Sunday, October 22, 2017

Dear Mom, I spoke in church today.

Dear Mom,

 I know I just did a whole thing about not going to church, but the leadership of the YSA ward asked me a while ago if I'd be willing to participate in an LGBT-themed sacrament meeting, and I had no problem saying yes to that. Here's the talk I gave. You can listen to it, or read an adapted version below.



I've known I was gay since I was about 12 years old. I grew up in a pretty typical LDS household and had wonderful parents and leaders who were loving and supportive, so I never felt depressed, or suicidal, or like God hated me. My story is pretty atypical in that regard, and I feel very blessed because of it.

To anyone who identifies as LGBT, know this: You are loved, and important, and valuable. You have so much to contribute, and you are not alone.

Will and Sarah are going to have some amazing thoughts for you, but I want to focus on everybody else. The 90 and 9, as it were. I want to share with those of you who fit comfortably into the straight paradigm some thoughts on how you can help create a safe space for those of us who don’t. I will be speaking as a gay man today because that is my experience, but I feel safe in saying that the thoughts I share apply to anyone who finds themselves outside the norm of sexuality and gender.

I reached out to some people I know in the gay Mormon community to see what they’d want to hear or see from our straight friends and allies. Two themes emerged. I’d like to address them both.

First. It seems that despite the church’s efforts to clarify its position on the subject, there are still some false ideas and misinformation going around about the issue of homosexuality.

This is not something we chose. Nor is this something that needs “fixing”. In fact, most of us probably wouldn’t change it if we could. We are not broken1. There is nothing wrong with us. I’ve had numerous conversations with people who used phrases like, “Well if you just have enough faith,” or “If you just pray hard enough”. I want to be very clear about something here. The doctrine of the atonement is powerful. According to the scriptures, the atonement is infinite and all-encompassing. The atonement has the power to change. But I think in this situation it’s meant to change our hearts, not our attractions. The atonement is there to cleanse, heal, lift, comfort, and empower - which can happen regardless of sexual attraction. Besides, what happens to that young man or woman who is told to just have enough faith, pray enough, read the scriptures enough and these attractions will go away, and then they don’t? Do you understand how damaging that mindset is? The fact is, my sexual preference for men has no more bearing on my eternal salvation than my decorative preference for mid-century furniture.

Apparently, there are those among us who think that if someone is gay, that automatically means they’re disregarding the law of chastity. Being gay doesn’t mean we’re breaking the law of chastity, any more than being straight means you’re keeping it.

We are not depraved. We are not perverted. We are not broken. We are whole, beautiful, complex people - just like all of you.

I know that for most of this stuff, I am preaching to the choir here. But the fact is, you are all part of larger communities where harmful thoughts and ideas like these are still prevalent, and so now your challenge is to stand up for us when we can’t stand up for ourselves. You will be in family gatherings or leadership positions where your words can have an impact. Please have the courage to spread love and understanding. Don’t stand idly by when people spread fear.

Secondly, and overwhelmingly the message I heard from my LGBT brothers and sisters, and that I feel myself, is that we - like all people everywhere - want desperately to be a part of the community. And more than that, we deserve to be part of the community, just as you do. We want to feel welcome at church. To serve in meaningful ways. To love and be loved by those around us. To work out our relationship with God without the fear of hatred and rejection.

I want to be very careful about what I say here because I recognize that it might trigger some defensiveness. In the past few years, the men in the top leadership positions of the church have said things and implemented policies that have been quite hurtful to a lot of people. And this isn’t about sustaining leaders, or following the prophet, or where you might stand on gay marriage. What this is about is recognizing that there are real people feeling real pain. And the fact is, if someone says you hurt them, you don’t get to say you didn’t.

I think now would be an excellent time to talk about empathy. Brene Brown is one of my favorite researchers and speakers of the last few years and she shares some powerful thoughts about empathy. She describes empathy like this:




The shortest scripture in our entire canon is perhaps also the most powerful scripture we have. Lazarus had died, and when Jesus was coming into town, Mary and Martha went out to meet him. They cried to the Lord and said: “If you had been here, our brother wouldn’t have died.” The scriptures say that Jesus saw Mary and Martha weeping and all of the Jews that had come with them, and he groaned within himself, and then in John 11:35 it says, “Jesus wept.” He wept. He didn’t try to comfort them with platitudes, or silver linings. Even though he knew he could and would raise Lazarus. Instead, he practiced perfect empathy and sat in that pain and sorrow with them and wept with them.

