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Jena’s Essay: “Authentic Jena”
I had an amazing childhood. Growing up in a home with four brothers and my sister was so much fun. I loved being part of a world of four boys where, with my brothers, I grew to love sports. Football, basketball, and softball were all passions of mine. Wearing dresses, being feminine, and having crushes on boys just were not natural inclinations.
Growing up, I thought I was just as normal as any other girl. I was taught to believe that I needed to be feminine, wear high heels and pretty dresses, and get married in the temple and live happily ever after. The truth is, none of that came naturally to me. My childhood was filled with playing on boys’ teams, building clubhouses, and developing close relationships with my female friends. I knew I was going to be the first female to play in the NBA, I just knew it. Though I didn’t know what same-gender attraction was, or really what it meant to be gay, I knew I was different. I was not like the other girls in my neighborhood, but I never doubted that I was special in the eyes of God.
I give credit to my parents and family, who provided me with a Christ-centered home that was so loving and safe. Believing that I was a precious daughter of my Father in Heaven was ingrained in me at a very young age.
My family environment provided me with many faith-promoting experiences. I learned from a young age to rely on God and have faith in his plan for me. When I was eight years old my mom was diagnosed with a brain tumor the size of a tennis ball. I found myself praying and trusting God that everything would be okay. Turning to God for help was as natural to me as breathing. Receiving great comfort from the Spirit and seeing my mom successfully pull through this dangerous operation was an answer to my prayers.
The summer before my junior year in high school we moved to Arizona. This move was traumatic for me, as I had already established myself on my athletic teams and had built up friendships for 15 years. I didn’t want to start all over again in a new city, at a new school, with new teammates and coaches. When I arrived in Arizona, I was blessed to start playing on summer teams and to build friendships almost immediately. Though starting over was painful, I knew I was doing what God wanted me to do. However, trials that would test my faith were about to hit our family again.
Two months after our move we lost my baby sister. My mom was pregnant and we were all excited to welcome her into our family. Mom was due to be induced on a Friday morning and baby Nicole died the day before, on Thursday afternoon. This tragic experience put a heavy load on my shoulders. As the oldest in the family, I had to be strong for my younger siblings, and as we traveled to Utah for the funeral I felt an immense pressure to strengthen and comfort my brothers and sister. Once again I found myself turning to my Heavenly Father, as I had done before, praying and pleading for God’s help and love. I wanted to have faith that the Plan of Salvation was real and that I could see my baby sister again. I know God heard my prayers, and my testimony grew immensely through this experience.
A few years later as I was preparing to go on my mission, my mom was diagnosed once again with a brain tumor. I had faith that everything would be okay and decided to proceed with my mission. I hadn’t been in New Zealand for long when I heard that the removal of the tumor had complications. She contracted a serious staph infection in her skull. Along with the trials of being a new missionary and the difficulties of mission life in general, I was brought to my knees once again to pray for hope and faith that everything would be okay. With time, everything worked out for her, but it took a good two years until she was completely healed.
Many years later our family experienced another heartbreaking event. My little brother, who was 21 at the time, passed away suddenly. He contracted an illness called Reye syndrome. What? I was tired of working through hard experiences and being refined. I wondered, “Can’t I just live a life without a tragic event for a couple of years?” We truly mourned the loss of Derek. He was the life of our family. He was so loving and genuine and funny. Once again, I was brought to my knees to pray for faith in the plan of salvation. The loving kindness of our Heavenly Father poured upon me, and his tender mercy helped me know that the plan of salvation is real and that God and his Son are present in my life and love me.
A couple years later my sister had a beautiful baby girl named Molly. She was born a little premature but with minimal problems. She was in the NICU and developed a serious infection. Unfortunately, she passed away at eight days old. By this time I felt as though I were a professional in dealing with death, funerals, and grieving. I knew the routine of praying and feeling comfort in the plan of salvation. These sudden deaths were different to deal with than experiencing the passing of my grandparents. These were more faith-wrenching and heartbreaking because they didn’t make sense to me. However, as I look back at those experiences, dropping to my knees and praying to my Father in Heaven was a natural reaction caused by the Christ-centered instruction of my parents. I feel joy in my heart because I know God answered my prayers and blessed me in indescribable ways during these very difficult times.
