Sex Education Part 3: the Law of Chastity

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?” I asked.

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

“Um, I guess so.”

“Do you avoid pornography?”

“What’s that?”

“Images or videos of a sexual nature.”

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

“And do you masturbate?”

“What’s that?”

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

“No, I’ve never done that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sex Education Part 2: And None Will Molest Them…

I loved the hymns. I loved all of the rituals of Mormonism, in fact. Prayers before bed, church every Sunday, fasting and tithing. But the hymns, sitting in the chapel and singing with the Saints on Sundays, they made my heart soar. My family was very musical, all of us, and we would sing loudly in the congregation, harmonizing and singing in all four parts. I loved watching the conductor at the front of the chapel. I loved the piano refrains. I loved tracing the black notes in the hymnals with my eyes.
Now let us rejoice in the day of salvation.
No longer as strangers on earth need we roam.
Good tidings are sounding to us and each nation,
And shortly the hour of redemption will come,
When all that was promised the Saints will be given,
And none will molest them from morn until ev’n,
And earth will appear as the Garden of Eden,
And Jesus will say to all Israel, “Come home.”
I knew very early on of my divine purpose. I was a child of God, with a divine destiny in store. Where much was given, much was required. Because I knew of my godly heritage, I was expected to be obedient and follow all of the rules because I loved God and he loved me. Everything happened for a reason. God saw and heard everything and there was nothing he didn’t know. And if anything bad happened, it was because God had something to teach his children. It all made sense. Perfect sense.
There were a lot of women in my home, and I was often hungry for male attention. I had five sisters and my mom was responsible for most of the parenting. Dad was gone a lot, and always quiet and sad when he was home. That left my brother, Kenny. He was 8 years older, and a bully, constantly teasing me and my little sister, Sheri. We shared a bedroom, and he made it widely known that I was not the kind of brother he wanted around. I was too much of a sissy and I liked girly things.
So far as I can put it all together, I was 5 when the abuse started, and I think I was around 8 when it ended. My memories of this time remain fractured. As with all survivors of trauma, my memories are sharp and clear on certain things, and completely blank on others. I write this at the age of 40, and it still brings back dark shameful painful yucky feelings to consider what happened. My family also remains extremely uncomfortable with me talking about it. So I won’t be overly specific, I’ll simply talk about the experience itself.
Kenny, who was in some ways a child himself (though the older he got, the harder it is to use the excuse, and, again, I was only 5), he used the typical tactics of all abusers. There was grooming. He made the abuse feel like a reward for good behavior and deeds. If I helped with his chores, we could go up to our room and spend quality time together. I was warned not to tell anyone. I was given instructions while at school to think up new games we could play together. At times, when I tried to initiate encounters between us, he would shove me aside and embarrass me if he wasn’t in the mood. It was sometimes frequent, sometimes infrequent, and I kept it silent for a very very long time.
As I look back, I think that I thought of it almost like a game. As I process memories not related to the abuse, they are otherwise very normal. Family dinners, spelling bees, swimming lessons, Christmas mornings. My brain hones in on very specific instances and the things that happened, and then there are big gaps. There may have been weeks or months when the abuse didn’t happen at all, and there were times when it was frequent. I don’t know exactly how it started, and I don’t know exactly how it stopped.
I do now that by the time I was baptized at the age of 8, I knew far too much about the male body and how it worked. I still had a lot of innocence, but I knew about masturbation, and intercourse, and orgasm. I knew about sexual shame and secret keeping. And so, that day when my dad dipped me beneath the water and declared I was without sin, that day when I was wearing white, I didn’t realize how deep the darkness within me was. I had no idea how far the roots of pain and confusion had spread.
First there was the awareness that I was different, something I ultimately learned to mean I was gay. And then there was the abuse. And those two things in conjunction with the messages I received about God and divine destiny created deep wells of confusion within me. I developed an understanding that I was designed wrong, that there was something inherently flawed within me. And that deep pain, it was with me during all of those normal moments of childhood. Through the chores, the stories I wrote in notebooks, the playing with friends at recess. It was there on summer vacations, and in Cub Scout activities. It was there when I made friends with boys and girls, when my oldest siblings moved out of the house, and when one of our dogs was hit by a car.
I learned to put on a happy face. It was genuine. I was a happy kid. I was kind and compassionate, I cared about others, I loved learning about animals. All those parts of me were real. But they also became the parts that I learned to show the world while I kept the rest secret. It’s what was expected. It’s what Kenny taught me to do, but I’d learned to hide my differences even before that.
Years later, as an adult, I would look back at these early photos of me, and see an innocent kid. I was the perfect target. I was eager to please, accommodating, happy, easy to manipulate. I kept confidences. I was hungry for attention. And I was in a busy household where it was hard to notice if one kid was going through hard times, especially if he was quiet about it. And above all else, he had easy access to me. I was right there, one bed away, right behind closed doors.
I turned 8, and Kenny turned 16. He started drinking more, and he got a job, and he cycled through girlfriends. And I had no idea how unhappy mom and dad were, they were good at keeping their own secrets. But by the time I was 11, they would split up and we would move across the country, away from Kenny and dad and my childhood home.
And then adolescence began. And suddenly being different from everyone wasn’t okay anymore. I would only become more aware of it with every passing day.
Jesus

Sex Ed Part 1:Happily Ever Afters

Chad and Betsy, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g

first comes loves, then comes marriage, then comes Betsy pushing a baby carriage!

When I was a young kid, I didn’t know anything about sex, but I learned pretty quickly that the world revolved around it.

I was born a boy in 1978. I had a penis between my legs, and the doctors wrapped me in blue. My parents had one older boy at home and four girls. Having a penis meant a blue blanket. It meant trucks and tools and balls. My parents held their little boy and they looked forward to a future in Mormonism for me, one where I would follow all of the rules and rites of passage. It was a long path of success and worthiness for boys in my religion.

I was only a few weeks old when my father held me in his arms and, surrounded by other male Priesthood holders at church, he gave me a name and a blessing. I was named Chad Deloy. I was blessed that I would be a worthy and believing Mormon all of my life. I was told I would get the Priesthood one day, that I would be an obedient son of God, that I would go on a mission and eventually marry in the temple. I was told that I would serve in the church my entire life. And if I did that, followed all the rules, then I’d get to have a worthy wife sealed to me, and we would have children, and after I died, I had the potential to be a god myself. All that because I was born with a penis. The women in my family must have looked on, remembering their own promised blessings, to be wives and mothers, attached forever to their husbands.

Like anyone else, I can’t remember much about those first few years. I know Mom doted on me a lot. The older kids had so much chaos going on, but I was the baby. I was chubby and snuggly, and Mom wrote music as she rocked me back and forth. It was the early 1980s, which meant watching Disney movies on VHS tapes, and getting up early on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons. It meant storybooks from the library. And I learned very early on that men were the warriors, women were the princesses, and every story seemed to end with marriage and love. Men and women made husbands and wives and then they had kids, this was the format for everything.

