BFA Music Dance Theater ('02)
For me it was BYU or bust. Both my parents were graduates and I always hoped to attend.
For the most part, I loved my experience there. I felt like a success just being at the Y. My parents were so proud of me. Because I had come out to my family at age 17, I was quite vocal in sharing my sexual orientation with my classmates and even some of my roommates. I generally found BYU students to be loving and supportive. I also found my BYU bishops to be largely wonderful men who wanted to help, in spite of their extremely limited experience dealing with gay church members.
I served a 2 year mission in Culiacan, Mexico where I continued to share my sexuality with select companions and mission buddies. In spite of the fact that most members could tell I was gay, I was (with a few exceptions) accepted and felt free to "be myself." I became a district and zone leader, and according to one of the mission APs, I would have become an AP myself if I hadn't dyed my hair so much. (I was channeling a lot of my suppressed internal angst and creativity into serious highlights). Shortly after returning from my mission, the Honor Code office found me. I was taking music, acting and dance courses, but I had decided I wanted to become a doctor. One morning, I was sitting in my General Chemistry class when a young woman walked in and handed an envelope to the professor. He looked at it and read my name aloud, handing me the envelope. I nervously shuffled to the front of the class, took the envelope and sat back down. Nearby students watched curiously as I fumbled to open the letter. My blood ran cold as I read the words: "Please leave class and come to the Honor Code office when you receive this letter." Shaking, I took my backpack and made my way toward the Wilk (I don't know where the Honor Code office is now, but that is where it used to be). This would be my first of dozens of meetings with Baker and Hindmarsh and the Honor Code over the next 3 years at BYU. Apparently there was already a large file about me. Apparently several people had "turned me in," because after meeting me they just assumed I was violating the honor code. I was in fact only 2 months from returning from Mexico, had not engaged in any sexual behavior of any kind, and was therefore able to vociferously defend my worthiness. I did admit, however, that I was gay. Hindmarsh said that they didn't reach out the first few times students called about me, but decided to now because the caller this time was, "more credible." After initially declining, Hindmarsh eventually told that the head of the Folk Dance department had turned me in, triggering a more in depth investigation. As the years went on, I continued to be called in from time to time. During my senior year, I was placed on probation by the Honor Code office. In order to graduate, among other things I was required to meet weekly with Hindmarsh and my bishop. I did all what was asked of me as was able to graduate in 2002.
I never had sex while I was at BYU, but after my mission, over time I allowed myself to begin to date and sometimes make out with boys, mostly clothed most of the time, after which I would feel absolutely terrible about myself and vow to never do it again. The guilt I experienced about my sexual feelings and sexual experiences became my most trusted companion. I also, in spite of my most extreme efforts, masturbated at least several times a week the whole time I was at BYU. I truly tortured myself each and every time I did this. I was constantly asking for strength and guidance, hating my weakness and vulnerability.
While in school, I was hoping for a miracle cure. My watchcry was always, "all it takes is one woman." God didn't need to make me straight, if He would just endow me the slightest attraction to one woman I knew I could make things work. I wanted a family. I wanted the Mormon dream. I wanted to make it to the Celestial Kingdom. I wanted people to see me as a success story, someone who was afflicted with the most malignant of all spiritual maladies but who never gave up. I wanted to be the one to beat all the odds. After my mission, I started dating kind, beautiful and friendly women I met in my classes. I typically told them of my "same sex attraction," within the first couple of dates. Even with this disclosure, I found no shortage of faithful LDS women willing to continue dating me, and so I continued. I arrived at a crossroads when I found one special young woman. She was thin, blonde, graceful, engaging and eloquent. I could see all that, but I was not attracted to her. Maybe the Lord didn't need to give me this attraction. Maybe I needed to take a leap of faith and show my willingness to follow the path in darkness. "Keep thou my feet, I do not ask to see the distant scene, one step enough for me." She accepted that I wasn't attracted to her. It didn't bother her, she said. We would share my struggles together. She wanted to discuss marriage. She said she understood the limitations of my sexual feelings for her, but felt that the Lord would make up the difference.
It wasn't until that moment that I realized that though she did technically understand, as a sexually innocent person she had no way of truly grasping exactly what she was giving up. This was blind faith, not understanding. I realized that because of her inexperience, she could not truly consent to what she was agreeing to. That didn't feel right to me. In addition, by this time, several of my gay friends who had taken their own leaps of faith and married women were already experiencing the fallout of emotionally catastrophic divorces, their ex-wives feeling depressed, betrayed, confused, and often angry. How could I do that to this kind sweet girl who has dreamed of a happy marriage all her life where she is wanted and loved? I saw in that moment that for me, I could never marry a woman. It would be one thing for me to give up my emotional and sexual fulfillment, but it was quite another to ask another person to unknowingly do the same.
