By Diane Oviatt
(This talk was given to adults in my ward at special 5th Sunday meeting called by Stake President in aftermath of Prop 8 and was a coming out of sorts, beyond family and close friends)
One of my favorite sayings by Kahlil Gibran is, “your pain is the breaking of the shell which encloses your understanding.”
This phrase took on new meaning for our family over 2 years ago as we struggled to become enlightened and educated without losing our faith in the process. For me it has been a painful road, but it cannot begin to equal the pain our son Ross has felt most of his life as he struggled to be someone he could never be and work toward a future he knew he could never have.
From the first, Ross reminded me so much of my brother Scott; brilliant, funny, and articulate. So much like him though, that I worried often that he might also be gay. The thought terrified me as a mother. I had just had a glimpse of what my brother went through when he came out in his mid twenties, after serving a mission in Montreal. He became estranged from our family after he learned he was HIV+. He did not want our parents to know. We lost a lot of years with him and reconnected just last year when our parents died. My children hardly remembered him. For me, his issues had receded over the years as I plunged into the task of raising my own children- Until early 2007 when Ross was accepted to BYU on a scholarship. A no brainer choice we all felt as he turned down the offers from other schools. Shortly thereafter, Ross began having panic attacks and by the end of his senior year I sensed he may be grappling with issues pertaining to his sexuality. I took the opportunity to sit down with him at the kitchen table late one night when his dad and brother were away at scout camp. I asked and he answered, pouring out years of grief and heartache, wishing it wasn’t so, wanting to be just like “everyone else”, yet knowing he was not.
I assured him of our love and understanding, our unwavering support and loyalty, but when in absolute despair he said, “What’s the point of going on? I can’t ever marry in the temple and have a family, how do I get to the celestial kingdom? What happens to ME?” I had no answers. I still don’t. I could not advise him to keep coming to church, to hope for peace in the next life. There are graveyards full of young latter-day-saints who have tried. I CHOOSE LIFE FOR MY CHILD. I would rather have him alive, living an authentic life, true to who he is, than to live a stalwart steadfast lie that backs him into a suicidal corner.
From knowing my brother I had strong suspicions that sexual preference is not a choice for most people. If I had any lingering doubts, they were completely erased as I held my sobbing teenager that night in the kitchen, as he chanted over and over” I just want to be normal, go on a mission, get married, like everyone else” And all I could think of was, “what kid in their right mind would choose ridicule over acceptance, would choose mockery over admiration, would choose to be a pariah in his own religious community?”
Not surprisingly, BYU did not work out well for Ross. Provo proved to be a toxic environment for this particular kid, especially during the time leading up to the election. The fallout from the prop 8 campaign was difficult for him as he tried to weather all the homophobic slurs and keep his secret under wraps. Luckily, he came home in may to a much more understanding community and is learning to accept himself a little more each day. His many high school friends love him for who he is; as do the families from our neighborhood whose children he babysat for years and who have become like family to us.
He does not come to church anymore. I know he misses many aspects of this experience. Of course I wish he could still worship with us, but I understand his disillusionment, borne of years of hurtful rhetoric, off hand remarks from different teachers and advisors, as well as peers who unknowingly caused him to despise himself. My hope is that he can somehow discard the shame and self-loathing of those years, and learn to see himself as I know God sees him. I cannot change the past, but Ross and I both hope for a better future. Which is why with his permission, I have agreed to tell his story today. So perhaps we, all of us, can prevent another person from suffering as Ross has. We both agree that honesty is paramount; to hide and cover up connotes shame and embarrassment. Our family has none concerning our son and brother. His siblings love and accept him without reservation, as do Tom and I.
So what can we do to change our thoughts and actions as a congregation of the followers of Christ? What is helpful and what not so much? Ross does not like to be told that this is his burden in life, his “cross to bear”. He does not like comparisons. Nothing compares. Being gay is not like having a disability, as someone from church tried to tell me. Yes it is a trial, but it doesn’t have to be. Gay people are capable of living and loving like everyone else. A disabled person is never told that they are not worthy of God’s choicest blessings, they always have hope and admiration. As do single women in the church, who are progressing in years with nary a prospective husband on the horizon. Again, they have hope, support, and love. Our church is all about the eternal family and the only group of people who have no hope of attaining this are homosexuals. To deny a Latter-Day-saint this goal is to strip them of their very reason for being. So, no, nothing can compare.
Thus, no easy answers for us. No quick fixes. Someday I pray it will all be sorted out on the side of love and compassion. In the meantime, what does help is honesty, attempts at understanding, a willingness to learn, to talk, to ask questions, to question our own longstanding prejudices and fears. More acceptance, less judgment, more Christ like love. Then maybe families like mine won’t feel so torn and their gay children won’t wish they were dead. Initially, it was a struggle for us to come to church, a church that does not accept and embrace our son 100% as he is. Some days are still tough. Yes, our faith has been shaken. We are still here and he is not. I can only imagine how hard that is for him. Being a latter-day –saint is our heritage, our culture, our soul. I pray that some day he will be able to partake of that again. I still have a testimony of many things. I am still here. I need my relationship with the Lord, I need my fellow saints. To quote Anne Frank by way of Carol Lynn Pearson, “I still believe in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart”. And I most certainly need my wonderful Bishop, who has been an amazing mentor, counselor and friend to Ross over the years. So, I will not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I will stay also with the hope to be a voice for compassion and understanding. I feel an obligation to be a comforter, an advisor, a friend to anyone else who may be suffering as we have, as Ross has. That is the gospel of Jesus Christ in its purest form. I am thankful for local leadership that embodies this, for their courage in speaking to us today. It means the world to families like ours.
Diane Oviatt –Married to Tom for 31 years in Oakland temple. Raised LDS. 3 children. Currently serving in Moraga ward primary presidency. Pediatric oncology nurse at Children’s Hospital Oakland for past 32 years.