Fragile Mormon Ego

In a college class I taught a few years ago, right in the heart of Salt Lake City, what many locals might call the “Mormon Bubble”, during which we discussed the way Utah is viewed by the rest of the world. (In fact, I think I even blogged about this. It can be hard to remember). We talked about all of the times that Utah has hit the international media circuits over the past few years.

The actively LDS students in the room had hoped that stories about Utah would be related to charity work, to missionary work, and to Christian examples. But universally every story that we found was, well, negative. Maybe even a little bit embarrassing.

We found stories on CNN, Fox News, and other sites that were related to how Mormons make policies against gay people and fight gay marriage, about how gay teens are committing suicide, and about young women coming forward at BYU and in churches who were told to keep their sexual assaults quiet by church leaders (or worse, they were blamed for their own assaults). There were stories about tithing dollars being used to build a mall, about how BYU was being considered for a list of institutions that were known to hate gay people, and how Utah was leading the nation in gender discrimination in the workplace statistics. We made lists of these headlines, and they were hard to face up to.

One student in the classroom, a lovely LDS girl who worked hard to love everyone, raised her hand and wondered aloud why people saw the church she and her family loved so much with so much hatred and vitriol, why they laughed at things that were sacred to her. We had a discussion about reputation, and about how things can look different from the inside than from the outside. She was receptive to feedback, and ultimately it was a strong and openminded lesson for all involved. (She is my favorite kind of Mormon. She loves her church, and she is open to the ideas of others around her).

Well, yesterday, Utah hit the national headlines again, this time for a bizarre poster that was printed up on BYU campus. A small organization that is part of the school’s math department, called Women in Math, created an event in which four of the school’s beloved math professors would speak to those in attendance. The young woman who created the poster placed four photos of the teachers across the top, then the name of the organization underneath them. So it resulted in… four white guys over a heading that read ‘Women in Math’. And then, in the most Mormon way possible, the poster finished with “There will be treats. All levels of math welcome.”

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I copied this to my own Facebook wall with a roll of my eyes, and the tagline “Mormons gotta Morm. Oh BYU, what have you done now?”

Swiftly, like all things on Facebook, some of the comments became politicized. Some decried that all Mormons are misogynistic. (I argued that while the organization and belief system is misogynistic, that doesn’t mean the individual members are). Others, actively Mormon, felt their religion was being attacked and began writing out lists of facts in defense of their beliefs. This lead to some back and forths, some private messages, and, well, a few Facebook unfriendings before it was all finished.

These days, it takes a lot to get me fired up. I use a life motto, a Jewel song lyric that I refer back to often: “No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from.” As such, I am careful with who I allow into my life, who I choose to engage with. I keep a far distance from all things Mormon in my day-to-day life, but it still hits me regularly because of my family, my community, my friends, and my clients. It’s hard to stay far from. And when you’ve lost a few friends to suicide, it is very difficult not to get very passionate about.

In a few of those private chats, one friend abjectly refused to admit that the Mormon religion is homophobic, racist, and misogynistic, and they felt that my stating such was a direct attack on their beliefs and family. “How would you feel if I said terrible things like this about gays?” they said, to which I responded, “Many gays are absolutely misogynistic, racist, and even homophobic, but not inherently. And there is a huge difference between a sexual orientation, which is not chosen, and a religious belief system, which is chosen.” Despite this, they refused to bend.

Now here is the thing, I remember how fragile my ego as a Mormon used to be. The slightest criticism of the prophets, the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, or the Church led me to defensively dig in my heels and refuse that there could be any flaws. But even when I dug in, I knew I had doubts about polygamy, about the way the church treats women, blacks, and gays, and about its weird mystical/esoteric history. (God lives on another planet, remember. It’s all very Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.)

But even the most rational person can admit that the Mormon church (as well as the wider society around it) is abjectly homophobic, racist, and misogynistic. It denied blacks the Priesthood and taught that they were cursed with blackness by God! It currently calls gay marriage apostate and doesn’t allow children of gay couples to be baptized! Women bow their heads in temple ceremonies and promise to subject themselves to their husbands… with their faces veiled!

If you are Mormon, I understand you. I empathize with you. And I probably like you. But if your ego is so fragile that you can’t admit basic facts, well, I have very little room for you in my life ultimately.

But back to that Women in Math poster, come on, that is hilarious. And if you can’t laugh with me, well there is probably not much room for you either.

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In Monster Life

27858291_10160117274245061_4633234525172819479_n“Dad!” A, my 6-year old son, bounded into the room with excitement. “I forgot to tell you! At school today, I was designing a brand new game to play! It’s going to be epic!”

I turned toward him with genuine excitement. I loved when he got this excited. “Oh yeah? Let me see it!”

He put his hands on his hips and looked up at me with a half-roll of his eyes. “You can’t see it yet. It’s still up here in my head. I didn’t actually design it yet.”

“Oh, pardon me, then tell me about it.”

A began talking animatedly. “Okay, so you know how people love fighting games, like Injustice or like that Pokemon fighting game, or, like Mortal Kombat. This is one of those games except it is full of monsters. I’m going to call it In Monster Life!”

He paused dramatically, and I gave a ‘Whoa’ sound.

For the next several minutes, A followed me around the kitchen, telling me about the different monsters he would design, and how they would all have different skills and special moves. I could tell he was making some of it up as he went, but his rich stories had always been rich with details, and he never forgot them once he spoke them out loud. I had always called him my little story-teller. He was brilliant at coming up with original ideas, and he put so much drama into his stories, using voices and inflections. He’d been doing it since he was two, and I constantly wondered how this talent would blossom when he grew up. I’d gotten my story-telling skills from my mother, and it seemed A had inherited them from me, but he certainly had his own spin.

