04 October 2015

Why we leave

This weekend was general conference weekend for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While I would still agree with many thoughts expressed in recent conference sessions on topics such as service and forgiveness, I no longer believe many of the foundational doctrines of the church. In an effort to promote faith in the church and retain membership, sometimes leaders and members tend to simplify the reasons some decide to separate from Mormonism. This is an open letter to give some collective voice to why some Saints leave the fold.

Dear leaders and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

Most of us do not leave the Church because we are offended or because leaving is easy.

We leave because we have diligently read the Book of Mormon and other LDS scriptures and found anachronisms; miracles that are difficult to believe; and conflicts with western hemisphere archaeology, modern anthropology, and DNA studies of Native American populations.

We leave because we value reason and find over time that our deeper inquiry into Mormon history and doctrine culminates in an irreconcilable conflict between the Mormon worldview and what we learn of the universe from rational inquiry.

We leave because we find that the typical church narrative about Joseph Smith is inaccurate and incomplete. We struggle upon learning that there are multiple accounts of the First Vision, that Joseph took over 30 wives when some were still teenagers or married to other men, and that the Book of Mormon “translation” was closer to methods used in 19th century treasure-seeking than one might expect in an inspired scholarly translation.

We leave because we are women, or men who believe that women can do anything a man can do, and yet find that in the church women have few substantive leadership roles; that they can never preside over a man in the modern church; and that there are numerous inequalities between how men and women are treated in the faith.

We leave because we are LGBT and after long and intense struggles to reconcile our internal truths with Mormon doctrine, we find that the Church has no fulfilling or empowering place for us in its doctrine. We remember the years of harmful rhetoric, condescension or misinformation at the hands of the church and ultimately conclude that a much healthier existence is waiting for us outside the church’s narrow understanding of sexuality and family.

We leave because we have long hoped for a church that more fully embraces a diversity of political viewpoints, but find instead that the institution has been more focused on using its social and political capital to obstruct civil justice for all Americans as it did with Proposition 8 in California.

We leave because despite our respect for many wonderful people in the faith, we are not comfortable with recent church priorities such as its obsession with modesty and pornography, the negative rhetoric about LGBT families, its efforts to excommunicate those who openly challenge church doctrine or practice, and its investment in billion dollar real estate enterprises. We cannot understand the lack of transparency in church finances or instances when church leaders have misled others. We ask why we hear more from Mormon leadership about tithing or temple attendance than about great societal problems such as poverty, economic and political corruption, or environmental destruction.

We leave because despite the great challenges this brings to us or our families, we find greater peace of conscience outside the religion. We respect your choice to stay, but we hope that in bolstering your own faith, you will not misunderstand or trivialize our motives for leaving.

27 September 2015

A modicum of middle-aged wisdom

This is a post that may be more for me than anyone else. As much as I’m not eager to get older, I’m now middle aged. Most of the time life seems too busy for much introspection, but I’ve been away from home for a week and have had a lot of time alone to ponder. Such breaks are welcome because I think that middle age is a critical time to make course corrections where needed. Life only seems to accelerate, and I’d rather not wake up in my later decades and regret that I did not live in a way that is courageously me. A few thoughts:

- Question everything. Questioning isn’t merely doubt. It is the foundation of all learning because it is the first step in the scientific process that leads to observation, experiment, and eventually, truth.

- Inner peace is tantamount to quality of life. I’m still working on the formula that leads to its outcome, but enticing alternatives like power, prestige, money, or relationship status seem to be inadequate substitutes for the genuine peace of being happy with oneself. 

- Relationships with others are one of the principal joys of life (and vital for most people) but it is even more important to enjoy your own company and thoughts. You live with yourself more than any other person.

- Human intimacy – whether in friendship, parent-child relationships, or romantic love – is a beautiful thing. With time it seems to become more elusive. I mean that in the sense of changing interactions in our contemporary society, and also in the context of chronological age. It seems harder to meet and connect deeply with others as I age. It also seems harder to meaningfully connect with others when many whom I care most about live far away, and so much communication happens via electrons.

- Individuals who significantly disappoint you once or twice are very likely to do so again. Its not that I don’t believe in the capacity for human beings to change, it’s just that most people do so only infrequently and slowly.

