Spirit 7: Truth or Consequences

When I was an infant, my proud parents held me up in front of a church congregation so the assembled Mormons could coo at the new baby boy. I wore all white. A group of men, some related by blood and some by belief, stood in a circle and placed their hands on my head to give me a blessing. They did not bless me to go forward and change the world, or to live my best life, or to find happiness on my own terms. They blessed me to be a good Mormon boy, to embrace the true gospel, to be a missionary, to marry a woman in the temple, to have babies, and to spend my whole life serving god. That was the path, the one for every Mormon boy. It was the true path, the right one. Anything else was deviant.  And I understood that right from the beginning.

Growing up, once per month, meetings at church were reserved for members to go up and bear their testimonies of the truth of the gospel. It was an act of boldness, of solidarity. Sharing beliefs according to the pre-established formula, in front of your like-minded peers, was to be admired. They all followed the same format. I was four when I tried it myself for the first time.

“I’d like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true. I love my mom and dad and my brother and sisters. I know the Book of Mormon is the word of god and that Joseph Smith was a prophet, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”

Some small variance from this format was allowed, but not much. This profession of beliefs was a tried and true process, and there was a right way to do it. That single opening phrase was uttered more than any other. I KNOW (not believe, not hope, not think, but KNOW) that THIS CHURCH (this one right here, the Mormon one, the one we are in) is TRUE. The word true here is the operative one. In Mormonism, the tenet that if one part was TRUE then it was all TRUE. It was a power word, something to evoke loyalty, pride, ownership, a depth of power and rightness, and above all, conformance. It was a word like Freedom, or Justice, words used regularly in the American vernacular. For if Mormonism was true, then everyone else was false. If Mormonism was true, that meant it was all correct, all right. The bad parts were worth overlooking to focus on the greater good, because of TRUTH.

And so all the little rules blended in to the TRUE. Many Christians hold on to their understanding of the Bible, as justification for even unkind behavior. “I can believe this/do this/act this way because the Bible says it’s okay.” Mormons take that a step farther. They have a prophet who leads and guides the church, and one who communes with god. He has 12 apostles at his side to back him up, just like Jesus did. He gives regular addresses in which he uses prophecy and revelation to tell people what god wants them to do, to believe, to say. Thus if I say it is all TRUE, that means the prophet speaks TRUTH, and I have to follow his directions because it is what god wants.

And so, people pay ten per cent of their income to the church. They saved themselves for marriage. They marry young and have babies early. The devote two years of their lives to unpaid missionary service. They try and convert their friends. They go to church for three hours every Sunday. They wear the sacred underwear, and keep their haircuts and clothing styles in particular ways, and women avoid having more than one piercing per ear. They keep their sins secret and repent of them as needed. They conform, and blend in, and feel special for doing so, because they are part of the TRUE church, the only one who has it right. And, in many cases, they sacrifice happiness as they try to follow all of the rules.

This concept of TRUTH was huge for me, for all of them, because there consequences attached. If I didn’t follow one of the rules, that meant I was a sinner, that I was denying truth, that I wasn’t conforming or fitting in. Everyone would see, but worse, god would know. Some sins, some small rebellions, could be easily shaken off, like missing a church meeting, or wearing a blue shirt instead of white, or missing a month of home-teaching. But others had vastly greater consequences: sexual activity outside of marriage, NOT going on a mission, NOT marrying in the temple, turning down a church calling, or, the worst possible scenario, being gay. If the rules weren’t followed, that meant there was a denial of truth, that one was turning their back on god. Sometimes this resulted in minor consequences (a conversation with the bishop or not taking the sacrament for a time) and sometimes in more severe ones (being disfellowshipped or excommunicated). And even worse, sinning in this life meant an inability to be with family in heaven in the next life. An entire eternal heritage cast aside for laziness, or orgasm, or the easy way out.

When I was actively LDS, I looked at those who were sinners, who were cast out, or who didn’t conform which such sadness and disregard. I saw them as failures, as selfish, as weak, as poor in spirit. Look what they gave up, I’d think. Look at all they cast aside. How sad, how pathetic. There were believers and sinners, the righteous and the apostate, the member and the non-member.

