The following is co-published with Public Square Magazine.
Those familiar with my history know that I’ve been pretty public about my sexuality for quite a while. I’ve been on TV, quoted in news articles, written book chapters, and appeared on various podcasts with and without my wife. It wasn’t always so, and when I first started considering being involved in things like this, the question came with lots of trepidation.
The first time the question came up, I was invited to participate in a project where I would publicly disclose my experience with same-sex attraction to a national audience. I learned Elder Holland was involved in the same project. Mutual friends offered to put me in touch with him to get his advice on whether my participation would be a good idea. I said yes, and then promptly forgot about it.
A few days later, I got one of those phone calls from Church headquarters that makes your heart start pounding. What have I done now? I wondered. The very kind person on the call introduced herself as Elder Holland’s secretary. It was then I remembered that these friends had offered to set this phone call up and I relaxed, but only slightly. This was an Apostle I would be talking to!
I quickly got my wife on the phone and then his secretary put Elder Holland through. We discussed the opportunity. He made it clear that the Church did not require or expect me to participate in this project; all they asked was that I continue to live the gospel and care for my family. But he also said that after prayerful consideration as to my individual circumstances, if I wanted to disclose something this personal to the world, he would welcome it and was supportive of that decision, should I choose to make it.
I mention this experience because there are many people now claiming that Elder Holland does not believe that people should disclose their sexual orientation publicly, or that he just wants them to “shut up.” This is categorically false, not only in my own case, but in several others I know as well. In each case, he has been unfailingly supportive and encouraging.
While on the phone with him, I mentioned another concern. Would my words be taken out of context, deceptively edited, or might I perhaps word something unclearly or carelessly and bring opprobrium down upon myself and my family? Elder Holland said he had the same concern. He joked that if some things he said were taken out of context, he might find himself worshipping with the Methodists before the week was out. But he said that while he would not speak for me, in his case, he was willing to take the risk because of his testimony of the restored gospel.
(Thinking back on this now, I am reminded of the scripture in Jeremiah 20:9: “But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.”)
After this week, if what some people are saying about him is to be believed, I am not sure even the Methodists would take him. In some of the more excitable quarters of the Internet, it appears he should be exiled from polite society and tried for attempted murder.
That phone call was not my first (nor my last) time interacting with Elder Holland, whom I have intermittently crossed paths with since 1988. He was my Book of Mormon teacher at BYU, while he was also the university’s president. A few months later when I was in the Provo MTC, he visited several times as a newly called Seventy. In these interactions, I was struck by his passion for the gospel, his strong testimony, and his evocative mastery of the English language. But above all, I was awed by the love and care he demonstrated for everyone he was around.
One image sticks in my mind after all these years. I was walking down the hallway at the MTC. To my right I saw Elder Holland, on his knees, holding the hand of a woman in a wheelchair. He was listening intently to her, kneeling so he could be at eye level with her, while affectionately holding her hand. Then at a certain point, he patted her cheeks (like he did later to Elder Dube) and kissed her forehead, telling her he loved her. Over my half a dozen subsequent interactions with him, and observing his interactions with others in my proximity, I have come to realize that this is par for the course for him. If you ever have the unforgettable privilege of meeting him, he’ll fix you with those watery eyes and look deeply into yours. He’ll take your hand in one hand, and with the other grasp your elbow or shoulder. I know few men who are as good with words as he is, but what strikes you when you meet him is how much he pays keen attention when you talk with him, and the insightfulness of his questions.
One old friend of mine disclosed his sexual orientation to him, and Elder Holland, who was already shaking his hand, pulled him in close, and said to him with a crack in his voice and great conviction, “we need you in the Church. Please stay with us! We love you! Don’t you dare leave us!”
You can read about Elder Holland’s angel-like ministry to the Matis family after the tragic suicide of their son and brother, Stuart, in Fred & Marilyn Matis’ portion of the book In Quiet Desperation. He remained a dear friend to the family in the years since. A few years ago, at the end of a Sacrament meeting I was attending where Elder Holland also happened to be in attendance, I went up to him and shook his hand. I introduced myself by saying I was “a friend of Fred and Marilyn Matis, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh!,” he softly exclaimed, “I know exactly what you mean!” And then he drew me close with his free arm and again with that intense, loving gaze, told me how much he loved me and appreciated my continuing to be part of the Church.
These two, pernicious lies about Elder Holland—that he does not want people publicly discussing their sexual orientation, and that he has so little care for people like me that he wants us shot—break my heart. My own eyes are getting a little watery at the outrageous calumny against a dear man whom I have watched, loved, and interacted with over more than three decades. I am ashamed to confess that I do not, at this moment, have very much love in my heart for those who would so baselessly and unfairly denounce this man. Elder Holland, I apologize for that. I am in this moment falling short of that loving example you have so beautifully set for me over these several decades of observation of your inspiring words and actions.
I am overwhelmed with sadness and anger that those who themselves have been victims of misunderstanding and rejection, would so thoroughly and unkindly misunderstand and reject this good, good man. How many times friends in similar circumstances to mine hoped that the Church would talk about this more openly, more frequently? Elder Holland did that, repeatedly and lovingly for decades. But now this man should be damned because some don’t like the metaphor he used?
My heart breaks. Not only is it a betrayal of the man, worse, it is a betrayal of the very principles we profess to uphold. For people like us who have been so misunderstood, I would expect we would seek a little more carefully to understand. For people who have been so often unfairly rejected, I would expect us to be a little more hesitant before rejecting someone else. In a few decades, after I’ve seen them show similar love and acceptance and courage that I have observed in Elder Holland, maybe then they’ll have earned the right to counsel him on word choices. For now, it seems that too many have learned nothing and forgotten everything from this great man who has richly blessed my life and countless others.
In moments of grace, I have had glimpses of heaven. In other moments, such as this one, I feel like I have glimpsed hell. The scriptures speak of hell with imagery like wailing and gnashing teeth. They say, “the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt.” The adversary is known as “the great accuser,” but one of his most nefarious acts is to clone his accusing nature in others, as Dan Ellsworth has written. We’ve sadly seen this happen too often since Elder Holland’s talk, even among those who profess Christian faith while they fail to take even the basic step of asking God to reveal how He feels about Elder Holland and his message. If they had made this effort before leaping to attack, they might discern the wisdom and love in Elder Holland’s remarks instead of jumping to the least charitable conclusions about it and hurling pitchforks in the social media mob.