|``Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life."
- 2 Nephi 31:20
I grew up a fifth generation Latter-day Saint in a faithful, loving home. When I came home from school, Mom was always there to greet me, listen to me, and comfort me if I'd had a bad day. As I grew up, Dad took time out with each of us for one-on-one activities and talks. My parents told us every day how much they loved us, and they frequently shared their testimonies of the gospel. Shortly before I was baptized at about the age of eight, I obtained my own testimony through the witness of the Holy Spirit that the Church was true. That testimony has continued to grow since then through countless experiences.
I first became aware of my sexual attraction to other boys at the age of eleven. As I got older, other guys my age started showing interest in the opposite sex, but I only felt interest for my male peers. When I was fourteen years old, intense feelings for my best friend caused me to wonder if I might be homosexual.
One time at Church, a priesthood leader gave a lesson in which he compared homosexuals to murderers. He told us that homosexuality was so despicable that a homosexual orientation alone was grounds for automatic excommunication. I believed him, and responded by doing what Church leaders had always taught me to do in response to temptation: to seek to master my thoughts, to pray, to fast, to study the scriptures, to devote myself more fully to my Church callings, to share my testimony often, and in every way to be as faithful as I could. I truly believed that if I did all these things, these temptations would pass.
I loved the Church with my whole heart, and my highest priority as a youth was preparing for missionary service. In high school I gave personally engraved copies of the Book of Mormon to all my friends and teachers. I spoke openly about my faith and my testimony. My senior health class voted to give me an award for ``standing up for my beliefs" because of my outspoken positions on moral issues such as abortion and pre-marital sex. I invited my best friend to receive the missionary discussions, and he agreed. He eventually gained a testimony of his own, and I had the privilege of baptizing him. My friend later served a mission in Chicago, is married with children of his own, and is faithful and active in the Church to this day.
I was called to serve in the Swiss Geneva Mission. My first night in the mission field, before bed my companion stripped down to his undergarments and invited me to join him in scripture study and prayer at the kitchen table. I found him very attractive and couldn't control my reaction of arousal. That night I could not sleep. I lay in my bunk and prayed, ``Lord, what am I doing here? How can I serve You when I have these kinds of feelings?"
The challenge of managing my feelings for my companions continued throughout my mission, and my response was just to pray harder, study harder, and work harder. If the mission president wanted us to get up at 6:00 a.m. to study our scriptures, I got up at 5:00. If the mission president wanted us to tract at least six hours a day, I tracted seven. I developed a reputation for being one of the hardest working, most serious missionaries in the mission, and finished my mission as a branch president in Béziers, France. But the more I was praised by my peers, the worse I felt. I thought, ``If they only knew ..."
In spite of these feelings, I served honorably and feel blessed to have been the means by which two families were brought into the Church. Two of the souls I baptized in France eventually served their own missions for the Church, and in reflecting on this I am awed by the way our lives touch other lives, and ripple outward in ever greater circles.
When my mission ended, I attended BYU. The first thing my BYU bishop said to me when he welcomed me into the ward was, ``You've completed a successful mission, so now your primary responsibility is to get married." I wasn't quite sure how to do that. I went on some group dates, but was never attracted to the women I dated, even though I recognized them to be lovely women. Meanwhile my feelings of attraction to my male peers only intensified. I also began to experience a crisis of faith related to the fact that the version of Church history I had been taught as a youth did not seem to square with what I was learning as a history major at BYU.
In my junior year I moved and was assigned to a new ward with a new bishop. When my bishop interviewed me for a calling to be a ward clerk, I confessed to him that I was struggling with masturbation. He withdrew the ward clerk calling he had extended to me, took away my temple recommend, and told me to stop taking the sacrament for at least three months. I explained the things I had been doing to overcome the habit, including fasting, prayer, scripture study, and trying to channel my thoughts in uplifting directions through inspirational music. I said I didn't know what more I could do, and I asked him for advice. He told me that I needed to get married as soon as possible.
I left the bishop's office feeling utterly worthless. I felt I needed things like temple attendance, the sacrament, and a ward calling to feel connected to the Lord, and to feel that it was worthwhile to keep struggling. I felt not the slightest attraction to women, and was generally very uncomfortable being physical with women in any way. Marriage made no sense to me; it seemed unreal and impossible. This left me feeling like I would never, ever be worthy again in my life. It was at that point that I began to think often about dying.