One more thing I would like to add about my BYU experience is that I met my best friends and closest allies there. Most of them are gay Mormons like me. We have been there for each other for over 20 years through marriages, divorces, births, deaths, faith transitions, career changes, and everything in between. Though I do feel that the education I got at BYU was very good, the absolute best thing to come out of the experience for me are my friends. I don't know who I'd be without them.
Describe your experiences post-BYU
After leaving BYU I moved to New York City to go to a few auditions. The plan was to take a year or two, probably wait tables, and then go to medical school. But in two years, instead of starting medical school, I found myself making my Broadway debut as a drag queen in the 2004 Revival of La Cage Aux Folles. I was still a true believing Mormon at the time: taking off my garments and putting on a dress for work is an experience I will never forget. La Cage led to other Broadway shows, national tours and regional productions. In 2011 I heard rumors about a Mormon musical by the makers of South Park. "Who would watch a Broadway musical about Mormonism," I thought to myself? As I would soon find out, a lot of people. At my audition I shared my story – I was a missionary in real life! HAHAHA yeah right. No, REALLY. The casting director was fascinated and thought I should come in for the creative team. In a case of true type casting, I got the part. For the next 3.5 years, in over 1200 performances, I reprised my real life role as a Mormon missionary. The experience was incredible and surreal, but I never wanted to spend my entire career as an actor. Also, dancing 8 shows a week becomes less and less fun the closer you get to 40. At age 37, I wondered if it was too late for me to become a doctor. It turns out, it was not too late. I was accepted to medical school here in New York City and on May 29th of this year, I will graduate as the valedictorian of my class at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine. In June I start my medical training in my chosen specialty: Psychiatry. Talking to people about their own life stories for a living seems like a fitting next chapter for mine. I will be training at Weill Cornell Medicine at New York Presbyterian here in NYC.
My faith transition was gradual. I grew more and more tired of feeling broken all the time. I hated being the person who could never move forward with my personal life. I couldn't be happy in the church because there was always something missing, but I also assumed I could never be happy out of the church. People who leave the church feel lost and unhappy, I was told. I believed this. I saw no other option but to stay in the safety of the church. My family was proud of my efforts. They were even proud of me because even though I was in a state of constant struggle and emotional chaos, up until then, I had never given up.
I don't know when it started, but at some point I started passively hoping for my own death. On airplanes during takeoff or landing, I would think to myself, "if we crashed that wouldn't be so bad." At times, I found myself hoping to be stricken with a fatal illness. What a wonderful thing it would be to die of cancer having never given in to my gayness. What an example I would be to other gay Mormons for how to endure to the end! I just needed the end to come soon because I was running out of steam. I didn't like being me. I felt trapped, and though I was surrounded by friends and family, I felt exquisite loneliness and isolation. I never truly considered suicide. I needed God to end my life, not me.
At some point, it dawned on me that hoping for your own death is probably not very healthy. But what could I do? I couldn't stay and I couldn't leave. Or could I?
My first step was this exploration: maybe ending up in the Telestial Kingdom would not be so bad. Didn't I hear somewhere that we would kill ourselves to get there if we saw it? Or was that the Terrestial Kingdom? Regardless, maybe I should just step away for the church for a while to see how it feels, accepting that I might have to end up in only the glory of the stars. It was at this time that I finally allowed myself to do a real investigation into the truth claims of Mormonism. The biggest claim: We are God's only true (and living) church on the whole face of the whole earth. Until then, I had been satisfied with never reading "anti-mormon" literature. It made sense to me: If you want to know about something, ask an expert. You wouldn't go to a tailor for a plumbing problem, so why would you go to an anti-mormon about Mormonism? That always resonated with me. But then I thought, hey – what if I didn't get the whole story? What if there were things about my religion that I never learned because people were trying to "protect my faith" from the more challenging aspects of our LDS history? It didn't seem right to be hoping for my death in support of a religion that I had not truly investigated from multiple sources. And besides, the truth will stand forth, boldly, nobly, and independent. No unhallowed hand can stop it. So if it is that true and that bold and that noble, reading a few books by naysayers couldn't possibly ruin it.
The first book I read was No Man Knows My History by Fawn Brodie. She writes the story of a man who hunted for treasure for his neighbors in upstate New York. (I didn't know Joseph Smith did that!) She writes how he began to feel he was receiving prophetic inspirations like many of his neighbors in the "burned-over district." He never set out to stretch the truth, but as people believed him, and as they changed their lives for the better because of his revelations, he considered himself called to be a prophet of God. He told his origin story, now known as the first vision, in different ways over the years, adding new details with each retelling. It wasn't malicious. It was inspired.
