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Dean’s Essay: And Ye Shall Know That It Is By Me That Ye Are Led
The Naming of a Thing
Most of my early years with SSA can be described with the theme of “Fear of a Name.” The feelings were there as far back as I can remember any sexual feelings at all. It’s not like I didn’t notice the thoughts or attractions I experienced, or my tendency to want to be closer to other guys than they typically wanted. It was obvious in the moments of my day-to-day experience, but naming it as a general thing that I experienced or allowing it to be any part of how I thought of myself was something I was really afraid of. I wasn’t gay—I was a straight guy who happened to be plagued by inappropriate thoughts about guys and had a hard time with locker rooms. Yeah. I think part of it back then was that it was still something nobody talked about, and even though I think I knew that if I didn’t act on it I wasn’t sinning, it was still something that had to be hidden, something I never wanted anyone to find out. And early on, I actually did struggle with guilt for the thoughts and feelings I experienced. Even if I didn’t feel guilty for having the thought come into my mind (and I think I did that, too), I’d find a way to feel guilty and wrong for how long it stayed there, so I was constantly praying to have the thoughts and desires taken away, and I was constantly praying for forgiveness for all the little same-sex-attracted thoughts and feelings that came into my head, constantly trying to push them out, and asking for forgiveness if I let them stay. I wanted to live God’s plan. I wanted to get married and have kids. I wanted all the straight things. I just also had these thoughts I had to push away. Despite the constant obvious experience, I was afraid to name it to myself. I was afraid that if I named it, it would get worse, and that I would then be responsible for it getting worse, that it would be like me giving in to it, and then even if the thoughts weren’t sin (I did figure that out at least), giving in and making it worse would be sin. Funny thing is, the idea that there was something to avoid giving into, to avoid naming, was already pretty good evidence that there was something there to be named—but still, I kept up with this just-push-it-out-and-don’t-name-it approach for a long time, until a couple years after my mission.
I remember really well the fearful, emotional moment when that started to break down, and the reality of my SSA stared me in the face. I was about a week into being “official” with the only girl I’ve ever actually exclusively dated (despite going on hundreds of dates over the years). We were walking around the block her apartment complex was on, talking about us, me trying to figure out how I felt. She said, “Do you ever want to kiss me?” Yeah, I did. Probably not the same way other guys do, but I did. So we tried it…and it was weird. I didn’t feel anything positive. I just felt weird. And then I felt afraid. What if it was all for real? What if I really was attracted to men (and un-attracted to women) to a degree that could get in the way of my getting married? What if it wasn’t just that I had thoughts that needed to be constantly pushed away—what if I was actually attracted to men, a person with same-sex attraction and not just a straight guy with errant thoughts? I started crying, and she held me, and we just stood there hugging in the rain for a while, with me unable to tell her what was actually going on and why I was crying, and her probably completely confused but thankfully still compassionate.
I’d written a lot in my journal about the progression of the relationship to that point, but that night and the next, it was basically “I don’t know what’s going on,” with no real explanation. What I had secretly feared and pushed away for so long was staring me in the face, and that was the beginning of naming it. Now, I’ve come to understand that many first kisses are weird. Though that moment was dramatically scary for me, I recognize that the feeling-less kiss wasn’t and isn’t independent evidence of same-sex attraction—but the fear that I felt in that moment wasn’t really about that moment. It was about all the thousands of thoughts and feelings I had tried to push and pretend and pray away for so many years, as long as I could remember. I’d known they were there. But what if “it” mattered? What if “it” was real? One of my favorite moments in the Harry Potter books is when Harry, following the example of others, calls Voldemort “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” “Call him Voldemort, Harry,” Dumbledore says. “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
Things didn’t change overnight. Coming to terms with same-sex attraction is a process that has continued over the 11 years since then. Sometimes I still have moments where I go into mini-denial and wonder if it’s really that big of a thing in my life, or why I joined North Star or told my family or my ward about it…and then I just think over my experiences in the last week or even day, and I think, “Oh. Yeah. It’s a thing.” Contrary to my fears, though, I haven’t given into anything. I haven’t broken any covenants. I still have agency—attraction doesn’t make my choices for me. As I’ve stopped hiding it and started talking about it and grown to the point where I can openly say “I’m attracted to men,” or “I experience same-sex attraction,” I haven’t found myself in the sin I feared. I’ve found that now both I and those around me can deal with it in better and healthier and more joyful ways, because now I’m not afraid.
