Monday, April 16, 2012

It Does in Fact Get Better, and with God it Gets Best (Ether 12:4)

Last week I wrote a post on the recent panel discussion at BYU, which I attended, and have received the most overwhelming feedback on a post yet since then. This week, I'd like to comment on a related story, namely the YouTube video that was released shortly thereafter, proclaiming an "It gets better" message from self-identified gay and lesbian BYU students. The fundamental goal of the "It gets better" commercials you've probably seen on TV or YouTube is to help prevent suicide of LGBT individuals who are struggling with depression or facing lots of ridicule or attacks on their self-worth as a result of their orientation. Many have scoffed at the campaign because the sponsors of it on a national scale also tend to advocate political objectives such as gay marriage. However, I have to begin by saying that anything which helps prevent suicide and reminds a human soul that they have worth cannot be entirely evil. I can put aside my own differences of opinion with any individual when we can unite on a common goal. If battling suicide and depression are the goal, I'm all for it.

And so we have the BYU video. If you haven't seen it, here it is. If you're pressed for time and can't watch the full 10 minutes, watch at least the last minute to get the gist of it (from about 8:30 to the end):

Some people have raised some concerns about the video, that it is fundamentally ambiguous because of the use of the terms gay and lesbian. People want to know what "kind" of gay Mormons these are: are these those who are planning on a gospel life including full commitment to the law of chastity, or do some plan to eventually leave the church to be in a relationship someday, or try to straddle the two worlds. From personal knowledge and acquaintance with several of those featured in the video (they actually don't know about my own SSA; I know them from classes I've shared with them), I can report that the video includes both. And why shouldn't it? In a way, this simply underscores the fact that disagree as some of us may on our approach to being latter-day saints experiencing same-sex attraction, there are some things we can agree on, especially in reassuring those who are trapped in uncertainty and self-loathing that things get better. Nobody in the video attempted to prescribe to anyone else what the correct course of action is.

I want to raise my own voice of hope today for all who have a rough time. As I contemplate that phrase, "it gets better," I've thought about the reasons why and how that fact manages to be true, regardless of one's approach to the whatever trial they are facing. And honestly, it seems to come from several things. Things get better because we as humans adapt. We learn to cope and the initial shock and trauma of coming to terms with something unexpected subsides. People around us also change. Those who say hurtful things today usually change and soften with time also. When any new circumstance besets us in life, we sometimes have to learn to approach our life differently, which can be hard; but, eventually we succeed and move forward as before. This is the nature of life, and seems to be able to apply to any trial, hardship, change, circumstance, etc. that besets us. So, we've established that it WILL get better. What I've also learned though, is that the WAY it gets better is largely up to us and how we react to our situation.

It was almost a year ago that I started to confront my same-sex attraction in a healthy way for the first time in my life. May and June of last year were two of the most emotionally confusing months of my life. I had been telling myself every day for almost 10 years up to that point that I didn't have this problem, because I didn't want to acknowledge it and didn't want it to be real. But I knew there were some pretty significant emotional stumbling-blocks being ignored and I wasn't making any progress in dating, or in coping with certain bouts of depression. I finally concluded that I couldn't ignore it anymore.It's been said that insanity means doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. That had been my approach so far: continually ignoring and repressing, expecting the feelings to somehow therefore magically go away and allow me to find my happily ever after. Recognizing this, I knew I needed to change things up, so for the first time in my life I began to allow myself to acknowledge those feelings and try to discern what they meant.

I went to the internet to try to find answers. My searches generally only produced a feeling of deep despair, sure that nobody else out there experienced this trial who didn't eventually leave the Church. I started reading a lot of anti-Mormon rhetoric on the subject from former members who had left the Church to pursue same-sex relationships and found blog after blog filled with such stories. I got tangled up in reading erotic homosexual literature online and occasionally contemplated possibly finding a guy to hook up with to experiment with my homosexual feelings. I'm not going to delve into the complete details of this rather dark period of my life here on this blog. But I faced severe depression at that time and genuinely didn't know what was going to happen to me. I could see some addictive patterns setting in with the erotic literature and anti-Mormon words. My scripture study was having ups and downs and my prayers shortened significantly, as I felt like every time I prayed I merely wanted to check in with God out of a sense of duty, then flee from Him because I was ashamed of myself. I didn't want to talk to anyone about it, least of all God. And I hated myself deeply. I knew that the things I was reading were addictive and wrong, as were some of the thoughts I was having. I knew in theory that the Church only condemned actions, not feelings, and yet somehow I seemed to believe that applied to everyone except me--that my thoughts of attraction for certain men made me evil.

