Learning to hate

shadow

Hate.

Humans are the only species that hates. We dominate. We smother, choke, and silence. Anything that is inconvenient to us. Anything that isn’t like us. Anything that makes us uncomfortable. Even when, especially when, it is within us.

I was raised by a loving mother in a busy family home. She taught me to follow God, to love my neighbor, to be a good and ethical person who is kind and Christlike. Every Sunday, we sat in church and sang songs of the love of God while learning about family, service, eternal bonds, and sacrifice. It was idyllic. It was wonderful. Except I didn’t fit the mold.

I realized early on that I was gay. I didn’t have the words, but I knew I was different as young as age 5. And I learned to hide. I know I didn’t fit. I wasn’t like the other kids around me. God had made me different. The messages of love I was being taught became conditional, based on my ability to conform.

There were no hateful messages delivered across the pulpit in my Mormon congregation. There were no sermons on how gay people should burn in Hell. There was just no mention of gay people at all, anytime, ever. Mumbled conversations in hallways about the AIDS epidemic being a curse from God toward the immoral, yes. But no hate speech against gay people. And this silence spoke volumes.

Instead, there were reinforced narratives. Poster boards showing the paths that everyone takes to get into Heaven. Worthiness. Obedience. Sacrifice. Church attendance, scripture study, repentance, baptism. Ordinations, temple attendance, tithing, two years as a missionary. And then, marriage to a woman and children and service in the church for a lifetime. All to ensure that whatever came next, after this life, would be good. A life with God, rich with blessings and family.

And I didn’t fit into that. Right off, in learning how to blend in, I learned how to deny those deeper parts of myself. Every television show, every story book, every song on the radio reinforced that men were men, and women were women, and men were supposed to be with women. There was no alternative. I knew no gay people. I had no role models for a successful or happy gay life. There was only one path, only one way. And so I learned to hide. To lie. To seek a cure. To try and fix it. All without anyone ever pointing a finger at me that said “You are broken, fix yourself.” They didn’t have to point. I just knew I was broken.

Until I turned 15. When I was 15, I finally asked for help. And a kind religious leader gave me a book that was written by a long-dead Mormon prophet, a book written before I was born. Homosexuality is a sin. A crime next to murder. An abomination. A curse. A curable curse, but a curse nonetheless. It was detestable, horrific, a blight upon the land. I got the message loud and clear. Everything I’d ever worried about myself in silence was confirmed in print. I was broken. I learned to hide even more.

Hate can be subtle. It isn’t always like a fist to the face, sometimes it is more like shadow, creeping over walls and under doors, unseen until you learn to see it clearly. I didn’t fit. I was an abomination. God created me in his image, but he made me different. He loved me without condition, yet I was an abomination. He expected honesty and authenticity in service, yet I didn’t know how to face myself. I had no narrative, no ability to speak truth. And so I hid. In plain sight. For decades. He hated me. Those around me hated me. And I learned, early and deeply, to hate myself.

The boys at school weren’t so subtle. Manhood needed to be proven there. Athletic prowess, an interest in girls, a tolerance for pain, no show of emotions. Be a man. And anyone who wasn’t a man, they got called the humiliating names, the ones that every boy dreaded. Sissy. Fag. Queer. Homo. Fairy. Faggot. Fudgepacker. Playground taunts would go dark and extreme sometimes. “You can’t throw a ball, you fag, go die of AIDS.” Children saying this. Children.

And every word, directed at me or at anyone else, sent quivers through my soul. They shook me to my core. I was so scared of being exposed. What if someone caught me looking at a guy. What if I got a boner at the wrong time. When if I wasn’t good enough, man enough, at any given moment. And so I learned to hide, deeper and darker. I learned to lie even more. In order to survive.

When I mix these three origin stories: the suffer-in-silence child side, the not-man-enough-little-queer-kid side, and the God-created-a-monster side, it boils down a complicated stew of self-hatred. It’s a miracle I survived. It’s a miracle any of us did. I used to shut entire parts of my brain, my body, my psyche, my spirit. I shut them down so I could stop feeling, so I could try to survive. It physically hurt. I’d stare at myself in the mirror and call myself names for not being man enough. I’d sob my eyes out in anguished prayer while begging for a cure. I’d look girls in the eye and tell them that I was interested in them, of course, as I delivered some excuse for not engaging in physical activity with them. I hated myself, because I just knew that everyone hated me.

