The Woman I Love
September 27, 2015
By Laura Skaggs Dulin
I am a life-long member of the church who is gay. I chose to marry my husband, John and we’ve been married for 12 years now. We have two fantastic daughters together. I also hold a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. From this perspective, I have engaged in LGBT/SSA Mormon advocacy that has centered on two main objectives. 1) To help shift the LDS community beyond a pathologizing framework historically informed by reparative therapy, to a more evidence based multicultural approach as recommended by the American Psychological Association 2) To help change the way Latter-day Saints respond to their LGBT/SSA brothers and sisters by fostering increased understanding, social support and respect for individual agency; with the overarching goal to make it safer for LGBT/SSA Mormons to come out and be out within our community. In much ofmy advocacy, I have drawn on academic research alongside church published resources with the hope to effectively convey these ideas. Today, however, I am going to step into the personal realm and share a part of my story that intimately shapes my work and perspective…
The Woman I Love
Three years ago, I had yet to do any LGBT/SSA Mormon advocacy. I also felt distressed and overwhelmed. By that time, I had felt distinct spiritual impressions to come out in my ward, eventually publicly online in some way, and to ultimately do something that would better the situation for LGBT/SSA Mormons. But the details of what and how to do those things were all still unclear and the hostile landscape of interaction between Mormons and LGBT people, made these endeavors seem incredibly daunting.
In that heavy place, I determined that what I really needed was an additional support person within the LDS community, and so I prayed to my Father in Heaven to direct me to someone who could assist me as I tried to sort everything out. In response came the clear answer to ask my straight friend and fellow ward member, Kristen Lindsay.
Now I didn’t know this until much later, but as it turns out, Kristen had also been feeling some persistent distress and offering up some sincere prayers to God of her own. The ongoing political debates over the rights of LGBT people within our state of California had left her with many deep concerns, specifically about gay Mormons — are there any? who were they? and what was it like to be one? To Kristen, the strong spiritual impression that came was to seek to listen, and to learn.
It was during that time that my mostly closeted self was called as Kristen’s visiting teacher. From there, we gradually developed a sincere friendship of trust between us, before I eventually got the answer to my prayer to come out to her and thus Kristen getting an answer to her prayer too in beginning to better understand what it was like to be a gay Mormon.
So with Kristen, I began to unload all of my stories, and she intently listened, asked many thoughtful questions and found ways to relate to my experiences. Together, we had many meaningful discussions full of empathy and care. When I finally came out to our ward, she understood what a big step this was for me, and for our religious community, and was right there ready to offer her support. When being an openly gay ward member led to painful messages in the ward that my openness was dangerous, Kristen repeatedly went out of her way at church to stay close to me and connect with me during the week to help me process my pain and emotions. When my distress led me to join online support groups for LGBT/SSA Mormons, Kristen asked if she could join along with me. And together, we continued to listen to others and to discuss our many observations and concerns around what we saw and heard.
With a humbled heart, I often expressed my gratitude for and to Kristen. Her presence was a concrete and much needed reminder of God’s love for me through a vulnerable and tumultuous time. Sometimes, I could literally feel myself physiologically calm just when she was near and I could feel how much she had come to value our friendship too. And it was because of these things, along with so many other traits and accomplishments I had come to admire about Kristen, that I found myself romantically attracted to her.
What is romantic love?
Over a decade ago, biological anthropologist, Dr. Helen Fisher, wanted to understand. She began by conducting a massive review of both psychological studies and cross cultural literature to explore the various manifestations of this thing we call romantic love.
A 12th century Chinese fable of two lovers read, “Since the heaven and earth were created, you were made for me and I was made for you and I will not let you go.” The familiar early American poet, Walt Whitman, once wrote: “Oh, I willingly stake all for you.” While Shakespeare’s Romeo famously declared, “Juliet is the sun.” And an Indian poet, Kabir, once wrote: “The lane of love is narrow—there is room for only one.” In these poetic expressions, the depth of desire for exclusive ongoing union with a beloved becomes vivid, and Dr. Fisher found evidence in nearly all human societies, both ancient and modern, of this intense connective phenomenon. Subsequent studies using an inventory of romantic passion based on her cross cultural findings also demonstrated that both “men and women, Americans and Japanese, heterosexuals and homosexuals”, all experienced being in the throes of romantic love in relatively the same way.
