• StevenF

Looking Back Without Going Back: My Mormon Story

Updated: Jan 21

This is sort of a follow up to yesterday's post about David Archuleta's—and my own—struggles with reconciling my past religious beliefs with my sexuality.

Before I get into some of that, I wanted to say something about the open letter I wrote to David Archuleta. As I said in the letter, David's Instagram video affected me in profound and rather personal way as it felt like I was watching a past version of myself. It was actually painful and almost felt like I was experiencing a sort of PTSD.

Isaias had asked me to read the letter to him, and as I did, I was crying through much of it because I never again want to be that angst-filled, confused, lost, self-hating, miserable person I once was. Thank the Lord I am in the place I am now because man, it is so much better here.

And I guess that's why it felt so important to somehow get this letter to David. He seems to be experiencing so much right now that I have lived through, and I'm telling you, it's no bueno. Anything I can do to perhaps lift his burden and let him know—cliché though it may sound—that things can and do get better, that would be my greatest hope.

So I put the link to the letter in a comment on his Instagram account and sent a hard copy via his fan mail. I later received an offer from a friend who is friends with his manager and also an offer from my cousin's husband, who has produced and arranged some of David Archuleta's albums, to get the letter to him. But it was actually my own husband who made it happen. Isaias, certainly not a regular tweeter, left David a message on David's Twitter account and included the link to my post, and this morning David read my letter and relayed this extremely kind message:

I'm so glad if my words and experiences could help him in any way at all, and it sounds like they did. My friend who is friends with David's manager says David is one of the kindest artists she has ever worked with. I believe it. He seems like such a goodhearted person. I just want him to be happy.

Which brings me to this post. I obviously have a rather complicated relationship with the LDS (Mormon) Church. But I want to make one thing clear: I am not anti-organized religion nor am I anti-Mormon. I think religion—and certainly Mormonism is included in that—can be an extremely beneficial, postively life-changing thing. It helps a lot of people find something and Someone bigger than themselves. It can help people change their lives in enormously positive ways. It can help people find a sense of community and purpose.

But I have also seen religion—yes, certainly Mormonism—cause a lot of damage in people. Religion can be used as a tool to perpetuate negative, sometimes even hateful, behavior by hypocrites who seem unaware or uncaring that what they are doing to those they exert power over, oppress, and cast judgment upon is not truly done in a spirit of love or Christlike behavior (and of course, since I consider myself a Christian, I am primarily focusing on Christian religions. I know there are Christian religions who don't consider Mormonism a Christian religion, but I do) or even if it is done in a spirit of love, it can be damaging and detrimental to a person's soul and self-esteem.

Since Mormonism is what I grew up with and centered so much of my life around, that is my personal area of expertise when it comes to religion, so that's what I will focus on here. Most Mormons I know, the ones I grew up with, who taught me, who led me, who influenced me, and who are still very much my friends, family, and former church leaders, are good people. They do not have malicious intent. They believe they are doing the right thing. They believe wholeheartedly in the truthfulness and goodness of the basic tenets, doctrine, and dogma that make up the LDS Church and its teachings. And for many of them, Mormonism gives them a path that makes them feel closer to Christ and strengthens their relationship with God.

My parents, probably the two most influential people in my own life, raised me and my siblings as members of the LDS Church. They were two of the best people I have known in my life. My childhood bishop, still a great friend, is one of the most Christlike, kind, compassionate people I have ever known in life. My siblings, my sister-in-law, neighbors I grew up with, friends I have had from the most impressionable young age to the present day, so many of them have been such good examples of imperfect people doing their very best to follow the example of Jesus Christ with love, humility, kindness, and service.

The lens I viewed life with—and still do in some ways—was through Mormonism. It was all I knew and has deeply shaped my religious and spiritual perspective as well as my value system. Like it or not, for all its good and bad, it still remains a core part of who I am.

But so does my sexuality, and the problem for me as my sexuality became more apparent is that the two seemed incompatible. One had to be sacrificed, it seemed, for me to be happy. In order to be emotionally healthy, I had to accept and live according to my sexual identity. The thing that makes it so complicated and soul-crushing is that when it is drilled into you—programmed into you—that the way to happiness and eternal salvation involves suppressing and tamping down something that feels so much a part of who you are, it can really cause a tremendous amount of damage to a person's psyche and spiritual and emotional well-being.

Guilt. Shame. Hopelessness. A sense of failure and unworthiness. A disbelief that God exists, loves, or even cares about you. Anger. Frustration. Repression. Self-loathing. Loss of faith. Suicidal thoughts and actions (far too many successfully). And in the case of some of my gay, ex-Mormon friends, an absolute anger toward and/or hatred for the religion in which they were raised. Those are some of the things that happen. It's exhausting and damaging.

