The Ally Within
John Dehlin, Ph.D. transcribed from a TEDxUSU talk november 20, 2013
And how exactly do we treat our greatest allies in society? We put them on our currency. We make movies about them. And sometimes we even name our children after them. My wife Margi and I have four children. This is Audrianna, Maya, Clara, and Winston—all four of whom were named after important allies in our lives. But for me, acts of service don’t adequately explain why we hold such individuals like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Mother Teresa, in such high esteem. And to help illustrate, I’d like to ask all of you to now join with me in a simple test. Are you ready? Ok, here we go… By a show of hands, how many of you today oppose slavery? Raise your hand. Excellent! Nice work! Alright, next question. You’re doing great. How many of you support the right of women and racial minorities to vote? Beautiful! Pat yourselves on the back.
Alright. Ok, now next question: Why haven’t they made a movie about you? I can think of at least two reasons why. First, pretty much everyone agrees with you. And second, I think it costs you literally nothing to hold these points of view.
Today I’d like to explain how I became an LGBT ally as a Mormon. If you don’t know what LGBT means, don’t worry, I’ll explain that to you in a few minutes. We are social creatures. We are literally wired to help each other survive and to thrive. We depend on each other. Consequently, we look favorably on those who spend their time in service of others. For the purposes of this talk, I am going to call these people allies.
And to help illustrate, now I have a follow-up question. How many of you are outspoken advocates or allies for the rights and the well-being of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people? Raise your hand. Ok. A lot less hands. And that’s ok. It’s completely normal in 2013 to not be. And I’d like just a few minutes to explain my theory as to why this is.
SOCIAL JUSTICE FARSIGHTEDNESS I believe that we all suffer from a condition that I like to call social justice farsightedness.
And this is what it looked like just a hundred years ago to support the right of women to vote:
Farsightedness is a common condition in which you can see distant objects very clearly, but objects nearby can be blurry. And why the blur? One thing I can assure you, with certainty, is that the blurriness is not due to a lack of pain and suffering and bullying experienced by our LGBT brothers and sisters. Instead, I’d like to say that that pain and suffering is real. And I would like to argue that this blurriness is mostly due, in 2013, to two things: It’s not very popular to be an LGBT ally, at least outspoken. And number two… It might cost you something to become one. And you know what? History supports this reality. Because even though every single person in this room today is opposed to slavery, this is what it looked like a hundred and fifty years ago to oppose slavery:
And this is what it looked like to support the right of blacks to vote only fifty years ago.
One author summarized this a lot better than I could. She wrote, “every society honors its live conformists, and its dead troublemakers.” And I believe that she was right. SO, WHY AM I HERE TODAY? I believe I was asked to give this TED talk to help explain how a Mormon could become an LGBT ally. Because if I can make that change, maybe other people can make that change too. Growing up as a devout Mormon in Katy, Texas, there was little evidence that I would become a LGBT ally. I used the term “fag” liberally. I played “smear the queer” without giving that term a second thought. I occasionally made fun of my effeminate high school friends, often behind their back. And of course I believed what I was taught by my church, which was that homosexuality, and that all deviations from “normal,” “proper” heterosexual relationships, are not merely unnatural, but are wrong in the site of God.
And so it turns out that it’s easy to be an ally for the social justice battles that have already been fought and won. I like to call this being a retrospective ally.
SO, HOW DID I CHANGE? I attribute the transition to three things: listening, learning, and loving.
What is far more difficult is to figure out how we can look around us and muster the courage to be better allies to those that are suffering all around us today—in spite of the unpopularity, and in spite of the social costs that you might incur.
And so it is in my view that people like Martin Luther King Jr. and others are not merely heroes because they spent their life in the service of others. They are also heroes because they recognized the injustices long before the rest of us. And they paid a significant personal price for their advocacy, for being an ally, and for their courage.
