Honorable Mention, 2004 Affirmation Writing Contest
by Andrew Evans
The best stories in the Ensign are the ones without authors. I will purposefully flip through back issues looking for the most titillating and heart-wrenching tales of despair--and all so easy to find under the label 'Name Withheld'. Skimming the first few lines, my mind races to find the scandal (child on drugs, abuse, mental illness), but before I can match the Depressed, Unemployed High Priest with any Brother Smith I know, a bold asterisk reminds me that names, in fact, have been changed.
With not much effort, I can imagine an official policy about such articles--if somebody squirms, names are quickly removed. Perhaps the innocent find protection in telling their story from behind a curtain, just as the church may find protection by mystifying the heavier topics in a gauze of namelessness.
I imagine my story in the Ensign, although it is a stretch. I believe it would make an important article, referenced by bishops and home teachers for years to come. The title would be simple, something along the line of 'I did not belong'. My name would be withheld, and like all such stories, the illustrations would feature dark silhouettes and shadowed faces.
My Ensign submission opens with the standard setting of righteousness and commitment to gospel principles. This is a key paragraph, for it instills in the reader that bad things may still happen to the best of people.
I grew up as a young man committed to every law of
the church, living the commandments by letter and spirit. I prayed
alone and with my family, I remembered the Sabbath day and kept it
holy. I obeyed my parents, I never missed seminary, I did my home
teaching every month with a thankful heart, and never strayed from
the tenets of moral cleanliness and the Word of Wisdom. I served an
honorable mission where I learned to be guided by the Spirit. I accepted
and magnified every calling. Most of all, I loved the church, and
the church loved me.
Then, in so few sentences, my story unveils the issue at hand, careful to use correct terminology.
And yet inside my heart, I harbored a deep, dark secret. From
a young age, through adolescence and into young adulthood, I suffered
from SSA (*Same Sex Attraction).
Before the story proceeds with lessons learned and a disclosure of personal revelation, it is important to express an exhaustion of all other methods of relief, and reinforce the depth of the despair.
I prayed unceasingly to Heavenly Father to take this temptation
from me. I punished myself with extra long fasts. In my attempts to
date women I made several female BYU students sob uncontrollably--a
sin for which I must certainly answer in the life to come. I sought
help from my parents, and even underwent therapy, twice. But even
with a fixation for righteousness and such a controlled appetite,
my happiness continued to wane with every year passed, and I felt
sentenced to a life of monastic loneliness in a church of happy couples.
Stories of quick and easy relief lack the recognizable steps so imperative to teaching tools. Instead, the focus should be on the process--both spiritual and temporal--that carries us from the depths.
After years of struggle, depression, and prayers for solace,
I asked the Lord for a miracle. And then one day, I realized that
despite the setbacks I had suffered from SSA (*Same Sex Attraction),
I still deserved the happiness enjoyed by my married friends and siblings.
I loved the gospel with all my heart, but realized that the church
had chosen to proceed with a spirit of ignorance on homosexuality.
At first I was devastated by the apparent dichotomy, but as I learned
to embrace my whole identity, I was blessed with more happiness and
the strength to make righteous choices about my life.
A list of blessings follows, but not without the frank admittance of hard consequences.
Confident and secure, my countenance improved. I met a lovely
man and we made a life together. Sadly, some friends reacted violently.
At first, my own family told me to never return home again. I was
released from the primary and called as the ward scandal.
I end with the reassurance that all is well now, and then close with lessons learned, the faith gained, and a testimony.
And yet, despite all the persecution I have faced, I feel my
Savior's love everyday and his watchful hand guiding me through this
life. He knows that I am gay, and he has shown me to never be afraid
of the truth. With a renewed understanding of his love and mercy,
I know that I can be happy.
Sadly, the stories without authors tend to be of a similarly short length. We never get an update on how good or bad things got after the article was published. Did the prodigal son stay off drugs? Did the single woman ever marry a deserving spouse?
My story continues year after year, and with the passing of time comes a renewed stillness, a greater understanding of pain, and a real gratitude for blessings.
After four years of living abroad as an openly gay man, I moved back to my home in America. I felt that I needed to make more of an effort to be close to my family and reestablish lost ties. My stake president in England had been kind and compassionate, non-judgmental and filled with understanding. He supported my coming to church and we naturally became friends without any forced effort.