“And there is also Birdman! I think he is my favorite one. He’s, like, a human guy who had some science stuff happen and now he is part bird! He has like human feet and huge wings so he can fly cause they are connected to his arms, and he has some feathers and skin both, and he can grow beaks and shoot them at the bad guys! Well, no one is the bad guy totally but he can shoot them at the guy he is fighting. He can shoot so many beaks!”

After a while, I got out a pen and paper and started making a list of the different monsters he was describing, making effort to spell them as he said them, as in the case of the ‘Abomiddle Snowman’, who “has so many muscles and fights best in cold places!”

A told me that he wanted 12 monsters total, and as we got farther down the list, I could tell he was making up creatures on the spot.

“I guess there should be maybe one girl monster, so there can be Hyper-Girl. She’s really funny looking and monstery, like part-monster, and she has crazy teeth, but she can shoot off some energy stuff from her eyes that makes people around her crazy because she is so hyper!”

As we finished the list, A grabbed a huge stack of paper and sat down at the table to begin designing the monsters. I wrote the names on top of each page, from Hoomanji to Hydro-Fire, and spent the next few hours carefully designing each one, using intricate detail in his 6-year old style. There was a “robot cube” monster, who looked like a cube but could transform into different shapes. There was “like a lobster monster except he is like a cyborg and can shoot stuff and stuff”. He designed a “demon that is also a snake” and a “ghost that can turn into not-a-ghost and fill the air with steam and that is the only time he can be attacked”.

When A wanted one of his characters, a “robot-barbarian with a big sword and a little sword” to be named “He-Man”, I told him that was already trade-marked. After he learned what a trademark was, he decided to change the name. “We can just call him ‘He-Guy’ then.”

A then came up with six different battlegrounds for the monsters to fight in, including a “lava jungle” and a “water desert,”, and he giggled as he wanted one silly battle-ground, calling the last one “Clifford’s playground”, as he looked at his toy version of the big, red dog himself.

Seeing his creations down on paper only energized A more. I found him baffling at time. He could sometimes struggle to get through a single short book, and he could barely focus long enough to put his own shoes on, sometimes taking as long as 6 or 7 minutes, but he could focus on a task like this for over 2 hours and not run out of energy. He asked me to assign him some mock battles, and I wrote a few out on paper, choosing two to fight and a battleground for them to fight in. He then assigned a few drawing assignments for me, and I worked extra hard to match the details of his creations in my art, to his utter joy. Soon, we pulled my 9-year old, J, and my boyfriend in on it, and we had a stack full of drawings of the different characters. Later, I made sure to spend one-on-one time with J, playing with toys and giving him plenty of attention. It’s always necessary to balance the dad scales so both boys feel loved.

Before bed that night, A gave me a huge hug. “Thanks for helping me with In Monster Life, daddy. Are you proud of me?”28168173_10160117274285061_1163685287753908127_n

“Buddy, I’m so proud of you. You have such a great brain. It’s always telling stories.”

“Yeah, just like yours.”

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Piranha: Reflections of First Love

Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?

The first time you drove to see me, from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City, a six-hour cut through desert and mountains, you listened to Lana Del Ray on repeat. You told me how her voice took you someplace else. She was your muse, you said once.

And so, when I sat down in a coffee shop today to write about something else, and one of those songs came on, one of those I know used to make your soul sing, my fingers stopped working for a minute, and my mind started working backwards, to all those little memories we created together.

I remember the last time I saw you, working at your little juicer in the Nevada hills, adorable in your apron. I hadn’t seen you in a year, and I knew we were all wrong for each other, but there was always a place in the back of my heart where we would set aside all of the complications and differences and just work it out. I entered the shop to surprise you and you instantly made me melt, all over again. Then, after a few minutes of speaking, you told me you were with someone else, and I bid my final farewell, then sat in my car and sobbed for an hour before I could drive away.

I remember our last real weekend together, holding hands in the rain and walking the streets of Seattle while talking about plans for the future. We pulled on stocking caps and, side by side, ascended to the top of a waterfall, where you just held me, and when a dog rushed by with its owner, you got that low growl of adoration in your voice as you looked at it in longing, muttering “Puppy!” with unbridled enthusiasm. We sat in the car later, and I told you “I love you” for the first time, and you said, “I love you, too”, and I told you not to say that unless you meant it. And when I wondered if we might be together, you shook your head and said you weren’t ready, and my heart broke, and  that night, with our arms and legs entwined and my head on your shoulder, you held me tight, and I somehow knew it would be the last time.

I remember months before that, when I sat in frustration, waiting for your text message back. There had been longer silences lately between us, as far away as the hundreds of physical miles, and though I missed you, I refused to reach out, just like you refused. You seemed to want me to prove that I could be with you. You needed some sort of bold gesture. But I had children, a job, and child support payments, and you wouldn’t move to be near me, and so we would wait, both of us, stubbornly, for the other to make the first move. And then I’d get lonely, or heartsick, or perhaps drunk, and reach out with how much I missed you, how much I wanted to be with you. We would fondly text for a few days, and then fall back into the same pattern of stubborn silence. And I remember feeling, even in those times, that no one would ever be able to make me feel the way you did.

I remember seeing you in St. George, Utah, during a massive blizzard. You drove to see me for a day, agreeing to give it one chance. You wore a leather jacket and you’d grown a beard, and you wrapped your arms around me as the snow tried to stab us, and we just held each other for five minutes, and it felt like home. We went inside without speaking, and we made love, and we just lay there laughing and feeling amazing, and you muttered “God, I missed you” under your breath. And then we had diner at some terrible cafe, and  you could barely speak, telling me how this couldn’t work, how you just weren’t ready, and then you left, too soon. But I held on to that hug in the snowstorm for weeks afterward, clutching it close, refusing to let it go.

