Ryan and his wife have been married for 18 years and are the parents of four daughters. They recently moved from Oregon to Utah. Ryan is actively involved with North Star International, a resource for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who experience same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria. Ryan and his wife have sat on panel discussions regarding same-sex attraction at the North Star Conference and in stake firesides. The following message was originally given during a North Star fireside. Listen to Ryan’s full story on the Leading Saints podcast.
A number of years ago, I was working at a conference and one of the guest speakers was a man named Erik Weihenmayer. I was impressed and inspired by his story. Erik was born in 1968 and enjoyed a very active childhood with various athletic pursuits. At age 5 he was diagnosed with juvenile retinoschisis – his sight began to diminish rapidly until his early teens when he became completely blind.
At the age of 16, he discovered that he enjoyed rock climbing – an activity that most of us who can see do not attempt. After graduating from Boston College and becoming a middle-school teacher and high school wrestling coach – he continued to pursue his love of climbing along with his friends and supporters. He climbed up the face of El Capitan in Yosemite and a 2,700-foot vertical ice wall in the Himalayas which took 2 and a half days. These accomplishments became mere footnotes after he successfully summited Mount Everest in 2001, becoming the first blind person in history to reach the summit. And by the end of 2002, he had successfully summited the tallest peak on each of the 7 continents, known as the Seven Summits.
While I’m not generally interested in athletic pursuits, I found his story to be fascinating and inspiring. As I thought about his achievements, despite his lack of sight, it caused me to wonder… did he accomplish these things “in spite of” his inability to see? Or – was he determined to accomplish these things “because of” his inability to see? I believe that his uniquely human condition, which some might see as a weakness or disability, was, in fact, the motivating force that inspired him to climb.
Of course, he did not attain any of these accomplishments entirely on his own. All of these climbs were made with a support team of skilled individuals who could supplement his capabilities in the areas he was lacking – specifically, he surrounded himself with people who could see what he could not.
Many of us are attempting to climb our own Mount Everest. We have each been gifted a unique set of challenges and personal circumstances that sometimes make the task seem daunting or even impossible. Perhaps we would do well to enlist the help of others in our personal journeys. To surround ourselves with a support system and community that can help us navigate the rocky cliffs, and slippery slopes and fissures in the ice.
When I was a young boy, I enjoyed reading and art and drama and music. I excelled in my schoolwork and played the lead role in my elementary and middle school musicals. I enjoyed going to church and learning about the Gospel. I felt happy and confident about life and about my future.
But there was this nagging feeling in the back of my mind, or a pit in my stomach, that started out small and continued to grow. I began to realize that I was different than my peers. And my peers certainly noticed that as well and they never missed an opportunity to bring that to my attention. I began to feel alienated from the kids my age.
Toward the end of my middle school years, I began to withdraw socially, and my grades started to suffer. My personal challenges were beginning to feel really heavy. That happy, confident feeling about life and about my future was disappearing and in its place depression set in.
The hardest part for me was sitting in church and learning about the wonderful blessings of eternal families and contrasting that with the fact that I wasn’t feeling any sense of attraction toward girls. In fact, quite the opposite. This onslaught of personal feelings of same-sex attraction and contradictions between what I wanted to achieve in life and how my personal feelings might interfere with that, became burdensome.
In the book, “Voices of Hope” a man in a similar situation shared his feelings in this way: “My sense that I was different from other boys was pronounced by the time I reached my mid-teens. I was keenly conscious of my attraction (to men) by then and deeply anxious about what it might mean for my life. I stuffed these feelings down as deep and far away as I could within me. There was little understanding at the time within the Church or society at large about same-sex attraction, and I perceived absolutely no resources for me at that age to support or reassure me in what I was going through. I felt that I could never tell my parents or Church leaders because, in my naiveté, the only possible response I could imagine from them would be shock, disgust, and rejection…I didn’t have any information to help me understand how the Church might view the difference between having an unbidden feeling and acting on that feeling because there was no dialogue anywhere at that time that provided access to such thinking.”
