You might know me. At least someone like me. I could be your co-worker. Someone you cross paths with at the grocery store. Perhaps even a neighbor. Likely, a relative of some sort. Certainly another member (or two or three) in your local congregation. Perhaps even a close relative. Or even your spouse.
You see, on the outside, I’m not so different. Pretty average, to be frank. I’m 6’0. Hazel eyes. Brown hair, but balding. A healthy amount of facial scruff to compensate. A bit on the fit side. I have an obsession with running. Size 11.5 shoes. I blend in pretty well. You wouldn’t really be able to pick me out of crowd.
I’m a hard-worker and an able listener. I happen to be a physician. But I could be your dentist, or janitor, or construction worker. Perhaps a stay-at-home parent.
I love hiking, photography, and rollerblading. And apple fritters even more. But I could just as well be into football, or video-gaming, or knitting.
I love wearing silk neckties and unicorn t-shirts with my nieces. But I could be wearing cargo shorts or plaid button-ups. Maybe even a denim skirt.
I have a calm demeanor that once betrayed my inner turmoil. I have a ready smile that once shielded my internal war of identities.
I’m Erik William Johannes Kokkonen. And I’m gay.
You might not have suspected. I’m great at keeping a secret. It’s called self-preservation. It’s called wanting to fit in. And to fit in, you often have to be like everyone else.
But fitting in is different than belonging. And I no longer want to fit in. I want to belong. And my path to belonging requires that I embrace my whole self, not just parts of it.
It took me more than 30 years to learn to love my whole self. I guarded my heart and kept it locked in a box. Once I unlocked my heart, wonderful things have happened. I feel like I am beginning to belong.
II Early Years
“I looked and saw a guy who I thought was good looking. I’ve thought of myself as a homosexual (I’m so embarrassed to say this)…Since then that thought won’t go away. It’s depressed me so badly and I’ve really wanted to be another person. It seems as though God doesn’t love me.”
I penned those words in my journal 23 years ago, almost to the day. I was 13. Imagine growing up feeling unworthy of being loved, even God’s love, because you find other guys attractive. Imagine hating a part of you so much that you are willing to be a different person, as long as it doesn’t include being gay. Now imagine feeling alone, wondering if anyone (especially God) could even understand. Imagine not being able to talk to anyone about it.
That’s how I felt. That’s how so many others are now feeling.
No one ever discussed LGBTQ issues growing up, except as a general insult toward anything disgusting or odd. I didn’t know anyone openly claiming to be gay. There were no Facebook support groups. No vignettes of people like me. No one to relate to.
In the darkest recesses of my soul I hid this part of me. It could never be unleashed.
The only Church source on the subject I could find felt like a dagger through my heart. Ironically, the Miracle of Forgiveness was no miracle for me. And apparently there was little hope for forgiveness either. I’ll never forget the paragraph that made an indelible impression on my impressionable soul:
“Homosexuality is an ugly sin, repugnant to those who find no temptation in it…It is embarrassing and unpleasant as a subject for discussion but because of its prevalence, the need to warn the uninitiated, and the desire to help those who may already be involved in it, it is discussed in this chapter.”
If it was so “embarrassing and unpleasant as a subject for discussion,” I certainly wasn’t going to bring it up. Talking about it was the very thing I needed most, but the very thing that was discouraged.
I was in high school in Hawaii when a constitutional amendment passed in 1998 that defined marriage solely between one man and one woman. I remember hearing words of support for the amendment during church. It further motivated me to purge the gay away.
I figured that if I was perfect in everything else, I would be blessed to have this “trial” taken from me. At times, thanks to the Miracle of Forgiveness, I felt like the vilest of sinners, though I couldn’t understand what I had even done wrong.
Hence, I began my drive to do everything right. Play by the rules. Prove to God that this was a mere “trial of the flesh” that could be quenched by hard work, prayer, and fasting.
Being perfect was supposed to be the antidote to being gay.