I remember hopping on the porch the first time you drove up to see me, unable to contain my excitement, like a child on Christmas morning. We’d been texting back and forth for weeks, and during your family vacation, you’d locked yourself in the bathroom while everyone slept so that you could just keep talking to me that much longer. You made me feel desired, like I was worth it, and that week I paraded you around in front of my friends, eager to show off this beautiful, authentic man, this brilliant person who was there with me, not, them, but me. And you didn’t care about my baggage, my kids or my divorce, you only wanted to make me smile, and everything was just perfect, giving me a taste of a life I had never thought possible.

I remember meeting you that first time, in the Piranha club in Las Vegas. The room was full of men. My friends were all drunk and paired off with others in the club, dancing in corners, and there you were, blonde and blue-eyed, with dimples, in your button-down sweater and jeans, laughing with friends. We made eye contact, multiple times. I danced near you, hoping you would join me, and I took a shot or two for courage, then you finally approached me. We yelled our names out loud to each other, and danced, trading phone numbers as our friends’ gave us thumbs’ up signals of approval. We kissed and danced and held each other, to Rihanna and Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, and we both commented on how amazing it felt to find a connection like this in such a place. I went to sleep that night with you on my mind.

I wonder about you sometimes, Matt. Last I heard, you had moved to San Francisco with a new man. And I truly hope you are happy. I long ago deleted any and every way to contact you. I wiped out your phone number and Email so that I couldn’t reach out to you in a moment of vulnerability and see history repeat itself. You aren’t on social media in any format, so I can’t even be tempted to look you up. And the distance helps. Because what you represented to me then, you can no longer represent.

Like you, I’m with someone else now. He loves me, and I love him, and he makes me feel the way that you used to, except there aren’t long silences in between the snowstorms and waterfall hikes. There is no stubborn heel-dragging, no doubts that he wants to be with me, no apologies that he just isn’t ready. He’s some of the things you were, with his own wonderfulness on top of all of that, and he’s consistent, an adjective you lacked in your character composition.

Yet every time Lana Del Ray comes on, I’ll likely always think of you. Her voice is haunting, as your presence always will be. I’ll always think of finding a first love at the age of 32, one that would stretch on for years without resolution. I’ll think of headiness, of passion, of hopping, of waterfalls, of juice, of puppies, and of being held in a snowstorm.

And I’ll think of piranhas, silvery, slick, and sleek, until they expose their fangs.

Piranha

A Quiet Spirit

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Like all writers, I’ve written about love.

When my sister married her wife, I wrote them a poem, and in it, I tried to break love down to all of its individual ingredients, its varying shades of legacy, fear, pain, hope, security, romance, fulfillment, vulnerability, friendship, and sex, plus all the rest.

I’ve written about the dangers of fairy tale endings, how we grow up hoping that we will meet the one that will make us happy and fulfilled for happily ever after, and how any alternative to that scenario becomes threatening.

I’ve written about the phrase “I Love You”, and all of it’s varying shades or misuse and overuse. It hurts when it isn’t said, or when it is but isn’t meant, or when it is used too much, or when it’s only meant for now.

I’ve written about my birth, and the birth of my sons. I’ve written about the beginning of my marriage, and the end. I’ve written about getting my heart broken by people I have loved, and about breaking the hearts of those who have loved me.

I’ve written about loving places and things. I’ve written about loving God and, in time, instead, learning how to love myself. I’ve written entire blog posts dedicated to the concept of Valentines day and what it means or doesn’t mean to people. I’ve written about loss, grief, and devastation. I’ve written about loneliness.

I’ve written about embracing each day as it comes, about being patient for the future, about putting in the effort to get the desired results, and about experiencing joy. I’ve written when single, when lonely, when devastated, when heartbroken, when happy, and when inspired.

I’ve written anecdotes about my children, about plans for the future, and about little nugget from my own story, so many of them revolving around my origins in growing up gay and Mormon in a broken family that was full of love, and those are likely always the roots I will go back to as they are the eyes through which I see the world.

I keep a little list of things I want to blog about, handwritten in ink in my business folder. And if a few days go by, I find time to sit down and write one of those stories down, unless something else has hijacked my thoughts. I feel better when I write. I dare say I love it. And whether it is read by 2 or 2000, it feels wonderful to share, and amazing to love what I’m doing.

Sometimes, on days like today, I don’t have anything to say, so I let my fingers start clacking and I find myself writing out about what I’ve already written, and realizing that, perhaps, I don’t always have something to say. But that too feels okay.

Today is Valentine’s Day, and I have a somewhat quiet spirit. There are several things out there, on the horizon, fishhooks that I’ve tossed forward and that I hope something will bite and that I will be able to reel it in. I may be on the cusp of something wonderful, regarding the book or the documentary. Or I may just have more ahead of me of the wonderful that already is, with my clients, my children, my boyfriend, my goals. Either way it is a beautiful world.

And there will always be more to say, but for now, for today that is enough.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

the Courage to Change the Things I Can

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You can paint for hours until the picture meets your standards of perfection, then step back and look upon it with pride. You can hang it in a local art shop with a price tag on it, and tell everyone you know that it is there. You can scroll through the messages of people who say they are proud of you, that they love you, that they envy you for following your dreams. But when you ask most of them if they’ve stopped by to see the painting, you aren’t quite sure what to make of it when they say no, that they’ve been busy, or distracted, or that it’s not about your art and they really don’t look at anyone’s art, but still they’re so proud. And when you watch people walking through the art shop, you realize there are a thousand paintings hanging there, and they all have price tags, and you can’t really do anything to make anyone look at yours and be proud of it like you are. And you certainly can’t make them buy it. So do you sit back and give up? Do you just wait it out, feeling sorry for yourself around the corner in the shadows? Do you keep painting more, hoping another piece will catch on? Do you give up completely, telling yourself that at least you tried? Or do you take what you’ve painted and find a new place to show it? Maybe place a bowl of chocolates in front of it, hang some Christmas lights around it? How much do you believe in yourself? And is the reality of living your dreams worth the work? Is it greater than the cost of not living them at all?

