Memories of a Gay Mormon and Life After the Church
by Daniel Becker
“A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak”
I keep revisiting the 3rd chapter of Ecclesiastes again and again. It seems like this is the most important piece of wisdom I have ever read. It talks about one of the most fascinating subjects in our world: time.
As a historian interested in philosophy, time is a key concept to understand the way we create narratives of our own actions and relate them to past experiences. Times is so powerful that it dominates everything and sometimes, faced with the unknown, we turn towards our limited understandings of temporality to find some comfort and meaning.
Time and meaning are so intimately intertwined in our narratives about the world around us. Our own memories and experiences are constantly changing and being reframed with new perspectives as time goes by.
I know I should be more impacted by other things in the Bible but, for me, this chapter is really something that keeps coming back to my life in many unexpected ways and asking me to be more patient.
Although I consider religiosity a very important part of my life, I am not a very good Christian. I could be more involved in social causes; I should take more time to pray and feel more grateful about life than I am usually able to express in actions.
But being part of a church is for me a great opportunity to feel connected to a community, where you can feel welcomed and find people who share the same values as you do. I have always been searching for this feeling since I was a teenager.
Growing up in the countryside and having so little in common with my colleagues at school did not help me to become the most easy-going social person in the world.
I was one of those children that clearly would turn out to be gay and suffered a lot of bullying without even realizing the reasons for that. Because of that, I didn’t know how to ask for help. How can you discuss such a subject with your parents without telling them the content of the jokes? How do you talk about this with your teachers without being retaliated by your colleagues after school?
Instead, I let myself being bullied without any questions. I wish I knew back then at least how to come up with clever jokes in return!
My colleagues at school had already started dating, but for me, who was an easy target as a queer in the school jokes, doing something remotely sexual could only serve to feed their minds with more bad ideas to joke about me later.
Dating seemed completely foreign territory that only made me feel nervous and inadequate and I was completely not interested in any of the girls of my school.
To deal with this situation, I tried to be as invisible as possible during the class breaks, on the school bus, and on other social occasions. After a while, I felt alone and desperate to find a place where I could really belong to.
To run away from the constant mocking, being part of a church would be the ideal option for me. Since I was a child, I have always felt a strong connection with God, and I knew I could find in the church a safe place to be more than a person bullied at school. I could be finally just another person in the world, completely adequate, without people having second thoughts about me! In addition to that, possibly no one would pressure me to date and, at least in theory, it would be a sin if they decided to bully me. God would be on my side then!
My decision to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was heavily influenced by the admiration I had for my grandfather. Before his passing when I was 11 years old, he used to be an active member of the church and, I would find out later, one of the pioneers in my city. Although my parents were Catholics (but almost never went to the church), I grew up used to the many Mormon books my grandfather had and I loved to visit my grandparent’s house and find the latest edition of the Liahona Magazine and its children’s issue to color.
One of the first books I had was actually an illustrated volume of the history of the church for children. For me, that book was so special and every time I read about the death of Joseph Smith, I would feel completely sad.
One of my fondest memories before his passing was of a Sunday morning service, I went with him and my family. It was a very sunny day, and I can still remember all the happiness I felt, the warmth of the people, the beautiful music, and the light passing through the curtains of the sacrament hall. In the eyes of a child, everything seemed almost ethereal.
My father, on the other side, was in complete opposition to the church and I needed to wait until my parent’s divorce to be finally baptized. It is a shame that my grandfather did not live to see that!
The good thing was that when I came to the church to become officially a member, I basically did not need any missionary effort. I already had all the books from my grandfather and even a temple picture he gave us when he went to the Temple. Back then, São Paulo was the only place with a temple in Brazil and members of the church used to go in caravans once a year to do all the ordinances needed.
During my baptism interview, one of the missionaries asked me if I had any homosexual relations prior to the church. I was approximately 15 years old back then and I did not quite understand where that question came from!
The simple fact that he asked me made me feel uncomfortable. It seemed so odd to me and so distant from the idyllic picture I had in my mind about the church. Of course, I said no, but I remember making a mental note to find out to which extent that question also applied to the fact that I found boys particularly beautiful.
Regardless of this strange start, being a member of the Church made me feel safe for a while. I had finally found my place and then, I became this very proud Mormon teenager who would use his faith as a wall to shield me from any possible sexual feelings or references to it. But, despite my best efforts to become a kind of sexless entity, I could not avoid dealing with this topic even inside the church.
Initially, I thought no one would question my lack of desire to have a girlfriend and I could easily postpone any talks about sex to right after the marriage in a very distant future. For an instant, I felt completely immune to the bullying at school with the church offering me the perfect excuse. I was not different; I was just a very chaste boy waiting for the right moment to fall in love!
