There is Sunshine in My Soul Today: Open Letter to a Friend
Third Place, 2002 Affirmation Writing Contest
By Oliver Beck Jones
The open letter that follows was written to my friend Tom and to others who ask whether a gay person can live a meaningful, productive and happy life. For many years Tom was a co-worker and close friend. He moved to the Midwest and I moved to the Northwest but we stayed in touch by an occasional letter or telephone call. Tom is an active member of the Mormon Church and was once in a stake presidency. Two years ago when he asked what I was doing in the church I told him that I had been excommunicated a year before. I also told Tom that I was gay and for the past twelve years had been living with a man who was my partner. I was surprised that he had not heard of this from other sources. A few months later he wrote a long letter which encouraged me to return to the church, stating, "I firmly believe that you will not really find happiness until you come back." I promised Tom a response, but in the end concluded that I would not change his opinions, just as he would not change mine, so I merely sent a newsy letter telling him of my activities and mentioning my involvement with Affirmation and Gamofites. He responded with what I thought was an appalling reply. He referred negatively to my friends in Affirmation, a wonderful group of people I love and respect. In anger, I responded to Tom that I didn't care to communicate with him any longer "if you cannot talk like a rational man."
Nine months have now gone by and Tom is owed a cooler and more complete response. Thus the following letter:
July 29, 2002
Last December you wrote,
The last time we spoke on the phone you talked about a group of 120 or so folks that you were meeting with. [Affirmation National Conference in Long Beach.] The distinct impression came to me then and has been repeated several times that 100 of those folks will be dead within 5 years as a result of choices they are making . . . I am concerned for your welfare. This comment may be very offensive to you, but I feel compelled to make it.
Indeed your comment was offensive as evidenced by my curt angry reaction for which I now apologize. I recognize that you were speaking sincerely and you are concerned about my well being. I don't expect to change your views, just as your letters did not change mine. I merely hope to increase your understanding of what gay Mormons go through and how they feel based on my own experience.
First, many of the 120 men and women you mentioned are among my dearest friends. I have never felt as comfortable with any other group as with this one. I have great respect for these people, especially considering the difficult obstacles they have faced. As of this writing, all are alive and, as far as I know, are well and happy. My own health is good.
Tom, I am content and happy and at peace with God. I am able to reflect on my life with pride, to accept myself as a gay man without qualms and to look to the future with optimism. I think of myself as a good person, though not without error. You have known me for many years and can judge for yourself, but I have tried to be an honest, responsible, industrious and contributing citizen. During the years we worked together I enjoyed a successful and fulfilling professional career and I am gratified with what was accomplished. Now retired, I seek ways to contribute to worthwhile causes by volunteering my time and giving of my means.
After a quarter century of marriage, struggling all the while to be a good husband and father, my wife and I decided that our marriage should end. It was after this that I met the man who was to become my companion, soul mate and lover. I love my children as much as any father might and relate well with each of them. There are strong ties of love and concern between me and my extended family.
I continue to think of myself as a Mormon even though I was excommunicated for admitting my love for another man and for sharing a home with him. I struggled for more than half of my life with the inconsistencies of how I felt and what the church teaches regarding homosexuality. No longer; I have reconciled the two. I believe I am what God intended me to be. From our childhood we are taught to respect authority: our parents, our teachers in school, church leaders and government officials. We are threatened with grave consequences if we do not comply with the rules set out for us. We are told that our well being and happiness is dependent on following the counsel of those in authority over us. For the most part, those making these claims are sincere in their belief that we should all follow the conventional norms for our own good and for the good of society. Sometimes, however, counsel is motivated by ignorance, misinformation, personal biases or an attempt to exercise control or power. Within the church it has been quipped, "When the General Authorities speak, the thinking has been done." This simply is not true. We are each given our agency and have not only the right, but the obligation to think for ourselves and to determine the course of our lives.
