Love! Testimony! Service!
By Scott Singer
There is no greater woe than to recall past bliss in misery.
—David Leavitt, The Page Turner
The first time I read Terrence McNally’s 1994 Tony Award winning play, Love! Valour! Compassion!, I made a simple, descriptive entry in my journal: “Eight gays and a lake.” Up until that time I had omitted any reference to homosexuality from my diary. The truth was, I could have written how McNally’s story about middle-aged gay men on vacation from their successful lives in the New York City performing arts community, might have been about me as it developed some of the recurring themes of contemporary gay literature: unstable relationships, loneliness, self-deprecating humor, the reality of AIDS, suicide, creativity and love—both physical and cerebral. Even though it might have been, it is not my story. Instead, I am a middle-aged active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I served a mission, married in the temple, and have been able to use my talents in a variety of church callings. From the time I was just a boy there were two things that I knew about myself: first, I had a testimony that the church is true; second, I was attracted to guys.
Many members of the Mormon Church believe it is impossible for an active priesthood holder to be gay. On the other hand, many members of the gay community consider the Mormon Church its enemy and openly oppose its teaching’s related to human sexuality. I felt isolated by the lack of understanding and rejection from both communities and dealt alone with the almost overwhelming opposing internal forces of testimony and homosexuality. Facing condemnation from both the Mormon and gay communities, there was rarely anyone to talk to and nowhere to turn for support. Most of my gay Mormon friends left the church, finding it much easier to find acceptance from the gay community. Why then is McNally’s play not about me? Why did I choose the silent path of the Mormon closet? I have been sustained through the years by the symbiotic relationship between a wife who loves me, even when I am almost impossible to understand, a strong testimony of the truthfulness of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and the seemingly unique experience of having Mormon church leaders who, to one degree or another, looked beyond my homosexual orientation and who invited me to use my talents to serve in the church. Even though, at this writing, I am still active, the past three years have been tumultuous for me and my family. I’ve changed in ways I did not think possible and I am still not certain where my road is leading, but I find the closet door more widely open every day.
Even though we are taught that individuals cannot be “tempted” before the age of accountability at eight years old, my first sexual experience with boys occurred when I was about six when a friend and I discovered fellatio. A few years later I tried sex with a boy from church who felt tremendous guilt afterwards, not because we played with each other, but because “We did it on Sunday!” I continued to experiment throughout my childhood. It never seemed unusual or wrong; it was what guys did when they were together. As happens with most Mormon children, I was baptized when I was eight years old. In my case that was not automatic because my father was not Mormon and my eleven year old brother had not been baptized. But I remember wanting to be baptized because I believed the church was true. I became the self-righteous, religious kid in the family. I would, for example, never even consider drinking a cola because it contained caffeine or, ironically, going to movies on Sunday.
Enter the teenage years. My older brother had become the rebellious son, always pushing the limits, dressing like a “greaser” and getting bad grades in school. I assumed the role of the “perfect brother,” obeying the rules, attending church and getting good grades. But like many gay teens, I lived a different life away from home. I became skilled at maintaining separate identities, one for home and church, another for my friends. In my mind I compartmentalized church teachings of morality and my gay sexual encounters. The two seemed to be totally unrelated. We were taught that we should respect women and engage in no pre-marital sexual behavior with them. As far as I was concerned, that’s exactly what I was doing. In fact, I resolved to remain heterosexually chaste so I could serve a mission and marry in the temple. It never crossed my mind that my teenage gay relationships violated church teachings. In high school I did not think of myself as being gay. I began dating girls, got a macho job delivering furniture and never associated with effeminate, gay-acting boys. In fact, I disassociated myself with open homosexuality. Once, on a Greyhound bus, and another time on the streets of San Francisco, when openly gay men approached me, I declined their advances. I did not worry that I had particularly attracted them as someone who “looked gay.” I assumed they would have approached any teenage boy. I was only interested in my straight-acting friends. During those years, I believe I remained active in the church because my best friend was also a Mormon. He was completely unaware of my homosexual activities, even though his brother was one of my partners.
