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A Mormon lesbian's journey to finding herself

Mari Burningham was raised as a Mormon and wound up coaching at BYU. She long wrestled with her sexual attraction to women, married a man and tried to fit in. She writes about how she finally accepted who she was, left the church and found happiness.

Story from April 7, 2011

By Mari Burningham
For Outsports.com

At 18 months old I could dribble a basketball with either hand and behind my back. My mom, who was a high school coach, used to take me out at center court for halftime and let me do my thing to the cheers of the crowd. The court and performing became my world, the one place where I felt comfortable and accepted and like I belonged to society as a whole and it started there for me at a very young age.

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Mari Burningham, head volleyball coach at the University of Redlands in Southern California.

As I got older, I realized that I was different because I was attracted to women, but in sports I was safe and it has always been my haven and outlet. I knew even from a very early age that my thoughts and feelings were something to be hidden and ignored. I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints or Mormon to most people. I am related to something like 12 prophets of our church including Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith. I even have an old polygamy family photo hanging on my wall. Needless to say, when you grow up reading the Book of Mormon and it is filled with your relatives, you figure out quickly that it is important to fit in and do as you should.

When I returned from playing with the USA Youth National Team in Mexico the summer before my senior year in high school (1995), I had my first real sexual experience with a woman. She was older than me and it was extremely intense. I felt things that I had never felt before with a man and it both scared and excited me. For the first time being with someone didn’t feel forced or like a part I had to play. It was a very dangerous relationship for me because I was a very well known and a public Mormon female athlete in Utah. I was with her almost two years and the whole time I tried to convince myself that it was just her and it wouldn't happen again with another woman.

I was recruited by more than 200 schools for both volleyball and basketball. In the end I chose UCLA, where I became a two-sport student-athlete playing volleyball and basketball. I couldn't wait to get out of the "Mormon Bubble" and be free.

I had teammates on my basketball team at UCLA who were openly gay, but I still wasn’t ready to come out. It was so strange to see people open and talking about it. I secretly envied them and admired them. My time at UCLA was brief however; I transferred after one year because I didn’t want to continue to play basketball in college and wanted to just concentrate on volleyball; it was my passion and because my body couldn’t handle playing two sports in college anymore.

So I did what any good budding lesbian would do -- I transferred to Ricks College, now BYU-Idaho. When I found out it was a LDS school, I tried desperately to get out of going. I had my endorsement meeting with my Bishop, which is required to attend, and I told him that I did all sorts of things against the Honor Code and planned on continuing to do them and he smiled and gave me the endorsement anyway, saying it would be good for me. I was probably as mad as I’ve ever been.

At Ricks, I ended up playing briefly my first year because my legs were atrophying and I was in a lot of pain. I had blown another disc at UCLA late in my volleyball season and had ignored it to the point of almost landing myself in a wheelchair. The current Prophet, President Thomas Monson, was a family friend and gave me a personal blessing in his office to heal me and give me comfort. I remember thinking that he'd touch me and know what I felt in my heart and he'd be so repulsed that he’d demand me to leave his office. But he had no idea and I must admit it was disappointing. It would have been nice to have my deep dark secret out in the open and it would have strengthened my faith in our church that our church leaders were in tune and were instruments of the Savior here on earth.

Instead, I walked away wondering if these were true men of God or if God just didn't care if I was gay. So as a sophomore in college, I had my second disc fusion of L4-L5 and was out the entire year. The next year I was so excited to play again after sitting out a year but the administration had other plans for me. They wanted to kick me out of school for violating the Honor Code and not attending church the year before. I begged and pleaded and with a few requirements placed on me I was allowed to stay and play. I had to agree to go to church every Sunday and to attend all the meetings. Our church is three of the longest hours you’ve ever endured. I had to read my scriptures daily and follow the Honor Code.

Like everything else in my life, I dove in wholeheartedly and sought out the only return missionary I knew to assist me in my scripture studies, our assistant coach. We read scriptures together every day and I asked many questions about what we read. We became best friends, which turned into dating which turned into being engaged. If I could be straight for any man it would have been him. He was my best friend, good looking and an honorable man.

