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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Schilaty

Why We Gather

Normally my path never would have crossed with Charlie’s. We ran in different circles, had a ten year age gap, and had no overlapping activities. Had we not both stepped in LGBTQ Latter-day Saint spaces, I don’t see how we ever would have become friends.

We met in September 2017 when I was 33 and he was 23. I had just moved back to Provo to start a Master’s in Social Work at BYU and Charlie was a senior at BYU. That month I spent a Saturday at a conference for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints in downtown Provo. Shortly after I arrived someone introduced me to Charlie. At this point, he had come out to some people close to him, but he wasn’t even out to all of his family yet. He looked scared and uncertain (which I later learned are uncommon emotions for him). Trying to be friendly and helpful, I sat down with him to learn more about him. I invited him to meet up for lunch some time so we could keep chatting. Charlie, however, freaked out thinking I was hitting on him (please, he should be so lucky). We didn’t exchange numbers and we didn’t go to lunch. Two months later in November 2017 I was sitting in a conference room in the BYU administration building when in walked Charlie Bird. We had both been invited to participate on a working group composed of a number of campus administrators and nine LGBTQ students. This group of administrators and students met weekly for months. Since Charlie took the bus to school, I often offered to give him a ride home (still not hitting on him). Our first meeting didn’t lead to an immediate friendship, but these later interactions did. Initially it felt more like a mentor-mentee relationship than a friendship. In my mind, I was the old, wise gay man helping young Charlie find his way. The committee planned the first campus wide LGBTQ student panel and I was asked to be on the panel. Charlie reluctantly agreed to say the closing prayer at the event. He wrote about this event in his book Without the Mask. He said, “I listened to Ben give powerful answers and wished that one day I could be that brave” (p. 136). I cried the first time I read that line thinking of 24 year old Charlie yearning to be brave and then in the years that followed witnessing him be one of the bravest people I know. At the end of the event the moderator invited anyone in the room who identified as LGBTQ to stand and be recognized. I glanced over at Charlie wondering if he would feel comfortable standing and then watched him timidly stand. He wanted to be brave, and he was. Had it not been for gatherings meant for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints, Charlie and I never would have become friends. The intersection of the LGBTQ world and the Latter-day Saint world brought us together. Now fast forwarding to the present, I had a really bad day last week. Something small happened related to being a gay Latter-day Saint that put me in a serious funk for a few hours. This particular event wasn’t that bad, but it brought up a lot of latent feelings of rejection, pain, and powerlessness. I called my dad and talked to a few friends about how I was feeling, but there was a lot of backstory and I had to explain quite a bit for the situation to make any sense. While I was grateful for these listening ears, I didn't feel any better. So I prayed, I listened to music, and I went on a walk all trying to clear my head, but I just couldn’t get out of the fog I was in. Then I called Charlie. I told Charlie over the phone what had happened. I didn’t have to explain why I was feeling the way I was because he understood instantly. He’d felt this way, too. He asked if I wanted to go on a walk and I did, so he came right over. After talking for 15 minutes I felt like myself again. 15 minutes with a friend who understood me was more effective than hours of going it alone.

Still not hitting on him  That night as I was saying my evening prayer, I thanked God for my friendship with Charlie. Then other names and faces came to mind that I needed to be thankful for: “Heavenly Father, thank you for all the people who planned the conference we met at. And thank you for the administrators that formed the committee we served on. Thank you for the spaces they created where I could form lasting friendships.” I mention Charlie here, but I could tell dozens of stories of friends I’ve met at gatherings for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints and those who love them. Friends I’ve needed and will continue to need. And there are many friends I have yet to meet at such gatherings. I need diversity in my life. I need people of different ages, identities, and backgrounds. And yet, there are times when I need to be with people who are like me. People who get what I’m going through. People that I don’t have to explain myself to. Gathering with LGBTQ Latter-day Saints has made this possible for me. As you probably already know, I’m helping plan a conference this September 15th and 16th called Gather (more info here). The event is being put on by a coalition of people that exist in this LGBTQ Latter-day Saint space. It will be Christ centered and Church positive, but will also be expansive and include people on a variety of paths. There will be allies who want to support and uplift. There will be parents of family members of LGBTQ kiddos. There will be church leaders coming to understand how to minister to the LGBTQ folks in their congregations. There will be people in same-sex relationships and mixed-orientation marriages and single people like me. There will be art and amazing speakers and phenomenal music (including a new song written by Janice Kapp Perry specifically for Gather that made me cry when I read the lyrics). And maybe there will be people like you there. If Gather doesn't feel like the right fit for you, there are many organizations and groups working to connect people. I hope you can find your people. A lot of planning is going into each aspect of the conference. But what I’ve learned is that the real magic will happen when someone sits next to a stranger, or meets someone in a hallway, or introduces someone to a friend. We gather for the lasting connections that will be made that can never be planned. I don’t know if you’ll make lifelong connections if you come to the Gather conference. I don’t know if you’ll even have a good time. But I know that at events like this I have had a blast and have met some of my dearest friends. Maybe you’ll meet someone who years down the road will be the support you need on a bad day. That’s what has happened for me.

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