My name is Cheryl Smith. Writing my story is really pushing me out of my “comfort zone” for a few reasons. First, I am a private person and I actually really care about what people think about me. It’s something I have only recently been able to admit. I have always said “I don’t care”, but I’ve come to realize as I have gone through this journey, that I actually really do care. I also care about my family and want to protect all of them from any negativity and/or harm. Second, I feel like I’m not an eloquent writer. I really hope I can adequately portray my thoughts, feelings, emotions & intentions in this post. Third, it is hard to jam a life’s worth of experiences into a single post, so I hope I can do it!
My husband, Evan, and I live in Massachusetts. We have a beautiful family of four amazing children. Two boys and two girls. Our oldest child, our son Weston, is gay. I was in labor for 40 hours with Wes and had a pretty traumatic delivery & recovery. I remember the minute they placed him in my arms telling my husband that I would do it all over again. Wes was my first baby and he taught me what instant love was. The minute I held him, I knew I would literally do anything for him.
To be totally honest, I knew Weston was gay from the time he was 8 years old. Certain things he would do or say, just made me, as his mom, know. I remember one time he came off the bus in elementary school, clearly upset. One of the boys had called him a faggot. I was so angry. I immediately started driving my kids to and from school. This was just a foreshadowing of the emotional turmoil Wes would have to endure.
I grew up in Canada, in a pretty conservative home. My parents always taught us to be kind and respectful of all people. I joined the LDS church when I was 14 and was raised in a part member home. As a teenager I was an avid horseback rider. In this sport, I had a lot of exposure to LGBTQ people. I came to realize at a young age that this “lifestyle” (as some called it), was not a choice. I knew, respected and admired people that were LGBTQ. They were just normal, kind, hard working people.
When Wes was 16, he came out to my husband and me after a year of serious depression and suicidal thoughts. My husband was serving as the “Bishop” of our LDS ward at the time. My first reaction when he told us was relief. I was relieved he was open with us about his struggle. I had been worried about him and didn’t know what was wrong or how to help him, but now that I knew what he was struggling with, I felt a huge sense of relief. I knew it was going to be a tough road ahead. To balance the church and love of my son, but I knew we could handle it. One common theme I have heard from family members and friends who have left the church (whether they are LGBTQ or not) is that they often felt like their parents were choosing the church over them. I actually had someone tell me once that their parent told them “the church is thicker than blood”. I never wanted my kids to feel that way. I told Wes how much I loved him and always would and I even offered to stop going to church if that is what he wanted. He told me that he didn’t want that. He loved the church and felt like it was good for our family to go. Weston wasn’t ready to be “out” yet, so he asked my husband and I to keep his sexuality a secret from everyone, but he did also tell his siblings.
Inside, I worried. I worried a lot. I tried to figure out if I could reconcile being a member of a church that didn’t really accept my son for who he was. I didn’t even know what path Wes would choose to take at that point, but it was on my mind daily. One of the hardest parts about Wes still being in the closet was the lack of support. I couldn’t talk to anyone except my husband about it. I couldn’t tell people why I felt so upset when they were talking about “gays ruining marriage” or asking things like “why do gays need a parade”. It was hard to change opinions, make people more sensitive without opening up the closet.
When Wes was 18, he decided he wanted to serve a mission for the church. I knew this was going to be extremely hard for him. I asked him daily if he was sure he wanted to go. He insisted he did. I then actually begged him not to go. I was worried about his mental health and I was worried that companions and other missionaries and possibly even his mission president would be unkind. He still wanted to go. He did tell our stake president at the time that he was gay as he went through the process of putting in mission papers. He also applied to BYU and was accepted. It was his first choice and only school he applied to. He deferred his acceptance so he could serve his mission.
His mission call came on the same day as his high school graduation. He was called to the Brazil Curitiba mission. We were so excited for him! He was over the moon because he really wanted to learn a new language and experience a different culture. He was only out in the mission for 2 weeks when we got the first email talking about how one of the other missionaries in his training group found out he was gay and the name calling and chastising began. Wes somehow handled it well, throwing himself deeper into learning the language and studying the scriptures. So much so that when he arrived to his mission in Curitiba the mission president told my sister in law (who he had lived near in Utah) that they had never had an English speaking, American missionary arrive there speaking Portuguese so well. I will forever be grateful to that mission president. He is a kind, compassionate & loving man. He helped Wes with his struggles & tried to empathize as best he could.
