I grew up in Snowflake, Arizona a small Mormon community with a long pioneer heritage. I was as active and faithful a member as anyone could have been. But, being gay, I had times of deep depression and even suicidal thoughts. Growing up, I couldn’t imagine my life without the church. It was everything to me and the center of my life. I did everything I could to be faithful and make the gay go away. I had many miraculous and faith building experiences growing up and it did not cross my mind that I could find happiness outside the church. I thought those who said they were happy outside the church were saying that as a way to justify their sins.
It is hard to pick pieces as it was entirely woven into my identity as I grew. I love my heritage, even though it was difficult, I am grateful for my upbringing. I grew up in a long line of politically and religiously active pioneers. My dad is a Hancock, and my mom is a Udall. We have many cousins and extended family in high levels of the church and government. I had one cousin who was the president of BYU (Rex Lee), a forefather who was the first to secretly marry Joseph to his first polygamous wife (Levi Hancock), and many family members in government going back to John Hancock.
I grew up as active as someone could be. I was obnoxiously active, so much so that I thought I was another Nephi, I had many things in common with him. I would only listen to Mormon music and read Mormon books. I often went to bed with tears in my eyes because I was so filled with the spirit.
I knew that my righteousness would cure me of being gay. I had a fantastic childhood with many significant spiritual experiences and miracles. However, there were times of extreme depression and suicidal thoughts because I could not make my gayness go away. I served a youth mission and a regular mission, where I served closely with two mission presidents for over months of my mission. I saw more miracles and had many big experiences; these shaped my desire to work, my grit, and my love of people.
What doctrinal or theological parts of Mormonism did you believe were most important to you?
I think the most important doctrines had to do with those that taught me about myself and how to love others. Some of the lessons taught by the church brought me through my transition out of it, and during my coming out process. I remembered the pioneer spirit, and that led me through the dark times. I did not know where I was heading or how I would get through, but I had faith that God loved me and that I had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Even when I thought suicide was the only answer, I just kept going.
I also loved the spirit of fellowship. I made many friends before and after my transition out of the church and was magically able to keep most of them. I did this by using the things I learned from the church about visiting teaching and fellowship. Even though there were times when family and friends didn’t want to see me, I would still stay in contact with them. I would send them random notes about fun things I remembered about them. I would send them happy birthday messages and thank you cards for their friendship.
What spiritual experiences did you have as a Mormon that sealed your orthodox commitment to the church?
I had many spiritual experiences as a teenager and on my mission. Big and small miracles seemed to happen regularly. Here are a few that I feel I can talk about:
- When I was a kid, I believed I had held back the rain with my prayers until we could get all crops in on multiple occasions.
- On my mission, I believed I healed a child’s mangled hand.
- In the MTC I heard the spirit lead me through the halls and to the door of a missionary who was packing to go home, and I convinced him to stay. I remember the voice leading me very clearly.
- I also uncovered a sex trafficking ring on my mission in Tennessee and helped a man who was the first man ever to tell me he loved me, although nobody in the church would believe me until it was too late, and these people were hidden away and removed from the state.
- When I returned from my mission, I wrote all the miracles and experiences into a book, and it was almost 300 pages long.
What parts of Mormonism were harmful to you?
The advice I received when I told leaders that I was attracted to males was very harmful. There was so much pressure to get married quickly. I was engaged twice to girls. The first was right after I returned from my mission. We were engaged within two weeks. It ended a few weeks before we were going to get married. I ended up moving to Alaska for a bit to “find myself.” The second ended a day after we were engaged as things “didn’t feel right.” I never kissed anyone until I was officially engaged the first time, and then it was the most awkward and uncomfortable kiss imaginable. It happened right after I proposed in front of the temple and then immediately went in for it as soon as she said yes, I cringe every time I think about it.