One of the most difficult things for me about experiencing same-sex attraction is the wall I have to maintain in my relationships with other men—the barrier between friend love and romantic love, between normal touch and anything that might be construed or received as gay, between attentiveness because I care and attentiveness because I’m attracted. This is especially true for me as a Mormon committed to keeping my covenants, but I think even an openly practicing gay guy would have to manage this wall with his straight friends. It’s this feeling of being in a growing friendship and wanting that friendship to get as close as friendships can get, your heart and spirit truly wanting only deep friendship, your body sometimes wanting more and not always cooperating, maybe parts of your heart wanting more too, but knowing the covenants you’ve made, knowing that the sweetness of the friendship would actually be spoiled by the addition of romantic or inappropriate elements, doing your best to perfect the art of being close but not in the wrong way, enjoying touch but not crossing boundaries, expressing love without your friend thinking it’s a come-on, being attentive and caring without being absorbed or infatuated—in short, trying to keep your SSA within a wall so you can have normal friendships.
In addition to this keep-it-healthy-and-appropriate wall, for most of my life I also did my best to maintain a wall of secrecy, trying to prevent anyone (especially my guy friends) from knowing what was going on inside and how much work I was doing to maintain the other wall. The first barrier is one that I think is helpful and necessary (and can be healthily and sustainably maintained), but the wall of secrecy was a burdensome one that sapped my strength, fragile no matter how much effort I put into maintaining it, built in constant fear (to boil it down) of not being loved. I was so afraid that if anyone knew, they wouldn’t love me the same, or they’d start to treat me differently. I was especially afraid that if any of my guy friends (especially the closest ones) found out, they’d be afraid of me, afraid that I was attracted to them; that they’d rethink all of our interactions and see gay, and then I’d lose their friendship, which is immeasurably important to me and really made my life.
I maintained the secrecy wall until just two years ago, when at age 33 I finally started to break it down, little by little. I told a sibling, a friend, my dad, my mom, another friend, one at a time with a lot of time in between, letting the Spirit help me know who to tell, and when. At first it was just people that were kind of low-risk, like a female friend it wouldn’t matter personally to, or family members who would have to love me anyway because they’re family (yes, I know I’m lucky my family thinks that way). Then the prompting came to tell my roommates. That was scary. Not only were they guys and good friends, but they also lived in the same house with me. If anyone had reason to think this thing personally affected them, they did. I knew God would support me in following the prompting, though, and fortunately others of the roommates had set a good precedent by being vulnerable with the group about other things they were struggling with, so I felt some measure of reassurance mixed with my fear. When they listened to me and responded with “Nothing needs to change,” it was the very best thing they could have said. Secrecy gone, relationships intact. Not too long after that, one of my very best friends came to visit for a few days, and I knew it was time to tell him. It turned out that due to some experiences with others in their lives, he and his wife had already suspected the truth for years. I wasn’t really happy to hear that my cover hadn’t been as good as I’d hoped, but I also realized that that meant that they had already loved me for years despite knowing.
I didn’t have any actual plans at that point to “come out” (a phrase I still don’t really like) publicly, but having told one of my two best friends, having braved the risk of losing one of the most important relationships in my life and having been met only with love, I guess that opened a door, and when the Spirit prompted me to tell my whole ward that following Sunday, I was ready. Well, ready might not be the right word. It was still the most terrifying thing I have ever done. I sat there on the back row visibly shaking with fear, but I also knew that if He was asking me to tell the whole ward, He would take care of the consequences, and He would take care of me. So I did it, and I’ll give more detail on that later, but what’s important now is that that was kind of the final blow to the secrecy wall. Not only did everyone in that large room know, but people in the other ward and people several states away knew before the hour was out. Since then, I’ve basically been operating without the secrecy wall, and it’s amazing! I don’t go out of my way to tell everyone I meet, and there are many people (like people I’m not close to at work) who really have no reason or need to know, but I don’t hide it anymore. When it comes up, I’m open about it. When the time feels right to share, I share.
Some walls create freedom, while others destroy it. The wall that helps me keep my sexuality within the bounds the Lord has set is built with bricks of faith and keeps me free to enjoy all of the blessings of the gospel, to serve unencumbered by sin, and to build and enjoy healthy relationships that enrich my life. This secrecy wall was a freedom-destroying wall built from fear, and with it gone, I feel so liberated! I don’t have to worry so much about people thinking I might be attracted to men. They know I am, so I can stop worrying about appearances, be and express myself more freely, and spend my effort on responding righteously to the trial of SSA. I’m a really open person, and it was hard for me to have a corner of my life that I kept hidden even from the people I wanted to share everything with, and it feels so good to finally be fully open. I’ve also noticed that there were bricks of fear in the first wall, and I’m learning to remove them while keeping the faith bricks firmly in place. Surprisingly, I’ve found that removing the secrecy wall makes it easier to manage the other wall, because I can talk with my friends about it and even sometimes enlist their help in determining where the wall should be and in maintaining it in ways that preserve our friendship.
