Thursday, February 25, 2010

I'll Find Repose in New Ways

I was fourteen the first time I thought about taking my life. I felt overwhelming shame, largely because I was attracted to the same gender, and I had been taught that was an abomination. The inner conflict was agony, and it was exhausting. I wanted relief--just some rest from it all. I seriously considered suicide as a way to have that relief when I was 18 and was about to go on a mission. In the end, it was that very mission that allowed me to iron out my issues, and I never again contemplated suicide, but it continued to affect me.

Two months after returning from my mission, and around the same time I was coming to terms with my sexuality and coming out of the closet, a young BYU student, who was gay, killed himself. It devastated my gay friends who had been close to him, and sent ripples though out our community. I felt a need to reach out to others who were gay and LDS and to encourage them to embrace a life that made them happy. I didn't want death to ever be more desirable than life for anyone, but especially for these people I felt a connection to because of our shared history or condition.

Today is 10 years after Stuart Matis shot himself on the steps of his stake center. I believe that sharing his story prevents suicide. Awareness makes a tremendous difference. If I had known during those dark periods of my life that I wasn't the only one suffering, it would have helped me come to terms with things so much sooner. It was ultimately the realization that I was not alone that lead me to accept homosexuality. Of course it would have also helped if I could have had even the smallest glimpse into the happiness I now have over my life, my partner, and my anticipated marriage.

Education would also have made a tremendous difference. My life was unbearable because I had been misinformed about homosexuality and because those closest to me had been misinformed about homosexuality. The only way to fight those wrong teachings is to do everything in our power to spread correct information. Knowledge is power, and in this case, it is the power to save lives.

To honor the memory of Stuart Matis I am recommitting myself to his hope, which was that "Perhaps [his] death … might become the catalyst for much good." He wrote in a letter to his family, “I’m sure that you will now be strengthened in your resolve to teach the members and the leaders [of the Church] regarding the true nature of homosexuality.” So I promise today and in the future that I will do my part to teach Latter-day Saints about homosexuality and the love, peace, and fulfilling joy that comes in accepting it and embracing love.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

When Heavy Wings Grow Lighter

Thursday is the 10 year anniversary of the tragic death of Stuart Matis, who shot himself on the steps of his stake center in Palo Alto, CA. Though I never knew Stuart, his death has had an emotional impact on my life. Many people, including myself, want to honor his memory and search for meaning in this tragedy this Thursday. His parents have asked that we not memorialize his death with a rally or any public event or statement meant to promote a political or social agenda. (read the statement at Northern Lights)

Their request, to be honest, bothers me. The statement acknowledges that they are motivated, among other things, by a desire to prevent the LDS Church from being viewed in a negative light. I love Fred and Marilyn Matis. They are sweet people who have been kind to me personally and who have probably done more to encourage compassion for gay people from within the LDS Church than any other, with the possible exception of Carol Lynn Pearson. Their statement is consistent with the position they have taken since the tragedy happened, and I believe their position has actually made them more effective advocates for gay people to a Church that is extremely sensitive to bad press and public rallies.

But I believe that their desires are not the same as Stuart's desires, based on letters that he wrote before he took his life and based on the drama of the tragedy. In a letter to his family, Stuart wrote, "Perhaps my death … might become the catalyst for much good. I’m sure that you will now be strengthened in your resolve to teach the members and the leaders [of the Church] regarding the true nature of homosexuality." (Los Altos Town Crier) If Stuart had wanted his death private, he would have taken his life in his bedroom. Shooting himself on the steps of his LDS Stake Center was a cry for change, and I believe his blood stains the steps of the LDS Church which has not adequately responded to his cry.

Suicide is a complicated issue. There is never one single contributing factor or set of events that makes death seem more bearable than life.  I don't want to pretend that I have any authority to speak for Stuart or the motives behind his tragic decision. I do know, though, that the events leading to that decision included the horrific proposition 22 campaign, a campaign that was almost play by play repeated in 2008. Why didn't the Church make efforts to reach out to gay members and to prevent suicide during the prop 8 campaign, knowing what had happened in 2000?

In a letter Stuart wrote to a cousin weeks before his death, he stated, "The church has no idea that as I type this letter, there are surely boys and girls on their calloused knees imploring God to free them from this pain. They hate themselves. They retire to bed with their finger pointed to their head in the form of a gun. The church's involvement in the Knight initiative [prop 22] will only add to the great pain suffered by these young gay Mormons."

This statement resonates me to the point of tears almost every time I read it, because it is true. I was once that boy, still with scars on my knees from that pain--pain that was repeated to an even larger degree with proposition 8. Though the Church has made great changes in the past several years and has become more compassionate in responding to its gay members, it still sanctions spiritually abusive preaching and practices. I'm not talking about the politics of proposition 8 or any bill or law. I'm talking about the things that come from Mormon pulpits and publications that reinforce the cruel notion in a child's heart that he is wrong, damaged, messed up, even evil, because of attractions he didn't choose and doesn't understand.

