By John Gustav-Wrathall – Keynote Speaker
I became aware of my attraction to other boys my age at about the age of 10. When I was fourteen, after looking up the word “homosexual” in the dictionary, I finally had a word to describe what I felt. I occasionally wonder how my life would have been different if I had felt able to trust my parents and Church leaders enough to share my internal struggles with them. Stuart Matis, the gay grandson of Henry Matis, whom my grandfather helped convert to the LDS Church, confided in his parents and Church leaders, and his life ended tragically, in suicide. In any event, I kept my feelings a closely guarded secret for the next 10 years of my life, hoping that through prayer and personal righteousness I could overcome them. Nobody ever asked me if I had such feelings, though wondering if I should have confessed them became a major source of worry in my life.
As a youth, there wasn’t anything I wanted to do more fervently than to be a missionary. When I was sixteen years old, members of my Priests Quorum were given the opportunity to serve a “mini-mission.” I was called to Binghamton, NY, living and working with the full time missionaries. I was amazed by their courage and boldness in inviting total strangers to learn about the Gospel. I felt the Spirit as we taught and bore testimony to investigators. I felt a deep love for the individuals we taught, and a yearning to see them accept the Gospel and be baptized and let it change their lives for the better. After my mini-mission, I wanted more, so the young men’s leaders in my home ward in Pittsford, NY encouraged me to go on regular splits with the missionaries, which I did as often as I could until I began my own mission in the fall of 1982.
In high school, I gave signed copies of the Book of Mormon to all my friends, and to teachers and acquaintances whom I loved and respected. I invited a number of my closest friends in high school to receive the missionary discussions. One of my best friends, Bill McAlister, accepted my invitation the summer I was home from my first year at BYU, as I was preparing to leave for my mission. His mom was not thrilled about him investigating the LDS Church, so he met with the missionaries at my home, in my bedroom, and I was present as he received the discussions. I fasted and prayed with the missionaries the week before they challenged him to be baptized, and I wept tears of joy when he accepted. Shortly before reporting to the Missionary Training Center in Provo, I had the privilege of baptizing him. Bill and I are still friends. Bill got married when I was starting grad school, and has since had several wonderful children. And he is still an active, faithful member of the Church, for which it is hard to adequately describe how grateful I feel.
At the age of 19 I had never acted on my feelings of “same-sex attraction” and was worthy to serve a mission. Initially, one of the more distressing challenges of being a full-time missionary had to do with living in very close quarters with other young men to whom I was attracted. A moment of truth for me was on my first night in the mission field. At the end of the day, as was customary then in the mission field, my companion and I stripped down to our undergarments, sat down at the small dining table in our one-room apartment and prayed and studied the scriptures together. I was very aware, as we were doing this, of how attractive I found him. It did not help that praying and studying together made me feel emotionally and spiritually close to him as well. After praying for the night, the lights went out and we each went to our cots. Unable to sleep, I wept tears of discouragement. After my companion had fallen asleep, I slipped out of bed and to my knees. I cried out to God in distress: I thought I would be over this by now! Should I call my mission president and resign and go back home? How could I serve Jesus Christ, and still have these inappropriate feelings? In my distress, the Spirit comforted me. The Lord spoke to me. I did represent him, and I could do this. A sense of calm descended. The Lord accepted my offering, and had confidence in me.
At that point, that was all I really needed to know. For the rest of my mission, I continued to be aware of my feelings of attraction toward my companions, but it didn’t bother me. My last companion in the mission field, an Elder Jensen, had a disquieting habit of kicking all his clothes off while he slept at night, and popping out of bed in the morning naked as the day he was born, imitating the Incredible Hulk. (Flexing his muscles and growling: “Grr! Arrgh!”) It didn’t bother me. I just accepted my feelings, let them go, and focused on bringing souls to life-changing faith in Jesus Christ. I had a deep love and respect and gratitude for each of my companions.
Toward the end of my mission I was called as the president of a small branch in southern France, which gave me a deep appreciation of the challenges involved in pastoral ministry. During my mission, I had five baptisms, which was five times the mission average at that time. Two of these individuals went on to serve missions themselves, one in French Caledonia and the other in the Paris mission.
In retrospect, I think I served a very successful mission. But at the time I felt discouraged. I felt I hadn’t accomplished enough. I continued to struggle with deep feelings of unworthiness. But there was one very precious thing that I brought back with me from my mission, that has laid a foundation for my life ever since, and that was a deepened commitment to being compassionate with others. My mission really taught me patience. It taught me the value of sacrifice. It taught me how to love.
