when hopelessness supercedes rational thought.
During my first quarter on campus, a savage gay bashing occurred in Laguna Beach. The victim almost died and was permanently disfigured from the attack. The campus response was quick and unified. Candlelight vigils, noontime speeches, and full-scale demonstrations were held to call attention to what had happened. People were angry that someone would beat another human so savagely because he was perceived to be gay. I added my voice to the fray. What occurred that night in Laguna Beach was not acceptable and I was proud of the UCI community for speaking up. The campus response showed me that gay people were human beings and that they (we) deserved the same rights, dignity, and humanity as straight people. I took note of that fact.
I had never seen such unconditional compassion and it moved me. Sadly, it was not something that I could share with members of my ward and stake. Amid the groups of religious leaders and churches who condemned the attack, the Mormons were conspicuously absent. Where were my fellow Church members? Why were they not here? A heinous crime had happened literally in their backyard and there was absolutely no response, nothing. I lived amongst two very different groups of people, two worlds if you will; and they collided head on. One group professed the importance of God's laws and the need for Christ's love in our lives, yet they did nothing; the other group simply put love and compassion into action, paying no mind to a person's sexuality, ethnicity, or religious background. Conflicting feelings of loyalty and disdain for the Church battled inside me and I was torn. The Laguna Beach beating was a human tragedy to be sure, but it was also a catalyst that caused me to reexamine my priorities, to think hard about my allegiances, and to question things I had always taken for granted.
A year later, I was in a different place spiritually and had accepted that I would probably never find happiness via traditional means in the LDS Church. My respect for the organization had waned significantly and I had started building my own spiritual and emotional framework. For whatever reason, I was born gay and I knew that there was nothing I could do to change that fact. Even so, I was not ready to divorce myself completely from the church. I remained a believer and was deliberate in my thoughts and actions. My struggles over the past decade had galvanized my Mormon identity, not diminished it. I knew my life had value, and though I was not fully appreciated by my spiritual leaders and church friends, I still hoped that I might ultimately be accepted in my religious community. Deep inside, however, I knew that was unlikely. Eventually, I knew I would have to deal with my church leaders and I was not anxious to push things. I was not an activist and did not want to cause any trouble. As long as I was allowed to practice my religion and blend into my ward and stake, I was content. That changed in January, 1994. Sometimes it takes a tragedy for a person to wake up, pull his life together, and take a stand. I wish I had awakened sooner.
In the early morning hours of January 17, 1994, the Northridge Earthquake fanned out across Los Angeles. The quake collapsed bridges, flattened apartment blocks and ruptured utility lines. There was an immediate response as Angelinos pulled together to check on their neighbors, secure their neighborhoods, and make sure that everyone in their community was all right. Despite the rescue efforts and community mobilization, more than 70 people perished in the temblor. That same evening, hundreds of miles away in Provo, another death occurred; one that impacted me far more than the Northridge Earthquake and its aftermath.
The same friend I had come out to during my senior year called and broke the news: our friend John had taken his life. The information hit hard and knocked the wind out of me. Not John! How could it be? My grief surpassed description. John was kind hearted, animated, and jovial. He was one of those people who always made you feel good when you were around him. In a way, he still does. My high school friends and I speak of him often and we still share our memories of him with each other. We probably always will. None of us knew exactly what pushed John over the edge, but we all knew that he was gay and that he had struggled since graduation. John could not hide his homosexuality; and frankly, none of us cared. John was one of those people you simply wanted to be close to. He was unique, had a quick wit, and was genuine. And now he was gone.
