VOICES OF HOPE
John Bowers is a 23-year-old “ginger” and 6th-generation Arizonan, born and raised in Mesa. His ancestors crossed the plains in the Willie Handcart Company. John’s dad is an artist, and both of his parents have shared their love of art and music with him. In addition to singing and producing art, he enjoys playing volleyball, doing genealogy, gardening, reading, writing, and making funny home movies with friends and family. John served in the Georgia Atlanta Mission and recently graduated from Eastern Arizona College with a music scholarship. He will attend Brigham Young University this fall in pursuit of a degree in psychology, and he hopes to become a counselor someday.
John knows that Christ’s gospel and authority are real and have been restored through the prophet, Joseph Smith. Beyond anything else, experiencing same-sex attraction has honed his spirit and continues to teach him to rely on the Atonement of Christ every day. Childhood abuse (by a non-family member) left scars on his heart which have only been healed by his Savior. The prospect of living with his family and Savior and eternity brings hope to John’s yearning heart.
CHOOSE YE THIS DAY
I fasted all day, and told my parents that I’d like to speak with them privately after dinner. I writhed in my room for hours in emotional agony, awaiting the dreaded conversation. After my siblings and their families went home, I slowly climbed the stairs to my parents’ bedroom. I looked at the floor in silence as we all sat down. “This will be the most difficult thing I have ever done in my entire life.” As tears began to stream down my face, I groaned “For the majority of my life…I’ve dealt with same gender attraction.”
I was born into an active LDS family as the youngest of seven children. Despite being from a large family, much of the time I felt like an only child, due to a large gap between me and my next oldest sibling. I need to make it clear that I have absolutely amazing parents. I couldn’t ask for more supportive, worthy, or loving parents. My father worked very hard to provide for our large family. While he was the personification of a tough, manly man, I was extremely sensitive. At times I found him intimidating; it was difficult for us to get particularly close. I clung to my mother and told myself from a very young age that I would kill myself if she ever died. Due, in part, to a lack of a strong father-son bond, I became extremely curious about men at a young age. Yet, I soon discovered that I identified better with the girls when I entered elementary school. The boys were playing with cars and soccer balls; I wound up playing Barbie with the girls.
Exposure to Sexuality
I began to be sexually abused by a minor whom I esteemed to be my friend at the age of seven. To clarify, this individual was not a family member. I was confused yet excited, and I went along with this strange game.
Sexuality was rarely talked about in my family. On the rare occasion where it did come up, sexuality was treated in an around-the-bush manner. I was simply told that after you got married, you started having children. Considering my age I don’t think that this was necessarily a bad thing. When I was eight, we found out that a relative had become pregnant outside of wedlock. My mother was shattered. She later gave me “the talk,” but I didn’t understand all of the terms and only understood that the private parts of people’s bodies led to pregnancy. I became terrified that I was going to become pregnant (I find my naivete sad yet humorous, looking back on things).
Unfortunately, I gained this knowledge too late; I was already caught in a web of sexual abuse. This exploitation prematurely opened a Pandora’s Box of sexual thoughts and feelings. Fear and shame hindered me from telling my parents and so I endured continual abuse for a few years.
I eventually followed the promptings of the Spirit at the age of nine and told my parents about the abuse (based on my descriptions of what had happened, my parents did not understand that it had been abuse). They cried, but the way I perceived their reaction confirmed my feelings that I had committed horrible sins and that I was doomed to burn in the fiery pits of hell. Appropriate action was taken and the abuse ended. After telling my parents, I promised myself that I would never tell anyone about my sexual experiences (or feelings) ever again.
I soon became overweight and extremely self-conscious. From that point, I have experienced chronic headaches and migraines, which I felt came as a punishment for my attractions. I even avoided getting blessings for my migraines for this reason. Around this same time, the other boys at church and at school began to bully me more intensely than before. My leaders were well aware of this, but their fear of driving those boys away prevented them from intervening. A few of my best friends fell away from the church largely due to these bullies. I was so sensitive and depressed that my fifth-grade teacher told my mother that I needed to see a psychologist. No action was taken, however, because I had no intention of telling anyone why I was broken.
