VOICES OF HOPE
Spencer is a student at Brigham Young University studying Family Life. He finds peace from the Spirit and joy through his relationships with other people. He knows he can feel Heavenly Father’s love through trials and hardship. He believes that he doesn’t have to look far at all to find evidence of God’s hand working in his life.
Full Interview (33 Minutes)
Highlights Interview (13 Minutes)
FOR A WISE PURPOSE
As I sat in the Mission President’s office, I could see out the window over the field that was across the parking lot. The sun was setting in the distance. It was so beautiful, yet I couldn’t enjoy it. I’d gone to two counseling sessions in the past three weeks and I still felt just as lost as ever about what to do. As I was lost in my sea of thought, my mission president returned to the office after returning from taking a phone call with my counselor.
“Elder Ficiur,” President Brower said, sitting down. “With all this spiritual interference—” he was referring to my emotional problems, “—combined with your Asperger’s, we think that it would be best—” No! No! He couldn’t be saying what I think was about to say. “—for you to take a break from your service and for you to go home.”
The news hit me like a brick. Tears had started coming before President could even finish speaking. “No… no…” I muttered, “I can’t go home.”
“The decision has to be approved by the brethren, but I truly feel that it’s for the best. However, regardless of what the brethren say, you and your dear trainer won’t be serving together until? After? next transfer,” President continued. “If the brethren approve it, you’ll be given an honorable medical release with the possibility of returning and you will be a returned missionary, just like any of our other missionaries.”
“No… no… I can’t leave,” I cried, as tears came down my face.
“Elder Ficiur,” my companion, Elder Call, said to me, “this is right. This is what the Lord wants you to do. It’s His will.”
I wanted to believe them, but I had waited so long for the opportunity to serve. Why was it being taken away from me so soon? I had only been in the mission field two transfers—only twelve weeks.
In many ways that’s when it all started. That’s when my journey began because it three weeks earlier that I had done something that I’d never done before. I told someone my biggest secret. I told my trainer Elder Call that I was dealing with same-sex attraction (SSA).
Where It All Began…
Let me back up for a minute and introduce myself.
My name is Spencer. I’m currently a student at Brigham Young University studying Family Life. I was raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was baptized on my eighth birthday. I grew up in a small town in Southern Alberta, Canada. I am the second youngest of six children. I enjoy having adventures, such as hiking, rock climbing, going on road trips, or just trying something new, especially with friends who push me to do better and to try harder. I served my mission in two parts: 1) I spent three months in the Canada Toronto West Mission (which is where the experience in the introduction was drawn from); 2) When I tried to go back to my mission in Toronto, I served another three months as part of a trial mission near home in the Canada Calgary Mission to see if I was fit to be able to continue.
My first memory of anything related to my SSA was when I had the momentary urge to kiss another boy in my fourth grade class. It wasn’t out of lust or anything sexual, but it was because he was the one boy in the class who was kind to me. In my mind, that’s where it all started developing. After all, it was fourth grade when I first realized how much I didn’t fit in with the other boys in my class and also how much I didn’t want to be around them. They were rude, they were mean to me, and they excluded me.
As the years went on, I felt distant from the other guys; I felt lonely. I think it was in seventh grade that I had my first experiences with masturbation and pornography. Perhaps it began as curiosity. With the masturbation, I didn’t know what I was doing at first. I just knew it felt good. However, as I began to understand what these new habits meant, I began to feel the guilt and shame. And yet, I know now that it was “too late” to avoid being caught in the cycle of addiction. I was caught so deep in gay pornography and masturbation that I started to believe that was my fate. There was a point when I was in ninth grade that I was honestly just waiting through high school to be able to move away from home, find a boyfriend, and never tell my parents, friends, or other family members anything about it. I knew (or thought I knew) that it would preclude me from eternal blessings and there was a point where I had decided that I needed to come to terms with being sentenced to the Telestial Kingdom for eternity because in my mind there was no other choice than to be gay. At that point in my life, it had never occurred to me that I could be a righteous, temple-worthy member of the church and still be attracted to other men.
The whole time I was in turmoil. On the outside, I was a perfect Peter Priesthood. I was the one who knew all the answers in seminary. In fact I loved going to seminary; I had two years of perfect attendance. I lived my life through the school year waiting for the next stake activity or the next Especially for Youth week during the summer. I longed to be in spiritually high places and yet, for years, I believed that I would never be able to receive all the blessings of the gospel.
