I stood outside the Washington D.C. Temple, looking up at the pristine, white building. I had always been fascinated by architecture and design. As charming as the brown scratchy walls and green polyester carpets in my local meetinghouse were, what really captivated me were temples. Temples were magical and mysterious, like big ivory castles. Each one was unique and beautiful. I used to fantasize about being head architect at Church headquarters, drawing ornate floor plans and creating stunning exteriors to adorn cities all over the world.
One year the Friend magazine had a “temples of the world” craft section. Each month for an entire year I cut out the pictures, carefully glued them to cardstock paper, and made flash cards so I could memorize them. By December I could recognize and name every temple in the world at that time, all 108 of them. I made a list of my top-ten favorites, along with a goal to visit each one.
The Washington D.C. Temple was high on my list. I considered it one of the most beautiful of all. Its six-spire design mimicked the iconic Salt Lake Temple, but there was a unique grandeur and elegance to it that captivated me. I read about how the architect had used thinly sliced marble throughout the design, allowing a translucent glow of light to enter the building without the need for traditional windows. If that wasn’t compelling enough, I also knew that on each end of the temple there were running panels of stained glass, seven stories high. For years I had dreamed of seeing the building and experiencing the innovative lighting techniques firsthand.
Now, when it was finally time to go inside . . . I paced back and forth, full of apprehension, almost regretting my decision. It was difficult to muster the courage to go in, but eventually I walked myself through the front door. Lately, the temple hadn’t been a place of peace, revelation, or even beauty for me. It was just a stark reminder of all the ways I didn’t fit in.
“Are you waiting for your sweetheart?” an elderly man dressed in white asked as I waited in the chapel for the session to start.
“No. I don’t have one,” I replied shortly.
“Ah. Well, don’t you worry. A fine, good-looking young man like you should have no problem finding a wife. I’m sure she will come along sooner than you think,” he said with a wink, and he sauntered off.
He was the third person to ask about my “sweetheart” since I had entered the building just ten minutes before.
I had come to find answers, but all I was finding was anxiety. I was accustomed to feeling a little anxious and somewhat out of place in the temple, but today it was worse than ever before. Throughout the session I caught myself staring at the door, wondering how long I could override my body screaming at me to leave. I felt like I didn’t belong there. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere—I was gay. Not even the thinly cut marble walls could keep me calm. My desire to get the answer I was seeking was the only thing that kept me in my chair.
Time after time I tried to pray, but nothing happened. I couldn’t connect. I left the celestial room feeling angrier and more confused than ever. I was supposed to get answers today. I had been fasting, praying, and preparing for this moment for weeks. I was supposed to find peace, but I got nothing. Maybe this was off-limits, or maybe God just didn’t care.
I didn’t have any other plans, and I obviously wasn’t going to have the life-changing spiritual experience I was hoping for, so I began aimlessly walking up and down a spiral staircase. I studied the way the soft light of the morning sun came through the thin marble walls. I got distracted by the stained glass; it really was stunning. Bright shades of blue, green, and purple cast iridescent light on the walls behind me. I walked up and down the stairs, lost in a kaleidoscope of color.
When I came to a quiet landing I paused. Soft, cream-colored carpet spilled from the staircase into a hallway in front of me. It felt different there. It felt calm, welcoming, and sacred.
I didn’t have to pretend to be something I wasn’t; I was just me.
I felt safe.
I quietly slipped from the landing to a secluded spot where the marble walls cast a soft glow on the carpet. I felt small compared to the grandeur of the building that surrounded me. I stood there for a while, perfectly still, letting myself be completely present in the moment. Soon, my apprehension and nervousness withdrew and were replaced by calm, hopeful anticipation.
I closed my eyes and began to pray.
“Heavenly Father,” I said out loud, “I’ve tried so hard to do everything right. I don’t understand . . .”
I shared my frustrations. I threw out the staged formalities of my old prayers and told God about my confusion and the heaviness of my situation. I explained how the years I had spent hating gay people hadn’t changed me, but only caused me to hate myself. I begged Him to tell me why I felt like I couldn’t find any answers, and why the Atonement seemed to work for everyone else but me. I explained how nothing I tried felt successful, and how emotionally exhausted I was from running away.