Things in America are different. I arrived in the hubbub of sodomy laws, marriage licenses, an LDS governor, and constitutional amendments. Rarely would a Sunday pass without someone at church, normally from the pulpit, warning us of the unraveling of America's fabric of faith, 'activist judges', and the sinister evils of homosexuality. Did our struggling inner-city branch truly warrant such an onslaught of messaging, or was the president of the Washington, DC mission actually aware that his targeted talks fell on the ears of several gay men who happened to lead the branch choir, deliver faith-promoting talks in sacrament meeting, and run the priesthood?
Inevitably, one morning after Sacrament, I was pulled aside by my branch president, a faithful African-American saint who knows my name and is eager to welcome all. Not without visible signs of discomfort did he tell me that the mission president wanted to see me. I thanked him and called the president that day to arrange a time when we could meet.
The days before I grew nervous--not for the unexpected, for I clearly knew the type of conversation that was waiting--but for the strain of having to explain myself to a stranger. Our meeting was quick. His small talk was especially small, and then he cocked his head to inquire about 'the subject of homosexuality'. He braced himself for denial and showed signs of shock when I quite calmly informed him that yes, I was a homosexual in both word and deed, that I attended church regularly.
Even the heterosexual man is capable of a rainbow of emotions, and I witnessed a spread of colors displayed for me. He was terrifically angry and red in the face, then suddenly quizzical and confused, and then preachy with a confetti of mismatched General Authority quotes floating around his head. But he stopped mid-sentence, revealing in hushed tones that God still loves me. I answered that yes, I know that God loves me. He repeated the phrase, as if he owned it, and yet I still concurred. His natural conclusion for such love was an invitation for me to change, testifying his professional opinion that such change was possible and the he knew it, for he was a gynecologist. With all due respect to his career, I stood my ground with a bold insistence that a gynecologist could never fully comprehend 'my struggle'. The bartering deteriorated--he demanded I leave my partner, and I asked sincerely if he would be prepared to leave his wife for the sake of the church. His face grew silent and sinister.
Suddenly curious, I humbly inquired as to why we were having this conversation now, in February of 2004. I had been an openly gay member of the church for five years, and although I had filled more than my fair share of timeslots with Stake Presidents, I was not preaching revolt or apostasy, and my place in the church had been assured. I was fascinated to learn that the reason we were having this conversation was because someone 'loved me very much' and had spoken to 'a General Authority in Salt Lake' who was concerned for me. Urgent phone calls to the east coast to 'check things out' had brought us to this church basement on a Saturday afternoon.
I still do not know which concerned family member or friend or relative invoked the Lord's Anointed into my life. But I do know that after years of confusion, I was granted so quickly a full understanding of church policy towards its gay members. Behind the bishop's door, on the back row of the chapel, in unspoken norms and tacit acceptance of appearances, Latter-Day homosexuals are still counted as Saints. But when we live by our names and faces, we become real-life references to a void in Zion, and names must be withheld. Someone in Utah knew my name and I faced editing.
My mission president reiterated that the brethren feel very strongly about 'this subject', especially at 'this time'. The church has to protect itself against evil. He expressed God's love for me more and more, still unsettled about what to do but warning me of the Council of Love that most likely awaited me.
My branch president and a companion (who would, I might add, categorize as 'gay' had I merely spotted him on the subway) hand delivered my invitation to the Council of Love at 11:00 o'clock on a wintry Sunday night. A date was set and my excommunication loomed.
My friends suggested I simply 'have my name removed', saving myself the grief and hassle of a disciplinary council, but I insisted on going. I prayed for strength and peace, studied my feelings, and fasted for the entire day of my meeting. I arrived at the Stake Center early, and enjoyed a long conversation with the man who would be the secretary at my council, the same (very gay) man who had accompanied the branch president. I imagine this was all very uncomfortable for him, and so we discussed his work at a national conservative think tank instead, an institution proudly known for its anti-gay agenda.
I then met the Council of Love, comprised of three men: the mission president who was once a gynecologist, a CEO of the local power company, and an appointed member of the Bush administration. I faced these three men as my judges and acknowledged in prayer that my chances were slim. But I felt no fear. In my prayer and fasting, I already knew that I would be excommunicated and my name would be removed. I awaited what was a formality to the Council and a ritual for me.
