Detail of a pioneer-themed painting by LDS artist Minerva Teichert (1888-1976)
A Queer Pioneer's Perilous Journey
Third Place, 2005 Affirmation Writing Contest
Most of my peers approaching their sixteenth birthdays were anxiously awaiting the freedom afforded them by that proverbially open road. Even those of us who harbored little hope of a shiny, new sports car (my first set of wheels was an almost hearse-like 1966 Chevy station wagon) saw the significance of obtaining that driver's license: once issued it granted our sixteen year old selves more than just the power to operate a motor vehicle; it meant, too, that we were taking the first steps toward steering our own lives. At least my own mother saw this rite of passage as significant enough to grant me license of a different sort. She finally consented (after two years of pleading on my part) to allow me to join whatever church I liked. Though the car would certainly come in handy (you'd be surprised how many of my friends could squeeze into that old station wagon), the real excitement of my sixteenth birthday was being baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
My investigation of the Church and its teachings had the most curious
beginnings. While in middle school I participated in a Wednesday night
Bible study. Our teachers devoted one particular evening to educating
our young minds about various "cults"—of course, the dreaded Mormons figured
prominently in the presentation. We viewed excerpts from The Godmakers
and were treated to a slideshow describing this dangerous church and its
teachings. The anti-Mormon rhetoric was so vehemently over the top, I
couldn't resist confronting some of the obvious inaccuracies and misrepresentations.
After all, it wasn't as if I had never met a Mormon.
Nathan was a boy I had met while serving on the middle-school student council. We were, it seemed, the only "popular" boys who did not fit the prototypical jock profile, so naturally we gravitated toward one another. I found in him the friend I'd always hoped to have. He was clever, charismatic, conscientious, and had the most infectious laugh I'd ever heard. Most importantly, he was the first male friend in my childhood who did not make me feel as I if were some sort of freak for preferring literature and theatre over sports and cars. I knew I was different and he knew it too and seemed to like me for it, not despite it.
His large, loving family served as the perfect antidote to my own dysfunctional home life. The sense of security and warmth I felt upon entering that home provided a safe-haven for a boy who often needed to escape the torments of a terrifyingly abusive, alcoholic father. The abuse that I received was not nearly so great a burden as the sense of powerlessness at watching my mother endure the intolerable cruelty of my father. My attempts to protect her were predictably pathetic. I would often show up unannounced on the family's doorstep and they never extended anything but kindness and love towards me. I soon grew very close to the family.
They had never "pushed" their religion on me as the anti-Mormon propaganda promised they would. I knew that Nathan's oldest brother was away on a mission and that the family prayed for him frequently. I joined the family in these fervent, heartfelt prayers before meals, on the occasional morning before school when I was around, and on the Family Home Evenings when I always protested my intrusion but the family insisted that I was welcome to stay. I always wanted to stay.
When I began asking questions about the Church, Nathan's parents were informative and helpful, never dogmatic. They knew I was an avid reader and allowed me to borrow whatever I liked from their library full of church teachings and doctrine. They also gave me my own copy of the Standard Works. I was impressed by the story of Joseph Smith and the simple yet profound faith it took for him to be an instrument in opening the dispensation of the fullness of times. I devoured the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants. I eagerly read dozens of works by the prophets. As I became acquainted with each new principle of the gospel, I would turn to Heavenly Father in prayer and seek his guidance regarding the truth of the Church and its teachings. I had been told to listen for a still, small voice, to expect promptings from the spirit. What I experienced was something more akin to ecstasy. The Gospel exploded through my veins and I was growing increasingly certain that this was the true Church of Jesus Christ.
Allow me to interrupt myself with the caustic self-consciousness that has plagued my every attempt to express this experience on the page. I am painfully aware of how contrived this conversion is beginning to sound. It is a well worn trope recited relentlessly from the podium at countless fast and testimony meetings the world over. But I face a formidable task in describing the sense of urgency, the phenomenological force with which the Gospel hit me in my deepest places. I experienced miracles. Admittedly small, but miraculous all the same, these events seemed designed to push me forward in my quest to discover the Restored Gospel.
The first of these occurred in the early months of my investigation. I was in the eighth grade and was straddling a spiritual fence. On the one hand, there was the ease
and complacency of sticking with the church and beliefs with which I had already grown familiar. The strongest incentive in this direction was the social factor. Despite my increasingly intense friendship with Nathan, the vast majority of my friends had been resolutely non-Mormon and my two sisters, to whom I was and remain incredibly close, were severely opposed to my new insatiable curiosity about this church and its teachings. My main frustration, however, with the old side of the fence was in the maddening vagueness with it approached even the most basic concepts of Christian belief: the substance of the Godhead, the organization of the church, the afterlife, the gifts of the spirit—specific areas in which I insisted upon answers.