And at church, the stories from the scriptures were the same. It was all about love and virtue, obedience and worthiness. But the rules were clear long before I understood them. Save yourself for marriage. Sex only between a man and a woman, and only when married. Worthiness was related to virtue. Don’t lust, no heavy-petting, no pornography, no masturbation, no homosexuality. Man and wife, then children. And whatever sex was fit into all of that.

As early as three and four, I can remember comments about all of these things. “He’s such a handsome young man, he’ll make a woman very happy one day.” Talk on the playground turned to discussion about who you had crushes on, and who was going steady or “going out” with who, and who had boyfriends or girlfriends. Every adventure was a mimic of what media we were consuming. Men fought the villains and girls were to be saved.

I was five when I started realizing I was different from other kids. The other boys were into sports and competitive play. They were aggressive, they teased, they played rough. I was more into story-telling, nurturing, art, reading, and I preferred playing with the girls at recess. And when the boys talked about crushes on girls, I found myself with crushes on the boys. But I knew even then that talking about it would mean getting teased. I remember pretending to have crushes on a girl in my class named Betsy, a red-head with freckles. My brother told me I had to kiss a girl in order to be a ‘real man’, so I pretended like I had kissed Betsy, and he’d punched me on the arm to congratulate me. All of that was there as early as kindergarten. The subtle messages were hitting from every front, from the media, from church, from culture. It was simple. Boys and girls, sex and marriage and family. It was all around me, constantly.

But I didn’t see much of it at home. My oldest siblings dated, had boyfriends. My mom and dad were married, and that meant they were together forever, for all of life and into eternity, as the Mormons taught it. But I could tell early on that they didn’t seem happy. Dad cried a lot and laid on the floor all the time. He also lost his temper a lot. And Mom was so focused on the kids, on being busy, cooking meals and cleaning house, spending special time with all of us. My little sister was born in 1982, and she had another baby to focus on, making seven of us in total. Mom and dad didn’t touch much. The family was busy, school and church, homework and chores. It was a chaotic and busy life. It was just the way of things.

Marriage and then “Happily Ever After.” And I realized early on that we were the Happily Ever After. All those Disney stories ended with that. “And they lived happily ever after.” This was that. Dad went on his mission, he and mom got married in the temple, and then they built a family. This was it. This was what happened to Snow White and Cinderella and all the others: they got married and had families and then went forward with all of that. So I didn’t know what sex was, but the world revolved around it. And this, well, this was it.

And right around that time, my brother started touching me behind closed doors. And over the next few years, I developed a very different understanding.

HEA

So Carefully Contained

Lately, I feel fingers scratching at the edges of reality. 

It’s like those moments when you first wake, 

when you slowly come aware, 

when you remember you have a body and a bed in the darkness

when everything downloads itself back into your brain

and then you pick up where you left off. 

There is more to all of this

(there has to be)

meaning behind the madness

not God but… something. Something out there that I can make sense of. 

 

I created these walls around me. I painted them brightly. They protect me. 

When I grew weary of boundaries, of need, of being hurt by others, 

I changed myself. I made it so that I would reduce hurt, 

so I could expect more from myself and less from others

I set my own terms and began dreaming bigger and achieving more. 

And here I am, in the dwelling I desired

Full, ripe, plentiful, rich

So carefully contained in this space

the one I created

and wondering what else is out there to be discovered. 

I love it here, but I’m outgrowing it, I can feel it. 

The old itch is returning, the one that tells me I need to change. 

I need. To change. I need. More. I need. (What is it I need?)

Desire, lust, forgiveness, sanctification, release, horizons, animal passion, to be seen, to be heard, to feel loved, to forgive, to change the world.

I need. 

 

Lately, I feel fingers scratching at the edges of my reality. 

They mean something. Some success, some discovery, something

Right around the corner. 

And it’s going to require me spilling over the edges of this container I’ve built and embracing.

Embracing. Risking. Trying. 

It’s right there. 

(I need.)

 

 

Milk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heaven or Hell?

“Dad, how come you don’t believe in God now?”

I sat at the stoplight, looking up at a Christian billboard, one of those aggressive ones that shows up all over Utah lately. “Will you be in Heaven, or in Hell?” it asked, with dramatic images on each side. There was a phone number, and a scripture that I would never look up.

Screen Shot 2019-04-05 at 9.41.14 PM

I cocked my head, looking back at A, my precocious 7-year old. He was bouncing his new plastic red-eyed tree frog around in the back seat, idly playing. Although he’d been the one to ask the question, he was barely paying attention now. His older brother, J, now 10 years old, was looking out the window.

“Why do you ask?” I said as the light turned green.

“Well, you’re an atheist now, right? But why?”

I looked at him in the rearview mirror. “Well, I’m happy to answer, but I’m just wondering why you want to know that right now?”

A shrugged, looking at the frog in its red eyes. “I was just wondering, I guess.”

I considered for a moment. My kids had been asking me hard questions for years, and I had learned years before that the direct approach was generally the best one.

“Well, buddy, we can have more serious talks about this when you get older. But I just want you to know that I love you whether you believe in god or not, it just so happens that don’t believe in one anymore.”

I saw J turn his head, more intent in the conversation now. “We know, Dad. You love us no matter what.”

I smiled softly. I loved that he could say that with confidence. Just a few nights before, we had been watching an episode of Queer Eye on Netflix together, and a young woman had talked about getting disowned by her family when she came out as gay. J had snuggled tightly into me and said, “You would never kick me out for anything like that. You and Mom both love me.” I adored that assurance he had in that.

I pulled up to another red light. “Okay, so I was Mormon for a long time, you know that. When I was Mormon, I believed in God and I said lots of prayers and everything. But lots of people told me that I was bad for being gay. Some even told me that God could make me straight if I was a really good boy. And I was a really good boy, but God never made me straight. So when I stopped being Mormon, I stopped believing in God.”

I worried even that much was too much information, but they both seemed to understand. “Okay, cool,” said A.

J looked back out the window. “I haven’t decided if I believe in God or not. But maybe I’ll decide when I’m a grown-up.”

I grinned widely. “That sounds perfect.”

And soon we were home, and we played with toys together, then I made dinner while they watched a cartoon. As I grilled the eggs and stirred up the protein pancakes, I contemplated how far removed I am from my former lifetime. I used to be so caught up in the Mormonism of it all, both before and after I left the religion. Now I barely noticed an impact in my life at all, in any capacity.

In November, 2015, the Mormon Church implemented a policy that said that gay people who married a same-sex partner were considered apostate. Then it went on to say that the children of gay people couldn’t be blessed or baptized until they were adults, and only after disavowing their parents. Back then, those three and a half years ago, I had had such a profound anger response to this news. How dare they! How dare they use their influence to shame and label. How dare they use that dirty word, apostate. How dare they make it about children.

