John D. Wrathall
I was born in Provo, Utah, on 8 October 1963. At the time, my father, Donald P. Wrathall, was finishing his Ph.D. in physical chemistry at Brigham Young University. My mother, Anja Kalinen Wrathall, a nurse, helped to put Dad through school until she gave birth to me, the oldest of three sons and two daughters. She has been a housewife ever since and has always expressed the belief that nothing could offer her more happiness in life than to raise her children and take care of our home.
Dad was a fourth-generation Mormon and had served a mission to Finland where he taught and baptized my mother, who had been raised a Lutheran. Their continuing correspondence after his return to the United States eventually influenced her to emigrate. They decided to marry shortly after she arrived in the United States as an exchange nurse.
Shortly after completing his degree, my father took a position with Eastman Kodak Company, in Rochester, New York. Growing up as a religious minority in a predominantly non-Mormon area, I was aware from a very young age that Mormons were different from other people. We didn’t swear, we didn’t drink coffee or tea; we didn’t smoke; we spent hours in church every Sunday (both in the morning and evening), while Catholic or Protestant friends got off with just one hour. We also believed in the Book of Mormon, and we had modern-day prophets. My father used to read to us at bed-time from Stories of the Latter-day Saints by Emma Mart Petersen, which reinforced my sense of separateness from the rest of the world. We learned that the Saints of God could expect to be persecuted by the unfaithful but that God would sustain us in trial. In every way, my family was an ideal, devout LDS family. We prayed daily as a family, held weekly family home evenings, strictly obeyed the Word of Wisdom, studied the scriptures together, accepted every calling, and attended every church meeting. I think I can remember literally every time we missed church during all my years growing up, because such occurrences were so rare. It had to be a major crisis—like being snowed in or acute illness. My parents were also avid genealogists. Once the Washington D.C. Temple was completed, my parents made regular trips there—about every six months—to perform temple work.
I received my own testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel when I was seven. Dad, who was serving as a stake missionary at the time, prepared me for baptism by teaching me the missionary discussions, giving me my own copy of the Book of Mormon, encouraging me to read it, and showing me the famous passage in Moroni 10:4-5, which challenges readers to pray to God for a testimony of the truthfulness of the book. Dad also explained how I could tell when the Holy Spirit was talking to me. And I remember the morning that the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart. I walked into the kitchen and said to my parents, "Now I know that the Church is true." In all my years growing up, I never seriously doubted that testimony.
From the time I was very young, I was very committed to the gospel. Mom and Dad always told me how proud they were of me. "You never gave us any problems; you were always the perfect son," my mom used to say. I was always well behaved in Sunday School and at church. I loved to go to church. From the time I was quite young, I tried to listen to speakers in church, even though children did not seem to be expected to pay too much attention in the "adult meetings." Later, after I was ordained to the priesthood, I served in numerous leadership callings in the Church. I took seminary very seriously, and completed all four years. As a teenager, I anticipated serving a mission for the Church and began to prepare by going on regular splits with the local missionaries and helping with stake missionary activities. I enjoyed my duties as a home teacher. And I set high standards of personal piety. From the time I was about sixteen years old, I began to arise every morning at 5:30 or 6:00 AM. to do daily exercises, study the scriptures for half an hour, and pray for at least half another half hour.
I also spoke out and stood up for my beliefs when I felt it necessary. For example, in health classes, when we learned about various forms of birth control, I told the teacher and the class that abstinence was the only acceptable form of birth control before marriage. I bore my testimony to my friends, gave away many copies of the Book of Mormon, and invited friends to come with me to church. In my senior year, my peers at Pittsford-Mendon High School presented me with an award "for standing up for his beliefs." Probably the greatest thrill of my entire high school career was when, one year after my graduation, I baptized one of my closest friends, Bill McAllister, shortly before leaving for my full-time mission in the Switzerland Geneva Mission.
Going to Brigham Young University as an eighteen-year-old was exciting for me. As a Mormon who grew up in the eastern United States, I was very conscious of our family’s "minority" status, especially when schoolmates would taunt me with questions like "How many mothers do you have?" or would make fun of me because I didn’t listen to dirty jokes, swear, chew tobacco, or go to "beer blasts." I looked forward to living in Utah, where "Saints" were the majority. I could hardly wait to be at Brigham Young which would combine commitment to the gospel with higher learning. I wanted to study history. I believed that the Church needed good historians to document the spread of the gospel and to help save past generations by assisting the Church’s vast genealogical work. My excitement at going to Brigham Young was only increased when I was honored as one of twenty-four incoming scholars to receive the Spencer W. Kimball Scholarship. I literally couldn’t believe that BYU considered me worthy of such an academic honor, and I vowed to work doubly hard to justify the university’s faith in me.
