Hello. My name is Britt Jones, and I’m your host of the new podcast, I Like to Look for Rainbows. It’s a podcast by queer Mormons, about queer Mormons, and for everyone. In today’s episode, we’ll talk about, well, what to expect from all this, why it’s happening at all, and why you should tune in. In addition, you’ll hear my random musings about what I know and have experienced in this very interesting Mormon Moment that we find ourselves in. I’m excited, and I hope you’re excited, too. Let’s look for rainbows together, y’all.
Welcome back. Ok, well, first off – and this is going to feel like a talk in church – let me introduce myself briefly (I’ll have a bit more to say on this later), and talk about what I’m going to talk about.
I’m Britt, and I’m a Mormon. And, for those to whom this is an important consideration, or just for avoidance of doubt, I’m an active Mormon, and a temple recommend-holding Mormon. I’m also a cisgender bisexual Mormon. I’m married to a straight woman in a straight-presenting relationship, and we have four wonderful children.
This podcast is about being queer and Mormon at the same time. How it works, how it gets us all by, and how it sometimes, or even often, doesn’t work.
This podcast is neither pro- nor anti-Mormon. As Mormons, we often feel like the media we consume should be “uplifting” and “faith-promoting”. What we speak about here will not always be those two things, although it often will be. Remember, however, we know that we can only be uplifted and have faith if we also have at least once been depressed and have known doubt. All I can say is that my only intentional bias in content is that it be real. I will be quite happy if it is edifying, informative, accessible, and challenging for died-in-the-wool Mormons, ex-Mormons, never Mormons, and all in between.
Now, to borrow another overused device from Sunday talks over the pulpit, I’ll go through the most common question words to orient ourselves; I’ll do the “who, what, where, when, why, and so what?” of I Like to Look for Rainbows.
Who: Well, one person is me. I’ve talked a bit about myself, and, as I’ve said before, there’ll be more; I promise. There are also a bunch of people who have helped that I’d like to thank: my wife for her support, first and foremost. I’d also like to thank Jerilyn Hassel Pool, for the beautiful artwork and website (more on that in a bit), in addition, of course, to her great work in the queer LDS space. I want to thank Ben Cassorla, whose music you hear during the podcast; his music appears with the name of just Cassorla. He’s a high school friend and a terrific musician who I contacted out of the blue on Facebook – I hadn’t talked to him since high school – to ask if I could use his work on the podcast, and he very graciously said yes. His two latest EP’s are called The Right Way and Amigos, and both are available on Bandcamp, and the former is on iTunes. The two tracks you’ll hear most prominently are called The Right Way and Our Power. All of its way better than even I expected, and I expected it to be great, and you should give all his stuff a listen, too.
But the most important person is you. I hope we get a diverse listenership. I hope the broad LGBT+ Mormon community feels like it represents them as much as it can, and I hope they feel at home listening. I hope straight Mormons of all stripes will listen, feel like it meets them where they are, and helps them come away with some new understanding, and maybe a few other helpful things, too. I hope ex-Mormons feel welcome here, too; it’s my considered opinion that Mormons and ex-Mormons don’t understand each other very well, and I hope we can coexist harmoniously here. And I hope non-Mormons, both straight and gay, will listen too; I wouldn’t get upset if a bunch of non-Mormon folks started following this podcast like I’ve heard many do with “Mormon mommy blogs”.
While I’m on that subject, let me mention something we’ll have on the website that has something to do with that last group (non-Mormon listeners, not Mormon mommy bloggers, although they’re of course welcome to listen, too): there’s a lot of jargon specific to Mormondom that I’ll be using. I intend to publish a running glossary of sorts to help define the unfamiliar terms you’ll hear. I plan to do that for other things I think may call for it, like terms specific to the queer community that might be unfamiliar to some. If there’s anything I miss, please ask in the comments on the page. I’ll try to answer as many questions as I can get to, at least until this podcast makes me rich, famous, pompous, and aloof.
What: It’s a podcast. You listen to it. That is, unless you have a hard time listening, or would just rather read it, in which case, I’ll try my best to post a transcript of each episode on the website.
Under this heading seems like a good place to talk about format. At least at present, here’s what I’m thinking:
- Something historical
- Something recent, perhaps like a This Week in Queer Mormons segment
- A profile of a new queer Mormon each week (this week, it’ll be me)
- An answer to a question I’ve either been asked before, or that we get on the site, or on social media
- A bit of a closing statement from me on sort of whatever I want to talk about
Ooh, here’s a good time talk about social media: we’ve got a page on Facebook, which is called I Like to Look For Rainbows. Also, follow us on Twitter; the account is called ILike2Look4Rainbows, all one word, “to” and “for” represented by the numbers 2 and 4; the links to both are on the website, iliketolookforrainbows.com. Also, our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, this is a queer LDS voice, not the queer LDS voice. I don’t and can’t speak for all of us, although I want as many of our voices as I can have be part of this story.
Where: On the interwebs, and in your mind! But seriously, it’ll be on our site, where you can subscribe, and, if all goes well, it’ll be available on iTunes and on Android devices, too, before too long.
When: Right now, since you’re listening to it. And any time you want. But as to schedule, I’m gonna shoot for once a week, subject to change.
Also, I’m from the US, and suspect most of my listeners will be so, too, but I don’t live in the US now. So if you don’t get prompt responses to questions on the site, that you send via email, or on social media, it may be because there’s a time difference, and/or because I have a day job and a family. Also, sometimes I’m seriously the worst, so steel yourself for that, and that includes not promptly getting back to folks sometimes.
Why: Ah, now we’re really getting to the meat. Why do this at all? Queer folks, and maybe particularly queer Mormons, get asked why? a lot. For example: Why do you even come out a lesbian or trans or what-have-you? I never came out as straight, they say. Why do you dress (or not dress) that way? Why did you take things we like that used to mean something else and gay them up, like rainbows, the word “gay”, bears, or Rick Santorum? Just kidding, no one likes Rick Santorum. I mean, regardless of your politics, he’s the least charismatic and likeable politician of my lifetime. Anyway, probably two people listening just pulled out their earbuds and clutched their pearls, and now we have two fewer listeners. AND I HAVE TO LIVE WITH THAT, YOU GUYS. Well, our hearts will go on.