John knew how I felt about him, he was an important person in my life. For all my social awkwardness and emotional troubles in high school, at least I was well adept at expressing my feelings and letting my friends know how much they meant to me. I did not know a single student when I first arrived at Provo High School. John was the second person I met and he went out of his way to make me feel at home. I wished that I had broached the topic, had told John specifically that I did not care about his sexual orientation, that I loved him for who he was and that there was nothing he could do to change my feelings of him. I wish I had told him that being gay was something that we had in common and that I was there for him if he ever needed a sounding board. John's suicide was a biting reminder that all was not well in the world. His death also raised nagging questions within me. How could I have been there for John, when I wasn't there for myself? How could I offer him comfort when I was likewise tormented? How could I say that John's sexuality had no bearing on our friendship when I knew that my homosexual orientation affected every aspect of my life? John could not hide his homosexuality, but others of us could and did. Did John know that he was a kindred spirit? Did he know there had been others just like him in high school and at BYU? Why had he not reached out and talked to one of us?
A BYU memory flashed into my mind and I recoiled. I was acquainted with
people who served their missions with John. We never talked about him
directly, but as mission stories were exchanged, John's name surfaced
from time to time and the young men talked about him in passing. Their
opinions of John differed from mine. I saw a compassionate, emotional,
and good natured friend; they saw only an effeminate Elder, someone
who did not fit in. They spoke of John's mannerisms, and though they
never said the words queer or gay, I knew what they
were talking about. Regrettably, I never defended John. I never corrected
his mission companions or told them they were making fun of someone
who was important to me; someone who was selfless and cared for others
more than he cared for himself. My silence perpetuated their ignorance.
I thought about my accomplishments over the past year at UCI and how I had made sense of my personal situation. I did not have all the answers and I knew that my relationship with the church was changing substantially; but through it all, I had the full support of my parents and on-campus friends. I knew I would be all right. When presented with a similar set of circumstances, John took another path. Why? Because he was never able to make sense of the world around him. He did not fit the LDS pattern and felt he never would. So, he ended his life. More than a decade later, I still mourn his loss.
John's suicide brought clarity to my life and convinced me that it was time to stop waffling. How many more Johns were out there? How many Janes? I knew there were others in the world just like me who struggled to fit in but did not know how to. They needed to know that they were not the only ones. I had an ethical responsibility to come out and to live my life openly. If John had known there were others like him, perhaps he would have opted to talk instead of taking his life. It was too late for John but I could do something for others, starting with myself. I was afraid, but my fear was irrelevant. I had to move forward, come out of the closet, and make a difference in the world.
Kelp, Surge, and Transition
I never felt comfortable in the temple or in church with people
telling me what I can or can't do. God is out here in my garden. You
plant a seed, watch it grow and produce fruit-something that can sustain
life. Something from nothing . . . it's a miracle. I don't need a
church to tell me about God. He's right here in the dirt.
My Grandpa Jarvis said that to me as I helped him in his garden back when I was a BYU student. His comments were brilliant and he articulated feelings I had struggled with for a long time. He was an active Latter-day Saint yet he knew that God's influence reached far beyond his local chapel. I thought of his words often during my coming-out process. I loved the church but it was increasingly difficult to live by the rules. I also knew that the time was soon coming when I would have to step outside the lines permanently; a terrifying proposition by Mormon standards.
My time at UC Irvine was a blur, it all happened so fast. My life and perspectives changed daily and I could only move forward, not back. I was happy and did not regret any of the decisions that I made while at the university. The down side was that I came to view the LDS community differently and weaned myself from the need to be validated by church leaders and friends. That created a problem because, while I was willing to change my paradigm and entertain options that fell outside traditional Mormon lines, the church was not. It started innocently enough. I simply stopped lying about who I was. How could honesty be a bad thing? I came out to a few close friends in the ward and for a while things were good; but then word spread. Many people distanced themselves from me and I learned who my friends really were. I thought my relationship with the church was everlasting and that ward members genuinely liked me. I was mistaken. I discovered the majority of my "friends" were really only convenient acquaintances, and that we had little in common outside our Sunday meetings. I discovered another side effect of being honest with myself: questioning social norms and religious beliefs was addictive and led me further into personal discovery and spiritual exploration.
