by John Rodriguez
John Rodriguez is the founder of the Affirmation Dominican Republic- Caribbean Chapter, the Executive Director for The It Gets Better Dominican Republic Affiliate, and also serves as Director of the Washington Affirmation Chapter.
Growing up, I was a competent student focused on my education and reaching my life goals. My family struggled financially. We lived in humble circumstances, but we were a loving family. My mother was my first hero and role model. Every day, she forced her self out of bed to work two or three jobs to provide for me and my four siblings. My father, while being funny and loving, struggled with personal traumas and alcohol.
I came to realize I was gay about the time that most boys start to discover that there is much in life to wonder and terrify them. I was maybe eleven or twelve. I didn’t have the words to describe who I was. I just knew the way I looked at some of the boys differed from the way any of them ever looked back at me. When it finally dawned on me a few years later that the worst insult that boys would hurl at each other was the word that describes me. It was a word better left unspoken.
I always felt the need for spirituality in my life and treasured every opportunity to practice it. Like most people in the Dominican Republic, I was born into a Catholic family. I wasn’t baptized until I was twelve though. I still remember my godmother telling me on the day of my baptism that I would feel something very special when the water was sprinkled on my head, and encouraging me to “be present for this unique moment,” the moment I would be free from all sins. When the time for my baptism arrived, the parish was crowded and everyone had big smiles on their faces. I remember the statues and paintings of the saints that surrounded us, and the momentary fear that staring at them created a possibility of meeting Saint Peter with arms wide open while I walked toward the baptismal stand. I don’t remember any sensational or magical feeling as I placed my head over the basin of baptismal water and was baptized.
At sixteen, I was an insatiable, warm-blooded, Caribbean-Hispanic young man. At the culmination of puberty, I recognized more who I was. I also continued to feel the need to find internal peace and reconciliation between my spirituality and sexual identity. After many years of searching, I found what I thought was the answer to my many prayers: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I carefully investigated the LDS Church and Mormonism for one year. I loved the Dominican and American sister missionaries who put so much into teaching and befriending me. I will always cherish their loving hearts and them for being instruments in guiding me to the light. I have stayed in touch with them, and continue to find inspiration in their spiritual journies.
I was baptized again, this time into the LDS Church. My baptism was held in the first LDS chapel built in my hometown. I remember coming out of the waters of that baptism feeling like I was coming into a new life, fearless and feeling something I just couldn’t describe. It was something that brought me and everyone in that tiny room to tears.
Two years after my baptism, I declined a merit scholarship from the United States that would have allowed me to study at one of the most prestigious universities in California. I turned down this opportunity because my mind and heart were set on serving a full-time mission. I accomplished this and got lost in missionary service, serving with honor and passion. I found my soulmate in my fourth mission companion. We both honored our callings as missionaries, and obeyed all mission and church rules; but, our hearts were connected. It wasn’t a physical attraction, but a connection of hearts, love, and souls that goes beyond sex and physical pleasures. We felt in tine with God, the Holy Ghost, and the teachings of Jesus Christ.
My companion struggled with concerns, doubts, fears, and confusion that I found difficult to understand. He feared family rejection. We kept in touch after our missions, had a good long distance relationship, but eventually, his family rejected me. It was painful. I was heartbroken, but I had to consider that they were brown and raised in Mormon-centric Utah, a sheltered environment. I, however, was a lonely and faithful gay Mormon swimming in an ocean of uncertainties and social rejections thousands of miles away in the Caribbean.
I did eventually come out to my family and a few close friends. The response was far from what I had hoped. There was no celebration or relief. There was certainly no pride in the beginning. There was love though. I was assured I would be loved no matter what.
I believed that God would provide for our every need if we only ask. That is the promise I put to the test. I believed, and I still believe, my prayers were answered. After my mission, I found myself serving in my home stake. I was called as a stake high counselor and worked to reactivate members and opened new branches in my stake. All was well, and then I came out as gay. My coming out felt like a bucket of freezing water was poured on the conservatives in my ward and stake.
Those I had trusted the most told me that I was broken. They told me I was a threat to myself and those I loved. I felt I needed to protect others from myself. I felt I needed to hide. That’s what I did. I hid from my friends. I abandoned everyone I loved. I told my family I had to leave to keep from hurting them. I moved to different areas trying to hide. I still believed in God’s promise, that He would provide.
When you find yourself as a gay Mormon man, you are told you have two options. You can live a life of complete sexual abstinence and celibacy, or you can marry a woman. I was sincere enough in my faith that I was willing to try to live these paths, but deep in my heart, I knew that I was not ready to crucify myself for the sake of the church.
When Pope Francis responded to questions about homosexuality by asking, “who am I to judge?” it caused me to ponder about the church’s prescription for our lives as gay members. Millions of LGBT people and their families are deeply impacted by the teachings and policies of organized religions. Their moral impact on the world is far-reaching. What I can definitely say as someone who has tried to live by the teachings of the LDS Church is that the official rules do not always work.
Being a part of an organized religion, like the LDS Church, means being expected to align with long decided and developed teachings and traditions. It means lining up with the consensus of the church rather than going your own way. In my case, that consensus was that being gay was not okay.
Two dreams that I consider revelations changed my life and are a continuing source of inspiration for me. I had the first dream a few months before I decided to serve a mission. In that dream, I was dressed in white, holding a bike, and looking up toward a temple-like building at the top of the hills. In the second dream, which I had before I became inactive in the church, I found myself in the same place, but instead of holding a bike, I was holding the hand of another man while we both looked up toward the same shiny building at the top of the hills.
Those dreams were answers to my prayers, affirming who I was. Affirmation has also been an answer to my prayers. I have found a place where I belong, a place where I would no longer feel rejected. Affirmation has been a light at the end of a dark tunnel. I have found another mission and opportunity to serve. I have been able to live with a new spiritual authenticity. For the last ten years, I have been holding the hands of those who have struggled like I did. I have been an advocate for equality, inclusion, diversity, and human rights. I have helped to provide spiritual and life support for the LGBTQ community. I have tried to be an instrument in God’s hands. I often think of the following passage while serving others.
“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.
He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.
The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.
The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.” – Psalm 121 1-8