Small-town Drag

Portlane, Maine had a different smell in the air. It smelled floral, and salty, and fishy, and the air on my skin was wonderful. Every second business advertised lobster in some form or other, be it bisque or sandwich or roll. And, most surprising of all, there were Pride flags everywhere.

“God, I love these north-eastern towns, with their progressive, inclusive attitudes, and their fresh air. I swear, anytime I come to Vermont or Connecticut or Massachusetts, everywhere is perfectly lovely and being gay just isn’t a thing. I always forget what it feels like until I make it back here.”

My sister Sheri smiled. She lives in Massachusetts with her wife and has been out here for years. “It’s pretty great, isn’t it?”

We rounded the edge of Back Cove and headed into the downtown area of Portland. We’d been gabbing constantly, about family dramas and life changes. She and I connect on a deep level, having grown up together, and sharing the experiences of adolescence and life. We understand each other.

Sheri understands why I travel. I spend very little money, in the scheme of things. Plane tickets, lodging, and the ability to just walk the streets of a new place. It’s spiritual to me. It’ grounds me, quiets the demons, awakens my spirit. I write more. I find little pieces of myself. I make no plans, and instead just see what I find. Local coffee shops, hikes, restaurants, and bars. I watch people. I listen, think, center, and get inspired. It’s fantastic what I find what I didn’t realize was missing in the first place. And Portland was already teaching me things.

The night before, my best friend and I had delicious food while listening to amazing jazz music. Then, while he went off to a national forest for a day, I went into deep contemplation mode, something I hadn’t realized I’d needed. At a local coffee shop, I sat with a warm mug and a blank sheet of paper and I set goals. I looked backward and then forward. I watched the cute gay couple who owned the space interact with their customers. I saw a woman with a puppy in her lap seem so sad. I watched an elderly couple take turns sipping form the same mug as they read the newspaper side by side. The ocean air blew in and a falcon soared outside and it was all exactly what I needed.

Sheri and I wandered in and out of bookstores. We ordered mushroom ravioli. I had a nibble of an edible, and then we headed to the local gay club, a place called Blackstones. This was one of those old gay bars, one that had been around for decades, since the late 80s. In a place like Portland, gay people could go anywhere and just be integrated, part of the community. But back when this bar was built, it was a refuge for them, a place to meet other people like them. It had a crowded long bar, a small dance floor with a pool table, and two bathrooms. On this particular evening, they had pushed the pool table up against the wall and turned it into a stage for the drag queens to perform. The room was small but a few dozen people crowded in and I happily took my seat against the wall to watch them all.

2000 miles from home, and in a relatively small city, yet dozens of gay men and straight women (so far as I could tell) were here to watch campy local drag. There were young college guys, heavyset older men, nerds and jocks and yoga instructors, black and white, one man in a wheelchair. Some clutched drinks, some sat solo, some hooted and hollered while others watched the show silently. Many pulled out dollar bills to toss up on the stage when they wanted to show support.

The first performer was a drag queen that I gathered had been performing at this bar for literally decades. She called herself a transexual (a label that should only be used when the individual chooses to use it), and clearly had had breast implants. She held one arm to her side protectively, and as time went on I realized she had likely had a stroke of some kind and was performing her in spite of it. She was likely in her mid-60s, and she opened the show in a blonde bob wig and a sparkly dress, lip-synching belted out Barbra Streisand tunes as she strutted up and down the stage posing. She came back in a new dress and wig for a Lady Gaga medley, then later in a school girl outfit to sing Oops, I Did It Again, by Britney Spears. She was… adorable. Startling. And clearly having the time of her life.

“She is living her best life,”: I whispered and Sheri laughed and agreed. I can only hope to be living my truest self when I reach that stage in life.

Three other drag queens performed. One desperately needed help with her costuming and makeup, but my word could she sing. Another wore skimpy bathing suits as she did agile stunts across the floor. The last looked drunk and like she’d dressed with her eyes closed; she missed many words while lip-synching, then belched into the microphone when she was done. I winced, then laughed loudly. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Sheri and I walked the two miles back to our lodging afterwards. Tyler was already in bed, and Sheri and I were sleeping in the living room on mattresses against each wall, like we were kids having a sleepover. We talked idly in the dark, about how much the world had changed for each of us. She fell asleep with a fidget toy in her hand.

As I drifted off, I became aware of the rain on the roof. I fell asleep to the steady percussion, my heart lost in the unfamiliar.

Advertisements

Discontent at Back Cove

BackCove

“Sometimes I wish I could go back in the past,” I said as I looked over the waters of Back Cove in Portland, Maine. A colony of seagulls flitted about over the far shore, and a few large birds of prey, likely falcons I considered, soared over the green horizon.

My best friend, Tyler, walked at my side, hands in pockets, thoughtful. He’s one of the few people I can engage in deep conversation with. “Like to try and change your life?” he asked.

“I mean, yes. But that’s not what I mean.” I scratched my own head, trying to sort out my thoughts. “I don’t mean to relive my own life. Just in a weird way, it would have been amazing to live in a different era.”

Tyler waited for me to sort my thoughts, listening as a few joggers passed us.

“It would have been amazing to live in a time when trends were being set. Back in the late 1980s or early 1990s. To be a gay man in that era, who was on the front lines implementing change. Advocacy, exploration, pushing forward against all odds.” A pang of guilt hit me for even thinking that way, so I clarified. “I love living in this era. I love the skin I’m in. I love my life. And I respect and appreciate all who fought to make this world better. Just sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to be a, I don’t know, a trendsetter. Back then, gay people we celebrate now were still living hidden lives. And then the AIDS crisis happened and Harvey Milk and all the Pride marches. I don’t even know what I’m saying, I just wish–it would have been cool to see all that, you know? To have lived through all that.”

Tyler laughed, but stayed silent as my thoughts raced. These words, these feelings, had been building up in me for a while, and now they were cascading outward, trying to find some sort of clear path from my soul to my mouth. It was jumbled.

And so we walked in silence for a minute. I felt the ocean breeze against my skin, thick with the scent of blooming flowers. It was so green and lush here. My first time in Maine, a new city to explore, new ground under my feet. My soul always comes most alive during these times. I gave thought to what I was even trying to say. I wondered if feminists sometimes wished they could go back to help in the Suffragette movement, or if my Black friends wondered what it would be like to fight for Civil Rights among the Freedom Riders. A sense of nostalgia washed over me. Not nostalgia, gratitude. Not gratitude, envy. Not envy, hope.

I exhaled a deep sigh. “I’m not sure what I’m trying to say.”

Tyler chose a park bench to sit down on, facing the water. A large puddle sat at its base and I carefully placed my feet to avoid getting them wet.

“You wish you could be some sort of trendsetter?” he asked. Tyler understood me in a way most people don’t, and he could somehow sort through the nonsense.

“No? Yes? I don’t know. I want to make a difference. I want to do something huge.”

“That’s what she said,” he responded, and I rolled my eyes and laughed. Then he grew a bit sober. “You already are a trendsetter.” He listed off the things I’m doing, the things I’ve done. The book, the graphic novel, the story-telling performances, the advocacy and interviews, the upcoming documentary, and, above all else, raising two amazing kids. I smiled. Tyler knows me well. And he understands. He works himself hard and dreams big as well, in his classroom, in his advocacy work.

