Strength in Weakness

By Brent Olsen

Be sure to also listen to Brent and his wife Anissa share their story. Watch video here.
Brent was raised in central Utah, the oldest of 6 kids in a strong, active LDS home. He served a mission in New York City and has since served in the Church teaching early morning seminary, gospel doctrine, working with boy scouts and cub scouts, serving as a choir director, and as a counselor in a bishopric. Brent and his family live in Texas, where he works as a human resources manager. He enjoys singing in a men’s quartet, long-distance running, and spending time with his family. He and his beautiful wife, Anissa, have been married for sixteen years and are the parents of four sons.

My hands and forearms burned with pain as I grimaced and tried with all my might to snap the button on my pants. Tears of frustration rolled down my face with another failed attempt. I still didn’t have the strength in my hands to be able to do it. It was days before my first day of kindergarten; I was 5 years old. I had been born premature, weighing just over 4 pounds, and spent my first several days of life in an incubator. Being premature brought some early health challenges. At age 3 I had to wear special shoes that I wore for nearly 2 years to correct my knees that knocked together so much I couldn’t run. And now as I neared the first days of school, I wondered why other boys and girls my age were able to button their own pants but I wasn’t. Why was something that seemed so difficult to me so easy for everyone else? On the first day of kindergarten my teacher had the boys line up on one side of the room and girls on the other. As I walked toward on the boy’s side, I felt a lump in my throat and fear in my heart as it pounded from intimidation. I wanted to escape to the girl’s side of the room where I felt more safe, less intimidated. I was different.

My belief that I was different was shaped by many childhood experiences. Like being picked last for sports I didn’t want to play in the first place. Watching boys wrestle, compete, and play sports made me want to curl into a ball and disappear. I started to realize that I just didn’t fit the “country boy” mold. The boys my age worked with their dads on their farms, on projects, and got dirty. I had health issues that interfered with these types of activities. I started internalizing a strong and crippling message that I had no place in this country-boy world - that I was weak, didn’t belong, and something was wrong with me. I was different.

My junior high school experiences further shaped my self-perception. Boys pushed me around and tripped me in classes, the gym, and in the hallways. Science class made me sick with fear. The teacher frequently was called to the front office to receive personal phone calls during class and he would leave the room unattended to answer these calls. I would typically put my head down on my desk hoping the boys in the class would not pay attention to me, that I would disappear. Sometimes it worked. But on one occasion, the boys sitting on either side of me started bouncing objects off of my head in a little game of “ping pong.” The fear I felt was paralyzing. I didn’t move – I just allowed it to continue and hoped that if I ignored them they would stop. They didn’t. Outside of class, I hid in the library and restrooms during lunch and other break times to avoid bullying. Internally I continued to compare myself to other boys, believing they had confidence and power I didn’t possess. Each bullying experience reinforced my belief that other boys were strong and courageous while I was weak. I was both terrified and curious to understand the mystery of boys. I felt so different.

Protecting Myself



Amid this emotional and mental stress, I also started noticing a small but clear and unmistakable pull mixed in with my fear of boys – attraction. How could this be? As the other boys were clearly developing interest in and paying more attention to girls, I was noticing and paying more attention to boys, especially their bodies and physical features. I wanted to be with them, among them, one of them. Despite being clearly drawn to them, I pushed this budding attraction aside and allowed my fear to keep me safely distant.

In high school, I took a speech class that helped me to gain some confidence and find my voice. I found friends that shared similar interests. I built myself up enough to enjoy a healthy social life, including dating throughout high school. On the outside, my social life appeared well put-together, but it felt like a show – on the inside, I continued to feel very different and alone.

From 1993-1995 I served as a full-time church missionary in New York City. During my two years of service, I found courage and stamina I didn’t know I had. I developed deep, spiritual and fulfilling relationships with the men with whom I served. We lost ourselves in the work. We shared each other’s burdens and we learned to understand and love the simple gospel of Jesus Christ. I learned that living the gospel was the purest path to happiness. Same-sex attraction was nearly a non-issue on my mission because of the relationships I was able to build with the elders I served with.