The words spoken by members about gay people were also very harmful. I remember hearing things that would be said at church, reading The Miracle of Forgiveness, and listening to words friends and family would say, and they terrified me. During the aids’ crisis, I remember hearing that this was God’s way of punishing gay people. I remember going to my room and crying. I was shaking with fear. I didn’t know what it meant, and it was terrifying.
I have also had many unfortunate experiences with my family. While they have never been outright mean, they have had a difficult time accepting me. Not a single family member came to my wedding. This still hurts. But, I have had many people who have become as close as family to me who were there. When my family started coming around, and my husband and daughter were first invited to a family reunion. We were on our way to meet everyone when we got in the elevator, and my oldest brother suddenly got on the elevator. It looked at each of us, he had never met my daughter or husband before, and he muttered something, then turned around and got off the elevator. He never said a word to us the entire time we were there.
How did you lose your faith in Mormonism?
When I was 25, I was elders quorum president of a large singles ward in Mesa, Arizona. I went to a movie with a friend. Afterward, we started talking in my car for almost a couple of hours. Something happened while we were talking and suddenly, we kissed. Everything changed for me during that kiss. It was freeing, it was joyful, and it was filled with so much hope. I was always sure the guilt and the shame would tear me apart if I ever acted on my desires. It didn’t; it was the opposite. I remember going to breakfast with a group of TBM friends the next day, and all I wanted to do was tell them. I was walking on air and I remember how much my cheeks hurt from smiling. I went into the Bishop the next day and asked to be released. I have never been back since. I still believed in the overall doctrine for almost a decade. But, I stopped believing I was a sinner. I knew God loved me. I also knew that I was missing from the plan of salvation. It didn’t have a place for me. I decided to work on my love of God and love for others. I stopped worrying about all the other things.
How do you now explain the spiritual experiences that you had as an Orthodox Mormon?
I think I have always been an intuitive and very lucky person. This has not changed even after I left the church. I have seen miracles since I left the church that are just as profound as those in the church. I have also learned to take joy in the journey and not the destination. I am happy I don’t know all the answers. I once thought that having the answers was the key to happiness, but now I believe the journey to find the answers is where the real joy is. I can’t explain most spiritual experiences, I don’t know why such big things happened to me before and after I left the church. And, I am OK with that. It is an amazing journey trying to figure it all out.
What was transitioning out of Mormonism like for you? What was most painful about it? What was most healing or joyful about the transition?
When I first started my transition, it was around 2005, and I didn’t have many people to help me through it. I believed that the most important commandment was to love God and love my neighbor. I let go of everything else and tried to focus on just those for the first few years. I didn’t focus on Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, or other things. It didn’t even occur to me that the church wasn’t true. I knew God loved me, even though I was gay, and I loved him. And I knew I wanted to focus more on loving my fellow man. My idea of God has since grown immensely. I don’t know if I have exact words for what I believe now, but I believe there is something out there, and I believe whatever that something is, it has high regard for me. But, I am in control of me. And those things that I cannot control are left for me to understand. Although, now and then I feel like I brush up against the divine in profound ways.
In what ways did church leaders or members make your transition more difficult? Were there church leaders or members who were helpful to you? If so, how?
Coming out was difficult because it was coming out as gay and coming out that I was leaving the church. I did not tell very many people at first. But, I did tell a few. I had four particularly challenging friends, and each of them was a girl. Each of them had the same reaction; they first cried and then said they would marry me because they knew we could make it work. Four! The pressure and lessons taught to women in the church are incredibly harmful, especially if it would lead so many of them to jump into a mixed-orientation marriage rather than be single.
Were there church leaders or members who were helpful to you? If so, how?
I never spoke to another church leader after I asked the Bishop to be released. I would not say that I had anyone helpful. But, I had many who tried to be friendly, but it was difficult. I ended up having to do most of the work to keep the friendships and family relationships. And that should be expected. I was the one making significant and dramatic changes. I was the one leaving. Therefore, I needed to be the one to put in the work to assure that they understood I was not changing how I felt about them.
