Interview with a Utah prostitute

Prostitute (image)

The worst part is people just assume the worst about me, you know, as a person, if they find out what I do. 

And what do they assume about you?

I don’t know, that I grew up in a broken home, that I’m a drug addict, that I’m like a depressed and unhappy person. I’m no different from anyone else. 

Do you refer to yourself as a prostitute?

It is what it is. But I prefer the term ‘call-girl.’ I do a little bit of work on webcam also, but I don’t have the patience for that. I hate interacting with people over computers, typing and waiting for chats. I would rather interact with real people that I can see than sit there in my own room chatting to strangers.

So tell me a bit about what you do. I mean, not what you–tell me about the job.

Haha, you’re blushing. 

Be quiet, ha.

It’s not that complicated. I mean, some girls still do the walk the street thing, but with the Internet everything is different. I can find clients online. There are shady places like Craigslist, where you run an ad and see who responds. But I won’t do unsafe. I set things up through more legit websites. Men who join up have to provide credit cards and verify their identities or whatever. They can have usernames and fake names, but the website has the info of the person who paid, so there are extra protections. 

So you basically advertise through these secure websites to set up customers.

Yeah, basically. 

And what kind of people do you see? What kind of rates?

There are all different kinds of guys. Some are just lonely old guys who want some company. Some are businessmen in town away from their wives. Some guys want me for just an hour or two, some for an overnight, some for a whole weekend. Shorter gigs, I charge more, like 200 per hour, but I’ll give discounts for longer rates, at least per hour. 750 for a whole night, 1000 for a day, that kind of thing. And, I mean, they pretty much all want sex, at least some kind. 

And how do you set that up?

I’m clear with them in advance. I like to know what they like, what they are looking for. Safe sex only. I can charge more if they want something less… vanilla. But it’s all pretty standard and straightforward. They offer money for the things they want, and pay for the more rare or specialized things. 

So what do you like about the job?

Thank you for calling it a job. It is a job. It’s what I do, not who I am. And I like it most the time. I get to make people feel good, I get to feel desired, and I get paid really well to do it. It clears up a lot of free time, so I can do the day job stuff less. 

And what are the drawbacks?

It does affect my relationships. Most the people who love me don’t like that I do it. They are constantly scared for me. And I’ll admit, I get a little bit scared sometimes meeting a stranger. And once in a while, it was kind of an unpleasant experience and I can feel a little lonely or gross afterwards. But everyone has bad days at work sometimes. 

Is there a big market for it here?

In Utah? Oh absolutely. I mean, not in the little small towns. But in Salt Lake, Park City, and Moab, especially. And Provo. There is a whole network of local girls and we are all pretty supportive to each other. The only ones who really struggle are the out-of-towners who come in. Girls like from California or New York who try to market themselves here struggle for a while until they learn the local culture. Utah is way different than those places. 

You have a girlfriend, right?

Yeah, she’s rad. She’s a very cool girl. We are totally in love. 

And does your job bother her?

Actually, she’s pretty okay with it. I tell her everything and we communicate really well. We have a good relationship. Her family doesn’t know what I do. They are super Mormon and they wouldn’t get it. I’m not ashamed, but I don’t tell them because I don’t want them to thing negative of me. 

What about your family?

Oh, we don’t really talk. They don’t know what I do either, but that’s because they aren’t really in my life. 

How did you end up here?

I moved here for her. 

If you could go back and do something else, would you?

I won’t do this forever. This is a temporary thing. I’m saving up money and doing things that I love. I don’t love my job, I don’t. I want out of it eventually. We all do, really. It’s just good money for now, and I can do it on my own terms. I want to go back to school eventually, travel, have a family. 

How did you wind up in all of this in the first place?

I realized men like what I look like. Someone offered me money one time, and it was fun, so I started doing it more. I took some risks at first, then figured out how to do it smart. 

Anything else you want to say, to anyone who might read this?

Sex is a big part of the world. Everyone wants it. There is pornography and prostitution out there, and strippers and dancers and all that. And that means there are thousands of girls who work in all of those, and they do it because men will pay them to do it. And it’s not, like, something to strive for, but it’s real and there are real people who do it. We are humans and we are smart. We have moms and dads and, like, pets and hobbies and friends. And if it is consensual and a decision a woman makes, then that is her business, not yours. We all deserve respect. 

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Easter with the athiest

Statuette of Hotei (Buddha)

I divided up the ham fried rice and sweet and sour chicken into three equal portions and served them to my sons on small plates, keeping the larger portion for myself. The restaurant was eerily quiet, just two other people quietly munching their food across the space.

My sons tore into their food with their usual enthusiasm, all cuteness and wonder at the world. My four year old, A, likes to play up being helpless when he wants attention. “Daddy, the bites are too big,” he mutters, though the bite-sized portions are the size of a thumbnail each. My seven year old, J, dramatizes everything. “Oh my gosh, this food is so good!”, though at best it was just barely noteworthy.

And here we were, a gay dad and his two boys have Easter dinner in a nearly empty Chinese place in a back neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Utah. And it was perfect.