I believed that if anyone knew of my sexual orientation, it would lead to automatic rejection. I expected rejection from everyone: my family, my closest friends, and certainly from Church acquaintances. I expected excommunication. I felt there was no one I could talk to, no one who would empathize with me. I became increasingly lonely and isolated. The mental pain was almost constant, and I thought, ``I'm going to be damned in any event, so I might as well just get it over with." I just wanted the pain to end.
One of my roommates at the time used to talk about suicide. (Years later I would learn that he too was gay and going through a struggle similar to my own.) It worried me when he talked about it. I even called the counseling services at BYU to ask for help with my roommate. But I didn't dare talk to them about my own wish that I could just die somehow. By the time I went home for the summer of 1986, I had formulated a plan to end my life.
Fortunately, circumstances delayed my putting my plan into effect. Then one day I saw our neighbor, an Episcopal priest, walking down the street, and I felt drawn to him. I called him on the phone, and he invited me to his home to talk. He showed kindness and interest in me and hired me to work in his garden. This was very therapeutic and helped distract me from my problems.
Later that summer, I went on an internship to Finland. There I had a series of powerful spiritual experiences in which it became clear to me that my Heavenly Father wanted me to leave the Church for a time. I still do not entirely understand why my Heavenly Father would direct me to do such a thing. Maybe He knew that given my fragile state, it was more important for me to survive and begin to rebuild some of my self-worth than to stay in the Church under conditions that might leave me in such despair that I would rather take my own life.
In August 1986, I asked to have my name removed from the records of the Church. Though I had not at that point committed any excommunicable offense, my bishop sent me a letter informing me that a Church court was to be held on my behalf, and I was formally excommunicated. I entered a time of prayer and fasting to decide how best to deal with my feelings of same-sex attraction. I continued to date women for a time but eventually realized that it would be wrong for me to get married. I joined the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) for a number of years, and I spent a summer in a Roman Catholic monastery, to learn more about celibacy and what it might mean for me to live my life celibate.
I studied the problem out in my mind and then turned to my Heavenly Father. Gradually, I felt guided by the Spirit to explore the possibility of a same-sex relationship. I started going out dancing with friends. Often I noticed a particular slender, attractive African-American man. He was always stylishly dressed and was a graceful dancer. From the first time I saw him, I knew I wanted to get to know him better. One night as I was there sipping on my usual beverage (mineral water), someone tapped me on the shoulder. To my delight I turned around to see that it was this man. We danced together for the rest of the evening.
His name was Göran. He had chosen the name himself, partly as a way of making a new life for himself after leaving his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Like many gay men of my generation, he had experienced rejection and conflict with his family over his sexual orientation. When I met him, he had had no contact with his family for several years. He chose a Swedish name because of his admiration for Swedish language and culture, one aspect of which was stoicism in the face of adversity.
Göran says that he ``always knew" we were meant to be together for the rest of our lives. It took me a bit longer to figure that out for myself. But after about a year and a half, Göran and I decided to move in together. We joined a community gospel choir, and in 1994 we joined a United Church of Christ congregation where gays and lesbians were welcomed into full participation. In 1995, we held a commitment ceremony, attended by both of our families, in which we promised to God, to our families, and to our communities that we would be faithful, true, and committed to one another.
Göran and I have been continuous companions, comforting and helping one another, laughing and crying together. In our relationship, I have found a sense of complementarity, wholeness, and near perfect joy. We passed through many tests of our commitment to each other. When I was unable to get work, he was there to support me. He was once physically assaulted by gay-bashers, leaving him with three broken teeth, and I had to lobby our state representative in order to get the police to bring his assailants to justice.
Once Göran slipped on some stairs and injured his tailbone. He was in extreme pain, and when I witnessed this, I passed out. We laughed about it later, when Göran pointed out that I wouldn't be much use to him if I did that every time he was in pain. But there was no pain that he felt that I did not also in some very real sense feel, and whatever made him happy filled me with joy. He literally became my alter-ego, the person without whom it is difficult for me to know who exactly I am.
When I left the LDS Church in 1986, it had been clear to me that my Heavenly Father intended for me to leave the Church only for ``a time". Later I grew to believe that I had outgrown the LDS Church, that I had no need for it, and that as a gay man I simply was not welcome there. I allowed much of my life to be controlled by anger and impatience with those who did not understand me.
