Brandon’s Essay: Finding My Voice
Growing up as a faithful Latter-day Saint, I often heard my parents and others describe what it means to have faith. I knew that my childhood heroes such as Nephi, Alma, and Captain Moroni had faith, but the concept itself seemed very abstract and mysterious. My parents worked diligently to teach me the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and I did my best to apply the principles they taught me according to my understanding. In those days, I often equated faith with perfection, so I strived to be the best in everything I did. This quest for perfection created a world where everything was very black and white: people and things were either good or they were bad, with very little room for anything in between. I convinced myself at a young age that in order to be classified as a “good” person, I could not make any mistakes or be anything less than perfect.
The first major trial of my faith came during my early teenage years when I began to realize that I experienced feelings of same-gender attraction. This realization was devastating because I thought I was failing to live up to the person I was supposed to become. I did not consciously acknowledge these feelings until high school, even though they had begun much earlier. Even at a young age, I knew that these were things we didn’t talk about. The many voices I heard around me reinforced the notion that these feelings were innately bad and contrary to the Father’s plan of happiness. Because they did not fit within the context of my ideal reality, I locked them deep inside and did my best to pretend that they did not exist.
One afternoon, some harmless Internet searches led me to pictures of attractive guys. When I first stumbled upon pornographic images, I was not even sure what I was looking at. The images on the screen were confusing to me because pornography was something I associated with images of women. I was intrigued and continued looking, even though I knew I shouldn’t have. Any weight of what had happened didn’t hit me until after I had pulled away.
That was the moment when the real devastation set in. I thought I had disqualified myself from serving a mission, and felt like I had crossed some sort of line and could never go back. I don’t ever remember feeling so dark and alone as I did in that moment. My first instinct was to pray. I knelt down and pleaded with Heavenly Father to forgive me. With tears streaming down my face, I promised that I would never do it again. I promised to be good and to give up all of my desires so I could be worthy of His forgiveness. For some reason, I thought that was the only way that I could ever merit His love. I think that prayer was sincere (maybe the first sincere prayer I had ever offered) but I failed to keep my end of the bargain. Satan knew that one click of the mouse was all that stood between me and his trap of hopelessness and despair. Even though I still desired to be good, I found myself falling into that trap over and over again.
I spent the majority of my high school years hiding behind a meticulously crafted façade. For the most part, I experienced a life of happiness, acceptance, and joy, but at times those feelings melted away to reveal sadness, anger, frustration, and fear. While same-gender attraction was always at the back of my mind, I told myself that it was not the focus of my life, and I tried to believe that it did not negatively affect me. I had plenty of close male friends and lots of girls to date, but I often felt lonely. I received my Eagle Scout and Duty to God awards, graduated from seminary, served in church leadership callings, participated in school activities, and did everything possible to find myself on the “good” side of the line, yet I struggled in my private life. Some days, I barely found the strength to hang on to the flickering embers of my childhood faith.
From an outside perspective, my life looked ideal, but everything I tried was not enough to eliminate the pain I felt growing inside. I wondered what more I could do so God would love me enough to take these feelings away from me. I worried that I could not be with my family eternally unless something changed, and I felt isolated and lonely even though I was surrounded by people who loved and cared for me. The bottom line was that I felt different from everybody else and I was terrified they would reject me if they were to find out who I really was. In many ways, this fear was part of my façade; I could feel that my parents and others loved me. My real fear was admitting to myself that I had challenges I didn’t understand. Thankfully, even in my low points of frustration and despair, Heavenly Father did not forget me. He continually provided me with people and experiences that fanned my flames of faith and kept them from ever burning out completely.
After high school graduation, I began my studies at Brigham Young University. The commencement of this new period of my life provided the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, one that did not include my former trials and temptations. For a while, I truly believed that going away to school would eliminate my problems. Instead, Heavenly Father provided the perfect environment for me to address the issues of pornography and same-gender attraction for the first time. Patterns of personal scripture study and priesthood service helped me to open my heart to the initial promptings of the Holy Ghost. These promptings began helping me to change my fear of men into a desire to please God. The many Gospel lessons I had learned from my parents took hold in my heart and helped me to navigate those difficult times.