After my mission, things got more and more difficult for me. My one last great hope had been that if I served a mission, the Lord would remove my same-sex attraction, but I was finding it stronger than ever. In the wake of a devastating depression that nearly led to my suicide, I resigned my membership in 1986. During my time away from the Church I met my husband Göran and we built a life together. Then, to my surprise, in 2005, almost 19 years to the day that I resigned from the Church, I had a very powerful spiritual experience that led me to return to the Church again. Though the Spirit had guided me to attend the LDS Church, and renewed my testimony of the Gospel, it also prompted me to deepen my commitment to my husband. Göran and I were legally married in 2008. This summer we will celebrate our 23rd anniversary as a couple. Though I remain excommunicated from the Church, I actively attend my ward, and live as much of the Gospel as I can, given the constraints of my status. I cannot pay tithing or fast offerings, I cannot pray in ward meetings or give talks or hold callings, or go to the temple. I can live the Word of Wisdom, practice the principle of chastity in my relationship with my husband, attend meetings, study the scriptures, pray in secret and in my heart always, engage in service, assist in genealogical research, and do many other things of my free will to help build up the Kingdom of God.
I try to visit my family in Utah at least once a year and sometimes more often. And when I do, I attend church with my parents. One Sunday I was attending my parents’ ward, when a brother stood up and made some extremely homophobic comments. The things he said were very upsetting to me, so upsetting I was on the verge of getting up and leaving. But the Spirit stopped me. It reassured me, and told me that this brother didn’t know what he was talking about when he spoke about gay people. There was no reason for me to feel bad, because I was where I was supposed to be, and the Lord was very pleased with me. So I stayed.
Later that same Sunday, this same brother gave the lesson in priesthood meeting, and he said something that changed my life. He said: “It only takes a few minutes to perform all the saving ordinances that an individual needs in order to enter the Celestial Kingdom. But it takes a lifetime to become the kind of person who can abide a celestial glory. You can have all the ordinances, but if you haven’t become that kind of person, all those ordinances won’t help you in the next life. But you can lack the ordinances, and if you spend your life becoming a Christ-like person, the ordinances can be added later.” This brother had just shown me what the road-map of my life needed to be. I needed to work at becoming Christ-like enough that, someday, when I was able to receive the ordinances, I would be ready for that celestial life. I was so glad that the Spirit stopped me from walking out of Church that day, and so grateful to the Lord for delivering that message to me through a brother I never would have imagined I’d be able to learn from.
Some time after I had started attending Church, I felt a prompting to pray for the missionary work. At the time, I said to myself, Wait a minute. Do I really hope for the Church to grow? It seemed to me that the majority of Mormons had serious misconceptions about homosexuality, and had very negative and false stereotypes about what it meant to be gay. And I wondered if the growth of the Church would make it easier for such negative stereotypes and misconceptions to spread. Maybe the growth of the Church would be very bad for gay people – in much the way that the growth of Evangelical Christianity in Uganda has been disastrous for gays in that part of the world.
I pondered this question very seriously, and as I did, here is what the Lord told me. The Lord reminded me of his tremendous love for me and of his great gift of forgiveness to me for all my various sins of pride and anger and being judgmental of others, and what a relief it was for me to feel forgiven of all those sins. And the Lord reminded me of all the blessings he had poured out on me, including the blessing of a loving husband who has brightened my life and brought me so much joy and has been a companion to me in all the various challenges we’ve faced together. Then the Lord reminded me that the Church belonged to him, not to human beings. It was his Church and he would guide it and prepare it and sanctify it so that all its sins and imperfections would be purified away, until the Church was ready to receive Christ at his coming. And if I knew of God’s great love for me and if I knew of all the ways in which he had blessed me and my husband, then surely I must know that in his plan for the Church, there would always, always be a place for me and my husband, and that the spread of his Church, far from being bad for gays, would make a world that is far, far better for gays and for all God’s children, whatever their sexual orientation, race, gender or other aspects of who we are. And the Lord promised to bless me in even greater ways than I had heretofore imagined if I could find it in my heart to exercise faith and do whatever I could to support the missionary work in whatever way I could – through prayer, by bearing my testimony, and in whatever other ways I might be called.
One of the things I have learned since then is that a person’s attitudes toward their LGBT brothers and sisters can be transformed in a few short minutes. All it takes is new information and a slight shift of perspective, and homophobia can be cured. But the Gospel makes us into a certain kind of people that it takes a lifetime to bring to fruition. The Gospel teaches us faith and hope and self-sacrifice. Serving a full-time mission for the Church taught me self-sacrifice. If we don’t understand the principle of sacrifice, we will never truly understand what it means to love in the way that Christ loves us. A person can be homophobic, but if they learn how to love, once the scales of homophobia are removed from their eyes, they will love us far better than someone who was not homophobic, but never learned the value of sacrifice. This is why we need the Church to grow, and why we need to be a part of the Church, and why we need to learn to live the Gospel ourselves.
You see, this same brother who taught me this beautiful lesson about why I need to not worry about my status in the Church, and worry more about the kind of person I am becoming also taught me this lesson about homophobia. About two years ago, I was attending Church with my dad. And this same brother who had gotten up one day in Sunday School a few years ago and gone on a homophobic rant that almost caused me to get up and walk out of the Church, that same brother stood up in Priesthood meeting and to my and my father’s astonishment confessed that many in the Church have misunderstood and have needlessly rejected our lesbian and gay brothers and sisters (he used the words “lesbian and gay”!), and he then made an impassioned plea for greater understanding. You see, this brother understood love. He understood the Gospel. He just hadn’t understood gays. And once that last thing was fixed, so many other wonderful, amazing things could fall into place.