Hate.

It’s only in the last few years that I’ve learned to hear and share the stories of others. My story is my own, but it is in no way unique. There are millions of other gay Mormons from across the decades who learned to be silent like I was, who learned to believe God hated them. They considered suicide, and in some cases completed it. They submitted themselves to therapy practices that promised a cure. They got electro-shocked, harming their brains in the hope of reducing or eliminating their sexual attractions. They got married and then cheated on their wives, hoping to never get caught. They were excommunicated, disowned, extorted by the police, and assaulted for being gay. In the worst cases, they were killed, by men who learned to hate other men for being gay.

And it isn’t limited to Mormons. Gay people in every corner of the world, in every country, culture, religion, and time period, have learned the same hate. In some culture, the hate comes from God and religion. In others, it is societal norms or government practices. Hatred has become generational. It’s in the DNA of gay people. It crosses every border and barrier. It is the shadow on the wall, the one I forget to look for sometimes.

I’ve been out of the closet for eight years now, and I love my life. My home, my job, my partner, my children.  I see a future for myself, where I once saw no future. And in my work as a therapist, and as a storyteller, I’ve learned to embrace the stories of queer people as they begin to sort all of this out and learn how to love themselves. They began to see clearly how they learned how to hide in their own homes. And then they start to look at the world around them and figure out how to live in it, how to understand and even embrace the hate and use it to propel themselves forward. It is an epic and exhausting journey, and one that gets easier with time.

And I don’t hate that at all.

In fact, I love it.

Love.

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“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

Sex Education Part 6: Brotherly Love

Elder

I only had the one brother, and he was much older than me. I had lots of friends in the high school, but I kept my guard up around them almost constantly, so scared of being found out for being gay. I had one friend that shared a bed with me sometimes on sleepovers throughout high school and, well, that was tempting, but I still kept myself so carefully contained.

And then I went on a Mormon mission for two years. First there were three weeks at the Missionary Training Center in Provo. I was 19, and at the height of my sexual exploration phase, just like all of the other thousands of missionaries. I was 19, and surrounded by other 19 year olds. I had no personal space, no free time. I shared a room with good-looking young men. We studied scriptures together, read together, walked together. The only time I had to myself, literally, was when I closed the stall door in the bathroom. And, strangest of all, we showered together. No shower curtains. Big group showers with multiple shower heads coming out of each pole in the room.

I’m positive there were other gay kids in the MTC, but I didn’t know that then. The elders were relentless. The wore the name of Jesus Christ on their shirt lapels, but they were very young and very horny. Some walked around naked. They talked about girlfriends, and fantasies, and wet dreams. They openly discussed the size of their penises and sometimes showed them off. They bragged about past sexual encounters, the sizes of girls’ breasts, what they did on dates to stop from getting erect. I’d never been around other guys like this, and I wasn’t coping well. I had to cope by being pious, by being the most dedicated missionary possible. But when I did that, I didn’t fit in, and when I didn’t do that, I didn’t feel worthy. God was never going to cure me being gay at this rate.

And thus set up the following two years. A constant war with me trying to fit in and follow the rules at the same time, and both of those were impossible, because I didn’t fit. And I had nowhere to hide, no rooms to retreat to. The bathroom was my only solace, my only break. That and sleep. Depression set in deep, and the anxiety continued whenever I felt attracted to someone.

I found myself adapting swiftly to whoever my companion was. When I was attracted to my companion, I had a clumsiness and a defensiveness about me. When I was with a jock or a bully, I became the misfit, the awkward nerd who didn’t conform. When I was with someone with strange social manners, I had an air of impatience and superiority about me.

I wouldn’t realize it until much later, but at least two out of my fifteen companions were also gay and later came out. I haven’t ever asked if their internal struggles were like mine, but I found myself wondering after my mission, what if something had happened. What if there had been a mutual attraction, and someone had made a move, and the other had responded. What if we had found pleasure, found lust realized, found love back then, a fling during a time we should have been in college. The consequences at the time would have been devastating, humiliating. There would likely have been confessed sins, an early release home, a heartbreaking coming out to the family, some therapy. But maybe, maybe that would have propelled me out of the closet much sooner. Maybe it would have changed the entire course of my life.