“Romantic love begins as an individual comes to regard another as special, even unique…” Dr. Fisher explains, “The [person] then intensely focuses his/her attention on this preferred individual, aggrandizing and adoring the beloved’s good traits and overlooking or minimizing their flaws. Characteristically, the [person] also experiences extreme energy, hyperactivity, sleeplessness, euphoria, mood swings, goal oriented behaviors [all with] a strong motivation to win the beloved. [Smitten] Lovers become emotionally dependent on the relationship; many experience separation anxiety; many reorder their daily priorities to remain in contact with their sweetheart; most feel a powerful sense of empathy for their amour; and many report that they would even die for their beloved. [Another] striking property is “intrusive thinking:” — [a] smitten lover thinks obsessively about the beloved…And although the love stricken individual feels intense sexual desire for their special other… [it is] the lover’s craving for emotional union [that] takes precedence… Last, romantic passion is involuntary and difficult, even impossible to control.” — which most of us have probably learned first hand particularly when we’ve ever tried to get over somebody…
Eventually, Dr. Fisher would team up with Neuroscientist, Dr. Lucy Brown, to put recently smitten lovers into an MRI brain scanner to even further understand. What they found was an intense amount of activity near the base of the brain, central to the brain’s dopamine reward system; actively producing the intense focus, craving, motivation, energy and pleasure all associated specifically with romantic love. Their study demonstrated that romantic love was not a mere emotion, but rather a tenacious fundamental human drive, that when activated, directs humans to pursue and secure what the brain sees as “life’s greatest prize” — an exclusive mating partner.
Now back to my story with Kristen…
…And for the sake of time, I have to fast forward to when I realized that if all I did was to continue to enjoy all of the warm care and mutual closeness that she and I had developed between us, I knew myself well enough to know that in all likelihood, I would fall in love with her.
See, while I’ve been able to experience a degree of sexual fluidity to fall in love with my husband John and to have a happy marriage both relationally and sexually with him, and also to never act on my sexual orientation towards women in any sexual way; the persistent reality of falling in love over the course of time with some of my closest female friends has been a repeated dynamic I’d never been able to fully avoid, without avoiding close relationships with women all together. But that too, I had eventually discovered, became problematic. Avoidance of close relationships with women leaves me feeling not only emotionally isolated, it forces me to live with incredibly powerful feelings of grief and sadness… Meanwhile, socially I still need friends, and as a married female in our culture, I am primarily expected to be friends with women. So for all of these reasons, maintaining a path of avoidance and isolation over the long haul ultimately proved impractical, if not impossible and certainly not healthy.
In this most recent chapter of my life, Kristen had become such a sincere blessing to me…but because of my genuine romantic feelings towards her, did I now need to let her go and walk away? Within this impending prospect, intense anxiety and depression began to show up in my life.
I am blessed to have an incredibly loving and honest relationship with my husband, John. He naturally affirms me, and provides me with both the space and safety to be wherever I am, just as I am. At this juncture, John characteristically offered his empathy to my deep ethical wrestlings as well as a reiteration of his support for my autonomy to navigate my dynamics however I ultimately determined was best. His ongoing trust and confidence in me and in our relationship is something I hold to be invaluable. And still, there were such heavy questions in my mind. John was fully supportive of me no matter what I chose to do–even if I decided to continue my relationship with Kristen knowing full well that it meant I’d likely fall in love with her– but what did God think?…And what would other people think? I had just finally come out of the closet, I didn’t want to go back in it. There were other questions, too…Like how would I manage the sexual attraction that typically accompanies romantic love — towards someone who isn’t my spouse? I still didn’t know what to do and held a constant prayer in my heart.
It was during this time that I was on vacation with my family, and one night, while walking back to our hotel room with my then barely 5 yr old daughter, she and I came across a gas lit fire pit.