I took heart in a promise in Miracle of Forgiveness:“Therefore to those who say that this practice or any other evil is incurable, I respond: ‘How can you say the door cannot be opened until your knuckles are bloody, till your head is bruised, till your muscles are sore? It can be done.’”
To my chagrin, after years of bloody knuckles, callused knees, soaked eyes, and sore muscles, I was still gay.
III Coming out and mission
Jump ahead to the year 2000. Y2K. The world did not end. But I thought it was possible that my world could end.
I knew I had to tell someone. With all the courage that my 17-year-old self could muster, I came out to my parents. With all the tenderness that a parent could give, my mother and father expressed their unequivocal love for me.
I didn’t realize how revolutionary that was, especially for the time. Lest I paint a different picture, my upbringing was all that one could hope for. Our family was extremely close and there was so much love.
However, we all, including myself, thought that maybe this was all just a phase.
My bishop was next. Well-intentioned, and with much compassion, he advised me these “tendencies” may never go away, but that I’d likely come back from my mission, marry a woman, and that would be the happily-ever-after story of my life.
Easy. I could do that. Couldn’t I? I had no reason NOT to believe that I could follow this “script” for my life.
I served my two-year mission in New York City from 2002-2004. I didn’t really have a problem being gay on my mission. I worked hard, determined to “earn” the blessing of straightness through my works.
Little did I know that what I needed instead was the blessing of healing, acceptance, and love through His grace.
Every returned missionary knows the next step in the formula. Mission→ Dating→ marriage→ kids. You know you’ve “arrived” when you get to this point.
But what if you never arrive?
Firmly believing that my efforts on a mission had earned me a right to belong to the “straight club”, I tried dating. Although I went on many dates during my years at BYU, I can’t say that I ever dated a woman seriously.
The typical scenario went something like this:
1. Go on at least a handful of dates with one woman
2. The time would arrive when she would wonder if/when it would get “serious”
3. Feeling disingenuous at best and like a fraud at worst, I knew that it was unfair for me to continue in the relationship and would end it
4. Double-down on my prayers so that I could be made straight
5. Repeat x 8-10 times (at least)
After each time, I’d still believe and hope that “the change” would come and that I just hadn’t met the right one yet.
I didn’t know of anyone else at BYU who was gay, and had no one to turn to or talk to. Instead, I distracted myself with trying to get into medical school, and was accepted to attend the University of Hawaii.
For the next four years, medical school and its grueling demands made it a little easier to focus on school instead of the married life with kids I thought I was missing out on. It was during this point that my final attempt at dating a woman failed.
What if God had a different plan for me? What if I wasn’t supposed to marry a woman?
One day, I prayed a different kind of prayer. I asked what God wanted for me instead of just assuming what He wanted for me. I had determined to stop dating women, both for my sanity and because it wasn’t fair to them. It was in this moment I started to feel peace with who I am and that it was ok to not fit the mold, if such a thing actually exists.
Feeling peace was a process, not an event. One event cannot erase a lifetime of dissonance.
Later, while in Illinois for medical residency, life was tough, with the combination of living alone and the long work hours that residency required. Not knowing how I was going to make it through life alone, I made a series of pleas to God.
Previously, my pleas begged the gay away and to find a woman palatable enough to marry.
These newer pleas centered on trying to find peace and understanding.
During one prayer, I felt an unmistakable, peaceful assurance from God that “I love you because of who you are”, including the gay part of me that I desperately tried to purge. At age 29, I had my first calm assurance from God that this isn’t something that needed to change.
For years, I had been asking for the wrong things. I had asked Him to fix that which was not broken, to cure that which was not diseased, and to forgive something that He created the way it was intended to be created.
There were gentle nudges along the way, reminding me that He is watchful of one even so seemingly insignificant as I.