I Can’t Do This Alone – I Need Help



When I returned home to Utah in 1995, I found myself suddenly back in the “real world,” no longer surrounded by other missionaries. I felt completely alone. The constant companionship and rubbing of shoulders with men of faith was suddenly over. I sorely missed the friendship and camaraderie of the mission field. And, for the first time in my life, I felt overwhelmed by my attraction to men, something I barely even noticed while I was serving as a missionary. I made an appointment to see my bishop. I will forever be thankful to how he responded to me. Despite being scared out of my mind, love and concern seemed to pour from his eyes and face, easing my discomfort. We met several times over the course of a few weeks before he decided to refer me to LDS Family Services to talk with a counselor. After several sessions I wrote the following in my journal:

I believe God wants me to love other men and have close relationships with them. This is what I want, and as I have examined this desire I find nothing wrong with it. In fact, I believe that if I were completely comfortable with my ability to make friendships with other guys, none of this would be a problem. But I have a hard time believing there are men out there who are capable of understanding and accepting all of me – problems and all – and still loving me.


At the encouragement of my counselor, I got up the nerve to start attending a weekly group meeting with other LDS men that experience same-sex attraction. My heart was pounding the first time I walked into that room, but I found a tremendous sense of relief as I started getting to know these men. In this group of men, I was no longer alone! I was no longer different! With these guys, I didn’t need to wonder what they thought of me. There was an immediate and intense feeling of mutual understanding. While this was immensely helpful, I continued to be troubled with self-doubt and social anxiety around men. The highlight of my week was spending time with these men and talking with them. Outside of the group meetings, I worked to develop friendships, but I felt frustrated with the slow pace and my perception that I could rarely progress beyond surface level.

After about a year of counseling and group meetings, I moved north to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Psychology at Utah State University. I went several months without counseling and I missed it. I missed the friendships I’d developed in my group in Provo. I missed the one-on-one relationship I had with my counselor, an older, wiser man who treated me as “one of the guys.” He didn’t cut me any slack by challenging my personal beliefs, and saw all the best things in me that I somehow couldn’t see. Being away from all of this support heightened my awareness that I still needed help understanding and coping with my feelings, so I found a counselor at the university counseling center and resumed counseling.

Is Marriage Possible for Me?



After a year at Utah State University, I moved into an apartment complex where I almost immediately ran into Anissa, to whom I’d been briefly introduced by her sister several months earlier. Anissa had recently returned from 18 months full-time missionary service in Hong Kong. She was moving into the same apartment complex that weekend. We quickly started dating and finding any excuse to spend time together. I noticed an unmistakable attraction to her that was different than what I’d felt dating other girls. Although I had dated quite a bit through high school and college, I had never progressed beyond the friend stage. Anissa had everything I was looking for: a strong testimony of the gospel, a quick sense of humor, a smile and laugh that made me melt, and to top it all off, I felt undeniably attracted to her! When she held my hand I felt an energy that was nearly electric.

All of my life I had wanted to be a husband and father, with children of my own flesh and blood. For a while I had questioned whether I would be able to marry someone and dating Anissa offered me a clear glimmer of hope! Not wanting to let this golden opportunity slip by, one evening I invited her to go on a walk with me. It was cold and snowing outside, but I wanted a private conversation with her and I couldn’t figure out a better way to escape our roommates than go for a walk. We walked in the snow for over an hour, but it was the best cold, snowy walk of my life. I told her all of the things I loved about her (the smile that melted my heart, her contagious laugh, her testimony of the gospel, among many others) and then told her that I wanted to date her exclusively, and wondered if she felt the same. It took some convincing! She was still being pursued by some pretty hefty competition – but I wouldn’t take “no” for an answer! I found out later that this “warrior” energy was what tipped the scales toward Anissa agreeing to date me exclusively. She was clearly a woman worth fighting for, and it was just as important for her to hear and feel those things as it was for me to say and do it. Several weeks and many late night conversations later, I knew our relationship was progressing toward marriage. I prayed regularly about our relationship, and each time I did, I unmistakably felt that marrying her was the right thing to do. My family adored Anissa. She fit in as if she was always one of us, and her family instantly adopted me as an honorary son.

As I continued to pray about our relationship I felt impressed to let Anissa know about my same-sex attraction. It was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. I knew I was risking that she would walk away and say she couldn’t understand or deal with my same-sex attraction. I couldn’t blame her. It was a very real risk for her, too. One night, we were at her parents’ home, talking late. I stumbled over my words, had a hard time looking her in the eye, but finally choked out my story. I felt like I had a speech impairment trying to say the phrase “same-sex attraction.” I can’t recall exactly how I tried to explain it but I remember that Anissa just listened, and then smiled and hugged me. She asked, “Are you attracted to me?” I most certainly was! She hesitated for a moment of thought and then assured me that she knew God would help both of us to get through this. I was overcome with a sense of relief, and a flood of love for her. Not long after that conversation, we were engaged.