I guess I had an overly romantic notion of what life in Zion would be like. I was disconcerted by the number of people who seemed to take their faith for granted or who didn’t live the gospel—even at Brigham Young. I was also slightly troubled by the hostile attitude which certain General Authorities seemed to take toward the Church’s own scholars. My second semester I took a course in historical methods from Professor D. Michael Quinn. That same semester, an article appeared in Newsweek entitled "Apostles Vs. Historians," featuring a picture of Professor Quinn standing in front of the card catalog in the Harold B. Lee Library. According to the article, Elder Boyd K. Packer (whom I had idolized ever since I was old enough to watch general conference on TV) attacked Quinn and others for not writing "faith-promoting history." I was extremely troubled.
Physically trembling and almost in tears, I went to Professor Quinn for an explanation. Michael managed to calm me down. He bore his testimony and reassured me that Newsweek was trying to find a sensational story where there was none. He told me that if one examined in detail Elder Packer’s point of view and his own, one would find
that there was more in common than there were differences. He said that in Sunday School and seminary, we get an idealized portrait of Mormon history, one which tends to portray the Saints and Church leaders as perfect, when in fact they were ordinary human beings like us. But this should not shake our faith. When we study history and see the marvelous ways in which God used human beings in spite of their failings, it can only strengthen our testimony of the gospel. He reassured me that there was no conflict between secular learning and the gospel. His exact words were something like: "Don’t worry! Church history is not a minefield!" He told me that as a student at BYU, he had heard Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith say that man would never walk on the moon. Leaders can make mistakes, but God works through them anyway.
As I left his office, Professor Quinn encouraged me to read Elder Packer’s statement for myself. I did, although it seemed to me that Packer was indeed attacking Church historians, and I was still in something of a quandary. Why would Church leaders publicly condemn the fine scholarly work of men who were clearly committed to the Church, who loved the gospel, and who believed that the purpose of their historical work was to strengthen—not weaken—people’s testimonies? I just didn’t understand.
I put aside these quandaries at the end of my freshman year and left on my mission with the sense that I was about to engage in some of the most important work I would ever do in my life. I entered the MTC in Provo in the fall of 1982. I was determined to go the extra mile and committed myself with an incredible intensity. If the MTC asked us to get up at 5:00 AM, I would get up at 4:00. I used every free moment to study the scriptures, the discussions, and the French language. I guess I had a gift for languages—I had the ability to memorize a list of a dozen words after reading it through two or three times. My MTC instructors nicknamed me "Le Dictionnaire Ambulant" ("the walking dictionary"). I had a profound sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit, a radical sense of the holiness of the work I was engaged in. I remember once, at one of the many devotionals we attended, as we sang "The Spirit of God," I had a vision: I saw the heavens open up through the ceiling of the assembly hall, and I saw the earth, purified, free of slavery, oppression, and injustice, filled with the love of God; and I saw all humanity living in harmony. The vision still brings tears to my eyes. I remember thinking, "This is what I am here to bring to pass. We will see it in our generation!"
The beginning of my mission was difficult. My first companion seemed tired out. He spent too much time socializing with the sister missionaries, too much time shopping, too much time "resting" in the apartment. I fretted and burned with impatience. Every moment not spent in looking for potential converts seemed a tragic waste of time. My second companion was better, but still not up to my standards. My third companion admitted that he didn’t have a testimony—he just wanted to party and go sight-seeing. I later learned that the mission president knew all about it—this elder was notorious in the mission—and basically assigned me to him to be his baby-sitter. My fourth and final senior companion was my favorite—Elder Montgomery. Elder Montgomery wasn’t quite as zealous as I was, but he was willing to work harder than usual to accommodate me. But I was never truly happy until I was senior companion. Then my junior companions were unhappy with the manic pace I set. I always wanted to do "porte-a-porte" (tracting) for one extra hour, and I always got up an hour earlier than the missionary manual advised. One of my junior companions got so angry that he walked out on me.
During much of my mission, I felt terribly isolated. Toward the end of my mission,. when missionaries told me that I had developed a strong reputation as one of the most respected elders in our mission—both for my commitment and for my command of French—I felt angry. If that was true, why had I always found it so difficult to get my companions moving, and why did I often feel shunned by other missionaries? On the strength of my reputation as a highly motivated, independent worker and fluent speaker of French, the mission president, R. Bay Hutchings, eventually assigned me to serve as branch president in Béziers, France, where I finished my mission. The mission average was about one baptism every two years; but by the time I completed my mission after eighteen months, I had personally baptized two souls and had given the discussions to five other individuals who eventually were baptized. One of the women I baptized served a mission herself, in French Caledonia. Another person I taught served a mission in Switzerland. Still, I left feeling I could have done much more.
I learned some important lessons in the course of my mission. I learned, first of all, the importance of compassion and flexibility. I was too hard on my companions. I was trying to be superhuman, and I expected others to be superhuman too. I began to value love above the law. I became aware of the quiet ways in which the Holy Spirit can work. I learned to trust that God will step in and make up for human inadequacy. I mellowed.
