Saturday, May 24, 2014

Unexpected Allies

            It must have been a week or two into my time at the MTC. We had finally reached that lovely chapter of MTC curriculum that everyone dreads. The law of chastity.

            As with each topic we covered, the lesson had a three-part structure. First, our instructor would teach the principles and policies associated with the doctrine we were learning and we would discuss it as a class. Then, our instructor would demonstrate to us how to teach the principle. Finally, we would separate into groups and practice our blossoming teaching skills. I am pretty sure that I felt really uncomfortable the first time that I practice-taught the law of chastity, but this post is not about my first clumsy attempts at teaching the missionary lessons.

            Instead, I want to tell the story of a really amazing moment from our class discussion that I have never forgotten in the three and a half years since. We were talking about homosexuality, of course, so I naturally kept quiet (which was probably a surprise to my classmates—I always had something to say and didn’t hesitate to say it in other circumstances). I don’t recall exactly how the discussion went. Preach My Gospel’s section on chastity is very brief—just two short paragraphs. Only one short sentence makes any direct reference to homosexuality. Because we as Mormons don’t do well with simple, short answers, the other missionaries in my class had all sorts of questions about what constituted “homosexual or lesbian relations” and what was and wasn’t okay for a gay investigator who wanted to get baptized.

The details of these questions have blurred in my memory, but I remember a subtle feeling of discomfort that sneaked into the pit of my stomach while my classmates fired question after question to our teacher. That all-too-familiar fear of being found out kept my mouth shut and my shoulders hunched for this part of the discussion. But I slowly sat up straighter and straighter as I listened to the answers that my rock-star MTC teacher offered. Again, I don’t remember quite what he said, but he was wise enough to stick to what was expressly taught in Preach My Gospel and was very careful to avoid any language that suggested that being gay was a sin. The gist of what he taught was that there was no double standard*. What was appropriate for an unmarried straight person was also appropriate for an unmarried gay person. Sexual misconduct or promiscuity was not any more sinful for a gay person than for a straight person. Straight people were not inherently less sinful than gay people. He gave the best answer that an MTC instructor could give. I felt so much more comfortable and at peace with the situation.

But I wasn’t the only one affected by his response to my classmates’ questions. There was one elder in particular, a beautiful Brazilian-American with a perfect smile and flawless features, who just got it. It was like his spiritual eyes could suddenly see clearly. His face visibly lit up and he enthusiastically raised his hand to tell the class about his flash of inspiration. He told us how he hadn’t ever thought about the issue of homosexuality this way and how cool it was for him to realize that sexual sin wasn’t any more sinful for gay people than for straight people and that gay people and straight people were equally loved and valued in God’s eyes. Because of this little a-ha moment (which maybe wasn’t so little), he had a more complete understanding of God’s infinite mercy and perfect love for his children. Because of this elder’s a-ha moment, I was a little bit more okay with myself. I, too, had a more complete understanding of God’s love, because I felt his love more strongly after this beautiful moment of enlightenment.

Now, I don’t know how this missionary currently feels about LGBTQ Mormons. More than three years have gone by, and though we have stayed in touch, we have never since talked about the law of chastity or homosexuality. I mean it’s not exactly a topic of everyday conversation, is it? I don’t know how my MTC instructor feels about this either. If either of them comes across this blog, I would love to know where he stands and if he considers himself an ally.

What I do know is that I witnessed a small miracle. The Spirit touched a heart and changed one elder’s attitude. As a result, he developed a greater ability to love his neighbor and I felt God’s love (and his love) more fully. This is the joy of missionary work: seeing the Spirit change a heart and bring light into a life. This was one of those precious moments that made it all worth it for me.

I can’t say that every missionary I talked to about homosexuality became an unexpected ally like my friends in the MTC, but there are allies and allies-to-be in your mission, in your child’s mission, in every mission. If you look with love and speak with the Spirit, you will find them.

*There is, of course, a double-standard when it comes to marriage and long-term relationships, but that discussion is beyond the scope of this blog.

