the Mormon out of the Man

moroni

“At what point will I stop talking about Mormons? When will it no longer be a part of me?”

I leaned back in my chair, a deep sigh escaping my nose as a I did so, and I couldn’t help but smile. “I don’t think that will ever be the case.”

“But I’m not Mormon anymore! I left! I’m not in it any longer!”

“Well, neither am I. In fact, I can’t seem to stop writing about it.” Internally, I reviewed the ways Mormonism was showing up in my life, even after my years away from the religion. In fact, I’d just finished my own memoirs, and I gave it a three word title, all three words easily capturing my story: Gay Mormon Dad.

“It just makes me crazy. I don’t go to church. I don’t associate with my family. I don’t even live in Utah anymore. I just, I swear it comes up in conversation at least a few times per week.”

I laughed out loud this time. “For me, too. I mean, I do live in Utah, but it is constant. I choose biographies randomly, for example. Recently I read one about James Buchanan, the president before Abraham Lincoln. He was a terrible president, and, ironically, was probably gay. Anyway, before he led the country into Civil War, he actually sent an army out to Utah to confront Brigham Young and his followers. There was a whole chapter about how Young ordered the Saints to destroy their own lands so the army couldn’t get them, and how they later came to peace and rebuilt. I spent two days thinking about how that was the environment I grew up in. The prophet tells you to burn down your own house to defy the government, and you do it, and then he convinces you that it was what God wanted. That’s how I grew up.”

My friend rubbed his fingers over his temples, fighting off a headache. “That is the world we grew up in, isn’t it? It feels like brainwashing.”

I leaned back in my chair. “I once had someone, who is still actively Mormon, tell me that I was obsessed with Mormonism, that I couldn’t stop talking about it. He said that if I wanted to get out of the church, then I should just get out and let people who practice the religion do so in peace. He asked me whyI keep writing about it.”

“Well, what did you say?”

“I told him it’s still a part of my existence. It was the driving force of the first three decades of my life, and of my childhood. My family still actively practices. My kids’ mom grew up in it, and their heritage on both sides for generations was part of it. And it surrounds me here. The streets in my  neighborhood are named after Mormon places. The government is predominantly Mormon, and the culture all around me. The very history of the place I live is all Mormon-influenced. If I talk about grade school, my grandparents, my college years, my mission, the births of my children, being gay, being a dad, dating, or where I live, they are all tied to and influenced by Mormons.”

“Well, fuck.” My friend said, and we both laughed more loudly this time.

I jabbed his shoulder. “I guess it is easier to take the man out of the Mormon than it is to take the Mormon out of the man.”

Our conversation shifted for a bit to current events across the country. Hurricanes were ravaging Southern coastlines, again. The children of immigrants were being told by those in power that they weren’t welcome here, again. Transgender people were being banned from the military, again. Racists were marching in the streets while public officials refused to denounce them, again. Public shootings were being reported daily in the news, again. Connections to Russia were being investigated and it felt like the Cold War, again. Women’s right to health care was being debated, again. It felt like all of the most dark parts of America’s history were showing up in politics and the media in the worst ways, and in the most public ways possible. It was exhausting.

“If we left the country, moved somewhere that felt safer and more accepting, like Canada or France or wherever, I bet we would still talk about being American, almost constantly. And we would talk about being gay. And we would talk about growing up Mormon. And being parents. We would always give voice to the things that inspire us, that shape and mold us into the people that we have become. And I guess that is brainwashing in its way, but I guess it is also just human culture, the way we tend to view things through our own eyes and experiences.” I rapped my fingers on the table gently as I talked, positing a different reality that somehow felt the same.

My friend laughed again. “I guess it is easier to take the man out of the gay Mormon American dad than it is to talk the American gay Mormon American dad out of the man… or something like that.”

“Hey, not so much the American part, but that sounds like an awesome book title!”

“Man, you do love to talk about yourself.” He jabbed.

“So do you!” I jabbed back.

And so do we all.

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Independent Christian Bookstores

jesusfish

“Thank you for calling Covenant Books, I’m Dawn, how can I help you?”

“Hi, I’m Chad. I wrote a book, a memoirs of my life. I’m looking for a literary agent and a publisher to help me get it on the shelves.”

I kept enthusiasm in my voice, even though I was a bit nervous. Calls like this challenged some of my greatest fears and insecurities.

“Well, Chad, congratulations on getting your manuscript finished!” The word manuscript felt strange, it wasn’t a word that was part of my regular vocabulary. I would have to get used to it. “Tell me a bit about it!”

