Of Power, and of Love, and of a Sound Mind

Finding out God. And finding out that I’m gay.

I first felt God in the textures of my childhood, nestled somewhere in the tough tweed upholstery of pale blue chapel pews, in the scratchy burlap lining the halls, and in the soft family room rug where we knelt in prayer every night. I felt Him in the cold, unforgiving metal of foldable overflow chairs and in the stringy net of a basketball hoop tucked away neatly for Sunday service.

I smelled Him in the chlorine of the baptismal font. I tasted Him in Wonder Bread and tap water. I heard Him in shrill organs and fragile four-part harmony. I glimpsed Him in the tiny font of impossibly thin pages lined with gold. God, we learned, has a body, and so I discovered my religion in all five senses. To be like God was to be physical and sensuous and glorious.

That’s how I found out God. And, in the same way, I found out that I was gay. I knew God in my body long before I was able to translate Him into coherent thought. And while this new translation would take me years to unriddle, it too was a language of the body and the spirit. I couldn’t say any of it out loud yet, but I felt it in my bones with that same inarticulate inner piety that led me to God.

With this nascent awareness grew a stark sense of loneliness. At 11 years old, I began observing the other boys with a longing sadness that I couldn’t put into words. My classmates, by contrast, had no difficulty finding words for what I was. They were able to pinpoint what made me different with the kind of preternatural skill for exploiting insecurity so instinctive to middle schoolers. To be called “gay” in sixth grade could only be understood as a vile epithet, something to be ashamed of and vehemently denied. Over the years, I got skilled at deflecting these attacks, sometimes with humor and sometimes with aggression. I had lots of practice. I’m not sure if anyone found my denials convincing, but at least I succeeded in convincing myself. My classmates knew I was gay long before I ever did.

In the meantime, I learned that there are ways of speaking and moving and existing that would make my life more difficult. And so I took those things, and I wrapped them up tight and locked them away. And I learned to be embarrassed about them.

Church, though, was a safe haven for me. The things that made me a target at school were valued and rewarded at church. My bookishness and love for language made me an eager student of the scriptures. Early morning seminary acquainted me with King James and King Benjamin, and I participated with all the sincerity and enthusiasm that can be reasonably expected of a groggy teenager at 6 a.m. I soaked in those words every weekday as the morning rays slowly washed the church with light.

My musical life was incubated at the living room piano — a staple of every Mormon home, a monument of domesticity and permanence, an anchor for a windswept pioneer people blown across the plains. Every good Mormon boy, we instinctively understood, should play the piano. And as my musical skill took shape, so did my status as a good Mormon boy. Since God was a creator, it flowed naturally that I, too, a god-in-embryo, should make beautiful things. I wanted to do as He does, to take materials and organize them into worlds, and so I became a composer.

Even a certain softness was esteemed as spiritual sensitivity. We are, by and large, a patriarchal people, but not excessively macho. Ours is a Boy Scout masculinity: slicked back, earnest, well-coiffed, courteous-kind-obedient-cheerful-thrifty-brave-clean-and-reverent. We were to be stripling warriors, courageous and unflinching in defense of truth, but deferential and affectionate to our mothers. Even our most rough-and-tumble youth leaders were known to easily break into tears, speaking with real tenderness about their love for Christ and for us. So we pitched our tents, played with knives, scaled cliffs, and peed on trees. And then we bore our hearts around the campfire, gazed at the stars, and contemplated eternity.

When I was 12 years old, the church found itself embroiled in controversy due to its role in California’s Prop 8 campaign. At a youth meeting, the teacher drew a strict vertical line on the chalkboard, indicating the Lord’s doctrine of marriage: firm, unmoving, and, I couldn’t help but notice, straight. A second line began alongside the first, but jutted outward diagonally, moving farther and farther from the starting point. This was the world’s standard, and as society grew more wicked, we could expect the divide to widen. To follow the Lord was to hold fast to an iron rod: steady, immutable, straight, and narrow. While the world was “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine,” the Lord’s standard of marriage was eternal and unchanging. I nodded along in agreement, but I also couldn’t help stealing furtive glances at the older boy in the room who I told myself I really admired.

