My Small Town Story

by Todd Davison

It was a clear, crisp, beautiful June morning in Macon, Missouri -- Father's Day, actually. As I got dressed I could look out my bedroom window to the RLDS (Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, now known as Community of Christ) church where I was about to be ordained to the office of Priest. At seventeen, I was the youngest priesthood candidate I knew. I'd always been a good kid. I had grown up in the Church and was quite secure in the knowledge that I and We had something unique to offer the world. I had read and studied and prayed in preparation for ordination and on this special morning, I knelt beside my bed and bowed my head.

As a good Zion's Leaguer, I knew how to pray: first praise and thanksgiving, then specific petitions for my friends, family, church leaders, the upcoming service…finally I prayed for myself. I asked God to bless my ministry as it would expand as a member of the priesthood. I asked that I would be humble and helpful and discerning. Then I asked the biggest blessing of all. I really didn't understand or have the right words to describe it, but I had this secret--a part of myself that I was pretty sure no other person knew about, but I knew God did. I asked that when the Elders placed their hands on my head to ordain me, God would remove these un-natural, un-Godly urges and I'd be clean and whole.

You see, about two years before, our District had held a Youth Preaching Series in a central congregation about an hour from my home. This wasn't a series of services planned by youth or featuring youth speakers as we might assume today, but a series of sermons preached by adults with a specific focus on "things today's youth need to know to be equipped for the very real battle between Good and Evil." During one of the sermons, the speaker told the story of his brother who had been "possessed by an evil spirit that made him desire men instead of women." After the brother had been administered to "the evil spirit left him and he had a normal desire for women." This story hit me like a ton of bricks. Even though I didn't understand my feelings, I knew that I must be possessed by that same evil spirit.

As luck would have it, the speaker who had the gay brother was a close family friend and was assisting my own father with my ordination. I was a little troubled that I had not confessed my feelings to this man so that he'd know about his important extra role in my ordination, but I figured, if I asked God sincerely, the whole thing could be taken care of in one fell swoop and no one needed to be troubled with the details.

During the next ten years I experienced periods of denial, exasperation and cluelessness, but never thought of myself as gay; in fact, I wasn't even sure that "truly homosexual" persons existed.

I had plenty of dates in high school, but was always too busy to "go steady" with anyone. Because I was a musician and theatre person instead of athletic, I was sometimes teased and even called a fairy, but I hardly ever let such insults get me down. My involvement in the Church was very important in my life. I knew lots of scriptures and lots of rules. I even developed a sense of righteous indignation when my peers talked about girls. I certainly was not going to cross any forbidden line with a girl before I was married!

At Graceland I soon developed a reputation as a fun (and safe) date. I enjoyed dramatic dates and parties and was invited to lots of formals. Once, a male friend sort of suggested we could be "more than friends," but I was shocked and flustered and left his car right away. I had three relatively serious relationships with women in college, but they all ended with my ambivalence--there came a point in time when I just didn't really care if I saw them again or not. I always chalked this up to the idea that I just hadn't found "the right woman."

My relationship to scripture, God and the RLDS church changed and deepened at Graceland. I was challenged and inspired to examine the ideas of my youth and sometimes surprised at what I found myself thinking. I had never been to World Conference for more than a day or two, but in 1984 I was a delegate and really felt like I was a part of something worthwhile. My senior year, I was assistant to the Campus Chaplain and believed I was really helping people and preparing myself for greater service. Before leaving Graceland, I was ordained an Elder.

After college I worked at various jobs, became pastor of my local congregation and stayed "too busy for dating." Finally, a woman whose schedule appropriately matched mine began to spend a lot of time with me. I certainly enjoyed her company, but one fateful night she finally came right out and asked me why I wasn't physically demonstrative to her at all. I had no answer other than the fact that I wasn't physically attracted to her.