And yet if I turned my gaze inward, I didn’t fit either. God had made a design flaw. I was gay. It took me years to sort this out, but there were deep psychological wounds that formed within me because I was born wrong. I was born gay, and I knew it early. And so I didn’t fit the standard. I couldn’t conform naturally, I could only do so by hiding in plain sight. I held on to the rules tighter than most. Any aberration, any entertaining of alternate thought, meant denying what was true, and that meant losing everything. I held on tighter than almost anyone I knew. I had to be the best if I had any hope of belonging at all. (I would learn later that many other gay men held on in similar ways).

Whenever I bore my testimony, I held tightly to the truth, and I never spoke the doubts out loud. “I know the church is true.” What I could have spoken, what I should have spoken, was an entirely different sort of testimony.

“I desperately want to believe the church is true because I so badly want to fit in with all of you. I’m afraid I can’t, and that I never will. I’m different on the inside, I’m gay, and I am worried that by telling you that, I won’t be accepted here, that you’ll look at me like you do the other sinners. If I admit I’m different, I’m afraid god won’t love me and that I won’t have a place in my family. I’m following all of the rules because I want to be what you are, I want to have what you have. I want to feel sure, but I don’t. I have doubts. I don’t believe deep down that it is all correct. I think that there is some good here, in this church, in these meetings, but as I look around, there are a lot of people in pain here, and I think all of you have doubts as well. I think our leaders get things wrong, and I think that people get hurt because of it. And I think that people here are so focused with fitting in that they allow themselves to compromise their own morals, and then they convince themselves that these actions are sanctioned by god. And I’m worried that I’m going to grow up and have to redefine every one of these beliefs, every aspect of truth, and that is going to cause me to leave the church I love, both because I won’t believe it anymore and because I won’t fit here anymore. And there are consequences for that, according to your rules. I stand to lose my salvation, my family, my entire belief structure.

“But I’m worried that one day, I’m going to have to ask myself the opposite. What are the consequences for staying? And I don’ think any of you are going to like the answers I find.”

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Seattle Part 5: the Dream

September, 2014

I waited until I had a job before moving to Seattle, but once I arrived, they had me wait a few weeks before I could start. My social work license had to transfer, and my background check had to clear. So I ended up with a few weeks to play tourist.

I had first come to Seattle when I was 15, back when my mom was married to Kent, the man who used words and fists to prove his points. (They had divorced when I was 17). The trip had been a whirlwind, lots of time spent with Kent’s family, very little time in Seattle, and then a trip up north, to British Columbia and Vancouver Island. And I had also come to Seattle a few times as an adult, when I was married, and once after coming out. I had a good sense of the city’s most tourist-y spaces, the Space Needle and Pike Market, a few of the gay clubs. But overall, it was brand new to me.

The idea of Seattle was so romantic to me when I first arrived. The way the streets laid out into different neighborhoods. The idea of an entire city with its own history and its own people, one that didn’t revolve around Mormonism. The rich and vibrant gay community. The tech industry. The theaters, the markets, the coffee shops, the restaurants. The delicious cool ocean climate. The rain. The lakes. The nightlife.

I spent a few days exploring different parts of the city, wandering the streets, always with a book in hand. I found quirky street art, wandered through book stores, and drank delicious coffee. I wandered through the university campuses, took a few city tours, and learned as much history as I could. I got a library card, perhaps my prize possession in any city, and felt more legitimate. I was a resident. I had moved here. I’d done something just for me.

My first Saturday in the city, I took the bus down to Pike Market with the plan of spending the entire day. I got there early and watched the shopkeepers arrive with their various wares: carved walking sticks, hand-drawn cityscapes, feather jewelry, fresh-squeezed lime juice, home-grown mushrooms, huge bouquets of flowers. As I listened to conversations, I began to realize the organics of this place. Store front spaces were highly competitive, and very expensive. Rent for a space had to be paid in advance, and was expected in full regardless of sales. Some store fronts were permanent, and others changed hands every few days. The stations that were farthest out were basically just a section of concrete wall, not even a chair or an electrical outlet included, and the peddlers just set up station. Parking was supremely expensive, so most people were just dropped off for the day, and they were expected to be there for the entire day, from early morning until late afternoon. The early morning was a mess of delivery trucks and patrons unloading their supplies and setting up shop.