It’s startlingly easy not to see something that you are trying very hard not to see. But by the time I reached high school, my attempts to explain away my romantic feelings began to unravel. My reality had become harder and harder to deny. I only ever experienced sexual attraction at the thought or sight of other guys. The calculus wasn’t very complicated. In church, the teenagers studied a tiny white pamphlet called For the Strength of Youth. I read the passage on “sexual purity” over and over. “Homosexual and lesbian behavior is a serious sin,” it stated. “If you find yourself struggling with same-gender attraction or you are being persuaded to participate in inappropriate behavior, seek counsel from your parents and bishop. They will help you.”

On a hot summer day following my sophomore year of high school, I sat on the side of the neighborhood pool, staring into the depths of the cool blue water. My reflection stared back at me, wavy and distorted. The yelling and laughter of the other swimmers faded into a hazy background, and a new kind of silence washed over me as I plunged face-first into the deep. I lay breathless, suspended in the water. I opened my eyes and felt the sharp sting of chlorine. My vision was clouded and blurry, but my thoughts were clear: I was gay.

I emerged from this impromptu baptism knowing that something important had happened. I was distant and taciturn as I stared out the car window on the ride home. “Mom,” I asked, “what would you think if one of your kids was gay?”

She swallowed and answered gently, “Well, I would feel so sorry because they would be hurting. But you know I love all my kids no matter what.”

She passed the test. A couple nights later, I sat my parents down and told them that I’m gay. They were confused and a little startled, but only ever loving and supportive.

This was, of course, nobody else’s business. And why should it be? The path before me was crystal clear: I would finish high school, go to college, serve a mission, and get married in the temple. While I don’t recall ever expecting my sexual orientation to change, I figured the Lord would help me love a woman enough to make a heterosexual marriage work. After all, there were all those blog posts I read about gay churchgoing men who married women. I would go and do, and the Lord would prepare a way.

At 19, I entered the Missionary Training Center, shirt pressed, hair neatly combed, donning a crisp black name tag reading Elder Fairholm. I was starry-eyed and full of the naïve but endearing faith of a new missionary. I had been called to serve in Moscow, Russia, a prospect that I found both terrifying and electrifying. As I looked down at my tag, I was proud to see my name alongside the name of Jesus Christ, and I resolved to represent Him by being completely and unabashedly myself. God had chosen me to do His work and share His gospel, and so I was determined to serve with all my “heart, might, mind, and strength.”

The beginning of my missionary training coincided with the Supreme Court’s ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. One of the elders took it upon himself to stand before the class and declare that being gay was a sin and that homosexual feelings could be overcome through Christ just like any other evil inclination. Once in the mission field, some of the elders asked each other what they would do if they ever had a gay son. One missionary answered, “I’d beat it out of him, tie him down, and make him watch straight porn.” I felt sick to my stomach.

My mission, though, was the most exhilarating thing I had ever done. I had never felt so suited to anything in my life. I fell in love with the Russian language and the enigmatic people who spoke it. I loved their prickly warmth, their stubbornness, mysticism, sincerity, and penchant for the bizarre. I loved the oppressive cold and the gold-domed churches and the blood-red soups and the crumbling Soviet apartment buildings and the shawled-up babushkas standing outside metro stations trying to sell a single pickle.

Mostly I loved talking about Jesus Christ. I would look strangers in the eye and tell them with all the sincerity and zeal I could muster that they are children of God and that He loves them and that He sent His son to die for their sins and rise again and give them new life. Nobody was outside of Christ’s grace — not the one-legged beggar on the side of the road, the washed-up alcoholic mafia man, the atheist college student, the battered immigrant mother with an abusive husband, or the family of Ukrainian refugees fleeing civil war. Or even the quixotic teenage American running around Russia trying to talk with apathetic strangers about Jesus. Christ was in all of us.