First, the listening. In 1996, I found myself living in Chicago with my small family working for a software consulting firm. I didn’t have a background as a computer scientist, and so I relied on my colleagues to help me learn how to program. Two colleagues that were particularly helpful to me were Rebecca and Michael. Especially Michael. One evening there was a presidential debate where they discussed homosexuality. And the next morning, Rebecca asked me, “Hey John, what did you think about the debates?” Almost without thinking I said, “Oh the debates were ok. But all that talk about homosexuality made me really uncomfortable.” You could have heard a pin drop in that office. Everything went silent, all the chairs swiveled in my direction with eyes really wide. I had no idea what I had said. And then, very gently, my dear friend Rebecca said, “John, have you actually known a gay person before? You know, actually talk to them about their lives?” Somewhat defensively I said, “No. What difference does that make?” And then, very sweetly, and very gently, my dear friend Michael, who had helped me for so many months, turned to me and he said, “actually john, you have known a gay person. i’m gay.”
This was the first time in my life that I had to stare at my own bigotry and my own biases, directly in the face.
I was so embarrassed that I spent the next few weeks and months asking Michael about his life with his long-term committed partner of over ten years. Check out what Michael told me. He said “John, this is my ‘gay lifestyle’. My partner and I wake up in the morning. We have breakfast. We drive to work, and we work all day. We drive home together. We make dinner and we eat that dinner. We do the dishes together. And then, if we’re not too tired, we watch a little TV and we go to bed.” This was simultaneously earth shattering for me, and completely boring. Because what I learned was that Michael’s “gay lifestyle” with his partner was exactly identical to my Mormon lifestyle with my dear wife. Except without the Jell-O. It turns out that all that Michael and his partner wanted at the end of the day is what Margi and I have, and most of us want in our lives. Which is the chance to love the person of their choice with their full heart and with their full lives. And that is what I learned from listening.
Next, learning. After this experience with Michael, I began paying more attention to LGBT issues. And in doing so I learned that LGBT concerns are not merely the social trendy fad of the day, but instead, they are literally a matter of life and death. I first learned about this through Stuart Matis. In 2000, this is a young gay Mormon male who is in the prime of his life. He had spent over ten years trying to change his sexual orientation, because he believed he had to choose between his faith and his sexuality. After over ten years of trying to change his sexual orientation, he became so exasperated, that one morning he drove himself to his local LDS chapel, he pinned a note to his chest that said do not resuscitate, and he shot himself in the head. Later I interviewed a father named Bruce, of a young Mormon boy who was preparing for his LDS mission at age 19. This boy too was struggling with his sexuality, and he felt so conflicted, that one day Bruce told me about how his family came home and found this young son hanging from the rafters of their garage with an extension cord wrapped around his neck from suicide.
This issue became personal for my wife, Margi and myself, when one of my wife’s favorite cousins, Scott, a beautiful man, an NCAA Division 1 golfer, a talented musician, a man who spent his life as a social worker to help the mentally ill, confided in us before he told his own parents, that he was considering ending his own life because he was gay. Later in 2006, I stumbled on a Deseret News article which stated that Utah leads the nation in suicides of young men, between the ages of 15 and 24. Digging a little bit deeper, I found another LDS Church published article that said the following, “The largest single group of teen suicides, about one-third of the total, are from those who have what the church calls gender identity problems.” Which, in LDS parlance, means LGBT individuals.
At this point, my wife and I knew that we had to do something and become allies. I had a podcast called Mormon Stories; we started discussing these issues on the podcast. Later we spun off an independent podcast called Gay Mormon Stories where we tried to dig a little deeper. I became so impassioned about these issues, that eventually I left my profession having worked for companies like Microsoft and MIT, and went back to school to become a psychologist.
