Missionary Back Massage

Allentown

“Hey, elder, do you want a back massage?”

It felt normal to ask this, natural. I had grown up trading shoulder massages with my sisters during movies and shows, an easy way to express affection and feel better. But then I felt nervous waiting for his answer, and I knew it perhaps wasn’t entirely innocent. I didn’t have any ill intentions, but I also had to admit I was lonely, and I longed for contact with another human, especially someone who made me feel safe.

I was 19 and I was a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints serving in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I had been out on my mission for just a few months, just long enough to get my feet wet and barely long enough to know what I was doing. It had only been 8 weeks (11 counting the training at the beginning), and I had fallen into a steady routine of church, scripture study, walking, knocking on doors, prayers, unhealthy food, and exhausted sleep, with only one day off during the week to do laundry, write letters, go shopping, and clean the apartment. It was missionary service 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, and it was exhausting. It was pushing me in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.

I had no idea I would be this lonely. God was mostly silent, and I felt that was a direct reflection of my inability to keep my thoughts entirely pure, I felt. I mean, I tried. I was good at it most of the time. But occasionally they would stray, and I felt wretched; as a missionary, I was supposed to be above this. On top of that, in two full months, I hadn’t achieved a single baptism, even though I was teaching a lot of people, and I felt that was my fault as well. How could God work through me if I wasn’t worthy?

After two months of struggling to fit in, Elder Winward left, and my new companion Elder Jasons was transferred in, and it was a night and day difference. Jasons was hilarious and vibrant, where Winward had been driven and focused. Jasons followed the rules, but he kept things light and entertaining. He brought out a lighter side in me, he listened when I shared stories, he cared about my opinion and sought it out. When we knocked on doors, we could give each other challenges to use a particular word in our ‘door approach’, and they always came off clunky and resulted in peals of laughter.

“Use the word ‘cow’,” he challenged.

“Hi, we are the Mormon missionaries. We believe in a God who created all things, from the planets to the cows…”

“Use the word ‘cardiovascular’,” I challenged.

“Hello, ma’am, we are here to talk about God. He loves us beyond belief. He wants us to live well and be healthy, to eat right and have cardiovascular exercise.”

We must have looked like fools, but we had fun, and I had forgotten what fun was. Elder Winward had been quiet and contemplative, but Jasons wanted to play games and talk in the evenings. Winward had only wanted to play basketball on prep-days, but Jasons wanted to explore the area, hike, see museums, and have new food.

He wasn’t handsome, at least not classically, but I realized after just a few days that he was on my mind almost constantly. He had a dopey smile, a receding hairline with wispy hair, a blocky frame. But his face lit up when he smiled, and he laughed constantly, and his heart was huge. From a small Utah town, he had a slight drawl and some of our investigators called him Elder Hayseed.

In no time, reaping some of the work I had done with Elder Winward, we had three baptisms. Scripture study was fun. I began to feel more comfortable in my own skin again. Jasons made me feel like my best friend in high school had. (And I had started to fall for him, too.) When I realized I had feelings developing, I mentally flogged myself all over again, and knew God would curse me for that. But there was no escape, Jasons was always right there, just a bed away.

And so, on one week night, after we played a board game, I asked him if he wanted a massage. And he responded with enthusiasm. “Heck yeah, elder!”

Jason laid down on the floor, his head on a pillow, and I sat next to him and began to massage his shoulders, his neck, his upper back. It was simple, basic human contact, but just that basic human touch electrified me. It felt safe, and powerful, and connected, and amazing, and… sinful. We didn’t speak as I worked on him, but eventually he commented on how well I was doing and how he would have to give me a massage back.

My thoughts began to wander. I had heard about other companionships where the two elders had wrestling matches, where they walked around naked, where they took photos of each other naked, where they took baths or showers together. The elders would brag about these stories, joking, laughing, and always sure that everyone understood they weren’t gay. I had secretly longed for connections like that, for any connection. Yet now here I was, fully clothed, and offering a back massage, and feeling like I was committing the worst sin possible. I felt hot tears run down my cheeks, and I wiped them, but I didn’t stop the massage. I needed this connection. It stayed innocent, just hands on shoulders, but I felt like I was sinning terribly.

When I finished, Jasons sat up and I returned to the couch behind me.

“That was awesome, Anderson, thank you.” He gave his classic smile. “Your turn?” I sat back on the couch and he finally looked over at me, realizing I’d been crying a bit. “Whoa, what’s up?”

I breathed out, slow, steady. “I don’t think I better get a massage.”

“Why not?” he smiled.

“I, um, I probably shouldn’t have done that. It wasn’t– I was feeling–”

He waited several seconds and encouraged me to keep going. “It wasn’t what?”

“I–I’m attracted to guys sometimes. It–it was innocent. I didn’t mean anything. It just–I’m trying to keep the spirit and– I just shouldn’t have done that.”

There was a bit of silence, and I felt my insides clench up. I had barely told anyone in my life about my same-gender attractions, and I wasn’t sure how he would react or what the consequences of this would be.

Jasons, not surprisingly, responded with his trademark smile. “Oh! Well, that’s cool. Seriously, you didn’t do anything wrong and no big deal. Thanks for telling me. But yeah, no more back rubs is probably the right move.”

That night in prayer, I thanked God for Jasons’ understanding, and tears leaked down my cheeks as I fell asleep. He and I never talked about it again.

After Elder Jasons and I had been companions for eight weeks, he was sent out of the area on an ’emergency transfer’, implemented when someone is put into an unsafe situation. The two of us had taught and baptized a man named Richard, a man who had taken an unhealthy interest in us. While Richard was sincere in his desire to learn about the church, he also frequently indirectly flirted with us and showed up at our apartment sometimes. Richard had to be interviewed before he could be baptized, and in the interview he had to be asked a short series of questions, including if he had ever committed murder, if he had ever been on probation or parole, or if he was or ever had been gay. Deeply offended at the question, Richard wrote us a letter in which he confessed he was gay, and how he was attracted to us both, mostly Elder Jasons, and while he had hoped to find a congregation to belong to, he was also unwilling to associate with a church that hated gay people.

