Tenderloin to Castro

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After a pleasant flight to San Francisco, my boyfriend and I took a long Lyft ride into the city, sharing the car with another couple, two lawyers from Los Angeles, in town for “my middle school best friend’s baby shower!” The flight had been relaxed and comfortable, the plane only about 1/8th full, giving everyone plenty of space to spread out and relax.

We had pre-arranged a place to stay in the Tenderloin, an area on the north-eastern side of San Francisco, weeks before. It was described as a comfortable condo in an up-and-coming neighborhood. It was only later that we had learned from friends that this was one of the more dangerous areas of town. The Lyft driver let us off in front of the entrance to our condo, a gated doorway nestled in between an Chinese laundromat and an ethnic food store of some kind. A man in bandages sat on the sidewalk outside, a woman in a wheelchair was bundled up in tattered blankets, and a man with no teeth eyed our suitcases suspiciously.

Our host met us at the door, jogging down the block toward us from his work like some kind of super model. He was tall, lithe, and black, well-dressed with an incredible smile. He was also very straight. He greeted us with enthusiasm, said his name was Taye, and showed us into his tiny condo. He lived here, he explained, and worked at a start-up company down the road, one that was launching a new merchandise-sharing app. He liked to rent his condo out to guests and then go stay with his fiancee at her place. He showed us how to use the shower, invited us to eat the food in his fridge, and then rushed off back to work.

The condo was small. A kitchen counter with appliances, a sofa bed, a window, and a small enclosed bathroom. But this was San Francisco, and the place would do. The boyfriend, however, felt nervous in this neighborhood, and wondered if we would feel safe coming and going at any time of day. I wondered how I would spend my time in the 2 hours after I woke up and before he did without a different room to move into. Those early morning hours can be both a blessing and a curse for me.

After a few minutes, we realized how cold it was in the condo, and noticed there was only one blanket on the bed. I messaged Taye quickly about it, and he responded quickly that the heater was broken. He said that if we get cold, we were welcome to run the oven at a high temperature an just open the door, that it could warm the place up. I told him I didn’t feel safe doing that for three full days, then he recommended that I rent a heater. His start-up company liked to connect people with each other. I would just need to provide him with my Email address and full name, then download an app, and he could get a heater lined up for me that could be delivered in 1 to 4 hours, and I quickly responded that I would not be doing that.

The boyfriend and I had a good laugh for a bit. The last time we traveled together, to Minneapolis, we had an extremely negative experience with Airbnb. We had paid for a room and the host had never shown up, and it had taken the company several hours to get us new accommodations, ones that turned out to be extremely inconvenient. But between the sketchy neighborhood and the very cold room with no blankets, I decided to call and complain. The suggestion to run the oven, and the instruction to download an app, it all just suddenly felt very weird.

Airbnb took our complaint, and noted that the listing online had indeed advertised that a heater was in the room, something that I felt shouldn’t have to be requested at the prices we had already paid. They then reached out to Taye, giving him a deadline to call back within. Taye then called me, wondering why I was calling the company when he had been trying to help. He said he would order the heater for us, fine, we just had to wait there for it for 1 to 4 hours, and I told him we wouldn’t  be willing to do that as we were on vacation. He then frustratedly said he would find a way to get it there. Then Airbnb called back, saying Taye hadn’t called them back and that they were changing our reservations.

It happened quickly after that. I sent Taye a message explaining what had happened, and I left 10 dollars on his counter because we had used his shower. I felt bad right away, he was going to be out the money we had already paid, and likely fined by Airbnb for not having a heater. (The oven, the app, I reminded myself, but I still felt bad.) Suddenly we were being moved to a nicer area of town, our unpacked bags being put into a new Lyft to the Castro. Rushing away from Taye’s place, I felt like I had stolen something and needed to get out of the store before the employees noticed. We rushed hurriedly out the door, dreading the possibility of seeing him.

Before we arrived at the new accommodations, I received a series of frustrated messages from Taye. He said he hadn’t done anything wrong, that he had gone out of his way to bring us a heater because we had complained, and that he had entered the apartment to find a ‘measly ten dollar bill and a note’ waiting. Initially, I felt terrible and awkward, but soon we were being introduced to Jose, a kind man who lived with his husband and rented out his beautiful basement apartment. There was coffee and snacks, a huge beautiful bathroom, a comfy large bed with pillows and blankets, and a living room where two giant stuffed bears sat on the couch. It was inviting, spacious, and comfortable, like a home away from home should be.

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Early Resolutions: a Year in Review

Last year, on New Year’s Eve, I was single. I was invited by a few friends that I barely knew to attend a party with them at a house of strangers, and I debated doing that, going to the bar, or just staying in. After all, I’d stayed home by myself on Halloween, my birthday dinner on Thanksgiving Day had been out of a microwave, and I’d spend most of my Christmas alone, having a half a bottle of wine in a mountain cabin and writing. The year before, I’d taken my kids trick-or-treating on Halloween and then gone to an expensive fundraiser, solo and single, and I had spent both Thanksgiving and Christmas with my kids for half the days and solo for the other halves. I was accustomed to associations with strangers and acquaintances in busy places.

But I made my decision and went to the party.

There, I made small talk with a few friends, had a glass of wine, flirted a bit, and smiled a lot. Then I noticed a good-looking guy across the room. At 11:40, we had some conversation and laughed. At 11:55, I body asked for a midnight kiss. And now, nearly a year later, we are together and happy.

I’ve made a habit, for the past three years, of setting bold goals for myself at the start of each year, goals which have felt impossible yet have proven to be highly achievable with the right amount of focus, ingenuity, and dedication. I’ve eliminated debts and set up savings, I’ve traveled to many places domestically that I never thought I’d see, I’ve set myself up in a rental home that I’m very happy in, I’ve written a book, I’ve worked extensively on a documentary that once felt undoable yet I’ve partnered with an incredible film crew and have made so much progress. My children are happy and stable, I have good friends who support me, and I continue to be happy in my own skin. And this year, I’ve had someone to share it with as well. Life is truly wonderful in a way that I never thought possible.

I spent a lot of my year writing in small coffee shops in myriad places. San Diego, Saskatoon, Brattleboro, Reno, Missoula, Minneapolis. I’ve dived into my roots and gained a greater understanding of myself. I spent two full months exploring my 2 year missionary service, I’ve written stories of my childhood, and I’ve been open and honest about my sexual development as an adolescent. I’ve spent less time writing about my observations from the present, and more writing of the past. These stories opened up new narratives and have given me new goals for the future. I’ve become more of a storyteller than ever before.

Much of my year has been framed by the telling of a man who died far too young and far too tragically, and not just him but the men who killed him. I’ve spent dozens of hours reading, reaching out, interviewing, and filming, and at the end of it all, something beautiful is about to come forward. And I can’t help but think beyond that, to other stories that need to be told.

On top of that, my children are a year older, and they are happy and well. They have transitioned into a charter school which gives them much more support overall, and we’ve seen their behavioral struggles and social behaviors adapt and grow for the better. They are vibrant, introspective, imaginative, and beautiful. Parenting is never without struggles, yet it is a complete joy.

Being in a relationship has changed me as well. My boyfriend has given me a consistency and stability that I didn’t realize I was missing. He’s faithful, steady, and romantic. He listens, he laughs, and he stays by my side. He supports me, and he’s wonderful with my children. On top of that, he’s damn handsome. He’s calmed my spirits in ways and he’s given me new insights into myself, which make me a better writer, a better father, and a better therapist.

I continue to do a self-inventory. I set some physical goals for myself that I didn’t achieve. I’m clearly recognizing of patterns of dedication to physical change (exercise and nutrition consistency) followed by a crippling apathy about that change, and this has resulted in a moody apathy. I haven’t gained weight, yet I haven’t achieved my goals. I struggle to break certain habits that don’t do me any harm except that they stop me from progressing.

Soon it is going to find time to set goals for the coming year. I know travel will be part of it. Raising a large amount of money to complete my film, finishing the film itself, and publishing my book will certainly make the list. Spending time being grateful for what I have, reaching out to others, reading books, and regularly writing will remain there. And right at the top of the list will be those physical goals that somehow evaded me this year.