As the market opened, it was quiet. Everyone clutched cups of coffee and wore jackets. I casually strolled through the place, looking at ornate African cloths, jars of exotic spices and small shelves of kitschy figurines. I was tempted and assaulted by every aroma: freshly fried doughnuts, grilled onions, lines of frozen fish, juicy peaches, burnt sugar, homemade bread, barbecued ribs. And there was a sea of diverse humanity working there, people of every color, age, height, nationality, and style. I watched and listened, losing myself in it all, forgetting it all.

By late morning, the tourists arrived, and as mid-afternoon approached, even more. The empty hallways and passages swarmed with people. Street musicians played violins and guitars and saxophones, entertaining and hoping for tips. The crowd became so dense that I couldn’t move through it without careful navigation, bypassing backpacks, strollers, and families as I worked my way from one end of the market and back, wanting to see how fast I could do it.

Finally, tired and needing sustenance, I bought some delicious items from a few vendors, then made my way to the entrance of Pike, where I sat on a bench and faced the ocean. No one knew me here. No one asked any questions. No one cared that I was gay, or where I was from. No one knew anything about Mormons, or my failed marriage, or those years I spent hiding in my own skin. I could breathe here. I could get lost, and I could breathe.

As I walked away, blocks from Pike Market, I passed through Belltown. And I sat on another bench, seeing a ‘for sale’ sign, advertising a high-rise condo inside. It was a large beautiful building full of condos. Men in suits and women in professional dress walked around me. The building overlooked the ocean. And for just a moment, I let myself dream.

Maybe I would meet an architect, or an engineer, or a lawyer. Maybe I would fall madly in love with someone handsome and kind, and we would spend evenings sipping wine, weekends going on hikes. Maybe he would cook for me and I would write him poems and we would fall in love, suddenly and slowly. Maybe we would buy this little condo in Belltown, where we could have friends over, where we could walk along the ocean front and talk while holding hands. Maybe on Saturday mornings, I would walk down to Pike Market and buy fresh vegetables and flowers, and I would come back to the condo and put things away. Maybe my future was here. Maybe my sons would come down on holiday breaks, or for full summers, and I would show them this miraculous city, and they would both feel loved and important and also know that I was happy. Maybe I would open a little corner office where I would see clients a few days a week and I would write the rest of the time. Maybe I would end up feeling like this was my path all along, and I wouldn’t grieve my past anymore. Maybe this was how it was always meant to be, with Mormonism, and self-shame, far far away.

Maybe this would be my new life. Maybe this was my future. Maybe… maybe I could be happy here. Maybe I had possibility.

Mrs. God

mrsgod

Despite the warnings not to, I once picked up an anti-Mormon pamphlet. I was a missionary at the time, and we had stepped into a Christian bookstore, casually browsing. My companion casually glanced over my shoulder as I read.

In poorly drawn comic strips, the pamphlet tore apart the Mormon version of God. Instead of believing in a divine being, it said, Mormons believed in an immortal alien, one who had once been a man before ascending to godhood and inheriting his own planet. God called his planet Kolob, it said, and he had pure white skin, white hair, and a white beard. He created Earth and possibly other planets so that he would have a place for his billions of spirit kids to get bodies and to be tested, so he could sort the good ones out from the bad ones.

More than anything, the pamphlet emphasized that God had millions of wives, a great eternal harem of women. They had all been mortal women like him, and he had claimed them, bounding them to him forever. They were his property, and the billions of spirit children descended from all of them. Though this may not be a direct quote (hey, it’s been 20 years), the pamphlet stated something like “Mormons don’t believe in a God. They believe in a white alien immortal who engages in endless Celestial sex with his millions of goddess wives.”

My companion and I had laughed about it at the time, and then quickly put the pamphlet back. We had always been instructed not to read things like that, because it could cause us to doubt our very testimonies and belief systems. He and I never talked about it again. But the pamphlet stuck with me. It made me give serious thought to the ideas I had around God for the first time. The pamphlet had worded it all in very abrasive ways, but it hadn’t said anything that was necessarily wrong.