Being gay is not something we chose; it is just what we are. How we act on our feelings is a matter of choice but the yearnings and desires within us are not. Many people, particularly in the church, believe that homosexuality is a chosen lifestyle, is sinful and can be changed. Yet, there is little evidence that those of us who are gay can change our feelings, no matter how much we wish, how faithful to the church we are or how much counseling and help we receive. We can attempt to pass as "straight," as I did for many years, but when we do we confront disappointment and frustration. No matter how hard we try to change our feelings, or how long, we face conflict within ourselves because we cannot alter how we feel. We can learn to mask or hide our feelings in order to live as a straight person, but all the while we know that we are living a lie. We can also torment ourselves with the fear that if others find out about our feelings they will reject or condemn us.
As fearful as the journey is, we can make the transition from living a straight masquerade to accepting ourselves and living openly as gay persons. For me this was a very liberating and positive experience. I no longer need to hide how I feel. I can talk about my life to others. I can find happiness with another man. I have become part of a community that accepts and supports me. No matter how we live our lives, we are faced with problems, frustrations and challenges. That is life. We can, however, moderate these negatives by being honest and open with ourselves and those who are important to us.
I have always had a good life. I can't remember any extended period when I wasn't happy. The past twenty years, however, have been particularly eventful and rewarding. My 50s were the best ten years of my life. It was during my 50s that I abandoned old conventions, faced the reality of my homosexuality and found someone I could love more deeply than I had ever loved anyone before. It was then that I found new friends with whom I could be open and honest. It was during this period that I reached the apex of my professional career. Those who say that failure to follow the directions of the church can only bring unhappiness upon themselves are wrong. My greatest happiness began with my decision to take charge of my life and do what felt right for me. Ceasing to be unduly concerned with the opinions of others gave me a refreshing sense of freedom and liberation.
The transition has not always been easy and the "coming out" process still continues for me. Because of prevailing attitudes there are times when I prefer not to share with people the fact that I am gay. I have not always been able to fully dispel the underlying fear that they will think less of me. I miss and sometimes wish for the benefits that traditional married couples have in our society. Even so, each year I make progress in being totally out and open about my life. I have found that the further I progress down this course, the simpler life is, and the more comfortable. The more sunshine there is in my soul.
For me "coming out" as a gay man has been a long process spanning many years. I have identified five steps I have had to go through to arrive at the point where I am today.
First, I have had to gain an understanding of homosexuality. As a teen I knew I was attracted to other boys but didn't think of myself as particularly different from anyone else. Throughout my youth it was stressed over and over again that we should not have sex with a girl until after marriage. Playing around with boys didn't seem to be quite as serious and it seemed that a lot of guys did it. The term "gay" wasn't in common usage at that time and there wasn't the typing of people as "straight" or "gay" as there is today. I expected that after marriage my feelings would be normal toward a woman. I dated girls and had a lot of fun with them. Upon reflection, my avoidance of sex with girls was not an exercise of virtue so much as a lack of interest.
I was in college before I realized that there were men who had no interest in women and would never marry. I didn't believe I fit in that category, because I intended to marry. Marriage was expected of me by everyone in my family, and it is an essential ordinance based on church teachings. It was in the Army where I met men that I came to know as "gay" - just as this label was coming into common use. Even though no one could admit they were gay it wasn't hard to identify those men who most likely were. I was inclined to associate most with these men.
My marriage took place while I was in the Army. I was beginning to question the wisdom of marriage, but by then, the expectations of Ellen (my fiancée), and those of our families and friends, were so great that turning around would have been very difficult. Not only that, Ellen and I had been close friends for many years and enjoyed being together. There was hope that we would have a good marriage, but it wasn't long after our marriage that I realized things were not as they were supposed to be. Ellen and I were committed to having a good marriage but it did not provide us with the excitement, passion and companionship that others seemed to enjoy. Also, my attraction to other men had not diminished. I most often made close friendships with men who I saw as sharing the same feelings that I had, even though it would be many years before I would become physically intimate with another man. Images of the male body excited me while images of the female body might be beautiful from an artistic standpoint, but not arousing. My curiosity grew and I began looking for all the written information about homosexuality that I could find to help me understand the subject. I began reading gay literature, just then beginning to be available.
