On the evening of April 6th, 1986 I sat alone in a dark and empty meetinghouse foyer trembling.
It was an old style church building in a small Illinois town with cold vinyl flooring and a church issued couch. I couldn’t find where the light switches were and as the sun continued to set, the gathering darkness revealed light streaming from under the Bishop’s door.
I fully understood what a pivotal moment this was for me as a 17 year old boy, and although armed with fresh courage from that weekend’s general conference, I was terrified.
I spent my youth growing up in the shadows of Mount Timpanogos. The church was my life and I loved it with all my heart, might, mind and strength. Moving from Zion to the mission field in Illinois when I was 15 only strengthened my testimony and adherence to living the gospel. I knew it was true. I knew I was led by prophets of God who spoke His revealed will.
As I began to awake as a sexual being I turned to the prophets and apostles for comfort and guidance in this growing up process.
As I studied their words I became horrified at what I was. I was a filthy homosexual.
After reading a copy of the Miracle of Forgiveness I found on my parent’s bookshelf, I realized what a predicament I was in. Clearly I wanted to be clean and right in the sight of God. Despite never having acted upon these feelings, I wanted to so desperately repent of my homosexuality. I was so ashamed at what I was.
I became an information sponge, spending countless hours in isolated shame soaking in all the information that I could from the church about homosexuality and how to rid myself of homosexuality. I knew of no other source of information other than the church concerning the LGBT narrative. I had no gay role models. I knew of no allies. All I knew were the stereotypes that were vilified by everyone I was surrounded by. Everything I consumed on the matter taught that sexual orientation and sexual behavior were the same thing, both equally repugnant and evil.
By the time I was a 16, I completely understood what the dominant narrative was concerning homosexuality.
And from this dominant narrative I created a shame script that played continually in my head:
Although you have very unnatural feelings, if you allow them to fester they will take hold of you. Then you shall be in Satan’s grasp and will be lost. Homosexuality is an ugly sin, repugnant to those who find no temptation in it. There is a falsehood that some are born with an attraction to their own kind, with nothing they can do about it… that they are just ‘that way’ and can only yield to those desires. That is a malicious and destructive lie. While it is a convincing idea to some, it is of the devil. No one is locked into that kind of life. From our pre-mortal life we were directed into a physical body. There is no mismatching of bodies and spirits. Boys are to become men –masculine, manly men –ultimately to become husbands and fathers. No one is predestined to a perverted use of these powers. You are broken. You are unclean. You are defective. You are unworthy of God’s love.
This script defined my relationship with myself.
I hated myself.
I pondered and prayed with great intent for many months on this matter… and then on April the 5th, 1986 a prophet of God answered my prayers.
President Ezra Taft Benson opened conference with these powerful words:
As I have sought direction from the Lord, I have had reaffirmed in my mind and heart the declaration of the Lord to “say nothing but repentance unto this generation.” This has been a theme of every latter-day prophet, along with their testimony that Jesus is the Christ and that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God.
Repentance was the cry of our late and great prophet, Spencer W. Kimball. This theme permeated his talks and the pages of his writings, such as his marvelous book The Miracle of Forgiveness. And it must be our cry today, both to member and to nonmember alike—repent.
Repentance means change, and it takes a humble person to change. But we can do it.
We have made some wonderful strides in the past. We will be lengthening our stride in the future. To do so, we must first cleanse the inner vessel by awaking and arising, being morally clean…
I saw this as a clear message from God Himself, given to me personally… especially since he referenced “The Miracle of Forgiveness” in his talk. I saw this as a sign. I was fully aware of what the book said about people like me. I wanted to be accepted and in harmony with the Brethren and to do this the prophet commanded me to cleanse my inner vessel. It was time for me to repent and confess my homosexuality to the Bishop. I had a distinct impression that in so doing my burden would be lifted, my homosexuality taken from me, and my shame scripts would harm me no longer.