Well, this week, they changed their minds. Apparently God decided that it was mean to do this. Now gay people aren’t apostates, they are only sinners. And their kids don’t have to be kicked out any more. A step in the right direction, perhaps. The news came without apology, without acknowledgement for the extreme damage done in the lives of so many three years ago.

But the new news didn’t hit me at all. I barely reacted. When my friends posted notes on social media, heartfelt paragraphs about their coming out journeys, about their struggle to belong to a religion that didn’t want them, about their deep and abiding pain with it all, I just casually observed. I grimaced, I shrugged, I barely noticed the bad taste in my mouth. Look at this as evidence for god. Why would I possibly believe in god when he was always presented to me this way.

After dinner, and pajamas, and a dance party, and brushing teeth, I tucked my kids into their beds. I gave them both huge hugs and told them how much I loved them. I gave them both sincere eye contact. “You’re important to me,” I told them both. And they went to sleep, knowing they are loved.

An hour later, I went to bed myself, and I contemplated god for a minute. I thought of the rituals I had growing up. The shameful prayers on my knees, the waking every morning and reading chapters of scripture, the three hours of church every Sunday morning, the 2 years I spent as a missionary, the ten per cent of my income that I paid to the church for the first 32 years of my life, the pictures of Jesus and prophets and temples that lined the wall of my home growing up. I remembered how ‘all in’ I was, and how hard it was to leave it all.

And then I assessed my simple and beautiful life now. Happy kids, a job that makes a difference, and a man that I love who shares my bed. And if God looked down at all of this and saw me as a sinner, as an abomination, as an apostate, well, I want no part of that god.

I thought back to the billboard. Heaven or Hell? I’ll take whichever this one is, the one without god and Mormons and self-hatred. This one suits me just fine.

The Garden of Good and Evil: a night out in Savannah

I couldn’t sleep. My thoughts were still racing back on everything that had happened at the club. I hadn’t lost my temper like that in so long. If I really thought about it (and it took some thinking), I had maybe gotten that angry four or maybe six times in my entire life.

Mike, my boyfriend, lay down facing me. He was sleepy, but worried about me. “You okay?”

I sighed, deep. “My head is just all over the place. My thoughts spinning. I’m still so damn mad, but I feel guilty for getting that mad, even though anger was a perfectly justified response in this situation.”

“Yeah, you didn’t do anything wrong, but your anger certainly caught me off-guard.” Mike hates anger. When we had left the club, I could see how shaken he was.

We were in Savannah, Georgia. I was shocked at how beautiful the city was. Parks every few blocks, perfect blue skies, trendy food establishments, cute shops, everyone friendly. We’d spent the day exploring and had both commented on how pretty it was, muttering how we could live in a city like this if we wanted.

It was a Thursday, and we had ventured over to the local gay club to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, one of our favorite shows. We loved watching it in a bar with a crowd of people who cheered and jeered as the show broadcast. We shared a drink and laughed and were having a pleasant evening. The bartender, an adorable transgender woman with a smoky laugh and terrible jokes (“You better stop undressing me with your eyes! I see you there!” she’d said, playfully) told us that after the show, there was a local drag show, and the club would get much busier. And despite it being a week night, staying up late on vacation was perfectly acceptable, so we’d decided to stay.

And the club certainly did get busier. Several dozen people came in to watch some of the local drag queens perform, and then amateur queens were competing in a talent competition. They sang and danced, then the more experienced queens gave them advice. There was applause and alcohol, and I was having a blast people-watching. And then a sexy college-aged guy stood directly in front of Mike and I.

He definitely drew our attention. Very tight shorts and a form-fitting shirt. Incredible body. He was likely a wrestler, maybe a lacrosse player. He could easily pose on magazine covers wearing most anything and look amazing. Full lips, thick hair, big brown eyes. He was both adorable and sexy. And he clearly noticed us.

The college guy kept turning, making eye contact, trying to get our attention. He “accidentally” pressed up against us both a few times. He must have known we were a couple, as we were standing close together. He turned and placed a hand on my chest suggestively, playfully, then turned and did the same to Mike. A few more brushes up against us and I finally patted his arm.

“Hey! You can say hello if you want. I’m Chad, this is Mike.”

He answered, loudly, and was clearly drunk. “My name is Chad and Mike, too!” He gave a long exaggerated laugh, then invited us to guess his name. This went on for a while. While the show was going on, we made several attempts at conversation, but he just kept laughing and being sarcastic, so I gave up trying. That’s when he turned and grabbed me right on the crotch, squeezing his hand. “I’m Dawson!” he finally yelled.

I winced at his grab. I had given zero indication that I was seeking that type of contact from him. We were in a crowded bar on a week night, and I was there with my boyfriend. I cocked my head sideways and pulled back, indicating that I wasn’t interested. Dawson just laughed loudly and turned around. I assumed he had gotten the hint, but just seconds later, I saw him backing into us, pressing our bodies against the bar as he stood there. His back and ass and legs right against us, his hands starting to wander again. This time I pushed him gently forward, creating space between us. I still didn’t say anything, but I was clearly not participating with his gropes, and he was not getting the hint.

I pictured this same scenario happening in a regular bar on a weeknight. A girl out with friends, says hi to a cute guy who is drunk, and seconds later he squeezes her boob, her pushing away from him and him grabbing back. I winced at this scenario, here or there. Gross.

I focused back on the performer, several rows ahead of us, but Dawson turned his head over his shoulder, making eye contact, and shook his body a bit. I looked down and realized he had pulled his pants down in the back. He wasn’t wearing underwear. He was literally showing us both his ass. His naked ass. He had bared his ass. In a crowded bar. I closed my eyes, beginning to get angry. This kid wasn’t getting the hint.

When I opened my eyes, Dawson had his pants back up, but he was reaching over and trying to slide his hand down the front of Mike’s pants. Mike grabbed his hand and pulled it away. And he finally verbalized how we were both feeling. “No.” It was a simple, soft command, conveying disinterest and anger.

Not getting the hint again, Dawson then turned and tried to slide his hand down my pants. I gripped his hand and pulled it away. “Dude. No!”

And instead of walking away, Dawson tried one more time. He turned toward us and then tried sliding both of his hands down both of our pants.

And that did it. I was done.

I grabbed both of his hands and spoke very loudly and very firmly while looking him right in the eyes. Several people around us heard the interchange over the sound of the drag queens singing.

“Get a hint! We said no! If you try to grab me or my boyfriend again, I’ll punch you in your fucking face, got it? We have given you NO indication of interest, and you just keep going! You bared your ass in public, man! NO! You do NOT have our consent, especially not here in a crowd of people! And if you are grabbing people in a bar without consent, that’s fucking assault, you got it? Now are you gonna back off, or do I need to say more? Back the fuck off!”