Anyway, so why even talk about this? Why do we just go on and on about this? Why make this our identity, when there’s so much more to you than the “same-sex attraction” that you’re struggling with?
*Sigh* So, to start out with: because we exist. I know that sounds so obvious as to be obnoxious, or even condescending, but there’ve been some unfortunate comments by LDS Church leaders to suggest that we don’t exist, or that these identities shouldn’t exist as such. Let me just get this out of the way real quick – and this is now how the church talks about it, too – this ain’t a choice. You can’t pray it away. No queer person is only queer. No one’s ever said our queer identities are or should be our only identities. That’s not a thing, and it’s a strawman. Not a good look, bro.
Since we exist, we have stories. When you have stories, you’re allowed to tell them. Keeping ourselves or our stories in the closet isn’t healthy for us, our families, or the church. We’re doing this for your own good, after all.
But I’ve heard plenty of queer LDS stories! you say. There’s the Mormon and Gay official LDS church website. There’s the recent videos on the Mormon Channel about the gay kid in that good LDS family AND THEY EVEN ADMITTED HAD A BOYFRIEND AND EVERYTHING, GOSH! Queer Mormons have been on the Mormon Stories podcast, and then there’s the Mama Dragons.
Sure, and some of those groups are great, and certainly have their place. But who tells those stories? Who controls that narrative? Besides, off the top of my head, Tyler Glenn’s recent album “Excommunication” (which, by the way, is great, I’m obsessed with it, is essential listening – along with this podcast, duh – to understanding modern queer Mormondom, etc.), almost all of the stuff written or spoken or produced about us is done by straight people, and often for an audience of straight people.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with you straight people. Your voices are valid, too. We know that’s just how you are, and there’s nothing you can do about it, and WE LOVE YOU. SO MUCH (this is a joke).
But we don’t need to run the story of our existence through a straight filter; it’s better straight – strike that, gay — from the source. Also, the story changes depending on who’s telling it.
Here’s a concrete example of my last point: recently, there’s been a story bouncing around the corridors of social media about an evangelical Christian mother in suburban Houston who now leans into parenting her openly trans four-year-old daughter. It’s a heartwarming and beautiful story about a mother who overcomes what she’d been taught, and the hate and misconceptions she had in her heart for trans people, to help her daughter walk as God made her with her head held high, even with the woman’s family’s opprobrium.
I’m sorry, but that’s not the story. Or, put another way, that’s a story, but it’s not the best, or most worthy of your attention, story going on there.
What do I allege you’re missing hearing the story told only from mom’s perspective, rather than from the child’s? Well, it’s hard to be fully sure, since I’ve only got mom’s words, but even from just that, we learned that this child knew with such a surety who she was that she started to fight mom for that true identity when she was only 18 months old. Mom brought church authority figures to the house to “heal” her, punished her for behaving like a girl, and brought the full force of parental authority to bear on this child. And, for two and a half years, this little girl persisted.
Do you have any idea how awesome this child must have been to stick to her guns like that? This isn’t to suggest that this is the only “willful” or “defiant” toddler ever; I’ve had lots in my house, so I know this is the rule, rather than the exception. But to stick to it when everyone, even her peers, told her she was wrong, and to stick to one thing for so long, and to not get bored of it once she got what she wanted (or, in this case, needed)? We parents of young children (and often for good reason) think we’re always right; this little girl changed mom’s mind through the force of will and persuasion. We’re giants from whence everything in the world comes for these young humans; how could you oppose them for so long when all the wind is constantly in your face? When I read it, I just wanted to take a second to honor this child, and the strength of her character, to fight and win the fight for herself.
This is not to say Mom doesn’t deserve praise here; she does. And it’s not to say we can’t hear mom’s story. We can; I’m sure it’d help lots of parents in similar places. But it’s a problem when the only stories you and we both hear aren’t ours. And this happens ALL THE TIME with queer Mormons.
Here’s an example: we see a video put out by the church of a rock-ribbed LDS family, and their struggles to accept the gayness of their son/brother. Useful and nice, to be sure. But we hear very little about his struggles. About his coming to grips with it. It only talked about him through the perspective of how his queerness affected his straight family members, and how he being who he is was so hard on them, but they came through (we don’t hear much about him, the person, at all, actually).
But why take issue with a great story of love towards a gay person, you ask? Well, for starters, we’re human, so we deserve love. It’s worth pondering why we need to pat ourselves on the back for showing a family that loves their son.
Also, no one’s denying this family the right to their story. They seem great. All I’m saying is that if they get an Oscar, it’s for best actor in a supporting role, not in a lead role. And I want to hear about him, from him, if at all possible.
Anyway, that was a long way of saying we need a way to tell our own stories in our own words, and I hope this podcast can play at least a small part in that.
And last, but not least, SO WHAT? Well, this is an opportunity and an invitation to increase in understanding and empathy. To reconsider what you thought you knew. To try to get us as people and as a church on the path to progression, and off the path of contention and stagnation and dug-in heels, on this issue. And to have a good time together. Because girls, they wanna have fun (so glad I don’t have to pretend not to like that song anymore).
Ok, so, since I spent so much time giving the preamble and introduction, and especially since I’ve got nothing for you this week besides just my voice (like I said, we’ll have additional voices starting next week), I’m going to skip the queer Mormon history and current events sections I’ve promised. I know, I haven’t even finished an episode yet, and I’m already breaking the rules. But I will do a profile of myself like I promised so we can get to know one another better, and then wrap it up with a little closing statement so we all know where we are going forward.
Ok, I’m not going to lie; this is a little intimidating. I’ve spent nearly all of my life closeted, which is another way to say that I’ve spent so much time and effort in carefully and fastidiously concealing what I’m about to share that it’s really become habit and reflex. But I can’t ask others to share in future episodes if I can’t, so here goes:
I knew I was attracted to men before I actually understood anything about sex or attraction, if that makes sense. I was ten years old. I mean, I knew how babies were made, but before puberty, it all seemed like a rather odd and unpleasant grown-up chore to have kids. Or, at least it did to me.
But there I was, watching TV at my grandparent’s house, and some show featuring young, fit guys wearing little more than loincloths came on — I think it was about Polynesia or something similar, and I think they were doing some sort of traditional dance – and I knew right then I was drawn to them in some way that I had never been to anyone before. I don’t remember this causing me any grief or anguish at this time – don’t worry, that’s coming pre-teen Britt! – but these feelings also didn’t dissipate, and I became slowly aware that I wasn’t really interested in girls like other boys my age were becoming.
