Accepting Rejection, by Hope Dargan
(Or the Second Book of Hope, a continuation of the Book of Hope)
Chapter 7: Memory
The sun was setting, the summer heat was fading and the sky was turning a pleasant purplish orange. I was enjoying my last weekend before the fall semester started, walking towards the movie theater with a friend from church when she asked, "What do you mean when you say you're bi?" Without skipping a beat or a step I answered, "Oh I'm like 85% attracted towards girls, 15% attracted to guys." Later it would become 90%, then 95%.
It was a fall night, just cold enough to see small clouds form and drift away with every breath as we walked towards my dorm. "Wow, it's pretty chilly out here," he observed. I felt an arm slide around my shoulder, which I gingerly lifted and put back by his side. I turned to him and said, "I'm sorry, I just think of you as a good friend." He quipped, "I think of myself as a good friend too." We walked in silence to the door and then said goodbye. Although we had started hanging out as friends, he never messaged me again.
I was in the large common area of the computer science building. The space was filled with people working, talking, eating lunch. She was sitting across from me staring at her laptop screen. I was staring at my bowl full of air and a few red specks of pasta sauce. The silence between us was filled by the empty buzz of nearby conversation. I finally broke it, "So I've noticed you've been pulling out your laptop lately during our weekly lunches. Is something up or are you just busy?" She sighed and said, "I want to be your friend, but I just can't handle you talking about LGBT church stuff." I was stunned but quickly responded, "Uh sure, whatever makes you comfortable." When the semester ended, the lunches stopped and we drifted away a comfortable distance to being acquaintances, exchanging greetings and small updates at church activities.
My finger restlessly traced the patterns on the arm of the padded chair in the bishop's office. I expressed my concerns about the BYU policy reversal and the latest policy changes for transgender members. My bishop listened earnestly, hands clasped as if pleading for some guidance from a higher power. When I finished, he paused slightly before saying, "Have you ever thought about just not reading about this stuff?" I cringed internally, "Well it's kind of hard not to when this affects my life, my future and the lives of other LGBTQ+ members." He nodded, trying to understand, "Hmm well is there anything I can do to help?" I took a nervous breath, "Well actually, I feel pretty burnt out from fulfilling a calling fellowshipping all the new students when I don't feel super welcome in the ward. Could I get released?" I had never asked to be released before. Twenty minutes later, I was raising my hand sustaining my replacement, trying not to think about the surprised looks when I wasn't given another assignment. When school closed two weeks later because of the pandemic I was sad, but also relieved that I would be able to worship at home as I pleased.
The glow from the screen showed Victor from the TV show "Love Victor" coming out to his friends. I searched the faces of the others I was watching with, wondering if they had ever thought about coming out publicly. After the episode ended, we all agreed it was a good show and left it at that. That's the way it goes sometimes in a room of closeted people.
It’s strange to visit my past selves and say, “Look how far I’ve come and how stupid I was back then.” And then think that in another year or two or five I will look back at my current self and say the same thing. Sometimes I get trapped in this state of thought paralysis, like my mind is glued to a screen that plays disjointed scenes from my memory. I try to look for a key, a lesson I could learn or anything I could use to release the ghosts of my past. I'm starting to realize it's not that I need to remember, it's that I can't forget.
Chapter 8: Labelling Uncertainty
It took me twenty years to recognize and name my attraction towards women. It took another few years to come out publicly as bi. As time went on, I knew the label bi didn't describe me the way I wished it would so I started saying, "I'm queer." It's an ambiguous security blanket of a term that captures the only thing I know for certain- I'm definitely not straight. Lately though, the word gay has been stuck in my throat, refusing to come out without a modifier like maybe.
All my life, I've been taught that these feelings are a choice, a temptation, something to be avoided at all costs because God said so. If I just tried harder to ignore them, it would make me happy and blessed. Instead, it left me suicidal and depressed. Although I have come to believe these feelings are good, it has left me with more questions than answers. Is the path towards my conscience instead of what Church leaders say leading me astray? Are the labels I seek to describe my experience starting to define it? Did I leave one closet only to enter another one? The orthodox Mormon part of me craves the certainty of a sentence that starts with “I know” and ends with pointing to church leaders, God, or a fixed identity. I try to have patience with myself, with knowing and unknowing.
In the past year, I’ve started taking queer baby steps. So far it’s gone like this:
Step 1: Have a crush on a friend, look for signs she might reciprocate. If unlikely, go to step 4.
Step 2: Tell my friend I like her. She doesn't feel the same way, try to just be friends.
Step 3: Something happens that causes everything to crash and burn in flames and now we don't really talk even though we're on friendly terms.
Step 4: Attempt to confront the internalized homophobia that tells me to hate me for having feelings for women in the first place. Go back to step 1.
Maybe I’m not gay. Sure, it’s easier with women, but it’s not like I’ve never sensed a potential for connection with a man. Maybe there's an escape hatch, the possibility that I will meet a unicorn guy I'm emotionally, spiritually, and physically compatible with. Maybe I can have the Mormon dream: get married in the temple, be happy raising a family and escape this sense of quiet longing. So far it's mostly gone like this:
Step 1: Start hanging out with a nice guy.
Step 2: Get the sense that he has feelings for me, hope that by getting to know him better the thought of kissing him might start to be appealing?