Marriage – a Constant Work in Progress



We had a brief 3-month engagement, and were married in June. The first couple years of our marriage were very typical of most young married college students. We had a very active and intimate physical relationship. We experienced the stress of balancing school, work, home, and church life. We were financially strapped, which forced us to bond together to get through many difficult challenges. We tapped into each other’s strengths and buoyed each other up. But, to my dismay, I continued to experience same-sex attraction.

In 2001 we moved from Utah to Texas, where I had accepted a new job. Although my same-sex attraction had not changed during our early years of marriage, when Anissa asked me questions about it, I avoided or downplayed the conversation, and quickly changed the subject. As time moved forward, our family grew, we became more involved and busy, and the subject of same-sex attraction dwindled to the point that we actually went years without discussing it at all. But it was still very much there. I had many unresolved feelings of anger, disappointment, and discouragement around my same-sex attraction. Not surprisingly, the silence around my attraction to men did not diminish it in any way. In fact, it seemed to grow with intensity as I did not allow for a healthy outlet.

In 2008 Anissa and I moved from Texas to northern California with our four sons. We found ourselves suddenly in the thick of the debate surrounding Proposition 8, protecting the traditional definition of marriage between a man and a woman. At church we were asked to support the legal campaign financially and to proactively advocate for votes in favor of Proposition 8. In Sunday School and other church meetings, I was shocked to hear derogatory comments made about gays and lesbians. I felt ostracized and decidedly different from the members around me who seemed to assume that their comments wouldn’t be offensive to anyone within earshot. Gay marriage became a regular topic of conversation each Sunday. I shut down, afraid to offer a different perspective for fear of what people would think of me. Instead, as I listened week after week with a lump in my throat, I started questioning whether I really had a place in the church.

Meanwhile, the ongoing angst from comments I’d been hearing at church and a lack of open dialogue with Anissa was taking a toll on our marriage. One night, a conversation about our relationship ended in tears as she ran out of the bedroom. We were struggling with intimacy, and I believed it was entirely my fault. Alone in the bedroom, I listened to her sobbing downstairs and my heart was heavy. I left the room and descended the staircase to find her in the office, tears streaming down her face. Shame filled my heart. I was confused and angry – I had done everything “right” in my life. I went on a mission, was active in church, accepted every calling that came my way, sacrificed my time, energy, and talents in the service of others. No matter what I did, my same-sex attraction never changed. Now, after ten years of marriage and having four children, our struggles with intimacy had reduced Anissa to tears.

I hugged her and told her I was sorry, and that if she had married someone who was normal and didn’t have my issues, we wouldn’t be having the problems we were having. “What do you mean, your issues?” It was the first time I had actually spoken of my same-sex attraction in years. She wiped the tears off of her face, now shocked that this topic was suddenly back on the table. We sat on the floor in the office and talked long into the night as I shared what I had kept inside for so long. We shared tears and hugs. The lines of communication were now reopened, starting us back on a path toward renewed closeness.

Our Marriage Covenant – Staying Together



After that night, I started scouring the Internet to find resources for men who experience same-sex attraction. I hadn’t looked for anything like this since before I got married, so I was pleasantly surprised to find North Star. On North Star’s website I found Jeff Bennion, who had been part of the LDS same-sex attraction men’s support group I met with in 1996. Jeff was now in a leadership position with North Star. My happiness in seeing that he was still on the same path mirrors Alma, who “…did rejoice exceedingly to see his brethren; and what added more to his joy, they were still his brethren in the Lord…” (Alma 17:2). I also signed up for an experiential weekend called Journey into Manhood, designed for men experiencing unwanted same-sex attraction. I decided to try counseling again. I was excited to be proactively working on our marriage and talking again with Anissa about my same-sex attraction. But it wasn’t easy, and I still often fell back into my old patterns of avoiding or diverting conversation when I became uncomfortable.

