Explanation from me. My name is Carole T. Warburton. I started this blog to increase understanding about our LGBTQ community. The first three are interviews I've done with mothers with gay children. I, along with the mothers, and in some cases, the children, are co-authors on these posts. Without exception, each mother I've sat down to talk with has taught me so much and has filled my heart with increased love. Please spend some time with an incredible woman and mother, Carolyn Bentley.
By Carolyn Bentley and Carole T. Warburton
Our son Matthew has always been very bright and had a life of the mind that has sustained him throughout his life. As he was going through elementary, middle, and high school, his interests gravitated to music and theatre. In high school, he was involved in student government and went to all the dances, although it was always in groups. After high school graduation, he studied at BYU. And I know now he had a really fine bishop there, who talked to him about some of his feelings. He hadn’t talked to us yet. As I’ve said many times, the person sitting behind the desk in the bishop’s office is critical when a young person shares his feelings. Matt’s been quite blessed and had only one or two who have been kind of tough. Whether the person [bishop] uses that position as a sword or a salve is vital.
We wept: He went through college very happily. He went on a mission to Argentina. Served honorably. Graduated from college at BYU. Then was accepted to grad school in Virginia. He lived not far from his big sister Annie, and he would visit there often. One night, Annie came down the stairs and found Matt crying. She came and sat by him and he told her his secret. He’d been struggling with his sexuality for a long time. To his bishop in Charlottesville, he’d served as an executive secretary and they had conversations about his situation. It wasn’t until he told Annie, that he called us. And when he told us, he and I wept. And the tears weren’t necessarily from “Oh shoot, I have a son who is gay.” They were rooted in the same concerns he had. He wanted a family. He knew it was going to be a life that was more challenging. And that it would be very difficult for him to maintain his church membership and have the life of love that he wanted. The next thing he did was ask how his father would be about this revelation. But he needn’t have worried, his father was very compassionate and accepting. I don’t think this surprised Matt, but it’s still always a concern how the father feels. It seems to be a greater struggle for fathers to accept.
Prayerful answer: He was so earnest about trying to find a way to be ok with who he was and still be part of his religion of origin. And he finally got a clear message. He went to the temple a lot and he had a very strong sense come to him, that basically said to “Matthew, go and find a life.” And so he did. He left the church. It grieved him. I think he did about everything he could to stay. But I also think that his staying could have been lethal. He didn’t have a love interest at the time he left the LDS Church. He’d never dated anyone of the same sex.
By and by, he met Frank. And Frank was a member of the Episcopal Church in Charlottesville. So Matt joined that faith and they became partners. I had worried about him meeting someone because he was so vulnerable. I worried about the wrong person coming into his life. I had hoped to just process this for a while. But when he called to tell us about Frank. I asked, “Is he a good man?” “ Oh mom, he is the best man.” And he is. We are very blessed that way. So that’s how it came about. By the time he met Frank he would have been close to thirty. He and Frank were made for each other. I tell you it is one of those magical things, this relationship. They’ve been together ten years.
Who is Welcome at Christ’s Table? I was asked to give a lesson in a special Relief Society night meeting about living close to Christ and I chose to approach it through The Feast of Christ and who is welcome at his table. I decided it was time to tell the truth about our son. I checked with Matt first and he was in agreement. At some point during the lesson, I asked the question? Is everyone welcome at the table? Oh yes, absolutely. Even Sinners? Yes, we all agreed everyone was welcome. Especially the broken. I asked, Are gay people welcome at His table? There was kind of a hesitance then, yes, they are. Do any of you know a person who is gay? And no one raised a hand. I said, “Most of you know my son Matt . . . he’s gay. I think you should know that because you know how wonderful he is.” I thought that was a good way to break the ice among the women in our ward and start to speak with one another more honestly. But what was really interesting is that afterwards five women came up to me and told me that either their son, or daughter, or nephew was gay. Again, that tells you something about where we were in terms of addressing it, and just letting it be part of the truth in the room so we can be sisters. And actually what I had said is after I asked the question, was You do know someone who is gay. They just haven’t told you yet. And whether or not you are the person they would tell, might be a question you’d want to ask yourself. It will be easier for some than others. Don’t beat yourself up, if it is difficult for you. But listen and be the person they can come to.