I also learned that the authority of Church leadership could be grossly misused, in the most sickening and heartless manner. One of the most difficult problems I had to face as branch president in Béziers was the result of a terrible case of ecclesiastical abuse perpetrated by a former branch president, an Elder Cox. Cox was a virulent anti-Semite. In one sacrament meeting talk, he declared that Hitler and the Nazis had performed the will of God in massacring six million Jews. One of the members, a Sister Cabričres, was a Jewish convert whose family had been deeply distressed by her conversion. Sister Cabrięres stopped attending church as a result of Cox’s open anti-Semitism. Shortly thereafter, Cox convened a meeting of the branch presidency to decide what to do about Sister Cabričres. During their meetings, Cox’s own minutes recorded, "a spirit" revealed to them that Cabričres was a "witch" and he commenced excommunication proceedings against her, which were still unfinished when I was transferred in.
This was the state of affairs when I became branch president. President Hutchings asked me to visit Sister Cabričres to determine to what extent the charges against her might be true. I learned the full story only in bits and pieces, from Cox’s own notes, as other members of the branch related incidents, and from Sister Cabričres. One of Cox’s counselors was a French branch member who had moved to Perpignan by the time I became branch president, and the other was Cox’s American junior companion. A number of members of the branch were horrified by Cox’s behavior, though it was not clear that anybody had openly challenged his actions. Shortly after I arrived, one member sheepishly asked me to visit Sister Cabričres to "see how she was," without telling me much more about the situation. At that point, my junior companion, Elder Jensen, with some apparent embarrassment offered me Cox’s notes on the situation and suggested that I read them before going to visit her.
Once I realized what had happened, I was furious. As far as I know, Cox was never disciplined for what he did to this sister who had sacrificed much, including family ties, to become a member of the Church, and who bore her testimony to me—despite all that had been done to her—of the truthfulness of the gospel. I explained the situation to President Hutchings and he met personally with her to apologize, though understandably she never did return to full activity in the Church. As far as I am concerned these actions should have been grounds to have Cox sent home immediately, but he finished out his mission "honorably." I had a new perspective on the "inspiration" of Church leaders.
I have wanted to discuss my life in the Church in some detail, to give some idea of what kind of a Latter-day Saint I was. I was committed. I had the only kind of testimony that is worth anything—a testimony which inspires to action and to sacrifice. I loved the Church with all my heart. As a result of my first year at BYU and my mission, I was beginning to be aware of the fact that Church leaders do not always act honorably, nor are they always inspired, nor are they always right. But I still believed that all of us—regardless of our foibles—were part of a work which was greater than any of our weaknesses, and that God could use all of us to achieve his purposes, sometimes in spite of ourselves. I saw the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the vehicle through which the world would be gathered to God, through which peace, love, justice, and harmony would reign on the earth.
After my mission, I returned to BYU. It was then that I began to face some of the same intellectual challenges I had faced before my mission but at a more intense level. The conflict between Elder Packer and academic Church historians seemed to have gotten worse, not better in my two-year absence from BYU. Or at least I was finding it more troubling than ever. Elder Packer’s commitment to "faith-promoting" history seemed to be less concerned about facts or about scholarship than about image. My exposure to the work of men like Leonard Arrington, Davis Bitton, and Michael Quinn was faith-promoting, as far as I could tell. Their version of the Mormon past was movingly human, something I could relate to. And hearing them speak in person, I knew how much they loved the gospel. Their understanding of Church history was different from the one I got in seminary, but it was an understanding that I could live with and nurture my faith with. It gave me space to grow, unlike the increasingly strident posture of Packer, which seemed to offer only an all-or-nothing proposition: do it our way, or don’t do it at all. This was obviously of concern to me, since I aspired to be a Mormon historian.
I was also troubled by other controversies. Biology and zoology professors from whom I took courses often found themselves on the defensive over their acceptance of the theory of evolution. Many maintained that there was a fundamental harmony between evolution and Mormon teachings about creation (which see God organizing the universe, not creating it ex nihilo). To me, the pressure they often seemed under was another example of dogmatism and anti-intellectualism making life difficult for people of faith with a commitment to the gospel. An ancient history professor told his class (despite the claims of one of my favorite Church films, Ancient America Speaks), that there was no archeological evidence in Latin America that sustained the claims of the Book of Mormon. It had to just be accepted on faith. A religion professor whom I admired, was forced to "smuggle" certain reading materials into the classroom because the university administration had forbidden him to use them. He told us that if we told anybody where we got them he would be forced to deny it. (For obvious reasons, I don’t feel at liberty to share his name. At the time, I could only wonder what ever happened to academic freedom....)
Furthermore, continuing correspondence with a friend in France—one of the most spiritual and loving people I had ever met, but a man solidly committed to the Catholic Church—began to shake my faith that the LDS Church was "the only true Church." Jean-Marie helped me to see the truth and the beauty in systems of belief other than my own—and particularly in a system of belief which was especially reviled by many Latter-day Saints. (During my mission, for instance, I knew one missionary who refused to enter Catholic churches because he believed Roman Catholicism was "the church of the Devil.")