We munched quietly for a bit before A pointed over my shoulder. “Dad, who’s that fat guy?”

I was initially horrified, thinking he was talking about an overweight man behind me. I turned around to see a large Buddha statue across the countertop. He sat, his usual mirthful smile carved into place, his eyes closed, legs folded underneath him, his hands comfortably resting. He was surrounded by carved wealth, coins and pearls and gold nuggets.  No wonder he was happy. There were several miniature candy bars stacked around him, as well as loose change, quarters and dimes and pennies.

“That’s Buddha.”

“Who’s Buddha?” A asked, dropping more rice than he was chewing.

“Well, a lot of people believe in Jesus, right? Many other people believe in Buddha.”

J nodded. “We learned about him in school. Americans believe in Jesus and Chinese people believe in Buddha.”

“Well, not quite. Some people in America believe in Buddha, and some believe in Jesus who live in China.”

A furrowed his brow. “Maybe everyone should just believe in Jesus.”

Oh great, a young Republican in the making, I laughed to myself. “Well, buddy, everybody has a right to believe in whoever they like. Jesus, or God, or Buddha, or Allah, or Jehovah. There are lots of different kinds of beliefs.”

“Well, I probably  just believe in Jesus.”

I scratched his head. “That is just fine with me.”

A’s cheeks were full as he continued, eager to share his vast Biblical knowledge.

“Did you know that Jesus had a mom named Mary and a stepdad named Joseph, but his real dad was Heavenly Father. That means he had a human for a mom and a god for a dad. I’m glad that my mom and my dad are both human, dad, cause if you were a God I would never get to see you.”

I have cultivated a special way of laughing around my sons because they don’t like to be laughed at. I clench my stomach tightly, close my mouth and eyes, and laugh through my nose, soft, my stomach usually shaking. My word, these precious kids and their amazing little words.

“Yeah, buddy, I’m very glad to be a human, too.”

A kept yammering, not slowing his eating at all. “Do you believe in Jesus, too, dad?”

“I used to.”

“But now you don’t?”

“Not really.”

“But why?”

I shrugged. “Just cause, buddy.”

“Yeah, but why?”

They were both looking at me now. I’m regularly flummoxed by my sons, never quite knowing how to answer those questions about where babies come from or why some people are homeless. I always want to be direct without being too grown up.

I thought for a moment. The truth is, I no longer use labels. I used to be fiercely and defensively Mormon. Now, I don’t really have an affiliation. I try to be a good person with integrity who is kind to others and responsible for my choices and actions, but I don’t like the labels at this point, and I don’t go to any church. My sons, meanwhile, go to the Unitarian Church now with their mother, and most of their family on either side is Mormon.

“Well, some people are Buddhist, some are Mormon or Methodist. Some are Muslim or Jewish. Everybody is different. I guess I’m atheist.”

“What’s atheist?”

“Well, that means I don’t believe in Jesus or Buddha or Allah or anyone. I just like to be a good person.” There was a moment of silence as we chewed our food. “Today is Easter, right? What is Easter about?”

J smiled. “Family.”

A shot his hand up in the air. “Yeah, and eggs and chocolate and the Easter bunny!”

“Easter is in the spring. We use symbols of spring, like grass and baby chicks and bunnies and eggs, all signs of life and a new season. We celebrate it by dying eggs and hunting baskets, but it is really a Christian holiday, all about new life. Do you know what happened to Jesus on Easter?”

J got a sad look on his face. “He died. I don’t like it when people die.”

“Yes, but then they put his body in a tomb, and three days later, he came alive again.”

A punched his hand in the air. “He’s like an Avenger!”

My stomach shook with laughter again. “Yeah, he kind of is.” And I thought back to the Super Best Friends episodes on South Park, where various god figures band together to fight crime.

J looked across the table. “Dad, pass the fing-fongs.”

I laughed out loud this time and handed him the won-tons. We finished our meal, and on our way out of the restaurant, we stopped to admire the Buddha statue again.

“He sure has a lot of money,” J observed.

“Yeah, buddy, they all do,” I muttered to myself.

As I strapped my kids into the car, A placed a hand on my cheek, turning my face toward him. “I’m glad you aren’t a god, daddy. I like having Easter with you.”

 

my date with mom

“Don’t worry, sir, I’ll have her home at a reasonable hour.” I shook my step-father’s hand from where he sat in his comfortable over-sized arm chair. He got that mirthful twinkle in his eye.

“Now see that you do.”

My mom laughed, saying goodbye to her husband as we made our way toward the door. She’s in her early 70s now, and he in his early 80s, and they have been perfect together in  their eleven years together, compatible in every category except one. My mom enjoys a healthy sense of adventure, time to go out exploring and being among people. Her husband is much more comfortable at home in his easy chair, Fox News or the History Channel blaring on the television.

I had him take a photograph of us with my cell phone before we left. “You know, before the invention of the cell phone, we didn’t realize what a world of narcissists we were.” He fumbled with the small screen for a moment. “Now, wait, I can only see myself in this image.” I laughed and helped him turn the screen around. “Now that is a much better view,” he said, as he snapped a photo that cut half my head off in the image.

