“Questions from the Closet” Answered at Surrey Stake Training and Devotional
If you have never met Ben Schilaty or Charlie Bird, heard them speak, or read their books, you likely know of them. Ben is an administrator within the Honor Code Office and an adjunct professor at Brigham Young University. Charlie is best known for being Cosmo the Cougar, BYU’s mascot, and danced to the top of ESPN’s 10 best mascot moments of all time.
Ben and Charlie are faithful Latter-day Saints, gay, and have had their stories published by Deseret Book, a publisher owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Ben wrote A Walk in My Shoes: Questions I’m Often Asked as a Gay Latter-day Saint. Charlie wrote Without the Mask: Coming Out and Coming Into God’s Light and, more recently, Expanding the Borders of Zion: A Latter-Day Saint Perspective on LGBTQ Inclusion.
Both have spoken and presented at Affirmation conferences, firesides, and devotionals. Ben was a panelist for the church leaders’ session of the 2020 Affirmation International Conference and the speaker at a fireside in 2021. Charlie presented at the 2019 Affirmation International Conference and was the speaker at a fireside in 2020.
In 2020, they started a podcast called Questions from the Closet, where they and their guests discuss questions they commonly are asked as gay members of the Church within the context of faith.
On January 14th and 15th, Ben and Charlie presented, shared their stories, and answered questions at a church leadership training and devotional hosted by the Surrey Stake at the Surrey Stake Center in British Columbia, Canada. Both the training and the devotional were in person and made available to a wider audience via Zoom and translated into multiple languages. The stake also streamed the training and devotional to YouTube, where they are available to anyone to view. The stake promoted the event on their public Facebook page on December 11, December 29, and January 13. The weekend of events garnered some attention, perhaps because of how open the stake was in promoting it and how accessible it was to attend and watch later.
How did this all come about? Eden Robin Edward Engen, President of the Surrey Stake, shared, “As a stake presidency, we have earnestly sought Heavenly Father’s will on how we can expand the borders of Zion… Those who are on the margins of our community in the Church. That includes many people… And includes people in our community, in our church, who are part of the LGBTQ community.” President Engin described how the stake presidency met monthly with LGBTQ church members and their family members and friends over the past nine months and sought to find ways to extend the blessings of the Gospel to members of the LGBTQ community. That effort led them to connect with Ben and Charlie.
“President Engen listened to an episode of Questions from the Closet titled How do I start a support group? and felt that they needed one in their stake,” Ben shared. “He and his wife were in Utah in October. They stopped by my office and extended an invitation to speak. That was the first time I’d met them. We’ve become good friends since then.”
The word “historic” has been used by some to describe the training and devotional, including a panel reviewing the weekend’s events on the Momon Stories Podcast episode titled Gay Mormon Rescue.
“Honestly, it did not feel historic to me,” Ben responded. “I give firesides regularly, and this was similar to other training I’ve given. Local authorities are often present, so this felt like just another weekend… I’ve been quite surprised that this one garnered so much attention.”
The local authority Ben mentioned is Elder M. Travis Wolsey, Area Seventy, and a member of the Eleventh Quorum of the Seventy of the Church. He is responsible for the North America West Area. He attended the devotional hosted by the Surrey Stake on January 15th.
Closing the devotional, Elder Wolsey said, “We’ll all leave this meeting inspired with thoughts that have come to our hearts, names that have come to our minds, and things that we can do to help be more loving.” He called the training and devotional a “courageous thing” and encouraged the stake to nourish the “perfect love of Christ.”
“I haven’t reached out to anyone. They reach out to me. I also encourage stake presidents who reach out to me to get permission from the Area Authority before planning the event,” Ben shared.
Similar training, devotionals, and firesides have been hosted by various local congregations for quite some time. In 2019, I shared my first experience at a similar event featuring Tom Christofferson, author of That We May Be One, also available from Deseret Book. While the Surrey Stake training and devotional was the first Ben has participated in outside the United States, it was similar to others that Ben participates in regularly. Last weekend, he gave a fireside in Oakland, California. This weekend, both he and Charlie are speaking in Orange County. Other individuals have impacted their stake and surrounding stakes by meeting with church leaders and participating in similar church meetings.
Ben, Charlie, and Tom stress that their stories and decisions shouldn’t be used to define how any other LGBTQIA+ member of the Church should live. Their experiences are their own, and they’ve been willing to use their platform to share their experiences with church leaders and members to increase understanding, call for greater love, and, yes, express some hope for greater light and knowledge regarding Heavenly Father’s LGBTQIA+ children.
The doors of stake centers open to Ben and Charlie because they navigate their sexuality as faithful members of the Church. These meetings are for faithful, presumably straight and cisgender, leaders and members of the Church. Their books are effectively published by the Church. As local church leaders and members seek to better understand the experience of gay members of the Church, Ben and Charlie are notable and safe options.
While Ben, Charlie, and others engage church leaders and members from a faithful perspective, there isn’t an absence of challenges and pain shared. The source of those challenges and that pain is also acknowledged, even if indirectly. This is not easy. Those who engage in this work do so knowing that some will use their example against other members no matter how empathic they are that this not be done, knowing that their story isn’t over and there are so many current and future unknowns, and they are very aware of the minefield that exists when referencing church history or quoting church leaders. But they participate and share of themselves despite these challenges in the hope of making a positive difference within the Church.