In the meantime, I enjoyed all the opportunities I had to be part of that community and spent all my free time in some activity in the church.
I loved that feeling of being around other people and finally being in control of the outcomes for the first time in my life. People would like me because I was one of those teenagers very determined, who have read all the scriptures and was always ready to spread the gospel.
I became the second counselor of the Young Men in my ward and participated in many youth parties, camping, and other events at my stake. I could dance with girls without being judged and, at the same time, keep distant from the prospect of having sex with one of them!
Looking back though, I see today suspiciously remnants of gay platonic love in the way I was always looking for spending time with the missionaries serving at my ward.
There is one I remember now. I do not remember his full name, but he was a gorgeous nineteen-year-old tall American, blond hair, blue eyes, who played football in high school. He was from Seattle and had a gorgeous body. For the purpose of this story, let’s call him Elder J.
We used to talk a lot about the scriptures and the deep meaning behind some of the passages in the Perl of Great Price. We discussed the possibility of multiple universes, about the hypothesis that the Sun might be a kind of celestial world and our bodies were not yet glorified to see yet. The list of topics was long and every weekend I always tried to find time to talk with him.
I particularly enjoyed discussing the church’s history and U.S. pioneers. At some point, I knew more about the foundation of Nauvoo than of my own town! My grandfather had left me his copy of the Journal of Discourses by Brigham Young and I was very proud to show them to everyone.
Besides this, Elder J. also used to teach me some English, which was another excuse to spend more time with him and his companion, although I was always glad when his companion found something else to do in the back of the room and would leave us alone to talk. It is amazing now to think that we were just two years apart when I met him. In my mind, we were from completely different generations.
During that time, the bishop would invite members of the priesthood to work together with the missionaries during the weekends. Since our ward only had two, each missionary would go out alone with another priesthood holder of the church, this way we could have two doubles doing the job and covering more places in a day.
I still remember my last conversation with Elder J. during a particular cloudy Saturday afternoon when he chose me to be his companion to make visits that day.
Usually, when I worked with missionaries to proselytize, my focus was on how many people we were able to contact and talk to by the end of the day. I was particularly good at approaching people on the streets and I had lots of passages from the scriptures memorized in case someone had any questions about our faith.
But, during that day, neither Elder J. nor I felt much compelled to increase the number of possible contacts. Instead, it seemed we were enjoying more the time we spent walking between places than the actual visits.
After having completed all the visits we needed for the day, we went back to the mission house to wait for his companion to return before I could leave.
He invited me to go inside and wait there. Once we get inside, he went to change his clothes. I don’t know how we ended up on this topic, but in a moment, he was telling me about missionaries having sex, about the possibility of finding a girlfriend, and about guys that had gay relationships while they were still in the mission.
At this point, I completed his sentence in my mind by adding that, in the case of this last situation, if caught up by someone the missionary would be sent home by the church, suffer disciplinary action, and, very likely, be excommunicated.
I do not remember if it was a hot afternoon, but when Elder J. came back from his room, he was wearing only his temple garments. Nowadays, I can verbalize how I felt, but at that time, I am not sure I was able to acknowledge the feelings I had. Although, the simple fact that I can still remember him in his underwear might be a signal that my brain thought it was important to mentally capture and save.
He smiled at me while he went to the bathroom and kept the door open while he explained to me that gay missionaries were more common than I would have thought. Although that was an awkward thing to listen about, I had an uninterrupted view of his back that, let me tell you, it was quite worthy.
That thought terrified me though, but I could see that he was telling me about these subjects in a very light tone. He turned in my direction and went to the sink to wash his hands while contemplating his face in the mirror. He was again smiling and not a note of judgment on his face. I think he might be the first person with whom I talked about this subject without showing any concerning signs, not that I had ever wanted to talk about it back then!
Was it a confession on his part? Did he think I was gay? Was he gay? So many questions that I would never think about at that moment.
Homosexual acts (as the Church puts it) and excommunication were quite a taboo for me and I remember reading about them in one of the church many manuals and, to be honest, even if I was quite clueless about myself at that point, the picture of that terrible outcome happing to me has always popped up in the back of my head.
For a faithful Mormon, nothing can be worse than excommunication from the church. It meant losing the confidence of your entire community and be forbidden from taking part in any activity inside the Church. If you are a man, it meant no longer being entitles to hold the priesthood and people would try to keep as much distance from you as possible. You would be allowed to attend church, but you would possibly feel invisible and unworthy.