My life lately has been exactly what I’ve always envisioned it would be. As a human, I’m perpetually dissatisfied. (I mean, give a human exactly what it is they want: the million dollars, the perfect relationship, the picket fence, and the month-long cruise, and they are complaining about too much sunshine, not enough leg room, cold food, the kids being too loud, or still having a used car). But I really do work hard on gratitude. I have so much to be grateful for, and I have worked so hard to get here.

And after a few decades of seeing myself as someone incapable of being happy, I’m beyond thrilled to be able to say that I’m living the life that I want, or at least working on it. I have an attentive, kind, and loving boyfriend. I have beautiful children who bring me daily joy. I have enough money to pay for healthy food, basic bills, and some travel. I have a healthy body. I like my apartment, my city, my family. And I’m doing things in my life, professionally and creatively, that inspire passion and hope. I love the projects I’m working on.

But I find myself in a place of stopping and starting, regularly. I will pour a tremendous amount of time and talent into a project (much like the figurative painting mentioned above), and then find myself unable to progress due to others not following through. People say they’ll buy the book when they can, or they have purchased the book and will take months to read it. Local bookstores say they might want to carry it in time. Local radio shows and podcasts say it could be interesting to showcase the book, and that they’ll get back to me in a few weeks. I get stalled, then frustrated, as I feel stunted, ghosted, by those who I wish would show more interest.

All of this is counter-balanced by the fact that many have read my book, and they feel good about it. They have left reviews and said kind words, and it feels like such an honor and joy to hear this feedback. But at the end of the day, I really put myself out there, vulnerably, and I so badly want that to be met with a great success. I want to travel, read out loud, have people read my words and relate to them. I want to help change lives through the sharing of self. And as I wait for others to notice that, I find myself so intensely frustrated.

And, I realize, that is what self-publishing a book takes.

And the documentary, I’ve never done something so worthwhile (professionally). It brings me so much passion. I mean, I am putting myself out there, as part time investigative journalist, part time historian, part time director, part time producer, part time filmmaker/story-boarder/project manager/interviewer/therapist/negotiator. It is an insanely fulfilling and encouraging project, and the end result is going to change lives. But my life in this realm has become, again, about stops and starts. I’m the guy that asks for money and help, that tries to inspire people with passion and necessity, and who gets told over and over, “This project is amazing, I would love to help!”, only to have people go quiet afterwards to the point of avoiding me. This numbers into the dozens now, likely well over one hundred. I go through creative bursts, and then wait for weeks for others to, hopefully, follow-through. I push things as far as I can with time, effort, and energy, and then get stunted.

And, I realize, this is what making a documentary takes.

So I sit back, the gravel in my insides churning to cement, finding myself frustrated with the little things like unreturned text messages, unresolved issues, and unattended events, and then again remember that I’m living my dreams, and that this is part of it.

Then I return to that told familiar mantra. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. 

I have courage in spades. I am a solution finder. A bridge builder. A magic bean buyer. I’ll keep pushing, pressing, asking, and foraging until the projects succeed. That, I can control. That, I can manage. This is the part of the journey where I have arrived at the plateau, and I have to find new paths to keep climbing.

And climb I shall.

Ad Junct

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Over the course of six years, I went to three separate colleges. I learned the ins and outs of academic systems, loading myself with credits while working on the side to support myself financially. I learned how to stack up courses so that I could get ahead in some classes while staying right on track with others, how to balance in-person and online, and how to navigate my energies toward certain classes with 100% energy while giving only 40% to others, whatever it took to get an A. In addition, I learned how to make sure I was invested in my assignments, planning out ways to keep myself invested. I learned that I was a great paper writer, and excellent at oral interviews, but terrible at memorization and test-taking.

I loved college. I loved being in the academic arena, with new energy always. I joined choirs, formed improv troops, sang in A Cappella groups, and starred in school plays. During the course of my six-year education, which culminated in a Masters degree in Social Work, or MSW, I had dozens of teachers. Now, from the vantage point of 15 years later, I can only name maybe 6 of those teachers by name, the ones that had the most profound impact on me. Of the others, many were ineffective, boring, disconnected, or simply not memorable.

When I started teaching, back in 2009, I wanted to be a teacher who was memorable.

I’ve always had a flair for teaching. (My mom has always told me that my three greatest talents are in “writing, teaching, and helping”). Most of my experience teaching was in Sunday School (or Gospel Doctrine) in Mormon wards throughout my adult life. I had the ability to take dense material from the Old Testament (like Jonah and Ninevah), difficult-to-understand topics (like “the Gifts of the Spirit”), or complex modern revelations (like eternal marriage and polygamy) and disseminate them for a room full of peers in a way that was both enlightening and entertaining. I liked to push people’s buttons, make them uncomfortable, and then leave them with a strong dose of spiritual enlightenment. I wanted them to leave the room feeling powerful. I wanted them to be talking about the lesson for the whole week afterwards.

Teaching Sunday School required a tremendous amount of preparation (reading and becoming familiar with the content and its adjacent topics), organization (understanding how this content fit into the wider spectrum of the overall curriculum), time management (knowing how to effectively get selected information across in an allotted time perfectly, not under- or over-planning), enthusiasm (if I was in love the topic, the room would be also), and group facilitation (trying to keep a large room full of very different people with very different expectations engaged, getting people to participate but not too much, answering unexpected questions, and keeping the content moving forward). I had to understand the room I was in and the role I was there to play, and I had to be ready for a myriad of possible distractions. Preparing for Sunday School lessons took me hours, and I loved it. More than that, I was good at it. It brought me joy and fulfillment.

