Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Coming Out

Yesterday I sat down with one of my professors to talk about economic history. After briefly discussing the decline of the Netherlands in the mid 18th century, he paused and asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I said that I didn't know, and we discussed the possibilities of a graduate degree in economic history. I told him that I was interested in China because I served a Chinese speaking mission, and then he paused. "You're obviously Mormon," he said matter-of-factly. And then in an equally frank tone, he said, "and you're gay." I was shocked. How did he know? I quickly thought through everyone I knew that also knew him and wondered who had told him. I asked him how he knew, and he said that he had guessed. I was pretty shocked, because I didn't think it was all that obvious.

And that got me thinking. This random professor that I've only known for a few months knows more about me than many of my friends and extended family members. After doing a little pondering, I decided that it was time to come out-- to really come out of my closet once and for all and advocate openly for LGBT people. Hearing that I'm gay is probably surprising to many. It may even be shocking to a few people, and then there are probably lots of people who saw it coming. I'll endeavor today to tell my story the best I can, but first I want to say why I'm doing this.

I often hear people say that it bothers them when people come out publicly on Facebook. It's their own business, people say, and they shouldn't feel obligated to share it with the world. But I do feel obligated. And not because I think that my sexual orientation is anyone else's business, but rather because I am continually shocked at the brutality of our culture. Writing this blog post and publishing it on my Facebook page is my way of inviting everyone I know to reconsider the way they think about this issue and to please reconsider the way they talk about it. Estimates differ, but somewhere between 5-10% of the population is homosexual. That means that if there are 300 people in your ward, somewhere between 15 and 30 of them exclusively experience attraction to people of the same sex. They're scattered through your priesthood quorums, relief society groups, and sacrament meetings. And more often than not, things are said that are hurtful, simply because of ignorance. 

So now that I've explained why I'm doing this, let's move on to my story.

The first time I ever heard the word "gay" was at school. I figured it meant something along the lines of "stupid" or "dumb." One day I decided to call my sister gay because of something she did, and she kind of freaked out. It was explained to me that the word was filled with far more meaning than just "stupid." It meant, in fact, that two boys or two girls liked each other in the same way boys and girls were supposed to like each other. And it was very bad. And so, like many others, I built up an automatic emotional response to the concept of "gay." It was bad. It wasn't right. It was disgusting.

You can imagine how terrifying it must have been when I first started feeling sexually attracted to boys. All I could think of was how awful, terrible, and evil it was. The first time I really noticed was at my first scout camp. There were lifeguards that were a lot older than us, and they would stand by the water all day. Whenever we went to swim, I would steal glances at them. At first I didn't think anything of it, but the more I looked at them, the more I realized something was weird about it. It wasn't until a few months later, however, that I first connected those feelings to sexual attraction. It was close to the beginning of eighth grade, and I had met a boy in one of my classes that gave me those same feelings. Then Tuesday night for scouts, we went swimming at the local swimming pool. That boy was there. Seeing him and feeling those feelings all over again, it dawned on me what was happening. This was how I was supposed to be feeling for girls. Tears came to my eyes, and I began in my head the silent mantra of "I'm not gay. I'm not gay. I'm not gay." I couldn't be gay. Because to me, these feelings were evil. It was bad to be gay.

It's impossible for me to explain in one post exactly what life was like for me in middle school and in high school. I don't mean to elicit pity, but to raise awareness of what it's like for LGBT people to grow up in a straight world. It's demolishing. You believe deeply that there is something irreconcilably wrong with you, because the reality you're taught to expect and the reality you experience are completely different, and the chasm that separates them is filled with a dissonance that makes you question the very purpose of it all. I can't just hand to you an understanding of what it was like to wake up every morning and go to school knowing that everyone around me had something that I could never have or experience and wanted so badly. But I know that everyone has deep pain, and I'm not so naive as to think that mine is any greater that anyone else's. But it's different. And expressing the differences in the way we experience life is important.

Of course, there were moments of light throughout it all. And I did learn to rely on God and to turn to Christ, and I'm very grateful for that. For such a long time I always wished that I could just go back and relive my life without being attracted to men, but there came a point when I realized that my pain had shaped the person I was, and I became grateful for it. I would never erase what I've been through.

