“Mom, it’s me, I’m gay.”

rearview

I pulled my car into a remote parking lot, undid my seatbelt, and twisted the rearview mirror down so I could look myself in the eyes. My cheeks were bright pink and fluffy, and my eyes brimmed with tears. How long had I been crying? How many tears could I possibly have left? I squeezed my eyes tightly shut and let a stream of sadness roll down my cheeks and onto my shirt. The day had been terrible already, but I had to get this over with.

I picked up the phone and dialed my mom’s number. She answered at the first ring.

“Hello, son!” She had such enthusiasm in her voice. She was always singing, playful, sweet. Hearing her voice usually brought me joy. Today, it brought more pain.

“Hi, Mom.” My voice was cracking. There was no way to hide that I’d been crying.

She shifted to concern. “Chad? Are you okay?”

“I don’t think I am. I need to tell you something. Something hard. Is it a good time to talk?”

“Of course it is. Are you okay? Is it Maggie? The baby? Little J?” She immediately asked about my wife, my 2-year old son, and our unborn child.

“Everyone is fine. Physically. I just—are you sitting down?”

“Chad, yes. I’m sitting down. What is it, you’re scaring me. I’ve never heard you like this.”

“Mom, I’m gay.” I blurted it out abruptly. It felt like throwing a baseball indoors, unnatural and loud and not knowing what would break into pieces. The words floated there, heavy and painful, then passed through the telephone wires like a poison.

I heard a gasp, a long silence. “Oh, Chad,” she whispered, and that simple phrase was a knife, slicing open my heart. My gut clenched tightly as I began to sob, the tears running down my cheeks now. I pathetically hit the steering wheel with the palm of my hand. “Chad, hey, hey, my boy, my boy, it’s okay, it’s okay.” Her voice was soft, soothing, and in a flash I considered everything we had been through together. My father’s depression, the divorce, her second marriage to a man who hit us both, me being molested as a kid. I was 32 years old and she was still the most important person in my life, along with my wife and kids.

A few more sobs and then I tried, pathetically, to get more words out, to reassure her, to help her understand. “I’ve—this isn’t new. I’ve always been gay. I’ve known it for as long as I can remember, since kindergarten even, but I never knew how to tell you. I’m sorry, I’m so so so sorry. I’m so sorry, Mom.”

Her voice took on a tone of strength, but I could tell she was crying too. “You listen, the first thing you need to hear is that I love you and I will always love you and I will never stop loving you.”

More tears, more pathetic sobs. “I know, Mom, I love you too.”

There was a brief, pregnant silence, and then the hard questions started. “Does Maggie know?”

“Yes.” I swallowed, wiped my face again, got a hold of myself. “Yes. She knows. She knew before we got married. But—but I just told her again. I met a guy when I was on my business trip, and we kissed, and—and I didn’t feel broken anymore, Mom. I’m so used to feeling broken. I’m so tired of feeling like I’m shattered into pieces. I—I felt normal with him, like things would be okay, but now Maggie is hurting, and she’s pregnant, and we have a home and a kid and—and everyone hates me and—“

Mom interrupted, both stern and sad. “Oh, Chad, my sweet Chad. Hold on, hold on, just wait. Nobody hates you.”

“God does.”

“God doesn’t hate you! You have a stronger testimony of God and of our church than almost anyone I have ever met. God sees you and he loves you and he knows you. He’ll help you with this. Have you talked to your church leaders?”

I stuttered for a moment, then chose to remain silent. There was so much subtext with that question. I could tell her about the bishops I had come out to, asking for help from. I could tell her about the Miracle of Forgiveness and how it cruelly promised a cure if I just sacrificed enough. I could tell her about all of the years of being broken, depressed, disconnected, about all my years of faithful church service and dedication all in the hopes that I could be cured of being gay. I could tell her about the therapy, the journaling, the Priesthood blessings. Instead I just said, “Yes, I’ve talked to my bishop.”

“Good, son. I’ll be okay as long as I know your testimony is solid.”

And here I had to consider how honest to be. I could tell her that I wasn’t sure my testimony was solid anymore. But if I told her that, she would go into a full panic. Coming out and leaving Mormonism would mean that I was willfully turning from God, that I was breaking my temple covenants, that I was choosing a life of sin and pain. If I turned from God, I was turning from my eternal bonds to my family, and I wouldn’t be with them in the next life. Instead, I just changed the subject.

“I’ve told Maggie. I’ve told my bishop. I’ve told a few friends. And I’ve told Sheri.” My sister’s name brought it’s own pain. She had come out of the closet years before, and my family, including me, hadn’t reacted well. Sheri and my mom were still working on repairing their relationship all these years later.

There was another long silence, and I could tell my mom was crying. I thought of all the things I should say. I’m sorry for letting you down. I’m sorry I’m gay. I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to find a cure. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I’m sorry this hurts you. But I didn’t want to apologize anymore. Maybe I should lie. I don’t have to be gay, I’ll keep trying to change. Don’t worry, I’m going to save my marriage and be the son you want me to be. I’ll make this right with God through repentance. Nothing is going to be different.  But I couldn’t lie anymore. Maybe I should reassure her. I’m still the son you always knew! I’m still me, I just want to be a better version of me! All the things you knew about me before, they are still true, I’m just… different… now. The words in me, the tune, it’s the same, but I have more confidence now, more love for myself. You’ll see. I’ll always be there for my sons, and Maggie and I will figure this out. Those were better, but the words wouldn’t come.