Two events early in my professional career reinforced my identification with gay men. A respected acquaintance was discovered in a homosexual act. The results were so severe and ruthless that I was astounded. He was one of the finest men I knew and his contribution professionally was unexcelled. I could not condemn this man, but rather felt an affinity toward him and attempted to come to his aid. At the same time I wondered what would happen to me if it were ever discovered that I had been homosexually involved before marriage. Would I receive the same harsh treatment? Most likely so. My fear was magnified when I read Allen Drury's book, Advise and Consent. In this book, the senior senator from Utah, regarded as a remarkable senator and outstanding citizen by all who know him, commits suicide when it is discovered that he has had a short romantic interlude with another man while on a military leave in Hawaii, long before his marriage.
Even though I lived and worked in a sheltered environment, was a family man and active in the church, I would occasionally meet a man who was gay. Most often I felt a desire to be friends with him. Such a person was someone I could talk to, someone who was understanding. I came to learn that being gay is what you are, not just about your sex. It is about who you are attracted to for companionship and it is about who can bring you the greatest happiness.
Second, I have had to identify myself as a gay man. It took a long time before I could think of myself as a "gay" man. To begin with, I didn't like the term. I recognized that all my life I had been attracted to other males, and I admitted to myself that I had homosexual feelings, but I could not identify with gay men like those I read about in books and magazines or who I saw in gay pride parades. It would be more than a quarter century after my marriage before I was intimate with another man. The occurrence seemed so natural at the time, but that incident changed my life. I felt the intimacy that I had always yearned for. Even so, I still resisted labeling myself as gay, or even homosexual. I argued with a marriage counselor and my bishop that virtually all of my sexual experience had been with a woman and therefore I couldn't really be gay. If a gay man had only infrequent sex with a woman, he wouldn't be classified as straight. I knew my argument didn't hold water. In honesty, I knew what I was, but didn't want to accept it quite yet. It was when I fell in love with another man and wanted him as my partner and companion that I shed any remaining doubt.
Third, I have had to reconcile my homosexuality with the teachings of the church. This was less of an issue for me than it is for many. I grew up in a semi-active family with a liberal inactive father. I was never certain of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon or that Joseph Smith actually communicated with God as he claimed. Perhaps they are true, I thought, and for a time I even hoped so, but I did not know for sure. I did not take the church as seriously as many do, even though I was very active during all the years of my marriage. The more I understood about homosexuality the more reason told me that the church couldn't be right on this issue. Rather it was following popular opinion. I couldn't give credence to the obscure scriptures so often used to condemn homosexuality. They likely represented the opinions and biases of the time when they were written or, perhaps, they might even be misinterpretations or erroneous translations. If two people of the same gender loving each other is so wrong, why was it not mentioned in the teachings of Christ or Joseph Smith or in the Book of Mormon? Why did it not become an issue within the church until mid 20th century? I further reasoned that Christ offered His love and hope to everyone, not just those who abide by the strict rules of their religion.
The current church position with respect to gay and lesbian members allows only two options. For most, these options are unrealistic and deny any hope of happiness and fellowship in the church. Celibacy is the counsel usually given but overlooks the basic need for companionship and deprives them of the most precious of human experiences - to love and be loved by another person. The second option is to enter into a traditional marriage, even though both spouses will be ill-prepared to deal with the stresses and strains of such a relationship. This usually leads to tragic consequences for not only the gay person, but also the special person they choose as a marriage partner. Even the church has come to realize it should no longer advise gays and lesbians to marry.
Among the consequences of church policies for gay members are:
- They leave the church, either by choice or by excommunication.
- They live lives of loneliness, and they despair of ever being with someone they love.
- They lie, living a double life, outwardly pretending to be orthodox, but privately yielding to strong feelings within.
Just this morning I learned of an article in the August Ensign regarding "same-sex attraction." It is such a gross over-simplification of an extremely complex issue that it is nonsensical. Unfortunately most members of the church will regard the article as authoritative, driving the wedge even deeper between themselves and those they know are gay. Most heartbreaking is when articles like this tarnish the relationship between parents and gay children, something I see far too often.
