Dennis Schleicher knew he was different from a young age. What he didn’t know was the incredible bullying, persecution, and pain he would receive simply for being attracted to the same sex.
“We know you’re gay,” Dennis recalls his mother saying accusatorially when he was a teenager, venom in her voice. In an episode of Richard Ostler’s podcast “Listen, Learn & Love,” Dennis explained that it wasn’t the first time he had heard his mother’s distaste for those in the gay community; she frequently detailed how same-sex couples would burn in hell.
“I am,” he blurted out, affirming her attack. He had no idea that only a few days later, he’d be victim of another vicious attack — this time physical.
At age 17 in his high school in Connecticut, Dennis innocently went to use a crowded bathroom. Before he could recognize what was happening, he was pinned against the wall and brutally beaten by five other students — all because they suspected he was gay, a label he hadn’t even publicly given voice to yet.
When he reached out to the school’s office, they informed him, “If you would stop acting [Dennis starred in commercials and a soap opera during his youth] and would make out with girls in the hallway, we wouldn’t have this problem.” Rather than acknowledging his status as the victim of a despicable hate crime, the school attempted to flip the narrative: Dennis deserved this treatment. They suspended him for five days.
Dennis was flabbergasted — and so was Sally Jessy Raphael, a famous talk-show host. When she reached out to Dennis to appear on her show, he vehemently turned down the offer. But when a guidance counselor informed him that 58% of all violence that occurred in public high school in 1988 (the year before the attack occurred) were over sexual identity issues, as well as 33% of suicides, Dennis quickly changed his tune. Realizing the good he could do to help others who were struggling, he stood up and became a voice for the silent.
Though years have passed and so much about his life has changed, the core of who he is remains the same: someone who is willing to stand up, regardless of the personal cost, and speak up for what’s right — and the thing he believes to be most right is that God loves each of us, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, race, or any other factor.
And that’s exactly why, in 2017, he joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and why he’s about to publish a book about his conversion story.
I listened to your podcast with Richard Ostler and it was amazing. In it, I remember you saying that your friend gave you More Than a Tattooed Mormon by Al Carraway — was that your first introduction to the Church?
So people had asked me, “Was it the dedication of the Hartford Temple in 2016 that caused you to join the Church?” And I’m going, “Heck no!” Driving by that place, I wanted to start an LGBT protest! I was going, “Why are people lining up to go to that racist, homophobic, and uninformed cult?”
Then, in June 2017, one of the people who was a liaison for the company I work for invited me to Palmyra. [He and his wife gave Dennis More Than a Tattooed Mormon on that trip, but he didn’t read it for almost a year afterward.] I said, “Oh, okay,” but I’m thinking in the back of my mind, “How am I going to get out of this? They’re nuts! I don’t want to go to Palmyra!” So I was talking to God and I said, “I don’t want to go. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be plunged into this.”
So I ended my prayer and I go to turn on my iTunes. I’m in the middle of nowhere with no service, and all of my iTunes are in the cloud. I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me,” but then, all of a sudden, I felt like I should listen to the old-fashioned radio. The first station to come on was a Christian station and the next song to come on was, “I Can Only Imagine” by MercyMe. My parents are fundamentalists for a born-again Christian church and they had MercyMe play that at my younger brother’s funeral in 2004 when he passed away from a drug overdose. I’ve always talked to my brother and I always knew that he was there. In that moment, the whole car filled up — the Holy Ghost was there, and I knew I needed to look into this church.
You’ve said before that you think The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the most misunderstood religion of all time. What makes you say that?
Shortly after I was baptized, I was given a calling as a ward missionary. I’m thinking, “Why me? I’ve never served a mission.” But then I started getting calls for teaching appointments that were out of my area. The missionaries who had taught me had transferred and they talked. So 99% of the teaching appointments I do — I did 17 last week — are people that don’t want to join our Church because they have the perception that we don’t accept and love all, or they have the same perception I had because I was ignorant and googled things, then I would look at the negative stuff. I wouldn’t go to our official Church website — I would see what the documentaries were talking about, or I would watch all the stuff that we teach people NOT to watch.
When I started meeting with the missionaries, I took them to Panera Bread for lunch and just blurted out, “I’m gay.” They both started crying and they were like, “That’s okay. We love and accept all.” And that’s what the owners of my company said, too. [Dennis worked for a company owned by Latter-day Saints.] I was on the phone with my friend Shelby, one of the company’s owners, and I said, “I’ve heard for years from my parents that I’m going to hell and that Jesus hates me.” She was like, “Hold it right there, Dennis. STOP. Jesus DOES love you. He loves EVERYONE.” And I just started bawling. I think people don’t understand that our Church believes that — that Jesus loves all of us no matter what.
Absolutely! Several months ago, you were approached by a member of the 70 to write a book about your conversion story. How did you feel when he suggested you write a book?
So for our stake conference, that general authority came and the bishop told me I had a meeting with him. So I meet with him and I’m like, “What did I do? Why am I here?” He just looked at me and said, “Son, I hear you have a conversion story for me.” And I said, “I’m a gay convert!” I just blurted it out, and in my head, I’m like, “Dennis! You need to invest in a muzzle! Come on!” But I told him that it was the members of the Church that told me that God does love and accept all, and that was something that I hadn’t heard for years.