I was taught all about God growing up. Above all else, I was taught that he was a loving father, one with infinite and unconditional love, who knew my heart and thoughts, who knew every choice I would ever make before I could make it. He expected repentance when I made wrong choices, prayer, ten per cent of my income, and strict obedience to all of his commandments, and in return he promised me eternal salvation and glory. And, yes, I was promised that the most very righteous would inherit his kingdom, in other words I could become my own god with my own planet someday.

But we were also taught about the origins of God. “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become,” they taught. God’s name was Elohim, and he was once a mortal who had been obedient to his god, and thus he had become his own God. Which meant there was god before god, and a god before him. It was like one giant capitalistic society, with vast trusts and inheritances built in. Follow the rules, and get the rewards. Don’t, and God will judge you (justly of course) as being worthy of one of the lesser levels of heaven, where you’ll just hang out for eternity. Unless you commit the extreme sin of denying God himself, then it’s Outer Darkness for you. (Those letters are capitalized, cause Mormons believe that is an actual place. Outer Darkness. Where the evil souls float for eternity, no bodies allowed).

And God did live on Kolob, his planet base somewhere in space. And he did look like a white-skinned man with a beard in all the Mormon pictures. And Mormons did believe in polygamy, and they did believe that God practiced it. And they did say that he was our literal father, and he did have billions of spirit children, which probably meant he had millions of wives. And that meant I had a Heavenly Mother in addition to a Heavenly Father. We just didn’t talk about her. I didn’t know her name. But apparently she was once a human too then, and she had gotten to Kolob by sealing herself to God in life, one among millions, and then he had taken her to Heaven with him. That’s how human girls now were supposed to do it. Men got to inherit God powers and kingdoms, and women got to attach themselves to men and go along for the ride. And presumably my Heavenly Mother was just one of those women, and my only Mother, so those other millions would be my Great God-Aunts?

I asked about Heavenly Mother once, when I was a teenager, in my Seminary class. (Seminary was an actual class that I attended during high school hours, in between History and Algebra, at the church across the street). She was mentioned in the Mormon hymn “Oh My Father”, a hymn that had been written by Eliza R. Snow, herself one of the plural wives of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. One stanza was clear.

“In the heav’ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal
Tells me I’ve a mother there.”

I had raised my hand and asked why we didn’t talk about Heavenly Mother much. The seminary teacher, a good man in his late thirties, who had been married for six years and now had five children under the age of five, had responded kindly, thoughtfully. “We don’t take the name of God in vain as a sign of respect. In the same way, God doesn’t allow us to speak about Heavenly Mother. She is far too sacred.”

I write all of this at the age of 39. When I try to reason through these logic puzzles of my former belief system, I crinkle up my nose like I’ve just smelled something unpleasant. There is no reason behind any of fit, it doesn’t hold up. Little things make me cringe (like if God is Mary’s father, yet he also fathered Jesus through her, but he is also Jesus…), and images of millions of women lining up in white with their faces veiled so that they can devote themselves to one man, well, that just flies in the face of every one of my values.

I have no idea if there is a God out there or not. I’m kind of leaning toward not. But if there is one, I’m just going to presume it is a she, not a he. Women give birth, nurture and sustain. Men chop and tear, rend and conquer. If I ever pray again, it will definitely be to Mrs. God.

Or is it Ms.?

 

 

 

One Epic Fantasy

MagicJesus

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.

 

 

Independent Christian Bookstores

jesusfish

“Thank you for calling Covenant Books, I’m Dawn, how can I help you?”

“Hi, I’m Chad. I wrote a book, a memoirs of my life. I’m looking for a literary agent and a publisher to help me get it on the shelves.”

I kept enthusiasm in my voice, even though I was a bit nervous. Calls like this challenged some of my greatest fears and insecurities.

“Well, Chad, congratulations on getting your manuscript finished!” The word manuscript felt strange, it wasn’t a word that was part of my regular vocabulary. I would have to get used to it. “Tell me a bit about it!”

And so I told Dawn a bit about my book, telling her that it was my story of growing up Mormon as a gay kid in large and chaotic family, about my attempts to cure my homosexuality with religion, about getting married to a woman and having children, and about finally coming out of the closet and finding myself.

This was the fourth or fifth call to a literary agency that I had made in the past few days, and one of the agencies had already mailed me an official “we aren’t interested” letter. I’d done this once before. Just after college, years before, I had written several comic book scripts and shopped around for talented artists to draw them. Only one of my several books ever made it to print, and it had taken four years, and several thousand dollars, to publish. And then I had spent many months traveling around and selling it, never quite breaking even, and definitely never making a profit. I didn’t want to have to do that all over again.