After graduation from high school, I determined to go to Brigham Young University and to stop active homosexual behavior. I do not remember making a conscious decision to do that, but it was about that time when I finally realized that chastity might also include homosexuality. My freshman year at BYU was very good for me. I made several friends and was accepted as one of the guys. I dated girls and I was careful not to flirt with men. However, there was one young man in my dorm who caught my eye and our conversations would sometimes playfully approach flirting. The last night of the school year our roommates had gone home and we found ourselves alone, together, and it happened. I did not experience great angst because “I did it again.” For me it was just an extension of my high school experiences. My reaction was more, “O.K. Enough of that. You’re planning on a mission at the end of the summer so its time to grow up.” From what I’ve learned about others, I reacted in much the same way as most young Mormon males who are attempting to stop masturbating in preparation for their missions. When my bishop interviewed me in preparation for my mission, that’s all that was asked and in my mind I somehow categorized everything I had ever done in that one question, “Have you stopped masturbating?” “Yes,” I answered, and silently resolved to stop that day. I think I held out for about three weeks. At the end of the summer I received my mission call to Scandinavia.
I loved my mission. It was one of the definitive experiences of my life. I was blessed with a deepened testimony, a comprehensive knowledge of the gospel, a gift for the language, a love of the culture, and the realization that I truly was gay. I tried to suppress my homosexuality, but it was not always easy in Scandinavia where we were required to use public bath houses. Everyone knew we were the “Elders,” so I did my best to hide my appreciation for this new world of Nordic nudity. My gaydar was developing, but as I did my first year at BYU, I resisted any involvement . . . excepting for the time one of my missionary companions and I were wrestling. I became aroused and noticed that he was too and one thing led to another. Back in missionary mode, we called our mission president the next morning and told him what happened. He immediately transferred us to opposite ends of the country and later lectured all the missionaries about avoiding bodily contact of any kind. I found it interesting that he never once uttered the word “masturbation” even though his audience consisted entirely of young single men nineteen to twenty-two years of age. When one of the church apostles visited the mission and interviewed each missionary I tried to open up about my homosexual feelings, but I was scared to death and was not very successful. Uncomfortable himself, he smiled lovingly and said, “Just keep it behind you.” And you know, I did . . . for a long time.
My missionary work completed, I returned to BYU and got active in campus organizations and the business of becoming educated. I met “Kirsten,” a beautiful young woman and we began to date. I was also very aware of the BYU gay community and even did a little flirting, but the guys knew I was an RM, so they never took me seriously and I was honestly trying to keep active homosexual involvement behind me. One evening I went to the Salt Lake temple to witness the marriage of my best friend and his wife. After the ceremony I was sitting in the Celestial room meditating and had a remarkable spiritual experience. I was filled with a wonderful, warm presence that I recognized as the Spirit of the Lord witnessing to me of God’s love and acceptance. It was also strongly impressed on me that I should ask Kirsten to be my wife. About that same time Kirsten felt impressed that if I asked her to marry her she should accept. These spiritual experiences did not change my sexual orientation, nor make us instantly compatible. In fact, when we shared our spiritual experiences, they only served to illuminate our differences and to pull us apart.
By the next summer Kirsten and I were no longer speaking to each other and I joined a tour entertaining servicemen in the Far East. One lonely night in Korea, following a performance, I found myself lost in thought about Kirsten and realized that I missed her. No. That I loved her. It was the first time in my life that I recognized what it meant to love someone. When I returned to BYU we slowly began to speak to one another and finally began to date. We had both matured and finally agreed that it was right to marry. During that time we never discussed my gay experiences or attractions, but I was to learn later that she had figured it out for herself and filed it under “Scott’s problem, to be solved by me after we’re married.” We both foolishly believed that if we got married in the temple and lived the commandments, my homosexuality would magically disappear.
