“Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.” - Jewish Proverb
People are constantly surprising me; the ability people have to empathize with other people not like them. Such as the experience I had when I came out to my brother, Caleb. I actually didn’t tell him – I told his wife. He was very homophobic back in the day. He’s the sort of guy that I would consider classically American: The “God, Country, Guns, and Family” sort of person. Because of that, I figured he wouldn’t talk to me for quite a while or would create assumptions and stereotypes to distance himself.
That didn’t happen. His wife, Vanessa, told me later, “He felt bad actually. Because you had been struggling with this for so long and couldn’t tell him.” That was shocking to me.
My most recent experience of this nature was with my mom. She wrote me a letter a while back that I talked about in “The Gay Man and the Christian Religion.” After that I had to take a week to breathe before I could write back because I was pretty upset. I showed my hairstylist, Cam Ron (A.K.A. my therapist), what I had planned on sending and he told me that I should probably sit on it for a week before sending it because it was a little… “intense.”
So I did and what I ended up telling her was that I didn’t think we were good for each other and that I didn’t need constant negativity in my life. I also said that if I weren’t a positive influence to her either, that severance would be mutually beneficial. I also presented the societal rejection and emotional traumas that LGBT people typically experience.
She sent me a letter back and this is part of what she said:
“I hope you know that I have never written an e-mail to antagonize you. I thought it would be good for you to see what has happened in my family. I never intended to antagonize you, but the detrimental effects of my e-mails have been the same no matter what the intent was. I am sorry I have done this to you for so many years. I am amazed you and your siblings have been able to have the self-esteem that you have… I think I have been particularly hard on you. I noticed the distance between us when you were young. I thought it was just something you were going through. I never thought to look at myself to see if I was contributing to that distance… I want you to continue to be a part of my life. I am sorry I have hurt you again. I seem to do it even though I do not intend to do it. I realize my problem is that I have not accepted you. I have wanted to change you. After talking with you on Tuesday, I thought, ‘How would I feel if you were always wanting to change me?’ I know I would never feel good enough for you. I would always feel like a worm in your sight. I am sorry I have done that to you. I did not see that before. I want to try to just love you no matter what your decisions are and recognize the great good you do in this world.”
She not only wrote this but she has recently been trying to understand what it’s like to be gay. A few months ago, while I was in New York, she ordered books on reparative therapy in order to find some way to “help” me.
Since she wrote me that last letter, she has thrown those out and replaced them with a book by Ty Mansfield called, “In Quiet Desperation: Understanding the Challenge of Same-Gender Attraction.” She told me about the struggles he faced as a Same-Sex Attracted (SSA) young man; to reconcile his feelings with his religion, the inhuman treatment of those that identify as LGBT in the LDS community, and his conquest for truth, acceptance, and peace.
This struggle is something she can empathize with since she herself has struggled to find belonging and love. A few weeks ago she asked if I would go to the NorthStar Conference with her of which Ty Mansfield is the president. This is an organization affiliated with the LDS church that is targeted towards persons “struggling with same-sex attraction” but who want to live the standards of the LDS church.
I don’t feel I “struggle with same-sex attraction,” I’m just gay, but of course I went with her since this was the first time she wanted anything to do with a group of people who identified as a sexual minority. It was a really good experience.
I wasn’t sure how mom would handle being surrounded by gay or SSA men, but she did fabulous. We talked to quite a few people there. One later emailed me and told me that he was so happy to have met my mom and that she was “a gem.” I was so proud she made such a huge step.
Carol Lynn Pearson, a well-known woman in the LDS church for her poems, written works, and plays talks about this capacity LDS people have to empathize with those that struggle. She experienced it firsthand since her late husband, Gerald, was gay.
She described her fear of people knowing about Gerald in Utah given their general attitude towards gay people as such:
“Our community viewed homosexuality as evil and disgusting. I couldn’t bear to have people talking about Gerald as if he were a monster. In all the praying I had done, I had felt strongly that Gerald was as much loved of God as I was. I did not feel that the answer was to banish him or to separate him from his children If the worse actually happened and we ended our marriage, could we somehow still maintain a relationship? That would be hard to do here. Crushing judgments and shame would take their toll.
When a young man in a nearby town was discovered to be a homosexual, his mother had taken it upon herself to call BYU and have him expelled from school. She then called his place of employment and told them he was gay and should be fired. She called every subsequent place he worked and gave the same information. She told him, ‘I want you to repent, and I know the only way you’ll repent is to be reduced to the gutter. That’s what I pray for.’
Another Mormon mother, discovering that her teenage son had had homosexual encounters, did not speak to him for three months or set a place for him at the table. She was arranging to place him in a foster home.”
Later, when Carol and her family moved to California: bay area, she and Gerald got a divorce. After her own struggles to understand her own self-worth and her husband’s homosexuality, they were able to maintain a loving relationship as close friends. She met many of the men Gerald dated and continued to be a support to him.
During the huge AIDS epidemic, Gerald ended up being found positive for the disease and Carol ended up caring for Gerald till he died. In her book, “Goodbye, I Love You,” she describes the agony she personally experienced seeing someone she loved so much – who directly had a hand in her success as a writer – someone full of life, light, hope, and aspiration be reduced to a sick, dying man.
Along with being emotionally drained, she was also physically drained taking care of him. She turned to her ward (what Mormons call their congregations) for help. She asked a good friend of hers in the ward to tell the Bishop all that was happening. This is what her friend told her:
“’Last year a young man moved into the ward boundaries, and when they went to visit him he told them he was gay and would not be participating and wanted to be left alone. But they checked on him every once in a while, and when they learned that he was in the hospital in Oakland they went to see him. He has AIDS. The bishop’s been over several times, and the guy’s mother is here from Utah. The Elder’s Quorum is driving her back and forth from Walnut Creek to the hospital.’
I felt tears stinging at my eyes. Well, of course that’s what they would do. People who won’t even drink coffee, have a hard time understanding homosexuality and AIDS, but they don’t have a hard time understanding suffering and need. Mormons have been trained to deal with disaster since pioneer days. They can mobilize a hundred wards to get out the sand bags against a flood in half an hour. And where other floods happen, private floods that leave you adrift, they can get there in a hurry too.”
Even if my mom doesn’t fully understand what its like to be gay, she does understand the struggle people have for acceptance – not only from their peers, but from themselves because she dealt with the same thing growing up. Our struggles can either make us bitter or more full of empathy towards the vast majority of people who suffer.