Yet despite the growing pains I was experiencing in my faith, nothing was more painful than the extreme hostility which I seemed to arouse when I asked honest questions. The hostility came mainly from other students at BYU, from members of my student ward, from members of my "home ward," and from Church leaders. I was shocked that my sincere and heartfelt search for knowledge triggered such defensiveness. I had begun to ask the questions with a basic conviction that nothing I could find would contradict the fundamental truthfulness of the gospel. But my faith in that gospel needed to be tested in an environment of free academic inquiry and needed to be refined so that I could understand what relevance and role the gospel could and should have in a painful, divided, and troubled modern world. I didn’t feel that all of the answers could be ready made; I believed that we needed to think for ourselves, grapple for ourselves with the great problems of our time in order to find answers that were informed by the gospel. But the hostility and defensiveness, the raised eyebrows I faced, for example, when people learned that I read magazines like Dialogue and Sunstone, made me wonder if the gospel really could stand up to scrutiny.
During my junior year at BYU, I wrote the following poem, both in French and in English:
The road that I follow does not lead straight.
What I can see plunges into the mist.
I move down its length with a cautious gait.
Let others laugh, I need time, I insist!
I am glad that life must be discovered.
Why do folks think to learn it all right now?
They race down the path with their eyes covered,
Wanting the answers without learning how.
The words of the divine prophets are right.
Our task is to listen and to obey.
But they offer only pinpoints of light.
God hides the rest to let us learn the way.
Since my years at BYU, I have achieved a different understanding entirely of faith. I now understand faith as a way of being rather than a way of thinking. The intellectual propositions to which a man or a woman assents, in the ultimate scheme of things, have nothing to do with the kingdom of God. Christ is in my life to the extent that I am Christlike in my dealings with others. He is in my life to the extent that I heed his call to compassion, to solidarity with the poor. He is in my life to the extent that I see with my eyes, hear with my ears, feel with my heart, and then act. I remember speaking at a sacrament meeting once, shortly after the tragedy in Bhopal, in which a U.S.-owned chemical factory released toxins that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Indians. I said that I believed that as Americans we had a responsibility to hold our government and our corporations responsible for the evil they do. After the meeting, a brother came up and openly ridiculed my concern for the inhabitants of Bhopal. "That doesn’t have anything to do with the gospel," he said. I can’t help but feel now that, if that has nothing to do with the gospel, then nothing does.
I said that the intellectual propositions to which a man or a woman assents have nothing to do with the kingdom of God, though that is not entirely true. I do not believe that God will punish anyone for believing or not believing in, say, the theory of evolution; or even something more central to the faith, like whether Joseph Smith was a prophet, or Jesus was the son of God. But I do believe we will be held accountable for the degree to which we are honest in our convictions, to the extent that we manifest integrity between our beliefs and actions. That is why I cannot see how it is ever justifiable for a person to be excommunicated or reviled for what he or she honestly believes. Doesn’t the Church promote intellectual dishonesty by doing this, and won’t God ultimately hold the Church responsible for coercing people to lie to themselves and others?
If intellectual controversies and doubts had been the only thing that troubled me in these years, I would probably still be a member of the Church. But something much more fundamental was coming to the surface at this time, a factor which had been causing me incredible pain and struggle for some years: my sexuality. As soon as I became a deacon, I remember experiencing physical attraction to other boys in my deacon’s quorum. I even had dreams and sexual fantasies about them. I did not consciously create these fantasies, they simply seemed to occur naturally as part of my undisciplined twelve-year-old stream of consciousness. (I still remember some of those fantasies!) When I was fourteen years old, right around the time that I was beginning to become consciously aware of my body, I realized that these feelings might mean I was gay. After that, my feelings began to haunt me. I began to feel overcome with a sense of hopelessness. I realize now it is no coincidence that I simultaneously became increasingly meticulous and zealous about Church attendance, scripture study, prayer, and fulfilling all other Church obligations and duties. I hoped and prayed that, as I became more zealous for God, he would purge me of these "temptations." I was terrified of the possibility of being gay. I was afraid of bringing shame on my family. I harbored a fear that I was eternally defective. I pleaded with God to purify my heart.
But as I got older, my feelings of sexual longing for men intensified. I remember, at some level, feeling terror the first time I set foot on the BYU campus, seeing hundreds of attractive young men and being unable to deny the stirrings the sight of them caused in me. Throughout my years in Church-sponsored youth activities, I naturally felt drawn to the other guys, even as they started to show interest in girls our age. I had an intense crush on a fellow who joined my teachers’ quorum when his family converted to the Church, and the crush lasted right up until I left for college. At BYU, I fell in love with my first roommate, another Spencer W. Kimball Scholar. In fact, my crush on him began during the interviews we had before the final scholarship recipients were chosen; my attraction to him was a factor in my arranging to be his roommate.
During my mission, I felt an intense bond with almost all of my companions that I explained as spiritual but which also had an undeniable physical component. I remember that on my first night in the mission field, my companion and I retired to our room for scripture study before bed. As was customary among missionaries, our garments did double duty as pajamas, and we sat down at the kitchen table to study wearing only our underwear. At the sight of my companion, I got an erection, which was fortunately concealed by the table. Through the entire study session, I was unable to concentrate on anything but my efforts to control my physical response. The easiest way to control it was to think of how sick and shameful I must be. After we went to bed, I lay awake through a good portion of the night, praying, "Lord, I can’t do this. I don’t belong here. I’m not worthy." Somehow I managed to deal with it, but my feelings for my companions were a constant source of anxiety, pain, and feelings of unworthiness throughout my mission.