“Thanks,” I responded simply. “I just–I’m all in a jumble. I want to see the history. I want to face it head on. I want a huge success. I want a big win. I want to change hearts and minds. I want to matter. I want to feel it, the quest, the journey, all paying off.”

Tyler gave me the gift of his listening ear as I listed out the things I’d tried, the small successes I had achieved that had relatively low yield, and the many failures and unfinished projects along the way.

“2016 was about learning to follow my passions. 2017 was about doing the impossible, and seeing that I could do it if I put my mind to it. 2018 was about learning that quality goods don’t mean quality results, and that people who say they will show up don’t always show up. But it was about more than that, about pushing hard for myself and realizing that it is within me to build and sustain.”

Tyler nodded, knowing my journey well. “You’ve always been more of a fire-starter than a fire-tender. You still need to learn how to get the right people in your camp and keep them there, and then ask for help.”

I wanted to argue with him, but I couldn’t. I was great at sustaining some things, and terrible at others. Then I surveyed all I’ve learned this last year, and took stock of those who were now in my camp. Volunteers, critics, story-tellers, film producers. I had a lot of plates spinning in the air, and realized I wasn’t spinning them myself any longer. I was platform building, yes, but I wasn’t the only one with a hammer.

More silence as I let the frustration seep out of me. I visibly sighed, then put my head in my hands with my elbows on my knees.

“Ah, the plight of the artist,” I said dramatically, and Tyler laughed. “There are a thousand alternate worlds out there. In one, I’m the faithful Mormon father, unhappy in my skin. In one, I’m the successful author, never home. In other, maybe I own a coffee shop or a bed and breakfast. But in all of them, I’m discontent, wishing for more, even while loving the life I have. I don’t think that part of me changes.”

“Well, maybe the quest, the search for a fire to start, is exactly what keeps you going. Maybe it’s that desire for something more that keeps the artist in you alive.”

And I kept those thoughts in my head as we continued walking around Back Cove. I thought of blue herons and mosquitoes, tides and shorelines, cloud and city skylines, of all I’ve done and all I’ve yet to do. The sun fell on the water and on me in equal measure, and for once, I welcomed the discontent, letting it grab hold of me and push me forward.

My Father’s Grave

There it was. My name etched in stone. On the back of my father’s grave. My father’s grave. My father is still alive, yet he has a grave.

His headstone is in a family plot east of Idaho Falls, Idaho. It’s a remote pretty cemetery, the kind of Rocky Mountain Cemetery I’m accustomed to, with simple headstones in long rows with plenty of space, lush green grass everywhere.

As I walked through the rows, I realized that times and customs are changing, even when it comes to how people die. Headstones like this, family plots, are a thing of the last generation. Now everyone, for the most part, seems to be getting cremated. People are being sprinkled into lakes and on hillsides, or kept in vases, or put into pots for plants to grow out of. (Just this morning, I saw a headline about the state of Washington legalizing the compositing of human remains as another alternative. I mean, there are 8 billion of us now…)

My relationship with my father is difficult to talk about. It’s hard for me to even make sense of internally, and I do therapy for a living. It’s a big void, a question mark in my center. And this cemetery brings that to life more acutely than even being around him.

My last name is Anderson. It is the last name of both of my sons. It was my father’s name. He had five brothers and one sister; I’ve only met half of my aunt and uncles, and then only once. It was my grandfather’s name. Justin Anderson was a sheep farmer in southern Idaho, and I met him a few times when I was a child before he died. And Justin’s father was… I don’ know. My knowledge pretty much ends there. But there is my grandfather’s grave, just down he row from my father’s. My grandmother Alice is there. A few of my father’s brothers. And then cousins, children, infants, names I’ve never heard or seen before.

In some ways, I respect my father’s choice to purchase a headstone. It shows foresight. He chose the stone himself and paid for it. He had it etched with his name and birth date and the names of his children. It mentions both of his wives by name as well, acknowledging that those marriages took place, although he is divorced from my mother and not living with his second wife. He paid for the plot of land as well. When he goes, he will be buried near his parents, his family, the ones I never knew.

I look like my father. I have the same build, the same coloring, the same grey on the temples, the same baby face. Once when I was 22 (I’m 40 now), I was living in the mountains of a rural area of Idaho and performing as an actor in a dinner theater for the summer. A man and his wife attended the play, and afterwards they approached me. I’d never met them, at least so far as I remembered. The man asked me if I was K. Anderson’s son, and I told him yes. Then he introduced himself as my uncle. He said I looked just like my father. I had the same walk, the same laugh, the same way of carrying my hands, he said. I asked a few questions, bid farewell, and then went home and cried that evening, because that void at my center made no sense.

It still feels that way now. Yet my name is still on the back of his grave.

In the early 1970s, as I understand it, my father had the mad urge to leave his home, his parents, and all that was familiar, and buy a cattle ranch in the rural Missouri Ozarks. Idaho sheep farmer to military man to school teacher to Missouri cattle rancher. A strange symmetry, I supposed. My mother reluctantly consented. They sold their home, packed everything they owned, loaded up the five children, and left the potato fields of Idaho for the green, lush, Mormon-hating country of small-town Missouri. He never bought that ranch, but they did start life over. He took a job in a cheese factory, and stayed for years. I was born in Missouri in 1978. My little sister followed in 1982. We were the sixth and seventh children in the family line. (Years later, both of us would come out as gay. Maybe we can blame Missouri.)

As I understand it from my older siblings, my father was a pretty happy man. He smiled and laughed, played hard, spent time with his kids. But by the time I came into the picture, something had changed. He grew sad and serious. Sometimes angry, but never happy. He seemed haunted. He was hot water, forever waiting to boil, and stuck at that temperature. He worked, he cried, he grew angry with my mother. Mostly he sat silently. No board games. No tickle fights. No camping trips or tossing the ball in the backyard. A serious, sad, haunted man who was doubled over in half due to the stress of raising and providing for seven children. A man who bit off far more than he could chew, who followed all of the rules of Mormonism yet somehow couldn’t experience any of the happy things. A stranger in my home.

I adapted. I wrote stories and played games, collected toys and made treasure hunts for my mom and siblings. I excelled in school. Dad was around but never seemed to notice or care much, and so I just got on with the process of growing up.

And then, in 1990, when I was 11, my mom made the boldest decision of her life, and she left. She went back to Idaho, after nearly two decades away. My dad stayed behind. And I remember being relieved. The world made more sense without him around.

Life got complicated for all of us after the divorce. My mom remarried, but he was mean. My dad ended up in Las Vegas. Months would go by without a phone call, and there were no visits. There was always a birthday card, and another at Christmas. Kitschy greeting cards from the grocery store with a check for one hundred dollars inside, and a short sentence. Surprise, Dad  or Happy Birthday, Dad. That was it. Those small gestures of love meant very little, though, without the relationship to accompany it. He remained closer to my five older siblings, yet put no effort into me or my little sister. When my stepfather grew violent, my dad had nothing to say. When I starred in community and school plays, he wasn’t there (except perhaps once, when he was in town). He didn’t know my friends, my interests, my struggles. And then there was the time I heard my mother tell him over the phone that his children wanted to see him. And my dad responded that he had no children.

