This is the complete text of a talk I prepared for a gathering of about 75 LGBT/SSA Mormons and their family and allies in Salt Lake City on August 1, 2013.
My husband Göran and I wore our wedding shoes, to celebrate the fact that even though we were visiting family and friends in Utah, 1300 miles away at our home in Minnesota, our marriage was recognized as legally valid for the first time.
It is eight years ago to the week since the Holy Spirit spoke to me at a gathering of Latter-day Saints here in Salt Lake, and invited me to come back to Church. I want to talk about that specific moment, and what it meant to me at that time, and what it has meant since, and why it became so pivotal in my life and in my testimony of Christ and of his Church.
First I want to stress that there have been times in my life when I have experienced intense emotions that I knew just to be coming from within me. And there have been times in my life when I have felt something I wasn’t sure where it came from, whether it was something from inside of me, or whether it came from God. But this moment was a moment of absolute clarity and power and truth, and I knew — I did not “think,” I did not “wonder,” but I knew — that it came from God. If someone in this room were to stand up and shout out to me, none of us would question whether that came from outside of me. And there was and there is no question in my mind about this experience of God speaking to me.
In that moment, the Spirit told me that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was true. The Spirit reminded me that I knew it, and it was time for me to come back. That was it.
The Spirit spoke to me not in a warning or menacing or scolding tone, but with perfect gentleness and love. From that experience, I know what King Benjamin meant when he spoke of the “enticing” of the Spirit (Mosiah 3:19). You are loved, the Spirit said, so come here where you are loved. And I realized I wanted to come back. I wanted it so terribly.
At the same time I felt anguish. I wanted to argue with the Spirit. “I am gay,” I said, “and I love my husband Göran, and we have been building our lives together for 13 years.” (At that point it was 13 years. This August 19 it will have been 21 years.) “And,” I said, “I’m excommunicated. And they wouldn’t have me even if I did go back. I’m not welcome in the Church. There’s no way. It’s too late. There’s too much water under the bridge.”
The Spirit replied that none of that mattered. I was loved. I was wanted. It was Christ himself who was welcoming me back, who wanted me. It didn’t matter what anybody else thought. And I knew that the Church was true, and I wanted to go back.
I wept complicated tears. There was anger in there, and feelings of betrayal… And also happiness. The Spirit had spoken to me in a way I could not deny. With a more perfect knowledge than my knowledge that you all, that every one of us in this room, are real, I knew that God was real, and he was speaking to me. And if he was speaking to me, I had not been forgotten by him. I was not unworthy to be spoken to by him. And there is no peace that could surpass the peace I felt in that encounter. No greater peace or joy than that simple knowledge that God was real and speaking to me. But I was angry too. “How can you be asking me to do this now?” I asked, “Why now? How am I even supposed to begin to try to do what you are asking me to do?” And that was the end of that conversation with the Spirit.
As I left that encounter I was shaken. I was profoundly upset. I knew that my life could not be the same any more. I knew that everything in my life was about to change, and I was afraid of what that might mean. Did I need to leave my husband?
I kept this experience to myself. I did not tell my husband about it. I did not tell my family about it. I did not speak to anyone about it. I tried to put it behind me. I think I hoped that if I just ignored it, that it would go away, that I could dismiss it as some passing fancy or some figment of my imagination. I could say, that’s just residual Mormonism that was engrained in me from childhood. I just need to get over it.
But it did not go away. And I could not deny it. And the Spirit did not let me rest.
Now I want to unpack that experience. I want to unpack the significance of what the Lord said to me in that moment as well as what the Lord did not say, because that moment taught me something powerful about the first principles of the Gospel, about faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and about repentance.
At that point, I had no inkling what the full implications might be of accepting the Spirit’s invitation. The Lord gave me an invitation, and that was all. No explanations, no detailed roadmap. Just an invitation.
I had all kinds of ideas of what that might mean, and the Lord did not disabuse me. He let me think what I might think. And I think the point of extending such an invitation in such simplicity was to see if I could say yes without attaching conditions, without bargaining, and without holding back.
All the Lord had invited me to do was to come back to Church. He was asking no grand gestures of me other than simply to come. He did not say, “Leave your partner and come.” He said just come. And once I was done fretting, I realized that after all this invitation was like the simple thing asked of Naaman the Syrian by the Prophet Elijah. To paraphrase Naaman’s servant’s question, “If he had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? How much rather then, when he saith to thee, Come…”
And I can say that the richness of the blessings I’ve received for simply coming to Church, simply doing what the Spirit asked, has been beyond what I ever might have imagined. Doing that simple thing — coming to Church — I have experienced something like a fullness of joy. I am certain there is greater joy ahead.
