Sex Education Part 5: High School Dances

CTR

There was an expected ritual to asking out girls in high school. Just asking, with a note or, worse, a direct question, was frowned on. There needed to be scavenger hunts, puzzles, elaborate ruses, or public embarrassment of some kind, just to ask. Why ask the girl directly when you could hang a banner down the hallway saying “Will You Go To Prom With Me, Emily? From Travis”, or when you could have the girl pop one hundred balloons and then rearrange letter squares from in the balloons to find out who was asking her? The more elaborate the ruse, the more interested in the girl you were.

Of course, I wasn’t allowed to date until I was 16. And then, I was only encouraged to date Mormon girls. And I would be chaste, moral, and pure until marriage, which was still years in the future. Dating at 16 was an early way of preparing myself for marriage to a woman.

I was fully coming to terms with being gay at age 15, and I finally needed to tell someone about it. I went to the bishop, a family friend, and told him, ashamed, with my head hanging low, that I was attracted to boys. He responded with kindness and compassion, and informed me that I was special and God was giving me an extra challenge to prove my worthiness. He gave me a book written by prophets, one that talked about how evil homosexuality was, and then he sent me on my way.

I did my best to avoid sin at all costs. I played Mormon music in my room, put pictures of Jesus and the temples and apostles on my bedroom wall, and kept my thoughts pure. I did all I could to avoid masturbation and evil thinking, but there were times I failed. Every dark thought led to nausea and stomach aches, sometimes gastro-intestinal issues, and I was having regular stomach troubles and anxiety on a daily basis from the 8th grade on.

Before I turned 16, I thought receiving my patriarchal blessing would give me all the strength I would need to move forward. It would give me the answers on curing homosexuality, striking it from my system once and for all, I just knew it. But the patriarch was a stranger, and his words rang with authority, telling me I was a choice son of God who should not disappoint God in any way. He promised me a wife and kids in my future if I just lived worthy.

And then I turned 16, and dating was both encouraged and expected. I pretended a healthy interest in girls. I had to. It was the only way to get through it all. I was occasionally teased for being sensitive or feminine, and I was at times called dork, or fag, or sissy. The worst bullying happened in my own home, where my stepfather used name-calling, threats, intimidation, and volume to keep a tight hold on all of us, resorting to violence when necessary. He doled out love and fear in proportionate measures, and we never knew what was next. He called me “little fairy-boy”, and told me directly that he’d never wanted a son like me. In his crueler moments, he would say he understood why my dad left. But he counter-balanced it all on other days by telling me what a great kid I was, what a strong man I was growing into. His love came with healthy heapings of shame and fear, and it felt a lot like the love I had come to expect from God.

And so, I found ways to have crushes on girls. I chose those who had strong testimonies in the church, who were modest, who were pretty but not too pretty. I chose those who would respect that I was a good Mormon boy, and who wouldn’t expect anything physical from me. I sometimes chose girls who didn’t get asked out by other guys. And some of them got crushes on me, and I didn’t have crushes back. Some of them got hurt. I dated often. I double-dated with friends, guys I had actual crushes on, and I envied them as they danced with their dates and I danced with mine. The dates were always elaborate, pure spontaneous fun. There was movies and dinner, picnics in the park, silly board games, trips to the zoo or plays, hikes, and concerts. And there was always the school dances. several of them every year, and then the stake, or church, dances on top of those. Lichee, and Rochelle, and Tammy, and Malina, and Josie, and Karen, and Katie, and Meranda, and Malinda, and Larena, and Gelin, and Cathy. So many dates, some friendly, all respectful. Mormon dating. A young gay kid going on chaste and friendly adventures.

Sometimes we were lectured on morality and chastity at church. There was an emphasis on no pornography, no masturbation, no heavy-petting, no making out. Dancing was allowed, so long as hands were placed appropriately. Boys were told to keep thoughts pure and to stay worthy for our future wives. Girls were told that virtue was important above all else, because no one would want damaged goods when there were undamaged ones around. Sexual sin was bad, bad, bad, and just being gay was sexual sin already. I would have to work that much harder to prove God loved me. I had to be worthy of a cure.

I started my mornings with scripture studies. I prayed throughout the day. I sang hymns in my head. I did my homework, got good grades, was kind to my fellow students, reached out to the outcast and the misunderstood, and performed service for those I loved. I went to church on Sundays, paid my tithing, went to Seminary daily. I was a great kid. But I was constantly attracted to other boys, and it made me ill, and I started wondering how much effort it would take to prove to God that I was worthy of the cure he’d promised.

Over the course of a few years, I went on several dates with a high school friend named Karen. She was vibrant, beautiful, spontaneous, and fun. She wasn’t shy about her interest, but I remained carefully distant from her. I pushed and pulled. I wanted to date her to see if I could, but I didn’t want to because I lacked interest and attraction. I must have baffled her as she had no idea about the war happening under my skin.

One day, we sat in my car and talked, and she confronted me, asking me if I was interested or not. I was, I explained, but had a lot going on. She said if I was interested, I should show it, I said I didn’t know how to do that. She said it was easy, I should just kiss her. And I said I wasn’t sure how to do that. I’d never done that before, I explained. She rolled her eyes.

