Portrait by Kiefer Hickman

Portrait by Kiefer Hickman

After a couple of decades of healing from the trauma that almost drove me to take my life in the summer of 1986, I rediscovered a relationship with God that has enabled me to sort through the seemingly insoluble conflict between my faith as a Latter-day Saint and my identity as a gay man. In the fall of 2005, I became active in my south Minneapolis LDS ward. And despite remaining excommunicated, my husband and I have been welcomed by local church leaders and members. I live the Gospel by following the Spirit, and that helps me find peace and – to paraphrase Joseph Smith – ‘reconcile opposites.’

John G-W

BA History

Attended 1980-81 & 1983-86

Describe your BYU experience: 

When it came time for me to apply to colleges, my dad made it clear that there was really only one choice: BYU. That had been his alma mater, and as far as he was concerned, this was the only school a devout Latter-day Saint would ever want to attend. So I applied to two colleges: BYU and SUNY Buffalo (in upstate New York), the latter as a back-up plan in case I didn't get admitted to BYU.

Getting into BYU was not a problem for me. I had been a hard-working, straight-A student throughout high school and a straight-arrow, super active, super devout Latter-day Saint who had been eagerly preparing for my mission by going on weekly splits with the local missionaries. BYU sent me not just an acceptance letter, but informed me that I was one of 24 male Spencer W. Kimball Scholar finalists, and offered me a full-expenses-paid trip to Utah to be considered for the award.

I still remember the sense of elation and anticipation I felt as the Rocky Mountains came into view from my window seat on the airplane bearing me to Zion. After our arrival, I and other Kimball Scholar finalists were whisked away to Aspen Grove where we participated in a series of interviews, competitions, devotionals and social events. I'm still trying to fully unpack the mixture of emotions I experienced through all of this. I felt humbled. (Why did they pick me? I never felt that particularly bright.) I felt a jolt of excitement about the honor of being summoned to the center of my Mormon universe as one of BYU's top prospective students. And…I found myself magnetically attracted to the other male Kimball finalists. I didn't really have the self-awareness at the time to realize what was happening to me, but by the end of the week, I had fallen in love (or at least in infatuation) with one of them in particular.

And, increasingly, I was feeling overwhelmed with guilt about my inability to quell my same-sex attraction. The guilt became so intense that after receiving a letter from BYU informing me that I was one of the winners of the Kimball scholarship, I actually wrote a letter to the chair of the scholarship committee telling him that was unworthy of the award. To his credit, he ignored my letter. And I eventually got enough over my misgivings to start my freshman year at BYU in 1980 with more or less a sense of a clean slate.

Utah Mormon culture was a daunting experience for me. Growing up on the outskirts of Rochester, New York, a half-hour's drive from the Hill Cumorah and the Sacred Grove, Mormonism had been the center of my life, informing my whole view of the world, my image of and goals for myself, and my hopes for the future. I found the spiritual indifference of large numbers of Utah Mormons shocking. Not something I expected from Latter-day Saints living in the heart of Zion. I also began to be exposed, for the first time, to faith-testing controversies related to Church history that sent me on an intellectual journey I was completely unprepared for.

As a teenager, I had read Spencer W. Kimball's Miracle of Forgiveness, and had come to trust its promises that my homosexuality would be attenuated and eventually vanish as I continued faithful service in the Church and as I served a mission. At BYU I came face to face with another shock and a disappointment. If anything, here I was more aware than ever of intense feelings of sexual attraction I experienced on a campus full of the most attractive men I had ever rubbed elbows with.

These conflicts defined my experience at BYU: cultural conflicts related to making sense of Utah Mormon culture; intellectual conflicts that called into question many of my most cherished assumptions about what the Gospel was and how it had come into being; and emotional conflicts in my continually losing battle against unwanted sexual thoughts, feelings and desires.

The cultural and intellectual conflicts were put on hold for a couple of years while I served in the Swiss Geneva Mission (in France and Switzerland, 1981-82). Some powerful spiritual experiences early in my missionary service helped me to trust that I could serve the Lord despite the feelings of unworthiness I struggled with because of my same-sex attraction. That helped me to manage the intense feelings of attraction I felt toward my missionary companions. I worked hard as a missionary. I had such impossibly high expectations of myself, I felt like a failure and a disappointment during much of my mission. But this was France, not Latin America (where missionaries baptized hundreds without even trying!). In the end I took some comfort in having baptized 5 souls, two of whom later served missions of their own in the Paris mission and New Caledonia. I'm grateful for my missionary service, which was a formative life experience for me. It taught me to live by faith. And it was also, ironically, good practice for learning how to live in a loving relationship with a man.

