Like pretty much everyone in this room, I suspect, I learned early on how important missionary work was to our church. I remember being told time and time again, “Our greatest and most important duty is to preach the gospel.” I recall hearing scriptural references as a child that reinforced how critical this work was to us as Mormons:
“If it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father!” (D&C 18:15).
And I remember, probably like most of you, sitting in primary as a kid and singing this song:
I hope they call me on a mission
When I have grown a foot or two.
I hope by then I will be ready
To teach and preach and work as missionaries do.
But I have a confession to make: I hoped they didn’t call me on a mission. I never really wanted to go. I remember meeting missionaries as a kid, and I just couldn’t identify with them—and I simply didn’t want to be one.
Even as a youth, sitting in primary singing the song (often with fingers crossed behind my back), I couldn’t relate with this ardent desire that everyone but me seemed to feel compelled to fulfill. It wasn’t that I didn’t love the church—and most assuredly that I didn’t love my Savior, for both of those things I surely did love.
Part of it, quite honestly, was knowing at such an early age that I was different—that I was gay—even though I lacked the vocabulary to be able to identify what made me different than most of the little boys and young missionaries I’d met. But I sensed it, and inside me a tiny voice whispered, “This is not for you. This won’t make you happy.”
And so, I chose to not go on a mission as a youth, and it was the right decision for me. But, that didn’t mean I was off the hook in terms of being an emissary for my Savior. In fact, I believe now as a gay Mormon, that my mission (and the mission of every single gay Mormon out there) is every bit as critical as that traditional 2 year mission, for our mission is to serve many of those who, on the surface, already appear committed to our Savior.
Let me tell you what I mean by that.
About two years ago, I spoke at a conference in Washington, DC, where I delivered a talk I called “The Test.”
In this talk, I spoke about how we understand LGBT individuals through the lens of our faith today:
Our premise today is that homosexuality is an extra burden—an affliction, something that gays and lesbians must suffer through and really, deny wholesale if we want to remain righteous in the eyes of our church. We are the subject of an extra ‘test’ that doesn’t seem to serve any known purpose.
But, I posited, what if there’s another way to look at it. True, there is very likely a test wrapped up in all of this, for there is undoubtedly a reason that some of us are gay and lesbian, while others are not.
But what if the test, really, is not being given to gays and lesbians, but through gays and lesbians? What if we are actually the vehicle through which the test is being delivered? And the test, then, is not for us at all—but for our heterosexual brothers and sisters?
That would mean, then, that the test might really be this: Will you, straight brother or sister, include us in your family of faith just as we are? Will you recognize us as your peers, your equals? Will you move past what you think you already know about what it means to be gay, open your mind and heart, and genuinely show Christ-like love and compassion to a segment of society that, for whatever reason, appears to be the least of these in this sphere?
Or, will you shun us? Will you persecute us? Will you force us to choose between God and Gay, because that is what makes you comfortable? Will you compel us to choose between the faith we call home—and walking this earthly path with a companion we love?
This, I believe, is probably far more likely the actual test enveloped inside the LGBT wrapper.
And how our straight fellows perform on this test—the ones we’re here delivering—is largely dependent on us. That is our mission as LGBT Mormons—to help our straight fellows—especially those within the church—learn the meaning of genuine compassion, inclusion, and Christlike love.
A good example of how this works would be my own Mom. I’ve been pretty plain-spoken when it comes to sharing the difficulties we both faced when I told her I was gay. It was a rough time—she said some things that to this day, make my eyes tear up when I repeat them. But what I came to learn about my Mom is that her words during that time were not the words of a woman who hated her gay son. They were the words of a mother who was terrified for her son—having gone her whole life learning painful untruths about what it meant to be gay:
“Gay people have a mental disorder, no matter what the American Psychiatric Association says.”
“If your son comes out as gay, he’ll probably die an early death and live and unhealthy and unhappy life.”
“God will not love your son if he is gay.”
