10.04.2010

The Letter I Should Have Written

*Warning: this post is going to be very, very long.  Think War & Peace, but with fewer Russians.*

I woke to the unmistakable sounds of someone trying to navigate an unfamiliar kitchen.  I opened my eyes, allowed the blanket over my head to filter the early morning sunlight until my eyes adjusted.  I stretched out across the mattress, which had been dragged onto the living room floor in the wee hours earlier, pulled the covers from my face and greeted Russell.

"Good morning, sunshine.  What're you doing?"

"Hey.  I'm making pancakes.  I stole some mix from my brother's cupboard."

Most of my friends and roommates were unconvinced when I told them there was nothing more than friendship between Russell and me.  They didn't believe that this boy who made the two-hour drive on the pretense of visiting his brother only to spend all weekend with me, this boy whose hand I held while we walked, this boy whose arms I fell asleep in during late-night movies, was just a friend.

When I moved out to college, he still had a year of high school left to finish.  By sheer coincidence, his older brother not only attended my same school but lived in my same apartment building.  This lucky little twist of fate saved our friendship from the disease of distance, temporarily.  Russell's mother was more than happy to allow her 17-year-old son to spend weekends with his college-bound brother; she would have been less thrilled if she knew that Russell was really coming down to see me.

And so he came - not often, but a few times that we made count.  Toward the end of my freshman year, as his high school graduation was approaching, the visits stopped.  His phone calls became less frequent.  I attributed this to the fact that we were both busy, and didn't put forth much effort into maintaining contact with him.

I returned home for the summer to work, but it wasn't until just before I went back to school that I saw Russell.  We were stopped at the same intersection, about halfway between his house and mine.  We smiled and waved and blew kisses, and when the light turned green we drove off in opposite directions.

A month or so later, in September, I went to his brother's missionary farewell.  Russell and I chatted in the church foyer for a long while. He mentioned he was dating someone he had recently met through a mutual friend, and that it was going well.  I, of course, begged for details, but he wouldn't give me any.  The sidelong glances he kept making at the group of girls standing on the other side of the foyer stopped me from pressing it any further - I figured he wasn't eager for his brother's gossipy friends to share details of his private life with any members of his family.

We exchanged new phone numbers and emails and promised each other we would be better about staying in touch.  For the next few weeks, we kept that promise.

Then, in early October, I got an email from him which read:
Say you have something you want to tell someone..but you are afraid it will ruin your friendship with this person, because it goes against their belief system..do you tell this person anyway or do you just play it safe and not tell this person?
Unfortunately, I don't have a copy of my exact response, but I told him that if that someone was a real friend, the friendship wouldn't be ruined just because they don't have the same beliefs as you.

My assumption was that Russell was afraid to tell me he didn't believe in the church anymore.  I knew that he wasn't planning to serve a mission, and he had been struggling with the church for a while.  I also knew that he knew I had been spending the last several months playing SuperMormon, first trying to build up my testimony in preparation for The Boy to return from his mission, and then in an attempt to find comfort for my broken heart (a little more about that here).  I figured he was afraid I would reject him - or worse, preach to him.  I would never do that.  Even at my most Mormon, I held rigidly to the idea that there were lots of different ways to be happy, and that everyone must find their own.

The next night, he called.

"I need to tell you something," Russell said.

"So tell me."

"It's... okay.  Remember when I told you I was dating somebody?"

"Yes. What's her name, anyway?  You never told me her name."

He paused.  "I can't tell you.  You have to guess."

"Why can't you tell me?"

"I just can't."

I had been playing a rather loud and obnoxious board game with my roommates when he called, and it had put me in something of a silly mood - I was too worked up to hear the tone in his voice.

"Okay, at least tell me what it starts with."

"S."

I began running through all the S names I could think of.  Stacy, Sarah, Sharon, Samantha, Sandra.  I guessed ten names, twenty, thirty, and he said no every time.  I began to get frustrated with him.

"Is it some really obscure name that I'll never get in a million years?"

"No, it's actually quite common."

And then I knew.  In an instant, I went from not knowing to knowing; an instant more and I went from knowing to knowing that I had always known.  I grabbed a blanket from the couch, wrapped it around my shoulders, and took the phone outside with me.  Now that I was away from my roommates' giggles and squeals and chatter, I could hear the pain in Russell's silence.  I took a deep breath.

"Russ, tell me."

"I can't."

"Tell me."

"I'm afraid to."

"Why?"

"I don't want you to hang up on me."

"I'm not going to hang up on you.  Just tell me."

"You already know."

The next name I guessed was the correct one.

"Steve."

We talked for a few minutes more.  I asked questions - how he and Steve had met, how his parents had reacted, if he had told anyone else.  At the end of the conversation, he thanked me for not hanging up on him.  I told him I loved him.

Then I went inside, collapsed in my bed and wept.