Crosses to Bear: A Postscript

            A couple days ago, an astute reader pointed out a passage from this blog’s introductory post that begs a little clarifying. To refresh your memory, this post was essentially an open letter to LGBTQ missionaries, especially those who are just beginning their missions. I described some of my memories of entering the MTC and likened them to the feelings that a typical gay missionary might have on his or her first day in the MTC. In one paragraph, I said the following:

Either way, you have a heavier cross to bear for the next two years than most of the missionaries in your zone and on your dorm floor.

Next to this sentence was a picture of two elders horsing around in the MTC dorms with the following caption:

See? No cross to bear. Or at least a much lighter one. #StraightPeople

I completely understand how these two sentences could be misinterpreted; allow me to explain what I did and didn’t mean when I wrote them.

            First and foremost, let me unequivocally say that being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, pansexual, or anything else is not a trial or a cross to bear and should not be viewed that way. These words are simply meant to indicate an aspect of a person’s identity. That’s all. For example, I am bisexual. It’s not a trial, it’s not a struggle, it just is. I love being bisexual—it allows me to appreciate the beauty of humanity in a very particular way and see the best in each child of God that I meet. My bisexuality has shaped who I am and has made me a better person. I’m happy about that and grateful to claim this identity.

            So why did I say that queer missionaries have a heavy cross to bear? Well, even though sexual orientation in and of itself is neither trial nor challenge, having a non-heteronormative sexual orientation in a society or community that does not treat its LGBTQ demographic equally or fairly is very difficult. Consider the fact that in certain parts of Utah and many other areas of the United States, a person can be evicted from his or her apartment and fired from his or her job simply for being gay or lesbian. That’s definitely a cross to bear. In many places, it’s frighteningly common for LGBTQ teenagers to be bullied at school or disowned by their parents and thrown out of their homes when they come out. This is undeniably a cross to bear. The challenge comes from the context, not the identity.

            Gay missionaries have such a unique and heavy cross to bear because they are representing a church whose culture has traditionally stigmatized their identity more than that of any other group. I’m not saying that the church isn’t true; I’m just saying that church culture has been and continues to be unfriendly to LGBTQ members (though things are definitely getting better). Not only do LGBTQ missionaries have to face the identity crisis that many gay Mormons go through (along with all the depression and anxiety that accompanies it), but they have to deal with the stress of missionary life, the intensity of companionships, and the strain of being far from hearth and home with this heavy baggage in hand. Many of their mission companions will be ignorant at best or outright homophobic at worst. Their mission presidents might be the same way. Because many gay missionaries are not out to their families and friends, they find themselves with no one to talk to and no support. This may not be the case for all LGBTQ missionaries, but it was the case for me and many others. Because of this context, I think it is fair to say that queer missionaries carry a rather weighty cross.

            So why, then, did I post that picture and say that gay missionaries typically have it harder than their straight counterparts? Well, first of all, the picture was funny. It perfectly illustrates the carefree and fraternal atmosphere that pervades MTC dorm life. It’s exactly this “band of brothers” culture that fostered the isolation I felt as a queer missionary at the MTC and in the field. I have never been “one of the guys,” but as a missionary, I had to live and work more closely with “the guys” than ever before. It was often very lonely, and (for me) the cause of this loneliness was directly related to my non-heterosexuality. From hearing others’ stories, I imagine that I’m not the only one to have felt this way. Loneliness is a motif that has always been present in the missionary narrative, but this particular brand of loneliness is unique to the gay missionary’s story.

            In exploring the difficulty of life as a gay missionary, I don’t wish to minimize the challenges that other missionaries face. I certainly don’t think that all straight missionaries just breezed through their missions without any problems. Many missionaries face significant health problems or injuries on their missions. Some who serve in dangerous areas are victims of violence. Others face family challenges or the loss of a loved one while in the field. And many, many more experience depression and anxiety for the first time or chronically during their missions. These are all difficult and heart-breaking challenges to face. Missionaries who go through these hardships should be saluted and comforted, not dismissed. Though I served in safe areas and had no family problems during my mission, I did face depression, anxiety, and insomnia for much of my mission. I understand how hard that is.

