This post is about same sex attraction, loneliness, faith, despair, and unconditional love.
Clark Johnsen is a 37-year-old Broadway actor. Back in 2010 he heard about a new musical coming to Broadway called The Book of Mormon. The satirical script tells the story of 19-year-old Mormon missionaries sent to Africa to convert villagers to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Clark auditioned. After singing his sixteen bars of music he disclosed his Mormon roots to the casting director. “This is my life story,” Clark told him. “I was raised Mormon. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing for you. But do with it what you will.
It turned out to be a good thing. Out of the hundreds who tried out, Clark was one of twenty-eight who were cast. When the musical opened on Broadway on March 24, 2011, he was on stage in the ensemble, wearing a familiar costume: dark pants, a white shirt, a tie, and a black name badge.
It’s identical to the outfit he wore when he really was a missionary in Mexico at age 19.
As the only Mormon in The Book of Mormon, Clark drew the attention of NBC’s Brian Williams in the summer of 2012. With Mitt Romney running for president, NBC had decided to air a one-hour special on Mormonism. The network asked Clark to sit for an interview.
NBC wanted to interview me, too. In addition to appearing on camera, I spent a lot of time off camera explaining various aspects of Mormonism to NBC correspondent Harry Smith and one of the show’s producers.
I’ve done this sort of thing for other colleagues of mine in the national media – Katie Couric, Charlie Rose, Barbara Walters and countless producers and editors who have questions about my faith. I always begin by making clear that I don't speak for my church. I speak for myself only. And when questions arise about aspects of my religion that I don't understand or agree with, I share openly and honestly my personal views, but I don't superimpose them on my church. After all, who am I to dictate?
So when the producer asked about my stance on same gender attraction, I said that I follow a simple approach: love thy neighbor as thyself. I don’t judge. I stand with my gay brothers and sisters. That’s just bedrock Christianity.
The producer predicted that I would particularly like the segment on Clark Johnsen. He was right. Sitting on the stage where The Book of Mormon is performed every night, Clark reflected on his mission and how it was one of the most cherished experiences of his life. The network showed pictures of him holding a Book of Mormon and baptizing people in Mexico. Clark choked up talking about it.
I choked up, too. Especially when he said this: “I know I don’t sound like an ex-Mormon. But I am one. I had a long path out of the church. I didn’t make the decision in one day. But I didn’t feel I could reach my full potential as a human being inside the church as a gay person.”
I thought about Clark’s statement – I know I don’t sound like an ex-Mormon. It was true. He didn’t sound like an ex-Mormon. He didn’t utter one negative or spiteful word about the church he no longer calls home.
I reached out to Clark. Through the producer I got his contact information and invited him to have breakfast with my wife and me in New York.
We spent two hours discussing everything from our careers to our families to our Mormon upbringing. A friendship was struck. It was natural. Over the past two years our relationship has deepened. Clark is one of the most genuine people I know. He has a beautiful soul. And he has become an acting coach and mentor to my 17-year-old son Tennyson, who is a theater major in college.
My son loves girls. His dream date would be Jennifer Lawrence. But one of his best friends on the planet is a gay man. They understand each other.
When it comes to same sex attraction, understanding is what’s lacking. I look at Clark and I see similarities, not differences. We were both raised in devout Mormon families. We joined the Boy Scouts. We never tried alcohol or cigarettes or drugs. We participated in the church’s seminary program for teens. We followed the church’s moral code of abstaining from sex before marriage. And we served full-time missions for our church at age 19.
We did all the same things to demonstrate our faith. To be perfectly candid, Clark was probably more disciplined than me. Yet I am in the church and he is out. There is only one reason for this: he's gay and I am not. That doesn’t set well with me. I have to believe that God loves us equally.
With his permission, I share here his journey out of our church. My purpose isn’t to point fingers. Rather, I hope this leads to greater understanding and a kinder approach.
EARLY ON Clark realized he was gay. But he also knew that his religion defined homosexuality as a sin. So he turned off his attraction and constantly told himself: "Maybe someday I will meet a girl." It became his motto. He'd go to bed wishing, hoping. Maybe I will meet a girl.
Before leaving home to study drama at Brigham Young University, he finally got up the nerve to tell his parents he was gay. Gary and Gail Johnsen are devout Mormons. They had raised seven children. One by one the children found spouses and got married. They were blindsided by Clark's announcement.
“I was hurt and upset,” Gail told me. “But I’m a fixer and I thought we can fix this. I spent hours and hours talking to Clark, telling him we can see where this began and we can unwind it.”
But the more Gail thought about it the more she began to wonder. When Clark was little he asked for Barbie dolls instead of trucks; he preferred Wonder Woman over Superman. More importantly, he just wasn't interested in girls the way his brothers were. “In retrospect, I see the way he played with toys and how he related to the world a little differently than heterosexual guys do,” she said.