Out in the car, mom and I began gabbing right away. We talk every other day or so, sharing in world events and community happenings, discussing what I’m reading or researching or writing about, and who she is doing nice things for.

Mom had a birthday a few weeks ago and I had promised her a night out on the town when I came to visit. Now, with my sons hanging out with my sister (their favorite aunt), it was finally date night.
“Well, where are we headed?”

I winked. “I suppose that is none of your business until we arrive. But on the way, I have a series of questions for you.”

And so we began to talk about her life. I asked her about her best day ever, and she told me about her wedding day to my dad when she was 22. She told me about her family gathered outside the Mormon temple and walking out in her wedding dress, being surrounded by family, her dreams coming true. My dad left her that afternoon to work on his family’s farm, where they had sheep and potatoes, and rejoined her in the evening for the wedding dinner and reception. They moved into a trailer on a high hill above the Snake River, a little extended space with two bedrooms. She was pregnant right away, and within a few years had three young children, then four, then five, and they soon moved into a beautiful home where she had been so happy.

“Everything fit,” she said. “We loved each other. It wasn’t perfect, but I loved his family, and he loved my family, and our children were beautiful, and we had the church and each other.”

I asked her about her pregnancies, and the names she chose for her children. While she never went on birth control, she did take some preventative measures to stop herself from having kids, and she chose each time she wanted to get pregnant, even when it began to have wear and tear on her body. She said she had wanted 8 children, or perhaps 10, and she had ended up with 7. 63 months pregnant, with terrible nausea and vomiting each time, and a few very rough deliveries. My oldest sister was nearly lost during delivery, she had a terrible shoulder injury with another, and my delivery itself was a particularly rough one.

We went back in time a bit more as we drove. I asked her about her choice of college major, about the men she dated in high school and college, and how she was proposed to several times but each time hadn’t been quite right. As a young student who first considered nursing and ended up teaching, she had devoted herself to one young man for months before learning he was being unfaithful. She was stunning, and in time she met my father, a handsome returned missionary fresh out of the army, the youngest son of a sheep farmer up the road.

By now, we were out of the car and sitting next to the river, watching man-made waterfalls and currents, the Mormon temple where she had been married across the river for a perfect view. Mom talked about how Dad had been devastated by a crop failure that cost them thousands. They had moved across the country for a fresh start, had two more children, built another home, and a decade later things had finally fallen apart. I had my arm around her shoulder, it was getting chilly outside.

“Mom, I want you to know how courageous I think you are. Growing up in this little corner of the world full of Mormons and potato fields, you built a life on the terms you were taught. You did everything right. You chose motherhood, and to be a wife, yet you worked as a teacher all the way through. You brought seven kids into the world, and we all turned out pretty all right. I know it took a lot of twists and turns along the way, and definitely threw you some curve balls and painful pitches, but you did it on your terms and you came out strong. You are an incredible mother and I love you.”

And minutes later, we walked into a local actor’s studio, set up in an old storefront, and saw a presentation of the Odd Couple while eating hamburgers and hot dogs off a dinner buffet. We laughed and had a wonderful evening.

Back at her home, I walked her in and saw my stepfather sitting in the same spot. “Well, I had her home by midnight as promised.”

“Oh, honey, we had a wonderful time.” She said and I left as she told him about our evening, feeling grateful for this amazing woman, this force of nature,+++++++++++++++ who brought me into the world.

 

Overcoming heartbreak

Broken_Heart_Inside.jpg

For as many love songs as there are out there, there seem to be just as many about heartbreak. Getting up, getting over, and getting on. Some artists have made their careers singing about breakups. Someone somewhere has an entire playlist of these all set up, ready for a large glass of wine and a good cry.

Try not to think about what might have been, cause that was then, and we’ve taken different roads.

The other day, on an evening out with friends, I ran into an ex unexpectedly. One of those guys that I never should have fallen for at the time, and yet it happened, unbidden. We made eye contact a few times in the crowd and I kept my attention divided, my head full of all kinds of thoughts.

The scars of your love remind me of us, they keep me thinking that we almost had it all. 

I remembered how things had just kind of happened magically between us, unplanned and unbidden. We had seemed to connect on every level. Great chemistry, great conversation, similar visions of the future. I hadn’t been looking for anything at the time, and had found myself sitting back in awe, wondering if maybe something good was coming my way. I introduced him to my friends, we checked in throughout the day, we spent a lot of time together but still had differing interests and activities. It had been wonderful.

I don’t want to talk about things we’ve gone through. Though it’s hurting me, now it’s history. 

And then, suddenly, it was over. Finished and done. He had respectfully talked to me one night and let me know that although it had been going well, his heart just wasn’t in it. I had completely understood. And yet, against my better judgment, had become a bit of a basketcase, going through all the stages of grief in just hours. He had wanted to stay friends, but I couldn’t have it both ways. And so months had gone by. And now here he was.

Un-break my heart, say you’ll love me again, undo this hurt you caused when you walked out the door and walked out of my life. 

