VOICES OF HOPE
Paul was born the youngest of four children into a very musical and loving family. He enjoys playing the piano, reading, running, theater, and photography among many other hobbies. Raised in the church, he was taught from an early age about Jesus Christ, who makes it possible to overcome the challenges of this life. He served a full-time mission in Hiroshima, Japan where he gained a strong testimony of the love God has for all of His children. He is finishing a bachelors degree in Behavioral Science at Utah Valley University, and currently serves as a Chaplain Assistant in the Army National Guard. He aspires to become a Chaplain, marry in the temple, and raise a family.
Full Interview (37 Minutes)
Highlights Interview (15 Minutes)
I HAVE A VOICE
As a child everything seemed so simple. From a very early age, my parents and Church leaders sought to instill in me a knowledge that I had a Heavenly Father, and that He loved me. There have been moments when I doubted this truth, and when I chose to turn my back on Him, but He never stopped loving me. I truly believe that, and I hold on to the hope that I will see His face again someday.
At this point in my life, I feel very blessed. I have wonderful friends who know me deeply and give great support. I am no stranger to struggle, and my life can be a stormy sea at times, but I have found a “beacon in the wilderness, a fire to lead the way.”1 The power of my Savior’s atonement has broken through the chains of addiction, carried me over mountaintops, cradled me during moments of extreme physical pain, and kept me company during times of loneliness.
I used to think that the world of sexual orientation was black and white—people were either “gay” or “straight.” I now feel that there is actually a spectrum of many “colors.” For all intents and purposes, I could be considered a “gay Mormon,” but I don’t feel the word “gay” accurately describes me. This attribute isn’t a polar issue for me: I am not attracted to every man, and I even find myself attracted to some women. I would personally place myself into one of those other colors, but I’ll leave the semantics at that.
Over the last few years as the discussion on homosexuality has expanded, I have felt quite voiceless, that my views didn’t matter, and that there was no middle ground. No room amidst this “war of words and tumult of opinions” (Joseph Smith—History 1:10) for someone like me, who wants to live true to himself and to his faith. That is why I chose to participate in the Voices of Hope Project. One of my instructors at Chaplain Assistant School once told me, “You have a voice, Peterson. You deserve to be heard.” She was referring to an incident of persecution toward my faith, but the same rings true for this project.
I’ve been on this journey for a few years now, and that’s exactly what it is—a journey. Since I was young, I have been obsessed with the show Star Trek: Voyager and remember feeling moved by a line from the final episode. “When I think about everything we’ve been through together, maybe it’s not the destination that matters. Maybe it’s the journey. And if that journey takes a little longer so we can do something we all believe in, I can’t think of any place I’d rather be, or any people I’d rather be with.”2 I don’t know how long my journey on this earth will last, but I am here to share my story because this is something I believe in. I no longer see my attractions as a curse, because I have learned so much and found a greater capacity to love and understand the trials of others.
I am so grateful for my journey, for the people I have met along the way who have influenced my life, and for a loving Heavenly Father who has blessed me with these feelings in order to teach me some very important truths. My purpose in writing is to share some of these lessons: I am not a bad person, I don’t have to pretend, I am not alone, I am a changed man in Christ, and I am enough. I have a voice. I deserve to be heard.
Being Attracted to Men
I first recognized my attractions to other guys around the time I entered adolescence, though I don’t think I really understood what they were at first. I had already fallen into addiction at that point, and feel that pornography and masturbation further sexualized what had started to develop. As I came to realize what I was feeling, the shame and loneliness started to set in, even though I had been taught that attraction by itself was not sinful. I’m horrible, I would think. I’m not supposed to be attracted to men, I’m supposed to like girls.
I can theorize all I want about why I am attracted to men, but I don’t have all the answers. Whatever the reason—be it nature, nurture, or a combination of both—it doesn’t matter. They are indeed a part of me, but they don’t define me. I am so much more than who I am attracted to. One of the reasons I don’t use the term gay to define who I am is because I believe it is a label that distracts from all of which make up my identity—my talents, interests, weaknesses, strengths, and personality.
Being attracted to other men doesn’t make me a bad person. I didn’t choose these attractions, and don’t think that God would condemn me for merely experiencing them. Since He loves me, I want to be able to show that love for others, even if I don’t completely understand what they’re going through or how they feel. Yes there are commandments I need to keep, but I am loved, good, and accepted just as I am.
Taking off the Mask
I have worn many different masks throughout my life, in attempt to protect myself and keep others from things I feared they would see. The “good Mormon boy” mask to conceal my addictive behaviors, the “low-pitch voice” mask to prevent myself from sounding too “girly,” and “chameleon” mask to not sound weird in different social settings to name a few. The mask I’ve worn most frequently would have to be my “pretend you’re ‘straight’” mask, to try and keep others from suspecting that I was attracted to men.
