Pride, Prejudice, and Protest

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HOMO SEX IS SIN

BELIEVE TRUST FOLLOW OBEY JESUS

ASK ME WHY YOU DESERVE HELL

The signs were tall, large bright capital letters on bold backgrounds, yellow on black, black on white. The word Hell was bright red, the letters dramatically lapped in flames along the bottom. There were no exclamation points, but they were certainly implied. (At least there was no ‘God Hates Fags’ signs this time. That one makes me angrier than the others, somehow.)

And the protestors looked like normal people, men and women in shirts and jeans. They were relatively peaceful as they stood there with their signs of condemnation, their T-shirts (ordered out of the back of some fundamentalist magazine somewhere, perhaps) with similar messages of hate and judgment.

They occupied a prominent corner in Salt Lake City, on a major intersection, right in front of a hotel and restaurant, right where the parade began. Just across the street from the protestors, a large booth blared happy, peppy music like Born This Way by Lady Gaga and Holiday by Madonna, songs about embracing who you are and celebrating life. The streets were full of people assembling for the upcoming Pride parade, a lengthy procession that would last over two hours and would include lavish floats and huge groups of people. Those marching in the parade would include everything from men in leather with whips, mothers holding signs that said they loved their gay children, huge processions from local businesses in matching T-shirts that embrace diversity, Mormons holding signs like ‘Jesus Said Love Everyone’ who were trying to seek change from within, the local gay swim team in speedos and roller skates, mayoral and Congressional candidates with throngs of supporters, and drag queens in flowing gowns on the tops of trucks and busses. Every one of them would march past those signs as they were cheered by the thousands upon thousands of those there to cheer them on.

ASK ME WHY YOU DESERVE HELL.

My little family hovered in the shade across the street from the protestors, waiting for the parade to begin. My sons, J and A, ages 9, sat on the ground, talking back and forth about the adventures we had been having all morning. The night before, we’d rented a hotel room downtown in order to be closer to the parade route, and I had assembled a team of bird toys as super-villains, calling themselves the Bird Brigade. The bald eagle, flamingo, chicken, goose, cassowary, and others all had villain names and super-powers and they had been led by a cartoonish looking Baby Bluebird. The kids had made hero teams out of their animals and they had spent hours laughing at the antics of the Bird Brigade, who, of course, lost every battle. Now, after coffee and breakfast, they were still talking about the adventures and cracking up. (This quality time with them was my very favorite thing about being their father).

My boyfriend reached over and scratched my back. “Are you sure we should stand here? Do you think the kids will wonder about those signs?”

I shrugged. “Well, if they ask questions, it gives us an opportunity to talk about it. They’ve been at Pride every year, and there are always protestors here. They’ve never asked questions before. But I don’t want to move. I am kind of determined to stand my ground.” I put my arm around him as he understood.

Just before the parade began, one of the protestors grabbed a megaphone and began shouting over the music and the crowd. As I looked over to watch him, trying to make out his words, I noticed three policemen standing right behind him, against the wall. They were there to protect us, of course, but they were also there to protect the protestors who, I realized again, had every right to be there, every bit as much as we did.

“God condemns sin! Those who do not repent will all be burned! The Bible is clear in its condemnation of sinners! Turn back from sin now or burn! All sinners will burn in Hell!”

In response, the music was turned up louder. The protestor went silent, then he tried blaring a Christian song over his own megaphone to drown out Rihanna. Ultimately it was ineffective and he gave up, returning to standing there quietly.

I found myself voicing my thoughts out loud, my boyfriend listening as I sorted through my complex feelings. “The thing is, I believe in their right to protest. Freedom of speech and all that. They deserve to have a place to stand and protest. But it’s just… gross. It’s gross! Then again, they think that we are gross, for being a couple out here in public with my sons at our side.”

As I talked, I watched a Latina drag queen with bright purple hair, in a corset and skirt, with bold make-up, walk out in front of the protestors and raise her middle fingers in the air as people cheered her on and photos were taken. “We are responding to their hate with hate,” I thought to myself even as I found myself clapping for the drag queen.

“I just don’t understand why they are here at the start of the parade in such a prominent position,” my boyfriend said.

“Honestly, they probably just got here really early and claimed a place where they would be seen. In past years, they are usually at the entrance to the festival after the parade. In fact, they will probably be there, too.”