Growing up, I never thought of the LDS Church as a "top down" organization, I really didn't. Yes, we had a Prophet, the Quorum of the Twelve, and an entire bureaucracy of authorities and church leaders, but I believed in the principles of free agency and took seriously my responsibility to reason out and contemplate scripture and doctrine in my mind. That was what the entire concept of personal revelation was based on. I was fine until I received answers that the church disagreed with. I wanted to know more and could not help but question. I no longer accepted statements over the pulpit as gospel truth. If a ward or stake leader said something that did not sound right, I asked where the information came from so that I could look it up on my own. I paid closer attention to what was taught in sacrament and other church meetings and found that I disagreed with much of what was said. Speakers presented incorrect information from unsubstantiated sources. Circular reasoning was abundant and I came to view fellow church members, not as valiant spirits who were preparing for the Second Coming, but rather as blind followers who, if they really stopped to think about it, probably did not believe half of what they professed. There was no thought behind their opinions, and that bothered me.
How can you say that you believe something when you refuse to
do the research and learn about things first hand? If you let the
prophet tell you how to think on one issue, what other decisions has
he made for you? How can you say that you personally know anything?
Why won't you accept responsibility for your own actions and beliefs
instead of using the Brethren in Salt Lake City as scapegoats?
My questions were not limited to gay issues. Boyd Packer had recently given his talk at BYU wherein he identified the three great enemies of the church. Did he actually believe that homosexuals, intellectuals, and feminists were the biggest threats to the church? What kind of church members did Elder Packer want? Did he want intelligent people who pondered life's great questions and who worked for a better world, or did he want people who would simply follow orders and not question his authority? His answer was obvious but it was not something I could accept. I was not a drone that functioned without reason. I needed to know why the church taught certain things and why I should believe them. To my dismay, the church had no answers for me. My questions grew bolder in an attempt to understand. My irreverence and inquisitiveness set me apart from other church members; but suddenly, being different wasn't so bad.
My frustration boiled over. The church demanded blind obedience and the members around me were happy to oblige. The church was my home. I was drawn toward the familiar and still believed some church teachings. Mormonism was a part of me yet there were other areas of my being that I longed to explore. I wanted to leave, but couldn't. The church is not an organization that allows you to come and go as you please. If I wanted to journey beyond the borders, I might not be accepted back into the fold; and that was something that I could not risk. I was at an impasse and the confusion was maddening, much as it had been in my younger years when I first realized that something was wrong with me. But this time, my uncertainty did not send my life into a downward spiral. When I could not make sense of things in my own world, I went to another one; a world that I understood, one where I fit in.
In his book Stranger at the Gate, Mel White writes about scuba
diving off the coast of Laguna Beach and how the undersea world gave
his life a whole new perspective. Diving did the same thing for me.
I spent a lot of time underwater during my years in Orange County. Swimming
through the kelp forest or finding a calm spot along a reef gave me
the chance to reflect on my life and explore my options. Whether diving
solo or with a buddy, the ocean provided refuge. It was a place I could
go to find solace and comfort; at least until my air ran out.
Shaw's Cove was one of my favorite dive spots. The expansive cliffs extended out below the water line and created beautiful walls that were home to all sorts of marine life. The walls concealed several hidden grottos where I could spend time in private contemplation. Through the years I have dissipated lots of stress in Shaw's Cove, letting go of my anxiety with each exhalation. There was also a wilder side to Shaw's. The outer reef was usually calm and peaceful, but on top, the swells smashed into the high cliffs creating swift and exhilarating currents as the water found its way back to the sea. The rushing water provided ample opportunities for fun, adventure, and a great physical workout. I loved to wrestle the ocean and ride the surge. The water rocketed me up into the narrow channels with incredible power. After a moment of slack, the water returned, crashing down on me in a fury. I held on confidently knowing that the torrent would recede and leave me time to prepare for the next wave. Whether I wanted a relaxing dive in the grottoes or to find excitement near the cliffs, Shaw's Cove suited me nicely.