I think the hardest thing for me to relive as I watched David's video was when he was talking about how he had contemplated whether acting on his same-sex feelings was the worst choice or whether not existing anymore would be the worst choice. Imagine that! That is what it feels like: to be taught that acting on one's homosexual feelings is so bad that ENDING ONE'S LIFE would be preferable.

And it's a lie.

I know for a fact that God would rather have me around living my life with my husband than for me to believe that taking my own life was the answer. But I didn't always believe that. Not then. I wanted to die. I wanted the impossible struggle to be over.

I was rereading the statement I made at my excommunication from the LDS Church in 2009. [If you are so inclined, you can read about that in another blog I anonymously wrote what seems another lifetime ago.] My statement said, in part:

A person who has not had to deal with the cross of same-sex attraction cannot possibly understand what it is like to be in a gay person’s shoes, try as they might. There is the idea that homosexual feelings are just an affliction of mortality, and that if people like me just hang on tight enough, if we pray enough, if we have enough faith, if we just do all the things that God tells us to do through the leaders of this church and if we remain celibate and are worthy and endure to the end that we can overcome it and maybe in the next life we’ll be straight and have the opportunity to marry and receive the exaltation we are promised...

...I am here to tell you that from my limited mortal perspective and from the perspective of the majority of gay people I know (many who were reared in the Mormon faith), this idea seems unattainable and impossible.

...My feelings and attractions feel as natural and right to me as I presume yours do for someone of the opposite sex. I don’t know how to be any other way, and when I’ve attempted to be, it has only produced frustration, depression, stress, feelings of guilt and unworthiness, feelings that no matter how hard I was trying to be one thing, I was being dishonest with who I felt I really was, loneliness, angst, anger, misery, a constant berating of myself for never quite measuring up to the standard I was told I must strive for by society and my religion, and even thoughts of suicide. It has at times made me feel like a failure...

So it was a hard time. When I made the decision to choose my love for Isaias over the religion I spent my entire life in, it certainly felt like the right—nay, the only—decision I could make. I sure hoped it was.

It was. It so was.

At the very worst of my struggling, I was like a zombie. Existing. Depressed. Going through the motions. Putting on a brave face when I really hoped a car would run me down because I was too scared to actually kill myself. Major insomnia. So confused. Fearful. Faithless. Felt like some terrible cosmic joke was being played on me by an unfeeling, uncaring God. Unable to express my emotions. Unworthy. A failure. Tell me, is that how religion, especially one that teaches so much about God's plan of happiness and joy, is supposed to make a person feel? When I looked at the turmoil and confusion in David's eyes, it brought me back to that terrible time.

Isaias gave me a reason to get out of a relationship that wasn't working for me. I don't think of the LDS Church as an abusive spouse—although I know some of my gay friends do—but perhaps that's "battered-wife syndrome" speaking; no, rather, I think of it more as a marriage that didn't work out because we just weren't compatible in our goals and relationship anymore. I feel more like the divorced husband who still has an amicable relationship with his ex but has moved on with someone else, someone better for him, someone that makes him much happier.

Look, I'm glad Mormonism works for so many people I love; it just wasn't working for me anymore. I still hold on to much of it. I still keep tabs on it. I still have high hopes for it. But I have moved forward past the parts of it that were holding me back and bogging me down.

David's video and the feelings it brought up inspired me to pull out a book of hymn arrangements. One thing I always loved about my church was singing the hymns (although I have to say, Mormons are a bit lackluster compared to other religions when it comes to singing hymns; we often sing like it's some sort of joyless funeral dirge).

Anyway, this particular book was one I purchased after I had been excommunicated. Although I had been excommunicated about a year and a half at that point, I was still allowed to participate in church services through song. As someone who never quite fit in the Mormon box, I remember I picked this selection of arrangements because they were sort of "out-of-the-box" compositions.

I remember singing "Guide Me To Thee" in Sacrament Meeting about a year and a half after I was excommunicated. It's not a hymn I particularly like, but this arrangement was beautiful and almost haunting, so that's what I sang.

At the time there were a handful of people who knew I had been excommunicated, but I would say the majority of ward members did not know. And at that time, I felt like I was in a good place in my relationship with Isaias vis-à-vis where I was in my relationship with the LDS Church. But as I sang this song, I just remember still thinking, "I hope whatever I am doing in life, whatever choices I am making, that I am pleasing God."

I listened to this arrangement again today. If you have access to Spotify, you can hear it here:

The words are

Jesus, my Savior true, Guide me to thee. Help me thy will to do. Guide me to thee. E’en in the darkest night, As in the morning bright, Be thou my beacon light. Guide me to thee.

Through this dark world of strife, Guide me to thee. Teach me a better life. Guide me to thee. Let thy redeeming pow’r Be with me ev’ry hour. Be thou my safety tow’r. Guide me to thee.