With that in mind, I’d like to remind you of the promise you made when you were baptized. When Alma was preaching to the people in the wilderness by the waters of Mormon he said: "Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort..."

I want to reiterate that I don’t think being gay or dealing with SSA or however you want to say it, is a burden. Again, we are not broken. Nothing needs to be fixed. However, growing up LGBT in the church can often be accompanied by depression, self-loathing, and a very real sense of grief over love, marriage, and family that may never happen.

So, brothers and sisters, if you are willing to help bear those burdens, to mourn with we who mourn, and comfort those of us who stand in need of comfort, here is what I would encourage you to do: Listen to the stories of your LGBT brothers and sisters. Really listen. Stories of those who are choosing to live lives inside the church and its teachings, and stories of those who are not. Resist the urge to prize or value one of those situations over the other. If you are hearing these stories in person, you might say, “Thank you so much for sharing that with me. I know it’s not always an easy thing to talk about.” Then go home, and on your own follow the advice of the children’s primary song - search, ponder, and pray. Start with the church’s website: mormonandgay.org. Look at organizations like Northstar, Affirmation, or I’ll Walk With You. Reading up on this subject may bring up some questions. Don’t be scared to ask them. But also don’t be scared to sit with the answers and practice empathy. The important thing is not that you get everything right, or that you agree with everyone. The important thing is for you to help create a space and a community inside the church where people feel safe to work out their relationship with God - wherever that may take them. It is not your job to offer judgments, shoulds, or spiritual prescriptions. Your job as fellow travelers and followers of Christ is to provide love and understanding. To say, “You know, I don’t know exactly what you’re going through, but when I encounter hard times in my life, here’s something that helps me. If that also helps you, that’s great. If it doesn’t, I’d love to help and see what we can discover together.” And understand that someone’s journey may take them out of the church. But please. Please don’t abandon them. Church activity should not be a stick against which we measure someone’s worthiness as a friend.

Tom Christofferson, the brother of the apostle D. Todd Christofferson, was in a committed gay relationship for many years. He recently returned to church activity. He shares this story from early in his journey: “One night, Mom and Dad asked all the boys and their spouses to put their kids to bed and come into their room to have a family meeting. We had prayer together, and then our dad talked about his concern that we would be unified as a family and have loyalty to each other.” Christofferson remembers, “Mom told us, ‘I’ve realized that there is no perfect family, but I believe we can be perfect in our love for each other.’ And then she turned to my brothers and sisters-in-law and said, ‘The most important lesson your kids will learn from the way that our family treats their Uncle Tom is that nothing they can ever do will take them outside the circle of our family’s love.’

Now, for a couple of other practical suggestions:

Give plenty of hugs. Research shows that hugs lasting at least 6 seconds optimize the flow of mood-boosting chemicals.
Guys, host a guy’s night. Girls, host a girl’s night. Make an effort to include us socially.
Have discussions in Elder’s Quorum and Relief Society about things you can do to help the LGBT members of your congregation, and solicit their advice. And not just in the YSA ward, but as you move on to the glories of the family ward. This may seem like a lot to do for such a small percentage of the population, but when compared with the number of marriage lessons we’ve had to sit through, I think it’s merited. In fact, when preparing those marriage lessons, take a second to think about how that’s going to affect those who may not have hope for that in this life. Don’t let the burden of “likening the lesson” always fall on our shoulders. Further, don’t offer dating and marriage advice.

There may be some discomfort around this issue for you. Lean into that. Be open about expressing your discomfort, but also be willing to find out how to grow out of that discomfort.

I’ll leave you with one last story. When the president announced that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the military, a friend of mine on Facebook, who doesn't identify as LGBT, but is very active in the community, posted something along these lines, "I know today has been a hard day from some of you.  If you need anything, let me know and we'll make it happen.  I'll be having pizza at my house.  Feel free to come over.  If you can't come to pizza, let me know and we'll take care of you."  She accepted donations from anyone through Venmo and PayPal and anyone who needed some comfort and kindness that day received it.  Whether it was pizza, a movie, a new blanket, a haircut, or a kind word.  She didn't dole out judgments, or scriptures, or pronouncements.  She simply served.  It was one of the most Christlike things I have ever seen and it brought me to tears.

May we all create spaces of safety and refuge where we can work out our relationship with God and learn how to grow closer to Him.


1I know. We're all broken. We all have things that need fixing. That's the whole deal with the atonement. My point here is that being gay is not what's broken. It's not the thing that needs fixing.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Dear Mom, I recognize the irony in this one.