In the Spring of 1992, I was once again a delegate to World Conference. During an informal conversation in the hall one day, a friend of mine from Graceland was described in a completely non-judgmental way as "gay as they come." I was shocked -- and intrigued. During the Conference floor discussion on the "Human Diversity" resolution (WCR 1226), I turned to the fellow sitting next to me and asked, "Do you think there really are homosexual people? How do they get that way?"

During the next three months, I suddenly discovered that some people really are homosexual--and I knew a number of them. Suddenly my own life experience made sense to me. I was one of them, too! It wasn't that God forgot to remove my gayness when I had asked so fervently at age seventeen. It was just that God didn't care if I was gay any more than if I was right-handed, Caucasian or able to whistle through my teeth. I found supportive gay folks right in my own town and among high school and college friends. Within a few weeks I had told most of the people I was closest to, including my parents and sister, about my self-realization. There were some tears and lots of misunderstanding, but no one was ugly or rejecting until it came to some members of my congregation.

Soon after my personal "coming out," I made an appointment to talk with my District President. I was a pastor and I thought she ought to know I was gay and advise me about what I might need to do. I surprised her in the midst of her family's own struggle to understand her gay son. She was very supportive and we decided I would continue on as pastor.

I had discovered some very helpful books about gay folks serving in other denominations. The idea that Christian people were integrating their gayness into their church lives was heartening to me. When I was invited to my first GALA (Gay And Lesbian Acceptance) retreat, I really felt like I had come home. Here were a bunch of men and women who shared more in common with me than I had ever imagined. I thought I was alone, but suddenly, I was part of a community. Eventually, I was able to mesh my GALA community with my biological family. Both of my parents and my sister have their own GALA stories to tell.

While many people around me were able to assimilate this new information about my make-up, some have not been supportive. Instead of sewing sequins on my dress shirts, filling my yard with rainbow flags or organizing a Gay Pride March in Macon, I chose to simply live my life a little more personally grounded and just not deny the places where my gayness leaked out a little. I didn't try to cover or hide and if anyone wanted to ask, or talk about it, I was game. Most people in my local congregation did not want to talk about it.

After getting a frosty reception at church two weeks running from a certain couple, I asked if I might come over to their house and talk to them. These folks had been in our congregation since I was in elementary school and were my Zion's League leaders throughout high school. When I got to their house that night, I didn't beat around the bush. I just said I felt like they had been avoiding me and I wondered if it had anything to do with the fact that I was a homosexual person. It did. They said it was "all over town" that I was gay and that it was embarrassing to them. They told me they were disappointed and appalled that I would continue to act in a leadership position in the Church. The man, who had been pastor and processed my first priesthood call, thought he may have got it wrong, or I had changed. They said the fact that I could walk into the Auditorium and not be "detected" was evidence that the World Church leadership was not "as strong as it used to be." I don't remember what I said to them that night. I just remember feeling lonely and sad.

In fact, it was "all over town." I ran my own business and was very well known, so a number of curious folks whispered and a few bold ones talked to me. In one infamous scene in Wal-Mart, a toothless young woman of my acquaintance hollered down the aisle, "Todd Davison, I heard you married a man!" In time, another family from our congregation decided they could no longer worship with me if I was going to be speaking from the pulpit. It was O.K. for me to play the piano, but they didn't think I had authority as a leader. After they left, a minister friend from another denomination sought me out to offer his personal support even though his own congregation was not supportive of "the gay lifestyle."

My experiences of being gay in the Community of Christ have been a decidedly mixed bag. I have witnessed people saying and doing terrible and ignorant things to one another. However, for every cousin who writes to tell me that I am a cancer in our family, there is a mother who seeks my advice for welcoming her gay highschooler's boyfriend, a lady at the bank who asks if I'm dating anyone because a very nice man just moved to town that she thinks I should meet, and a six-year-old who throws his arms around me with unconditional abandon. I pray that I may live to see a time when we wonder what all the fuss was over.