Three Cache Valley stories put face on controversial topic

By John Wright

lay Essig loves Cache Valley.

After all, he was born and raised here, in what he calls a "great LDS family."

But even though Essig, a former Logan High student body president, lives just two hours away in Salt Lake City, he rarely returns to his hometown.

That/s because Essig is openly gay, and he feels like his lifestyle is rejected by the conservative Mormon community here.

"To this day, every time I drive into Cache Valley, I get a pit in my stomach," he said. "I go up there kicking and screaming."

Although Essig doesn/t feel accepted here, he has been accepted by his Mormon bishop and stake president in Salt Lake. That/s because he/s not actively involved in a homosexual relationship.

However, Essig is looking for a partner, and if and when he finds one, he presumably will be excommunicated by the church.

As an openly gay Mormon, Essig is on the front lines, so to speak, of the growing battle to have the church and its members become more tolerant of homosexuals.

In past years, church leaders have used some harsh rhetoric in condemning gays. The church traditionally has taught that being gay is a choice, and told gay members they can change their orientation through "reparative therapy" or other methods. The church for many years also advised gay members to marry people of the opposite sex.

In recent years, though, the rhetoric has become less stern. Among other things, the church has said there may be genetic factors involved with homosexuality, and it no longer recommends traditional marriage as a solution. Current church doctrine concerning homosexuals can be summarized as, "Love the sinner, hate the sin."

"There has been progress," Essig said. "Just the mere mention of the word homosexuality 20 or 30 years ago would get you in serious trouble."

Despite the changes, though, the church has continued to make financial contributions to political campaigns that would outlaw same-sex marriage in various states. And it still disciplines actively gay members.

"Their policies are still very clearcut," Essig said. "If we act on being gay like they act on being straight, we/ll be excommunicated."

As a result of church policy, Essig/s life, and the lives of thousands of other Mormons, have been defined by conflict 77 the conflict between their homosexual feelings, or the homosexual feelings of a family member, and their religion.

Essig heads a group called Reconciliation, which provides Family Home Evenings for gay Mormons. Two other Cache natives, Dr. Gary Watts and his wife, Millie, co-chair Family Fellowship, a support and education group for the families of gay LDS members. The Wattses have two gay children. Another group, Affirmation, has 33 chapters throughout the world as well as an extensive Web site, www.affirmation.org. Still another group, Gamofites, is geared toward gay Mormon fathers.

Some people who/ve been involved with the groups, like Steve Dunn, the widower of former Logan High Principal Allison Dunn, have been excommunicated by the church for acting on their homosexual feelings and refusing to submit to reparative therapy. Others, like the Watts/ lesbian daughter, have chosen to have their names removed from church membership rolls in order to avoid the disciplinary process. Others, like the Wattses themselves, remain members but have become far less active due to their beliefs. Still others, like Essig, remain active, faithful members of the church, fighting for change from within.

But all are alike in that their stories put human faces on a very controversial issue. The issue is so emotionally and politically charged, according to LDS spokesman Coke Newell, that the church will not even comment on it beyond providing a written opinion that was approved in 1999. The opinion, which consists of statements made by church President Gordon B. Hinckley, appears alongside this article.

"Our hearts reach out to those who struggle with feelings of affinity for the same gender," the opinion begins. "We remember you before the Lord, we sympathize with you, we regard you as our brothers and sisters. However, we cannot condone immoral practices on your part any more than we can condone immoral practices on the part of others."

Steve Dunn

It was somewhat ironic when, earlier this year, Logan High Principal Charles Nelson was faced with the decision of whether to allow a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance at the school. That/s because Nelson/s predecessor, former Principal Allison Dunn, had an openly gay husband. Allison Dunn passed away two years ago.

Steve Dunn/s struggle began when, as a senior at Box Elder High, he had a homosexual relationship with a student from Sky View.

"I had never felt like that with any of the high school girls I dated," said Dunn, who came from a pioneering Mormon family. "As our relationship progressed, we tried to make sense of what was going on between us. We convinced ourselves that we weren/t homosexuals. We concluded we were simply in love with each other but that we were definitely not gay. We were athletes. We weren/t effeminate. We didn/t act like Liberace. And we definitely weren/t perverts. How could we be gay?"