Stuart took his life when I was in eighth grade and was just discovering my own confusing attractions towards the same gender. I didn't hear about his death at the time, and the lessons learned from his suicide weren't able to stop me from years of horrible self abuse because I was gay, including a time in my life when I contemplated suicide. I did unspeakable things because I didn't understand homosexuality and because I had been taught lies about it. Those lies haven't stopped. As a whole, Latter-day Saints still don't know about Stuart Matis, and they need to.

I can't honor the memory of Stuart Matis by keeping his story--or my story--quiet. With all due respect towards those closest to Stuart Matis, I want to voice support for those who are remembering this tragedy on Thursday. I am not in California, but if I was I would be attending the rally in Palo Alto. I encourage any of you who can attend to attend. Instead, I will be honoring Stuart in my own way by lighting a candle for him early that morning and by writing both his story and my story, and sharing it with whomever I can that day.

The Secret is in the Telling

Several months ago, I started writing a memoir--it was one of those things that you start not actually believing you will ever finish. Well I am now 220 pages--nearly 80,000 words--into it, and it looks like this is something that I will finish, and that I hope to publish. It describes my journey as a conflicted gay BYU student, beginning with my freshman year and my efforts to use therapy and prayer to become straight. The novel goes on to recount my mission and how it changed me and enabled me to come out of the closet soon after, dating Michael in secret, some major problems we had to iron out in our relationship and how they were mirrored in the battle for Proposition 8 that momentarily consumed BYU, and a period following prop 8 where things are resolved with Michael and where I come to terms with who I am and what my future is.

I think my story is interesting and I think it is relevant, so I'm hoping I can find a publisher who agrees. In the mean time, I have to finish it. I'll be looking for one or two people to read a draft and help me edit it, but probably not for another month. And preferably I'd like someone who is outside of the Mormon community so I can have some help determining whether or not certain parts of my story are interesting or relevant outside of the bubble I grew up in.

The hardest part about writing my memoir, actually, has been determining which experiences to share and how to share them. I have had to be honest, which means exposing my own flaws and writing about events that are embarrassing or that I regret. While I have not discussed every regretted experience, I have tried to disclose as much as possible because I do believe my experiences can help others. I hope the details of my story, personal though they may be, can transcend my life situation and benefit others dealing with their own challenges.

It’s one thing to expose ones own flaws; it’s another thing to expose someone else’s. That’s part of what makes writing a memoir about recent history so difficult. How do I write about the married BYU faculty member who secretly dates men without destroying his career and family? How do I write about the friend who is hiding in the closet because his grandfather is one of the Apostles, and one who is particularly vocal against homosexuality? On the other hand, how do I omit those kinds of details when they affect me and shape my community? If I change the details to protect the identity of the individual, then the story becomes as much fiction as truth. If I am asking my audience to rethink the way they look at BYU or at homosexuality, don’t I owe them the honest truth? Only by coming out of the closet and disclosing our secrets can we expect things to change, but can I disclose secrets that aren’t mine to disclose?

The ethics get even more confusing when the details affect people I still have relationships with. If someone in my family has reacted unfavorably to my sexual orientation, it reveals a lot about how my loved one’s religion and personal bias affects me. But if I share the experience, am I hurting my chances that this family member will come around and accept me in the future? Moreover, if I convey the damage of religious and personal prejudice through another person or scenario more distant than my family, will the reader still understand how deeply I was hurt?

What about experiences that portray the LDS Church in a negative light? When Reed Cowan’s documentary 8: The Mormon Proposition was released, it damaged his relationship with his family. He intended to reveal the truth about LDS involvement and motivation behind proposition 8, but his family felt hurt because they viewed the film as an affront to something sacred to them. My story is important to me, and it is important that I share my story so that others can make better decisions about their own lives, how they treat loved ones, and the policies that run their organizations. But no matter how important that message is to me, it is not more important than the relationship I have with my family. I would never do anything to intentionally hurt them, and I would never seek to profane things that are sacred to them or make light of things that are personal to them.

Choosing what to include in this memoir was really choosing which story to tell. In the end, this story is not about my relationship with my parents. It is not about my relationship with my siblings. It is not about my relationship with Mormonism, either. While all of those stories are significant, this is not the venue for those stories. Instead, this memoir is about my relationship with Brigham Young University. It is also about my inner struggles and the decisions I made while I was at Brigham Young University that have brought me to where I am today.