And so Elder Jasons, the one person I had told the truth to, was sent away because a man had flirted with him. I would see Jasons over the following months, from time to time. He was always friendly, always a friend. But the rest of my mission, I never felt as safe as I had with him. Having a friend, someone safe and funny and non-judgmental, had made a world of difference.

Then he left, and my demons remained.

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First Conversions

 

 

 

Elder

Doug and Tina were unlike anyone I had ever known. Doug was a small man, slight of frame without an ounce of fat on him, almost skeletal in his appearance. His facial hair was scraggly and unkempt, his hair oily, his eyes sunken back a bit, and his years of smoking and drinking showed in his forty year old frame. He worked long hours at the meat counter in the local grocery store, up at 3 am and working until evening, and he liked his evenings at home quiet and uncomplicated. He was quiet, simple, and easily cheered.

Tina, his girlfriend, was his opposite in nearly every way possible. She was short and very round, with short styled hair and light makeup on. She dressed comfortably and was warm and friendly. She loved her life and radiated happiness. When she wasn’t home with her son, working hard to raise him as a single mother, she had a clerical job that she enjoyed. Tina laughed easily, remembered names, and longed for deep and sincere friendships.

The day Elder Winward and I knocked on their door in Allentown, Pennsylvania, wearing our full missionary gear, Tina’s young son Keith answered. He was four and he had a constant look of mischief in his eyes. He had a toy gun in his hand and he pointed it at us as he asked who we were. Soon, we were invited inside. Tina told us about herself and said she had been looking for a church to attend. We taught her a lesson about the Mormon Church and gave her a Book of Mormon, inviting her to pray about it and asking her if she would be willing to be baptized if she felt the holy spirit tell her the church was true. She had only known us for 30 minutes, but she agreed. We swiftly made an appointment to return.

I remember feeling so light and happy that we had found someone who wanted to learn. Missionary efforts over the first few months of my mission had been strained at best. We had taught dozens of people, talked to hundreds, and knocked on the doors of several hundred, but none had really gone anywhere. We had taught a group of teenage girls for a time. One of them, Dana, had opened up to us about her history of sexual abuse, her penchant for cutting her wrists with blades, and her escapes from reality with drugs; she had come to church with her mom’s blessing, but had not felt welcomed by the young women in the church congregation and had decided not to return. Another couple, Victor and Monica, had been eager to learn from us for a time, but had consulted with their pastor who told them to run from us and that Mormons were a cult, and they had angrily told us to never contact them again. We had had countless experiences with rejection, but still no baptisms. And as always, I felt like it was my fault.

The closest we had come to a successful conversion had turned out to be a gay man, Richard, a man who had hoped to find kindness and acceptance in the Mormon faith but who, in his baptismal interview, had been told that homosexuality was equatable with murder, and he had fled from the church after that, hurt and angry. (I never told Richard I was gay too).

But Tina, she was eager to learn. She came to church, she read the scriptures, she asked questions. During our lessons, Doug would join us slowly, reluctantly, more in an attempt to appease Tina than out of any real interest. She liked the messages of the gospel, of wholesome living, of eternal families, and of missionary service. During the discussions, when Keith would act up, either Elder Winward or I would leave the room, playing with him on the other side. Keith struggled in the primary program at church as well, and Tina patiently worked with him to get him used to church every week. She wanted that stability for her son.

Doug and Tina struggled to fit into the Mormon congregation. Both were smokers, they were living together and unmarried, they didn’t know all the protocols and traditions, and they had a rambunctious son. In addition to that, they didn’t have a car and needed a ride to church each week. After they started coming to church, the bishop pulled Elder Winward and I aside, asking us to please focus on teaching potential converts who could transport themselves to church, as providing rides put undue strain on members of the church who were already overburdened. Still, despite the struggle to acclimate, they kept attending church, faithfully, nearly every week.

Within a few months, Elder Winward was transferred to a new area. and Elder Jasons became my new companion, and he and I kept teaching Doug and Tina. She quit smoking and drinking alcohol, and she encouraged Doug to do so. Not wanting to live in sin, they chose to marry, and Tina beamed with pride that day with her new husband at her side. Soon after, she realized she was pregnant, and she felt wonderful about the possibility of new life and what that meant for her family and her fresh start.

When they agreed to be baptized, Doug had to have a special interview with the mission president, much like Richard had because he was gay; Doug had previous arrests from his younger days and had been in jail before, so he had to be cleared for baptism, and soon he was. The day of the baptism approached and Tina asked me, with tears in her eyes, if I would be the one to baptize her.

The day of the baptism, Tina gave me a gold chain with my initials and the baptism on it. She thanked me for helping her find the truth. Elder Jasons baptized Doug first (even though he hadn’t given up smoking completely yet), and then it was my turn to baptize Tina. I remember joining her in the water, I remember the smile she gave me and the love that was in her eyes. Later the bishopric would tease me about my “Hulk-like strength”, rather cruelly, due to the effort it took to get Tina down under the water. (She weighed over 300 pounds). My prayer had been sincere, eager, uttering the baptismal words that had been used millions of times before in millions of other baptisms.

After using her full name, I had uttered simply, “Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

And then she had been submerged. And that was all it took, a symbolic death and rebirth, a ritual to show dedication to Jesus Christ, a washing free of sins and the beginning of a new life as a member of the true church of God. After Elder Jasons left, I stayed another two months in Allentown with Elder Burke, and I regularly visited Doug and Tina, and saw Tina and Keith at church every week. They knew I would be leaving soon, and we all felt sad. Tina wrote my mother a letter back home telling them how I much I meant to their family.

And then in July, I was transferred to another area, in northern Delaware this time, only a few hours away, but I knew I wouldn’t get the chance to see Tina and Doug and Keith again. Shortly after I left the area, they stopped going to church, and when I expressed my concern to my mission president, he had sighed and said that was a problem he continually saw, that members who were baptized were more attached to the missionaries themselves than the church organizations, and that they often went inactive when the elders were transferred.