For the first year of his mission, Wes was pretty happy. He loved the culture & people of Brazil. He was placed with some wonderful companions and when the mission president saw how gifted he was with organizational skills, computer skills & the language, he assigned him to work in the mission office as a liaison for the housing of all the missionaries in their mission. He spent his days calling “Craig’s list” listings to find suitable apartments for the missionaries & managing problems that came up in housing that missionaries currently lived in, along with doing other things the president would assign him to do. He had started to open up to other missionaries about being gay. Some were loving & kind. Others were not. He didn’t tell me all of the things said to him. He knew I would worry. He would send long emails to my husband and a couple other people he had opened up to about his sexuality. They were the ones who heard most of his thoughts & experiences in a non filtered way. I think Wes knew that my Mom heart just couldn’t handle hearing some of the things that he experienced.
In April (after 18 months on his mission), Wes started struggling with whether he wanted to stay for that whole 2 years. I won’t go into all the private details & I know Wes wouldn’t want me to share some of the insensitive and totally ludicrous conversations of why he decided he just couldn’t do it anymore and what tipped him to a “breaking point”, but he decided to pray to ask God what he should do. He got the answer to go home, be happy, find a husband & have a family. Now this is the opposite of what the church teaches. They teach to find happiness in a celibate lifestyle and that God will “work it out” in the afterlife. So people questioned whether this answer could really be from God because it would take Wes down a different path in life. Wes still firmly believes that the church is good. He told us he didn’t want us to leave on his account. He loves many of its teachings, but just knows there is no place for him in it right now. He still believes in Jesus Christ.
He was finally ready to come home & be out to the world! I was so happy that he didn’t have to hide who he really was anymore, but I also prepared myself for what people would do and say. Evan and I spent many sleepless nights worrying about how our church congregation & family members would react when they found out. I’m now ashamed that I even worried. We experienced an outpouring of love like I have never experienced in my whole life. I can’t tell you how many texts I received from people that touched my heart. Friends from within the church and friends from our community. I have actually saved many of those texts so when I feel discouraged I can go back and read them. Our families were loving. Many of them wept when we told them. Many of them felt bad Wes had suffered in silence. Some made great effort to come on short notice to be here for Weston’s homecoming.
After Wes came home he told us he didn’t want to attend BYU anymore. This complicated things a bit because now we were past the deadline to have him apply to some other schools he thought he was interested in. He decided to apply to Westminster on a whim (at the suggestion of my brother & brother-in-law) since they had “rolling” admission. To our delight he received a full academic scholarship & has since been attending there. He has been having a great experience and is loving life as he makes new friends and figures out his path in life. He is finally happy! 🌈 We have been and always will be 100% supportive of what our son chooses and he will always be a part of our family. Wes has never asked any of us to leave the church on his behalf & encouraged us to keep going.
Until recently I have been able to keep going to church. There was an incident with a personal meeting my husband & I had with a general authority that caused me to take a step back and reevaluate my feelings about the church and if I can balance how I feel for my son and my religion. It’s not easy. So much of our lives is entwined with the church, but recent General Conference talks and my own personal negative experiences have made me truly evaluate who God really is and what He actually wants from me. I can also say that I don’t think this “doctrine” about lgbtq people is true. I have felt the whispers of the spirit that it is not.
The biggest thing I want church leaders, members and people to know is that even though you may think you don’t know a LGBTQ person, I guarantee you do. They are among us. Scared to be open. Scared to come out. Many are praying to be “fixed” or “changed”. Many are hiding who they really are out of fear. Be a safe person. Be loving. Be compassionate. Although you might not understand what they are going through, just be a warm smile, big hug or listening ear. We need more allies who aren’t afraid to speak up in ward councils or Sunday school or in other church meetings.
My son wants what we have been taught to want. A family. Right now the church he loves is telling him he can’t ever have that if he wants to stay in the church. But maybe he can in the next life if he is “fixed”. I ask straight people how they would feel if they were told that their love for their spouse was “unnatural” and that in the next life their sexuality would be “switched” and they would be with someone else. How would that make you feel? I know the thought of being without my husband, Evan, is gut wrenching.
There is so much about God and His plan that we just don’t know about. I hope we can all keep an open mind and heart to allow further “revelations” to come about this sensitive issue. It affects so many people. In the meantime, I hope the church can follow Christ’s example and love as He did.
It’s that simple.
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This In My Own Words story is a contribution from Let’s Love Better, a Facebook group dedicated to helping people learn to better share love, while fostering an atmosphere of understanding. When we know better, we do better.