Can a Person Really Disappear?

Jennifer Bowman is married to her best friend, David. They have six children who entertain, challege, and inspire them daily. A history teacher turned stay-at-home mom, she enjoys community service in her spare time.

I have known many gay and transgender persons. They have been both family members and friends. Knowing and loving these people has taught me how lonely their world can be and how un-Christlike the “devoted” often act. I would like to share my story about the first gay person I ever knew and how he changed my life. The story is a painful and heartbreaking. I have removed names to protect the identity of the family members involved. This is MY story not theirs; until I have their permission, I would feel uncomfortable using their names in a public way.

When I was a young child in the 1980s, a great uncle (who was a bishop at the time) came out. He admitted that while he tried to live the gospel by marrying and having a large family and by carrying out his priesthood responsibilities, he could no longer deny who he was nor could he deny his secret partner of the past 12 years. He was excommunicated. He and his wife of many years divorced. Their children (all adults and in their late teens) decided to reject their father. Our family stopped speaking to my uncle and he was cast out. My uncle and his partner moved to San Francisco to find refuge. I always remembered his genuine kindness and charity and was perplexed how someone so good as my uncle could be “evil.” My uncle believed the gospel and diligently labored on its behalf. I knew that his being gay was not his choice. He didn’t want to be gay. There was sufficient proof that he had pretended not to be.

My uncle did not come to my great grandfather’s LDS funeral, as Grandpa’s dying wish was that his gay son would not desecrate his funeral or the chapel it was held in. When my great grandmother passed away, my uncle was invited to attend the LDS funeral. Everyone acted as though letting this son mourn his mother was generous. My uncle attended the funeral without his partner. I was 19 at the time and remember thinking how difficult it must be to mourn the death of your mother, without your partner, in a room full of family and religious people that reject you. It broke my heart…and still does.

My’s uncle’s ex-wife and children would not speak to him or look at him. None of the family gave him more than a brief, awkward hello. The ward he grew up in would not acknowledge him. I was amazed at how he greeted each person with compassion and no sense of animosity. It was abhorrent to my soul to watch each and every person turn away. Christ would not shun my uncle and neither would I. I sat by him at the services, stood with him at the grave dedication, and ate with him at the ward provided lunch. After the funeral, my uncle hugged me goodbye. To my knowledge, after my grandparents’ estate was settled, he never spoke to anyone in the family ever again. He changed his contact information and I do not know what has become of him. I often think of him and wonder how we as a church and family were so hateful toward someone who never showed anything besides charity to his fellow man.

My uncle was my first wake up call that our LGBT brothers and sisters were being abandoned and mistreated. I have lost my uncle. My memories of him and remembrances of cherished stories fuel my desire to rebuild the burned bridges. With Christlike love and acceptance, LGBT individuals can be and should be part of our communities, our families, and if they so choose, our congregations.

While I never give up hope that I will find my uncle, the trail has certainly dried up. I know that I will see him on the other side of the veil and it will be a happier day than the last time I saw him.

32 comments for “Can a Person Really Disappear?

  1. porter
    February 27, 2013 at 9:57 am

    While he didnt choose to be gay, but he did choose to lie to his family for 12 years carrying on an affair, living a total lie to his family. Maybe that is the root of a lot of the resentment the family feels towards him? He also lied to his leaders, accepting a leadership position while breaking the law of chastity for over a decade. That had to hurt a bit to his fellow members. It is a character issue that he didn’t choose to leave the marriage and family when he first decided to pursue his same sex attraction, just as it is a character issue for someone to hold a decade long affair with a member of the opposite sex. There are plenty of folks who have had opposite sex affairs that have been rejected by the family. Also note, he always had a choice, to stay with the family and remain celebate, or walk away from his passions, and be a celebate dad, husband and father. He made some choices here that dont allow him to play the victim card.

    • Daniel Parkinson
      February 27, 2013 at 10:13 am

      So what you are saying is that it is ok to judge somebody? If they make some bad decisions we should shun them from our families forever? Is that what Christ taught?