            But here’s the difference: all of these difficulties that I have just mentioned can happen to anyone, regardless of his or her sexuality. These are not problems exclusive to straight missionaries. In fact, if general mental health trends are also valid within the missionary demographic, then gay missionaries are much more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than straight missionaries. Furthermore, with several notable exceptions (like divorce, loss of a family member, paralyzing injury, or terminal illness), these challenges can be treated. We have antibiotics for infections and other medications for serious illnesses. Broken bones will heal. Missionaries with depression or anxiety can receive therapy paid for by the mission and can take anti-depressants and mood stabilizers. But no pill can cure the cultural context and stigma that makes life so hard for LGBTQ missionaries. This is the big difference between the challenges that straight missionaries face and those that gay missionaries face.

            Of course I am speaking in generalities and not specifics. These broad strokes I have painted obviously do not depict the details of any individual’s situation. Even more importantly, there is no way of knowing the depth of someone’s pain—only God knows this. I know that missionaries who experience significant mental and physical health problems or who face family tragedy also feel acute loneliness. I know how scary it is to talk to a companion or mission leader about depression and anxiety and how much it hurts when that companion or leader is not supportive or understanding. One companion of mine actually told me to buck up and get over it when I tried to help him understand what I was going through at the height of my depression. I know that in the end, it doesn’t matter who had it harder in the mission field or in life. It’s not a race or a contest, and in God’s eyes, we are not better or worse than our neighbor, no matter how much we’ve suffered. But the church as a community has a long way to go in understanding, loving, and accepting its LGBTQ members. I think that understanding the unique and heavy burden that LGBTQ missionaries bear is an important step in that process. After all, how is the Savior able to love us so perfectly and minister to us so personally? By understanding us completely. Let’s try to do likewise.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Just Make it to Sunday

            On my first or second day in the MTC, I received a great piece of advice from my cousin who began his mission a couple weeks before I did. We bumped into each other in the cafeteria and after an enthusiastic greeting and a hug, he asked me about my first impressions of the MTC. Grateful to have a confidant, I confessed to him that I was feeling a bit scared, very stressed, and more exhausted than I had been in a long while. He replied very simply. “Just make it to Sunday,” he said. If I hadn’t been so tired from a couple of sleepless nights on those lumpy MTC mattresses, I might have thought, “that’s it? You can’t give me anything better than that for advice?” Thankfully, I was all out of snark, so I believed him. He explained that the first few days at the MTC were hard for him, as well. He was overwhelmed by the rigorous schedule, the endless list of rules, and the sometimes suffocating experience of adjusting to life with a companion. He started to doubt whether he could make it through two months of the MTC, much less two years of his mission. After three days of this, Sunday came around and everything changed. He found he could handle it after all.

Sundays in the MTC mean three wonderful things: firesides,
temple walks, and ice cream! Photo Credit
            I took him at his word. “Just make it to Sunday” became my mantra for the next few days. When Sunday finally arrived, I was thrilled to discover that he was right. Though things were still challenging and I was still a bit frazzled, I felt stronger, calmer, and more able to cope with my lot gracefully. Since then, I have shared that same advice numerous times. During my three weeks at the MTC, I passed that counsel on to a few of my friends who came in after me. Since I’ve been home, I have said the same thing to every soon-to-be missionary I’ve encountered.

            It may seem like a trivial piece of advice; after all, it was just a mantra I used to muscle through a few tough moments, when considered at face value. But for me, those five simple words have taken on a more significant meaning.

See? Tracting is awkward enough with two people,
imagine doing it with three! Photo Credit
Once my three weeks in the MTC had passed, I was temporarily assigned to a mission in Utah while my visa paperwork was processed. As in the MTC, the first few days were a trial. While there, I was part of a trio companionship. One of my companions had a developmental difficulty that made it difficult for him to adjust to sudden changes and interact comfortably with strangers. Well, I was a stranger and I caused some sudden changes. Being a brand new missionary, I was completely unfamiliar with the particular rules and culture of that mission. I had never gone tracting. I had never taught a lesson with a real investigator. I had never done weekly planning. Naturally, I threw off the groove that my two companions had established in the weeks before my arrival. I could sense the frustration and impatience of the one companion. And there was nothing I could do about it. I felt guilty and inadequate each time I made a mistake in a lesson or contact. I felt lonely sitting in the back seat of the car while my other two companions sat in the front laughing at inside jokes. I felt trunky—not for home, but for France, the mission to which I had been called. But the advice to “just make it to Sunday” held true once again. I don’t know if it was a Sunday when things started to get better, but after several days, things did improve. I settled into the rhythm of finding and teaching. I tuned into the inside jokes and particular humor of my companions. My companion adapted to my presence and participation and even told me, “when I first met you, I wanted to punch you in the face, but now I think you’re pretty cool.”