Now more than ever, I feel ready to further disclose this part of my life, even though I don’t know how everyone will react. I feel God wants me to share my story, so that’s what I’m going to do. One of the hopes I have is that I’ll be able to start taking these masks off and finally put them away. I want to be more of the same person wherever I go—more authentic, and more sincere. I do think that some situations will require me to step into different aspects of my personality, but I want to be able to do so without pretending. I want to be assertive in a military environment, compassionate when a friend needs support, and thick-skinned when joking around with others.
I don’t want to pretend any more. I have often wondered if people would still love me if they really knew me. If they were able to see behind my masks, would they want to know the person standing there in front of them? As I started to tell family members and close friends about some of my trials regarding same-sex attraction (SSA), I was surprised by the amount of positive reactions they expressed. I worried that some of my friends might reject me, but they have continued to offer love and support. It has made me want to do the same: love others even if I don’t understand them.
There used to be a time when I thought I was the only man in the Church who experienced SSA, or at least one of a very small number of people. Even though I would occasionally hear the topic of same-gender attraction addressed by Church leaders, I felt like I was an anomaly. I hadn’t heard of North Star, the Voices of Hope Project, or any other resources for men like myself. Sure, I had a variety of support groups to turn to for help with pornography and masturbation, but I wouldn’t dare reveal my attractions. I was so lonely and tried desperately to fit in, but found it impossible to be that “perfect Mormon boy.”
Having experienced plenty of rejection in my earlier years, I had a tendency to isolate myself. Being physically assaulted by a neighborhood boy I had tried to befriend, and booed off the court after winning a basketball tournament in elementary school created feelings I didn’t know how to openly express. As I grew older and noticed my attractions growing stronger, I felt compelled to put on a facade. I found much joy participating in Musical Theater, but wonder if it was mostly because I didn’t have to be me, and could pretend to be someone else.
Let me share an experience from my mission that might help paint a better picture of the loneliness I have lived in for so long. Throughout my service in Japan, I had the privilege of working with a few native companions. Before I gained a mastery of the language however, I often found it hard to communicate. I remember getting into multiple arguments with one of them, because I couldn’t understand him and he couldn’t understand me. I had so much anger that I didn’t even know how to express in English, let alone in Japanese. I was thousands of miles away from home, and due to mission rules, I wasn’t allowed to leave and be by myself.
That is how I felt for the longest time: stuck, isolated, trapped, unable to communicate. I found some comfort in trying to talk with my bishops about it all, but there were things I felt they couldn’t understand—how it feels to be so enamored with the same-sex against cultural and religious expectations, or what it’s like to be attracted to a good-looking guy on campus and feel a mountain of shame for feeling that way. I felt so misunderstood, and so alone.
After returning from my mission, I fell in love with various genres of contemporary Christian music: rock, rap, country, and even heavy metal (yes, Christian heavy metal does exist!). While hearing my favorite group perform in concert, I was touched by the message in one of their songs. “I am with you. I will carry you through it all. I won’t leave you. I will catch you when you feel like letting go, ‘cause … you’re not alone.”3 I connected with this song so deeply, because it spoke to one of the testimonies I gained while serving both in the military and as a missionary.
Basic Training was one of the most challenging experiences I had ever been through. It was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting and painful. I had read in the scriptures that Christ would “go forth, suffering pains and afflictions,” and that He would “take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people” (Alma 7:11). At Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, I received a witness of this truth, for He took my pains. As a form of group punishment, Drill Sergeants would often have us engaged in strenuous exercises for hours at a time—pushups, bear crawls, and football-style drills to name a few.
On multiple occasions when my strength should have given in, or when the pain was too much for me to bear, I suddenly found the strength to keep going. I remember specifically praying to the Lord, “Please take this from me…”—and almost instantly finding relief. On the first Sunday I was able to attend Sacrament Meeting, I sat on the pew and wept, overcome with gratitude for my Savior. I felt His overflowing love for me, and knew that He knew me. I wasn’t alone.
As a missionary, in moments of darkness and isolation, He was there. When I became discouraged by continual rejection, scared out of my mind to open my mouth, or stuck in the pit of shame for having relapsed in addiction, He felt it. When I was at the base of a mountain road, with no strength left to pedal my bike, He lifted my companion and me to the top.
My experiences as a soldier and missionary help me to realize that I am never alone when I seek His help. Even when I turn on Him, I know that He stands at the door, waiting for me to let Him back in. Even though there have moments when I could not feel Him, I now know that He has been beside me all along. Maybe others won’t be able to understand exactly how I feel, but He does.
