VOICES OF HOPE
JEFF & SARAH
Jeff was raised across the US and Europe as an Air Force “brat” and is the second of six children in a strong, religiously active LDS family. From 1993-1995, he served a mission in Fort Lauderdale, FL, and has since served in the Church as primary pianist and chorister, ward organist, Elder’s Quorum President, working in the Boy Scout organization, an early morning seminary teacher, and ward mission leader. He and his amazingly talented and beautiful wife, Sarah, have been married for 22 years and are the parents of one son and two daughters. They currently reside in Pleasant Grove, UT.
Full Interview (45 Minutes)
Highlights Interview (13 Minutes)
NO MORE A STRANGER, NOR A GUEST
There wasn’t a word for what I felt and how I knew that I was different. Except for that I knew I was wrong or broken or something. I just didn’t have a word for it. Peripherally, I knew there were gay people living in the big cities and folks in some circles were talking about gay rights and such. But I didn’t know what it meant to be gay or what that was all about. I certainly didn’t identify with that word. Such a word was not ever used during my childhood. My peers didn’t make gay jokes—they made Polish jokes that turned into blonde jokes at some point in the late 80s. I didn’t like either; I was sensitive to anyone mocking anyone else, even as a joke. In the potato-farming countryside of northern Maine where I spent the bulk of my childhood, this just never came up. Living on military bases all of my life did not expose me to a great deal of diversity in experience. Although military bases were multi-cultural, there was no visible gay culture.
I did know that I was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and unabashedly called myself a Mormon, having a strong yet largely unchallenged testimony of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. This I did not doubt. I had no reason to doubt. In most ways, I went through all the motions that are expected of a born-in-the-church kind of guy. I was never really challenged, never really questioned what I believed to be true. I remember praying one night, asking God if the church truly was His and if the Book of Mormon contained His word. To both, the answer was clearly affirmative. It just made sense to me, without much of a struggle.
The Gay Schema
When I was 18 years old, having just finished my first year at BYU, I found myself traveling via Greyhound across the vastness (read: emptiness) of Texas. It was an 8-hour trip between Abilene and Austin. I had a mission call in hand and was excited for the opportunities that this would present. A young man named Matt sat next to me for the final four hours of this trip. I remember feeling nervous when he sat down, the kind of nervousness that I had grown accustomed to each time I was near a male to whom I felt “drawn.” I was always the shy one when I felt so drawn by an attractive young man and so he initiated the awkward small talk about the music that I was listening to on my walkman. I welcomed the conversation. The previous four hours had nearly drained my batteries and I was looking for someone to talk to. After just a few minutes of small talk, Matt showed me a chain that he wore around his neck but under his shirt. It had rainbow-patterned charms on it, in spectrum order. I always loved when colors were aligned in spectrum order.
“Do you recognize this?” “No,” I replied. I didn’t. But it looked nice, I told him. “Never mind, then.” Awkward silence. “I thought you would,” he finally said, quietly. “Well, what is it? I like it.” Silence. “You have to tell me now. You don’t just get to show me and then not tell.” “It means that I’m gay. And I thought you were, too.”
My turn for silence. Gay? Gay. He thought I was gay?! My mind was reeling. I quickly denied what he had assumed correctly, lacking anything intelligent to say. I did what I have often done since that time and diverted the focus away from me, finding out all about Matt, why he was on the bus that day, what it was like to be gay, why an openly gay man was headed to Navy basic training (I knew enough about the politics of homosexuality to know that the military in 1993 was no place for an openly gay man). Outwardly, I think I was fairly poised, until he continued to unsettle me with questions like, are you sure you’re not gay? And telling me that if by chance I was gay, I’d be really popular among his friends. He wasn’t shy to tell me how cute he thought I was. I’m sure my poker face crumbled at each assertion about my sexuality. When the bus stopped in Austin, we both left the bus, parted ways with a hug and my words of caution to him (the news had recently revealed the brutal beating and consequent death of a gay Sailor aboard an amphibious assault ship stationed in Japan).
Over the course of the next month, while I waited for my time to report to the Missionary Training Center, I was in crisis. I was gay. This small, three-letter word gave meaning to the years of feeling “different”, an approach-avoidance of males and all things masculine. I was the outside observer of masculinity, not really a part of it all but longing to be accepted in the face of hostile rejection by my peers. Of course this had to be the reason why I was tormented by classmates and physically and emotionally bullied for large segments of my childhood—they could sense that something was wrong with me, I just didn’t know what.