- One thing I’m trying to learn better is to stand up for myself. I’m usually soft-spoken, deferential, and introverted. But I value honesty and respect and feel genuinely hurt if those courtesies are not reciprocated. My character traits are sometimes fodder for being taken advantage of. The goal: being more assertive being a jerk.

- Nature is superior to virtually anything humans can create. As remarkable as our species is, we cannot beat 4.6 billion years of evolution. Most of modern society is a created beast, a mix of historical inertia and the good and bad of human intentions. It is a world of one species, but we share this planet with several million others. I think it is a gross error to spend so much time in the human world that the truths of biology and geology disappear from our collective conscience.

30 June 2015

San Francisco Pride

Squid hats!
San Francisco was a sea of rainbows on Sunday. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many LGBT people in one place, let alone people period. There were flags on street poles, flags in the parade, flags in the crowd and visible gestures of happy pride from San Francisco businesses. There were even rainbow squid hats!

Over a million people were estimated to have attended the pride festivities this weekend. The parade lasted for some six hours. Civic Center was closed off for blocks and large crowds listened to music on several stages. Most of the day was celebratory and peaceful. Given a gathering of that magnitude (and that it was pride in San Francisco), there were also a few obligatory nude folks (it’s almost never the people one wants to see naked that are the self-appointed exhibitioners, right?), and a few other annoyances like excessive trash on the streets.

Some photos: 

Panorama of parade attendees along Market Street.
Jim Obergefell, who was the lead plaintiff in last week's Supreme Court case.
Civic Center
Many welcome signs.
Steve Grand performing at the main stage at Civic Center.
The Apple contingent in the parade They must have had 5000 marchers. It went on forever.
Happy pride!

27 June 2015

All over the map

It’s here! By a narrow 5-4 vote at the Supreme Court, gay marriage is now legal across the United States of America. Just 10 years ago, few would have been able to imagine this day.

Gay marriage did not arrive at our doorstep yesterday because of five “rogue” justices in the Supreme Court. In fact, in ruling after ruling over the last couple years, state and federal judges at various levels have overwhelmingly been on the side of marriage equality.

Gay marriage did not come to the country because LGBT people, who only represent 3-4% of all Americans, somehow pushed their minority views on the will of the majority. In fact, well over half of all Americans now support marriage equality, a rapid evolution in public sentiment over the last decade.

Marriage equality did not become the law of the land because there is some conspiracy to destroy “religious freedom”. Churches will carry on as they always have – First Amendment rights intact – but they each have been reminded by the court’s action that their specific moral beliefs cannot be imposed on others through law in a pluralistic society.

Rather, gay marriage came to America, because as slow as we can be to correct historical wrongs, justice usually finds its place in our society. As parochial as we often are in our politics, the greater American tradition we all share stands for equality, community, and respect for diversity.

Marriage equality is now here because many good Americans have come to better know the LGBT people in their lives. Gay people have been coming out, younger and confidently, to their friends and families. Our community has greater visibility than ever before, and in listening to our stories, our straight friends have chosen love and understanding over tired stereotypes and misinformation.

Personally, my awakening came later in life than some of my gay peers; I only came out to family and friends some five years ago. Of course like most gay people, I knew I liked, and even fell in love with, my same sex far back into my youth. But for too long, I feared my sexuality and the judgment that might come my way. My religion, which should have been a place of refuge, told me in subtle and unsubtle ways that homosexuality was evil, perverse, and could only lead to unhappiness. I didn’t confront these false ideas, but instead retreated inside. I married an amazing woman instead of a beautiful man. And so ... complicated as it is, we're doing our best to move forward.

On this weekend of gay pride, my thoughts have been all over the map. I’m truly happy for my gay friends who have, or who will soon, marry. Their relationships are no longer inferior in the eyes of the state. They have all the legal protections and benefits that the government confers on straight married couples. I am happy for the young people, including my sweet children, who are now growing up in a nation that shows more acceptance and more equality than a decade ago. I am happy that coming out today is easier for young gay people and that they have more hope than ever that their futures will be proud and bright.

Because my own path as a gay person has been unconventional, there have been other thoughts and emotions too along this journey. I admit to being a little envious of my gay friends who are married or in relationships. Deep down I want a loving same-sex relationship, the experience of having feelings of romance flow naturally. Observing the excitement of gay couples I wonder a bit: did history pass me by this weekend because I chose to suppress my sexuality for so long?

