Lessons in Unconditional Love
I’d like to thank Circling the Wagons for allowing me the opportunity to speak to you all today.
So, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there were a great many people who did not want me to be here today, let alone be participating, let alone be one of the keynote speakers at Circling the Wagons..
Yet here I am. Here I am standing here, talking to you.
There are several reasons why I have chosen to do this. I hope this talk illustrates them fully.
The first thing I want to do today is formally and publicly apologize. I want you to know that I am incredibly sorry for, and incredibly troubled by, the ways in which my story has been used to hurt, pressure, and belittle fellow gay Mormons.
Without question, my story is being shared. The other night I saw a post on a Facebook page that opens up dialogue around sexual issues, mainly for LDS youth. Recently they had a poster ask a question about being same sex attracted, and I kid you not, in the 150 or so responses, the link to my blog post last June was shared at least four times. We’re talking four times in the same thread.
So yes. This is happening. People are sharing my story. A lot. And sometimes people are sharing it with messages that are very well meaning, but that belittle the decision-making process of their love ones. This is a problem.
Even more disturbing though, I have heard of families sharing my story as they say extremely devastating things to their children and siblings. One of the most heartbreaking to me was when I heard of one family who sent my blog post to their gay loved one saying “When you use your agency to make the decision to live righteously like this man, we will welcome you back into our family. Don’t contact us again until then.”
To people who share my story in such a dreadful, hurtful way I say: please stop. Please consider the love you have for your gay loved one. You read one story of one man living one authentic life, and you are using that as a weapon to dissect your family. You are using that story, that one anecdote, as the condition upon which you will love your child.
I am deeply troubled by this kind of behavior, and have been since the day I wrote my post. It goes against the very essence of what family is. That kind of message is the complete opposite of unconditional love. That’s why when I was presenting at Evergreen International a month or so ago, I said the following to that group of mostly believing LDS gay people: “If someone is pressuring you to marry heterosexually saying that they think this is the ‘answer’ for you or will ‘fix’ you, they are likely motivated by fear instead of love and don’t actually have your best interest, or the best interest of a potential spouse, in mind . . . please don’t weigh yourself down with that expectation for yourself if it is something you don’t want for your own future. Marriage to the opposite sex might not be a part of your journey here in life, and that’s okay.” I continued, “If someone is using my story to pressure you to get married, I want you to tell them ‘I heard Josh Weed, from his own mouth, say he thinks you should back off!’ Draw your boundary. This decision is between you and God. Period.”
I give all of you the same permission. If you ever hear my story being used in a derogatory and disrespectful way, feel free to say “I heard Josh Weed out of his own mouth say not to try to use his story to pressure others to make the choices he has made. Doing that is the opposite of unconditional love.”
If anyone in this room has had an experience like this, where they have felt my story used against them in some way, I want you to tell me, if you feel comfortable, so that I can personally apologize to you. Email me. Your emails will get highest priority. You need to know that I love you, and God loves you, and you worthy of love no matter what.
I happen to know something about unconditional love. I want to share two ways in which I’ve learned about this very complex concept.
First, I want to tell you about my father.
My dad is a typical, almost stereotypical, heterosexual man. He loves sports. He likes cars. To cope with the devastation he feels as he watches his wife, my mom, slowly die of Early Onset Alzheimer’s, he decided to fulfill one of his fondest, life-long dreams—a dream I wasn’t expecting. He bought a huge, expensive motorcycle.
He is also atypical in some ways though. Ways that happened to make him the perfect father for me to have as a gay kid growing up in a Mormon family.
First, although he ended up becoming a Seminary and Institute teacher and he’s currently the Institute director at Portland State University, he got his Master’s degree in social work where he specialized in marriage and family counseling. This gave him some tools.
Second, and more importantly, he really truly understands the concept of unconditional love.
When I came out to him at the age of 13, I pulled him downstairs to my bedroom. I lay down on my bed, as nervous as I was, and he sat across from me, listening. I said, “Dad, I need to tell you that I’m gay.”