When strife and sin arise, When tears bedim my eyes, When hopes are crushed and dead, When earthly joys are fled, Thy glory round me shed. Guide me. Guide me.

When silent death draws near, Guide me to thee. Calm thou my trembling fear. Guide me to thee. Let me thy mercy prove. Let thy enduring love Guide me to heav’n above. Guide me to thee.

Guide me to thee. When I heard the words today, they struck me so differently than they had back then. Back then, I was still holding on to this idea that even though I felt I had made the right decision, I was still afraid of somehow disappointing my Heavenly Father. I just wanted Him to continue to guide me to His love and grace.

But today as I listened to it, I thought, "He has. He totally has. And He does."

I said enough in the letter I wrote to David, but man, I am in such a better place now. Like a world of difference. The fear. The shame. The guilt. The worry. The fretfulness. The repression. The being ill-at-ease. The sadness. The loneliness. The stress. It's all gone.

Replaced with peace, joy, happiness, and freedom. That other me feels like such a lifetime ago. I'm glad I was him. I'm grateful for what I learned from him. But I'm glad I'm not him anymore, and I wouldn't go back to that. I'm so grateful for every moment, every experience that has led me HERE. I wouldn't change the past—even though much of it was painful. I am who I am because of it. And who I am now is pretty damn good.

Now that I am in a better place, I sometimes am not fully cognizant of the trauma I experienced unless something triggers it. I remember about four or so years ago, Isaias and I were taking a walk through the beautiful Ashton Gardens at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, Utah. There is a statue garden there called Light of the World, which depicts moments from the life of Jesus Christ, including, as Mormons believe, the restoration of the gospel through the prophet Joseph Smith. A scene depicts the moment when God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Joseph Smith in a grove of trees near Palmyra, New York. It's quite a beautiful depiction.

I remember, though, as I looked at this sculpture, I burst into tears and just started sobbing nearly uncontrollably. This religion had been my home, my belief system—my center—for so long. It was something I loved and had devoted my life to. And while there were some things I missed about it, I didn't miss the way it had often made me feel about myself and my relationship with God. But it had been my life. And while so many individuals within the institution had been so loving and compassionate toward me, I felt deeply rejected by the institution itself. It's true that my own actions are why I was excommunicated from that institution, but it also felt like the beliefs that institution had instilled in me about my sexuality made it feel absolutely impossible and soul-killing to do what it required of me. I felt I had no other option but to choose another path. For my sanity. For my emotional well-being. For my peace of mind. And because Isaias made it—and still makes it—worth the cost.

As I sobbed, Isaias put his arm around me and hugged me. I would rather be in his arms, quite frankly. But I would be lying if I didn't say that in that moment in that garden, I felt I sense of loss and betrayal.

I sometimes read or hear this thought from people who are still active LDS members about those who have left the LDS Church: "They can leave the church, but they can't leave it alone." It's often said in annoyed, derisive manner. I can understand their point of view. It's said from a place of "Well, if these people who have left the church are so unhappy with it, why can't they just move on with their lives and find something else instead of attacking or criticizing the church?" But I wonder if they recognize how insensitive that sentiment is.

For many of us, this religion was our lives. It was our center. It was our foundation. It was our community. And for whatever reason we may have for leaving it, it let us down. For me personally, it didn't feel like it lived up to the promises it made. It harmed rather than healed my soul.

Let me abundantly clear: I genuinely hold no bitterness or even anger toward the LDS Church and its leaders. I really don't. Others may think otherwise, but I think it is led by men who are largely doing what they believe is good. Flawed men, but I personally think they are mostly well-intentioned and are doing what they think God has commanded them to do.

But my personal experience and that of far too many people I know personally and know of is evidence that the LDS Church and many other religions are failing their LGBTQ members. And they are going to keep on failing them unless something changes. There has been progress since I was young, but there are too many beautiful souls being crushed. It's disheartening and disappointing.

Likely because of David Archuleta's tweet, yesterday's post as of this writing has nearly 800 views. I felt inspired to write that letter simply because I understood David's pain and wanted to him. But it dawned on me that there may be other people out there—people filled with pain and confusion—that my letter may hopefully bring comfort to. I hope so. That's one of the things I want this blog to be about: sharing whatever light and love I have to give. I'm an imperfect guy. I have a lot of flaws, just like anybody else. And I'm just one person. But I strive to live a life that lifts and empowers others rather than diminishing and debasing them. I want you to know this, too: while my relationship with the LDS Church is indeed complicated, there were many, many things it and its members did and still do to lift and empower me, and some of the best things about me, in my opinion, are due to having been raised in that faith. It's not all or nothing.

Like I said, it's complicated.

Good and bad and complicated.

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