Dear Mom,

Remember when I wrote to you about not going to church anymore? I mean, I'm sure you do, I just wanted to give some context for this letter.  Well, that post went a little unexpectedly crazy.  As of the posting of this letter, it has almost 22,000 views.  22,000!  Not something I ever expected.  But I think that says something about the nature of the sentiments I expressed.  A lot of people feel the same way.  Relationships with The Church are complicated.

Here's the thing.  Everyone I know personally who commented expressed love and support.  Even, perhaps a tad surprisingly, certain members of my own family. (I know!) Which is so so great.  A lot of people who commented said they felt the same way.  There were some commenters, however, who were very quick to jump to the defense of The Church.  Now, while I understand that reflex, I also want to tell them to relax.  The Church is perfectly capable of defending itself.

What I want to tell them is to take a minute to breathe, and then think, "Hmm.  This post seems to be resonating with people.  A lot of people seem to be saying they feel the same way.  I wonder why that is.  I wonder if there are people in my life who feel the same way." And Mom, based on the response I got, I can all but guarantee there are.  And then I want them to find those people and listen to them.  Really listen.  And then I want them to say, "Thank you for sharing that with me," and not offer advice, or solutions, or spiritual guidance, or say, "Sure, but...".  And then.  Then I want them to go home and think about what they've heard. Do a little reading. Do a little praying. Seek for understanding. They might even return to their friend and say, "I've been thinking about what you said, and I'm having a hard time with it. Tell me more." Then I want them to continue to listen.  Then maybe they can say, "I understand that your experience with The Church has been challenging.  My own experience hasn't been, so I've been doing some reading/praying/studying.  I don't have any answers for you, but here's how I approach/reconcile/deal with A, B, and C.  If that's helpful for you, great.  If not, I'd love to keep this conversation going and see what we can discover together - regardless of where that discovery takes you."  See that last bit there?  No.  Ulterior.  Motive.

What I want is for people to stop assuming that because they've had a positive experience with The Church, everyone else should have as well.  That because The Church works for them, that it will work for everyone. That because they feel welcome and supported, and part of the community, that everyone does. That because they "know" something, that everyone else "knows" the same thing - or will "know" the same thing at some point.  That they are "right".  That because they love the people around them, that those people feel loved. Yeah verily, even stop assuming that the institution of The Church is good at loving all of its people.

I have seen that The Church can be INCREDIBLE when it comes to moments of crisis in people's lives - death, loss, tragedy, suffering.  But what does it say about the community of The Church that when people disagree or have doubts or differing opinions or questions or even different experiences, that their first response is to feel anxious about saying anything?  Shouldn't a community like The Church be the first place people run in a situation like that? And wouldn't it be great if when they ran to that community, they were embraced with open arms, empathy, compassion, and love, instead of side-long glances, judgment, and fear?

Mostly I want people to check that defensive reflex.  It's understandable given our own history with persecution and expulsion, and everything The Church teaches about zealously championing the faith, and being a witness for Christ.  Understandable, but not helpful.

Can we all learn to ask more questions and really listen to the answers before we jump right to passionately listing the reasons we're right, or we're not wrong, or #notallmormons or whatever?  Still loving, and caring for, and fully supporting people even if in the end they decide to take a different path? It would be pretty great if The Church were that community.

I also recognize that in my own way, I'm getting a little defensive here.  I think it's warranted.  But I'm also open to discussion because I want to be that person who asks questions, and listens, and breathes, and says, "That hasn't been my experience.  Tell me more, and let's see what we can discover together."

Anyway.

Love you,

Greg

Friday, September 29, 2017

Dear Mom, I think I'm still Mormon, though.

Dear Mom,

I'm not sure how to write this one.  It's probably gonna be long though, so gird your loins.

I suppose there's no reason to bury the lede - I've stopped going to church.

There are a lot of reasons, really.  Questionable history.  Practices and policies with which I do not agree. Changing doctrines. The culture. Oh, the culture. The fact that an overwhelming majority of Mormons in Utah voted for a man for president who does not, in any conceivable way, embody the teachings espoused by the gospel they claim to love and live. What it really comes down to, though, is that, anymore, church feels a bit like an old favorite pair of jeans that just don't fit anymore.