As high school went on, I started to challenge the belief that inevitably I was going to end up dating guys, having sex with men, and being condemned to the Telestial Kingdom. Through firesides and week-long EFY (Especially for Youth) events each summer, I began to see that I could be faithful and righteous. However, in my mind I still believed that I needed to stop being attracted to men in order to meet that goal. I didn’t understand the difference between the feelings of attraction to men and being sexual with other men. As a result of my beliefs, I began to white-knuckle my addiction and fight it; sometimes I’d go days or weeks without acting out and give into the lustful addicting behaviors. I hated it! I didn’t want to be gay!
One day in particular made me realize how much I hated myself because I was “gay.” Every year at my high school, we had a locker decorating contest in December for Christmas. When I was in ninth grade, I decided to participate, just for fun, so I wrapped my locker in wrapping paper, put a ribbon on it, and a tag that said, “to me, from myself.” I came back to my locker one day and found something else written on the tag: “U R Gay.” Angry, sad, and upset, I ended up going home in tears. I didn’t want to be gay. I didn’t want to be doomed to that life, but I felt I had no choice.
A miracle came at the end of high school: my addiction seemed to disappear. Literally a couple days after I had finished my last day of school, I had my last slip up that I would consider part of my addiction. I’ve had some slip ups since then, but minor compared to what I dealt with in high school. Sometimes the temptation would come to go back to those behaviors, but never at the same strength as during high school.
With my addiction gone and about to have a new start at Brigham Young University (BYU), I was confident that my SSA was gone. I had convinced myself that since I was no longer looking at pornography or fantasizing about men, I was no longer gay. At BYU when an attraction came up, I just told myself that that was how I used to think or how I used to feel.
It wasn’t just denial though, because for the first time I actually had friends. Garrett, Becca, and Juliana were friends that surprised me. They didn’t abandon me like the friends I’d had in high school. Despite all the hardships each of us faced that year, we stayed friends. For the first time in my life, I knew what it felt like to have best friends and to have a friend who was just like a brother to me. Finally I’d had the best friend I’d prayed for years to have. My first year at BYU was hard for me, as I’m sure it is for any new college student who has never lived on his own before, but it was also a time of healing for me, finally having real friends.
Canada Toronto West Mission
While still at BYU, I spent over a month agonizing over getting my mission call. I’d been told I might not be able to go because of my high-functioning autism. Many people with autism are honorably excused from serving a full-time mission. But I wanted to serve. Finally, after a month and a half, I got my mission call. I was called to serve in the Canada Toronto West Mission.
After my three-week MTC experience, I arrived in Toronto and was assigned to serve with Elder Call in Brampton, Ontario. We grew close fast, even though he would tease and prank me at times. Though he teased me as an older brother would, he also loved me as an older brother would. Other than Garrett, I’d never had a male friend who had shown me such Christ-like love. I was drawn to Elder Call, because he gave me the attention and the validation that I had craved for so long. He didn’t just see me as a missionary he was assigned to train, he saw me as someone he had the opportunity to love. For possibly the first time ever in my life, I was a priority in a friend’s life. And for the first time, I was the first pick for the team (which actually happened on one P-Day, with Elder Call), but part of me was also attracted to him physically.
I fought those feelings. I fought the fact in my mind that I wanted a closer relationship with my friend. I fought the sexual desires I had. It was a new to me to have a friend who would so openly express his love for me and who would openly validate me. The joy and gratitude I felt got twisted around and were manifested as a sexual attraction. Satan was working hard on me. I didn’t want to feel that toward him and so just like with my addiction, I began to white-knuckle the attraction toward him. Apparently this struggle had not gone unnoticed.
Late on the night of Friday, August 20, 2010 (or perhaps it was early in the morning of August 21), I was talking with Elder Call as we were falling asleep. Somehow our conversation had turned to same-sex attraction. I can’t remember what got us there or what exactly we were talking about when it came, but the prompting came telling me, “You can tell him. You can trust him.”
“I’ve dealt with same-sex attraction,” the words came out of my mouth, and I’d suddenly told my deepest, darkest, most hidden secret to Elder Call.
“I know,” he told me.