I started getting to the age at which my peers started to define themselves more and more by their sexual interests and identities, and, more pointedly, at which the word “gay” was commonly used as an insult on the playground and in the hallways of school. This was the early to mid-90’s, so you would also hear mild rumblings of disapproval at church and elsewhere of gay pride parades, and of maybe letting men marry each other in Hawaii, so I began to understand that this was something to avoid mentioning, then to scrupulously hide, then to deny, and then to try in earnest to change.
Years later, now in high school, I do remember every now and again being at least vaguely interested in girls, but it didn’t really feel the same to me as my attraction to guys. Girls seemed something to appreciate more like art, and from a distance. But it’s really hard to figure out looking back if I would have considered myself bi then (had I had the vocabulary for that then), or gay. This may take a little explaining.
You see, at that time, and perhaps even now, although the climate for being a queer Mormon teen was not safe or supportive, in some ways, the climate around sexual attraction and dating helped you keep your queerness under the radar, and that helped you keep it under wraps, even from yourself. Mormon youth are taught that life leads to marriage, but also that we’re not yet nearly ready for it (obviously). Most churches teach you to save sex for marriage, but Mormons really, truly mean it, and expect it of ourselves. So, the church wants to encourage teen interest in the opposite sex, and learning the rituals of courtship, but also wants to avoid having the kids getting biz-nizzy in the back of a car before the wedding bells ring (we don’t have bells on our churches or temples, but you know what I mean). How do you toe that line, knowing that love isn’t always on time? Well, you encourage group dating and chaste, dorky dances held in the gyms of church buildings starting at 14 years old, and allow some one-on-one dating after 16, but you’re actively and strongly discouraged from going steady with any one person, lest, you know.
So, what if you’re not really into the gender you’re supposed to be into? Well, you hew strictly to the rules that discourage going too far with girls. You politely play the field, and develop friendships but not serious relationships with girls. If this sounds like every portrayal of life as a closeted gay teen in popular media, I can see you’re following me. You go to the dances, and dance with girls when the slow songs come on (but then you keep a chaste distance from a girl while dancing with her; the folk rule of thumb was to maintain more than a Bible’s worth of distance between the naughty bits). However, you might avoid going on dates (unless your mom pushes you into one, or invited three girls on an elaborate but frugal surprise date night on your sixteenth birthday). Thus, your doubts about your ability to really be interested in girls looks like obedience, and like you’re focusing on school and your eventual missionary service after high school.
Anyway, during my last few years of high school, I didn’t change so much as the environment around this issue began to change. And, first, just to make this clear, I didn’t live in the so-called Jello Belt of heavily Mormon areas in AZ, UT, ID and WY. I went to middle and high school in suburban Philly, so in a place that would be considered pretty progressive about these issues. So, first, court cases and advocacy for gay marriage started cropping up here and there. Speaking of gay marriage, I had never considered this as an option for anyone. This also brought the issue to the fore at church; I understand it had previously been fairly uncommon to talk about gayness to young men at church unless there was a specific issue or concern, but the climate, and the attitudes the church held on the subject generally, drew the church out to defend so-called “traditional marriage”. So we started getting some pretty clear anti-gay messaging at church. Chief among this messaging was a document released in 1995 entitled The Family: A Proclamation to the World that, among other things, removed all possible ambiguity from the church’s position on gay marriage. That messaging included the conviction that being queer was a choice and a lifestyle, and there were lots of breathless, unsubstantiated theories on how such a malady was caused. One I heard at church said that a lack of a close relationship with one’s dad, and being too close with one’s mother, was a likely culprit. Great; my parents getting divorced (and my lack of a close relationship with my then stepfather for lots of serious reasons I won’t get into here) made me even more broken that we all thought single-parent kids were going to be. So, all in all, not ideal for me.
Then, in ’97, Ellen came out on TV. I remember this being a bolt from the blue. I didn’t know any gay people. Our school had a straight and gay alliance, but I think everyone who went was either straight or acted like they were. All the depictions I had seen or heard of queer people were of aggressive, nearly-naked-in-the-streets, drug-addled, AIDS-infected, degenerate drag queens who were somehow both sissies and coming to destroy well-behaved society. She was a TV star, and looked normal. It made me think, at least vaguely, that queer people might not all be mutants or something, and that there was life after – and even during — gay.
Then in ‘98, Matthew Shepard happened. I remember just having a conversation about that with my wife, and she was surprised that I knew the year of his murder off-hand without thinking about it. This is perhaps a clear difference between queer and straight people of my generation. More than this, I remember when I found out about it. We were one of those families that would think we had enough money for things like cable and magazine subscriptions once about every two years or so, and it would last a couple of months. During one of these times, I remember reading a Newsweek article about his murder in our downstairs bathroom (that’s where civilized people keep their magazines, duh!) and crying quietly. I learned that day more clearly than I had ever known before that I was a problem, and that the world wasn’t safe for me. I pushed everything even farther underground, and tried to stop even wondering to myself if I might be gay; it seemed dangerous to even think such things.
In ’99, the film Boys Don’t Cry came out. I still haven’t seen it, but I read about it a lot (I think at my school’s library). You see, I’m not trans, but at the time, at church, there was this notion that gay men, for example, were claiming that they were female spirits trapped in male bodies (I heard a variation on this theory from a church official in the Church Office Building just this year, even though we don’t teach it anymore), and that God could never make such a mistake (we’ll get into the controversial “Little Factories” talk, where this idea seems to come from, in a later episode). Was I like Hillary Swank’s character? I didn’t think so, but who knew? Best not to think about that, either.
Now it was coming time to think about college in earnest. I remember being worried that if I went to a secular school (rather than a school with an LDS ethos and honor code like BYU), the gays there would somehow make me one of them. I was like an alcoholic afraid to go on a brewery tour (although I’d never been with a man, and still haven’t). I put all my effort into gaining entry into West Point (I may have been one of the only people to join the Army specifically because of DADT) and BYU, and when I got into both, I went to the former.