The parade started, and went for hours, but my thoughts kept going back to the protestors. Who were these people? Are they just locals who hate gays so much that they want to voice their fury in this way? Do they think that they are saving souls by turning people away from lives of sin? Do they do this professionally? Are these T-shirts their work uniforms, those signs their gear? Do they travel from city to city  at various Pride festivals, paid to promote their cause by a various church or business? There is a website at the bottom of their signs, I noticed. Is that it, are these just paid groupies of some kind? They seemed so calm as they stood there.

I thought back to a few years ago, when some of the protestors chanted hateful rhetoric at a group of gay people. I watched a furious young lesbian couple screaming at the protestors, who stood there silently.

“It’s people like you who fucking ruined my life! You’ve turned my family against me! My whole church disowned me! And you stand here saying that God hates me! God created me this way, you fuckers! How dare you stand here hurting people while you say you love them!”

And she was right, of course. Except her fury was misplaced. The protestors and their messages reinforce messages that most LGBT people hear growing up, over and over again. I was given those messages, and I still am. “If you work hard enough, you can cure yourself from being gay.” “I like gay people, I just don’t support your lifestyle.” “I’m happy you have found someone, but I still think being gay is a choice.” “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” “Homosexuality is a gross abomination.” “You say you are born this way, but God would never do that to anyone.” And are any of those messages any better or worse than “Ask me why you deserve Hell” or “God hates fags”?

Yet what good does it do to stand and rage at these (likely paid) protestors, screaming in pain and vulnerability at strangers?

Still reasoning out loud, I turned back to my boyfriend. “How different would the news coverage be if we gay people made giant-ass signs like this and we stood outside churches every Sunday with hate messages. ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged.’ ‘God said to love, not condemn and disown.’ Or worse. ‘You aren’t true Christians!’ ‘Burn in Hell!’ ‘God hates you!’ Or, even, perhaps, ‘Ask me why you deserve Hell!’ The media would label us haters, disgusting, sinners, anti-Christian, and the world would leap to support them.”

I looked back at my children on the ground, still laughing over Baby Bluebird. Then I looked around at the crowd of people, all of them, in leather, in purple wigs, in make-up, in tight shorts, in jeans and t-shirts and dresses and tank tops and body glitter, all there to celebrate life. I recognized the change happening in the world.

And I came to my own conclusion. “We are the future. My sons are the future. They are the past. I support their right to protest, and I protest them in return, and I have no desire to sink to their level. I choose to celebrate life rather than hold signs.”

 

I paused for a moment, speaking to myself. “I can’t do much. But I can write about it. I can live my own truth. I can help others. And I can raise my sons to live in a better future.”

Later, my boyfriend and I held hands. J held my right hand, A held his left hand, and we formed a little chain, walking down at the road, a different family, but a family all the same. We took up a whole sidewalk, my little family. And if that made me deserve Hell, well, I’ll see you there.

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One Epic Fantasy

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There is a reference in the Book of Mormon that talks about the “great whore that sitteth upon many waters”, meaning the “great and abominable church” established by Satan to confuse and corrupt men. Growing up, I was taught that this meant, basically, that every religion except my own was a confused or corrupted version of the truth, and that only I had the real, whole truth. I was taught, as a child, to stand at the pulpit and profess this truth. I was taught to thank God daily for blessing me with this truth. And I was taught that I must consistently seek to help others find this truth. Every other religion’s claims of heavenly visions, divine miracles, spiritual truths, and godly gifts were false, they were corruptions at worst, misunderstandings at best. Only my church was true.

“I’d like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true.”

This gave me a sense of superiority. I was a choice son of God from a chosen generation, in the last days, preparing the world for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. I was taught that my religion would slowly spread through the world, breaking borders and barriers, and every soul on Earth would slowly and surely join the true church of God. (That word again, true, my word we used that word a lot).

My religion, like all others, stared science in the face and stuck its tongue out. Forget scientific advancements, delete evolution, overlook the dinosaur bones. The truth of the world was part fairy tale, part epic science fiction story, and the closer you looked the more complex it became.