I started going back to Church in October 2005. It’s easy for me to forget now how scary that was for me. One small miracle occurred, that helped smooth the way for me, that reassured me I was doing the right thing, and the Lord loved me and was personally taking care of me. A few weeks before I started attending Church, I had a random encounter with the Mormon missionaries while visiting a friend of mine close to St. Paul, Minnesota. I had had random encounters with LDS missionaries before, but had always brushed them off, without interacting significantly with them. But this time I opened my heart to them. I revealed that I was a former member of the Church, that I was gay, and that I had left the Church in 1986 after nearly committing suicide at the end of my junior year at BYU, and that I was excommunicated and in a relationship and I was sure no one wanted me at Church. I gave them what I later jokingly called the “Gay Mormon 101” course. We talked probably for close to an hour. One of the elders — I assumed the senior companion — thought he ought to try to persuade me of the wrongfulness of my path. Frankly he came across as a bit arrogant. But the junior companion just listened attentively, with empathy in his eyes. He was the one who touched my heart.
The first time I attended Church, I wanted to be unseen if at all possible. I snuck into the ward meetinghouse just as Sacrament meeting was starting and sat on the very back row. There were four missionaries on the row just in front of me. One of them turned around and I immediately recognized him — the junior companion I had met at my friend’s house a few weeks earlier. By some freak coincidence — or miracle? — he had just been transferred to my ward that very weekend. When he saw me, a huge smile broke out on his face and he grasped me by the hand. “Do you remember me?” he asked. During the Sacrament hymn, I wept tears of joy. I thought, “Someone in this ward knows that I am gay and in a relationship with a man, and he is happy that I am here.”
I also felt a great sense of relief, because I knew he would tell others about my situation. I wanted that. I wanted it to be known and understood up front that I was gay, because if people were going to reject me over this, I wanted to know up front. I had come out of the closet to my family, friends and coworkers many, many years before, and coming out had been one of the healthiest and best things I had ever done in my life, and I knew it would be unhealthy and damaging to go back into the closet in order to go to Church. And now the Lord had taken care of this for me.
This missionary told my elder’s quorum president, who personally approached me as I was trying to sneak out of the Church at the end of Sacrament meeting, and wanted to personally make sure I knew I was welcome back. Bro. When I did come back, my elders quorum president, Bro. Stainer, sat next to me in Church and became my first friend in the ward.
The second Sunday I attended Church, a visiting member of our high council gave a talk on forgiveness. As he spoke, I had memories of different individuals in the Church I had known over the years who had said and done things that had injured me; things my last BYU bishop had said and done that had persuaded me I was broken and beyond hope and that had pushed me toward suicide. I had been so angry at these individuals for so long, and had been so angry at the Church so long for letting these individuals do and say what they had done. And something in this high council member’s talk softened my heart, and I realized that I could forgive. I needed to forgive the Church for not trying to understand me better; for laying burdens on me instead of helping lighten my burdens. And in the moment I forgave, I felt this tremendous in-rushing of the Spirit. I could barely sing the closing hymn, my eyes were so clouded with tears, and my throat was so choked with emotion.
I began to realize my own need of forgiveness. I remembered things I had said and done to my husband, Göran, things I had said and done to my parents, and to my brother Mark. Acts of selfishness and lack of trust and defensiveness, words not spoken that should have been spoken, words spoken in anger that only now I understood to regret.
My brother Mark and I had had a falling out in 1988. He had wanted me to attend his temple wedding, but at that point I had been excommunicated. I felt very vulnerable. I knew it would be painful to travel to Utah, where I had become suicidal in 1986, only to have to wait outside the walls of the Logan temple while the rest of my family gathered inside. My brother took my refusal to come to his wedding personally; his wife thought it was because I didn’t like her. So there was this very painful falling out between me and him; all the more painful because we had been so close as kids. We barely spoke to one another or had any contact with one another for almost two decades.
At this point where the Holy Spirit had come back into my life, I was suddenly aware of situations like this that required my attention. I felt a genuine sorrow. My anger at my brother had been all tied up in my complex emotions about the Church. But now I realized that I had a testimony of the Church, and I couldn’t deny it, and I didn’t want to deny it, and that testimony gave me the purest kind of joy. I knew that God lived and he had spoken to me and he loved me and he reassured me that all would be well. I was able to let go of my attachment to any particular outcomes in relation to the Church because I knew that any awkwardness in my relationship with the Church would be perfectly resolved on the Lord’s timetable. Remembering my brother’s wedding, I realized there had been no reason for me to be upset about the fact that I would have had to wait outside the temple walls for my brother’s marriage. It would have been better for me to go demonstrate my love for him through my presence outside, than to fret about what I was and was not permitted to do by the Church.