Once in a while, I wish I could go back in time and tell the younger versions of me how good life will be if he can just wait it out. I’m as temporary as always, and a year from now I hope to be writing about my reflections from 2018. But for now, in a coffee shop at home, in frozen and polluted Salt Lake City, I’m grateful for my life, and I’m looking forward to what lies ahead.

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Mall Santa

SantaThere were only eight people in the line to see Santa Claus. A few “Dad, pleeeeeze” entreaties from my sons is all it took for me to agree. We could take some time to visit the Mall Santa.

The mall was bustling with people, and despite a few complaints about tired legs, the kids had done a great job weaving in and out of the people with us. The boyfriend and I had popped into a few stores to search for gifts, and the kids had avoided touching tempting displays, keeping hands firmly grasped in mine. I’m always protective of my children in crowds of people, silently terrified at the idea of being separated from them.

The other families in the Santa line struggled to keep their children entertained during  the wait. Some kids were dressed up for pictures, little boys in Christmas sweaters, babies in dresses and headbands. Some squirmed, some itched, some ran around in circles, some looked slightly comatose, like their sugar highs had just worn off. There were signs everywhere advertising the price of photos with Santa Claus, which could be sold as singles or packages, in various sizes, in print or electronic. They also reminded patrons that personal cell phones or cameras were not allowed.

The decor was gaudy. Christmas trees, pictures of elves and reindeer, and a candy cane fence around the perimeter. I pictured all of the decor being boxed up at the end of the season, placed in a musty storage room until the following year, where it would be assembled for another season of Santa in the mall. Things felt a lot less magical now that I was a grown-up. But I appreciated the sense of festivity put into the decorations. After all, mall Santas have been a Christmas staple for American families since the 1950s. The world had changed, but mall Santas somehow still reminded us of the roots of our parents in post-WWII America.

The line moved startlingly slow as the “elves” (bored looking workers ranging in height from 5’6” to 6’2”, dressed in red and green and impatient for their next cigarette breaks) tried upselling pictures to the person at the front of the line. It took nearly an hour for the few people in front of us to make it through, but we finally reached the front gate. An elf with a goatee opened the candy cane passage and bid us welcome.

“Would you like to purchase a family photo with Santa Claus?” He didn’t look at me as he asked.

“No thank you. The kids just to visit Santa.”

“Okay, there are no cell phone photos allowed.”

“Yeah, we read the sign.”

Finally past the sentinels, we rushed forward to Santa, who had been sitting quietly for several minutes while the elves negotiated price packages. He sat up in his chair, eager to be involved with children and it was apparent right away that he loved this part of his job. He was a delightful old man, just moderately heavy, in his red and white suit, with a real white beard on his lean face.

“Ho-ho-ho! Who do we have here?”

Both of my sons extended their hands, shaking Santa’s, and gave him their names and ages.

“I’m J, I’m nine.”

“Hi, Santa, I’m A. I’m 6.”

Santa gathered both boys on his lap, one on each knee, and laughed his trademark trio of Ho’s once more. “What handsome boys! And what do you want for Christmas?”

A launched in, ready with his answer. “I want a toy Yveltal!”

Santa’s eyebrows went up, and he looked over at me, a tiny bit helpless. “Oh! An–an Evil-tell?”

“No, Santa, and Yveltal!”

I smiled down at him. “Santa, I know it can be tough to keep up with all of the Pokemon nowadays. There are hundreds! Yveltal is a legendary Pokemon, an red and black flying Pokemon with feathers and claws? Remember Yveltal?”

“Ee-vell-tall! Of course! Ho-ho-ho! I can bring you one of if you are on the nice list!”

A brimmed with pride and excitement. “I am on the nice list!”

Santa turned to my nine year old, smiling. “And what would you like, young man? I can tell you are a great big brother!”

J smiled, a little nervous. “Hi, Santa. In school lately, we have been studying snowy owls. I would like to get a toy snowy owl for Christmas. And maybe some educational books?”

“Ho-ho-ho! I can tell you are a very smart boy. I will bring you those things but I would like you to make me a promise.”

J looked up, curious. “What promise?”

“I want you to promise to invent something wonderful that will make the world a better place, maybe by the time you are 20 years old. Can you do that?”

“Yes, Santa, I can,” he said with full confidence and without hesitation.

Moments later, I was walking way from the mall Santa, passed the bored elves, with my sons’ hands clasped tightly in mine. A was muttering to himself (“Yes! An Yveltal!”) while J was deep in thought. I looked down at I’m, curious.

“Hey, buddy, what are you thinking so hard about?”

“Well, Santa wants me to invent something to make the world better.”

“Yeah, I heard.”

“And Santa loves Christmas.”

“Yeah?”

“So maybe I should make something to make Christmas better?”

“I think that is a great idea! What are you thinking of inventing?”

J bit his lip while we walked. “I should make something amazing. I think–hey, I know!” He looked up at me, beaming. “I could invent a candy cane machine!”

As we walked out of the mall and into the polluted Salt Lake City winter air, there was still a lack of snow, and my skin itched with all he Christmas commercialism we had just wandered through, but my sons’ hands in mine reminded me what the season was all about.

“Thanks, Santa,” I whispered.

the Locker Room

 

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“My back hurts. I can’t go to gym today. Here’s my doctor’s note.”

The gym teacher looked at me with unfeigned frustration as he considered the note. He was a large man, one who also taught the history class in ninth grade, and he generally seemed bored at his job. I also took history from him, and he seemed bored there, too. (In fact, we had counted during the semester the times he had simply shown a movie to the class instead of actually teaching, and he had shown us the same Michael Jordan special seven times during the year).

The other gym teacher in the school was a very attractive man, and I was relieved he wasn’t the head of my class. I was already distracted by handsome teachers in Algebra and Band, and I hardly needed more distractions.

“So you are saying you can’t participate in class activities?”

I shrugged awkwardly. “Depends on the activity. I can probably do, like, volleyball. But maybe not, like, running and stuff.”

“Well I guess you get to spend an hour doing homework or fitzing around while everyone else exercises. Have fun with that.” He tucked the note into the back of his teacher’s folder, breathing out hard from his nose with frustration. “But for today, we are working on stretches and a bit of lecture. Think you can handle that? Go ahead and dress down.”

I swallowed, embarrassed and a little ashamed. I wondered if the teacher was calling my bluff. My diagnosis of scoliosis was legitimate, as was my back pain, but I had been participating in P.E. class for months prior to this doctor’s note. Now I was looking for a way out of P.E., claiming, with a doctor’s support, that I wasn’t able to do physical activities. I had never been one to push my physical limits in class, but I had always been willing. And now I wasn’t.

But I wasn’t sure how to talk to him about it, how to talk to anyone about it. I was 16 now and things at home were rough, with my step-father’s constant anger and occasional violence, and things felt even worse on the inside. I had thought that once I started dating, maybe my attractions to men would diminish, but they hadn’t. In fact, they had maybe grown worse. I was attracted to my guy friends, to guys who walked by, to guys on television, and I was exhausted by pretending I was attracted to girls, and sick of mentally beating myself up for being distracted by guys.

And now here was the locker room. I hated the locker room. I didn’t fit in with other guys, who talked about sports and girls. And I was attracted to many of them and here they were getting undressed and I was afraid of getting aroused or of getting noticed stealing a glance. And I wasn’t comfortable in my own body, being less athletic than the other guys around me. The locker room tended to expose every insecurity I had, and left me beating myself up for hours afterward. I hated that it was part of school. I could avoid the group shower, but I couldn’t avoid changing.

I stepped in to the locker room and walked directly over to my assigned space. Tuning out distraction around me, I opened the locker and began to change, unbuttoning my shirt and sliding on my gym shirt. Immediately to my right, I saw David pull his jeans and underwear off, and I turned to avoid looking. On the other side, Eddie looked perfect and toned shirtless, and I turned to look back at the locker, containing my frustration. It was impossible not to be distracted in here.

I quickly slid off my jeans, then felt Scott, another guy in my class, flick his towel against my leg, seemingly aiming for my butt.

“Nice tighty whities, Chad!”

I turned to roll my eyes at him, then noticed that David was now completely naked, and was in very good shape. My eyes lingered a bit too long, then I forced them down on the floor. I then forced myself to look back up at Scott, swearing at myself internally. They’re gonna notice that you looked at David. They are gonna notice that you looked at the floor. They are gonna notice that you aren’t joking around with Scott back. Damn it, David is right there. Don’t look or you’ll get aroused and they will for sure notice that.