When I grew up, I made a few passing attempts to get to know my father, and I sensed some gestures in return. He wrote a few letters when I was a missionary, and I wrote back. He took Sheri and I on a bizarre trip to Europe; he and I shared a room for two weeks, and never really spoke. He showed up at my wedding. My older sisters always encouraged me to put more effort in, to try harder, to seek understanding. He’s different than you think, they said. He tries and shows love just not how you can see it, they said. Maybe he can’t express anything to you, they said.

Maybe, I would think back. But the man whose name I bear can’t tell me the names of my own children, and that tells me everything I need to know. Four decades in and not much has changed.

My father just turned 80. I’m 40. I drove down with my partner to celebrate dad’s life, meeting the rest of my siblings there in Las Vegas. Conversations were superficial. He seemed genuinely happy, in his way, to see his children there to honor him. He told a few terrible jokes. He thanked everyone for being there. I left silently, overwhelmed by the experience.

A week later, I got a card in the mail. It was more than a sentence this time. “Thank you for coming to surprise me,” he said. “I’m glad we can seek common ground, despite our differences. Love, Dad.”

Our differences, I thought. What common ground, I thought. I set the card down. And again, I cried.

But at his grave, I didn’t cry. My name is on the back of his headstone. Etched there, permanently. I’m sixth in a list of his children. And one day, a death date will be carved into the front, and my father laid beneath. But my name will already be there, unchanged, like it has been all along, even before I knew about it.

Once, a therapist asked me how my father had impacted me the most. And I surprised her by answering that he made me an incredible father to my sons. I show interest in them, I said. I listen. I tickle and sing, dance and play, travel and teach, set boundaries and enforce routines. I’m there. Every day. There are no question marks in their center spaces. When I tell them I love them, they roll their eyes and say,  “Dad, we know! We love you too!” I’m there, and he wasn’t. He taught me to be an incredible father, I said, by never teaching me anything at all.

grave

The Culture of Groping

The women next to us were stunning. Super-model on a magazine cover good-looking.

One, who I called Alice in my head, was in a sleek and snug crystal-colored dress that hugged her frame tightly. Her shoulders and upper chest were bare, showing off her impressive cleavage. Her arms were bare, her makeup light, and her hair pulled back into a simple ponytail. She danced effortlessly, arms in the air, eyes closed, hips swaying back and forth. Her handsome husband (both wore wedding rings) stood behind her, wearing a button-down shirt, dark pants, and a jacket. He looked like a Mafia-Man with slicked back hair, a strong jaw, and an amazing build. He watched Alice closely, delighting in her enjoying herself.

The other woman I named Prudence. She was like the hottest librarian I’d ever seen. Tight black sweater, gold necklace, horn-rim glasses, short black skirt, bobbed blonde hair. She danced against a man who must have been 7’1” (like actually this height, I’m not exaggerating), a man who looked like an oil baron of some kind. He danced against a pole and laughed loudly and made fun of the people around them. (“What’s grandma doing over there? You think she’d call the police if I accidentally knocked her down?”) Every time he stood up, the people behind him sighed in frustration, unable to see the stage.

I was there with three gay friends, in a busy 2nd floor concert bar called the Depot in Salt Lake City. The crowd was electric and diverse. Women in their sixties, girls in their late twenties with their reluctant boyfriends, gay men in their 40s, middle-aged lesbian couples, college students, people of every race. I was having a blast people watching. As the opening band finished their set, the club started to get busy, and everyone started to close in toward the stage, pressing against each other, in anticipation for the evening’s main entertainment, the woman they had spent $40 each to see tonight: Elle King.

I’d never been a fan of Elle’s, but I am always happy for new experiences and was thrilled to join my friends. Elle came out in a form-fitting black shirt, black pants held up with a belt and a giant gold belt buckle, and a pink cowboy hat. She had swagger, charisma, and a command of the stage. A few songs in to her set, I leaned in to my friend Cole and said, “I can totally see why you love her. She’s amazing!” There was a smokiness to her voice. She sang blues, old westerns. and love and hate songs, and all of them were delivered with a feminist bend. She sang with sheer girl power, unashamed, and the audience ate it up. I wasn’t liable to go buy her album, but I had to admit, she had some serious charisma and talent when she performed.

A few songs in, I was dancing back and forth near my friends when I felt a hand grab my ass. I turned around in shock and literally didn’t know who had done it. Then another hand grabbed my ass. I turned around and saw Alice, in the crystal-colored gown, smiling. “It wasn’t me!” she said. I raised my eyebrows. “Okay it was me the second time, but the first time, it was him!” She pointed to my other side, where a gay man with far too many piercings stood nearby. He winked. I sighed and turned around. Then another hand grabbed my ass.

I turned back around and Alice was right there. “It’s just so cute, I couldn’t help it!” Then she placed both of her hands on my chest and rubbed them over my shoulders and down my arms. “So good!” she yelled, and her husband started laughing behind her.

Over the next few minutes, Alice went on a groping spree. She grabbed Cole’s ass, then Tyler’s, then Josh’s. The she grabbed the ass of a girl nearby, and then the girl’s boyfriend. She turned around and grabbed the boobs of the woman standing behind her and yelled, “I’m having fun and I’m hot and I can do whatever I want!”

I watched the crowd react to her with curiosity, confusion, anger, and surprise. No one really said anything. Everyone smiled uncomfortably and kind of laughed it off. This gorgeous woman was grabbing everyone in the area as her husband laughed. It was some sort of game. She was pretty and drunk, so we will put up with her groping, we all silently agreed somehow. Alice eventually stopped and then returned to her husband, grinding against him as Elle continued to sing.

The gay man tried to grab my ass again and then pressed himself, but I distanced myself from him, delivering a clear non-verbal message that I wasn’t interested. I remembered a few months before in a club when another man had aggressively groped me in a club even after I told him no multiple times. Here I was in this safe space with a feminist artist, getting groped by a man and a woman both.

I thought about Alice and her groping spree, and how everyone just kind of laughed about it uncomfortably and shrugged it off, even though it was very uncomfortable for the most part. I thought of how the tables would turn if it was her husband grabbing people. Both the men and the women would be uncomfortable, outraged. A fight would likely break out. When he yelled, “I’m hot and I can do what I want!” as he grabbed a woman’s boob, he would likely get punched in the face and have the police called on him. Then I wondered how the crowd might respond if they considered her less attractive, or if she wasn’t there with her husband watching over her. How would the other women on dates react? What about the single men?

I realized this was likely rare in clubs, this thing where women groped other men. This woman was clearly drunk and determined to enjoy herself, and she clearly thought it was okay. Gay men grope other gay men far more frequently in clubs and bars. And straight men group women everywhere and seemingly always: women dealt with this at work, at bus stops, in restaurants, while shopping. I can’t imagine. I was feeling violated and impatient after these few encounters. What must it be like for them?

I started to relax a bit, even as the crowd jostled and pushed around me, getting more drunk. The music was good, and I let my body sway with the bass line and enjoyed the people watching. Twenty minutes or so passed, then I felt a hand at my neck. Fingers gripped the collar of my T-shirt, then, before I could even turn around, I felt freezing water pour down my shirt, followed by a few jagged ice cubes. My shirt was tucked into my shorts, and I felt the ice land at my waistline and stop there. As I turned around, I was already untucking the shirt to let the ice fall free to the floor.