This crucial period also brought my first experience with an adult-onset voice disorder that would prove important to my journey of coming to terms with same-gender attraction. The changes in my voice had begun subtly in high school, but became more pronounced over time as I moved away from home and began my studies. Although I did not understand the changes that were occurring, I noticed that my voice had developed some unique characteristics. The quality of sound became dull and nasal, often getting stuck in the back of my throat. My lack of breath control caused me to run out of air at the end of my phrases, which disrupted the normal rhythm of my speech. My sentences also sounded choppy and developed a pattern of rising intonation at the end of each phrase. I knew these irregularities were noticeable to anyone who heard me speak, but no one ever said anything. I found myself less inclined to speak up because of the discomfort and embarrassment I felt. These feelings were coupled with a sense of fear and shame because I didn’t know what was happening, nor did I know why. All of this was compounded by my unwanted same-gender attractions.
I began working on my mission papers shortly after the beginning of my first semester. The prospect of serving a mission seemed exciting, yet scary. Although I had the desire to serve, I majorly doubted my ability to be a good missionary. I felt like I was somehow less than all of the other young men who surrounded me every day because of my failings and shortcomings. These feelings of inadequacy contributed to the belief that my service could never be fully acceptable to God because of my same-gender attractions. Nevertheless, I exercised my faith, some days without even realizing it, and moved forward with my preparations to serve. The Spirit helped me to calm my many fears as I continued to study the scriptures and to solidify patterns of personal righteousness.
The pornography issue needed to be resolved before anything else, so I spoke with my bishop and worked hard to achieve a period of sobriety as I continued my preparations to serve. These interviews were the first time anyone asked me what was happening with my voice, and it scared me to have to tell someone that I didn’t know. The Bishop assisted me in finding some preliminary help, but the results only served to increase my frustration. Doctors told me that my problem was so unique that they were not even exactly sure what it was, let alone what was causing it. Years of suppressing my same-gender attractions had taught me that the only way to handle a trial such as this was to remain in silence and to do it alone. I could not stand the thought of other people knowing I was weak or knowing that something was wrong. For the first time in my life, I really felt broken, and I didn’t know how to ask for help.
Heavenly Father taught me great humility as I realized that the façade I had so carefully constructed in my youth was not strong enough to hide the problems of my adulthood. Even with my struggles with pornography laid plainly on the table and mostly resolved, I felt empty. The peace I had expected as a natural result of my repentance was still missing. As I began to search the scriptures on a more consistent basis, I felt prompted by the Spirit to talk to my bishop about my same-gender attractions. I had told myself that I would never tell anyone about this part of my life, and I felt unsure of my ability to do so.
The morning of our interview, I walked from my apartment on BYU campus to the frozen solitude of the Provo Temple grounds. The peace and quiet, along with the crisp mountain air, gave me a chance to free my mind and gather strength. While I was there, I read the pamphlet God Loveth His Children. This was the first time I had ever read the Church’s official standpoint on same-gender attraction, and it planted within me the desire to believe that, through the Atonement, I could live a life of happiness and joy. Before I left, I knelt behind the temple on the frozen ground and prayed vocally. I had not said a prayer like that in quite some time, and I remember feeling somewhat awkward and uncomfortable. For the first time in years, I had an actual conversation with my Heavenly Father. I don’t remember much about what was said, but I do remember feeling that I had been heard. I felt an overwhelming sense of peace as the Holy Ghost testified to my heart that I was on the right path. Heavenly Father answered my prayer that winter morning with a comforting assurance that He was aware of me and that everything would work out.
The interview with my bishop was one of the most uncomfortable things I have ever experienced. When the time came, I could not even get the words out of my mouth; I had to show him the pamphlet with the words “same-gender attraction” written in it. He seemed uncomfortable as well and was unsure how to respond. However, despite the discomfort I felt at times, I never questioned his love. We worked together to try and understand the issue, but both of us had little knowledge or experience to draw from. He took the time to do his own research, and brought me great comfort as he taught me that my feelings of same-gender attraction did not make me unworthy or unclean. My confidence began to increase because I no longer viewed these feelings as obstacles to serving a mission.
The voice disorder seemed to be the larger concern for my pending missionary service and was where we concentrated the majority of our time and efforts. Although we received no answers, one physician was willing to give me the necessary medical clearance to proceed with my mission. The stake president attached a note to my papers explaining what we knew at the time about my voice disorder, and told me I would not be learning a foreign language. When I opened my mission call two weeks later, I was shocked to see that my language assignment was to learn Spanish. This was the first of many times where I became aware of just how much the Lord loves me, and how involved He is in the details of my life. I knew that He was in control, and I knew that my mission call was meant just for me.