“Yeah, like yours are any better,” I quipped lamely, and Scott laughed, turning back at his locker.

I turned back to mine again, purposefully avoiding looking at David, who was still naked (damn it! get dressed!), then I swiftly pulled up my shorts, then sat down to put on my shoes. Eddie was dropping his shorts to change them, and across the room an obese kid was putting his arms behind his back and making his stomach shake to make a few people laugh. As someone called him a name, two other guys were talking about the girls they were planning on getting with that weekend while they changed.

I tied my shoes and saw that David was finally putting on his shorts, and I snuck one last glance before grabbing my stuff, closing my locker, and rushing out of the room.

Tomorrow, no matter what the activity in class was, I planned to have a bad back pain day. I needed to not be in that locker room again so soon. If that didn’t work, maybe I could find another place to change, but then everyone would notice. Maybe I should ask a girl out for this weekend so that I would have something to talk about in the locker room on Monday, that would make it easier.

The coach lined us up for stretches, and I got placed between David and Eddie, and as class begin, I did my best not to picture them naked and began singing religious hymns in my head instead. My thoughts were straying and later I would have some repenting to do.

 

the rated R movie

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“Mom, do you realize we are paying for poison to come into our home each night?”

My mom looked over, confused, her hands deep in dishwater. It was only 7 am. “What do you mean by poison, Chad?”

I stood nervous, almost shaking, feeling abjectly ashamed of myself. I was just out of the shower and dressed for school, in jeans and a striped t-shirt, and my hair was still wet. I’d been mentally flogging myself in the shower, telling myself I was horrible and evil, and I’d come rushing up the stairs to talk to my mom about it as best I could.

“We–we are paying for a monthly subscription to HBO,” I explained. “It is constantly streaming evil content. Bad things. Sexual situations. Mom, it shows moves that are rated R!”

She pulled her hands from the water, drying them on a towel. “Well, yes, but only late at night.”

I nodded, shutting my eyes tight and feeling fresh tears on my cheeks. “Yes, but I have a TV right there in my room. I wake up at night and I’m tempted. I have pictures of the Savior on my bedroom wall, but there is a TV right there, and I just know that if I turn it on, it will have sexual content on it. It’s far too tempting, Mom! I’m being a good Priesthood holder, at least I’m trying, but I’m constantly tempted! And we are paying for that filth to come into our home!”

Mom placed a hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eyes. “That’s a good point. I hadn’t really thought of it that way.”

“We are paying for it!” I repeated again, with more emphasis.

“Okay, okay.” She gave me a hug. “You’re a good son, Chad. Let me talk to your step-father about this. He’s the one who uses HBO the most.”

I pulled away, still panicking. “If we can’t get rid of it, can we put some sort of password on it? Or–or maybe I just need to get rid of my television so I won’t be tempted.”

Mom assured me again that she would talk to Kent about it, and then told me she appreciated me for talking to her about it. Then it was time to catch the bus.

I was 15 years old. I was a teacher of the Aaronic Priesthood in my local Mormon ward in Idaho. I was paying my tithing, going to church, and reading my scriptures, plus I was saving up money for my mission, but from time to time I just gave into temptation. My friends would joke about watching shows like Baywatch or Strip Poker on MTV, where they could see hot girls in bikinis, and I chided them for it, saying they were inviting spirits of temptation into their homes. But I was much worse. I was a hypocrite. I would stay up late to watch girls who weren’t in bikinis, and, even more, watch the guys who would get naked with them.

I didn’t dare tell anyone about the rated R movies, and I definitely didn’t dare tell anyone about how I liked to watch the guys. Guys my age couldn’t stop talking about boobs, but I couldn’t get my mind of good-looking shirtless men. When I got distracted from being religious, these handsome men would consume my thoughts. I had a secret video tape in my bedroom where I had used the VCR to record guys on various shows who had their shirts off, like Billy from Melrose Place and Eric from the Grind. Watching this tape felt naughty and sinful, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the HBO shows, where the men would be shown in sexual situations, and it would usually show their butts too, and that filled my thoughts in a different way. It was arousing and heady, and would almost always lead to masturbation. But then I would be overcome with a sense of deep and abiding shame. I hated myself for giving in to temptation. I knew it was normal for teenagers, but I wasn’t supposed to be a normal teen. I was supposed to be better.

The first naked butt I could ever remember seeing was on the movie Dances With Wolves. For just a few seconds, Kevin Costner’s character had his butt exposed, and I couldn’t stop staring. I’d asked for the movie for Christmas that year, and sometimes when my parents were gone, I would just fast-forward it to that scene and push pause. Later, I’d fantasize about him, and then immediately feel terrible afterward again.

I’d learned about masturbation from a Mormon bishop when I was 12. In an interview about worthiness, he’d asked me if I obeyed the law of chastity, and I’d had to ask what it was. He then told me about masturbation. And so I’d gone home and tried it. Now, at 15, I felt horny almost all of the time, but couldn’t tell anyone about it, so I just pretended it wasn’t happening and focused on the church and its teachings.

I was lonely a lot. I was too young to date girls then, but it was guys I couldn’t stop thinking about. I wanted friends to have sleepovers constantly just so I could be close to other guys. It was exciting, even though we never did anything, and sometimes I would make suggestions that we play truth-or-dare or strip poker, but the other guys never seemed interested in it. And a few times, when friend slept over, we would turn on HBO together, watching briefly, and there would be a moment when I could tell we were both aroused, but we never did anything about it. I was alway so scared of them noticing, yet also scared that the wouldn’t notice. If any of my friends had been interested in cuddling, kissing, strip poker, or fooling around, I wasn’t sure I would be able to resist. I wanted that more than anything, and there was nothing I was more scared of.

We didn’t really talk about HBO again. Kent refused to get rid of it. I tried hard to avoid temptation, but I’d give in from time to time. And after one night of seeing a rated R movie, I scheduled an appointment with the bishop, and in that appointment, I told him I was attracted to men and that I struggled with masturbation. In response, he gave me a book called the Miracle of Forgiveness, one that would teach me to repent, and one that taught how to cure homosexuality. More than anything, the book taught me to lock up all the parts of me that were gay and never show them to anyone ever again.

After that, I didn’t struggle much with rated R movies. I didn’t need them anymore. The family had just purchased monthly access to the internet through America Online. 

the Ball Show

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“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the ball show!”

I stepped into the shower tentatively, nervous. There were about 15 guys there, all of them naked except for me. I was wearing my swim trunks, and even that made me nervous.

The shower was in a big wooden building at the edge of the camp. There was a small room with benches to change on, then a larger room with a set of showers in a large rectangle, where each scout could take a short shower during their break from camp activities.

I’d been nervous about the shower for days. The other kids in my scout troop had been talking about it, asking when we should shower as a group, asking each other who would go in naked or who would wear shorts. I’d been avoiding the question, not sure what I should do.

One friend, a kid from my scout troop named Jake, had talked about it almost obsessively. “Who do you think will wear shorts in the shower? Do you think the scout leaders will go in? Will they be naked?”

I was 13 and up at Boy Scout Camp for a full week in the summer time. We were there to earn merit badges. Our troop, number 39, kept a clean camp, and we had assigned jobs. Gathering fire wood, helping with the cooking, preparing the water, inspecting the tents and camp for cleanliness. We worked well together and behaved well in front of the leaders.

But when the leaders were away, the conversation topics strayed. The boys talked about masturbation. They talked about erections. They talked about girls that they liked and what they wanted to do to them. They cracked jokes around camp about camp life, like having fire ‘wood’, and ‘pitching tents’. And that kind of talk made me nervous and angry. Nervous because I knew that I liked guys, and I was worried that if I talked about it, then I’d be exposed, or worse, I might get aroused. Angry, because we were supposed to be nice Mormon boys who were virtuous and worthy, not talking about sinful and unchaste things.

On the second day of camp, a kid named Derrick had been talking about masturbation down by the lake, where we were getting ready to work on a swimming merit badge. In moments, we would be jumping in the water fully clothed, and we had to remove our pants in the water and turn them into a floatation device as part of the requirements for the badge. But Derrick was busy chatting about how big his dick could get and how he liked to play with it.