Dawson, still clearly drunk, widened his eyes in surprise, pulled his hands away, and quickly exited the area. My heart was pounding in my chest. Mike was shaken. Barely speaking, we got our jackets and quietly left the bar to walk the mile back to our Airbnb.

Now, laying in bed, I looked into Mike’s eyes. “Do those tactics work for that kid? Was he just drunk? Is this a regular pattern for him? What was he hoping would happen? Fuck, men are the worst. Guys doing this to women in bars, guys doing this to other guys in bars. Whether he was drunk or not, he’s still responsible for his actions. Like I wish I hadn’t threatened to punch him (like I could do that even if I tried). I wish I’d just given a very firm no. But I feel like I was pretty damn patient. Maybe he took our silence as acceptance? Whatever happened to ‘hey, handsome, I think you’re cute’? When did that turn into grabbing someone’s privates and baring your ass? What is happening? Shit like this makes me not want to go out anymore.”

I was rambling, I realized. I sighed, deeply. It felt good to get some of my thoughts out in the open. Mike listened, calm and consistent as he always is.

“Maybe it’s something to do with growing up gay,” he said. “Maybe this is just how guys learn to get attention. Maybe he was taught along the way somewhere that this is what is expected of him.”

I considered that for a moment. “Or maybe he’s just an asshole who can’t take a hint. The chest touching, that was charming in a way, strangely. The grabbing of my dick? Not at all. But once he started trying to put his hand down our pants, even after getting a no, that’s just plain assault, no matter what his history is.”

I took time to consider gay culture as I know it. Men are constantly meeting men online, on apps, where they send photos of their genitals before they do of their faces. They ask what a person’s preferred sexual position is before they ask their name. They want to know how big the other guy’s dick is or how fit he is before they determine if he is worth knowing as a person. Is that what people have learned to expect from each other? Are we making histories of being closeted and feeling traumatized, are we hiding from loneliness and a desire for connection, for something more? Is this what it is all building to, all the effort to come out and build a hopeful future? Or was this just some kid in a bar who couldn’t take a hint?

We talked a bit about growing up gay, about gay culture, about anger. We talked about people we knew back in Salt Lake City who might have really enjoyed Dawson’s aggressive attentions. And then we talked about guys we knew who were like Dawson, drunk and aggressively flirting in bars on a Thursday night. Ugh. I felt too old for this shit. I missed my kids, suddenly, my routines.

That night, I wrestled a bit with my own doubts. I hate losing my temper like that. I didn’t do anything wrong, and I still felt shitty. What did I learn from all of this, what did this tell me about myself, my world, my culture. Suddenly, I remembered the mural outside of the gay club, along the brick wall. A memorial to Lady Chablis, a transgender drag performer who graced the stages of Savannah for something like 40 years, brought to world fame for her appearance in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. An icon. She’d only died in 2016, just three years before. How many men sat to watch her perform in that very club, searching for themselves, for belonging, through all of those years. After Stonewall, through the AIDS Crisis, and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and Matthew Shephard, and the years of reparative therapy, and the passage of gay marriage. All of those men, for all of those years, fumbling to belong, struggling to find their place.

And suddenly I found compassion for Dawson. And that made me angry all over again.

Chablis

First Love

FirstLove My first week at Ricks College started just two weeks after I returned from my Mormon mission in January of 2000. I spent my last months as a missionary in rural Delaware, and I just no longer gave a shit. By the end, I was going through the motions, knocking on the doors and following the rules, for the most part, but I stopped praying, studying the scriptures, and journaling. I realized by that point that a cure for homosexuality was just not possible, no matter how dedicated I was or how many people I converted.

I lived at home with my mother and little sister during that first semester. I slept in my old bedroom, four walls that felt so familiar. The same painting of Jesus on the wall, the bookshelves full of bagged and boarded comic books, the same clothes in the closet. It smelled the same. The air hit the walls in the same way. But I was different. I was 21 now.

I got a full-time job working at a call center for a pyramid company, a place where customers signed up to receive monthly orders for a fee, as they worked on signing up new customers on a monthly basis so they could unlock new benefits. The shifts were busy, but they paid a bit above minimum wage, and I needed the cash. Full-time school plus a vehicle and insurance and gas money, well, it was going to add up over the next few years.

And so on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I drove the 45 minutes from Shelley, Idaho to Rexburg, Idaho in my little two-wheel drive red truck. It performed well enough, except when going up hills, or in wind, or in the snow, but I made it work.

I signed up for 15 credits that first semester. I’d start with the basics, working toward my declared major in Social Work. I had English, History, Introduction to Acting, Men’s Choir, and a Book of Mormon class.

It felt amazing to be on campus. There was an energy in the brisk winter air, a group of like-minded youth, people who mostly looked like me and believed the same as me. The buildings bore the names of prominent Mormon leaders from the past. It was common for classes to begin with prayer and sometimes hymns or a scripture shared that was relevant to the chemistry or classic literature or algebra lesson. In this learning environment, we already knew that the Book of Mormon was true, there was no need to debate about it, so a study of the American Revolution could automatically, and without argument, include the history of the Nephites. I was hungry for knowledge. And, if I’m honest, for escape from myself.

My best friend, Jesse, from high school was already a student there. We got together for lunch every day I was on campus. After lunch, we headed out into the courtyard where we could, and I quote, “Scope on girls”. We used a 5 to 10 rating system for the girls that walked past. I know it was supposed to go one to ten, but we seemed to have an unspoken agreement that putting anyone below a 5 felt cruel. Mormon college girls everywhere. Blondes and brunettes, tall and short, leaner and heavier. We commented on the ones who wore too much make-up, or the ones that didn’t realize how pretty they were, on the ones who seemed to have good solid testimonies and sweet spirits. We laughed about how some of the girls were probably there to get married, but how they likely wouldn’t find anyone before they turned 21 and so they would just end up going on missions themselves. Once in a while, we saw a girl as young as 18 or 19 pushing a baby carriage, walking toward married student housing. Jesse said he couldn’t wait for that, finding a girl to carry his children. He said that, but I knew what he meant, that he was very excited to be able to start having sex and hopefully soon.

One day, over lunch, Jesse asked if we could sit in a remote corner of the lunchroom so he could talk freely. He was wearing a green t-shirt with wolves on it, and it was very tight. He had a muscular chest, big shoulders and arms, and an insane smile. I made sure I was looking right into his eyes as he talked, but that wasn’t necessarily easier. His blue eyes were piercing. He was so damn handsome.