Instead, we just sat and cried together, hundreds of miles apart. And I realized I would have to have this same conversation with each of my sisters, my friends, my coworkers, the members of my ward. The word would spread to neighbors, cousins, old college roommates and mission companions, everyone I’d ever known. “Remember Chad? He’s gay!” I hit my head against the steering wheel and cried even more.

Weeks later, when some of the trauma of my coming out had passed, my mom called me again.

“I always knew you were gay,” she told me. “I knew you were different from the time you were a child. I was so afraid of it. I so badly didn’t want that to be true for you, because it would make life so much harder. And seeing you come out, it breaks my heart, because you were in all of that pain all of these years and I never knew it, or at least we never discussed it. I’m so sorry for your pain, my son. And I don’t know how this all works when it comes to religion, but I know I love my church, and I know I love my gay kids. Those two truths do now cancel each other out. So we will keep working on it, on us, because I love you, and you love me.”

“The difference now,” I whispered, “is that I’m learning to love me too

Advertisements

Heaven or Hell?

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

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

Screen Shot 2019-04-05 at 9.41.14 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I grinned widely. “That sounds perfect.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Release Time

moroni

“Brothers and sisters, I want to bear you my testimony that I know that this book is true. I know it in the depths of my soul. I know because I have prayed about it, and God has confirmed in my heart that it is a true work.” My seminary teacher straightened his tie, clutched his hands behind his back, then continued with his testimony. “I will now quote to you my favorite scripture, the one I used on my mission over and over again, from Moroni Chapter 10, verses 3-5. ‘Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost, ye may know the truth of all things.’

Brother Acey quoted the scripture with a loving reverence in his voice, and somehow a sense of both drama and urgency. It was a familiar tone to me, one that Mormons used when bearing testimony. They didn’t just know the truth, they know the truth! All of the truth! With every fiber of their beings and beyond the shadows of any doubts!

Then Brother Acey concluded his testimony. “And I promise to you, to all of you, that if you feel that same spirit, then you too can know that what I say to you is true. And I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

Brother Acey let a long silence hang in the classroom for a few seconds. His eyes scanned over over us. “Do you feel that?” He asked. “What is it you are feeling now?”

I felt goosebumps break out on my arms. I felt my heart pounding. I felt joy in my soul. I raised my hand and waited until he called on me. “The Holy Ghost,” I said, with enthusiasm. “I feel the Holy Ghost.”

“That’s right. Now take a minute to consider the story of Moroni, the one who wrote the words I just read to you. His father was the great prophet, Mormon. Moroni grew up during a time of war, when he saw the people of God being slowly slaughtered by their enemies because they had turned away from their beliefs. His life’s work became protecting the Holy Scriptures, the words of God etched on plates of gold. He spent years wandering in the wilderness, alone. And before he buried those records, knowing that they would be found hundreds of years later, he took time to carve those words I just read to you into that gold. He knew. He knew with all of his heart of their truth. Now, we have no idea how much longer he lived after that, but eventually, he was blessed to come down as an angel, an immortal being, and tell Joseph Smith where to find those plates. And now you, Chad, all of you in this room, you hold that record in your very hands. It is an absolute miracle.”

A few other students shared their thoughts when Brother Acey called on them. I felt electric the entire time he was speaking. I had always loved the Book of Mormon, since I was a very small child. I’d read it when I was still in kindergarten for the first time. And I’d always believed it was true. But at times like this, it was more than belief, I just knew it. I was so blessed to just know, to have my testimony come so easily to me.

It was a Wednesday afternoon, and I was 16 years old, and sitting in my Seminary class. On my report card, this block of time was just called ‘Release Time’. It was the fourth hour of my academic schedule. Before this, in third hour, I had U.S. History, and after this was lunch and then fifth hour, English class. Then Band, then P.E. to finish the day off. As the majority of my school in southern Idaho were believing members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, around 60 per cent I estimated, Release Time was a popular selection for many students. We didn’t get actual academic credit for it, instead we just attended the class during the school day, just like a regular class. It was held in a specially consecrated building across the street from the school. There were pictures of Christ on the wall and hymnals and scriptures on every desk. We had a lesson plan that covered church-approved content, turned in homework, and opened and closed every class with a prayer. It was my favorite time of day. And it was the most important. The things of God would always be more important than the things of the world. And my religious education mattered more to me than my regular classes.

In Seminary, I belonged. I blended in. It didn’t matter that I was attracted to boys, or that my step-father had hit my mom in front of me the night before, or that I was teased for being a sissy simply because I was less athletically inclined. I didn’t fit in the world around me, but here I fit in. I didn’t notice boys as much, the temptations seemed to diminish when I was worshipping and learning about the things of God. Thus it was easier to keep my thoughts clean, meaning I didn’t feel like a sinner as much. This class was a refuge for me, and I simply loved being there.

Brother Acey issued us a challenge at the end of class. “The prophets have taught for years that every member should be a missionary. Every one. That means each of you. If you have a testimony of the Book of Mormon, then it is your duty, your obligation, and your privilege to share it with others. I challenge each of you to think of someone you know who is not a member of the church, and I want you to bear them your testimony and give them a copy of the Book of Mormon. If you do this, your life and theirs will be richly blessed. If they choose not to be converted now, well, at least you tried, and maybe you’ve planted a seed for the future. But maybe they will gain their own testimonies and choose to be baptized, and then how great shall be your joy! Go forward and speak boldly, without fear. After the closing prayer, please grab a spare copy of the Book of Mormon from the box at the back of the classroom. I will invite you to share your experiences in class next week.”

