By Diane Oviatt (a speech given in Berkeley, California Sep, 2014)
There are no closed off souls. No one is impervious. Story, unlike anything else, can change the heart. I learned this first hand five years ago this month, when I was asked by President Dean Criddle to share the story of our family’s journey in the aftermath of our son Ross revealing to us at age eighteen that he is gay. I spoke to my home ward, the Moraga ward, at a special combined priesthood and relief society meeting, part of a ward by ward series designed by our Stake presidency to help heal our Stake in the wake of Proposition Eight. It was a coming out of sorts, for our whole family to our church community, beyond the handful of friends we had confided in.
With that talk, I wanted my fellow Mormons to try to feel and empathize with, for a moment, the pain of a young gay latter-day saint when he realizes that the Plan of Salvation, the Plan of Happiness, the bedrock of our gospel, will not be available to him. I told the story of the night my mother heart was broken on behalf of my child. Here in part are my words from that Sunday, “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 just be like everyone else, yet painfully aware that 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 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, than to live a stalwart, steadfast lie that backs him in to a suicidal corner.”
After the meeting was over, there was a steady line of congregants waiting in line to hug me with tears streaming down their faces. My husband was mobbed by his fellow high priest quorum members, most of whom were openly crying. Later that day, I received several emails and phone calls from ward members, expressing love and support, and in some cases apologizing for perceived off hand past remarks, and YES on 8 signs in yards. That September day five years ago was just the beginning of our lives as advocates for God’s LGBT children, as witnesses to Christ’s love for these valiant souls. It was through this series of stake meetings that I came to know Mitch, and through him Caitlin and Bob. Other Mormon mothers with gay children found copies of my talk on the internet and contacted me, desperate for an ally, a soul mate, some advice on how to support your child and still stay Mormon. We all began to come out of the closet. Shared pain is diluted pain. Empathy is the bedrock of Christ’s teachings, and I have come to understand the meaning of that word more profoundly since Ross came out. In an essay I wrote for the blog, No More Strangers, I ended with this, “what I now know for sure, is that it is incumbent upon those of us who have tapped into our empathy the hard way, and suffered the pain under our own roof, to be a voice in what feel at times, like the wilderness. To stay and share our stories, to put faces and names to this urgent issue. When those who care about us feel even a smidgeon of empathy, a sliver of “that could be my child” kind of thinking, then hearts will soften and minds can change. It is our best and brightest hope”.
I recently read a story a mom wrote of her quirky, unusual little girl’s first day in a new school. She was petrified her child would suffer rejection. She calls what happened that first day a story changer, and puts forth the notion that ” just a few moments with open hands and attentive eyes can turn things around.” She speaks of what transpired while accompanying her frightened child to “Meet the Teacher Day”. A woman was walking toward them in the hallway, determined to reach them. The woman, who turned out to be the PE teacher, leaned down and cupped the child’s face in her hands. She welcomed her, complimented her freckles, asked who she was. The child was delighted and retold the story to her family later that day. Her mother writes “don’t we all want our face to be held in someone’s hands, don’t we all want to know we are not invisible, don’t we all want a story to tell, that moment when our life started looking a little brighter?” She also relates another experience of speaking up when someone was devastated by the loss of a loved one and concludes,” I couldn’t change her story, but I could make her story a little better by letting her know I could see her pain, that she was not invisible.”
Here in the Oakland Stake, our family has felt our faces cupped in the hands of friends who have let us know that they feel our pain. Not pain because our child is gay, but pain because he cannot feel a part of a church that does not include him in The Plan. Thankfully, our story is one of acceptance and love, in spite of what feels immovable doctrine wise. Because we live in a place where our leaders reached out to us in love, where they did not marginalize our child, or worse, make us feel invisible. Where even in the absence of concrete reassurance, we have felt like we could stay. I hear stories all the time of friends who live in places where this is not so. Brutal stories of bigotry, and shunning. Callings being revoked, temple recommends taken, for supporting their gay children. I weep for them, and vow even more to stay and make a place at the table for them. They are in awe of our experience here in our ward and Stake and that is really what I want to dwell on today, fully aware that I am, in many cases, preaching to the choir, but also hoping that by sharing my story, I might inspire others to speak up, to educate, to defend and protect these precious souls.
