Matthew Gong, gay Mormon, reflects on his journey from inner war to inner peace

(Courtesy photo by Ryan Di Spaltro) Matthew Gong

Matthew Gong is a minority three times over — in his own words — “Chinese American, Mormon and queer.”

All three parts of Gong’s identity have shaped him, including heroic tales of service and sacrifice, and are worth celebrating.

Still, they often have warred within the psyche of this 29-year-old, leaving wounds that have taken years to heal.

His mother, an avid gardener, once explained the difference between flowers and weeds.

“Weeds,” she told him, “were plants growing where they weren’t wanted.”

His queerness, the opposite of his religious ethnicity, “was something I was born with but not into,” Gong says in an LGBTQ Affirmation conference speech, “I had to discover it, like a secret birthright.”

And thus he came to see his gay self as a “weed” in the Latter-day Saint garden.

Gong is hardly alone in such a feeling of being misplaced, of course, but his experience is unusual. He is the son of Gerrit W. Gong, an apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I don’t think there are many people who are openly queer and whose dad is now in one of the highest positions of authority in the LDS Church,” he quips in an online post that went viral. “If there are, I would love to meet them for a nice cup of group therapy.”

When the senior Gong took his place for a lifetime appointment in the faith’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the younger Gong thought: “Today is the day I lost my father. His life isn’t his anymore, and we are on opposite sides of a great divide.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Gerrit W. Gong and his wife, Susan Gong, leave the stand after the Saturday morning session of the 188th Annual General Conference in Salt Lake City, Friday, March 30, 2018. Gong had just been named an apostle. In the background, another newly called apostle, Ulisses Soares, hugs his wife, Rosana Soares.

His fear was that “people would politicize me and my dad. That our interactions would be nitpicked to brand us as avatars of ideologies,” Gong writes on a Facebook post. “... It didn’t matter if we agreed about everything; we’re still family. So, when I talk about ‘the Church,’ I mean ‘the Church.’ When I talk about my father, he’s just my father.”

Though Gong’s relationship with his parents got off to a “rocky start” after he came out — not for lack of love or rejection but for miscommunication — they are now as close as ever and talk almost every week.

That isn’t to say father and son agree on all things.

When asked in 2018 if having a gay son had affected his views on LGBTQ issues, the apostle replied, “We love each member of our family. We feel the need to be compassionate to all. Even though there are many things we don’t understand, we know in God’s plan there’s a place for every person in [the church].”

But getting to this place of peace with his trifold identity, says Gong, an artificial intelligence engineer in Seattle, has required hard work.

Planting land mines

Until he was 10, Matt Gong, the family’s fourth of four sons, lived in the Washington, D.C., area, where his dad worked at a policy think tank.

When the family moved to Utah, the young Gong found himself in a much more homogeneous community with a “dominant culture,” he says, where his peers and teachers weren’t exactly sure about his ethnicity.

Was he Mexican? they wondered. Arab? One Latter-day Saint seminary teacher kept trying to tell him he was Korean, because the instructor knew a Korean kid with a similar last name.

“I never thought of myself as nonwhite but as ethnically ambiguous,” Gong says in an interview. “There are both benefits and penalties to being racially mixed. I was never so different [that] I couldn’t be potentially included.”

Looking back, Gong sees plenty of clues to his sexuality that he failed to recognize at the time:

Staring at a male underwear mannequin when he was a child. Having crushes on boys in elementary school. (“I should be really friendly to this guy, or I just want to spend a lot of time with that boy.”)

He didn’t want to accept himself as gay, “because the only queerness I had ever seen was bad” — the AIDS crisis, promiscuity, death. In movies, gays were victims, targets for bullies, or “the sassy friend.”

Gong had the same dreams as other young Latter-day Saints, serving in callings with a wife and children, and spending eternity in heaven with his family. Thoughts of not having that became unbearable, he says, and so he repressed them.

His Chinese American family was also highly academic — both parents have advanced degrees — and had wide-ranging conversations, even heated debates.