These questions were answered with the comprehensive, expansive vision of the Restored Gospel. Having a living prophet just made sense to me. Why would Heavenly Father abandon his children in their time of greatest need? Even the genealogy work and baptism for the dead struck the perfect chord, and could be backed up with strong Biblical support. In fact, I put a great deal of energy into using the Bible to answer the questions I had about LDS doctrine. The answers were all there, supporting the Church and its teachings. The Book of Mormon, however, had become a stumbling block. That is where the miracle comes in.
When first I read the Book of Mormon, which I did with an open mind and heart, I had little trouble. I believed in the promise of Moroni and I prayed about the book and received spiritual assurance of its truth. Soon, however, I began to have doubts. Concerned and well-meaning youth leaders at my "other" church inundated me with literature designed to expose the Book of Mormon as a fraud. My faith wavered and I
stopped reading the Book of Mormon and sort of returned to the business of being just a regular middle school kid. After all, it wasn't as if all the other kids were weighing the questions of eternity in their hearts and minds. They were concerned with the usual mundane details of adolescence.
Several weeks passed since I had read the scriptures. One day, during the hour when I served as office assistant (a highly coveted position in middle school—running from class to class collecting attendance, delivering messages and the like), the school secretary looked out the window at something in the distance.
"Brenton, will you go fetch that book in the ditch over there? Someone's going to be real happy they don't have to pay for a library book or textbook they've dropped."
I scurried out into the sunshine, to the spot that the secretary had indicated. I bent over and picked up the book and, as I'm sure you're already guessing, it wasn't a library book or a textbook. It was an old, hard-bound edition of the Book of Mormon. I suppose there are a million possible explanations for why that book was in that spot at that time (100 million possible explanations, really, if you consider how many copies of the Book are in print). As far as I was concerned, however, Heavenly Father had sent a very clear message my way. I resumed my study of the Book of Mormon.
Small miracles like this were occurring on an at least monthly basis. Little reminders, it seemed, to press onward in my investigation.
But there was something else which drew me to the Church. A secret I had tried to bury deep in the recesses of my soul. This secret so filled me with shame, with self-loathing even, that I longed desperately to cast this demon (and I literally saw my
sexuality as some sort of demon) out of my soul. By voraciously devouring the Gospel I managed to dispel the impure thoughts that had crept into mind. I was drawn to that image of family strength, of family togetherness, that the Church so effectively promotes. And by aligning myself with the most ultra-conservative church around, I thought that I would, at the very least, fool everyone who I just knew must suspect that I was gay. In fact, I thought that only the true Church of Jesus Christ, imbued as it was the authority of the Priesthood, could cure me.
Remarkably, when I prayed on the subject of my sexuality I did not receive the resounding sense of security that I did when I pondered and prayed upon the scriptures. I would ask God to make me straight and would just feel a profound emptiness in my soul. I would plead with him to take away my attraction to other guys, but all I got in response was a resounding spiritual silence.
Meanwhile, my feelings for Nathan were growing more complicated. There wasn't necessarily an intense physical attraction (although he was and remains a stunningly beautiful specimen); I didn't even really have the self-awareness or the terminology to categorize my feelings. What was obvious was that I preferred his companionship above the company of all others and would sometimes feel immensely jealous when his attention was diverted from me for any lengthy period of time. My middle-school pal had developed into a full-fledged high school crush, and I was deep in the throes of an intense infatuation.
I was not deterred, however, in my pursuit of Gospel truth. I attended Church meetings and seminar long before my family allowed me to be baptized. In the weeks
leading up to my sixteenth birthday I went through the gospel principles discussions with the missionaries. The exercise was a mere formality. I remember the missionaries were somewhat taken aback by my precocious familiarity with the scriptures and my steadfast testimony. When I finally was baptized I felt as if the problem of my secret was starting to disappear. But I would receive another sort of baptism, a baptism by fire you might
say, that would resurrect the buried feelings.
Friends have often asked me when I "became" gay. Of course, it isn't a question of that. I often explain the misnomer in terms of invention versus discovery. Newton didn't invent gravity, he discovered it. It was a fundamental law of being that God had put into motion long before the apple fell on Newton's head. Similarly, no one invented electricity. It had always been there, man just didn't know how to use its powers. There was also a powerful electricity coursing through me. I had tried to cut off the circuit. Nathan switched the light back on.
Our friendship had grown increasingly intense. We were inseparable. I was class president, he was my vice-president. We played tennis together. I often stayed nights over at his house. Despite our closeness, it had never occurred to me that he might know my secret. It was unfathomable to me that he would have the same secret. But, he did. He was the one brave enough to admit it first and amid tears and a rush of emotion we both came out...to each other. In hindsight I see what an extraordinary blessing it was have my best friend be gay as well. No longer did I feel so utterly alone in this struggle.