I also think maybe it's that the church doesn't really know what to do with me.  I mean that in a few ways.  First, The Church isn't very good at dealing with anyone who isn't straight, white, and married.  It's like a perpetual awkward first date. But also, I think people in the church don't really know what to do with me, specifically. Mormonism was, and to a large extent still is, my culture - I'm not going to request that my name be removed from the records or anything.  But Mormons, with a few rare exceptions, have never really been my people. I haven't ever really attended church for the social aspect.  I mean, the people are pleasant enough, but church is usually a pretty lonely place for me.  When I first moved to LA, it was about a year and a half before I felt like I had any real friends here.  And I went to church every week.  "But wait!" you say, "You have plenty of Mormon friends!"  True.  But I counted.  I can think of maybe a dozen people who I would consider friends who I met at church - and I didn't meet any of them in Utah.  The rest are friends who are friends for other reasons who just happen to be Mormon because I lived in Utah where everyone is Mormon.

I don't begrudge anyone who finds value and joy inside The Church.  It works really well for a lot of people.  And I don't hold anything against the church, necessarily. I still value growing up with that framework.  And I still believe in God and things like love, self-improvement, kindness, compassion, mercy, good stewardship, courage etc.  But more and more I've noticed that the times I feel most connected to those ideas, to something Divine, it has absolutely nothing to do with The Church.  It happens in yoga, or during the fireworks at Disneyland, or watching a sunrise over the mountains, or while playing a sparkly purple hippo in a kid's show because that's what a kid said I should play.  Church is a place I feel increasingly frustrated.

I don't know what this means long-term.  But for now, I need to take a step away.  It's entirely possible that will be a permanent decision.  Right now, I don't know.

There's a Buddhist parable about a raft that goes something like this: A man traveling along a path came to a great expanse of water. As he stood on the shore, he realized there were dangers and discomforts all about. But the other shore appeared safe and inviting. The man looked for a boat or a bridge and found neither. But with great effort, he gathered grass, twigs, and branches and tied them all together to make a simple raft. Relying on the raft to keep himself afloat, the man paddled with his hands and feet and reached the safety of the other shore. He could continue his journey on dry land. Now, what would he do with his makeshift raft? Would he drag it along with him or leave it behind? He would leave it.

A counselor in a bishopric said to me recently, "We're all on our own journey home." I think in this situation the raft was The Church for me.  And I can be grateful that it served me, but I can also recognize that for now, my journey doesn't require a raft and I can let it go.

Now comes the difficult part of facing well-meaning family and friends who love me and are going to try their darndest to reach and rescue me.  They'll send me Ensign articles and share scriptures they read that morning and mention conference talks in an off-handed way. And I know it comes from a place of love. I do. But Mom. No. I just...I can't. I grew up in the church, remember? So I know all about that stuff. I know all the tricks. And also, I didn't reach this decision because of a lack of study or prayer. In fact, the journey to this place has been a journey of study and prayer. Though I know it comes from a place of love, when people share scriptures, or issue spiritual challenges like that, it says to me, "You don't know what you're doing, and I don't respect you enough to make your own decisions.  Let me show you the right way."  But I do know how to make my own decisions.  God and I are good.  I don't need to be rescued. Ya know?

This is something I found that I think is pretty great for approaching these kinds of conversations:
Things to say and not to say when a loved one leaves the faith.

Anyway.  I'm rambling.  Shortly after making the break, I had a moment where I thought, "Am I making a mistake?" and then I just felt peace.  I'm good.  I have some larger contextual thoughts I may share with you another time, but for now, I think I can be done.

If you need me of a Sunday, you can probably find me in yoga class, or wandering the beach, or reading a good book in my hammock, but you won't find me at church.

Love you,

Greg

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Dear Mom, I've become a vegetarian.

Dear Mom,

So.  Vegetarianism.  Remember when I kind of tried that out a couple of years ago?  I can't remember if you were around for that. Anyway, I decided last week that I'm gonna take the plunge and commit to doing it.  It's something I've been thinking about for a while, and based on what I've read and what I believe, it just makes sense to me.  I actually think I might be trending vegan, but I don't know that I'm ready to jump into that full-tilt.

This probably isn't a surprise to you.  After all, I wash my hair with baking soda, live a somewhat minimalist lifestyle, sleep in a hammock, try to buy eco-friendly products, and want to live in a tiny house.

Here's what it comes down to for me.  I believe in God.  And I believe that God probably isn't too pleased with our approach to animals as food.  Because I believe he wants us to be good stewards.  And we're not. That's not to say I'm against eating animals, just that our current system of making that happen is kind of messed up (Did you know it takes 50 times as many resources to grow a pound of beef as a pound of plants? 50!) so I will make the decision not to participate in that system so far as I can.