At a celebration at the California state capital last evening in the hot evening air, the crowd that gathered was reminded of the sacrifice of many LGBT pioneers who helped America reach this historic day. In thinking of my own journey, I’m glad to have participated in a tiny way in this conversation over the last several years. I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t have enough courage to come out in high school, or college, or even graduate school, to embrace my own truth at a younger age. Perhaps I could have been an example for others who were struggling too. The generation of LGBT people that did come out in the 70s, 80s, and 90s are largely unknown names to me, but they were pioneers who made today’s road much smoother.

These are some of my disparate thoughts at this season in life. I’m not sure how I will feel about all of this in a decade or two. I have even less certainty about what my life will look like. The road over the last five years has been difficult emotionally. But I’ve been immensely fortunate to be on that journey with my spouse, a best friend whose compassion has few bounds. Despite the challenges, there is much more to celebrate than to worry about. All over the map, Americans can celebrate, whatever their circumstances, on this historic occasion. 

03 June 2015


Sunday evening I attended a fireside given by Carol Lynn Pearson at the LDS Institute in Berkeley. A Mormon poet and speaker who was married to a gay man before his death, she is essentially the godmother of the Mormon LGBT community. In many ways I don’t consider myself Mormon any longer, but the Church was an important part of my life for many years and for both good and bad, it has left deep influences on me.

Carol Lynn read from, and spoke about, a short book she produced recently that is an allegory for the gay person who travels through Mormonism. Her allegory was structured after the hero myth articulated in literature from ancient times to the present. Concisely, the myth centers around the hero who leaves his or her tribe on a journey of discovery. Propelled internally to seek something more, the hero leaves the tribe for an unknown destination. Arriving in an unfamiliar place, he or she struggles and must choose to confront self doubt – the voices of defeat.

One symbol of the struggle is the sword – a weapon that could either be turned on oneself for destruction or that could be used to destroy the self doubt that brings darkness. Though not all people on the journey will necessarily gain the liberating self confidence they need, those that pass successfully through their own personal transformation could then chose to return to their tribe of origin to share their new understanding. The hero was transformed, and members of the tribe, also each on their own journeys of enlightenment, could be transformed too.

I’d like to share two points that impressed me from Sister Pearson’s words. The first was a simple concept – it was her advice that LGBT people strive to be so confident in their path, so fully at peace with themselves that others around them, no matter their views on sexuality, could not help but be impressed. In essence, to help change the culture of the tribe, the gay messengers have to be completely transformed themselves.

Her second point, surely more difficult than the first, was that to be successful the hero needs to return to the tribe disarmed. This was an admonition for forgiveness, for peace with those who may have intentionally (or unintentionally) wounded another. I think most gay Mormons could rightly say that they have been wounded by a Church (and a society) that at times acts more as an enemy than a refuge. But for the wounded gay person to find happiness and wholeness, forgiveness is required. 

I confess that right now I am not yet at such a place with respect to the Church. Perhaps I feel betrayed in a sense (and not just by sexuality, but by conflicts with history and science too). I feel sad that Church culture and doctrine are still such an unhealthy place for many gay Mormons. But moving beyond those negative feelings it is a worthy goal and the direction I want to go over time. When the sword of bitterness and hostility is tossed aside, again the tribe cannot but be impressed with who the gay hero really is.   

As I left the fireside meeting Sunday evening and began to browse social media on my phone, I quickly saw that two good gay Mormon friends of mine had just become engaged to be married. Since they’ve been dating seriously for several years, that wasn’t unexpected, but learning of the news really filled me with happiness for them. As we’ve talked over the years, I’ve come to know some about their own personal struggles of self acceptance, family acceptance and journey through Mormonism. So, it is wonderful to see them in a place of happiness and fulfillment. I feel a tinge of jealousy too when I learn such news - a happy same-sex relationship is a significant dream of mine. But I mostly feel happiness for my good friends, and I wish them the very best in the future.

As Carol Lynn noted Sunday evening, our tribe (Mormonism) doesn’t make it easy for us. Almost simultaneously coming out as gay, leaving the Church, navigating raw emotional experiences, and working through changing realities in a mixed orientation marriage is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. In many ways gay people are not heroes. We are ordinary people with the same fears and need for love and acceptance as anyone else. But we go through an unusual journey, one not shared by most people in the world. To pass through that journey, emerging with greater self acceptance, maybe a partner at one’s side, and love in one’s heart is the best possible outcome for LGBT Mormons. 