I’d looked over at him, nervous and speaking up. “Hey, could you not talk about stuff like that?”

And Derrick had looked shocked, and then angry, making fun of me in response. “What’s the matter, Chad? You’re just jealous cause you don’t even have a dick!”

“I do too!”

“Well, it’s not my fault you can’t get it hard!” Derrick had raised his voice.

“I–I can too!” I’d retorted, lamely, nervous.

“Oh, yeah? Prove it!”

I’d simply walked away, baffled at how often guys this age talked about their penises.

And now here we were in the shower, and some kid from another troop was announcing contestants in the ‘ball show’.

“First up, we have Scott!” he yelled. “Scott, show us your balls!”

The kid named Scott was 13, skinny enough that I could see his ribs, and he walked into the center of the wooden shower, strutting a bit.

“Scott has tiny balls and a big dick!” The kid doing the announcement was treating this like some kind of game show.

“Next up is Andy! Look at his big balls!”

My cheeks flushed and I couldn’t help but watch, but then I worried that others would see me watching, or worried that I would get aroused, so I quickly turned my back, washing myself quickly.

And that’s when the announcer guy noticed me.

“And hey, look over there at the guy who is too shy too show his balls! What’s the matter, are you too shy for the ball show?”

I turned around, quiet and nervous. He yelled louder.

“Is your dick too small to show off?” he yelled.

“No!” I shouted, a bit too defensively, and the other guys laughed but stayed silent, some of them clearly uncomfortable. I’d only been in this room, but some of these guys had probably been in here for 20 or 30 minutes.

“So show it off! You’re next on the show!”

I turned the shower off, held my head high, and walked right out of the shower, as some of the guys cat-called and laughed, making fun of me for being a ‘prude’. Then I cried from frustration as I walked back down to the camp, closing myself in the tent in anger and embarrassment.

Later that evening, my friend Josh leaned over at the campfire and told me he thought it was cool that I had walked away from Derrick and the group shower, and I said thanks, feeling somehow like I had done the right thing but not feeling like I had at all.

My troop practiced a few songs and a skit that we planned for the upcoming jamboree. We gave reports about our day’s activities with merit badges. We retired the flag and said an evening prayer, put out the fire and cleaned up the camp. I soon retired to my tent, where I put on a pair of sweats and a baggy T-shirt, kneeled to say my prayers, and climbed into my sleeping back.

I watched the top of the tent, thinking about boys, and why they were so mean to each other, and why they were obsessed with talking about penises (and showing them off, apparently), and why I didn’t fit in. Then, before I fell asleep, I wondered if I really wanted to. Because in this case, the reason I didn’t fit in, is because I was the one who kept my shorts on, and the only one who had been afraid to look.

Rape is a Verb

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abduct. abuse. molest. violate. pillage. spoil. plunder. devastate. loot. ransack. rob. 

In graduate school, I was hired by a feminist professor to create a group on campus called CEASE. It was meant to be a club where men could get together and discuss the impact of their violence against women in society. The teacher had received a sizable grant to create this club. In my interview with her, she heard about my experiences as a Mormon missionary and my volunteer opportunities as a student in undergraduate school, she asked about my professional experiences and educational passions, and she looked over my impressive GPA and letters of reference. She then offered me ten dollars an hour, for up to ten hours per week, to create this group.

maraud. raid. snatch. raze. ruin. wreck. consume. damage. demolish. disrupt. impair. 

I had always been interested in men’s issues. As a survivor of sexual abuse myself, I had read text books devoted to men’s healing, and I’d become aware of the concepts and struggles behind masculinity. I’d watched powerful documentaries on the same topics. The culture of men was one of bullying, of hyper-masculinity, of always being the toughest and the strongest. Men was encouraged culturally to demonstrate their power, first over women and then over other men, particularly ones who were weak or more feminine. Words were used to constantly shame others, to show power and position, to come out on top. Women were called bitch and slut, weaker men were called fag and sissy. The expectation to be strong started at birth and was reinforced in the school districts and homes, and then well into adulthood.

shatter. annihilate. crush. desecrate. desolate. despoil. exterminate. sack. smash. 

Men filled the prison systems to overflowing. Men committed atrocities in war. Men murdered. Men hit. Men raped. Men molested. Men committed violence. Men ruled the world and smashed all else beneath their feet, and they fought to maintain that power at any cost. Old movies and television shows were filled with jokes about men being forced to hit their wives to keep them in place. Entire cultures were built on men finding sexual pleasure while denying women theirs. Slavery, atomic bombs, concentration camps, hate crimes. Entire cultures of violence and horrible atrocities committed by men toward women and other men. The implications of this in organized religion, in sports culture, in Hollywood, in video games, in laws, in distribution of wealth, in cartoons, in big business, and in quiet family homes was immeasurable across time, and immeasurable in today’s society. My mind spun as I read and learned about men, and their culture, and what they were capable of. And I was now being asked to start a group and engage men on these topics.

overthrow. wrest. absorb. deplete. devour. dominate. squander. command. control. 

I had no idea how to compute all of this information as a 24 year old student. My experiences with men had been strictly within my own spheres. I was a white Mormon kid, and nearly all of my interactions had been with other white Mormon guys, or as a consumer of white American media. Every one of my experiences showed me that men were the leaders, the teachers, the rulers, the guides. Men were presidents and bosses, hunters and rulers. Women were meant to be in the home, to be mothers, to work if they had to and then only in fields suited for women, perhaps as teachers, nurses, or social workers. Occasionally, women were accepted as leaders, but only when men weren’t available; queens when there were no kings, mothers as heads of household when there were no fathers. I began to realize that nearly every part of my upbringing reinforced the ideas that women should stay silent, be pretty, and step aside so that men could do the work and run the world on their terms. I’d fully participated in this culture without even realizing it. And my new awareness came at tremendous discomfort and pain.

monopolize. influence. reign. scour. eviscerate. disembowel. subvert. empty. exhaust. 

I began reflecting upon my personal experiences of men in my life. At 12, I had been given the Priesthood, a religious authority I would carry with me for as long as I remained a worthy Mormon. I was given a lineage of my Priesthood, stretching back to the origins of the Mormon church, from man to man, passed down to me. Ordinances in the church could only be passed from men on, and authority to do these ordinances only from man to man. In addition, I had the last name of my father, who took his name from his father. I carried with me masculine rights and expectations. I would grow up to throw balls, to serve a Mormon mission, to marry a woman who would take my name, to father children, to choose a career and support a family. I had to do all of these things in order to be a successful man. On top of that, even if I liked men, I would pretend to like women. For that is what men did. And while I did this, girls were meant to do the opposite, to be smart, pretty, and ready for a man to come along and give them purpose in their lives.

drain. dump. consume. destroy. suppress. waste. extinguish. bulldoze. wreck. erase. 

And yet the men in my own life were, universally, the people who had hurt me. There were good men in my life, to be sure, men of power and strength, grace and kindness. But it was a man who had molested me. It was a brother who bullied me at home, and male peers who bullied me at school. It was a father who had abandoned me. It was a stepfather who had ruled over me with fists and shaming words. It was male church leader who had told me I must keep quiet about my homosexuality and seek to cure it, and another who had later told me it couldn’t be cured, that I would just have to learn to live with it. It was men who surrounded me on the street, mugged me, and knocked me unconscious with fists. It was men who called me sissy, fairy, and fag. No single woman had been unkind or had hurt me. It was men, all men.

topple. wipe Out. pulverize. dismantle. obliterate. trash. crush. bankrupt. injure. mar. 

The research showed statistics. It talked about the rates of sexual assaults on college campuses, in families, and in church. One study reported that the greatest fears expressed in groups of women were fears of being raped or attacked by men. The same study stated that the greatest fears expressed in groups of men were fears of being laughed at, or seen as less than, by other men. Women were afraid of men, and men were also afraid of men! It was here that I first became aware of how scared a woman is walking to her car at night in a dark parking lot, or of being alone in an elevator with another man, or of being watched in a bar be predatory eyes, or of being alone with a male authority figure. I became aware how women were blamed for their own rapes, beatings, or assaults, dismissed with scorn and told they should have known better than to speak up, provoke, flirt, or be alone. It was here I first learned that there is an entire society, an entire culture, built on Rape.

hurt. overwhelm. wrack. unmake. upset. undo. total. level. break. dethrone. dismiss. 

