Two Degrees off Center: The Fork in the Road

June 28, 2020

Two Degrees off Center” is a monthly blog by Rich Keys about the personal struggles, issues, and topics that speak to the LDS/LGBT experience.  Sometimes it will be serious, sometimes humorous, but will always approach things from a slightly different perspective.

by Rich Keys

About the time I started to realize that I might be gay, I received a phone call from a major university that had selected me at random for a comprehensive study of life in the United States and how it was affecting individuals. They would follow the participants over the next ten years in various ways, and the resulting anonymous database could be used by professionals in the medical, scientific, economic, social, and other fields in recommending and setting policy in various aspects of our society, and they asked me if I would be interested. After satisfying myself that this was totally legit and not a scam, I said yes. I answered a few questions to verify I fit their demographics, and then we had a 30-minute series of questions over the phone. They followed up by mail with a two-volume monster of over 300 questions covering every aspect of life, from childhood to the current economy, from health to hobbies, from A to Z.

Almost all the questions involved a continuum from 1 to 10, asking me to decide where I was on that scale based on the question. That required a little more thought than the typical true/false or multiple choice. Things went along well until I got to Section O—Sexuality, question 3. It was the only question in the entire survey that was not on a continuum—that required me to choose a category:

3. Select the sexual orientation that most closely identifies you:
A. Heterosexual B. Bisexual C. Homosexual

I stared at it for what seemed like an eternity, then skipped it and went on to question 4. When I finished the section, I went back and stared some more, then went to Section P. It was the only question I had skipped in the entire survey, and I kept going back to it again and again until I completed the entire questionnaire and set it aside for three days. I finally picked up the book, turned to Section O, closed my eyes, and thought of my life and everything in it back to my childhood that might be a gauge of who and what I really am regarding my sexuality. I thought of all the research I’d done over the past four months regarding what it means to be gay, including the bottom line: what turns me on sexually. I even included some prayer for a second opinion. I finally realized I’d come to a fork in the road and had to choose, so I opened my eyes and checked Answer C.

In hindsight, it wasn’t the question itself that gave me so much trouble. Rather, it was the first time I transferred that answer from my mind to paper. There it was, in black and white. I had finally gone on record, and I knew that in some random database, participant #6B002-801C had come out to the world as gay.

I’ve been thinking of that experience while watching the world and what’s currently happening in it. In most of the world, COVID-19 has forced us to clamp down on society’s norm with rules and restrictions designed to save lives, including our own. For most of us they’re pretty simple—stay at home except for the essentials, wear a face mask, and stay six feet apart. Some have followed them, some have ignored them, and for others, it’s pick and choose. Now the government is beginning to loosen the strings and slowly ease the rules and restrictions as we reopen society step by step, and for many of us, we’ve come to a fork in the road. Are they loosening things up too fast or not? Now that it’s okay to go to a restaurant, should I go or still eat at home? If I go to the restaurant, do I enjoy indoor dining or only on their outdoor patio? Do I go to the movie theater and risk being around others who haven’t been following the rules, or do I stick with the streaming at home? Are these masks and social distancing really necessary, or is it all just a hoax or some commie-pinko conspiracy set up by the government to control us more and take away our rights? And as more and more people who don’t follow the rules are out and about, a certain jealousy builds up—they’re out there, and I’m in here. That just doesn’t seem fair.

Meanwhile, the death of George Floyd has unleashed a collective shame and realization that we no longer can deny or ignore. Even for many individuals who thought they had completely rooted out the racism from themselves, we discover it goes much deeper than we realized—in our society and in ourselves—so subtle, so pervasive, so well hidden—that we didn’t even see it, but black people always knew and always felt it, and now Whitey thinks he gets it because he understands something he didn’t see before. But black people know Whitey is still clueless, he’s just begun the process.

So our sincere but ignorant desire brings us to a racial fork in the road: What now? What do we do with this new information? Whitey has only attended the first meeting of a lifelong process to discover what this racism thing is all about, but he already wants to change things. Do we change the individual and think that will change the system? Rebrand Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima? Maybe we should attack the system, and that will change the individual. Do we bring back affirmation action? Defund the police? Or give them even more money for ongoing training in race relations and defusing the bomb behind the badge before it goes off again? The same impatience that makes us want to prematurely rip off the mask and get out of our house also tempts us to do a quick fix of the race problem, and then to declare “Mission Accomplished.” Since Whitey now thinks he understands, any further demonstrations by black people may be seen as overkill. Now they’re terrorists and they are responsible for the next knee on their neck. As famous business consultant Stephan Covey taught, we focus on what’s urgent and ignore what’s important.

So we think we get it. We’re not exactly sure what it is that we get, but we know we’ve tested positive for racism, both individually and systemic in our society, and we think we’re sufficiently humbled to change—not another “sorry,” not just saying we’re an ally by writing them a check, but to finally admit we don’t know, we don’t understand, we don’t have the answers, and that’s hard for people in power to admit—to themselves and to others—but it’s always the first step in a 12-step program that makes the rest of the steps possible. We need to really listen and learn from black people themselves, to better understand things through their eyes, their lives, their experiences, and from that to actually change our own lives, our attitudes, our core beliefs that define who and what we are. From that, we can have a clearer, united understanding of what this nation really is and how it can get there.

Black people have known that for things to really change, Whitey has to start the conversation. In my own little world, I’ve begun to ask individuals I encounter who are racial minorities—my neighbor, a close friend, the medical assistant, store clerk, a total stranger, wherever I find them—I ask how they’ve experienced racism in their own lives in our society. No one in my own outreach has been offended by that sincere desire to understand. It’s the elephant in the room that everyone knows is there, so I start the talk, and then I listen—really listen—to understand. It’s a real ice-breaker that opens up a discussion to bring the huge headlines down to the one-on-one level. It’s not much, but I’m practicing something I’ve never done before, and I’ll learn from the first time to help me take the next step, and then the next.

Affirmation also seems to be currently facing a fork in the road, trying to decide who it is and where it’s going. Since the last changing of the guard, things seem to be in a state of flux in the organization. The coronavirus is partly responsible for it: annual conference by Zoom, monthly online firesides, delegating more to local chapters, and focusing less as a centrally-led group, but there’s more.

A polarization seems to be taking Affirmation to a fork in the road in several ways. First, the organization seems to be shifting from a proactive relationship with the LDS Church to a more reactive one, based on the content and timing of recent press releases. Second, there’s an overall review and reassessment of who we are and where we want to go, i.e., “how big the tent is and who should be under it,” as evidenced by the recent comprehensive survey administered by Affirmation’s leadership. Third, on a more practical level, although people who identify with Affirmation number in the thousands, actual dues-paying members only number in the hundreds. There is assistance available for those who face economic hardship and still want to join, but if the annual dues are only $35 and 70-80% of the people won’t even pay that, Affirmation’s ability to survive based on that financial model must be called into question. The group can’t count on big-ticket gifters and grant money to make up the rest forever, especially if our rebranding affects our relevance to those sources.

All three of those polarizations appear to have something in common: active members of the church vs. inactive or ex-members. Who will get our attention? Whose needs will we satisfy? With limited funds, can we still include everyone under the tent? All of this will affect the future of Affirmation.

These three issues—pandemic, racism, and the future of Affirmation—force us to a fork in the road, and to make choices that will decide which way we go, to look inward and be brutally honest with ourselves, to focus less on our rights and more on our should, and then to stop…and listen…listen to others…to really understand things as they see it through their eyes…to admit we don’t know, we don’t have all the answers, and our only hope to get through this is Christlike love—for us and our fellow man.

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out all posts in the Two Degrees off Center blog series.

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