When they called me “sissy”, is thatwhat they meant? This word gave meaning to my same-gender sexual experimentation that began at the young age of 6 and continued through high school. This word provided context to my complete comfort around girls but my complete ineptitude in my many, many failed attempts to date them. Always the friend. And now, I was not “drawn to” other guys; this word meant that I was sexually attracted to them, that I had had crushes on some of my same gender classmates. This little word organized a hitherto disparate collection of memories, thoughts, emotions, insecurities into one grand schema. And it resided in my core. Right next to that other word, Mormon.
Clash of Lifestyles, Quieting the Voices
Despite having never heard the issue of homosexuality discussed in church meetings, or perhaps the near complete silence on the issue from church leaders, I still knew instinctively that these two schemata could not coexist. It seemed to me at the time that one could not be true if the other existed. It was overwhelming to consider, and too much for my 18-year-old self to reconcile. I reunited with my family in New York as the Air Force had relocated my father from Naples, Italy, to Tucson, AZ. The plan was to meet them at my grandparents’ home and drive across country, dropping me off at the MTC in Provo, UT, along the way to their new home in AZ. The discord in my mind that resulted from having two opposing identities was too much for me to deal with at the time; so, I boxed up the gay part, locked it away, and put on the face of a happy Mormon kid headed out on a mission. The two-week trek across the US allowed me to resume my role in my family and my carefully crafted identity. This other “me” would just have to shut up for a while.
By going on a mission, I immersed myself in the gospel and developed a strong testimony for the Plan of Salvation (Happiness). I gained a testimony that I am not a creature of this earth only, but that I existed prior to birth, was known by my Heavenly Father, volunteered to come to earth to be tried, tested, and developed, and that I will not cease to exist when I die. I grew to love the Book of Mormon and how neatly it tied into the Savior’s teachings in the Bible. During my mission, I read and re-read each of the standard works and felt the joy and peace that comes from God’s word. Mostly, I learned that I’m not just a physical creation, not just an intellectual person, but an eternal son of God and a spiritual being. Each of these things informs me as each is a deliberate, purposeful part of this life. And while some find these sources contradictory, I find harmony and balance. Oh yeah, except for that one thing locked away in the corner of my mind…
The “gay question” in my mind would rear its ugly head from time to time (like my first area of my mission being South Miami Beach, a gay Mecca in the early 90s), but I pushed it away as a side corollary feature, nothing major. I viewed my same gender attractions like my periodic craving for a cigarette or a wild wish to get drunk at least once in my life. Put it away long enough and it’d probably disappear entirely, right? But no one could know. What would my mission companions or the crowd at BYU think? What would my family think? I worked for years to shed the rejected, nerdy, pseudo-male, constructing a new image that could be comfortable with friends and accepted by others, and acceptable to myself. If the truth about my sexuality got out, this social world where I had found a modicum of peace would go away. No one could know about my house of cards. As the song goes, conceal, don’t feel.
I had opportunities presented to me to act on my attractions. I crossed paths with many men living an openly gay lifestyle, men who invited me to join them. Something always held me back. I found myself in the moment of decision and I couldn’t shake the feeling that what I valued the most were my LDS associations and my testimony of the Church.
A chance encounter with that young Navy recruit, Matt, presented me a chance to explore a new identity and provided me with a blueprint for successful living as an openly gay man. During this time, homosexuality started to become more mainstream in the media. Yet, from where I sat, the Church remained largely silent, except to mention the sin of homosexual behavior in any standard talk about the law of chastity, although with far more severe consequences for same-sex acting out. Prior to serving my mission, my student ward bishop read a new policy memo from Church Headquarters, the intent of which was to encourage those who wished to serve a mission not wait until the last minute to offer repentance. It indicated that those who had engaged in sexual behavior with the opposite sex would need to wait one year prior to serving as part of the repentance process. Homosexual behavior required two years. Even though I had repented for my past transgressions, I left that meeting feeling twice as sinful, twice as wrong as other men in my ward, twice as fallen and broken. In those days, there seemed to be nothing really available that presented a blueprint on how to manage same-sex attractions and remain in the Church.
