UNDERSTANDING HOW TO RESPOND TO ISSUES RELATED TO GENDER AND SEXUALITY

By  (also published at his blog matthewgregoryleach.wordpress.com)

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Although changes in our society have made this discussion a little easier to approach, it can still be terrifying for a young man or woman to announce to family and friends that they are attracted to the same sex. It’s confusing, it’s difficult to accept, and it’s often a hopeless feeling. Science has little to say on homosexuality, and religion, at face value anyway, has little hope to offer for those seeking understanding from a higher power.

So what are you supposed to do when someone you love reveals they are gay? How should you react? What should you say?

This is an intimidating subject, especially since the way you respond to issues involving gender and/or sexuality can, in some instances, be the difference between life and death.

Today I have decided to be extremely vulnerable and take a step into the unknown in order to share a couple of experiences from my own life that have taught me how this issue should ideally be treated when brought up, and how all of us, gay or straight, can learn invaluable lessons from one another.

Usually “coming out stories” are geared towards a gay audience. However, I thought I’d include straight and gay individuals in the conversation since this is not a one-sided issue.

BYU-Idaho Campus; Rexburg, ID

BYU-Idaho Campus; Rexburg, ID

A couple of months ago I pitched a story idea to my campus news producer about a group that meets at Brigham Young University-Idaho, which goes by the name of USGA: Understanding Same Gender Attraction. The producer loved this idea and gave the green light.

A few weeks after getting the story approved, I was talking about it with a fellow reporter on campus who helped me with some projects in the past.

Normally I wouldn’t have been so forthright, but in passing I said to him, “I didn’t really disclose this information to my producer, but I’m actually attracted to the same gender. It’s something not everyone has an easy time dealing with, which is why I chose to report on this story.”

I was expecting to have a few seconds to hold my breath in anticipation for a negative reaction, but without a moment’s hesitation, my friend gave me a warm smile. “Oh really?” he said.

That was it.

Wait…that was it?!

He didn’t act weird or try to preach to me. What was even more comforting, we ended up naturally moving on to another subject of conversation and focused on other things.

How anticlimactic! It was like I told my friend I had just visited with relatives over the weekend or went to see an awesome movie. He was interested, but not obsessed with knowing every detail. Even more comforting, I knew if I wanted to share more, he would have been open enough to listen.

I can’t tell you how refreshing that was.

Since then, I’ve thought: Matt, what reaction were you expecting? A scathing rebuke? A piercing judgment? I am in Mormon country, after all. Coming out of that cramped closet to a staunch Christian family is hard enough, let alone friends you’ve only known for a couple of months. Yet I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the reactions every time.

Maybe, I have thought, this isn’t really so weird after all.

Lost and Found; By Greg Olson

Lost and Found; By Greg Olson

So why do I tell people about this part of me? The last thing I want to do is flaunt orientation or start a revolution. That really isn’t my style.

Plainly, revealing this part of me is not really about me. I mean yes, it is comforting to finally be able to relieve myself from the burden of secrecy all these years, but it’s about much more. This is about a very real characteristic that is very much misunderstood. This is about being yet another outlet for youth and young adults alike who are wrestling with attractions they don’t know are OK to have.

Recently I had a strong impression to share my story with a mission companion of mine. He handled it so well, even if he was a little confused. One of the very simple things he said convinced me I needed to share my story more publicly.

“I wish I knew what to say,” he said. “I just don’t know enough about this issue. No one has really ever talked to me about this stuff before.”

He’s not the only one who feels inadequate to approach this subject. I have spoken to many individuals—mostly straight—who wish they knew how to respond or what to say but felt ill prepared.

Hopefully, in this blog post and subsequent posts, what I have to share will better enable individuals to approach this subject with care and compassion.

Some might think we talk about “the gays” too much, but it’s apparent that, at least in a religious context, we don’t talk about it enough.

In this day and age, coming out as gay can be an issue, but in an LDS context it can become a crisis. Sharing my experiences as a normal individual with seemingly abnormal attractions has become more of an educational pursuit than a call for personal attention.

In other words, I desire to make this topic more approachable and less appalling, therefore creating a safe atmosphere for honest discussion.

Sometimes these discussions don’t go so well, however.

One friend of mine commented, “Back in the day, gay people would just keep it to themselves. People might have suspected, but no one said anything. Why shove it in people’s faces?”

Let’s be honest: straight people shove their love lives in our faces every day too, and it gets pretty annoying.

But there lies an even deeper problem. Despite what the media might have you believe, homosexuality is not all about rainbow flags, parades, and gay bars. There are people out there, just like me, who are actually quite conservative in their beliefs and actions, and perhaps you may not even know they may identify as gay. This makes it, in some ways, harder to confide in people and feel accepted by the straight AND gay community.

