Some have asked why we’re doing the Voices of Hope project when there are other projects out there. There’s a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is implicit in the following email I received a couple weeks ago from a mother after reading LDS Living’s recent report on the project:
“My 17 yr old daughter committed suicide on May 23rd of this year and had confided in me that she had SSA. She was the perfect LDS young woman. Her room was full of scripture sayings, her scriptures, and beautiful family pics. She read your article in LDS Living two days before she shot herself because she had no other positive church-based examples to turn to.
This mother lamented that her daughter had for so long felt conflicted between her desires to live her faith and only seeing the stories of people who felt they had to leave the Church or pursue same-sex relationships in order to reconcile their faith and sexuality. She had already spiraled into a depression, and by the time she came across the article she was already deeply suicidal. Her mother felt that if her daughter had had more resources earlier in her life, and more examples of people who had found peace and happiness in the Church, she wouldn’t have come to the place of despair that spiraled so quickly to her suicide.
So, the short answer to why we’re doing this project: to save lives—spiritual, emotional, physical.
As a side note, suicide and suicidal ideation is a complex issue that I don’t want to trivialize or lay blame or cause for in any one factor. There are many, many factors that can create a “perfect storm” leading to suicidal ideation (see an interesting piece on suicide in the Deseret News by psychologist and columnist Wendy Ulrich). Two that seem to show up frequently with regard to homosexuality is deep shame (feelings of being inherently wrong, broken, bad, unworthy, or unlovable) and a feeling of being stuck, isolated and lonely, and not having any hope for a meaningful resolution.
The long answer to why we’re doing this is a bit more nuanced. One of the things that led me to feel most isolated and alone and depressed as I started coming to terms with my own sense of my sexuality was that when I started opening up, wanting to find and talk to other Latter-day Saints who really understood what I was going through, I just couldn’t find very many who were living the kind of life I wanted—and who felt a genuine sense of peace and joy in it. I wanted to believe I could have a loving, eternal marriage with a traditional family of my own.
There was a part of me that believed it was possible—or at least wanted to believe it was possible—but there weren’t many ready examples of those doing it. While some may feel trapped in the Church, being told that what they really want—a gay relationship—or “who they are” is bad or sinful, I felt trapped by the sense (as well as the messages of those who challenged the teachings of the Church on homosexuality) that the genuine desires of my heart were unattainable—that I couldn’t have what I most deeply wanted while still “being true to myself.”
Through a variety of experiences, spiritual and otherwise, that led me to a place of resolution and peace in the gospel, and a desire to adhere to my covenants with God whether I married or not, I was able to move forward in the Church in a way that worked for me, even if it didn’t seem ideal. Over time, I began to meet more and more people who were like those I had longed to see as I initially began coming to terms with everything. As I continued to grow spiritually and emotionally, not only did I begin to see my own experience with same-sex attraction as a blessing and a critical, formative part of developing a faith and hope in Christ that truly nourishes me, I began to meet others who felt the same.
Consider the following, contrasting email I received from someone who contacted me about participation in the Voices of Hope project subsequent to our initial announcement:
“Ty, Thanks for all you do. I’m glad to say my wife and I feel we relate to you both so well as we share the similar blessing of SSA in our home. We would love to participate in your Voice(s) of Hope project…
“I can’t believe how this self discovery I’ve experienced and understanding my SSA side has really helped me…both inside and out. I feel more spiritual, my marriage has actually improved, I’m more confident, and I’ve even lost 30 pounds this year and am in the best shape of my life.
“SSA is probably the best thing that ever happened to me and one of the greatest gifts my Father in Heaven could have given me.”
I’ve met scores and scores of people who have shared a similar sentiment. The purpose of the Voices of Hope project is, one, to provide forum for such folks to share their stories with a wider audience and, two, to provide a living witness of possibilities for the men and women who genuinely desire to live a life in harmony with the gospel of Jesus Christ and within the framework of the Church and who may find encouragement and inspiration in hearing the stories of others who have done so before them. And in such a way that might demonstrate that there is no “one path” or “one right way” to do so, even while living firmly within the umbrella of fidelity to prophetic teachings on chastity and that appropriate bounds of sexual expression.