My anger spiked as I turned around, already thinking I was glad it was water and not alcohol that had been poured on me. I expected to see the grop-y gay man behind me, but instead I saw Alice. She was holding her plastic cup, now empty, and she was giggling with delight, like she had played the best joke on me. Behind me, her husband was laughing hysterically, as were Prudence and the giant. I was not amused, and I let my anger out in a soft but stern tone, unfiltered.

“What. The. Fuck. You grab me, you grope my friends, repeatedly. You grope everyone around you and think it’s funny. It’s not fucking funny. And now you are fucking pouring ice down my back! Bitch, you don’t know me. Back the fuck off!”

I watched Alice grow pale and back away from me. I hadn’t threatened her or advanced on her, but she knew I was very, very angry. Her husband ushered her behind him and put an arm out toward me to hold me off, although I hadn’t moved. Behind me, the crowd still danced to Elle’s music.

“Hey, whoa, man, back off,” he said.

“Reign her in, dude,” I said with derision. “I didn’t fucking deserve that.” And he quickly moved her away.

I had a hard time enjoying myself after that. I was far too sober for this. I got jostled a bit more by the crowd, but no one else was groping. The wet streak down my back was cold at first, but then just stayed wet and took time to dry. When I lose my temper like that, I immediately get sad and angry at myself. I regretted what I had said, especially the word ‘bitch’, which I try to avoid at all costs. I could have said fewer words and delivered my message effectively. But I also had a right to be angry. The groping had been too much, but the ice water was way over the line.

I drove home thinking of lofty terms like feminism and consent, feeling free and feeling safe. I had been having such a nice time before all that, and the admission had been expensive. I hadn’t asked for that, and it wasn’t warranted.

A few days later, I attended a party with a group of gay men, and told this story. Several of them shared stories about straight women going to gay clubs and groping the gay men while dancing and drinking. Women grinding up on them, women grabbing their hands and placing them forcibly on their breasts, women unzipping their pants. Yet when I asked them, the men each admitted they’d been groped by other men at the clubs far more frequently. It was just that the attention from other men was generally more wanted due to the attraction. And they all agreed that women likely deal with this much more frequently.

I’m left with a lot of thoughts after this experience, but I’ll close with this:

Alice, wherever yo are, I bet you’re a really cool person. You like Elle King, and you can definitely dance, and you seem to have great friends. I bet we could have some fascinating conversations. I bet you deal with a lot of sexual harassment in your day to day life. And I bet it is almost universally unwelcome. Just recognize that I celebrate your  right to go out and have drinks. But if you want to grope someone, or pour ice down their back, stick to the people you know. Because you left me feeling violated and angry. Your actions kind of ruined my night. I had a right to be there just as much as you did. And no matter how hot you think you are, you don’t get to just do what you want. You’re responsible for yourself even when you’re drinking. Actions have consequences, and I was your consequence that night. This is an era where politicians are being removed from office for behavior like this, and you aren’t a TSA agent.

I’ll keep my hands to myself. You do the same. And let’s start changing the world around us by starting with ourselves. My sons learned this rule in the first grade. Let’s apply this rule to grown-ups, too.

NoDavid.jpg

“Mom, it’s me, I’m gay.”

rearview

I pulled my car into a remote parking lot, undid my seatbelt, and twisted the rearview mirror down so I could look myself in the eyes. My cheeks were bright pink and fluffy, and my eyes brimmed with tears. How long had I been crying? How many tears could I possibly have left? I squeezed my eyes tightly shut and let a stream of sadness roll down my cheeks and onto my shirt. The day had been terrible already, but I had to get this over with.

I picked up the phone and dialed my mom’s number. She answered at the first ring.

“Hello, son!” She had such enthusiasm in her voice. She was always singing, playful, sweet. Hearing her voice usually brought me joy. Today, it brought more pain.

“Hi, Mom.” My voice was cracking. There was no way to hide that I’d been crying.

She shifted to concern. “Chad? Are you okay?”

“I don’t think I am. I need to tell you something. Something hard. Is it a good time to talk?”

“Of course it is. Are you okay? Is it Maggie? The baby? Little J?” She immediately asked about my wife, my 2-year old son, and our unborn child.

“Everyone is fine. Physically. I just—are you sitting down?”

“Chad, yes. I’m sitting down. What is it, you’re scaring me. I’ve never heard you like this.”

“Mom, I’m gay.” I blurted it out abruptly. It felt like throwing a baseball indoors, unnatural and loud and not knowing what would break into pieces. The words floated there, heavy and painful, then passed through the telephone wires like a poison.

I heard a gasp, a long silence. “Oh, Chad,” she whispered, and that simple phrase was a knife, slicing open my heart. My gut clenched tightly as I began to sob, the tears running down my cheeks now. I pathetically hit the steering wheel with the palm of my hand. “Chad, hey, hey, my boy, my boy, it’s okay, it’s okay.” Her voice was soft, soothing, and in a flash I considered everything we had been through together. My father’s depression, the divorce, her second marriage to a man who hit us both, me being molested as a kid. I was 32 years old and she was still the most important person in my life, along with my wife and kids.

A few more sobs and then I tried, pathetically, to get more words out, to reassure her, to help her understand. “I’ve—this isn’t new. I’ve always been gay. I’ve known it for as long as I can remember, since kindergarten even, but I never knew how to tell you. I’m sorry, I’m so so so sorry. I’m so sorry, Mom.”

Her voice took on a tone of strength, but I could tell she was crying too. “You listen, the first thing you need to hear is that I love you and I will always love you and I will never stop loving you.”

More tears, more pathetic sobs. “I know, Mom, I love you too.”

There was a brief, pregnant silence, and then the hard questions started. “Does Maggie know?”

“Yes.” I swallowed, wiped my face again, got a hold of myself. “Yes. She knows. She knew before we got married. But—but I just told her again. I met a guy when I was on my business trip, and we kissed, and—and I didn’t feel broken anymore, Mom. I’m so used to feeling broken. I’m so tired of feeling like I’m shattered into pieces. I—I felt normal with him, like things would be okay, but now Maggie is hurting, and she’s pregnant, and we have a home and a kid and—and everyone hates me and—“

Mom interrupted, both stern and sad. “Oh, Chad, my sweet Chad. Hold on, hold on, just wait. Nobody hates you.”

“God does.”

“God doesn’t hate you! You have a stronger testimony of God and of our church than almost anyone I have ever met. God sees you and he loves you and he knows you. He’ll help you with this. Have you talked to your church leaders?”

I stuttered for a moment, then chose to remain silent. There was so much subtext with that question. I could tell her about the bishops I had come out to, asking for help from. I could tell her about the Miracle of Forgiveness and how it cruelly promised a cure if I just sacrificed enough. I could tell her about all of the years of being broken, depressed, disconnected, about all my years of faithful church service and dedication all in the hopes that I could be cured of being gay. I could tell her about the therapy, the journaling, the Priesthood blessings. Instead I just said, “Yes, I’ve talked to my bishop.”

“Good, son. I’ll be okay as long as I know your testimony is solid.”

And here I had to consider how honest to be. I could tell her that I wasn’t sure my testimony was solid anymore. But if I told her that, she would go into a full panic. Coming out and leaving Mormonism would mean that I was willfully turning from God, that I was breaking my temple covenants, that I was choosing a life of sin and pain. If I turned from God, I was turning from my eternal bonds to my family, and I wouldn’t be with them in the next life. Instead, I just changed the subject.

