At my mother’s funeral last week, us kids decided we’d each share a short story of mom that provided a good example of who she was. I chose this story because it showed the depth of my mother’s empathy and how her perspective had changed over the last couple of years. I’ll develop it a little more here, especially as it pertains to those connected to LGBTQ Mormons. And I apologize in advance for the writing – I’m not used to narratives (as you might have noticed if you’ve read my previous posts).
I’d say I grew up in a fairly normal LDS family. I always knew I was loved, even if my siblings and I fought often. Dad worked, mom took care of us, taught music out of the home, and was fairly active in the community and church. Nothing was ever directly said about gay people or sexuality, except about LGBTQ political causes like gay marriage. Looking back, my family was at best dismissive about LGBTQ issues – but at its worst gay people were moral and political “others”. That’s not necessarily the worst messages someone could hear while growing up, and I certainly never heard my parents declare hatred or reject gay people. Other kids certainly have had it, and do have it, much worse.
However, as a teenager I took those messages seriously, and as teenagers often do, I exaggerated them. I concocted this notion that if anyone knew that I was attracted to men I’d also be cast out as an “other” – as someone unworthy of love or attention.
And so, I waited to tell my parents until I was about 24. It went about as well as I expected – I had told them that I was going to stop dating women to figure myself out (but I did not state that I had an intention to date men, which was true at the time). My mother responded with her hope and testimony that I would find a woman to marry anyways. She and my father responded with other comments that would probably be typical of loving parents who felt that same-sex relationships were a sin. Mostly comments about staying true to God and the church, hope in eternal blessings, etc.
My mom and I would discuss this often. Instead of dismissing me when we disagreed, she was open to me discussing my struggles with how the Church would treat LGBTQ folks as well as other minorities that didn’t quite fit the narrative. At the beginning we rarely agreed on anything. I could tell sometimes that sometimes she was frustrated. She would often say: “I wish I could just give you my testimony of the Church and why these things are important.” * To be clear, I was and am a full member of the Church. However, I have many qualms and do push that things get better. * Whenever I would breach the topic of my sexuality, it would often end with mom saying, “We might not know why, but I know staying faithful is the only way.” But no matter how heated it got, she continued to engage with me. Now matter how painful for her, she came along my journey.
About two years after coming out and after so so many disagreements, arguments, a suicide scare (on my end) that she did not handle well, and so many other things, I had a tonsillectomy. For the unfamiliar, a tonsillectomy when you’re an adult is an unpleasant experience. Very unpleasant. I was in bed for about a week or so and not at 100% for a good three weeks. My mom, without prompting, drove the six hours to be with me during the surgery and most of the recovery.
It was rough time, both physically and in our relationship. We argued about religious and sexuality matters more. I remember telling her how distant I felt from God’s love. All the things I thought I knew had to be reworked. She couldn’t understand why I felt that way. Then, physically, I was numb, drugged, and always vomiting and bloody. I had to return to the ER three times from uncontrolled bleeding. I hated showering while I was so miserable, so I probably didn’t smell or look that great either.
I was as unlovable as one could be. I was angsty, uncomfortable, and I was showing it. My poor mother was working with a wretch of a child (at least for that moment).
After one particularly bad vomiting spell, I went back to lay on the couch. Despite the blood on my chin and probably on my shirt, my mom looked over at me and said,
Erik, I want you to know that I love you. And that no matter what happens or where you go in life, I will always love you.
I don’t know what prompted her to say that. I was blown away – and it was about the first time that I understood, on an emotional and spiritual level, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” When my mother said “I will always love you…no matter what,” I felt a deep yearning to do right by my mother. A desire to show her that same respect and love. I knew that I was probably going to disappoint her when she found out that I was dating men, but I wanted to live my life in general in a way that she would be proud of.
This moment was also the first time in a long time that I had felt God’s peace. I believe He spoke His love through and with my mother. My mother was able to channel and directly show how God loved, unconditionally and in a way that produces a desire to follow Him. At that moment, I decided and made a pact that I would try my best to be a disciple of Christ. While the Church might not agree with how my discipleship looks like, I’ve felt supported and encouraged by God that this is His path for me.
That experience was already typical of my mother. I heard her declarations of love to me many times, but when she did it at a moment when I felt so unworthy and disconnected from love, it affected me at my core: spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
When I told her and the rest of my family that I was dating men, it followed many more discussions, disagreements, and even some arguments. We prayed and studied together about this, the Church, and many other topics. After one prayer, she turned towards me and said, “I know you and I are going to be together in heaven.”
Mom started asking me questions about my life, about my goals, about my path. She realized not much had changed: I wanted what I had always wanted. It’s just that now a man was in the picture instead of a woman. I wanted a family, I wanted to serve others, and I wanted a sliding ladder on a bookshelf. It was all the same. Mom read Tom Christofferson’s book, That We May Be One, and said she realized she had been trying to force me into what she assumed was God’s plan for me rather than trusting that I was already in God’s plan.
A week before my mother passed, I asked her what lessons she had learned over the past year. It had been an extremely difficult one fighting cancer and the awful side-effects that came from chemo. I assumed she would tell me a lesson on patience or endurance. Instead, she said: “I need to thank you. Because you living how you needed to live and how God wanted you to live*, I learned so much about love and the Plan. I learned how to love more deeply and more widely, even if I disagree or don’t understand. I learned that the Plan of Happiness is wider and more encompassing than I could ever imagine.”
My mother wasn’t perfect just as I wasn’t perfect. We didn’t lead a magical road without conflict or trouble. On the contrary, our journey was messy: with blood, vomit, disagreement, tears, prayers, fights, and grumpy “I still love you” texts. But that my mom stayed on that road with me even though it was full of trials was how she loved. She could honestly and deeply say, “I love you,” despite the lowest lows. And it’s because she was with my and saying “I love you” during those lows that I truly and deeply felt the love she wanted to express.
The moral of the story isn’t necessarily that she agreed with me. I don’t think my mother ever fully understood how everything would work out (and I still don’t). But that she loved me through all of this to be with me during all of this.
My mother’s messy love taught me so much about God’s love. He sits with us during the darkest moments to say: I love you, no matter where you go. His Plan includes an infinite amount of paths and journeys – each with different lessons for us to learn.
Before mom passed, I also asked her what her slogan would be if she ran for president. She said: “Make Each Other Great.” Obviously, this is a play on “Make America Great Again,” but the way my mother and God love exemplifies this. I am a better person because of my mother. I am more whole, more compassionate, more willing to sit in the messiness of other people’s lives. And in my work with LGBTQ Mormons, this is a lesson all families can learn: a mother’s messy love.
Note: * While I am confident that this is God’s path for me, I do not believe it to be God’s path for every LGBTQ person. When I did my MA research and catalogued the varied experiences of LGBTQ/SSA Mormons, there was no overall consensus of God’s will for all His LGBTQ children. Most of these people had spiritual confirmations that their path was what God wanted, from celibacy to mixed-orientation marriages to dating the same-sex to a gender transition. What was important for those people was an openness to what God’s path may be for them.
And I would hope that readers would not see this and think that those who are celibate are blinded by religion or that those who are dating the same-sex are deceived. I had no reason to doubt the sincerity of their spiritual directives.