Monday, April 23, 2012

Carefully Picking my Way

This weekend, I was on a panel discussion of the topic, "Navigating the Issues of Homosexuality and Same-Sex Attraction While Going to Church." The panel was held at the Circling the Wagons conference in Washington, DC. A couple dozen people attended the session, asked questions, and shared stories. Randall and Tristan were also on the panel, and each of us had unique perspectives on threading the eye of the LDS needle.

I am a gay man with a lesbian heart, so I brought my own agenda. I had a few specific things I wanted to say, so I made a list of questions, some of which I wanted to answer, and in the course of the discussion, I was focused enough to have the opportunity to say the things that were in my heart and on my mind. In this blog entry, I'm going to repeat my list of questions, and then try to answer them honestly for you. This is my take. I appreciate the journeys that Tristan and Randall are taking. Their insights, and the insights and contributions of the people participating in the discussion added to my own understanding. The panel reinforced my belief that we are all on our own journeys of discovery and understanding.

Briefly, my situation is that I was excommunicated from the LDS church 30 years ago, and I started attending church again in November of 2011. Being excommunicated means that I am not officially a member of the LDS church (although officially an ex-member), I cannot take the sacrament of communion, I cannot hold any church callings or positions, I cannot give prayers in church meetings, I cannot give talks in church meetings (although I can participate in Sunday School and Priesthood discussions), I cannot pay tithes or offerings, and I cannot wear temple garments. The practical effect of these prohibitions is to isolate a person who has been excommunicated.

So in that context, I provide these questions and answers from my own experience in the Kensington Ward. I hope and pray that these will spark some thought and discussion in the hearts and heads of church members and help them remember not to leave behind their lesbian, gay, and transgendered brothers and sisters.

What do you tell members when they ask inevitable personal questions about where you are from and about your family? Mormons like to know all about you. I have yet to introduce myself in Priesthood Meeting. I felt that telling the brothers about myself in any honest way at all in that setting would stigmatize me. So for the first few Sundays, I artfully dodged that introduction. I don't regret that.

When members come up to me and introduce themselves to me one-on-one, I tell them my story. So far, no one has left the room screaming. I tell them that I've been in the Kensington Ward for 22 years, but only started attending in November, that I've returned to the church. When I am asked if I am married or have a family, I reply that I am not married, but that I have a husband at home who is not a member of the church, and that he and I have been together for 29 years. In all my conversations with members (numbering several dozen, by now), responses have always been respectful: they either ask me about Ron and our life, or they say, "That's nice," and they change the subject.

What have you told the bishop and priesthood leaders about your situation? The second Sunday I attended, I went to see the Bishop, and I told him that I was apostate, excommunicated, gay, and atheist, and he smiled and said, "Welcome to the Kensington Ward." And he has made me feel welcome. I have also spoken to the High Priests Group Leader and told him about my circumstances. I felt that I wanted to be as open and honest as possible. I don't want my leaders to find out through some other means and have them feel like I was deceiving them. I know this is a tough decision for some gay Mormons to make. Kensington, Maryland is not Kaysville, Utah. I think how you answer this question may depend on how much you trust your bishop and leaders. Obviously, since I'm excommunicated, there isn't much that my priesthood leadership can do to discipline me if my bishop or stake president felt inclined to do so.

How have ward leaders responded? The ward leadership has responded in a very kind and loving way. The bishopric all know my name and greet me every Sunday. For the first few months, the only real contact I had with ward members was in meetings. I decided that something had to be done, so I contacted the Ward Executive Secretary, and I gave him all of my contact information. In addition, I went to my High Priests Group Leader and requested a home teacher. As soon as I took that initiative, all kinds of things have started to happen. I was immediately assigned a home teacher. The Ward Missionaries came over for a visit. I'm pretty sure I've become a Ward Council project, and I welcome that.