Step 3: Something happens, I tell him I don't have feelings for him but we can still hang out and be friends. He stops talking to me.
Step 4: Attempt to confront the internalized homophobia that tells me there is something wrong with me for not having feelings for a great guy like him. Go back to step 1.
Once when I expressed all of this to my Mormon therapist, he explained, “There are five doors or questions of attraction: platonic, aesthetic, sensual, romantic, and sexual. Basically, can you be friends? Are they cute? Is it nice to touch/smell them? Do you want to date them? Do you want to have sex with them? Some of these doors will open naturally for you with some people, but there are ways of getting through doors that seem a little stuck at first. For example, after you’re married to a man, you could fantasize about women in order to get aroused and still have a successful marriage in the church.”
Other members have told me, "A spark or infatuation with someone isn’t necessary." "Sometimes you have to really get to know someone before you start to feel attracted to them." "Attraction in a marriage fades anyways." Although I think there’s some truth in these statements, upon hearing them my gut reaction is to run away screaming internally. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen what mixed-orientation marriages where one (or more) partner(s) aren't physically attracted to the other can do to people. From what I can gather from people close to me and to people I've talked with, while there is love and friendship, there is also an emotional and a physical void that neither one can really fill in the other, even with all the prayer, care, and fantasizing in the world.
I know no relationship is perfect and it might work for some people. But I’m hesitant to hurt another person I care about by leading them on in the hopes I develop feelings for them, afraid of becoming a lifelong sacrifice on the altar of obedience and eternal family, and grateful I have the luxury of awareness and choice. As time goes on the door on the hope for the Mormon dream is slowly closing, opening a possibility of finding a woman I can love completely, a future that would certainly come with a good dose of rejection from my family and my faith.
Chapter 9: Accepting Rejection
By virtue of being single, I live in a Mormon grey zone. Even though I disagree with church leaders on issues of LGBTQ folx, women's equality, and church history, after this pandemic is over I could probably get my temple recommend renewed because I haven't actually committed any serious sins in the eyes of church leaders like kiss a woman. With that, I get a certain level of privilege, credibility, and acceptance at church even if some view me as a crazy liberal.
I was raised to believe that the plan of salvation has all the answers, with eternal marriage as the end goal on our covenant path back to God. What about LGBTQ+ people? I’ve been taught Heavenly Father has a one-size-fits-all plan for every one of His unique and beloved children. All I have to do is stay worthy in the eyes of male church leaders (and therefore God) by checking all the boxes of prayer, scripture study, going to church, and not falling in love with women until I die and then my sexuality will go poof, I'll get a husband in heaven and all is will be well.
The desire for acceptance in the kingdom of God both in heaven and on earth has injected me with an overdose of perfectionism mixed with a fear of uncertainty and rejection. As such, I have prided myself on never needing to go to the bishop's office to confess some serious sin like drinking alcohol. The label of worthiness was my protection, my armor, my moral high ground that allowed me to come out while being praised for my faithfulness and long suffering.
I know if I start dating a woman, I will “lose” my worthiness, my acceptance in the community that I have tried all my life so desperately to belong to. Without it, I fear silent judgment will fill the ears of other members and anything I say or do will only be because I want to justify breaking the commandments. Instead of belonging, rejection will come in the form of an orange cylinder of pills labeled "Love and Repentance," prescribed by the bishop. Instructions: Take one when someone observes the sacrament tray pass by me and wonders why I do not partake. Take one when someone asks what my calling is and I say I don't have one. Take one in Sunday school when the teacher quotes the manual that says sexual sin is the third worst sin after murder and denying the Holy Ghost.
I know this because I was raised hearing those whispered judgments and as a result I have felt disdain towards those labeled unworthy by men. Since coming out, I’ve noticed a growing distance as friends have stopped reaching out and others only attempt to bridge the gap of understanding by saying, "That must be really hard" before changing the subject. I suppose I have done the same as I have come closer to friends of other faiths and found belonging with other LGBTQ+ Mormons regardless of their affiliation with the church. Belonging, after all, is a two way street, requiring that I both claim them and they claim me.
Earlier this year, I got burned out trying to desperately both belong and speak my truth. When quarantine started, I stopped attending my ward's virtual meetings altogether but found comfort in home sacrament meeting and community in the intellectual and often progressive crowd at Dialogue Sunday school. Yet I've found myself taking baby steps back to church, joining the ward Zoom call and listening in on Sundays. I recently spoke up in Sunday school for the first time in five months.
Slowly, my need for belonging and to be protected by the armor of worthiness is fading. I'm coming to accept that in order to live according to my conscience I will have to accept the rejection that is present and coming. I believe in the gospel. I believe this church and the principles it has taught me are the foundation for my spiritual home. Despite all reason and rationality that tells me to run for the hills from the institution that has raised me to hate me, I also see the part that has helped me to find me and better me.
I'm not ready to take off all my armor yet. There is still a part of me that hopes and yearns for acceptance and understanding from my faith community. It comes off piece by piece as I embrace a radical shift in everything I was raised to believe about myself. It would probably be safer to accept the church's conditional acceptance and be who they want me to be. It would probably be easier to reject their rejection, say screw them and find my own spiritual path. But for right now, the only path I see for me as a queer Mormon in the church is to learn to accept their rejection and accept myself instead.