I wrote to Tina for a time, and she wrote back. Later that fall, I received a birth announcement from her. She had given birth to a healthy baby boy. And she had named the baby Chad. “Because of who you are and how you changed my life.” Honored beyond belief, I wrote her back.

I never heard from her again. It’s been 20 years, and somewhere in the world is a young man named after me that I have never met, and whose life I know nothing of. We fell silent then, and I kept knocking on more doors, looking for more souls to save.

Green in Allentown

Allentown

It took me several weeks to learn the streets of Allentown, Pennsylvania, a place I would end up living for nearly six months. It was the largest city I had ever lived in, and I knew little of its history.  I knew it was old, that it had old ties to steel and industry, and that there were people of every color here. My upbringings in Missouri and Idaho had been around almost exclusively white people, though they were many Hispanics in my high school, but this was my first time being around a lot of people of color and it was a huge cultural adjustment.

Everything was green here, with a heavy moisture in the air that made everything feel thicker, denser. Breathing was different, even gravity was a little different.

After two weeks in the Missionary Training Center, I had entered this new world completely open to new experiences. I had sought to be healed from being gay while I was there, and I had been told that that wasn’t possible, and then I had felt selfish for asking in the first place. So now that I was here, I was determined to just trust God, do as he said, and hope that things turned out for the best.

I had been called to the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Mission, a geographic area of missionaries that covered south-eastern Pennsylvania, the entire state of Delaware, and the eastern shore of Maryland. On the flight east from Provo, I had offered a Book of Mormon to the flight attendants on the airplane, and one of them had accepted. I had a sheer, powerful determination to be the best missionary possible, and vowed that I would talk to everyone I could about the truth of the gospel.

There were dozens of cities within the mission that I could have been assigned to, and hundreds of elders who could have been assigned as my companion and trainer. I was beyond nervous. But the mission president, a kind man and the former president of a west coast aluminum company, had assigned me to Allentown, and so I knew that was where the Lord wanted me.

My first companion was Elder Winward, a handsome farm boy from Utah. He’d been out on his mission for about a year. He taught me how to be a good missionary through diligent study, unceasing work, and a positive attitude. He was a good man. But I needed to be liked a bit too much. I was so worried that he might find me different, that he might notice that I was gay, that I did everything possible to be good, to be righteous. I did all the dishes, cleaned the apartment, asked too many questions. I was too eager, too willing, too ready, and my nervousness showed. After just a few weeks, I had started to wear on Elder Winward, and there was nowhere to hide. I constantly felt like I was on his nerves, something I had felt around men my age much of my adolescence. And we spent the entire day working or studying, and there was simply no alone time, except to use the restroom or shower. I couldn’t escape myself or my insecurities.

Sharing a room had been the most difficult in the beginning. I was 19 years old and my bed was just a few feet away from another guy, 20, someone who was handsome and nice to me and strong in the Church. I didn’t want to admit having a crush on him, but I did. How could I not? He was right there, and he said good night to me, and then I could hear him breathing. He wasn’t gay, wasn’t broken, like I was, I was almost positive, as he had a pretty girlfriend back home, but he was right there and sometimes I just wanted to reach over and touch him, or maybe even be held. It was a strange sensation, realizing how lonely I could feel with another person in the room.

On occasion, my thoughts would turn sexual, and I would have to fight off biological urges. I knew that part was normal. I was still a teenager. That was something every missionary was struggling with. But I couldn’t imagine if Elder Winward had to share a room with some gorgeous teenage girl, what a temptation he would be facing, and that was what this was like for me. Keeping my thoughts and desires in check was not at all easy. I had struggled with this at the MTC as well, with the giant group showers, and the 19 and 20 year old men I had to share them with. How was I supposed to keep my thoughts pure? It had taken all of my focus, consistently, to not get an erection in that setting, there would have been no hiding it. And then I would feel ashamed all over again, every time.

The other big problem was I didn’t fit in, not just with my companion but with the other elders. I didn’t like basketball and sports, I liked to sing and read and perform and plan. And all they wanted to do with free time was sports. Sometimes we compromised and played board and card games, but the other elders grew crass often, talking about girls and girlfriends, sharing pictures of how hot the girls back home were, commenting on each other’s sisters. They talked about wet dreams, about working hard as missionaries so they could get hotter wives when they got home. And sometimes they made it even more uncomfortable. They would compare penis sizes, rate their manhood, talk about sexual prowess even though none (well, most) of them had never had sex. In the MTC, the elders in my district had even built a sauna in the group shower by hanging blankets at the entrance and turning on all the hot water, then had invited everyone naked. I had no idea how to fit in among guys that I had nothing in common with, but were subsequently attracted to, and so I found myself judging them instead, feeling like I was more worthy than they to be a servant of God.

Despite all the struggles, strangely, I enjoyed walking the streets of Allentown with Elder Winward. When I could feel the concrete beneath my feet (and the humidity in my lungs), I could distract myself from temptations and from not belonging and from wondering about my family back home (all of whom wrote diligently, which felt wonderful), and I could instead focus on my work. I liked knocking doors, a white kid who looked 15 wearing a white shirt and tie, and professing that I was a missionary for Jesus Christ, there to leave the truth. We had different ways of finding people to teach, and knocking on doors was by far the least effective, but it felt good to put in the hard work. We could seek out people who had seen a commercial on television about the church and had called in, and we could visit with those who were already members and press them into giving us names of friends and loved ones to teach. We kept track of numbers: hours spent knocking, number of lessons taught, number of people working on baptism. I tried seeing everyone as a child of God, someone with infinite potential that simply needed to be shown the right way back to the God, through his true church. We could change lives that way. Not just lives, but entire family lines, as converts brought their families and loved ones into the gospel, raised their children in the gospel, and then did the work for the dead for their loved ones who had died before. We were changing the world.