I continued to associate mostly with girls because it was so much easier to relate to them than to other guys. I had mainly played with them during recess because I was the awkward fat kid who was always the last to be chosen by boys for sports. My feelings of same sex attraction intensified when I hit puberty. I was nervous of people finding out about my crushes on boys and men; this led to a lot of anxiety, depression, and lack of self-esteem. I hated being seen or touched. As a twelve-year-old overcome by grief and guilt, I told my bishop about the sexual experiences of my childhood. I unfortunately did so in a manner that the bishop didn’t realize that I had been abused.The conversation was very short; he essentially told me not to do it again. I didn’t feel better after talking with the bishop. I unsuccessfully tried to convince myself that I had repented, and my self-hatred continued to escalate as I entered junior high. However, at this point in my life I realized that I had to know if the Church was true, because that understanding would shape the rest of my life on both sides of the veil. I read the Book of Mormon and gained a strong testimony of its truth and divinity by the power of the Holy Ghost.
My parents would pull me out of school when we were going to be taught sex-ed, so I never gained a solid comprehension of sexuality. I turned to the internet for answers. While it helped me to finally understand what sex was and how people got pregnant, it also exposed me to pornography. Pornography was talked about often in church, family home evening, and in General Conference, which helped me gain the self-control to avoid diving headlong into it. I tried to turn my sexual orientation from men toward women, but my crushes only intensified toward older, handsome guys who were fit, confident, and popular—three qualities I desperately wanted for myself. I was still convinced that I was going to burn in hell because of what happened in my childhood and the attractions that I continued to feel.
Throughout junior high I excelled in art and had many friends, almost all of which were girls. I continued to gain weight, which enhanced my body image issues. For five years I swam on the school’s swim team, but while I had the blubber of a whale I certainly couldn’t swim like one. The divide I felt between me and the other boys grew greater and greater. I was extremely self-conscious; I tried to talk with a deeper voice and not give away any clues as to my struggle with SSA. I constantly compared myself to the other guys. Their muscles seemed to be developing, while I was just a walking sack of cottage cheese. I wasn’t as coordinated as the other guys, and my acne didn’t help my self-perception. All these things intensified the envy and attraction that I had toward the other boys my age. I wished that I had been born a girl so that I didn’t have to be ashamed of these feelings. I was made fun of because in art I would draw fantasy subjects, like fairies and maidens, which led other male students to ask me if I was gay, which I vehemently denied.
At same time that Prop 8 was raging through California, a similar proposition, Prop 102, was simultaneously campaigned for in Arizona. I supported the legislation; I believed in the Church’s stance that marriage is a divinely created relationship between a man and a woman. Because of this, I was targeted by the openly gay crowd at school, being cornered and bullied on camera. In addition to this negativity, I heard hurtful, derogatory things about gays at home and at church. These individuals probably lacked an eternal perspective as to why the church was promoting this legislation. I don’t believe that they intended to be tactless; I simply think they were scared and were searching for any reason to justify their opinions. I’m sure they didn’t suspect that someone in their own ward experienced these attractions.
It was easy to feel marginalized during this time period. So often in the church we’re painted a picture of what a truly happy, God-ordained life looks like: a man and woman deeply in love with each other, surrounded by children sealed in the temple. I was taught in my quorums that it was perfectly normal and shameless to experience sexual attractions to girls, which feelings were healthy and gifts from God. I always felt like I was the only person in the room who wasn’t given that particular gift! Even in the “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlet, homosexuality was defined as an abomination before the Lord, which I interpreted to mean that I was an abomination for desiring such relationships. When church-members around me made jokes about gay people or comments about how nasty homosexuality was, I felt distanced from God. I found it difficult to hope for a place in Christ’s Plan of Salvation. This, in turn, deepened my suspicion that if anyone found out that I experienced same-sex attraction I would be judged and become the laughing-stock of my community.