An additional side note on erotic literature: if you are tangled up in reading that garbage, stop now. You will justify it by saying it isn't pornography because there are no pictures. That's a load of crap. The point of the literature is the same as pornography, and it fills your mind with just as many bad sexual thoughts. Indeed, it leaves it to you to imagine the scenes described in your head, and you often find yourself filling it with your own friends and acquaintances you find attractive, subjecting them in your mind to horrible acts they would never choose. You are doing exactly what Christ warned against when He spoke of "looking to lust," about which I've written on an earlier occasion. Erotic literature is just another form of pornography when all is said and done. In fact, I might go so far as to say it is WORSE, because often the sexual scenes described were clothed in what seemed like a tender true love story. I still remember one of them I read so vividly because I felt so connected with the principal character and his lover, which will mess with your brain regarding the right and wrong of homosexual relationships. Picture porn is purely carnal. Written porn feeds you the carnal with a mixture of compelling emotions that aim to get you hooked and attached. Oh, and one more thing: looking up the male reproductive system and then other related articles on human sexual behavior on Wikipedia in order to justify certain pictures and written descriptions is also porn if that's what you're using it as. I've been surprised talking with other SSA guys how frequently that is the starting point for porn addictions. It draws you in by telling you that you're just scientifically curious about the subject, when you know the real reason you're there. Lots of us have done it to, but that doesn't make it right. Don't go there! Anyway, back to my story and how I was feeling...

I truly did want to remain faithful. I had a very clear testimony of the Gospel that I had gained through a life of gospel living, including certain experiences through my mid- to late-teens that really confirmed the witness of truth to me. Additional experiences on my mission and since continued to show with remarkable clarity to truthfulness of the gospel. I had seen miracles from the Hand of God and had felt His Spirit in UNDENIABLE ways on multiple occasions. I had no room to doubt the validity and efficacy of the gospel. In many ways, that was the greatest cause of my grief: I knew what was right and saw myself doing what was wrong, feeling helpless along the way. I was still very active in my calling and loved Church and my ward very dearly. But the simultaneity of my righteous and unrighteous pursuits was creating some massive cognitive dissonance. And the loneliest feeling resulted from the fact that I couldn't see any examples of others choosing a path which embraced being both same-sex attracted/gay and an active, practicing latter-day saint in full fellowship. I actually didn't worry about not being accepted if I chose to pursue a sexually active lifestyle in the LGBT community and outside the Church. I had already found online many others who had done the same thing and I knew that while it would break some hearts and sever some relationships, I could ultimately find acceptance elsewhere and things would "get better." I also already experienced the support and belonging associated with active participation in the Church. I've seen many leave the Church because they said they were embracing who they really were, and yet to me it seemed like leaving the Church would do the opposite as I would be cutting off a part of myself even more fundamental than my attractions: my covenant relationship with the Deity whose son I am. And yet I felt trapped. I saw my bad actions and thought I was on an inevitable course to leaving the Church. Nobody would understand me if I said, "I feel attracted to men, but I'm going to remain faithful to God and to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which I know to be His true Church on earth. I want to pursue marriage to a woman, and if that doesn't happen in this life, I will remain celibate."

I actually didn't magically find resolve to these concerns at the end of June. Instead, I left through July and August for an internship abroad and it was a very effective distraction. While I was out of the country, I was so busy with the work I was doing and so very happy doing it, that I had no time to ponder those issues further. I actually thought about them very little and in fact, I almost forgot about them when what seemed like a miracle happened: I met a girl--another BYU student on the same internship--who I loved and was attracted to. Now, as I've mentioned before on this blog, she wasn't the first I was attracted to. But certainly the occasions had been rare. But I liked her so much and felt like maybe all those years of telling myself I wasn't gay had finally paid off and here was my prize. We weren't allowed to date while on the internship, but the next fall back in Provo, I took her on several dates in September and October. We didn't formally date, per se, but we spent a lot of time together and definitely had a mutual pull for each other. I've told this story I think before on the blog. The short of it is, by late October things fell apart and the attempted relationship didn't work out. This threw me psychologically and emotionally back into all the same despair, depression, and confusion I'd felt back in May and June.

