Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Changing Hearts One Conversation at a Time

I'm privileged to introduce Janet, in most ways a typical Mormon woman. She grew up in a very Mormon Patriarchal home where she learned to be more concerned with appearances than the content and character of a person’s heart and soul. At 28, she married the love of her life.  He had three children from a previous marriage. Together they had two children. The youngest is gay. Janet has held many callings in the LDS church from nursery leader and merit badge counselor, to Young Women’s President and Relief Society President. She lives in a comfortable home, nestled in beautiful Cache Valley. As I walked in I noticed some of the typical Mormon symbols of faith decorating her living room. We sat down at her kitchen table and I asked her to take me on a journey. A journey of discovering what it means to be LDS and have a gay son. We began with the day everything she had known, or thought she knew, changed. The rest is in Janet’s words.

Blindsided: When our son was 17, (nine years ago) we found some hand-drawn pictures of male genitalia in his room. We didn’t know what to think, so we questioned him. At first he wasn’t forthcoming, but eventually he told us he was gay. I didn’t know what that meant. I thought it was a choice. I didn’t think it had anything to do with love, just sex—sex with men. He had been such a good young man, so fun and so knowledgeable in the gospel.  I just knew he would grow up to be a General Authority.  While in high school, he baptized one of his friends.  He was a 4-year seminary graduate.  He read his scriptures and prepared thought-provoking Family Home Evening lessons.  He was an Eagle Scout, and later served a successful 2-year mission. How could he be gay? When was he having sex with guys? He hadn’t.  I just didn’t know. I didn’t understand that it was about who you are, that it was about the gender you are attracted to. We took him to a therapist at LDS Social Services. He later confessed that it was one of the worst days of his life. I think he went just to appease us. I was stubborn. “We’ll fix this. We’ll get you right.” It was devastating to my paradigm. My paradigm was LDS and it was black and white. It took me a long time to wrap my head around it.

Everything was looking good. He got ready and served a successful mission. We hoped, along with him, that the mission would change him. Some time after he returned, he served as the primary chorister. But then one day, he looked downcast. I asked him what was wrong and if he would talk to me about it. He said, “Mom, this is who I am. It’s not going to be anything different.” He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. He’d written a letter addressed to President Monson, pleading with the First Presidency to listen to the gays and all he got back was a form letter from a secretary and a pamphlet explaining how to be celibate.

 The rejection: There wasn’t anything personal, nothing to say we’re sorry for your pain,  just a form letter, that in essence said, your pain is nothing. He took his garments off. (Temple garments are sacred undergarments that adult members wear once they’ve made commitments in the temple.) And he’s been inactive ever since. As much pain as that caused me as his mother, I realized making the decision to leave activity in the church must cause him pain too. So I asked him, and he said that it did. I realized that this isn’t just about me and how I feel. He made covenants. And for what? He feels betrayed. It was hard.

I was anxious to learn and to understand. I wanted to know what gay sex meant.  What does it mean to love another man?  He was so patient with me as he answered my many questions. He gave me Carol LynnPearson’s book, “Goodbye, I Love You.” I read that and it immediately opened my eyes and made me more tenderhearted toward him and others. And then I couldn’t stop reading. I wanted desperately to understand. I read Carol Lynn Pearson’s second book (on this subject) “No More Goodbyes” and when her third book came out, we read that, too. My husband and I read “Peculiar People” and a book from a PFLAG perspective (Parents, Family and Friends of Gays and Lesbians) called “Beyond Acceptance.”  Both were really good.  They fed our souls.

Paradigm Shift: Once I began to understand, I no longer cared what people thought about me. At first, I thought, Wow, if people in the ward find out we have a gay son, we’re going to have to move. They are going to think we’re awful parents. But my paradigm shifted in another way. So many rely on an outward rather than an inward righteousness. Now, I will talk to others about what it means to be gay, but I wait until they ask. It’s almost like it’s sacred.  I don’t want to put it out there for others to make fun of. 

Maintaining Faith: For a time my faith wavered. If it weren’t for my husband and I both being on the same page, both supporting our son, and yet both wanting to maintain activity in the church, I could see myself drifting off a little bit more, and maybe he could have seen himself drifting off a little bit more too without me. We’ve held on together. I got the impression that our leaders are just men.  They’ve even said that themselves. I had the inspiration that our leaders have a heavy weight on their shoulders, that they have the weight of the whole church, and they have their own biases, their own prejudices that they have brought to the table of apostleship, If I know that the gospel of Jesus Christ is true, but that the leaders have challenges themselves, it helps me have more compassion for them. I can still embrace the gospel and support my son. And besides if I left, I lose my voice with that population. But this way, I have inroads to help to change people’s minds and help them learn compassion one conversation at a time. 