There were two main things that brought me to the point where I wanted to and then actually decided to tell people about my same-sex attraction. One was just a feeling of isolation (which I’ll talk more about in a second), and the other was a desire to have a voice on the topic. As the topic of same-sex marriage became a big issue in the U.S. and as more and more people both in and out of the church seemed to be criticizing the Church and its leaders for their stance on homosexuality and same-sex marriage, I got more and more frustrated with not having a voice in the discussion. I’ve always had these feelings of same-sex attraction, but I’ve also always had a deep love for God and, from very early on, a deep and abiding testimony of the actual existence of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ and the fact that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is actually Jesus Christ’s church and led by Him. I wasn’t unaware of the questions others dealt with, but my relationship with God and my knowledge of His nature either precluded or answered all the most important ones and put the less important ones in their place. I still don’t know all of the specific answers about how this will affect my mortal life and for how long, but what I do know is that the God I know will not and cannot place me in a position in which I am permanently unable to follow His plan, or in which I cannot eventually enjoy exaltation (including marriage to a woman) just as much as any of His other children. It’s just not who He is. So yeah, I don’t have all the specifics, but I know God well enough to know He’s got me, and I can trust Him enough to lead me, the Church, and the world through this.
Having the testimony that I have, it was really frustrating for me to find myself in more and more discussions, both online and in person, where the Church was criticized and complained about and misrepresented from both inside and outside, and people who tried to share their testimonies of the Church, its leaders, and its doctrine on sexuality and family were just seen as bigots or at least intolerant, and their testimonies were discounted as the strong feelings of someone who just didn’t understand the other side, or care to. I knew I had something important to share, because I was the one who had both the testimony of the truth and the personal experience with SSA, but I couldn’t speak up and share that voice without disclosing my biggest secret, and I couldn’t do that—at least not yet. That frustration, maybe more than anything else (surprisingly), is what really pushed me through some of the last stages of coming to terms with SSA in my own life, because realizing that I had experience and perspective that would allow me to testify where others couldn’t—and especially recognizing in frustration that my fear of opening up about SSA was a specific and real obstacle to my ability to testify—made it impossible not to fully recognize and acknowledge the reality of same-sex attraction in my life.
When I “came out” to my whole ward in testimony meeting, it wasn’t so much about me needing to tell them for my own benefit, or for me to be understood, but the first step in my finally having the ability to fully share the testimony I have of Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, their Church, their chosen leaders, their plan of salvation, and the doctrine of the family—with the special credibility of one who experienced the feelings that so many others used as a reason to criticize the Church. I wasn’t a different person. They knew a little more about me, but I was still the same Dean they’d always known, and just as committed as ever to the gospel. I hoped that my testimony might help people see that it really is possible to approach this topic head-on and also still be completely on board with God and the Church. I’m still working on how best to extend this voice of hope beyond my friends, family, and local congregation, but hopefully this essay and video are the start of that.
Love and Community
So the other thing, as I mentioned, that led me to talk to others about my SSA, was that I felt like I was all alone with SSA and didn’t have anyone I could talk to who really understood what it all felt like. I had friends who had come out, and I knew of people in my area who had come out, but I didn’t really want to talk to them. Part of it was that I was kind of generally afraid of what would happen if I talked to any other guy with SSA. What if we realized we were attracted to each other? Would I be putting myself in a dangerous place? My bishop reminding me that I still have agency helped a lot with that fear, but I still wasn’t sure these guys would understand, because the ones I knew about tended to be the loud and proud gay-affirming type (Mormon or not), and I didn’t feel like they’d understand me in a way that helped with the isolation, because they wouldn’t understand my continued devotion. Eventually I asked my bishop if there were any guys in my ward talking with him about SSA and said if there were and they were interested in talking with another guy in their boat, he could tell them about me first and then help us connect. He connected me with a guy I’d known for a while without knowing he experienced SSA, and when we talked, it was the very first time I’d ever talked to anyone about this (and I’d hardly told anyone at that point) who actually understood what it felt like. Where my older brother had asked, “What does that actually even mean?”, this guy got it without explanation, because he felt it too and had gone through many of the same experiences. It was so amazing, after so many years of living with this, to finally have someone understand!
This friend introduced me to North Star (the organization that produces Voices of Hope), and I joined the men’s email group, and suddenly I was part of this whole community who all understood what it felt like, who were committed as a community to helping each other keep covenants and live the gospel, and who discussed openly (within the group) many of the same questions, experiences, situations, and challenges I’d faced but never been able to discuss with anyone. Over time, I got opportunities to meet some of the guys in person and started to develop more sense of in-person community as well. I also got introduced (through comments on the email group) to another group called Your Other Brothers (visit YourOtherBrothers.com to read their blog or listen to their podcasts), and soon I had a second community.