I know that the Church has been trying to change this over the past few years. Church leaders are always emphasizing the importance of being kind, inclusive, and open to forgiveness but, as far as I know, even if the situation is not so dark as it used to be, losing your membership in the Church is one of the most traumatic you can ever experience.
In my ward, there was a man that had been submitted to disciplinary actions a few years before my baptism and, although he decided to keep going each Sunday with his wife, everyone was always uncomfortable around him and looked at him with suspicion. I still don’t know the reason for his excommunication, but I was able to see how humiliating that was to him and his family and it amazed me that they still had the courage to keep going after that.
I really do not know what would have happened that Saturday afternoon if I had more time alone with Elder J. The sound of someone on the stairs led us to change the topic and he went to his bedroom again to find a pair of pants and putting an end to one of the most intimate moments of my adolescence.
Nowadays, it is easy to see that moment as a great opportunity to explore, but, as Ecclesiastes says, “there is a time there for every purpose and for every work”.
When I left the mission house that evening, I was felt something quite different inside me. I was terrified by our conversation and by the meaning of that tiny moment of intimacy we shared. That conversation brought to my mind so many emotions and desires that I had tried to hire since becoming a teenager.
Although I did not consider myself gay at that point, I have always known that I was different from the other boys in the church. Involuntarily, I would find myself checking other guys out in the school or on the streets. Of course, after doing that, I would try to create an excuse in my mind and increase my prayers each day to prevent me to do that again.
Even with all my best wishes to do the contrary, I became 17-year-old without having any sexual dreams about girls. To be honest, I didn’t even like their perfumes and possibly only saw them as my friends.
Despite all of those signs, I kept praying for God to “fix” me and I thought everything would change at a certain point and, once I finished my mission, I would come home as another normal guy ready to marry.
But that conversation with Elder J. somehow changed that narrative and showed me that there were others like me having the same feelings and even during their missions, they were not completely able to make them disappear.
I still loved the church, I still believed in its teachings, but something in their vision about what a family should be like resonated completely oppressive to me. Soon I realized that the mission and marriage outcome, which is the most common path for a young man in the church, no longer sounded so bright to me.
From that point, I felt I could not keep going to the church and having second thoughts. In my ward, the bishop’s wife used to say that there was no moderate Mormon. If you want to be a true member of the church, you better be there with all your body and mind or being condemned as a hypocrite for not following all the church’s commandments. Although this vision sounds too unforgiving, I do not think she was completely wrong. At least theologically speaking, the whole doctrine of the church revolves around heterosexual marriage and families and, since I could no longer see myself in one of those roles, how would I be able to keep up with that image after a while?
Within two weeks after that Saturday afternoon, I decided to leave the church for good. I even donated part of my books to the public library in an attempt to reduce all the pain I felt each time I looked at them inside my house. Looking back, I regret having done that, because I lost the books that belonged to my grandfather. I should have at least kept them.
During the first few months after my decision, I had terrible nightmares. I dreamt I was in front of a disciplinary council trying to explain why I decided to leave, and I was too afraid to tell the truth. Another dream was about not being saved at the end of the world, realizing too late that I had made a huge mistake.
It took me almost two years to be able to see a church member on the streets and not feeling a sudden urge to run away and start crying. And it took me almost four years after I left to come out to my family and friends and feel completely at peace with the fact that I was 100% gay!
It has been approximately 15 years since I attended church for the last time and it amazes me how much I still miss about being part of that community. How much I miss the fact that I was following my grandfather’s path. I can honestly say I miss the choirs and hymns, the general conferences, the Saturday afternoon walks with the missionaries, the wonderful feeling of going to a temple, the silly jokes during some ward activity in the week, of talking with people so deeply touched by their faith as once I was.
Although, despite this heartbreaking and painful experience, I still do not regret my decision to leave the church. And the main reason for that lies in the church’s own teachings. I need to be true to myself and live an honest life.
I could not bear to think about having to hide a significant part of who I am because the church does not truly accept gays based on arguments that, if you want to study in depth, are mostly based on traditions, stereotypes, and a very anachronic interpretation of the scriptures.
I refuse to believe that our Heavenly Father in his perfect plan condemned gay people to live alone while heterosexuals are entitled to have a family.
I do not think being gay and living in a monogamous relationship is anything remotely sinful. For me, it is simply politics, fear of change, and a too literal reading of the Bible that takes for granted historical changes in customs and societies. But here comes time again. We will need to wait.
If you look at how much the church has changed over the past 15 years, I still have hope that in the future gay people will be fully accepted as full members without the need of renouncing their ability to love or to create a family.
Elder J. was transferred to another ward a few weeks after I left the church. I wonder if he has come out of the closet after his mission…