As a child my home and my church were my safe places. As an adult, I now understand how lucky I was to have two places in my life where I felt safe, protected and loved. My parents and siblings loved me even with my strange quirks and queer personality. I loved to make my family laugh. The dinner table became my stage, my mom, dad, my brothers and sisters my audience. If I made my dad laugh I knew my material was solid.
I was that strange kid who loved to go to church. The Oneonta, New York Branch was like an extended family to me. All of my blood relatives lived 2,150 miles away in Utah, but I had 2 sets of adopted grandparents, adopted aunts and uncles and a group of kids who were like cousins.
I felt just as protected at church as I did at home. In fact, unlike many of my school friends, I never worried about what would happen to me if I lost my mom and dad. I knew there was a whole group of adopted family who would take care of me.
I never felt quite as protected at school. I loved learning and my teachers at Valleyview Elementary. I never had a shortage of friends. But, I was teased at school. “Sissy, “Wimp” and “Weakling” were names I was called. I did not understand the meaning behind the name calling, but deep down it hurt and made me wonder if something was deeply wrong with me.
An afternoon school recess in the First Grade was a pivotal moment in my young life. I was sitting under the monkey bars with 3 other kids. We were gossiping, talking about which boys liked which girls. I innocently said I liked a boy. The girl sitting across from me immediately responded with “yuck, you’re one of those!” The memory is very vivid. I don’t remember her name but I remember the look on her face and I remember the thought that immediately went through my mind; I can never admit that again. I had no idea what “one of those” meant. I just knew that admitting to ‘liking a boy’ was disgusting to my friend and I didn’t want to be “one of those” again. I had a terrible secret. School no longer felt like a safe place. I spent a lot of energy in elementary school trying to change my image as the wimpy kid who “liked” boys. I thought a couple of things were necessary: I could never be caught crying, I had to be better at sports and I had to be likable. This was an act.
Adolescence was an interesting and crucial time in life. In many ways I was protected from harm. I felt protected at home and church, prayer helped me calm my nerves. I had friends both at school and at church (which were separate groups because my LDS friends did not live in my school district). My older brother, Larry, was a high school football star, which gave me a little clout in my small hometown. At high school parties my school friends always made sure that everyone knew that “Joe is a Mormon, he doesn’t drink.” There was NEVER a party where I felt pressured to drink or participate in anything that my friends knew was against my religious beliefs.
(Thank you, Nicole LaPotin, Vic Bagnardi, Christy Rockwell, Taylor Miller, Tom Preston, Karie Sargent and Peter Mayer.)
But adolescence was also a time when I started to learn about sexuality. Maybe slightly scary for all teenagers, but terrifying for me. In junior high I came to the realization of what “one of those” meant. I knew what it meant when I was called “faggot.” I used humor to deflect the name-calling. It was the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic was on the news and talked about in school, church and at home. Could I catch AIDS because I was a “faggot?” I was too naïve to understand that one actually had to have sex to catch AIDS.
At the age of 14, Church started to feel less safe when the Law of Chastity lessons started. It was now clear that being “one of those” was a terrible sin. I had to start pretending at Church. I had many nights when I would put my head in my pillow and cry. I could not let my family know what I was crying about. I cried myself to sleep many nights. Church no longer felt like the safe place I knew as a child.
Just weeks after my sixteenth birthday I had an experience that left me feeling completely alone and scared, but it was followed by the most overwhelming spiritual and comforting experience of my life. A multi-Stake Laurel and Priest Conference was held at Ithaca College in May of 1985. I turned 16 just in time to go. The weekend was almost perfect, the weather was beautiful, my closest friends from our Stake were my roommates. We played touch football, did service projects, went to dances and heard inspiring talks. We also had a seminar on the Law of Chastity. Young Men and Young Women were separated. I sat by myself in that seminar room. I remember sitting in the front row. We had the normal talk about the sacredness of sex and the reasons we needed to wait until marriage to have sexual relationships. But, then, the Law of Chastity Lesson turned to a topic that I was not prepared to hear.
“I have to bring up a topic that is really ugly,” the Stake President began, “there are homosexuals out there.” Immediately the young men in the room started with joking about how disgusting “they” are. Do I join in? If not, will my friends figure out what I am and think of me as disgusting? I sat alone in silence. I was surrounded by my friends but I had never felt so alone. The discussion made me feel dirty. I remember the Stake President warning all the young men to beware because homosexuals end up lonely without family or friends. Would this be my future?
I remember enjoying the rest of the conference. We had a powerful testimony meeting where my older sister Jennie announced in her testimony how much she loved me. We returned Sunday afternoon tired from 2 nights of staying up too late and waking up early. That night I fell sleep saying my prayers. I was pleading with Heavenly Father to help me not be dirty. I woke up the next morning with the sun streaming through my bedroom window. I woke up incredibly happy, feeling clean, and completely loved. I felt so close to God that morning that I prayed aloud. “I love You,” I uttered, “I never want to be far from You again.” I have never been able to adequately describe this experience and I don’t understand why I was granted this gift from the Comforter. I have drawn, and, I continue, to draw on that experience when I need comfort.
The name calling at school never stopped. I still cried myself to sleep some nights. The conflict between what I understood about myself and what I was taught at church about homosexuality continued. But I have, through help of others, weathered the storm.
In November of 2015, our Church leaders created a policy change that affects gay Church members and their children. Initially, I did not believe the details of the policy change. The subsequent release by the church of an interview with Elder D. Todd Christofferson confirmed that the policy had been released. I think the purpose of this interview was to help members of the church understand the reasons for the new policy. But, I found the reasoning lacking in logic and antithetical to some key tenets of our faith. (For one, our belief that children should not be punished for the sins of their parents.)
I took my decision to marry Suzan very seriously. She is my best friend. I am fortunate that we have been able to work together on making a loving home. However, if I had to describe my life in one word, I would use Lonely. Even though I am surrounded by family and friends who love me and whom I love, there is a sense of loneliness. I think Suzan feels lonely at times too.
The reason I am sharing my story is that I want you to understand that there are LDS youth who are crying themselves to sleep, who are lonely, unhappy and living in quiet desperation, and even suicidal. I put on a happy face during my teenage years. Not even my family knew how much I was hurting. So please understand that your/our children are listening. Negative comments about LGBTQ people or negative comments about gay marriage will hurt. The wounds can run deep and are long lasting. Please make your home and our Church safe places for all children.
This is dedicated to my brothers and sisters who have ALWAYS let love be their guide over religious dogma. And to Mom and Dad, Suzanne and Taylor Hollist, who provided a safe home for me and a safe place for their grandchildren.