09 January 2015

This husband IS gay

Discussion of mixed orientation marriages – marriages where one partner is straight and the other is gay or bisexual – has sort of exploded on-line lately in at least part of the Mormon community. Mostly this appears to have been prompted by a show that will air by The Learning Channel this weekend titled “My Husband’s Not Gay”. The program features several gay Mormon men who are in straight marriages and a single same-sex attracted Mormon who wants to marry a woman. Perhaps co-incidentally, NPR also recently featured an interview with a gay Christian pastor recently married to a straight woman.

Will straight marriages work for most gay people? Image source
I have mixed feelings about this topic. For readers not familiar with me personally, or some of my older posts on this blog, a bit of context is warranted. I’m presently in a mixed orientation marriage (MOM) myself. I’m gay, but I married heterosexually over a decade ago. I was deeply active in Mormonism at the time. While we were still dating, I told my wife a little (unfortunately way too little!) about my attractions to other men, but both of us had only a superficial understanding of homosexuality at the time. We didn’t discuss the topic much more and we got married. Though I knew since my teenage years that I liked guys, acting on those feelings in any capacity was strictly forbidden in the LDS Church. Also, growing up I never experienced anything close to a same-sex relationship – something that probably would have helped me figure things at an earlier age. Around the time I was married, I wondered if my same-sex feelings might change in the future. I just didn’t know, but it sure would have lifted a huge psychological burden. I had had a lot of shame about my sexuality for a long time. Why did I marry? The reasons were several and included everything from finding someone who was (and is) a wonderful friend and partner, to believing that I needed to marry to show my complete obedience to God. It also should be mentioned that my Mormon singles congregation at the time was bombarded repeatedly with well-meaning, but persistent, encouragement to get married! That’s supposedly what God wants Mormons to do.

I came out as gay a little over four years ago. Before that time, however, my beliefs in orthodox Mormonism were already fading. Today, I’m in a very different place spiritually. I now believe that Mormonism is deeply wrong about LGBT people. Its doctrines on same-sex attraction are not consistent with common sense, nor with sociological research. Many Mormon leaders and church members have treated LGBT people terribly in the past. Today the official stance has softened, but homophobia persists culturally in the Church, and the doctrine essentially leaves few fulfilling options for most gay people.

So, to my mixed feelings on MOMs. I think that on balance it is positive that mixed orientation marriages are being discussed publicly. Over the last few years, in the faithful Mormon community there have been a number of gay or bisexual men who have come out in a very public way about their heterosexual marriages. We can and should be respectful of the personal choices of some gay people to marry the opposite sex. Some of these couples married after discussing homosexuality with their future partners much more than I ever did; that honesty and openness can only be positive for all involved. The recent TLC show has generated a storm of opinions, including a petition to cancel the show. I just don’t agree; while I understand the frustration from gay people who are tired of being pushed around by society, I think having the discussion is healthier than keeping the existence of mixed orientation marriages in the dark.

I also recognize that human beings are complex and all the various combinations of belief, experience, sexuality, and personality make us unique. We can create categories that do an OK job of describing people as a whole – gay, bisexual, straight – but people are still very diverse and none of us fit perfectly into any constructed box. Some gay people are going to be very comfortable and happy marrying someone of the opposite sex. That option may be a very good one for many bisexuals. It is much easier socially, for sure, especially in the past when bigotry against gay people was more pervasive. It is easier to have children in opposite sex relationships. A straight marriage may make family relationships more harmonious.

But, there are a lot of facets to this phenomenon, not just happily-ever-after straight-married gay Mormons. From my own experiences, those of friends and acquaintances I’ve made since coming out, and some scholarly data on MOMs, there are many aspects that make me uncomfortable.

First, is the uncomfortable truth of statistics. Although precise estimates may not exist, most mixed orientation marriages end in divorce. This is true in the broader US population and of recently-surveyed gay Mormons. Estimates of divorce in MOMs range from about 50-85%, which is much higher than divorce rates among first marriages in the overall population. John Dehlin, a Mormon researcher, has compiled a summary of his work on same-sex attraction and MOMs among LGBT Mormons. His findings suggest that MOM divorce rates are 2-3 times higher than that broader population, and that individuals in MOMs tend to have a lower quality of life than gay people in same-sex relationships.