Out of fear that the relationship would be discovered, and because he knew he would have to confess before going on his Mormon mission, Dunn broke off the relationship after six months.

A year later, Dunn was a student, football player and fraternity member at Utah State University. As he prepared for his mission, it came time to confess to his bishop.

"Walking to his office was the most difficult journey of my 18 years," he said. "I was so ashamed I cried as I laid my sin before the bishop. He comforted me and told me my confession, my remorse and my yearlong celibacy was sufficient to demonstrate true repentance. He instructed me to go on a mission, get married, and when I began sexual intimacy with my future wife, those same-sex feelings would never return."

As he walked back to his USU residence from the bishop/s office, Dunn vowed never to have a homosexual relationship again. It was a vow he kept for 25 years.

Dunn followed the bishop/s advice and completed a mission to Bolivia, where he eventually served in numerous callings, including branch president.

"I was devoted to the people and the Lord," he said. "Even though I was attracted to a couple of my companions and a few other missionaries, I kept myself in strict control."

After returning to USU, Dunn was working as an LDS Student Association officer when he met Allison Gates, a fellow officer and Cache native.

"I dated many co-eds, but when I met and dated Allison, I knew she was the only woman I could marry," Dunn said. "I was convinced that if I didn/t marry her, I would never get married. And since I was promised that marriage would fix my sexuality, I felt no need to tell Allison anything that would expose my situation."

Steve and Allison Dunn were married and had five children. They remained very active in the church, and while teaching at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, Dunn became bishop of a local ward.

"Allison and I were the model couple," Dunn said. "We were the quintessential Mormon couple."

But their marriage was in some ways a facade, because Steve Dunn continued to agonize about his secret. Despite the bishop/s promise, Dunn/s homosexual feelings didn/t go away.

"Instead of going away, it got worse," he said. "The feelings became more intense."

In 1985, Dunn accepted a faculty position at USU, and the family returned to Logan. Dunn served in two different Cache bishoprics, as well as on a university high stake counsel and in his ward high priest group leadership.

But in 1992, after 25 years of fighting his feelings of attraction for other men, Dunn acted on them again.

"Eventually the repression of my homosexuality overwhelmed me and I broke my personal and temple vows," he said.

Soon thereafter, Dunn was reading a gay-themed book when he accidentally left it out on the couple/s bed. Allison found the book, read part of it and confronted him. He said she was "absolutely devastated."

Not knowing what to do, the couple immediately sought therapy. They went to an LDS therapist who had dealt with couples in similar situations. Based on his experience, the therapist advised them to get divorced.

But Steve couldn/t bring himself to leave Allison and the kids, and she didn/t want him to. They would schedule a divorce for six months out, and they even contacted an attorney, but they could never go through with it.

"We/d set a date and we/d get to that point, and we/d both look at each other and say, /I don/t want a divorce, do you want a divorce?/"

"Trying to separate … there was no way."

Dunn said that if it weren/t for Allison/s support, he would have committed suicide. "Luckily, Allison was the kind of person she was, because if she would have rejected me, I would have killed myself."

In 1994, Dunn was "outed" by the Salt Lake Tribune after speaking at a meeting of Gamofites, a support group for gay Mormon fathers. As a result, he inadvertently became a spokesman on the issue.

Although Steve and Allison stayed together, Steve began to accept his homosexuality. He even organized regular volleyball games with other gay men in Logan.

After learning of the volleyball outings, the Dunns/ stake president phoned Allison. Steve began meeting with the stake president, who referred him to reparative therapy.

"The message was if I didn/t change and say I/d changed, they were going to excommunicate me," he said.

But after reading an LDS publication about homosexuality, and meeting with a church leader in Salt Lake, Dunn decided that he disagreed with the church/s position. He told the stake president he was refusing reparative therapy, and shortly thereafter he was excommunicated. He said it was a "very ugly" experience.

"After all those years of service, the church was absolutely silent and distant to me," he said. "They closed that door. It was as if I had died. … The church completely abandoned us."

