When I was 14, I would wait patiently for the Ensign magazine to arrive in the mail, just a few weeks after the Mormon General Conference. I was taught in Church to pray and fast before the semi-annual satellite broadcast, in which the prophets and apostles would give inspired addresses to Church members around the world, in order to prepare myself for messages that God had for me to help me in my needs. When the magazine arrived, I had the chance to scour their words in print, searching for the answers I so desperately needed.
I remember flipping through the Ensign to the back, where I could look in the index for topics covered in the ten hours worth of talks, and then I could flip to the page I needed. Some points were frequently referenced, like Atonement and Sacrifice and Temple Marriage. Never anything on homosexuality or being gay, never anything about how to finally cure the condition I was plagued. There were always words about how to be better, be stronger, be more dedicated to God, but never how to free myself from the malady of being same-sex attracted, that deadly curse I had been both with and could tell no one about.
Many of my journal entries from this time are self-flagellations, deep and abiding shame over my inability to cure myself, scathing self-directed declarations of shame. I would sometimes look in the mirror, right into my own eyes, and see someone so weak, and just hate myself. And then I would drop to my knees at the side of my bed and just beg God to cure me, prayers of deep shame and unworthiness. I would often fall asleep with tear stains on the pillow.
I look back on this version of myself now with such compassion and understanding. I see my teenage self as courageous, earnest, seeking, passionate, talented, and powerful, not as weak and broken and afflicted as he so often felt back then. I see my life so clearly now.
Instead of a broken child, I see a young man who grew up believing he was a sinner simply for being gay. I look at someone who grew very accustomed to hiding himself from others, so effectively that he didn’t kiss someone of the opposite sex until he was 27 years old, and he didn’t kiss someone of the same sex until he was 32. It breaks my heart to think of the words that he used in his journal back then to describe himself: broken shattered sinner crooked selfish unworthy abomination and beyond repair.
I’m now 38 years old, and the world is very different. Gay marriage is legal, and even the Mormon leaders now talk about being homosexual, generally with compassion and at least partial understanding. There are Church organizations dedicated to LGBT Mormons, and secret Internet groups that allow people to talk to others like them without being exposed to family and friends. I sometimes forget where I came from, and tend to believe that there is no one out there who struggles now in the way that I did then.
I met a young man recently from a small Utah town. He is God-fearing, a good careful Mormon boy, and in a lot of pain. When I asked him what was wrong, he looked down at the ground, his face painted with shame, and he explained that he suffers from ‘same-sex attraction disorder’. He said he couldn’t tell his family, and that he believed that if he tries hard enough, he hopes that he will be able to ‘fix’ his ‘illness’, to marry a girl in the temple and have children and be a forever family.
I cried with this young man, and felt grateful that he could confide in me. I validated his pain, and told him that I knew exactly how he feels. I looked him right in the eyes and told him that he isn’t broken, that he isn’t ill, that he isn’t cursed, and he may not have believed me then but he knew that I believed what I said. I told him that God loved him and wanted him to love himself. I told him that he could have a happy life, and that he didn’t have to go through life seeking a cure for something that isn’t wrong in the first place. I shared part of my own story and I assured him that after all those years, now I like myself, I celebrate myself, and I’m surrounded by people that love and celebrate me as well. I told him that life is beautiful, though not without pain, and that every day is worth living.
That young man was frightened of the word gay. To him, it signified all those parts of himself that he was ashamed of. It carried the weight of hell and fear and pain and failure. He instead chose to use same-sex attraction disorder to describe himself, an acronym that ironically comes out to be SAD. The word disorder itself implying illness, malady, and, in essence, the phrase not like us.
I sometimes forget my own origins and the work it took to get here. I’m so accustomed to living happily that I forget the years of misery, and the extreme pain I had to pass through to achieve peace.
And so for myself, for for this young man and all those in the world like him, I must say these words from time to time. I say them loud and proud and strong and with clarity and understanding and peace.
Being gay is not a choice. It’s not a condition, a maladjustment, or a disorder. It is a sexual orientation every bit as viable as bisexual or heterosexual is. It isn’t a label or a classification. It is a word that I own because it sets me apart from others and from my past self, and it allows me to celebrate myself and the person I am, the same person I spent so long being ashamed of. In matters of spirituality and religion and family and job and future, all of those things sort themselves out, but no one who is ashamed of themselves can be truly happy or authentic, and I refuse to surround myself with anyone who sees me as less than or expects me to be ashamed of myself.
I was created to be exactly who I am, and I celebrate that creation. I live, and I live happily and well. And every once in a while, I go inwardly and clear out the cobwebs and give that younger version of myself one giant hug and whisper to him to just wait, everything one day is going to be just fine.