Benji Schwimmer’s Naked Truth

6.18.2012

By Shana Naomi Krochmal

The dancer/choreographer calls us (naked from his hotel bathtub) to discuss the reactions of his 'coming out' video, his feelings toward the Mormon church, what he thinks of Mitt Romney, and more

When Benji Schwimmer was named “America’s favorite dancer” in 2006, winning the second season of Fox’s long-running So You Think You Can Dance reality competition show, he became something of a Mormon superstar. He choreographed pop stars’ tours and videos, taught dance classes around the world, started a band (The Weekend Forecast), and even played gay in an indie film called Leading Ladies—all while privately struggling to reconcile his very deep faith with the undeniable realization that he couldn’t pray his way out of being gay.

He still has the bright-eyed, fervent zeal of a devoted missionary, but now he’s turned those years of study into a challenge for the Mormon church to consider the cost of its extremely slow evolution on gay issues. (It’s considered tremendous progress that gay members are welcome—but only if they remain celibate, abstaining from all same-sex behavior.)

Schwimmer, 28, called Out—while naked in a bathtub—on Skype from Vancouver, where he’s filming a new movie and trying to keep up with the response to a recent confessional video interviews he created with Mormon Stories, a group that expands the faith’s tradition of “giving testimony” to include voices of dissent that are questioning church doctrine.

Here, he opens up about the reaction to that interview from “the ‘outside’ world,” what he thinks of Mitt Romney, and reveals the Mormon church’s little-known policy change that finally broke his faith.

Out: Your interview with Mormon Stories is incredibly compelling. It’s also five hours long. What’s the short version?

Benji Schwimmer: I was a true blue, believing, serving, active Mormon and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I was on a television show, and it was very widely known that I was LDS. But all my life I’ve also been pretty much gay. Not much of a surprise considering I was a dancer, but still a surprise to many—especially those who didn’t want to know. I had girlfriends growing up. I’ve been engaged once, semi-officially twice—and after there was love, I confessed to them about my situation. But I never really experimented. I felt like I was on the right track. You get home from your mission, and the next real mission is to get married and have kids and serve in the church until you die. I felt that God had blessed me with all these talents, and if I had done something sinful, it would have been a slap in his face. I’d been out of the church for about a year when I did the interview.

You said on Twitter you didn’t expect “the ‘outside’ world”—non-Mormons—to pay any attention to your comments.
I thought maybe 200 people would watch the darn thing. The sad thing is, I think everyone is saying, “It’s just another gay dancer who came out.” A lot of my issue was not just about leaving the church, it was about me saying, I went through a process. Most guys tend to feel like they have give up their faith, or leave the church, or kill themselves, or live a lie, or live a celibate lifestyle. I tried almost all of the above. I tried groups, workbooks, campaigns. I was even tempted to go to the old shock treatment that they had back in the day. I searched for answers. And I got my answer. It was clear as day.

When you sat down, did you think of that as your coming-out interview?

It’s not so much for my sake at this point. I’ve gone through a lot of shit. I have a pretty thick skin on me. I’ve had some friends since this podcast that have been assholes and others that say I love you even more—and these are LDS friends. There are other people that were shocked as shit, but are still supportive.

Why make a point of speaking out now?
I get at least 10 emails a day from kids that say, I was going to kill myself, and I heard something in the podcast that rang true to me, and I’m holding on. For that validation alone—it’s nice that Perez Hilton and Out are covering this, but just that personal touch is what it’s about. For the last year, I didn’t hide it. I held hands with a boyfriend in the streets. I kissed him in bars—in straight bars. I don’t give a fuck.

People saw me on So You Think You Can Dance as that boy next door. Maybe it will open up that kind of discussion. I’m speaking for the ones that have faith, and the ones that are rejected by their families. Suicide is not an option. If there is a loving God out there, I doubt that he wants you to take your life. I’ve experienced love in non-sexual gay relationships, prior to leaving the church, and love is wonderful. But three buddies of mine had killed themselves in the last couple of months, and that was a catalyst for me.

What was the final straw that prompted you to leave the church?

When a gay member of the church confesses to even the most minimal of homosexual activity—if you’ve seen the movie Latter Days, it was like that, but it wasn’t as hateful or cinematic. [For me] it was very cathartic. They called me in and explained [I would go through] disfellowshipment, a time where we don’t
participate in activities in the church, can’t pray in public. Every member has a church record, and during the time when you’re disfellowshipped, you have a little asterisk by your name, explaining what’s going on with your situation.

As of early last year, when I went through it, my stake president said, that asterisk will stay forever on your record. You can still become active after this year, but there are some limitations. You won’t ever be able to serve with the youth of the church. And I thought to myself, I am no pedophile, and in no way does homosexuality equate to pedophilia. I never doubted one thing in the Mormon church until they changed that policy. Then I had a spiritual experience that said, it’s time for you to leave. It was the most divine, true, soul-searching experience that I’ve ever felt.

And you got an asterisk symbol tattooed just behind your ear...
I’ve had about six other friends get the same tattoo. It’s kind of like we were marked. However difficult it was, we do remember the pain that we went through—and also the progress. It’s nice to be a part of a movement, a moment, that helped change your life or someone else’s. Once I kind of came to my senses and I saw things from the outside, and wasn’t so brainwashed, I realized—we can change.

We can make a difference. Even though I would never want to go back to the church, I feel bad for little Timmy or little Susie, who’s a lesbian and theoretically wants to stay there because she likes the community. I can see that appeal.

We all need community, no matter who we are. We all fear rejection from our family, faith and friends. And it’s also bad that we’re worrying about our careers. Ironically, and I feel like it’s kind of a beautiful thing, but two days after the podcast came out, I got a call from my agent, auditioned for a movie and I got the role—as a straight, misogynistic, asshole man.

Congratulations?
[Laughing] Thank you. The response has impassioned me. But it’s not just about me being gay. So what? A lot of people are. I’m not special in that sense.

Can we talk about Mitt Romney?

Even when I was still believing, I was thinking, there is no way in hell I’m voting for him. I’m voting for Obama. I figure [Obama] had four years to clean up Bush’s shit, and now we have to actually give him a chance to run his campaign the way he should. I just think it’s very funny that [Romney] was the governor of one of the first states that actually had same-sex marriage accepted, and yet now denies that he believes in that. I think he is both a punching bag and a puppet. I’m not voting for him. But, then again, why would you want to [listen to] a dancer for my political opinions? I count to eight for a living.

Do you blame the Mormon church for Proposition 8 passing in California?
I believe they tipped the scale. They put money into it illegally, and they were caught with it. I saw the documentary [8: The Mormon Proposition].

Your big competition on So You Think You Can Dance was Travis Wall, who has a new reality show on Oxygen. He’s gay, too, and was pretty open about it back then. Have you talked to him lately?

He was my first crush after I came back from my mission, actually. After the podcast came out, he sent me a text saying, “I’m proud of you.”

You talked about how you see yourself with a husband and family. What kind of guy are you looking for?
I’m looking for a good communicator, especially because I might be on the road at times. I’m a firm believer in monogamy—I won’t do the open thing. It’s just not for me. I want a guy that I can commit to and trust wholeheartedly. I go usually for the shy, strong, quiet types. I don’t need perfection, because I don’t have it.

(This interview has been edited for length.)

WATCH: Part 3: Coming to terms with sexuality and faith

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