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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Schilaty

There Will Be No Conversion Therapy in Zion

In 2007, at the age of 23, my parents became the 5th and 6th people I told that I was attracted to men. They were immediately loving and kind. During our initial conversation my mom asked if I thought it was a phase. I responded, “I hope so.” My dad also said, “Well, you’re probably better off being single because being married is hard.” The next day they brought up the topic again. They thought that the problem was that I’d never really dated anyone, and that if I just had a girlfriend the feelings would go away. Having been on lots of dates I wasn't so sure. I ended the conversation as quickly as I could because I felt like they didn’t get it. Two months later my parents called me. Their bishop had encouraged them to encourage me to see a therapist to change my orientation. I followed their counsel and I went to two conversion therapy sessions. I wrote more details about that experience here

The issue here wasn’t the existence of conversion therapy. The problem was that my parents, their bishop, and I all thought my orientation could be changed. When I said I didn’t want to go to therapy anymore, my parents were extremely supportive. They never brought it up again. And then, years later, when I opened up to them and told them my gay Latter-day Saint story, they finally knew what it was like to walk in my shoes. When they saw into my heart, they knew that trying to change my orientation was not the right thing to do. They have apologized multiple times for encouraging me to go to therapy to change my orientation. They were offering the best solution they had. They were acting with the best of intentions. The existence of conversion therapy wasn’t a problm. The problem was that we all believed my orientation was a phase. 

Last week the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a statement explaining their opposition to “a proposed professional licensing rule governing sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts.” The statement went on to say: “The Church denounces any abusive professional practice or treatment.” The Church didn’t clarify in the statement what these practices or treatments are. However, the therapy arm of the Church, Family Services, issued a very long statement saying they don’t practice conversation therapy or anything like it (anymore). The Church, as an institution, is no longer promoting conversion therapy. But that doesn’t mean that all is well in Zion. 

The root of the problem is that many Latter-day Saints still believe that being LGBT is a choice and a phase and that it is changeable.

I don’t blame any Church member for believing this. I mean, I believed it. I was taught and believed that being gay is a trial. I was taught by Church leaders that it’s an inclination and temptation that won’t exist in the next life. It’s just an affliction of mortality. In my mind, I wasn’t gay, I just wasn’t straight yet. And if I was faithful enough I could be fixed. If not in this life surely in the next. I have a copy of The Miracle of Forgiveness on my shelf right now that says that my same-sex attraction can and should be cured. Many Latter-day Saints still hold on to outdated statements that reflect limited understanding of the issue and are unaware of more current teachings that reflect the further light and knowledge we’ve received. 

President Ballard taught in a CES devotional way back in 2014: "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that 'the experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is. Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them. With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including (emphasis added).'” This is a complex reality. This isn’t a choice. We should be reaching out in love to God’s LGBT children. From my experience, the truths taught by President Ballard are not yet understood by many in the Church. This is a problem. 

I speak about my experience as a gay Latter-day Saint a lot. Fifth Sunday lessons, firesides, trainings, class presentations, this blog. After these events someone will often approach me and say, “I came here today thinking that being gay is a choice. Now I know that it’s not. Thank you.” And then something else happens, but much less frequently. Later that night or the following day I’ll get an email from someone who attended. They’ll tell me that they learned so much from my fireside and thank me for my time. Then they’ll tell me that the Atonement can do anything. That if I just believe enough God will help me to live a happy life. That I can be married to a woman in this life and have a family and be truly happy. I always respond by thanking them for taking the time to write because I know that it comes from a place of sincere kindness. And then, if I have the energy, I’ll respond and try to let them walk in my shoes a bit.

Last week I spoke at a YSA stake FHE. After telling the story of my birth, I said: “I tell this story because people often ask me if I was born gay. I don’t think that’s the right question. I think a better question is, did I come to earth the way God intended me to be? I know that I did. And I believe you came to earth the way God intended you to be, too.” It’s a beautiful thing to feel that you are the way your Heavenly Parents want you to be. And yet, all of us need to change. We all need to be better versions of ourselves. All of us can more fully develop Christlike attributes. 

Last week a gay friend and I shared our stories at another friend’s house. Then we let people ask us questions. My friend and I talked about the November 2015 policy for a few minutes until someone raised his hand to interrupt us to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what the November 2015 policy is.” Then someone else said, “Yeah, I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” I was stunned, quite frankly, that this thing that has affected my life so intensely wasn’t even on their radar. The events of November 5, 2015 are seared into my memory and I spent the next four years talking about them regularly. Why didn’t these people know what the November 2015 policy was? Because it didn’t affect them. It wasn’t about them.

I want conversion therapy to stop. I think for that to happen, members of our community need to really listen to the LGBT people among us and understand our lives and stories. We need to really get to know the people in our lives. Not so we can change them, but because knowing them will change us. If all parents believed that being LGBT isn’t a choice or a phase, then no one would be sending their kids to conversion therapy. Zion is a people of one heart and one mind, a people where we truly see into one another’s hearts and minds. When my parents saw into my heart, they knew conversion therapy was the wrong course for me. I like how Elder Holland put it in October 2015. Speaking of a mother's gay son he said, "And, I must say, this son's sexual orientation did not somehow miraculously change--no one assumed it would. But little by little, his heart changed."

I hope that we will all take time to build Zion by getting to know and understand people who are different than us. I hope that we can listen with a Christlike curiosity. I hope that those who feel marginalized will feel empowered to share their stories and safe enough to do so. I will do everything I can in my sphere of influence to teach and educate anyone who is willing to listen and understand. I am grateful for the many LGBT Latter-day Saints who are sharing their stories with those in their circles of influence. I know that not everyone has the ability to do that like I do. We end conversion therapy by helping people understand our lives. 

Usually when I give a presentation I quote Alma 33:23 and then say, “I used to think the Atonement of Jesus Christ was supposed to make me straight, but instead it healed my broken heart.” Let’s focus on what is broken and work as a community to heal.  Broken things like feelings of intense shame, self-loathing, and wishing that death would come soon can be healed. I experienced all of these. After years and years of sincerely trying to change my orientation, I didn’t experience even a small change. But I have learned to be happy and thrive in my God-given circumstances. Good therapy can do that. Good therapy can help people to thrive. But it wasn’t therapy that cured me of my self-loathing. It was being in a community of people who loved me, accepted me, and sincerely sought to understand me. And that community was a community of active Latter-day Saints. It was a community of people that I call Zion.

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