My Mom had to unlearn each of these—and so do many of our fellows within the Church. Granted, it took my mom a long time to transform from a woman who was crippled by fear into the powerful, amazing ally she became, but she did it. By and large, she did it through honest questioning, willingness to look at things from a different perspective, and questioning what she knew. Our Savior opened the door for her, but she stepped through—and I was required to act as my Savior’s missionary and greet her.
Before her death a few years ago, she shared a story with me that outlined how she experienced her mighty change of heart.
Her words: “Over time, my son, I came to not only understand what it really meant to have a gay son, but also recognized it for the gift that it was.
“Years ago,” she said, “my best friend Adele discovered she had a brain tumor. Her initial diagnosis was dire—but also, fortunately inaccurate. When I heard about Adele’s choices for treatment, I felt that she should pursue specific avenues she’d ruled out.
I grew increasingly impatient with her choices until I read an article in a medical journal written by someone I respect, suggesting the avenues I had been championing could do more harm than good.”
“That’s when I realized the limits of my own understanding. Not just when it came to Adele, but when it came to you, as my gay son. In both cases, my sense of urgency to push you both into care that could harm you stemmed not from certainty, but from fear. I learned that my only honest course of action was to turn my fear, my love, and each of you over to the care of your Savior—and to love you both for who you were. I could no longer pretend to know what is best.”
“I’m not a genius, a philosopher, or a wizard. Even if I were all three, I’d still find myself looking off the edge of my own understanding into the vast unknown. And when I recognize my limitations, I am more grateful than ever for a Savior who is free from such restrictions."
"I’m sorry our road was rough. I’m sorry I didn’t always see what a wonderful blessing you are to me and to our family. Today, I am grateful to have you as my gay son—and I love you.”
Some may say that my Mom may have eventually arrived in this same spot spiritually on her own—the same way many who are converted by our missionary force may get to the place they need to be on their own—and maybe that’s true. But I do believe her course was accelerated by my willingness to be my Savior’s emissary, to allow her ask questions, and to be slow to be offended when she didn’t make progress with the speed and accuracy I wished she would. My Savior presented me with the perfect missionary opportunity—someone who was genuinely willing not only to learn, but to unlearn. He continues to present me with identical opportunities almost every day.
And so it is with each of you.
Among your circle of friends and family stand those who, like my Mom, are willing to learn and unlearn. Some of them don’t know the right questions to ask. Some are afraid of offending and hurting your feelings. Others remain frightened what their other friends would think of them if they began to understand what it means to be a gay Mormon a little bit differently.
But they are there. And our mission is to reach out to them.
Fortunately for us, whether we know it or not—whether we leaped for joy when we sang, “I hope the call me on a mission” or like me—cringed quietly in the corner, embedded within us as Mormons is the basic DNA structure of being missionaries. And by and large, the most powerful tool at our accord is how we live our lives and how we treat others—especially those who don’t necessarily treat us very kindly.
Now, that’s not to say that any of us should maintain relationships with those things that are unhealthy for us—whether that be family, friends, or institutions. We should always put our own spiritual health, safety and sanity first—the same way we counsel traditional missionaries to do.
Often, the healthiest thing we can do as LGBT Mormons is create distance from those things which further damage us, and rest assured I am quite confident our Savior would support us in that. Regardless, we can still do it kindly and with a missionary’s heart. After all, how we respond to someone’s lack of interest in our message may be a better testimony to our Savior’s work here than any detailed account we could offer.
As with any mission, we’ll face challenges and trials. I remember when I was first called into my position almost two years ago—a truly amazing volume of straight Mormons from around the country came out to support me.
Among them were those who warned me of the trials and challenges I’d face as an openly gay Mormon in a priesthood leadership position.
From one friend: “You must be careful now, and on constant alert. Satan will try to tempt you, and you will have men from all walks of life trying to tempt you sexually as you try to fulfill your mission.”
Wow, I thought. Is dating as a gay Mormon really as simple as making yourself somewhat unattainable? I doubted it was, and I was indeed correct. My life hasn’t changed dramatically. I still go to the same gym, the same grocery store, and the same dry cleaners.
