Monday, August 4, 2008

The Mission Years

To say my mission was the best two years of my life wouldn’t exactly be the full truth, but I did gain incredible life experiences for which I will always be grateful. The people, the culture, the language, and the friendships I made were incredible. I loved immersing myself in the scriptures in ways I never could do at home, and couldn’t believe that the doctrines of the church that I had grown up with were viewed so unconventionally in average society. For those who might be wondering, I served from 2002 to 2004 in the Texas McAllen mission. Now, just in case there is a random missionary from that timeframe that might be reading this and horrified at the possibility that I was their companion, just let me assure – I feel very blessed, even lucky, to have never been attracted to one of my companions.

That said, in relation to my homosexual feelings and desires, serving a mission was very difficult. That difficulty started in the MTC, where I was forced to shower with other men. For years I had taken myself out of situations where I would be in the presence of undressed men, and I find it slightly ironic that my first experience with a live nude body was seemingly church endorsed. I did everything I could to avoid being in the shower with other people by showering at night, at odd times, or by moving to a different bathroom where the men were, at least, less attractive. Yet the repercussions didn’t escape me, and my thoughts became very difficult to control. I also was robbed of my pornography outlet (again, I was very upfront with my priesthood leaders about this… and this was before the so-called “raising of the bar”). I found myself often seeking solace, even if it was just outside of the dormitory door for ten minutes, where I would write or read scriptures in hopes of relieving the tension.

Things did get better in the mission field, although some days were better than others. I have one companion that I have now told my whole story, and he was the most sensitive companion to my issues. One night, I had had a particularly rough day, and although this person didn’t know what I was struggling with at the time, he did notice that something was bothering me. It was probably my fists that gave it away, sometimes balled up so tightly that the knuckles literally turned white. The physical agony I felt cannot be understood by someone who has not been in a similar situation. This companion looked at me very seriously as he climbed into bed, and said, “I don’t know what is bothering you, and I know you don’t want to talk about it, but just promise me you’ll talk to the mission president if you have another day like today.”

I was so preoccupied that I hadn’t even noticed that he noticed I was preoccupied. I responded by telling him that I was ok, but he was serious about making me promise to see the mission president if I ever felt the same again. In fact, he wouldn’t let it go until I did.

A few weeks later, I was tracting (knocking on doors) with this same companion, when a young man about our age opened the door with his shirt off. As usual, my companion managed to get the man to invite us in, and proceeded to teach our first lesson. I remember the day well, but I don’t remember the discussion. My head literally swam through the whole thing, and the guilt I felt for being preoccupied over this man’s body over his soul was enough to send me spiraling back into that place where I physically hurt. Luckily it was getting late, and I was able to find enough distractions to keep myself from thinking about the man for the rest of the evening. That night, however, my companion said nothing, but gave me a look that reminded me of the promise I had made to him.

That companion told me just four months ago that he suspected I was gay, but that during those hard days he didn’t know what it was that was causing my suffering. He doesn’t remember the man without his shirt (and why should he?), nor did he put together that this man was a trigger that put me into the same place I had been in a few weeks earlier. I told this companion everything during a mission reunion just this last April. He is the only missionary I served with that currently knows me as an out, gay man, and his love and support has been a great pillar to me. Our friendship has only strengthened.

The day following the man without a shirt, I woke up in what could only be considered a depression. I made an appointment with the mission president, as per my promise, and actually had the opportunity to sit down with him that same day. I expected to be sent home, part of me wanted to be sent home, but after asking me a few questions regarding my past and present conduct, I was simply told that I would have an appointment set up in a few weeks with a traveling counselor from LDS Family Services. During the interim between the meeting with the mission president and the appointment with the counselor, my companion was transferred, and I got someone new. When it came time for my appointment, he was allowed to sit outside of the door, but he knew where we were. I kept trying to come up with an excuse as to why I needed to see someone from LDS Family Services, and this new companion of mine was not one to let the subject go easily. I never did come up with an excuse. I eventually just refused to answer his questions.

The counseling session was, to put it simply, a waste of time. The counselor made me feel like a sinner, like someone who was “lucky” to be on a mission as opposed to someone who was working my butt off every day to be there. He gave me a few scriptures to read regarding Nephi’s leaving Jerusalem, which I suppose was to be some way of telling me to leave my homosexuality behind to find “the promised land.” It really is too bad that this counselor didn’t understand that even those men who choose to live some sort of gospel-approved life with this problem, it never, ever, ever gets left behind.

My mission president called me a few days after my appointment to ask me how things went. I responded, “Just fine,” to which he asked if I would like to see the counselor again. My answer was, of course, no thank you. I think the mission president took that to mean that this one counseling session somehow had “fixed” me. Honestly, I felt even worse, but I knew that I was going to be home in a few months, and hoped that at the completion of a successful mission God would see fit to finally bless me with the ability to love a woman.

I was released honorably soon after, with the faith that the gospel and a conventional family was what awaited me.

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