Faith, finding myself, finding love
by Richard Byrd
I’m from pioneer stock. My mother’s family crossed the plains. My dad was a convert. He was baptized when I was young. Prior to joining the Church, he would often drink and be violent. I saw how his conversion calmed him and brought peace to my family.
I was a spiritual young man, but I also had feelings for other boys my age. I’d have experiences with them off and on while growing up, especially through puberty. My first real sexual experience was when I was fourteen or fifteen with a friend with whom I stayed overnight. Some may assume that my spirituality was diminished because of this. But that’s not true for me. Sure, I had spiritual experiences before exploring my sexuality, but these experiences continued even after. I didn’t feel cut off from the Spirit.
I served a mission in the West Virginia Charleston Mission in the early 1980s. During this time, the length of service was changed from two years to eighteen months, so I only served eighteen months of my original two-year calling. It was a great experience, but there were some moments where other missionaries played jokes on me, maybe because they felt I was different. One day, they had me ring the doorbell of a place that I only realized later was a gay hangout. Fortunately, nobody came to the door.
As my service as a missionary continued, I began to feel guilty about not having confessed my sexual experiences to my bishop at home. I couldn’t relate to him. Confessing to him wasn’t something I was comfortable doing at the time. I had been reading The Miracle of Forgiveness, and I felt that I could be forgiven for quite some time but felt I needed to confess. I wrote a note to my mission president asking to meet with him. We met after a large meeting of missionaries where he and his wife were in attendance. We walked outside after the meeting and I explained to him that I had sex with men before my mission. He responded that the Lord had forgiven me. That was that.
A lesson I learned as a missionary was to be cautious about who I was open with or who I approached in any kind of sexual way. A few months after my confession to my mission president, my mission companion and I were playing around, wrestling, and I touched him where I shouldn’t have. Immediately the playing stopped. Stunned, he asked me what was going on. I couldn’t answer. We just left it at that and continued our work. From then on, throughout my life, I was careful to look for signs before flirting or approaching a man in any sort of way that revealed my attraction to them.
After my mission, I went to community college. Having grown up playing the organ and piano, often for church meetings, I mostly took music courses. I attended Institute and my singles ward on occasion and sometimes would play the organ or piano for those meetings as well. Eventually, I attended an Institute course titled “Achieving Celestial Marriage.” I met a girl, and we almost immediately bonded. We got married in 1985 and had our first child in 1986, a girl, and another in 1990, a boy.
As the years went on, it became clear that our marriage wasn’t working. I was still trying to find myself, and she had a very clear picture of who we should be as a couple and as a family. I had no attraction to her, and sex became nonexistent in our relationship. I began to seek it out with men, which would cause me to feel guilty. I didn’t want to be cheating on my wife. This is not what I wanted for my life.
Things came to a head one night when my wife and children left. The relief society president picked them up and took them away. My wife asked that the elders quorum president and his counselors talk to me, but nothing could really be done. My wife and I separated. I moved to a different ward. We later divorced.
During our separation, I met with my bishop and told him that I had gay feelings and that I felt guilty because of the covenants I had made, and the thought of not having my children forever was really hurting me. He told me that I needed to straighten up or I would lose my family forever. This really hurt. I was still trying to find myself, and I could see that I was denying who I was, and as much as I loved my children, I could not keep denying it.
Eventually, I was asked to meet with the stake president and then the high council. They asked me to share my story. I did. Afterward, I was asked to leave the room while they deliberated on what they would do with me. When I was called back into the room, I was informed that I would be excommunicated. I distinctly remember having to shake hands with each one of them before walking out of the room and out of the building. I remember looking up into the beautiful starry sky and feeling a burden being lifted from me.
It was a long time before I came out to my family. It wasn’t a pleasant experience when I finally did. My mother told me she had raised me better than to be gay. To her dying day, she did not understand or agree with it. My brother, who at the time cut my hair regularly, told me he didn’t want to touch me. This was a dark time for me. My thoughts turned to suicide. I don’t think I was ever serious about attempting it, but that’s how dark it was. I remember staying home instead of being with my family for Christmas that year. It was so depressing.
In this dark place and continuing to try to find who I was, I frequented bars and other gay establishments seeking out the company of men. Right or wrong, there were one one-night stands and other encounters. I was as safe as I could be, all things considered, but it wasn’t what I really wanted. These things would momentarily satisfy but were nowhere near the lasting happiness of a relationship.