His reaction was a model of what parents should do in this situation. He did not cringe. He did not berate me or get angry. He did not tell me things like “you feel this way now, but maybe that will change” or “I think this is just a phase.” He did not question me or what I was saying. He believed me. And then he asked some questions and he listened to me. And then, as he stood in the doorway while the conversation came to a close, he said something that lodged itself into my subconscious permanently and served as the basis for all of my future life decisions. He said “I want you to know, Josh, that whatever you decide to do with your life and your future, your mom and I will love you. No matter what. Period.”
That is unconditional love. That is a reaction of love and concern and respect, and not of fear. As it turns out, it was that reaction—that assurance that he would love me no matter what—that allowed me the liberty to truly explore my options. I was given an absolute gift at that early age. I knew that no matter what I chose, I would be acceptable. I would be loved. I would be just as integral a part of the Weed family as I ever was. It was this assurance, ironically, that allowed me to explore my options thoroughly enough to decide what I wanted for myself. It gave me permission to choose what I myself wanted for my life.
I said it my initial blog post, and I say it again: you will never give your gay loved one a better gift than to assure them that they will be loved no matter what. It will give them the freedom to choose for themselves what path they want for their own life. It will allow them to make that choice untethered by impossible responsibility of choosing something that will “allow” their family to love them. Choices made for approval or love often lead to disastrous situations
I chose a particular path—one that was right for me—one that I decided on after years and years of thinking and praying and questioning and doubting and, ultimately, believing. It was my authentic, eyes-wide-open choice to marry my wife. And my wife, whom I’d known for my entire life, had the same luxury—the opportunity to choose to marry me understanding all of what that meant. In the final analysis it was this gift—the gift of knowledge and the gift of choice—that allows my marriage to work so well. We wanted each other. We wanted this life. We love each other. We chose it, eyes-wide-open, because we love each other and we love god, and we felt He has blessed us with each other. The true irony here, and the thing that I think is most interesting, is that I’m quite positive—knowing my personality—that if I had been pressured and pushed and prodded to do this or that, I probably would have pushed back. I would have either never chosen this life for myself at all, or may have chosen it under false pretenses, thinking it would change me or alter me, or thinking it was the only way to gain approval. A marriage founded on such assumptions would be difficult to maintain.
I was lucky and blessed enough to be able to make an authentic choice.
The second lesson I learned about unconditional love is much more recent. As a gay man, I haven’t had the opportunity to have a lot of deep, lasting, meaningful friendships with guys. A lot of that had to do with my fears about what guys would think if I outed myself to them. I held my friends at arms length, not allowing myself to be vulnerable, out of the fear that they wouldn’t accept me. What I didn’t realize, was that in doing this, I was not experiencing actual friendship. I wasn’t giving anyone the opportunity to know me for who I really am, and then choose to accept me. I was missing out, I discovered, on a crucial part of life: emotional connection with other men.
A year-and-a-half ago, though, I stepped past that fear, one-on-one with a straight guy. I sat in his home office and I outed myself for the first time to a guy I really looked up to and admired. Someone I would normally have never shared this part of myself with out of a deep fear of rejection. I took that step off the plank, that leap of faith, completely unsure of how I would be received, and expecting at the core of myself to be rejected.
Instead what happened was that we became best friends. For the first time in my life, I felt completely accepted by a guy—a guy who knew everything about me. It was liberating. It was lifechanging. It’s part of what planted the seeds of yearning to out myself to my broader circle as well, which last June led to my writing a blog post intended principally for my Facebook friends, and… well we know what happened there. The post exploded all over the Internet and now here we all sit, together.
The reason I bring this up is to tell you an important thing I learned about unconditional love during the course of this friendship. About a year ago, this friend of mine told me that, after years of internal struggle, he had decided to leave the Mormon church. I was devastated. I ached for him, for his family. From the perspective of my world-view, this felt like a perilous decision. One that would have lasting consequences. I am not going to lie to you guys, my initial reaction was one I am not proud of. I reacted in fear. I wanted to control my friend. I wanted to make him see things the way I saw them because my concern for him and his future ran so deep. I had some exchanges with him that I am not proud of.