There is one person who did do something particularly surprising, my dad. He is a rancher and a man of few words. I never came out to him. I never told them when I was dating anyone. But, after I had been with my current husband for about four years, we decided to adopt. I called and told them that we were going to adopt. He simply asked, “what do you need?” I told him about the inspections that were required before we could be accepted. The following few weekends, he drove the three hours to help us build a pool fence around our pool, and one of my brothers came to help. It was a lot of work. He never asked, he just drove up and did. That was his way of saying, “I love you, and I want what is best for you.”
What resources were most helpful in your transition out of Mormonism?
After being away from the church for over a decade, I found the CES letter. By this point, I was already married, and we had adopted. I still had not confronted the question of whether the church was true or not. It was not until I read the CES letter that I realized how many problems there were in my beliefs. Because I had been away for a while, the experience of reading this was joyful, not painful.
What significant mistakes did you make in your transition?
There were big mistakes and bad things that happened during my transition out of the church. I was so ignorant about the world and what it means to be an out, gay man. I was raped while visiting a friend in Salt Lake City. I didn’t even know what that meant at the time, mainly because I was a man in my 20’s, plus I was older and bigger than the person who did it. Also, my first boyfriend hid his HIV status for almost a year. When I found out it was crushing. I hid in my car and cried for over 24 hours. I didn’t know what it meant, I thought he would be dead within a few years, and maybe I would be as well.
How has your leaving Mormonism affected your family relationships, friendships, job, neighbor relationships, social life, etc.?
Overall, things are great. My family has slowly come around. They love my husband and daughter and love to have us visit. I don’t think this would have happened if I had a big coming out about being gay or about leaving the church. Instead, we have had small fellowships and small kindnesses with them until they were ready to embrace us.
My friendships have become more meaningful and more profound. Years after coming out, friends that I grew up with began to feel more comfortable telling me about what life was really like growing up. Our little town was not the happy Zionic place that I had assumed. Some had been raped by TBM family members, some were abused both physically and sexually by people they trusted. One close friend had a father who was HIV positive, and their family had hidden it for over a decade. Now, we can talk about things. We can see the reality of who we are and love each other for our strengths and weakness. I only wish we had not been so blind growing up. What a difference our lives would have been if we had been there to help each other through our challenges instead of trying to put on a mask so we could seem like good Mormons.
How have you navigated communication and relationships with believing family and friends? Any tips to keeping those people in your life?
Fellowship and steady, slow kindness are important. Don’t let them push you away for good. Remember that you are the one who changed, and that can be very difficult for them. I had to become the visiting teacher and the missionary for my TBM friends. My advice is to slowly and steadily keep reaching out and offering kind gestures. It may not work for all situations. Even after every single member of my family said they could not attend our wedding. We let them know that we understand and never make them feel like our love and acceptance is dependent on theirs. We continued to reach out even years after.
Which (if any) of your former Mormon beliefs/behaviors have you retained after your faith crisis?
I always knew I wanted a family of my own. And I worked very hard to get it. It was not easy to adopt as two gay men. This was before gay marriage was legal and back when Arizona had laws preventing two men from adopting. I could adopt as a single person, but we could not adopt together. I am glad I decided to continue to fight for my family. We have also created our own family traditions and holidays because those are important. I kept many of the holiday traditions, but instead of leaving most of the Christian holidays behind, we decided to embrace more religious holidays. Because we need more reasons in our life to celebrate, not less.
In what ways have your beliefs/behaviors changed after your faith crisis?
I stopped being limited by what others said was right or wrong, and I found out what is right and wrong for myself. I made many mistakes along the way, but I am glad I took that journey. My world, my faith, and my understanding have continued to expand to encompass all good things, no matter where they come from or what religion they are taught.