Wearing a Speedo got old, so in the tenth grade I left the swim team and gave volleyball a try. I made the volleyball team and did rather well. Fortunately, as a result, I lost a lot of weight and started to feel a little better about myself. When I was a junior I made the varsity team as a starter. However, the seniors would make fun of me and would often sexually harass me and tear off my clothes in public. Most of these teammates were LDS, which didn’t help my feelings of exclusion. This brought flashbacks of the abuse I endured in my childhood. My coach simply told me to get mad at them and they’d leave me alone. I was convinced that these stresses combined with my attraction to other men would torture me until the day I died; I decided to own the suicidal thoughts that I had had for so many years.
The gun was only a few feet away, and I was arguing with myself through my tears that I needed to stop being a coward and pull the trigger. My eyes landed on a photo of my deceased grandfather hanging on the wall. My grandfather had a huge impact on me as a child. He was the most humble and Christ-like man I had ever known. I froze as an unexpected cloud of warmth surrounded me. I will never forget the spiritual experience which then ensued. I left the gun and promised that I would never kill myself even if I had to endure a lonely life as a single man with same-sex attraction.
Soon thereafter, I received my patriarchal blessing. Leading up to the blessing, I desperately prayed that Heavenly Father would address this issue that had consumed my life for so long. While the blessing was absolutely wonderful and gave me courage to continue to keep going, it didn’t seem to address my same-sex attractions whatsoever. It simply mentioned that I would have an eternal companion after the second coming.
After feeling so miserable and unsafe during my junior year, I decided to not be on the volleyball team my senior year. Senior year turned out to be the best year of my life. I joined choir and took several art classes, becoming friends with people with high standards and warm hearts. I began to come out of my shell and discover talents I never knew I had. I bonded with other guys in healthy ways. While I still had attractions, they were not nearly as intense. I started to date girls but never got too closely attached to any. I used the excuse that I didn’t want to get into a serious relationship before I went on a mission. With that expectation, dating wasn’t ever awkward for me, and I really enjoyed being around the girls I dated. I embraced the choir culture which led to scholarships that, later on, helped finacne my first two years of college.
After graduating high school, I felt like a rug had been ripped from under my feet. I suddenly didn’t have the circle of friends who seemed to understand me and I again became very isolated. The feelings of same-gender attraction flared up again. One of my father’s best friends had died and my father started to become aware of his own mortality. His friend’s death had rendered him softer and more approachable. After my father quit his job, the two of us suddenly found ourselves spending significantly more time together. I realized that I had always craved his approval and that I needed to do my part to strengthen our relationship. I hugged my father and told him that I loved him every day. It soon turned into a sort of game as to who could tell the other he loved him first each day. I gained a greater appreciation for my father’s virtue and selflessness. The wounds of my childhood began to heal.
After the painful yet wonderful summer following my high school graduation, I attended Eastern Arizona College for a semester. I had good relationships with my roommates. They helped me not to isolate myself too much, but I couldn’t bring myself to go on more than a few dates. My low self-esteem led me to compare myself to other men all the time. I essentially starved myself and worked out a lot in order to attain the fitness I admired so much in other men. As a result, instead of gaining the “freshman 15,” I lost it!
At the end of the semester, my mission papers were almost completed. Although I was attaining a greater self-image, my feelings of same-sex attraction had consistently left me miserable, lonely, and full of self-hatred. I still felt guilty for the actions I engaged in as a child. Heavenly Father didn’t seem to accept any of my plea bargains, though I had prayed fasted significantly with the hope that these feelings would disappear and that I would be attracted to women. I was an emotional trainwreck and had no idea what to do. At that point, I came across the book In Quiet Desperation by Ty Mansfield—a book that I had noticed in a Deseret Book catalogue but was too nervous to purchase. Whenever I had the house to myself, I would fly through its pages, coming to the realization I wasn’t the only member of the Church battling these conflicting feelings. I felt a sense of hope that I had heretofore never experienced. The book convinced me that I had to speak to my new bishop about the attractions that I had experienced throughout my life.