About a month ago, I went to my first North Star conference and was amazed to find out just how much love and community I could feel around this part of my life that had kept me feeling so alone for so long! On Saturday night, toward the end of the conference, I knelt in my hotel room sobbing with joy, overcome with feelings of being loved, of belonging, of being understood. For two days, and for the first time in my life, I had been completely surrounded by people who understood both my same-sex attraction and my love for God. I had been embraced and loved by friends old and new. And in all of it, I could see and feel the love of God.
And Ye Shall Know That It Is By Me That Ye Are Led
There’s a scripture in 1 Nephi that has come to mean a lot to me in my journey. In 1 Nephi 17:13, God tells Nephi: “And I will also be your light in the wilderness; and I will prepare the way before you, if it so be that ye shall keep my commandments; wherefore, inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall be led towards the promised land; and ye shall know that it is by me that ye are led.”
This is so descriptive of my relationship with God. We have this thing, God and I. Sometimes, when I think I just can’t take any more, He pushes me just a little bit further, and I laugh, and I say “Ok, I get it. I know how this works,” and I think it’s a funny kind of love and relationship we have. And then I make it through. Then I see that it was really another opportunity for Him to help me see how much He cares, to show me to what lengths He’s willing and able to go for me. There was a time when I’d been on the job search for three years after grad school, getting some temp work and struggling along but eventually not able to make it financially, to where the ward paid my rent for a couple months, I had to ask my best friends to help me through, and I went to live with my brother in California to try a new job market while living rent free with him. My car was ok, but my tires were so old and bald that they were showing metal. They looked like they could wear through at any moment. I prayed and asked Heavenly Father to just help them make it through until I got a job and could replace them. And then they wore through and went flat. I laugh now, but it was hard.
The thing is, if I hadn’t hit rock bottom financially, I wouldn’t have moved to California and had the 6 years of incredible career growth I’ve had here, and I wouldn’t have met all of the amazing people I have come to know and love here. If it hadn’t been so hard, I wouldn’t know how able and willing God was to help me financially, in my career, in healing from emotional brokenness. I wouldn’t know Him as well as I do now.
Two years ago, I started getting promptings that, in a couple years from that time, I would be moving back to Provo. I don’t normally get that much warning. Usually I get promptings about what I’m supposed to do right then, in the moment or pretty soon, but the feeling with this one was that I shouldn’t worry or stress about it at all or even really do anything yet, but that it was happening in a couple years, and I should start preparing gradually. That was before I knew anything about North Star or that anything like it existed at all. I hadn’t told more than 5 people in my life about my same-sex attraction, and I had no idea that within the next two years pretty much everyone in my life would know. I had no idea that when the time came to move back to Provo, I would be looking forward to being surrounded by an understanding and loving community of people like me. I also had no idea when I moved to California that my local singles ward would be the perfect community to understand and accept and love me when the time came to be more open about SSA.
As I knelt sobbing in that hotel room after the conference, suddenly I had new perspective on how He’d been leading me. I’m not saying North Star is the only place you can find community as a person with SSA, or that you need to be in Provo to enjoy that sense of community, or that California is the only place where people are open and accepting. What I am saying is that God knew what I needed and what would be possible in the future for me, and He planned for things in my life before I even knew they existed or were even possible. As I was just starting a new chapter in my journey through the wilderness of SSA, and even before, He was planning things and moving things into place to help me on that journey before I even had any idea of what I would need or want.
Joblessness is a wilderness. Same-sex attraction is a wilderness. Independent of SSA, singleness is a wilderness. Poverty. Weight and body image issues. Perfectionism. Pride. Loneliness. The struggle to love myself. All of these are or have been stretches of wilderness in my journey. I can’t count how many times I prayed that the SSA would go away, how much I still pray for that miracle in His timing. It’s kind of like those bald tires, though. I hoped I’d make it through the SSA feelings, that they could be kept from mattering just long enough for me to manage to get married, just like I prayed for the tires to last until I got a job. But 14 years later, I’m still not married, and if anything, the SSA part has gotten harder over the years. This is the part where I laugh, shake my head, and say “Ok, I get it. I know how this works. And yes, with Your help, I will stick with it like You know I can.” Though the journey is hard and stretches me more than I may think I can stretch, Heavenly Father knows me, and He plans for me, and He turns even the most negative things into blessings for me and those around me. As I keep His commandments, I am led through all my wildernesses toward the promised land, and I know that it is by Him that I am led.