In the fall and winter of 2002, I began a writing project related to Mormonism, and I read every book I could find about Joseph Smith and the history of the early Church. At the same time, a number of LDS former friends started to contact me. In the summer of 2005, a former BYU professor invited me to attend the Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium.
There I attended a session discussing the Church booklet, ``True to the Faith". Without warning, I felt the Holy Spirit's presence in a most powerful, undeniable way. While I had had spiritual experiences in the nineteen years since leaving the Church, some very significant and powerful, none matched this one in intensity. Interestingly enough, though the session itself was somewhat critical of the booklet, the Spirit's clear, undeniable and distinct message to me was, ``John, it's time to come back to the Church."
I was stunned. Though I was feeling quite critical of the Church, this prompting of the Spirit came so clearly, and with such an overpowering sense of unconditional love! I thought, ``I can't do it. I'm gay and partnered. They don't want me. They would never have me back." And then I wondered, ``The Spirit isn't possibly telling me I need to leave Göran, is it?" All these things were going through my mind, and I started crying, because of the beauty and power of the experience and my sense of the complete, overwhelming love of God. But I was also hurt and confused by it, because I simply didn't understand how it was possible to do what I felt the Spirit was asking me to do.
Over the following months, the Spirit kept speaking to me, pushing me to consider coming back to the Church. Finally I had another spiritual experience in which the Spirit told me to just do what I could, one step at a time. By then I knew this was something I could not ignore, and I started to understand that there were steps I could take on the road back to the Church. I started by contacting Affirmation, an organization for gay and lesbian Mormons. But the step that I knew I really had to take was to actually start attending church. As I did, I found the Spirit frequently present, urging me to start praying and reading the scriptures daily again.
I wept tears of joy reading the Book of Mormon again, and found to my amazement that my renewed testimony of it was stronger than ever before, not in spite of but because I was aware of the criticisms of it. I had weighed them and found them not as convincing as the book itself. I had a religion professor at BYU who once advised me that the answer to my doubts about Joseph Smith and the early Church was not to read less, but to read more. I learned that this is true and discovered that the more deeply I studied the history of the Church, the more undeniably I saw the hand of God in it.
After attending church for a time, I met with my bishop and told him my story. The first words out of his mouth were, ``Well, you have been on quite a journey, haven't you!" He made it clear to me that as long as I was in a relationship with my partner, I could not be re-baptized. But rather than pressuring me to leave my partner or trying to shame me or make me feel unworthy in any way, he encouraged me to incorporate as many gospel principles into my life as I possibly could. He told me, ``No priesthood leader in this ward should have any problem with you attending church here, and if they give you any trouble, you let me know!" He encouraged me to attend meetings, to live the Word of Wisdom, to pray, to study the scriptures, and to do genealogical work. He assigned me home teachers, and permitted me to participate in the ward's music program. Every time I have applied a new principle of the gospel, I have found more and more blessings pouring into my life.
A couple of years ago, I felt the Spirit prompting me to consider how I might apply the principle of tithing in my life. As an excommunicated member I knew I was not permitted to give tithes or offerings to the Church. I considered donating the money to some other church or charity. It also occurred to me to save my tithing in a bank account, in the hope that someday I might be restored to full membership and be able to give it to the Church. That is what felt best to me.
Over time, the sum in that bank account has grown quite large. Göran and I live within our means, but sometimes our finances are tight, and having my ``tithing" money in a bank account in my name presents a constant temptation to dig into it and use it. Also, I feel conflicted about having the money just sitting there, doing nothing but collecting interest when there are so many good charities for the poor, and so many in need. So I continue to petition the Lord to give me some guidance about what to do in this situation. But so far, I have felt prompted simply to continue to put my tithing money into this special bank account and wait.
My ``tithing fund" is, I guess, symbolic of the challenges I face as a gay man in a same-sex relationship who also happens to have a testimony of the gospel and a great love for the restored Church. I have felt incredibly blessed, ever since I followed the Spirit's prompting to incorporate the principle of tithing into my life. I have experienced a greater sense of closeness to my Heavenly Father and heightened sensitivity to the promptings of the Spirit. We have also never experienced financial want, and in fact have experienced great success in our financial goals. At the same time, it is a constant reminder to me of how awkward and strange my situation is.