When I finished venting . . . I prayed that, if my sexual orientation really never would change, I could at least come to understand why it was part of me. I asked Heavenly Father if divine love was really all-encompassing, and if He could love and accept me despite the complete wreck I felt that I was. I asked God if He had a place for me, and if He did, to please show me where.
“Guide me, Lord. Please,” I begged. “Give me answers.”
I remained there alone, silent tears streaming down my face.
Then, I heard a voice enter my mind, as clear as if someone else had been in the room with me.
“I love you. I created you.”
They were simple words, but they transformed me. I realized that God didn’t hate me. He wasn’t ashamed of who I was. He hadn’t messed up when He made me. My dark, tired soul instantly filled with light. I felt the arms of redeeming love reach deep into my heart, pulling me from the abyss where I had been living.
The insight was the green light I needed to ask deeper questions, and I asked the rest of what had been weighing on my soul. As I meditated and prayed, I received deeply personal answers concerning the nature of my orientation and its role in my personal spiritual progression. Answers came easily, as if they had been there for a while, and God had simply been waiting for me to ask.
I felt closer to my Heavenly Parents as I sought heavenly guidance concerning who I am. I realized that They knew my soul and had a perfect knowledge of who I was. Trying to be somebody else had only put distance between us. The Spirit testified to me that I should no longer punish myself, run away, or feel ashamed: My Heavenly Parents loved me, and I should extend love to myself as well.
As I continued to pour out my heart, I had a remarkable impression that in the pre-earth life I had understood what I would face coming into the world and had been eager to take it on. Being born at this specific time, when I would be forced to wrestle with difficult questions of faith, identity, and sexuality, wasn’t happenstance. There had been no coincidence, no mistake.
Since childhood I had been taught that God was the architect of my soul—an all-knowing, eternal Father who had created me by divine design. Now, I finally felt it was true. As I came to a better understanding of my relationship with Him, I began to see my peculiarity from an entirely new perspective.
This sudden paradigm shift in how I viewed myself brought me a deeper understanding of my Savior. For years I had been pleading for the Lord to change me—to “fix” me. I had faith in the healing power of Jesus Christ, and I had thought changing my orientation was the only way to be whole. Here, however, as I communed with the Lord in His holy house, I finally understood: Christ’s Atonement wasn’t there to alter my orientation; it was there to heal my heart. Jesus suffered and subjected Himself to my pain so He could lift me from the heavy burdens of shame, hatred, and confusion I carried.
I felt a pull to no longer hide who I am. The Spirit assured me I would find power in being vulnerable, and that sharing my testimony and experiences would spark connection. I resolved to prayerfully “come out” to friends and loved ones if I ever felt prompted.
I closed my prayer with faithful assurance that more answers and continued guidance would come in time. After voicing a quiet “amen” I remained still.
Was that real? I wondered.
I felt a soft rush of cool air brush against my face, coming down from a vent above. I noticed the wiry thread of the embroidered carpet beneath me. I felt my fingers intertwined against each other, and a key twisted in my left pocket, pressing against my leg.
It was real.
“I’m supposed to be this way,” I thought out loud. My voice seemed to encompass the entire room.
I opened my eyes and looked out at the temple surrounding me. Everything was exactly the same as it had been before I had begun praying, but I was changed. I knew, without any doubt, I was the eternal son of a loving Father in Heaven. For the first time in my life, I fully believed there was a place for me in God’s kingdom. I imagined myself in heaven, dancing and singing with the angels above. The moment was sweet beyond words—I had never imagined myself in heaven before.
The stained glass was even more beautiful as I made my way down the spiral staircase. I walked through the foyer and out the front doors feeling humbled by the light and knowledge I had received. I had been created intentionally, just like the temple behind me. As I stepped into the sun and took one last look at the dazzling building, my heart swelled with gratitude and new hope.
I was not deficient, flawed, or defective.
I wasn’t unsalvageable or broken.
The Architect had a plan for me.
Featured image: Jessica Kettle Photography
Charlie Bird—the viral face of BYU during his years as Cosmo the Cougar—made waves across the nation when he came out and revealed to BYU fans that he is gay. Now, in Without the Mask, Bird reflects on how his identity has strengthened his testimony and how he views his sexual orientation in conjunction with his faith in Jesus Christ. Now available at DeseretBook.com.