Additionally, I have found other ways in which I am not alone. Participating in Twelve Step recovery groups, I have witnessed the large and growing number of men who admit to struggling with sexual addiction and want to break free. I have attended groups with other men who experience same-sex attraction and want to reconcile how they feel with what they believe. I have been to weekend retreats such as Journey Into Manhood, and a Wild at Heart Boot Camp, all of which deeply helped me learn that I really wasn’t alone
I recently stumbled upon a plaque at my friend’s house with a quote that illustrates this truth. Reflecting on the words, I strongly felt as though they were a message from my Savior. “If ever there is a tomorrow when we’re not together, there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart, I’ll always be with you.”4 I am not alone and I will never be alone. It’s not always easy to believe, but I know it’s true. I am surrounded by individuals who see and love me just as I am, and a Savior who loved me enough to give His life for me.
Just Accept Who You Are
Before leaving on a mission, I was worried about what my attractions might mean. Would I be barred from missionary service? Would I be allowed to be alone with my companions? I finally mustered up the courage to talk with my parents about my feelings, and they suggested I seek help. I don’t think they knew how best to respond to me sharing, and I certainly didn’t know how adequately to express it all, but they supported me as best they could. Asking a Church leader for advice, I was directed to work with a counselor at BYU.
The counselor’s message to me was one I didn’t want to hear: “You need to accept that you have these attractions, acknowledge that they’re there, and move on.” What I wanted him to say was, “You can change, Paul. You can get rid of these attractions.” I didn’t want them to be a part of me, I just wanted them to vanish. Accepting that they were a part of me sounded like I was consigning myself to a lifelong struggle. Nevertheless, I proceeded to work with him and gradually came to a point where the attractions didn’t have as much pull on me.
Even if I didn’t want to believe it at the time, I really did find power in accepting myself. Later on in my Twelve Step groups, I was taught the principle of surrender: “God, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”5 It wasn’t just about the attractions. I think I was more troubled by temptations and triggers. I didn’t want to accept that I could be so distracted by my desires, but the truth is that I will have to face temptation of one form or another for the rest of my life. Accepting that fact, surrendering to God and to truth, helps me to stop wasting so much energy on my triggers, and it lessens their power over me.
Choice and Change
I have often heard the gospel of Jesus Christ referred to as a “gospel of change,” and remember thinking, “Well, why can’t I just change then?” That question was especially painful when some would suggest that I could just choose to not be attracted to men. I didn’t choose to have these attractions, that is true, but it doesn’t mean I have no choice in what I do and how I live. The world doesn’t have to decide the kind of person I am. I can choose to follow the Lord’s standard of morality, and I know He will give me the strength I need to do so.
When I started seeing my current counselor, I was told for the first time that I could change. He suggested, though, that while “change” may not be possible for every man who experiences same-sex attraction, many had come to feel a decrease in their attractions, or at least come to better live in accord with their beliefs. At first, the idea of “change” to me still meant getting rid of my attractions, but I don’t see it that way anymore. Ironically, after being told that I could change, I was finally able to really accept myself. That was when I finally came to realize that I wasn’t a horrible person for being attracted to men.
I now think of “change” in the sense of becoming more aligned with God’s plan for me. Though I don’t know exactly where my attractions came from, I have found much comfort and clarity in working through the emotional issues surrounding them. As I’ve started to recognize what my deeper needs are, my thoughts have become less troubling. I no longer hate myself when I feel attracted to a man walking by. I am finding the help I need to stay committed to living the gospel and the standards it entails.
In many ways, I am not the man I used to be. The Lord has shaped my life into something better than it was, and I don’t think He’s finished with me yet. Change to be closer to Him will be a lifelong pursuit, but since He’s not giving up on me, I won’t give up on Him. I used to think that I was broken because of my feelings, but I was wrong. I am broken and fallen regardless, and my Savior is the only one who can make me whole.
Never Good Enough
A common theme throughout my young adult years has been that I’m not enough: not strong enough, not muscular enough, not good enough, and not man enough. Having three older sisters, I didn’t feel like I could relate as well to the other guys. I would often (and still do at times) compare myself to others, wishing I could be more like them. An experience at Basic Training only emphasized the false truth I had been buying into.
“Don’t take anything personally,” my recruiter had told me before I shipped off to Missouri, “It’s all part of the training.” I went in with that mindset, expecting to just let harsh words breeze over me. I was successful at the start, and even managed to stay “off the radar” for a good portion of my stay. One of my leaders later asked if I had been there the whole time, because he didn’t recognize me.