My book now, which I was calling Gay Mormon Dad had come on suddenly. After years of blogging and writing my story, suddenly the format and layout of the book had struck me like a bolt. I’d hidden in a hotel room for four days, where I wrote the first third, and then I couldn’t stop writing it over the following weeks. Some formatting, some edits and alterations, and suddenly I had a manuscript. But I had to have a literary agent in order to connect me with publishers if I wanted this read. This book was me, my very essence, in so many ways, and I felt like it had the power to change the lives of those who read it. It could inform if not inspire. It felt like a calling to get it out there.

Dawn listened to my passionate, nervous voice for a bit, and then confidently responded. I could tell that her words were rehearsed, she must speak with many writers every day, but I could hear the warmth in her voice as well. She sounded as though she loved her job.

“The first thing I need to make sure of, you understand this is not the Covenant Publishing that is a business affiliated with the Mormon church, correct? That is a separate one. We get calls sometimes, and your book has the word Mormon in the title.”

“Oh, I don’t think the Mormon church would have any interest in publishing my book,” I laughed.

“Okay, good. Well, let me tell you what we could do for you.” She invited me to submit a full copy of the book to an editorial team, and they would review it to see if it was a good fit, to make corrections, and to recommend any formatting changes. If the book was accepted, I would then sign a contract with the company and pay a “to-be-determined” fee. That fee would go toward a cover design for the book, the initial printing, social media advertising, and the publishing of the book itself. I imagined it would be several thousand dollars out of pocket, but I didn’t know any other way around it. I grew very nervous and excited.

“The book would be available in certain places online, mostly in our European markets, and we would get it on the shelves in all of our stateside stores that want to order it. Most of these stores are independent Christian bookstores.”

“Wait, what?” I could hear the screeching tires sound effect in my head. My nervousness and excitement were replaced by a sense of dread. “Independent Christian bookstores?”

“Yes, we have a wonderful market across the country.”

“Dawn, my book in large part covers being gay, leaving Christianity, ending a marriage, and becoming an atheist, and it has references to gay sex.”

Dawn cleared her throat. “Well, like I said, our review team will determine goodness of fit with the company.”

“That isn’t the market for my book. There is no way this would be the right fit.”

For a moment, my brain flashed back to growing up Mormon in Missouri, and the hatred some of the other Christian groups had for Mormons there. I wondered if some of her initial interest in the book was due to the fact that I’d mentioned leaving Mormonism.

“Well, I certainly respect any decision you make. But if you’d like to try working together, we would certainly give the book a read and see how we feel about it.”

I thanked Dawn and hung up, drawing a black ink line through the name Covenant Publishing on my sheet of paper. Oh the irony, I thought. I envisioned the Christian mother in small town Alabama walking into her local Jesus Saves store and seeing a book called Gay Mormon Dad on the shelf. I couldn’t help it, I laughed out loud.

Back to the drawing board, I thought, and I dialed the next number on the list.

 

Burned

abinadi

I can see myself up there

High on a mountaintop

(“A banner is unfurled”

the familiar sing-song lyrics autoplay in my head

by rote

and I squelch them swiftly).

From such a vantage

I could view the entire valley

with perspective

and see all the corners and shadows

that have given me life.

In them, I would find my heritage,

equal parts handcart and homophobia.

 

The streets are quiet up here

Full of newly-weds and nearly-deads they say

because history is changing and people with it.

Those who built these sidewalks

are no longer the ones treading upon them.

 

The street signs bear Mormon names.

Zarahemla: fictional capital city,

Cumorah: hill full of secrets,

and Abinadi, a man I once admired

because he allowed himself to be burned to death.

 

My back is to the city now

and all is rustling leaves

and birdsong

and one lone cricket

and sunshine on my skin

and I think of how I was carried here

by pioneer women

and how I almost

let myself burn.

Origin

 

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Zero

My mother wrote songs as she rocked me

Singing lyrics aloud, her eyes blue on mine brown

A song of the mother Mary rocking the Christ child

A lullaby that soothed until heavy eyelids closed in sleep.