See, the world was created thousands of years ago, not millions, and it was by godly beings, Michael and Jehovah, angels with epic powers commanded by a Celestial man named Elohim who lived on the planet Kolob. Elohim had billions and billions of spirit children, and he needed a place for them to live, where they could be tested properly and receive bodies. Satan had one plan, and Jesus had another. God liked Jesus’ plan, so Satan and a third of God’s children declared war and were cast out, forever unable to get bodies after that, leaving the billions of them to only try and tempt mortals all the time. God sent Michael down to be Adam, took out a rib to create Eve, and told them not to eat some fruit, and when they did they were cast out to live for hundreds of years in toil. The following generations encompassed the Bible stories, epic adventures all. There were major floods with ships full of animals, a whale who swallowed a guy, mass genocides of cities full of sinners, and slave revolts. There were oceans parted by a man’s hands, plagues of frogs, voices out of burning bushes, and little guys knocking over big guys with a slingshot. There was incest, adultery, slave-mongering, diseases, mass murder, and untold numbers of dead babies. Oh, and lots of white guys with beards who spoke for God. White guys with beards in the Middle East who spoke for God.

And then Elohim finally sent Jesus down through a virgin birth, kept most of his life a mystery, then gave him all kinds of godly powers to change water to wine, survive starving in the desert, and multiply food sources, all while teaching mortals a lesson. Then he let Jesus bleed from every pore, be whipped and flogged, and then get nailed to a cross to die painfully, only so mortals could be told they would never be good enough to make it on their own, they would need to learn from all this, cause Jesus suffered for them, way worse than any mere mortal could suffer, and he had two because Adam and Eve ate that fruit that one time. And then God raised Jesus from the dead. So if we want some of that, we better listen and do as we are told.

And although the world had a few thousand years of religion prior to this, this is when religion as a culture really kicked in. Christians had already separated from Jews. But then lots of different men said that they were doing the Jesus thing the right way, and they formed their own churches, cultures, and governments around it, then started fighting with others. And as humans expanded from millions into billions, they divided themselves along those religious lines. Hindu. Islam. Buddha. Jewish. Christian. Far too many to count. Then they subdivided again, then again.

The way I was taught it, God was so upset over the way Jesus was treated that he took religion away from the Earth for nearly 2000 years. He waited a good long time for a nice righteous white boy in America. In fact, lots of history happened just to get the world ready for that white boy. There were wars and revolutions, slavery and crusades, but finally Joseph Smith came along. He was visited by God and Jesus, floating in the air in white robes, and then a series of angels and magical powers followed. There were buried artifacts, stones in a hat that could translate old records, and relics from an ancient civilization that has somehow evaded every scientist ever. Outside of Jesus, Joseph was the most important man to ever live, they said. He set up the true religion with the true scriptures, and he started converting people by the tens, the hundreds, the thousands, moving them from city to city and asking them to focus on his holiness and his revelations, and not on his increasing number of wives, his failed banks and smashed printing presses, and his youth full of treasure-digging. He retranslated the Bible, then brought forth more scriptures from some hieroglyphics he found in a mummy case. When Joseph died, the Mormons moved west and set up their own government, even though it meant fighting against the American government, and the Mormons changed their laws when they had to, which meant changing their belief structure and pretending  God had planned it that way all along.

Things are different nowadays in the true church. There is way less magic, fewer visions from the sky. Now there seems to be a strong focus on forgetting the past and focusing on conformity and obedience. Only certain things should be talked about. In a new world focused on equal rights, in a world where we talk about sexual abuse openly, where gay marriage is legal, and where it is considered cruel to discriminate against transgender people or anyone else, the Mormons want to keep the focus on happy families, and not on the excommunication of gays, the sexual abuse of women, the 150 years of denying blacks the Priesthood, the opposition of the Equal Rights Amendment, or how they treated young women as acquisitions for old men for many years past the time when it was declared illegal.

Some days, I feel angry about the religion I grew up in. Some days, sad. Some, numb, confused, or embarrassed. Some days, I even grow nostalgic. But others, like today, I look back on what I grew up believing and I can’t help but choke on my own laughter. It’s all just so asinine, so full of holes. It’s corruption from the inside out. It’s rotten to its core. It’s abusive, bizarre, ridiculous, beyond comprehension. It’s Star WarsLord of the RingsLord of the Flies, Animal Farm, Lolita, and Wolf of Wall Street all in one bizarre life-ruining epic. It’s crazy-making.

And it’s a system I’m relieved to be free from. But damn if it isn’t a good read.

