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.