Mormon from My Eyes: Ben Jarvis
Carrying on the Legacy:
Seven Generations of the Pioneer Spirit
Words by Ben Jarvis
Since the mid-1990s, Mormons have systematically fought against gay rights and have been responsible for numerous anti-gay initiatives. The Mormon assault on civil rights has been ruthless and effective, writing discrimination into state constitutions across the nation. With this in mind, you might wonder why I have so many LDS/Mormon friends, and why I—an out and proud gay man—remain interested in Mormon issues and happenings. The answer is simple: I’m one of them.
Seven generations ago, my ancestors got together in Upstate New York and founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the LDS or Mormon Church. I was born into the LDS faith and grew up believing the LDS Gospel. I was taught the importance of obedience and was groomed to be a lifelong, faithful, church member. I believed that I lived before I was born, and that if I remained true and faithful, that one day I could be exalted into godhood. Marriage was eternal, not just a union in this life, but something that went on forever. I also believed that the church was led by a living prophet who conferred with God regularly. The colorful doctrines were considered strange and bizarre by non-Mormons, but to me, they were perfectly normal. The church had the answer to everything, and the gospel was universal. All of the pieces fit together nicely… at least until I realized that I was different.
My family has been wonderful. Mom and Dad are active in PFLAG and have made it very clear that their love for me comes before their love of the Mormon church. I wish every gay Mormon was as lucky as I am!
I figured out that I was gay when I was 14 years old. This realization threw my life into chaos and I don’t know that I can overstate the amount of angst that I felt. While other teenagers were talking about their girlfriends or their favorite rock bands, I was saddled with guilt. I was gay, but I did not want to be. I had no one to talk to and this certainly was not something I could discuss with my parents or church leaders. I did not have access to good information. The only books I found on the topic were written from a Mormon perspective and were very damaging. According to church leaders, homosexuality was second only to murder in the eyes of God and terms like “degenerate” or “deviant pervert” were used to describe people like myself. Around that same time, HIV/AIDS began ravaging the gay community and many Mormons believed the virus had been sent from God to punish the wicked. As I read the newspapers and watched the television reports, I knew what awaited me if I turned away from the church and acted on my feelings. God was showing me my future if I strayed from the church and it was almost too much to deal with.
Like other gay Mormons, I suffered alone thinking I was the only one. That changed in 1993 when I found Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons. When I called the number I discovered that I wasn’t alone after all. Instead, I was a part of a large and thriving community filled with men and women who were just like me. These were people who understood what I was feeling and who could see the world through my eyes. For the first time in my life, I had hope; and it is amazing how hope can change a person. Rough times still lay ahead, but knowing I wasn’t alone gave me the strength and confidence to stand up for myself. I learned to take the church on my own terms and found that honesty and integrity were addictive. I liked how it felt to live my life out in the sunshine instead of behind a closet door.
I speak Mormon fluently and have made it a point to reach out to other gay Mormons who are just starting their journey. I am often people’s first contact with the gay Mormon community. I recognize the fear in their voices and do what I can to provide comfort and understanding. The worth of a soul is great, and there are far too many souls out there who suffer needlessly, thinking as I did, that they are the only ones. I do what I can to change that perception, one person at a time.
My beliefs have changed since I left the church, yet my Mormon identity remains firmly intact. My concept of God evolved over time. The angry deity that I was taught to fear as a child turned into a loving mentor who empowered and nurtured me. Eventually I no longer needed a belief system and let go of God completely. That was both scary and liberating, and I have no regrets.
Taking responsibility for my thoughts and actions has allowed me to make a difference in the lives of others. I found a wonderful man and fell in love with him. We have built a beautiful life together and are blessed with good families and friends; I was raised by Mormon democrats who accept my husband as their own. I wanted to reduce suffering in the world and so I became a vegetarian. I volunteer my time to help other gay Mormons because I know that they are hurting, and am now one of the outreach contacts for Affirmation—the organization that helped me in the past. Someone was there for me and I would be remiss if I did not try to return the favor. I make decisions based on what I know to be right, not out of fear of losing my place in God’s kingdom or disappointing my church leaders.
And the strange thing is that all of this is in keeping with Mormon philosophy: personal accountability, living without shame, and ministering to my fellow human beings. Indeed, I am a much better Mormon now that I am out of the closet and living honestly than I ever could have been when I was closeted and miserable. Yes, it’s a paradox, but I have found a way to make things work. And while it was a rough road getting here, I don’t know that I would change anything in my past.
It’s been a wonderful journey.
Ben with his dive buddy, Randy Shank. As Ben says, "Scuba is how I kept my sanity when I had to deal with my church issues. Randy and I have been diving together for 13 years. He is straight, and it is friendships like his that have made the journey easier."
Ben and his husband, Pat, at their wedding in 2008.