Olin Thomas grew up Mormon in the deep south, confused by his homosexuality and deeply in the closet, in no small part because of the church's attitude toward gays. But it turned out that a basic tenet of the Mormon faith was actually what would help him come out, and once he did, he found understanding in some very unexpected places.
Olin sat down in the StoryCorps booth at the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco with his friend, Hugo Salinas, to tell his story.
OLIN THOMAS: This is gonna sound, like, very very Mormon which is ironic because I'm not truly very Mormon any longer but, one of the things that is very Mormonism, that was very described or talked about when I was active was the whole idea of personal revelation, of God actually speaking to you and answering your prayers, essentially. And I had gone through the phase of accepting myself, accepting that I was gay, trying to come out to people and tell them that I was gay, but trying also to abide by the church's standards and therefore I was trying to be celibate.
At this point I was trying to celibate, I figured there was no way I could be gay and sexually active and still be acceptable. And so I was miserable, essentially. This was no way to live, and I was stuck in this limbo and I was getting more and more miserable.
It's not that I felt suicidal, but I felt like had no joy. The future was bleak, and I was getting depressed over this. And one morning, it was a Saturday I believe, as I didn't have to work. I was just laying in bed, I was laying in a king-size water bed - this was the water bed era! - I had just woken up, and I was laying there looking at the ceiling feeling, "Oh, I'm so miserable, what joy does life hold for me, I'm just gonna be alone and celibate all my life."
And then, all of a sudden, this warm feeling just came over me and I clearly, clearly heard a voice in my head say that, "You are the way that you are supposed to be. This is you. Your challenge is not to not be gay, your challenge is to be the best gay person that you can be." I mean, I'm paraphrasing obviously because it has been a long time but this is the feeling that came over me and it didn't last long, it took all of a minute probably, it just was a quick thing. Immediately afterwards I just felt good, the depression just lifted and I just got up and went about my day.
The church had told me that the feelings I was feeling towards men were coming from an evil place, were coming from a bad place. I realized that it couldn't be bad, it was too good.
HUGO SALINAS: Was it hard for you being in the military to keep this from the other superiors?
OLIN THOMAS: Well, it's funny because today we talk about "Don't ask, Don't Tell" and this was before that time. Although of course it was acceptable to be gay and in the military. I didn't join the military thinking I was going to be gay and so I didn't feel like I was being dishonest. I really came out after I had signed up. But my roommate was a Defense Investigative Service Agent who was responsible for security so I had to come clean with him and we had known each other long enough by now, so he's like, "I know you are a loyal American, you're no threat to national security, I'm not gonna tell anybody." Then one of his co-agents found out that I was gay and she said, "Well, I know you are a good guy, I'm not gonna tell anybody." Then someone else found out I was gay, so eventually the important people in the post knew I was gay and they all realized that I am not threat to security. So they just looked the other way.
At one point I got so mad at the army, which I think happens to everyone at some point. I'm like, "I wanna get out of the army, this is a crock of you know what!" And so I told me commander, "I'm gay, I want out!" He goes, "Ugh, do you know how much paper work that is? My wife is in the theater, we have lots of gay friends, go home!" He didn't want to do it. So I just thought, "Okay, obviously I'm not supposed to be kicked out of the army." So I was heartened.
Olin Thomas' story was edited by KALW's Peter Conheim and facilitated by Sophie Simon Ortiz. You should know that Thomas completed his military service with no interference from his superiors, and remained in the army reserves until 1991. He would go on to serve five years as the Executive Director of Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons. If you want to share your story, go to the StoryCorps website to find out how.