I was a gay missionary, and I was “acting on it.” I was bringing all of myself and all of my gifts to the work. I sat together and cried with the struggling missionaries I served alongside. I sang and joked in the face of soul-crushing snowstorms, angry rejection, and bitter bullying. I led a tiny, embattled congregation as a branch president. I opened my heart to those precious people, and they melted it as they welcomed me into their messy little slice of Zion. I had never felt so whole, so convinced that what made me different was useful and meaningful and even sacred.

Both the Bible and the Book of Mormon begin their narratives with accounts of divinely approved transgression. Adam and Eve are told to multiply and replenish the earth, though they are also given strict commands not to partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. So long as they remain in the Garden of Eden, they are safe and close to God. Adam and Eve live out their lives in an idyllic innocence devoid of consciousness, opposition, and growth. Crucially, they are unable to fulfill God’s first command to multiply. “It is not good for man to be alone.” So, we believe, their eating of the fruit was an act of courage, of divine agency, of the faith to break the rules so that progression could take place. They ate the fruit so they could learn right from wrong, have a family, and become like God.

In the first chapters of the Book of Mormon, we find Nephi in the desert. He is commanded to return to Jerusalem, where he is to confront the wicked Laban and retrieve the brass plates, a scriptural history of his people and a record of God’s commandments. Nephi’s methods are at first conventional — diplomacy, then bartering — but as each attempt fails, his situation grows more and more desperate. Battered and bruised, Nephi finally decides to abandon his carefully laid plans, entrusting himself entirely to God’s will. “And I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do.” His trust is put to the ultimate test when he discovers that a drunken Laban has been delivered into his hands. God tells Nephi to kill.

We are told that Nephi — stalwart, devout, and undoubtedly well-versed in the commandments — “shrank” at the order and desired not to follow through. But the Spirit was persistent, illuminating in the apparent transgression a higher purpose: that his nation should not “dwindle and perish in unbelief.” Nephi’s decision to kill — to break the most serious of all God’s laws — was paradoxically rooted in a desire to obey.

Nephi found himself in a situation in which true obedience — his own and that of his people — required that he heed the call of the Spirit by transgressing a commandment. So, in one of the most troubling and contradictory of all passages of scripture, we read: “Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit, and took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword.”

This account, placed squarely and unapologetically at the beginning of the Book of Mormon, has caused many readers to squirm. For some, it poses such a severe stumbling block they discard the book forever. I will make no attempt to reconcile the many difficulties presented by the account — and I certainly won’t attempt to justify murder. I mention it only to demonstrate that, as in the story of Adam and Eve, there are circumstances in which individual and collective progression, and obedience to God’s will, may require the breaking of established commandments.

Certainly the case of Abraham and Isaac provides another striking example. The divine mandate for war, found throughout the Bible, lends an even more disturbing layer of complexity. Even Christ occasionally condoned the breaking of religious norms when a higher purpose was required. The sabbath, he argued, was made for man, and not man for the sabbath. When heeding the call of the Spirit to serve, to love, and to heal, the Savior Himself was not hesitant to disregard the rules.

I understand that some will presume that I’m equating myself with the Savior or pretending a spiritual insight reserved only for the greatest scriptural prophets. I’m also aware that my ideas will smell dangerously of a kind of moral relativism so anathema to orthodox believers. But are we not to liken the scriptures to ourselves? Should we not examine the complexity of the Savior’s example and then thoughtfully consider the extent to which we emulate it?