“Dude!” He always called me dude. “So there is this girl Ava from my science class. She’s a total 9. Blonde hair, perfect lips, amazing body. We were flirting and she gave me her number and we texted a bit and then Saturday night she basically booty called me. She told me to meet her in the Gardens. She had to sneak out cause it was past curfew at the dorms, but we met there and made out for like two hours. And then like back in my car for another two hours. It was the hottest make-out I’ve ever had, like ever. She kept like sucking on my tongue, like it was a popsicle. Like I was just sitting there forever like ‘bleeeeeh’ and she’s just sucking on it. It was weird but awesome. And then she had to hop the gate to sneak back in. It was so so hot. I think I’m going to ask her to the dance this weekend, but I’m going to have to wear like four extra pairs of briefs over my garments cause I’m totally gonna end up getting hard dancing with her and that would be so awkward if she noticed. Dude, it was so amazing. How about you, have you been macking on any girls, or are you still part of the VL Club?”

I put on my familiar grin, the same one I’d been using since high school in conversations like these. VL Club stood for Virgin Lips Club. And yes, I was still a part of it. “I just haven’t found the right girl yet.”

Jesse rolled his eyes. “Dude! How long are you going to wait! You’re 21 and you haven’t even kissed a girl yet!”

He kept talking, listing all the girls from high school that he remembered, girls that, according to him, I could have made out with if I wanted to. But he didn’t understand. He couldn’t. It was him I wanted to make out with. I met Jesse when I was 15, back when things at home were going so bad. He transferred into school my sophomore year, half-way through the semester, after his parents’ divorce. He was super cute. And he was nice to me. We hung out all the time. He considered me his best friend. I hadn’t really had one of those before. And the next two years had been full of video games and movies, double dates, pizza, church activities, and sleepovers. He talked about hot girls constantly, and always wondered why I didn’t. There were times back then when he would sleep over and share a bed with me. He’d lay next to me and my heart would thump so hard in the darkness. I was aware of his body right next to mine, his breathing. He slept in a pair of briefs, that’s it. I could just reach over and grab his hand, or his leg, or his—And the very thought of that had always left me nauseous because I knew it was so wrong. I just wanted him. I wanted him to notice me. I wanted him to want me in the way that I wanted him. But it would never happen. It couldn’t. I was broken, designed wrong. I couldn’t ever let him know how I felt. He’d never be making out with me in the gardens on a Saturday night and bragging about it the following Monday. I’d never suck on his tongue like a popsicle in his car. He’d never go on a date with me and wear four extra pairs of briefs to hide his arousal. He wasn’t gay. He was normal, and I was the one who was broken. I was in love with a guy who couldn’t possibly love me back, and I was so ashamed that I couldn’t even talk to God about it. I couldn’t even put it in my journal, because what if my future kids read this about me. This was cruelty in its sharpest form, it felt like. It felt unbearable.

Jesse hit my arm with a closed fist. “Dude! Where did your brain go just then? Look over your shoulder, ten o’clock. There are like eight hotties all at one table, all of them are eights or above. Let’s walk over there and introduce ourselves.”

I looked over. The girls noticed us looking and some of them smiled, Jesse and I smiled back. I turned back to Jesse. “Look, I’ve got a paper due in English, actually. I should head to the library and finish it before class.” There I was with another excuse about why I wasn’t dating women. I was so used to lying now, to others and to myself, that it didn’t even feel like lying anymore.

Jesse punched my shoulder a little harder. “Priorities, elder!” He still called me ‘Elder’, a term he had used during his own missionary service to the other guys around him. It was almost a term of affection for him. “This is what is going to happen. This weekend, we are going on a double date. I will set you up. Me and Ava, you with one of her roommates or something. And you will finish that date with a kiss. You’re just gonna lean over and kiss her right on the mouth when she’s least expecting it. And I will watch you do it. You got it?”

“Yeah, yeah, I got it.” I laughed outwardly, but the second I walked away, my smile died right there on my face, and a deep furrow settled between my eyebrows. I remembered being 11 years old, a full decade before, and my best friend Jason at the time making me stay after school and shoot basketball until I finally made a basket from the free throw line. I’d been making excuses, finding reasons not to play with him because I hated sports, but he told me I wasn’t leaving that blacktop until I scored one basket. “We’ll make a man out of you yet!” he had said to me then. Or my brother, when I was five, telling me I had to kiss a girl to be a real man. Or my mission president just a few months before saying that the Lord had a beautiful wife in store for me as a reward for being a faithful missionary. It all felt eerily similar to Jesse trying to force my first kiss. “And I will watch you do it,” he had said. I walked away from that conversation, deeply angry and horribly ashamed.

That weekend, I got mysteriously ill and couldn’t make it on the date. The rest of the semester passed. We continued scoping out girls at lunchtime. Jesse went through a few girlfriends. I moved to campus and became Jesse’s roommate, sleeping one bed over from him. And I started drowning myself in everything. I worked full time. I took 18 or 21 credits at a time. I auditioned for school plays so I could perform in the evenings. I went on dates and to dances and I was perfectly respectful to every girl, but still no kiss. I just couldn’t do it. I wasn’t scared, I just wasn’t wired for it, it grossed me out. I respected women, liked them so much, but there was nothing romantic or chemical for me there. I desperately wanted to be cast as the romantic lead in a school play so that I could force myself to finally kiss a girl, but it never happened. In fact, I wouldn’t kiss anyone until I was 27, and that would be the girl I would marry. We dated for six years, off and on, and I kissed her for the first time on the night that I told her I was gay.

Jesse and I went on to be roommates in college for the next three years. He slept in his underwear, he walked around nude, he had girls over. And in time, I somehow just got over my crush. It went away, it died inside me like my hopes for a future where I would be happy. Being gay wasn’t an option, and I couldn’t make myself straight, so what else was there except to keep going on, lying and being sad.

In 2004, Jesse got married to a gorgeous woman from California, and I was his best man. I stood at his side smiling, posing in the photos. At the reception, he pulled me aside and gave me a huge bear hug. “Dude!” he whispered. “I got married! I’m about to get so laid!”

And I was happy for him. How could I not be? He had it all now, the wife, the temple marriage, the future eternal family, and the best friend still at his side, cheering him on. The best friend that he knew better than anyone. The best friend that he didn’t know at all.

Inner Dialogue

I’ve been working on mindfulness lately. Slowing the world down. I’ve been practicing this for years, and I still have more work to do. Lately, my meditation has been all about inward body monitoring. Breathe, focus, calm, and a focus on what is happening under my eyelids, or against the lining of my stomach; picking out sore spots in my back, slowly and deliberately; feeling where cloth is touching my skin and how that is distinct from the air. It’s powerful work, and it brings a calm I couldn’t have anticipated.

Mindfulness is applied to other areas of my life as well. Mindfulness in the way I’m spending money. Mindfulness in the types of food I’m choosing to eat, and when. Mindfulness in how I spend time with my children, in the way I exercise, in how I read books, in how I spend my mornings. I know the difference between peace and discord, and I’m ever striving toward peace. Accountability. Integrity.