I love sitting around and sharing a drink with friends. I used to be scared that drinking alcohol would destroy my life. I believed that alcohol lets you lose control and lose your morals. That is far from the truth. Like most things in life, I learned moderation is essential. I don’t have a desire to drink unless it is to celebrate, with friends, or unless I am discovering the complexities of a really good bottle of wine. I hate being drunk. After Mormonism, I lost the desire to drink massive amounts of soda. I became a vegetarian and changed many other habits that I feel did not fit with me personally. In a way, instead of following The Word of Wisdom, I decided just to be me and be wise. I gave up on all the things that I thought I knew I realized that I could discover things for myself.
What are your thoughts/beliefs now about God and Jesus?
I don’t know how to feel about God and Jesus. There are times when my heart and my head collide. I enjoy believing in a higher being, but I put the responsibility of this life on me. I feel tugs to go in certain directions, and I hope this is the divine. I have been led out of disasters many times in my life, especially over the last few years. Like when I was in a really bad car wreck but miraculously walked away, and then the driver’s company gave us a large sum of money because he was texting and driving in a company van. I lost my job a few weeks later and that money was enough to get us through. I was also on a game show recently (it has not aired yet so we cannot legally give specifics) and something I learned in the church helped us have a great outcome. It was miraculous that I was the one who was chosen (even though we came for my husband to do it). I was probably the only one who knew the answer, and it was at this exact time when we needed it.
Getting our daughter was a miracle. We were told there was no way we could adopt a healthy baby in Arizona, especially at the time when two men adopting was illegal. Yet, when the adoption meeting happened, every person in the room agreed in the first round of voting that we should be the ones who our daughter should be placed with — something that our adviser said that she had never seen. They made the decision within a few minutes and within a few days we had a beautiful baby girl at our door.
It makes it hard not to believe that something or someone is guiding parts of our life.
How do you now make sense of death and the afterlife?
I don’t make sense of it. It is part of the journey. I have a lot of hope about the afterlife and I cherish that hope.
Without the church telling you what is “right” and “wrong,” how do you establish your own sense of morality/right/wrong?
Come to find out, I am better at finding out what is right and wrong for me than a bunch of guys I have never met. I learn through trial and error. I learn through the wonderful examples of those around me. And, I believe I am a good person. I make mistakes all the time, and I am OK with that.
Do you still value “spirituality” in your life (spirituality defined as “connection to something bigger than yourself”), and if so, what are your main sources of spiritual fulfillment?
My spirituality is valued in people and nature. I feel the “spirit” often. I feel it when I am around people and we are experiencing something wonderful together. I feel it visiting the great cathedrals of the world; not because God is there, but because the history, hopes, dreams, and lives of so many generations are in these places. I feel it walking in nature. I feel it when listening to music. And, I feel it sitting on our “magical” couch in our back yard where we spend so much time talking with friends and family.
To what extent have you found healthy and meaningful community to replace the role of the ward/stake in your life?
I have found healthy and meaningful relationships everywhere, and in the most unlikely of places. We search for them, long for them, and they come. We met our daughter’s Godmother and one of our best friends as she was pouring wine at a local store. We have met people who have become like family simply because we took the time to talk to a stranger. My daughter and I often say to each other, “there are more stars in the sky than sand in the sea, and there are more ways to love people than stars in the sky.”
What meaning and purpose does life have to you now that you no longer believe in Mormonism?
My life has more meaning than it did in Mormonism. The church provided a great mechanism for giving meaning, but then it set perimeters on where and how much meaning you should find. Now, I have taken what I learned and have built upon it. I love the journey of “finding meaning” in everything, no matter what the religion or how different it may be from my own.
I think I am a completely different parent than I would have been in the church. I say things like “please don’t try to be perfect,”and “don’t worry about getting married until you have been with the person for years and hopefully until you are 30.” I want my daughter to really experience the richness of life. I want her to make mistakes. I don’t want her to feel any shame about making those mistakes.
We talk about everything. She knows that there is no topic off limits. We rejoice in mistakes; we share our own mistakes about everything openly. When we say “we love you always, no matter what” we mean it and not just in a “as long as you follow the rules” kind of way. I know what it means to be on the outside because you don’t meet the standards of the family. And, to not have a single family member show up at your wedding because it is not what they believe. I don’t ever want her to feel that way. My little family knows they are my choice, and always will be.