The Army, in some ways, felt like my mission would later be as far as being queer was concerned (and I’ve heard other queer Mormons describe their mission experiences this way): I was always so tired and harried and busy that I had neither time nor energy to be sexually or romantically interested in anyone. It wasn’t just me; all my apparently straight classmates would openly admit to the same thing, so much so that there was a prominent rumor that they put an additive into the food at the mess hall to depress our libidos. So, in that way, it sometimes felt like a vacation from being an “other”.
However, in some other ways, it was much harder on me as a queer person at West Point and in the Army at that time than civilian life had been. Perhaps because West Point was something like 90% male at the time, I was instructed to guard against “homosexual tendencies and actions” both inside and outside of church while I was there. The idea of ever being with a man took on the added mental burdens of upsetting unit cohesion and combat readiness, as well as, from a local church perspective, tempting good, temple-worthy LDS classmates into something against their natures because there were few suitable objects of their affection around them on a daily basis.
I had always thought that if I could avoid acting on my inclinations, maybe I could remain in good standing with God and His church, but now even those un-acted upon feelings convicted me. I felt as though my existence was a threat to everyone around me, especially at church, and that I needed to be fixed somehow. It was then that I first began to fast and pray to no longer feel gay.
When that didn’t work, I withdrew from church, started to feel keenly homesick, and lost my motivation to keep up with my military and academic commitments at school. I also began to feel like I needed to be around girls if I had any hope of not going full-blown gay, so, in early November of my first year, my newly again-divorced mother, with tears streaming down her face, drove our big Mormon van with my five younger brothers and sisters up to New York to bring me home.
I came home, and very quickly sat down with my bishop to confess to him my sin of liking boys. He was the first person I ever came out to, which was made all the more difficult by the fact that I had done everything right in high school, and here I was, having crashed out of college.
Anyway, before I get to how coming out to my bishop went, I feel I should back up to explain why exactly I thought my world was ending as a possibly gay LDS teen. Surely, it’s clear that it’s not easy to be a young queer person in any Christian sect with conservative teachings, but there are some aspects of Mormon doctrine and culture that cause some unique challenges for us.
As I’ve mentioned before, everything in a young Mormon’s life is framed as leading and preparatory to marriage. Well, what exactly do I mean by that? Well, we believe in an eternal marriage to our spouse, and through that your children are “sealed” to you, so none of our family relationships are “until death do you part”. We don’t have any celibate clergy, and indeed encourage “multiplying and replenishing the earth” with kids (which is part of why we often have such big families). In short, we teach that much of the purpose of our creation and life on earth is to get hitched and have and raise kids, and most senior leadership positions are only available to married members. The most important unit of the church is the family, not the individual, and the church’s concept of the family, at its core, is a marriage between a man and a woman. We do not only not recognize gay marriages, but the highest levels of church leadership teach that these aren’t even marriages at all (one such leader recently referred to them as “counterfeit”). So it’s not hard to see how you feel like you’ve got no future now, or in the eternities, if you’re frozen out of a church-sanctioned marriage, which is the fundamental organizing principle of Mormon society.
Anyway, my coming out went about as well as it could, which is mostly to say, my bishop was kindly and not scolding, but mostly seemed not quite to know what to do about it. This is not meant as an insult in any regard; in fact, I wonder if it going poorly could have put me at some risk of some self-harm, so I am actually quite grateful to him for being calm and moderate and caring.
He counseled me to not “act on my inclinations” (way ahead of you, boss, I might have thought; I think at that point I was at my lifetime peak of internalized homophobia), and to continue in fasting, reading scriptures, and prayer. I don’t think he even asked me to pray the gay away, but that’s sure what I decided to double down in doing. I read scriptures voraciously; on the bus to the job I found at a paper factory, at lunch, and anywhere and everywhere anytime I had free time. I sought out every speech and piece of written material that the church had put out on “same-sex attraction” (given the tenor of the pieces available then, they only made me hate myself more, but it helped me to re-redouble my commitment to getting fixed), and prayed so hard and so frequently that I was sure I would so wear out the very ears of God with my entreaties that He would have to cure me.
The cure didn’t come right away, so I became convinced that I hadn’t done all I needed to do rid to myself of this cancer, and that I needed to also confess this “sin” to my mother. She took it pretty well; she looked on wide-eyed and worried, was happy to hear that I was pushing back hard against my burden, and promised me she’d never tell a soul. As a quick aside, this isn’t quite what I’d suggest that parents do if their kids come out to them today, but in late 2000 in a Mormon household, that was quite good, and, again, compared to any number of worse possible reactions, it may have saved my life.
So, one day, after a number of weeks of this, the other members of my family went somewhere, and I came up with some excuse to stay home. I decided to kneel in the deserted living room, and not stop praying until I got forgiveness and a cure for what I was. Once I was kneeling, I decided instead of continuing to pray to be changed, remade, or fixed, I would ask for some way to fit, for this to work out. That didn’t seem like a distinction at all to me, but I now believe that change in what I was asking for made all the difference.
What followed was, and still is, the most intense spiritual experience of my life, and by several orders of magnitude. It was awe-inspiring and soothing and overwhelming and intimidating all at once. We talk a lot about the “veil” between the mortal and the divine, this world and the next. It was so thin that night that it was as if the power of God was pressed against it so that it revealed the outline of His form.
Here’s what I was told: your Heavenly Father loves you. I didn’t note it then, but there were no qualifiers in that statement. Next, that He made me this way for a wise purpose in Him, and I needn’t wonder why, or ask to be changed. In other words, this wasn’t a disability. I was then told I would be able to like and fall in love with a choice daughter of God, but that my desire for men would never go away. Lastly – and this is the part that really blew my mind at the time – that I should take note that some others couldn’t do as I would do; no matter what they did or didn’t do, no matter how righteous and upright before the Lord, they’d never be able to make it work with the “opposite sex”.
I was dumbfounded. The fact that I wasn’t a mistake, but it was planned this way; that I didn’t earn this fate by poor choice or insufficient faith or something someone else did or didn’t do; that this wasn’t a choice I was somehow making; and, most shocking of all, that some others were just gay, and would always be gay, and there was nothing they could do about it? These all conflicted directly with what I’d been taught, and what I believed; I resisted, and refused to trust what I had received. I voiced this disbelief while still in prayer, and the answer came back swift and hot with righteous indignation (although not in these words): “did I stutter?”
