Dani Jones is a children’s book artist and writer. She earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from BYU-Idaho and has worked with clients like HarperCollins, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, and the LDS Church’s Friend Magazine. She is the author and illustrator of the children’s books Monsters Vs. Kittens, Dinosaurs Vs. Puppies, and Once Upon a Time There Was a Pig. She is currently active in her LDS ward in New Hampshire and enjoys being part of the Affirmation community. This talk was given as part of the 2018 Affirmation International Conference held from July 20th to July 22nd, 2018, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
First of all, thank you to the conference committee for inviting me to speak. I’m excited to be opening up the conference, and by excited I mean terrified. I’ve made this deal with God that if He gives me the opportunity to do something that I know will help me become the person I want to be, even if it scares me, I will do it because know the things that scare me are probably thing things that will help me the most. Of course, this has backfired on me because now I’m terrified all the time. Just when I think I’m safe and have done all the learning I need to do, life comes at me like, “how about speaking in front of hundreds of gay Mormons?” I knew I had to say yes because I knew this was important and because I’ve spent far too long feeling like I was alone as a gay Mormon.
I attended my first conference two years ago and it didn’t take me long to fall in love with the Affirmation community. My favorite part about being amongst you all is just hearing all your stories. So tonight I thought I’d share my story and hope that it resonates with some of you.
I’ve loved art for as long as I can remember. When I went to school, I had no intention of becoming an illustrator because, of course, society tells you that artists are poor and starving. So I grew up thinking I would get a real job in something like medicine, or business, or computers, or something. But the only direction I felt could truly make me happy was art. So in college, I had to make a decision. Do I go all in and get an illustration degree or do I leave art being for good for something more practical? I knew that getting an art degree would point my life in an unconventional direction. It was one that I was told was heading for disappointment. Could I be strong enough to break from an unconventional life in order to do what I thought would make me the happiest?
When I graduated, I was hit with several big obstacles. First, I had no idea how I was going to make an art career work. Second, I went through a faith crisis. Third, I have nearly zero social or dating life. I remember this moment when I was sitting at my desk in my bedroom and I had no money, no god, and no friends. I was just overcome with hopelessness. It was like a darkness has enveloped me. Looking back, I’ve kind of realize that everywhere God has guided me over the following years was in direct reaction to that moment.
In my life, I can point to several times where I’ve just felt a strong pull. As Mormons, we would say that I felt the Spirit. It would either be a thought that would occupy my mind constantly or some feeling that would drive me to take a certain action. I felt strongly there was some force working outside of me and helping me.
I felt one of these pulls one Sunday when I was at sacrament meeting and I was wondering how I was going to make this art job work. I was filled with a feeling of peace and I remember it because it was a very specific feeling of courage where everything I had been worried about just seemed so easy. I’d never forgot that. I think God was testing me at that moment to see if I had the humility to listen and the courage to act on it. That little nudge was enough to push me through the fear. Shortly afterward, I was able to do some things that got me my first children’s book job. I’ve had plenty of ups and downs since and there are days where I’m not quite sure I’ve broken that starving artist stereotype, but I’ve continued to feel God’s guidance in navigating it.
The second big pull I felt in my life was the church. I grew up not really feeling like I belong in Mormonism because everyone else just seemed so perfect and different than me and I struggled to feel any kind of testimony throughout my life. After I left BYU-Idaho and was home, I reached this point where I had to decide for myself if I wanted to go to church or not. To be honest, I expected this moment my whole life; this moment where I would just walk away from the church. But, for some reason, I didn’t, and on Sundays, attending church was really challenging for me. I felt incredibly lonely and I wasn’t even sure why I was there other than I just felt a strong pull.
The most profound thing I remember about this years is how God pushed me into all kinds of relationships, whether it was people I worked with in callings, or kids I taught in primary and young women, or friends who reached out and served me. One Sunday I walked into my ward and realized I was surrounded by family. I don’t mean to say I gained a testimony because I made friends. It was a reflection of the transformation that was going on inside of me. I remembered that girl who sat in her bedroom in despair years ago. She was the kind of person that hated people and hated her life and resented God. The transformation for me was nothing short of a miracle. It was a time I had to open myself up and serve the people around me and get to know, first hand, the power of the atonement of Jesus Christ. For the first time, I felt I had a testimony I believed in, and that every good part that was hidden inside of me came out. I was able to change from a lonely recluse to a sister, daughter, teacher, and friend.
I tell you all this so you can understand that my relationship with the church and the Mormon community was never something I took for granted because it was something really earned. It truly made me a better, stronger, person. So when I finally admitted to myself that I was gay, I thought that I might lose it all.