In addition to church discipline, the Dunns faced ostracism from both family and friends. Dunn said that with the exception of a few couples who remained close, no on even stopped by to see how he was doing.

Fortunately, the Dunns/ children were supportive, and they were able to find comfort in groups like Family Fellowship. In fact, despite their difficulties, the Dunns managed to prosper both personally and professionally.

"Allison and I went through just an extraordinary amount of pain dealing with this issue, but it made us better people," Dunn said recently, choking back tears during a telephone interview.

Dunn eventually left USU and became an education consultant. Meanwhile, Allison became principal of Logan High.

But the Dunns soon faced another crisis when Allison was diagnosed with cancer in 1996. Steve served as Allison/s caretaker until her death in 2001, and thereafter he remained in Logan for 18 months before accepting a faculty position at Newman University in Wichita, Kan.

Since then, he has dated men, but hasn/t had any serious relationships.

"I/m just not ready to have that kind of relationship with someone," he said. "I/m still not ready emotionally to move on."

Gary and Millie Watts

As Steve and Allison Dunn were struggling to deal with Steve/s homosexuality, one of the groups that became important to them was Family Fellowship, a support and education group for the families of gay Mormons.

Coincidentally, Family Fellowship is co-chaired by two Cache natives, Gary and Millie Watts, who now live in Provo.

During one of the many lectures he has given about gays and the LDS church over the last 10 years, Watts said Family Fellowship has brought him into contact with numerous couples like the Dunns.

"Aside from the excommunication of my own son, the most painful experience for me has been witnessing the failure of the attempted heterosexual marriages involving our gay brothers and sisters," Watts said. "Current church policy explicitly discourages such marriages, but gay and lesbian members will continue to attempt them as long as there is no acceptable alternative for inclusion in the church."

Gary and Millie Watts, like the Dunns, were once the quintessential Mormon couple. Gary, a radiologist and doctor of nuclear medicine at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center, served in three different bishoprics and on a high stake council. Millie served in the Relief Society and many other callings.

"I would say we were very, very active and very, very loyal," Gary said.

But all that changed after the Watts/ oldest son, Craig, told them he was gay in 1989.

Gary said his initial reaction was "Are you sure?" and "How gay are you?"

But soon the Watts realized they would be faced with a decision. After Craig was excommunicated for being gay, the Watts had to choose between the church and their family. Since then, their involvement with the church has gradually decreased to the point that they now rarely participate.

"It became very difficult to go," Watts said, adding that Millie would sometimes break down crying during services.

The Wattses are still members, but they only attend church on special occasions, like when a friend is speaking or a missionary whom they know is having a farewell.

"It/s very hard for me personally to have a loyalty to an organization that somehow gives my own children second-class status in the church," Gary said. "The church no longer really meets the needs of our family. …

"There/s no question," he added. "If I have to choose between the church and my kids, I/ll take my kids every time."

The Watteses and several other families started Family Fellowship in 1993, and today the group has a mailing list of more than 1,700. Family Fellowship has not been officially endorsed by the church, Watts said, but the church is interested in the group, and there is interaction between the two entities.

"We sort of have a little different philosophy than the church does," Gary said.

The Watts/ daughter, Lori, came out six years after Craig. Gary said that based on his experience, he believes church policy puts gay Mormons and their families "in a little bit of a box."

He said gay LDS members who want to remain in the church are given a choice between celibacy and changing their sexual orientation.

"We think both options are laden with all kinds of difficulties," Gary said.

He said most choose celibacy, and that works for a year or two, until they meet someone and fall in love. Then, they/re faced with another choice 77 between the church and their partner.

"Invariably, they choose the relationship with the partner," he said, "and so they end up leaving the church."

Watts said that/s unfortunate because the church is losing a lot of good members whom he feels it should find a way to include.

"There/s a huge cost to the church, but it/s largely unrecognized by the church," he said.

In addition to gay members, the church also often distances the gay person/s family members. Gary said that in that respect, his family is fairly representative.