As at every point throughout my life, as I have been faced with important decisions in this new leg of my journey, I have prayed and sought the guidance of my Heavenly Father. This has included praying about my relationship with my partner. It was extremely painful for me to lay this relationship before God and ask whether it was His will that I should end it. But I felt that I could not continue my journey with any integrity unless I did this.
It was made clear to me by the Holy Spirit that I should not leave my partner. Rather, I should apply the same principles of chastity to our relationship that I would apply to a heterosexual marriage. I received a promise through the Spirit that if I did this, and that if I in every other way possible applied as many of the teachings and principles of the gospel in my life as I could, that if I attended church, ``standing in holy places", and remained loyal to the Church in every way I possibly could, that not only would I be blessed beyond my ability to receive, but that all would be well and that the Lord would take care of me both for this life and for the life to come. I have obeyed these promptings of the Spirit, and have made continuing obedience to the Spirit the highest priority in my life.
My bishop asked me how I could reconcile my commitment to my partner with the Church's teachings on homosexuality. I told him simply that I could not, but that I was doing the best I possibly could to live faithfully. My bishop and my ward embraced me and encouraged me to attend and participate to the extent allowed for those who are excommunicated from the Church. This is all I could possibly ask.
In 2008, when the California Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples could not legally be denied the right to marry, Göran and I traveled to California to be married again -- this time legally. My entire faithful LDS family attended the ceremony, performed by a minister of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Riverside. A framed copy of the marriage certificate hangs on our bedroom wall.
I have often wondered about the twists and turns of my personal history. What if, instead of speaking about homosexuality as abomination and perversion, my leaders had acknowledged as the Church does today that ``Same-gender attractions include deep emotional, social, and physical feelings. All of Heavenly Father's children desire to love and be loved"? Instead of taking my temple recommend away and denying me a calling and the sacrament, what if my bishop had taken the time to get to know me better as a person, to let me know that I was loved and valued? Why was it that an Episcopal priest who knew nothing about me seemed more sensitive to my anguish than my own priesthood leaders?
I have often wondered if I would still be a member of the Church in good standing if the conditions that now exist in the Church had existed twenty years ago. And yet, when I consider everything that has happened in my life, in those same twists and turns I now see the hand of a loving God who is capable of causing all things to work for the good of His children. I will not waste time wondering about what might have been. I just accept each day as a gift, and continue to live my life in such a way as to be worthy of the guidance of the Spirit, to be sensitive and to listen, and to have courage.
There are many members of the Church who, unlike me, do not feel they can be open about their sexual orientation. They fear being misunderstood, and many of them struggle with feelings of isolation and loneliness. For their sake, I wish members of the Church could find appropriate ways to publicly indicate their support for those of us who are attracted to the same gender. When someone says something ignorant or unkind, it is an enormous encouragement when someone is willing to kindly correct such statements in the light of the Church's teachings of love and compassion.
I wish more members would understand what the Church is really asking us, to give up any prospect of finding the happiness in this life that comes from an intimate relationship. Many, perhaps the majority, of gay men and lesbians have left or will leave the Church because the thought of denying themselves the possibility of an intimate relationship is too lonely, too frightening, and too painful. Many, like me, have found loving relationships with same-sex partners and have nurtured lasting commitments to each other. My relationship with my partner has taught me important life lessons that I could not have learned any other way. It has helped me to become a more patient and hopeful person and has increased my capacity to love and serve others. I hope that married heterosexual Church members will consider the joy they find in their own marriage, and consider how readily they would cast that aside.
Although it is often painful and frustrating for me to be excluded from activities and service I would love to be a part of, I have also been blessed with an extra measure of the Spirit's presence, comforting me and encouraging me to honor the Sabbath, attend church regularly, to pray, to study the scriptures, to do genealogical work, to live the Word of Wisdom, to avoid pornography and impure thoughts, and to share my testimony whenever I am able. I would not offer myself as an example for anyone else, but I can say unequivocally that I am indeed blessed, and that my Heavenly Father has fulfilled all of his promises to me to overflowing.
I pray that my fellow Latter-day Saints will show love, kindness and compassion toward those in situations like my own, that they will not judge us unkindly, not make assumptions, and not lay burdens on us in addition to those we must already carry. Impatience and misunderstanding never can have as much transforming power as love.