      • Jay
        February 27, 2013 at 12:24 pm

        It may be a lot of hurt more than judgment. I can only imagine how my wife would feel if I’d had a mistress for a dozen years. I really wouldn’t expect her to talk to me again after betraying her trust like that.

        • Daniel Parkinson
          February 27, 2013 at 12:26 pm

          But his brothers? his sisters? his parents?

    • ruthiechan
      February 27, 2013 at 10:53 am

      It doesn’t say when he got the partner. It could have been after the divorce and thus no infidelity was involved. We don’t know the timing of things so we should reserve judgment. Additionally, you try living a lie in an attempt to follow your leaders who at that time told homosexuals to marry anyway because that’d fix the problem. This story is a testament to why that counsel was so destructive.

      • porter
        February 27, 2013 at 1:04 pm

        I think it does say:
        “great uncle (who was a bishop at the time) came out. He admitted that while he tried to live the gospel by marrying and having a large family and by carrying out his priesthood responsibilities, he could no longer deny who he was nor could he deny his secret partner of the past 12 years.”

        • ruthiechan
          February 27, 2013 at 4:06 pm

          Oops. I misread that. >_<

          Still, the whole thing was way too harsh. You'd think that people would've forgiven him at some point.

      • Debbie
        February 27, 2013 at 1:22 pm

        ruthiechan: I appreciate how you’re trying to not judge, but you also seem to be trying hard to find a way to say he might not have been doing anything wrong. But he definitely was – he was cheating, he was lying, etc. But that’s not the point. The point it that his circumstances demanded the impossible of him and he was doing his best to cope. In that time and culture, he felt compelled to marry a woman and pretend that it was a life he wanted. If he had been free to marry a partner of his choosing, if he had not been told that that would be bad and that he could never have that, he would never have had that wife, that marriage or been in a situation where he felt he had to do wrong in order to find some kind of happiness.

        Porter commented that he ‘always had a choice’. I find that such a superficial judgement, lacking in compassion. Yes, he had a choice – just like all those men who chose to join Evergreen, chose to desperately try to change who they were in order to fit themselves to a church doctrine that denied their reality. A scary percentage of these men ended up committing suicide. Does anyone think that was better?

        • ruthiechan
          February 27, 2013 at 4:08 pm

          Yeah, I misread the whole secret 12 year partner thing. And yes, he was wrong, but he was put in an awful position. And I hate how after decades he still was not forgiven.

          • Debbie
            February 27, 2013 at 5:52 pm

            My guess is that the reason he was shunned was not because he cheated, but because he is gay and dared to come out. In Mormon culture (even moreso back then) there would have been people who would consider that he should have stayed married, stayed in the closet, and not ‘embarrassed’ the family by coming out. Essentially then shunned him for being gay and so they haven’t forgiven him, because he’s still gay.

    • Debbie
      February 27, 2013 at 11:34 am

      Your failure to understand the complexities of his situation probably isn’t that unusual, but your complete lack of empathy is stunning.

    • Jefferson
      February 27, 2013 at 1:16 pm

      Porter, I take it you’re a family member?

      My dad is gay, raised in the Church during the ’60′s and ’70′s when there was little to no acceptance of gays in ANY circle, let alone the Church. He was taught to suppress it, that he could change, that if he were righteous enough, if he prayed enough, fasted enough, went on a mission . . . etc . . . it could go away.

      Long story short, he got married to my mom, had five kids, and it went well for awhile. Then it didn’t. He made some bad decisions, ones which have affected my family for a lot of years. We regret them and hope things could have been different. As I’ve become more of an activist, I’ve written things like the article above and later have occasionally spent time on the phone consoling my mom, who wanted to make sure I didn’t make my dad into a martyr and pretend like he was a saint for doing what he was doing and make her into a demon.

      So I understand your impulse to want to correct what you see here.