I left on my mission several months later and quickly discovered in the MTC that my trials were far from over. Within the first three days, the Spirit prompted me to share my struggles and insecurities with my voice with a member of the Branch Presidency. Through his help, I began seeing a speech therapist. My very unconventional stay at the MTC included one-hour therapy sessions five times a week, and another hour a day spent practicing different techniques with my companions. Many days, I wanted to quit. Although the therapy seemed to help a little, it did not produce changes in the time or the way that I wanted. My best efforts were not enough to make the problem go away. I didn’t want to stay and continue my mission with this perpetual struggle, but I also didn’t want to go home and accept defeat. I spent many nights wishing I could just disappear and not have to confront my problems. That would have been the easy way out, but Heavenly Father had a grander plan. The decision to stay became one of the defining moments of my life. I turned everything over to God, unsure what the final outcome would be, but trusting that He would not abandon me.
My mission to Fort Lauderdale, Florida was an amazing experience, but it was not without trial, hardship, and pain. Before I left the MTC, my Branch President issued me a promise that if I worked my very hardest, I would be “healed”. I committed to myself, and to God, that I would not allow my voice to cause me to shrink from the responsibility I had accepted or the work I had committed to do. I hoped and prayed that my faithful service would deliver me not only from the voice disorder, but also from my same-gender attractions. These feelings never caused problems on my mission, but I constantly fought feelings of frustration and inadequacy; I felt like I could never do enough. I am grateful for a wise mission president who loved me, and showed me through his actions that God had confidence in me. On the days when I felt down and depressed, he told me I could borrow some of the confidence he had in me because “there was plenty to go around.” Even if I couldn’t feel it, I knew that he did, and that was enough to keep me going.
The Lord used my missionary service to teach me some very profound lessons about my life. I began to learn some of the specific reasons that God had blessed me with my individual trials. He helped me to recognize that my same-gender attractions and the onset of my voice disorder were not two independent events, but rather two musicians in the divinely orchestrated symphony of my life, of which He is the master composer. This is not something I would fully appreciate until much later. God used my voice disorder to distract me from the weightier issues of addiction and same-gender attraction that had been the focus of my life. The fears and concerns that had so long accompanied these challenges momentarily subsided as I expended all of my physical and spiritual energy to use my voice to help others, and maybe most importantly, to help myself to come to the Savior. He knew I was not strong enough at that point to fully accept my same-gender attraction, and even though the voice disorder brought much discomfort and anguish, I began to see it as an act of mercy from a loving Heavenly Father. Through these experiences, I learned that I was capable of doing things I never thought were possible, and I was indeed strengthened by the hand of God.
Nevertheless, as I neared the close of my mission, I was troubled by the fact that little had changed with my voice. The promise from my MTC Branch President still rang in my ears, and I was confused about how my voice would be “healed” when the Lord seemed to be running out of time. I tried to work harder than ever, but constantly felt as though I was coming up short. Satan used this opportunity to plant toxic thoughts in my mind and heart. He convinced me that no amount of hard work would keep me from falling back into old habits and undoing all of the progress I had made on my mission. Thankfully, God used those final weeks to instill some powerful, final lessons of His own. He helped me to see that His promise had been kept, but in a different way than I expected. While I had not
been healed physically, I had begun the process of being healed spiritually and emotionally. My faithful service had increased my confidence in my ability to keep the commandments and also to develop a personal relationship with God. For a brief moment, the physical weakness associated with my voice seemed a small price to pay for the opportunity to experience firsthand the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Heavenly Father used my mission to help me to adjust my expectations and to learn to accept His will and timeline. The lessons I learned there established patterns that set the foundation for the difficult times that were still to come.
I returned home with my testimony stronger and brighter than it had ever been. This newfound zeal for the Gospel helped me in my attempt to outrun my problems, but I quickly found that the only place for me to run was eventually out of steam. As the excitement surrounding my homecoming died down, and I faded slowly into the mundanity of every day life, I discovered that little had changed. I was still attracted to men and struggling with temptations that I thought had been left in my past. I was angry because I didn’t feel like this should be a trial for someone who had served an honorable full-time mission. I became depressed and calloused.