My senior year of high school was especially hard. There was one night where I was driving home on a bus from a school activity, and I was completely consumed by it all. I couldn't stop thinking about how unlikely it was that I would ever get married, and how miserable it seemed to stare deeply into the abyss of a celibate life. I didn't want to spend my life alone, but it seemed that I would have to. 

The most common approach of LGBT people within the church is to increase personal righteousness as an effort to change their orientation. That's the approach I took for a long time. I thought, if I can just read my scriptures enough... if I can just pray without ceasing... if I can just be as righteous as possible, then God would surely take it away. There was a time during my senior year when I decided to fast once a week until the attractions would go away. They never did. And try as I might, I couldn't feel anything for girls.

The night we graduated from high school was one of the hardest nights, emotionally, I'd ever had. High school had ended. The rest of my life was staring me in the face. And I didn't want to face my problems. I wanted to run away from them. I wanted for them to go away and never come back. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't escape myself.

I left on my mission six months later. And I was so excited to leave. I loved my mission. I loved the people and the diverse experiences. I loved sharing with people that they mattered and helping them with their problems. But I was still ever haunted by the seeming demon of my attractions to men. I became so hopeful on my mission that everything would work out--that I would be able to come home and get married and have a family. Whenever it all became too much to bear, I would retreat into my imaginations of a future life freed from the ever-present attractions to men where I could be free to live the life I'd always been taught was the only right way to be.

In the first six months after being home from my mission, I tried so hard to like girls. I tried to date. But it I couldn't force something I didn't feel. Dates felt awkward, forced, and most of all, it felt like I was lying. I thought, maybe if I just find the right person I'll finally be able to feel something. But I still just felt empty and like I wasn't good enough--like there was something fundamentally wrong with me. I did my best to bury my thoughts and feelings, but my thoughts and feelings wouldn't be buried. They wouldn't leave me alone.

It all came crashing down on me one Sunday afternoon. I was on a train ride with my incredible friend, Kelsey White, travelling from Beijing to Qingdao in China. I was listening to a General Conference talk, and suddenly I slid into a deep depression. All I could think about was how frustrated I was with my life and how I didn't want to live the rest of my life alone. The next night, Kelsey and I stayed up late into the night on the beach at Qingdao talking, and I told her everything (the picture at the top was taken that night). There was a moment when Kelsey off-handedly referred to me as gay, and I loudly protested. I couldn't identify as gay, because in my heart "gay" still meant "evil," "wrong," "not good enough."

The next few days, I couldn't stop thinking about it. It weighed on me more and more. And then one night in my hotel room, I stumbled on the BYU "It Gets Better" video. There's a part when one of them says that he finally stopped praying for it to go away, and asked God if he was meant to be that way, and he describes the peace that he felt. I burst into tears, and I felt that familiar warm, glowing feeling of deep peace that I'd come to recognize as God communicating to me. And so I prayed, and I asked God if I was okay the way I was. And I felt deeply that God was saying, resoundingly, yes. That he had created me this way for a reason, and that I was okay and that everything would be okay.

I finally felt at peace with who I was. But I was not at peace with the world around me. I started imagining telling my parents, my family, my friends, and it was just too much for me to handle. I spent my time in China deeply depressed and not able to stop thinking about it.

I came back and started an intensive semester, and largely put the problems to the side for awhile. About five weeks later, however, I left with a group of classmates to Europe, and suddenly had time again to be with my thoughts. And that trip in Europe was the lowest time for me. I felt like each day there was a thudding pain all around me manifesting my deep fear that if the people around me knew who I was, they would never accept me. My deepest fear was still that I was somehow woefully flawed and deeply inadequate. Thankfully, I was with an amazing group of people, and many of them noticed what was happening and reached out to me, proving me completely wrong. But I knew that something was wrong, and that if I was going to live a healthy life, something needed to change.

A few weeks after getting home from Europe, I read an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson entitled "Self-Reliance." It completely changed my life. The essay is about emotional self-reliance and the need to be at peace with yourself and to live honestly and integrally. There was one paragraph that changed the way I approached my problem. Emerson wrote about how we often use our good deeds as apologies to make up for the bad things we've done or for some deep inadequacy we believe about ourselves. And then he said "my life is not an apology, but a life." It dawned on me that for so long, I had been living an apology. I was apologizing to the world for something that I never chose. And I decided it was time to change that. I wanted to live a life, not an apology. After lots of pondering and prayer, I felt like I needed to start telling people. And so I came out to my closest friends and my family, and I was surprised at how supportive and helpful they were.