If we as a religious community can imagine and accept a scenario in which an individual’s progression requires the transgression of a commandment (even one as severe as “Thou shalt not kill”) — should we not extend this same moral imagination to our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters? Even if one views same-sex marriage as sinful, certainly it doesn’t approach the severity of murder. May there not be instances in which spiritual growth is best realized in a loving, committed same-sex marriage? Are we to limit God, presuming that He cannot and would not inspire a gay disciple to transgress the church’s teachings in order to enable spiritual growth that would otherwise be impossible?

I’m not arguing in favor of breaking commandments. I’m instead insisting that we allow others the moral license to make decisions by the Spirit without attempting to punish or shame. One gay Latter-day Saint may feel inspired to live a life of celibacy; another may even find fulfillment in a mixed-orientation marriage. Still, others may feel led to a faith-centered life with a spouse of the same sex. Our institution is weakened when we punish, ostracize, or even excommunicate those of our flock who make sincere, Spirit-led decisions that conflict with orthodox teachings.

In the case of the Savior’s alleged disobedience, we know of course that He did not, in actuality, transgress true commandments (of which He Himself is the author), but rather culturally constructed rabbinic codes of conduct. I believe that our current restriction on same-sex marriage falls into a similar category.

I believe that I can hold this view while wholeheartedly sustaining the prophets. I recognize that I may differ from my peers in my understanding of the word “sustain.” How could I possibly claim to sustain my church leaders when I disagree with their teachings on gay marriage? I would just ask the following question: Do you sustain God?

To sustain means “to strengthen or support.” I would never presume that God in His perfection needs any sort of sustenance. He sustains me; not the other way around. To sustain anyone is an acknowledgement of imperfection, of the reality of human frailty, of the fact that we in our weakness need each other in order to become the body of Christ.

I fear that we have placed our prophets on such a high pedestal that we’ve shirked the hard work of moral agency and rigorous truth-seeking. We’ve preferred to pass the buck to our ecclesiastical leaders, seeing virtue in our own passivity. It’s a tragic thing to do to any human being — to presume that each word spoken is always one and the same with God’s will. We have deified our leaders and then placed them in moral straitjackets because we fear our own weakness and doubt our ability to correctly choose.

We wait for the church to release a statement before forming an opinion. We tie ourselves in knots when past and present teachings contradict. We tell each other that if we doubt a doctrine, then we can turn to God and receive a personal witness — but only if that witness agrees with the church. What if, instead, we chose to sustain our leaders, to hearken to the prophets, and to impart to them a full measure of charity, compassion, respect, and benefit of the doubt? And then to prayerfully seek the influence of the Spirit as we form our convictions.

It’s this commitment to hearkening that has made me struggle to accept the church’s teachings on homosexuality. When I was 16, I read an old church classic, Spencer W. Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness. Imagine my feelings when I stumbled across the chapter entitled “The Sin Against Nature.” I was informed that masturbation would lead to homosexuality (a proposition that, if true, should have ended human civilization eons ago). I read that homosexuality was a “perversion” and an “ugly, repugnant sin.” I was warned of a “snowballing effect” by which “as an extension of homosexual practices, men and women have sunk even to seeking sexual satisfaction with animals.”

I’ve been told that the Lord’s doctrine on homosexuality does not change. Maybe — but our understanding of that doctrine certainly does. A cursory glance at our history reveals that the only thing consistent about these teachings is their malleability. Homosexuality was a choice — until it wasn’t. It was an unwanted disease that could be healed by therapy, including electroshock — until it wasn’t. It was caused by poor parenting or abuse or recruitment or by talking about it too much — until it wasn’t. It could be cured by heterosexual marriage — until it couldn’t.

As recently as 2010, a ranking apostle taught at General Conference: “Some suppose that they were preset and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impure and unnatural. Not so! Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone?” That same week, the remark was revised in the published version of the conference address. In 2015, gay marriage was a sin of “apostasy,” which would require church discipline and bar children of gay couples from baptism — until 2019, when that changed too.

The Lord’s standard on marriage, though, has never changed. Except for when we went from monogamy to polygamy. And then from polygamy back to monogamy. And also when interracial marriage was prohibited. And then when it wasn’t anymore.