I started reading erotic literature again and anti-Mormon blogs, picking up right where I'd left off. But this time, God had a tender mercy in store for me to help knock me in the right direction. It actually was planted before things fell apart with the girl. During conference weekend in October I had been following the #ldsconf hashtag on Twitter. I saw a lot of tweets coming from a user named @GayMormonGuy. I thought that was interesting and was worried it was one of the many former or less-faithful members whose blogs I'd read, perhaps planting derisive comments on Twitter during conference using the hashtag. But all of his tweets were very positive about the Church and conference. Intrigued, I went to his Twitter profile and found his blog address. (A link to the (Gay) Mormon Guy blog can be found at right on my blog list). It was the blog I always had looked for back in May and June but could never find: a faithful latter-day saint who experienced same-sex attraction. But mind you, when I first found this on Twitter, I wasn't yet depressed again. In fact I remember specifically thinking, "Wow. That's cool. But I don't need that anymore anyway, because I have a girl now." And I moved on.

After things fell apart several weeks later, as I said, I initially fell back into the same habits of despair. I actually did not at first remember the (Gay) Mormon Guy blog. I actually was quite busy that semester, so I was slightly more distracted from the issues than I had been in May and June, but he same patterns were reemerging and I felt like I'd squandered a miracle. My same-sex attractions actually really intensified during that time. In fact, it was at that time I really fixated on the one individual I've code-named "Methuselah" in the past here on the blog. My attraction level for girls fell to practically zero as well. But then, things got better. During Thanksgiving break that blog I'd found during conference came back to memory vaguely. It took me a bit of searching, but I found it again... and it changed my life. His story and experiences resonated deeply with me. I felt sometimes like he was describing me perfectly, as if he had seen into my life and heart, but he was just talking about himself. It was a very large blog with over 800 followers at the time, and over 2 years worth of entries, often with daily posts early on. I read the entire thing over Thanksgiving break. I don't know how much reading that is. Definitely comparable to a fairly lengthy book. I've continued to read every post since. And for the first time since confronting my SSA head-on, I felt a true spark of hope, that there could be a happy and faithful life out there for me and at least one other person equally valiant who understood what I was going through. I spent many hours on my knees in sincere prayer. For the first time ever I didn't feel like fleeing from God regarding this issue when I prayed. Instead, I was able to talk to Him about it and feel his reassurance that it didn't make me an evil person and that He loved me and would help me. I felt genuinely happy, though still confused and sorting things out. Things were a substantial emotional roller coaster for a while as I sorted through the pain of some of the regrettable things I'd gotten into and of continuing to recognize and sort out my various feelings and thoughts. But there was definitely a guiding hope that wasn't there before. This blog was actually begun on the last day of that Thanksgiving break as I felt like I wanted to put my testimony out there as another witness for staying true while experiencing SSA, especially to counter all the contrary voices I'd seen and read.

Since that time, things have continually gotten better. You can read through this blog to see many of those things. I won't describe right now in great detail everything that has happened since then, but here is a brief summary of the main milestones in my own path as it has gotten better:

  • Confiding in and confessing to my bishop, who continues to be a wonderful support and help. He was so kind and understanding as has continued to be so.
  • Finding a surprising number of additional blogs from faithful LDS individuals with SSA. 
  • Connecting with NorthStar, an online support group for Latter-day Saints with SSA, which really opened my mind to the vast number of people out there like me, reassuring me that I truly wasn't alone.
  • From NorthStar, meeting a close group of friends with the issue who I am safe with, but who can understand and help and counsel when I'm having a really hard time. 
  • Telling my parents: a sacred experience I've written about earlier on this blog.
  • Some therapeutic techniques that have helped me truly understand my attractions. I've been able to stop hating myself for liking guys, and be okay with that fact. Meanwhile, while what I've been involved with hasn't been directly focused on diminishing same-sex attractions, it has focused on helping foster and strengthen dormant opposite-sex attractions, and I'm beginning to see that happen. Oddly, my same-sex attractions may have even increased a bit in the process, but so have my opposite-sex ones. So I like more guys AND girls I feel like! This one is definitely still in progress, but I'm filled with hope.
  • I've left behind destructive approaches to the topic and have repented. I feel clean again and have learned many lessons from the mistakes I've made.
My life is not perfect. I'm not perfect. I still have some really rough days emotionally, and face interesting and trying experiences. I still face misunderstanding, and I still haven't had any dating success. But you know what? My life is better, and it is continually getting even better still. As I said earlier, I've come to understand that no matter how we approach our trials, things DO get better emotionally. But how we approach them DOES affect the WAY it gets better. In the Book of Mormon, we find an "It gets better" message from God which recommends the course we must pursue if we not only want life to get better, but ultimately want our eternal life to be the BEST. In Ether 12:4 we read:

Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God.