As I read this story, I found myself understanding Joseph Smith differently than I ever had. He was a man in search of his destiny, in search of answers. He was looking for the divine in a confusing and often brutal world. He felt conflicted and wanted to know what to do. He felt and experienced things that others might not understand. I could relate to him on so many levels. I slowly began to absorb what I believe today: that Joseph Smith invented Mormonism with a genuine belief that he was called of God and called to found a church. I think that when he felt something, he chose to believe it was revelation from God. I think Joseph Smith followed his intuition and gut instincts in dictating the Book of Mormon from his imagination. The religion that he founded is the representation of HIS ultimate paradise. Mormonism is Joseph Smith's bliss. He loved activity and service so he founded a church based on those principles. He was an advocate for health and wellness so he wrote a Word of Wisdom. He loved women so he dreamed of a world where he could righteously marry more than one. He loved Masonry so he took Masonic symbols, signs, and tokens and incorporated them into the most holy Mormon rites and passages. He loved Jesus Christ so he placed Him at the center of it all. The church he established and the culture that has followed it instills some of the most incredibly powerful and wonderful qualities to its members. We are service oriented, friendly, caring, and optimistic. We are educated, successful, and well-informed. Who we are is in large part a product of the sheer genius, talent and dreams of Joseph Smith.
But my bliss is not the same as Joseph Smith's. I am a gay man. I am not a straight, white, polygamist leaning man. How can I live happily in the bliss of someone else? I can't. And that is exactly why I was hoping for my death. Pretending to be happy in someone else's version of happiness is a recipe for confusion and distress. Understanding these things allowed me to lovingly and over time help my parents and siblings understand that while I cherished my history, loved my missionary experiences, BYU and my faith in general, I no longer believed it was "true." I explained to them that I still see all the good in it, but with that good I helped them understand that as a gay man, Mormonism had actually put my life in danger. The gospel wasn't keeping me safe. The gospel had me wishing for death. And if it came down to leaving the church or leaving the earth, they all agreed I should leave the church. I wasn't personally suicidal, but by this point several of my BYU network had killed themselves. To kill myself upholding a faith based on the bliss of another man? No. It would not do it.
So who am I? What is MY bliss? What does life look like for me without the church?
First, I was surprised to learn that I did not feel guilty about sex, when I had sex safely and honestly. I did not feel guilty about masturbation (SHOCKER!). I spent a lot of time trying to simply learn about myself because when you spend your life following rules made by others you don't know what your own rules are. I had to make up new rules (#dua lipa) for how I would treat people, how and when and with whom I would have sex, and how I would live my life.
My mother in particular struggled with my shifting beliefs. I was patient and gentle in engaging with her to help her understand how and why my faith had changed. After initially being very pointed, she eventually followed my lead and became patient and gentle in asking questions and challenging my conclusions. We both stayed in the conversation, which has lasted years and continues today. In 2016, I married my husband, Matt. He is from Richmond, Virginia and comes from a Catholic tradition with very loving and accepting parents and siblings. He went to Columbia for undergrad and then Harvard Law School and is now a partner at his firm in New York City, where we now live. In Matt I have found the most kind, most trusted, and most wonderful partner I could have ever imagined. His goodness and generosity astound me. Not a day goes by that he isn't doing something for me, for his parents, or for our nieces and nephews. And speaking of children, now that I have am finishing medical school, we are talking about having children of our own in the next couple of years.
My family has come to understand and respect my choice to leave Mormonism. My parents attended my wedding and even walked down the aisle in support of Matt and me. Today I am a fully integrated member of my family. I am treated as an equal by my parents and siblings. I like to think that my family has been able see the peace and happiness that have come from my journey out of the church. At 41, I am so grateful that none of those planes crashed or that I wasn't powerful enough to give myself a disease. I am so grateful that I chose to live and find a way to search for my own answers. The search has been awe-inspiring and life affirming. I don't know if I believe in God anymore, and honestly I don't feel the need to define it. There is a beauty in not knowing and doing your best to light the way for yourself and your loved ones. If there is a God, I am sure that He loves me. If there is not a God, I am so happy I am living MY bliss and searching for the mysteries of this beautiful life on my own terms.
Advice for a current LGBTQ+ BYU student
Live. Don't die. Don't end it. Survive this. Be Harry Potter: the boy (or girl) who lived. You can't possibly imagine that out of all of this confusion you will find a true brightness of hope within yourself, but you will. Search fearlessly. Don't accept the status quo or the beliefs of others as your own. Be open to changing beliefs when they come. Trust your own thoughts and instincts. Don't give in to self doubt. You are the expert on your life, no one else. Most Mormon leaders and parents do not have the tools to understand you because they get their tools from a church that doesn't teach them about you. If you are in danger right now, remember that if it is between leaving the church and leaving this earth, you should always leave the church. Period. If you don't believe that ask your parents which they would rather you choose. No parent, or God for that matter, could possibly want otherwise for you. And one more thing: when you fall in love, let it in. You are worthy of it, believe me. Grow from the power of connection, vulnerability, and love.
Anything else you'd like to share?
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Posted April 2018