Every week, we called in the numbers, and I always felt ashamed. Two months went by with no baptisms, and I worried that it was my fault, my problem. I worked to keep the spirit in my heart. I listened to Mormon-approved music, I only read the scriptures, I prayed constantly, I refrained from masturbation and improper thoughts, I worked and I worked and I worked. I learned very quickly that I understood very little about the world outside of my own experiences. I had been raised in a very conservative Mormon bubble and I knew nothing of poverty, of racism, of inequality. I knew little of American history, of world history, of politics. I knew very little of religion even. As I talked to people, I didn’t know what a Methodist or a Presbyterian or a Muslim or a Hebrew Israelite or a Jew was. I couldn’t tell the difference between the cultures of Puerto Rico or Trinidad and Tobago or El Salvador or Chile. I knew nothing of slavery, of Civil Rights, or affirmative action, of lynchings, of segregation, of inner city projects, of the War on Drugs.

With no knowledge, with no world experience, I sat in the homes of those who let us in and I told them of the gospel of Jesus Christ as I understood it. I told them of the rules of the church, of the love of God, of baptism, of eternal families. And I found ways to avoid the hard questions. What about polygamy, doesn’t your church teach that men can have more than one wife? and Why didn’t black men get the Priesthood sooner than 1976, and didn’t your church teach that black people could be made white? and Wait, you believe that the Latin-American people are descended from unrighteous Jews whose skin colors were changed because they were unfaithful? Just read the Book of Mormon and pray and believe, I assured them, and the rest doesn’t matter.

I was giving marital advice, having never been married. I was giving advice on overcoming addictions, having never been addicted. I was giving parenting advice, having never been a parent. I had no training, no college, nothing except my own life experiences and scripture study to give me perspective. I believed that I was given spiritual insights by God to provide spiritual counsel to people twice or three times my age, and the advice equated basically to ‘try and be more like me and God will bless you.’

I wrote letters home, emphasizing only the positive. I told of God’s love, of my hard work, of my insights into the scriptures, and I ignored my aches and pains, those in my soul and spirit and heart, and I bore testimony of the mercies of God.

I wrapped myself up in the knowledge, the assurance, that it was all for my God. I ignored the experiences of others, and I ignored the cracking glass inside of me, and kept my eyes firmly on the horizon. Be faithful, baptize as many as possible, and maybe, maybe earn a cure for myself. It was all true, it had to be true. I was giving two years of my life over to the belief that it was true, so it had to be. There were no other alternatives.

Missionary Training

MTC

I remember lying in bed that first night at the MTC, feeling empty and eerie. I was in someone else’s bed, in someone else’s room. Across the room, someone I didn’t know was snoring. And this was going to be my new world.

It was 10:30 pm on December 31, 1997. In just a few hours, the rest of the world would be celebrating the arrival of a New Year with celebrations and resolutions. But I was a missionary now, an elder, and I was dedicating the next two years to God. I was tired, but my head wouldn’t stop spinning with memories and fears, hopes and wishes.

Just a handful of hours before, I had bid my family farewell. My family. My mother, my little sister (still in high school), and I had been through a lot together. My five older siblings had been out of the house for years, and we were the youngest two left with a single mother, our own separate little family unit, different from the home my siblings had known. We had survived the abuse at the hands of Kent together. I had been the Priesthood holder in the home, the protector, the man of the house. And now I was leaving them behind for two entire years. But I felt safe knowing I would see them in a few weeks again, when they came to bid me farewell on the day I would go to the Salt Lake City Airport and fly to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the central city of the area I would be spending the next two years in.

Only a few months before, I had received my missionary call. It was a moment I had prepared my entire life for. I had saved up money, read and studied the scriptures, prayed and stayed active in Church all through my adolescence. All in preparation for what everyone said were the ‘best two years’ of a young man’s life. I would serve for two years, then come home and enroll in college and get married and have children and stall a faithful Mormon for my entire life. That was the blueprint, that was the divine plan. That day, I had received the letter in my hands. I could be going anywhere. My best friends from high school had gone on to Munich, Germany, and Trujillo, Peru, and Cape Town, South Africa. I could be going to Russia (and learning Russian) or going to China (and learning Chinese). It could be anywhere. I gathered all of my friends and loved ones that evening and ripped open the envelope. Philadelphia. I had been a bit flummoxed, a bit disappointed to be serving in the United States, somehow wondering if I wasn’t a bit less worthy than the others because I was gay and that was why I hadn’t been called overseas.

My mom had beamed with pride and sadness as she sat next to me in the farewell family meeting. There were prayers and songs and testimonies and then I had hugged my family goodbye. Me and hundreds of others, all there on New Years Eve, changing our lives. Then I had wheeled my two packed suitcases, full of white shirts and black pants and scriptures and ties, along with a few toiletries. That was it. For two years, there would be no books, no magazines, no movies, no television. Just the scriptures. Just hard work and prayers to God. We elite young men and women (but mostly men) would spend two years bringing souls to God.

Ages passed in my brain over that next hour as I lay there in bed, watching the minutes creep by. I had graduated high school just six months ago, and I had waited patiently until I turned 19. I had worked at comic book shops and at a local Target to pass the time, delaying college until my return. I had said goodbye to my friends, leaving on their own missions and going off to school and getting married. I had kept myself worthy. I had avoided dating girls completely, and avoided thinking about boys. And now I was here, and I didn’t know how to feel, what to feel.

After finding my assigned room and bunk earlier in the day, I had met the other missionaries in my district. For some bizarre reason, my companion, Elder Franklin, and I had been placed in a group of missionaries who were all headed to Raleigh, North Carolina, and not with the rest of the group who were going to Philadelphia with us. I sat with the other young men in meetings and at dinner that first night, immediately realizing I didn’t fit in. Some of them were athletes (and so so handsome, but I didn’t let myself dwell on that), some were funny, some were quirky. They formed a brotherhood. But I was on the outs, I was the secretly gay one. I wondered if my entire mission would feel this way, me trying to fit in with the other guys, the normal ones, with me on the outskirts squirming in my own skin.