When challenges come: Saturday sessions of General Conference were wonderfully uplifting. But after the Sunday sessions of Conference, I was down for the rest of the day. I couldn’t look up.  My eyes just wanted to close.  I was numb. I have this inner battle with myself because I’ve been taught all my life that these men are prophets, revelators and seers. But, somehow, some of them have missed something.  They have not asked the right questions if they’ve talked to a gay person, or they would not have said what they did.

So if someone says something to me like was said to WendyMontgomery, (Wendy Montgomery has a 13-year-old gay son and was told that she should have her son taken away and given to someone who can follow the prophet) and I had to make a choice whether I would leave the church or stay -- I would stay.  If someone says hurtful things, then why should I go? Why should I go? I have to remind myself that people are only human, even the church hierarchy.  They are only men who have been called to do a hard thing.

Is there a place for your son in your eternal family? Absolutely, there is. God has let me know that I don’t need to worry about him.  And that has given me so much peace. This peace has become stronger in the last couple of years. Even more so as each day goes by.  My only worry is that he’ll go into a deep dark place where he may be left with long-lasting regrets.  The world is not a very safe place. And because he feels the church has rejected him, he might feel like “why not go off and make unsafe choices, and do this and that. Obviously, there are no standards that I need to keep since the church doesn’t want me. So why not take these extra steps.”

From a challenge to a blessing: I don’t feel the need to judge anymore. I grew up in a very judgmental home. And that’s why I have the personality that I do.  My new paradigm has blessed my life by removing that debilitating burden off my shoulders. I don’t have to judge anybody. I can just let that go. If a man has a tattoo and earrings, which my son has, I wonder what his story is. What has his life been like? If I see someone who looks depressed because they may not fit the ‘norm’, I tell myself that the soul inside them wants to be loved and appreciated just like everyone else. And they are beautiful. I’ve been blessed in trying to look at people the way Christ would. I’ve never done that before. Everyone has their own chance to embrace someone who is different from them. If they can’t, they’re missing out.

Progress? Has there been progress made? Will it get to a point where your son or maybe other LGBT can feel like they can get on board with the church? Not in the near future, not from the body of the church.  But there are satellites in the church -- wards and stakes -- that are doing their best to be more inclusive. The more we have of those, it will trickle down to the main body of the church. I listened to a recent podcast on Gay Mormon Stories to an interview with Edward Jones. He had been away from the church for years, but now is active again. He and Randall Thacker, who are both gay, have callings in their DC ward as the primary organist and chorister.  And I believe that Randall is in a relationship. Here are men who are being their authentic selves and are active. I don’t believe they want to change the doctrine; they just want to change the level of love and acceptance. That’s all I want. The doctrine is Jesus Christ’s. To be more welcoming the policy and implementation may need to change. I think it will with time.

What is the church missing out on by not being more welcoming of the LGBT community? You look at the way my son served in the primary. The kids loved him. In fact, I substituted in the primary two years later and a boy asked if I was Brother X’s mother.  I said I was, and the boy said, “YES!” with obvious approval. Even two years later, they are talking about him. I do feel gays have so much to offer. They have so much compassion. They have cultural gifts to share. They are smart. They could teach us the gospel in ways that aren’t ‘general conference dry’. I was thinking about the podcast with Edward Jones, the chorister (who is moving to SLC next month). What he said got me thinking about when the Church would routinely excommunicate gays just for saying they were gay whether they were sexually active or not. And when the church would excommunicate others just for questioning church policy.  Yet the questions they were asking may have improved us and made us think.  They may have improved our relationships and may have made us softer. But by excluding the gays, you’ve terribly wounded them and their families. Fortunately, the church is not so quick to excommunicate anymore. So from the old point of view, they’ve come a long way in accepting them and all kinds of people. People have lots of different ways they can contribute. If we only accepted into the church everyone who played the piano and organ, but not those who know how to lead music, we’d miss out. It takes everybody.

Hope: When I asked Janet to tell me things about her son that she knows about him that other’s might not, her eyes filled with tears. And so did mine. I have a son too. I know that same mother’s love and pride also. He is very tenderhearted. He loves very easily. Because he seems so happy, you wouldn’t know that he’d almost committed suicide before his mission. You wouldn’t know that he’s felt depths of despair over his eternal salvation because of merely being born a certain way. You wouldn’t know that he speaks fluent Mandarin. He loves to read and think. He loves music. He has a wonderful memory. He’s so personable and great with people.  Once he graduates from college, I hope he can get a job that supports what he wants to do. He wants to get a graduate degree.  And I hope he can find someone to spend his life with. Somebody that he loves, somebody that cherishes him, somebody who loves him and treats him the way I feel my husband loves me.