This morning, I put mindfulness in a new and unexpected direction. I lent it toward the inner, critical dialogue, the one that seems to play on autopilot during moments of vulnerability. In the last few years, I’ve worked to silence that voice. It runs so far in the background now. But I found it sparking up while I was exercising, and I paid attention to it, from a non-judgmental space. I just observed it there, from deep down inside me. And the moment I allowed it to speak, I realized it wouldn’t shut up. I realized it never has.

I was stretching on a yoga mat at the gym. I was in a black tank top and orange camouflage shorts, and I had on long Wonder Woman socks, a pair given to me as a gift recently. My phone and my library book, a collection of letters that I planned to read between sets, sat on the floor next to me. It was a quieter day at the gym, only 6:45 am, but the morning regulars were there, walking around, gabbing, listening to music, lifting weights. A blonde woman kept slamming a ball on the floor and I could feel the tremors beneath me. All the way across the gym, a man was dropping heavy weights on the floor as he grunted loudly, and I could hear the crash every time. Obnoxious 90s rap music played. The wind was blowing outside. I was hungry, and sore, and still sleepy.

A gym regular walked past, one I used to have a crush on years ago. I remembered asking him out a few times a few years back and he’d never responded one way or the other, reacting with ambivalence and a shrug. I remembered feeling, back then, like I wasn’t good enough to get his attention. He was younger, fitter, and must have his pick of men, I told myself. Or maybe I was intimidating. Or maybe too old, too out of shape, too talkative. Maybe my teeth weren’t straight enough. Or maybe he just wasn’t interested. Then again, he hadn’t answered at all, so maybe I wasn’t even interested in the first place. Maybe I’d been desperate. Maybe it had just been a passing crush. Maybe if I’d gotten to know him, I wouldn’t have been interested at all.

And, in fact, I wasn’t interested. Not now. I’ve been with a man I love very much for the last two years. And yet those feelings were still there, deep down, that old dialogue. The ones that spoke to insecurity, confusion, harsh self-criticism. The ones that told me I was never good enough. The ones that tried to make sense of the world as I understood it and why I never seemed to fit in. The ones I grew up with. Instead of silencing them, I spend some time with them. Safely. I observed them as I let that narrative continue. I closed my eyes as I did sit-ups and planks and twists. It was easy to give it voice. I’d spent so long there, so long, so many years.

Does he notice me now, I thought. Does he see me. If I asked him why he’d never been interested, what would he say. If I were to ask him why he never responded back then, what would he say, how would he respond. I found my internal self playing out some form of the conversation in my brain. You were too needy back then, he might say. Or maybe he might say that if I looked then like I do now, more fit and focused on myself, maybe he would have been interested. What would I have said back, I wondered. Would I have told him to fuck off, that he should have gotten to know me back then, that I was worth his time then and now I wasn’t sure he was worth mine. Would I walk away with head held high, would I gush, feel confused, brag about how happy I am now. How would I respond. Of course he wasn’t interested, of course. You were insecure, you never measured up, you had children, you were in debt, your teeth weren’t straight, you’d been married, you waited too long to come out of the closet, you didn’t love yourself enough.

Guh. I sat up on the mat and took a long inward breath. That inner dialogue. Playing out these shame scenarios that would never happen and that I wouldn’t want to happen in the first place. Listening to those inner voices, the ones I had grown up with for so long, the ones that had infected my head for all of those years. The constant measuring, the never being enough, the endless comparisons. I wasn’t that person any more. My way free had been hard fought and hard won. It had taken effort, therapy, soul-searching. I had a healthy spirituality now, and I liked myself. I didn’t give a shit what people thought anymore, not in most cases. But if I gave it voice, it was all still there, deep down, all still present. The old wounds, the old heavy spaces, still there. A part of the old me, deep down, needing to be channeled just once in a while.

And then I found comfort. I found peace with the me that was, and the me that is. And I found comfort in the old parts of me being integrated into these new parts of me, with peace and space. Inner child, closeted Mormon, repressed father, all of those pieces from my past were still there, part of this new independent me. I could learn from them. I could listen and be okay.

I got up, walked past my old gym crush, thought of my happy little family now, and grabbed some free weights, ready to get to work.

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Charmingly Pessimistic Dickie

Hey, Dickie.

I remember the night we met. San Francisco was feeling like my kind of town because the club was busy at 7 pm on a Saturday night, and I was always the guy who wanted to drink and dance and still be home by midnight. I was at Badlands, and it was my first time taking a huge risk on myself. I’d driven from Utah to San Francisco on a whim; it was magical, I was electric. And you came in with friends, a few drinks in already, and we made eye contact. You played it off like you didn’t notice me cause that is your way, but you gave me a few more glances, and I was feeling bold. I definitely noticed you. I mean, have you seen yourself? They could put your picture next to ‘tall, dark, and handsome’ for illustration. I asked you to dance, and I think you meant to say no, but you seemed to be as charmed by my Hufflepuff as I was intrigued by your Slytherin.

And so for a few hours there was music and dancing, some loud whispered conversation in each other’s ears, a bit of groping, a little kissing. You were baffled that I was from Utah until we both realized our origins in Idaho. I met your friends. We danced some more. I got one more drink and then I was done, but you had three, and then a fourth, and that’s when you invited me back to your place. And then, forever after, this became the story we told each other and laughed about. I was so naive back then, Dickie. There I was, going home with a stranger, a very rare event for me. And we were in the back of the cab, and you reached into your pocket and pulled out a tiny bottle that looked like eye drops. You unscrewed the lid and handed it to me with a wink. God, you were so drunk. And I put the tiny bottle to my mouth and took a swig of it. It tasted like paint thinner and I gagged and choked as the sharp smell of the poppers hit the cab. You laughed as you pulled the bottle back, saying I wasn’t supposed to drink it, I was supposed to smell it, and the cabbie wondered what the fuck we were doing in the back of his cab.

Back at your place, we cuddled and chatted for a while. You were so goddamn silly when you were drunk. We made out a bit but you were too far gone. I tucked you in, walked outside at midnight, and then walked three miles back to my lodging, because I had no concept of being unsafe in a big city and a cab felt too expense to use on top of my pending child support payment.

Remember how we went silent for a few days after that, and then you messaged me on Scruff with a ‘hey, handsome’? I recognized you immediately but you’d forgotten that we’d met. And then later that day, I ran into you on the subway, and thought ‘my word, that man is handsome’ and we finally made eye contact before I realized we already knew each other. That’s when we traded phone numbers, the day I was going home. And then we texted, and made phone calls, and developed a friendship over the next few years.