I was filled with excitement in my next class, and I immediately began making a list of every person I knew who was not a Mormon. Most everyone in my life already was, but I could still think of a few. I had a large group of friends, and at least two of them were not Mormon, Kenny and Desiree. And there was one neighbor down the street. My mom had a few non-member co-workers. There was the lady at the bank. Oh, and there was Mrs. Campbell, my English teacher. She liked me, I bet she would enjoy a copy. Maybe I could help save their souls! Maybe I could help convert them! The thought thrilled me. Maybe if I could do this, it would make me just a bit worthier in the eyes of God, and maybe I could finally be cured.

I had only recently told my Bishop that I was gay, and he had responded with kindness and love. He’d explained to me that this was a particular challenge that I had been given to overcome and to prove my worth to God. He’d given me a blessing, and then sent me home with a copy of the Miracle of Forgiveness, a book that loudly proclaimed the evils of homosexuality. Gay people were an abomination, and they could be cured if they tried hard enough, the book assured me. And then there was my patriarchal blessing, which told me that I would be an effective missionary, and I knew deep down, that maybe if I could help bring more people into the church, then maybe I could help make myself straight. I couldn’t ask that of God, not directly, but he knew the desires of my heart, so just maybe it would work.

I prayed that night for guidance, that I might know the best person to give my testimony to. And after careful contemplation, I chose three names off of my list. Kenny, Desiree, and Mrs. Campbell, all three of them. We’d only been challenged to give out one copy, but I would give three, to show my commitment. I got two more copies of the Book from Brother Acey the following day, and on Friday, I was ready to go.

I woke up and said my prayers, and then I began my day with a fast, avoiding food and water for the school day to make me spiritually sharper. The day before, I’d asked Kenny to meet with me before school, and Desiree during lunch, because I had something I wanted to talk about with them. They’d both agreed.

Thus, I met with Kenny first. He and I were close, and his parents were super nice, but we didn’t really talk about religion that much. So when I sat next to him in the school cafeteria and got out a copy of the Book of Mormon, one where I had written my testimony inside, he looked shocked. I started to tell him how I knew the book was true, but Kenny interrupted me.

“Chad, look. We are friends. But don’t try and shove your religion down my throat. Your church is totally historically inaccurate, and weird, and it doesn’t make sense. And if you are going to try and convert me to your church, we can’t be friends.”

I began apologizing, but then remembered how Brother Acey had encouraged us to be bold. “Just try it, Kenny. Just try and read it. If you do, I know you’ll find out the truth just like I have. Let me share one scripture with you. I highlighted it here.”

Kenny agreed to take the book, but he was hurt. He walked out of the classroom and didn’t speak to me for days. He never mentioned it again, and neither did I.

After Seminary, my lunchtime meeting with Desiree was even more painful. “What? Are you actually trying to make me a Mormon? I thought you respected me more than that, Chad. Do you have any idea how much teasing and bullying I put up with here because I’m not Mormon? Do you know how cruel the other girls are to me, or how hard it is to find a date? Do you know what I go through? You are one of the few people I feel safe around. Don’t do this.”

“But I do respect you!” I argued. “I respect you so much! And I care about you! And that’s why I wanted to share with you something that is so important to me.”

“Fuck you, Chad,” she said, furious, a wounded look in her eyes. “I thought you were my friend.”

“Desiree, please, just give me one minute. Let me read you just one–“. She gave me a death stare, then she walked out, taking the book I’d forced on her and throwing it in the trash. She didn’t speak to me for weeks afterwards, not until I apologized and promised to never bring up religion again.

As lunch ended, I tried hard to find my courage to give my final copy to Mrs. Campbell. I thought of all of the prophets, from Noah to Moses to Ammon to Abinadi, who had been rejected in their efforts. But if I was going to be a missionary for two years, when I turned 19, I had to learn how to do this now. I walked into English class a few minutes before the bell rang. Mrs. Campbell sat at her desk alone. The other students hadn’t started entering yet.

“Hi, Mrs. Campbell,” I said, cheerfully. She was a young teacher, with a husband and a few kids at home. She’d moved here a few years before to take this teaching job.

“Chad, hi! I wanted to tell you how much I loved your essay comparing Batman to Beowulf. In fact, I would love to keep a copy of it to share with students who need to see how great writing looks.”

I was thrilled at her words but muttered a simple thank you. My heart was thudding in my chest. I was so nervous. Without speaking, I pulled the final copy of the Book of Mormon from my backpack and placed it on her desk.

“Mrs. Campbell, I wanted an opportunity to share with you—“

“Oh my God, this again?” She rolled her eyes as a look of significant annoyance crossed her face. “This is my third year at this high school. Every damn year. Ugh.” She made eye contact with me, her usual look of kindness back on her face. “You got the Seminary challenge, didn’t you? Which means you are the first today, but between now and Monday, I bet about 12 of you offer me these damn books with your testimonies written in them. I respect you, Chad. I like you. I love your writing. You have a tremendous talent, and you have a great future ahead of you. But I need to be able to come to my job and not have religion be a part of it. Separation of church, and state. Of your beliefs, and mine. Please put your book away, sit down, and we can talk about your essay after class.”

I fought back tears the entire class. My head burned hot with embarrassment, and my heart thudded in my temples. I had clearly exasperated Mrs. Campbell, who was normally the friendliest and funniest teacher, but today she seemed flustered. She looked over the classroom exhausted, perhaps wondering how many more books of scripture from eager young 15- and 16-year olds would be tossed her way by the end of the day.