“Mom,” my daughter asked, “Can you touch the fire?”
I was so consumed within the wrestlings inside my own head, I had to stop and ask her to repeat the question…
“Mom, Can you touch the fire?”
“No,” I responded, “You can’t touch the fire. If you touch the fire, you’ll get burned…” And in this moment I found myself very touched as her question reminded me again how much she relied on me to teach her the most basic things about the world.
And so I then instinctively walked her over to the fire pit, held my hands out steady up near the flame and continued to try to explain, “You have to hold your hands right here like this so you can get warm, and you have to pay attention to the heat so you know how close you can get to the flame…”
And as I began to say these things, my eyes started to fill up with tears and I began to feel my spirit also being distinctly taught…”You need the fire,” I continued, “…If you leave the fire, you won’t ever get burned, but then you also won’t stay warm. Eventually, you will get very cold out here and that is not good either. So you have to learn how to feel how close you can get to the flame so you can stay warm and make adjustments when you need to, so you don’t get burned…” And by this point, I was no longer talking to my daughter, but rather hearing the words of a loving, and completely aware Heavenly Parent to me.
God had given me an answer: I didn’t have to retreat back out into the cold; maintaining my close friendship with Kristen and the warmth of the deep care between us was valuable to my ongoing well-being; and as for the sexual attraction, I could learn to navigate it and adjust as needed, just as I was showing my daughter how to adjust by the fire.
The following day I was transparent about everything with Kristen. I explained that even though I knew it was likely that I would fall in love with her and had many anxieties about that, I still wanted to continue our friendship. I told her about my experience the night before with the fire but also let her know I’d completely understand if she didn’t want to continue to connect with me. And I meant it. But that wasn’t her desire or feeling at all.
She told me she wasn’t afraid and that I didn’t need to be afraid either. She asked me when I was going to fully accept this part of myself as a gift, and reassured me of her love and care for me, even though that love continued to show up within her in an exclusively straight way; and she offered many more caring sentiments to try to help set my mind at ease about the way that I love. And thus, even with my lingering raw sense of vulnerability, our friendship continued forward.
It was at this point that John’s doctoral research would soon be taking our family across the globe to Ethiopia for 18 months… It was also during this time that I began to feel strong spiritual feelings to produce what we would eventually call: “The Forefront Talks” — a you-tube series in which Kristen and I, together, shared the highs and lows of my journey of coming out in church, so as to help foster greater support for others who might come out to their ward families too. I was thrilled when Kristen agreed to do the project with me and we worked closely and quickly to complete it as the days counted down towards my departure.
When I finally left on my flight to Ethiopia, I reflected once again on the journey we’d taken together. Not only had Kristen remained at my side through everything and allowed me a safe place to rest my heart, she had joined with me in meaningful public advocacy for LGBT/SSA Mormons–advocacy that I had once wondered if I could ever really do. In the dark quiet safety of my late night plane ride to the other side of the world, I let myself fully feel how deeply I loved her, and shed many tears of humbled gratitude to God for placing her in my life.
In closing, I want to share part of an email I wrote to Kristen about a month after I’d arrived in Ethiopia, wherein I tried to put into words what my love for her felt like, long before I began looking to research to better understand romantic love.
“…my feelings [most] accurately translate into [the] sincere ongoing acknowledgement that I find your presence in my life incredibly emotionally soothing and meaningful; that I perpetually find myself wanting to reciprocate that sense of safety and care for you as you pursue the important goals in your life; that I find the way you push my thinking and ethics to be particularly expansive and complimentary to my growth; that connecting with you simply leaves me feeling happier; and at the core of all those feelings is the sense or desire to always have you in my life. And that last bit, is really probably the heart of what my admission of love most accurately compels — the persistent sense that I want you always in my life as you have come to be. That is what it all boils down to as best as I can articulate.”
This address was originally given Saturday, September 19th at the 2015 Affirmation International Conference held in Provo, Utah
Some additional thoughts from Kristen…
Since Laura gave this address, many people have asked me how I felt about it. I’m happy to offer some answers to the most frequently asked questions:
Q: Did you know Laura was going to tell this story and what was it like for you to hear it so publicly?