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Five

We cut holes in shoeboxes

Then covered them in paper, pink and red mostly.

Scissors sliced thick paper into hearts and letters

While scented colored markers etched our names

In grape purple and lemon yellow and licorice black.

On super hero valentines,

I wrote To’s and From’s to each member of my class

Except I wrote two for Michael, the boy who made me laugh.

I liked-him-liked-him

The way Chris liked Michelle and Jason liked Desiree.

At the Valentines Party, I placed each small card in each small box

And two in Michael’s.

But I only wrote a From on one of his cards, leaving the other blank.

If I gave two to him, the other boys would know I was different.

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Fifteen

“You are indeed one of Heavenly Father’s choice sons.

Do not in any way disappoint Him.”

The patriarch spoke kindly, firmly,

A direct message from God to me on his breath.

Weeks before, when I had told the bishop my shameful secret,

the message had been the same, kind and firm.

“God loves you, He does not tolerate sin.”

The words of the prophets, kind and firm again.

“Pray, do everything God says, and He will cure you,

Make you straight,

Because He loves you.”

And so I ket my eyes just that, straight

Focused, unerring.

Dad was gone,

And my stepfather spoke with fists and angry words.

I was a fairy, he said. I would never measure up to a real man.

But God, He heard. I just couldn’t disappoint Him.

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twenty-seven

She looked at me sincerely, tears streaming down her face,

And asked why, why after six years of dating, we hadn’t kissed,

Hadn’t held hands, not even once.

I thought of the familiar excuses, used again and again,

About trying to be moral and righteous,

About saying it wasn’t just her, that I’d never kissed anyone,

Never held anyone’s hands.

Those were true words, but not the whole truth.

She needed the whole truth.

“I’m gay,” I said. “But I’m trying to cure it.”

And she didn’t mind. And so we kissed, finally.

There was affection and regard and kindness behind it,

If not chemical attraction,

And relationships had been built on less.

And for her the feelings were real.

And so, three months later, we married.

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thirty-two

The day my second son was born, I got that same sense

Of holding my entire world in my hands.

That word again, Fatherhood,

Overwhelming in its possibility, its responsibility.

Here, a new miracle, different from his brother in every way.

But this time, our lives were different.

Early drafts of divorce papers sat on the desk at home.

I was sleeping in the basement now,

And her heart was broken,

While mine, though sad, had come up for oxygen

After three decades of holding its breath.

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thirty-eight

Pen to paper, I think back on six years of firsts.

First authentic kiss.

First try at an authentic relationship

And first authentic heartbreak.

First time dancing, euphoric and free.

First friends, real friends, finally, friends.

First realization that I like myself, powerfully,

And that I have no need to be cured of something that was never wrong.

First freedoms, from religion and deadly self-expectations.

I live now, loudly.

My sons thrive in two households, and they will tell anyone who asks

That their mother likes boys who like girls

And their father likes boys who like boys.

They are thriving, and smiling, and real.

And so is she.

And so am I.

ex-Mormons in the Boston rain

Boston

“I bet you spend a lot of your time talking about Mormons now,” I smiled as I sipped my water.

“Well, we tend to talk about Mormons more when other ex-Mormons are around,” Alice admitted with a smile.

I dug my fork into the delicious mixture of brown rice, almonds, tofu, broccoli, legumes, beets, and other delicious vegetables blended together with savory sauces, and thought about the truth of that statement. I spoke through my large bite of food, trying not to spray food while I talked. “Yeah, I guess that is true.”

Alice placed her hands around her drink, thinking as she looked down. “Growing up, I didn’t know much about Mormons at all. I just thought of them as some weird cult out west. They used to do the plural marriage thing and they send those guys out in shirts and ties to knock on doors.” She paused, adjusting her scarf on her neck. “I grew up Catholic, which I used to think was pretty much the same, but it is totally not the same. And now my best friend and roommate is an ex-Mormon, and I get it on a whole different level.”