It was after ten years of living openly as a gay man that the church summoned me to a disciplinary council for "conduct unbecoming a member of the church." I admitted that I was gay, living with another man and I loved him. Without question, the church as an organization has the right to set membership standards and exclude those who do not comply. I resisted excommunication, however, on the principle that the church is wrong in excluding gays from fellowship. Why would the true church of Christ exclude any class of individuals, particularly for a condition that was not of their own choosing? At the disciplinary council I was able to present my views and concluded my comments with the following:
I believe the church should recognize the right of gay and lesbian members to seek and enter into loving, committed and lasting relationships with each other. If such relationships need to be judged, let it be the Lord's. I believe that gay and lesbian members should be extended a hand of fellowship by the church rather than face rejection. A dialogue should begin to find solutions to these difficult issues.
As expected, the council ruled for my excommunication. Rather than this being difficult for me as I worried it might be, my excommunication proved to be a liberating experience. In retrospect, I wish it had happened years earlier. Further, I have come to respect those individuals who have resigned their membership in the church rather than face a continuing conflict.
Fourth, I have had to recognize that the rules are different in the gay world. Every society needs rules of conduct in order for its members to get along with each other. The rules need not be the same for all societies, however. It is acceptable for us to set our own boundaries and standards of conduct, so long as they are considerate of others who are affected. It is acceptable for us to reject the expectations and demands made by others if we feel they are not right for us. It is acceptable for us to love others of our own sex in a manner which most contributes to our mutual happiness and it is acceptable for us to form meaningful relationships with them. Even though we are "different," we recognize that there are obligations incumbent upon us and that we must consider the consequences of our actions.
Fifth, I have had to "come out" to the persons who are important to me. This has been the most difficult aspect of the whole process. The popular attitude regarding homosexuality is so negative, it is difficult to apply that label to yourself. It is within my personality to please and I made my way through life being a good boy, a devoted husband and father, a responsible worker, a concerned citizen and a faithful church member. I was fearful of losing the respect of those who knew me if they knew the full truth. I was fearful of hurting those who looked up to me for any reason.
Once I wore a suit to a "black tie" event rather than a tuxedo. After arriving, I was uncomfortable, because of being dressed differently, not that there was anything wrong with my suit. Others had also worn suits and it was doubtful that anyone of importance cared. This is the way it is being gay. It is not that you personally feel that it is wrong; it is that you fear that others may. Coming out to others was particularly difficult because of the responsible professional and church positions I had held while being regarded as "straight."
When I told others outright that I was gay, I received mixed reactions. Some, particularly those who already knew or suspected, seemed to be supportive and understanding. Others, my family particularly, said they did not understand, but they would not judge and continued accepting me. There were only a few who were condemning, regarded me as sinful, and called for my repentance. Admittedly, I took the easy way out and simply avoided talking about my homosexuality unless a person asked or needed to know. At the same time I did not hide it. My partner went wherever I went and he became a part of my family. We attended social events together where co-workers were present. If anyone asked, they received truthful answers. It amazes me how unsuspecting most of my co-workers seemed to be, however. Some likely knew, but would not mention it until after I did.
Coming out to others was facilitated by various events. As a consequence of my divorce my immediate family became aware. My later church excommunication not only opened the way, but necessitated my being open with my extended family. I moved to a different city, made new friends and seldom see old ones. I retired and have lost contact with most of my former colleagues.
My current neighbors are friendly and seem to be accepting. No doubt they know I am gay but we seldom talk about it. For the most part, I live a very ordinary life, just about like anyone else on the street. At my present stage in life, I am out to anyone who is important to me. It is liberating and comfortable, and I now wish I had been more aggressive in the process.
Tom, in conclusion, that I am a gay man there is no doubt. I did not knowingly choose to be but I am. I don't believe I could change my feelings even if I were inclined to do so or I would have done this during the many years that I kept my homosexuality suppressed. Nothing in my life has been more beautiful than establishing a relationship with the man I loved and who loved me.
As a community gays have made great progress during the past 25 years in gaining the understanding and acceptance of others. However, it is likely that we will continue to be criticized, censured and condemned for many years to come. We will often be judged unfairly. Even so, we can be happy and content. We can be at peace with God and live a full and meaningful life. We can and should have ideals, boundaries and a morality just as lofty as anyone else although our rules will be somewhat different. We can be good family members, parents, neighbors, friends, citizens and workers. We can have loving relationships of which we can be proud. We can have sunshine in our souls.
Thank you for the concern you have expressed for me. I believe you are sincere. Your friendship has always been important to me.
Oliver Beck Jones