I felt similarly. The lack of dialogue sometimes caused me to feel alone, alienated and confused. When I was 22, I decided that I wanted to serve a full-time mission. I had been putting it off because of my uncertainty about myself and what path my life was going to take and I had found success in a career path at a young age, so I’d need to put that on hold.
Things became further complicated for me when, just a few months before leaving on my mission, my mother (who had been a single mom all my life – my parents had divorced when I was less than a year old) told me that she had begun a relationship with a woman and was leaving the Church.
This was devastating and confusing to me – and I entered the missionary training center an emotional wreck. The mission was an amazing experience for me. I learned so much about the Gospel, my testimony was strengthened, I made some excellent friendships and I look back on my mission experience with fond memories.
But it was also the most difficult period of my life. I sank further into depression, even having suicidal thoughts at one point, and just felt so confused and hopeless about what the future might hold for me. I was attempting to sort through really complicated feelings and navigate this confusing and challenging journey entirely on my own. I refused to ever confide in anyone what was going on, and in doing so, I never allowed anyone to be of any help or support to me. I had built up a wall around me in the hopes of keeping everyone out. It took me decades to realize that this wall only served as a prison for myself.
Shortly after my mission, and with some divine guidance, I was led to the woman who would become my wife. The Spirit testified strongly that we were to be eternal companions. Meeting Kerrie and developing our friendship and relationship helped me to focus on something more positive and helped pull me out my depression. We were sealed together in the Oakland temple in May of 2000 and began our journey as a married couple.
Our marriage has followed the story arc of many marriages – job changes and career advancements and moves and children and houses and callings in the church and all the trappings that come with marriage.
But I was still trying to navigate my challenges alone and without support. One day, about 7 years ago, just a few months after I had been called to serve on our stake high council, I happened upon an article in LDS Living Magazine that was written by Ty and Danielle Mansfield. In this article, Ty and Danielle talked about Ty’s journey with same-sex attraction. I was fascinated. It was the first time that I had ever heard of someone else in the Church who was like me. I began to wonder if I should open up that dialogue with my wife. I went through a process of thinking maybe I should, to maybe I shouldn’t, to maybe I have to. But I just couldn’t figure out how to go about that and what the potential ramifications might be.
Four more years passed, and I just couldn’t bring myself to say the words. But the Lord had a plan to intervene. The Lord knew that I needed to open up. I needed support, and He designed a series of circumstances that would open the doorway for me to have the conversation and start the dialogue. So, 15 years into my marriage, I finally said the words that I had been avoiding for the first 40 years of my life.
My wife was amazing and kind and loving in her response. She made it clear that she was here for me and that we could figure this out together. This began a series of events and circumstances that would open up this dialogue even further for me, in my personal friendships, at Church, and within the North Star community.
Over the past three years, I’ve worked on finding resources for myself and participating in a community where I can be helpful to others. I’d like to share with you a few ways in which I have found support and community.
We’re all familiar with the scripture in Matthew chapter 22. In answer to the question, “which is the great commandment in the law?”, Jesus replied: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” These are two commandments, but clearly, there are three people, or groups of people mentioned. The first being God – we must love God with all our heart, the second our neighbors (or in other words, every other human being) – we must love our fellow man, and the third being yourself.
It is a commandment that you love yourself. One of Satan’s most powerful tools is to lure us into thinking negatively about ourselves – leaving us feeling ashamed, unworthy, depressed and without hope. We must not allow the adversary to lure us into feeling that we are less than, or unworthy of God’s love. We are children of God, with divine potential. It is important that we recognize that. It is crucial that we start thinking about ourselves in that way. It is important to recognize that, even though we may struggle with very complicated challenges in our lives, we have great reason to be happy and hopeful about our futures.
One of the fundamental shifts in my life, was when I started to see myself for who I am, rather than what I thought I was lacking. It is important to be patient with yourself in your struggles and to know that you are “enough”, and worthy of God’s love, even as you are weathering difficult storms.
Family and Friends
I have found a great sense of support and community within my family – specifically within my marriage. I have discovered that the Lord placed a very special individual in my life who is very capable of being my friend and being supportive to me. Sure, we’ve had our share of awkward conversations. It hasn’t all been easy. But we are figuring it out, and we are walking this path together.