 

 

Poz: my first encounter with AIDS

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In 1999, I was a Mormon missionary in inner city Philadelphia. At that time, the Mormon Church ran ads on television stations, advertising free copies of the Book of Mormon or Bible, or free videos about forever families. A person who called the phone number would request a copy of the free merchandise and give their name and address, and then a “media referral” would be passed on to the missionaries who were closest to that person geographically. We would grab the merchandise, walk over to the individual’s house, and deliver it, while offering to teach them about the Church in the hopes of converting them. At the end of each week, we would call the local leader and report how many media referrals we responded to, how many doors we knocked on, how many lessons we taught, and the data was collated and sent back up the chain to the presidency of the Church in Utah.

And this was how I met Vincent.

Now keep in mind, I was a 20 year old white kid in the inner city, and I looked like I was 16 at best. I was skinny in worn out shoes, a faded shirt and a thrift shop tie, with a bad haircut. I sported a backpack full of supplies every day, stuffed full of Mormon merchandise I hoped to pass out. At the time, I had a strong testimony of the Mormon faith and I went to no small effort to share that testimony with whoever would listen. And I was constantly praying to God that my efforts would prove to him that I could be cured from being gay; I went the entire two years hoping that if I baptized enough people, my homosexuality would go away and I could like girls like a “normal” guy.

When my companion (my fellow missionary, who I had to stay in sight of 24/7) and I knocked on Vincent’s door to deliver his Bible, we could immediately tell something was wrong with him. He was very ill and looked like he was likely in the last stages of cancer or another terminal illness. He was probably only in his mid 30s, but he looked 60. He was tall, about 6’5”, and had a thin gaunt face. He wore a large pair of glasses, a black beret, and was in very baggy sweat pants and a sweatshirt, a scarf around his neck. He was sweating slightly from shivering, a feverish sweat. He had a few sores on his face, including one on his lip that was distracting, hard to take my eyes off of.

Vincent invited us in. He was very effeminate, yet very kind. We pulled up two chairs next to the hospital bed he had in his small apartment. I remember feeling nervous, like whatever he had I might catch it. He climbed back into his bed and drew the covers up around him.

Vincent quietly explained that he was dying. He said he had been watching television a few days before and that he had seen the ad for the free Bible. He didn’t think he had long left to live, and he wanted to make things right with God before he passed.

I was young and knew very little of the world, and I asked Vincent what he was dying of, very little compassion in my voice.

He was unapologetic as he explained that he had AIDS. He told me he had grown up in a religious family in central Pennsylvania, that he had been kicked out as a teen for coming out as gay, and that he had been with the same man for years before a sad breakup. He said he made a few choices a few years back, and got HIV, and that he couldn’t afford to take care of himself, and now he was dying. He wanted to be baptized and to make himself clean.

We were kind to Vincent, but truthfully, we had no experience with anything like this. We were two very young men from rural Idaho, and this man was looking for absolution. We promised to come back and see Vincent the next day. That night at home, I called up my Priesthood leaders and explained the situation, and we were told that we were not allowed to teach a gay man by ourselves. We explained that Vincent wanted to be baptized, to be forgiven of his sins, and we were told that given his condition it was very unlikely that baptism could be approved, that Vincent would have to meet with local Priesthood leaders first and be interviewed.

The next day we visited Vincent, and he seemed sad and dejected. He said he had spent the evening researching our church and he realized that gay people didn’t have a place in it. He politely declined our invitation to teach him about the Church and said he would seek forgiveness elsewhere. He kindly asked us to leave.

I tried to visit Vincent a few weeks later, when I had a new companion. He didn’t answer the door. I can’t imagine he lived much longer.

Vincent crossed my mind yesterday for the first time in years. It’s nearly 20 years since I knew him so briefly, and I don’t even remember his last name. He was among the first gay people I knew, and the first with AIDS that I had met. Since coming out five years ago, I have met many people who have HIV, some of them are my very closest friends. They are incredible men with healthy lives, jobs, and routines. Technology and medical procedures have come so far, giving amazing quality of life.

Yet since its inception, HIV and AIDS has infected an estimated 78 million people and taken an estimated 39 million lives, wiping out entire generations in some countries.

I’ll have more to write about all of this soon, but for now, I want to honor my memory of Vincent, that quiet man who wanted peace with God before he died, but who was unable to find it with two 20 year old Idaho boys, one of them gay himself.