God wants life to get better for us, and knows it can and will. He promises that hope of things getting better if we trust Him, offering our belief, our faith, and the steadfastness of our good works. That's the simple formula. It has worked wonders for me. When I was pursuing my exploration of this matter in unhealthy ways, I was not happy. I was not guided by hope. I'm sure had I pursued it long enough, I would have found other forms and supplies of happiness in a homosexual relationship. Mormons certainly don't have a monopoly on happiness, and God desires some happiness for all of His children. But, the happiness I feel now comes also with the promise of a more eternally guaranteed and lasting form: a better world and a place at the right hand of God. All things we do in this life will eventually fade and cease, except those things we guarantee for ourselves in the hereafter via covenants with our Father in Heaven. Those covenants bring me an unbeatable source of happiness, and I know they can for you also. Stay faithful and obtain the promises! It does get better, and with God it gets best.

I wish the best truly to you,


P.S. The video featured is only the main video of the BYU It Gets Better Project. There are a couple dozen more which focus more specifically on stories of individuals. Some contain views I don't necessarily agree with, but they certainly have every right to express their differing views, hopefully with the same understanding that they don't decry my own.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Choose the Right (2 Nephi 2:27)

I haven't blogged in a while. This semester has been absolutely consuming me, but at last it is finally ending soon. Meanwhile, the last few days of my life have been far too significant to not blog about. Sometimes Satan pulls out all the stops and tries to pummel you with full force. But you always have a choice.

As many of you know, BYU held a panel discussion this last week, hosted by the Sociology department and the USGA (Understanding Same Gender Attraction) organization--a campus club devoted to raising awareness of this issue. I am not a member of this organization; while I wish them the best in their efforts and applaud some of the work they are doing to build bridges of understanding, I don't always agree with the predominate approach to the subject held by many USGA members. However, I did attend the panel discussion. A lot of it was very good and served its purpose of bridging gaps in understanding. However, I was disappointed that they seemed to present 2 possible outcomes for an LDS SSA life: They had one panelist who was married, and they went to great lengths to underscore the fact that he is an extreme, almost mythical exception to the rule. Two of the other panelists expressed during the discussion that while they live the honor code fully at BYU, they don't likely envision themselves post-BYU living their lives without a same-sex partner. One of them received rather loud applause upon this admission. I found that slightly disconcerting. I have love and respect for those panelists, and especially their bravery. I hope they have very happy and fulfilling lives. However, I am perturbed that the room erupted in applause when it was made known that they fully intended to break the commandments later. To paraphrase loosely what he said from my notes, "I just can't imagine my life without a man, and I want to raise my family and children, with my husband, in a Church setting as best I can. To do otherwise would deny who I am and I could never do that."

I was made to wonder: if I struggled with a strong temptation for greed and deep passion for material goods, do you think I would receive loud applause if I stood in a forum setting at BYU and announced that "I just can't imagine my life paying tithing. I'm going to faithfully attend Church as a non-tithe payer, because to do otherwise would deny who I am and I could never do that." I somehow don't think I'd be met with much applause. Now, don't get me wrong. There are those among us who attend faithfully every week and don't pay their tithing. I don't judge them for it and I love them and hope they always feel welcome attending their meetings. But I ultimately know that no matter how happy the world makes them, it will always be better for them to pay their tithing. They will be blessed for it and find lasting joy. It may take a long time to find it, too! We are not always instantly blessed for our obedience. In fact, obedience can often be painful and difficult. But that's sometimes the point.