However, after I got up from this powerful communion, while I couldn’t forget what He had told me that flew in the face of what I had heard repeatedly from His leaders and at His church, I focused on the part of the answer that had finally given me hope for the future: girls were finally going to be a viable option for me! I felt like I had gotten a death-row pardon, and it was time to live the life that led to marriage, and therefore possibility, that I had always assumed I had been promised.
By early January, I was in the same giant Mormon van again, this time heading south to the mountains of Virginia. I had secured a place at Southern Virginia University, a small liberal arts college that had a LDS religious environment similar to BYU’s. If nothing else, I thought, this would carry me through to get on my mission that summer, and I’d have a chance to test out my newfound sexual normalcy, albeit in a chaste, pre-mission Mormon way.
I was popular with girls there (it didn’t hurt that there was then about 2.5 girls to every guy at SVU). I still wasn’t really into them – and my attraction to guys certainly hadn’t gone away, as much as I wish God had been kidding about all that — but it was “better” than before, and I assumed I’d grow into it like a kid does into a pair of shoes bought too big.
I became a member of a group of six friends, one of whom was a big, buxom, bold, blonde Southern girl with a old Camaro we’d get rides in. She was going to go on a date to a movie with my roommate, and suddenly I found myself feeling inexplicably upset when he told me he wasn’t super into her or seeing the movie. I said, “I’ll go with her instead then,” and when we both saw her later, I asked her if she’d go with me since he didn’t want to go, she said yes, we went, and I was in love. She appeared to reciprocate, and, four kids, 15 moves in three countries, and over 16 years later, still does.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was so excited to finally be really interested in a girl. Things were getting as serious as they can get before a young Mormon dude serves a mission, so I figured I needed to tell her my secret. “I love you, and am obviously really into you” – I was saying this at a park after dark between make-out sessions, which, come on guys, we were good Mormon kids, so just kissing – “but I want you to know that I’m attracted to guys, too.”
“I think it’s going away,” I lied. I also told her that it wasn’t an issue now, and would never be an issue in any way in the future (quick sidebar: lol).
She told me she believed me, still loved me, knew I would be hers forever (did I tell you we had already agreed that we’d get married, after not even a month of dating? No? Ah, young Mormon love!), that I would never “act on it”, and we kissed some more before we drove back to the dorms.
Fast forward to my mission in Houston, her waiting for me, me getting back, us getting married, working for a while and then moving back to VA to finish up college. Every now and again either she or I’d quietly and privately bring up my continuing attraction to guys, but she said it didn’t bother her, and I never even got close to stepping out on her, so it was good. Well, perhaps apart from the bouts of insomnia and depression in college that caused my grades to slip before I graduated, perhaps brought on at least partially by not only denying who I was, but actively being against any political right for teh gayz and always worrying if I was “passing” with what I said, did, and wore; insisting on substituting “us” for “them” when speaking about fellow queer people; trumpeting and supporting the church’s then line that being what I was was a choice and a sin but my identity was also somehow a fiction, even though I knew that wasn’t what God told me, and I knew God knew it, but who knows? Could’ve been anything.
We graduated, got jobs, couldn’t have kids for a while (no, I’m sure I never internalized our infertility and thought it was somehow punishment for being queer and/or that not being straight made me do it wrong somehow, why do you ask?), adopted our oldest, then unexpectedly conceived our oldest son, had him, and later two more, moved around a bunch, etc. In the meantime, the church started to change its tune on us queers.
In 2006, the church published an interview with a church public affairs representative and two of our high-level leaders, including one apostle `about what we call “same-sex attraction” (the Church then really rejected labels like “gay” or “lesbian” because, to be charitable, the leadership thinks that if you publicly identify as such, it will drown out other, more important facets of our identity, which, parenthetically, I don’t even know what to do with that, but whatever).
There were still some worrisome things said in there – the assumption that of course you could never allow your adult lesbian daughter who was visiting from out of town to stay the night in your house with her wife comes immediately to mind – but it was also quite important for a few other positive statements. We’ll also cover this statement in more depth in a future podcast.
Chief among these was the admission that being queer probably wasn’t a choice, and that we shouldn’t encourage gays or lesbians to marry straight people as a way to make them fit (we really used to do this, and, long-term, it generally goes about how you’d expect; we’ll do a podcast that does a deep dive into “mixed-orientation marriages” in the future), and an admission that there’s lots we don’t know about this whole gay thing.
I read this statement so many times that I could’ve probably recited it to you word for word back then. This confirmed (and future statements would do an even better job of this) much of what I had been told in answer to prayer more than five years prior. It felt good for my church to be on what I felt, and I know, to be the right road, even if they were slow to get on it, now walk on it slowly and sometime erratically, and not even always in the right direction. It felt even better to know of a surety that I could trust what I get in answers to prayers.
Anyway, nothing much happened on this front for a number of years, which is to say, it rarely came up at home, never came up at church, I was still closeted to all but my wife and mom, I was still trying hard to “pass” each and every day, and, when queer rights came up, I gradually grew more comfortable advocating for them, but only as society at large got more comfortable with it (so I stood out less for it; I couldn’t risk too much looking different since I was trying to pass, and always worried that there was some sort of secret tell). And I always played the role of the ally, never revealing that I was advocating for myself.
So, fast forward to late 2015. That’s when what has come to be referred to as The Exclusion Policy or just The Policy came out, which was obviously earth-shaking, and changed so many things, and none for the better. More of course will be said on this later.
It also happened to be when, while I was commenting on a post in closed, secret politically- and LDS-themed Facebook group (one that I assumed would be cool and supporting, and they generally were), and I happened to mention that I had come out as gay years prior to my bishop, and that I now considered myself bisexual. There were a few small public shows of support in the group, but it was just a reply to a post that wasn’t directly related to queer issues, so I just thought no one really saw it. I later found out people started blowing up my wife’s phone (she was an admin of this same group), breathlessly asking, “did you see? Are you ok? Are you guys splitting up?” It was that day that I began to learn about a number of important things: bi erasure and the mis-appropriation of the bi label; the larger landscape of Mormon mixed-orientation marriages and how tough it can be on not just the queer, but also the straight, spouse; and how one’s support for queer folks can struggle to make the transition from the general to the specific.