Ultimately, I have done my best to decide which experiences should be left out and which experiences could be appropriately included to tell that story. I have also changed some significant details about people, places, and events to protect the identity of the individuals involved. In each case, I have been as accurate as possible in conveying the significance of the character or event and how it influenced me. So we'll see where this whole thing goes. I can only hope it has a positive influence on people.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Please Take a Long Hard Look Through Your Textbook

It's exciting to think about the advancements in public opinion regarding gay rights. Really, things are going well despite some recent setbacks. It's hard to keep perspective when you're so surrounded by Mormonism because the opposition to gay rights seems so prevalent, but even within the Mormon community, things are looking up. Here's some anecdotal evidence for you. When I announced that I was getting married to Michael, I got tons of surprising messages, wall posts, and status comments congratulating the two of us and voicing support and excitement for the wedding. I was shocked at the positive response, a large portion of which came from high school friends from Chicago whom I don't here from often. What surprised me even more, though were all the active Mormons who congratulated me and expressed support. Some 25 % of the many comments I got were from active, straight Mormons. I didn't expect that.

To me it reflects a generational difference. I think the younger generation of Mormons is more accepting of gay rights than the older generation, which leaves me believing that the Church may yet change it's discriminatory policies in the distant future. Though of course such a change would be accompanied with a dramatic revelation from the Brethren, I don't think it will come from an overnight change in opinion.

A recent article in the New York Times made me think about what that kind of change would entail. The article outlines the years it took Adm. Mullen to change his mind about Don't Ask Don't Tell. During those years he had to ask questions like “How are we going to handle a gay member who is married in one state but is stationed in another that doesn’t approve of gay marriage? How are we going to handle troops who are uncomfortable around gay members? Are we going to force people to accept openly gay roommates? What about people who want to leave the service because of it?” (Gen. Anthony Zinni).

The President of the Church will have to ask similar questions. How do you approach members in Uganda or Nigeria or Ghana where homosexuality is extremely taboo yet where the Church has had recent growth? How do you deal with homophobic ward members in Utah? What do you do with a missionary who freaks out about having a gay companion or district leader? What about people who leave the Church over it?

Those are real questions that will have to be posed, questions that reveal some real deep problems with homophobia in the Mormon culture, and yet won't it be exciting when those are the kinds of questions that are being asked? Of course, we're not there yet. If the Church follows the path of the military, then it is much further behind. Church policies today are more similar to pre-DADT patterns. Perhaps we can look forward to a President who will, like Bill Clinton, compromise with the Church's more conservative leadership and issue a policy like DADT in which Church members who are gay are no longer excommunicated. And then years down the road attitudes and circumstances will change, and the Church will move towards complete acceptance.

It's definitely exciting to think about.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Dreamed to be Complete

Part of receiving my diploma means announcing my engagement to Michael! We are to be married in June in Cape Cod! I'm so excited! We have been together since early November, 2007, not too long after I started this blog. I don't know who's still reading this blog--I assume most of you are people who know me, and so this won't come as a surprise. For those of you that don't know me in person or who haven't heard the news yet, surprise!

I have found that there is no greater fulfillment than the fulfillment of companionship. My relationship and all of its ups and downs have made me a better person. To willfully deny someone the opportunity to experience this or to pursue it is cruel. To those of you who are unsure of your path or who haven't decided where to go, I advise you to try to find a companion. I realize that everyone's needs and personalities are different. Celibacy may satisfy some. But there is something wonderful and beautiful about romantic companionship that you cannot get any other way. Life isn't perfect. The honeymoon wore off a while ago. But at the end of the day, I have a better half that seems to make up for all of my shortcomings. At the end of the day, I have someone to hold and to love and to cherish. I have someone else to worry about and plan for and hope for and encourage and inspire. It's not about me, anymore, it's about us, and that makes me a better person.

We'll Make the Great Escape!

Last week my diploma arrived. I am free. I have to admit, there is a part of me that deeply regrets finishing my education at BYU. If I were to advise any gay student still there, it would be to transfer. Transfer! Get the hell out of there! It's not that I didn't enjoy my time there during my last year. Frankly, it was an amazing year. And I had nothing but support from the other students, who knew what was going on. I would not have graduated without their support, because I was pretty open about things. But in the end, I was not believing, planning, or acting the way that Thomas S. Monson thought I was, and his signature and note of approval are on my diploma because he is President of the Board of Directors. I have conflicted emotions about that.

Don't get me wrong. I think that Thomas S. Monson's expectations for graduates, including that they abstain from advocating homosexuality, are completely and utterly unfair, unethical, and ungodly. There is a reason BYU is on the top 10 list of most discriminatory schools. I believe that students should be able to date whom ever they want, fall in love with whom ever they naturally fall in love with, and marry whom ever they fall in love with. I believe the same set of behaviors should be expected of all students, and that a subset of students should not have additional restrictions placed on certain behaviors simply because they are gay. But maybe that means I should have gone completely public about my decisions at the cost of a Monson-signed diploma and instead graduated from a more ethical institution.

Whatever decisions I should have made, I must have made some decisions right because things have really worked out for me. I am so happy! I live in a place that I love. Opportunities I'm seeking are working out. I'm in love with the most wonderful man ever. So because of where I am, and how wonderful it is to be here, I'm not sure I can really have too many regrets. I made it out of BYU alive, I made the great escape!