In Illinois during the ’80s we went to the church building to watch general conference, so the moment the Saturday session was over I made a bee line to the Bishop from across the chapel. I told him I needed to see him. He invited me to come to his office the next evening.
That night as I sat in my bedroom with my journal open before me, I reflected upon President Benson’s message and wrote:
There are no words which can describe the Spirit which has overtaken me by watching conference. It is so beautiful. Ezra Taft Benson spoke to me. He is the true prophet of the church. He knew what I needed to know. I feel strongly that it is my duty now to cleanse myself of all sin. I have already taken the first step in cleansing my inner vessel by making an appointment with the Bishop. I feel so good. May I again testify that Ezra Taft Benson is the true and everlasting prophet. He is the Lord’s mouthpiece. Even now I hear the heavens rejoice in my decision. The Lord has spared me from serious sin and from the jaws of hell.
The next night after conference I didn’t tell my parents or siblings where I was going when I left the house.
In every aspect that evening I really was sitting alone in that foyer.
The interview before mine was going long. The darkness I sat in mirrored my emotions. I was well aware of another young man in our stake who had been kicked out of his home for being gay. I was genuinely fearful for my future. The longer I waited the more I began to tremble. I drew from the very depths of my faith that my Bishop would have the answers for me and despite any harsh repercussions that would come from discovering a homosexual in the fold, I would be made a clean vessel for the Lord.
I needed to hear a message of forgiveness and redemption. I needed reassurance from my Savior that I was clean and worthy.
This was the most courageous thing I had ever done in my young life.
Eventually the Bishop opened the door. As the light poured out into the hallway, he emerged with his arm around a sister in my ward who was crying. He seemed so compassionate as he gently told her “It will be alright. It will be alright.”
He invited me in and once we sat down he invited me to share what was on my mind.
With all the courage I could muster I told him what I was, and through sobs confessed I was homosexual. It was a traumatic experience for me. It was an exercise of genuine humility as I threw myself upon the mercy of the Bishop. I unloaded my shame scripts and laid my burdens at his feet.
And then the unexpected happened.
He stopped me mid-stream and told me I was being too hard on myself. Things would be OK. I should remain faithful and obedient, serve a mission and marry a woman in the temple…And “It will be alright. It will be alright.”
A wave of relief overcame me that this was all it took to cleanse my inner vessel from homosexuality.
As he stood to show me out he told me not to tell anyone about these feelings and that he was not going to tell my parents about our visit.
I had my marching orders. I knew what to do. I was to push all these unimportant feelings deep down inside and never think or speak of them again. Just as they were unimportant to the Bishop, they were to be unimportant to me.
As I walked out of the Bishop’s office that night I made a conscious decision to be as faithful and obedient as I could be. I had a promise from my Bishop and a clear path forward complete with the milestones I was to reach for.
This encounter with my Bishop reinforced my understanding of what the dominant narrative was for a gay Mormon.
Then as I returned home and retired to my bed, I once again opened my journal and had a very real personal revelation that cemented my understanding of what the dominant narrative was for a gay Mormon
In his first telling, Joseph Smith recorded his First Vision experience by his own hand. In this handwritten account he reveals it as a message of forgiveness and redemption that he wanted to hear.
That night I received my message of forgiveness and redemption that I wanted to hear.
April 6th, 1986 Sunday
OH BLESSED DAY. This shall be a day remembered in all my life!
Nathan, look back on this day for all eternity. Know ye that all thy sins are forgiven of thee, that thou standest pure in the sight of God. Let this day be a standard for all the rest, for Satan shall surely try to deceive your soul again. Look back on this day and realize that you have been forgiven of all past transgressions. You have seen the Bishop and poured out yourself unto him, even thy most innermost thoughts. Now therefore, press forward in light and truth, knowing that the Lord thy God has shaped and is guiding your destiny. The important purposes for you that are known unto the Lord shall be fulfilled! Remember, and forgive yourself. Stay repentant and stay close to the Lord. Remember that this has been given though the Lord, even so, Amen.”