For however long a mixed orientation marriage lasts, it can be emotionally difficult. I wrote at length a few years ago about intimacy (not just sexual intimacy) in an MOM. The emotional difficulties in such a marriage may have nothing to do with the partners – both can be fantastic people – it is just that they are trying to fit themselves into a situation that isn’t quite right for them. For the gay spouse especially, straight marriage can just be a foreign place emotionally.

Separation is not an easy road. It is a very difficult process for all involved – straight spouse, gay spouse, children and extended family. These divorces can have a sort of unique sadness associated with them. Often the spouses still deeply love each other and are still great friends. But their marriages miss enough of the emotional, sexual, and physical connection that they cannot persist indefinitely.

For the small percentage of mixed orientation marriages that last long-term, the sociological research shows that several factors help them do so. First, in the surviving marriages, the same-sex attracted spouse is often bisexual, not strictly same-sex attracted. Secondly, many of these marriages become open marriages where one or both partners may have extra-marital relationships. I assume that arrangement may work for some couples, but it is not what many want over the long-term, and it is wholly incompatible with certain religions like Mormonism.

The second point I feel strongly about is how it seems precarious to ground so much of a marriage decision on religious tenets. I’m not talking about the religious tenets of love, forgiveness, or sacrifice. Rather, I’m talking about hard-line interpretations of ancient texts that claim to know more about human sexuality than modern science. Of the several mixed orientation couples that I have met (or know about), I can think of only two marriages that may not have been motivated initially in largepart by religious views. From my own experience, I know that spiritual beliefs can change over time. In the case of Mormonism – with its very unique worldviews and troubled history – a future change in belief can really mean a large change in one’s whole life. Maybe it took me too long to really learn this, but we marry a person, not tenets, and to mix the two inextricably can lead to pain down the road.

Third, I’m uncomfortable with the positive spin sometimes given to MOMs, because I can’t shake the impression that many of these marriages are fueled to some degree by homophobia. To illustrate, in both the NPR piece and among some of the publicly-out married gay Mormons, there is a trend that many of these men refuse to identify as gay. Acronyms like SGA (“same-gender attracted”) are invented, and labels are eschewed. Rather than identify as gay or bisexual and thereby emphasize the truth that gay behaviors and gay choices come in all flavors, many of these individuals tend to demonize the “gay lifestyle”. Most fundamentally damaging, I think, is the broader message that seems to be foundational to mixed orientation marriage advocacy: gay relationships are just inferior to straight ones. The research I’ve seen doesn’t support that belief.

I’m not wholly reading into the minds of others here. I know unequivocally that homophobia played some role in my decision to get married heterosexually years ago. (It certainly was not the only factor). One of my major motivations to be married was a religious belief that that life path was going to be most acceptable to God. If there were out and accepted gay couples in my church congregations years ago, would I have still have thought that being single or marrying a woman were my only future choices?

Fourth, the precedent. The positive side of stories like the couples in the TLC show is that young people today see that they have options. Because we discuss homosexuality as a society more than ever before, young people can find examples of gay people married to each other, gay people married to straight people, polyamorous relationships, etc. But there can be a heavy negative side too. MOMs can be used by religiously-motivated parents or church leaders to pressure young gay people into heterosexual relationships. They just don’t need the pressure! Statistically, a mixed orientation won’t work for most young gay people. If they are of the minority group that will eventually flourish in an MOM, let them discover that on their own journey in their own time frame!

Finally, I have to ask about the long haul. For the young gay/bisexual Mormons in straight marriages now, what will be of their futures? Where will the outspoken advocates of MOMs be in 10, 20 or 40 years? Personally, I thought I would never come out as long as I lived. But once I accepted my sexuality, I realized gay people have other options and that shifted the psychological dynamic of my marriage. We are disregarding a lot of common sense to think that MOMs are no big deal. If sexual orientation isn’t that important in the decision to marry, why aren’t millions of straight people actively looking for same-sex partners? (By the way, I think that is totally fine, but the fact that it is almost non-existent speaks volumes about the fact that homophobia drives a lot of the pressure for gay people to marry heterosexually.)

In summary, I think we can respect the individual choices of people in mixed orientation marriages, without supporting the institutional homophobia that enables and sometimes encourages gay people to enter into these marriages in the first place. This husband IS gay, and yours might be too.