So, after a few years of working full time at my forty-hour per week job (and in addition to my wife, son, home, and busy church calling), I decided I wanted to teach. I approached the local satellite university, a branch of Boise State University for students living in northern Idaho, and I was thrilled when they offered me an ad junket faculty position. Though I only had a Masters degree, they had a current opening, and brought me on board, offering me approximately $1000 per college credit for a 3 credit course. I enthusiastically accepted.

I quickly realized that that was not a lot of money. For $3000, I would have to read an entire text book and create a syllabus for an assigned curriculum. I would then spend 45 hours over the course of 15 weeks teaching it (one college credit means 15 hours of in class instruction, so for this class there would be 15 separate 3-hour classes). I would have to prepare each lecture, give assignments, and then grade the assignments of 27 individual non-traditional social work students. For my first class, they would each turn in 7 individual papers, and a longer essay final, making a total of 216 papers I would be grading. After it was all said and done, I was basically being paid half of minimum wage.

Navigating the strong personalities in the classroom quickly became the most difficult part of the job. Social work classes are dominated by people who have had terrible things happen to them and now want to figure themselves out. The classes were made up of 60 to 80 per cent women, and many of the students had a very strong sense of entitlement. (This is worthy of a different blog post, but here is an example of a typical interchange. Teacher: “Your papers are due tomorrow, don’t forget.” Student: “Can I please have a two week extension? You have no idea what I’m going through in my personal life!”)

It wasn’t until the end of that first semester that I started to understand what being an ad junct faculty member actually meant. The university had a certain amount of dollars to spend on a particular curriculum. They could only hire so many faculty, and they could only assign so many classes to each faculty member. But they still had to teach a minimum number of classes. So it was much cheaper and easier to hire outside resources to offer classes not covered by faculty. (One definition of the word ‘ad junct’ is, literally, “something joined or added to another thing but not essentially a part of it.”) I was not a part of the university or the program, but I was putting in dozens of hours per month to teach a course for the university. In short, I was not likely to ever hear from the dean or faculty unless a student complained.

Despite the drawbacks, teaching both exhilarated and exhausted me. I got to meet so many amazing students (and of course, several others I didn’t care for much), and I felt honored to be sharing my talents and experiences with them. I taught Diagnostics, and Introduction to Social Work, and Human Behavior in the Social Environment, and Ethics. I formed long-term relationships with many, and genuinely enjoyed my experiences. And the reviews I received were incredible, overwhelmingly positive, with some students calling me the best teacher they had ever had, and others saying I’d changed the course of their education for the better. In short, I loved it.

And then I came out of the closet and moved to Utah. And my teaching career (well, my ad junct teaching career), changed just like everything else.

(To be continued… in Ad Junct Part 2!)

Raising a Gay Son

butterfly

My mother was hurt when I first came out of the closet. I was 32, and I was a father, and when I called to tell her, she reacted with shock and pain, as if her life was falling apart. She’d reacted much the same way when my younger sister, Sheri, had come out years before. She somehow, at the time, saw our exits from the closet as a personal failing, as if she had done something wrong, and being told her son was gay was a personal trauma for her.

This was a delicate time for me, one where I felt my own life was falling apart, and it took me a long time to be able to recognize her trauma. The night after my call, she called several others to confide in them, telling them I was gay and that she wasn’t sure what to do. And when word of this got back to me, I called her back, furious and screaming that she had no right to tell my secrets to others. It was perhaps the only time in my life when I had yelled at my mother. She understood, of course, but she was hurt too. Everything she had ever known about me was a lie, she said.

And then, our emotions spent, my mother’s voice softened, and she confided in me. “That’s not true. I knew. I always knew. I was just so afraid of it. But I knew.”

“How did you know?” I asked, confused and hurting.

“You were just different. More compassionate. Different from the other babies, the other kids. I’ve always suspected, always been afraid that you were gay.”

I’ve now been out for seven years, and I’ve seen that narrative play out in coming out stories over and over again. Mothers and fathers who knew their kids were gay, right from the beginning, but were afraid to say it, afraid to talk about it. And sometimes I can’t help but wonder why.

How different my upbringing would have been if my mom, if anyone really, had told me that being gay was a normal, healthy, happy thing. What if it had been a viable option? What were people so afraid of? I asked a few different parents of gay kids this, and I took notes on their responses.

“I was worried that if I told her she might be gay, that it would actually cause her to be gay. Like it would set up expectations for her future.”

“I thought that if I told him he was gay then he would get teased by other kids more, and I didn’t want to make his adolescence harder.”

“Even though I knew he was gay, I didn’t want it to be true. I thought that he could change it if he tried, so I was harder on him than my other sons.”

“I wanted grandchildren. If he was gay, I’d never have grandchildren.”

“If any of my children were gay, I didn’t know how to reconcile that with my religion. If gay people can’t be in heaven, what would that mean for our family bonds there? What would happen to them? It was easier to keep quiet.”

These are difficult questions to address, but what all of them leave out is this: by not making homosexuality an option for children, by not letting kids be who they really are, kids end up raised in the closet. If straight kids are taught that gay is inferior, they treat gay as inferior. If gay kids are taught that gay is inferior, they grow up hiding, feeling inferior, and seeing themselves as broken; they grow up silent, silenced, closed off, and divided. They feel different and can’t talk about it. Sometimes they are abused, forced into therapy, told they are not good enough or that they must change. And then these kids grow up into adults who have attachment, anxiety, depression, and self-esteem problems. Unhealthy relationships, suicide attempts, and therapy rates go up-up-up because there is more pain from childhood, more trauma, represented across the gay population. (And the statistics for transgender individuals, as always, are much higher).

My sons, J and A, are 9. They have a dad who is gay and a mom who is straight. They have gay friends, straight friends, and transgender friends. They know that there are differences in skin color, languages, religions, and social statuses. They know that both of their parents date men. They ask hard questions. There is no disturbance for them with this, because their parents are happy and balanced people. And while we have ideas about them and their futures, we don’t give them a script. We teach them to be kind, to have manners, to apologize when needed, to express their feelings, to listen, to be responsible. And we encourage them to be exactly who they are.