The voice disorder became my focus, yet again, as I tried my best to ignore and deny my same-gender attractions. Further evaluations and therapy were physically exhausting and emotionally draining. I struggled to balance my school work and social life with all of the things my therapists asked me to do. My mentality was that I had chosen not to let the speech disorder affect my life. This was true to some extent, but the real fact of the matter was that it affected me quite a bit. I didn’t realize how many simple things had become increasingly difficult for me. These included such tasks as introducing myself in a new situation, talking to a professor or making a comment in class, giving a talk, teaching a lesson, or talking on the phone. On the rare occasions when I would force myself to do these things, it was always with great effort. I again found myself struggling with feelings of shame, embarrassment, and frustration. The majority of the time, I found it easier to continue pretending that nothing was wrong and to “muscle” through those difficult times. I found that if I pretended to be confident, few people would ask questions, and those who did could be brushed aside with a vague response. This was not a good formula for change.
The therapy seemed to work less and less as I tried to convince myself more and more that my problems did not exist. Eventually, I was so much in denial that I could not remember the things the therapists asked me to do. I would do well during my visits, but forget everything by the time I got home. I felt as if I was experiencing a mental block that kept my body from accepting or responding to the treatments. After several weeks of this frustration, my therapist proposed an alternative to speech therapy. Rather than address the physical symptoms, as we had been doing, she suggested that we attempt to identify the root of the problem. Oftentimes, people with my type of voice problem, who don’t respond to therapy, have emotional or psychological factors that prevent them from doing so. I began seeing a counselor at BYU, who also happened to specialize in human sexuality. We discussed my same-gender attractions during the first few visits, but I refused to believe the things he told me. I convinced myself that in order for me to be happy with my life, my same-gender attractions had to go away. I didn’t believe I could be whole unless something changed.
Things did start to change for me after I attended a BYU gay student panel with several friends later that spring. The first event of its kind held on campus, the panel gave several students the opportunity to share their stories of reconciling feelings of same-gender attraction with their testimonies and desire to live the Gospel. For the first time, I could see that I was not alone. This newfound knowledge refuted Satan’s lie that I was the only one who experienced these feelings. Although I did not agree with everything that was said during the meeting, I was touched by their openness and honesty. I left with the hope that eventually I would develop those qualities in my personal life. I hoped that one day my family and friends could feel the same way about me.
The level of acceptance and love people had for the panel participants overwhelmed me. I struggled to understand how people could feel that way about individuals who experienced feelings that made me feel so awful about myself. The days and weeks following the panel continued to be difficult, but I can see now that the Spirit was beginning to work on me in small, subtle ways. The changes I experienced had little to do with the nature of my attractions, but everything to do with the nature of my attitude. I began to see the possibility that accepting my attractions and fulfilling my desire to stay true to the Gospel did not have to be two mutually exclusive events. I also regained the hope that one day I could have a family if I lived a Gospel-centered life. These powerful realizations were some of the first glimmers of hope I had received in quite some time.
Several weeks after the panel, I received a phone call from my speech therapist that changed my life. She shared with me a possible cause for the changes in my voice: suppressed feelings of same-gender attraction. I felt a near sense of panic as I listened to her say those words because I knew that I could no longer hide from the reality of my situation. She did not ask many questions and let me decide what information to share. I was not ready to be open with her at that time. Nevertheless, I knew the time to talk to someone had arrived, but I didn’t know how, or whom I could turn to. My worry and frustration quickly turned into uncontrollable anxiety. As the week progressed, I lost my appetite; I couldn’t study; I couldn’t sleep, and I could think of little else. The fear of telling someone outside of the safety of a professional or ecclesiastical setting seemed insurmountable.
By the end of the week, a good friend could tell that something was very wrong. He reached out to me in love, even though I knew he was facing intense challenges of his own, and acted as an instrument from God to bring me the comfort and peace I had been seeking. He was the first friend I told about my same-gender attractions, and I knew right away it had been an inspired decision. After sitting and listening to me intently, he disclosed to me his own struggles with same-gender attraction. This new knowledge challenged everything I believed about myself, and also everything I believed about God and my relationship with Him. Experiences from my youth had taught me that God could love people in my situation, but I had held on to the belief that I was somehow outside the scope of His love. My friend presented a challenge to my way of thinking. I could see his desire to be good, and I knew his heart. Even though we faced many of the same struggles, I knew without a doubt that God loved him completely, without any conditions. Not only did I know it, but I could feel it. For maybe the first time in my life, I began to believe that if Heavenly Father felt that way about him, maybe He could feel that way about me, too.