What are the biggest obstacles to re-integration in your ward coming back to church after being away for so many years? Has your homosexuality been an issue? My transition into the ward is very much a work in progress. So far, I think it is going pretty well. One of the biggest obstacles to being part of the ward is not having any official way to be on ward contact lists. Consequently, I didn't hear about activities or really know what was going on in the ward, except what I would hear in meetings. Because I do not have a membership number, nothing happens automatically. So I request that I be added to various lists. I finally added my name to the priesthood roll, as well (that's why those blank lines are printed at the bottom of the page).

Another big obstacle for me is the lonely feeling that I can get when I'm at church. So I now always sit in the center of the chapel so that families can fill in around me. After meeting, I can then introduce myself to the people around me. I joined the choir, not because I have a great voice, but because it's a great way to get to know other people in a happy, social space. I try to attend some of the ward socials and other events.

Not having callings also keeps me out of the mainstream where I might be meeting other members. So I really try to attend my meetings when I am in town. My home teacher suggested I take a notebook with me, so that I can jot down names of members, and begin to know who people are. I'm happy to meet with the ward missionaries, because it helps me learn a lot about the ward and its people, and because they need to hear my story, too.

My homosexuality has not been an issue. It's never come up. In fact, on at least two occasions, I was told that Ron would be welcome, too. On the other hand, it is not widely known among ward members that I am gay. But among the leadership, my personal life has never been an issue. Check back in six months.

Why did you decide to go back to church? Someone at the panel discussion actually asked me this question. It's the only question here that is really difficult for me to answer, because some days, I really don't know except that I have felt strongly moved to be back in the pew. I love these people. I want to be in a faith community, and this is the place. The God that I do not believe in has called me to a place I did not want to be in, and I accept that. God is remodeling my heart. Church is not an easy place for me to be, but I'm grateful that I'm here. I feel this place, right now, is where I'm supposed to be. Okay, this is a meandering answer, but it's the best I can do right now.

How do you handle instances of homophobia, misunderstanding, or discrimination? So far, I haven't experienced any. I think I've probably forestalled some of it by pre-emptively telling my story as I meet members. Having said that, if I do run into problems, I will attempt to talk with the person involved in a loving, caring way. If problems can't be resolved, I will talk with the bishop or my priesthood leader. If I run into misconceptions or mischaracterizations during lessons, I will add my two bits to the lesson discussion. If a letter is read over the pulpit in sacrament meeting, or if a sacrament meeting talk is given that is offensive, I will talk with the bishop.

How can you be of service to ward members if you can't hold a calling? Virtually every week in priesthood meeting there are announcements for various work projects. Now I've only been on one or two, but I know I can get involved in many others. What I mean to say is, I have lots of opportunities that don't require a calling at all. I think the greatest service I can be to ward members, though, is to be consistently present, to listen to them, to love them. I am hearing some of their stories. I really try to be open to their experiences.

Any thoughts about what will happen in your ward when people come to the realization that you aren't going to "repent?" What does the long slog look like? How will you navigate that? Of course, I have doubts and awful imaginings. Maybe by my presence, the members will realize that I don't need to repent of homosexuality or repent of the love I share with my husband. I'm sure, though, that some members of the ward will be troubled by my living and social situation.

The long slog looks hopeful. At my current rate of meeting ward members, I will have worked my way through the roster sometime in 2017. The long slog requires patience on my part. That isn't one of my strong suits, but so far, it's working. And I'll navigate through all of this by continuing. I just walk up to the church's front door and open it.

If the LDS church's stance on homosexuality doesn't become more reasoned and nuanced, will you continue to stay or will you eventually feel you have to move on? I honestly don't know the answer to this question. Ultimately, I'm hopeful, although I'm sure that the LDS church will never move as far as I would want it to. If I were to feel utterly rejected in my ward, I would probably move on. But I don't believe that God has called me to an impossible task or an impossible situation. I need to learn patience. I need to be my authentically gay, skeptical self. I need to continue loving a community from which I was absent. Maybe a reconciliation of our hearts can be effected. I'm waiting on and trusting in God. I don't have to believe, but I do have to be there.