Between promptings of the Spirit as a result of him praying to know how to help me as a new missionary and the signs that I had had feelings for him, he’d figured it out. He’d known for weeks at that point and had been trying to figure out how to bring it up with me. It was 2:00 AM by the time we fell asleep that night. By the time we rested, I had decided I wanted to work on dealing with my SSA, and he’d agreed to do whatever he could to help me.
The next morning he gave me a blessing, and we began our monstrous quest together. At one point in the blessing he told me that I could overcome the SSA “now.” At that time however, I had a skewed version in my mind of what “overcome” and “now” meant in regards to my SSA. In my mind overcoming it meant no longer feeling sexual attractions toward men. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was not to be that easy for me.
The day after was the best day of my life up to that point. I felt freer than ever before. I was no longer carrying a huge load by myself. My loving mission companion had listened to me and was willing to help me. I’d told Elder Call about my SSA, my addictions, and the struggles I was still having. Even in the moment I’d told Elder Call about my SSA, I thought of it in the past tense. I had dealt with it. It wasn’t until after I told Elder Call about my struggles that I first accepted and admitted to myself that my sexual attractions toward men were not attached to my addictions. They had manifested that way, but they were something all on their own.
Saturday night, August 21, 2010, we went to the mission home. We were fortunate to have the mission home in our area, so we stopped by on our way home that day. It was there that I told my mission president about my SSA. The following Monday I made another huge stretch; I wanted their support so I told my parents in an email about it too, as I did not expect to see them for almost two years. They responded warmly, my dad even called my mission president the next day to talk to him.
However, my perfectionism got the best of me. Believing that SSA was something I had to overcome and make disappear, I got discouraged any time I felt attracted to a man, had a small inkling in that direction, or was tempted to be physically close to another man, even in a hug. It brought out my anxiety.
September 10, 2010, three short weeks after I told Elder Call about my SSA, I was told by President Brower that I was going to go home because of the anxiety my SSA was causing for me.
Back at BYU
One of the greatest lessons the Lord has taught me through my SSA and my other life experiences is that I’m not alone. He has repeatedly prepared people for me in my life.
I was worried about how my parents would treat me when I got home from Toronto. They had responded well via email, but, as I got off the plane, I didn’t know if they’d understand any of it—the SSA, the anxiety, or coming home early. I hadn’t needed to fear. My parents were full of love toward me. My mom gave me a big, tearful hug, as I got off the plane.
As far as understanding the SSA, I was also blessed. Unknown to me, my parents had been prepared by someone close to our family, who I will refer to as Tom. While I had been in Toronto, my parents had gone to a multi-stake fireside held by Fred and Marilyn Matis who co-wrote In Quiet Desperation, with Tom. So by the time I got back, they had a basic understanding of what SSA meant and what it didn’t mean. This was months before I’d told them about my SSA though.
I was also blessed with understanding friends that had been prepared for me by the Lord. Before my mission they were Garrett, Becca, and Juliana (though none of them knew about my SSA); on my mission it was Elder Call; and then after my mission (after I went back to Provo), I was blessed with Eric, Justin, and so many other friends.
For the most part during the ensuing year, I worked to try to return to my mission. I didn’t feel like I had a lot of issues with SSA during that year. However, one day that spring, I was having a hard day with my SSA, and I told a roommate about it. The words came out of my mouth hesitantly. “I deal with same-sex attraction,” I told Justin.
For a moment, he just chuckled, which confused me. “I think we were supposed to be roommates,” he said to me. He proceeded to tell me about a convert that he had on his mission who was a lesbian. He told me about his mission companions who were high-functioning autistics and others who dealt with anxiety. Truly, Justin was a roommate who was prepared by my Heavenly Father to help me.
The First Scariest Thing
Following my experience with Justin, my list of people who knew continued to grow longer. The list initially grew slowly, but, as I gradually told more people, I began to become more comfortable with myself. It was about that time that I found North Star and finally began making friends with other guys with SSA. It was also about that time that Garrett got home from his mission. I’d told many friends, but to tell my best friend, my brother, was a scary idea. What if he abandoned me? As I flew out to visit him and his family in Michigan, part of me wanted to tell him. Part of me knew that I would tell him eventually (surely he would notice me disappearing to my Evergreen support group every Friday). But not yet… right?