14 September 2014

Modern-day Saints

I am fortunate. No one has abandoned me because I have come out. I have supportive friends and a loving family. This isn’t necessarily the case, however, for other gay individuals who come from strong religious communities. The ugly thistles of intolerance sometimes sprout most vigorously from deeply religious soils. It is disturbing to hear of instances of mistreatment of gay youth by Mormon parents, and yet strongly encouraging to hear that many other LDS parents are forging the opposite course by loving and supporting their gay children. There are true “Saints” working in LDS communities to help young LGBT people feel supported and loved, even if support from the institutional Mormon Church seems sluggish, qualified, or insincere.

Last Sunday I attended a presentation in Berkeley, California with two of those saints – a former LDS Bishop, Bob Rees, and a Catholic professor at San Francisco State University, Caitlin Ryan. The two have collaborated on the Family Acceptance Project, a research and education initiative to help LGBT youth and families in conservative religious communities. The initiative is evidence-based, meaning that is rests on a solid foundation of research about what will truly help young gay people growing up in conservative religious homes.

Dr. Ryan has worked with the LGBT community and their families for decades, as outlined in this recent New York Times article that discusses her work and the Berkeley “fireside” I attended. Together with Dr. Rees, she works to improve the health of LGBT youth within the framework of Mormon teachings, highlighting for instance, that love and support are not anathema to Mormon doctrine. (That message seems obvious with the Mormon theological emphasis on love and family, but it is clearly a message some Mormons have not embraced with respect to LGBT individuals). More specifically, the Family Acceptance Project demonstrates that specific behaviors by parents (listening to their gay children, letting their LGBT children apply their own labels to themselves), go a long way in helping young people who are sexual orientation or gender identity minorities. With more positive support, risky and harmful behaviors by gay youth such as attempted suicide decline.

One highlight of the two hour meeting was a film about a Mormon family in southern California that went through a personal and family transformation as one of the sons in the family came out as a young teenager. Initially distressed because they couldn’t see how her newly-out son could fit in with Mormon ideals of family and fatherhood, the Mormon parents recount how they chose to love, accept and embrace their son. A preview of the film can be seen here.

Dr. Ryan leads the Family Acceptance Project, but Dr. Rees helped to bring an LDS perspective to the work. Interestingly, I have known Bob for a long time, though we did not reconnect until the Berkeley fireside. He was a faculty member and active Latter-day Saint at the university in central California where I was an undergraduate student. At the time I was a relatively new member of the Church – and gay, of course – but I was deeply in the closet about my sexual orientation. My university was very liberal and there was only a small community of active Latter-day Saints who were students on campus. I interacted with Bob somewhat in his (informal) capacity as a mentor of us LDS students and in his interfaith work in the broader community. Bob was a humanities professor (while I was an undergraduate mostly interested in the sciences), but he kindly reviewed some poems I had written at the time. Somewhere I believe I still have copies of those poems – with his encouraging remarks and suggestions handwritten next to my terrible poetry.

For me it was a missed opportunity to talk with Bob about my concerns and fears as a young gay person while I was in college. I probably didn’t know at the time that he had worked with many gay students as a bishop at UCLA prior to coming north to my university. I may not have known much about his personal transformation from holding significant homophobic views about LGBT people to being a compassionate advocate for gay individuals in the Mormon Church. To the extent that I knew of his work with gay Mormons, I was really in no position back then to try to accept my sexuality as a healthy and valued piece of the whole me.

Young LGBT Mormons today have the blessing of modern-day Saints who advocate – through word and action – on their behalf. As more and more Mormons decide to be enlightened by the research and personal journeys of these Saints like Caitlin and Bob, the LDS Church will become a better and healthier community for all. 

17 August 2014

First love

Falling in love is sweet and innocent, awkward and unnerving, invigorating and the most natural feeling in the world. When it happens for the first time, I’m sure that all the emotions that come flooding into a young person are similar whether that person is gay or straight, but I think often the context is very different for sexual minorities. Imagine a young gay teen falling in love 5, 10 or 15 years ago, or even today. Will this young person, still unsure of why he or she feels differently from their peers, have had a chance to really understand and accept their sexuality by the time the first experience of same sex love occurs?

My first time falling in love was a rollercoaster of friendship and confusion and disaster. Here is that story.