So, it turns out many (Mormon and non-Mormon) folks come out as bisexual first as a sort of transition state before they come out as gay or lesbian, since being bi can be seen as more acceptable, since the perception is that we can move easier through a heteronormative world. However, like the boy who cried wolf, if too many people cry bi, but the truth is they’re really gay or lesbian, people stop believing that being bisexual is a real thing. Straight folks need to and should believe us when we own our identities, and trust and listen to us when we tell them what it’s like and who we are, but we can cause problems for ourselves there when we aren’t ready to be fully honest about it, and we rush out a half-truth. I do get how hard it is to come out (details coming very soon!), and I can sympathize with a desire to come out in what you think will be an easier way and more palatable to onlookers, but coming out can’t have the power and healing – not just for yourself, but also for your family and your various communities — it should have when we don’t insist that others accept us as we truly are. But, just to close the loop here for our straight listeners, if a queer person tells you something about themselves, believe them. If it turns out not to be 100% true, they probably had a good reason, and, I dunno, just do whatever you do the other three times you hear something that wasn’t fully accurate that same day.
Another issue for us as a couple is that my wife is big in cultures (Mormon and American) that value thinness and insist fatness can’t be beautiful or desirable, so it’s even more likely that she’s looked at as my “beard” (again, since so many people don’t think my identity is real). She’s been supportive, but also has pointed out that this perception is something she could’ve lived without, which is fair, of course.
A month or so later, I disagreed with someone on their post in the same Facebook group, and she got upset. She decided to retaliate by trying to get both my wife and I fired from our jobs, and our foster kids taken away from us, and she planned to out me to accomplish this. She began exposing what little she had on me in a bunch of other pages, and sent me and my wife threatening Facebook messages. It wasn’t a well-considered plan; none of our employers were ever going to care, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea to tell our employers before she told them (because who knows what BS she would embellish it with when she realized they didn’t care about what she was saying), and call the cops. So, I came out to the woman who works in security at work who I barely knew and a cop in the suburbs of Provo, UT that day. A fun little Monday, that.
But remember, this woman was clearly pro-queer rights in this group. However, when she thought she could out someone and threaten them with exposure to get even for an internet spat, the true colors shone through. I learned that day – if any of my queer listeners haven’t learned this yet, learn it from me, and hopefully not from experience – not to assume someone’s support and benevolence solely because they claim it when it’s easy and nothing’s on the line.
After that, I wanted to just rip the band-aid off and come out generally to everyone, especially after Orlando (I wanted to post and talk about it, but it felt wrong to say “they” when I meant “we”), but my wife was worried it could affect our custody of our foster kids (our relationship with the birth mother wasn’t ideal, and sadly, we had to maintain it). However, by July of last year, I had waited long enough. I did it in the most millennial way possible (sorry, not sorry, Oldie Hawns) and announced it on Facebook. It generally went well, but some folks unfriended me, and some family members started (untrue) rumors that I had a secret gay lover, so that was fun. You can’t win ‘em all, right?
I want to talk just really quickly about what it’s been like now that I’m out. Generally, it’s been positive, and I recommend it without qualification (if you have something to come out for, and, no, you don’t come out as a Yankees fan or that you prefer Pepsi to Coke). It’s amazing the extra energy you have when you don’t have to expend so much trying to pass as straight; you don’t realize how much work it was until you can stop. This will also sound obvious, but it’s nice to just be honest about yourself to other people.
However, it hasn’t all been great. It can change your relationship with people. People assume you’re straight if you don’t tell them different, and when you do tell them different, sometimes you find they are not really comfortable with queer people, and aren’t into trying to fix that. If you’re bi, people want you to pick a lane; I can’t tell you how many people have notified me that I’m not queer because I’m a man who’s with a woman. Also – and this is positive but uncomfortable – being out draws the negative feelings that some straight folks have toward gays, even if they’re outwardly supportive. Let’s just say it was surprising how many people seem to think that threats of violence to queer people are pretty normal – it’s not just you, Senator Enzi! Moving on…
We moved again for work later that summer, and my new branch president called me in to meet with him. He said it was a welcome to the branch type of thing – and it was – but he had seen my post, and wanted to talk about it.
I could tell right away he was concerned. He asked if I was keeping the Law of Chastity (our collection of religious sex rules, which basically boil down to this: If you’re cisgender: Thou Shalt Only Bump Uglies With Your Opposite-Sex Spouse, and If you’re trans: Don’t). I said I was, and it seemed like he couldn’t believe that I had been faithful to my wife and wasn’t “addicted” to porn. I explained that there are probably people who aren’t his wife that he finds himself attracted to every so often, but, he’s married, and values their agreement to be monogamous, so he doesn’t pull the trigger (let’s go ahead and say pun intended). It was the same for me, but the range of people I find myself attracted to is perhaps a bit broader than his. I remember watching a wave of realization spread over his face, and we moved on to other topics.
So, I started working, and one of my co-workers had just joined the Army Reserves. I had long had a vague desire to join the reserves as a Chaplain, but thought the LDS church didn’t have them. He said he thought he had met one, so I looked into it, and indeed they did have them. I contacted the guy at LDS church headquarters who’s over the Chaplain program, and I sent him all the documentation he asked for to get the ball rolling, and applied and got accepted with a scholarship to Claremont’s Master’s of Divinity program. I figured everything was in the bag; I have a job with lots of responsibility, and I represent an organization much larger than the LDS church in an official capacity as part of my duties, so it seemed an obvious fit.
However, the guy from church headquarters started to be a lot less responsive, and I started to get worried that I wouldn’t be able to reply to Claremont by the deadline to accept my place without hearing about next steps from him, and I told him so. He responded with a request that I call him at his office.
When I called, he said he had been told that I was openly bisexual. Yes, that’s true, I said. He was clearly bothered by it, but seemed to struggle to put into words why. The best he could do (besides saying something like “Brigham Young said we should not publish our follies for all men to see, well, I’m not saying this is a folly, but … do you I understand what I’m saying?”, which I didn’t) was to continually ask me to empathize with his feeling that this put the church in a difficult position, which I told him I also didn’t understand.