A: I remember when Laura was asked to speak at Affirmation several months ago. Initially, telling our story did not even come up in the first topic brainstorming phase. Laura has spent years devoted to learning and understanding concerns related to LGBT/SSA Mormons, and most recently, focusing on ways to create and maintain safer spaces in the LDS community which meant she was prepared to share all sorts of other valuable insights. Eventually, however, she narrowed down 3 topic ideas, and sharing our story was among them, but with her qualifier that it was certainly the most vulnerable of the options and that she didn’t know if she was ready to deliver it. So when she asked my opinion on which topic she should cover, I was extremely hesitant to share what was in my heart. I think I even told her “Well, I’m not sure you want to hear my opinion, you are the one speaking…” But of course she pressed for an answer, and I told her, “While I realize the story of our friendship is the most vulnerable and complex of the options, I also think it has the most value and impact because of it’s uniqueness. I imagine there are other stories that mirror ours in various ways, but we have not come across a single one. So, as scary as it is to venture into this space, I am with you in this and we can do it together.”
When Laura finally gave her remarks, I sat in the audience, with the loving support of my husband on one side and another dear friend on the other. I smiled broadly and shed a few tears as my heart was touched listening to Laura convey this vulnerable journey of our friendship with confidence and humility.
Q: How does your husband feel about your friendship with Laura and especially her feelings for you?
A: Laura and John, and my husband, Ryan and I, all became friends in our Mormon congregation and within our university student housing community six years ago (both John and Ryan were doctoral students at the time). When Laura first came out to me, she gave me permission to share her story with Ryan and he respected her courage and authenticity from the start. Ryan again offered his support and encouragement when Laura ventured to be more public in our ward and later online. When Laura was transparent about her romantic feelings for me, she insisted that I also share this information with Ryan too because she felt like full disclosure to all concerned parties was what felt most ethical for our friendship to continue. I believe Ryan said “Well, what’s not to love! [about Kristen],” and that was that. Ryan has continued to be supportive of our friendship.
Q: How do you feel about Laura’s love for you?
A: When Laura first came out to me, I hadn’t ever considered the potential for attraction to develop in our friendship. I think for two reasons: one, that felt presumptuous on my part – why would she fall in love with me? And second, because it really didn’t make any difference in my mind. I know what love is, and I know that the gender and orientation have no impact on the definition of love. I have never believed in the false perception that love for an individual of the same gender is in any way perverse, peculiar, or unusual. So when Laura disclosed her romantic feelings for me, I was surprised that I was someone she would love, but I wasn’t at all afraid or made uncomfortable by her feelings for me. The opposite really – I felt honored, trusted, cared for, respected, and loved in all the beautiful ways one could love another.
Maintaining close relationships with friends is a valuable and sweet life experience that I can’t imagine avoiding or not having. Just like I am privileged to cultivate friendships that bring me joy in my life, I feel that Laura and all individuals who identify anywhere on the broad spectrum of sexuality, need to be able to do the same. I’ve been determined to make that a safe and joyful experience for her, and to not be able to maintain our friendship would also be a devastating loss for me. Though I don’t share romantic attraction for her, I love Laura as my best friend in a way that I could not say about any other person. I feel honored to be in this space with her and to have been invited to work at her side in advocacy for LGBT/SSA Mormons– in this endeavor, I feel closer to God than anywhere else.
Some final thoughts from both of us…
So that’s pretty much our “origin” story along with our present day status as best friends. It’s been almost two years now since romantic love showed up in one half of our friendship and we hope there are other opportunities in the future to share more of the journey we’ve been on through the meaningful and messy middle that we’ve yet to publicly dig into. The fundamental human drive to romantically love, inherently and tenaciously compels a love-smitten individual to desire and seek full reciprocation and union with their beloved. At some point, we hope we can speak more to how that reality played out in this context as we’ve had to repeatedly confront and figure out how to negotiate this intense psychological and physiological experience when its only felt by one party.
Spoiler Alert: It’s been at many points, just as complex as how we began…