It had been a bad week. I packed my scuba gear and headed toward the ocean, my mind as confused as ever. A high councilman spoke at church that Sunday and made no effort to conceal his disapproval of homosexuals. I attended an older singles ward. What was this man thinking? Didn't he realize that being gay was one of the primary reasons that our ward existed? Did he not notice that the ward was filled with outstanding men and women who held good jobs, had great personalities and yet, somehow, had remained single into their thirties and forties? Why did he think this was? Although the vast majority of ward members were straight, our ward was clearly the logical place for gay Latter-day Saints to gather. Where else would we go? The high councilman's ignorance and hostility astounded me.
He spoke of a gay agenda and said that homosexuals were a threat to families and that we must shun them unless they repent. I was floored. Church was supposed to be a place where I came to be spiritually fed and edified, not criticized. How were his words uplifting to anyone? How could he use Christian thought and LDS doctrine as a weapon against his fellow church members? My anger welled up and I hurried out of the building immediately after the meeting. Driving home, I wondered how I threatened the high councilman's family. Was it because I was a diligent home teacher? My calling as ward mission leader? Was it because I played an active part in the dedication of the San Diego Temple? What was it about my life that threatened him? What about my friend John in Utah? What sort of threat had he been before he pulled the trigger? Were LDS families really safer now that he was gone? Was John's own family better off? I doubted it.
Alone, I suited up on the beach and hit the surf, swimming into a welcoming environment. I spent a considerable amount of time on top of the reef working out my aggression. When I was exhausted and could take no more, I glided over the edge and sank into deeper water. I found a spot 30 feet down and hovered, taking in the world around me. Sunlight percolated downward in mystical rays that illuminated the schooling fish. Sea stars littered the sand below me and anemones swayed back and forth in the current. My breathing slowed and I relaxed.
I've read about people who have had epiphanies in their lives and wondered if they really recognized the life-changing event when it happened or if they filled in the blanks and manufactured the experience after the fact. Mine was real. The answers I had searched for my entire life were all around me. I don't know why I had not seen them before, perhaps I wasn't ready and needed to figure out the smaller details in my life before tackling the bigger ones. I had been diving for years yet had never put the pieces together. I had been so concerned about fitting into and being accepted by a specific religious community, that I had missed the larger point. God was all around me; his love and influence was not something that could be contained in a LDS chapel or temple. For years, I had come to the ocean to center myself and to find a semblance of peace in my life; something I was unable to find within the LDS belief system. The underwater world was serene and calmed my soul more than temple worship, church service, or prayer.
As an air-breathing human, I was out of my element. The environment around me was hostile, even deadly; yet I belonged. My sexual orientation meant nothing down here, nor did any of my religious doubts or frustrations. I had options. In diving as in life, it was up to me to decide what kind of experience I wanted. I could spend time in the frothy waters on top of the reef or burn my entire tank hovering in this one spot, it was my decision to make. The point was to enjoy the dive and return safely. I had been taught all the skills I needed in order to dive successfully. How I used those skills was entirely up to me.
And there it was. The realization that brought everything into focus. I had all the skills I needed to be successful in my life, I was going to be fine regardless where my journey took me. I had options and it was entirely up to me to decide what kind of life I wanted to enjoy; but really, I already knew. I had found my true self in the waters off Southern California that day and it was time to bring that man ashore. Grandpa Jarvis found God in his garden. I found providence at the bottom of the sea.
Life as a Kaleidoscope
Kaleidoscopes are magnificent things. On a plain background, colored beads and simple shapes are boring and uninteresting. However, when combined with light in a reflective tube they create complex designs filled with brilliant colors and textures. The items remain unchanged, you just see them differently; literally in a new light. The glitter and beads fall randomly through the lens and create intricate designs that do not follow prescribed patterns or fit together in the traditional sense. The very lure of kaleidoscopic images is that they are original and unique. If you attempt to apply outside structure and make the images fit a deliberate pattern, you destroy the beauty.