With this new awareness came great shame. I sensed a deep awareness of my own complicity in this, through participation in this culture of rape. It seeped into every section of society. I had never been violent, had never committed a rape, yet I had remained ignorant and unaware of the wider issues. I had participated fully without realizing it. And I realized I had been completely denied an education. I had never been taught more than this, never made aware of the truth. Because men controlled education. Law. Health care. History itself. The entire world was built on rape.

abolish. expel. decline. disband. dissolve. dispatch. disperse. divorce. repudiate. push. 

I returned to the teacher after my first few weeks of research, feeling overwhelmed and despairing. I can’t possibly do this, I said, I don’t know how. And she told me that my helplessness was good, that that was the perfect place to begin a group like this from. I needed to feel helpless and overwhelmed. I needed to be willing to listen. I needed to realize that men didn’t know what was happening around them, that their rage was unjustified and inexcusable, yet also needed to be expressed. Men needed to be held accountable, and also needed help, treatment, understanding, counseling, and love. How else would we make make change in the world, she asked.

supersede. assault. defile. thrust. wrench. twist. wring. extort. invade. debauch. punish.

And so I made up fliers, advertising a weekly support group, a lunchtime meeting where we could discuss topics in a safe space. For men only. I handed out brochures at the local fraternities, put up sign up lists in dormitory hallways. I went to sports games, visited other group organizations, and talked to peers. I planned out topics we could explore, preparing content. Men and religion. Men and pornography. Men and fatherhood. Men and sports. Men and movies. Men and sexual assault. Men and alcoholism. Men and bullying. Men and video games. There was more than I could cover in a year, but the group had to start somewhere.

befoul. profane. pollute. ravish. captivate. enthrall. restrict. ambush. beat. hit. hurt. 

And on the first week of the group, no one attended. I visited classrooms and advertised. On week two, no one attended. I created an online forum and posted in social media groups. On week three, no one attended. I stood outside the library and handed out fliers. On week four, no one attended. I continued reporting to the professor about CEASE, and she smiled and told me to keep notes on my planning and efforts. Se reminded me that some effort was better than none, and that even if no one attended, I was trying and I was doing a good job. I felt helpless and frustrated, I said. Think of how women feel, she said.

infiltrate. stab. strike. advance. aggress. bash. bat. beset. blister. brain. bust. clip. 

I held sixteen meetings of CEASE in all, and no one ever attended. I continued attending classes and writing papers, taking tests. I had an internship where I helped children who had been hurt by men, or who had been neglected by women who had been hurt by men. The world around me felt evil. In time, I graduated, and I became a therapist. I worked with veterans (hurt by men) and victims (hurt by men). I worked with sexual offenders and victims, rapists and victims, domestic abusers and victims. In nearly every session, there was some example of men hurting women, either in the direct story of the client or in their family. I regularly felt overwhelmed, hurt, and exhausted. The way violence by men, the way rape infiltrated every level of humanity hurt my heart.

clock. club. combat. kick. thrash. whip. slog. mug. punch. rush. wallop. whop. knock. 

In an early conversation with the professor, she asked me if I had an understanding of what women went through. Without telling her I was gay, I told her that I knew how it felt to be bullied for being different and to have someone treat me unfairly. I told her I had been molested and that no one had really taken it seriously, and how I didn’t feel like I could talk about it much. And she told me that I understood better than most men, then explained that in her experience, most women experience what I’d experienced in far greater quantities, and that they often felt helpless and powerless, and that it was far more frequent for women of color.

snuff. crucify. martyr. harrow. persecute. torture. torment. excoriate. rack. wrong.

Yet I also began to realize that while most men are never held accountable for their actions, are never prosecuted, and are never punished. But for those that are held accountable for sexual harassment, for battery, for domestic violence, for aggravated assault, for sexual assault, for murder… for those who have consequences, they are punished with fines, suspensions, or jail sentences. They aren’t offered treatment. They aren’t given an education to make change. Instead, they are penalized. And then they turn around and blame women.

inflict. offend. confine. spank. chastise. incarcerate. flog. exile. cuff. chasten. blacklist. 

It’s 2017 now, and I have worked as a therapist for nearly a decade and a half. My experiences in my office haven’t changed. I can hardly count the number of survivors of rape, assault, and molestation who have crossed my path, struggling to survive after being hurt by another, nearly always a man, and on occasion by a woman who has been hurt by a man. The modern media is full of headlines about atrocities that have been there all along. Every day there are stories of police brutality, murders, human trafficking, war atrocities, mass shootings, and sexual assault, and they are, every one of them, stories about men’s violence against women.

accost. fondle. injure. maltreat. hinder. meddle. misuse. caress. grope. squeeze. stroke. 

Every day lately there are stories about women’s experiences with men in power scattered across the media. Drugs dropped into drinks to make rape easier. Coercion and abuse of power. Quick gropes during photographs. Lewd words and labels. Threatening invitations in hotel rooms during work trips. Drunken encounters. Rape has become a topic for nighttime comedians to crack jokes about, and people are constantly feeling helpless, inundated by these stories.

paw. pet. grab. clutch. manipulate. maneuver. exploit. direct. massage. upstage. eclipse. 

And yet it is the stories in my own family that horrify me more. In a recent conversation with my mother, she told me about being a teenager, when a man entered her place of employment and thrust an envelope of pornography at her, moving as if to grab her, something she narrowly escaped. Decades later, she still remembers how this made her feel. And she, the survivor of abandonment and domestic violence at the hands of her husbands.

outweigh. govern. rule. dictate. boss. handle. outshine. overbear. override. sway. 

I think of one of my sisters, who had a boss harass her daily in her workplace. He would comment on her breasts, wonder about her sexual prowess, use lewd and offensive terms, and refer to his penis on a regular basis. She would come home daily, to her husband and children, shaking, scared, humiliated, and embarrassed, knowing that if she spoke up about this, it would be her word against his and that she might lose her job.

subjugate. tyrannize. enslave. tame. suppress. compel. squelch. quash. snuff. stamp. 

I think of another sister, who made friends with a neighbor and her husband, and how the husband would sometimes corner my sister, exposing his genitals and telling her how she could have him and his wife would never have to know, and how the same man got her phone number and would send her suggestive comments and photos of his penis. And when my sister finally grew bold enough to speak out, how her friend blamed her, choosing her husband’s side.

stifle. withhold. bottle. shush. silence. overpower. crack. bludgeon. whack. zap. shoot. 

I think of another sister who, as an adolescent, sat down in the bathtub privately only to have her stepfather enter the room, his eyes lingering as he stimulated himself through his clothing, before apologizing, saying his entrance was an accident. This same man constantly shamed her for her size, calling her fat and ugly during moments of anger, and offering her love and encouragement when he felt happy.

murder. assassinate. behead. butcher. decapitate. execute. massacre. slaughter. slay. 

I think of my recent family reunion, where I saw a creepy older relative, a man in his 70s, tell one of his nieces that she had ‘the best ass in the family’ as he grabbed her from behind, the same man who had commented on another niece’s breast size, the prettiness of another, the development of another. When I brought this up with another relative, I learned that many of the young women in the family have learned to never let themselves be alone with this man, how they felt objectified and uncomfortable, but how they didn’t want to speak up because they felt like that would hurt the man’s relatives.

strangle. choke. asphyxiate. drub. electrocute. eradicate. finish. garrote. hang. split. 

I think of my ex-wife, who told me stories of early development and being treated differently as an adolescent by boys who sought to exploit her for having breasts. I think of her stories as a student in high school and college, among students and teachers with wandering eyes and passing comments about her figure. I think of her stories as an employee in professional settings, where men would condescend to her because of her gender, using insulting tones, names, and phrases to speak with her.

knife. stab. liquidate. smother. screw. lay. shag. bang. bonk. hump. score. copulate. 

I think of the friends who confessed to me, in high school, that their fathers had hurt them, molested them. One told me of how her father used alcohol to get her sleepy, and how she woke to him touching her naked body when she was ten. One told me how her father had been coming into her room a few times per week to masturbate over her as she slept, and how this had gone on for years. One told me how her father would buy her gifts and tell her she was his special girl before and after he removed her clothing and had sex with her. All of these stories from one classroom in one high school in one small town in Idaho.

fornicate. mate. procreate. flatten. tarnish. disfigure. defame. embarrass. muddy. tar. 