That night, in my prayers, I apologized to God for being an ineffective missionary. I prayed for the souls of my three friends, all of whom were not Mormon and would eventually need to be if their souls were to be properly saved. Maybe I’d planted some seeds today. I asked for comfort and guidance, and then closed in the name of Jesus Christ.

And then I turned on a cassette tape of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, pulled the knot on my sweatpants extra tight so that I wouldn’t be able to masturbate while sleeping, pushed out thoughts of the really good-looking wrestler in my P.E. class, and went to sleep, wondering if my efforts had been enough to make me straight yet.

Pride, Prejudice, and Protest

34510298_10160567110560061_6910724678457753600_n

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.

Fragile Mormon Ego

In a college class I taught a few years ago, right in the heart of Salt Lake City, what many locals might call the “Mormon Bubble”, during which we discussed the way Utah is viewed by the rest of the world. (In fact, I think I even blogged about this. It can be hard to remember). We talked about all of the times that Utah has hit the international media circuits over the past few years.

The actively LDS students in the room had hoped that stories about Utah would be related to charity work, to missionary work, and to Christian examples. But universally every story that we found was, well, negative. Maybe even a little bit embarrassing.

We found stories on CNN, Fox News, and other sites that were related to how Mormons make policies against gay people and fight gay marriage, about how gay teens are committing suicide, and about young women coming forward at BYU and in churches who were told to keep their sexual assaults quiet by church leaders (or worse, they were blamed for their own assaults). There were stories about tithing dollars being used to build a mall, about how BYU was being considered for a list of institutions that were known to hate gay people, and how Utah was leading the nation in gender discrimination in the workplace statistics. We made lists of these headlines, and they were hard to face up to.

One student in the classroom, a lovely LDS girl who worked hard to love everyone, raised her hand and wondered aloud why people saw the church she and her family loved so much with so much hatred and vitriol, why they laughed at things that were sacred to her. We had a discussion about reputation, and about how things can look different from the inside than from the outside. She was receptive to feedback, and ultimately it was a strong and openminded lesson for all involved. (She is my favorite kind of Mormon. She loves her church, and she is open to the ideas of others around her).

Well, yesterday, Utah hit the national headlines again, this time for a bizarre poster that was printed up on BYU campus. A small organization that is part of the school’s math department, called Women in Math, created an event in which four of the school’s beloved math professors would speak to those in attendance. The young woman who created the poster placed four photos of the teachers across the top, then the name of the organization underneath them. So it resulted in… four white guys over a heading that read ‘Women in Math’. And then, in the most Mormon way possible, the poster finished with “There will be treats. All levels of math welcome.”

28058776_10215033666012976_6880746897050503549_n

I copied this to my own Facebook wall with a roll of my eyes, and the tagline “Mormons gotta Morm. Oh BYU, what have you done now?”

Swiftly, like all things on Facebook, some of the comments became politicized. Some decried that all Mormons are misogynistic. (I argued that while the organization and belief system is misogynistic, that doesn’t mean the individual members are). Others, actively Mormon, felt their religion was being attacked and began writing out lists of facts in defense of their beliefs. This lead to some back and forths, some private messages, and, well, a few Facebook unfriendings before it was all finished.

These days, it takes a lot to get me fired up. I use a life motto, a Jewel song lyric that I refer back to often: “No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from.” As such, I am careful with who I allow into my life, who I choose to engage with. I keep a far distance from all things Mormon in my day-to-day life, but it still hits me regularly because of my family, my community, my friends, and my clients. It’s hard to stay far from. And when you’ve lost a few friends to suicide, it is very difficult not to get very passionate about.

In a few of those private chats, one friend abjectly refused to admit that the Mormon religion is homophobic, racist, and misogynistic, and they felt that my stating such was a direct attack on their beliefs and family. “How would you feel if I said terrible things like this about gays?” they said, to which I responded, “Many gays are absolutely misogynistic, racist, and even homophobic, but not inherently. And there is a huge difference between a sexual orientation, which is not chosen, and a religious belief system, which is chosen.” Despite this, they refused to bend.

Now here is the thing, I remember how fragile my ego as a Mormon used to be. The slightest criticism of the prophets, the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, or the Church led me to defensively dig in my heels and refuse that there could be any flaws. But even when I dug in, I knew I had doubts about polygamy, about the way the church treats women, blacks, and gays, and about its weird mystical/esoteric history. (God lives on another planet, remember. It’s all very Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.)

But even the most rational person can admit that the Mormon church (as well as the wider society around it) is abjectly homophobic, racist, and misogynistic. It denied blacks the Priesthood and taught that they were cursed with blackness by God! It currently calls gay marriage apostate and doesn’t allow children of gay couples to be baptized! Women bow their heads in temple ceremonies and promise to subject themselves to their husbands… with their faces veiled!

If you are Mormon, I understand you. I empathize with you. And I probably like you. But if your ego is so fragile that you can’t admit basic facts, well, I have very little room for you in my life ultimately.

But back to that Women in Math poster, come on, that is hilarious. And if you can’t laugh with me, well there is probably not much room for you either.

Love the Gay Away

Jesus

The four “recovering Mormons” took the stand and, one by one, introduced themselves to the audience. All of them had found solace and belonging in a new faith community, an Evangelical church, and now wanted to share the good word with the public. A room with a few hundred people watched as they spoke on the topic of leaving Mormonism to find new religion.

The first woman spoke about her lifelong struggle with depression as she fought to be the perfect Mormon daughter, wife, housewife, and mother. She internalized her doubts and pains for years before learning about some of the more bizarre Mormon doctrines (like “the second anointing”), and she suddenly spiraled right out of the church. She replaced her depression, she said, with a profound love for Jesus.