Confusion Sets In
High school was an amazing time of life for me. I excelled in athletics, earned softball and basketball scholarships, was active in the seminary program, set goals to serve a mission, and had a wonderful social life. Dating seemed to be the source of confusion for me. I loved being with my female friends and loved feeling close and intimate with them. I spent time writing meaningful letters to them, expressing my deep love and need for them in my life. I didn’t have any conscious romantic feelings for my female friends, but my ability to connect with them on every level other than sexually was so strong and natural.
I went on a few dates in high school and was asked to a few dances, mostly as a result of me begging friends to find me a date. I didn’t want to be the female jock who didn’t date. Most dates were awkward and I rarely wanted to be alone with a boy; it was too hard for me. Shortly after high school I dated a guy for seven months. We talked about getting married and felt good about it. At least it felt good in my mind, but not in my heart. We broke up and it didn’t even phase me. I moved on as if nothing had ever happened. I thought that was normal.
I had similar experiences time and time again with men I dated. It was nice to have their company, but my heart never connected with them. I was never attracted to them. Though I believed in it, I couldn’t understand why the church placed so much emphasis on the law of chastity. I struggled to believe other relationships needed boundaries. I could be intimate and have a physical connection for a short period but lost interest very quickly and wanted to do something else. I never had the feeling of, “I can’t get enough.”
When I played softball in college I was surrounded by many good people. I loved my teammates and coaches. I felt like I belonged, and I felt like I could be myself. I was the only member of the Church on the team and loved sharing the gospel with my teammates. I found myself feeling overly comfortable with my female coach. Now, looking back, I can see that she was flirtatious with me. It felt good and natural, not awkward or wrong, but it confused me.
I had a close friend who I attended institute with. On one occasion she was planning to come see one of my games. The morning before the game she approached me after class and told me she couldn’t come support me. I was crushed. I felt my heart break, and it confused me. Then she gave me a hug and told me she was sorry. When she hugged me I felt a feeling of excitement, or a turned-on feeling. I was hurt and confused by it. I was a girl, she was a girl; how and why did this happen? I didn’t have feelings for her and never looked at her in a sexual way.
These were the first experiences I can remember where I was truly disturbed and confused. I wasn’t a bad person. I was an active member of the Church who had a strong testimony. My heart started to be confused and torn. What did all of this mean?
Meeting and Marrying a Good Man
In winter 2003 while attending a singles ward in Highland, Utah, I met Todd Peterson, a kind and tender man. As we started dating we discovered we had many things in common, including a very similar upbringing. We both had firm testimonies of the gospel. We connected on so many levels—in sports, in music, and in other hobbies. We were also spiritual best buddies. Todd’s spirit was familiar to me and our conversations flowed effortlessly. I appreciated his laid-back personality. He was smart and athletic, and I simply don’t remember connecting with any other man on so many levels as I did with Todd.
A few months into dating Todd I decided to break up with him. Things just didn’t make sense in my heart. My mind told me logically that Todd was a good man and that I could marry him, but my heart didn’t have romantic feelings for him. I prayed to my Father in Heaven, seeking an understanding of what was happening to me. I decided to get back together with Todd. I knew from that point that he and I would be married. But as I explained before, my heart felt torn. I loved Todd as a person. I respected him and felt connected to him because of our similar ideas, hobbies, and testimonies. We made a great couple in so many ways, but there wasn’t that deep excitement or romantic feelings that I thought would be present when deciding to marry someone.
I knew Todd would be the best husband and father and would lead our family in righteousness. He was everything that I had been looking for in a husband. I prayed in the temple many times to receive confirmation in my decision to marry Todd. My answer from God was direct and bold: I knew I could sacrifice living what the world viewed as the ideal romantic relationship for a deeper and more God-like love. I followed the promptings of the spirit and got married in the Mt. Timpanogos Temple in September 2004.
We went on a cruise for our honeymoon. It was fun to explore and to be on a cruise for our first time together. Though we were having such a fun time something seemed to be missing. I felt uncomfortable displaying physical affection, which was common among honeymooners. I didn’t have confidence or a desire to initiate being intimate or sexual with him. I remember crying myself to sleep two of the nights we were there, wondering if I could do this and wondering what was wrong with me. I started to feel guilty for marrying such an amazing man. I felt like he deserved someone who was attracted to him sexually and romantically. I have always thought Todd was an attractive person, but trying to be sexually attracted to him caused me hurt and confusion. At the time I thought it was normal and that everyone cried on their honeymoon. How would I know any different?