We often prayed together about our dilemma. I had been active in the Church for about two years by the time we'd come out to each other, and I wasn't about to give up
the blessings of the Gospel just to satisfy some carnal desire. I desperately wanted to serve on a mission. But then what? The prospect of attempting to marry and raise a family as a straight man seemed a daunting task. The dishonesty of it all seemed like more than I could manage.
Nathan and I went to different colleges after high school and the separation from him proved difficult. My plan was to attend college for a year, serve my mission, and take things from there. I decided to be honest with my bishop about my specific spiritual challenges. And, in accordance with church protocol, he promptly sent me to an LDS counselor and we deferred even considering the idea of my serving on a mission. Today, I don't know whether that bishop performed me a great service or a terrible injustice, but that mission was never served.
Of course I felt like a complete failure in the church, though I hadn't even committed a sin that would threaten my temple worthiness. Nevertheless, once I had deemed myself permanently and irretrievably unworthy, I slowly ceased to pay any heed to the commandments or to Heavenly Father's plan for my happiness. In my disdain for the Church that I felt had rejected me despite my earnest efforts to adhere to its every principle, I began to play out the role of the Prodigal son.
"Wickedness never was happiness" has always been one of my favorite scriptures
and I can tell you from personal experience that this is true. After leaving the church I
followed in the pattern of my father and became a terrible alcoholic. Of course, it wasn't
as if I woke up one day and said, "Wouldn't it be ideal if I just did a total 180 and became
an obnoxious and incorrigible drunk?" The sad truth of the matter is that many young
gay men, bereft of a network of support and understanding, feel that the only place they are accepted and loved is at a gay bar. Being young, naive and attractive spelled certain disaster for me. I was lavished with attention from a string of invariable unsuitable and oftentimes downright dangerous men. Desperately longing to fill the gap left in my life left by the Church, I surrendered to every temptation in order to feel accepted and loved by this new community.
I also wanted nothing more than to recreate those amazing spiritual sensations that had so filled me with joy throughout my investigation, conversion, and membership in the Church. The Spirit has a way of lifting one's soul above the mundane, material realities of life. The Holy Ghost can take you on an unimaginable journey above and beyond yourself, and also touch the deepest parts of your spirit so that you feel at once connected, set apart, special, inspired, an overwhelming sense of gratitude and awe, and above all just the most amazing feeling of love that can ever be experienced. Feeling as if I were suddenly cut off from this source of strength was devastating. I sought to recreate the sensations of the spirit through whatever means available. I was getting high on ecstasy, pot, cocaine, speed, mushrooms, acid—you name it. Fleeting moments of euphoria filled the vacancy where my testimony once stood.
I also made the horrendous mistake of substituting sex for love. Desperate for a sense of validation, I became wildly promiscuous. My sense of self-worth soon stemmed entirely from my appearance and my ability to attract men. It is any wonder that my ill-fated attempts at romance would always end so disastrously? Without a sure sense of myself, still recovering from this loss of identity, having no certainty in my life, I became
the neediest most self-centered monster that ever stepped foot in a gay bar. The transition from naiveté to being jaded well before my time was a swift one. No man could love me enough to satisfy the need that I felt. I began a dangerous pattern of forcing the men in my life (I was a serial monogamist—but these relationships often came and went as swiftly as the phases of the moon) to "prove" they loved me by enduring increasingly erratic and destructive behaviors on my part. All of my actions were entirely ego-driven and reeked of the desperation of someone who has absolutely no idea who he is, where he came from, or where he is going.
I would go through periods of sobriety, make resolutions to keep myself clean, only to fall flat on my face. I lost what had been a full ride scholarship at my University and eventually ended with a string of legal predicaments that landed me some time in jail as well as the dubious distinction of being a felon for the rest of my life. These are things of which I am not proud. However, they have been part of my journey.
As with most substance-abuse offenders, I spent lots of hours in court mandated AA and NA meetings as well as private therapy in order to overcome my addictions. I took, and continue to take, my recovery very seriously. I had enough of a semblance of self-respect to recognize that not only had I spent several years wasting my potential, but that I was profoundly unhappy. If "men are, that they might have joy," I was doing the exact opposite. I had ceased experiencing joy and happiness. In fact, in a very real sense, I had ceased to be. I had numbed myself beyond feeling.
Having overcome my initial trepidation about treatment, I plunged into the 12 steps of recovery. I stalled very soon, because I had no idea how to approach my "Higher
Power". The "Higher Power" is integral to the process of recovery. It is broad enough to encapsulate any man's conception of God. I tried as best I could to revert to the way I understood God before I had joined the Church, but I couldn't pretend to know less than I did. This was, however, a matter of life and death. I summoned the courage and humility to kneel and pray to my Heavenly Father again.