A Serious Trial of Faith



I had an early and major setback on this road to newfound recovery. My experience with Journey into Manhood turned out much differently than I had expected. The staff is very thorough with screening applicants for their experiential weekends, but unfortunately on my weekend someone slipped through that shouldn’t have – an undercover news reporter. He was attending so he could expose what he believed to be a fraudulent anti-gay camp. I got to know him personally and spent time with him in an attempt to develop a supportive relationship with him. Shortly after returning from our weekend, he revealed the truth to me, and I was devastated. He challenged me hard, convinced that I was simply not being true to myself, that I had been brainwashed by the church, and that I needed to pursue a gay lifestyle. I was in a very vulnerable place, and this was a blow that hit hard. He later published a lengthy article that included conversations and observations he had of me, with my name and identifying information changed. I subsequently cut off contact with the other men I had met on the weekend and went back into emotional retreat on the issue of same-sex attraction. I started questioning everything – my faith, my life decisions, my relationship with God, and everything on which my life seemed to be based. I felt stuck, with nowhere to turn. So I started distracting myself with other things to occupy my mind. Work was an easy diversion, along with a new interest in running. I went from a couch potato to running my first 5k, then 10k, then half marathon, then full marathon, all within the same year. I spent all my time and mental energy on work, running, and a budding interest in photography. Between that, raising four boys, and working with the cub scouts at church as their Cubmaster, I didn’t have much room for anything else in my life. And with all of those distractions, I was able to numb myself to the pain caused by the undercover reporter experience.

In early 2012, I got a Facebook message from one of the guys I met in my Journey into Manhood weekend. We had not kept in active contact with each other, but he reached out to let me know he was flying in from out of state to attend a work conference in San Francisco and was interested in getting together to catch up. He gave me his phone number, and I contacted him. I was leery and asked him about his current situation in life. He happily announced that he was engaged to a lovely young lady to be married, and they had set a date for the summer of 2012. I was relieved. We agreed to meet over dinner in San Francisco to catch up. Our conversation that night was a game-changer for me. I listened to him tell me of the work he’d done and progress he’d made since our weekend a few years earlier. He seemed like a completely different person. He radiated confidence, strength, and joy. He listened to me share my hurt, anger, and frustration with my experience. He invited me to put the past behind me and to give the organization and men involved in the Journey into Manhood weekend another chance. Thankfully, I took his words to heart. A short time later, our family moved back to Texas where I’ve been an active participant in a large community of men who have participated in the Journey into Manhood weekend.

Recovery and Healing – One Step at a Time



While I’ve made progress, the one area I’ve struggled with most is my faith and relationship with God. My experience in California with Proposition 8, followed shortly by the undercover reporter experience, challenged my faith in such a way that I have never fully recovered. I stopped truthfully discussing my same-sex attraction with Anissa. For a long while, rationalizing worked for me. But after years of incomplete disclosure, I couldn’t keep up the facade any longer. One night in the fall of 2013, the truth came spilling out. Things I’d kept carefully hidden for years, and it hurt. It hurt me to tell her. It hurt her to hear it. What hurt her most of all was not what I told her, but that I’d kept it from her for so long. I learned that shame is a powerful and destructive emotion that I had let rule my life for far too long. But with all we’ve been through, Anissa has been unfailingly loyal, for which I am truly grateful.

A few months ago, I was asked to give a talk in sacrament meeting for the congregation. Though my faith and relationship with God has been challenged, I’ve never wavered in my church activity. Although life experiences seemed to be burying my faith, I still hung on to the belief I’d gained as a missionary that the only true path to happiness was by living the simple gospel of Jesus Christ. However, I now found myself having lived the last 5 years as an outwardly active member of the church, but spiritually inactive.

It had been years since I had spoken in church. I was given the topic, “The Miracle of the Atonement”. I felt severely under-qualified to speak on this subject, but decided to do it anyway. In the final days leading up to the talk, I felt inspired to share my own experience of dealing with same-sex attraction, and how I hoped the Atonement applied to that challenge. Below is an excerpt of what I spoke about.


I want to share how I believe the Atonement applies to an issue in life that has challenged my testimony and faith over and over. It is not one that you’d see by looking at me or even spending time with me. But it is a challenge I first started dealing with in my youth but had tremendous difficulty understanding. It was a challenge nobody talked about, and was something that at the time I wasn’t sure anyone else in the church even dealt with. More than anything, I just wanted Heavenly Father to take this challenge away from me. I believed that if I read my scriptures enough, prayed with all my heart, attended the temple often, and magnified my callings above and beyond that He would take it away. He didn’t. Over the years I have had long periods of discouragement and disappointment. I’ve experienced fear, shame, anger, and bitterness. I’ve wavered in my commitment to read the scriptures and even pray.