I took another sip of water, then laughed. “You remind me a lot of my sister-in-law. My sister Sheri and I both grew up culturally  Mormon in a very Mormon family, but in Missouri, not Utah, and those are very different places to grow up Mormon. We moved to Idaho later on, and that’s a lot more similar. Anyway, it totally influenced everything about us, and it took us years to change our way of thinking. Sheri got married to Heather a few years ago, and Heather is kind of a no-nonsense, I-love-and-support-everyone Massachusetts woman like you, and when Sheri and I talk about our Mormon upbringing, Heather will have this strong ‘what in the hell!’ kind of outraged response when she hears about the Mormon collective culture. It’s kind of adorable actually.”

We shared a laugh, and Alice took another sip. “Massachusetts is the most accepting place I have ever seen. It’s still very culturally divided in many ways, but we widely embrace other cultures, and especially the LGBT community. We fight for refugee rights and work hard on equality for women. We still elected have a habit of electing Republican governors, though, it must be kind of a checks-and-balances thing in our souls. We elected Mitt Romney. Come to think of it, that was the first time I really looked at the whole Mormon thing.”

Gary rejoined us at the table, having refilled his drink. An old college friend of mine, Gary and I hadn’t seen each other in nearly 15 years, but here I was in his new city, Boston, and I had met he and his roommate Alice for dinner. After some basic conversation starters like ‘so what do you do for work’ and ‘so how are your kids’ and ‘so tell me about your dog’, we had easily shifted into college reminiscences and then the Mormon talk started. ‘Remind me where you served your mission?’ and ‘so how long ago did you leave the church?’ and ‘how does your family feel about you leaving the faith?’ and ‘do you miss being Mormon at all?’

And then we had spent several minutes talking about our exits from the church, our uncovering of controversial issues in church history that we hadn’t known about in our up-bringing. We talked about the rape culture at BYU, and LGBT teen suicides, and the failure of the church to appoint black leaders, and Proposition 8, and Joseph Smith marrying other men’s wives. As we talked, it dawned on me that these aren’t topics that I spend time on in my day-to-day life and thinking patterns, but they are topics that get covered often when I am around other ex-Mormons. It’s like we need to share our experiences, join in our past pain, and seek validation through explaining it to others.

This was a human thing, I supposed. Humans always spend time talking to people from their pasts about their shared pasts, and humans always seek validation from others about painful parts of their lives that we they have been through. Recovering alcoholics find validation from other recovering alcoholics, returned veterans from returned veterans, refugees from refugees, trauma survivors from trauma survivors. And ex-Mormons from other ex-Mormons.

Gary has really made something of himself. I remember him back in college with his wide smile and easy laugh and cool confidence. Now he’s running a business and living a very happy life that I never would have predicted for him.

The conversation broke for a moment, and Gary looked over his coconut milkshake at me. “Let me ask you a weird question,” he said in a soft voice. “Do you still consider yourself Mormon at all? I don’t. I don’t feel like any part of me is Mormon any longer.”

I had an answer ready. I have been asked this many times before. “I consider Mormonism to be my  heritage. Some people are Irish or Somali or Greek. I’m Mormon. My family line goes back generations. My grandparents’ grandparents were pioneers who gathered from all around the world. I’m Mormon, in many ways, more than I’m American. It influenced my cultural upbringing and my family on both sides. And Mormonism is the heritage of my sons.

“But I no longer consider it any part of my belief system. It gave me what I thought was solid ground in my childhood, then it hurt me for a long time, then I left and I had to think about it a lot. But now I don’t really give it much thought, except in conversations like this. It’s where I came from, but not where I am or where I am going.”

Minutes later, the three of us joined outside with hugs and laughter and ‘great to see you’ and ‘nice to meet you’, and then I turned and walked down the cold and rainy Boston streets, finding a bit more of myself with each step, Mormonism behind me yet somehow always around.

Green means Go

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“Well, it isn’t that confusing. I was married to Mom and we had you two little monkeys. And then mom and me got a divorce, so we live in two houses and we both love you both.”

I look at the rear view mirror, which reflects the face of my six year old son, J. His brow is furrowed in frustration. “But you like to marry boys, so why did you marry a girl, then?”

I smile and sigh. He has so many questions, that one. To him, the idea of ‘marrying’ someone is the expression of love. He’s really asking, ‘if you like boys, why did you marry mom?’ “Well, we’ve talked about this before, son. Do you remember why I married mom?”

He nods, looking down at his fingernails. The light turns green and I move the car forward. “You married mom because you loved her and you didn’t think it was okay to marry a boy, so you  married a girl.”