A Friendship Built on Love
As time went on in our marriage I thought about opening up to close friends. I remember a few nights crying after Todd was asleep, wondering if I had made the right decision. I was living the principles that were taught to me my whole life: grow up, fall in love, get married, have kids, and live happily ever after. I needed help. I needed to share these frustrating feelings with someone, so I reached out to one of my friends. I sent her a few texts expressing my need to talk to her about something. When the time came to talk I struggled to put my emotions into words and blamed my hurt and struggles on other things. I was too embarrassed and ashamed to open up.
After a few years had gone by, the frustration of trying to understand my confused emotions were intensifying. I can only describe it as pain. It hurt; I just hurt and knew I needed to open up to someone. I knew exactly who this someone had to be: my best friend. She and I have a close, trusting, intimate, and loving relationship. We’ve had a special connection that was instant from the day we met, so disclosing personal information to one another has been easy.
As we opened up to one another we started to make sense of our individual lives. She had similar feelings and confusion. For the first time in my life I started to realize that I am a gay woman. The puzzle pieces in my life were being put together; the light was turning on. It felt right in my heart and in my mind that God made me a special daughter who is gay with a powerful testimony. I felt feelings of acceptance and love for my whole heart for the first time since I was a young child. My friend helped me accept the unexplored side of my heart that had been ignored for many years. She completely understood me and validated me as a gay woman in the Church.
As time went on my best friend and I grew closer together. I found myself feeling more drawn to her than anyone else in my life. I became somewhat dependent on her because it felt so natural and good. My attraction for her was something I can’t explain. It was real and natural. I would never lead anyone to believe that I’ve lived a perfect life. I have made my fair share of mistakes, especially when it comes to SGA. But I always made my best effort to live the laws of the gospel. We had all of the same hobbies, worked with the same people, went on trips together, laughed together, cried together, and had a special intimate and genuine love for one another. Our lives mirrored each other and we witnessed tender mercies that pointed to us as being an important part of each other’s lives. In my heart it felt natural and right to be with her. I felt as though she and I belonged together.
However, our friendship caused so much conflict in my heart and mind, because on the other hand it felt right in my heart to be with my husband at church and in the temple. I lived for years with this conflict and pain in my heart. I kept feeling like I was a bad person and that I should cut contact with my friend. I didn’t understand why God wouldn’t want me to have someone so special in my life. She and I tried to sever our friendship many times but we could never follow through with it. Cutting ties caused too much pain and didn’t make sense in our hearts.
I needed help and started seeing a therapist who helped me tremendously. However, the pain continued even with his help, and in February 2014 everything came to a head. I couldn’t bear the tearing apart of my heart anymore. The pain I felt was too conflicting and so debilitating that I couldn’t function. The pain stemmed from my heart and permeated through my whole body. I couldn’t eat or sleep and it became impossible to handle my kids and daily life. I was suicidal and couldn’t handle the thought of choosing one side of my heart or the other (gay vs. gospel). My gay side was important to me and my gospel side was deeply rooted in me.
A Trip to the Hospital
Every faith-enduring experience I’ve had in my life has pointed to me living the gospel. How could my heart be so split? My heart couldn’t coexist with itself. It was too painful. Revealing my true self caused me to fear the judgments of others, and I felt so much pressure to protect my family. I felt as though my only option was to choose one side of my heart or the other. Either decision would cause too much agony to me and everyone involved in my life. This conflict and the feelings of wanting to take my life finally pushed me to check into the hospital. I desperately needed to seek help and protect myself and others around me. I ended up at the Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute.
My first morning there I woke up and could barely breathe because I was in so much mental and physical anguish. I was in an empty room with nothing but a bed and a desk. I didn’t have anyone. Regardless of my previous trials and loss, I had hit the lowest of lows in my life—rock bottom. It took every ounce of energy I had to come to my knees and pray. I prayed with more humility, sincerity, and emotion than I ever had before. I needed to heal and be present in my life for my family, my friends, and myself.