Surely the scriptures condemn such an odious sin! One need only turn to Leviticus to learn that “thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: It is abomination.” And then you turn the page and learn that mixing fabrics is also an abomination — leaving us condemned on account of our cotton-poly garments. Fine then, leaving aside obsolete Mosaic purity laws, we appeal to the apostle Paul. Certainly his teachings condemn homosexuality (leaving aside pesky linguistic debates as to what his words actually meant). Then we turn the page and read that women are to “learn in silence with all subjection” and that we should “suffer not a woman to teach.” That, of course, is obvious cultural conjecture on Paul’s part, else how do we explain the tens of thousands of sister missionaries the church sends out every year or the women speakers in church meetings? Paul’s apparent views on gays, however, surely reflect the unmitigated will of the Lord.

Okay then, if the Bible leaves us unsatisfied, why not appeal to modern scripture? We know that those ancient prophets saw our times and wrote for a latter-day audience with all its unique challenges. What might other scripture reveal on the most urgent contemporary topic of homosexuality? The Book of Mormon — silent. The Doctrine and Covenants — silent. The Pearl of Great Price — silent.

At around 12 p.m. on a Wednesday in early March, I planted my feet on the cobbled pavement of Brigham Square. Distant echoes had brought me there; I had followed the sound like a sailor to sirens. It was a warmer day than it should have been, but I stood frozen.

Flanked by Mount Timpanogos to the north and Y Mountain to the east, Brigham Young University campus has always felt a bit like a fishbowl. That day, a massive, thronging school of fish was on full display, arrayed in every sort of vibrant tropical color. They moved with one body, gliding rhythmically in an oblong ring. The echoes had transformed themselves into a full, resonant refrain: “Love is love. Love is love.”

Minutes earlier, the Church Educational System had sent an email reversing (or, if you prefer, “clarifying”) a recent Honor Code policy allowing gay students to date without threat of expulsion. For two short-lived weeks, gay students campus-wide had collectively exhaled. Some couples had even dared to hold hands or — if they were especially bold — to kiss in front of the old bronze Brigham Young statue. That day’s about-face was just the latest in a long string of whiplash-inducing reversals.

I’m not really one for slogans or pickets. I’m the type of guy who has to write a 5,000-word essay to get his point across. But at that moment, I felt a magnetic compulsion to join the throng. I looked around, gulped, and stayed put.

A couple of years had passed since my mission in Russia, and my best-laid plans had long since evaporated. It was clear that I was not going to marry a woman, and the prospect of 70 years of self-imposed solitude had grown harder to square with my understanding of the gospel. Weren’t we here on Earth to learn to become like God? Wasn’t godliness achieved by Christlike love? Weren’t marriage and family the best vehicles by which to learn that love? Was God really asking me to stay in my Garden of Eden forever?

The next day, I passed by the crowd again, observing the spectacle as though I was a disinterested outsider gathering anthropological data. The classmate alongside me made a quiet scoffing sound and said, “If they don’t like it here, why don’t they just leave?”

It’s a good question. Why not just leave?

So far, that seems to be the church’s attitude toward excommunication. The church’s 2015 policy placed same-sex marriage on a list of sins requiring formal church discipline — while, inexplicably, “attempted murder” was listed among sins for which “a disciplinary council may be necessary.” As of 2019, gay marriage has been relocated to the second list, which in practice means excommunication at the whim of the bishop or stake president — the classic “bishop roulette.”

As far as I’m aware, the church doesn’t typically round up and excommunicate its gay members who have stopped attending church and subsequently married. Those at risk of discipline are those who have decided to stay.

The 56th chapter of Isaiah tells of the stranger and the eunuch — outsiders to the house of Israel who were excluded from marriage. God promises that “unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters… for mine house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” How then can we become who God intends for us to be if we cast out those who believe differently or who love differently? “The Lord God which gathereth the outcasts of Israel saith, Yet will I gather others to him, beside those that are gathered unto him.”