In his freshman year of college Clark met other gay Mormons in the drama program. But one of his closest friends at school was a girl. He told her all about his homosexuality. She accepted him. So he shared his dreams and aspirations with her. One day they had a conversation that went like this:
Clark: I am going to marry a woman some day.
Clark: I want a full life. I want children.
Girl: What about the woman?
Clark: What do you mean?
Girl: I mean what about the woman you marry? What about her life? What about her hopes and dreams of finding a husband who is physically attracted to her and who loves and cherishes and holds her with desire?
Desire gets to the crux of the matter. You can restrain desire. But you can't fabricate it.
For the first time Clark started thinking that his motto – Maybe I’ll Meet a Girl – wasn’t fair to the girl. Now what?
Luckily, his departure on a Mormon mission bought him some time. “Like most gay people, the mission is a temporary relief of the pressure of having to move forward in a paradigm that you know you have to be dishonest to fulfill,” Clark told me.
But when he got home in 1998 he had to face the fact that the gospel he just spent two years spreading in Mexico was in conflict with his sexual identity. He wanted to remain true to his faith. At the same time, he didn't want to mislead a woman. That left one option: celibacy.
I don’t know many heterosexual men who have the self-discipline to handle celibacy. It leads to so many other temptations and problems. Clark’s mother encouraged him to hang in there; stay in the church. But the longer he hung in there the lonelier he became. Despair set in. “You have to pretend you are okay not loving or being loved, which is a lie,” Clark told me. “It’s not okay to walk through life without being loved.”
Many of Clark’s gay Mormon friends traded loneliness for marriage. One by one those marriages ended in shame and self-loathing. The women, especially, crawled away feeling flawed and inadequate. Everyone was scarred.
By 2007 Clark was 30 and starring in an off-Broadway production of Mama Mia in Las Vegas. He was still attending church regularly. But when another one of his gay friends killed himself, Clark hit rock bottom. He thought about doing the same thing. He’d get on airplanes and secretly hope they would crash. He finally called his mother and said he had decided to leave the church.
She pleaded that leaving the church wasn’t the right answer. Clark pleaded for understanding. “If the choice is between leaving the church or leaving the earth through suicide," he told her, "leaving the church is the right answer.”
They both wept. Then Clark left. He met a man. They developed a relationship. One day Clark telephoned his parents and said he wanted to bring his boyfriend home to meet them. Gail had a choice to make. “I could either love and accept his boyfriend or estrange Clark,” she said. “I chose to love the one that Clark chooses to be with.”
When Clark showed up with his boyfriend, Gail put her arms around the new addition to the family. “We brought Clark’s boyfriend into our family circle,” she said. “That was a pivotal moment. A lot of LDS families think that if they push them out of the family their gay child will stop being gay or give up the lifestyle. But they won’t.”
Gail has long since stopped trying to change Clark. “My journey has been to learn unconditional love,” she said. “I’ve never seen anybody try harder to hold onto the gospel than Clark. But it just wasn’t making him happy. I have finally come to terms with that.”
These days Gail Johnsen is closer to her son than ever. He is giving her acting lessons and she is auditioning for a play.
The best part is that the family is in tact. “Clark is an integral part of our family,” Gail said. “He’s generous, gifted, intelligent and lovable. We all love him. He’s the glue in our family.”
The challenge for my church isn’t that we don’t know everything we wish we knew about where gays fit into the eternal scheme of things. A higher power will sort that out. The more immediate challenge is to help church members and local leaders set a tone and example so that gay members feel welcome in our congregations. Our doors should be open, our pews inviting.
In my travels I have visited a congregation in New Canaan, Connecticut, that serves as a model example. Tom Christofferson is an openly gay Mormon who attends services there. Tom’s backstory is a lot like Clark Johnsen’s – strong Mormon upbringing, served a mission, left the church due to his sexual identity being in conflict with his faith. But a few years ago he decided to return to the church. He is still with his gay partner of 18 years. Yet his congregation has embraced them. He sings in the choir, attends all meetings, and has shared his testimony from the pulpit. It started with a compassionate bishop.
"Tom's presence has made me a better person," New Canaan resident and JetBlue Airways founder David Neeleman told me. "I wish there were three or four Tom Christoffersons in every Mormon congregation. We'd learn to be more tolerant, more compassionate."
I know and admire Tom. I also admire his brother D. Todd Christofferson, who is one of the Twelve Apostles in the Mormon Church. The Christofferson family’s approach to the situation is a pattern for other families with gay children. "Quite soon after I came out,” Tom said, “My parents took an opportunity to express to my brothers and their wives their determination that nothing would be allowed to break the circle of love that binds all of us together as a family. As they expressed it, while none of us is perfect as individuals, we can be perfect in our unconditional love for each other."
Sounds a lot like Clark Johnsen’s family.