I resolved to remain faithful to Kirsten even though I continued to be attracted to men. We graduated first from BYU and then from graduate school in the Midwest, ultimately moving to New York, away from family and friends. I think the only time I ever felt guilty about my homosexuality was when we discovered we were unable to have children. I was afraid I was “being punished” for being gay and for putting myself into situations where I was around gay men. Well, when you play on the beach, sooner or later you get wet. During a time of personal and professional stress I let down my guard and spent the night with a man. I tried to keep this to myself, unable to share what had happened with either Kirsten or my bishop. After another encounter I felt so guilty that I finally came out to Kirsten and my bishop fully expecting both divorce and excommunication. I was shocked by both responses: Kirsten explained that she suspected I was gay even before we were married. The bishop, whom I thought to be homophobic, was remarkably understanding and moved to get me into counseling. Not only that, he went with me to my first session and admonished the Mormon Social Services counselor, “This is a good man and I don’t want to lose him. I’m holding you responsible for helping him through this.”
The love and support I felt from both my wife and bishop made me resolve once again to “get over this thing and keep it in my past.” Unfortunately, after a few months of counseling, I was pronounced free of homosexuality: “Scott was never really homosexual,” the counselor explained. “He just had some unfortunate, numbing experiences as a boy, coupled with an aesthetic sensitivity to the beauty of both the male and female forms.”
But he was wrong. Homosexuality does not disappear simply because it is given a different label. Back in my closet, because I so badly wanted both my wife and my bishop to believe that I was “cured,” I returned to my lonely struggle. Their unconditional love did motivate me to remain faithful. A few years later, when my bishop became the stake president, he again demonstrated his support by calling me to serve on the High Council.
In spite of my belief in Mormon doctrine, in spite of the love and support shown by my wife, I have only managed to deal with my homosexuality in a self-defined manner. It’s as though I’ve drawn a circle around myself delineating the parameters of what I can and cannot do. As long as I remain within those limits I feel that I am true to both the church and my wife, although I’m certain neither would agree. A few years ago, I realized that I was expanding the parameters for my gay activities and recognized that I was traveling on a road that would lead me away from my family and church. I came face to face with the dilemma I had so artfully avoided for so many years and I did not know what to do. I finally realized that I simply could not handle my inner conflicts alone any longer. First I tried Disciples, an on-line discussion group for gay and Lesbian Mormons who also believe in church teachings. I felt I was getting the support I needed and was able to open up to Kirsten after more than a decade. I explained that even though I have always loved her deeply, I am gay. It was as though I had to measure every gauge inside of me: life goals, beliefs, love of wife and family, love of church, gayness — everything. My dilemma is that I still have a strong testimony in spite of the way the church has chosen to deal (or not deal) with its gay members. Kirsten has also been re-evaluating her feelings and after months of hate, doubt, rage and mistrust, our love was rekindled and we were able to recommit ourselves to one another. But our relationship has been redefined and continues on very shaky ground. Neither of us is interested in divorce because, in spite of everything, we are each others’ best friend.
Once, when things were particularly rough, my wife sought a special priesthood blessing. She was instructed that she should not try to second guess the Lord’s purposes; that as my temptations for homosexual involvement came in waves, she would find the strength to withstand them crashing around her.
“The Lord’s purposes!”
Could there be eternal purposes for homosexuality? Is it a part of God’s plan? “Know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.” (Doctrine & Covenants 122:7) I consider it a waste of time to speculate about the origins of homosexual attraction. Gay men are as varied as any other group so it is meaningless to try to lump us all together. Most speculations are merely attempts to affix blame: “You chose to be gay and you’ll be damned for it.” “It’s your parents’ fault because they were abusive/neglectful/lenient/fawning . . .” “I was born gay because of my genes.” There is one supposition that I have read and heard in Mormon circles, though, that I know is false: that homosexuality has to be someone’s fault because homosexuality is so heinous that it could never be a part of God’s plan. In another priesthood blessing given by one of our stake presidency, we were informed that in the Pre-Existence we knew that same sex attraction would be my challenge on earth. I believe, that having made the decisions and choices I have made, it is my obligation to be faithful to both my wife and religion. But that decision has not brought happiness. It has brought almost unendurable emotional pain to both me and my wife. I know that we both still question its wisdom and wonder how long we can hold out.