Marriage trauma

After a year of working with my bishop to make myself worthy to go to the temple, we married in July 1998 in the Salt Lake Temple just like my parents. Before we were married we went to my hometown temple in Logan, Utah, to get my endowments. This is where you perform sacred covenants and receive those special underwear garments. Before you can be sealed for all time and eternity in the sealing rooms in the temple you must have your endowments ceremony done. The inside of the temple is a very beautiful, inspiring and spiritual place. To me it was like I’d stepped into the deepest, darkest, most foul and evil hole you can imagine. Though everything looked as it should on the outside, what I felt while in the temple in the inside was indescribably bad. I was having a near panic attack the entire time. I wanted to scream, tear the temple clothes from my body and never enter a temple again in my life.

I somehow managed to make it through the ceremony and into the celestial room. I sat there, amongst my family and my fiancé and I broke down and started to sob. Everyone thought it was because I was so touched by getting my endowments and being moved by the spirit. I was so scared and I felt so awful being in that place that I couldn’t take it anymore.

It was so bad that I wasn’t going to marry my husband in the temple if I was required to go back there. It was decided that we wouldn’t do another full session but that I would be moved directly from the temple chapel to the sealing room and directly from the sealing room to the celestial room and then out of there. Once again, I was filled with a sense of evil and blackness just walking into the doors. I was able to enjoy the actual sealing ceremony, but upon leaving the sealing room that awful feeling returned. I got out of the temple and vowed never to return.

Over the course of a few months, I spent a lot of time pondering why I had that feeling and reaction to the temple, the place where we are supposed to feel the spirit the most. My first reaction was that I had not been truly worthy. I quickly discounted that. I knew I had done the painstaking work and had felt ready in my heart. I had given up all my vices and been chaste and I had worked hard to put the thought of women from my mind.

Then I thought it was because of the strangeness of it all. I thought it would have been more special, inspired and less like an assembly line. When I was given my special name I found out that everyone on that day received the same special name. How can that be special? Then there were the secret handshakes and combinations and weird ritualistic stuff. I had been warned and prepped for them but nothing can quite prepare you what you actually see and do.

I was disappointed because it felt like secret handshakes and combinations went against what we were taught in church in the Bible and Book of Mormon, yet we had them all. Even my disillusionment didn’t seem to warrant the extremely intense bad feeling I had in the temple. I inquired with President Monson about it. I figured if anyone would be able to give me some guidance and comfort it would be him. He asked some questions on the phone with me and then directed me to his friend, the president of the Timpanogos Temple. I met with him one night, late, past regular hours at his office like it was a clandestine mission.

He asked me the same questions President Monson had asked: Did anyone treat me poorly or meanly? Did anyone touch me inappropriately? Did anyone say anything that offended me or made me feel bad? I answered no to all these things. Then he told me that “this happens a lot and only to women. We don’t know why and we can’t figure it out.” He said that there are women who are in their late 80s and 90s who had never gone back to the temple since they first went in their late teens or early 20’s. He said we all described basically the same things and that for those of us who felt that way we could serve our church and the Savior in other ways outside of temple work.

Off I went to BYU with my husband. I was given a basketball scholarship and played volleyball and basketball in college once again. I kept myself very busy when I was a student-athlete at BYU. I not only played two sports but I also volunteered for every sort of committee through the Student Athlete Advisory Committee. I also spoke at countless firesides for the youth of the church. I was awarded the prestigious Floyd Johnson Service Award. Everything in my life was a constant reminder of the lie I was telling myself.

It became even harder when I started to notice that there were other student-athletes like me. Most were in denial as well and struggling to live the life we were taught we should live. I became aware of a handful of student-athletes who were secretly participating in homosexual relationships. Though I tried to help them according to our religious beliefs, I was secretly very envious of them and wanted desperately to do as they were doing. It was a constant reminder of that which I longed for with every fiber of my being but denied myself so I could live up to the expectations of the church, society and the marriage I was in.

After graduating from BYU with a degree in Sociology in 2000 I dove into coaching. I coached as many teams as I could, I attended many local coaching clinics and spent a lot of time at coaching seminars and clinics with USA Volleyball. I found coaching still gave me that athletic avenue where I could still be a part of sports and live in the sanctuary that sports had always been to me. It was through my participation in sports that I had defined myself and used as my identity and in coaching I could maintain that. I excelled and I truly loved coaching.

In 2002 I was hired as an assistant volleyball coach at BYU, a Top 20 program. At first I was hopeful for myself and my situation. I saw around me members of the athletic department that were also closeted. I thought that if so many men and women could live for so long according to our religious beliefs then I would be able to as well. It gave me hope that things would work out and that things would get easier. I remained a faithful and devoted member.