My life made no sense as a part of the rigid Mormon framework. I mimicked behaviors and feigned beliefs to fit the only patterns I knew: I had to cry or else my testimony was not heartfelt; I had to love my three-hour block meetings on Sunday lest I be undevoted; worse, because the most sacred LDS rites and ordinances were performed in the temple, a place where only faithful members in good standing could enter, I had a compelling reason to conform to the church's rules even if they hurt me or stifled my personal development. No wonder I struggled so in my early years. The person I was outside did not match who I was inside. Now I knew better. Life's beauty did not lay in conforming to someone else's expectations of me, but rather in creating my own art with my own medium. I tried too hard to be like everyone else and sacrificed my uniqueness along the way. But no more. There was structure and order in my life, it just did not coincide with LDS protocols. Even so, my framework was very much in line with traditional Mormon thought. Life made sense and I was happy. I had found my own sense of worth and lived life on my own terms. I thought of my early Mormon ancestors and wondered how many times they had come to the same conclusion.
Part of my growth and development included being upfront with people
and giving them the opportunity to decide if I was a person they wanted
to interact with. The more I asserted my independence in thought and
spirituality, the easier it became. I paid a price for my new openness
and some people pushed me away, but I took comfort in the old adage:
I would rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.
I always liked that saying and it came to have special meaning in my
There were other unintended consequences and realizations on my journey. One of my favorites came when I revisited memories and experiences from earlier in my life, going all the way back to when I first figured out I was gay. I had to "get honest" about what had happened to me and found that parts of my personal history needed clarification and correction. It was easy to point to events or people that had negatively impacted my life and I had fallen into the trap of blaming others for my troubles; but that was not a true picture. I had a great childhood filled with good friends and all sorts of adventure. It was my sense of adventure that motivated me to move to Utah for my senior year of high school, and later to serve a mission and to attend college. In retrospect, I was amazed at how much control I had over my life. The most difficult part of this process was admitting that I had hurt and demoralized others through the years, and owning up to choices I had made that impeded my own growth. Be it benign silence when a friend was berated undeservingly or overtly tearing down another's character, I was guilty of the same behaviors that I had fought so adamantly against in my ward and stake. Good and bad experiences, emotional highs and lows, and a metamorphic change from a sheepish closet case into a confident, out, gay Mormon. My life was not easily defined or compartmentalized; nevertheless, it was beautiful and fulfilling.
In short, my life was a kaleidoscope. My feelings and experiences tumbled over each other creating a plethora of designs and an aurora of color. I marveled at what I saw. I wish that other people could see the beauty of their kaleidoscopes and realize that their individuality is something they should cultivate, not muffle. Certainly, I wish that my friend John had been able to see how unique and interesting his kaleidoscope was. Had he done so, perhaps he would still be here.
The Gay Mormon Paradox: Holding On and Letting Go
What? That's impossible. You can't be gay and Mormon!
My life is a paradox. Most people think that it is impossible to be both gay and Mormon, and yet I exist. Moreover, there are tens of thousands of people like me in the LDS community. That makes church leaders nervous because as homosexuality becomes more accepted and as gay people become more visible, it gets harder for the church to defend bigoted policies and obsolete norms. The change will come, it is only a matter of when. Unfortunately, it did not come soon enough for me.
Yeah, I get that a lot.
I was realistic and knew that in due course I would be called in to answer for who I was and that my stake leaders would confront me directly. That was inevitable. I suppose I was only surprised that it took as long as it did for the "invitation" to be extended. My bishop informed me that the stake president expected me in his office the following Tuesday. I was punctual and kept the appointment. Had I sexually transgressed or had committed some other grievous offense, the stake president could have called a court, hid behind church policy, and pretended that there was a reason for me to be in his office enduring his scrutiny; but he had no such cover. I was in his office for one reason only: I was a happy, well-adjusted, gay Latter-day Saint; and that presented a huge problem.