The Woman of My Choice
I returned to BYU after my mission and resumed my music major. My first class of my sophomore year was Tuesday morning at 8 am. This cute blonde girl sat right behind me, Sarah. She had an infectious laugh. She would later tell me that when she sat behind me, she inwardly assessed me, thinking, he’s cute…he needs to ask me out. We became quick friends. She was for sure my kind of person. It was an easy friendship, effortless. I failed to pick up on the “he needs to ask me out” vibe for a long time, satisfied to have Sarah as my “best friend” while I continued the awkwardness of dating other women. After more than a year as best friends, she finally confessed to me that she had romantic feelings towards me. She said that this had to be said so that she could move past it and continue being my friend. I didn’t know what to do with that new information (I honestly had no idea that she liked me that way), so I thanked her for her honesty and bravery and we resumed our friendship.
I knew that part of God’s plan of happiness involved marriage. I was at BYU for heaven’s sake, marriage was everywhere! People got engaged in a way that normal people just decide to exclusively date. A line from my patriarchal blessing told me that I would marry a woman of my choice in the temple and that this would be a source of comfort in my life. The tricky part was that phrase, a woman of my choice. Not having natural attractions for women, I never “chose” those whom I dated. I usually dated those whom others chose for me. I agreed to go out with them to not hurt anyone’s feelings. I learned the hard way, though, that going out with someone that I wasn’t interested in ultimately was far more hurtful. Therefore, I was conscientious of the fact that I could not marry someone in the temple who had been chosen for me or to someone who liked me but for whom I could not reciprocate romantic feelings. I knew that I would not marry unless it was my choice.
Sarah and I remained close friends for the next year. After her 21st birthday, she started the series of interviews and appointments to prepare to serve a full-time mission. By this time, my friends had stopped pressuring me to date Sarah or telling me that Sarah was everyone’s favorite girl. My family loved her. Her family loved me. But I needed make my choice independent from outside pressure. Once all of the social pressures to date Sarah had subsided, I turned inward to understand my love for her. With her leaving on her mission, I knew that I had the perfect out. If I did nothing, she would leave, I would graduate before she came back, and I would not have to decide one way or another.
So, free from pressure, I found myself in a situation that had happened countless times over the previous two years…Sarah and me in the library studying. I knew that I couldn’t just avoid the topic of dating/marriage and let her leave on her mission without me making some kind of choice. That didn’t feel right. But there I sat, in the soft glow of the fluorescent library lighting, and I looked at her with new eyes. She was beautiful. Blue, blue eyes, naturally light hair the color women pay loads of money to achieve, and a perfect smile. I was stunned. She was beautiful. And I knew that she was beautiful to me! As if on cue and without looking up from her book, she put her hand to that very same hair that I couldn’t stop looking at, lifted the side of her head, and allowed her hair to cascade back down over itself. There was my answer. I loved her and, for the first time in memory, I felt a genuine attraction towards a woman. Towards this woman. My best friend. On a side note, many years later, she confessed that she knew I was checking her out that day in the library—that little “hair flippy thingy” was totally staged for my benefit and it worked to perfection!
A week or more went by without me saying anything. But the attraction that I felt in the library only grew within me. I somehow knew what this meant—dating Sarah meant marrying Sarah. I knew this. So I had to really be sure I was ready and strong enough to get married. On Good Friday in 1997, I attended the temple with 2 of my roommates. I didn’t go there to get an answer. I had my answer. I went there seeking strength to act on the personal revelation I had received. Sarah picked me up and drove me to my sister’s house where we were going to stay for Easter weekend. On that drive, I told her that I loved her, romantically, and that I thought we should date. Ha! I’m so awkward, doing everything all backwards. “I love you” first, and “let’s date” second. Who does that?! Of course I loved her. No one outside of my family knew me better or loved me more. We held hands for the first time, our first physical contact. It felt so normal, so natural. This was new for me. So, I ploughed ahead. All in. “Sarah, there’s really no need to put off temple prep classes, either.” What was I saying?! She agreed. I had reasoned, what was the point in dating? I knew everything about her. She knew me. It was a leap of faith for me, way outside of my comfort zone. That night, we pulled out our Franklin day planners (ha!) and found a weekend in August of that year that would work for a wedding and honeymoon. I let her know that I supported her desire to serve a mission first if she wanted. She replied, “What mission?” As I silently prayed that night, I was completely overcome in perhaps the strongest affirmation I had yet received. The thought resonated in my mind that I had just made the key most important decision that would determine my eternal progression. I have called upon that moment many times over the years as a reminder of why I choose to stay the course, why I choose to fight against my flesh, and why I need to reconcile my physical urges with my spiritual longings.
