Many Paths, One Heart
Justin Utley gave the following devotional talk at the Affirmation 2017 Annual International Conference, Sunday, September 24, 2017, at the Utah Valley Convention Center
I am grateful to have been asked to share my truth on the topic of this year’s theme: many paths, one heart. Many paths lead to love, peace and happiness. And I’d like to share a condensed version of my journey.
I grew up a very devout member of the LDS church. Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Seminary and Institute Counsel member, etc. However, there was something about me, and my attraction to men, that I couldn’t figure out. Was everyone this way, and no one talks about it? Or am I the only one?
On my mission, I saw porn for the first time on a bishop’s computer. Yes, it turned out to be gay porn, since it also turned out that the bishop (or his wife) forgot to clear their internet history. But when I saw what I saw, I realized at that moment that all the internal torture and conflict I had been fighting with since I was in grade school was summed up to be what I could only explain as my worst nightmare: I was gay.
The nightmare was now my reality.
It was clear to me since I can remember that the leaders of the church I belonged to considered gays to be sexual deviants. That homosexuals stand as a mockery of the plan of salvation. That Satan has a stronghold on people who had created something evil called “the gay agenda” which would poison the minds of children and deteriorate the family. This was made evident to me as I heard and read the scores of conference talks, books, articles, and policies that had been (and continue to be) written and spoken by a multiplicity of church’s prophets and apostles throughout the decades. The adjectives and tone may have changed over the years, but the purpose hadn’t: there is no room for openly gay children, gay missionaries, or gay couples in the church. Homosexuality is wrong. Period.
After returning from my mission, I sought out clarification and a solution to my spiritual crisis from my spiritual leader. My bishop insisted to me that I was not gay, and strongly advised me to not identify as such. He urgently recommended that I participate in an ex-gay therapy process that included weekly one-on-one counseling through LDS Family Services. It also entailed participating in group therapy, which included attendance to firesides, reading scores of pamphlets, books, and even by “expert” testimonials, which all summed up that change was possible, whether in this life or the next, and that the love and sexual relationships between two members of the same sex was simply a struggle akin to alcoholism, a drug addiction, or an illness like cancer.
It was during this process that my identity as a gay man was removed from me, and instead, I was simply a latter-day saint who struggled with a disease, disorder, or abnormality called same sex attraction. I was told to date women, to disclose my “status” to them (as if it were an STD… but don’t worry, it isn’t contagious), and that if I held true to the church and its leaders, that one way or another, this struggle would at the very least diminish somewhat, and that the joys of a having a family and raising children could still be had in this life, if only by a successful, select few. I was told that the word “Gay” is a verb and a social construct… and one is only “gay” because of their homosexual behavior.
After two long years of psychological gymnastics, not much had improved by way of my prognosis. In fact, it had gotten “worse”.. I was having hot flashes every time I talked to my trainer at the gym, and this so called “male bonding therapy” wasn’t creating much of a fraternal healing or masculine bond as it was creating a deeper need and yearning to be in his arms again. In fact, when it was clear that nothing had changed or improved for me or anyone else I had met in this process, I left the therapy altogether and decided it was time to take a different path to happiness and date someone I was attracted to inside and out.
However, neither of us were “out”, and we both referred to our “struggle” as this “thing” between us. That we weren’t gay, we wouldn’t sit next to each other at the movies, but we would share the same bed. That’s a lot of mental gymnastics to do over the course of 6 months, but we tried the best we could given the circumstances with our family, friends, and the stigma and fear that we attempted to keep at bay from eroding our connection.
That all came to a screeching halt when, at work, I received an email from his brother, that Brent had passed away in his sleep from a heart attack. His brother only knew me as a friend, had never met me in person, and said the funeral would be held where he grew up, in Oklahoma, and he gave me an address if I would like to send a letter to be read at his internment.
My world completely shattered. I felt helpless. I felt hopeless. I couldn’t attend the funeral. His parents had no idea who I was. And my family, friends, and employer had no idea I was in a relationship with him. I struggled to make sense of this… what had I done? And what I was supposed to do? Should I go to the temple and do his work for him? Should I strike a deal with God to forgive Brent of our wrongdoing if I promised to obey every minute for the rest of my life? Go on another mission?