Terrified, I made an appointment with my bishop. I tried to convince myself not to go because I had no sins to confess. However, as I across from the bishop, looking at my thumbs, I finally forced out the explanation that I was sexually attracted to men. He looked at me for a moment, saying nothing, so I explained that I didn’t act on those attractions but that I had felt impressed to come and speak with him about them. He then replied, “Well, I think that the solution would be for you to start taking testosterone supplements.”
I was dumbstruck. I began to wonder if it had been a good idea to speak with him about this problem while he feverishly flipped through the pages of his handbook. He didn’t seem to find what he was looking for, but told me that in order for me to go on a mission I needed to pass an examination by LDS Family Services and I needed to tell my parents that I had same sex attraction. I croaked, “But…I don’t know how to tell them!” My mind for years had construed images of their reaction. I felt that it would shatter them. How could they have a gay son, after the absolutely wonderful example that they had shown by the pure lives that they lived and the love which they showed their children? I wondered if they would be able to love me after finding out this disgusting attribute that I possessed. I thought that they would never be able to look at me the same again, that every time they saw me or thought of me their hearts would be sharply stung by the dark truth that their son was sexually attracted to men. I didn’t know of anyone in my family that dealt with this issue. I felt that the news would spread like a disease and make family reunions awkward. I would be shunned and stereotypically seen as a rainbow-flag-waving Speedo-wearing homosexual. While I sat in the office I internally attempted to deny my feelings, something that I had always tried to do. I thought that I was too young to identify as “gay.” Maybe I hadn’t given myself enough time, maybe I hadn’t gone through puberty and this was just a phase. But I knew that I needed my parents to know about the hidden fires consuming me in the deepest chambers of my soul.
So, that night, after literally writhing in emotional agony in my room for hours, I told them. After the words painfully escaped my lump-filled throat, there was a brief silence, and I heard my mother sniffle. I opened my eyes to see tears running down her face as well. My father then calmly spoke. “I hope you realize, John, that this will not affect our relationship in the slightest. We love you, and we recognize that there isn’t anyone on this earth, ourselves included, who doesn’t struggle with a temptation or susceptibility of some kind.” They embraced me and expressed their unconditional love and respect for me. Their unforgettable Christ-like support and warm response were just what I needed.
I wondered if my bishop perceived me as being “too gay to function” as I met with a therapist from LDS Family Services, and he told my bishop that I was worthy to go on a mission after the first interview in regards to my SSA. However, he diagnosed me with depression. It was an agonizing process as I went through treatments and therapy; every Sunday people at church would ask me why I wasn’t on a mission yet. My patriarchal blessing promised that I would serve a full-time mission “at an appropriate time,” which gave me the hope I needed to persevere. I needed to learn to wait upon the Lord. So over the next six months, I met with my counselor as well as other doctors until they determined that I was emotionally stable enough to serve a two-year mission.
I was called to serve a mission in Northern Georgia. I was so excited and grateful for the opportunity to fulfill my lifetime goal of serving a mission. It didn’t take me long to discover how stressful and difficult missionary life truly was. My trainer and I didn’t seem to get along like the other “greenies” and their trainers, leading to loneliness and a lack of self-esteem, and the opposition and trials that we faced seemed overwhelming. Having already given up on hoping that God would take away my attractions, I had hoped that Heavenly Father would be forgiving and diminish my SSA. Unfortunately, it continued to haunt me throughout my mission. While I desperately tried to resist, I developed crushes on other missionaries, which created an enormous conflict within myself. I intensified my efforts to be strictly obedient so that I could experience miracles as I felt I had been promised by priesthood leaders. However, the cycle of temptation and self-hatred brought much depression and anxiety. I was absolutely terrified that if anyone knew of my struggle with same sex attraction I would be ostracized by the other missionaries or that I would be sent home, leading to a lifetime of regret. So I tried to conceal these feelings for as long as I could. However, my emotional turmoil escalated to the point that I told my mission president’s wife that I needed counseling. I met with another LDS family therapist, who helped me to deal with my anxiety and depression due to my inferiority complex and same gender attraction.