We decided to tell our friends and family that we were just dating…didn’t want anyone to freak out over the fact that we were already making wedding plans. Even though it was BYU and this sort of thing was way too common, I wasn’t ready to be openly engaged yet. I needed to nurture this seed of faith privately with Sarah for a while first. Absolutely no one showed any surprise that we had decided to start dating. In fact, many of my friends had assumed that we were already dating. But, the adversary to my happiness started working overtime. Sexual fantasies about men increased in frequency and intensity. When Sarah and I were together, it was great. It was easy. We spent nearly a month on the east coast with BYU’s Wind Symphony on a concert tour, taking “engagement” photos wherever we went. At this point, most people knew we were planning on getting married. I loved spending nearly all day, every day for that month together. During that summer, though, doubts increased and the scorching sun of carnal desires and social pressures started to mount. But I had no idea how to tell this to Sarah. I kept all these things hidden. Maybe it’d all go away when I got married?
The Time to be Completely Honest
One evening as we were driving home from my sister’s house, I was hit by a sexual fantasy. I kind of panicked because I knew that I didn’t want to discuss that part of me with Sarah yet. I thought to myself, I have to get rid of this thought in case Sarah asks me what I’m thinking about. In that moment, Sarah asked me what I was thinking about. I decided to be honest. I told her, I am thinking that I can’t tell you what I’m thinking about. She pressed me to say more, but I resisted. It became quite tense as I continued to resist. By the end of the car ride, we were both pretty angry with each other, but I refused to let this out of the bag. Or the closet. Whatever. As I continued to struggle silently and became more and more depressed, I continued to refer back to that night on Good Friday and to rely on my faith in that spiritual confirmation.
After about six months of being married, I finally mustered the courage to tell Sarah about that part of me that no one knew about. I had hoped that my sexual attraction to men would go away by virtue of acting on faith to get married and becoming sexually active with my wife, but this was not the case.
I cannot imagine a more awkward wedding night, leaving me to lie awake for most of the night, feeling guilty, shameful, and cowardly for entering into this covenant with Sarah without her completely in the know. While our sexual relationship did take form in the first few months of marriage (we practiced a lot), I was distressed to learn that my same-sex desires did not disappear. In fact, by becoming sexually active, my same sex cravings seemed to intensify. The locked box in my mind labeled “Jeff’s Sexuality” had been opened, not to be closed again. I knew then that I owed it to Sarah to finally let her in, to give us the chance to explore the contents of my locked box together.
I was awake in bed one night, tossing around anxiously, knowing that I needed to let her into the most secret corner of my mind. She sensed my nervousness and asked if I was okay. I recall shaking almost uncontrollably before I finally said out loud, I’m not exactly straight. I am sexually attracted to men, not women. There was a long pause. I added that I understood that I was not honest with her when we agreed to get married and this new piece of information is kind of huge. I let her know before letting her speak that she was free to walk away from our marriage and I would not harbor any hard feelings. I had deceived her and I asked for her forgiveness. She told me that while she had not guessed my secret, she wasn’t surprised to find out (I would hear that exact sentiment many times over the ensuing years). She said that when two people marry, they accept the baggage that comes with it. With my “baggage” also came a sensitive, caring man who deeply loved her. Due to my lack of understanding at that time, however, I didn’t have answers to most of her questions and did not know what the future held for us. I confirmed my love to her and my commitment to our marriage.
A Need for Healthy Companionship
Over the next year and a half, we continued to understand the issue related to this thing about me. The first thing I needed to realize was how it was no longer my issue but our issue. Letting go was not easy and took quite some time. Sarah also learned that my attraction to men had nothing to do with her as a woman, that she did not bear any responsibility for causing or alleviating my attractions. As my understanding grew, so did the internal struggle. Talking about this was a great first step but it was far from curative. After opening up to another same-gender attracted friend in 1999, someone that I had met as a fellow music major at BYU (male music majors with homosexuality concerns, who knew?!), he suggested that I speak with a therapist that had given him guidance and helped him process his experience. This was life-changing—both counseling and talking this out with a close friend. Through counseling, I learned about different theories related to the development of homoeroticism. The secular books on this topic got the conversation started in my head and with Sarah. The LDS-centered literature provided me with some gospel-related ideas that also proved helpful. Mostly, it just felt great to finally shed light on this part of me and get some answers. My counselor encouraged me to open up to my family, starting with my parents. I called them one afternoon and finally told them that I was same-gender oriented and was working through this in counseling. They have always affirmed their love for me and offered support. With each additional person in whom I confided, I found more support and more love. The myth of rejection was quickly evaporating.