      But what I would say to my mom, and what my mom would say to herself, is the same thing I’ll say to you here:

      You can’t understand what it was like for the uncle in this article. What did they think about themselves when they first realized they were different – that they liked boys? What did their bishop tell them when he first told him about? How many hours did he spend praying for something to change in him, off the promises of his religion and out of fear of the society around him? And how did all of that affect his decision-making ability?

      For ME, it doesn’t JUSTIFY my dad cheating or any of those other things . . . but it has helped me understand, a little bit, why he did what he did. That’s why I hope and work towards a society that is accepting of gays – so they won’t go through what my dad did when he was young, so they’ll be able to think in a healthier way than those who are taught to suppress their sexual orientation and given the hope that they can be “normal.”

      So the way I see it there are two truths at play at the same time: 1) A non-accepting religion affected my dad’s decisions and his mental health in ways I don’t fully understand. 2) He made some very bad choices that have affected my life and my family in large ways.

      This article isn’t polemic as you say below, at least I don’t think it is. And it probably isn’t intellectually rigorous . . . but it didn’t try to be. It’s just focusing on that first truth–that our society has been harsh in the past–and is pushing for acceptance, understanding, and forgiveness. True, that’s an agenda – but, like Dan says, it’s not a bad one :)

  2. spiderlady
    February 27, 2013 at 10:24 am

    I did not get the impression that the uncle was “playing the victim card” at all. He accepted the responsibility for his actions, and also the consequences. That sounds like the broken heart and contrite spirit of a truly repentant person to me. Are we not commanded by the Lord to forgive, and not to judge?

    • Daniel Parkinson
      February 27, 2013 at 10:33 am

      Exactly, and in the end, who among us can decide who has sinned and who has repented. Let’s not cast the first stone.

      • Wendy Montgomery
        February 28, 2013 at 10:14 am

        Amen, Daniel!

  3. porter
    February 27, 2013 at 11:11 am

    I do not think their shunning is appropriate, as you said Jesus would handle it differently. But I do have an issue of using their actions to support and agenda

  4. porter
    February 27, 2013 at 11:13 am

    send before done:

    using their actions as a way to support your agenda. That is polemic, not helpful and lacks intellectual rigor

  5. Pamela
    February 27, 2013 at 11:23 am

    The agenda of being kind? Pretty good agenda if you ask me.

  6. Andrew S
    February 27, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    This post really hit me hard. The ending is not a glad one. The answer to the question posed in the title should be, “even if so, over should never be driven to want to disappear.”

  7. Jefferson
    February 27, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    :/ So painful. Thanks for sharing this, Jennifer. I DO NOT understand shunning . . . even IF members are correct, the Church is true, and being gay (or whatever else) is gonna send you to hell (all things I used to believe), cutting them off from your love doesn’t do anything except HURT them and push them away. I think many Church members have moved past that, but far too many still shun when a family member doesn’t do the normal thing.

  8. porter
    February 28, 2013 at 9:06 am

    A few comments:

    I hate this post because it is so black and white. It cavalierly establishes cause-and-effect that is not backed up by the evidence in the post, and as is always the case these things the reality is rather nuanced and complex. It’s flat out lazy storytelling– all stereotype– Gay dude: sad, tortured soul just trying to find happiness (by having a 12 year affair behind his family’s back) Family rejects him (must be because he is gay, minimize the idea that it may be because of the betrayal of that family’s trust)

    It is ironic that those who castigate those who rejected the Uncle are guilty of the same sin, judging. You are judging harshly, just as the family is judging this Uncle.

    Another problem I have with the Uncle. While living this double life he could have chosen to remain a humble soul in the congregation, and simply and quietly refuse leadership callings. I would have a lot more respect for him if he would have done that.

  9. Anonymous
    February 28, 2013 at 11:29 am

    Jennifer: What a heartbreaking story. I’m glad that you shared it; it’s given me quite a lot to think about. I hope you will ignore the unkind comments from porter.

  10. porter
    February 28, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    What was unkind– Is it fair that someone can post demonizing this guy’s family, yet no on can offer pragmatic analysis without being accused of begin unkind? DOUBLE STANDARD!