I have also found great friendship and support by opening up to my close friends. By choosing to be vulnerable, and to share something very personal about me, I have found that my friendships with others have moved far beyond the superficial conversations and into much deeper connections. Almost without fail, when I have opened up to friends – they, in turn, have shared their challenges with me. I thought I had the market cornered on having personal challenges but, as it turns out, everyone is dealing with something.
Relationships and friendships can provide the support we need and create an environment of growth. Terryl and Fiona Givens, authors of The God Who Weeps wrote, “We pass through birth and death as individuals. But the years in between are filled with the unceasing search for community, for companionship, for intimacy. Affection, friendship, romance, and charity dominate our social existence, revealing our lives to be an ongoing, comprehensive effort to find and secure relationships and connections on every conceivable level.
Relationships are the core of our existence because they are the core of God’s, and we are in His image. God’s nature and life are the simple extensions of that which is most elemental, and most worthwhile, about our life here on earth. However rapturous or imperfect, fulsome or shattered, our knowledge of love has been, we sense it is the very basis and purpose of our existence. It is a belonging that we crave because it is one we have always known.
As our experiences in marriages, families, and friendship teach us, it takes relationships to provide the friction that wears down our rough edges and sanctifies us. And then, and only then, those relationships become the environment in which those perfected virtues are best enjoyed.”
Our Church Community
I have found great comfort and support in talking to my Priesthood leaders and friends within The Church. When I first opened up about my same-sex attraction, I was serving on our stake high council at the time. My stake president told me how much he loved and respected me. He instructed me that it was time to let go of all the shame I had carried. He made me feel valued and respected within our stake. I continued to serve on our stake high council for several years after opening up.
I really feel like things have been evolving within our church culture that are leading to a more productive and uplifting dialogue about LGBT challenges. We, as a church, are figuring out how to be more empathetic and compassionate and how to offer love and support to those who are struggling. To be completely candid – I have felt, historically, that this wasn’t always the case. But it is rapidly improving and evolving.
President M. Russell Ballard has taught, “We need to listen to and understand what our LGBT brothers and sisters are feeling and experiencing. Certainly, we must do better than we have done in the past so that all members feel they have a spiritual home where their brothers and sisters love them and where they have a place to worship and serve the Lord.”
There are times when our brothers and sisters within the church may do and say things in regards to LGBT challenges that may demonstrate a lack of understanding. We need to be patient and forgiving towards others as we hope they would be toward us.
Wendy Ulrich, wrote in Voices of Hope: “Your early experiences with the Spirit built your confidence in God and the Church, even amid questions and self-doubts. If you are like me, you assumed that as you grew up in the gospel you would conquer your doubts, overcome your weaknesses, and find a secure, comfortable place in the Church.
But as we return from missions, pursue education and careers, form families and raise children, or in other ways face the challenges of adulthood, we may also realize that our temptations and trials, personalities and predispositions, doubts and difficulties are not all magically resolved.
As we sense that we are in for a long haul, we may wonder if we are headed down the right road or if we have the stamina for the journey ahead.
God can be frustratingly silent about our concerns, and we may wonder if we can place our trust in Him. The Church can be frustratingly vocal about its teachings and standards, and we may wonder if it really speaks to us. We can be frustratingly feeble against our temptations or challenges, and we may wonder if we have it in us to keep trying.”
There may be times when we come across a certain gospel doctrine, or church policy, or instruction from a living prophet, that may not make sense to us initially. It may even make us feel uncomfortable.
Because each of us brings to the table a completely different set of life circumstances and family situations and strengths and weaknesses – each of us are looking at the world from a slightly different perspective. Our prophets are trying to help us see the world from the Lord’s perspective. To help us keep our sights focused on the things that will bring eternal happiness.
President Eyring shared this concept in a talk he gave in 1997 titled, “Finding Safety in Counsel” and his words have stuck with me for many decades. “Sometimes we will receive counsel that we cannot understand or that seems not to apply to us, even after careful prayer and thought. Don’t discard the counsel, but hold it close. If someone you trusted handed you what appeared to be nothing more than sand with the promise that it contained gold, you might wisely hold it in your hand awhile, shaking it gently. Every time I have done that with counsel from a prophet, after a time the gold flakes have begun to appear and I have been grateful.”