I remember little of what was spoken, except that a charge was laid before me, and I was asked several questions, especially regarding my testimony, my relationship and my stance on the current political storm around gay marriage. I answered honestly and with total humility, and yet I realized that these men knew nothing of who I was. They knew my religion and my sexual preference and not much else. I reported my history in the church in detail, and with the last teary sentence declared that my greatest testimony of the church was the fact that I was there that night. They could not understand my relationship, so that I cut myself short as to not expound something so sacred to those who would disrespect it. I was not actively pursuing advocacy on the gay marriage issue, and I expressed that my political opinions should be considered irrelevant in this setting.
In all, my Council of Love lasted four hours, and I felt bad that these men had spent a free night away from their families. I thought of all the evenings my own father spent away as bishop, and hearing him talk of 'church courts' and looking pained. At this moment, as I waited for the council's decision, I read the scriptures, read hymns, and pondered all those people who have faced excommunication in the history of our church: the many great men and women, criminals, intelligent men and women, crazy people, sinners, and people who just don't belong. I was soon called back in and flatly informed by the mission president that I had just joined this rag tag club of excommuniqués, realizing both the shame and honor in my new title. Did I have anything to say, some reaction? I asked merely for their guidance in my quest to find an answer. We are told that there is a place in the church for homosexuals, and could they please let me know where that place is? I then requested that they remember me, for they would (I prophesied) each deal with 'this issue' again on a personal level, and to remember my name and my story. They kindly agreed, an ambiguous prayer was said, hands were clasped and backs patted. I rode the subway home, trying to understand my feelings of freedom. I remember thinking to myself, the church cannot hurt me now.
But I was wrong, because even though my name no longer gets checked on the Sunday School roster, and I am not counted among the blossoming statistics reported at General Conference, the church is forever connected to the gospel and family that I love.
In May, I received a quizzical mass email from my youngest brother, with a list of things to bring to the family reunion. I knew nothing about any family reunion. My family is large and we span the country. It takes so much effort to get us all in the same place, we only attempt it once every three years. In fact, last time I knew, I was on our family committee to plan our family reunions. But a lack of news told me enough to know that I was not to be invited this time around.
In less than two minutes, a second email appeared, password protected and shadowed with a vague subject title. My father wrote as the patriarch of the family, informing me that indeed, the family would be gathering for summer vacation this year, but that I was not invited. He did not want me around his grandchildren for fear that my example would express an approval for sin.
I was never meant to receive the first e-mail. My brother had simply forgotten to remove my name from the list. They all went ahead with their family reunion, the details of which I still know very little except that one member of their sons and brothers was not there. A name withheld. Like the Ensign, and like the church, it is more convenient for the difficult facts of my family to remain nameless. Without my face present, their gatherings remain uncomplicated and enjoyable.
Repeated exclusion from family events hurts. When my siblings and parents accuse me of betrayal, maliciousness, and evil desires, I so quickly want to dive back into the blackest moments of my life, at a time when I was the only one who could suffer frustration, anger, and hopelessness at my situation as a gay member of the church. Without adding my name to the equation, my family would keep thinking the church was good and gracious, that homosexuals are diseased and wicked, and that there son and brother is wonderful. When faced with reality, my family gazes upon a void of uncharted church territory, and clings to the outdated maps handed them by well-intentioned church leaders.
I do not want to blame the church. The church can only be the church, and the church often lags behind the breadth of humanity that makes it. But my family's anger is justified, and of late, encouraged by the church. They behave as they are told, so that I can even predict my interactions with them by listening to the talks at General Conference and reading the articles in the Ensign. If the brethren feel compassionate and remind us to 'remember your children [who struggle with these tendencies] and reach out to them', within days I will receive a pile of mail that includes cards from aunts, uncles, and cousins I have not seen in over ten years. But too often the messages are less than compassionate, my family must distance themselves. They feel pain at the very mention of my name, and so it is better not to mention it.
Our names are the most sacred words spoken in our church. As newborn babies, in our very first ordinance, we are given a name and a blessing. We are baptized for a remission of our sins after our full names have been spoken. I remember the sincere announcing of my name, spoken out in reverent cadence before receiving each office of the priesthood, in blessings before I was sick, in my setting apart as a missionary, and with every church calling that I accepted. Each and every church ordinance is a prayer to our Heavenly Father, and yet we open with our names. By mere reference to one of His children we invoke His spirit.
My attempt to keep my name in the church wore heavily on my spirit, and in a full expression of my spirit, the church has chosen to withhold my name. But I know that God knows my name. It is a profound testimony that brings me peace and understanding--much more than I have found in the back issues of the Ensign.