Here’s the third big pull of my life: coming out. My faith kind of shattered because I didn’t know what to believe anymore and I wondered if all those times I had felt the Spirit were false. I knew that coming out would change the nature of all my relationships in awkward and maybe negative ways. At the time, everyone was drawing these dividing lines in stuff like elections, and marriage equality, and bathroom debates, and church policies, and suicide epidemics. I mean, we still are. The message I received from both the LDS and LGBTQ communities was that I didn’t belong in Mormonism. That was devastating to me because I had worked so hard to create a life for me at church. But I had also felt a really strong pull to come out, so strongly I felt my life depended on it. So, I prepared to take the path, the only path I thought was ahead of me. I got ready to leave the church.
One question that came to my mind helped change my course. It was simply, “What if I kept going to church anyway?” What if I disagreed with church policies and what if my leaders and my entire ward knew I was gay. What if I decided to date? What if I was labeled different or bad? What if I did lose some of my friends? But, what if I kept going to church anyway, and not out of rebellion or for other’s approval, but because I wanted to be there?
That one question removed a lot of the conflict I was feeling because it gave me permission to forge my own path. I didn’t have to discard my spiritual experiences and I didn’t have to separate myself from my congregation. And it was a little easier to put aside the damaging messages I was receiving from my religion. Despite any consequences, what mattered most to me was my personal relationship with God. I also knew that being my honest self among my Mormon friends was just one thing that I could do so help bridge the gap between these communities. I strongly felt that this is what I needed to do.
I don’t want to invalidate the decisions that others have made not stay in the church. This is definitely not me saying that it is better to stay. It’s just me saying that it was that right balance that I needed. It gave me the confidence to rely on God and the peace to take life as it comes.
My relationships certainly did change after I came out, but not quite in the way that I had expected. It turns out that being more open and vulnerable about my life strengthened all the ties I had around me. Not to say I’ve been free from awkwardness or disagreement, but, overall, I’ve found that people have been drawn closer to me, not farther away. I’m continually amazed by it.
The theme of this conference is “Journey Together,” and I think that it’s really an appropriate message in regards to my story because I feel very strongly that Heavenly Father has given me a very specific message that my personal power is in my relationships. I can’t afford to separate myself from people I love because they are what build me. Now, after coming out, I feel those roles starting to reverse where not only am I taking in strength from other people but now, for the first time being my whole true self, I feel like I’m fully able to give it back.
We are all living in a pretty unideal situation. Ideally, we would be unabashedly accepted with open arms by our church, and our families, and our community but it’s just not the case yet. But we all have that power in our relationships. I’ve seen the effect that a lot of you in this room have had on the hearts of your parents, your spouses, your children, your ward members, and your church leaders. Each one of your touches the lives of many other people. Every time you allow yourself to be a little more brave and vulnerable, let people in and strengthen the ties around you. That’s not to say that all relationships will be good or comfortable and I don’t mean to suggest we should say in relationships that are harmful. However, amidst our losses we have the power to find new relationships in places like here, in Affirmation. Our efforts to be true to ourselves even when its awkward and painful is not in vain because that conflict can bring new awareness and that’s how we move forward.
In the book, A Never Ending Story, the main character, Bastian, he gets transported to this magical world of Fantastica. In order to return home, he is given one simple instruction. That’s, “Do what you wish.” On his adventures, he meets this wise mystical lion. And he asks the lion, “What do you suppose it means, ‘Do what you wish?’ That must mean I can do anything I feel like. Don’t you think so?” But the lion replies, “No. It means you must do what you really and truly want and nothing is more difficult and it’s the most dangerous of all journies and requires the greatest honesty and vigilance because there is no other journey in which is so easy to lose yourself forever.”
We who live in this in this awkward intersection of sexuality, identity, and religion are forced to ask ourselves some hard questions about ourselves. What do we truly want? What does God want us to be? If we are not honest with ourselves on this journey, we risk losing our very worth. If we deny another’s chance to live honestly, we put them in danger. Through this process, we have to get used to the fact that not everyone is going to do things in the same way. Conversely, I don’t have to do things in the same way as everyone else. God has a different plan for each of us, and we do a major disservice to ourselves is we ignore the pulls He gives us to guide our lives.
Are you willing to live an unconventional life? Are you willing to be brave? I now feel enormously blessed to be a gay Mormon because I get to see life, love, and faith from a different perspective. I might be terrified all the time, but it’s also the happiest I’ve ever been. If we’re not at least a little bit scared, then we’re not getting anywhere.
My challenge to you is that you follow wherever life pulls you; whether you believe that pull is from God or from your own intuition, just follow it. All you have to be willing to do is take that one little thing that scares you, but that you know will bring you closer to the person you want to be, and do it. In doing so, I think we can all make it on our journey home together. Thank you.