My counselor also encouraged me to seek out other men committed to living the gospel who were also same-gender oriented. I found a support group and quickly made friends in this community. It was like a breath of fresh air, letting go of my personal myths and feeling loved and embraced. I felt that I could be me with all of my flaws and insecurities fully on display and that I was acceptable and lovable. I quickly learned that I needed a balance of friendships in my life, both men who experienced same gender attraction and those who did not; some that knew and loved me and those who did not know but also loved me.
I continued to nurture the seed of personal revelation that I received that night long ago. I knew that if the seed died, it was due to my negligence, not due to the quality of the seed (see Alma 32:38-39). Our marriage hasn’t always been easy, although in many ways, it’s easier than we expected. Of course, there are things that we continue to work on. In any successful marriage, there needs to be a balance of romance, intimacy (all kinds, physical, emotional, spiritual for example), and a committed attitude. Most heterosexual men with whom I have spoken find physical intimacy pretty automatic but may struggle with truly being friends with their spouses. Towards Sarah, the friendship, commitment, and nearly all types of intimacy came naturally to me. While our sexual relationship was not natural for me at first, I have felt safe to figure it out and over the first few months of marriage, it became easier and more natural. Our sexuality grew as an off-shoot of our friendship, an expression of a deep emotional love. As we grow older, our ongoing efforts to find time for romance and shared positive experiences has led to a stronger friendship and marriage. I truly get to come home to my best friend every day. I once heard that love is not a pit one falls into but a building one constructs. We continue to work on our weak areas and, as the Lord promised, the weak things have become strong for us (Ether 12:27).
An Approach Agenda
I was finally willing to open this tightly controlled box in my head and really examine its contents. Much to my surprise, I discovered that I’m a real man although not stereotypically masculine. My masculinity is not diminished by traditionally non-masculine interests but that these things enhance my experience as a man and more richly color my life. By truly facing my discomfort with myself, I learned that the biases and prejudices that I perceived from other people really originated from me. I have adopted an approach-based philosophy on life, a stark contrast to the small boy who hid from bullies, who refused to confront any issue really head-on. After spending my childhood and youth avoiding masculine activities, I enlisted in the Army National Guard at the age of 21, found myself in Basic Combat Training, and eventually served on Active Duty in the Army for 8 years. And I learned that I’m a lot more like everyone else than I imagined. When I feel “drawn” towards another man, I seek him out, become his friend, and enjoy a rich, nonsexual relationship. In my various roles as seminary teacher, elder’s quorum president, psychologist, etc., I have a great capacity to love men, to be concerned for their struggles and show empathy and support. The more I understand my same gender attraction, the more I view it as a gift from God, one that can be used to bless His children if I’m a worthy vessel and one that continues to remind me that, of myself, I can do no good thing. I need the bounds of the covenants that I have made in order to use this part of me to be a blessing to others.
Today, I continue to move down the path from discomfort and ambiguity to resolution and comfort in the knowledge of the Plan of Salvation. Comfort and peace have been the greatest miracle in my life. I had long held the belief that I was outside of the reach of the atonement of Jesus Christ. My narrow view of this doctrine led me to believe that it was only there to offer a forgiveness of sin.
While I had sincerely repented for the sins I had committed, I remained attracted to men. Thus, the atonement didn’t work for me. So I thought. I have since learned that there are many conditions of this mortal existence that are here by design. Paul wrote to the Hebrews that “God provided some better things for them through their sufferings, for without their sufferings they could not be made perfect” (Heb 11:40, JST). My journeying down this path has required me to have faith in Jesus Christ and to not lean on my own understanding. While my fallback habit for problem solving has always been logic-based (and I’m quite good at it), I couldn’t logic this one out. This part of me has required me to go to the Lord and seek out His understanding and His will.
My Trial and My Blessing
While I’m still learning from Him, I am comfortable despite those things that threaten to dislodge my peace. Again from Paul, “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10). I am here on this earth to gain experience, to be tried and tested to see if I’m willing to obey all of God’s commandments. If this is my trial, it’s also my blessing. Through this, the Lord has blessed me with an enormous capacity for love. Perhaps the greatest miracle in my life has been brought about because of the Atonement of Christ. I experience comfort within myself, happiness and deep satisfaction in my marriage, joy in raising my children in an intact home, and peace that comes with the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the quiet hours of my life, I find myself quietly singing to no one in particular the hymn:
The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may Thy house be my abode,
And all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger, nor a guest,
But like a child at home.
(“My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” by Isaac Watts, 1719)