Elder Franklin was nice. A California guy from a good family, funny, class clown type. He weighed 317 pounds, and he jokingly referred to himself as Franklin 3:17, a loose reference to the family scripture in the Bible in the book of John. But where all of the other guys were sleeping in rooms with four elders in them, set in two sets of bunk beds, Franklin and I had our own room. I felt isolated and forgotten, homesick and foreign.

I watched the clock turn 12:00, and realized 1998 was here. The next twelve months would be one hundred per cent in the arms of God, doing his service, acting as an instrument of his hands. I would teach others diligently and dutifully of the atonement of Christ, the love of God, the life of Joseph Smith, the truth of the Book of Mormon, the sole truths of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was humbling, overwhelming, mind-boggling. How would I do this? How could I rewrite my very self for this? I turned on my side, away from the harsh red numbers of the clock, and shut my eyes tight. Tears leaked out onto my pillow. Ignoring the snores on the other side of the room, I muttered a prayer, my hundredth such prayer in just a day, and my first of the new year.

Dear God, I began. I asked for his guidance, his strength. I asked him to watch over my family in my absence. I asked him to keep the desires of my heart pure. I asked him to bless me with his holy spirit, to give me truth, to give me strength. And then I made that most frightening request, the one God had remained silent on for so long. I asked him to heal me. I didn’t use the word gay this time, God knew what I meant.

My eyes closed and I sang hymns in my head to help me fall asleep. I had a busy day ahead. A busy two years ahead.

Being a Sock-guy

 

socks

“New Year’s Resolution Number Six: Become a Sock-guy.”

When I set goals for the beginning of this year, that was one of the items on my list. A sock-guy. I’d always wanted to be a sock-guy.

A sock-guy is someone who can wear crazy socks and totally get away with it. Bright yellow socks with black umbrellas on them, socks that look like the wallpaper in his grandmother’s bathroom with brown and tan floral prints, black socks with white lettered Internet acronyms all over them like “GTFO!”, socks with lightning bolts running up and down each side, socks with cartoon faces of ducks staring at everyone who notices them.

And so I started buying cool socks, figuring I would collect a few pairs at a time. My personal trainer was the first to really notice, since he has me take my shoes off during workouts. “What are you wearing?!” he said with a laugh at my black and red checkered socks, which did not match my workout shorts and tank top at all. But that’s part of the charm of being a sock-guy, the socks not matching your clothing. I told him about my resolution, and over the next several workouts he started to look forward to seeing what socks I would be wearing next.

This morning, as I dressed, I opened up a box of new socks I just ordered online from a place called Happy Socks. Four pairs of comfortable and colorful pastel socks for the spring season. Without giving it much though, I grabbed a pair that is bright pink with embroidered palm trees on it and I slipped them on. I wore a blue checkered shirt and a pair of black jeans, then tied on my blue tennis shoes. Doing a self-check, I realized the entire outfit worked together pretty well, except for the pink palm tree socks. These are socks that will draw the eye, making people think “Why would he wear those socks with blue shoes?” My boyfriend noticed them with a small grimace. “Um, nice socks,” he said, hesitantly supportive. “They, uh, really go with your outfit.”

There is a large part of me that wants to be the guy that fits in, that wears tailored clothes, tight button-down lumberjack shirts with rolled up sleeves with form-fitting jeans that make my ass look great. But there is a larger part of me that would fit right in in Portland, with a Pac-Man hoodie and a pair of jean shorts. Part of me wants the nice new shoes, and a larger part of me is the guy who wears white socks with his flip flops… and goes out in public.

I’ve always had that internal battle, the desire to fit in counterbalanced by the larger desire to stand out, the need to be looked at and admired by modern standards of fashion and the need to be looked at and admired for my own sense of individuality and strength. In elementary school, when I was the kid picked last on the team, I always longed to be one of the cool kids, to be tall and good-looking and great at sports, but honestly I was okay with being picked last too because that meant no one else was picked last, and I didn’t really want to be like those other kids, I just wanted to be me.

And so being a sock-guy is really about being more of myself, being an individual, being someone who is strong and creative, who turns heads due to his bold and quirky choices, and who loves being in his own skin.

And if wearing a crazy pair of socks helps accomplish that for me, well, then I’m gonna a be a guy who wears crazy socks every day.

Believing in Angels

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I grew up believing I could see angels.

At least if I was worthy enough.

In fact, the first tenets of my religion, outside of belief in Jesus Christ himself, were tied up around visits from heavenly beings to those who had enough faith. The very origins of the Mormons, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, lay in the tenet that something asked with faith would be revealed. A Mormon favorite scripture lay in James 1:5: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. Joseph Smith did that, they believe, and God manifested himself with his son, Jesus Christ, at his side, inspiring Joseph to create a brand new church.

Nearly twenty years later, I can still remember the night I went to bed absolutely positive I would be seeing an angel, one with a miracle in his hand. At the time, I was training to be a missionary, in the aptly named Missionary Training Center, one of the holiest places on Earth according to Mormons. I had had Priesthood leaders lay their hands on my head and set me apart as a missionary, placing a ‘mantle’ upon me, one that was there to increase my spiritual sensitivity and my access to the Holy Ghost itself, so long as I was living worthy. I had literally set aside all of my mortal concerns. I had delayed college for two full years so that I could go be a missionary, paying out of pocket to do so. I had left my family behind, not even allowed to make phone calls to them while I was gone. I was leaving my friends, my home, my hobbies and interests, and sacrificing every moment of every day.

In the days prior, I had been reading the scriptures nonstop, praying constantly, and thinking of nothing but spiritual things, even keeping hymns playing in my heart. I had fasted and listened with my full heart and spirit to the leaders who had spoken to us, listening for every answer.

The night before, Steven R. Covey, the famous businessman, author, and motivational speaker, the man who had written Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, himself a Mormon, had given a speech to a crowd of young missionaries about looking at others the way Jesus looks at us. I had been implementing this view during the day, seeing those around me as children of God, and then I had taken a step farther and turned it inwardly. For one of the first times in my life, I saw myself as a child of God, someone who deserves happiness, someone who can do anything with God, someone who was capable of performing miracles.