My roommate came in and brushed my hair out of my face while I cried.  "He's gay!" was all I could get out before my words were broken by sobs.  I spent the next day in on autopilot.  I got up, got ready, walked to my biology class, but my mind was on Russell.  I was devastated for my friend.  I knew he had been miserable and depressed and unable to make his life make sense for years, and all I could think about was how being gay would make that even worse.

I had known a few gay people before, in high school, but I wasn't particularly close to any of them.  Russell was the first person I truly loved who was gay.  I had been taught that being gay was a choice, and that it was the wrong choice for anyone who wanted to be happy in the long run.  I couldn't bear the thought of my friend being miserable forever.

I couldn't focus on anything, so I skipped my last class and went to the library to send Russell an email.  I wish so much that I had saved it, so I could look back now and see exactly what I said to him.  I know the gist of it.  I know I told him that gay or straight, he was still my friend and I still loved him.  I know I told him I would never hang up on him.

And I know I told him that even though I didn't understand or agree with his choices, I would support him in whatever he did if he thought it would make him happy.

I am so ashamed of that last part now.

Russell and I kept in touch for another year or so.  He even came down to visit me again.  But the next autumn I moved to Virginia, and he to Arizona, and except for an occasional facebook chat we haven't really spoken since.

Five years after Russell came out to me, a coworker who is a bishop for his LDS ward mentioned that he had received instructions from church headquarters to urge his ward to give of their time and money to fight for California's Proposition 8.  He asked if the letter had been read at my own ward meetings.  It hadn't, and I expressed disbelief that such instructions would come from the first presidency.  I said it was probably some overzealous stake president or area authority who had taken it upon themselves to lead such a charge; surely the church wasn't willing to abandon its politically neutral ground over some state proposal.

Over the next few days, as I began to learn just how willing the church actually was, I was sickened.  I was furious.  I went to church the next Sunday, overheard people talking about Prop 8, and felt nauseous.  I spent Sunday School scribbling in a notebook, trying to sort out the thoughts running around my head.  I had spent the last couple of years doing everything in my power to gain a testimony of the church.  I felt so guilty that I didn't believe, so I had committed myself to reading my scriptures daily, praying daily, taking Institute classes, going to all of my church meetings (even dreaded Relief Society).  I had been working so hard, and not gotten any results.  And now this.  Now the church was doing something that I knew - I knew, like I had never been able to know anything about the church before - I knew deep down that it was morally wrong.  Despicable. Abhorrent.

How was I supposed to gain a testimony of the gospel when the men running the church were so clearly leading it away from the teachings of a loving God?  An institute teacher once told me that the difference between the practices and procedures of the church and its doctrine was that procedures change based on circumstance.  But this blatant suppression of gay rights wasn't being done in the name of procedure - it was being done in the name of doctrine.

I thought a lot about Russell at that time.  It had been a few years since we had last spoken, but I couldn't imagine looking him in the eye and telling him I thought he was less than anybody else.  I couldn't imagine telling him he didn't have the right to be who he was, and to love who he loved, and to marry who he chose.  The church's position, and the way it was enforcing that position, was just plain immoral.

My personal moral code was telling me one thing - my church was telling me another.

I wanted so badly to believe in the church.  I wanted to be able to bear my testimony, to say that I knew it was true.  I wanted to be able to pray in front of other people without feeling like a fraud.  I hadn't been able to do that for as long as I could remember; I felt I shouldn't be praying on behalf of other people when I wasn't even sure there was anyone to pray to.

And then I knew.  In an instant, I went from not knowing to knowing; an instant more and I went from knowing to knowing that I had always known.  I knew that if God was who the Mormon church said he was, I wanted nothing to do with him.  I knew that I didn't believe the church was true.  And I knew that because I didn't believe in it, I shouldn't judge myself by its standards anymore.  The church needed me to have a testimony of its supposed truthfulness - I didn't.

How had I not seen this before?  Why had I told myself for all those years that even thought I didn't believe the church was true, I should assume it was anyway and live accordingly?

The weight was lifted from my shoulders immediately.  In a single moment, I had transformed into someone who was okay with the fact that she didn't believe in the church she was raised in, and who realized that she was a good person after all, and who knew that she wouldn't have to spend another day fighting what she knew in her soul to be right.

Since leaving the church and resetting my life two years ago, I have made lots of new friends, several of whom happen to be gay.  But, when telling stories about them to others, I rarely use the word gay to describe any of them.  I say funny, or unreasonably intelligent, or witty, or sweet.  My friends are smart, beautiful, hilarious, warm, drunkards who are usually happy and always wonderful, and some of them just happen to be gay.  I don't know how all of them view themselves, but in my eyes none of my friends are gay first.  Being gay is just one small part of all the of qualities they possess, and whether they are gay, straight, or bisexual they're still them.  They're still my friends. I look at them and I see just how closed-minded I was with Russell.