 

Joe America

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I’m an American, and I have an opinion about everything. 

I live in the greatest country in the world. We have the strongest values, the biggest military, and the best schools. We are the country that the other countries want to be like. Here, we fight for what we believe in and everyone has an equal shot. 

This is the home of the American dream. That means it doesn’t matter who you are, what color your skin is, if you are a man or a woman, that you can be anything you want if you just work hard enough. Even if you grew up in the poorest city in the world, you can come here and grab yourself by the bootstraps and work and work and work and become a millionaire or a doctor or a lawyer or anything you want. 

America is the land of freedom. Everyone is free here. We don’t have to fight for it. We are free to be whatever religion we want. We are free to say whatever we want. We are free to vote. I bet you can’t name another country where that is possible. Yeah, I can’t either.

It’s not all sunshine and roses here for me, though. I got a wife and two kids. We both work and go to church. We are hard-working Americans. But I can’t pay off all my student loans, and the mortgage is a little bit too much. We can hardly afford vacations, maybe just one big one per year, and we only have two credit cards. We have two cars and a truck, but we don’t own any other property. We have health insurance, but it’s expensive for a family of four. My mom always told me I should be thankful for things like running water and electricity and Internet and that, but I work hard to pay for that stuff, why would I be grateful for something I work hard for? My wife got her Masters degree. I barely finished high school and she’s frustrated that I make more than her, but that’s just the way things are. 

I just want what every American wants. Lower taxes and the right to do as I please. I want paved roads, public parks and buildings, a good police force, a good school for my kids, a fair legal system, libraries, and all that, sure, but I shouldn’t have to pay so much in taxes. And I especially don’t want to have my taxes to go toward taking care of other people. Medicaid and Medicare, Food Stamps, feeding people in prisons, bailing out poor people in other countries–use someone else’s money for that. I’m trying to take care of my family. They can take care of themselves.

I live in a place where there is mostly white people. I’m so sick of all the political correct baloney that goes on. People keep saying that someone of another race doesn’t get the same chances as someone white, but I think that’s crap. We all have an equal chance. We need to focus less on this stuff and more on making life easier for regular American families, families like mine. If the police shoot someone of a different race, it’s probably because that person deserved it. Okay, we had slavery way back when, but I wasn’t a slave owner, and we give Native Americans their own lands to live on. I’m sick of hearing all the complaints about stuff that happened a hundred years ago or more. 

I keep hearing about all these topics in the news, like gay marriage and abortion, and I’m so sick of it. We need to get focused on the real issues again. Look, if someone chooses to be gay and wants to be gay with other people, that’s fine, I just don’t want to see it. Go live together and do what you want, but me and the rest of the world believe in the Bible, and it says you shouldn’t get married. And abortion is just wrong. If a woman is gonna let herself get pregnant, she should have the baby, don’t abort it and give it to scientists who are gonna do terrible things to it. Planned Parenthood needs to go. 

I don’t really like Donald Trump, but if he gets the Republican vote, he’ll get my vote over Hillary Clinton. Trump comes on strong, but he has the right idea. I deserve the right to own guns without interference. Muslims aren’t all terrorists but they should at least wear badges so we can see them and be prepared. And Mexicans need to stop crossing our border and taking our jobs–they can immigrate properly just like anyone else. Hillary is just gonna Email all the American secrets to everyone from her home computer again. 

And that stupid war on terrorism needs to end already. Just wipe out the Taliban and ISIS and get our troops home. I’m so sick of hearing about American troops over there. Get the hell out of those countries and let them handle themselves. We have plenty of problems around here to fix. Some lady was trying to convince me that problems over there are problems here. But it isn’t my problem that ladies in Saudi Arabia aren’t allowed to drive or that gay people in Russia can go to jail for years. Those are foreign problems, and we have enough to worry about here. 

I miss the 1960s. Things were perfect back then. Everyone had jobs, everyone was proud to be an American. We landed on the freaking moon back then. Why can’t America be more like that now. 

So anyway, I’m a normal American. I believe in God and Jesus. I love my kids. I work hard. And all I want is for the government to make my life easier, but stay out of my affairs. I’ll take care of me and mine, you take care of you and yours. It’s time to get Obama out and get someone new in. 

Sincerely, Joe America