The weeks and months that followed brought many more conversations and experiences that helped me to feel the love that Heavenly Father has for me. I remember very distinctly going to Church one Sunday and being able to feel the Spirit again. I had been so caught up in my anger and frustration that I had not even recognized that it had been gone from my life. Once I began to give up the false ideas I believed about myself, and showed my willingness to believe God, then I could feel His love on a more steady and consistent basis. This did not always make my life easier, but it has allowed the Spirit to teach me sweet truths about my relationship with my Heavenly Father, even though I sometimes continue to question why He loves me.
As I have often pondered why God loves me, the same thought keeps coming back to my mind: “You are my son. I don’t need a reason to love you.” He loves me not because of anything I have done or because of anything I am, but because of who He is, because it is in His nature to love me. If anything, He loves me because of my shortcomings and failings, not in spite of them, because those are the instruments that have helped me learn to rely upon Him. They are the experiences that form the basis of my faith. Maybe that is part of the reason He has not seen fit to take away my voice disorder or my same-gender attractions. I am coming to the realization that these challenges may never change in this life, but it is coupled with the sweet assurance that neither will my relationship to Him, and neither will His love for me.
My faith has been transformed from a youthful quest for immediate perfection to a living belief in the reality of the Son of God, and the continuous nature of His Atonement, that has the power to brighten even the darkest moments of my life. I could not have developed this kind of faith without experiencing these trials. For many years, I chose to live my life in fear, allowing myself to be consumed by the many uncertainties of my challenges. I told myself that my trials came from a lack of faith, and that my inability to resolve them on my own made me a coward. I realize now how little I knew then about courage and faith. I have not been perfect, but I have not backed down from my challenges. I exercise my faith as I make the daily decision to keep walking, especially when the journey is painful and hard. Sometimes, taking one more step is all I can do. These daily acts of faith and courage, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, have helped me to recognize the hand of God in my life. My trials serve as my continual reminder that things will resolve themselves in the Lord’s time, after I put my faith and trust in Him. I think for me, part of that faith is the willingness to accept my challenges and the readiness to move forward without answers.
I no longer ask for these trials to be taken away from me; I am confident that they will be when His purpose has been accomplished. He has promised me through priesthood blessings that all will be well, and that physical and emotional healing will come when I have learned the things He needs me to learn. That is not always the most comforting thought, but right now it is enough to get me through. Peace has come as God has shown me repeatedly that my weaknesses are tools in His heavenly toolkit that allow me to experience the Atonement in a very personal and powerful way, while enabling Him to use me for His purposes. My voice has not hindered me in being an instrument for my Heavenly Father. My feelings of same-gender attraction have not stopped me from being able to love. Even if nothing ever changes, I have learned to not diminish my self-worth because of my trials and imperfections. I have learned to listen to the Savior, who is the ultimate voice of hope.
I love Christ’s words found in the Book of Mormon, “And if men come unto me, I will show 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 verse teaches the powerful truth that recognizing our weaknesses is part of the process and the promise of making the decision to come unto Him. Strength is available to those who walk with Him through the trial, not simply around it. I still have times when I feel like its too hard to do it on my own; I still have days that are really rough; I still have nights when I feel sad and alone, but I am learning to trust Him. This scripture helps me to believe that I don’t have to do this alone. I have accessed His Atonement as I have been driven to my knees to ask for comfort and peace. Some days He sees fit to lighten my burden; some days He doesn’t. No matter the outcome, I find strength by placing my faith in the knowledge that He can.
Heavenly Father used my voice to open my heart to same-gender attraction, but in a very real sense, same-gender attraction is the tool God is using to help me find my “voice.” This is not the “voice” housed in my physical body, but my real “voice,” which comes from God. It is found in the ability to communicate words of truth; it is found in a willingness and desire to follow the promptings of the Spirit; it is found by helping others to feel and to know that they are beloved sons and daughters of God. My real “voice” has no physical limitations in the same way that my same-gender attractions do not hinder my spiritual growth. Same-gender attraction has helped me to feel the love of God in a very powerful way. My experiences and shortcomings have helped me to gain a sense of empathy for those who are struggling so that I can be an instrument to communicate that love to them. I truly believe that same-gender attraction is teaching me to love on a higher and deeper level, in other words, to love like the Savior, without reasons or conditions. This is the type of love I need to develop, the pure love of Christ, which will help me to take the next steps towards godliness. I know that because He loves me just the way I am, there is room for me in His plan. The decision to choose faith over fear means I can be happy now; I don’t have to wait.