Chartres, France. I was serving here when my
depression was at its worst. Photo Credit
When I got to France, I faced a new set of challenges. The novelty and excitement of greenie life began to wear off shortly after the jetlag did, and they were chased away by the arrival of three unwelcome guests: depression, anxiety, and insomnia. At first, I refused to accept it. I was a missionary! Missionaries could be occasionally discouraged, maybe even homesick, but clinically depressed? Insomniac? Never! Missionary work was too important for God to let that happen to me, right? I just needed to work harder. To no one’s surprise, things just got worse. I started to close up to my companions, I struggled to build relationships with members and investigators, and I was frequently sick. It was a pretty awful few months for me and for my companions, none of whom knew what to do to help me. One morning I sat crying in the bathroom, my thoughts spiraling from bad to worse to ugly. I was hopeless about my mission. I was hopeless about the rest of my life. I was ready to give up, but I didn’t think I could endure the shame and stigma of going home. For the first time since middle school, I thought that suicide would be the best solution.

The beaches and bluffs near Saint-Brieuc, France. I was serving here when
things started to get better. I remember this place very fondly. Photo Credit
It was as if an alarm went off in my head. My will to live bested my desire to die and I called my mission president for help. I began to work with a therapist and things slowly improved. After a couple months of therapy, I woke up one day and got out of bed at 6:30 without any trouble. I had slept well the night before. Not only had my paralyzing depression eased up, it seemed to be gone*! I was happy, healthy, and ready to work. Sunday took a lot longer to come around, but it came, and things got much better. From then on, I was able, not just to do missionary work, but to love it. My companions became my best friends. Members and investigators became family. That was a turning point for me, and the rest of my mission was a joyful experience.

 Just make it to Sunday. Just make it to Sunday. Just make it to Sunday.

This pretty much sums it up. Photo Credit
This phrase has helped me through my mission, my post-mission adjustment period, and my coming out process. In each, there were initial, impossible, overwhelming difficulties to deal with (okay, that might be a bit dramatic), but with patience, things got better. (Dare I say, it gets better?) I am certain that life will concoct plenty more impossible, overwhelming difficulties (again, I’m being dramatic). But I am equally certain that if I have the courage to ask for help when I need it and the tenacity to hold on for dear life (literally), then with God’s grace, I’ll make it through all right.

If things get tough for you (and they probably will), just remember this. If you are on the cusp of giving up, remember that God loves you, that I love you, and that things will get better. As hard as it may be, you are strong enough to hold on. We need you to hold on.

Sunday will bring new problems, to be sure, but if you can just make it to Sunday, you’ll be okay.

*While the therapy I received on my mission helped me emerge from my depressive episode and gave me excellent strategies to maintain my mental health for the rest of my mission, it did not “cure” my depression. Since returning home, my depression has returned and I have sought therapy and medication, both of which have been very helpful. Whether you’ve experienced one depressive episode or ten, please have the wisdom to seek professional and medical help and realize the end of one depressive episode does not mean that you will never experience depression again.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Welcome to the Gay MTC!