I was a very shy kid growing up, a definite introvert. Academics interested me more than social activities, athletics, or friendships. But at least as early as junior high school my attraction to males started to be tangible. I took notice of other guys, and began to feel elements of sexual and emotional attraction. Because I could usually pass as “straight” at school, I managed to mostly escape the teasing and bullying that so often befalls gay and transgender youth. I don’t recall ever being the target of overt homophobia, but at the same time I definitely absorbed the ever-present message that being gay was equivalent to social suicide. Growing up it was more or less my highest priority to keep my same-sex attractions secret.

Until high school I generally had few close friends. My sophomore year however, I started to develop some of my first close friendships. A half dozen guys and girls, we met in a history class where we had an unconventional and inspiring teacher. I began to hang out with my new group of intellectually-inclined friends and do things becoming of our newly-discovered teenage omniscience: talk about forming rock bands and probe the bottomless well of sarcasm.

With the growth of these new friendships, I started to feel strongly at that point in my life that I really wanted a best friend. Two guys in this small circle of friends, it seemed, were already becoming best friends. Except for a close friend from early elementary school, this was something I lacked. With time I became close with PJ, a guy who was not part of that original circle that began in my sophomore year. PJ was one year younger than me, but he was really my superior in many ways, especially academically. I looked up to him. He was intelligent, independent, and wildly ambitious.

Over the course of a few months we became really close friends. We shared interests in biology, music and school. The summer between my junior and senior years PJ and I spent time together almost every day. We went swimming, hiking, and exploring at the beach. We bonded to a degree that I had not experienced in life before. Whereas I was (and often remain) reflexively shy in larger groups, I loved the one-on-one interactions. In fact, having a best friend was the most incredible thing to me up to that point in life.

An interesting experience with PJ involved an early connection to Mormonism, a worldview that would later shape many of my decisions over the next decade and a half and have a significant effect on how I interacted with my sexuality.

Both PJ and I were interested in two LDS girls at our high school who were in my graduating class. They came from very devout and conservative Mormon homes. These young women were athletic, intelligent, and pretty. In fact, MM, the girl that PJ liked, would go on to become the homecoming queen of my high school during my senior year. PS, the girl that I liked, was attractive and sweet. PJ’s love for his Mormon crush, as far as I knew, was genuine and deep. But if there is any objective way to quantify romantic intensity, I’m sure that my level of interest in my Mormon “crush” was much more benign. I “liked” PS on and off for perhaps 6 years growing up, but I doubt there was a whole lot of intensity to those feelings.

True to his ambition and intensity, PJ concocted a plan for the ultimate double date towards the beginning of my senior year: the two non-Mormon boys and the two Mormon girls would have the perfect dinner together and then see the band U2 in concert.

PJ took the lead on preparations for the whole night and I was more than thrilled to be participating in such a once-in-a-lifetime event with my best friend. PJ selected the restaurant and went out of his way to let the staff know that it was a special night. The concert part of our date was pretty incredible. For starters, somehow PJ had secured floor seats in a massive stadium that was hosting the world’s most popular band at the time. Of course I loved the music, and during one of the band’s best songs, I recall looking behind me to see some of the upper tiers of the stadium visibly moving (earthquake shocks it must have been) as the crowd jumped to the song in unison.

The most amazing part of the evening, technically, was that we somehow managed to obtain the good graces of two sets of conservative Mormon parents enough to let their daughters attend this concert, 45 minutes away from home, with two non-Mormon teenage boys. The night went without hitch of course, because despite being non-Mormon heathens, we were still in reality two good boys. I’m sure also that the threat of the wrath of God hung over us that night. But, unbeknownst to everyone, that wasn’t really needed for me. I was gay, the safest date a young Mormon girl could ask for. I was in love with PJ.

One of the things I have learned over the last few years since coming out is how my emotional attractions are an integral component of my sexuality. I have had many healthy platonic friendships with men, but a few times in life I have developed very strong emotional connections to other guys. This friend, PJ, was an early and profound example to me that the feelings of love we are capable of having for another person really constitute a broad spectrum of attractions. At the age of 17, I believed (or at least told myself) that I just wanted a best friend; now I know that I naturally wanted emotional intimacy with another human being. Without self or societal acceptance, how can the closeted young person properly interpret those blossoming romantic feelings?