Overall, I felt like the panel seemed to present a rather dangerously incomplete view of the LDS population that experiences same-sex attraction. They boiled it down to a rare super-minority that get married, and the alternative view to try remaining active while in a same-sex relationship. I do actually hope that BYU continues to encourage dialogue on this subject in the LDS community, but I hope additional views can be represented. Honestly, through NorthStar I've met LOTS of happily married LDS SSA guys. They are not such a rare minority as the panel seemed to suggest. But even for those who don't get married, it saddens me that the only real alternative suggested was to accept a same sex partner.

Even more sad, this weekend a few people I've connected with, in part inspired by the panel discussion, chose to act on the recommendation and choose a homosexual lifestyle, leaving their covenants behind for a moment of pleasure. I knew when I started connecting with other SSA guys and helping/being helped by them, that sooner or later someone I cared for deeply would probably make that choice. Now it has happened, and I must say it has actually been pretty hard emotionally. Harder than I anticipated. They say they are so happy now that they've made that choice. You know what? I'll bet they are. They expressed needs for companionship that have been filled. That is a very basic human need, so of course filling it would bring happiness. But just because God said that "men are that they might have joy," (2 Nephi 2:25), He never said that everything that makes us feel happy is the correct choice. I also recognize that this doesn't mean they are "lost." The wonderful thing about agency is that even after making a wrong choice, it is still in our power to repent and choose the right in the future.

So, I was thrown off emotionally and spiritually for a bit this weekend (other life stresses weighed upon me at the same time I don't have time to explain here). And I could hear so clearly the voice of the Adversary pulling at me with a very familiar lie: that giving in is inevitable and is the only way to be happy. I have felt him tell me that every day for a long time now. Satan loves to make us think we don't really have a choice, and that sooner or later we are gonna cave in and act on his temptations. He wants us to think that we have no agency in the matter. And sometimes his arguments can be rather convincing too! I must admit that I am so grateful for great friends who helped me and talked me through some depression and intense temptations this weekend. I did feel really discouraged for a while, and must admit I considered how easily I could give in. But God reminded me through my friends and through the Spirit that I can choose! But it is important to understand agency completely to recognize the powers to choose that we HAVE, versus a few things which really ARE beyond our control.

Agency is really important. As latter-day saints, we understand that. In fact, we know we fought a war over it. We highly value the fact that we as humans get to make CHOICES. I think our admirable love for agency can sometimes be the root of some less desirable side effects. For example, there are still those among us who constantly perpetuate the idea that same-sex attraction is something chosen. I sure didn't choose this! It's fascinating to me to think about the idea of choice itself. I very clearly and definitely make many choices every day. But I also know that if the doctor hammers the spot on the knee just right, the leg will kick without my choosing. I cannot always make a choice whether or not something will cause me to be aroused, though I can choose to try avoiding things or situations that will. There are LOTS of things I didn't choose besides just my patterns of attraction--my gender, my face, my nationality, my race. On the other hand, there are many things we CAN choose. As Father Lehi taught anciently:

"Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself." (2 Nephi 2:27)

We may not choose our circumstances, but it has been given to us that which is expedient: the ability to choose our response to those circumstances. As appealing as it may be for a moment, it will never be better to choose the wrong, regardless of how alluring and constant the temptation. It is not inevitable that you will make the wrong choice. You can choose.

I've recently grown a deep love for the hymn "Choose the Right" (#239) and its simple but profound message.I especially found the second verse resonating with me this weekend. It says:

Choose the right! Let no spirit of digression
Overcome you in the evil hour.
There's the right and the wrong to ev'ry question;
Be safe through inspiration's pow'r.

I found myself for a while "in the evil hour" this weekend. A strong spirit of digression pulled at me and even suggested specific ways I could abandon my covenants this very weekend. But those digressive spirits cannot overcome you if you do not let them. And, with the help of God and some friends, I CHOSE THE RIGHT today. You can too! It was also pointed out to me tonight how one may substitute the word "Christ" for "right" in the hymn:

Choose the Christ, Choose the Christ
Let Wisdom mark the way before.
In His light, Choose the Christ
And God will bless you ever more. 

On this glorious Easter evening, it is my prayer that you and I will both resolve this night and forever to Choose the Christ--even Him who bled and died that you might be empowered to come back to Him and repent and Choose Him, even if in your past you sometimes have chosen poorly. He died so that you could make those mistakes you did, and now get back on your feet and choose HIM instead, from this moment on.

I'll leave you with this beautiful arrangement of that lovely hymn, as sung by a BYU priesthood choir in General Conference, April 2010:

My best,