One of the things I realized about missionary work is that it was one of those things I could engage in even as an excommunicated member of the Church. Besides the fact that anyone can pray for the full-time missionaries and leaders of the Church, missionary work is basically about bearing our testimonies, which we do both through words and through actions. I prayed not just for the missionaries, but prayed for the Lord to give me opportunities to bear my testimony.
In the ten years since then, the Lord has given me numerous opportunities to participate in the missionary work. I know of five individuals who are members of the Church today, who sought out the Church, or who found ways to resolve challenges they faced in becoming members of the Church, because of my testimony. I want to share one of these stories.
I am friends with another brother who, like me, was excommunicated from the Church. For some reason, he gravitated toward me. He was certain he had known me from before, though as far as I knew the first time we’d ever met was in our ward. He wondered if he knew me from the preexistence. He wrestled with many issues in the process of returning to Church membership, and we met regularly for lunch to talk and support one another. This brother is African American, so among other things he wrestled with the Church’s history in relation to race and priesthood ordination. At one point he told me he couldn’t be rebaptized. I asked him why, and he said he was mad about some things the bishop had said to him about standards of dress and grooming; he didn’t understand why smoking pot was a violation of the Word of Wisdom; and so on. I listened patiently and when he was done, I said: “If the only thing standing between me and membership in the Church was not smoking weed and not getting upset about something my bishop said to me about how to dress, it would be a no brainer.” The day he was re-baptized was a day of profound joy for me. It helped me to envision a day when I would experience that as well.
Later, we went on a trip to Utah together. While we were there, he was exposed to some information about LDS Church history on the Internet that he found disturbing. We went for a mountain hike together, and he told me he had lost his faith. He literally cried on my shoulder, soaking my shirt with tears that flowed like a river. He said he had no choice but to leave the Church because it was nothing but a fraud. I told him: “There are good answers to every single question that troubles you. Don’t do anything drastic until you’ve had a chance to look at this from all angles, and think about this a bit more.” In the weeks that followed, we continued to talk, and eventually he found the resolutions he needed to the issues that concerned him, and he came through with a stronger testimony than ever. I think the joy I felt some time later as he bore a renewed and strengthened testimony on Fast Sunday was greater than it had been at his baptism. It’s not just about the baptism, it’s about finding the faith to go forward every day of our lives.
About a year ago, my friend asked me to accompany him on his first visit to the temple. I went and waited in the lobby of the temple, while he received his endowments. It was a very sacred time for me, and I had some profound conversations with members of my ward there, and a very sacred spiritual experience.
I know through these and other experiences of sharing my testimony and strengthening others in their decision to join the Church that the Lord “loves his children,” that “all are alike” unto him, that he is “mindful” of me and that he numbers me, and that his bowels are full of mercy. I know I belong to his kingdom, and I know I will belong to his Church someday. It may take time, but as my Stake President recently said to me in an interview I had with him, “What is time unto the Lord?”
Individuals today are coming out publicly at younger and younger ages. In the generation that preceded mine, it was not uncommon for individuals never to come out publicly. I came out at the age of 24. Göran’s and my son Glen came out when he was 14 years old. I think this is generally a good thing, though it seems to add certain challenges in relation to Church activity and service, especially in relation to serving a full-time mission.
If a gay or lesbian youth were to ask my advice about whether to serve a mission for the Church or not, here is what I would say. I would say: You still have plenty of time to make all the very important decisions you need to make about relationships. I know you are wrestling with questions and doubts and fears that your heterosexual peers may never fully understand. But right now – at least for the next few years – you can live the standards of the Church. I won’t downplay the challenges of a mission, and it’s a serious commitment that no one should take lightly. Even if you wanted to serve, if you are open about your sexual orientation with your leaders, you might not be permitted to serve, depending on your leaders. But if you are able to serve and if you are permitted to serve, if your heart is in the right place and if you go for the right reasons, your mission can provide a foundation for your life and your relationship with God and can bring you and those whose lives you touch unimaginable joy. I know that despite my many dark nights of the soul when I feared that I could not successfully respond to the call to service I had received from Jesus Christ, with his help I was ultimately able to do it, and I have never ever regretted it.
If we are not able serve a full-time mission, we should not think ourselves less. But anyone who loves the Lord and has a testimony can be a missionary. There are many things I don’t know about why things are the way they are. But what I do know is that the membership of the Church does not have to be purified of every last vestige of homophobia in order to provide us a marvelous context for growth and for the Lord to bless us through his restored priesthood. The Church is on a journey in which the Lord himself is the guide. I know that my situation and my status in life do not have to be ideal in order for the Lord to claim me as his own and bless me, and for me to grow and prepare for eternal life. It’s not about having the perfect situation and having all our ducks in a row, in the way we think is perfect. It’s about honoring the Lord’s plan, which encompasses destinies for us that go much farther than we can see. It’s about faith.
In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.