In the April 2011 LDS General Conference, Elder C. Scott Grow said, “Jesus Christ is the Great Healer of our souls. There is no sin or transgression, pain or sorrow, which is outside of the healing power of His Atonement. If you are suffering from feelings of guilt or remorse, bitterness or anger, or loss of faith, I invite you to seek relief.”

Yes, the Atonement even covers loss of faith. I’ve experienced that many times in life when my expectations have not been met. While living in California, my faith and testimony was challenged when I heard derogatory comments and jokes at church on several occasions directed toward people not of our faith, using the Proclamation on the Family as an excuse to do so. I let these experiences negatively affect my testimony, and unfortunately I’ve allowed that loss of faith to fester and affect my commitment to the gospel and the standards I was raised to live.

God has given us opportunities to understand the Atonement in different ways. A scripture in the Book of Mormon has long been a favorite of mine, but one that I understand differently now than when I first read it in my youth. “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.” (Ether 12:27)

This scripture is one that, for years, I thought meant that if I was righteous enough, my weakness would miraculously turn into strength. I believed that the very thing I struggle with, that tempts me and is the source of much grief and anguish would change, or would disappear, and in its place I would find strength. I understand this scripture much differently today. It makes most sense when I think about Paul’s comments about his weaknesses in 2 Corinthians 12:7–10: “And … there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me... For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”

I no longer believe that God will remove my challenge from me. Although I don’t completely understand how, I believe that through the Atonement, His plan is to make me strong in my weakness, not by taking it away. I wish I could stand here today and say I’ve arrived at that place. I do have faith that I will get there. Unfortunately, I continue to make mistakes that draw me away from my Heavenly Father and cause strain and heartache with my family. But I have hope in the Atonement.”


I knew when I gave this talk that I wasn’t applying the Atonement like I should. I scheduled an appointment with my bishop and talked with him about everything I’d previously kept to myself. He listened, cried with me, and gave me hope and assurance that the Atonement applied to me as well. I started attending a local church support group. For the first time in years, I felt like I was actually starting to repair my damaged faith, testimony, and relationship with my Father in Heaven.

I’ve learned through experience that all men are lost and fallen and in need of the miracle of the Atonement. Although my trials may be different from other men, I am NOT different. The Atonement heals loss of faith and shame, not just sin. Being open and honest in my marriage and with others is a path of recovery, not rejection. My journey has been long, and I’ve got a long journey ahead of me, but I know the path I’m on is the best for me. I’m blessed with a wonderful family, with a wife that loves me unconditionally, with the privilege of raising four fantastic boys, and with examples of faith and testimony all around me. I’ll continue to take my journey, one step and one day at a time.






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Chuck Rasmussen
26 Aug, 2014

Very cool. Kudos to you !


Rick
26 Aug, 2014

You have articulated very well the trials of SSA, starting at a very young age. I am so happy the Lord blessed you with the family eternal unit. Thank you for your testimony and story.


Emily
27 Aug, 2014

Thank you for sharing...hearing your story gives me strength and knowledge on how to love those around me who I know deal with SSA. May God bless you with the desires of your heart.


cheri
27 Aug, 2014

Thank you for sharing! I really like how Paul explains strength and weakness. I've always felt similarly to you about the scripture in Ether, in regards to being healed of depression. I know that Christ strengthens us during our weakest moments. I have felt it time and again. Keep the faith! You're where you need to be doing what you should be doing. That's all that matters.


Roxanna Patterson
8 Sep, 2014

The experiences we have had up to this point in our lives, good and bad, are EXACTLY the experiences we've needed to get us where we are and who we are today. This physical journey our spirits are having has an eternal purpose and the experiences we've had are just the ones required to grow and stretch and develop into who we are now. We need not be frustrated with ourselves because we've not accomplished our goals yet. We have more good and bad things to come and they too will be just what we need to improve, develop, learn and become who the Lord needs us to become. You are a magnificent being not just because you're a son of a King, but because you are YOU. Hold fast and press forward doing all you can. The Lord's grace will make up the rest.



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