  11. Jennifer Bowman
    February 28, 2013 at 3:47 pm

    There is a lot more background information to this story than the general public is entitled to. A blog post is not meant to be some long, drawn-out novel. My uncle was not perfect, but he was a good man. He was trying to do the best he could in a different era. My uncle sincerely believed if he prayed long enough and hard enough, his nature would change. In the 1950s, he married and began a family with that faith. His on-off relationship with the same man for 12 years began in the late 1970’s. He and his partner were uninvolved at the time he accepted his calling as a bishop. When the relationship resumed, he admitted to his wife and to the church that he could not stop being gay, despite his best efforts. I do not know how many other times he had confessed being gay to a bishop. I am not privy to that information, nor should I be. I do know that in addition to apologizing to his wife and children, my uncle apologized to his parents and his siblings for lying to them and for the disgrace they felt because of his actions.

    My uncle loved the Gospel. He believed it. He stood accountable for his actions. Rather than just leaving the church and running away, he chose to be excommunicated. Rather than abandoning his family by disappearing with his lover, he chose to go before a judge in a divorce proceeding and admit he was gay. These are not easy things to do, especially in the climate of 1980’s and its AIDS scare. He understood the difficult situation his wife and children found themselves in. He did not force relationships with his family, but let them know he still loved them and was there to support them. I do not condemn my aunt or cousins. I cannot imagine the pain my aunt felt knowing that her husband had cheated on her and that he cheated on her with a man. I have no doubts that her ideas of her marriage, family, and eternity were shattered in ways she could have never imagined. I do not pretend to understand the difficult feelings my cousins experienced knowing that the version of their father they had always known was only a partial truth.

    As for the extended family, my great grandparents had a very large family. Their children all married and had large families themselves. Like any large family, there were individuals who had problems. One of my uncle’s brothers abandoned his wife and children for his mistress. He never paid a penny of child support. My great grandparents and other family members never shunned him or even the mistress. There were members of this family who left the church. They were always welcome at gatherings. Some of these extended family members abused (not merely used) narcotics and alcohol. They were given support. Some had children out of wedlock. We loved them still. Adultery, family abandonment, drug/alcohol abuse, loss of faith, and premarital sex were things that everyone had seen before. They were more understood and could be forgiven. Family members believed that these sins could be overcome and were not the sole defining characteristic of a person’s worth. Knowing this, there is no other conclusion that can be reached except that my great uncle was cast out of our midst because he was gay and we were uncomfortable with homosexuality.

    I love my extended family. We are still very active in each other’s lives. I wish that my disappeared uncle were among us. I am not quiet that we lost my uncle to our fears and prejudices. I use the word “we” because until I was 19, I followed the status quo and didn’t reach out to my uncle. A horrible circumstance forced me to see how awful we were being withholding our love. I took a considerable amount of heat for standing by my uncle’s side at the funeral. I am disgusted that such a small gesture caused the upset it did. I could have stood by any other “sinner” and no one would have said or thought a thing. I am an active LDS member. I am not perfect, but standing by my uncle that day is not amongst my list of sins. Not standing by him sooner is.

    The post is unabashedly and unapologetically black and white. Love for our fellow human beings is a black and white commandment. Christ did not teach us who we could love and who we are entitled to hate. The black and white of the situation is that we failed to love my uncle until it was too late. I am still haunted by the funeral. I remember my uncle approaching us all one by one. To my amazement, someone that had been shunned for a decade still had the capacity to love us and try to comfort us as we mourned the loss of our matriarch. A gay man showed me divine love and forgiveness. We denied him the same.

    The post is not intellectually rigorous and never attempts to be. From my personal experiences, it is the heart of a message that leads our mind to question and revise what we previously accepted as “known facts.” I choose simplistic language so that my message can be understood by everyone. There is nothing new I could add to the Mormon LGBT discussion with academic fervor that has not already been said. The simple stories of LDS members and their LGBT loved ones is what is changing the climate in our homes and congregations. The facts were out there long before our stories were.