Many times I have been faced with a situation or teaching within the Church that I have not immediately understood or felt comfortable with. I have chosen to adopt this practice. I hold it in my hand awhile and wait for the gold flakes to appear. They inevitably do.
Talking about our challenges requires humility, and puts us in a position of vulnerability. This is hard. It’s hard to talk about personal things, especially when that personal thing has significant ramifications within a gospel context. But unless you’re willing to engage in a dialogue, you can’t possibly expect that anyone could be of any support to you.
In our ward families, do we make and sustain meaningful friendships where we can inspire and uplift each other? And are we willing to sometimes make ourselves vulnerable – to share our struggles with someone we trust – so that we can receive the support we need and learn together? Did we not all make the same covenant when we were baptized – that we would mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort?
North Star Community
Shortly after opening up to my spouse and to friends and church leaders, I got involved with North Star. I have loved finding this community where people are willing to be open and vulnerable and talk about hard things, and where I feel completely understood.
I think that was one of the biggest challenges in my youth and even into adulthood – I felt like society at large and the church at large couldn’t relate to, or understand what I was going through. I felt isolated and alone.
One of my favorite childhood books and one that I love reading to my own children is “Horton Hears a Who”, the Dr. Seuss classic. In this story, Horton the elephant becomes aware of a group of people who are different (mainly in size – as compared to all the other animals – in fact, they are so small that their entire world exists on a small speck of dust) and therefore they are marginalized by all the other animals in his jungle. They cannot, or choose not to see or hear them, or even acknowledge their existence.
Horton decides that he is going to protect them. He places the small speck of dust on a soft clover and carries it around, making it his mission to look after them. The angry kangaroo (who was sort of the self-appointed leader of this jungle kingdom) insists that because she can’t see them, they must not exist and therefore she just wants them gone.
She instructs her henchmen, the jungle monkeys, to snatch the clover holding the speck of dust and hand them off to the black-bottomed eagle to whisk them away to a place where they can be forgotten and ignored. The eagle hides them in a vast field of clovers where they will never be found. But Horton won’t stand for it. He searches all day and all night until he finds them.
Horton sees them for what they are. He can hear them. He listens to them. In his attempts to understand them, he discovers that he loves them. He keeps pleading with the other animals in the jungle, reminding them that, “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” And I might add – a person’s a person no matter how small, large, short, tall, young, old, healthy, frail, black, white, straight, gay, trans-gender, married, single, divorced, or otherwise.
North Star is a community of “Hortons.” People who see you. People who hear you. People who understand you. It is a community of people willing to share their stories in the hopes of creating greater understanding and developing a supportive community.
The author, Khaled Hosseini spoke of the need to be vulnerable and to share our lives with others. He said, “We need to be invited into the lives of others. Stories remain our best teachers of empathy.”
As my wife and I have attended the annual North Star Conference, I have been amazed by the countless personal stories I have heard. Stories of people navigating similar challenges. Stories of great successes and failures. Stories of sin and redemption. Stories of heartbreak and joy.
Through this, I have made some wonderful friendships. Friendships that have been the antithesis of the isolation and alienation I felt from my peers when I was a teenager – because I just felt so different. Here, my differences are understood. Here, I am seen for who I am.
I hope that each of you can feel that friendship and support within this group.
Finally, I’d like to talk about one more way that I have found friendship and support.
I have come to realize that my Heavenly Father, and my Savior, understand me better than I thought. I realized that, for some time, I had allowed my own negative feelings about myself to seep into my relationship with Deity. I assumed they felt the same way about my shortcomings that I did. I was wrong.
Christ knows each of us. Intimately. Personally. He suffered for our sins. He felt all the pains and afflictions that we each bear in our lives. He hears us. He understands us. He is always within our reach. We have to turn to Him.