On my next visit out west, this time to Los Angeles, we had a lot of physical chemistry and seemed very into each other, and that felt amazing. It felt magical, this weekend getaway with this handsome friend. But things got serious that trip. We had that long breakfast where I ate eggs and you had a giant platter of fried everything, and we shared, and marveled at seeing each other as adults who had survived shitty things. Me: grew up Mormon, childhood trauma, married with kids, out later in life against tremendous adversity, shaking my fist at the universe over a long series of failed dates. You: grew up Jehovah’s Witness, family history of alcoholism and mental illness, severe trauma after coming out, fresh starts over and over again in Washington DC and Seattle and San Francisco, all while you kept your big dream of being an actor in Los Angeles open. You kept rolling your eyes at my naivete about the world, my persistent sunny outlook. I called you ‘charmingly pessimistic’ and you laughed out loud, telling me how that was perhaps the nicest thing anyone had said about you. You stayed the night that night, and I left the next day, and we promised to stay in touch.

Remember how excited I was when you came to visit me in Seattle? I expected a whirlwind romantic weekend, but you were so heavy-hearted. You seemed haunted. It was your first return to a city you’d left painfully. You walked me up and down the streets, showing me your memories. There was the club where you danced in a cage. There’s the breakfast place owned by your favorite lesbian couple ever. There is the park where you laid out in the sun with your friends. There is the perfect apartment with the perfect view that you moved into with your perfect boyfriend, the one you saw your entire future from, the one you had to leave behind, heartbroken, when the relationship didn’t work out. You found yourself in this city, you said. It built you up, and then it broke you to pieces. You wondered how differently life would have been, could have been, what if, what if, what if. We didn’t do anything more than cuddle that weekend. We got on each other’s nerves. You had a lot going on under the surface and I couldn’t get a proper read. You felt like no one could understand you. And you’re right, I couldn’t possibly.

And that was the last time I saw you. That was over three years ago. We stayed in touch, haphazard phone calls and text messages, occasional selfies, quips back and forth. Life knocked you down harder than ever, and you responded by giving the universe your middle finger. You did it. You took the big risk to live your dream. You moved to Los Angeles. You kept countering the depression with determination. You shared with me about your terrible dates, the time you got knocked out and mugged, the hoarder you were living with, the community you found yourself a part of, the job you felt you were perfect for. We laughed and we found meaning where we could. My life was changing too. You were on a journey, and the destination wasn’t sure yet, but you just knew it was a culmination of all the parts of you that had come before: the performer, the singer, the lobbyist, the dreamer, the cynic, the critic, the Disney enthusiast, the heartbroken, the hoper, the charming pessimist. It was all building to something and you were launching yourself forward to something new.

And then the cancer hit. And for the last few years, you tackled it with authenticity and bravery. You educated the world. You shared your photos, your progress, you honestly and authentically told everyone how it felt, what you were going through. I watched every day. I messaged sometimes, and sometimes you responded. Life got in the way (kids and jobs and projects and writing and travel and–) and I never made it out to see you. I just somehow thought it was all going to be okay, that we would have years to stay in contact. You’d conquer the cancer and jump back up, and the dreams were still ahead. (There it is, my naivety, Dickie, still, after all these years.)

And then, a few days ago, I realized I hadn’t seen your updates in a while. I clicked on your page to check in. And there were memorial messages. A board with your life photos left up to honor you. Goodbye messages. Posts saying ‘fuck cancer’. I was eating a sandwich at the time and I choked and my whole body went cold. I went pale, hot tears rolled down my cheeks, I couldn’t get my breath. This wasn’t supposed to be how your story ended. Not like this. Not like this.

You were supposed to live another 60 years, my friend. You were supposed to tease me about drinking poppers for decades ahead. You didn’t make 40, and I fucking hate that. I hate it, Dickie. It breaks my heart. And it leaves me with metaphysical thoughts about how you would have done things differently if you knew how it would end. I definitely would have.

That weekend in San Francisco, when you showed me some of your favorite spots, I watched you giggle with glee at something adorable. I laughed so hard, seeing past the cynic and the pessimist, and seeing that child of pure joy inside you. I called you Peter Pan that day. And you gave me the most serious look.

“I’m not Peter Pan. I’m Pippin.”

Pippin. I’ve never seen the play. I still haven’t. But after I heard about your death, Dickie, I spent yesterday listening, closely. I sobbed. Because Pippin was a prince who was determined against all costs to live an extraordinary life. No matter how many times he was held back by the expectations of others, he quested. He dreamed bigger. He fought to go against the script at all costs. On his terms. Always. I concede, Dickie. You’re Pippin.

And the verse from his big ballad somehow becomes the best way I can memorialize you.

“So many men seem destined
To settle for something small
But I won’t rest until I know I’ll have it all
So don’t ask where I’m going
Just listen when I’m gone
And far away you’ll hear me singing
Softly to the dawn:
Rivers belong where they can ramble
Eagles belong where they can fly
I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free
Got to find my corner of the sky.”
Goodbye, my friend. And thank you.
Love, Chad
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Porn Addiction in Utah

“What is it with men and porn in Utah?” A friend from out of state asked me that question in a recent online exchange. “I grew up Mormon but not in Utah, and porn is a big deal here, but it seems to be even bigger there. Like is porn addiction a thing? And is it the same as sex addiction? And is it really as big a deal there as they say? And does it have anything to do with women and depression there and how they have the highest rate of anti-depressant usage?”

I responded with a “Whoa, hang on! That’s a lot of questions!” And then we went on to talk for two hours about Utah and its complexities. I’ll summarize a lot of these thoughts here. Keep in mind, reader, that while I am a mental health expert, I fully admit this is not a topic I’ve done personal research on. The thoughts presented here come from my own perspectives, as an ex-Mormon gay father and therapist who has some years of experience behind him. I fully admit my own bias, but there is a lot of truth to my words for many as well.

First of all, since it’s inception, Utah has treated women as a commodity. Mormon men, from the leaders on down, competed for women as an acquisition. There are love stories, sure, but there are also stories of conquest, of older wives being forgotten and set aside as younger wives were obtained. Young virgin girls were hot market items, married off to men two or four or six decades their senior. Men’s names were to be blessed in their righteousness as they fathered children and established lineages on Earth that would follow them into Heaven. And while times have changed, well, a lot of these cultural trends remain the same.

Mormon marriage now is ideally young returned missionary and young out-of-high school girl, both virgins, who marry quickly. She’s promised happiness and motherhood in exchange for her modesty, virtue, and dedication to her husband. She is destined to be a queen and priestess, reigning forever at the side of her husband. It’s church first, then husband and kids, then herself last. Except by age 25, there are 3 or 4 kids and they are screaming and her husband is gone a lot and she doesn’t know what to do. And there is depression. And then one day she finds out that her husband has been secretly watching porn in the basement, and what does that mean. It feels like slaps to the face, an abject betrayal. This isn’t how here life was supposed to go! Why would he do this to her! Isn’t she lovely enough, sexy enough, good enough, isn’t she enough for him? Why would God let this happen? And so she keeps her pain quiet and focuses on the kids and pops anti-depressants and hopes things will work out.