While at the gym one day, still confused over what path to take in life, I started a silent conversation with God. He answered my prayer through a house/electronic song titled “Don’t You Worry Child”:
“I still remember how it all changed…
My father said
Don’t you worry, don’t you worry child
See heaven’s got a plan for you”
I spent a few minutes in a gym with tears in my eyes. I believe in a God that answers prayers in ways we may not even fathom. I was in a moment of crisis. He delivered. He answered a prayer through the radio. It was a powerful reminder to me, both in exact timing and exact wording, that He did have a plan for me.
I came out to two bishops in Illinois; the first was generally supportive but didn’t know how to help. The second responded affirmatively and in a touching letter thanked me for sharing and remarked that he felt I had been a “chosen vessel” for being gay, affirming that “our strength against our challenges is best when we are together.”
Still, I teetered on the brink of church activity. How does one feel fully committed when those who you think would have answers don’t have them? How does one feel fully committed when, in the search for peace and understanding, I frequently felt confusion and sorrow for who I am? Despite my belief in God and attempts to be the best person I knew how to be, it seemed my life just didn’t fit in to the Plan of Salvation. I was, as the cliche goes, a square peg in a round hole.
The contradictions in my life were tearing at my heartstrings.
VI Stake President
In 2013, I had an appointment with my then-stake president. I wanted to share my experience of being gay in the Church, but hardly knew him and hoped that he’d respond with compassion.
I wrote in my journal: “I kept replaying in my head that the way I know that God is speaking through him is that he would ask me ‘Is there anything that you want to talk about?’ and those were essentially the words that came out of his mouth. He had the most calm, loving, and empathetic demeanor that I could have hoped for in a Stake President. It was, I must say, as if the Savior were there listening to me. His main point that he wanted to drive home was that God loves me and that I just need to [retain] hope that He has a plan for me. He offered me a blessing at the end, blessing me with the hope that I need to carry on and that God does have a plan for me…He called me again this evening, just wanting to thank me so much for sharing my thoughts.”
I wish everyone could respond to a coming-out story the way that he responded to me. I felt love and hope. I felt that God did have a plan for me, not in the vague sense of the term, but a specific designed plan for me.
One year later, my wonderful stake president was about a week from being released. I wouldn’t fault any stake president, after years of giving up so much time of their lives, to cruise to the finish line. To his credit, he had been praying that God would impress upon him the name of one last individual in the stake who could use His love. My name kept popping up in his mind.
Our conversation involved points important for anyone trying to understand gay members of the Church:
1. He assured me that he’d be my friend and love me whether I left the Church or stayed
2. Acknowledging that he could not fully relate to my situation, he assured me of One who does
3. He validated my pain and gave me space and permission to lose hope at times
4. He emphasized the word “hope”: that there was a specific plan for me
I will forever be indebted to the time he spent (and still spends) and love he showed (and still shows) during this vulnerable time of my life.
VII Continued Progress
I have since come out to all my family members, many friends, and to my current ward in a Sacrament Meeting talk about ministering, especially to LGBTQ individuals. The bond with my family has increased more than I could have imagined.
A year before coming out to my brother, he randomly called me and felt impressed to tell me that “I don’t know what’s going on in your life, but I feel impressed to tell you that no matter what it is, I love you and will always love you.”
My sister recounted to me a discussion she had with my nephew. He inquired why I wasn’t married, to which she responded that I am attracted to men. She asked him if anything would change and if he’d love me less if Uncle Erik married another man. He nonchalantly applied “No, why would I?”
Many in my ward family have rallied around me. In response to opening up my heart to them in a Sacrament Meeting talk, some have opened up their hearts to me. I am invited to dinners and “Come Follow Me” discussions, among other events. I have a standing invitation to sit by a handful of families at church. I serve in the Elder’s Quorum Presidency, certainly nothing I aspired to or wished for, but a calling extended to me with the ward fully knowing I am gay.
For me, the suffocating darkness of the closet is being replaced by the resuscitative light of being authentic and honest about myself.