I found myself going into a petty space in my brain, something all of us are capable of in moments of surprise, and a place I don’t go very often. I hoped he noticed what better shape I’m in now, wondered if he knew what he was missing out on, and thought I would impress him with my conversational skills, my easy laugh with friends, my confidence.

Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.

But he isn’t like that. And truthfully, neither am I. I’m not a game player or a trap layer. And so, to break the tension, I crossed the room and said hello. How are you. How have you been. How is your family. How is your job. Easy and awkward questions about the basics of life with someone I once shared a lot more with. How are your kids, I miss them, he said, and I got a titch of bitterness in my gullet. I’ve been raising my kids on my own (well, with my ex-wife) for a long time now.

Why does love always feel like a battlefield, a battlefield, a battlefield.

He hinted that he is dating someone else now, and smiled at how well it is going. They met online, he said. They are taking trips together and taking it slow, he said. And though my heart hurt for me, only briefly, my brain kicked in quick and reminded me it just hadn’t be right. I told him I was happy for him, and I meant it.

I want you to know that I’m happy for you. I wish nothing but the best for you both. 

I reminded myself how much I admired him for breaking things off when he did, how he did. Although it had been painful at the time, it was right, and I was glad it hadn’t been drawn out.

Cause I can’t make you love me if you don’t. You can’t make your heart feel something that it won’t. 

We parted peacefully, with no promises. And I had a moment of enlightenment, that I’m glad to be in a place in my life where my heart can be broken. Life before coming out was stunted. To be capable of love and heartbreak now, even after all these years, feels refreshing. I’ve had my heart broken a few times. And I’ve broken a few hearts. I mean, this is what adults, straight or gay, go through.

Set me free, leave me be, I don’t want to fall another moment into your gravity.

My mind turned to the changing person I am, and how I’ve fallen in love with a few people in a few different places in my life. I’ve yet to find a partner. The future remains elusive, as it should. And who knows who I’ll end up with, if anyone. This last time, it went really good for a while. Maybe it will again.

And can I sail through the changing ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life?

I turned back to my friends, feeling better already, and watched him leave. I was okay before, and I’m okay now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lyrics quoted from “What Might Have Been” by Little Texas, Rollin’ in the Deep by Adele, “The Winner Takes It All” by ABBA, “Unbreak My Heart” by Toni Braxton, “Someone Like You” by Adele, “Battlefield” by Jordin Sparks, “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette, “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt, “Gravity” by Sara Bareilles, and “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac

Hangry

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Knowing that I would be famished when I finished my workout, I took three dollars into the gym with me, leaving the rest of my belongings securely locked in my car.I hadn’t been to the gym in several days due to work, so I had planned in advance to hit this workout hard, and I hadn’t eaten in six hours, a thick turkey sandwich at lunchtime.

I hit shoulders first, working them to fatigue, then core, then back and triceps, finishing tired. After 30 minutes of stair-climbing at the end, I was ravenous. I walked over to the small protein bar selection at the gym and grabbed something with peanut butter and 30 grams of protein, then waited in line.

About 90 seconds later, I handed the bar and my three dollars to the attendant. “Hey, how was the workout?” he asked.

“It went great. I’m starving now.”

The guy took several seconds to line the red line up with the bar code on the protein bar. “Okay, looks like that will be $3.21. You got 21 cents?”

I looked back behind me at the box. “It says that bar is $2.75.”

“Hmmm… Looks like the computer says it is $3. Plus tax, of course. The label on the product must be wrong.”

“Can you spot me 21 cents?”

“No, sorry, man. Do you have more cash?”

“I’m parked  2 blocks away.” I sighed, grumpy, getting hangry now, and returned to bar to the box. I grabbed a different bar from the same shelf, also labelled $2.75, and turned back around to find a line of three people in front of me.

Over the next four minutes, I was fuming, tempted to rip into the bar and just eat it. A woman had questions about membership, a man needed to check the lost-and-found box, and another man needed to rent some equipment. Finally, it was my turn again.

“Choose a cheaper bar?” he asked, nonchalant. He tried scanning the bar under the little red light, but it wouldn’t take. He tried a second time, a third time. He straightened out the wrapper and tried again, flipped it over, tapped the machine with his hand. “Hmm. The scanner doesn’t seem to be reading this. I can call for help or you can choose another bar.”

I looked at the two people in line behind me and pictured doing this all again. Instead I smiled on the outside, while snarling on the inside, and said, “No, thank you”, and stormed out.

My stomach moaned in hunger and my muscles ached as I drove the two blocks to the grocery store down the road, parked, and marched into the service deli. Two women stood a few feet away, talking and laughing about something. I waited several seconds before I smiled and waved. “Hi, can I order?”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you there!” One of the women walked over, smiling. “How can I help?”

“I would like your two-piece chicken meal, please, with potato salad and cole slaw.”

“Oh, the two-piece. How nice. I haven’t sold one of those in hours. Which kind of chicken would you like?” She stood there, with her hands folded.

“Um, I don’t care. The barbecue.”

“Well, we usually have to warm that up, it takes about three minutes.”

“The baked, then.”