I found a chapter of Affirmation in Arizona. Connecting with others in the chapter with similar experiences helped me quite a bit. I also attended a mostly gay church where I met several other Mormon men and sometimes played keyboard. At one point, a woman from my old ward requested that I play for her husband’s funeral, but the leaders told her I couldn’t.
For a time, I worked as a hospital patient transporter with Elder Richard G. Scott’s son, who is also gay. Once, while visiting him at his apartment, the apostle called. His son offered me the opportunity to speak to him, but I declined. Looking back, I’m sure it would have been fine.
As I began to accept my sexuality more fully, I began to want a relationship. I knew that this wasn’t something I would likely find in the gay bars. I turned to the internet. After creating a profile on a dating site, I began exchanging messages with a man in Canada. In 2008, he came to visit me in Arizona. We enjoyed seeing all of the local sights that I had not appreciated as a native, like the Grand Canyon and the red rocks of Sedona. After he went back to Canada, we became more serious and eventually moved to Florida together and, later, Canada.
My husband and I had wanted to be married while we lived in Florida when it was legalized. However, it became illegal again. We were married in Canada in 2010. My mother, while she may not have understood or agreed with me being gay, did send us Christmas and birthday cards and gifts until she passed. My brother has also come around to respect our marriage, even if he disagrees with it.
Today, I attend the United Church of Canada, where I’ve been a choir member and substitute organist. My husband was not raised in any church, but he is spiritual. Not far from where we live is a Latter-day Saint meeting house. I’ve been tempted to drop in sometime, but recent remarks from an Apostle encouraging musket fire against me and those like me turned me around.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about my patriarchal blessing. I feel I’ve failed in so many ways, including in the callings I’ve had and as a father to my children. Some are no longer active in the Church, and I wonder what will become of them and their children. I was told in my blessing that I should teach my children and their children’s children certain things. I still love the Lord, and I remember the spiritual and sacred events I’ve had in my life. I suppose this is the inner turmoil many of us feel as we reflect on our experience in the Church, who we thought we would be, and who we are today.
Attending Affirmation conferences helped me to see that I was not alone. It was great to connect to people with similar backgrounds and struggles. There is strength in being with each other. I hope sharing my story will help you know that you are not alone and encourage you never to give up. I have learned and felt through the Spirit that Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ love me for who I am. I hope that we all come to know this love and share it with others.
Yours. Brother Richard.
“My first real sexual experience was when I was fourteen or fifteen with a friend with whom I stayed overnight. Some may assume that my spirituality was diminished because of this. But that’s not true for me. Sure, I had spiritual experiences before exploring my sexuality, but these experiences continued even after. I didn’t feel cut off from the Spirit.”
I had similar experiences, which led me to realize that the formula I had been fed all my life did not compute. In fact, in one instance when I was sure I had violated any right to God’s guidance, God responded by encircling me in warmth and saying, in effect, “Oh, don’t worry about that: I’m still here for you.”
One more thought. You said, “Lately, I’ve been thinking about my patriarchal blessing. I feel I’ve failed in so many ways…” I can’t speak to the relationship between you and your patriarchal blessing specifically, but some years ago I found myself undergoing the same reflection: “How does my patriarchal blessing account for where I am now? If God’s okay with me, then how does that jive with what God told me through the patriarch? Was that all claptrap?” Then my mind focused and I recalled a specific three-word phrase from my patriarchal blessing. I reread my blessing to make sure that those three words were actually there. What I saw was that they were, and in fact that they were repeated more than once–the exact three words in the exact same order. The had always seemed innocuous, just a curious phrasing that my patriarch had chosen to express a commonplace idea. But now I saw that they shifted the focus ever so subtly in a way that made clear that God had seen my path and made allowance for it from the beginning. As I have since pondered my blessing, I have seen that it remains valid, but in a way that I could not have imagined when I first received it.
Thank you, Richard, for sharing your story. I am truly happy for you in how it has all turned out.
Thank you so much Michael for your remarks. So sorry it has taken me so long to write back to you. I have appreciated what you have said to me and at times I reread it to continue to learn from it. You have helped me with your insight. Hope everything is well with you.