And so I told Dawn a bit about my book, telling her that it was my story of growing up Mormon as a gay kid in large and chaotic family, about my attempts to cure my homosexuality with religion, about getting married to a woman and having children, and about finally coming out of the closet and finding myself.

This was the fourth or fifth call to a literary agency that I had made in the past few days, and one of the agencies had already mailed me an official “we aren’t interested” letter. I’d done this once before. Just after college, years before, I had written several comic book scripts and shopped around for talented artists to draw them. Only one of my several books ever made it to print, and it had taken four years, and several thousand dollars, to publish. And then I had spent many months traveling around and selling it, never quite breaking even, and definitely never making a profit. I didn’t want to have to do that all over again.

My book now, which I was calling Gay Mormon Dad had come on suddenly. After years of blogging and writing my story, suddenly the format and layout of the book had struck me like a bolt. I’d hidden in a hotel room for four days, where I wrote the first third, and then I couldn’t stop writing it over the following weeks. Some formatting, some edits and alterations, and suddenly I had a manuscript. But I had to have a literary agent in order to connect me with publishers if I wanted this read. This book was me, my very essence, in so many ways, and I felt like it had the power to change the lives of those who read it. It could inform if not inspire. It felt like a calling to get it out there.

Dawn listened to my passionate, nervous voice for a bit, and then confidently responded. I could tell that her words were rehearsed, she must speak with many writers every day, but I could hear the warmth in her voice as well. She sounded as though she loved her job.

“The first thing I need to make sure of, you understand this is not the Covenant Publishing that is a business affiliated with the Mormon church, correct? That is a separate one. We get calls sometimes, and your book has the word Mormon in the title.”

“Oh, I don’t think the Mormon church would have any interest in publishing my book,” I laughed.

“Okay, good. Well, let me tell you what we could do for you.” She invited me to submit a full copy of the book to an editorial team, and they would review it to see if it was a good fit, to make corrections, and to recommend any formatting changes. If the book was accepted, I would then sign a contract with the company and pay a “to-be-determined” fee. That fee would go toward a cover design for the book, the initial printing, social media advertising, and the publishing of the book itself. I imagined it would be several thousand dollars out of pocket, but I didn’t know any other way around it. I grew very nervous and excited.

“The book would be available in certain places online, mostly in our European markets, and we would get it on the shelves in all of our stateside stores that want to order it. Most of these stores are independent Christian bookstores.”

“Wait, what?” I could hear the screeching tires sound effect in my head. My nervousness and excitement were replaced by a sense of dread. “Independent Christian bookstores?”

“Yes, we have a wonderful market across the country.”

“Dawn, my book in large part covers being gay, leaving Christianity, ending a marriage, and becoming an atheist, and it has references to gay sex.”

Dawn cleared her throat. “Well, like I said, our review team will determine goodness of fit with the company.”

“That isn’t the market for my book. There is no way this would be the right fit.”

For a moment, my brain flashed back to growing up Mormon in Missouri, and the hatred some of the other Christian groups had for Mormons there. I wondered if some of her initial interest in the book was due to the fact that I’d mentioned leaving Mormonism.

“Well, I certainly respect any decision you make. But if you’d like to try working together, we would certainly give the book a read and see how we feel about it.”

I thanked Dawn and hung up, drawing a black ink line through the name Covenant Publishing on my sheet of paper. Oh the irony, I thought. I envisioned the Christian mother in small town Alabama walking into her local Jesus Saves store and seeing a book called Gay Mormon Dad on the shelf. I couldn’t help it, I laughed out loud.

Back to the drawing board, I thought, and I dialed the next number on the list.

 

the day Chad died

Word spread quickly the day Chad died.

To tell the truth, I’d barely known him, although we had been in both junior high and high school together. We were in different crowds. I had friends back then, but I was one of the quieter kids ins school, still learning to develop my confidence. My social group consisted more of the ‘outcasts’, we seemed to collect a bunch of kids who didn’t really belong anywhere else, and I was the unofficial activity planner, getting all of the friends together frequently.

The other Chad, he was blonde and skinny and obnoxious. He played constant pranks and made fart noises in the hallways and was always taunting girls in class. He wasn’t a bad guy, not one of the jerks. He was more on the edge of the cool crowd, sort of like the popular click’s class clown in a way. He was funny, cute, and nice. But although we were both named Chad, we hadn’t interacted much over the years.