I flew into Grand Rapids to reunite with my best friend after two years. To say that I was excited would be a terrible understatement. We got a rental car and drove from western Michigan to Toronto to visit the people that I’d served as a missionary. Afterwards, we drove down to Niagara Falls to sightsee, since Garrett had never been.
That’s when it happened. We were heading back to our hotel from the Falls. After about fifteen minutes of walking and chatting, we both fell silent. We had fifteen minutes more to walk. We’d been chatting for nearly four days straight and had finally run out of subject matter. The Spirit took advantage of the silence.
Poke. Poke. “Tell him, Spencer.”
“Here? Now?” I thought. “On our road trip? I’ve barely reunited with him. I can’t.”
Poke. Poke. “Do it!”
After a while of back and forth between me and God, I caved. It came out of my mouth slowly, and I told him. He told me later that his instinctive thought was “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” He was heartbroken at the pain that I’d gone through, struggling with the SSA for years. In my journey with my SSA since that night, he has been the most amazing support that I could have asked for. I wish everyone, especially men with SSA, could have a friend like Garrett.
The Second Scariest Thing
Having the complete acceptance and love of my best friend, who now knew my biggest secret, made the idea of telling any given person seem much less scary. My best friend knew and loved me. My family knew and loved me. Who else mattered? I think the Lord was preparing me for what came next.
August 13, 2012: I began reading Voices of Hope for the first time. My dad had read the book and had recommended it to me for months. It is filled with stories of people who dealt with SSA but were faithful members of the church and he wanted me to feel the hope that those men and women had shared in its pages.
Not even a page into the book, a thought came into my mind more distinctly than any other time in my life: “Your secret isn’t going to be a secret much longer.” It blew me away. Was the Lord telling me to come out and be public about my SSA? As I continued reading the introduction, I was inspired by Ty Mansfield’s words. I was inspired to be a voice of hope.
Over the following two months, I prayed about the decision. As I sought the revelation, I began to make a list of friends that I knew I’d want to tell about my SSA before the big reveal; I included Becca and Juliana. I got mixed reactions from them. Each of them expressed love for me, even in light of the new information, and some of them were supportive of what I was about to do. However, others were hesitant and tried to urge me otherwise. Finally, however, I was sure of what I needed to do.
October 20, 2012: I copied my twice-proofed Microsoft Word document into my Blogspot. It was the scariest moment of my life as I clicked Publish. I quickly copied the link, put it into Facebook, and pressed Share. As soon as it posted, I closed my computer and ran out of the apartment door for work. I didn’t want to be around to see the feedback come in. Like most people who have done similarly, I had fears of rejection, but I knew that no matter what happened, I’d always have Garrett, Elder Call, my family, and the growing number of friends that I’d already confided in.
My fears were not realized. Ninety-nine percent of the responses to the blog post were positive, and most of the remaining 1% who did not understand the issue initially eventually had a change of heart.
Out of all of my experiences, those since my “coming out” have impacted my life the most powerfully as far as how I now view myself. It’s a journey that has helped me learn to deal with the shame I’ve carried through much of my life and to find hope instead. It’s a journey that has taught me about the blessings that I’ve received as a result of my “trial” with SSA.
From Shame to Hope
One of my biggest struggles is a lack of feeling self-worth. It has manifested itself as codependency, self-loathing, anxiety, and episodes of depression. It was the shame and perfectionism that caused the anxiety that brought me home from Toronto. It was the belief that there was something inherently wrong with me as long as I was attracted to men. As I’ve come to accept my SSA, I’ve learned I am good as me, whether I’m attracted to men, women, both, or neither (and I’ve been in each of those at least once).
I think the opposite of shame could be hope. Satan would have me believe that I am bad and am flawed. Christ would help me realize where my weaknesses are and give me the hope to turn them into strengths (Ether 12:27).
One of the first things that helped me deal with my shame was being emotionally vulnerable with friends (and later with everyone) by telling them what I was dealing with. I am not trying to say that everyone should be as public as I have chosen to be, but I am saying I think everyone needs someone or a group of people that they can be 100% honest and open with.
Another milestone for me in dealing with my lack of feelings of self-worth was attending the Journey into Manhood (JiM) weekend. Before going to JiM, I had a hard time accepting or believing the smallest compliment. I had been able to say “thank you” to any given compliment, but truly accepting and internalizing compliments was nearly impossible for me with how I felt about myself. As I left JiM, one of my new friends gave me a hug goodbye and simply said, “You’re a great guy.” And without a doubt, I believed him. I felt like I was finally beginning to love myself.