During this same time, and especially over the winter break, I began to do lots of research into the church and the history of its policies and practices towards homosexuality. I became aware of a deep problem in cultural attitudes, past and current policies, and certain doctrines. What shocked me the most was the high suicide rates among LGBT youth in the church. I was frankly disgusted by the way church leaders had approached the issue in the past. And so I began the process of deeply questioning everything that I had assumed.

This process of questioning has been painful, but enlightening, and I feel happier and more at peace than I've ever been. As I've reached out, I've discovered that I'm not alone. In fact, mine is one of the better stories I've heard. There are so many whose pain was so great that they ended their own lives. There are others whose families have completely rejected them (do a little bit of research about homeless gay teens in Salt Lake City, and you'll know what I mean). There are so many who don't have the incredible family and friends that I do.

I first had the idea of writing this blog post about four or five months ago. It came to me as I was praying and pondering about what I should do with my life, and I felt deeply like I needed to write this and share this message, because there are so many people out there in our community who are struggling with this on their own. And I've been there; I know how deeply painful it is. And I want to do my part to reach out to them and let them know that they are most emphatically not alone in this. And I want to invite everyone to question your assumptions about homosexuality and religion. The picture is so much more complicated and nuanced than it appears in dialogue among members of the church. Please get to know the lives of the people you are talking about before you prescribe what they ought to do or say hurtful things.

I'm going to keep writing on this blog. This is probably the only post I'll publish to Facebook unless there's a message I really want for people to see, but feel free to follow it if you're interested in future posts. 

I've hardly been able to say everything I'd like to say. If anyone has any questions, please feel free to ask. And if anyone reads this who's struggling themselves with these issues, whether because you're gay or because you have a family member or friend who is, please don't go through it alone. There are so many people out there who care. And I'm more than willing to talk to anyone who needs someone to talk with.

And that's pretty much all I have to say for now. Thanks for taking the time to read this.


  1. Josh, thanks for writing this. I remember when we talked about this before your mission, and I've wanted to talk with you about it again and just see how things were going, but I wasn't really sure how to approach it. But I did want to tell you thank you, because talking with you that night opened my eyes to a different point of view and really helped me to be more compassionate and understanding to everyone and their own individual battles. I've done a lot of soul searching because of it, and it's helped shape who I am. I think you're wonderful, and I always have. :)

  2. I already commented to this on Facebook, but I just wanted to tell you again how proud I am of you for posting this. My senior thesis was all about gay teenagers coming out in Utah, and I wish I had had this post to show to some of them, particularly those who were struggling. I admire you a ton, Josh, and I hope you know how many people love you and have your back. :D

  3. Josh, I truly enjoyed reading your post! It saddens me that SO many people allow the fear, of being judged by others (especially family), to hold them back. They stop being who they are and begin living a lie in order to please others. As long as the lie is between them, families can't ever really know those they love. My favorite quote by Dr. Suess..."Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind." Good luck with your future!

  4. Congratulations Josh. I'm so glad you did this.

  5. This is a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing it. I think you have a wonderful future ahead of you living as your true, authentic self.

    1. I meant to add that 40% of my closest family and friends said they already knew I was gay before I came out. It was a bigger surprise to me than it was to them.

  6. Josh, I don't know if you remember me really. We were in fifth grade together, woo hoo! I just want to let you know that I was very moved by your post. It is so honest and sincere and great. I am sorry for all the struggles you had to go through to get to this point. I just want to let you know that you are a wonderful person who should never have to live an apology. You obviously have a very good heart. Best of luck to you! -Kelsey

  7. Love the post. Following your adventures now! What a trip this must be. Enjoy!

  8. This moved me, Josh. I haven't talked to you in a long time, and I had forgotten how fun you are and how much you make me smile! I "cleaned" out my FB friend list a while ago thinking I would only keep those who I thought would care about my (future) son, seeing his pictures, and reading about him. I didn't want to be annoying! And so I mostly defriended male friends thinking of course they don't want to see daily posts about a baby! =) Anyway, I'm looking forward to following your blog and reading about the things you go through and the way you look at them. Thanks for opening my eyes and helping me to understand that I am not a bad person, and that people who are gay are not bad people and that we are all equal and can get along.

  9. I told you this already, but this post is really moving. Very often I see LGBT Mormons who are scared. They're paralyzed by what you've embraced. You are a living example of who we can be when we accept ourselves.