I know I could have been a lot worse.  I could have rejected him, scorned him, ended our friendship.  I could have hung up on him, permanently.  I could have treated him the way his parents did in the weeks and months after he came out - cold, cruel, and punishing.

I didn't do these things.  I stayed friends with him.  We still emailed, we still called, we still visited.  He dropped by unexpectedly on Christmas to bring me a present - a bouquet of chocolate kiss roses he had made for me.  Our eventual drift apart was natural, caused entirely by the fact that we were both growing up and beginning our adult lives.  I've never stopped loving my friend.  I never will.

But knowing that I told him I loved him despite "disagreeing with the choices he was making" haunts me.  How could I have allowed a single attribute to void out all of the other marvelous traits he had?  Why did I instantly assume that he was dooming himself to a life of misery?  Why couldn't I see that by coming out, he was allowing himself to finally be exactly who he was, and to finally be happy?

In the LDS church's semi-annual general conference this past weekend, Boyd K Packer gave a sermon with a hateful, vile message.  He, speaking as a prophet of God, told the Mormon population and the world that homosexuality can be "corrected."  Because of my experience with Russell, and because Prop 8 was the driving force that finally caused me to objectively examine my membership in the church, I have a severely tender spot when it comes to the LDS church discussing homosexuality.

Mr Packer, you are an arrogant, spiteful, and irresponsible man.  How dare you yet again stand at the pulpit and spew poisonous comments directed at the LGBT community.  How dare you tell an entire population of people that you know them better than they know themselves.  How dare you treat people you don't even know with such blatant disrespect.  How dare you.

I can't help but worry about how Packer's words will damage thousands of people.  Not only will gay people be afraid to embrace who they really are for fear of being punished by God, but how many parents and siblings and teachers and friends will use these words as justification to reject their loved ones?  How many people will say things they regret to gay friends, because the prophets tell them that these friends are simply making poor decisions?  How many people will, years later, still regret responding to a friend's coming-out by telling them they love them despite "disagreeing with the choices" they are making?

I wish I could go back in time and rewrite that email to Russell.  I wish I could be there for him the way I should have been.  Unfortunately, I can't.  What's done is done, and I can't change it.  If I could, it would say simply this:
Dear Russ,

I love you, now and always.

~Kristen

7 comments:

Word Nerd said...

I wish I could go back in time and save my gay son from those years of church meetings he endured, with leaders telling him he was "an abomination". I didn't know then but I know now. I wish everyone would learn this lesson. Gays are born that way. They do not choose it and it cannot be "repented" of. Just love and accept them whole-heartedly. Please.

Lisa said...

This sounds like something I could've written (the post). I had a friend of mine that I'd gone to school with since junior high. We became friends our senior year of high school (if not the year before). He was an active member of the church. He was dating a girl.

After high school, after my baptism, he began to always try to tell me something, why he couldn't go on a mission. I didn't want to know. It wasn't any of my business. But he was insistent.

Some time later, I received an email. He was gay, he said, and didn't believe a loving Heavenly Father would consign him to a life devoid of romantic love.

My response haunts me to this day, too. "I've 'struggled' with attractions like that too," I wrote (for the first time, mind you), "but I'll never let anything get in the way of the gospel."

I don't remember what else I wrote. I probably said that I loved him, but in the end that was my message. He was weak for doing what he was doing. What the hell did I know? So goddamn dismissive.

I didn't fully get my head out of my ass until Summer-Fall 2008.

Though he's since forgiven me, I can't help but keep trying to atone for it. This is my hot button issue. It stings when people say the ignorant things they say. I hope that one day they'll realize that for themselves.

So, yes. This. <3

Andy Foree said...

Kristen,

Thank you for a beautiful post.

Andy

Too Hard Headed to Give Up said...

It is really THIS issue that pushed me over the edge. I left, because what the church members applaud as standing up for what we believe, and being morally straight and clean and whatever... makes me ill. Its not right. I don't want to believe in a God that would expect me to fight for prop 8. Or vote against my own humanity. Or, tell someone that I really, REALLY love that I can't love THAT about them.

Thank you for writing this!

Too Hard Headed to Give Up said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Just a guy said...

Hey you! Write something current. I like the stuff you've done but it's been like 2 months since you've written. Were you kidnapped?

And I'd totally support you saying scandalous things about mormons. I'm in the process of maybe leaving, and I'm a little angry about some stuff the church does (but not confident in my anger, so people echoing my feelings on the internet helps me shore that up)

Matt said...

Meeting with my bishop tonight to hand in a long, boring, resignation letter and came across yours online. After reading your other stuff it really bums me out that you're not still writing on this blog, but maybe you'll come across this and start up again. I'd love someone to bounce my experiences of leaving off of, and continue to hear theirs as well. Hope all is well, and I was going to say because of what you wrote and how much more at ease I am about tonight as a result of reading it that I love you, now and always, but honestly, even never having met you, there's no need to qualify it like that-I just love you, now and always, period.