But then there’s the “don’t talk about it issue,” which is incredibly damaging. Straight and gay friends alike, take note. Not being available for a healthy discussion about an issue your friend or family member is having should never be an option.

Sometimes we have this mindset: Do you have a mental disorder? Don’t talk about it. Do you have family problems? Don’t talk about it. Are you confused about your gender or attractions? Definitely don’t talk about it.

Why aren’t we talking? Why aren’t we making ourselves available to discuss very real issues? (And why are we still comparing homosexuality to alcoholism and disorders?) It can make a world of difference for someone when a person they trust and love gives of their time to listen and tries to understand.

But here’s some advice to the listener: Don’t always try to be the counselor. For instance, it’s easy to use religion to explain away a lot of things, but unfortunately even religion can’t quite shed all the light on issues surrounding sexuality and gender.

Also, although this can be extremely difficult news to hear, if not impossible to understand, you as the confidante have the easier job. Never fall into the trap that this bombshell is harder for you than it is for them.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is listen. The more you listen, the more you will feel empathy and compassion, and the more you will begin to understand, even if it is to a small degree, what someone is going through.

In a predominately straight-oriented society, same gender attraction can feel alienating and overwhelming. It’s no wonder so many people feel the need to speak out in order to relieve themselves of the “dark secret” which if repressed to the worst degree can eventually lead to suicide.

Puget Sound; by Greg Leach

Puget Sound; by Greg Leach

I hope, over time, to shed some healthy light on the already colorful subject of homosexuality. My desire is to make this topic a little less intimidating to confront. Believe it or not, there are a lot of people out there—your brothers, sisters, dear friends—who are silently wrestling with attractions they don’t know are OK to have. These individuals need to know that life can and does get better and that orientation is not a defining characteristic.

This is not to say that my selective openness in the past has resolved all my insecurities. Yes, I’ve experienced depression. Yes, I am often filled with doubt about where I’ll be and whom I’ll be with in 10 or 20 years. But it wasn’t until I started sharing these details with those close to me, and even those whom I only consider acquaintances, that I realized most people, if you give them the chance, have big hearts and want to listen. They also want to help, and they often do in tremendous and surprising ways.

If you aren’t sure how to help, ask! Sometimes all it will require of you is to be available to talk. Other times it will be to share honest opinions or advice. But try to let these conversations come naturally.

I’ve learned that it is possible to be attracted to the same gender and live a totally healthy, spiritually fulfilling life. I credit a faithful religious upbringing with my knowledge that God is intimately and intensely aware of me and is fully invested in my life. This, perhaps above all things, brings me the most peace when everything around me becomes increasingly uncertain.

I never consciously made a decision about whom I would be attracted to. Very few, if any of us, do. I don’t know why I’m attracted to the same sex, but I do know it’s incredibly instructive.

You see, I have learned so many lessons that could not have been taught the same way had I been born “just like everyone else”. I have felt an increased love for mankind, greater empathy for those who struggle in whatever capacity, and a closer bond with the very God who, for whatever reason, has deemed it wise to bless me with an incredibly confusing perspective on life.

I hope from this time forward we can all be a little more compassionate, understanding and genuine. I’m learning that what impacts my life is not necessarily for my life only, and my experiences can be instructive and helpful to many if shared the right way and in the right time.

I’m not a hero and I don’t consider myself a particularly courageous individual. I’m just a young man who is on a quest to be more honest, more genuine, and an ally and support for those who need it.

It is my hope that in the coming days, months, and years, hot topic issues such as orientation and gender will become normal, natural, everyday topics that are discussed without reservation and treated with Christ like care. Once this happens, confidence will be restored, wounds will be healed and acceptance will be granted.

In the Christian community, we often ask, “What would Jesus do?” That’s simple: He would be a voice of hope, He would make weak things become strong, and He would reach out in compassion without reservation or fear of “condoning the sin”.

I’ll write more on this topic soon. In the meantime…

Be a friend to someone today, and if you see they don’t have a smile, give them yours :)

=Matt=

2 comments for “UNDERSTANDING HOW TO RESPOND TO ISSUES RELATED TO GENDER AND SEXUALITY

  1. Robert Davis
    March 6, 2014 at 10:08 am

    Thank you so much for this valuable essay. I appreciate your sincere desire to increase the conversation among straights and LGBT people in the LDS milieu. It is really needed. I appreciate your vulnerabilty and sincerity. Keep on writing; I’ll keep reading…and I’ll keep writing too (redintransition.blogspot.com). God bless you.

  2. Kenny Jimno
    March 7, 2014 at 6:52 am

    Everyone CAN hear you. they listen when you are leading by an honest and good example.

    As an active member

    Joseph Smith let me know to continue being honest in my dealings with my fellow men. That is how I reveal who I am.

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