Ben’s Essay: That Your Burdens May Be Light
My cell phone rang. “Do you want to go for a walk tonight?”
Both relieved and surprised by this invitation I responded, “Uh, yeah, that sounds great.”
Mitch and I had been best friends in high school but had grown apart in college, especially after he got married. It’s not that we didn’t get along, we just didn’t see each other very much. We had never invited each other to go on a walk before, making his invitation so unexpected. Mitch surely didn’t know that I had been holding in a secret for some time that I needed to discuss and that he had suddenly given me the perfect opportunity to talk to someone I trusted.
I hung up the phone and said to my roommate, Craig, “Hey, I’m going to go on a walk with Mitch. Do you want to come?” Craig and I had met the previous year in our BYU ward and had been roommates for some months at this time. He had met Mitch once or twice, but they were only acquaintances. And yet, my new best friend readily agreed to go on an impromptu summer walk with me and my old best friend.
Craig and I got in my car and I drove us to Mitch’s apartment. That’s when I started to get nervous. It was the summer between my junior and senior years at BYU and I’d been feeling increasingly lonely and sad because of a secret I was keeping. It was something that I thought I could handle on my own.However, life got harder and harder and I knew I needed help although struggling to know how or to whom. I was incredibly embarrassed by it and thought I would be rejected or shunned if anyone else found out. I had wanted to tell Craig for months, but he was my roommate and I thought he would feel uncomfortable if I opened up to him about my secret. And so I kept it inside.
We got to Mitch’s apartment and the three of us went on a summer evening stroll through Kiwanis park in east Provo. We engaged in small talk as we walked along the park. I tried to sound jovial and carefree as I spoke, but I felt exactly the opposite. It seemed like I was about to drop a bombshell on them that they wouldn’t see coming and I didn’t want to put them in an awkward position. As I forced a smile and talked about the daily comings and goings of university life, I was struggling internally with whether or not I should tell Mitch and Craig. I was so afraid, but I also needed them to know. I thought about how odd it was that Mitch had invited me to go on a walk which was something he’d never done before. And yet, his invitation had brought me to a private place with my two best friends. It was as if Heavenly Father knew what I needed and orchestrated the optimal situation for me to share my secret.
I gathered my courage and interrupted the commonplace chitchat saying, “Do you mind if we sit down on the grass? There’s something I want to tell you guys.” We sat down and I started to feel so nervous that I thought I would vomit. Stalling, I began slowly pulling out blades of grass by my feet so that I would have something to look at instead of looking into the faces of my puzzled best friends. As I tugged on blades of grass and stared at the ground I almost chickened out, but I reminded myself that I had been wanting to do this for months, that I needed to do it, and that God had put me in the best possible situation to do it. And so, I took a deep breath and for the first time uttered the words that I had carefully chosen weeks before: “For as long as I can remember I’ve been attracted to men instead of women.”
At the time I wasn’t comfortable calling myself gay and so I described my situation instead of labeling it. Gay just didn’t feel like the right label for me since I had never had a physical relationship with another man. I had been attracted to men since puberty, but I always thought it was something that was temporary. Surely my mission would cure me, I thought. I would work hard, God would see my honest efforts to serve faithfully, and I would be rewarded with a wonderful wife to whom I was genuinely attracted. However, when I arrived home from my mission, I disappointingly discovered that I was still attracted to men. I felt very let down by God. Nevertheless, I decided to square my shoulders and be like Nephi who said: “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (1 Nephi 3:7). I had been told that now that I was home from my mission, it was time for me to find a wonderful woman and get married. Certainly the Lord would help me find success in this righteous pursuit.
A few months after my mission, I returned to BYU and I started taking many women on dates. I took out several wonderful women and some of them were even interested in me, but I had a hard time finding one for whom I was really interested. By April 2007, I had been taking a really great woman on dates for a few months. She was kind, witty, beautiful, and her dream was to someday play Maria in The Sound of Music. She was perfect for me. One evening I expressed interest in dating her which led to a conversation about our relationship. She told me that she thought very highly of me, but felt like we just had a good friendship, not a romantic relationship. She pointed out that after more than two months of dates I hadn’t kissed her or even held her hand. She was right; I hadn’t done either of those things because I was not naturally compelled to do so. My guy friends would talk about how hard it was to wait to kiss a woman they liked and yet I had found one who was awesome that liked me and I had no desire to kiss her. Something was obviously different about me. She and I decided to just be friends.
After two years of sincerely trying to find a woman to date, I was still single. I had always felt like I was different than other guys. That difference, obviously, was that I was attracted to men. I finally had to face the reality that it was my same-sex attraction that had made my search for a wife so unsuccessful. Why did I have these feelings? How could I find a woman I was attracted to? And even if I did, what woman would ever want to marry a man that experienced same-sex attraction? These questions plagued me and caused me to give up on dating altogether.
I began to feel increasingly lonely and sad. A number of my friends noticed that something was wrong and kindly asked what was going on. I wasn’t ready to talk about it so I just avoided the question and withdrew more and more from the activities I usually did. One evening a friend stopped by my apartment and told my roommates and me that a close friend had just come out to her at dinner. She was shocked and was trying to process the whole situation. I immediately perked up when she mentioned that her friend had said he was gay because at the time it hadn’t occurred to me that there were other gay people at BYU. I had thought that I was the only one which left me feeling incredibly isolated. She mentioned that there were a number of anonymous blogs written by BYU students who experienced same-sex attraction. I was stunned. There were other people going through what I was going through? And I could read about their experiences? I then played a delicate dance of trying to get as much information out of her as possible without trying to look too interested because I didn’t want her to suspect that I was gay, too.