I think it would be nice if we had a more open discussion in our wards. I think it would be really lovely if we could sit in Relief Society and make a comment or say, sisters, I’m struggling with this. Or will you pray for me because…. I would love the day when a dialogue about our gay members is just about how to be helpful to them instead of about where to put them or what they can’t do. And there are some people in our ward who are loving and supportive. But there have been times when many limiting, dismissive, marginalizing statements have been made, and such categorical and hurtful things I hear while we sit within the walls of the church. I feel the potential of a true sisterhood is not being fulfilled. I think it would surprise many in the R.S. sisterhood that there have been times when I have either walked out or felt I wanted to walk out and never come back. That is just very sad.
The support of family and friends: In our family, I had absolutely no question that there wouldn’t be one person who would say, “Oh dear! That is tragic.” In fact there was this great outpouring of love. This was across the board, without exception, including my parents who were in their 80’s at that time. I just knew they would all be loving, and there is great comfort in that. It says a lot that I expected nothing less of them all. To a person, they were very sweet. They said, oh, we’ve always loved him. And I’m so glad he has Frank. It was really a lovely kind of revelation to me. I think people can surprise us in good ways. Don’t sum them up. Don’t always protect them from this information. Don’t sell them short of who they can be when we tell them about our sons or daughters or sisters or brothers. Give them a chance to be that person who is more loving than even they knew.
People can be supportive by continuing to show interest. Our friends and family have done this for us. They ask us how Matt and Frank are doing. I love it when they include Frank. So as a friend to those who have a gay family member, stay interested. Most of our friends have been fantastic. Some were curious and wondered how we handled it and we were fine with that because they were at least interested in understanding our process. Being able to talk about it and even open someone else’s mind is a good thing. We’ve had really good friends who always ask about Matt. Even our friends who are more “straight-liners,” more conservative in their beliefs about the issue of gay members of the Church seem genuinely happy for Matt to have found a life of love and of the spirit.
On LGBT and church leaders: There are many ways to be ok and be gay. There are people who stay in the church, who can because of the emotional makeup of their persona. Those who fall in the less intensely pulled toward the attraction on spectrum of same sex attraction. There are people who stay and agonize. They stay and they are constantly clenched fists, anguished, and feeling left out. There are people who stay and say in essence, “I can give up a relationship and a life of love and show my devotion by staying and serving and being chaste.” We had a good friend who was a bishop on campus [USU] and he was fantastic. He would have young people come in and say, “I think I’m going to have to leave the church.” It wasn’t always someone who was gay that would come to him, but in any case he would say. “I want you to be happy. I will help you get to the place you can to be happy” Which is an amazing and powerful response, instead of, “You know, if you leave it’s all over…….slippery slope…. empty chair in the Celestial Kingdom” and all of that rhetoric of fear and dismissal. He just said, How can I help you? I love you. If you leave I want to stay in touch with you and still be your friend. If there is a way to help you stay, I want to do that. But I mostly want you to have a life. I mostly want you to flourish.” And quite often, if the person knew the bishop really cared about their struggle, they sometimes realized that they could stay, because they were accepted for who they are. This bishop friend didn’t do it in a calculating way at all. It was sincere. And some of these young people thought, “Gee, if I can come talk to the bishop sometimes, I’ll be ok.” For this bishop, it was never about wielding the sword. And I think the fact that many leaders use words and power as swords, we are losing gay members. We’re losing the friends of gay people. It’s like Andrew Solomon [author of “Far from the Tree”] said, This is not an illness - it’s an identity. We don’t have to fix this.
On faith: I’m really comfortable in the gray area. I guess that’s one of the reasons I can stay in the church. That’s where I can exercise my faith. There are very few things I know for sure - very, very few. And most of them have to do with love. Other things, they’re kind of fungible. As a church we continue to evolve - even our doctrine has changed throughout our history. What can you say that is absolute about our Church? It’s our connection to Christ and our sacred and unique ties to Him. It’s about a context to practice living His teachings. And it is practice. But at the root of it all, it is love, isn’t it? Isn’t that the principle? It is also about community, and for many reasons, this is the community we choose to belong to, peculiar conventions and policies and all.
For Marion and me, it is about how we can maintain a sense of belonging and safety and fellowship. It’s been difficult sometimes. It’s been really hard to sit in a room and hear harsh things said. I have close relatives who have left the church who can’t figure out why we are staying, and are even upset that we don’t just get out. I always feel a little defensive about this, because every single one of us gets to have our own journey. It’s our trip. And I really feel that it’s important for me to stay within this church community to be part of the dialogue. If I leave, in a sense my ability to help change things, will be gone. We have seen in the last 20 years a slow change in the rhetoric from most of our leaders. I hold out hope that we will continue to progress toward other changes. We not only lose our gay members when they leave the Church, but too often to suicide, which is not acceptable. No More Goodbyes!