The pastor of the church gave a fascinating account of setting up a Christian organization within the confines of Utah, which he profoundly described as different than any other place. The bulk of his congregation, which had grown by about 150 members per years over the past few decades, were made up of those who had left Mormonism, or at the very least who were constantly influenced by the Mormonism around them. He was handsome, cheerful, and charismatic, and it was easy to picture him leading a congregation in a sermon and inspiring them to belief and action with his words.

Everyone present talked about a great love for the Bible and for the teachings of Jesus, and they discussed everyone in the room being welcome. I remained skeptical, but happy to see this resource in this community. I remembered the months I had spent as a Mormon missionary in Philadelphia, two decades earlier, investigating other religions, and after a while all of them felt mostly the same with just a few differences.

And then the next member of the panel introduced herself. She was likely in her late 30s or early 40s and wore comfortable clothes, jeans and a jacket. She had short blonde hair. She reminded me immediately of my sister Sheri, who lives on the East Coast with her wife, and I wondered if this woman might also be gay. “If she is, then cool, they welcome gay people here,” I thought. And then the woman started sharing her story.

She talked about growing up with damaged parents and being raised by her grandparents, leaving Mormonism after coming out of the closet (“ha, I was right,” I thought), entering a series of bad relationships, and eventually finding Jesus in this faith community. She then began to refer to her lesbianism in the past tense. She now realized that she was part of a worship community that taught her actual truth, she reasoned, and if she truly loved Jesus, then she had to do as he commanded. Sex was to only be in the bounds of marriage, and marriage was only between a man and a woman.

I leaned over to my friend next to me and whispered, “oh, gross”, feeling the strain of all of the years before that I’d had in the closet. It exhausted me to see yet another person going through this damaging reasoning, away from Mormonism, years after being actively gay, only to return to the closet in the name of Christianity.

 

My friend whisper back, “Wait, is she saying she is ex-lesbian?”

The host of the event asked the woman that, followed by several other questions. He is an accomplished host, a straight male with a wife and family who was excommunicated from Mormonism for asking hard questions, and one who has done advanced research studies on LGBT change efforts in religious communities. He recounted basic research that showed that change efforts were universally successful, that mixed-orientation marriages almost always fail, and that the worst of all of the options for overall mental health was a life of celibacy (which is what the Mormon religion and other faith communities currently expect from their active LGBT members).

But the woman dug her heels in. “The more you try to persuade me, the more I extend my roots into Jesus.” She talked about finding more love in Jesus than she ever could in the arms of a woman, wanting to marry a man eventually (one who loved Jesus more than she does, she said), and about teaching others in a ‘homosexuality and Christianity group” in the church about her story. She said the church had a lot of gay friends, some of them even married, who attended or who came in for lectures in the group.

The charismatic paster then grabbed his mic, talking about how at the last sermon he gave, “four or five gay guys” came up to him after the service and shook his hand, saying how much they enjoyed it. He then reemphasized that everyone was welcome, and that we are all “sexual sinners” who have to become right before the Lord.

“Gross,” I muttered again. Because as a “sexual sinner”, he still got to have sex with his wife, and he was propagating the expectation that those who are gay never get to enjoy sex at all.

Listening there, I had the bizarre realization that this experience was the direct counter-point to Mormonism, yet still the exact same homophobia and discrimination. Growing up Mormon, I was told homosexuality was evil, abominable, and curable. Lately, the narrative had changed yet remained the same. Now homosexuality was seen as something that couldn’t be altered, but that must be just ignored and denied, for those who had sex even with a same-sex married partner would be shunned and kicked out. Yet here, the message was one of celebration and joy. Instead of “follow our rules or you are out,” it was “Everyone is welcome here! Jesus loves everyone! We don’t care about your sins cause we are all sinners! (And also, gay people are worse). Let Jesus love your gay away!”

I walked away from the broadcast feeling confused, angry, and sad. While each person has their own individual journey, including the right to be celibate or in a mixed-orientation marriage, I was so weary of people putting themselves on a platform to say “I did it, so you can too! Look at me as an example! If I can suffer, you can join me!”

I walked back into the cold night sky contemplating the ideas about Jesus, a bizarre concoction of unconditional love and required suffering, and realized that pretty much any moment I spent in any church was a moment I could be spending somewhere else. And if Jesus is real, I’m pretty sure he would be okay with that.

Spiritually Obese

spirituallyobese

I spent most of my life drowning in religion with very little understanding of spirituality.

My experience with religion was very ritual-based, and very closely related to an all-encompassing sense of shame. Pray before meals, pray at night, read scriptures before bed, attend church every Sunday, go to youth meetings on Tuesday nights, pay ten per cent of earned income to the church, take the sacrament, prepare for baptism and then the Priesthood and then a two year missionary service and then marriage in the temple and then have children and then spend your life serving in church positions. When you sin (which you do just by existing) then consistently repent. Be modest, be chaste, be morally clean, keep a hymn in your heart, avoid temptation, don’t smoke, don’t drink alcohol or coffee, don’t have impure thoughts, don’t see rated R movies. Strive toward perfection, even though perfection is impossible, and know that this is the only way to salvation. When you have questions, listen to the men God has called as prophets for answers because they will never lead you astray.

Except they did.

But religion also gave a strong sense of purpose and destiny, of community, of belonging. It made me feel as if I was chosen, if I was special, as if every mystery of life was laid bare with answers and spiritual assurances. I had answers to everything, in scripture, and I had a group of people who were just like me to rely on along the way.