Over the course of my two years as an assistant coach however I started to see the misery and hypocrisy of those at BYU. I saw how living a lie was destroying their lives, their marriages, their children's lives and it started to scare me. I saw those who were doomed to remain single and alone instead of finding love and happiness because their love and happiness would go against the church teachings. I saw how the closeted amongst us could be the hardest on homosexuals and that was an evil that affected me to the core.

Big decision

In December 2002 my husband and I started talking about starting a family. We agreed that we'd start trying to get pregnant the following July. As July got closer and closer I was really forced to think about my life and what I ultimately wanted. I had two choices -- I could get pregnant and then be a reflection of those I saw at work everyday whom I felt sorry for. I could raise my children in a house were their parents loved each other but weren't in love with each other or I could admit to myself that I was gay and set out to live that lifestyle and see what happens.

July rolled around and I skillfully avoided my husband for a couple of weeks. Eventually he cornered me and I was forced to tell him that I was chickening out of getting pregnant. I took a deep breath and told him it was because I was gay and I couldn't bring a child into the world because they would be able to feel that something was missing and I wanted them to grow up seeing and feeling what it was like to have two parents who were in love with each other.

It wasn't a complete bombshell for him. I had told him that I had been with a woman for a couple of years in high school and college before we were married. In fact, the night I told him about my lesbian relationship. he proposed to me overlooking the Provo Temple. He was sure that if we prayed more and fasted more and talked with the Bishop that I'd be "cured" and "fixed." I started working longer hours at work, pulling all-nighters and finding things to do just to keep myself from seeing the hurt I was causing my best friend and the man I loved.

Days and nights passed and I was emotionally numb. In December 2003 my life changed – she walked in the room and it was love at first sight. I was speechless and smitten before I even knew her name. Tasha and I became friends and again I had that old familiar feeling like I had experienced with my girlfriend in high school. It was like my world was on fire, colors were brighter, foods tasted better. I had more energy and I felt like I floated when I walked. I longed to see her at club practices and tournaments and I found reasons to talk to her and be near her. Suddenly I was alive again and I knew that for the past five years I had been numb and a shell of a person. Tasha was an openly gay coach for a local club team and so rumors once again started to fly concerning my sexual orientation. Though I wasn't acting on my feelings for her I was called into the athletic director's office at BYU and was told that I was guilty by association and that I wasn't to have anything to do with her or anyone else gay anymore.

The reality of my situation came down hard on me. I knew I needed to get a new job. I no longer wanted to live by the BYU Honor Code and work among the hypocrites who would condemn me or be married to a man who thought we were “happy enough” and that I could be fixed like I was broken. I couldn't be in Utah where our church leaders had already said that it is better to be dead than gay and called homosexuals an abomination. Against my husband’s desires, I filed for divorce, sold the house and found a new job in Southern California by July 2004.

I moved to Redlands to be the new head volleyball coach at the University of Redlands. Tasha and I moved with our four dogs. I left my family, my church and started to really live my life for the first time in my 26 years. It was scary but so exhilarating. We didn't know anyone but at least we were together and were free to love how and who we wanted. I felt like all the weight of the world had been lifted off me and I was free to live the life I wanted and not the life I was expected to live.

I'm now in my seventh year at the University of Redlands as the head volleyball coach. My players all know that I'm gay. I don't flaunt it but I don't hide it either. I'm not ashamed of who I am. I try to be a coach where my marital status, sexual orientation, blood type or eye color isn't a factor because it doesn't have anything to do with the caliber of coach that I am.

I know that there have been student-athletes in my program over the years and student-athletes from other programs on campus who may be watching me and I have an opportunity to make a difference in their lives as a role model, an example and in some cases, as the first person they have met who is gay.

I like to think that I'm a good person who does good things and that is what defines me, not my sexual orientation and who I love or how I love. I also know that I'm not alone and that there are many coaches at every level who are gay but closeted.

It isn't easy to be a gay coach and at times it can be scary to put yourself out there and be vulnerable. In what is still one of the most fiercely closeted professions, I hope I'll always be measured on my coaching ability and the way in which I treat those around me.

Mari Burningham can be reached via email at: mariburningham@gmail.com