As a result of my prayers, there were many miracles that took place in the hospital. The most important miracle was the fact that Todd and my best friend both showed love and concern for me. They helped me know that I didn’t have to let any part of my heart go. They comforted me and assured me that my heart would be made whole. We didn’t know what the details looked like, but they helped me feel calm and peaceful about accepting and loving my whole heart.
In addition to this reassurance from the two most important people in my life, I found strength to open up to a group of friends and family members. I shared with them the intimate details of my heart and my feelings of experiencing same-gender attraction. I created a powerful and strong support group who I knew would help me and stand by me no matter what I chose in my life. After staying at UNI for a full week I was ready to go home and tackle real life again.
The first couple of months home from the hospital were excruciating as I was learning how to manage life again. I was embarrassed and didn’t feel comfortable giving all the details of why I went to the hospital. It also hurt me to continue to lie and hide half of my heart to those who weren’t in my support group.
It is difficult for me to put into words the importance of keeping my best friend in my life. Of course, this wouldn’t have been possible if Todd hadn’t seen my heart and what it needed at that time. Keeping her in my life, though it may have appeared hypocritical and contradictory to my gospel heart, was an important step that led to healing my heart. My best friend needed to be part of my family because this relationship and my husband’s understanding of why she was important to me were literally saving my life.
Each day I was prayerful and petitioned the Lord for guidance in understanding the path that I should trod. I went to the temple with a humble and prayerful heart, pleading for personal revelation. After all, I had been the benefactor of incredible miracles during my hospital stay and had no doubt that the guidance I sought after could again be given to me. Nevertheless, the answers I sought for were not immediately revealed to me. The same lessons Oliver Cowdery learned from the revelation given in Doctrine and Covenants section 9 were so applicable to me. The Lord was not simply going to give me the direction and guidance I was seeking for. So I pondered and meditated on my plight. I thought through the situation and had many long conversations with Todd and my dear best friend. I truly “studied it out in my mind.” I struggled with the Spirit and cried long and hard to the Lord.
Through months and months of rebuilding my life, I came to the conclusion that in order to heal I needed to be authentic. After fighting with my heart for years, finally—nine months after the hospital visit—I reached a conclusion on how I can live an authentic life and begin to heal my heart. I’ve chosen to come out to the public and share my story with others. This will allow me to be authentic, to receive validation, and, to a certain extent, to be true to the gay side of my heart. By admitting to others who I am—an active, gay member of the church—I will find great satisfaction in being truthful to myself. This decision will allow my support group to love me unconditionally and help fill in the broken pieces of my heart. I will also be able to live the laws of the gospel that I love so dearly and believe in.
I don’t know what the future holds with the relationship between me and my best friend. I’ve been reassured through faith, prayer, and tender mercies that God will take care of our lives collectively and individually. I don’t know the details of our future, but I trust a loving Heavenly Father and Savior who will bless us with happiness and fulfillment in life. I believe in eternal relationships inside and outside of families and have a pure hope that she will always be a part of me and my family, just as I will always be a part of her and her family.
The relationship I’ve been allowed to keep with my best friend stems from a loving and selfless husband. He understands the need I have to recognize the gay side of my heart and have close relationships with female friends. He trusts me and believes in my ability to stay faithful to the gospel. He helped me every step of the way and was so tender with me. Todd has a genuine Christ-like love for me. He never judged my situation, my best friend, or me. He loved and accepted my best friend and included her as part of our family. Everything he did was selfless and courageous. In addition to Todd, my best friend showed incredible amounts of selflessness, love, and support in my healing process as well.
As I’ve reflected on my life, I would be wrong to say God hasn’t blessed me tremendously. The faith-enduring experiences I had early on in life were tender mercies in disguise. They prepared me to navigate the course of my life as a gay, married mother in the Church. One of the most important tender mercies I received was when I served as a missionary in Auckland, New Zealand. My mission president taught about the Atonement once a month. He taught us how to utilize it every day and in every way to help us become like God. I depend on the miracle of mercy and the evidence of complete love that the Atonement has to offer.
Recently I’ve received undeniable tender mercies as I’ve decided to come out and share my story. God has placed people in my life to help gently push me along. I have been specific in expressing my needs to him and he has responded perfectly. He knows how hard this is for me and how scary this is, so he has made coming out and being authentic as comfortable as he can for me.