    I also like that you used Emerson. He's among my favorite writers. Love that guy.

    Keep up the blog! I'm happy to follow and share :D

  10. Very awesome sir. And very brave. I wish I had had the courage to do it at your age.

  11. Wonderful post and I can relate to it very well. It always seem that those people most invested in our sexuality are that ones who can't see. Strangers and acquaintances who couldn't care less have the best gaydar. I was married and a father and thought I'd pulled it off...

    Then, after I divorced and came out so many people told me stories of how they knew or highly suspected. Those closest to me...my father and even my wife claimed to have no clue.

    You'll be OK. I'm certain.

  12. Yay, Josh! So happy for you. Way to be brave and do your best to do what's right.

    I hope you add this blog to the Moho Directory so I will continue to follow it...

  13. I loved that you did this. I went and read Self-Reliance, so that I too could have an emotional understanding to which you wrote about. I have read a lot of texts over the years in themes related but this one I had not, and I loved it. A great paper and tons of really great quotes. Thanks for sharing. “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards”. In that spirit I think you did an excellent job portraying effectively a glimpse into your journey of truth. BRAVO!

  14. You have no idea who I am, but I just want to let you know that as a student at BYU-Idaho I knew many young men who struggle just like you do, and I will be sharing this blog with them. You are an inspiration to many, thank you for your strength and for your faith. I know you can do this, and that you will be eternally blessed for it in the life to come.

    Lacey Miller

  15. Thank you for sharing your story. It took courage, but will undoubtedly give strength to many others. We have a young man in our lives that has been a part of our family for more than 10 years, who has all but lost his family to their bigotry after coming out. Their loss is certainly our gain, but how painful this has been for both him and his family. I applaud you bringing awareness to this issue, at the expense of putting yourself under a very public spotlight. I'm so happy for you, self-acceptance is such a freeing thing. I hope that you will enjoy a lifetime of love and happiness. ~Terri Baker

  16. Awesome cuz! Love you and love this. Very honest and beautiful.

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  18. I'm happy that you are seeking for answers and finding them for yourself. I'm especially happy that you are being honest with everyone about it so we can be there for you. You've probably visited this new site, but I was so happy when the church came out with it: mormonsandgays.org. They are seeking to reach out to and help those in your situation because so many seem to be facing likewise circumstances.
    Your cousin, Angie

  19. This is such a beautiful story. You will help so many others with this story. best of luck to you! And I just happened to stumble upon your blog but I will know be a regular visitor!

  20. Hey, Josh! I just commented on FB, but I just wanted to say again that I love you so much and I am so proud to call you my friend! You have always been amazing. :) Thanks for everything!

  21. I have one question: how did you answer your professor? Did he have any advice for you? You never really finished that story.

    1. I mostly just laughed and was a little shocked. His advice was to leave Utah :)

  22. Josh,

    I have always admired you, and none of that will ever change. You are amazing!! I'm so grateful for the example you are, and will always be grateful to you for the companionship you gave my granny when we were far away and she was so lonely. She cherished the time she spent with you and your friends. I never really got the chance to thank you. It may seem out of place, here, but it reflects on your splendid character, especially considering some of the many negative things other people said about her.

    Although my trials have been different than yours, they have put me 'on the outskirts' of lds culture, too, so to say, and it has helped me develop compassion and charity towards others. Even though I have (and still) often felt alone, I'm grateful for the person my life has shaped me into. I'm also grateful I'm not done being shaped!!

    Hang in there, my friend. It sounds like you already know where to turn, so I think you will be fine! :)


    Katrina Bascom

  23. You don't know me, but I just wanted to say thank you for writing this. I also appreciate your testimony and the love you have for your Father in heaven. Everyone should know that He loves all of us completly and perfectly, regardless of our race, gender or sexual orientation. I'm glad you do.

  24. You don't know me either but I think your very brave to be sharing this as you have.

    Can I ask, you once where depressed over feeling like you would never get married. Do you think now that your finding self acceptance that it is a possibility to find marriage with the man of your dreams someday?

  25. Josh,

    You will always hold a special place in our families heart. We sure love you. Not sure if this is something that would interest you or not, but my friend (whose story sounds very similar to yours) helped put it together: http://bit.ly/Z0AdUi

    Love you,
    Andy & Wendy