By D. Jeff Burton
D. Jeff Burton is the author of For Those Who Wonder and a former member of the Sunstone board of directors.
In this column I share the story of a gay/bisexual man I’ve become acquainted with over email. Names and details are changed to protect his privacy (and job).
Nate: I have been reading your Sunstone column for many years. I can relate closely to some of the experiences people have in the LDS Borderlands, especially those who are partially or totally in the closet. Personally, I’m partially in two closets: the Borderlands closet and the LGBTQ closet. But I’ve had pretty good success reconciling this situation with my Mormonism. Perhaps some of your readers will find my experiences interesting and even helpful.
Jeff: I’m glad you contacted me. We’re always looking for thoughtful, meaningful stories from members like you. Borderland experiences, good and bad, have helped many people, and I’m grateful to everyone who has shared their stories in this column.1
Can I start off by having you fill out the standard questionnaire?
(Nate’s edited responses to our Borderland questionnaire follow.)
- How would you describe your upbringing in the Church?
I was born of goodly parents, a second child with one older sister and two younger sisters—all of us about a year and half apart. My mother was really hands-on with us, but my dad kept very busy with his careers—in business and in the Church. He was in bishoprics and the stake high council during most of my years growing up. He was a good man and set a good example for us, but he could be a little doctrinaire about our religious life.
- What is your current status in the Church?
I’m married with two grown children and I attend church meetings frequently with my wife. I don’t currently have an “important” calling, but I do help with ward dinners, substitute teaching, service projects, and Primary (my wife’s calling). My callings depend on the kind of bishop we have at the time. Some don’t seem to know how to deal with guys like me, while others try to bring me closer to the center. I go to church mostly because I just like being with my neighbors and friends in the ward.
- What issues / events / actions / concerns caused you to move into (or through) the “Borderlands?”
That’s a complicated question. I’ll have to give you a little background.
Since I grew up with mostly females in my daily life, I was very comfortable being with my sisters and their friends. I even put on a dress once in a while just for kicks (though I see now that they probably thought I was joking or making fun of them). When I was about nine years old my dad asked me why I didn’t go out and play with the boys more often. “I just feel more comfortable and happy with the girls,” I thought. But I didn’t tell my dad that. He likely thought that a boy playing with girls meant the kid was a sissy.
When I turned twelve, I was ordained a deacon and started socializing more with guys my age. I guess I was going through puberty about that time because I noticed that one boy in the quorum was really cute. I wasn’t surprised or upset by my reaction; I just thought it was what every guy felt. I was starting to get erections around that time but I didn’t know why or how they occurred, especially since they sometimes happened around guys I liked.
In other words, I didn’t know much about sex and gender identity at that point. I lived in an era, a family, and a part of Utah where those topics weren’t discussed. Honestly, when I heard people joke about a guy “being gay,” I thought they meant he was being a happy nerd.
One Sunday, during my first few months as a deacon, my bishop took all the Aaronic priesthood boys into a large classroom and started laying down the law about sex. “Keep your hands off girls,” he said. “No one wants a girl that has been soiled by dirty activities.” “Don’t touch yourself down there.” “Don’t look at nude pictures of girls.” And so forth. It was all pretty mysterious but I was too scared to ask any questions.
I was in 7th grade and soon took my school’s sex education class where they taught the rudiments of reproduction, but they didn’t say anything about homosexuality.
I finally figured the gay thing out when an older boy at school told me that he was gay because he was attracted to boys. I realized that I was probably gay, too, and started learning more about homosexuality during my teen years. But I didn’t feel I could tell anybody—especially my parents—about my inclinations. I had mixed emotions about it all, thinking that I might outgrow it, and feeling confusion and guilt over my blossoming feelings for boys.
So I made a point of going out with girls, and I often had a good time. But it was the kind of good time I had with my sisters and their friends when I was a kid. The closeness I felt with some of the girls I dated was friend closeness, not a lot of physical attraction.
I went to BYU for one year, then to Oregon on a mission. I loved the “companion” approach to missionary work and felt some physical attraction to a couple of my companions. Nothing happened, of course.
After coming home from my mission, I stayed in the closet hoping that I was bisexual enough to make it with females. And after a few years, I married a very nice girl just after we both graduated. We struggled a bit with the sex thing, but I could make it work by imagining myself with hot men. We had two children early on, and she didn’t seem interested in sex after that. I didn’t tell her about my attraction to men and we got along pretty well as “best friends who meet occasionally for sex,” though I also masturbated on the side.
Along the way, I became troubled by many things Mormon: the way they treated gays, the way they handled information, the way they distorted Church history, and so forth. Whatever testimony I had of the Joseph Smith story was gone by the time I was in my early forties. But I had an active wife and family, a liking for our ward, and a belief in the stories of Jesus and his teachings, so I stayed active but still in the closet. (Sunstone has helped me a lot in that regard.)
When I was in my late-thirties, I went on a four-week business assignment to Florida. I met a guy on the beach near my hotel and we kind of clicked. I decided to give myself temporary permission to explore being an openly gay man. One thing led to another, and we had few sexual encounters of sorts. I felt guilty about it when I came home, but decided that since there hadn’t been any penetration, I would be like Bill Clinton and decide that no “sexual relations” had occurred.