My high school in southern Idaho seemed to be comprised of mostly Mormon kids. Across the street from the school was the Seminary building. Each Mormon student took a full class period during school each day to go to Seminary and be instructed in church doctrine. And on a particular evening after school, the Seminary program had a class activity where Mormon students could gather to picnic and play games.

I didn’t go that night, but word spread quickly. Chad and a friend had driven a truck too quickly into the park, likely trying to show off, and the truck tires caught the gravel wrong, and the truck flipped over. And Chad died, just like that.

I remember being shocked that night by the abrupt ending of a life, one so young. It was an absolute tragedy. I remember getting together with some of my friends and sharing stories of the last time we had seen Chad, telling stories of jokes he’d told or obnoxious things he’d done. It was a haunting feeling.

In a dinner table conversation with my mother and step-father that night, we’d discussed the Mormon belief structure, that God calls souls home when he is ready for them, that Chad’s spirit would be in the spirit paradise dwelling with other loved ones until the time for the resurrection and judgement and then Chad would likely go to Heaven. He’d see his family again and he’d get a body again. I took comfort in knowing what would come next, but I was also confused and sad.

The real grief didn’t hit until the following Monday morning. I’d arrived at school early, like usual, and a group of girls sitting inside the building looked at me as if they were seeing a ghost.

One of the girls stood up, a look of horror on her face that was quickly replaced by joy. “Chad Anderson! I heard you were dead! You’re alive!”

She hugged me tightly as I felt my heart sink. I pulled away from her. “It–no, it wasn’t me. It was the other Chad. Chad Johnson.”

And the girl sank back to the floor, a new wave of tears on her cheeks.

That moment repeated itself a dozen times throughout the day, and it was painful every time. “Chad, you’re alive!” and “Chad, I’m so glad it wasn’t you!” and even one accusatory “You shouldn’t have let people think it was you, that’s cruel”.

In class that morning, a literature course that Chad had also been in, one girl burst out crying and run from the class. In Seminary class that day, the lesson had been focused on the loss of Chad and everyone was in tears. Later that day, a special testimony meeting was held in Chad’s honor, and people got up to share their thoughts and feelings, expressing gratitude for the love of God and the joy they felt even in their pain knowing that Chad had gone home with God again.

For me, Chad’s death was surreal. The only other person close to me that I’d lost before was my stepfather’s sister, Wilma, and she’d been an old woman after a long life. I didn’t know how to comprehend someone so young being gone so suddenly.

At lunch, I heard passing comments, as people tried to find some reason in the unreasonable.

“He shouldn’t have been driving so fast.”

“You know, everyone is acting like he was such a great guy, but I thought he was a jerk.”

“He was the best person I have ever known!”

“I guess it was just his time.”

“God needed him more than we did.”

I didn’t go to Chad’s funeral. I’ve never been to his grave. It’s been over 20 years since he died. He likely would have gone on to serve a Mormon mission, go to college, get married in the temple, and have children, just like we all did. I knew very little of the world beyond our small Idaho town, and there seemed to be only one future plan for all of us at that time. And truthfully, like most everyone else from high school, I probably would have never seen Chad again regardless, except perhaps through some social media photo from time to time.

But as I write this all these years later, now as a professional who frequently helps those impacted by tragedy, including losing a loved one suddenly, my mind moves back to Chad from time to time. I think of how easily his death could have been averted. I think of the community and school that grieved his loss. I think of how horrible I felt when people had thought it was me who was gone. And while I still can’t make sense of it all, I’m glad to be alive.

And I remember.

Burned

abinadi

I can see myself up there

High on a mountaintop

(“A banner is unfurled”

the familiar sing-song lyrics autoplay in my head

by rote

and I squelch them swiftly).

From such a vantage

I could view the entire valley

with perspective

and see all the corners and shadows

that have given me life.

In them, I would find my heritage,

equal parts handcart and homophobia.

 

The streets are quiet up here

Full of newly-weds and nearly-deads they say

because history is changing and people with it.

Those who built these sidewalks

are no longer the ones treading upon them.

 

The street signs bear Mormon names.

Zarahemla: fictional capital city,

Cumorah: hill full of secrets,

and Abinadi, a man I once admired

because he allowed himself to be burned to death.

 

My back is to the city now

and all is rustling leaves

and birdsong

and one lone cricket

and sunshine on my skin

and I think of how I was carried here

by pioneer women

and how I almost

let myself burn.