But by the end of my mission I felt a growing sense of doom about my failure to banish my same-sex attraction and my complete lack of interest in the opposite sex. The first thing my BYU bishop said to me when I walked into my new BYU ward was “Now that you've finished your mission, your first duty is to marry and start building a family!” I had no idea how to even begin to do that.

Several relationships I established at BYU became life-rafts for me. Two of those relationships were with professors. By the end of my freshman year at BYU I had decided to major in History, committing mself to a vocation as a future LDS Church historian. D. Michael Quinn became a mentor and role model for me. Quinn balanced deep faith and a strong testimony of the Gospel with an awareness of the intellectual challenges posed by modern historical analysis of the facts surrounding Mormon history. In Mormon history he saw the hand of God, all the more evident not in spite of but because of human failings. That perspective profoundly informs my faith today.

Bill Bradshaw was an important figure for me as well. In his honors biology and religion classes, I learned to navigate conflicts around science and religion. More importantly, Bradshaw gave me permission to express painful feelings that were increasingly coming to the fore in my struggles related to my sexuality. I had other professors at BYU as well who encouraged me to move more deeply into and through doubt; not to avoid it or deny it but engage with it, to trust that doubt could inform and strengthen my faith if I let it. My professors taught me faith with knowledge, the best of what one would hope to find in a place like BYU. I still to this day love and appreciate the education I received at BYU from some of the finest professors I've had anywhere.

It didn't make up for the fact that emotionally I was deteriorating. I was going on group dates with friends of mine who had set me up with young women friends of theirs. But I was increasingly frustrated by my inability to experience any kind of connection with any young woman that was deeper than a superficial friendship. In my junior year, on the other hand, I fell hopelessly in love with a male friend who, as it turns out, was also gay. While I went on dates with women only after being coaxed into them by male friends, I found myself agonizing in my apartment, longing to spend every free moment with "Brian" (not his real name). My “same-sex attraction” was getting worse, not better. I began to struggle with masturbation, which contributed to intense feelings of unworthiness. That same year, I failed a worthiness interview after confessing my masturbation “problem.” My bishop at the time took my temple recommend away, denied me a calling as ward clerk, and told me to stop taking the sacrament. I walked out of his office thinking: “I will never be worthy again.”

My memories of those last months at BYU are mostly in black and white. My emotions were a painful blur. I was disrupting my poor roommates' sleep on an almost nightly basis, screaming awake from nightmares of demonic possession. I began to see myself as broken beyond repair.

My three closest friends at BYU were all gay, though none of us were really out to each other. A couple of these friends tried to come out to me, I think. One of them invited me home to his apartment after a long walk one night and read some homoerotic poetry to me. Another asked me point blank if I was attracted to men, placed his hand on my thigh, and asked me if that was a turn on. I didn't know how to react to either of these advances. I was shutting down, slipping into an icy depression. Deep inside of me, I was screaming out for the connection that each of these friends, in his own way, tried to offer me. But that yearning for connection was unable to break out of the prison of fear and denial I had constructed for it. I turned away from them, numb.

At the end of my junior year at BYU I had decided I was never coming back. I returned to my parents' home out East with a suicide plan that required only the right opportunity at home alone. How that plan was foiled and how I found new life, new hope and eventually a way to integrate my spirituality and my sexuality is another story. But after passing through my suicide crisis, I realized that I could not go back to BYU. I literally never returned. My sister ended up driving to Provo from Salt Lake (where she was studying at the University of Utah) to pick up my books and other possessions, box them up and mail them to my parents' home. I sent a letter of resignation to the LDS Church, cancelled my enrollment at BYU, and enrolled instead at Northern Michigan University, where I managed to complete a B.A. in History (with minors in French and German). A couple of years later, out of the closet and in grad school at the University of Minnesota, I heard from one of my gay friends from BYU, who wrote me to tell me that a mutual friend — the one who had read me gay love poetry in his apartment — had been hospitalized after repeated suicide attempts.