“We have to warm that one–”

“The fried. Whatever is fastest.”

“Okay, I’ll get you the fried.”

The woman carefully put on her gloves and took several seconds to inspect the different pieces of fried chicken, carefully selecting two for me. The she looked confused, bent down to check under the counter, turned around to check some shelves, walked away into the kitchen then back out. “Fran, have you seen the two-piece dishes?” But Fran was slicing some cheese and didn’t hear her.

The woman took out a small plastic plate and set the two pieces of chicken on them, then went back into the kitchen for a spoon to use on the cole slaw. “Which kind of cole slaw would you like?”

“I really don’t care. I’m just in a hurry.” My stomach was grumbling and I was getting grumpier by the second.

She took a spoon of the slaw and placed it on the plate, then stepped back to consider. “Oh, that won’t work. The salad will get all over the chicken.” I sighed as she got a small plastic bowl and transferred the slaw to it, then she placed the bowl on the plate. “Well, that’s better, but there is still a mess. Let’s see.” She was talking to herself. She got out a new plate and put the bowl of slaw and the chicken on it, then went back to the kitchen for another spoon.

“What kind of potato salad would you like?”

“Surprise me.” I said it sharply and she got a wounded look on her face as she scooped the salad into another bowl then set it next to the slaw on the plate. She surveyed it for a moment, placed a roll there, then looked back to me.

“Do you want a plastic cover on your plate, or foil?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, forcing a grin.

The woman began looked around again. “Fran, have you seen the foil?”

Fran heard this time and began looking around at another shelf. “Well, I don’t see the foil, but I do see the two-piece dishes here.”

“Oh, perfect!” The woman was excited as she grabbed a plastic try with three different compartments. She set it next to the plate and began to transfer the chicken and salads over, taking time to scoop the salads out of the bowls and into the different compartments.

It had now been five full minutes and there was a small line of people around me. I clenched my teeth. “Look, I really don’t care how the food is served. I just need food. And there is a line behind me.” I spoke slightly  more sharply than I had intended.

The woman got a hurt look on her face. “I’m so sorry we are taking so long. We weren’t expecting this order and I didn’t have things ready like I should.”

I apologized, but grew even more angry as the two women, ignoring the line behind me, went on a search for the lids for the two-piece dishes, then took a full three minutes to print out the pricing label. I was clenching and unclenching my muscles when she finally handed the order to me. The label was voided out, and the word ‘FREE’ was written on it.

“It’s on us, since we made you wait so long.”

I had no capacity for compassion at the moment, so I simply smiled, grabbed the food, said thanks and headed out the door, tossing the lid and devouring the chicken on my way to the car.

I would have to go back another day and order there again, giving a tip. But I’d make sure to do it when I wasn’t so hangry.

Validated

 

 

validation

I sat next to a friend the other day who was chatting with gay men over a social media app. My friend, who is in his late 30s and is a handsome and successful professional, sent a message to a younger guy, handsome and 19.

“You have a nice smile,” my friend said.

The younger man responded within seconds. “You are one of the ugliest humans I have ever laid eyes on. You think you are good enough to chat with me?”

This was such a brief exchange, and yet it represented to me everything that is wrong with the gay community these days (and indeed, much of the straight community). I’ve given this a lot of thought and come to some conclusions.

When my older son was 2 years old, he used to say things like “Dad, there’s the tree.” I would repeat him, “Yeah, buddy, there’s a tree.” And he would throw a holy fit. “Dad, no! I said THE tree, not A tree!” Toddlers learn the fine art of defining the need for validation, demanding it and hurting badly when it isn’t offered in the right way.

As children age in healthy environments grow, they should be learning the skills to be able to do three things: to accept validation when it is offered, to validate themselves, and to ask for validation when they need it. These lessons are reinforced in the childhood and adolescent years, and practiced often as adults. In short, we always need validation.

When we grow up in homes or environments where these skill sets aren’t emphasized, we lose the ability to do these things. We think compliments are disingenuous, we lack the ability to offer validation to ourselves, and we have no ability to ask for validation and instead simply expect it. We develop unhealthy coping mechanisms to get alternatives to validation in other regards.

LGBT people generally grow up feeling unaccepted, knowing they are different than those around them. Simply put, they learn to hide in plain sight. I learned how to pretend to be interested in girls, how to pretend I was not interested in boys, how to blend in with straight guys. With parts of myself hidden deep down inside, I had no capacity to validate myself. I threw myself into church responsibilities and only considered the most worthy members of the Mormon church as worth the greatest amounts of trust and attention. I sought higher Priesthood callings and opportunities to sacrifice in order to show myself I was a worthy person.

Many other gay men, rather than church callings, throw themselves into building the perfect physique, and only see other men who are their ideal physical type as worth their attention. Others do it in careers, or their definitions of success.

And when others don’t meet standards of self-identified perfection, many gay men (or humans in general) see them as worth less than others. We like being noticed on our terms, and we see these as healthy validations.

Yet there is a simple truth, we can’t be truly validated by others unless we can validate ourselves, and we can’t validate ourselves unless we have integrity, and we can’t have integrity when we feel broken inside, or when we treat others like they are worth less.