I know that God loves his gay children. I also know that much is not understood about same sex attraction, either physically or spiritually, and I am grateful that at least some church leaders are actively pursuing more light and knowledge on this subject. There are now some areas, stakes and wards that are reaching out to their gay members and are trying to involve us actively in the church. One great wish of mine is that we could come out and be open about who we are. Among the advantages to that are: First, the membership would be shocked to find out how many of our successful and admired priesthood leaders struggle with homosexuality. Second, the membership would experience personal growth in accepting and sustaining us in our callings in spite of their knowledge of our orientation. Third, the adults and especially the teenagers, who silently wrestle with the reality that they are gay, would have active role models to look up to and rely on for support. It is impossible to understate how important it is for an individual to have someone to talk to who can love unconditionally, who knows the facts about homosexuality, and who can give counsel without the cultural baggage that usually interferes in communicating with even the most liberal church leaders. But the reality is, the church is not gay-friendly, even for those who try to remain active. The church’s actions proclaim that we are considered expendable. No one, especially no young teen, should have to grow up hating himself for being born the way he is and fearing that he is eternally lost no matter what he does. After everything we have gone through together, my wife still epitomizes standard Mormon culture. Her greatest fear is that one day I will be outed, “I will not play the role of the martyred wife of a gay man.”
After serving on the High Council, and at the recommendation of my stake leaders who were fully aware of my same sex attraction, I received a special calling directly from the Quorum of the Twelve. This was a highly visible calling that allowed me to use my special talents in a unique way in the service of the Lord. During the years I served in that calling I relied heavily upon support from a wide variety of church leaders. One night during a time that was particularly difficult for me, I was being interviewed by my priesthood leader. I asked him what he thought would happen if it came out that I was gay. He surmised that I would have to be released, not because of any transgression, but because I would loose the support required for me to succeed with my work. It is even more pathetic to understand that we were discussing men who were stake presidents and above. Even though I try not to second guess the purpose of my own homosexuality, I recalled to him the words of the prophet Ether (12:27), “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness, I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me, for it they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.” I have seen individuals with callings similar to mine be absolutely broken when they became proud and tried to take personal credit for the Lord’s work. I continued, “Perhaps this is how I am humbled by the Lord to be required to acknowledge my weakness before Him, to beseech Him for the Spirit and to acknowledge His hand in all things and to remember that the work is His.” He smiled and thoughtfully nodded his head, “Yes. I think that may be right.”
If there is a lesson to be learned from my life, it is that I was able to remain active in the church for three reasons: Love! Testimony! Service! I am most grateful for Kirsten who has stayed by my side in spite of the pain my homosexuality has caused her. She has found it impossible to simply accept that, as a gay man, I can love her. She grieves that I am unable to respond to her sexuality and that is almost unendurable. I am also grateful that I have always known that the Savior lives and that He stands at the head of the church in spite of the myopia of its members and even most of its leaders. Finally, I am grateful that my experience as a gay man in the church has been unique, that I have had the support of some church leaders. But in spite of all this, I still struggle. I continually ask myself where I am with all of this. My new stake president is supportive but I have been released from all leadership roles and teach an often monitored Sunday School class, all the more insulting because it is believed I’m too naive to realize that it IS being monitored. I understand R.E.M. when they sing, “That’s me in the corner, losing my religion.” I dropped out of Disciples because my opinions were not well received and I could not take the self-hatred of men who simply cannot accept the simple fact that they are what they are. I looked into Evergreen but quickly recognized the false promises, the smoke and mirrors of their program based on blame and guilt. Deep down inside of me, I just want to come out of the closet and be done with it, but out of respect for my wife I have not yet been able to take that stand. I have become involved with Gamofites and feel that I have finally found some solid support. But lately, my life has mostly been filled with pain. I echo the thoughts recorded by Brad Schow in his journal, “How funny. A thing that is supposed to bring joy (the church) has brought more turmoil and unhappiness into my life than anything I can think of.” (Remembering Brad by Wayne Schow, p. 33) Unfortunately I have not yet found the end of my journey. But, like Don Quixote I am not giving up the quest no matter how battered I might be by the time I reach my destination.