And then I saw myself as, perhaps, someone who could have a miracle performed upon him. Someone who was worthy. Someone who could be healed, not for selfish reasons but to make me a better servant of God, a better advocate of his as I spent the next few years bringing other souls to him.

All day that day I had been filled with light and love. My nerve endings were on fire, my stomach felt full with no food, my head felt light and brimming with hope. I climbed into my bed at the MTC that night with more hope than I had ever felt before. I muttered a prayer to God, with tears streaming down my face, that I was ready. I was ready, at last, to be cured of being gay. I had been hoping for this cure since I was in elementary school, and I knew now that finally, finally, I could be made whole, be made straight, be made right in the eyes of God. I had been promised I could be cured if I tried hard enough, and this time I knew I could. I had faith.

As I closed my eyes that night, I remember wondering if I might actually see an angel. My desires were righteous, my heart was pure. I might actually get my  miracle.

And then I fell asleep. And then, hours later, I woke up. I came aware suddenly, my stomach rumbling, my head clouded, and I swiftly sat up. I scanned my insides. Nothing felt different, but everything would be, I just knew it.

Within a few hours, walking around outside among the other missionaries, I had immediately noticed a few of them were attractive, and I silently cursed myself. I instead made myself look at the women around, the sister missionaries and the employees at the MTC, and wondered if I could find them attractive now. But it was the same as it had always been, there was nothing there, no attraction, no noticing.

I found a quiet corner and prayed, asking God for guidance, and I felt that I just needed to be patient. No angel, no cure, but perhaps a bit more patience. I needed a blessing.

That entire day, I squirmed in my chair, still mostly fasting, and I struggled to stay focused. I needed that blessing and I needed it now. Finally the evening had arrived, and I rushed into the man who served in a leadership position over me, a branch president, a man I had never met but one who was assigned to help the missionaries during their training.

Brother Christensen listened kindly as I told him everything. I told him about being gay, about being here on a mission for the right reasons, about knowing I could be cured, and about needing his help to make the cure happen. Tears had spilled down my cheeks the entire time and I had made no effort to wipe them free. My heart had thudded in my chest, my fingers had been tightly clasped into fists.

Brother Christensen listened. And then he stayed silent. And then he spoke the words that would haunt me for the next several years.

“Elder Anderson, your desires for a cure are righteous, but it is not your lot to be cured of your same-sex attraction. This is your cross to bear. It’s a condition you were meant to live with and to learn from. Perhaps a cure can come in the future, but this is not something I can help you with today.”

He had given me a blessing that night anyway. One of comfort. But I couldn’t hear a word of it through my own shame. My ears and heart had been filled with foolishness and embarrassment. I had felt so sure, so pure, so trusting in God. I had believed in angels.

A small part of my spirit died that day, and stayed that way for a long time to come. I finished my missionary training, and I spent hours, days, weeks, months knocking on doors, teaching others how to make themselves right with God so that they could join his church. But the entire time, I felt like a hypocrite. Because how could I teach them to be right when I was never right myself?

I had believed in angels. But they had just flown on by.

He Said

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he said

“You’re husband material,” he said, looking into my eyes with candor. “And I have a terrible habit of only falling for guys who are bad for me. So I’m not really interested in seeing you again.”

“I made a huge mistake,” he said, looking away. “Making out with you sent the wrong message because I don’t think you’re that cute. But maybe we can hang out again some time.”

“Chad was the one who got away,” he said to a friend, who later told me. “He was sweet and good-looking and actually wanted to date me. But he expected me to text back, to put in effort. I know he’s still single, but I’m just not ready for that kind of guy.”

“You’re the kind of guy I could move across the country for,” he said, with those blue eyes right on mine, “and you’ve accomplished so much. I can’t do this, not until I’m someone who’s done as much as you have.”

“You’re friends are crazy hot,” he said, eyes mischievous on the dance floor. “But they aren’t my type. I prefer guys like you, guys more average.”

“I like everything about you,” he said with a reassuring lopsided smile, “and there is nothing I would change. I could spend my life with you if you just change the following things about yourself.”

“I love you,” he said, with sincere eyes much too quickly, repeating it often and consistently until I believed him. Then one afternoon, he shrugged, averted his gaze, and said, “You know, I’m just not feeling it anymore.”

“If only I wasn’t married,” he said.

“If only I was younger,”  he said.

“If only you were younger,” he said.

“I’m not ready for kids,” he said.

“Can you bring your kids on our second date?” he said.

“You have nice skin but you have some work to do on your body,” he said.

“I might be busy for a month or two but maybe I’ll give you call some time,” he said.

“I only like older guys,” he said.

“I only like younger, skinny guys,” he said.

“I only like beefy bears,” he said.

“It’s only been three days, but do you want to be my boyfriend?” he said.

“You’re not Mormon enough,” he said.

“I don’t date ex-Mormons,” he said.

“I like you, but not as much as I like meth,” he said.

“I like you way too much way too soon,” he said.

“I’m just not ready to date someone again,”  he said.

“I’m just looking for sex,”  he said.

“You actually look good now, what changed?” he said.

“Don’t call me handsome, it makes me insecure,” he said.

“I’m ashamed of myself as a person,” he said.

“I’ve never dated a therapist. Do you think I have depression?” he said.

“I’m not capable of trusting another person again,” he said.

“Yo keep a lot hidden,” he said, his brown eyes focused on me intently. “It makes me wonder what you’re thinking. It makes me wonder about you. You seem like a great guy. I mean, how is a guy like you still single?”

 

 

 

 

Asian Massage

Massage

“Why not?” I thought.

Walking the rainy streets of Boston, I had been exploring the campus of Harvard University all morning before I decided to walk the surrounding neighborhoods. I was enjoying the rich architecture, the cobblestone streets, the people watching. But it was cold and I was a little sore from yesterday’s flight, so why not get a massage. It’s okay to treat myself from time to time.