One of my Drill Sergeants eventually noticed me, and started giving me some extra attention. “Peterson, you’re a retard,” he would often say. “You know that, right?” Unless you were a glutton for punishment, you never disagreed. “Yes, Drill Sergeant.” Even after I had graduated and the training was over, he still treated me like garbage. I wanted to shake hands, so I approached him and held one out. “Oh, great job, Peterson,” he said in a very condescending tone. He shook my hand, but I felt no respect. I didn’t expect to be coddled, but I wanted his approval, or some sign that I had done a good job. I had given my best efforts, but I wasn’t “enough,” I told myself.
I had always thought that if I could just do enough, or try hard enough, I would be okay. Time and again, I was shown that this wasn’t the case. No matter how much I gave, I just wasn’t good enough—as a soldier, as a missionary, or as a human being in general.
You Are Enough
As I reached the end of my mission in Japan, I received a letter from one of my high school friends. He wanted me to read a scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants using my name, but instructed me to wait until I only had three days left in Japan. The day came, and the words I read pierced me to the core. “My servant [Paul], it is no more required at your hand to leave your family as in times past, for your offering is acceptable to me. I have seen your labor and toil in journeyings for my name. I therefore command you to send my word abroad, and take especial care of your family from this time, henceforth and forever” (D&C 126:1-3).
Though I had thoroughly enjoyed my mission, I struggled with feelings of inadequacy the entire time. Even after reading such powerful words, I still questioned whether I really had done enough, or been a “good enough” missionary. I had gotten to a point where I was constantly opening my mouth to talk with people on the streets, but it seemed like I just wasn’t making a difference.
By the time I read my friend’s letter, boundaries had changed, and I ended up in the Fukuoka Mission. Our mission home was located beneath the temple there, so we were given the chance to attend a session before flying home. As I sat in the Celestial Room, reflecting on everything I had done, seen, and experienced, I offered a heartfelt prayer. Expressing my feelings, I asked God if He really had accepted my offering.
My emotions were already high as I looked around at the missionaries I had served with, but the answer washed over me in a wave of joy and peace. Tears flowed from my eyes as the truth you are enough filled my heart. God knew me, attractions, strengths, weaknesses, and all, and yet He still gave His love. When moments of darkness and self-pity try to cloud my way, I think back to that moment and remember well: I am enough.
Why I Choose the Path I’m On
A few months ago, I found myself in Los Angeles for a twelve-hour layover. Heading over to Santa Monica, I walked around the beach and observed my surroundings. I saw a father spending time with two sons, one of whom was perched up high with legs hanging around his neck. The other skipped along in the sand, laughing and holding his hand. The scene was beautiful and stirred something inside of me. It resonated strongly with my desire to be a father, to help bring children into this world, and to raise them with my wife someday.
At times I have wondered if this is the right path for me. Some may try to tell me that I’m not being true to myself, or that I’m being forced into a life of either celibacy or marital difficulties, but I feel at peace with my decision. Why do I stay? I don’t want to turn my back on such an important part of myself: my testimony of the restored gospel, of prophets and apostles, and of the living Savior. There will be plenty of challenges along the way, but I take comfort from a truth taught in the Bible: “Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest” (Joshua 1:9).
I am thankful for the love and support I have received on my journey so far. My life is full of wonderful friends and family who accept me: attractions, talents, strengths, weaknesses, and all. I don’t have to be ashamed about the things I have kept inside for so long, and it feels like the right time for me to shed some light on them. In the words of Josh Wilson, “Whatever you do just don’t look back, somebody needs the light you have. Whatever you do just don’t lose heart, keep on pushing back the dark, keep on pushing back the dark.”6
This is my story. Even if it isn’t completely understood, I pray that it will be a blessing for those who struggle and might think they aren’t good enough. I am good, I don’t have to pretend, I am not alone, I am a changed man in Christ, and I am enough. I have a voice. I deserve to be heard.
1. Martin, J. (2002). There is a star [Recorded by BYU Combined Choirs and Orchestra]. On There is a star: Celebration of Christmas (live at BYU) [CD]. Provo, UT: BYU Records (Recorded 2012)
2. Biller, K. & Doherty, R. (Writers), & Kroeker, A. (Director). (2001). Endgame [Television series episode]. In R. Berman (Producer), Star Trek: Voyager. Studio City, CA: CBS Television Studios.
3. Graves, R., Rauch, J. & Holman, M. (2011). Not alone [Recorded by RED]. On Until we have faces[CD]. Frank-lin, TN: Essential Records.
4. Crocker, C., Geurs, K., & Milne, A. (Writers). Geurs, K. (Director). (1997). Pooh’s grand adventure: The search for Christopher Robin. [Motion picture]. United States: Disney.
5. LDS Family Services Addiction Recovery Program Manual, pg. 14
6. Wilson, J., West, M. & Tealy, J. (2013). Pushing back the dark [Recorded by Josh Wilson]. On Carry me [CD]. Brentwood, TN: Sparrow Records.