As soon as she left, I went into my room and typed “gay byu student blog” into Google. I quickly found about half a dozen blogs written by my peers experiencing same-sex attraction at BYU. Some of the blogs had more than a year of history and dozens of posts. I would start at the oldest post and then read through each entry of the blog. I devoured their words and spent many hours reading. At first just knowing that there were other people experiencing the same thing I was experiencing helped me to feel very included. However, the blogs started making me feel worse and worse. They often began with the writer sharing his testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ followed by a statement of determination to stay active and faithful no matter what. Then as months and sometimes years passed the writer would develop feelings for someone, decide staying active in the church wasn’t right for him, and eventually decide to leave. Not all the blogs followed this pattern, but enough of them started out with strong testimonies and ended leaving the church that I worried that that was the inevitable conclusion to my story.
One evening early in the summer of 2007 I sat in my room pondering the blogs I had been reading. I thought about my life and what I wanted and hoped it would be. Then I considered the reality of my life and what it actually could be. I concluded that I had two options: leave the church and pursue a gay lifestyle or remain active in the church and stay single for the rest of my life. Both options seemed inconceivably hard for me and I couldn’t imagine being happy in either path. I let my mind wander as I envisioned my future if I chose either path. As much as I was afraid of being alone for the rest of my life, I knew that I desired to stay active in the church. Other people in the same situation as me have made other choices and I respect their decision, but I knew that staying in the church was the right thing for me.
I knelt down in my room and said a prayer. I told Heavenly Father that no matter what I was going to stay in the church and if I needed to spend the next 60 years of my life alone I was willing to do that. I then sat down on my bed and with a heavy heart pulled out my scriptures. For no particular reason, I started reading in Alma 40:8 and was stunned when I reached the following phrase: “…all is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men.” The rest of my life seemed like a long time to be alone, but these words jumped out at me and reminded me that sacrificing for a time really wouldn’t be a long sacrifice when viewed in the eternities. My mind then jumped to a line that I had always loved from Preach My Gospel. It says, “All that is unfair about life can be made right through the Atonement of Jesus Christ” (p. 52). It felt so unfair to me that I had to choose between staying in the church and being married to someone to whom I was attracted. It really did seem unfair, but I knew and felt that night that everything that was unfair would be made right and that I would be okay.
Life wasn’t quite as bleak for me after that night. I had made a firm commitment to remain active in the church and I had felt peace and comfort that someday, and maybe not until the next life, everything would be okay. This knowledge provided me with great comfort, but it didn’t change my circumstances. I was still a single man longing to love someone and be loved in return. I knew that I was going to be single for a long time and that scared me. In spite of all the good I had felt, life hadn’t gotten any easier. That’s when I decided that I needed the support of my friends. It took me two months to get up the courage to tell Mitch and Craig fearing how they might respond.
After revealing my secret on the grass in Kiwanis Park, I looked up expectantly at Mitch and Craig to see how they would react. They both said that they were surprised and caught off guard. Then they did exactly what I needed them to do–they said that they cared about me and that I could talk to them about what I was going through whenever I needed. I looked over at Craig and said, “I understand if you don’t want to be my roommate anymore.” He looked surprised and replied, “Why wouldn’t I want to be your roommate? You’re the same person you’ve always been.” Even though I didn’t know it, that’s exactly what I needed him to say. I had felt broken and unworthy, thinking that no one would like me if they knew that I experienced same-sex attraction. Hearing Craig say that he still wanted to be my roommate even though he knew I experienced same-sex attraction changed my world. I saw that I wasn’t broken and that I was whole the way I was.
My life changed for the better that evening. I didn’t anticipate the remarkable transformation that was going to take place in my life when I shared my secret with my friends. As I talked with Mitch and Craig, I felt an enormous burden being lifted off of my shoulders, a burden whose immense weight I had not even realized I was carrying until it was removed. In the Book of Mormon, Alma taught his people that when we are baptized, we covenant to “bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light” and “to mourn with those that mourn” and to “comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8-9). My friends willingly shared my burden with me and it did indeed become light to me. As I opened up to more and more friends and family members, I felt my burden get lighter and lighter. There have been many times that my friends listened to my sorrows, cried with me, and hugged me when I needed them. I could not have made it alone. I would not be the person I am today without the love and support of my friends. I do not think that I would be an active participant in the church today if Mitch and Craig had not reacted by expressing love and acceptance.
An unexpected thing has happened throughout the years as I have told people about my experiences with same-sex attraction. When I open up, the person I’m talking to often opens up and shares his or her struggles as well. It has been very eye-opening for me to see the varied and unanticipated struggles that my friends have. I have come to understand that my same-sex attraction does not make my life harder than anyone else’s, it just makes it different. Everyone has a burden to bear. The hymn “Lord I Would Follow Thee” sums up what I have learned in the second verse: “In the quiet heart is hidden / Sorrow that the eye can’t see” (Hymns #220). We very rarely know of the burdens being carried by those people we interact with every day because our deepest sorrows are often hidden away in our hearts.
Through the years, I have been reminded again and again of how much we need each other. I have needed my friends and they have needed me. Yet the person I need most is my Savior. While each of us covenant to bear one another’s burdens when we are baptized, it is through the Atonement that our burdens are truly lightened. As Alma explains, “And then may God grant unto you that your burdens may be light, through the joy of his son” (Alma 33: 23). I used to think that the Atonement would make me straight, but that’s not what has happened at all. The Atonement healed my broken heart. And through the life, teachings, and Atonement of Jesus Christ, my burdens have been made light.