In discussions about the future, both of my sons have, more than once, said that they are gay, and that they are straight. “I have a crush on a boy. I’m gay” or “I like a girl, I’m straight” or “I don’t think I want to get married ever, but maybe I’ll adopt some kids.” And I hear these statements in exactly the same way that I hear their changing ideas that they might want to be a dancer, a hunter, a millionaire, a farmer, a rancher, a zookeeper, or a doctor. I tell them that they have plenty of time to decide who they are, and that I will love and support them no matter what. I tell them that they are beautiful to me, and that I love them “a million times.” (My 6-year old recently responded that he loved me “a million infinity thousand googleplex times back”, followed by a “ha-ha, Daddy, I win.”)

The key point is here that I will not project my own biases on to my children. I want them to be the best versions of themselves. I want them to be, well, them. Gay or straight or transgender, Mormon or atheist, just them, and happy, and good.

And for every parent out there, those who worry that their kids might turn out gay, well, don’t. Honestly, I think every parent deserves at least one gay kid. Research shows that many gay people have greater amounts of compassion, creativity, and talent per capita than straight people do, so who wouldn’t want that for their family?

And as for me and my mom? We talk every day. She grew up in a different era, so having gay kids is still unfamiliar to her, but she loves her children, and she supports us. She asks Sheri about her wife, she asks me about my boyfriend. We talk about the things that I write about (blogs like this one), and she offers opinions and understandings. Our relationship is much deeper than it was before I came out, and we are close friends. She has four straight daughters, one straight son, one gay son, and one gay daughter. And she loves us all just the same.

And that’s how it should be.

 

 

Grandpa, at the end

My grandfather was a stubborn man. He’d always had a rebellious streak, and a quick laugh, and a sharp temper. I have distinct memories of him visiting us in Missouri, when we were young children. While Grandma made home-made donuts in the kitchen, he sat with us to play dominos or cards, cracking silly jokes that made us laugh, spouting nonsense.

“Well, I’m about to play my eight. You know what they say. Eight, skate, and donate!”

It was hard to watch him, there at the end. I had just received my mission call, and he had been a big part of my life the last several years, ever since Mom and Dad’s divorce. He’d been there for all of the key moments, along with Grandma. When we left Missouri, he gave us a place to live at first. When my step-father grew abusive and the later divorce got ugly, he and Grandma kept Sheri and I distracted and out of the courtroom. They were there at each of my Priesthood ordinations, when I starred in school plays, and when I graduated high school. In a few weeks, I’d be leaving for two years, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But tonight, I sat at Grandpa’s side in the hospital.

“Chad. Chad-a-lad.” He called out softly, his voice thick with confusion. Just a few hours before, he hadn’t recognized me, I’d been a complete stranger to him. He was in and out of lucidity lately, the dementia setting in. Earlier today, he’d thought he was back on the farm as a child, and in the afternoon, he’d assumed he was in a bathtub on an airplane in the sky. It was heartbreaking to see him like this.

I got up out of the small twin bed they had wheeled in next to his hospital bed. “Hey, Grandpa, I’m right here.” I placed a hand on his arm, squeezing slightly.

“Chad, I have to use the bathroom,” he said. I took two steps toward the bathroom and turned on the light there. After my eyes adjusted, I found the small bottle they were using to collect his urine and returned to his bed.

“Of course, Grandpa,” I smiled.

“I hate that I can’t do this myself. I’m not some child.” His voice took on a tone of derision as I pulled his blankets and sheet down around the bottom of the bed. He had only one full leg now, the other having been amputated at the knee a few years before due to complications from diabetes. (His prosthetic foot and wheelchair both sat against the wall at the opposite side of the room).

“You’re definitely not a kid,” I reassured him, not knowing what else to say. I helped him fold his hospital gown up, so he could access his genitals, then helped him line the bottle up. He took it from my hands. “I can do this part myself,” he said with anger.

I turned my back, respectfully, as he prepared to pee. This was my fourth night in a row sleeping here in the hospital with him. I worked just downstairs, in the cafeteria, and it was easy for me to come and spend the evenings here. Grandma had asked me if I was sure I wanted to stay again, and I’d told her that I absolutely wanted to, it was the only thing I knew to do to help. She was home sleeping now and would be back first thing in the morning, along with another steady stream of company, some who Grandpa recognized and others who he didn’t, depending on how lucid he was throughout the day.

“Oh, shit! Oh, damn it all to hell, I can’t do anything right!” I swiftly turned back and saw that Grandpa had missed the bottle, sending urine spraying all over his hospital gown and sheets. Feeling heartbroken for him, I stepped into the hallway and flagged down the nurse, telling them what had happened inside.

Thirty minutes later, in fresh bedding, Grandpa went back to sleep, and I took a seat back on the bed, unsure if I’d be able to sleep again. I had a stack of comic books near the bed that I could read, but I didn’t know if it would help.

Grandpa had been such a proud man. Now he lay next to me, one leg gone, humiliated over being unable to pee by himself. He had tubes and wires connected to him, monitoring him. He was in his early 80s, and this wasn’t how he wanted to be, not at all.

In these later years, Grandpa’s life and been dominated by struggles with diabetes and heart disease, exacerbated by other health struggles. A few years before, he’d survived major heart surgery, yet on the drive home, Grandma had been in a horrible accident with Grandpa in the car, one that broke her neck (she recovered well) and put them both back in the hospital. But Grandpa had started declining after that.