With nowhere and no one else to turn to, I revisited my situation with my Bishop. He could tell I was shaken and upset. I explained what happened. I felt completely lost and at odds with my circumstance, and told him I needed spiritual guidance to figure out what I could do about this.
His response was critical to me becoming the man I am today. He told me that “Brent was taken from you because you are a Latter Day Saint, a holder of the Melchizedek Priesthood, and you know you should not have been in a homosexual relationship.” He went on to say that this would only make my struggle with same sex attraction worse, since I now needed to begin the repentance process for my sexual transgressions.
It was in that moment that I realized… he was wrong.
I didn’t struggle with same sex attraction. He did.
I left my bishops office and eventually confided in my mother, who’s unconditional love AND support is the reason I am standing here alive today. She told me that she regrets not being able to meet someone who meant so much to me, and to not let that happen again.
I proceeded to start my road to healing with a wonderful, licensed therapist, unaffiliated with any church and unbiased toward any other organization, as therapists take an oath to be. Through this process I realized that my church leaders and other therapists worked very hard to distinguish members of the LGBT community from members of the church who were gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender by removing their identity as such, and instead creating a subversive remedy, calling it “same sex attraction” and “gender confusion” ..the kind of terms I would expect to be used by self-trained clinicians from the dark ages. I soon discovered that my church leaders were hiring attorneys and lobbyists to create a religious and moral objection to the passing of legal, equal rights and benefits for LGBT non-members (and members) of their church. The conclusions made in my youth about the non-acceptance of LGBT families was confirmed again.. When the update in church policy and doctrine regarding the salvation of gay parents and their children was given, which was unanimously sustained by all the top church authorities, I wasn’t at all surprised. I wasn’t angry, I didn’t throw mud, burn sacred pictures, or desecrate what others value as holy. I realized they had simply reiterated their stand by drawing another line in the sand.
Through this process I also realized that my identity does not belong to a church. It belongs to me. My name on a membership roll doesn’t belong to my family’s eternal hopes. It belongs to me. And my membership in an organization is worth something, to me. And just like any other organization I’ve belonged to or currently belong to, if I am not being understood, if I am not being valued, and if my own happiness or someone in my family’s happiness is being threatened by the efforts of an organization, I have the right, the dignity, and self-respect to remove myself and my name from their list of members and supporters. It also gave me the courage to share my story, and to not speak ill of church leaders, but instead hold them accountable for their divisive words and actions just as Jesus did in his time. My decision to remove my name from the church didn’t come as a surprise. in fact, my dad told me, after all is said and done, a roster of names on a piece of paper is not going to be the actual guest list they use in heaven.
This healing process has also given me the clarity to say without hesitation, that conversion therapy doesn’t work. I thank god that it didn’t, because I’d rather be the person I am today, standing here with you, than to be someone I’m not.
When I am told that I am still loved despite my lifestyle choice, I can now say that my religion is a lifestyle choice. That my sexual orientation isn’t a choice. And who I love isn’t a lifestyle. For me, being a member of the human race carries an enormous responsibility and purpose for life. Each and every day I wake up, I am grateful to have another day on earth with my husband, and another chance to leave the world better than I found it.
I crossed paths nearly three years ago a man who brought back the full force of the truest kind of love back into my life. All the elements of the fairy tale really happened, except that I was the one meeting the prince charming. I moved back from New York City to Salt Lake City, and we got married, with our Mormon and non-Mormon family and friends present, supporting us in our commitments, because they truly believe in the slogan “family first”… not “bishop first” or “what the neighbors think first”. And contrary to what I was told growing up, we actually CAN participate in the joys of raising children (although I’m worried I may not be able to handle diapers or tantrums very well).
It is such an elating and wonderful feeling to realize that, today, I am legally married to someone I truly love, adore, and cherish.. Something I never thought would happen and never thought was possible. A love that is legal, not counterfeit. A love that is equal, and real. (And taxable).