I walked into the little store front where the red sign advertised a massage. There was a fish tank and some kitschy decor. Up a few stairs, there was an Asian woman who I later learned was from China. Her hair was in two long ponytails. She was a little overweight and had a shirt on that exposed her shoulders, covered her breasts, and then hung open on each side while hanging loosely down the front, meaning you could see both of her sides but not her stomach. She gave a wide smile and had several gaps in her teeth.

“Hi! I’m Winnie! What your name, handsome young boy?”

I introduced myself and inquired about rates. I opted to get a “foot and scalp massage” for 30 minutes at the reasonable rate of $40, and Winnie enthusiastically led me to a back room where I took a seat in a plastic covered chair. While my feet soaked in deliciously hot water, she worked on my scalp, neck, and jaw, and it was heavenly. Soon, she began working on my feet, using her strong hands to find every possible sore spot.

Winnie made small talk with me during the massage. I chose my words carefully as she only had limited English skills. I learned she had moved to the United States three years before and that she had two children at home, that she had a mother back in mainland China, and that she thought America was too cold.

She asked me questions as well, and she responded with far too much enthusiasm when it was clear she didn’t understand many of my words. And she flirted with her words. A lot. Something she must have figured that America men wanted from her. “What you do for work? Oh, a counselor, how nice, strong handsome young man!” and “Oh, you from Utah, there many strong young boys there like you!” and “Oh you have some kids! Handsome young boys grow to strong man like you!” When I mentioned having a boyfriend, she didn’t quite seem to understand. “Oh a boyfriend, good for all the beautiful girls,” she replied.

While working on my neck, Winnie offered me a discounted rate on a body massage, and I agreed. So after the 30 minutes were up, she led me to a back room and instructed me to lay down on a massage table that was covered only by a sheet. There was no towel or covering, so I stripped down to my briefs and laid face down on the table.

Winnie rolled her hands and elbows over the prominent knots in my shoulders and back, legs and arms, continually commenting on how strong I was, how handsome and young. It started out funny and then just got annoying due to the frequency. It was an awesome massage, so I just stayed silent.

Then Winnie climbed up on the table and straddled my hips as she dug in. “You so stress, so tired,” she said, digging her elbows into my back. “You need woman like me to relax.”

“Um,” I muttered, and then didn’t know what to say. “You–I’m not interested in contact like that.”

Winnie slid off me and began working on my hips, muttering the word “handsome” and giving a little moan. She then grabbed the briefs and began yanking them down.

I jerked up on the table. “Whoa, whoa, no thank you, no.”

She tried reaching under my hips. “Like me to–”

And I moved off of the table this time. “Nope, no. No. No thank you.”

“You big strong man, like woman to–”

“Nope. Massage over. Nope.”

Winnie looked at me, confused, and then walked out of the room. As I dressed, I had to laugh to myself. Had that just happened? Is that what–is this her life? Men come in and– Is she paid for–? Her shirt, the unending flirtations, the reputations of Asian massage parlors. I buttoned up my shirt and slipped on my shoes. I glanced at my phone. It was 2 pm on a weekday. Good lord, what was this place like on an evening or a weekend?

I slipped my jacket back over my shoulders. I felt relaxed and tense at once. I got my wallet out of my pocket, wanting to get out of there in a hurry. Huh. It really had been a great massage.

I walked out into the lobby and saw Winnie standing at the same counter. While she had greeted me with a happy expression, she now stood there impatiently. Her arms were folded tightly and I could still see her sides from where the shirt opened up. She had a stern look now and her ponytails seemed almost comical with this expression.

“You pay.”

“Yeah, of course.” I muttered, flipping through the bills in my wallet.

“You not like massage.”

“Um, no, the massage was great, but I didn’t want– you know what, never mind. Here you go.” I handed her six twenty dollar bills, enough to cover the massage price, 100, plus a 20 dollar tip.

Winnie counted the money quickly, then looked up me with disgust. “No, this not enough. You give me more tip. I work hard at your stress, this not enough.”

I laughed loudly this time at her strange mix of boldness and audacity. I stepped toward the door.

“Excuse me? That’s a twenty per cent tip on a weird experience.” I opened the door.

“Twenty per cent not enough! You give me bigger tip!”

Winnie shouted out at me as I stepped into the rainy streets, struggling not to laugh at the unintended innuendo.

Finding Gordon part 1

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I walked through the cemetery, feeling nervous. It was silly to feel nervous. It was a small town cemetery in Delta, Utah, a place I had never even been before. The graves were arranged in rows and many had been there for several decades. Maybe I wasn’t nervous so much as a little afraid. I was afraid he was forgotten by his family just like he’d been forgotten by the rest of us.

I’d never met Gordon personally. He’d been killed when he was 28 years old. November 23, 1988, that was the day. The day before my tenth birthday, now that I think of it. I hadn’t even heard his name until I was in my mid-thirties.

As an out gay man in Utah, I had found myself playing amateur detective slash fledgling historian and looking into gay hate crimes. I’d been on a journey for several months, learning facts about those were taken too soon for being gay. Most of the murders remained unsolved. And among those that were solved, there had been very little justice. The killers, all men, had often used the gay panic defense. “He flirted with me, judge, and I couldn’t stop myself from violent murder.” And sometimes it had worked. Too often it had worked.

I had been driving to small town courthouses for several months now, finding the records rooms and asking for copies of the files, the ones open to the public. Lengthy court transcripts on some of them, troves of information. But there had been nothing like Gordon’s story. When I’d pulled into the small records room at the Millard County Courthouse, I had been flummoxed by the stacks of boxes containing the records. I spent a day in the waiting room scanning through them, then asked for copies. Several hours, and several hundred dollars later, I had driven home with a trunk full of white paper containing the decades old murder trials of the men who had killed Gordon.