Sexuality, however, was never discussed. And he never brought it up. It’s not a Chinese, Mormon or academic dinner-table topic.

Even at school, Gong, who easily passed as straight, grew increasingly silent, afraid of hugs and falling in love.

His religion “became a war,” he explains in his Affirmation speech, “and my soul became a battlefield.”

Gong believed so fervently in the mantra that “God loves the sinner but hates the sin” that he “committed war crimes" against himself, he says. “I buried land mines and razor wire in my brain so that my heart couldn’t get out.”

If Gong hadn’t come out, he says, “I would have fought in the war till I died by suicide.”

And he nearly did.

Opening up

One day, during Gong’s freshman year at Brigham Young University, he tried to take his life. His memory is foggy, but he says he woke up four hours later, lying on the floor.

He seemed to remember a conversation with someone or something outside of himself that affirmed he was loved.

That was a message about God that he wanted to share and prompted him to serve a two-year mission for the church, he says in the interview. He was called to London on a Mandarin-speaking mission in 2011.

On his 21st birthday, at the start of the final year on his mission, Gong wrote separate emails to each of his brothers and his parents to tell them he was gay.

“On my mission, I learned that the first things to grow on the battlefields of France after World War I, were poppies, blood-red poppies,” Gong tells the Affirmation virtual audience. “I thought the image was beautiful and so when I came out, I clung to the idea that I was somehow like the poppies.”

Coming out, though, wasn’t the happily-ever-after he had hoped it would be.

Ripping out the razor wire

The storyteller and artist came out “in defiance of my depression,” he says, with a desperate will to survive.

But he still felt lost.

“I experienced confusion, sexual assault and rejection as I stumbled through my new life,” Gong says. “I struggled to find meaning in the spiritual void left by having been a flower growing in the wrong place.”

He hated that God “had been taken from me,” he says. “I had won the war in coming out but was left as broken as the battlefield.”

And he still didn’t know how to love himself.

That took 5½ years, Gong says, and “a whole lot of therapy.”

Mile by mile, he “pulled the razor wire from my mind,” he says. “...I confronted and broke down the lies I had been told about what it means to be queer. I argued my doubts to a standstill and reclaimed my beliefs from where they lay.”

He began to heal, until there was one final battle: to face institutions and people who had harmed and abused him.

“I held my ground … and I silenced their rage with my story as I spoke with my own voice. ‘I forgive you,’” he says. “They hadn’t earned my forgiveness, but I had.”

In doing so, he gave himself the chance to extend grace to his past selves.

A normal heart

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Latter-day Saint apostle Gerrit W. Gong speaks to members of the media in Salt Lake City in June 2018.

Today, “I love myself, scars and all, and I am awestruck by the simplicity at being happy, something I would never have believed possible in my younger years,” says Gong, who shares an apartment with his longtime partner. “There is joy and warmth as my boyfriend pulls me close for a hug, and I marvel at the easy laughs and unqualified smiles that we share as we sit on the couch watching TV.”

There is celebration, he says, “in my families of both queer and of birth.”

Though Gong still claims aspects of Mormonism in his spirituality, he has added theistic Taoism, Zen Buddhism and any parts of a religion “that seem resonant — civility, care, forgiveness, treating humans with dignity and compassion.”

He learned those principles from “growing up Mormon,” he says, “but they are not unique to the church.”

The church’s “patterns and behaviors of abuse,” he says, “don’t have to be there; they are not inherent in the doctrine.”

But beyond the particulars of Gong’s experience, his story has a universal message of normalcy.

Parents and children can work through the awkwardness and conflict over deep disagreements to arrive at a place where they are simply family.

“Because my story is happening publicly at the highest levels of the church, people ascribe extra meaning to it,” he says in the interview, “but from within the story, it feels like a typical narrative.”

The apostle and the queer son “are just family,” Gong repeats. “There is complexity in every relationship — and we continue to work at it.”

If there’s a single label that he claims for his identity, it’s “Gong,” he says. “My family name.”

Editor’s note • If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.