None of these crushes ever led to anything. But my feelings made it hard for me to enjoy much anything—even the successes I experienced. I remember my first baptism as a missionary, a time which should have been filled with unadulterated joy. I found myself filled with terror on the night before the baptism, convinced that I was unworthy to perform the ordinance. I sincerely considered telling my companion that he should perform the ordinance. Whenever other missionaries or Church leaders praised my achievements, I could only think, "If they only knew what I really was." I felt extremely isolated throughout most of my mission. I remember looking at the word "honorable" on my release certificate, and thinking, "If they only knew."
Later, after my mission, I developed a crush on a young man in one of my French classes who also happened to be gay. I developed a very intense, though completely platonic relationship with him. We used to go for long walks together and talk for hours on end. We shared poetry with each other. I was completely in love with him. One night, on one of our long walks, he put his arms around me and held me close to him. It was what I wanted most in the world—and what I also feared most. Once I realized what I wanted from him—beyond the friendship we already shared—I felt trapped. I realized that all my years of zealous service to God, all my prayers, all my ascetic self-torture—getting up at 4:00 A.M., constant fasting, praying for hours on the cold stone floor in our basement, mentally flagellating myself and shaming myself, reading the Book of Mormon more than a dozen times in search of enlightenment—all of it had not changed me an iota, and what I wanted most of all was to lie forever in the embrace of this man. I thought, there is no way out. There is no way I can ever be happy, and at that point I stopped trying. I thought, I want drugs, I want booze, I want something to make me stop feeling. I wanted to die.
Sometimes I wish I could say that I left the Church by being excommunicated for some sordid homosexual act. But it wasn’t anything nearly so dramatic. Oddly enough, I was pushed out of the Church by disciplinary actions taken against me for the "sin" of masturbation.
My feelings about my homosexuality had been complicated throughout my youth by my occasional inability to overcome the temptation to masturbate. When I was about twelve, my father had a serious talk with me about the perils of masturbation. Masturbation was bad, though Dad didn’t exactly explain to me why, except to say that it would make me unworthy. But he told me never to touch my penis except when I had to go to the bathroom or to wash myself. He also warned me that masturbating was an extremely addictive habit. Once a man started down that path he might never overcome that temptation again. It is better just never to start. The first time I masturbated I was fourteen. It happened by accident, but I felt extremely guilty. I felt permanently tainted, impure. I confessed to my dad the next day. I wept, and I promised to make good to God, no matter how long it took. But it seemed to me that no matter what I did, I would never be able to recover my lost chastity. I think Dad might have been a little surprised by the intensity of guilt I expressed. He simply mumbled something to the effect that I just shouldn’t do it again.
From then on, it was a constant struggle. I probably didn’t masturbate more than once or twice a month. But it kept me in a constant state of feeling guilty and unworthy. I would repent, promise God never to do it again, fast and pray for help, struggle zealously to overcome the temptation, only to find myself, after a few weeks, "slipping up" again. I began to loathe my body. When I was sixteen, I overheard some schoolmates talking about a movie in which a boy castrates himself in the bathroom sink. I remember thinking, I wish it would be that easy—then I could free myself. Castration was usually what I thought of, when I heard that scripture where Jesus says, "If your hand offends you, cut it off, for it is better to go maimed into the Kingdom of Heaven than to go able-bodied into Hell" (see Matt. 5:30).
My guilt about masturbation kept me constantly vulnerable in relation to my Church leaders. I thought, I will do anything they say, if only God will remove this temptation from me. During my mission, I made a superhuman effort to overcome it, and in fact largely succeeded. In the entire eighteen months I was on my mission, I "masturbated" only twice, and on both occasions it was an accident. I literally came to orgasm both times as a result of friction from my clothes. But I still felt inconsolably miserable and wrote a letter to the mission president confessing both incidents. (He absolved me on condition that I "never do it again.")
My paranoia about masturbation heightened the sense of guilt I felt about my homosexuality. I had occasionally heard Church leaders, including President Spencer W. Kimball, claim that homosexuality could be caused by masturbation. This led me to believe that my homosexual tendencies were caused by my inability to stay completely pure of the sin of masturbation.
After my mission, I had less motivation to continue the fight against the flesh, and I had more opportunity to indulge myself since I was no longer under the twenty-four-hour surveillance of a missionary companion. I continued the struggle half-heartedly; but by this time in my life, it seemed that I had been engaged in a losing battle for so many years, I didn’t see much point in trying any more. Paradoxically, I felt even guiltier about it and finally resolved that I would confess to the bishop of my BYU student ward.