When I try to think back on what endeared me to PJ, it was not really his physical looks. He wasn’t unattractive, but his looks were secondary to other feelings I had for him. He was incredibly intelligent and ambitious. He expanded my horizons intellectually and challenged me to come out of my introverted shell. Though we lost contact after high school, I learned that he went to college at one of most prestigious universities in the US. I ran into his name from time to time (or looked him up) and found out that he later earned a PhD and was on track for a very successful career. The teenage PJ also had a streak of arrogance - which today I would likely find unattractive - but at that time this quality probably drew him to me also, because it meant I was part of his team, allowing a special connection to him shared with practically no one else.

I don’t know exactly why PJ was interested in my friendship. I think it started, in part, because he himself had few close friends. To him, I may have been the kind of malleable friend who is perfect for ambitious people in need of an audience. His interests were easily my interests and I was willing to go along on any adventure if it involved his company. If he gained a disciple of sorts and rides in my car from time to time, I in turn, benefited from the emotional comfort of a strong new friendship.

Sunset at one of our beach spots.
Like most first loves, this one ended, but it ended pretty badly for me. Because my attractions for PJ clearly ran deeper than a close friendship, over time I found myself wanting more from the relationship. I wanted to be around him more often, even when we already spent hours together, and I wanted to have a deeper emotional connection. I was jealous, for example, of his interest in his Mormon crush, even though she didn’t seem to reciprocate his feelings. Soon I began to smother the friendship we had formed. PJ, confused and frustrated, began to withdraw from me. In turn, I struggled immensely with feelings of insecurity, sadness and loss. I simply couldn’t tell PJ what was going on. I just wasn’t ready to be honest with anyone, even myself, about my sexuality. There was nothing in my limited universe to indicate that my feelings for a guy were normal and healthy, and I had no one I was comfortable turning to.

After a few months struggling through a friendship, PJ determined that we could no longer be friends. He suspected I was gay, I found out, when I secretly read some of his journal. He had confided with a counselor at school who suggested as much. I was crushed and terrified when I learned this. Understandably, the invasion of his privacy only exacerbated the difficulties between us. Whether homophobia had any role in driving him away, I do not know, but it was clear that we wanted different things out of the relationship and I was an emotional mess.

It has been two decades since PJ and I last had a conversation. For years after high school he would appear in my dreams. Most of those dreams revolved around the same theme – we would to one degree or another become reconciled. We would be friends again. He would accept and forgive me. Though our new friendship in those dreams was always more constrained than what we experienced in high school, I took comfort in them because of the reconciliation. These dreams pretty much ended a few years ago, but it amazes me that I had them for such a long period of time.

In large measure this really difficult emotional experience during high school probably pushed me into the next chapter in my life, an affiliation with Mormonism. In the wake of a disaster mostly of my own creation, I needed something to guide me and support my struggling self. This came from well-intentioned Mormon high school friends who invited me to their activities and befriended me. They were attractive, kind, intelligent and successful. Ever interested in the “truth”, I was intrigued by an ideology that talked so much about truth and striving for excellence. After several months learning about the religion, I joined the Church after high school. Mormonism would turn out to have a profound negative effect on my journey as a gay person, but it also brought many positive things into my life during the years I was an active member.

What have I learned from falling in love years ago to my straight best friend and from experiences since? First, I gained an important reference point for understanding the depth and scope of my attractions. Homosexuality is not just about sex, but like any manifestation of sexuality, it is about the range of connections that two individuals can share. Though the nature and magnitude of feelings were unreciprocated, I felt for a time that PJ was my partner. And I think that consciously or subconsciously, I have desired to have that depth of connection with another person for many years.

Second, I’ve learned a little that falling in love can bring out some of the best and worst tendencies we possess as individuals. In our better moments, love serves as a motivation to put off our own interests in order to meet the needs and expectations of others. We sacrifice and adapt working together. We learn and we teach each other in relationships. We grow the small single-occupancy universes we inhabit a little more to encompass two souls.

Yet, in rendering us vulnerable to another person, love can also summon our insecurities like few other events. In the process of becoming vulnerable, we hand someone else our heart and expect that they will know what to do in order to treat it right. Sometimes, our feelings of self worth can get a little too tied up in how our romantic partner views and treats us. We might struggle with feelings of rejection when the intensity of feelings is not reciprocated. In the case of my high school love, I wanted the approval of an old friend for many years during dreams I had while deep in the closet. Perhaps it is a coincidence that the dreams more or less ended – the real reconciliation occurred - when that approval eventually came from within after coming out and accepting myself as gay. Perhaps not.