The Need for Authenticity
Talk given by Bill Bradshaw at the Affirmation Donor Dinner, on Friday, June 2, 2017 in Lehi, Utah
My first memory takes place in the home in which I grew up. We were in the kitchen, in the corner by the window. I will guess that I was three. I was sitting on my father’s knee; my mother was close by. It was a very tense moment, and the message was clear: if I didn’t stop sucking my thumbs, I would have to be returned to the hospital where I was born. That threat never materialized, but I also remember, later in life, finding in a drawer in the living room the stiff wire coils that were placed on my thumbs. The idea, I think, was that the feel of the metal in my mouth was a reminder to withdraw my hand – otherwise I was in trouble. I’ve been told that early memories are often about something traumatic, an event eliciting a strong negative emotion. So my interpretation is that the thought of leaving my family for the unknowns of the hospital must have been pretty frightening, something that’s been retained in my memory. It’s not a good thing to be kicked out of the family.
So even at a very early age I had some inkling of the internal conflict that can arise when one is not meeting expectations – when there’s a discrepancy between what you are and what you’re supposed to be. It’s not pleasant when you don’t fit in. And one of the ways we learn to cope is to sacrifice integrity. I suppose that we’ve all been guilty of a little deception in order not to be seen as different. Agreeing verbally with what everyone in the group is saying, when you really don’t believe it. Failing to speak up and say “That’s not right” when that would put you at odds with the majority. Going along with the pressure to conform. Better to stay silent and keep your secret to yourself.
But self-deception turns out to be hard to bear and hard to maintain. The ideal of what we really ought to do is expressed in these familiar words: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” I’m not a literary critic able to tell you what Shakespeare was intending for Polonius to mean in Hamlet, but the notion of being true to oneself as a good thing is something we can probably all accept. I can remember quite clearly when I was a teenager in the early 1950’s that there was a slogan campaign in the Church. We periodically all got a 5 by 7 inch card, a very much larger copy of which was posted in the ward display case. The message was “Be Honest With Yourself.” This theme was repeated frequently in a number of different contexts. “Be Honest With Yourself.”
Let me cite an example of a real circumstance that illustrates what happens when the discrepancy between what you are, or what you have done, and what you profess to be becomes too great to bear. Several times during my tenure at BYU I received a letter in my faculty office from a missionary serving in the field somewhere in the world. It was a request for forgiveness. The note would explain that the person had cheated on a Biology 100 examination a year or two earlier. The burden of that dishonesty had become unbearable for someone who everyday was expressing a faith in Christ and holding out to others the promise of happiness for living an honorable life. I would write a return note accepting the apology, and wishing the person well.
And so there appears to be a strong impulse in thoughtful people to be authentic – not to pretend to be something that you’re not. There may be no more poignant example of the need for authenticity – of the call for walking with integrity – than that which I have experienced among my LGBT brothers and sisters. Marge and I have spent a considerable effort in the last years of my life trying to become informed about homosexuality, a topic about which we were woefully ignorant in years past. Among the many things we have learned is that a small proportion of humankind is by nature erotically attracted to persons of the same sex. The evidence that sexual orientation is biologically programmed is strong and becoming stronger. Many of the details, however, remain to be uncovered. The most important conclusion, however, is that people do not choose these attractions, and change by force of will or religious engagement or participation in some program of reorientation is not possible. All of this can more easily be learned without recourse to academic research, of course, by listening with sensitivity to the personal witness of the experience of those directly involved. Our gay children have told us this is so.
Let me share with you now the heart-felt expression of one of those children. I quote:
From the time I realized I was attracted to men until I was 27, I tried my best to change it. I prayed, fasted, read scriptures, went to church, went to the temple, lived a very religious life etc. all I an attempt to be straight. No matter how hard I tried and concentrated on it, I could not make myself straight. It was severely disappointing on every level at the time. I always felt like I could never quiet figure it out or make it happen. I felt God was disappointed with me. I also felt that the church and the people in my life would likewise be disappointed if they knew. I did not want to be gay. I hated that I felt the way I did. But it would not go away. I guess if you look at it, I was able to hide it and not act upon it for a very long time. The church may view that as a success, but I don’t any longer. It’s stupid to deny who you are and lie to yourself and everyone you know. In my opinion, it’s harmful to live in such a state of denial and lies. You never can have a self-worth when no on (including yourself really even know who you are.”
I have in my possession dozens of statements whose theme is virtually identical to the one I have just read. The spirit of these expressions is overwhelming. Imagine expending every spiritual and intellectual effort at your disposal in what turns out to be a hopeless task of becoming something other than what you are. Imagine the pain of coming to believe that you are not good enough to merit a blessing from Deity. Image the burden of knowing who you are, but not feeling able to be authentic with loved ones and friends – afraid of disapproval, of sanctions from your church and the broader society – terrified like the 3-year-old child in the kitchen of being kicked out of the family.
I continue to believe that my LGBT brothers sisters will be entitled to special blessings in the eternities, given the level of disapproval and misconceptions they have had to endure in mortality. Justice will eventually be served. But at the same time, I believe that it’s important not to promote the notion of gay people as the downtrodden who require our sympathy. That flip side of homophobia is equally unacceptable. What is needed is not pity. What is needed is a shift in societal attitudes such that accurate information replaces mythology, respect born of direct experience replaces fear, and a commitment to equality replaces a tradition of marginalization. Gay people must also learn not to see themselves as anything but capable, competent, and most of all worthy. Life ahead must be joyful and full of promise.
If gay people are by nature attracted to those of their same sex, they are also, by nature, extraordinary human beings. If it turns out, someday, that artistic temperament, about which we sometimes make jokes, or sensitivity and showing compassion, about which we don’t make jokes, turnout to be genetically linked to same-sex orientation, I won’t be surprised.
So what is called for is a celebration of the goodness of LGBT individuals, a recognition of achievement, and distinction, and a vision for lives of wholeness. Quote: “Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.” Each gay, lesbian, or trans person in recognition of the worth of his or her soul should, like any of the rest of us, plan for a life of fulfilment and service and honor. It will be to accept, not disparage, oneself and strive for a better self: a better son, a better daughter, a better spouse, a better parent, a better friend, a better neighbor, a better employee, a better citizen, a better everything. It will be in every realm of life – private, public, or professional – to be honest with yourself, walk with integrity, and be happy. If this vision is ideal, it is also an accurate reflection of real people whom I know and love. I am deeply grateful for their example.
Finally, I applaud Affirmation for its courageous efforts to promote inclusion. I am deeply appreciative of our son and his family and the frequent reminders I have of their good lives. I am most blessed by the companionship of my dear wife and her courageous support of efforts for equality and fairness.