In the LDS world, gay people are not supposed to exist. Church leaders
themselves have said that words like gay, lesbian, and homosexual
are adjectives, not nouns. If gay people do exist, then
they have to be unhappy and considered sinners in need of repentance.
Homosexual men and women can never be considered normal under current
LDS doctrine because we do not fit the pattern. If we are legitimate
human beings then there is something wrong with the LDS Plan of Salvation.
Mormon doctrine is heterosexual in nature and places a greater value
on heterosexuals than homosexuals, in the same way it values married
members more than singles, and men more than women. I understand that
and know why the church fights so hard to maintain its social and cultural
norms. Change is hard. I know from personal experience.
My stake president told me that the church did not approve of homosexuals and that there were no gay people in his stake. With my recent disclosure to certain ward members about my sexual preference (his words, not mine) he said he was concerned that people in Irvine might think that the church supported homosexuality. He wanted to avoid that and asked if I understood the position I had put him in.
I understood perfectly. This was exactly why he and other church members were silent and did not condemn the gay beating in Laguna Beach two years previously. I told him so. I added that he was misinformed about there being no homosexuals in his stake because I lived there. There was at least one, but I knew there to be many more. Later in the interview he himself acknowledged that there were other gay people in the stake, contradicting his earlier claim. Given that knowledge, I asked why he thought it was better to pretend that we gay members did not exist rather than to admit that we were actual members of the church family. The interview went downhill rapidly.
At the end of the evening I was no longer welcome in the Irvine Stake
and was asked to leave. I had done nothing wrong but that did not matter.
The stake president said that I could continue to attend the Irvine
7th Ward, but only if I returned to the closet and never mentioned my
homosexuality to anyone. I had to act straight even if it meant that
I had to pretend (he actually used that word). If I refused,
he said he would take it as an act of apostasy worthy of church discipline.
Pretend or be honest. My decision was clear. I had come too far in my journey to return to the closet and pretend to be someone I wasn't just to make other people feel comfortable. In an instant, my entire LDS social and support network evaporated. Everything was gone. As I left his office, the stake president said I would live to regret my decision and that I would never find happiness outside the church. I did not believe him at the time and the past nine years of my life have proven his words to be false. I am content and happy. Be that as it may, it is still hard for me to believe I was cast out for simply being who I was, not for any trespass or transgression. It blows my mind that it was more important for the stake president to get rid of me and continue his illusion of orderly bliss than it was for him to admit that gays and lesbians lived in his stake and that we did not fit neatly into the boxes that he wanted us to occupy. It is sad that his own fear of the unknown kept him from learning more about his neighbors and church colleagues. He would have found that we had much to offer.
I used to look to the church to validate me as a person. I allowed bishops, stake presidents, and others to sit in judgment of me, thinking that I needed their approval in order to find happiness in my life. I was wrong. Years later, after much consideration, I went ahead and canceled my church membership. Since then there have been numerous attempts and invitations from my local ward for me to return. It seems that the church needs me more than I need it. I used to think that the church had the power to define me as a person. That was a fallacy. The truth is that my leaders could only control my membership in their organization, not my Mormon heritage or identity.
When I began coming to terms with who I was, one of my biggest fears was that my entire heritage and cultural identity was at risk. If I lost my parents, siblings, and extended family, and gave up our shared traditions and values by coming out, who would I be then? Over time I realized that there was a difference between being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and being a part of the larger Mormon community. Being Mormon is not the same thing as being a Latter-day Saint; one is merely a subset of the other. The church could remove my name from its records or I could cancel my membership, but neither I nor the church had the ability to revoke my Mormon identity. How do you take away seven generations of traditions and history? My seminary, mission, and BYU experiences are indelible parts of who I am. They cannot be erased or canceled just because someone disapproves of how I live my life. It is not possible.
I am Mormon for the same reason that I am gay. I was born that way. In my case, the two terms are not mutually exclusive and my life simply exists in the area where the two worlds overlap. Homosexuality and Mormonism are both definitive parts of who I am and I cannot give up one for the other. I am Mormon because of my lineage, not because I belong to a particular church. I am gay because of some genetic or congenital event. This is my life, and like a dive in the ocean, I can make of it what I will.