No one has flung themselves at my feet, nor has any brigade of handsome, shirtless firemen arrived at my front door.
The tests and challenges have come, however, and if you accept this mission call, they will for you, as well. And I think hands-down the most difficult challenge we face as gay Mormons and allies is not succumbing to anger, resentment, and bitterness while we watch our fellows treat our LGBT brothers and sisters (and often us) unkindly.
A wise friend once told me, “Holding on to resentment is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
And nowhere is that more true than when it comes to the mission of LGBT Mormons.
Once upon a time, I felt it was not in my capacity to forgive. As much as forgiving those who hurt
me—inside my church and my own family—seemed like the right thing to do, my good intentions couldn’t take away the pain or allow me to forget what some of my fellows had said or done. I equated forgiveness with accepting unacceptable behavior, and so I held on to my resentments and allowed my self to be a victim to them over and over again.
Over time, I’ve learned a new way to maintain my spiritual center around people who don’t understand things the same way I do. Now I know I can simply walk away from a verbally offensive situation, independent of the title or role the other person plays in my life. I can tell someone I feel angry or uncomfortable with their behavior and say what I mean, without being mean when I say it. In fact, I find the more I stand up for myself in healthy ways, the more willing I am to forgive others and let go of my resentments.
The same is true for each of you.
Often, you may find that once you begin to discuss your anger or hurt with the other person, a door opens—that missionary door—and a real, meaningful conversation can begin. And if you both decide to talk about how to avoid repeating the same situation, you’ll often become closer in the process.
In other cases, like me, you’ll find that your resentments are based on persistent patterns of behavior you’re not willing to subject yourself to. And that’s okay, too. In these cases, I forgive the other person because that is what I need to do to keep my own spiritual center. But I don’t continue to accept unacceptable behavior.
Sometimes forgiving includes letting go of a harmful relationship and moving on—and for every missionary, this is a perfectly acceptable thing to do. But when we forgive before we leave, we can walk away feeling clean, with no negative ties preventing us from continuing our own journeys toward health and wholeness, and be better equipped to serve our Savior as one of his LGBT missionaries.
In essence, we must live the counsel of Ghandi, and “be the change we want to see in the world.” When someone snarls at us—it’s easy to snarl back. But the higher road is purer, and certainly more successful.
Those who snarl at us feel threatened and full of fear—their whole worldview might be about to change, and that is scary and difficult for the best of us. But regardless of the individual or institution that snarls our way, compassion is always the key that unlocks their hearts. And we, as our Savior’s missionaries, have that key.
Brothers and sisters, it is imperative we shed any semblance of bitterness and anger toward our fellows, and toward our church—for our own sanity, and for the sake of the divine work we have been sent here to do. We are no one’s victim—unless we choose to be.
I’d like to close with the same song lyrics I opened today’s talk with. I enlisted the aid of my friend Carol Lynn Pearson to change these to better suit what I believe (and hopefully you, too) to be our mission as gay Mormons.
The Lord has called us on a mission,
To our peers, His gospel we will preach
That we’re all his beloved sons and daughters
And not a single heart is far beyond His reach.
Sisters and brothers, I wish to share my testimony with you that our Savior loves us, exactly as we are. We don’t have to change who we are to earn that love, despite what some might think—it is ours, freely given, if we will just reach out and accept it.
I also have great faith in this work he’s laid out before us. It’s as if I’m seeing the realization of something Marlin Jensen said in a meeting a few years ago, pertaining to gay Mormons: “Sometimes I wonder if you’re not all simply God’s special spirits we haven’t figured out what to do with yet.” I didn’t know what he meant then, but I think I do now.
We are exactly where we’re supposed to be, and we’re exactly who we’re supposed to be. There is a plan for us here—and most assuredly there is a plan for us in the next realm, as glorious and soul-stretching as the one for our straight fellows. Just because our fellow humans haven’t figured it out yet, doesn’t mean our Savior hasn’t known all along.