Growing up Mormon in a small Idaho farming community, Grandpa had lost his father at a young age. He was the youngest of several siblings, and he’d grown up as the man of the house, supporting his mother however he could while balancing his life with just a bit of rebellion; he’d never served a mission, had had a habit of smoking, and he could be quite the prankster. Then he’d settled down with Grandma and, over the next five decades, raised four daughters and a son. He was a good dad, and a wonderful grandfather, despite that temper of his, one that lit quickly and burned out just as fast, and he was beloved by his family. He would be very missed once he was gone.

I dozed for a few hours, and the next morning, Grandpa didn’t recognize me again, wondering why there was a stranger in his room. I left, to shower and sleep a bit before I had to work hours later, and I couldn’t get him out of my mind. I thought of how he would put his small granddaughters on his feet and dance around with them while singing, how he took Sheri and I to the Dutch Treat Cafe for French fries and Iron Port Cherries, how he came over on Saturday mornings after our move to make us pancakes, how he’d pop his dentures out at his grandkids to scare them. What a life he’d led, and what a legacy he’d left behind, with five children, a few dozen grandchildren, and even more great-grandchildren. What a simple, happy, profound life he had lived.

Grandpa died just a few days later. He was surrounded by his wife and children. I wasn’t in the room. The last words he’d spoken to me were, “Hey there, Chad-Boy.” He’d spoken to me after not recognizing anyone else for hours, his eyes settling on mine, speaking with a smile as he pointed his finger right at me. He went peacefully, his breathing slowing, his eyes opening wide to something unseen, some vision of whatever lies beyond. He smiled, he closed his eyes, and then he let go, leaving his body behind in a room full of people who loved him.

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#MeToo

Metoo

I recently completed a memoir of my life. After years of writing and telling my story, the book came together in a period of months, and I’m pleased with the outcome. However, there were many parts I was hesitant to write about, out of a desire to not hurt others in any capacity. I did discuss a lot of people, but I’ve learned as a writer that it is easier to write about someone if they have either given consent or, sadly, if they are deceased. I have many loved ones who read what I write, and they became concerned over where my memories differed from theirs, and many of them only wanted to be painted in a positive and understanding light. So I found myself censoring parts of my story, out of a desire to not hurt the people around me. And this is surely not unfamiliar to other writers who have had similar struggles.

One major area of my life that I chose to leave out of my book: surviving sexual abuse. A few months after I came out of the closet, I wrote a tell-all blog about these experiences, and a few members of my family had largely angry and emotional reactions. They worried that the person who abused me would be hurt by this, and worried about the potential that his children could be hurt as well. The irony of leaping to the defense of the abuser is not lost on me. He is not a person who is a part of my life. But I took down the blog at the time so as not to damage my family relationships. And I kept that part of my story out of my book for the same reasons.

But it is readily apparent to me that my abuser, and my surviving abuse, remain a large part of my narrative, my history, my psychological development. I own those parts of my story, as a therapist, as a writer, and as a father. Being a victim of abuse impacted my relationship with my own masculinity and influenced my development as a young man and, later, as a father. It certainly impacted my development as a gay adolescent who was learning to hide from others, and it caused me to have one more thing to hide, and even to wonder if the abuse had caused my homosexuality. It impacted my sexual development, and the way I experience attractions. It impacted my self-esteem, my relationship with myself, and my capabilities as a professional. It grew roots and seeds into every part of my life.

To give voice to a little bit of this, I’m just going to share a list of facts about my abuse and adolescence, things that stir me when I think about them and that impact me. The trauma from my abuse is separate but related to the trauma of growing up gay and closeted, my father’s abandonment, my step-father’s sexual abuse, and other things I went through as a child.

I was a compassionate, curious, and creative child who grew up in a busy and religious family. I was one of the younger kids and there was always a lot going on in my home. Despite having a very loving and attentive mother, my father was frequently depressed and absent, and I spent a lot of time playing solo and at church activities. I was abused at a young age, sporadically and systemically several times between the ages of 5 and 8, by an older male with influence over me, and one who had frequent access to me.

My abuser made me feel as though the abuse was quality time, things that boys just do together. It involved the removal of clothing, stimulating genitals, back massages, oral sex, and masturbation. He would send me away with reminders not to tell anyone, tell me he looked forward to our special time together, and invite me to come up with ideas of things we could do together the next time.

At the time, I believe, I was not overly disturbed by the abuse. I was so starved for male attention, I think it was something I looked forward to. I have a vivid memory of sitting down in school, and later on the bus, writing down ideas in a notebook about things my abuser and I could do together.

It wasn’t until I was 12 years old, when my own sexual development began, that I began to realize how disturbing those memories were. I had blocked a lot of it out. As I began to realize I was attracted to other boys, I knew something was wrong with me, and I began to think that my abuser had caused these parts of me to be broken. I began avidly searching Mormon books for addresses on how to heal from abuse, and I began to believe that if I could heal from the abuse, then I could also cure the homosexuality. This was a major problem that lasted throughout my mission.

Throughout the ages of 12-22, when I really began my healing after my Mormon mission, I had periods of time when I would block the abuse out completely. I would also have times where I actively journaled, capturing every single memory in as much detail as I could. In addition, I began having irregular flashbacks to the abuse itself, memories that would take over my entire body, sometimes in sleep and sometimes during the day, when I would come aware afterwards with quickened breath and sick stomach. I dreaded these moments the most.

I first told my family about the abuse when I was 15. I confronted my abuser in front of my mother and my stepfather, and they asked me detailed questions, making sure I was aware of how serious the allegations were. They listened to me, gave me hugs, and then I went to bed. I was never sent in for therapy after that, never questioned about it further. It became the enormous family secret, the thing people knew about but never wanted to discuss. When my abuser became a father, I was rightfully concerned, but no one seemed to want to talk about my worries. When I cut the abuser out of my life later, some family members made me feel guilty, telling me that perhaps I should forgive, reach out to him and try to build a relationship. And in my late 20s, I went through a period of time when I tried, but quickly realized how unhealthy that relationship was, and so I cut him out again.