“I’ve told Maggie. I’ve told my bishop. I’ve told a few friends. And I’ve told Sheri.” My sister’s name brought it’s own pain. She had come out of the closet years before, and my family, including me, hadn’t reacted well. Sheri and my mom were still working on repairing their relationship all these years later.

There was another long silence, and I could tell my mom was crying. I thought of all the things I should say. I’m sorry for letting you down. I’m sorry I’m gay. I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to find a cure. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I’m sorry this hurts you. But I didn’t want to apologize anymore. Maybe I should lie. I don’t have to be gay, I’ll keep trying to change. Don’t worry, I’m going to save my marriage and be the son you want me to be. I’ll make this right with God through repentance. Nothing is going to be different.  But I couldn’t lie anymore. Maybe I should reassure her. I’m still the son you always knew! I’m still me, I just want to be a better version of me! All the things you knew about me before, they are still true, I’m just… different… now. The words in me, the tune, it’s the same, but I have more confidence now, more love for myself. You’ll see. I’ll always be there for my sons, and Maggie and I will figure this out. Those were better, but the words wouldn’t come.

Instead, we just sat and cried together, hundreds of miles apart. And I realized I would have to have this same conversation with each of my sisters, my friends, my coworkers, the members of my ward. The word would spread to neighbors, cousins, old college roommates and mission companions, everyone I’d ever known. “Remember Chad? He’s gay!” I hit my head against the steering wheel and cried even more.

Weeks later, when some of the trauma of my coming out had passed, my mom called me again.

“I always knew you were gay,” she told me. “I knew you were different from the time you were a child. I was so afraid of it. I so badly didn’t want that to be true for you, because it would make life so much harder. And seeing you come out, it breaks my heart, because you were in all of that pain all of these years and I never knew it, or at least we never discussed it. I’m so sorry for your pain, my son. And I don’t know how this all works when it comes to religion, but I know I love my church, and I know I love my gay kids. Those two truths do now cancel each other out. So we will keep working on it, on us, because I love you, and you love me.”

“The difference now,” I whispered, “is that I’m learning to love me too

Sex Education Part 6: Brotherly Love

Elder

I only had the one brother, and he was much older than me. I had lots of friends in the high school, but I kept my guard up around them almost constantly, so scared of being found out for being gay. I had one friend that shared a bed with me sometimes on sleepovers throughout high school and, well, that was tempting, but I still kept myself so carefully contained.

And then I went on a Mormon mission for two years. First there were three weeks at the Missionary Training Center in Provo. I was 19, and at the height of my sexual exploration phase, just like all of the other thousands of missionaries. I was 19, and surrounded by other 19 year olds. I had no personal space, no free time. I shared a room with good-looking young men. We studied scriptures together, read together, walked together. The only time I had to myself, literally, was when I closed the stall door in the bathroom. And, strangest of all, we showered together. No shower curtains. Big group showers with multiple shower heads coming out of each pole in the room.

I’m positive there were other gay kids in the MTC, but I didn’t know that then. The elders were relentless. The wore the name of Jesus Christ on their shirt lapels, but they were very young and very horny. Some walked around naked. They talked about girlfriends, and fantasies, and wet dreams. They openly discussed the size of their penises and sometimes showed them off. They bragged about past sexual encounters, the sizes of girls’ breasts, what they did on dates to stop from getting erect. I’d never been around other guys like this, and I wasn’t coping well. I had to cope by being pious, by being the most dedicated missionary possible. But when I did that, I didn’t fit in, and when I didn’t do that, I didn’t feel worthy. God was never going to cure me being gay at this rate.

And thus set up the following two years. A constant war with me trying to fit in and follow the rules at the same time, and both of those were impossible, because I didn’t fit. And I had nowhere to hide, no rooms to retreat to. The bathroom was my only solace, my only break. That and sleep. Depression set in deep, and the anxiety continued whenever I felt attracted to someone.

I found myself adapting swiftly to whoever my companion was. When I was attracted to my companion, I had a clumsiness and a defensiveness about me. When I was with a jock or a bully, I became the misfit, the awkward nerd who didn’t conform. When I was with someone with strange social manners, I had an air of impatience and superiority about me.

I wouldn’t realize it until much later, but at least two out of my fifteen companions were also gay and later came out. I haven’t ever asked if their internal struggles were like mine, but I found myself wondering after my mission, what if something had happened. What if there had been a mutual attraction, and someone had made a move, and the other had responded. What if we had found pleasure, found lust realized, found love back then, a fling during a time we should have been in college. The consequences at the time would have been devastating, humiliating. There would likely have been confessed sins, an early release home, a heartbreaking coming out to the family, some therapy. But maybe, maybe that would have propelled me out of the closet much sooner. Maybe it would have changed the entire course of my life.

Instead, the duration of my missionary experience was me staying tightly locked up inside of myself while I knocked on doors, faced the tedium of the day-to-day monotony of missionary work, read the scriptures, called in numbers to the mission president, hoped for success. I taught a few openly gay men on my mission, and I saw them as weak, morally inferior, as less than for submitting to being gay. I had grown to hate what I was, and hate it even more when I recognized it in others.

I certainly wouldn’t call myself free of sin during this time. I worked hard and studied hard. I prayed often, journaled, wrote home, asked for guidance and blessings, and tried hard to keep the spirit. But the depression got bad sometimes, and I frequently felt worthless, hopeless, and without any kind of drive. I lusted after some of my companions, and others that I met. I wanted so badly to be noticed by them, to have them desire me back. I had errant thoughts, sexual fantasies, and sometimes struggled with masturbation. And I knew that if I told anyone about this, they would respond that if I had even one sexual sin, how could God possibly cure me, how could I be considered worthy. God had given me so much, how could I make Jesus suffer like that with my sin? I was so locked up.

All in all, during that two years, I did nothing egregious. I baptized a few people. And in those two years, there was only one companion I fell for. He was straight, but he was handsome, and kind, and attentive. He asked how I was and he listened. He offered back massages. He made me laugh. He thought I was cool. And we spent every waking moment together for three months, how could I not fall for him? One night, I told him in a quiet voice that I was attracted to boys. He responded that he wasn’t that surprised, and it didn’t bother him at all, but he wanted to make sure I knew he was straight. I assured him I was as well, and we never spoke of it again.

And thus passed my time from ages 19-21. The height of my sexual development. I spent it hiding, scared, ashamed, depressed, and feeling broken. I would later contemplate what it would be like for straight young men to be sent to live with beautiful women, to shower with them, to sleep in a bed feet away from them, to never be alone. What if we told these men that lusting was wrong, that they couldn’t masturbate, or deviate, that they couldn’t have sexual thoughts, and that if they did they were wrong, broken, and should be ashamed. Realizing this helped me realize what a torturous and cruel time this was. It was spiritual abuse in a concentrated form.

In December of 1999, I went home, my head and heart full of shame, my spirit dark. And I started college two weeks later.