I assured him I had never “acted on” my “inclinations”, which he said my branch and district president had made clear. So, then what’s the problem, I said? He said he was worried I’d broadcast my sexual orientation to all who I met; he actually said they were worried I’d wear a sign or something on my head to let all passersby know that I was bi (I took this seriously, but not literally). I told him I had a job now with high visibility and lots of responsibility, and I could pass him my supervisor’s contact information if he wanted to confirm that I didn’t come to work wearing a sash that said “Miss Bisexual 2017” or something (I didn’t use those exact words, natch), and said he could talk to my wife, but he said both were unnecessary. I said I thought that, if anything, my having the experiences I’d had would be a positive for my service with many young LDS servicemen and –women, as I could empathize with them if they were dealing with a whole multitude of problems that they didn’t feel they could tell anyone. He agreed, but then later seemed to angrily push back, and say that it’s wholly wrong and inappropriate to share those type of sensitive personal details with those you counsel, which I met with confusion and telling him I hadn’t said I would do that at all. He asked me to send him a screenshot of my Facebook post in which I came out, which I did. He then said he would have to think about it, bring it to the Seventy that supervised his program, and that he would get back to me, after which he politely excused himself from the call.
I was crushed. I had taken great pains (literally) to live my life in a way that accommodated the church’s shifting positions on queer life throughout the years, all for the promise that if you did that, you’d have all the same opportunities and blessings as everyone else. In fact, the entire logical scaffolding of the way we talked about being gay and Mormon was that it had nothing to do with identity (so much so that we were, and, to a lesser extent now, repeatedly told not to identify as queer) or attraction, but wholly with behavior and actions. Which is to say, if you’re a man, and you can keep your behavior 100% straight and/or just stay celibate, it’s all the same to the Lord. I had done exactly that, and a door that should’ve remained open had been closed for a reason it was said would never happen. This seemed like a clear contradiction. And before you say, “well, it could have been any number of reasons why they decided not to accept you, it’s wrong to assume you know their reasons,” remember that we spent half an hour on the phone, and it was the only issue that came up, and he admitted he saw no other issues with my application.
However, I’m a good Mormon; I kept the faith and a positive outlook. Surely he’d take his concerns to the Seventy, and that gentleman would say it was fine, and my application would move along. What do you think happened, listeners? Place your bets now. Maybe this won’t seem as inevitable to you as it should have to me. Anyway, let’s find out!
A couple of weeks went by, and no word. I emailed, and no response. So, I stayed up late (remember, big time difference) called, left a message, and went to bed. I woke up to the following email:
Dear Brother Jones,
After discussing your situation with Elder Lawrence and through prayerful consideration, we have decided not to provide endorsement for you to become an Army Reserve Chaplain. We encourage you to pursue other career options and advanced degrees that will enhance your work in the [name of my employer redacted]. We know this will be a disappointment to you, but be assured it was only after careful consideration that we came to this decision. We wish you all the best in your professional pursuits.
Brother [name redacted] (N.B. This was the first time that he referred to me or him as “Brother”).
I got back into bed, buried my head into my pillow, and cried hot tears for a while. And then I got up and went to work. The few LDS co-workers I told had what ranged from no reaction to a fairly tepid one. My non-LDS co-workers sympathized, but said they didn’t really understand the context (this is fair enough; we’re a “peculiar people”). I had offers to come and talk about it from members of my branch, and I welcomed that, but it never happened.
But, still, somehow, I kept the faith and a positive outlook. I emailed back, and urged him to reconsider. I said I’d be in Utah soon for a wedding, and I could come speak to him if it’d help. He replied that he’d set up a meeting, and sent me the invitation.
Maybe he would reconsider? Certainly if he agreed to a meeting, he wasn’t just going to do it to reiterate what he’d said in his email and prior phone call, or, in other words, to rub salt in the wound? Let’s guess what happened again, what do you think?
Yeah, it’s what you’d think would happen. Actually, it’s not exactly fair to say they brought me in to just say the same things to me. They said some new things (very few positive, but a few were unintentionally helpful), and they thought I wanted the meeting when I had just said I’d be happy to meet if it’d help them reconsider, so it was likely a misunderstanding.
They (there were two people there) said that they were concerned with my judgment that I showed in deciding to come out (one who had been a mission president said he had gay missionaries serving in his mission, and that they didn’t tell their companions, or anyone else, because they were “dedicated to the task at hand”).
They said it would made it look like the church supported gay sex, because it would be natural to assume that anyone who says they are bisexual is regularly sexually active with men, and although they knew I hadn’t, I couldn’t possibly explain that to every person in the military.
One told me he was sure that I had felt called to the work, and then asked me if I knew why I wasn’t chosen. He pulled out his scriptures, and read Doctrine and Covenants 121:34-38, which reads:
34 Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?
35 Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—
36 That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.
37 That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.
38 Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.
When I asked him, surprised, “wait, do you mean to accuse me of aspiring to the honors of men, or trying to cover my sins, or seeking to gratify my pride or vain ambition?”, he said, “no, I wasn’t referring to you specifically; just what could cause someone not to be chosen.” When I reminded him that he had started the citation not one minute prior to answer the question he posed as to why I, not some rhetorical example, hadn’t been chosen, he got frustrated, and said, “I’m not going to argue with you, Brother Jones.”
They bristled when I pointed out that the Church had just started the Mormon and Gay website (which I also pointed out that the church wasn’t forced to do), in which many Mormons are claiming similar identities to what I claim. Moreover, there is a video from Elder Christofferson saying explicitly that as long as you keep the commandments, you’ll have the same blessings and opportunities as anyone else, and they responded that these people wouldn’t be given endorsements to represent the Church as chaplains, either.
They insisted they understood what we go through because one has a brother who came out as gay a few years ago after being married with kids for years (although I’ll note he only talked about the anguish his adult kids and wife went through, although he did express his love for his brother), and the other said he had a transgender niece. I didn’t have much to say for a few seconds after this; hearing the queer version of the “but I’ve got a black friend or family member!” defense always feels like hearing that someone, somehow still works at Blockbuster. After those few beats, I told them I came out at least in part to help those hurting in silence. Because if his brother and his niece had heard that there were others like them, and more than that, you can come out on the other side and that there’s a future for you, they wouldn’t have felt so desperate and alone, and more kids make it to adulthood then.