I felt this overwhelming longing to make things right between me and my brother. I did not even know how to begin, there had been so much anger and frustration between us for so many years. So I knelt down and prayed, and then sat and wrote Mark a letter. The Spirit prompted me what to say in that letter. I have a copy of it, dated January 25, 2006. I sent it in time to arrive for his 41st birthday.
I apologized for “harsh words… unresolved anger, resentment [and] alienation.” “I regret,” I said, “ that we could have been closer over the last twenty years or so, especially to the extent that any lack of closeness between us was due to envy… on my part.” I apologized for missing his wedding. I wrote: “I envied that… things seemed so much easier for you: marriage, family, [a career in] law and a successful teaching career at BYU. I… became the black sheep of the family, while you seemed to attract all Mom’s and Dad’s attention. The fact that things went less well for me, of course, was not your fault, and …I should have been happy for every success you enjoyed, for all of which you have worked very hard and all of which you deserve.”
I tried to explain the difficult feelings that had contributed to my decision to boycott his wedding. “My absence,” I explained, “was all about my rejection of myself, my anguish about feeling rejected by the church, and my fear of rejection from the family, and nothing to do with [you or your wife]… I wish [I had been able to understand that] back then.”
I closed by writing, “If you feel there was no need for any apologies, then I am grateful that you have such a forgiving spirit. But if there are still old hurts, I hope these words can begin to heal them.” I honestly didn’t know how my letter would be received, or whether my brother had forgiven or would forgive me, so it was with some fear and trembling I sealed the envelope, put a stamp on it, and sent it.
The end of the story has been a happy one. My brother did forgive me. He and his wife called me on the phone to accept my apology in person and to express their gratitude and their love for me. My brother has in his turn been there for me over the years in every way that has counted, including hosting me and my husband Göran in his home when we traveled to Riverside, California in July 2008 to get legally married, and participating our wedding with his whole family. I did not show up for his wedding, but he showed up for mine.
Forgiving can feel like you are relinquishing some very important part of yourself. I guess that’s why we call it for-giving. Our resentments, our anger, our impatience are wrapped up in our ego, that part of us that masquerades as the self, but is really only that superficial, external part of us that we present to the world, that shields our true selves from the world. That part of us has to die in order for the deeper, truer part of ourselves — our soul — to live. That is why Jesus Christ said, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it” (Mark 8:35).
When the Spirit invited me to come back to the Church I did not know what it was the Lord was asking me to give up. I did not know if the Lord would ask me to give up my husband. So far he has not. He has taught me how to love my husband with a purer and a truer love, and I’ve found the deepest possible joy in that. He did ask me to allow the Church and the Saints to become a part of my life again. And that has been challenging at times, but it has filled my life with blessings too great to number.
I love my ward. I love all three of the bishops and the two stake presidents I’ve had since returning to activity eight years ago. They have proven to be wise, loving men, who have each, in their own ways, become advocates for me. My first bishop told me, “If any member of this ward or any priesthood holder gives you any trouble or makes you feel as if you don’t belong here, you send them to me.” Thank you, Bishop Midgely. I love you, and I look forward to that get-together you promised me 1000 years from now. I love the members of my ward and my elders quorum who have, as they’ve come to know me as a person, rallied around me and become my and my husband’s greatest supporters.
Last August, I had a serious bike accident that resulted in a subdural hematoma — bleeding inside my brain — that none of the doctors noticed until more than six weeks after the accident. I would probably not be standing here alive if it had not been for a dear brother in my ward who is a medic, Brother Matthew Pfannschmidt, who noticed my symptoms and made me go to the emergency room immediately. After the doctors told me I could die within 24 hours unless they operated, I called Matthew, and he showed up in my hospital room that same night, just before my brain surgery, to give me a blessing. He told me things in that blessing about my life that no one else could have known, and he promised me a complete recovery. And here I stand.
My husband, Göran, here tonight, was diagnosed with kidney disease two months ago. We learned that he would need a new kidney within the next year in order to survive. And when we reached out to our friends, half of those who came forward offering to donate their kidneys to him are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I know that there are terrible things that members of the Church have said and done to gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender people in the Church. I know that many of us in this room have been deeply injured. I understand the pain and confusion created by current policies of the Church.
Our lives are mixed up with good and bad, with pain and joy. We have seeds of faith and hope and love in our hearts that will grow into a fruitful garden, if we do not let them be choked by weeds of resentment or anger or impatience; if we let the waters from the throne of God into our hearts to water them; and if we let the sun of Christ’s love shine upon them. We cannot know where God is ultimately leading us, any of us. We cannot know what place God has prepared for us, either individually or as a Church. God alone holds those secrets in store for us. But if you feel even the slightest yearning, consider opening your hearts. Consider letting go of anger. Consider making an experiment upon the word and seeing where it leads. It might be the hardest thing you have ever tried. As for me, it has brought forth fruit an hundredfold.