That first prayer was difficult. I felt as if the weight of my iniquity made it impossible for my prayer to reach our Heavenly Father. But let me tell you one thing I know to be true: if you open up your heart to your Father in Heaven, if you pray in earnest in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, He will open up His heart to you.
I could not have maintained my sobriety without the help of my Heavenly
Father. Sobriety is a choice I have made. I understand now that I have
no choice in the matter of my sexual orientation. I do not feel guilty
because I am gay. I regret many of the choices that I have made in the
past, but these choices are not the direct consequence of the intrinsic
quality of my sexual identity. I am a Child of God and God created me
gay. I do not know why Heavenly Father made this choice for me, but I
am sure not going to allow the fear and ignorance of others (even church
leaders) to stand in the way of my accepting the path that God has chosen
The key thing I hope to demonstrate here (and I pray this essay falls
into the hands of someone who is in the position I was a few years ago)
is that just because you are gay does not mean you have been cut off from
the blessings of the Gospel. That is one of the most unfortunate circumstances
of church leaders' attitudes towards homosexuality. Members who have lived
worthy lives, whose faith in Jesus Christ is strong, and whose testimony
of the Gospel is stalwart, cease upon the path of eternal progression
intended for all of God's children because they feel that being gay means
their souls are a "lost cause".
The Adversary would like nothing more than for you to believe that your soul is beyond salvation or exaltation. Remember, all men (even our greatest prophets) have sinned. Though Church leaders are inspired by God, they are also human beings and as such are subject to the temporal realities and prejudices of their time and place.
It is worth remembering, also, that at various times in Church history men have received seemingly contradictory commandments, as is the case with plural marriage. The official declaration to cease the practice came only in response to immense pressure from the U.S. government. There is a similar pressure today to act with ignorance and prejudice towards homosexuals. One of the great mysteries of the Kingdom may be just what God intends to do with his gay and lesbian Latter-day Saints. He certainly has a plan for us. We must keep his commandments and live worthy lives and continue to pray that he will soften the hearts of those who stand opposed to our full participation in the Church.
It was not until 1978 that Church leaders gave all men, regardless of race or color, access to the Priesthood and temple blessings. Heavenly Father has never been a racist; nor is he a homophobe. However, the Church reflects the society in which it exists.
Homophobia is actually a recent phenomenon. For an insightful look into
the history of same-sex relations within the Church, consult D. Michael
Quinn's Same-Sex Dynamics among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon
Example, published by the University of Illinois in 1996. Whatever your
level of self-acceptance regarding your sexuality, it is key to remember
that being gay does not mean the Gospel doesn't apply to you. The following
scripture illustrates the point:
There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundation of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated
In other words, by obeying the Word of Wisdom you will receive specific blessings in accordance with that commandment. The Law of Tithing operates in a similar fashion (if you can't or won't give to the Church, find a charitable organization that helps those in need...the spirit of the law is to give). And of course, the most important commandment is to love our Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ and to love one another. It's amazing how just a little prayer had reintroduced so much love in my life. I haven't ruled out sex for the rest of my life either. I have already reaped blessings, however, by ceasing in the mindless nymphomaniacal pursuits of before. If and when I fall in love with a man, I will pray to my Heavenly Father on the subject. I recognize now that sex, even gay sex, is a sacred thing and ought not to be entered into lightly.
And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated. (D&C 130:20-21)
The blessings I have received are great and I am so grateful for the opportunity to reclaim my life from the emptiness I had known. Once I got some clarity back into my life, I managed to pull everything together academically. This year I achieved what I thought would be impossible. I managed to earn my B.A. in English, even graduating
with honors. I was awarded a fellowship to continue my studies at the post-graduate level. I'm so excited to begin my PhD program this fall at the University of Iowa.
My new home in Iowa City is within walking distance of the Mormon Handcart Park. The Park, a joint project of the University and the local ward of the Church, serves as both a prairie preserve and a commemoration of the courage of a group of Mormon pioneers. In 1857, about nineteen-hundred Mormon immigrants from Britain, Scotland, and several Scandinavian countries were determined to join the Saints in Zion. Their fierce determination and faith were more abundant than their supplies. They lacked the animals and wagons with which to make the journey. Undeterred, they set up camp at this sight and built handcarts that they pushed themselves across the arduous trek. What faith, what perseverance! I have begun to think of myself as a Queer Pioneer. I may not have all of the conventional tools that make traveling the path to Eternal Happiness as easy as it might be for others. But I am every bit as determined as those pioneers. I plan on returning to my Heavenly Father one day, in all of my gay glory.