“Yes, that’s right. You have a very good memory.”

“Yeah, but why?”

I shift my eyes to my three year old, A, strapped in to his car seat. He has my furrow, the same way of scrunching his eyebrows down to give off an excellent look of consternation. Though two years and nine months younger, he weighs almost more than his petite older brother.

“Why what, A?”

“Why didn’t you marry a boy?”

I had thought it would be a few more years before they started asking questions like this. J had been only 3 when I came out of the closet, finally and officially, and A hadn’t even been born yet. They’ve basically always known I was gay. They have other gay family members, they know many of my gay friends, and having a gay dad will be a completely normal part of their upbringing. They would never recognize the man that I used to be.

A few memories flood back into my mind; the Priesthood blessing I had asked for as a missionary that I believed would finally cure me; the hours spent in therapy, asking for help with being attracted to men and being treated for “porn and masturbation addiction” even though I wasn’t addicted to porn or masturbation; the night that I told Megan that I was gay, after years of dating her, and her nodding that she understood–that was the night of our first kiss, my first kiss, at age 26; (I didn’t kiss a boy until I was 32).

Then I think of the first few weeks after I had come out, and how I had very briefly considered taking my own life, believing at the time that my sons would be better off with no father than a gay one. I look back at them now and think of all the confusion they would have have had without me in their world. All these questions they have now, they have me to ask; what kind of questions would they have if I wasn’t here.

I think of rocking them when they were infants, cuddling them when they were toddlers. I think of the stories, crayons, and toys; the trips to the zoo, the aquarium, and the aviary; the wrestling matches, puppet shows, dance parties, and dragon fights. I think of the early morning feedings, the diaper explosions, the projectile vomit, the emptied cupboards and crushed crackers and spilled juice cups. I think of Christmas mornings and Halloween nights and Easter eggs and Valentines and Independence Day fireworks.

“Dad, I said why didn’t you marry a boy!” A shouts, playfully yet sternly, impatient for an answer.

“Whoa, be patient!” I pull up to another red light. How do I answer such a complicated question to kids that are 3 and 6? “Well, I grew up in the Mormon church, and they said that marrying a boy was bad, and that boys should only marry girls.”

A wrinkles his nose. “Well, that’s dumb.”

I laugh. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

But J still looks very serious. “Wait, but Mommy wanted to marry a boy and you are a boy.”

“Well, yeah, but mommy is straight. That means she wants to marry a boy who wants to marry a girl. I’m gay, and that means I want to marry a boy who also wants to marry a boy.” I am tempted to change the word marry to love, but decide that isn’t necessary right now.

The light bulb of understanding comes on over J’s head as it all clicks together. “Oh, that makes sense.”

A nods. “Yeah, that makes sense.”

“Well, good.”

The car is quiet for a moment as we get closer to our destination. The radio plays softly. I look up to the mountains in the distance, covered in snow, the sky filled with clouds above them. It is an absolutely beautiful day.

“Well,” J starts, thinking for a minute. “When I grow up, I think I’ll marry a girl. Maybe Hannah in my class.”

“That’s a great plan, J.”

He continues. “We can get married when I’m 25. We can have a boy and a girl and name them Tad cause it rhymes with Chad and Dad. And the girl will be Aloy.” I feel tears come to my eyes unbidden. Aloy was the name of my grandmother, the name I had selected if J had been a girl. “And we will have a rabbit named Sunface, and we will live in north Idaho because it’s so pretty, but not in Provo cause it is too hot and gross. And I will be a Wendy’s chef.”

I laugh out loud at his little plan for the future. “That sounds like a great life, J.”

Never one to be one-upped by a story, A pipes in. “And I’m not gonna get married to a boy or a girl. I will just live in a hotel with nine million dollars and I will have a dog named Loki and I will be a mighty hunter. Or maybe I will marry one boy and four girls and have nine million kids instead.”

The last stop light turns green, and I pull into the parking lot at McDonalds and both boy gave out a whoop of joy at the thought of Chicken Nuggets and milkshakes, and I think, no matter the wayward path it took me to get here, this is a pretty good life to have.

I think of all the years wasted at red lights, and resolve, again, to seek out the greens. It’s time for forward motion.