When I was introduced to Bishop Praetor, his first bit of personal advice to me was: "Now that you are back from your mission, your first duty is to marry and have children." Bishop Praetor had developed something of a reputation for his annual priesthood meeting purity talk, in which he discussed in detail every sexual sin which it is possible to commit and explained why it was an abomination. There is a fine line between prudery and prurience, and Bishop Praetor danced on both sides of that line with exhibitionistic verve. He of course completely terrorized me.
I found my opportunity to confess to him when the second counselor interviewed me for a position as ward clerk. When he asked, "Do you feel worthy to accept this calling?" I replied, "I think I had better talk to the bishop first." He arranged to have me meet personally with the bishop.
I was extremely nervous. This was the first time I had ever attempted to discuss masturbation so openly with a bishop. I desperately hoped that he would be able to give me some kind of advice to help me deal with this problem. I trusted that after all the agony I had suffered over the years, he would finally be able to give me something concrete, help me to find my way out. I must have stammered and trembled a lot as I explained to him why I feared I was not worthy. I expected some counsel and admonition. I did not expect him to take my temple recommend away from me and tell me that I should not serve in any Church callings or take the sacrament for at least six months until I had completely overcome the "habit." I felt completely cut off. I felt totally ashamed. Bishop Praetor’s only advice on how to deal with "the habit" was to suggest that I needed to marry as soon as possible, to find an acceptable outlet for my sexuality. At the time I was too stunned to say anything except, "Okay, I’ll try harder."
I left feeling total despair. If I had been struggling to no avail to overcome "the habit" for seven years, I doubted that I was ever going to stop long enough to be worthy. Then I began to feel angry as well as ashamed. What was I supposed to do, marry the first woman who would say yes, just so I could sexually use her instead of masturbating? It seemed to me that marriage should be based on a zillion things a zillion times more important than the need to stop masturbating.
With my temple recommend gone, with no access to the sacrament, and with no opportunity to serve God through a ward calling, I basically saw no point in trying anything any more. I had always felt that these things were vital to keep me connected to God and spiritually centered. I felt that the tools I needed to become spiritually stronger had been taken away from me. This blow came at about the same time that I was being forced to acknowledge that the romantic friendship with my friend from French class was making my feelings painfully clear to me. My homosexuality seemed so horrific, so sinful, so frightening. I was certain that if masturbation rendered me unfit for full participation in the church, this other secret could only eventually result in my excommunication. All of my doubts about Church history and doctrine and about the abuse of authority by Church leaders added to my burdens. Nothing made sense any more. And I felt unable to reach out to anybody. I couldn’t confide my fears about my homosexuality to anybody. I was so certain that any knowledge about my gayness would automatically result in censure, loss of respect, and loss of friendship, that those I ordinarily could trust the most were also those I felt I must hide this information from the most. I no longer trusted my bishop or any other Church leaders. I already felt rejected by the Church. I was terrified of possible further rejection from friends. I knew that if knowledge of my homosexuality ever became public, if I ever had to face any church discipline for it, it would cause frightful humiliation to my parents.
One of my closest friends at BYU at the time—a bisexual man who was coming to terms with his sexuality—was severely depressed and suicidal. The man I was in love with was suddenly disfellowshipped from the Church and suspended from the university for a reason which he refused to discuss with me. (He later attempted suicide several times and had to be institutionalized for a time in the Utah Valley Hospital psych ward.) Suicide became increasingly attractive to me as a way out. I began to plan my own death. My logic was very simple: I am going to be damned anyway. There’s no help from the Church. I can’t talk to my parents about it, because it will bring too much shame and pain on them. If I’m going to suffer for the rest of my life and then be damned anyway, I might as well get it over with.
During the summer of 1986,1 was tremendously depressed. I couldn’t sleep at night. I slept during good portions of the day. I had no energy to do anything. I was looking for the right opportunity to kill myself. I went through my parents’ medicine cabinets, but I was afraid that overdosing on aspirin or some other medication was not very reliable since I didn’t know the effects of particular drugs. I didn’t want to botch it. There were no firearms in our house. I shrank from the potential pain of stabbing, cutting, or hanging myself and didn’t want to leave a gruesome mess for my family to find. It seemed that turning on the car in the garage and poisoning myself with carbon monoxide was the best and most dignified alternative, and I was simply waiting for a time when my family left me alone at the house with a car. Fortunately, that opportunity did not arise before my life was touched by David Works, our next-door neighbor and an Episcopal priest.
I met David by accident as I was on my way back from a walk one afternoon. He seemed to take a kindly interest in me, and I felt drawn to him. When I asked how he found his way into the ministry, he told me that he had once been an alcoholic, got into trouble as a marine, and ended up in jail. After hitting bottom, he matter-of-factly told me, Christ appeared to him in a bright light, and that’s how he knew he was called. David’s jarring candor, his rock-bottom faith that God loves all of us, no matter what, and his interest in me revived some hope. He ended up hiring me to work for him as a gardener and a house painter. Working with green, growing things in the dirt had a healing effect on me, and I gradually stopped planning my suicide and started to nurture a hope that God had something better for me.