And for him? The Priesthood holder? The one who is burning the candle at both ends, with a full-time job, and debt, and church callings, and the kids, and the wife, the one who is always needed and is expected to be pure and righteous? He is meant to be a king and priest in Heaven, to have his own kingdom, his own planet one day. It’s church first, then wife and kids, then work, then him last. But he can barely seem to keep his energy and morale up for the things happening around him in his busy household. It’s all too much. And porn, well, it’s an easy escape. It’s indulgent. It’s secret. It’s not hurting anybody. It’s contained to a laptop screen. He can look up what he wants, pleasure himself. And if that gets boring, he can always jump online, into chatrooms, maybe exchange some photos or jump on a webcam, so long as he doesn’t show his face. It’s private and exciting. He gets attention from women (or at least men pretending to be women) that aren’t his wife. And so it becomes a habit. He stays up late multiple times per week. 15 minutes easily turns into 2 or 3 hours. He’s not addicted, he tells himself, he just enjoys it, so long as no one finds out, and he can keep the reality of it all in a different box, one that isn’t connected to his faithfulness or his Priesthood at all.

Except then he gets caught. He stammers lies about how often he does it, how much there has been, how far he has gone. He lies, and then makes excuses, and then blames others. There is shame and penitence. He has been told hundreds of times from his Priesthood leaders about the evils of pornography, about how it burns images permanently into your brain. Just one second, one image, that is all it takes and you are forever unclean. And now his wife is furious, and there is even less sex. He’s sent to the bishop. He vows to never do it again. She’s crying constantly, feeling lied to, betrayed. She was faithful and it isn’t supposed to be like this. It’s wrong, and he’s bad, and he’s unworthy. And if he relapses and gets caught again, well, he needs to go to therapy, to sex addiction recovery, where he can sort out what is wrong with him and make himself a better son of God, a more worthy Priesthood holder.

There are pornography and sex addiction recovery clinics all over Utah. They specialize in helping men move past the desires of the flesh and be better. Pornography is evil, vile, wrong. In fact, just a few years ago, the Mormon governor declared pornography a health epidemic. On a governmental level. (Seriously.) And so the man either gets better, or he finds more discreet ways of meeting this dark need. Or maybe he starts cheating. Utah does have a thriving prostitution industry, after all.

(And if you feel like this characterization is unfair or dramatic, take a moment to assess the people you know in Utah, even your own friends and families. Chances are, this describes more than a few of those men, women, or couples, if not now, than a few years back. This represents nearly every Mormon family I know, honestly).

So is there such thing as porn addiction? Absolutely. Food can be addictive. As can bad relationships, or gambling, or work. When you engage in something in one area of your life that is hurting the other areas; when you spend hours and hours on it; when you are keeping major secrets and justifying bad behavior; when you are telling lies and making excuses; all of these things contribute to addiction. But it is very important to understand that porn is not an addiction for everyone. In fact, studies show that porn is mostly addictive in heavily religious cultures and communities, ones that treat sex with shame, one with rigorous standards of what it means to be worthy.

Utah is well-known for having a poor sex education system in place. Safe sex isn’t discussed so much as abstinence. Sex is equated with shame, revulsion, and sin. Every human teenager has a sexual development taking place, it comes along with the hormones and the genitals. They experience attractions and desires. Those who have pre-marital sex are considered dirty, or damaged goods. And what extends with that is a culture of secret keeping. Let’s not talk about sex, let’s keep our sins secret, and let’s ignore the sexual things happening all around us. Looks bury our desires, never talk about them, never masturbate, never learn, and instead save ourselves for marriage. And then let’s marry our young sons and daughters and see what happens.

And what happens? Depression and addictions to pornography. Men and women grow up into adults while never allowing their sexual sides, which are just as prominent as their spiritual sides, to develop. Those sides stay stuck in adolescence. They seek expression. They cry out for release. And it’s even rougher on gay men and women, who have the added burden of growing up of being ashamed for WHO they are attracted to, leaving more psychological and emotional needs unmet.

I could likely prepare an entire two-hour conference on this, but I’ll wrap it up here. After a robust discussion, my friend asked me how I help people through all of this.

As a man, I struggled with pornography and masturbation during my Mormon years, when I was both married and single. Both resulted in major depression and anxiety problems for me, as well as physical issues. I had nausea, major stress, and sometimes vomiting or diarrhea issues after indulging in pornography or masturbation, and those conditions extended to when I would even notice an attractive man on the street. “I experienced an attraction! Oh no! I’m evil, God hates me, what have I done!” as my stomach churned. Now I live as an out, proud gay man. I’m sexually active, and I occasionally view porn. Masturbation is a pleasurable activity on occasion as well. And I experience zero shame in relation to any of it. I accept my sexual identity as very much a part of my overall person. I’m not a sinner or an addict. I’m just a healthy human 40-year old man.

Over the years, I’ve had a number of clients come to me with goals of reducing masturbation or to work on their pornography addictions. I take these concerns seriously. I listen. I reflect. I’m kind and calm andpatient. But I have to help the clients recognize that the shame they feel around sex is the primary cause of their emotional struggles. I have to help them learn to accept and love themselves, all parts of themselves, and then make decisions from there. I have to help them measure out their motivations. If their goal remains to watch pornography less, or to masturbate less, listen to the difference between these motivations.

“My goal is to masturbate less because when I do it, I am dirty and wrong. I’m breaking my covenants and making God disappointed in me. I’m sinning and permanently damaging myself. It’s going to take me years to earn back the trust of my wife, and I’m no longer worthy to go to the temple. Help me!”

Or: “My goal is to masturbate less because I want to live up to my covenants. I accept and embrace myself as a human person who has sexual desires. I was created that way and I’m not ashamed of that. Sexual desire is normal and natural, but I want to be a stalwart husband and father, and to live the teachings of my religion, so I want to make some changes to that behavior.”

Those are very different places to begin from. As for me? I don’t see anything wrong with a bit of porn, masturbation, or sexual activity, so long as it is from within the ethics and guidelines of the person’s overall life plan. Those things don’t fit in certain relationships or religions. Consent and ethics and all of that applies here, of course. And that’s where an individual has to measure out his or her own value system, because hurting the people you love isn’t the desired result here. Addictions or dependencies in any form, to food or alcohol or porn, are damaging and need to be worked on. But being a porn addict doesn’t make you a sex addict. Take accountability of yourself and be ethical and make your life decisions around that. Because shame is going to ruin you otherwise.

Embrace all of the parts of you, and learn how to be healthy. The rest will fall into place.

(And for those of you not in Utah, well, I love it here, really. It’s super charming. But oh my stars is it strange. And one way to emphasize that: there is a whole genre of porn under the category of ‘Mormon’. Both gay and straight. Seriously. It’s like a thriving industry. Fascinating, I tell you.)