Who do we have left to gather? Who have we systematically cast out? How do we understand the call to build the kingdom? “And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart, and of one mind, and dwelt in righteousness, and there was no poor among them.” Does this oneness require homogeneity? Are we all to think and believe the same? Or is this a unity born of diversity — a unity that recognizes that we are alike in our incompleteness, that we need each other in our difference to become one in Christ? Are we really better off without gay couples alongside us in the pews? Are we really closer to building Zion and gathering the outcasts of Israel?

There’s a simple solution here that could make room for gay members without changing church doctrine: Don’t excommunicate for gay marriage. You can call it a sin if you want. You can limit temple marriages to straight couples. Just resist the urge to excommunicate. It’s easy to not excommunicate someone. You just don’t. Gay people have had to learn to resist all sorts of strong urges.

Some people do want to leave the church, for all sorts of valid reasons. And we need to honor that choice and love unconditionally. Others, though, feel trapped in the middle. They’re devout and they desire to unite with the saints, but they don’t feel inspired to pursue celibacy or opposite-sex marriage. They feel that they have no other choice but to leave the church, even though they long to stay. Policy and culture have built up a painful binary: You can stay and violate your conscience, or you can leave and lose the faith community you love.

But what if we could reject that binary? What if we chose not to choose?

I was raised to believe that loving something means showing up. My parents taught me that. They were enthusiastic spectators at every dull piano recital or catastrophic basketball game. My mom whisked us off to seminary every day at the crack of dawn, flicking on our bedroom lights and wrangling us, pajama-clad, into the dark, cold morning. My dad was always the first to sign us up to clean the chapel or to help a new family move into the ward or to take an extra home teaching route.

Showing up, we learned, is just as much about what you give as what you get. Showing up is a silent testimony, an affirmation that the people around you matter and that you matter, too. It’s believing that what you have to offer is indispensable and that the people in your community need someone like you. It’s a humble recognition that you need them, too, if you’re ever going to become like Jesus. This is especially true if they’re annoying or unkind or hard-headed or infuriating. You’re probably all of those things, too.

It’s become commonplace to label difficult people as toxic and then to either flee the scene or strap ourselves up with hazmat suits of self-protective pretending. Sometimes leaving is right, and sometimes we have to protect ourselves. And since each person’s life circumstances vary, I’ll withhold judgment and trust people to choose the road that God calls them to.

But sometimes staying is the right answer, too. Even if it’s painful. Even if it gets us cast out. Showing up, shedding pretense, telling the truth, letting ourselves get hurt… isn’t that the path that Christ walked, all the way to Calvary?

As I see it, this is the essence of the cross: the intersection of the individual relationship with the divine and the communal relationship with the divinity in other people. This is the place where the vertical meets the horizontal, where the first commandment (to love God) meets the second (to love your neighbor). It’s where heaven and earth cross paths, where the contradiction of godliness and humanity reaches a holy juncture. This is the tree of life stretching its roots deep into the earth while extending its branches infinitely upward to heaven. And so Christ hangs on that tree, and we eat Him, and we are filled with life. This great paradox, this communion of opposites, this at-one-ment: “On this hang all the laws and the prophets.”

So, I reject the notion that I am either to abandon my love for God or for my fellow man. My belief in Christ forbids it. To deny Christlike love — either between same-sex couples, between parishioners with doctrinal disputes, between gay people and their church, or between anyone and God — strikes me as antithetical to the gospel. I will not advocate against same-sex marriage, and I will not stop trying to love those who do.

And so we move forward, and we choose to believe in God in spite of it all. And we tell the truth as best as we understand it. And we hope that there’s still a place for us when we do. And we love and we forgive, and we trust that others will love us and forgive us in return. And we show up for each other.

“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”

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