With a hurting heart and feeling desperately hopeless, at the end of September I took my daughter to the General Women’s Meeting at the Conference Center. Before I left I prayed to Heavenly Father, asking him to let me know he is aware of me. I told him I didn’t want to hurt anymore and that I need to have hope in my future. I pleaded with him to send me a tender mercy that night. I asked him to allow me to see someone who is of significance in my life. I absolutely needed this assurance from him that night.
Halfway through the conference there was a video shown where women were being interviewed from all over the world about their feelings on the temple. A few minutes into the video it showed one of my dearest friends from New Zealand. I heard her distinct accent and saw her beautiful face, and I began to cry. I know that God was aware of me and my needs that night. He was assuring me that the path I was choosing was right for me. There aren’t very many people who are more significant to me than my friend from New Zealand. She sang at most of our baptisms, went on tradeoffs, and hosted discussions and family home evenings.
When I got home that night I told my husband about my experience. He was amazed at the blessing this was in my life, when I needed it so desperately. That evening I decided to get on Facebook and search for my friend and her dad. Her father was my stake mission president and I was really close with him, but we hadn’t been in contact for five years. I found him immediately and he started chatting with me. I couldn’t believe that God sent me such powerful, tender mercies that night. It meant the world to me.
For many years I’ve prayed for someone in my family to understand my situation completely. During a time of intense confusion and agony, while feeling very vulnerable, I called my sister Krista. She felt the panic and desperation in my voice and knew I needed help. She decided to fly to Utah immediately. Krista has a baby who is handicapped, yet she sacrificed her time to come be with me and help me. When she arrived from Washington she looked at me differently. Something had changed in Krista’s heart. She had a God-like love in her eyes for me.
I spent the weekend with Krista and opened up to her about everything in my life. She loved me and held me and assured me that everything would be okay. She assured me that I would never have to walk alone through my journey. My prayers had been answered; finally, someone who understood every detail of my situation and still loved me unconditionally. This was a profound tender mercy from God, which I had needed for many years.
The greatest tender mercy God has given me is my Savior, Jesus Christ. He lived his life for me and provided an Atonement that is personal, just for me. I will live my life to honor his name and bring souls unto him. I feel as though I’ve acquired Christ-like love and an accepting heart through my painful experiences.
My second greatest blessing is my husband. He has been the perfect spouse for me through our marriage. In the 10 years we’ve been married, he has endured a lot of pain and has sacrificed so much of himself to make our eternal family work. I’m so thankful for his righteous guidance, example, and leadership in our home.
With equal admiration and love, I owe so much to my best friend. She too has sacrificed an immeasurable amount of her own life and has endured great amounts pain, all for the sake of my happiness. My love for her is unconditional and God-like. Her happiness means everything to me and I will always be a help and support in her journey.
In addition to these God-sent angels, my sister, my parents, my siblings, and other family members and friends have become my greatest support group and cheerleaders. My therapist has also seen me through years of pain and change. He continues to be a major part of my ability to combine the two parts of my heart and manage the life I’m choosing. I owe them the utmost respect and love and will always support and love them.
I’m thankful for the defining conclusion that I’ve recently come to. I’ve put to rest the possibility of living a gay lifestyle. My desire for that lifestyle will always be there, and I will always love my gay side. However, putting this to rest gives me more hope and more confidence for my future than I’ve ever had.
I know that my decision to come out and stand as a witness of God will help my heart to heal. I know the Atonement will bring power in healing my heart as I become a more influential tool in God’s kingdom on earth. God created me gay; he created me as one of his special daughters, and he created me to be a wife and a mother to children in the last days. I will always represent my Heavenly Father, his Son, Jesus Christ, and their gospel. My story is different from others, and my path may not be for every gay member of the Church, but my love for others is truly unconditional.
My heart draws strength from this statement by Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: “As a Church, nobody should be more loving and compassionate. Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion and outreach. Let’s not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle as a result of their feelings about their own gender.”
 Quentin L. Cook, “Bishops made incredible sacrifices,” Mormon and Gay, https://mormonandgay.lds.org/videos?id=15209571875228076146.