"For the years of loyalty and support we/ve given them, it seems to me like the church ought to be doing everything they can to meet our needs," Watts said. "And we just don/t see it that way."

One major sticking point for the Wattses has been the church/s political involvement with the gay issue. For example, the church has poured tithing funds into campaigns to outlaw same-sex marriage in places like Hawaii and California. For all its emphasis on family, he said the church tends to divide families on this particular issue.

"What the church has done in the political arena has been very divisive for our family," he said. "I do believe the church has a right to feel and do what they want, but I do not think it/s right for them to deny equal rights to people."

Watts said his opinions are largely based on his educated belief that homosexuality is an inborn genetic trait.

" While its etiology is complex and multifactorial, its presence throughout the animal kingdom in every mammalian species studied so far establishes it to my own satisfaction as a normal biological variant," he said during a lecture in 1999. "Once you come to believe as I do that homosexuality is a normal biological variation, is not chosen and is not changeable, it becomes only logical to conclude that, just like heterosexuality, it must be morally neutral."

Clay Essig

Clay Essig is one of many gay Mormons who, operating under the LDS teaching that being gay is a choice, has tried to change his sexual orientation.

Essig said that as a child growing up in Cache, he knew he was gay, but didn/t understand it.

"It was exceedingly tough," he said. "I thought I was the only one, and that was really tough."

As an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, Essig discussed his homosexual feelings with a bishop, who referred him to counseling.

Essig said he tried for years through various methods to become straight. But after graduating from the University of Southern California with a master/s degree in film production, he had a two-year homosexual relationship.

Essig said he eventually broke off the relationship due to his religion. He returned to Utah and once again tried to change his orientation.

"I took the church/s position that you/re not really gay, you/re just struggling with these feelings," he said.

But he said that approach just led him closer and closer to suicide. He even had his note written, but there was "divine intervention." Essig said he was living a "monumental lie that destroys your soul."

"It was like I was a walking dead man," he said. "That was when I was trying really hard to do what the church told me. It was the most horrible thing imaginable."

Essig said many of his friends went through the same thing, and he feels that suicide is a huge problem among gays, both inside and outside the LDS church. He said gay suicides are often covered up because the families want to avoid the associated shame.

"I think there/s a lot of gays who kill themselves, and especially a lot of LDS gays," he said. "They teach us that God hates us. They say they don/t … but that/s the outcome of their teaching. It/s a very, very serious issue."

Ironically, Essig said it was through his Mormon faith and study of scripture, especially "The Book of Mormon," that he finally came to terms with his homosexuality.

Essig now believes that his sexual orientation is a "gift from God." He believes that although the church is true, the prophets are not infallible. And he draws a distinction between church policy and his own personal faith.

"Once I started making the differentiation between the church and God, everything started falling into place," he said. "I/m very much LDS, but now I put everything through a filter of what my heart is telling me. My faith in God has grown enormously since I came out."

Essig said there is a "huge misunderstanding" in the church about homosexuality. But he added, "Just because they don/t understand the gay thing, that doesn/t make everything else wrong."

Essig compared the plight of gay Mormons today to the plight of black Mormons 30 years ago. He said blacks were denied the priesthood until 1978 because of prejudices based on assumptions about black people that simply aren/t true. He said the policy was changed because there were a lot of good, faithful black LDS members.

"I/m hoping that at some point down the line, they/ll do the same with the gay issue," he said. "I/m very optimistic. When it will happen, I don/t know."

Unless it happens soon, Essig faces the likelihood of excommunication. He/s looking for a partner, and he says that when it comes to church discipline, local leaders/ hands will be tied by LDS policy.

"I/ll just have to cross that bridge when I get to it," he said. "If they/re rejecting me for that, that/s OK, because they/re going to have to answer to God."

Even if he is excommunicated, Essig said he will continue attending an LDS church. And if he and his partner raise children, they will be Mormons, too.

"I want to raise them in the church," he said. "I think it/s the best church going."

Essig said many of his friends think he/s crazy for remaining in the church, but he claims there/s a method to his madness.

"If we all leave, nothing/s gonna change," he said. "You can/t change the current if you get out of the stream."

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