As a teenager, I would shame myself so badly over not being like other guys, particularly when it came to competitive sports. I would use humor and excuses to avoid these interactions, feeling miserable inside, and then I would internally blame these other men for not accepting or including me. Because I lacked the ability to validate myself, I expected these strangers to do it for me.

I’ve reached a stage in my life now that I’m confident in myself and the things I’m good at. I can compliment myself and mean it. I can take compliments from others. When I feel a lack of integrity, or when I experience shame or guilt, I’m honest with myself and I ask myself or others for what I need. I don’t expect crowds of strangers, or even my close loved ones, to know what I need when I never asked for it. I don’t let myself be shamed by those who don’t love themselves, or who don’t see me as someone of value because I don’t meet their self-standards of perfection.

In the age of social media, it is so much easier to be cruel to strangers, calling them ugly or worthless in bizarre instant messages or public comments. One I saw recently from one stranger to another: “You think you are hot, but you aren’t. Try a diet and the gym.” It is also easier for people to demand validation from strangers, as we post lengthy comments on social media sites about how we have been slighted by others. A post I saw on Facebook recently: “I went to the club and no one talked to me. Gay people are the worst.”

Validation, integrity, and authenticity are hard and painful battles to be fought. Yet the alternatives are much more painful in the long run: invalidation, feeling broken, and feeling lonely.

a room full of gay Mormon fathers

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I should have been nervous. There was something poetic about the entire thing.

When I had first come out of the closet five years ago and moved to Utah, my friends Troy and Ryan, two gay fathers who had been together for years and had raised their kids together, offered me a place to stay in their basement for a time. My first two painful and liberating months in Utah had been spent here before I got a place of my own.

And now I stood in the same basement, a place I hadn’t been back to since I left it, and I was talking about my experiences with a room full of gay fathers.

I looked around the room at these men, all of them Mormon, or formerly Mormon, like me; all of them fathers who had been married to women, like me, though I only have two children and some of these men have five or seven or ten. Some were just barely out to themselves, some had just told their wives, some had just moved out on their own, and some had been out for a few years but still sought fellowship. Men in their 20s all the way up to their 70s.

I took myself back to that place in my mind, when the pain had been so raw and real, when even a conversation with someone about being gay brought me solace. All those years of silence, suffering on my own, just knowing that no one would understand. All those years with secrets. All those years desiring to come out of the closet and so very afraid that if I did, the consequences for my family and my loved ones would be devastating. Imagine telling the spouse you’ve built a life with that you are gay. I took time to remember the difficult months after my big announcement, and how it redefined every relationship in my life, and how I had to learn how to feel and have friends and to see the world with new eyes. It had all been so raw.

I’ve shared my story widely at this point, hundreds of times, to groups of students, to peers, on my blog, to friends, to men I’ve tried dating. And it’s difficult to understand if you didn’t grow up Mormon. Yet these men sitting and standing before me, dozens of them, they are all in the same place that I was just a few years ago.

And so we talked. I shared my story, and the story of nearly all the gay people I know. We talked about growing up and realizing you are different from others, learning how to blend in and hide by forming a secret self deep down within to cope. We talked about wasted efforts in curing a condition that can’t be cured by begging God for it and being great and stalwart Mormon men. We talked our decisions to marry women, and how that had been the only option. We talked about being let down by our religion, and about being fathers. We talked about the risks and benefits of coming out, how it would affect our primary relationships. We talked about hurting our loved ones when we didn’t mean to. We talked about navigating separation and divorce and how to be kind and fair at the same time. We talked about coming out to our children, our parents, our friends. We talked about the differences between guilt and shame, and how only guilt is healthy for we are all of us individuals with worth. We talked about integrity, and how lying to ourselves can be just as damaging as lying to others. We talked about spirituality, and embracing the things in our life that bring us peace, even if that means leaving the religion. We talked about hope, and love, and faith, and sex. We talked about the difficult process of facing puberty emotions as adults, because we never went through it as teens. We talked about heartbreak and sadness and joy and elation. We talked about how coming out did not not make life magically easy, but how it did make life so much more vibrant and wonderful. We talked about the history of religion and culture and policy and how they have influenced our heritages and histories. And we talked about the wonderful, delicious, and painful cost of authenticity.

After the presentation ended, many of the men approached me one on one with questions. “How do I tell my children that I’m gay when my wife thinks I’m evil?” “My mom told me it would have been easier for me to die in a car accident than to be gay. How can I ever forgive her?” “My church leaders think I’m being selfish. They say that the peace and acceptance I find among gay men is me being influenced by the devil.” “How can I choose between the life I have created with my family, my wife and children, and one that means I’m gay and single and divorced? How can I do that?” “I thought it was supposed to get easier. Why does it hurt so much?”

And then we broke for lunch. We talked, and laughed, and shared with each other.

As I left, a hundred stories from my own journey came to mind. All the love I received after coming out, and the 20 or so times people reacted really terribly and painfully. I thought of the people in my life, the love that I feel for myself and my sons and my friends. I thought of how Megan (my ex-wife) and I are so much happier now, but how we had to go through those hard times first.