Instead, the duration of my missionary experience was me staying tightly locked up inside of myself while I knocked on doors, faced the tedium of the day-to-day monotony of missionary work, read the scriptures, called in numbers to the mission president, hoped for success. I taught a few openly gay men on my mission, and I saw them as weak, morally inferior, as less than for submitting to being gay. I had grown to hate what I was, and hate it even more when I recognized it in others.

I certainly wouldn’t call myself free of sin during this time. I worked hard and studied hard. I prayed often, journaled, wrote home, asked for guidance and blessings, and tried hard to keep the spirit. But the depression got bad sometimes, and I frequently felt worthless, hopeless, and without any kind of drive. I lusted after some of my companions, and others that I met. I wanted so badly to be noticed by them, to have them desire me back. I had errant thoughts, sexual fantasies, and sometimes struggled with masturbation. And I knew that if I told anyone about this, they would respond that if I had even one sexual sin, how could God possibly cure me, how could I be considered worthy. God had given me so much, how could I make Jesus suffer like that with my sin? I was so locked up.

All in all, during that two years, I did nothing egregious. I baptized a few people. And in those two years, there was only one companion I fell for. He was straight, but he was handsome, and kind, and attentive. He asked how I was and he listened. He offered back massages. He made me laugh. He thought I was cool. And we spent every waking moment together for three months, how could I not fall for him? One night, I told him in a quiet voice that I was attracted to boys. He responded that he wasn’t that surprised, and it didn’t bother him at all, but he wanted to make sure I knew he was straight. I assured him I was as well, and we never spoke of it again.

And thus passed my time from ages 19-21. The height of my sexual development. I spent it hiding, scared, ashamed, depressed, and feeling broken. I would later contemplate what it would be like for straight young men to be sent to live with beautiful women, to shower with them, to sleep in a bed feet away from them, to never be alone. What if we told these men that lusting was wrong, that they couldn’t masturbate, or deviate, that they couldn’t have sexual thoughts, and that if they did they were wrong, broken, and should be ashamed. Realizing this helped me realize what a torturous and cruel time this was. It was spiritual abuse in a concentrated form.

In December of 1999, I went home, my head and heart full of shame, my spirit dark. And I started college two weeks later.

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?

Sex Education Part 4: Scout Camp

My first day at Scout Camp, I rolled out my sleeping bag in the small tent, anxious about sharing my space with other boys in my ward.

There was Josh, my tall, gangly friend with his thick glasses. Stephen, the handsome nerdy guy with the perfect smile. Charles, too handsome for his own good, constantly bragging about girls. Sam, with thick blonde hair, who looked perfect with his shirt off. And scrappy little Daryl, who had a constant sneer on, always trying to pick a fight. These boys and ten others in our little troop, along with the Scoutmasters one tent over.

Sam was the nicest to look at, but it was Stephen that I had the biggest crush on. I often found myself watching him across the camp, wondering if he ever noticed. He was handsome and adorable all at once. I was only 14, but I wondered what a future with him would be like, if that was something that was allowed. But then I mentally flogged myself for feeling that way in the first place, knowing that even those thoughts made me a sinner.

The first few days of Scout Camp were a blur of skits and singing, flag raises, swimming, building fires, cooking eggs and bacon over an electric grill, and working on a number of merit badges. The leaders encouraged us to get as many badges as possible during the days we would be there. Every morning and meal started with a prayer, and we sang hymns and Scout songs throughout the day. It was meant to be the ultimate getaway.

I mostly stayed quiet as the other boys interacted. When the leaders were away, the conversation automatically steered to girls.

“Dude, have you guys seen Becky? She has the biggest boobs in the whole class and I heard she made out with Joe Adams once.”

“I totally made out with her.”

“No you didn’t!”

“I so did. She’s dumb as rocks though.”

“Whatever, I made out with your sister!”

The boys talked about their crushes, their conquests, their future wives. And I didn’t participate. I tried to blend in to the background, wanting to fit in but not wanting to engage either.

“What about you, Chad, who do you like?” Sam asked me over the fire one day.

My eyes immediately shifted to Stephen across the camp, then I lowered them to the ground. “Oh, I don’t really talk about that stuff. I’m trying to just stay focused on school and church stuff until my mission.”

Sam nodded, laughing. “I respect that. I’m into this girl named Amber. She’s really cute and want to know my favorite part about her?”

“Sure, what is it?”

“Her butt. She has the perfect butt. Want to know how I know that?”

I looked over at him as he stared in the fire. “How do you know?”

