(originally published at my blog Broken Lights)
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 publicly sharing my story 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 their assumptions about homosexuality and religion. The picture is so much more complicated and nuanced than it usually 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.
Josh DeFriez is a Junior at Utah State University studying Economics and International Studies. He returned a little over a year ago from a mission to Brisbane, Australia. On March 19, Josh published this blog post to his Facebook page as his official “coming out.”