by Ben Schilaty
Submitted to Affirmation following The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint’s reversal of their November 2015 policy changes that prohibited children of LGBTQ parents from being blessed and baptized and characterized members of the church entering into same-sex marriages as apostates. These changes became known within the LGBTQ Mormon community as the “exclusion policy,” “policy of exclusion,” or “PoX.” The day after the reversal of this policy was announced, Nathan Kitchen, President of Affirmation, invited anyone willing to and share their authentic feelings and all their stories of grief, anger, relief, sadness, happiness, confusion, whatever they may be that surround the rescinding this policy. “As President of Affirmation, I want to be sure Affirmation does not hide you or your stories as we move forward,” wrote Kitchen in his invitation. If you have reactions or a story to share about the reversal of the exclusion policy, please send to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read other stories and reactions to the reversal of the exclusion policy.
I am not in a same-sex relationship. I have no plans to marry a man. I have no children. The November 2015 policy said nothing about gay Latter-day Saints like me. And yet it was unbelievably painful. You see, the hurt came from feeling like the church didn’t want people like me. The hurt came from feeling excluded. The hurt came from recognizing that if I chose to be in a same-sex marriage that I would be erased from my people.
A few people have asked me how I reconcile church leaders saying one thing in 2015 and now saying the opposite in 2019. I’m not going to tell you how to reconcile these things. You’ll need to do your own spiritual and intellectual work for that. But I will show you how I do it.
In the days following the policy release in November 2015, I got so many messages from friends making sure that I knew that I was loved, cared for, and wanted in their church. I wrote about my experience that day in this post. I dutifully recorded many of their names in my journal so that their acts of kindness would be remembered. In the long list of names I included “some random girl who read one of my old blog posts and emailed me.” People were so kind to me.
A few days later I met with the members of the support group I had started two months earlier for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints in Tucson, AZ. We were small back then. Five of us got together that day: an L, a G, a B, and two allies. One of the allies cried as he talked about how painful the new policy felt. I wrote in my journal that week: “I got a little choked up when I commented on how I don’t know what to hope for anymore. My life will be a life without companionship.” Paul, one of the group members, recommended that we share our stories more openly to help people understand the LGBTQ Latter-day Saint experience. And that’s what we did. The next day I wrote: “I also realized that criticizing the Brethren is not the right course of action. The right thing to do is to share how it affects me personally, to tell my story.” And so we talked and shared and hundreds of people in Tucson came to my house and many other homes to hear our stories.
Then in January 2016 when President Nelson called the November 2015 policy revelation I was so confused. The policy had not felt right in my mind or in my heart and having it be called revelation really didn’t sit right with me. But what could I do? I could share my story. And that’s what I did. Again and again.
Two years later President Nelson became the President of the Church. I was uneasy. I was unsettled. Shortly after President Monson’s death, a press conference was held with the new First Presidency. I was concerned as I watched it. Some of the things they said did not feel right in my heart. I was troubled and didn’t know what to do. I was so nervous about General Conference and was worried about what would be said about topics that matter a great deal to me. I was not convinced that President Nelson was the right person to lead the church. I needed a witness from the Holy Ghost.
So I got in my car the Saturday morning of conference and drove to a church so I could participate in the Solemn Assembly with other saints, but the church was empty. So I drove to another one and it was locked. And then another one and it was locked, too. By this time I just needed to be somewhere to watch the meeting because it was about to start. So I watched the session on my laptop alone in my bedroom. When the Melchizedek Priesthood holders were asked to stand, I stood up by myself in my room, dressed in a white shirt and tie, and raised my arm to the square to sustain a man that I wasn’t sure I fully trusted. In that moment, a wave of the Spirit rushed over me. I felt it in my whole body, but especially in my heart, that he had been called to lead at this time. I sat down and started to weep, grateful for the witness I had been given. And in an exceptionally cheesy moment, two tears landed on my knee and made a heart shape on my pants.
The rest of the conference was amazing and President Nelson’s multiple invitations to the members of the church resonated deeply with me. I had spent three months doubting his call, but now I no longer doubted because the Spirit testified to me that God had called President Nelson to lead the church. Since that day, I have felt the Spirit testify again and again that he is our prophet.
Then yesterday I was sitting in class at BYU when the church announced the reversal of the November 2015 policy. I didn’t know what to do so I stepped out of class and sat down in the hallway. I wanted to feel all my feelings. I felt compelled to say a prayer of gratitude that what I’d been praying for the last three years had finally happened. I wanted to cry to just let my emotions out, but they didn’t come.
When I returned to class my teacher allowed me to tell everyone what had been announced. People were shocked and happy and congratulatory and there was joy in the room. I felt all those feelings, too. Throughout the rest of the day, I wanted to just deeply feel this experience, but I didn’t. And then last night, as I was writing in my journal, I just began to sob and sob (I believe it’s called “ugly crying”). And this is the memory that finally let me feel my feelings.
After class, I sat and talked with a number of my classmates about the announcement and what it meant to have the November 2015 policy reversed. Candi, my 58-year-old conservative classmate, gave me a long, long hug and said, “Ben, I want you to know how much I love you and admire you. You have taught me so much.” And then another classmate gave me a hug and told me that the policy had been hard for her, too, and that she was glad we could start to move on. Precious gifts.
So why did remembering those two hugs finally let me release all my feelings? Because the policy instilled in me a fear that if I made certain choices I would be erased. What I need to know is that I belong. And my classmates made it abundantly clear that I belong in their lives. The Latter-day Saints in my life have made it clear again and again that they love me and claim me.
So what do I do with all of this? What do I do when a church leader says something that doesn’t feel right in my mind and in my heart and yet I feel that he’s been called of God? What do I do when I deeply fear being erased and then I’m embraced and loved? Those aren’t easy questions to answer. But the words of Moroni in Mormon 9:31 resonate with me as I consider these questions: “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.” Moroni made mistakes. Mormon made mistakes. All the ancient American prophets before them made mistakes. Can church leaders make mistakes today, too? I try to not condemn, but instead, try to be gracious and patient with their imperfections.
While I am thrilled about the recent change, that happiness is muted by the pain and hurt that my LGBTQ siblings are still experiencing. This dramatic shift in policy doesn’t undo the last three years of pain that many experienced. In fact, it brings it all to the surface again for many people. The hurt is real and it is valid, even if I don’t feel it myself. I don’t get to tell them what they should be feeling, I just try to feel what they’re feeling with them. And isn’t that the point of our baptismal covenants? When someone is mourning we mourn with them. I have celebrated in my heart yesterday and today, and I have mourned with friends.
I live in a world of contradictions. I live in a world where the same news can bring joy and sadness. I live in a world where a church leader can say something that hurts me and yet also believe he is a prophet. I live in a world where I can be hurt and embraced by my people. My world is a beautiful world of paradox.