“Cause my hands have told me so.” I looked over in surprise. “Yup, that’s write. She let me grab it once. I think I love this girl. I told her I would carve her name into my arm with a knife, but she didn’t want me to do that.”

“That’s… intense,” I thought, and my eyes flashed back to Stephen.

Daryl was the toughest one to be around. He’s the only one what wouldn’t let me blend in. He pushed and pushed. It was like he had something to prove.

One idle morning, the guys lined up and wanted to see who could throw logs the farthest. They chucked them across a field, trying to hit a far away tree. I stood timid, in the background. When asked if I wanted to throw a log, I simply said ‘no thanks’.

And then Daryl turned to me. “What the hell, Chad, you can’t do anything! What kind of man are you! I’m shorter than you, and I bet I can throw one farther than you! Hell, I bet my dick is bigger than yours, too!”

I didn’t engage. I simply walked away.

Every day, I was becoming more and more aware of how different I was from the other guys. I had no words for it, but it consumed me, those differences. I was unworthy, aberrant, an other. I felt unseen constantly, but also like everyone was constantly staring, noticing every glance and every movement. I wanted to hide, but more than anything, I just wanted to be like them. No one understood. I was an island on my own, sharing space with everyone else who belonged.

I avoided showering for days. There was a big group shower up the hill, an open room like those at community swimming pools. 15 shower heads lined the walls, all pouring hot water from the tank outside. Should I wear a swimsuit in there and claim modesty? Should I wake up extra early and shower before anyone else? I wanted to see the other guys, be part of them, but that was the last thing I wanted as well. What if I got aroused? My body had a mind of its own sometimes.

But on day three, I couldn’t avoid it anymore. I shut down my brain and marched with the troop up the hill to the shower. In the locker room, they all undressed and I kept my eyes fixed tightly on the floor. My heart was pounding. Stephen was right there, and Sam, and the others. And then everyone was naked except me. I wore a bright orange swimming suit as we all walked into the shower together, me doing my best to keep my eyes on the floor.

There were six other boys in the shower, all older kids from another troop. Tall, strong, good-looking guys, all of them naked as well.

One of them noticed me and shouted across the echoing room. “Hey! There are no swimsuits in here!” I looked up at him in surprise. He grabbed his dick and balls in his hand and shook them back and forth. “Welcome to the Ball Show! This is where we see who has the biggest wang and who has the biggest balls! How can you play with a swimsuit on?”

I finished my shower quickly, keeping my head down, never saying anything. Some of the guys in my troop compared penises. A few lobbied teasing remarks to me.

On the hike back down the hill, I mentally flogged myself for not fitting in again. I thought about the other guys, talking about their crushes on Lindsay Lohan and Hillary Duff, about their talks about Becky’s boobs, and Amber’s butt. But I couldn’t say anything. If I talked and was honest, they’d know my crush was on Zach from Saved by the Bell and Wheeler from Captain Planet. They’d know I didn’t like boobs or girls, and instead that I had crushes on Sam, and Stephen, and my algebra teacher, and the neighbor who mowed the lawn with his shirt off, and the wrestler kid in my PE class. I was different and there was no changing that. I would never not be different.

Years later, looking back on this time as an adult, I realized that I wasn’t all that different. I was a typical boy, pumped full of hormones, obsessed with sex jokes and fitting in; I just liked boys instead of girls. But while the other kids were learning how to have crushes, fall in love and lust, be rejected, and fit in with other guys, I was merely learning how to hide everything about myself. The repercussions of this would last a lifetime. For me, and for every other gay kid like me.

BoyScout

Europe, in Reflection

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Someone brought out a stack of family photos and slapped them down on the kitchen table. “Have you looked at these yet? They are from the family vacation to Europe, back in 2001.”

I grabbed the stack of pictures and began leafing through them. My first impression was of how young we all looked. 18 years brings a lot of change. I am 40 now; I was 22 then. My younger sister, Sheri, is now 36; she was 18 then, right out of high school. My father and mother, now 80 and 75, had been 62 and 57.

For Mom and Dad, 18 years brought with it a lot of age and health struggle, graying of the hair and a lowering of the posture. But it also brought new grandchildren and great-grandchildren, new marriages for both of them, new perspectives. Times were changing, and we with them.

And for Sheri and I, 18 years meant finishing college, starting our families, losing weight, leaving Mormonism, and coming out. It meant leaving an old life behind and beginning a new and authentic one. The differences were startling.