Sex Education Part 5: High School Dances

CTR

There was an expected ritual to asking out girls in high school. Just asking, with a note or, worse, a direct question, was frowned on. There needed to be scavenger hunts, puzzles, elaborate ruses, or public embarrassment of some kind, just to ask. Why ask the girl directly when you could hang a banner down the hallway saying “Will You Go To Prom With Me, Emily? From Travis”, or when you could have the girl pop one hundred balloons and then rearrange letter squares from in the balloons to find out who was asking her? The more elaborate the ruse, the more interested in the girl you were.

Of course, I wasn’t allowed to date until I was 16. And then, I was only encouraged to date Mormon girls. And I would be chaste, moral, and pure until marriage, which was still years in the future. Dating at 16 was an early way of preparing myself for marriage to a woman.

I was fully coming to terms with being gay at age 15, and I finally needed to tell someone about it. I went to the bishop, a family friend, and told him, ashamed, with my head hanging low, that I was attracted to boys. He responded with kindness and compassion, and informed me that I was special and God was giving me an extra challenge to prove my worthiness. He gave me a book written by prophets, one that talked about how evil homosexuality was, and then he sent me on my way.

I did my best to avoid sin at all costs. I played Mormon music in my room, put pictures of Jesus and the temples and apostles on my bedroom wall, and kept my thoughts pure. I did all I could to avoid masturbation and evil thinking, but there were times I failed. Every dark thought led to nausea and stomach aches, sometimes gastro-intestinal issues, and I was having regular stomach troubles and anxiety on a daily basis from the 8th grade on.

Before I turned 16, I thought receiving my patriarchal blessing would give me all the strength I would need to move forward. It would give me the answers on curing homosexuality, striking it from my system once and for all, I just knew it. But the patriarch was a stranger, and his words rang with authority, telling me I was a choice son of God who should not disappoint God in any way. He promised me a wife and kids in my future if I just lived worthy.

And then I turned 16, and dating was both encouraged and expected. I pretended a healthy interest in girls. I had to. It was the only way to get through it all. I was occasionally teased for being sensitive or feminine, and I was at times called dork, or fag, or sissy. The worst bullying happened in my own home, where my stepfather used name-calling, threats, intimidation, and volume to keep a tight hold on all of us, resorting to violence when necessary. He doled out love and fear in proportionate measures, and we never knew what was next. He called me “little fairy-boy”, and told me directly that he’d never wanted a son like me. In his crueler moments, he would say he understood why my dad left. But he counter-balanced it all on other days by telling me what a great kid I was, what a strong man I was growing into. His love came with healthy heapings of shame and fear, and it felt a lot like the love I had come to expect from God.

And so, I found ways to have crushes on girls. I chose those who had strong testimonies in the church, who were modest, who were pretty but not too pretty. I chose those who would respect that I was a good Mormon boy, and who wouldn’t expect anything physical from me. I sometimes chose girls who didn’t get asked out by other guys. And some of them got crushes on me, and I didn’t have crushes back. Some of them got hurt. I dated often. I double-dated with friends, guys I had actual crushes on, and I envied them as they danced with their dates and I danced with mine. The dates were always elaborate, pure spontaneous fun. There was movies and dinner, picnics in the park, silly board games, trips to the zoo or plays, hikes, and concerts. And there was always the school dances. several of them every year, and then the stake, or church, dances on top of those. Lichee, and Rochelle, and Tammy, and Malina, and Josie, and Karen, and Katie, and Meranda, and Malinda, and Larena, and Gelin, and Cathy. So many dates, some friendly, all respectful. Mormon dating. A young gay kid going on chaste and friendly adventures.

Sometimes we were lectured on morality and chastity at church. There was an emphasis on no pornography, no masturbation, no heavy-petting, no making out. Dancing was allowed, so long as hands were placed appropriately. Boys were told to keep thoughts pure and to stay worthy for our future wives. Girls were told that virtue was important above all else, because no one would want damaged goods when there were undamaged ones around. Sexual sin was bad, bad, bad, and just being gay was sexual sin already. I would have to work that much harder to prove God loved me. I had to be worthy of a cure.

I started my mornings with scripture studies. I prayed throughout the day. I sang hymns in my head. I did my homework, got good grades, was kind to my fellow students, reached out to the outcast and the misunderstood, and performed service for those I loved. I went to church on Sundays, paid my tithing, went to Seminary daily. I was a great kid. But I was constantly attracted to other boys, and it made me ill, and I started wondering how much effort it would take to prove to God that I was worthy of the cure he’d promised.

Over the course of a few years, I went on several dates with a high school friend named Karen. She was vibrant, beautiful, spontaneous, and fun. She wasn’t shy about her interest, but I remained carefully distant from her. I pushed and pulled. I wanted to date her to see if I could, but I didn’t want to because I lacked interest and attraction. I must have baffled her as she had no idea about the war happening under my skin.

One day, we sat in my car and talked, and she confronted me, asking me if I was interested or not. I was, I explained, but had a lot going on. She said if I was interested, I should show it, I said I didn’t know how to do that. She said it was easy, I should just kiss her. And I said I wasn’t sure how to do that. I’d never done that before, I explained. She rolled her eyes.

“It isn’t that hard to do, Chad,” she said, and she got out of my car. I didn’t call her back, and two weeks later, she had a new boyfriend. More evidence that something was wrong with me. I felt weak. I begged God for help. But I kept getting nauseous, kept dating girls, kept shutting my own heart and thoughts down. If I focused hard enough on church and school, God would cure me. He’d finally hear me.

He had to. He just had to. What other option did I have?

Sex Education Part 4: Scout Camp

My first day at Scout Camp, I rolled out my sleeping bag in the small tent, anxious about sharing my space with other boys in my ward.

There was Josh, my tall, gangly friend with his thick glasses. Stephen, the handsome nerdy guy with the perfect smile. Charles, too handsome for his own good, constantly bragging about girls. Sam, with thick blonde hair, who looked perfect with his shirt off. And scrappy little Daryl, who had a constant sneer on, always trying to pick a fight. These boys and ten others in our little troop, along with the Scoutmasters one tent over.

Sam was the nicest to look at, but it was Stephen that I had the biggest crush on. I often found myself watching him across the camp, wondering if he ever noticed. He was handsome and adorable all at once. I was only 14, but I wondered what a future with him would be like, if that was something that was allowed. But then I mentally flogged myself for feeling that way in the first place, knowing that even those thoughts made me a sinner.

The first few days of Scout Camp were a blur of skits and singing, flag raises, swimming, building fires, cooking eggs and bacon over an electric grill, and working on a number of merit badges. The leaders encouraged us to get as many badges as possible during the days we would be there. Every morning and meal started with a prayer, and we sang hymns and Scout songs throughout the day. It was meant to be the ultimate getaway.

I mostly stayed quiet as the other boys interacted. When the leaders were away, the conversation automatically steered to girls.

“Dude, have you guys seen Becky? She has the biggest boobs in the whole class and I heard she made out with Joe Adams once.”

“I totally made out with her.”

“No you didn’t!”

“I so did. She’s dumb as rocks though.”

“Whatever, I made out with your sister!”

The boys talked about their crushes, their conquests, their future wives. And I didn’t participate. I tried to blend in to the background, wanting to fit in but not wanting to engage either.

“What about you, Chad, who do you like?” Sam asked me over the fire one day.

My eyes immediately shifted to Stephen across the camp, then I lowered them to the ground. “Oh, I don’t really talk about that stuff. I’m trying to just stay focused on school and church stuff until my mission.”