Like Joseph, I too was a teenage boy in distress. Both our individual revelatory experiences squarely addressed what every teenage boy questioning his standing before God yearns to hear: Personal redemption and forgiveness of sins…an experience of joy and love.
These experiences carried me faithfully through two decades of a wonderful life. I was living according to the dominant narrative for LDS LGBT members. Yet as I hit every milestone expected of me, I slowly began to hollow away inside. I was living every straight Mormon man’s dream… except I was not straight.
Despite obedience with exactness, the silent lonely hollows created by completely ignoring my sexual orientation eventually and catastrophically imploded. I was in personal danger and realized the only path to safety was authenticity. The only path to life was truth. The entire collapse of the dominant narrative was frightening and traumatic. And in every sense of the word, traumatic to everyone I loved and everyone who loved me.
Once again I found myself not in a dark and empty foyer, but a dark and empty rental house… alone and trembling. Not only were all the shame scripts back, but the entire blame of the collapse and the crisis was placed squarely on my shoulders as well. In this moment in my Gethsemane, I finally realized through lived experience: The dominant narrative was not true; it can’t be sustained.
On June 12th of this year a well respected and trusted LDS historian, Dr. Richard Bushman, spoke at a live streamed fireside concerning the dominant narrative of church history. And perhaps for the first time members of the church were able to get some small glimpse of the experience that their LGBT brothers and sisters have been having for decades.
He was asked:
In your view do you see room within Mormonism for several, multiple narratives of a religious experience or do you think that in order for the Church to remain strong they would have to hold to that dominant narrative?
The dominant narrative is not true; it can’t be sustained.
Bushman continues later in a letter clarifying his intentions:
I have no idea why some people are thrown for a loop when they learn church history did not occur as they had been taught in Sunday School, while others roll with the punches. Some feel angry and betrayed; others are pleased to have a more realistic account.
People have had different takes on Rough Stone Rolling ever since it came out. Some found the information about Joseph Smith so damning his prophethood was thrown into question. Others were grateful to find a prophet who had human flaws, giving them hope they themselves could qualify for inspiration despite their human weaknesses. The same facts; opposite reactions.
This is no different for an LDS LGBT member when they discover that the dominant narrative about them is not true. It is one of the major defining crises that greets you as you come out of the closet. Part of the coming out process is to face this issue head on.
Even though it has been altered slightly since the days of “The Miracle of Forgiveness,” the dominant LDS LGBT narrative about our orientation, our place in the plan of salvation, the requirement of celibacy in exchange for a limited scope of service in the kingdom, our inability to participate in the church once we legally marry, the treatment of our children in the church, the asterisks and footnotes on our membership records, as well as all the collective church folklore accumulated through the years about the LGBT… is still not true; it can’t be sustained throughout the generations to come.
But here we are today.
Like Bushman’s characterization of members who discover that the dominant narrative of church history is not true, so it is with the LDS LGBT.
Upon discovery that the dominant LGBT narrative is not true, some LGBT find it so damning and unsafe that they leave the church. Others strike a tenuous balance, understanding the problems but staying for family or personal beliefs. Some approach the issue with the fortitude of a Bushman or a Givens. Still others remain within the church fully believing and fully participating, filled with hope that despite the human weakness of our prophets, they personally can flourish within the dominant narrative until further light and knowledge is received.
It is not up to any straight person to judge, condemn or approve how an LGBT member chooses to handle themselves concerning the dominant LDS LGBT narrative. Just love is all that is appropriate as we grapple with the narrative.
Concerning the dominant historical narrative Bushman concludes:
So the Church has to absorb all this new information or it will be on very shaky ground and that’s what it is trying to do and it will be a strain for a lot of people, older people especially. But I think it has to change.
Likewise, those same sentiments hold true with the dominant narrative concerning LDS LGBT members.
It has to change.