Religion has a way of bottling up human spirituality and marketing it to a particular brand. Spirituality is an inherent human quality, regardless of religion. Spirituality is the human ability to find inner peace and purpose, and to connect to the wider world through gratitude and wonder. Spirituality can be found within religion, and it can also be found in human relationships, in travel, in service, in nature, in accomplishment. No religion has a monopoly on spirituality. No religion has the ability to say, ‘look, if you come to our church and you feel peaceful, well, that is God telling you that our church is true, and only our church is true, so now you must follow our culture and rules in order to be right with God.” No church can say that because every human feels peace. Peace isn’t something you can bottle and market.

Religion has a habit of saying that in order to be right you must be worthy, and in order to be worthy, you must follow a particular set of rules. Anything else is sinning. And if you sin too long or too much, if you make a choice to not be religious and to instead be selfish, then you stand to lose not only your religion, but your eternal destiny in the long run, and your family and  community in the short run. They will be ashamed, and so will God.

And so as a young man, I set a particular standard for myself. A high, unreachable standard. And since I could never reach that standard, I could never feel worthy. If I had an errant thought, if I sinned, if I struggled, then I knew I was not good enough.

I learned very early on that being gay was absolutely not allowed. Not only wasn’t it allowed, it didn’t exist. And I grew quickly to equate religious devotion with worthiness to be cured of being gay and thus made heterosexual. And so every morning when I woke up gay still, I knew, over and over, that I had no worth.

Which brings us to the topic of this blog: spiritual obesity. I was spiritually obese. I had put on so much spiritual weight, over years of learned behavior in childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, that I was morbidly obese in my heart. I had no inner peace, I had no purpose except to try harder, and I had no internal balance. I developed terrible coping mechanisms like cognitive dissonance, placing any doubts or struggles high on a shelf where they couldn’t be seen or consciously felt–I simply needed more evidence to support my religious theories in order to make sense of why I was so broken inside.

When I began to lose my physical weight, I began to realize my spiritual weight as well. First, I needed clear introspection. I needed to actively realize my doubts and concerns. That was intensely painful at first, and required a lot of soul-searching and juggling. If the prophets I believed in got some things wrong, if the church and scriptures I gave myself over to were incorrect on some things, then by their very teachings, that meant they were incorrect on all things. My brain was in a tailspin for months as I passed through intense stages of grief: anger and bargaining and denial and depression, until I finally arrived at acceptance. And once I did that, I could begin to figure out what spiritual health was.

I realized swiftly that spirituality is an intensely personal thing, it is different for everyone. I needed to find the things that brought me inner peace, gave me purpose, and made me feel whole. Parenting hit the list first: spending time on the floor playing with my children. Then nature and travel: being outdoors and wondering at the sky and the trees and moving water, and being in new places among new people. Giving to others came next: the sense of pride, gratitude, and accomplishment I get from being there for a friend or helping a client in therapy realize their goals and achieve them. The list grew longer and longer: human history, befriending a stranger, excellent fiction, journaling, yoga, meditation. And perhaps above all else, the ability to treat myself with kindness and honesty, to accept myself as a fully realized person.

Becoming spiritually healthy took me months. I had a lot of spiritual weight to shed. I had to do it one spiritual pound at a time over a long time. I grieved a lot. I spent a few weeks crying intensely about the loss of my religion. Then, over time, I got in spiritual shape. And now it’s easier, now I can maintain my spiritual health through regular spiritual exercise and nutrition, daily practices that keep me centered and balanced.

After this mighty work within myself, I started recognizing other spiritually healthy people. They can be found anywhere, or can be missing from anywhere. Picture an excellent movie where one person is engrossed in it and moved by it while the other is bored and disconnected; only one of those is spiritually invested. Picture a Mormon sacrament meeting where one woman is doing careful self-introspection and has tears of gratitude running down her cheeks, and a boy who is playing on his phone during it; only one of those is spiritually invested. Picture a college lecture on the workings of nature where one student is furiously copying notes with underlines and exclamation points, and another is sleeping on her arm; only one of these is spiritually invested.

Every human is inherently spiritual. But learning how to listen to the human spirit, to invest in it and make it healthy and strong, robust and fit, well that takes a lot of knowledge and growth over time, and it generally involves acceptance of self as an organic changing creature who has varying needs and struggles.

It is a difficult balance to obtain after being spiritually obese, just like physical fitness can be hard to achieve. It requires looking inward far more than most people are comfortable with. Yet it is a journey well worth the footsteps.

I close this entry with a view of myself from ten years ago, kneeling at my bedside and begging God to make me whole, knowing I was broken and cursed, and compare that to me now, sitting next to a slow river and breathing in the sheer miracle of nature and existence, grateful for my very sense of self and the person that I am.

While I know many people who are spiritually healthy within religion, it took me leaving religion to find my own spiritual fitness.Ghost.png

 

Supernatural elements in Religion

angels

I grew up in a religion that actively taught about supernatural forces directed by God for the good of mankind. I was taught that everyone who has ever lived on Earth existed in a spiritual form prior to coming to Earth and receiving bodies. In that pre-mortal form, we had relationships and interactions and intellect, and that we made the choice to come to Earth, knowing we would have spiritual blinders placed on us to restrict our memories of that pre-mortal life. Any spirit who didn’t choose to come to Earth could roam the Earth and was called an “evil spirit”, and there were potentially billions of them, all who worked for Satan. Mortals were meant to choose religion and God and sacrifice, and after dying, spirits would go on existing in another realm called the Spirit World, where they would wait for resurrection (or unification of the spirit with the body) and then judgment, so God could send them on to Heaven and Hell accordingly. In addition to that, God, who lives on another planet, had a planetary spiritual force, called the Holy Ghost, through which he could send messages in the form of thoughts and inspirations to his believing children.