“After the training, a member of the stake came up to me and gave me a hug,” Ben shared. “He said that he was very concerned about the fireside… and only attended because he had been asked to fulfill an assignment that night. He told me that, during the Q&A, he felt the Spirit strongly and started to cry. He told me that he felt inspired to learn more and knew that he needed to be better. He said he was so glad he had attended.”
This article was submitted by an Affirmation community member. The opinions expressed are wholly those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Affirmation, our leadership, or our staff. Affirmation welcomes the submission of articles by community members in accordance with our mission, which includes promoting the understanding, acceptance, and self-determination of individuals of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, and our vision for Affirmation to be a refuge to land, heal, share, and be authentic.
Inclusion and progress is being made as exemplified by this powerful story of awareness through understanding of those who may be different. Loneliness and exclusion are a deadly precursor to suicidal ideation. No one was ever created to self-destruct. Prejudice, ignorance, hatred and societal or religious practices are major contributors to the increase of suicides – especially our youth. There is enough current scientific evidence that God created us as intended. And… just think how deprived and degraded the world would be without the great contributions of those deemed unfit, defective and unworthy because of societies intolerance of those who are unique and different than the majority. God knows His creation and does not make mistakes!
Desde Argetnina, soy un miembro fiel SUD Varon Gay, desde mis 13 años supe mi orientacion, a los 17 me bautice, recibi el sacerdocio de Aaron, nada mas …fui midinero joven de barrio, pero fui excomulgado a los19 años aldecirle a un compañero de trabajo miembro y colega de turno mi orientacion,como paso: el fue apartado como Obispo a la semana que le confesara mi orientacion, hoy tengo 57 años, recorri muchos caminos, pero nunca dejo de estar dentro demi la Fe de la Iglesia SUD, un dia hace 3 años maso menos me crue con lso misioneros , lo sinvite a visitarme, les conte mi situacion, y comenzamos juntos sin mas un año de retrono a casa como digo yo,…desde el consejo disciplinar de Utah enviaron una carta diciendo que mi estado y reincorporacion dependia de mi Estaca,…logre ser rebautizado, confirmado, ordenado en los sacerdocios, soy Lider AS, acabo de tener por via legal la tenencia de dos niños un de 4 años varon y una niña de 6…recibi de parte de mis autoridades locales el obispo de mi barrio un camino de apertura y entre el y el presidente de la esatca fui readmitido, mi obispo se fue ,…esta en Utah…el nuevo obispo apartado fue un varon muy joven, con escasa fromacion mas alla de haber sido misionero, estar casado, etc…. uno de los problemas en los llamamientos es mas alla de la formacion que se hace desde niño, instituto etc, esla baja formacion de los llamados a cargos especiales como Consejeros, Obispos y Presidentes de Estaca, no suelen ser personas con alguna o nula formacion…y con la oracion e inspiracion privada y del consejo no alcanza…y eso los ponen en una desventaja situacional al momento de acompañar , orientar, aconsejar a su comunidad, y mas aun a Divorciados, Viudos/as, AS, y sobre tdoo a nosotros los miembros confesos Gay´s…ya que en mi barrio todos los saben….Tengo mi Testimonio, comprendo a aquellos que dejaron la Iglesia, de hecho yo no solo practico la fe SUD, tambien practico Yoga siendo Instructor de la misma, etc….es decir…no soy un Miembro cerrado, sino que brego cada vez que puedo en decir: asi como antes lasbebidas colas estaban prohibidas, eltiempo, cambiara estas prohibiciones como las infusiones de Te, Cafe, etc….que jamas fueron prohibidas, recordemos en la epoca del Profeta el mascar Tabaco, fue una prohibicion despues de que Emma Smith se quejara a su esposo por lo que ella debia de limpiar en la sala de reuniones de los asistentes que mascaban tabaco…y sobre lainfusiones en aquella epoca por bevidas calientes se referenciaba a bebidas tipo sopas…Asi cosas com laque hoy no son prohibidas, anteslo fueron…asi pasara con nosotros los miembros LGBTIQ, pero para que los cambios se aceleren…para que gocemso de los mismos derechos en igualdad segun el genero…asi como el ejercicio del ministerio femenino como lo fue en los tiempos del Profeta J. Smith….dependera de no alejarnos sino de seguir luchando ..porque creo que las batallas la debeso de dar desde adentro…pero con la certeza de ser mansos com ovejas y habiles como lobos,….o serpientes si se quiere…
Tambien es valida la lucha desde afuera , pero creo a mi entender que desde dentro se preciona mas…pero respeto a quienes desde afuera luchan ….aun siendo No mas miembros, o estan inactivos transitoriamente, o se hallan en un camino de discernimiento personal o junto a sus parejas….
Abazo a este grupo de Afirmacion, desde la sede en Utah a mi Afimacion Argentina…
deseando que mi testimonio colabore en la lucha que todos desde cada lugar hacemos dela mejor manera posible para ganar la igualdad ante las autoridades, porque todos nos merecemos hacer plenamente lo qeu todo miembro pleno hace…
Les envio mis saludos desde Argentina, Barrio Quilmes 3, Estaca Avellaneda,
Sergio Oscar Alunni
Licenciado en Ciencias Teologicas,( Bachelor and PhD of Theology )