And my belief is that in doing so, we can also help save the lives of those who want to believe such a life is possible but spent too much of their life either being told that it isn’t or feeling alone and despondent because they have no one to talk to who is doing it. After some further correspondence with the mother quoted above, this was apparently the case. By the time the LDS Living article came out, she had spent so much time in depression and shame that she was overtaken by it and still just didn’t feel she could go on anymore.
Elder Richard G. Scott taught that “throughout the ages, many have obtained guidance helpful to resolve challenges in their lives by following the example of respected individuals who resolved similar problems.” Our hope is that while the Voices of Hope project is purposed to give voice to a variety of stories of faithful Latter-day Saints, it is also our hope that no individual one of these stories be seen as “the” right path that anyone else “should” follow—only that the collective of these stories can open the way to imagination and possibility. It is our responsibility, then, as eternal, agentic beings to write and create our own stories in intimate communion with our Father in Heaven and our Savior.
Elder Scott similarly went on to say—noting that “world conditions change so rapidly” anymore that following the examples of others is not always a possibility—“Personally, I rejoice in that reality because it creates a condition where we, of necessity, are more dependent upon the Spirit to guide us through the vicissitudes of life. Therefore, we are led to seek personal inspiration in life’s important decisions.”
Thus, our ultimate desire is not simply to tell stories for the sake of telling stories, but rather to tell stories that might witness of the power of Jesus Christ, inspiring others to turn more fully to Him and to trust more deeply in His ability to give “beauty for ashes” (Isaiah 61:3), and to consecrate all of life’s difficulties for our ultimate blessing and gain. Our hope is to help more men and women who desire to remain true to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ come to a place where they can do so with a greater measure of hope and peace and positivity and imagination.
Discussion of the Voices of Hope project began after the LDS Living article my wife and I wrote and the flood of feedback I received from folks who have similarly chosen to stay with the faith. The response was overwhelming. I think I received more feedback from that one article than I did from both In Quiet Desperation and Voices of Hope combined. And because of the venue, it reached a different audience. Many of these folks were not aware of me or of North Star or any of the “support” resources that are out there. Most haven’t been involved with the varied available support resources because they’re happy and doing well in their lives.
As time goes on and the more people I meet, I become increasingly convinced that the conversation around this issue, and the proportional representation of who has chosen what paths in response to their homosexual attraction, has been so skewed for so long that the stories of those who happily stay in the faith (to say nothing of those who have successful heterosexual marriages) are perceived as incredibly rare (hence, Josh and Lolly Weed’s “Club Unicorn” branding), and I’ve come to believe that they simply are not. One hope with the Voices of Hope project is that in telling the stories of folks who have chosen to stay in the Church, and to feature the sheer volume and the diversity of them—1,000 voices is our goal—we can help shift some of the erroneous, even if common, cultural perceptions.
As a final thought, I want to add that while I believe the focus, scope, and approach of the Voices of Hope project is important in its objective, it’s also not the only important way to tell the story of those who experience homosexual attraction. There are other projects, such at the Far Between documentary project, the Voices of Change project, and others, are also meaningful ways to approach the conversation, even as they have different stated objectives. I believe that different projects can be complementary in telling a bigger human story, even though on a more proximate level individual stories and life paths can vary greatly. There is room for each of these projects, and there is room for more. The only way for a fuller, more textured truth to reveal itself is for as many people to enter the conversation, adding their unique insight and experience, as possible.
From my perspective, it’s important to acknowledge that not all issues surrounding mortality, including homosexuality, are as clear-cut as we would like them to be. Even when we may not always agree with what others have to say we should not be afraid of sincerely opening our minds and hearts to simply listen—to understand the length and breadth of what it means to be human from the perspectives of others whose mortal experiences, challenges, or beliefs have been different from our own. We need not compromise revealed doctrines or inspired convictions in doing so. In fact, such explorations may provide us with opportunities to more fully discover the godly heart and divine nature—where we come to know more fully of the Savior’s infinite love for each of our Father’s children.