Also, I believed in the Priesthood, a magical type of authority passed from one man down to another, so long as they are worthy according to Church standards. The Priesthood had various levels of authority mixed in, and the men who held it were authorized to channel some of this godly force to perform tasks on Earth, such as blessing the bread and water of the sacrament to performing a valid baptism to laying hands on the heads of another to give them a blessing, or special individualized message from God. Again, very supernatural in its essence.

If the spiritual forces, the spiritual realms, and the Holy Ghost weren’t sufficient, I also grew up believing in spiritual gifts, immortal creatures, and mystical artifacts. Each individual (but mostly the men) has inherent individual spiritual gifts that can be enhanced through belief, things like the spirit of discernment or the power to heal others, gifts that, like mutant powers in a weird way, could be discovered and utilized for the good of God with his blessing. Angels appeared all over the scriptures and in Church history, performing miracles and giving advice and causing mortals to speak in tongues, and the devil tried to possess or influence mortals through duplicity and temptation. And prophets used magical stones to translate ancient records or to light up ancient wooden submarines on ocean voyages,  and golden balls to give directions in the wilderness.

As I look upon all of this with a critical eye with a grown-up, I am a bit taken aback by how fantasy novel it all seems. There are such elements of story-telling to the whole belief structure. Epic franchises like Star Wars and Harry Potter and the Wheel of Time and the X-Men that so beautifully explore the concepts of destiny and prophecy, and that allow certain characters to be born with special powers so they can fight against the forces of evil. But somehow when we toss the word God in to the mix, these concepts are taken serious. There is a suspension of disbelief in mortals who belief in virgin births and men being raised from the dead, and who use those beliefs to form and shape entire societies through narrow interpretations of rules.

I now consider myself a very spiritual and non-religious atheist, if I have to use a label, and I have a difficult time understanding supernatural religious belief structures in a world that avoids scientific interpretation and quantifiable evidence and results. I do still believe in elements of “supernatural”-ness, however. When I examine my beliefs, I do believe that individuals have special skills and talents that others do not. I do believe that human energy exists after the body expires, not as a ghost or spirit necessarily but perhaps as a consciousness, even if only in the memories of forms of the people and places they lived among.

Regarding individual skills and talents, for example, I have a unique capacity for empathy: I can easily read the energy and emotions of most people around me, particularly when there is eye contact and communication happening. I am also a quick study, and can often make sense of complex human stories across history and find truth and enlightenment in them. I think I also have a talent for teaching, for facilitating groups, for presenting information, and for writing. Other people are builders, or organizers, or are amazing with machines and industry, or are nurturers. The lists of skills is endless.

After my grandfather died, my mother would often speak of being able to feel him around, near her, especially during times when she needed comfort or guidance. While I never felt his presence, I believed her when she said this. And I think anyone who has ever lost a very close loved one has that capacity, to feel the energy of their loved ones, even to hear their voices, in particular places or during particular times of need. I had this same experience after Kurt, my best friend, died in a car accident last April.

This blog entry is a bit more free-form, but I needed a chance to organize my thoughts and experiences in this matter, and it is all here to set up a blog I will write tomorrow. About a month ago, I had a woman reach out to me stating that Kurt’s spirit had reached out to her and that he had a message for me. And a few weeks ago, I met with this woman, who called herself a medium. I went into the meeting skeptical and open-minded all at once. And it turned out to be a wonderfully healing experience. I’ll be back tomorrow to share more.

 

 

Reconciling God

God.jpgMy thoughts have turned to God lately.

Everyone has their own individual experience of God in their lives.

To some, he is an ever present listener, hearing consistent loving petitions about problems, struggles, and hopes, granting blessings when he sees fit, when he sees it best for the person praying.

To some, he is a great punisher, delving out vengeance to enemies and sinners, punishing with swift and mighty judgment.

To some, he is absent, sitting on high, having forgotten Earth, leaving man to his wars and violence, illnesses and vulnerability.

To some, he is a father, loving, forgiving, giving sound advice with a strong arm and a soft heart.

He can fill any role for any person. He’s God.

And in truth, he is all of those things, a collective being with billions of children who each see him differently. He is constant only in that he is unknowable. And while hey may or may not exist in physical form, he exists powerfully on Earth in the hearts and minds of the humans. His name is the most used name. He’s in nearly every text, tome, and poem. He influences every relationship and interaction. He wields the passing of laws and the execution of justice. He sets morals and guidelines. He gives and he takes.

In my experience, in my small and humble station, God loomed large, a product of my own consciousness and mortality. A being of contradictions who gave directions like “be perfect, even though you can never be perfect” and “repent constantly for forgiveness, even though you are a sinner just for being born.” My view of God was so often influenced by the words of white older men who I considered inspired, men who had a specific plan for me, and that plan did not involve being gay.

And that rift within my view of God became a rift within myself, one that lasted decades. The idea that God created me, innocent and without blemish, and yet he didn’t create gay people; he loved me, but he didn’t want me to sin, but I had to sin and I needed to ask forgiveness but even if I didn’t he loved me he was just disappointed and I should feel bad but not so bad that I would grow distant from him because that would be a sin too and I would need to repent because I was perfect just as I was and I also needed to change that for him. I saw myself as perfect, and broken; desperate for a cure for homosexuality, but selfish for wanting a cure and even more selfish for not wanting one. It was an impossible space to dwell within, as impossible to define or comprehend as God himself.