And as I drove away, tears rolled down my cheeks, for these men and for their wives and children and families, and for myself. And I looked to the horizon, ready for all of the joy and love and integrity and authenticity ahead.

the rabid squirrel

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When I was 22, I woke up one Sunday morning in my small twin bed, in my sparsely furnished apartment in Boise, Idaho, and found a quarter-sized spider bite on my forearm. I remember looking at it closely, wondering why it wasn’t painful. A bite like that should be painful. It was deep red around the edges, and raised and puffy in the middle, with two soft red lines that must have been the teeth marks, like a tiny vampire bite.

I poked at the bite a bit, sitting up in bed, and wondered if it was dangerous. It was sizable. As a university student, I had a mediocre health care plan, meaning the only coverage I had was if I visited the doctor on campus. There was an off-campus plan, but it cost a much higher co-pay, whereas the campus doctor was completely covered. I looked at the medical flyer I had on my desk from the clinic and realized they were completely closed on Sundays.

I looked at the clock, 6 am, I should call my mom for advice, but she would still be sleeping. I had church in three hours, and I was supposed to teach a lesson in Sunday School on the parables of Jesus. Was I in any danger, with the bite this size? I looked down at the floor in my room and, with a small shudder, wondered where the spider was, and how big it was.

I moved over to my desk and grabbed the phonebook, wondering if any medical clinics outside the emergency room were open this early. Then I noticed, right there on the front page, an ad for a call-a-nurse line at the local hospital to discuss medical concerns, free of charge.

I grabbed my cell phone and called up the number. After a two-minute hold, a woman answered. She had a vapid, drawling tone to her voice, and I pictured her painting her nails while she held the phone on her ear, disinterested.

“Hello, thank you for calling the nurse line. My name is Leslie. How can I help you?”

“Hi, good morning. I’m Chad. I woke up this morning with a spider bite on my arm. It–”

“Can you describe the bite for me?”

“Yes, I was just about to.”

“Go ahead then.”

“Well, it’s about the size of a quarter. It is red around the edges, and a lighter color in the center. It’s raised a bit and I think there is a liquid in it.”

“And it was a spider that bit you?”

“I think so.”

“Did you see the spider?”

“No, ma’am. I was asleep.”

“Then how do you know it was a spider?”

“I–I’m assuming it is a spider. I don’t know it was a spider.”

She didn’t change the tone of her voice at all, but I heard her sit up and grab something off a shelf. It hit her desk or table with a small thump.

“Okay, hang on, I’m turning to the bites section. Is it painful?”

“No, it doesn’t hurt at all.”

“Hang on, hang on. Burns, here we go, bites. You said you think it was a spider?”

“Yes.”

“Could you have been bit by a dog?” I heard her turn a page.

“No, it definitely wasn’t a dog.”

“A cat?”

“No! It wasn’t a cat!”

“Could it have been a bat, or a squirrel?”

I sat down in my chair with a mighty roll of my eyes. “A squirrel? You think a rabid squirrel snuck into my room while I was sleeping and bit my arm?”

Her voice took on a tone of impatience. “Look, sir, I’m trying to help you here. There is no need for sarcasm.”

I hesitated for a moment, thinking of arguments. If I stayed on the phone, I had no doubt she would continue running down her list of animals, wondering perhaps if I had been bitten by a snake, a giant mosquito, or a monkey perhaps.

Instead, I hung up the phone and called my mom, who was already awake. She gave me advice to keep an eye on the bite and call her later. Sound, reasonable, and nothing about bats or squirrels.

A few hours later, I was teaching a group of college students in my Mormon congregation about the Good Samaratin parable, and was sharing with them a poem I had written about the scripture. They were all looking down at their papers when I moved my arm just wrong against the desk and felt a puncture. I saw the contents of my spider bite shoot across the desk a few feet, like a tiny water balloon had just exploded. The liquid was completely clear, like water or saline, and had a faint odor.

As the students finished the poem, they looked up to see me gently wiping the desk with a Kleenex, none the wiser.

Fifteen years later, I still have a faint scar on my forearm from that morning’s bite.It isn’t their fault, but I blame the squirrels.

taking note

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I used to make a lot of lists in high school. I would sit int he back of the classroom and divide my attention, able to listen to the lecture and still make my lists. I would write out all of my family member’s names (and I have a lot of family members), arranging them in order of age, then in order of appearance in the alphabet. I would write them in print, then in cursive. There was something about filling the page up with blue or black ink that was intensely satisfying to me.

And when I was finished, I would crumple the paper up into a tight wad and deposit it into the trash. Or sometimes I would carefully fold the paper in half, then tear it into two pieces, then four, then eight, arrange them in a little stack and throw them away. It was all rather OCD, but not the result of any disorder. I just don’t sit still well. My friends got accustomed to the sounds of swift tears of a sheet of paper, three times per page.

Sometimes I would write out all fifty states, in alphabetical order, singing the little songs I learned in grade school that helped me memorize the order, but I would always forget one or two without fail, then have to wrack my brain in order to remember the forgotten one.