Sam nodded, laughing. “I respect that. I’m into this girl named Amber. She’s really cute and want to know my favorite part about her?”

“Sure, what is it?”

“Her butt. She has the perfect butt. Want to know how I know that?”

I looked over at him as he stared in the fire. “How do you know?”

“Cause my hands have told me so.” I looked over in surprise. “Yup, that’s write. She let me grab it once. I think I love this girl. I told her I would carve her name into my arm with a knife, but she didn’t want me to do that.”

“That’s… intense,” I thought, and my eyes flashed back to Stephen.

Daryl was the toughest one to be around. He’s the only one what wouldn’t let me blend in. He pushed and pushed. It was like he had something to prove.

One idle morning, the guys lined up and wanted to see who could throw logs the farthest. They chucked them across a field, trying to hit a far away tree. I stood timid, in the background. When asked if I wanted to throw a log, I simply said ‘no thanks’.

And then Daryl turned to me. “What the hell, Chad, you can’t do anything! What kind of man are you! I’m shorter than you, and I bet I can throw one farther than you! Hell, I bet my dick is bigger than yours, too!”

I didn’t engage. I simply walked away.

Every day, I was becoming more and more aware of how different I was from the other guys. I had no words for it, but it consumed me, those differences. I was unworthy, aberrant, an other. I felt unseen constantly, but also like everyone was constantly staring, noticing every glance and every movement. I wanted to hide, but more than anything, I just wanted to be like them. No one understood. I was an island on my own, sharing space with everyone else who belonged.

I avoided showering for days. There was a big group shower up the hill, an open room like those at community swimming pools. 15 shower heads lined the walls, all pouring hot water from the tank outside. Should I wear a swimsuit in there and claim modesty? Should I wake up extra early and shower before anyone else? I wanted to see the other guys, be part of them, but that was the last thing I wanted as well. What if I got aroused? My body had a mind of its own sometimes.

But on day three, I couldn’t avoid it anymore. I shut down my brain and marched with the troop up the hill to the shower. In the locker room, they all undressed and I kept my eyes fixed tightly on the floor. My heart was pounding. Stephen was right there, and Sam, and the others. And then everyone was naked except me. I wore a bright orange swimming suit as we all walked into the shower together, me doing my best to keep my eyes on the floor.

There were six other boys in the shower, all older kids from another troop. Tall, strong, good-looking guys, all of them naked as well.

One of them noticed me and shouted across the echoing room. “Hey! There are no swimsuits in here!” I looked up at him in surprise. He grabbed his dick and balls in his hand and shook them back and forth. “Welcome to the Ball Show! This is where we see who has the biggest wang and who has the biggest balls! How can you play with a swimsuit on?”

I finished my shower quickly, keeping my head down, never saying anything. Some of the guys in my troop compared penises. A few lobbied teasing remarks to me.

On the hike back down the hill, I mentally flogged myself for not fitting in again. I thought about the other guys, talking about their crushes on Lindsay Lohan and Hillary Duff, about their talks about Becky’s boobs, and Amber’s butt. But I couldn’t say anything. If I talked and was honest, they’d know my crush was on Zach from Saved by the Bell and Wheeler from Captain Planet. They’d know I didn’t like boobs or girls, and instead that I had crushes on Sam, and Stephen, and my algebra teacher, and the neighbor who mowed the lawn with his shirt off, and the wrestler kid in my PE class. I was different and there was no changing that. I would never not be different.

Years later, looking back on this time as an adult, I realized that I wasn’t all that different. I was a typical boy, pumped full of hormones, obsessed with sex jokes and fitting in; I just liked boys instead of girls. But while the other kids were learning how to have crushes, fall in love and lust, be rejected, and fit in with other guys, I was merely learning how to hide everything about myself. The repercussions of this would last a lifetime. For me, and for every other gay kid like me.

BoyScout

Europe, in Reflection

58381792_812968285730889_617711155812499456_o

Someone brought out a stack of family photos and slapped them down on the kitchen table. “Have you looked at these yet? They are from the family vacation to Europe, back in 2001.”

I grabbed the stack of pictures and began leafing through them. My first impression was of how young we all looked. 18 years brings a lot of change. I am 40 now; I was 22 then. My younger sister, Sheri, is now 36; she was 18 then, right out of high school. My father and mother, now 80 and 75, had been 62 and 57.

For Mom and Dad, 18 years brought with it a lot of age and health struggle, graying of the hair and a lowering of the posture. But it also brought new grandchildren and great-grandchildren, new marriages for both of them, new perspectives. Times were changing, and we with them.

And for Sheri and I, 18 years meant finishing college, starting our families, losing weight, leaving Mormonism, and coming out. It meant leaving an old life behind and beginning a new and authentic one. The differences were startling.

I viewed 22-year old me in the photos with kindness and understanding. Chad then was just off his mission and attending an all-Mormon college. He knew he was gay, but he felt he was broken and beyond repair. He was resigned to a Mormon fate of temple marriage and children, never knowing the touch of a man. He had determined he would never be happy because that isn’t what God wanted for him. He held on so tightly to that.

I flipped through these photos and I saw a young man full of ambition, with a clear heart and head, so ready to embrace the big world out there. But his soul and spirit were so locked up. He had bright brown eyes and a careful but happy smile. He had thick hair that curled when it grew long. He wore baggy shorts and tent-like shirts over his Mormon undergarments. He so hoped to be seen by the world around him. He so badly needed the world to notice the space he occupied. He smiled so wide, but was so sad.

Sheri walked up behind me. “Whoa, look at these!” She sat next to me and we laughed about the pictures. I looked over at her now, the skinny, vibrant, blue-eyed, short-haired beauty next to me. She runs now, for health, because she loves it. She watches what she eats. She i married to an incredible woman. She loves herself.

And then I looked down to the Sheri from those old photos. Her hair was longer and parted down he middle, and it hung limply on the sides of her face. She had headphones in, using them to drown out the world around her. She wore baggy clothes, shielding herself in them. Every photo in the series, one after another, showed her glowering at the camera. Not just not smiling, but refusing to smile. She looked so unhappy, so closed off, from everyone around her and from herself. It broke my heart to see the differences.

Sheri gently jostled my arm. “Do you remember that day on the trip when you threatened to punch me in the face? I was so mad at you!” Sheri was looking at the photos and ha mirth in her voice. She was teasing me. But I felt a sharp jab of pain at the memory.

I kept the humor in my voice. “Do you remember the whole story? Do you remember why I said that?”

Sheri shrugged. “I think so. But it definitely wasn’t okay, especially after what we went through with Kent when we were younger.”

Kent was our abusive step-father, the man who had terrorized us when we were teenagers. I felt another jab of pain.

“Okay, hang on. Here’s the story. We are in Europe and everything is fucking beautiful, all  Swiss Alps and Black Forests and ski chalets and cuckoo clocks. And you are all up in your music for days at a time while we sat on the bus for hours. I’d grab your arm and be like ‘look at those mountains!’ and you’d just ignore me. Meanwhile, Mom is back there crying because for some reason she agreed to go on a European vacation for two weeks with the man she has been divorced from for over a decade, and Dad never has a word to say, and I’m all locked up inside like a good little Mormon boy.”