I think of stories from colleagues and co-workers who have been sexually harassed by clients in academic settings, in doctor’s offices, in restaurants, in emergency rooms, in job interviews, in their own therapy offices. I think of their stories where they felt unsafe with strangers, co-workers, store managers, police officers, and friends. I think of how they’ve been cat-called or ogled at the gym, at stoplights, in public parks, over Facebook, in bars, and while walking down the street. And then I realize that if I’ve ever felt harassed or judged unfairly, it has been in isolated encounters, a handful of times over a span of decades, not constantly and pervasively across my life span.

plague. sadden. trouble. wrong. handicap. encumber. dishearten. overthrow. hound. 

And my thoughts return to my clients, hundreds of them over the years, who have been victimized in these and many other ways, men and women both, all hurt by men, and the culture of rape that surrounds them. Some have been raped by dates, some by brothers, some by husbands, some by boyfriends, some by fathers, some by strangers, some by bosses. Some of them have been raped serially, over and over for years, by the same man. And some have been assaulted by many men over the years. Some come from families where their sisters and mothers have been raped, and they fear that their daughters too will be raped.

pollute. smear. stain. sully. contaminate. discredit. debase. libel. pervert. warp. cheat. 

I think of women who through life as shells of themselves. Some remain in long term relationships with abusive men because they are afraid they won’t get to keep their children if they leave. Some don’t speak up about their rape for decades, if ever, because they feel like no one will believe them. Some dull their pain with alcohol, or purging, or unhealthy relationships, or drugs, or promiscuity, or religion. I think of women who have been taught that their looks, their ‘virtue’, or their ability to bear children are their sole sources of worth.

castigate. cheapen. reprove. immure. expel. batter. buffet. lacerate. scourge. smack. belt.

A few weeks ago, I sat with my sister in a coffee shop in Burlington, Vermont, and we talked about the rape culture headlines filling the news lately. We talked about how awful and incapacitating it is to read these headlines. I shared with her how many of my long-term clients in therapy were spending weeks just discussing how the news headlines were reminding them of their own traumas, and how at the same time they felt they were being validated for the first time. And I shared that everything can be boiled down to one single word, Rape, and how everything extends from there.

blight. blemish. abase. bastardize. decay. putrefy. suborn. reduce. fix. disfigure. lie. 

“Rape is a verb.” I said it aloud in conversation. It implied action, direct or indirect. Rape is something done. And yet that simple four letter word carries with it so many other words. A civilization of billions has been built upon that word, one spanning hundreds of years, and one that surrounds us now.

decompose. animalize. seduce. tempt. betray. deceive. persuade. entice. coax. swindle.

I took out a piece of paper, opened up my computer, and found an online thesaurus. I typed in the word Rape and I began copying down synonyms of the word, writing furiously. I wrote each word, then began clicking on the associated verbs, writing down those synonyms as well. My list expanded from one page to the next and then onto a third. My head began to ache. The words were ugly, violent, and vile. They were full of hate and pain.

steer. entrap. bait. hypnotize. mesmerize. question. belittle. denigrate. disparage. vilify. 

I wrote hundreds of words. After hours of writing, I finally stopped. I wasn’t finished. There were too many words in the language that related to destruction, murder, pain, violence, humiliation, domination, coercion, and sexual gratification. There were far too many shades of red and black. I ached, looking at my hastily scrawled words, all of them ugly in this context.

belie. blaspheme. blister. calumniate. curse. roast. revile. scorch. plaster. cripple. 

And then I thought of my sons. My ex-wife and I are working hard to raise sons who are feminists, who believe in equality, who treat women with respect, who vote thoughtfully. We have open discussions about race, sexual orientation, and feminism, and they are kind, thoughtful, articulate, and respectful children. Yet these boys, they are still subject to cartoons, interactions with children in school, video games. They aren’t immune. They get in arguments sometimes, and they play with other boys on the playground. And although I reinforce equality, non-violence, love, expression, and communication, they still sometimes punch, hit, and threaten. And every time it breaks my heart.

maim. rend. traumatize. shatter. sabotage. bruise. mutilate. wound. wrong. cheat.  cane.

But I will keep teaching them, and I will keep educating myself. I will keep educating myself. I will keep asking questions of my female friends and loved ones. I will listen. I will share, without judgment. I will believe them. I will have the hard conversations. I will hold those accountable who make others feel safe. I won’t hide. I will openly discuss and share, even when it makes people uncomfortable. I will be furious at the people in power and the ones who say they feel powerless yet still hurt others. I will strive, and push, and shout. For there are far too many synonyms for that ugly four letter word, all of them verbs, and verbs imply action. It will take action to fight back.

paddle. clobber. sock.  whip. strap. goad. horsewhip. cajole. barricade. lash. push. whale. flagellate. vanquish. kill. subdue. trounce. muffle. censor. erase. evade. omit. forget. puncture. maim. sabotage. bruise. mutilate. wound. wrong. cheat. harass. vex. stalk. haunt. hunt. chase. pursue. insult. provoke. humiliate. snub. smear. underestimate. taunt. mock. silence. gag. muzzle. mute. stifle. deaden. hush. interfere. conclude. end. break. block, pause. barricade. cease. discontinue. finish. cancel. terminate. restrict. pierce. penetrate. cleave. drill. enter. intrude. gash. plow. prick. slit. slice. slash. puncture. probe. spike. incise. bore. infiltrate. rupture. diminish. disturb. mortify. shock. bother. trouble. annoy. confound. malign. blacken. soil. stain. dirty. color. corrupt. putrefy. brainwash. prostitute. traffic. indoctrinate. bully. intimidate. torment. hector. kidnap. snatch. steal. pilfer. pirate. pitch. purloin. swipe. thieve. palm. pinch. life. kill. slay. poison. drown. exploit. take. justify. condone. rationalize. maintain. excuse. acquit. exempt. exonerate. indulge. forgive. pardon. tolerate. spare. relieve. whitewash. overlook. appease. discount. mollify. forget. ignore. omit. evade. 

RAPE.

Return to Monett

Monett

“So this is where you grew up,” Maggie said as we walked up to the house.

“Yeah, this is where I grew up.” I was 28 years old, newly married, and going back to my childhood home for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Our home in Monett, Missouri was on a busy highway. It was white, a bit stark looking, with a nice covered porch in front. There was a bench on the porch, where, in my childhood, Mom and I would sit on it on long weekend afternoons, watching the massive thunderclouds slowly spread across the horizon in blues, greys, whites, and blacks, until the filled the horizon with resonant, concussive booms of thunder and flashing, dazzling, flickering, snake-tongued lightning. I turned my back to the house and looked at the sky that had brought me so much comfort as a child.

The house felt huge back then, but now, seeing it as a grown-up, it felt small and blocky. Still, my mother described it as her dream home. There was a small front yard, grassy with trees, and a larger backyard that we had framed in with a large brown wooden fence. The dogs had lived back there, Tippy, our friendly German Shephard, and Brittany. I remember my brother Kenny teasing the dogs, once getting them wet then lathering them up with the bizarre combination of dish soap and mustard, then laughing with his friends at the mess; my sister Marnae came home horrified at the dried clumpy messes and had to clean the dogs up herself. (One day, when I was in the 4th grade, Brittany would escape the yard and rush into the road, where she was hit by a large truck. I still remember her body looking like hamburger as we viewed it from the school bus window the following morning.)

A large group of my family members was visiting south-western Missouri on a family vacation, going to the places we had loved as children. As Maggie and I had walked through the city throughout the day, I had been startled by how everything felt the exact same. The playground equipment in the city park, the names of the businesses (Wal-Mart and Consumers), the sign on the local swimming pool (where my sister had once pushed me into the deep end and I thought I would drown), the Chinese restaurant across the street (Twin Dragon, where we would save up quarters as a kid to buy the Cashew Chicken lunch special to take home), and the homes along the neighborhood streets (where my sister had delivered newspapers every morning with her bike), it was all the same. The more I looked around, the more I was assaulted by memories of my past. It was disconcerting, overwhelming.