He was very patient with me, and I’m extremely grateful for that, because it allowed me the room I needed to learn one of the most important lessons of my life. I learned that to try to choose his path for him was incredibly disrespectful, hurtful and wrong. I learned that the only responsibility I had to my friend was to love him and respect his decision. I learned in a visceral way what Christ was saying when he said “judge not” and when he said “love your brother like unto yourself.” I learned that it was not my job to judge him or condemn him for his choices—people make all kinds choices, and we simply don’t have the capacity to comprehend all that goes into them—and I learned that it wasn’t my job to try and control his life because it is his life. Finally, I learned, maybe for the first time in my 32 years, how to love someone independent of the choices they make. This guy wasn’t my best friend because of his life choices. This guy was my best friend because I love and respect who he is as a human being independent of his life choices.
Learning this was a gift. Learning this was what allowed me to finally “get it.” Because of this experience, when I did write that blog post that outed me to what now seems like the entire universe, I articulated what I hope beyond all hope deadens the grenades lobbed at the gay members of the church whose families are like “Hey, you need to do it this way” as they share my story.
In the post I say:
“If you know and love somebody who is gay and LDS (or Christian), your job is to love and nothing more. Let go of your impulse to correct them or control them or propel them down the path you think is right for them. Do what you need to do to move past that impulse. Do not condemn the choices your loved one makes. Love. Only love. Show your love in word and deed. Embrace them, both literally and figuratively. I promise they need it—and they need to feel like they can figure out this part of themselves in a safe way without ridicule and judgment. It’s what Christ would do. It’s what your loved one needs. Accept them. Love them. Genuinely and totally.
. . . You will never, ever give your gay loved one a better gift than to love and accept them for who they are, right now, no matter what, period. The friends and family who did that for me (at varying points in my journey, including very recently) are cherished and will go down in the history of my life as the people that truly loved me, and as true Christians who helped me on my path.
I wouldn’t have been able to articulate those thoughts with such clarity had I not had this experience with my best friend. I’m very thankful, in many ways, for his friendship.
In closing, I’d like to say a few things about what I hope and believe. I believe we are here, together, for a reason. I think God is the grand orchestrator of all good things. I think this moment—us, here in this room, in this very instant—you breathing, listening, tapping your foot, or reading or hearing this on the Internet—none of this is accidental. We are here at this moment with our own yearnings. And some of our yearnings are for the same exact things. For peace and for love. For understanding.
Let’s do this. Let’s circle our wagons together. Let’s listen, really listen, to one another. Let’s embrace each other for the commonality of our yearnings and let’s respect each other for the differences in our individual choices. I think, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, that we all yearn for some fundamental things.
1. We yearn for our gay loved ones to feel accepted by their families.
2. We yearn for our gay loved ones to feel accepted in LDS chapels if they choose to attend, and by the broader LDS culture if they do not
3. We yearn, deeply, all of us, for the suicides to stop.
This is what we can do together. With our voices united, in finding the common ground we all share, we can build safe places for the people we love. Viewing each other as allies, we can do exactly what this conference is about: we can build. We can build bridges and we can build safe havens. We can build relationships of love and understanding, and we can build friendships that aren’t contingent upon people making the life choices we have chosen for ourselves. We can build a dialogue that is constructive and helpful. We can build support that is comprehensive and catches all of God’s gay children here on earth, no matter what they think or believe, in order to let them know that, no matter who they are, no matter what they have chosen, no matter whom they love or what they have done, they are adored by a God who made them and loves them and wants to commune with them every single day.
I pray with all sincerity that we dig deep, and find it within ourselves to tear down our own biases and prejudices and simply love. In doing so, we will get farther than we could ever get alone. I am here for you. I love you. I want to be of help in any way I can. I want to be your friend.
I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ—he who showed us the true example of how to love others—Amen.