Over the next several weeks, as I balanced raising kids and running a business, I spent my free time reading the transcripts and copiously taking notes on them. I learned about Gordon through this. I read through nearly 2000 pages of jury selection. I read the opening statements, the testimonies of his loved ones including his parents, the timeline of events and the exhausting lists of collected evidence. I read the medical testimonies of professionals who discussed the state of the body after he’d been found. It was horrible.

I had only been a child when he was killed, a Mormon kid in south-western Missouri. But no word spread. Nothing was mentioned about the young man brutally murdered for being gay. Another decade later, when Matthew Shepard was murdered in a similar way, it was all the media could talk about. But nothing about Gordon.

The trials read with intrigue, courtroom drama, high emotion, and twists and turns. The cast of characters that took shape in my mind was storied and complex and, in ways, unbelievable, dozens of figures cut from Utah Mormon molds, across all ages and spectrums. It was boring in places, dozens of pages in a row of evidence lists and legal jargon. And then the results: the death penalty for one man, and life in prison for another. My notes extended from tens of pages to hundreds.

At the end, I felt I knew Gordon in many ways. But I knew him only by what happened to him, by the terrible things those men did before they killed him even more terribly. I knew the terror he felt, the void he left in the lives of others. I had a little list of facts about where he’d lived and worked, a few notes about his friendships. But there was much more I didn’t know, I couldn’t know. I only knew he was important, and it had become crucial that I find him.

I found a map in the back of the cemetery that detailed the lists of graves in their layouts. And there he was, there was his name: Church, Gordon Ray. My heart rate had picked up while I walked to the cemetery. I saw a section of graves devoted to his family. I saw the grave of his grandmother, his father, and others. Simple and sweet graves with small epitaphs and lists of family relationships, birth and death dates. Simple facts to remember human lives, fading as those who loved them grew older. Cemeteries always make me so sad.

And then, I found Gordon. I saw the most beautiful headstone I had ever seen. A large, beautiful, well-kept headstone. A giant quote across the top read “When someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure.” His name, birth and death dates all in large blocked stone, and his family relationships outlined on the back.

And at the top, his picture. His handsome face shining out, his bright smile, his thick hair, his clear eyes, his trademark mole, all immortalized there. It was shocking, unexpected, beautiful.

Tears ran down my cheeks and I wrapped my arms around myself, looking at his photo. I had the sudden realization that he had been so loved. And more than that, that he had been remembered. And honored. In this simple little cemetery in this quiet little town, overlooking the landscape of the town he was raised in, Gordon had been honored.

I stayed there for several minutes. My mind raced with the details of the trial and what I knew about his life. I felt cold inside as I realized that in the casket below me, his remains were there. His body would still be broken, all these years later. What those men had done to him, how they had hurt him.

I eventually turned away, but I looked back at Gordon one last time. “I honor you. I remember you.”

And as I walked away, I knew I had a long journey ahead. I had a story to tell.

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Origin

 

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Zero

My mother wrote songs as she rocked me

Singing lyrics aloud, her eyes blue on mine brown

A song of the mother Mary rocking the Christ child

A lullaby that soothed until heavy eyelids closed in sleep.

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Five

We cut holes in shoeboxes

Then covered them in paper, pink and red mostly.

Scissors sliced thick paper into hearts and letters

While scented colored markers etched our names

In grape purple and lemon yellow and licorice black.

On super hero valentines,

I wrote To’s and From’s to each member of my class

Except I wrote two for Michael, the boy who made me laugh.

I liked-him-liked-him

The way Chris liked Michelle and Jason liked Desiree.

At the Valentines Party, I placed each small card in each small box

And two in Michael’s.

But I only wrote a From on one of his cards, leaving the other blank.

If I gave two to him, the other boys would know I was different.

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Fifteen

“You are indeed one of Heavenly Father’s choice sons.

Do not in any way disappoint Him.”

The patriarch spoke kindly, firmly,

A direct message from God to me on his breath.

Weeks before, when I had told the bishop my shameful secret,

the message had been the same, kind and firm.

“God loves you, He does not tolerate sin.”

The words of the prophets, kind and firm again.

“Pray, do everything God says, and He will cure you,

Make you straight,

Because He loves you.”

And so I ket my eyes just that, straight

Focused, unerring.

Dad was gone,

And my stepfather spoke with fists and angry words.

I was a fairy, he said. I would never measure up to a real man.

But God, He heard. I just couldn’t disappoint Him.

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twenty-seven

She looked at me sincerely, tears streaming down her face,

And asked why, why after six years of dating, we hadn’t kissed,

Hadn’t held hands, not even once.

I thought of the familiar excuses, used again and again,

About trying to be moral and righteous,

About saying it wasn’t just her, that I’d never kissed anyone,

Never held anyone’s hands.

Those were true words, but not the whole truth.

She needed the whole truth.

“I’m gay,” I said. “But I’m trying to cure it.”

And she didn’t mind. And so we kissed, finally.

There was affection and regard and kindness behind it,

If not chemical attraction,

And relationships had been built on less.

And for her the feelings were real.

And so, three months later, we married.

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thirty-two

The day my second son was born, I got that same sense

Of holding my entire world in my hands.

That word again, Fatherhood,

Overwhelming in its possibility, its responsibility.

Here, a new miracle, different from his brother in every way.

But this time, our lives were different.

Early drafts of divorce papers sat on the desk at home.

I was sleeping in the basement now,

And her heart was broken,

While mine, though sad, had come up for oxygen

After three decades of holding its breath.

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thirty-eight

Pen to paper, I think back on six years of firsts.

First authentic kiss.

First try at an authentic relationship

And first authentic heartbreak.

First time dancing, euphoric and free.

First friends, real friends, finally, friends.

First realization that I like myself, powerfully,

And that I have no need to be cured of something that was never wrong.

First freedoms, from religion and deadly self-expectations.

I live now, loudly.

My sons thrive in two households, and they will tell anyone who asks

That their mother likes boys who like girls

And their father likes boys who like boys.

They are thriving, and smiling, and real.

And so is she.

And so am I.