Sometimes I would come up with an animal for every letter of the alphabet, then do it again, then again, until I ran out of v (vole, vixen, vampire bat) or z (zebra, zebu, zebra fish) or x (x-ray fish, xenops, xerus). Then I might start with foods, or countries.

Sometimes I would make crossword puzzles.

Sometimes I would make up entire game shows, designing a double round of Jeopardy with trivia about my family that we could play on an event night I would plan later.

Sometimes I would list out every one of the X-Men, in the order that they joined in the comic books. The originals (Iceman, Angel, Beast), the new team from Giant-Size (Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Storm), the New Mutants (Cannonball, Wolfsbane, Mirage), right down to the break-out teams in the 1990s (Excalibur, X-Factor, X-Force). Then I would carefully assign the people in my life a role from the team, writing their names next to the characters that best matched them, their personality traits or strengths. This one could keep me busy for days as I figured out the roles, moved them around, arranged little team-ups.

After the X-Men, I might start on the Avengers. Lay them out next to the X-Men in alphabetical order and pit them in an imaginary arena, eliminating a contestant one at a time with a single ink line until only one remained.

And then fold and wad, or fold and rip, rip, rip, then trash.

I’m 37 now and I still make lists. I have a list of every biography I have ever read, written in alphabetical order. When I read a new one, I make a new list, carefully adding the correct person in between the others. And when the new list is made, yup, I rip up the old one in the same pattern.

And now, here I am on my blog, making a list of the things I like to list. And I am at peace with my compulsions.

So, to all you listers out there, maybe some day we can make a list of ourselves.

homosexuals on Nickelodean

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When I was 13 years old, I watched Nick at Nite nearly every night. Classic television shows, hilarious and entertaining. And I sought out other classic shows, watching them wherever I could. The Jeffersons. The Dick Van Dyke Show. The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The Brady Bunch. Bewitched. My Three Sons. The Donna Reed Show. Hollywood Squares. I Dream of Jeannie. The F Troop. Get Smart. The Carol Burnett Show. I Love Lucy. 

I didn’t watch a lot of modern television at the time. I was a good little Mormon kid who tried to keep things clean in my head and heart, and shows like Blossom and Friends were just too racy.

It must have been obvious to at least  few people that I was gay. I hated sports and was excessively creative, writing stories and planning parties, designing family activities and making treasure hunts for friends. Looking back, the signs were so clear. I looked longingly at boys in my class that I had a crush on quietly while the straight guys were cracking sex jokes about the girls they liked. In my mind, I had plans for a happy little Mormon home growing up, where I would have a wife and kids and pictures of Jesus and the temple on the wall.

And then Ellen Degeneres came out of the closet, and the world went nuts. Then Rosie O’Donnell. There must have been more, but the public controversy surrounding these two was enormous, they were names known in my household, and the world around me, in my small Mormon community, acted with disgust. I heard rumors about Ricky Martin, but no he couldn’t be gay.

More stars started coming out of the closet, and there was a general feeling of ‘ew, gross’ from everyone around. My ears perked up, and I began to associate, even more, with homosexuality being something disgusting, which meant I was disgusting. There were rumors about a couple down the street being gay, two women who lived together, and the kids in my high school scoffed. There was talk from people at church about God creating AIDS to help wipe out the gay population.

And adults longed for the morality of Hollywood years ago, with wholesome movies and movie stars who promoted family values. Only, some of these famous stars began dying of AIDS, and their attractions to men were being revealed. Rock Hudson. Liberace. Anthony Perkins. Freddie Mercury. And Robert Reed.

I had felt like I was the only one in the entire world. I had no idea my sister one bedroom over was also gay. I had no idea friends in my high school were gay. I had no idea that the world estimated 10 per cent of the population was gay.

But Robert Reed? Mike Brady, the father on the Brady Bunch, was gay. The epic father figure of the family that showed up in everyone’s households for decades, he was gay. I filed that away in my brain, unable to process it, for a very long time.

And it was only this past year that I dusted it off, and I began researching. Turns out I wasn’t alone at all. All those shows I grew up watching? They were full of gay people, and I had no idea.

Dick Sargent, who played Darren Stevens on Bewitched, was gay. Richard Deacon, who played Mel Cooley on the Dick Van Dyke Show, was gay. Paul Lynde, who played Uncle Arthur on Bewitched, was gay. Sherman Helmsley, who played George Jefferson on the Jeffersons, was gay. George Maharis of Route 66, Charles Nelson Reilly of What’s My Line?, Richard Chamberlain of Dr. Kildare, Maurice Evans of Bewitched, Edward Mulhare of the Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Nancy Kulp of the Beverly Hillbillies, Alan Sues on Laugh-In, Hayden Rorke on I Dream of Jeannie, George Takei on Star Trek, Jim Nabors on Gomer Pyle. And more and more and more.

The list of Hollywood stars grows even longer.

Somehow it brings me comfort, looking back to those days a lonely teenager and feeling all alone, realizing that the old television shows I found comfort in were full of gay people. I wasn’t quite so alone after all.