According to Tonya Miller, coming out is a process, not an event. At least, that’s what she witnessed with her son Andy. And despite the spiritual ambiguity that still surrounds being a gay Latter-day Saint, the important thing is that Andy feels safe being himself, something he had never experienced before.
My son Andy identifies as a gay Latter-day Saint. It would be convenient if I could write about my experience of being Andy’s mom as though it were a story told with the wisdom of hindsight and the benefit of resolution. However, it’s difficult to write an account of events, thoughts, and feelings that are so deeply connected to every aspect of my life. As such, what follow are really just snapshots taken from an eternal story that is still unfolding.
There were many moments during Andy’s life, even from the time he was an infant, when I felt strong impressions that he was gay.
Knowledge like that is puzzling, so I did what many people do with impressions that are more confusing than revelatory at the time they are received, which was to try to ignore them.
Andy came out to me the summer between his high school graduation and moving to attend BYU. He told me he was gay one night when just he and I were driving somewhere. His decision to do so was largely pragmatic; he hoped I would stop nagging him to date more. I don’t remember many of the details of that specific conversation. Looking back, I know I said some things that were clumsy and probably insensitive. But by the time we were done talking and driving that night, Andy knew without a doubt that I love him and that my love comes with no strings attached. Being his mom always has and always will bring me joy.
As Andy and I had been driving around and talking that night, I had sworn to myself I would never let Andy see me cry about him being gay. So of course, the minute we got home, I climbed into bed and started sobbing. Everyone else at home was asleep when we got there. Dylan, my husband, woke up and asked if I was all right.
Me: “Did you know Andy is gay?”
Me: “Well, he is. He just told me.”
Dylan: “Okay. Do I need to do anything about it tonight?”
Me: “Maybe just go tell him that I told you?”
So Dylan got up, went downstairs, knocked on Andy’s door, and asked to come in. He gave him a hug and said, “Mom told me. I love you.” Then he came back upstairs and was asleep three minutes later. Andy describes that as one of the most poignant experiences of his life.
I mention this second story because it supports my deeply held belief that Andy is our son by divine design. Dylan is a scientist, a physician, trained to diagnose quickly and with precision. He perceives the most relevant aspects of most situations almost immediately. I, on the other hand, am a social worker, a therapist. I approach problems as multifaceted and multifactorial. I want to explore each aspect of an issue, despite its possible relevance to a positive outcome, for the sake of the process itself. All stories feel sacred to me. The fact that Dylan and I managed to convey the same message of complete love to Andy in the same night in our distinct ways has always been a testament to me that the Lord has guided us from day one in this journey together.
Regardless of the fact that my love for Andy didn’t change after he told me, I still felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me spiritually.
I had a lot of questions and a lot of fears. My way of finding the peace and answers I sought was to go to the temple—a lot. The question I took to the temple was the same every time.
My experiences in the temple during that time galvanized my faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ. They also solidified my knowledge that Heavenly Father knows each of His children intimately and loves every one of us more deeply than we can comprehend. Many times I left the temple feeling disappointed because I didn’t have any “aha!” moments. But one of the things I learned during that time was that answers to spiritual questions often come only after a lot of spiritual work. Showing up at the temple each week was only part of the effort required to develop the relationship I needed with the Savior to guide me.
In the meantime, I often felt isolated and sad. I worried that my pride-based grief over not being able to produce the stereotypically perfect Latter-day Saint family interfered with my ability to receive guidance. Satan had a heyday with me. Every question I had about “The Plan” ate away at my confidence. I felt like I was on an emotional and spiritual teeter-totter. I was constantly vacillating between highs and lows. I know now that those experiences were vital to being able to find and share the peace that I eventually gained.
One of the greatest gifts I received during that season of my life was the ability to live with, for lack of a better term, spiritual ambiguity.
I don’t have all the answers to spiritual questions that surround same-sex attraction. I want answers, but I can’t have them now.
Andy shared his sexual orientation with his priesthood leaders before submitting mission papers. He served five months of his mission to Uruguay before being honorably released. During his mission he experienced deep depression and severe anxiety. As part of the process of healing from mental illness, Andy decided he would like to be able to live more authentically and identify openly as a gay Latter-day Saint.
Dylan and I asked that Andy wait to tell others until we could share his experiences with family members, which he graciously agreed to. The prospect of telling his siblings filled us with concern. Andy is the oldest of our four children; his younger sister was 16, and his younger brothers were 11 and 7 at the time. The 11-year-old is on the autistic spectrum. After a lot of thought and prayer, we decided to bring it up at family home evening. It went something like this, with the dialogue being geared toward Andy’s younger brothers:
Dylan: “Have you guys ever heard the words homosexual or gay or lesbian?”
Both brothers: “Yes!”
Me: “Do you know what that means?”
11-year-old: “I think it means they are ‘goth’—like they wear black and have lots of body parts pierced.”
Me: “Okay, well, I’m sure there are homosexuals who are also ‘goth.’”
Dylan: “Homosexual means that someone is attracted to someone of the same sex. So a gay man would be attracted to men, and a lesbian would be attracted to women.”
Me: “Do you guys know anyone who is gay?”
Both boys: “No way.”
Me: “Actually, you do! I’m going to give you some hints, and you tell me when you have figured it out. This person’s favorite color is blue. His favorite food is ravioli. He speaks Spanish. He loves airplanes.”
11-year-old: “Andy?!” (Followed by peals of laughter.)
7-year-old: “Aw, c’mon, you mean we’ve got a gay brother?!” (Melts into giggles.)
Dylan: “We just wanted you guys to know that. You will probably have questions, and we can talk about it anytime. It’s not a secret or anything. It’s not bad. Do you have any questions right now?”
11-year-old: “I do. Can we go back downstairs and play Nintendo?”
And that was it.
After telling our other children, we sent an email to our parents and siblings entitled “Out and About,” explaining a few things about Andy’s experiences as a gay Latter-day Saint, but mostly expressing our love for him and the joy that he brings to our lives. There was no social media announcement, no blog. It just wasn’t a secret anymore.
Gradually we have all told people here and there. At this point none of us is exactly sure who does and doesn’t know.
It is especially poignant for me now to watch him navigate life on his own terms, feeling confident in who he is and where he would like to go and who he will become.
I remember one day, not long after Andy came out to me, when I was wondering to myself, “If I could just know what it’s like to be him, maybe I would understand better. Maybe I could worry less for him.” The Spirit spoke clearly to me in that moment, teaching me that I was asking a pointless question. The question I should ask was “How can I be the mother he needs?”
I believe that is essentially the question each member of the Church can ask with regard to this issue: “How can I be the brother or sister in the gospel that this person needs?” The answers will be as individual as each child of God. But I can say, without a doubt, the spiritual journey this question can take us on is beautiful, affirming, hopeful, and reflective of our personal commitments as disciples of Christ.