About 16 years ago, shortly after getting certified as a SCUBA diver, my brother and his wife and I decided that we would take on a more challenging dive. We drove to Monterey Bay and boarded a charter boat to take us around the peninsula, out of the bay, to the open ocean of the Pacific. The boat traveled about 3/4 of a mile offshore where we could dive down to a depth of 120 feet.
It had been a year since I had completed my certification training, and I was feeling somewhat uncertain of my diving skills. I had been paired up in a threesome with my brother and his wife. I told them that I wanted to practice my skills just below the ocean surface before descending to the bottom. The skills are pretty simple, such as clearing your mask, taking out your regulator and reinserting it and clearing the regulator, etc. – all simple stuff. But I hadn’t been diving in a year and I was a little unsure of myself.
The three of us jumped in the water and made the slow descent to the bottom. Large rock formations jetted up from the ocean floor forming a labyrinth of cliffs and canyons.
Just a few minutes into this dive, as we were weaving in and out of these canyons, I looked around and suddenly noticed that I didn’t know where my dive partners were. I kept turning around and around and looking in every direction – they had completely disappeared – and I couldn’t see anyone else from our dive party. Oh my goodness! I’m alone. I’m lost. I kept looking around and couldn’t find anyone!
I started to panic. I guess I should mention that during the process of getting certified, I discovered that I’m moderately uncomfortable with being out in the water. I think I have Steven Spielberg and his shark movie to thank for that. So, now I’ve been separated from my dive companions. What do I do? Do I ascend to the surface? But if I do, they’ll be down here looking for me and they’ll start to panic. Do I stay put? If I keep swimming through these canyons, I could get separated even further from them. I was breathing heavily – not good, because I’m going to burn through my oxygen.
I realized that I was going into a full-on anxiety or panic attack. The worst situation possible. A somewhat inexperienced diver, 120 feet down, lost, alone and panicking. In my panicked state of mind, I had enough sense to say a little prayer.
And then, I felt a prompting from the Spirit. A still, small voice that said to me, “look up.” At that point, I was hovering about five feet above the ocean floor. I rolled over and let the rest of the air out of my vest and I laid on my back on the ocean floor and looked up, which was daunting to see kelp forests stretching 120 feet above me. And I heard another whispering from the Spirit that simply said, “breathe.” So I lay there on my back and I focused on taking some deep and measured breaths. I knew God was aware of my current situation because I had felt two promptings from the Spirit. As I laid there on my back, looking up and focusing on breathing, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my sister-in-law and then my brother swim into my field of view directly above me. They had found me!
That situation really scared me. I felt so alone and worried about the outcome. I have reflected on that experience several times, in moments of great stress, or confusion or disappointment – and I’ve had to remind myself of those promptings I received. They were so simple, and yet so profound. “Look up” and “breathe.” For me, the call to “look up”, usually includes me falling to my knees, to seek direction from on high.
Our Savior is always there for us. He is acutely aware of our lives, our struggles, our challenges. He knows us personally. He has felt our pains, literally. He is the most loyal and consistent friend we have. Make sure that when you build your support systems and your community, that the Savior is included in that group.
We Will Succeed
We, in our community, have some unique challenges to work through, and some significant burdens to bear. If we will open up and surround ourselves with support, it can help ease those burdens. The journey before us is complicated. In many ways, we are navigating uncharted territory. But we have every reason to be hopeful about our futures. We can do hard things.
As Joan of Arc was leaving to begin her mission to save France she was asked by a woman: “How can you make such a journey when on all sides are soldiers?” To which Joan responded, “I do not fear the soldiers, for my road is made open to me; and if the soldiers come, I have God, my Lord, who will know how to clear the route that leads me home. It was for this that I was born!” We sometimes see the abbreviated version of her statement, which is still just as powerful. “I am not afraid, for God is with Me. I was born to do this!”
You were born to do this! Literally. And you will succeed. With determination and grit. With patience and a sense of humor. With kindness toward yourself and others. With the help of your family, your spouse, your friends, this North Star community, your church community, your priesthood leaders, and most importantly, your Savior. As we build and contribute to the community around us, we can have a profound effect in the lives of others and in ourselves. We absolutely will succeed.
We were born to do this!