Sheri looked up, a bit defensive. “Hey, I had my own stuff going on!”

“Oh, I know. I’m not saying you didn’t. We both had a lot going on. So no blame. Just setting the picture. I’m in the prettiest place I’ve ever been and I want to share it with someone and you keep ignoring me!”

“Well, I didn’t want to talk to you!”

We both laugh and smile. We are close enough to have conversations like this and have them remain light-hearted.

“Okay, anyway,” I continue, “we were in Austria, and I was really fucking lonely, and I asked if yo would go explore a church with me, and you said no, and I was like, ‘Sheri, please!’ and then you told me to fuck off! And I quote, ‘Fuck off, Chad,’ like so unnecessarily. And I was all Mormon so language super-offended me back then, so I responded with anger. ‘If you ever tell me to fuck off again, I’ll punch you in the face.’ That’s what I said. And of course I didn’t mean it! I could never hit someone! It was just the thing I said to get my point across. And I did, and then I immediately regretted it and apologized, but you ignored me for, what, five more days after that?”

Sheri looked me in the eyes and a bit of shock passed there. All the details came rushing back to her. “Oh. Yeah.” She was quiet a moment. “Well, I ignored you cause you pissed me off!”

“Oh, I deserved it, probably. I was pretentious back then.”

We changed the subject and kept looking at the pictures. My eyes kept switching back and forth between the sad looks on our faces and the amazing scenery. The Eagle’s Nest resort, set in the Alps. Sheri’s headphones. The green rolling hills of Salzburg. My fake smile. The centuries-old Gothic cathedral. Sheri’s glower. The intricate woodcrafting in a local shop. Dad’s stern and sad frown. Flower boxes filled with colorful blossoms on Bavarian homes. Mom’s pain hidden so carefully behind her smiles.

Minutes later, Mike and I walked outside, taking a few hours to ourselves before the big family dinner that evening. I got behind the wheel of the car and closed my eyes briefly. I was shocked to find tears suddenly cascading down my cheeks.

Mike gripped my hand. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. Nothing’s wrong. Just… that conversation with Sheri, remembering who she was, who I was, who we all are now, all that pain in a place of such beauty. I’m just–remembering.

Grieving.

Happy.

Changed.”

 

Sex Education Part 3: the Law of Chastity

Light.jpg

When I turned 12, I was set to receive the Aaronic Priesthood, the lesser authority given to worthy young men to perform ordinances in God’s name. 12-year olds with the Priesthood were given small responsibilities, like passing the sacrament during the main congregational meeting, a group of young men standing at attention as they passed trays of bread and water down the rows. At 12, young men moved from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts, and they left Primary at church, the organization for children, and instead became Deacons. It was a powerful rite of passage.

We left Missouri when I was 11, when my parents finally split up. The divorce would take a few years. I had no idea how wounded mom was at the time. The older kids who were still at home stayed behind to finish high school with my Dad, and the youngest three went with my mom. She went back to work as a teacher. We lived with my grandparents for a few weeks, then rented a home and enrolled in school. I was in fifth grade, and I made friends quickly.

I was a very innocent and naïve 11, despite my upbringing. I enjoyed playing Nintendo, reading books, writing stories, and drawing. I played with kids much younger than me and organized them in neighborhood games. I couldn’t ride bike yet, or sink a basketball into a hoop, or throw or catch a ball, all bizarre tests of masculinity. And I was teased occasionally by other kids for being a ‘fag’, ‘sissy’, or ‘fairy’, all of which sucked. I desperately wanted to fit in, to be just a standard member of the student body, a part of the kids who happily co-existed. Somehow, whether because I was Mormon, or gay, or feminine, I was on the bottom of the pecking order, and I knew that as early as third grade.

In fourth grade, when I was 10, kids started talking about sex more. There were veiled references. “How far have you gone?” “How many people have you done it with?” “Are you still a virgin?” Every boy knew just to brag and boast when truthfully no one really knew what they were talking about. Strangely, I don’t think I remembered the abuse I suffered as a young child during this time. I didn’t know how to process it. I was just caught up in adolescence, in moving to a new state, and in the tragedies happening in my family.

And so, before I turned 12, in preparation for the Priesthood, I was called in by our new bishop. We’d known him a few months, but he was really a stranger to our family. He was a pleasant retired man, a grandfather in his seventies, with thinning white hair. We started the meeting with a prayer and then he asked me the standard questions. Do I pay my tithing, do I obey my mother and father, do I believe in the Mormon Church as the one true church, do I have a testimony of the Savior. And then…

“Chad, do you obey the Law of Chastity?”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“That is when a man and woman are sexually involved only with the person they are married to.”

“Um, I guess so.”

“Do you avoid pornography?”

“What’s that?”

“Images or videos of a sexual nature.”

“Yes, I avoid that. I’ve never even seen any.”

“And do you masturbate?”

“What’s that?”

And so he told me what it was. “Masturbation is when a man plays with and strokes his penis because he thinks it feels good. But it is against the commandments of God.”

“No, I’ve never done that.”

I passed the worthiness interview. And the next Sunday, I got the Priesthood.

Reflecting back on this interview as an adult, I see an innocent kid who had already been sexually exploited, who was then sent into a room with an unfamiliar man. Behind closed doors, this man asked questions about sex, pornography, and masturbation, and he used descriptive terms to teach me what they were. While I believe this man had good intentions, the very idea of this enforcement, of strangers questioning children, of perceived virtue being the sounding board for worthiness, these messages taught me all about sex. And these were things I should be learning from parents or teachers, not a stranger.

But I remembered his words. And I was curious. Within a few weeks, I tried out masturbation. It felt great to play with my penis. Like really, really great. It got hard and had so many nerve endings. I found myself closing the door to my room and playing with it. I’d even do my chores and reward myself with time to play with my penis later. (Processing as an adult, I realize that I was reenacting my abuse: masturbation as a reward for chores. But I didn’t know this then). I wasn’t thinking about sex or sexual intercourse or sexual partners, I just liked touching myself. I found myself doing it at the dinner table, in the shower, in the bathroom, when I thought no one could see. I knew it was wrong, knew it was forbidden, but it felt so good!

And then one day, early in the morning, I was playing with myself in my bed, and it felt more intense than usual, and I went faster, and then… I ejaculated for the first time. It scared me! What was that! Oh my god, what was that! It went everywhere and was sticky and messy and I felt like something was wrong with me. The pleasure passed quickly and I panicked, remembering how the bishop had said this was wrong. And so I cleaned up and then dropped to my knees, immediately begging God for forgiveness.

And that day began a cycle that would stick with me for the next 20 years. I would stave off masturbation, for days, weeks, sometimes even months at a time, and then I would give in. And after I gave in, I would feel ashamed and beg for forgiveness. Sometimes I got nauseous. Sometimes I got really nauseous. Sometimes even the idea of sexual pleasure would make me nauseous. And the older I got and the more intense the sexual feelings got, the worse the nausea got.

But for now, I was chaste. And I knew masturbation represented sin. But I wondered why, if God didn’t want me to do that, then why did he make it feel so damn good? Why was it a constant temptation? I guess so that I could show God that I was dedicated to him. That was my job, to keep that relationship strong, to be a good Priesthood holder, to be worthy.

And then puberty started, and the hormones hit, and the struggle intensified.