I have been fortunate, as I know that many LGBTQ members of the church do not have the positive experiences they deserve. Although many people are well-meaning, there are a few things I wish my Church family would understand:
- The single biggest impact that you can make is to listen, love, and to take an interest. My stake president took the time to listen. And then he followed up and listened some more. He became a good friend. We still frequently call each other. He didn’t lecture or remind me of doctrine/policy. Trust me, LGBTQ members are very well-versed in the doctrine/policies.
- Please don’t tell me how I’m “supposed” to feel. Please just allow me to feel.
- “Don’t worry, nothing will change.” I understand this statement is well-meaning. However, one of the reasons why I share being gay with you is because I want things to change. I hope things change. I hope for more compassion and understanding for LGBTQ members of the church.
- Please don’t label me/us as having “gay tendencies”. I’ve gone through 36 years to know that this is no tendency.
- This is not a trial I have to “endure”. My thoughts, feeling, and desires are all influenced by me being gay. Take away the gay, and I am a completely different and unrecognizable person. It is inseparable from my abilities as a human and a physician to listen, to love and to empathize. It allows me to appreciate diversity and beauty in all of God’s creations. And so much more.
- Please stop saying “love the sinner, hate the sin” (or I guess, now with the policy reversal, “love the sinner, hate the serious transgression”). Jesus never uttered this phrase. It implies conditional love. The phrase isn’t applied to any other situation, except to those who are gay. God’s love leaves all of us unshackled from the responsibility to judge, and instead He calls on us just to love. Simply beautiful and beautifully simple.
- I can’t speak for all LGBTQ, but in my experience some members of the Church consider us the “least” of the church members. Just as Christ taught that “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” how we treat the marginalized–including LGBTQ–is a direct reflection of how we treat our Savior.
VIII Moving Forward
If I could visit my 13-year-old self, I’d shed some tears with him, listen to all of his fears and pain and struggles and doubts. Then I’d listen some more. When I thought he was done, I’d listen even more. I’d validate the pain.
And hugs. Lots of hugs.
At the end of it all, though, I’d let him know that it gets better. So much better.
There is hope. There is love. There is peace.
Moving forward, I’m still figuring out exactly what my plan is. I am leaving doors and possibilities open. Who am I to limit what God has in store for me? I leave it in His hands because, at the end of the day, I answer to Him and Him alone. Not to any church leader.
I currently go to Church regularly. It’s certainly difficult at times. Sometimes, it’s on my terms. If it’s a particularly painful day, I’ll go up in the mountains instead.
I choose to stay because the Church provides me opportunities to become more like Christ. I go there for the healing that the Sacrament brings. I go there to become whole. I stay because many in my church community have rallied around me. I ignore the garbage of church “culture” and if anyone is uncomfortable with my presence, it’s something they’ll have to work out. I have as much right to be there as anyone else.
Yet I empathize completely with those who feel they need to step away.
I believe that “he has yet to reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God”. It isn’t my place to know the details, but I know that it will involve more understanding, acceptance, and compassion towards us.
Change from the top is glacially (and painfully) slow. But, I believe the more we share our experiences, the more we love as Christ loves, the more hearts will be softened. We ALL are valuable and needed. There are much better days ahead.
The greatest changes happen one heart at a time, not from the top down. Not from policies. Not from policy reversals.
Are we satisfied when one part of the body of Christ feels marginalized and second-class? When one part of the body of Christ suffers, the whole body suffers. I ask my fellow church members: Will you help us heal so that we can all be made whole? Will you help bridge the divide?
Will you make space in the pews for someone like me? Will you make space in your heart? Will that space still be there if I walked in with another man? Will that space still be there for those LGBTQ who choose to follow a path that doesn’t involve activity in the church?
Because Christ will. He already has.
I am at peace with who I am. I know that God loves me fully, and loves me for being gay. No, it doesn’t “define” me. But I am the sum of all my parts, including this part.
When I get anxious, sad, or frustrated with progress, I hear these words whispered in my heart:
“Be still, and know that I am God.”
This is my story. But it could be the story of a friend, co-worker, or neighbor. Perhaps a relative or spouse.
Please be kind. Help us belong. We know not the battles others face.
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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.