In the winter, our home could be buffeted by a crippling cold and ice. In perfect conditions, the ice would layer everything in a thin sheet, from the sidewalks and cars and roads to the individual boughs and branches of trees. The ice would layer the snow and freeze there. Upon waking up, we would watch the sun rise over the icy wonderland outside and reflect back at us, shining like crystal. The branches could break under the weight of the ice, snapping off, and the whole town would be shut down as driving was unsafe until the ice melted. Now, 17 years later, the trees were bare of branches, a recent ice storm having stripped them once again.

My family moved to Missouri from Idaho in the mid-1970s, and I had been born there in 1978. We’d stay until the school year ended in 1990, the summer when Mom packed up the U-Haul and drove us back to Idaho, leaving Dad behind to fend for himself, finally unable to stay in a marriage that had been broken for far too long. We had taken most of the furniture, leaving the family room and one bedroom set up, and Dad stayed a few years longer in that empty house, before selling everything and starting his life over, first in Salt Lake City, then in Las Vegas, where he would stay for years.

I felt cold as we walked up to the house. My family was huge, and far too talkative, and my insides felt jagged like broken glass and undigested food. As I clutched my wife’s hand, my mother and sisters knocked on the door of the home. When a woman answered, they told her that we had lived here years ago and we wondered if we might be able to walk through, and she’d surprisingly agreed. The women in my family rushed into the home, eager and excited, chattering about how different things looked, while I hung back a bit, hesitant.

Then I entered, boldly.

Maggie respected my silence as I walked through the house. Though my sisters and mother laughed and chattered, I felt like I was in a crypt. I surveyed the rooms slowly, quietly, memories from my childhood flashing in my brain. We passed through the living room (I saw six year old me setting an alarm clock for 5 am, waking up early to clean the room as a surprise for mom before she woke for the day), the dining room and kitchen (I saw nine people crammed around a full kitchen table, arguing and bickering, Kenny taking giant heaps of mashed potatoes on his plate while we all complained, Dad surveying the room with an angry look, Mom still preparing the food while we devoured it, she always being the last to eat), the family room (Saturday morning cartoons, me curled up on the couch starting at five am or sometimes four, eating sugary breakfast cereals with milk and pouring more and more cereal into the bowl until the milk was finally absorbed and my belly distended with too much food), and the garage (where I had kept the box turtle I’d found, naming him Sparky, until my sister let him go). We walked up the stairs (where we would line up on Christmas mornings in our new pajamas, not allowed to come down until 7 am and only after a family picture had been taken), my old bedroom (the one where the sexual abuse had taken place, where the door would be locked and I was told to be quiet so no one could hear), my sister’s room (where I would sit next to Marnae on her bed while she listened to Def Leppard and played the Legend of Zelda for untold hours, though I was never allowed to play), and my parent’s room (where I had believed ghosts lived in the closet for half a decade and I refused to go in).

This was my childhood. This home, where I spent the first decade, plus a little more, of my life. My genesis was in this home. My experiences here shaped everything that came afterward.

Maggie clutched my hand tightly. “Are you okay?”

I could hear my sisters laughing, reminiscing about Prom dates, visits from Grandma, Sunday dinners with the local Mormon missionaries, and family walks to the Mormon church just down the block from our house.

“I–I think I’m okay,” I smiled, a bit weak. I felt empty and nervous. So many things had happened here. This was the very source of my happiness, and yet the place where it had all fallen apart. We walked out front and I breathed deep, watching the horizon, remembering the thunderstorms again.

“Hey, let’s walk down to the church!” someone yelled, and I followed behind, clutching Maggie’s hand tightly and letting the memories fall over me again.

We walked down the road, past the Chinese place, and arrived at the warehouse in minutes. It was a small building, a normal Mormon warehouse, like the ones that sat on practically every city block in Utah and Idaho towns out west. Brick building, a parking lot, no cross or crucifix on the top, a sign that read “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Visitors Welcome” sitting next to the door.

Being Mormon in Missouri had been strange. Later, when I went to junior high and high school in Idaho, I was part of a majority of students with over 60 per cent of the over all student population being affiliated with the church. But out here, we were part of a vast minority. Mormons from several different cities gathered for worship services in this particular church, some driving an hour on Sundays to get here, and so far as I knew I was the only Mormon kid in my school.

This little ward house, this church across the street, framed my entire family’s social lives growing up, though. We were the members who lived the closest. We had the missionaries over constantly, in their white shirts and ties. We attended meetings on Sundays in three hour blocks. I sang songs in Primary and learned lessons about Jesus, the prophets, and Mormon principles. I sat through an hour long worship service every week, taking the sacrament to remind me of my commitments to the Lord. My older siblings had gone to youth activities here on Tuesday nights, and we had ward celebrations at every major holiday. I’d spent untold hours in this very building. Yet it was just a building. Just a church, like any other, for like-minded worshippers to gather together.

It wasn’t until I left Missouri that I realized how many Mormon connections where there. The Mormons had settled in these areas, in Jackson County, Missouri, in the early days, before the governor had issued an Extermination Order and driven them out. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church, had received a number of prophecies about the area, saying it was the site of the original Garden of Eden, and that when Jesus Christ came again, in the Second Coming, he would build the New Jerusalem right here in Missouri. Then the Mormons had gone south, to build the city of Nauvoo in a nearby state, before they had moved West. But first, Joseph Smith had been killed by a mob, right here in Missouri.

I walked around the church with Maggie, soon to ex-Mormon, soon to come out as gay, contemplating the roots of Mormonism here, the roots of myself. Missouri had been a frontier back then, a place far west of civilization. The town of Monett itself had ties to the development of the railroad. And it had been a frontier for me as well.

I tuned out the conversations my family members were having about their happy memories here, and instead invited Maggie for a short walk. We walked down a long street in my childhood neighborhood, a street where I used to go trick-or-treating and Christmas caroling, where I had once injured my foot in a bike wheel while riding behind my sister, where I had scraped knees and elbows.

“How are you feeling?” she asked, concerned.

And I just shook my head, unable to form words for a moment.

“Chad? Are you okay? How do you feel?”

I struggled to find the right word, then I bit my lip nervously and looked at her.

“Haunted.”

 

 

 

 

39 and counting

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During my time in Seattle, years ago, I worked as a therapist for a large HMO, a bureaucratic regime that had a fast-food style approach to therapy. Clients who had particular insurance types were barred from going elsewhere for services (well, without some significant personal expense). I would arrive at 8 and see my first client at 8:20, my next at 9:05, my next at 9:50, my next at 10:35, and so on. With the exception of a lunch break, it was swift, mediocre therapy, truncated and brief, with no free time in between. Instead of giving my all to every patient, I was left doing routine therapy sessions on autopilot, trying to find ways to stay awake and cognizant during the long work day.

Human problems exist wherever there are humans, but away from Utah, the problems were less related to Mormonism, the clientele more diverse. I saw the single father seeking help in getting his teenage son to stop playing video games. I saw the woman who wore a dog collar while her husband, a veteran with PTSD, held the leash. I saw the old woman with Parkinson’s who would shake and just sob about her long and happy life being reduced to this. I saw the former Hollywood actress whose sole joy in life was now drinking brandy from the bottle and watching the sunset. I saw the woman who had entered a deep depression because she couldn’t get the pregnancy to take, and she was sure her wife would leave her.

I watched this parade of humanity with exhausted eyes, burning out not because of the problems or the people, but due to the rigor of the job. My capacity to help others was limited by the sheer volume of the expectations before me. Every night, I would leave work and face gridlock traffic for a full hour during the few miles I had to drive home, and I would often find myself crying from the stress.

I had moved to Seattle to find myself. After all of those years in the closet, I needed something for me. I needed experiences that I had missed out on. I had never backpacked through Europe, spent a summer in California, or studied abroad. I’d never fallen in love during a summer in London or followed a stranger on the train home for sex or got high with friends on the beach around the campfire. I was in my mid-30s and I was grieving all that I had lost before. I’d boldly set my life aside and had taken the first giant step for myself. I’d moved in with my step-brother, taking the spare room in his home for extremely low rent. I started dating freely for the first time. I ran, I explored neighborhoods, I drank endless cups of coffee in dozens of shops, writing, reading, and watching.