From the outside, my life today looks complicated. But it's not. After a couple of decades of healing from the trauma that almost drove me to take my life in the summer of 1986, I rediscovered a relationship with God that has enabled me to sort through the seemingly insoluble conflict between my faith as a Latter-day Saint and my identity as a gay man. In the fall of 2005, I became active in my south Minneapolis LDS ward. And despite remaining excommunicated, my husband and I have been welcomed by local church leaders and members. I live the Gospel by following the Spirit, and that helps me find peace and – to paraphrase Joseph Smith – “reconcile opposites.”

My time at BYU laid the foundation for much of the good in my life today. It gave me an outstanding education that I have built on intellectually and professionally. It gave me tools for navigating intellectual and cultural conflicts to enable me to experience a depth of faith that wouldn't have been possible if I'd never had to wrestle with the conflicts in the first place. But BYU in the early to mid- 1980s was also a terrible place to come to terms with being gay, and I quite literally almost didn't survive it. I find some solace in the progress that's being made at BYU today that would have been unthinkable in my day there.

Describe your post-BYU experience:

I resigned from the LDS Church in 1986, and simultaneously quit BYU and enrolled at Northern Michigan University. My "crash and burn" at the end of my junior year at BYU probably had a negative effect on my long-term career prospects. I was an outstanding student who would likely have succeeded at any number of Ivy League schools, which might have secured my prospects in my career of choice (university teaching). That's the route that my brother has gone, and I might have gone it too. Instead, for the sake of survival, I quit BYU literally a couple of weeks before I was supposed to go back for my senior year, and went instead to Northern Michigan University because of some connections to the family of a friend who were willing to take me in at the last minute. My relationship with my parents had been harmed through the whole process and instead of seeking out a first tier graduate program one year later, I went to the only school that offered me a full scholarship package.

Despite "failing" in the career of my dreams, I've found happiness. Having left BYU, I was free to explore what it meant to be gay. I came out publicly early in 1988, and became a queer activist on the University of Minnesota campus. I met my husband during my last couple of years in grad school. We were poor as church mice, but discovered true love and felt lucky as hell to have found each other after some hard lessons learned in the crazy gay dating scene. We became a couple in 1992, moved into an apartment together in 1993, held a commitment ceremony in 1995, bought a home together in 1996, became foster parents in 2007 and got legally married in California the summer of 2008 (in the midst of the Prop 8 madness). After more than a quarter century together, we find we are more deeply in love and more committed to one another than ever before. Lucky, lucky.

After spending 19 years away from the LDS Church healing the trauma of BYU and my pre-coming-out years, a series of profound spiritual experiences began to open my mind and heart to new possibilities. I began feeling the Spirit again, and it dawned on me that the Church does not need to be forever homophobic, and that God might even have a calling for me to help heal cultural homo- and trans-phobia among my beloved Latter-day Saint people. I continue to be active in my ward, though excommunicated. I find joy in living the Gospel to the best of my ability, despite having to navigate the limitations imposed by my decision to remain committed to my husband.

I've spent most of my adult career working as a paralegal at a law firm. The solid education I got at BYU and later in grad school at the University of Minnesota prepared me well for that, if it didn't get me a foot in the door of a university teaching career. For eight years I did teach as adjunct faculty at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, as a professor of American religious history (including LDS history), so I did in a sense fulfill at least part of my youthful ambition to be a church history teacher. Last summer I was hired as the executive director of Affirmation: LGBT Mormons, Families & Friends, which feels like the calling God actually meant for me...To help make a better, safer world for queer Mormons.

Advice to a current LGBTQ+ student:

Believe in yourself. Focus on knowing yourself first, and believe what you learn about yourself more than what others tell you about you. They don't know you. The only person who can really know you is you.

Don't be alarmed if you think you are losing your faith. You are losing false ideas about faith. There are no questions you need to be afraid of. Don't be alarmed if you think you are losing belief in God. You are losing false (idolatrous) images of God. The only faith worth having is one built on authentic questioning and discovery.

Dealing with faith and coming out issues and navigating relationships with family and friends and church is going to be difficult, no way around it. You just need to have patience, try to avoid defensiveness, and make sure you have a support network of friends (and if you're lucky, family) who will support you unconditionally as you try to manage the more difficult relationships.

Posted May 2018