During my own sexual development, I would often retreat into my imagination for sexual fulfillment, and I didn’t realize until years later that many of my early fantasy scenarios resembled my abuse. Even now, in my late 30s, this impact on my own development infuriates me.

I could talk endlessly about the abuse and my path toward survival, but I will simply conclude with this. It changed everything. I’m a survivor. I will never ever be at peace with what happened to me, and I will never forgive the person who hurt me. At the same time, he has no control over me  now. I survived. I live life on my terms, and he or the abuse don’t get to determine my fate. The abuse hurt me, primally. But my survival skills are, in many ways, what have allowed me to be a better therapist, a better writer, and a better father. Someone once asked me if I was grateful for the abuse because of these outcomes in my life. Of course not. I would never wish that hurt on anyone. I am a better person because of me, and the work that I have put into myself and surviving, not because of him and how he chose to hurt me.

Love the Gay Away

Jesus

The four “recovering Mormons” took the stand and, one by one, introduced themselves to the audience. All of them had found solace and belonging in a new faith community, an Evangelical church, and now wanted to share the good word with the public. A room with a few hundred people watched as they spoke on the topic of leaving Mormonism to find new religion.

The first woman spoke about her lifelong struggle with depression as she fought to be the perfect Mormon daughter, wife, housewife, and mother. She internalized her doubts and pains for years before learning about some of the more bizarre Mormon doctrines (like “the second anointing”), and she suddenly spiraled right out of the church. She replaced her depression, she said, with a profound love for Jesus.

The pastor of the church gave a fascinating account of setting up a Christian organization within the confines of Utah, which he profoundly described as different than any other place. The bulk of his congregation, which had grown by about 150 members per years over the past few decades, were made up of those who had left Mormonism, or at the very least who were constantly influenced by the Mormonism around them. He was handsome, cheerful, and charismatic, and it was easy to picture him leading a congregation in a sermon and inspiring them to belief and action with his words.

Everyone present talked about a great love for the Bible and for the teachings of Jesus, and they discussed everyone in the room being welcome. I remained skeptical, but happy to see this resource in this community. I remembered the months I had spent as a Mormon missionary in Philadelphia, two decades earlier, investigating other religions, and after a while all of them felt mostly the same with just a few differences.

And then the next member of the panel introduced herself. She was likely in her late 30s or early 40s and wore comfortable clothes, jeans and a jacket. She had short blonde hair. She reminded me immediately of my sister Sheri, who lives on the East Coast with her wife, and I wondered if this woman might also be gay. “If she is, then cool, they welcome gay people here,” I thought. And then the woman started sharing her story.

She talked about growing up with damaged parents and being raised by her grandparents, leaving Mormonism after coming out of the closet (“ha, I was right,” I thought), entering a series of bad relationships, and eventually finding Jesus in this faith community. She then began to refer to her lesbianism in the past tense. She now realized that she was part of a worship community that taught her actual truth, she reasoned, and if she truly loved Jesus, then she had to do as he commanded. Sex was to only be in the bounds of marriage, and marriage was only between a man and a woman.

I leaned over to my friend next to me and whispered, “oh, gross”, feeling the strain of all of the years before that I’d had in the closet. It exhausted me to see yet another person going through this damaging reasoning, away from Mormonism, years after being actively gay, only to return to the closet in the name of Christianity.

 

My friend whisper back, “Wait, is she saying she is ex-lesbian?”

The host of the event asked the woman that, followed by several other questions. He is an accomplished host, a straight male with a wife and family who was excommunicated from Mormonism for asking hard questions, and one who has done advanced research studies on LGBT change efforts in religious communities. He recounted basic research that showed that change efforts were universally successful, that mixed-orientation marriages almost always fail, and that the worst of all of the options for overall mental health was a life of celibacy (which is what the Mormon religion and other faith communities currently expect from their active LGBT members).

But the woman dug her heels in. “The more you try to persuade me, the more I extend my roots into Jesus.” She talked about finding more love in Jesus than she ever could in the arms of a woman, wanting to marry a man eventually (one who loved Jesus more than she does, she said), and about teaching others in a ‘homosexuality and Christianity group” in the church about her story. She said the church had a lot of gay friends, some of them even married, who attended or who came in for lectures in the group.

The charismatic paster then grabbed his mic, talking about how at the last sermon he gave, “four or five gay guys” came up to him after the service and shook his hand, saying how much they enjoyed it. He then reemphasized that everyone was welcome, and that we are all “sexual sinners” who have to become right before the Lord.

“Gross,” I muttered again. Because as a “sexual sinner”, he still got to have sex with his wife, and he was propagating the expectation that those who are gay never get to enjoy sex at all.

Listening there, I had the bizarre realization that this experience was the direct counter-point to Mormonism, yet still the exact same homophobia and discrimination. Growing up Mormon, I was told homosexuality was evil, abominable, and curable. Lately, the narrative had changed yet remained the same. Now homosexuality was seen as something that couldn’t be altered, but that must be just ignored and denied, for those who had sex even with a same-sex married partner would be shunned and kicked out. Yet here, the message was one of celebration and joy. Instead of “follow our rules or you are out,” it was “Everyone is welcome here! Jesus loves everyone! We don’t care about your sins cause we are all sinners! (And also, gay people are worse). Let Jesus love your gay away!”

I walked away from the broadcast feeling confused, angry, and sad. While each person has their own individual journey, including the right to be celibate or in a mixed-orientation marriage, I was so weary of people putting themselves on a platform to say “I did it, so you can too! Look at me as an example! If I can suffer, you can join me!”

I walked back into the cold night sky contemplating the ideas about Jesus, a bizarre concoction of unconditional love and required suffering, and realized that pretty much any moment I spent in any church was a moment I could be spending somewhere else. And if Jesus is real, I’m pretty sure he would be okay with that.