So when I shared that with him, he leaned over to me, offered me a comfort blessing, and said, “Your calling is going to be bigger than you would ever imagine.” Then he said, “I’m being prompted to ask you, what did your LGBT friends ask you when you became a convert?” And I said, “They were all saying, ‘Are you nuts? They’re going to have you married off to a woman in no time’ or ‘They’re going to have you in conversion therapy!'” That’s when he said, “Well, that’s what I want your next book to be called: Is He Nuts? Why Would a Gay Man Join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?”
So I was like, “YOU’RE nuts! I didn’t join the Church to write a book! I’m not doing that!”
How did you get to a place where you wanted to write your book, then?
Initially, I ignored his suggestion, but then something happened. After hearing several times that I needed to read it, I downloaded the audio version of More Than a Tattooed Mormon and I listened to it on my way to a teaching appointment that was two hours away near the NY border. I was like, “Holy cow. This woman is telling my story!”
So I started writing my book. I have a publishing background and I know just about every literary agent on the East Coast and a lot in California, and they would take me in a heartbeat. But I just didn’t want to have my book shipped to one of the Big Five. I didn’t want them to tear apart our Church and make it look bad. I didn’t even think that we had an LDS publishing house, let alone multiple.
That day, when I was listening to that book on audio, I said, “Al Carraway’s going to write the foreword for my book.” I didn’t even know her; didn’t know that she’s the #1 most sought-after LDS speaker in the world. So I said, “She’s going to write the foreword and I’m going to be published with her publishing house.” So I called that publishing house [Cedar Fort] and left a message saying all of this. I got a call back two weeks later and we talked for two hours. He said, “This is an incredible story. We want this. I’m going to turn you over to our head acquisitions editor. It may be a while before she gets back to you; she’s busy.” Within 20 minutes, I had an email from her saying, “I’m in charge of your product.”
And that kind of thing does not happen in publishing.
It doesn’t! That was Heavenly Father. So that’s when I embraced writing the book, as well as giving firesides and devotionals.
That book about your conversion, which does indeed have a foreword by Al Carraway, comes out August 13 and is titled Is He Nuts?: Why a Gay Man Would Become a Member of the Church of Jesus Christ. What are some things you hope to accomplish with this book?
I did some research when I was writing the book, and the Church is losing so many millennials. One of the greatest purposes of my book, and my devotionals and firesides is that I’m on a crusade to stop the hemorrhaging. I want to share my testimony of the gospel and show that if I can deal with the things I’ve dealt with, that the people who are reading it can overcome anything too.
The thing is, the average person doesn’t wake up and say, “I’m not going to be a member anymore.” It takes 2-4 years before they leave, and another thing I hope to do, with this book and my firesides, is help people identify when someone is losing their testimony. Then they can message them when they’re not at meetings — they can say, “Hey, I missed you today.” Or maybe, “Hey, I want to go do baptisms at the temple; will you come with me?” It’s not about meeting them at the temple — it’s about picking them up, driving with them, and getting to know them.
I love that, and I’m so glad you’re sharing your experience with the world. You’re even having a documentary crew follow you across the country as you launch your book!
Yeah, and that’s actually a funny story. A friend of mine had unfriended me because she couldn’t believe that I’d joined the Church. One day, though, she was praying, and she said, “Wait a minute. Dennis is an amazing person. I have to hear his side of the story.” She actually works with a company called Big M Entertainment that does a lot of documentary series for the Discovery Channel, OWN, and other places, and they wanted to film my story. They have a budget to do 15 days of filming.
They’ve made it very clear that they want it to be a feel-good experience because they are so tired of people pulling out hair extensions. It’s actually in my contract that it will be a positive documentary. A big theme of it is not judging people until you ask questions.
Where will that documentary air?
They’re not sure where it’s going to air yet, and they usually don’t at this point. When you watch documentaries on places like Bravo or TLC, you’ll see at the end, each one is done by a different company. It’s kind of bizarre the way they do it.
So over the next month, you’ll be speaking at devotionals in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and Idaho, but you’re kind of leaving your schedule open so you can speak where you’re needed. What will those devotionals be like?
It’s just like any fireside: it opens with prayer, we sing a hymn, etc. That’s something I want to make clear. I don’t usually open it up to questions because people aren’t going to like my answer if they ask me about gay marriage. My belief is that this doctrine will not change and I choose to stand with our leaders. So people email their questions to stake leaders, and they seal them and then the stake president asks me the questions.
A lot of the questions that I get — and I love answering them — are, “What is your view on eternal life and aren’t you concerned about not being sealed and having a partner?”
I just say, “You know what? That is a good question, and nobody really knows the answer to that. Only God knows the answer to that.”
But the devotionals are fun. People laugh and we have a good time. Sometimes I cry! It’s emotional because I want people to know that I can’t imagine living without this gospel. I’ve lived 45 years without it, and I can’t imagine living another 45 without it. It’s powerful.
Click here to pre-order Is He Nuts?: Why a Gay Man Would Become a Member of the Church of Jesus Christ.