One night, I laid awake in serious self-reflection. A thought had entered my mind that made me restless: was my true desire to stay faithful to my covenants, or did I really want to act on my attractions but didn’t simply because I was afraid of what others would think? I slid from my bed onto my knees and began to beg my Heavenly Father for inspiration. I promised that I would believe His words and try to implement His instructions. After making this plea and waiting as calmly as I could for a response, my mind entered a state of clarity. Scriptures began to flood into my brain. I remembered that Jehovah explained to Samuel that the Lord judges a man by his heart. The Spirit reminded me that Joseph Smith received similar knowledge in D&C 137:9. I heard the cries of Joseph Smith while he suffered in Liberty Jail. The Lord’s response sent tears running down my face: “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; And then, if thou endure it well, God shall triumph on high; thou shalt triumph” (D&C 121:7-8). His reminder to Joseph Smith humbled me: “The Son of Math hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he? Therefore, hold on thy way” (D&C 122:8-9). My petty struggles paled in comparison to the atoning sacrifice that Christ made in Gethsemane and on the cross at Calvary.
I talked with my mission president about my SSA and he constantly tried to reassure that I was a good person and a good missionary. He reacted to my disclosures with such Christ-like grace and empathy; it still brings tears to my eyes. He honestly admitted that he wasn’t very well educated on SSA, but that he would continue to support me and asked me to continue to teach him and communicate with him. I put all my heart into diligently serving until the end. My mission president’s wife told my counselor and my parents that I was the most obedient missionary in the mission.
Toward the end of my mission, I finally trusted my therapist enough to fully and graphically describe the traumatic experiences that I had endured during my early childhood. She helped me understand that I had been a victim of abuse. She explained why I didn’t need to hate myself and that I wasn’t a monster. She helped me realize that I hadn’t committed a serious sin and that I was worthy to be a missionary and representative of Jesus Christ. I believe that Heavenly Father called me to Georgia to give me the opportunity to work with her. Without her invaluable insight, I doubt that I would have been able to make it through my mission.
Now I’m home. It’s been a hard adjustment. While I was on my mission, I was able to have the emotional connections and strong friendships with other guys that I have craved my entire life. My heart is forever filled with gratitude for those with whom I served; my companions were chosen by God to help me. Their spiritual caliber enabled them to deal with my quirks and moodiness. Their unconditional love and acceptance overpowered my SSA to the point that I was never attracted to my companions as I was towards other missionaries. Interestingly, I also discovered that if I became friends with missionaries that I had crushes on that these attractions dissipated. Now that I am home I am trying to find similar connections to other guys so that I can have more peace. Within a week of my return, I researched Ty Mansfield and came across Voices of Hope and North Star. This discovery gave me more hope than I had ever before experienced on this issue. Through North Star I have been able to meet many other LDS men who experience SSA have helped me tremendously. Their genuine hugs mean the world to me! This has helped me come to a place of emotional stability, and I have been able to reach out to others and help them come to terms with their feelings.
One day I was reading through my patriarchal blessing trying to decipher a message from God about my same gender attractions. I found it. A theme of my patriarchal blessing is the importance of agency. My blessing tells me that I am to be a voice and champion in defense of this eternally important principle and that I will influence others to make the right decisions. Until I found North Star, the only members of the Church I knew who experienced same-sex attraction where those who fell away, unable to reconcile their feelings. Members of the Church who experience these attractions often only hear what the world says about homosexuality. I hope that by becoming more open I will be able to humanize this particular issue to those who don’t understand it while offering another choice to those struggling to remain true to the Gospel and their feelings.