I did accidentally order a beef taco at Taco Bell yesterday - all it said on the menu was "Cheesy potato taco," so I thought I was safe - but I didn't realize it was beef until I took I bite. I could have taken it in and exchanged it like a good vegetarian, but part of my whole rationale for being vegetarian is the wasteful aspect of the food system.  So, I ate the burrito because I figured if I took it in, they'd just throw it away, and that sort of negates the whole reason for doing it in the first place.  Ya know?

So. That's where I'm at.  And though I can no longer eat your chicken enchiladas - not that I have recently anyway... - family chip dip is still on the table.  Luckily.

Love you,

Greg

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Dear Mom, thanks.

Dear Mom,

I went to an acting workshop yesterday.  Well, it was really more of an acting lecture, but all the same, I enjoyed it.  The speaker took us through a visualization exercise that I found rather impactful given my current life situation.  It went something like this:

Picture yourself as a small child.  Back when you were young, and vulnerable and full of hope and youthful joy. This is your inner child. Now take yourself by the hand.  Look up and standing in front of you are your parents, smiling peacefully. And you say to them, "Mom, Dad, thank you for raising me the way you did.  Thank you for teaching me and guiding me and loving me.  And I forgive you for the mistakes you made.  They weren't your fault.  After all, you're a product of your own upbringing.  But now it's time for me to take over.  I can no longer live my life for you."  Your parents smile, and wave goodbye. You turn and start to walk away.  You keep walking until your parents are gone and it's just you and your inner child.  He looks up at you perhaps a tad confused or scared, but you lean down, gather him in your arms and say, "It's okay.  I've got you now.  You are safe, and I love you.  I'm here with you now, and I always will be."  Then you put that child into your heart.  Once inside, you flip on the lights and your heart is a place of light and warmth and creativity where you and your inner child can play and explore and create together.

Well, that about broke me. I had tears streaming down my face. I think that actually probably has more to do with my relationship with Dad than with you.  But maybe it doesn't.  I guess Dad just seems more...here?  Which sounds obvious, but I think you know what I mean.

Anyway, I guess what I want to say with all of this is...thanks. And I forgive you.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I gotta go. This chubby cheeked little piece of heaven and I have some catching up to do.



Love you,

Greg

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Dear Mom, it's been a minute.

Dear Mom,

Remember when I had that crazy idea to write you letters to keep you updated on how my life was going, and then I only wrote one?  I remember that, too.

Well, I've been doing a lot of thinking recently and partly out of my own wish for yet another creative outlet, and partly at the encouragement of my roommate (You remember my friend Farrah, don't you?  We went to the roller derby together? She thought you and Dad would look like little gnome people for some reason...anyway, I ended up moving in with her.  It's a pretty great situation. You'd love her couches.), I want to start writing some more.  And my last letter to you was the last thing I published on my blog here, so I thought it might be fun to pick it back up again.  I don't think all of my blog posts will be specifically for you, but feel free to read them all anyway.

Anyway, I think I'm going to try being vegan for a minute.  But before that happens I want to use up all of the non-vegan food currently in my fridge/freezer (I'm also trying to be more conscious of food waste), so I'm gonna go have a nice, buttery chocolate chip cookie.  I'll have one for you, too.

Love you,

Greg

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Dear Mom, I got this idea from a podcast.

Dear Mom,

I was listening to a podcast this week called Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids.  I don't think you would have been much of a podcast listener, but you sometimes surprised me, so I won't assume.  Anyway, one of the grownups read a series of letters she had written to a fictional friend who had died.  They were sweet, and funny, and tender, and sad.  And I thought, "I should do that!" And as with most of my brilliant ideas, I gave it a couple of days to see if it was really something I thought I should do.  I still like the idea, so I want to start writing you letters.

This is not some sad, pathetic attempt to stay connected to you.  I know you're gone and won't be coming back.  I'm pretty level-headed like that.  Besides, I have pictures, and memories, and that quilt you made me that never fails to receive compliments whenever I bring it out, and that one olive green Tupperware from the 70s that I am keeping until it literally disintegrates to help me stay connected to you. But I kind of like the idea that maybe I can just write to you and keep you updated on my life.  Plus I think this will be an interesting way for me to work through some things.  To get some thoughts down on paper, as it were, and grapple with this messy, complicated, exciting, stressful life that I seem to have ended up with.

Anyway, I'm meeting some friends to see some free Shakespeare, so I gotta go.

Love and miss you.  I'll write again soon.

Greg