Wyatt Darling, MFT, a Gay Therapy Center psychotherapist based in Los Angeles, was raised in the Mormon Church. One of his specialties is working with LGBTQ people on their path to self-acceptance as they recover from childhood exposure to homophobia in a religious context. In this interview Wyatt talks to Adam D. Blum, the Founder and Director of the Gay Therapy Center about his personal experiences and professional beliefs.
Adam D. Blum: Wyatt, can you tell us a little bit about growing up in the Church of Latter Day Saints?
Wyatt Darling: For Mormons like me, religion wasn’t just about church, God, and spirituality. Religion was my entire community. It was a part of everything I did. At school or at the grocery store, I was always confronted with the religion.
As a young child it felt very safe. I liked that everyone practiced the same thing. The downside was that I was exposed to a very limited view of the world.
AB: I could see how that would be comforting. What was hard for you as you began to realize you might be different?
WD: I was taught that being gay didn’t really exist. On TV I could see that gay people existed, but I couldn’t use that word. It was a bad a word. So like most young LGBTQ people, I hid myself and pretended.
It caused me to make decisions that weren’t healthy. I wasn’t allowed to explore love. I couldn’t explore LGBTQ sexuality. I couldn’t hang out with people I connected with.
I was alienated from myself as well as from people who could have been important to me.
AB: What a loss.
WD: It caused me to be inauthentic within my own family, and in that process I distanced myself from them. I regret doing that. But at the time it was the only choice I had.
AB: How did you recover from this self-alienation?
WD: It was a long process. Luckily I created friendships with gay Mormons. They took my hand and showed me a different way to hold myself. Finally I began to open up to people who resonated with who I was.
AB: Do you feel bitter towards the Church?
WD: I felt bitter at moments, but don’t feel bitter now. I let go of my expectations of what the Church should do. Change starts with me. I feel empowered by my ability to be an advocate. That’s been the biggest resource for me.
In fundamentalist churches you answer to a religious leader who tells you what is okay and what isn’t. As you enter into recovery you start to view yourself as the source of validation. You learn that you are the best source for making good decisions. It takes courage, but it is one of the most rewarding things you learn when you leave a religion like Mormonism. Believe me, it’s worth the work.
AB: I believe you. As you began to mature was it difficult to enter into your own sexuality?
WD: In Mormonism the body is a temple and you participate in rituals to remind you that it is sacred. You are forbidden to “defile” it with coffee, masturbation, or sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage.
Gay Mormons have to learn that it is healthy to be in touch with your body in way that feels good. For a long time I held onto that trauma that I was not good enough, and that feeling good would be my demise.
I was taught I was unworthy to have a relationship with God, and that took a while to unlearn.
AB: To heal did you have to cut off ties with your Mormon family?
WD: Just because you leave a religion doesn’t mean you have to leave the people who are important to you. I receive joy from my Mormon family and friends who love and accept me.
To do this you’ll need a base of 100% support from people who have left the teachings of the church. My friends outside of the Church have become my main source of validation. That gives me the resource to be with people I love even though we don’t believe the same things. I don’t need them to change their entire life in order to have a relationship with them. We have learned to agree to disagree.
I know I won’t be able to control others or change their minds. My job is to live authentically. Period.
AB: What is it like working with men and women on recovery?
WD: It’s very rewarding to witness the journey of people starting to ask the question “What is best for me?” Those questions are not allowed for people raised in fundamentalism. It takes courage to ask those questions, to ask what authentically is you, in spite of what others are telling you.
AB: Anything you want LGBTQ readers to know who are still in the Church and are feeling tormented?
I want them to know what they are feeling is so normal. They may feel connected to their family and their religion, but so disconnected from themselves. It’s common.
Some see it as their only tribe. They fear leaving behind their entire support network. In any religion it’s the community aspect that holds it together. The fear of loss of social connection—that is the hardest part of leaving a religion.
There are so many resources to move forward. Every homophobic religion that exists has a community of people who have come out of the religion to a better place. LGBTQ affirming therapy is a good place to start. My therapist guided me gently—not in an abrasive way—and allowed me to begin to ask these deeper questions. It creates a safe place, and from there it is easier to seek community.
AB: Wyatt, thanks for sharing a bit of your story.
WD: I love talking about this subject because it so full of hope.
Wyatt Darling, MFT is a Gay Therapy Center psychotherapist offering sessions in his Los Angeles office, and by Skype and phone worldwide.