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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Schilaty

The Conversation I Wish We Were Having

I spent the last week in Cincinnati grading Spanish AP tests. My week was spent hanging out with friends, exploring the city, endlessly grading papers, and watching people cast figurative stones on the internet.

I wasn’t on social media much this past week, but when I did get on I saw the same video pop up again and again of a 12-year-old girl who came out to her ward by reading some prepared remarks during testimony meeting. A priesthood leader asked Savannah to sit down before she finished her testimony. This video has been extremely polarizing. I’ve seen people casting stones at the leader for not allowing Savannah to be her authentic, courageous self. And I’ve seen people casting stones at Savannah and her parents for doing something that they feel was inappropriate. The media reported on the story largely painting the church in a bad light while Fair Mormon posted an article highlighting everything Savannah did wrong.

I’m not at all interested in debating the rightness or wrongness of what happened in that meeting here. The finger pointing, the blaming, and the stone throwing are unproductive. Blaming is easy. Pulling people down is easy. Finding fault is easy. Let’s be better than that. I wish that instead of all the blame, that as a faith community we could discuss the heart of the issue. Consider the following questions:

Why would a church member who experiences same-sex attraction want to share that information with their ward family?

Can a ward benefit if a member comes out to them? 

What is the appropriate way for a gay person to come out to their ward?

How should ward members respond when members publicly disclose feelings of same-sex attraction?

I’d like to share three stories about how I came out to three different wards. I don’t offer these as examples or templates, but they can illustrate how things can go right.

Elders Quorum

When I was 30 I posted my coming out post on my blog. A few days later I was teaching Elders Quorum in my singles ward. When I began the lesson I had no intention of telling my quorum that I was gay, but I felt prompted to say something so I did. I awkwardly blurted out “I’m gay” towards the end of the lesson without much build up. The unexpected way those words came out must’ve been jarring for some people in the room. I shared a few stories, ended the lesson and sat down. I remember feeling the comforting presence of the HoIy Ghost as I bore my testimony at the end of the lesson and contemplated what had just happened as I sat in my chair. I was recently talking to one of the bishopric members who was present at that lesson. He said that what he remembered most was watching me sit down. He said, “You looked lighter and more relaxed. You looked so relieved. It was evident in your body language that you felt a burden had been taken off your shoulders.” He is exactly right. That’s how I felt. I had been lying to people and hiding an important part of my life story from my quorum and it was such a relief to just be honest and not have to hid anymore.

Spanish Branch

Not long after this lesson I turned 31 meaning that I graduated from the singles ward without honors. I started attending a local Spanish branch and retreated back into the closet. It was awful. Members of the branch couldn’t understand why I was single and when they tried to set me up with their cousins, nieces, and friends I would always say I was too busy with school to date. I hated lying to them, but I didn’t feel comfortable telling them the truth.

That June same-sex marriages became legal nationwide and each LDS congregation was asked to spend the third hour of a meeting in July reviewing some materials about marriage sent from church headquarters. I had been home visiting my parents the first week in July and had had that lesson with my parents in their ward. The next week I was back in Tucson and they had chosen that week for the marriage lesson. I almost went home after Sacrament meeting because I didn’t feel like having that lesson again, but I stayed anyway. As I walked into the Relief Society room I said a fervent, silent prayer. I told Heavenly Father that I wasn’t going to make any comments, but that if He wanted me to say anything He’d have to make it very clear.

About halfway through the meeting the Branch President asked if there were any comments and without even realizing it my hand shot up in the air. I said, “This might be sharing too much information, but there are a lot of gay members of the church who want to keep the commandments and stay active and I’m one of them.” I then talked about the need to love everyone and how the love and acceptance of family and friends had helped me to stay active. Earlier in the meeting we had talked about “the gays” as if they were some group apart from us Mormons, but after my comment the tone shifted. I wrote the following in my journal: “The rest of the meeting was great. The overarching theme was loving everyone as the Savior would. The Branch President mentioned through tears that his daughter is a lesbian and has left the church. He pointed to me and said that he loves me and he loves us all. It was very touching and I just felt enveloped by love. These people who I barely know felt like my family.”

I remember in that meeting we sang Families Can Be Together Forever. I didn’t always feel like I fit in in the Spanish branch, but as we sang that song the Spirit spoke to my heart and told me that they were my family. Two weeks ago I was volunteering as an usher at the Tucson Temple open house and a number of people from my old branch came through. They greeted me as enthusiastically as a person could be greeted and I got handshakes and hugs from people I hadn’t seen in quite some time. They know I’m gay and they are still my family.

Campbell Ward

Towards the end of 2015 I started attending an English-speaking family ward. In January 2016 I was asked to give a talk about the purpose of the church. Before the meeting I was speaking with the bishop who barely knew me at the time. I asked him if I could mention that I was gay in my talk. He said he didn’t see why that would be a problem. In the talk I shared how difficult it has been at times to stay in the church as someone who experiences same-sex attraction. I shared the story of Kevin and Allison’s sealing and how that experience encouraged me to stay. I wrote the following about that talk in my journal: “After the meeting about a dozen people thanked me for my courage and commitment. I was grateful to be so well-received. After church Hyrum Allen sent me an email. I’d never talked to him before, but he told me that he and his wife will be there for me whether or not I stay in the church. He also invited me over to dinner. I feel like that’s what Jesus would do. It feels so good to be open with everyone.”

The year and a half since I came out to my whole ward have been awesome. The Campbell Ward has become my spiritual home and the people there have become my family. It feels incredibly freeing to be open and honest with everyone. I don’t mention being gay all the time because I don’t want that to be my thing. There are other important parts of me (like my penchant for dad jokes and puns). I do, however, often mention being gay in lessons or when I bear my testimony if it’s relevant to my spiritual journey, which it often is. And I have felt no pushback from ward members for being so open, only love and gratitude.

Looking Forward

In Mosiah 18 the prophet Alma explains that when we are baptized we covenant to bear one another’s burdens. Keeping this covenant, I feel, is essential if we want to become like the Savior. But how can we bear one another’s burdens if we don’t know what they are? Verses 21 and 22 explain, “And he commanded them that there should be no contention one with another, but that they should look forward with one eye, having one faith and one baptism, having their hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another. And thus he commanded them to preach. And thus they became the children of God.”

I think these verses are just beautiful and they speak to the kind of community that I want to help build. A community where our hearts are knit together and where we can become something divine together. I have sensed a lot of anger related to this video of Savannah’s testimony and I validate those feelings. I also felt angry reading comments where people with different viewpoints were quite unkind to each other. We can use this anger to tear others down or we can channel it into productive energy to build something better. And so I invite you once again to consider these questions:

Why would a church member who experiences same-sex attraction want to share that information with their ward family?

Can a ward benefit if a member comes out to them?

What is the appropriate way for a gay person to come out to their ward?

How should ward members respond when members publicly disclose feelings of same-sex attraction?

I am 100% in favor of gay members being open with their wards if they want to be. I know from personal experience how healing it can be. I have experienced an increased measure of love, acceptance, and wholeness as I have been honest with the people in my congregations. I wish that everyone could experience those same feelings. So let's talk about how we can make that happen.  96 Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:"Table Normal"; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-parent:""; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:Calibri; mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}

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