Remember this? Don't cry, Elder! Photo Credit
It’s Wednesday (or it was a few hours ago), which means that earlier this afternoon, thousands of missionaries and their families flooded 900 East in Provo to get ice cream at the BYU Creamery, take last minute family pictures in front of the temple, hug, cry, fuss over luggage or suit coats or ties or collars, and say a bittersweet goodbye before the newly set apart elders and sisters rolled their suitcases through the sliding doors of the MTC. Maybe you were there, too, itching in your new suit with the rest of them and wondering what’s in store. 
Don't be deceived by the smiling faces. They're nervous, too. Photo Credit
            You are probably swimming through many of the same emotions as your new companion. If you’re like I was, you’re feeling overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted. You’re feeling confident (maybe a little too confident) and inadequate at the same time. You’re feeling excited but nervous for the next several weeks of learning and the next two years of teaching. Maybe you’re already feeling a bit discouraged or homesick. You might be feeling annoyed with your new companion, or lucky to have a companion you click with. You’re likely feeling a little lost, navigating the covered hallways from 1M to 18M (I don’t think I ever really knew my way around the MTC). And you might also be feeling a little lost emotionally, spiritually, and socially, wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into and whether you can handle it.
            But if you’re like me, you’re feeling something that most of your district isn’t feeling. Different. Worried. Confused. Extremely and entirely alone. Because in the deepest corner of your heart, you hold tightly to a secret. You’re gay. Or lesbian, or bisexual, or queer, or questioning. Anyway, you’re you, and you’re not straight. If you’re like me, you haven’t yet admitted this out loud or even written it in your journal. I hadn’t even allowed myself to entertain the thought that I might be bisexual. I hadn’t even come out to myself, much less anyone else. I knew that I liked boys, but I also knew that I liked girls, so I thought that if I tried really hard, prayed really hard, and worked really hard on my mission, God would make me straight. Perhaps you’ve had similar thoughts. Maybe this is one of the reasons you decided to go on a mission in the first place. Or maybe not. Either way, you have a heavier cross to bear for the next two years than most of the missionaries in your zone and on your dorm floor.
See? No cross to bear. Or at least a much lighter one. #StraightPeople. Photo Credit
Not only are you gay and Mormon, but you’re a gay missionary facing 24 months of relationships you don’t choose, ignorant and insensitive missionaries who crack gay jokes at district meetings and tell gay missionary horror stories on exchanges, and the very real possibility of falling in love with a companion. It can be hard to lock your heart when you’re with someone 24/7 and even Oprah acknowledged that Mormon missionaries are some of the hottest men around. You might agree with Oprah and catch yourself turning your head to get a longer glance at some of the elders about that. There’s no need to feel guilty about that—I did it, too.
Elder Archuleta would have turned my head. Photo Credit
            No matter how your first-day experience shaped up, you are starting to realize that you have a long, hard 18 to 24 months ahead of you. And that’s okay. Your MTC instructors are there, not just to teach you and your district how to teach the lessons, but to reassure you that it really is possible to not only survive a mission, but succeed. Likewise, we here at the Gay MTC are all about helping you to see that you, as an LGBT missionary, can both make it through your mission and make something amazing out of it.
We’re here because we’re gay, we’ve served missions, and we want to keep serving by sharing our experiences and advice with you. We want your mission to be a successful one (as in a healthy and happy mission that you are proud of, baptismal statistics don’t matter). If you are a gay missionary or future missionary, we hope that you’ll think of us as your honorary—and fabulous—MTC teachers and that you’ll find in our posts at least a few rays of sunshine to brighten what can be an otherwise dim and difficult path to walk. If you are a parent of a gay missionary, a mission president, mission leader, or run-of-the-mill member who cares, we hope that this blog will help you better understand the needs and concerns of LGBT missionaries and inspire you to reach out with compassion in support of the gay elders and sisters in your families, wards, and missions.

"Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations." Photo Credit
I remember the day I entered the MTC very well. In particular, I recall looking at the faces of the hundreds of missionaries around me, and realizing that I didn’t recognize a single face. Though I ran into old friends and made many new ones later on, I first knew that I wasn’t alone when a senior sister helped me clip on my black nametag for the first time. It was a bit tricky to put on (just as the process of taking Christ’s name upon us is not easy), but wearing the name of Christ and feeling his love and companionship so intimately was a remarkable experience. The iconic black nametag is symbolic of a missionary’s call to carry the incomparable love of Christ to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people.  The success of this work is represented by the diversity of flags that wave in front of the Provo MTC. But there’s one flag that is conspicuously missing: our flag. So come on in and wave it with us. You’re not alone. We’re here with you, and so is the Savior. 
Photo Credit