“It isn’t that hard to do, Chad,” she said, and she got out of my car. I didn’t call her back, and two weeks later, she had a new boyfriend. More evidence that something was wrong with me. I felt weak. I begged God for help. But I kept getting nauseous, kept dating girls, kept shutting my own heart and thoughts down. If I focused hard enough on church and school, God would cure me. He’d finally hear me.

He had to. He just had to. What other option did I have?

Dr. Phil and the Critics

fe25fdb629c893a0d328c9884f8c5438

“I was watching television one day, Dr. Phil was on, and I saw one of those advertisements. ‘If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, call the Dr. Phil Show now, we want to hear your story.’ And I thought, ‘well, my husband is abusive’ and so I called. They took down a bit of my story, and a few days later a really nice lady calls me back, her name is Stephanie. She’s sweet and supportive. She asks me a lot of questions about me and my family and situation. And she checks on me a few times, saying that at some point she would like to get me one of their shows for a special about abused women.”

My friend Liz look sat me from across the table, taking a sip of her bowl of soup. We are in a small town diner, just a few miles from where she lives. A few minutes ago, a woman had walked up to her and, with a look of disgust, said “I hate what women like you stand for” and then walked away. I had, of course, asked why the woman had said that. Now Liz was explaining.

“So eventually they scheduled a time for me to go out there. They offered me a free plane ticket, a stay in a nice hotel. I mean, it’s New York City, how could I turn that down? I had a nice meal, explored the city a bit, got my hair and makeup done, and then they took me over to the Dr. Phil stage. Stephanie greeted me, gave me some instructions, and I was shown on the stage in front of a live audience. There were a few other women there. Dr. Phil came out. He hadn’t even met me before. And he was a huge jerk. He was disrespectful. He read some stuff off of cue cards about me, asked me a few really personal questions, and made a comment about how ‘women like you’, about how we let ourselves and our kids get abused. The audience clapped sometimes, booed sometimes. Then it was over. They sent me on a plane back home.”

I nodded, listening to her story with fascination. I had, of course, seen daytime television shows, but had never given much thought to the people or production behind them.

“So the show aired a few months later. And my town went nuts. I got mean letters in the mail, dirty looks, nasty notes left on my front door from some. From others, I would get hugs from strangers, random advice, disgusting looks of sympathy. After a few months, though, I just became the person people would whisper about. I’d walk into a room and people would be like ‘there is that lady who was on Dr. Phil’ and someone would walk up to me and say horrible things like ‘I bet you like it’ or ‘you need a real man’ or ‘how could you go on television and be disrespectful to your husband like that’. It was terrible. There were several months where I didn’t even go out.”

My stomach felt ill for her. “Liz, geez, that’s terrible. How long has this been going on?”

Her skin went pale and she pursed her lips in disgust. “Six years. I should probably just move at this point.”

_____________________________________________________

I have thought about Liz a lot of times over the years. Everyone is a critic. Every time we read a news story or a Facebook status or hear a headline, we form opinions. As a society, we talk about it and discuss it. I have a lot of opinions, and when the opinions of a person don’t match my opinions, I have opinions about that.

We share, and opine, and criticize, and confront, and lambaste strangers over the most sensitive of topics. In recent headlines, for example, women’s right to health care, immigration, gay marriage and religious freedom are topics that are thrown around right and left. People insult blindly, support blindly, and use hard words. Rarely, however, am I at the center of all of this.

Yesterday, I wrote an open letter/blog post called “Dear Mormon Leaders” and posted it on my Facebook page. I expected the post to reach a few hundred people. Some of my blog posts, even those I’m most proud of, only get a few dozen reads. This one, for some reason, has been widely shared and re-shared, with over 7500 reads in 24 hours. I have had dozens of Email, Twitter, and Facebook messages. At the last view, the majority of the readers were based in the United States, Canada, and north-western Europe, but isolated hits in smaller countries began showing up, from Israel to Barbados, Kenya to Antigua. My  mind was spinning in all of this.

And then private messages started showing up in my inbox, dozens of them, strangers with opinions acting as critics. I thought of my friend Liz as I read through them.

Many were positive:

“Chad, thank you for your words. I have a transgender teenager that I have been very hard on. Reading this helps me see things from a new perspective.”

and “I’m a gay Mormon in an isolated place. I’m not out. I felt like I was alone. These words give me strength.”

and “Your words echo my feelings. If only the leaders I believe in could be just a little bit kinder.”

And many were sheer ugly:

“No matter how many hateful words you spout about the chosen leaders of God, you will never convince the church to accept sinners into its ranks. God’s policies do not change, and if you can’t follow the commandments of God, you are a sinner. You had your chance to accept God’s truth, and you only get one. You’ll see on the judgment day.”

and “So you had an abusive father. Now you think everyone is abusive. Way to be a grown up.”

and “Making up unsubstantiated rumors about teenager suicides is disgusting. Rumors are just that: rumors. The truth of God is unchanging.”

And then there were the private ones. “I have considered taking my life recently” and “my son killed himself years ago. If only I had known” and “I attempted suicide in November. Thank God I lived.”

______________________________________________________

Meanwhile, I’m going about my day. I drank coffee, read a book, and played with my sons.

And in my head, on a loop, are the lyrics to Anna Nalick’s song, Breathe. 

2 AM and I’m still awake, writing a song
If I get it all down on paper, it’s no longer inside of me,
Threatening the life it belongs to
And I feel like I’m naked in front of the crowd
Cause these words are my diary, screaming out loud
And I know that you’ll use them, however you want to