I could list a lot more things – we talked for over an hour – that they said and my responses, but what they said to, and heard from, me wasn’t the real reason we were there. After I told them why I had come out, at least one of them softened, and said the most useful thing I had heard since this process started:
He told me that the decision not to give me the endorsement hadn’t been easy. They thought and discussed (including with his supervisor; as I mentioned, a high-level leader in the church) and prayed about it at length, but that he just couldn’t overcome his concerns about my sexuality and feel comfortable about saying yes, so he had to say no. I immediately knew what that meant, and if you’ve ever developed a habit of praying for answers, you should, too.
First of all – and it shouldn’t be this way, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we know it often is – we all know it can be hard to accept something that goes against what we’re sure is right, or what we’ve decided. Furthermore, I have found that the Holy Spirit almost never will give me inspiration to do something if He knows I won’t obey. Lastly, for a revelatory church, built on the rock of inspiration gotten from asking the hard, challenging questions of ourselves and of God, it seems indeed an odd fate that we almost exclusively call managers rather than revelators to lead us, and, outside of the personal and family contexts (I’m speaking here again of developing our leaders), we prioritize administration over inspiration.
This, dear listeners, is how we enshrine inertia as our operating principle, and why we showed up generations too late to nixing polygamy and the black priesthood ban, and why we’ve fallen badly behind in having an actual plan (made all the more glaring because we are the plan having-est people on the planet) for our queer fellow worshipers. And why, in my view, this brother came away thinking God wouldn’t want him giving me an endorsement.
Anyway, after that, we ended with a few inconsequential pleasantries, and he asked me if I wanted to bring my family, who was hanging out at Temple Square, in to eat at the Church Office Building cafeteria (aside: Wut. Are you actually being serious right now?), I said no, we shook hands, and I left. And that takes us to today, the end of the profile of myself, and leads me directly into my little closing statement.
Thanks for sticking with me through that wall of speech. Here’s what I want to end with:
I’m sure many of you listening today thought, “wow, this guy is really against the church; why doesn’t he just leave if he hates it so much?”, or something similar.
I don’t hate it. I want it to get better and be what it should be because I love it, and it’s beautiful, and it’ll be part of me forever no matter what I do. To be honest, I thought about leaving since the chaplain debacle; I told a few people I was going to at least “take a break” that I never took, and now don’t expect to. The two gentlemen at the COB seemed to expect that I would; one of them said to me “I hope this won’t influence your activity or membership in the church”. Everyone expects queer folks to leave.
But I don’t want or plan to leave. Many, or perhaps most, of us don’t, at least not at first. There’s not a queer Mormon out there who hasn’t fought and struggled and wrestled to make it work. It’s our home. It’s our community. It’s our church just as much as it’s yours. In fact, maybe moreso; most of you will never have to purchase your membership and activity for the price that I paid and continue to pay every day, and many, many of my fellow Mormon queers have it much, much worse than I do.
Why do I stay? Why do I pay such a price to remain where you say things to either erase me, exclude me, or impute evil motives to me that I don’t have, and then smile at me as if nothing happened? Well, simply, I still hear the voice of God, and, to me, He still speaks to me through this church. But let’s get one thing crystal clear: the church is merely a tool to help us be like Jesus, and do what He asks of us. Same goes for apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth. The church is for God, not the other way around. Follow where God leads you, period.
But here’s what gives me pause about my renewed commitment to stay: I can trust the church with me; I know the ropes already, and what to expect here. But I struggle to trust the church with my most precious things: my children. I have no idea what they will be as they mature; they are all still quite young. But if it were to be, I don’t know that I could raise a queer kid in this church in good conscience; at least, not as it is now. And I don’t think I’m alone; not by a long shot.
But the good news is that we have all the power we need to bring our policies and doctrine and hearts and minds into line with God’s will within us all Right. Now. But, on that wise, there is surely work enough to do ‘ere the sun goes down, and the time is far spent to start.
For you straight folks out there that might be wondering, What can I do? or What lack I yet?, here’s one idea I have (I’ll have others for you later):
Your queer fellows exist in a space in which many would prefer that we didn’t exist, weren’t around, or were just someone else. It’s often so lonely that you wish you could just see the hidden bitterness instead, until the bitterness envelops you so completely that you yearn for the loneliness again.
So it’s fine and even commendable to say to us, “your sexual orientation or gender identity doesn’t make you any worse or different to me; I see you how I see everyone else”, at least if you mean it that you don’t see it as a negative when many others do. But some say you should instead “celebrate” your gay kids and queer co-workers, but I’ve never cared for that phrase; to me, it feels a bit like a parent-to-very young child interaction, like a celebration for being potty trained or losing your first tooth. We also don’t celebrate the “normal” people (in this case, straight) for being normal, so the “celebrate” verbiage can bolster this false narrative that we’re seeking a place above and superior to straight people.
But society on a large scale, and church on a smaller scale, does prefer people to be straight. So, it would be really meaningful and even transformative if you could find a way to prefer us the way we are, not just to tolerate or accept it. We would not only be different without our queerness, but lesser beings altogether. And if you like us, you like us at least in part because, and not in spite, of that part of our identity. Learn to prefer, please.
Now, last but not least, to my fellow Rainbows, to all of us Little Purple Pansies (seriously, read the lyrics to that song; it’s perfect for us) who are listening, here’s what I say to you:
The way you hear your queerness talked about is that it is a “struggle”, a “challenge”, or a “cross to bear”. But it’s not. It’s a gift. It’s a spiritual gift just like knowledge, faith, healing, prophecy, tongues, etc.
Now, you might be saying, are you saying it’s not a struggle? Haven’t you spent this whole time saying how hard it has been for you?
But it’s not hard because of the gift you received. It’s a struggle because others despise your gift – sometimes just out of ignorance, or a lack of light and knowledge — and are trying to teach you to do the same. Do not despise it, and do not neglect it. Prune it, dig about it, and nourish it, and it will grow and bloom, just like you will and you already have.
How is it a gift? Well, because of it, I am like Janus: I can see in more than one direction, and not just romantically or sexually. I can see things that others can’t see, and sense and relate to things you can’t. I’m certain it’s the same for you in one way or another. If you can’t see it as a gift, pray and/or study and ponder until the gift you’ve always had is revealed.
*music starts* This has been I Like To Look For Rainbows; please join us again next time.