Later that summer, I went to Finland, where my friendship with some Lutherans began to convince me that true faith did not have to mean narrow dogmatism. I began to pray again and sensed a nurturing connection with God that I had not felt in years. I poured out my heart and essentially "came out of the closet" to God for the first time. I received an assurance that God already knew all about me—knew how I was woven from my innermost being—and accepted and loved me as I was.
Although I had come to trust that God accepted me for who I was, I was not entirely certain that members of the LDS Church would understand or accept me fully if they knew I was gay. One day, I went with some friends to the International Evangelical Church in Helsinki. (The IEC was an English-speaking Lutheran church.) The message of grace and forgiveness which was so central in the liturgy changed my life. The acknowledgement in the confession at the beginning of the liturgy that all have fallen short and all are in need of grace relieved me from the perfectionism I had been laboring under for so many years as a Latter-day Saint. I was in tears throughout the entire service. Later, when I spoke in private to Mark Sallmčn, the assistant pastor, he nurtured my fragile sense of the grace of God by reminding me that "no matter what anyone tells you, never let anyone make you think that anyone can come between you and the love of God." For three days after attending the Lutheran church for the first time, I fasted and prayed, seeking guidance from God.
On the third day, I decided to leave the Mormon Church and began to write a letter to my parents to inform them of my decision. The letter also mentioned my struggles with my homosexuality. While I wrote the letter, I was emotionally overwrought, and I began to pray for guidance. While I was praying, I seemed to rise up out of my body and was lifted up to heaven, and found myself before the throne of God. I saw members of my family there before the throne—people like my great-great grandfather C. A. Carlquist who had been an LDS missionary in Sweden and Denmark in the l860s, and others whom I recognized from old family photographs. I heard a voice assuring me that God would take care of us all, that I had nothing to fear.
At this point I still felt very vulnerable to possible rejection from my family, friends, and the LDS Church. All of my self-hatred seemed intimately linked to everything I had ever been taught as a Mormon. The loathing of homosexuality and the distrust of sexuality seemed an integral part of the Mormon tradition I’d been raised in. I felt that the love of the Church was extremely conditional. If anything, I’d been trained to believe that by the way in which Boyd K. Packer and other church leaders were treating Mormon intellectuals. I decided that it was necessary to distance myself from the Church until I felt more self-confident, less vulnerable to the manipulation of Church leaders. After being baptized by the pastor of the IEC, I sent a copy of the baptismal certificate and a letter requesting that my name be removed from the Mormon Church’s records to my bishop. I told him that my decision was final and that I wanted no further contact from the Church. To my relief, I never was contacted by anyone.
I gave up the last year of my Kimball Scholarship and left BYU. I no longer felt that I could accept money from BYU in good conscience, and I was tired of going to school at a place where so many people regarded me as something of a heretic. I transferred to Northern Michigan University—about as far away from Mormondom as I could get. I had to work three part-time jobs to pay rent and tuition. My parents were completely stunned. I had never given them any information about my internal state, so my decision caught them totally by surprise. They told me they thought I was being controlled by Satan. I told them I felt free of Satan for the first time in years—and it was true.
I have sometimes wondered if my sudden departure from the LDS Church was not rash. I have sometimes wondered if it was not an attempt to preempt my possible excommunication, were my homosexuality ever to come to light. All I can say is that, at that point in my life, leaving the Church was a matter of survival to me.
I left the Church because it was necessary in order to protect myself to maintain my sanity, and to become a healthy, whole individual. But I have never denied the fundamental principles of the gospel, through which we can be reconciled to God, who is the source of all healing and liberation. Despite the fact that I have severed all formal ties with the Mormon Church, I am aware of many situations in which gospel principles, the Book of Mormon, LDS Church history, and the heritage of the Saints have been a source of strength to me. But I have no desire to resume any sort of relationship with the LDS Church, until it is clear to me that the abuse has stopped and the Church has repented of all its evil-doing against gay and lesbian people, feminists, and other disenfranchised groups within the Church. I am not a masochist.
I think that one reason it took me years to recognize my experience as a case of spiritual abuse was because the prevailing atmosphere in the Church is one of intimidation, authoritarianism, and abuse. It is hard to recognize your own experience as abusive when it does not seem that much different from the experience of most of the people you know and when it seems to be in harmony with ideas and attitudes that are commonly expressed over the pulpit, in Sunday School, and in informal conversations with friends in the Church. It is even harder to recognize abuse when you are conditioned to believe that everything which church leaders do and say in an official capacity is inspired by God and that they supposedly "love" you and do everything "for your own good." Almost all of my closest friends at BYU—most of whom, incidentally, are gay—have found their ways out of the Church and experienced tremendous abuse before they finally escaped. The French-speaking friend who had to be institutionalized for repeated suicide attempts is not atypical. All took years to overcome the self-loathing which the Church had taught them to internalize. The Church seems to have a uniformly abysmal record in dealing with gay men and lesbians; for us more than other groups in the church, abuse is not the exception to the rule, it is the rule.
