by Billy Collins
I’ve attended various conferences and training in the past; some professional, some personal. Any chance to get someone else to pay for my travel or hotel and I’d be stupid to say no. For the past several years that I’ve attended one particular conference, I’ve lead a workshop about the LGBT experience as it relates to the conference community. This year I was approached by someone who attended my workshop last year and said how much it meant to him since he wasn’t out of the closet. We talked a little bit about coming out and the fear, the hesitation, and all that anxiety that comes with it. “Well see, it’s complicated because I’m also Mormon.” And that’s when my heart started cracking. Because I knew. I knew exactly what burden he was carrying around.
I first said the words “I’m gay” two months before I turned sixteen. It was the only time I ever, ever, started mentally going over how to kill myself. I went to sleep that night and woke up the next morning not fully realizing how heavy of an emotional burden I had just released from myself. I came out to my family when I was nineteen and home from college for Mother’s Day. As an aside to anyone considering coming out, learn from my mistake and avoid coming out on Mother’s Day and other major holidays. I mentally checked out of Mormonism as soon as I moved out of my parents’ house at twenty-two and had my name removed six years later when I moved out of their stake. I grew up in Delaware and the greater Philadelphia area, so coming out was made easier by not being anywhere close to the Utah/Idaho Mormon corridor. If I had, my life would have turned out very differently.
But back to the conference story. When he said he was Mormon, there was only one thing I could do. “I grew up Mormon so I know exactly what you’re going through.” As someone who lives in Philadelphia, he was/is only the fourth gay Mormon/ex-Mormon I’ve ever met in the wild in my thirty-five years of life. His initial reaction was a perfect recreation of one of those “wait, what?” animations. I mean, I understand. I wasn’t expecting to meet another gay Mormon at a conference that has nothing to do with the church or sexuality or any combination thereof. But there we were. And as he continued talking, he was adamant that he still believed in the church. He talked about serving a mission. How if he believed what he was teaching then, how could he not still believe now? And my heart ached for him.
I lived that dichotomy for what seems like too many years. I was self-aware enough that I would lie through a bishop’s interview to go do baptisms for the dead at the D.C. temple as a teenager and also be called as teacher’s quorum and priest’s quorum president. But there was absolutely no way I was going to serve a mission. I half-heartedly applied to BYU-Provo just to get my bishop and my parents off my back. I wasn’t accepted. Turns out I “forgot” to complete half the application. But, I still lived that dichotomy. The church is true. I am gay. Oil and water. I knew something had to give and I always knew it was going to be whatever faith I had in the church that was going to break first. It never really broke through. It just sort of…slipped away. Piece by piece. One happy night at a gay bar and one depressing Sunday at church at a time. Sitting in church every Sunday, sitting through Young Men’s and then Elder’s quorum lessons about marriage and having children and questions about girls I was seeing. Being only a spectator to conversations with the other young men at church, at scout camp, on temple trips, at Young Men activities, when they would talk about girls and make jokes about gays. More and more experiences piling up that all said, “I don’t belong here.” I remember the shields I put up to defend myself: Act more masculine, graduate seminary in the top three of the class, force myself to go through the motions because the motions help hide the truth. I remember being absolutely terrified when I came out unwillingly at school because I thought one of the other three Mormon kids would somehow leak it back to somebody. But we were all in separate wards and none of them ever did.
I explained to him, kindly, my journey through accepting my sexuality, my journey through my transition out of the church. That my mother and brother and sister in law have all met my now fiance multiple times. He told me that when he told his sister that he liked girls because he “sort of likes them”, that her reaction was, “Oh, thank God. I was worried about the kinds of people you like.” I gave my spin that it didn’t sound malicious at heart, just the standard Mormon response. I tried to challenge him a little bit to at least say the words “I’m gay” because I knew, from my experience, that just saying it was the first step, and the hardest, in starting the journey of accepting himself for who he is. But, I also understand the consequences of starting that journey. Once you say the words, even to yourself in a mirror, alone, in the dark, there’s no going back. Those words have power. They had power for me when I was fifteen and they have power for me now 20 years later, as I tried to share my understanding to another soul carrying the same heavy burden that I once carried. I didn’t encourage him to leave the church, or read into the church’s history; that wasn’t my role in the conversation. I just told my own story and shared my journey and my experiences and my understanding of what he’s going through.
When we finished talking and parted ways, I realized how deeply sad I was. For him. For me from the past. For how much I knew he was at war with himself inside and remembering how much at war with myself I used to be. I know how courageous he was in approaching me in the first place and how relieved I know he was when I outed myself as an ex-Mormon. I’m just so deeply grateful that I’m no longer a Mormon and that most of the dichotomous baggage I carried is behind me. It’s not entirely behind me. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to entirely shed the Mormon upbringing within me. I still stood outside the D.C. temple while my brother got married. I still find myself mindlessly humming a hymn I like. I still find myself amused that I can recite the sacrament blessings verbatim. I can still pinpoint a temple or meetinghouse from afar. Despite that, I’m still comforted to know that I was not, and am not, the only gay Mormon/ex-Mormon out there. I’m not the only one.