I learned to live outside myself, which is ironic because that is also where God dwelled, outside myself, a great collective, made up of my experience of him and the experiences of every other person who ever lived.

My best friend recently died. It was abrupt, sudden. He was there, and then he wasn’t. I can still feel him sometimes. He once sat in that chair, he once occupied that space, his laughter once filled my ears, he once hugged me tight, he once cared with his whole heart. And I can still feel all of those things, a spirit, an echo, a presence, a ghost. He’s there, but he isn’t. But he still exists within and without me, conjured by my memories and experiences, and by the memories and experiences of all those who loved him.

And that, it dawns on me, is how I now see God. I no longer believe in a tangible, defined God whose traits are classified by older men I have never met. I see him where he touched me, where he forgot me, where he denied me, where he made false promises, where he gave me comfort and where he took it away. And I can still feel all of those things, a spirit, an echo, a presence, a ghost. He’s there, but he isn’t. But he still exists within and without me, conjured by my memories and experiences, and by the memories and experiences of all those who loved him.

I don’t pray any longer. I don’t address God aloud or even silently. But I experience him still. He influences me and he influences the world around me. He is the very essence of my origins, the very concept of my early developing sense of self.

He’s there, and he isn’t.

And I’m here, until I’m not.

the coexistence of Christianity and homosexuality

I didn’t expect this, not at all.

It is my last day in Los Angeles and I want an adventure, but a quiet one. I’ve been walking the streets, reading, thinking. The biggest thing I needed from this trip was just the opportunity to be anonymous, to be lost in a sea of people. I didn’t need dancing and adrenaline, fancy food or beaches. I needed fresh air and a sea full of people to quiet my brain and balance my spirit. I have been walking streets and following the directions of my heart strings for a few days. My feet are blistered and my shoulders knotted, but I feel wonderful and quiet and at peace. And now I have one day left.

And so I considered my options and chose the Getty. After a long bus ride (well over an hour to go just 10 miles or so), I rode a long shuttle up to the top of a hill and a collection of ornate white buildings and gardens form the J. Paul Getty Museum, an art gallery that is free to the public. Set up in 1954, it has houses variable galleries for people to walk through.

I step away from the crowd’s direction off the shuttle, wanting to be alone with my thoughts. I walk over a cactus garden, look at outdoor sculptures, and get a cup of coffee and a sandwich at an outdoor vending station. It is a picture perfect April day in California, with hills rolling in every direction, dotted with large and opulent homes, and the busy cluster of Los Angeles far in the distance.

After a time, I make my way inside. There are people everywhere. I see college students, families with young children, mothers and daughters, grandparents, gay couples, straight couples, lesbian couples, people from varying ethnicities many not speaking English. They move through the Getty at varying speeds, some stopping to talk in the center of rooms, some staring for ten minutes at one painting, some taking a photo of everything they pass, some speeding through and never looking up from their phones, some asking the staff detailed questions about the works of art.

I spend a long time in a series of galleries devoted to art work from the 1400s through the 1600s, most of it dedicated to the life of Christ. Many of the paintings are extremely explicit. The virgin Mary holds the Christ child with one hand and squirts milk out of her exposed breast into his mouth with the other hand. The devil stands over a group of humans who are engaged in a full on orgy, complete with exposed genetalia. A man slides a hand under a woman’s robe as it falls off of her, baby cherubs flying in the sky. Christ lies on the cross with open wounds, blood draining from his hands and side and head and feet as a group of women sob beneath him.

8679cd32dcda00895b588372c9312085.jpg

I spend two hours in this first gallery, contemplating history, and wondering on the impact of Christianity on the lives and societies of humans, forming churches, pressing morals, setting trends, and influencing governments. I look at this detailed art, its rich and beautiful history, the textures and talents of it all, and feel overwhelmed.

I move into the next bustling gallery, full of photographs in black and white. It’s a startling shift. The images are beautiful. A powerful black male in profile. A stunning naked woman, arms stretched to the sky. A close-up on a drifting sheen of smoke. The photographs hang in every direction, and I wonder about their origins.

I find a sign that tells me all about the photographers/artists, Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Wagstaff. It tells of their origins, their art and photography, their careers. They were lovers in New York City, it says, until Wagstaff died of AIDS in 1987 at the age of 65, and then Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 42.

robert-mapplethorpe-ajitto.jpg

My mind was spinning. I turned back around and saw the gallery with new eyes, the black and white stills framed in every direction. The same people buzzed through every which way. Couples, straight and gay. Grandparents, adults, children. They gave the gallery every bit the attention that the did the Christian arts and the gardens. My ears perked up, trained to be ready for people muttering about a gay couple getting their own gallery, about the immorality of it all. I wait for someone to be disgusted. And no one is.

What has Utah done to me, I wonder. I remember seeing a ballet just a few weeks ago with two women kissing in the number, and many in the audience turning away, scoffing in disgust, refusing to clap. I remember walking around town holding hands with a guy I was dating and people averting their eyes or giving looks of shock and disgust.

And then I stand here in this spot, in between the arts of Christianity and still photographs. Both galleries have nudity. Both are considered art. Both tell the stories of their painters. These two worlds that Utah tries to balance, art and art, Christianity with homosexuality, and yet here families and children walk through comfortably without notice.

I breathe in deeply, my heart full, and feel a few small tears in my eyes. This is what I needed, a chance to see life here, like this.

It is a feeling I will carry with me when I return.