I sing the praises of the Oakland Stake presidency, Dean Criddle, Craig Stewart and Andy Sorenson. When Ross revealed he was gay, and we watched him plummet to the depths of despair, worried constantly that he might decide his life was not worth living, my husband Tom went into major faith crisis mode. He concluded that a church which caused a child to feel this way about himself, could not possibly be true. In desperation, I contacted Dean, our Stake president, friend and first bishop as a married couple back in the early eighties in Oakland. I knew that there was no one Tom admired more in the church, for his intelligence and compassion. At the end of a two hour session at his home, during which he proceeded to educate US about the science of sexuality, as well as our Father’s love for all his children, Tom remarked to me,” okay, the church is true again.” Our pain had not been removed, but it had been recognized, and we had felt love and loyalty from a true man of God. And we continue to feel that from our entire Stake presidency.
Andy Sorenson was made our bishop right before Ross came out, having previously been his scoutmaster and then Priest quorum advisor. Andy reached out to me, when he saw Ross start to unravel. In that phone call, he was literally one of the first people I told. Since that time he has continued to stay in touch with Ross, to mentor him and love him, as is. With his permission I shared, at a fireside in the South Bay last year, a small portion of a letter he wrote to our son during his tumultuous year in Provo. His words made a difference to a devastated young man. He spoke of two forms of marriage, heterosexual and homosexual, and acknowledged that they could both include compassion, caring, intimacy and kindness. Speaking as a friend who was no longer his bishop, he added that he felt that the Lord recognizes the second form as something integral to the Plan of Salvation. No big sweeping revelatory statement there, just a simple validation of who Ross is and an assurance that the Lord values him as well. His words to this struggling child during his time of despair were like a balm to his frayed sense of worth. He also wrote to me saying “I know Ross is a pioneer in some sense and will be witness to many changes in his lifetime. I can’t say that we will see same gender sealings in the temple, but perhaps that is not as important as that we see more Christlike love and compassion from all of us”. He had dared to mention things that most Mormons prefer not to discuss. How I wish all of our ecclesiastical leaders were brave enough to acknowledge these hard questions, and offer validating support as Andy and Dean have to our family. Then perhaps these children would not feel the utter despair that drives them to end their lives here on earth.
These men have taken the time to educate themselves on these issues, have offered support and affirmation; (they have all shown up at some point at the support group we host for LGBT Mormons). They are not afraid of tough conversations. I have wept with them, I have been able to express anger and frustration on behalf of my friends whose experiences in the church are not so fortunate, and they have empathized and hurt as well.
We have met so many beautiful gay Mormon souls on this journey. At a conference of gay Mormons last year in SLC I felt Christ-like love in abundance, perhaps even more than I have ever felt at church, and heard the most inspired testimonies I have ever heard from brave people who love the Lord and His gospel in spite of some heartbreaking treatment at the hands of their fellow saints. These testimonies are hard won and hard fought in the face of incredible adversity. These friends have my loyalty and admiration for life. They have restored my faith. They are so deserving of a place at the table, a spot in the expanding tent of Mormonism. They just happen to love those of their same gender. This is who they are, how our Father created them.
I now want to find every struggling gay Mormon child and cup their face in my hands, and tell them how loved they are, AS they are. After having a front row seat to the anguish of my own beloved child, I must work to prevent others from having to face a potentially even worse situation, where in their families and/or church leaders reject them. This is not part of God’s plan for them, and this is not the church that I know, and yet it does happen. So I will continue to push from within for understanding and education , for leaders who reach out as mine did, who acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers, who empathize, include and love our children, as is. I want to impart hope to my friends who don’t have what we have here in what for me is Zion, that hearts may soften for them and their families. So that perhaps they will not feel driven out of the community they love and the gospel they believe in because they dare to support and love their child, because they dare to have the same hopes and dreams for that child as they do for all of their children.
I have learned much thus far on this seven year journey. And though these years of experience cannot begin to match the wisdom Bob Rees has accumulated, and my attempts at advocacy cannot approximate what Caitlin Ryan has done through her Family Acceptance Project, my story is unique, our family’s story has its own value. All of ours do. We must not hide for fear of looking imperfect. People may accept or reject our story, but never does story speak without leaving at least a thin impression upon the wet clay-like surface of our hearts. Some scathe us, or make us itch. Some make us frozen or indifferent, some melt us, some will make us bleed. Story will change the heart. It is my great hope that we will all speak up, that we will be vulnerable enough to itch, to bleed. That we will not remain unscathed, that we will love enough to melt even the most frozen or indifferent of hearts. Lives are depending on this love. We must preach it far and wide. It is the embodiment of Christ’s Beatitudes.