    Other branches of my family tree have treated our LGBT members differently and the outcomes have been drastically different both emotionally and spiritually for everyone involved. I do not profess to know all things, but I know that Heavenly Father is loving, just, and merciful. The extraordinary struggles of our LGBT brothers and sisters will be remembered when they approach the judgment seat. Our Heavenly Father loves each of His children. The challenge is: Can we?

    • Daniel Parkinson
      February 28, 2013 at 5:54 pm

      Thank-you Jennifer for this story and this enlightening post-script. I commend you for sharing this painful event, because we need to learn from it. I don’t want to judge those who shunned your uncle, but I do want to judge a society, and culture and even a church that would see this as a normal response to that situation. Unfortunately this is happening today, and worse, it is happening in Utah to hundreds of mormon teen-agers who are now living in the streets and trying to survive as they can. We have not healed our society, but at least we are starting to recognize the illness of intolerance.

    • Laura
      March 1, 2013 at 2:37 am

      ‘eloquent’ is the only possible way to describe your response… As a member of a family who uses ‘shunning’ towards those who do not or can not measure up, I appreciate the miracle of your approach. Their response may be a generational problem instilled by example–but your actions changed the flow of that stream for your descendants forevermore–as well as given many of your readers a heart-swelling testimony of true Christ-like love. I hope you can someday find your uncle.

    • Wendy Montgomery
      March 1, 2013 at 10:57 am

      Jennifer – this response could be its own stand-alone blog post. Absolutely beautiful and touched me deeply, as did your original blog post. I have a gay teenage son and because we are supportive and loving of him, we have experienced much of this type of shunning and feelings of isolation that you describe here. Sad to know we haven’t moved far in our responses to others in 60 years. I hope those that are open about sharing their stories, as you did here, will help turn the tide and make us all more loving and inclusive.

    • Becky
      March 3, 2013 at 1:11 am

      Jennifer,

      There are SO many grey areas. Thank you for sharing about your uncle. I am proud that you stood by him and ate with him at his mother’s funeral. Please try not to be too hard on yourself. You were very young and times were very different. Having the courage to do what you did at 19 is impressive.

  12. porter
    March 1, 2013 at 6:52 am

    Your follow up post does bring new light to the situation. I agree that after any initial heartache and pain dulled, it was wrong to shun your uncle, you have a great point there. It is very wrong to shun anyone, and in spite of my keyboard internet persona, I am very kind to the rouges and sinners in my ward, and family. In fact I often prefer their company to the Stepford members. Typically they are honest about their shortcomings, as opposed to the perfect ones, who just sin differently, and in secret. I am a fan of authenticity

    • Wendy Montgomery
      March 1, 2013 at 10:55 am

      LOVE the use of “Stepford members”. What a perfect description of so many in my own ward.

    • Daniel Parkinson
      March 1, 2013 at 1:59 pm

      Thanks Porter…and I guess as you were only seeing one part of the story, we were only seeing one part of you by your responses. I am glad to know that we can’t judge a person by a paragraph.

  13. Anna
    March 3, 2013 at 10:13 am

    I read this post with compassion and empathy, and have yet another voice to add to this conversation. It is sad and disheartening to me that we can tend to use those things that we each struggle with; our humanness and our failings, as grounds to judge others and put ourselves above them in some way. I know we do not mean to do this. We all try to do our best. People will all act out of fear, ignorance and misunderstanding. And it is the same on both sides of the story. We cannot know the reason for how another person lives or behaves until we walk a mile in their shoes. We all hold on to pain because we are all broken in some way. There is some inherent need in us to feel we are ok in our own line of thinking because it allows us to feel better about our own efforts. In this scenario there is judgment on both sides of the issue, and both wishes the other side had behaved differently. When we allow ourselves some measure of vulnerability for others to be human, we can acknowledge that life is hard, we are all broken, and we all need to be better. Let’s allow each other the space to figure things out, rely on the atonement, and learn our life lessons in love.

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