If you are married or have a significant other, how has leaving Mormonism affected this relationship?
My husband has never been a member of the church and he did not know me while I was active. But, the church left some mental scars on me and we had to deal with those. We even went to some couples counseling to help with it, which I would recommend to everyone. It is great to have someone ask you questions and help look at things in a different way.
How has leaving Mormonism affected your mental health?
Leaving was very freeing. Simply put, I forgive myself, I love myself, I accept my flaws, and I expect them.
How has leaving Mormonism affected your sexuality?
Leaving Mormonism allowed me to be a sexual person. In Mormonism I was told what type of sexual person I had to be. Outside Mormonism, I was allowed to find my own sexuality and I learned it was much more complex than being gay or straight. I learned to be accepting of myself and others, no matter who they are and especially not because of who they love.
What aspects of your life are better after Mormonism?
I think I am a better person out of Mormonism. I find it easier to understand people. I don’t try to put them in boxes like I used to. I love exploring things outside of what used to be my comfort zone. I love to find new ideas and exploring cultures different from my own. My world has expanded exponentially. In Mormonism, we talk about worlds without number, and yet, how could we hope to manage countless worlds when our time here was spent trying to keep this one so small.
I believe I love better outside of Mormonism. I had many walls and rules. I was trying to manage all these walls, and it was hard to let people outside in. In reality, the walls and the rules ended up excluding almost everyone. I see now that I could have had many more wonderful friends growing up if I just would have given them a chance.
I am less stressed out of the church, even though my responsibilities are much greater now. I don’t feel the need to make everything work. I don’t feel the need to be perfect, look perfect, or force my family to look perfect. I can sleep peacefully now. I can make a mistake and realize that it is mine alone to fix, I don’t have to confess it except to those who I know can help. It is freeing to have control over my own mistakes and have say over my happiness.
I found a journal not too long ago from when I was young, and in it, there was a list of everything that I wanted out of life. I wrote this just before I went to the temple for the first time. What is impressive is that I have everything on that list, but my life is much bigger and more fulfilling than I planned.
I am married, have a beautiful family, have a doctorate, and a fantastic job.
What is your life still missing? In what ways could your life still be improved without Mormonism?
What I have gained is more significant and more profound than what I left. I do miss parts of the fellowship and structure. We have tried many churches. But most tend to feel like they are shrinking my world, not expanding it. We recently created what we call The Church of Brunch, and that has seemed to make all the difference. On Sunday mornings, we go with a group of friends to enjoy a fun setting, good food, drinks, and, most of all, great conversations.
What final advice would you give folks who are transitioning?
I would love to be able to encourage other LGBT people to keep going even when things seem impossible. I have been there. I have prayed for the “mountains to fall upon me.” I have sat with a gun in my mouth and tears pouring down my eyes. I am glad that I didn’t, because it can get better. I thought I was destined for a life of endless and complete devotion so that I could “work things out in the next life.” I thought I would not be worthy of love in this life. I was so wrong. The blessings in my life and love that I have been given are overflowing and still miraculous.
Go at your speed. You don’t have to immediately “come out.” This goes for those leaving the church and LGBTQI+ people. Do what is best for you. Take time, keep moving forward, and find meaningful relationships. The relationships are key. It is crucial to find a group who are “your people.” These can be hard and may require a lot of work, so put on your missionary hat and keep tracting until you find them and gird up your loins with the pioneer spirit and keep pressing on.
Try to find joy in the journey. Often, in the church, we tend to start with the answers given to us by the brethren, and then fit the questions into those answers. Instead, find joy in the questions, and in the journey, don’t worry about having all the answers. And, if you need something to focus on, try just focusing on the two great commandments, love God and love thy neighbor. If you find it hard to believe in God, then just focus on loving your neighbors. It may take lifetimes to get those right, and that should be enough.