I know that my identity is unconventional and I am fine with that; but like it or not, the LDS Church was a part of me just as I was a part of it. There is no escaping that fact and inside of me there is a void that the church once filled. The empty space is a part of me and there is nothing that will ever be able to take the church's place in my life; but this is not to say that I am incomplete. I am whole, even with that void inside of me, just as a tree is whole even though there are spaces between its branches. I changed and the church no longer has a place in my life. That is a loss for me as well as the church (but mostly the church). I do not regret being Mormon or being raised as a Latter-day Saint. There were things that I loved about the church, and as an honest person, I have to be clear about that fact. I just happen to be one of the people who did not fit the model. For years, I tried unsuccessfully to retain the church in my life; but it was a futile effort. There is no place for gay people in the LDS Church and its leaders have made it clear that people like me are unwelcome. Ultimately, I discovered that I did not need the church to be happy; I have created a loving, fulfilling life without it.
For those who question my self-definition, I ask this: if I am not a Mormon, then who else or what else should I be? How would I accomplish that and why would I want to? I cannot deny my mission experience. It was hard and completely changed the direction of my life. I am glad I went. Brigham Young University played a significant role in my life and introduced me to friends whom I will care about as long as I live. I would not change that. What about my heritage? July 24th means something to me, even as a native Californian. From Kirtland to Nauvoo to Salt Lake City and beyond, my ancestors were present at all significant events in Mormon history, even those incidents that the LDS Church would rather forget. I am a part of church history and the greater Mormon community. I choose to like it. When I look back over my life, it is hard to think that there was ever a time when I felt ashamed for who I was or felt that my unique qualities were a detriment rather than a blessing. Today, I know that I have the power to define myself as a human being. The path I have chosen works for me, though I recognize that it might not work for someone else in a similar situation. That is okay. I am not threatened by other people's success. I assert my rightful claim to all things Mormon that are good and uplifting. I have let go of the rest.
Leaving the Tapestry Intact
In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Jean-Luc
Picard is sent back in time to correct a "mistake" in his life; an evening
at a bar that ended with him killing a man. Picard always regretted
the needless death and jumped at the chance to set things right. He
returned to his past and walked away from the fight, thus saving the
man's life. But that decision changed his future. Picard was never promoted
in Starfleet, never took command of the Enterprise, and most
importantly, never befriended the people he cherished most. Jean Luc
hated his new life and pleaded to be returned to the original timeline.
Before his wish was granted, the Captain was admonished to appreciate
his life and to view his mistakes as learning experiences. He was also
told that tugging or changing a few threads in his life could cause
the entire tapestry to unravel.
Life as a tapestry, woven with threads of decisions, consequences, and experience; I like that analogy. My tapestry grows daily; I hope it continues to do so for many years to come. It is all there, intact. I would not change a single thing.
As I came out of the closet, stopped lying about who I was, and took responsibility for my actions and feelings, I found that my Mormon identity flourished. Personal accountability, honesty, and free agency are key components of Mormonism, and only by coming out of the closet and leaving the mainstream church could I truly realize the essence of Mormon principles. I do not take my Mormonism for granted, and unlike so many Latter-day Saints who have never thought seriously about church doctrine and who follow their leaders blindly, I know what I believe and accept responsibility for my thoughts and actions. I also know just how special the Mormon community is and how it encompasses all people who trace their family lines or beliefs back to Joseph Smith. Someday, I hope the mainstream LDS church will accept all people for who they are and will eliminate doctrinal barriers that divide the members; men and women, gays and straights, married people and singles, etc. Until that happens, I will continue to practice Mormonism in my own way, on my own terms, just as my ancestors have done for generations. In being myself, I honor their lives, continue their legacy, and make the world a better place; and that, after all, is what being Mormon is all about.