Fortunately, I have found numerous loving and supportive people and spiritual communities since I have left the Mormon Church. One of the lies with which I was conditioned to accept the abuse which I suffered was the belief that the LDS Church is "the only true church" and that a person can never truly be happy unless she or he is a member of it. As I became more and more depressed, I continued to subject myself to spiritual abuse in the Church because I sincerely believed (was conditioned to so believe from the time I was a young child) that no matter how bad it was, no matter how much pain I was in, I myself was to blame, not the Church, and that if I left the Church I would only be more unhappy than I already was. This belief nearly led me to suicide. Thanks be to God that I found another way out. Now I laugh out loud, when I think how ridiculous it was for me to believe that the Church was the sole path to happiness, when in fact it was the one institution which was most to blame for my years of misery!
My life now is a hundred times happier than it ever was when I was in the Mormon Church. I had moments of intense joy when I was a member of the Church; but for as long as I can remember, they were always counterbalanced by terrible self-recriminations and guilt. Since leaving the Church, I have come out fully to my parents, who, after some years of struggle, have gradually reconciled themselves to my departure from the Church and have also accepted my gayness. I have been in a wonderful relationship with a beautiful, loving, caring man since 1992. In August 1995, we formalized our relationship in a commitment ceremony which included our close friends, spiritual communities, and families, who traveled from as far away as Iowa, Massachusetts, and California to be with us. My partner and I sing together in a local gospel choir, study the Bible together weekly, and are members of a local UCC (United Churches of Christ) congregation where we are fully accepted and welcomed. Our church recently ordained a woman pastor who is openly lesbian, and members of our congregation marched with us in the Minneapolis/St. Paul Gay, Lesbian, Bi, and Transgender Pride March.
In 1991, I proposed and pioneered a campus ministries based anti-homophobia project at the University of Minnesota which has received national attention. I worked on the project for four years. It is still in operation and now draws support from campus ministries representing the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, the United Brethren, Disciples, the UCC, Northern Baptists, and Reformed Judaism.
I completed my Ph.D. in American history at the University of Minnesota in 1994 and have written a book, "Take the Young Stranger by the Hand": Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). I have been delighted to reestablish contact with my BYU mentor, D. Michael Quinn, and to discuss our academic projects, particularly his prize-winning Same-Sex Dynamics Among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997). I feel incredibly blessed to have wonderful family relationships, loving friendships, and a spiritual community which has helped me to weather some of the prejudice faced by gay people in our society. I am very satisfied with my life’s work so far, and believe that the path I have chosen—difficult as it has been in some ways—is the right one for me.
The LDS Church will not in the long run benefit from attempts to address "individual" abuses on a case-by-case basis. I think that the Church needs a full-scale reformation of practice and emphasis. I don’t know if there was any one incident of abuse which I suffered in the LDS Church. I was the victim of years of subtle pressures, prejudices, and petty control games. The impact of Bishop Praetor’s disciplinary actions against me over the matter of my occasional masturbation could not have been nearly as devastating as it was if I had not been conditioned for years to look at Mormon leaders as if they were practically next to God. Furthermore, his actions had terrifying psychological power over me because fear about my sexuality had been used against me from my early teenage years, making me completely vulnerable to the manipulation of men who may or may not have had my best interests at heart.
Praetor was not the only one who wielded this power over me. When I later confessed to Bishop Harry Zoglio in the Georgetown Massachusetts Ward, he confirmed that my BYU bishop had been right to take away my temple recommend, deny me the sacrament, and refuse me any Church callings, and he denied me all these privileges as well until I could overcome my habit." Bishop Zoglio also repeated Praetor’s advice to get married as soon as possible. Only as I studied sexuality in an academic setting did I learn that masturbation among eighteen-to twenty-one-year-old males is virtually universal. Studies of Mormon males have shown that they are no different in this regard from young men in the general population or of other denominations; nor does level of Church activity seem to have much effect on this behavior. I put two and two together, and realized that either I was being singled out by my bishops for special punishment, or all the other young men in my student ward were lying to the bishop—and perhaps being manipulated by guilt in the same way I had been for so many years.
What does it mean when a Church instills such intense shame and guilt about behavior which is virtually universal? Can it be interpreted as anything but a massive power play which serves to keep people subservient and dependent on leaders who have the power to dispense all-important spiritual blessings? This sexual terrorism of the Church especially victimizes gay men and lesbians. For years I felt guilty for failing to confess my homosexuality to an appropriate Church authority. Now I repeatedly thank the heavens that I was not so stupid as to open myself to even more horrifying forms of abuse and manipulation. I now believe that the entire institution of "worthiness interviews" in the Church basically deprives individuals of their sense of moral or ethical autonomy; it puts entirely too much power in the hands of individual bishops; it undermines individuals’ sense that they are primarily responsible for their own moral behavior; it encourages deceit and petty manipulation. No other church that I know of exercises this kind of control over its members. No other church that I know of makes such wanton use of disciplinary tools like "disfellowshipping" and "excommunications."
God has freed me in two ways in the last decade of my life: God freed me of the Mormon Church, and God freed me to come out of the closet and accept myself as a gay man. Thanks be to God, I can breathe again.