For many years I tried to deny my feelings. I attempted to dismiss them on the grounds that I didn’t fit modern stereotypes placed on those attracted to their own sex. Some in our society perceive those with SSA as promiscuous, immoral, and even pedophiliac. I certainly didn’t want my friends and family to see me that way! I feared that my siblings would feel uncomfortable with me associating with their kids or that members of the ward would distance themselves from me. But, it is true that with vulnerability came healing as I opened up to my bishop and parents. I’ve realized that my fears lacked foundation. I have only experienced love and support from those I’ve shared my struggle with. I’ve gained a greater sense of self-worth as I’ve reached out to others in the church trying to reconcile their faith with their feelings. Just as I hope others will accept my decision to be more open about this aspect of my life, I respect others’ agency should they choose to judge or make false assumptions.
Although I am still confused and often discouraged, I have hope that Christ will use me as an instrument to bless the lives of others and help them to use their agency righteously. While I acknowledge that the odds seem to be against me, I refuse to give up on the possibility of marrying in this life. I have had to confront the question that while I may have the faith to be healed, do I have enough faith to not be healed? Learning from the Apostle Paul’s example, I know that God allows some thorns to remain in our sides throughout our lives (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). He can choose to take this trial away from me, but if not, I will lean on His ample arm for relief.
I know that our Savior lives. He knows what it’s like to have same-sex attraction. I have learned this for myself from my favorite scripture in the Book of Mormon: Alma 7:11-13. Alma teaches that Christ would suffer “pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind…that his bowels may be filled with mercy…that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.” Through this passage I came to understand the depth of the atoning sacrifice Christ made for each of us.The atonement heals so much more than the guilt resulting from our sins. Christ endured every pain, heartbreak, and sickness we have ever suffered. Because of this, he knows how to help us. Christ knows what it’s like to be attracted to members of the same sex. He knows the pain and confusion associated with this issue, and because of this He can empathize with us. Without Him I will never be whole.
Words and labels play an extensive role in our lives. Not identifying myself as “a homosexual” or “a gay man” remains an important step in my process of self-discovery and understanding. Instead, I try to see myself as my Father in Heaven sees me. I am a son of God with divine potential. To become who my Heavenly Father wants me to become, God has given me the challenge of being attracted to members of my own sex. Reflecting continually on the reasons for such a struggle, something that permeates my daily thoughts and emotions, I am starting to grasp the blessings of same-sex attraction. No other challenge has brought me to my knees more, nor turned me to frequent prayer, scripture study, and temple attendance. Nothing else fills my soul with empathy and love with similar magnitude. I have even come to the conclusion that if I had the opportunity to choose any trial to eliminate, I would actually choose the absence of migraines. No question! My SSA has become one of my greatest teachers.
Those who don’t experience SSA may never fully comprehend what we who have these attractions go through. However, simply because others may not share the exact same trials that we do does not negate their love or advice. All lives share a common denominator of pain. I know that I am inexperienced in regards to other kinds of attractions. For example, I don’t know how it feels to be sexually attracted to children, but I know that Christ does. He’s given me (and others) this challenge for a reason. I know that I have become far less judgmental through this trial. It has enabled me to have more compassion, more faith, and more charity. Above all, it has strengthened my testimony in Jesus Christ and His Plan of Salvation. And while I’m still trying to find my place in this plan, I know that I do have a place in it. Agency, one of the greatest gifts that God has ever given all of His children, remains critical to this plan. The only thing that we can give to God that He doesn’t already possess are our wills. The world tells us that we cannot choose, that we cannot change and we should embrace our attractions through homosexual relationships. The prophets have told us to “choose you this day whom ye will serve” (Joshua 24:15). I know that as I use my God-given agency to serve and follow Christ I will have true happiness.
Our Savior promises to give us everything, including eternal life. The strength and power of His love remains greater and more fulfilling than any other love that I could ever desire. We all have to make sacrifices to gain this salvation, and if I have to lay my desires for homosexual relationships on the altar, so be it. I can choose to be miserable in my celibacy, or I can choose to have faith that my Heavenly Father will either help me to develop feelings for a woman and marry her or to have trust in Him that I will have the opportunity to marry in the next life. Just as I have the power to choose not to act on these feelings, I have the power to choose to be happy living the law of chastity. I am not defined by my attractions; there’s so much more to me. I am a son of God, and through the tumultuous storms of life, He has given me hope.