And while I was studying this degree, I had the great privilege of teaming with two amazing allies, Dr. Renee Galliher, a professor here at Utah State University specializing in LGBT and religious identity conflict; and Dr. Bill Bradshaw, a beautiful man who’s a biology professor at Brigham Young University. Together with a graduate student named Katie Crowell, we surveyed over 1,600 LGBT Mormons. And here’s a very brief summary of what we discovered: We discovered that the average age in which these participants knew they were LGBT was 14 years old. long before they, or most of us, ever had our first romantic experience. We learned that 66% of these individuals attempted to change their sexual orientation. We discovered that psychotherapy was not the most common method that they used to try and change their sexual orientation, but instead it was religious and individual methods, such as personal prayer, fasting, scripture study, and speaking with church leaders like bishops. Perhaps most amazing of all, our data revealed that 0% of our sample reported being able to eliminate their same-sex attraction. zero percent. Conversely, over 80% of our sample characterized their attempts at sexual orientation change as either ineffective or extremely damaging. Next, we inquired regarding the two most common paths chosen by religious LGBT Mormons, which are either 1) entering into a mixed-orientation marriage or heterosexual marriage, or 2) living a life of celibacy. What we discovered is that the divorce rate for mixed-orientation marriages approached 75% with extremely low quality of life ratings. Perhaps even more alarming, we discovered that those who chose celibacy reported quality of life scores lower than the scores of people who have a debilitating illness called Lupus, which symptoms include difficulty breathing, chest pains, bleeding, infections, skin rashes, nose sores, hair loss, and seizures. And yet, being LGBT is not an illness.
So if they didn’t choose it, if it doesn’t go away, if attempting to change it causes harm, if mixed-orientation marriages have high failure rates, and if celibacy has incredibly low quality of life ratings, of course they would turn to suicide as what they feel is their only option. But here’s the exciting news. Our data also reveal that participants who entered into legal same-sex marriages had quality of life scores higher than the healthy average for the entire population, heterosexuals included. For this sample, it appears that legal same-sex marriage is an essential component of obtaining the highest possible quality of life—if we let them marry.
Now my favorite part of the whole presentation, which is the loving. I want to begin by making a point—that you can literally save the lives of your LGBT brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, through love. A recent study also out of Utah State University reported that 40% of the homeless youth in Utah are LGBT. Another very important study called “The Family Acceptance Project,” found that LGBT youth who are highly rejected by their families are three times more likely to use illegal drugs, three times more likely to engage in high risk sexual behavior, and over eight times more likely to attempt suicide. In other words, I can promise you that your decision to not only accept, but to wholeheartedly love your LGBT family could save the lives of your son, your daughter, your brother, your sister, perhaps even your parents, or your grandchildren.
I’d like to conclude today by sharing with you a scene from my favorite movie entitled It’s a Wonderful Life. In this movie, a very good-hearted man named George Bailey lives in a small town called Bedford Falls. George has a promising career as an architect, but instead he decides to stay in Bedford Falls and help those who are in need. He loves his job, but sometimes he wonders whether the sacrifice was worth making. Then one day George has a catastrophic event in his life. And I want to ask you, who is it that came to George’s aid in the end? It was the very people that George had spent his life helping. I became an ally through what I call the cure to the blur—listening, learning, and loving. But I learned something more significant and beautiful through that process. I started out thinking I was going to be of service to them. What I learned was that the benefits and blessings of being an ally gave me far more than I could ever give them. To conclude, I believe with absolute certainty that within 30 years, the level of public support for LGBT individuals and for same-sex marriage will be virtually identical to our current positions on slavery, and on voting for women and minorities. The only questions in my mind are: 1) how long will it take us to muster the courage to become allies, and 2) how many beautiful and precious lives will we save in the meantime?
dr. john dehlin is a podcaster, non-profit CEO, activist, public speaker, and religious transitions coach. He is an expert in understanding and supporting people experiencing religious faith crises/transitions. John has Master’s degree in Instructional Technology, and a Ph.D. in Clinical and Counseling Psychology. His clinical training and research interests revolve around the nexus of religion and mental health, with an emphasis on navigating religious faith crises, as well as navigating the LGBTQ/religious identity conflict.