There’s a great Catholic activist nun, Joan Chittister. She is one of my models in this regard. She and Carol Lynn Pearson are right there by each other. And Joan said the same thing - why would I want to leave, when what I really want to do is stay and keep things moving forward? Keep it a dynamic kind of conversation. I see Carol Lynn Pearson as that person for us. She just keeps those questions and the possibilities we have for learning and changing out there in front of our church leaders. She’s a loving critic. The leaders respect her and she has the ability to say what she thinks without offending. Marion and I both struggle with that. How do we say what we think and really believe deeply about our son, as well as other struggling gay members of the LDS Church, without exploding all over everyone? So that is really a challenge. Mostly it’s done with asking the right questions rather than giving answers.
Being blunt: I think it would be helpful to have a really good panel or fireside in every ward, to talk openly about this issue of understanding and accepting our gay friends an family members . I would love to have it be part of a fifth Sunday meeting with parents of gay children, psychologists, and if they are willing, a gay member of the LDS Church. A panel fielding questions – and any question is okay. This whole fixation on the sexual aspect of gay relationships is very strange. And it’s insulting. How often do we define heterosexuals by what they do in the bedroom? What I said to my stake president was, “It’s sex, the mechanics of it are weird anyway. Get over it. It’s just part of a relationship. Why would you reduce anyone to that?” Most gay people want what all of us want – a relationship of sharing all aspects of our lives, mutual support, respect and the sense of being cherished.
Continuing Revelation? I think the statement “we will know more when we are ready for it [change]”, or the statement that a certain revelation wasn’t given until we were ready for it is fascinating. I just want to say “Can’t we get ready? Can’t we get there earlier? Can’t we evolve? Can’t we move forward and be ready? Why should God wait around for us to give us His latest word, when we’ve already been given it – the word is love, love, love, love.
For the mother and family who is struggling: I fear I may hurt people by seeming that I have it all figured out. It’s just love. It’s your child. I know it isn’t that simple for some people. If you’ve had that spiritual almost elemental narrative throughout your life about the black and white – that this is right and this is wrong, it takes a brave person to start looking for the nuances and the contradictions and inconvenient truths we each personally live in. For the person who is new to it and who is in agony, basically all I can do is listen. I don’t think I can tell them to evolve. All I can say is, “If you want to talk, I am willing to listen and to share.” I don’t want to come across too strong but I would say that most people eventually figure out that this is what they were given. I would say to someone new to the knowledge that their child is gay what I feel the Savior would say. “This child was given you for this very purpose, for you to learn something and you will be amazed at who you really are. You will learn things about yourself that you didn’t know. Even though this is agony right now, I promise you, you will come out knowing things about yourself and your capacity to love that you had no reason to know before. You may have thought, ‘Oh yes, I love my children,’ but this will be the hardest thing and the best thing you can ever do for this child.
Blessings: We feel what Christ’s love is actually like. Why He chose to be with those who were marginalized, why He chose to be with those who were disenfranchised, struggling, or feeling less. This experience of having a gay child revealed to Marion and me who we were as a parent team, what we are capable of together, and we are richer for this experience. And our children who struggle with this and other problems, well, they get to know that we love them and there is No condition or limit to that. It’s really important to us for our children to know that, whether or not they are in the church of their heritage or another faith, or even if wonder if they have a Savior. We have a child who struggles to know that there is a caring power, a personal deity who accepts her. But I think she knows what love is. And if our children can know this, that’s the essence of what the Savior lived. This journey has taught us to hopefully be better and less judgmental about people who struggle, no matter what the struggle is. This challenge gave us as a married couple, a kind of a dynamic that served us well as a team. It was kind like a gift - reminding us what this marriage is about; it’s about unity and trying to do good and help our children flourish. It has made me aware of inequities in other areas in life. It’s given me friends I would never have known. I mean really important deep friendships because there are no bounds to it.
I would say to other parents who are struggling, This is a sacred journey you are going go on and Christ will be with you the whole time if you let that love in. And try really hard not to think about what others think. (We do tend to care very much in our church, about the “other” and about how we appear in the Sunday Showcase.) There is that sort of model family thing we have going for us - affluent, fun, everyone’s going on missions, etc……and this is admirable, but move away from that and embrace the family that you are. A family is whoever shows up for the people who need them. And if you aren’t the family for the LGBT child, they will find another family and it will not necessarily be a good thing, and you will miss out on all the growing there is to be done, and you will miss out on your child’s search for a life of happiness and love. Wouldn’t you want to be that family for him or her? Wouldn’t you want to?