I am not saying that every man with SSA needs to go to JiM, but I am saying that I believe that any man, with or without SSA, would benefit and grow from attending.
Because of my SSA, I have been blessed. One of my favorite examples of this is how many close guy friends I have. My SSA has made me aware of how much I need the emotional, social, and spiritual connection with other men. It strengthens me and validates me in a way that I cannot get from my female friends. The feelings of connection I receive from Garrett, Eric, or whoever else validates me as a man and as a son of God.
Also, through my SSA and my autism, I have learned to be authentic. Not everyone needs to know everything, but it’s nice to know that I have nothing to be ashamed of and have nothing to hide if the situation ever calls for me to be vulnerable.
I have also learned a lot about the Atonement. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes and, through the repentance process, I’ve learned that the atonement of Jesus Christ is so powerful that even the worst mistakes I’ve made have been used for my benefit. I once lost a friend because of a mistake I made, but within a day I was blessed to begin friendships with two men who have blessed my life. It’s because of friendships with them and the men that I’ve met through them, that I had the motivation to go to JiM; I knew what it had done for them. It is because of their involvement in my life that I began to learn to love myself.
My favorite scripture, which is engraved on my missionary plaque, is Words of Mormon 1:7. “And I do this for a wise purpose; for thus it whispereth me, according to the workings of the Spirit of the Lord which is in me. And now, I do not know all things; but the Lord knoweth all things which are to come; wherefore, he worketh in me to do according to his will.”
Ten years ago, I would have never expected that I would come home from my mission early (twice) or that I’d be completely public about my SSA, which I was only barely aware of at that point. However, I also never expected that I’d have learned what I have about the power of the atonement. I have learned that the atonement means trusting the Lord and surrendering the desire to control things and people that I can’t. The Lord knew though. Each twist and turn that I didn’t expect, that I complained about, that I cried over and that I resisted, He knew it would eventually bring me here, to where I am today.
There is a song by Christian artist Laura Story that talks about this. Her song, entitled “Blessings,” speaks about the blessings we ask for, health, safety, a stable job, or (in my case) a mission call and healing from SSA. “We pray for blessings. We pray for peace, comfort for family, protection while we sleep. We pray for healing, for prosperity. We pray for Your mighty Hand to ease our suffering. And all the while, You hear each spoken need, yet love us way too much to give us lesser things.” (Story, “Blessings”)
There was a powerful moment for me during my three-month trial mission in Calgary. I’d had a horrible day—bad enough that I tried to call home in desperation. No one answered, but I left a message. When I’d calmed down, I told my mission president about it and asked for his counsel. I felt lost, confused, and unable to control my own emotions. It was about then, half-way through my second transfer that I asked him to talk to the missionary department and find out their answer: would I be able to go back to Toronto at the end of the transfer or would I go home again? That night, in my humility and vulnerability, the Spirit told me that if I wanted to I could finish serving in Toronto, and I could serve the remaining 18 months of my mission. I knew I could have done it, but it would be hard and I would suffer a lot, and Father in Heaven did not want me to suffer as a missionary any longer.
“What if Your blessings come through raindrops? What if Your healing comes through tears? What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near? What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?” (“Blessings”, Story)
Coming home from my mission twice was the hardest thing I have ever done. The pain of having the opportunity of service that I longed for and loved so much being taken away was almost unbearable, far worse than any pain that’s had to do with my SSA.
“What if my greatest disappointments or the aching of this life is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy? What if trials of this life, the rain, the storms, the hardest nights, are Your mercies in disguise?” (“Blessings”, Story)
I have a testimony of God’s love. He loved me enough to bring me home from my mission and to end the suffering that I experienced there. I have a testimony of the atonement, the perfect evidence of God’s love. God loves me so much, and the atonement is so all-encompassing that even my worst decisions and most terrible sins have been used to my benefit and my growth, as part of the repentance process.
Whoever you are, whether you deal with SSA, addiction, loneliness, single-parenthood, or any other challenging state of being, God loves you. I have felt His arm around me in my darkest hours and I know He will bless you too with His arms outstretched to hold you (2 Nephi 1:15, 3 Nephi 9:14).