But I soon realized that I wanted some sense of forgiveness, so I went to my bishop and told him the story. The bishop seemed confused and nothing much came of it. But somehow, the word about my Florida experience got out (maybe the ward clerk overheard us?) so I quickly arranged another meeting for my wife and me, and it was there that I finally came out to her, disclosing my experiences in Florida.
Having the bishop in the room softened her immediate response, but it was a blow to her, of course, and she was quite distant for a while. Someone in our ward leadership told her she should divorce me, but she didn’t follow his advice, thank God. As time has gone by, things have become quite good between us. We now talk about all things openly and honestly. She’s a treasure. I feel so blessed to have her in my life.
My kids have been quite understanding, too. One of our now-single daughters recently seemed to suggest that she might be lesbian, but I’m not sure. We haven’t talked about it again. I’m letting her take the lead on this one.
- Why do / did you stay in the Borderlands as opposed to moving on past the Borderlands into inactivity / leaving the Church, etc?
I know this will surprise you, but I’m nearing retirement from my job at a company owned by the Church (like KSL, but I better not say what or where), and I love my work. After the Florida experience, I told my then-boss about my situation and he said that as long as I kept it to myself, and didn’t try to “convert others,” I could keep my job. So that’s where it’s been for the last twenty years. I’m okay with it.
Plus, I really like my ward. Many know (or suspect) I’m gay or bisexual but I guess they assume I’m “being good.”
Besides that, I think all the publicity about gayness has liberalized a lot of Mormons. It seems much more possible to be a gay Mormon these days than it did in the past—at least in our ward. One Relief Society sister even mentioned to me that she thought married gay couples should be able to adopt children.
And finally, I think the LDS system provides a lot of opportunity for sharing, caring, thoughtfulness, and love that follows Jesus’ teachings. (Kind of like what you have expressed in some of your columns.) I’m content with the life I have now. Why change it?
- How did / does this situation effect you—emotionally, spiritually, and/or physically?
Once it was out about my sexuality and I could be more honest with most people (as I deemed appropriate), I felt quite content. And I still feel that way. Except for occasional masturbation in my bedroom, I’m not sexually active, so no one is going to be hurt. (And I’m not hooked on pornography.)
- How did / do you cope with those issues / events / concerns / status?
It took a lot prayer and patience. I’ve had moments of anger and despair where I wanted to “get the hell out of here.” But time and thoughtful study of myself and others has brought me a good measure of peace. I don’t currently have a temple recommend, but I don’t miss it. The temple is one aspect of Mormonism that I personally don’t think is very Christlike. It’s actually easier to stay with the Church when I’m not confronted by the tension of the recommend interviews and the boring experience thereafter.
I’ve made a point of staying away from the “traps” of the gay lifestyle: pornography, enhancement drugs, and various fetishes. That can be deep water.
It has also helped that several people in our ward who are also gay have identified themselves to me. We don’t advertise our situation, but we talk, we share our feelings and help each other through rough times, and occasionally we get together. My wife even likes it when they come over to the house. And a couple of other members whose kids have come out to them have asked me for advice. I’m happy to help. It gives my life purpose.
- How well do / did you cope?
Right now, I’m doing okay. There were times in my life when I thought I was losing my mind, but I got through it.
- How open and honest are you with others about your situation, or about your Borderland-causing issues / events / actions / concerns?
As stated above, I’m not in the closet totally, but I don’t go around expressing my beliefs and feelings, it could be shocking and upsetting to some of our good friends at church. I don’t really feel the need to do that. I can be honest and discreet at the same time.
- What does your personal religion look like now?
Like you, I call myself a Mormon Christian with an emphasis on Christian. I like the gospel as taught by Jesus; it provides a basis for my life.
- What would you suggest to other members now having the same experiences / thoughts / emotions / concerns you’ve had?
Don’t hurry, don’t rush into things, be careful of others’ feelings and beliefs, give yourself every opportunity to “do what is right.” If leaving the Church will surely give you a better life and not hurt others, then consider that. If you want to stay, or need to stay, there are ways to make it work. Just reach out and get help.
- What would you like the Church to do about the conditions / events / things that brought you into the Borderlands?
That’s a question that needs to be explored in depth, so we should leave it for another time. But I do think it would be good if the Church could expand its acceptance of gays, finding a way to accommodate their marriages, children, and love. I don’t think the Church should be supporting laws that discriminate against members of the gay community. It would also help if the Church softened its recent pronouncements on the treatment of gay parents’ children.
Most likely some of your readers and listeners will have better and more detailed ideas and thoughts.
Jeff: Thanks, Nate, for sharing your story. Yes, you and I share common approaches to our personal religions based on Jesus’ life and teachings. I’m not gay and I know little about the personal issues you’ve gone through, but I’m learning more and more from people like you (and from Mitch Deans, my grandson, who is also gay). I know there are thousands of good people like you out there who are moving towards the Borderlands, and your experiences will be quite helpful to many of them.
Would anyone else like to contribute experiences? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit my website: forthosewhowonder.com.