My first month there, I’d cried my eyes out. I had missed my sons so profoundly. I called them every night, sent them video messages, drew them little comic strips and mailed them every week. The tears came from pain and grief. It hurt so badly to be away, and it hurt because I was enjoying it so much.

And then I got a job, one that was terrible and confining. I watched my debt increase, and I saw a version of my future unfolding, one where I was living in a city that I loved, one where I woke to a sunrise over the lake every morning, yet one where I was so exhausted by work daily that I was confining myself to a chained existence. The cost of being so far away was too much, it hurt too badly.

And so, six months later, I’d made another bold step, choosing to return to Utah and carve out a life on my own terms. No longer would I grieve the person I lost (except when appropriate), instead I would become the person I was meant to be. One who took huge, careful risks. One who stayed dedicated to his principles of fatherhood, integrity, light, and love. One who set and achieved goals that would have felt impossible just months before. Moving to Seattle allowed me to take a risk on myself for the first time in my three and a half decades. Moving back, though, allowed me to prove to myself that I could do it on my own terms, smartly and consistently.

And my has it paid off.

A few days ago, I turned 39. I’ve been back in Utah for over 3 years. I’m transformed my physical health. I’ve relaunched and rededicated my career. I’ve created a beautiful home for myself and my children. I’ve eliminated my debt. And I’ve taken huge professional risks, in making a documentary and writing a book, accomplishing things I would have never dreamed were possible. I’m in a happy, stable relationship for the first time in my life. I’m traveling. I embrace myself, all of the parts that dwell in light and in shadow both.

My birthday itself was quiet. I saw a few clients. I exercised. I took my children to the park. I ran errands. My boyfriend made a delicious vegetarian meal and then we snuggled on the couch watching television shows. It was all of the parts of my life that bring me solidity and joy. On top of all of that, I had just returned from a week long writing trip to Vermont. Everything in my life felt perfect.

All across my Facebook wall, messages from loved ones showed up, hundreds of them, from people from all parts of my life. Childhood friends, siblings and cousins, Mormon missionary companions, actors from shows I had been in, college roommates, neighbors from my married Mormon days, my ex-wife’s parents, current co-workers, men I had dated. I felt a barrage of love and support, representing a composite of my patchwork life, and it left me stunned. I’m living a life I never thought was possible.

As I struggled to put all of this into words, my brain flashed back to Seattle. Why I moved there, and why I left. I thought of the clients I had worked with there, and wondered after them. I took time to measure out the person I am now and the person I was then, and how they are connected.

And I realize, again, perhaps more than ever, that I only have now. This moment. I can live now with authenticity. I can be happy, safe, and secure. I can tackle my most prickly parts with bravery. I can be an incredible father. I can love myself and those around me. I can continue to dream, travel, and build. I can do amazing things.

In this moment, I have created a life that I never thought was possible for me. And in this moment, I look forward to a life that I know is possible.

I turned 39. I’m so much bigger than I was at 38. And by 40, I’ll be bigger still.

So thank you, Seattle. Thank you, for pushing me to this place. And thank you to all of the parts of my life, all of the people, who have shaped me and helped me to arrive here.

I am limitless. I am bold. I’m foraging forward. I’m 39 and still counting.

Monuments

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I’m a product of everything that has come before me. Small and large, historical and irrelevant. I’m a composite of human history, events and decisions that shaped my destiny for thousands of years before I was ever conceived on this small planet. Political revolutions, marriages, tragic deaths, wars, the founding and dissolutions of nations.

Sheri (my younger sibling, and the other gay member of my family) and I (a gay father of two sons from Utah) pulled through the small town of Sharon, Vermont, watching for the sign announcing the birthplace of Joseph Smith. It felt strange for the two of us, both no longer affiliated with the Mormon church, to be stopping here. We were road-tripping through Vermont, however, headed from Brattleboro to Burlington, and when would I ever be near Sharon again.

We drove past small farm houses and a few small local businesses. This was clearly a small community. (A quick Google search confirmed that the town population was 1500). The season, in mid-November, was shifting from fall to winter, swiftly. The leaves were no longer changing, already shifted to a deep brown and most of them on the ground, just a few left clinging to barren branches. A breeze blew outside the windows, stark and biting, over the small rolling hills outside. It was lovely.

Finally, we found the turn to the homestead where the prophet Joseph had been born. How well I recalled the narrative. Toward the end of his short life, Joseph Smith had released an official account of his life from his perspective, in which he recalled growing up with hard-working parents on a farm and having been born in Sharon, in Windsor County, Vermont. The family had moved when he was an infant, and had gone on to New York, where, in Joseph’s adolescence, he encountered a period of religious revival, and he had to decide which church to join. According to his account, he prayed for truth, and was visited by God and Jesus Christ themselves, in glowing, floating, resurrected bodies, and they told him to join none of the churches and instead to start his own. I’d practically memorized this account as a young Mormon missionary 20 years before. As we drove through Sharon, I wondered how differently my life would have been, over a century later, if Joseph’s parents had stayed in this small town instead of moving. Would there ever have been a Mormon Church if they stayed?

We pulled down the large driveway toward the homestead. There was a small branch of the Mormon Church there, a cemetery of ancient graves (with no names that I recognized), a home (where the man who managed the estate lived), and a small visitor’s center. I could see Christmas lights wound around the trees of the grounds, not lit up, and realized they likely did a local Nativity scene here at Christmas time. Pleasant gospel music played over the speakers. I immediately thought of other Church history sites I had visited, most prominently Temple Square in Salt Lake City, where it felt the same: manicured lawns, Christmas lights, church music.

Back behind the center was a large monument to Joseph, a giant pointed structure towering into the sky, and a sign near it talked about how the monument had been built out of one single stone. Plaques adorning it told the story of Joseph, and golden writing wound around it quoted James 1:5, the scripture that inspired Joseph to pray for God’s revelations in the first place. “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God…”

“It looks a lot like a penis,” Sheri whispered, though no one was around to hear.

“Oh yes. Men and their phallic architecture,” I laughed back, and we looked around. There was a trail off to the side, brown and winding through the woods, that led to the site of the Solomon Mack homestead; Mack was a Revolutionary War veteran who’d lived in the area. It was a mile hike, but it was far too cold to venture into the woods. Just the day before, Sheri and I had visited a similar site in New Hampshire where a woman named Madame Sherri had built a “castle” in the woods, entertaining there for decades before the place burned down.

Sheri and I stood facing the woods. “Sometimes I wonder what future generations will think. Whose names will they choose to remember. What markers and monuments will be placed from our times. Or will it all just be ruins and dust, leading archaeologists to dig up our remains and wonder who we were.” We contemplated that for a bit before going into the visitor’s center.

Inside, we were greeted by Elder Abbot, a nice man from central Utah who was serving an 18 month mission in Sharon, greeting visitors. He told us the local branch of the church had about 80 active members in a 60 mile radius. “The church isn’t that strong in this area, but we are sure working on it!” He told us that in the summer and around Christmastime, the center gets hundreds of visitors daily, but in the off-seasons, only a few per day. “Church members don’t really come here. Honestly, there isn’t a lot of relevance to this place for us. Joseph was only born here. Nothing else momentous happened.”

Elder Abbot led us into the central room, where we saw a large statue of Joseph, a library of church books in glass casings, and giant pictures of Jesus Christ and Thomas Monson, the current Mormon prophet. We looked around for a bit, done after a couple of minutes.

“Can I take your picture in front of the statue?”

Sheri and I, still bundled up in our winter gear, sat next to each other, giving small smiles for the picture. When he handed it back, I zoomed in on our faces, our expressions clearly underwhelmed. Behind us were tributes to Christ, Smith, and Monson, the three men (all white, of course) that our birth family most revered. They were still looking over our shoulders, promising to judge our lifestyle choices in a weird way.

We walked out, thanking Elder Abbot with a handshake, and got back in the car. “Hey, remember that time the two gay ex-Mormons went to the birthplace of the founder of Mormonism, and they were totally bored?”

We laughed together, driving out of Sharon, but my thoughts turned to origins and long-term decisions, and I couldn’t help but wonder what my actions now meant for generations down the line. Then I clicked open my phone and realized the monument to Joseph was a Pokemon gym and I laughed even harder.