I viewed 22-year old me in the photos with kindness and understanding. Chad then was just off his mission and attending an all-Mormon college. He knew he was gay, but he felt he was broken and beyond repair. He was resigned to a Mormon fate of temple marriage and children, never knowing the touch of a man. He had determined he would never be happy because that isn’t what God wanted for him. He held on so tightly to that.

I flipped through these photos and I saw a young man full of ambition, with a clear heart and head, so ready to embrace the big world out there. But his soul and spirit were so locked up. He had bright brown eyes and a careful but happy smile. He had thick hair that curled when it grew long. He wore baggy shorts and tent-like shirts over his Mormon undergarments. He so hoped to be seen by the world around him. He so badly needed the world to notice the space he occupied. He smiled so wide, but was so sad.

Sheri walked up behind me. “Whoa, look at these!” She sat next to me and we laughed about the pictures. I looked over at her now, the skinny, vibrant, blue-eyed, short-haired beauty next to me. She runs now, for health, because she loves it. She watches what she eats. She i married to an incredible woman. She loves herself.

And then I looked down to the Sheri from those old photos. Her hair was longer and parted down he middle, and it hung limply on the sides of her face. She had headphones in, using them to drown out the world around her. She wore baggy clothes, shielding herself in them. Every photo in the series, one after another, showed her glowering at the camera. Not just not smiling, but refusing to smile. She looked so unhappy, so closed off, from everyone around her and from herself. It broke my heart to see the differences.

Sheri gently jostled my arm. “Do you remember that day on the trip when you threatened to punch me in the face? I was so mad at you!” Sheri was looking at the photos and ha mirth in her voice. She was teasing me. But I felt a sharp jab of pain at the memory.

I kept the humor in my voice. “Do you remember the whole story? Do you remember why I said that?”

Sheri shrugged. “I think so. But it definitely wasn’t okay, especially after what we went through with Kent when we were younger.”

Kent was our abusive step-father, the man who had terrorized us when we were teenagers. I felt another jab of pain.

“Okay, hang on. Here’s the story. We are in Europe and everything is fucking beautiful, all  Swiss Alps and Black Forests and ski chalets and cuckoo clocks. And you are all up in your music for days at a time while we sat on the bus for hours. I’d grab your arm and be like ‘look at those mountains!’ and you’d just ignore me. Meanwhile, Mom is back there crying because for some reason she agreed to go on a European vacation for two weeks with the man she has been divorced from for over a decade, and Dad never has a word to say, and I’m all locked up inside like a good little Mormon boy.”

Sheri looked up, a bit defensive. “Hey, I had my own stuff going on!”

“Oh, I know. I’m not saying you didn’t. We both had a lot going on. So no blame. Just setting the picture. I’m in the prettiest place I’ve ever been and I want to share it with someone and you keep ignoring me!”

“Well, I didn’t want to talk to you!”

We both laugh and smile. We are close enough to have conversations like this and have them remain light-hearted.

“Okay, anyway,” I continue, “we were in Austria, and I was really fucking lonely, and I asked if yo would go explore a church with me, and you said no, and I was like, ‘Sheri, please!’ and then you told me to fuck off! And I quote, ‘Fuck off, Chad,’ like so unnecessarily. And I was all Mormon so language super-offended me back then, so I responded with anger. ‘If you ever tell me to fuck off again, I’ll punch you in the face.’ That’s what I said. And of course I didn’t mean it! I could never hit someone! It was just the thing I said to get my point across. And I did, and then I immediately regretted it and apologized, but you ignored me for, what, five more days after that?”

Sheri looked me in the eyes and a bit of shock passed there. All the details came rushing back to her. “Oh. Yeah.” She was quiet a moment. “Well, I ignored you cause you pissed me off!”

“Oh, I deserved it, probably. I was pretentious back then.”

We changed the subject and kept looking at the pictures. My eyes kept switching back and forth between the sad looks on our faces and the amazing scenery. The Eagle’s Nest resort, set in the Alps. Sheri’s headphones. The green rolling hills of Salzburg. My fake smile. The centuries-old Gothic cathedral. Sheri’s glower. The intricate woodcrafting in a local shop. Dad’s stern and sad frown. Flower boxes filled with colorful blossoms on Bavarian homes. Mom’s pain hidden so carefully behind her smiles.

Minutes later, Mike and I walked outside, taking a few hours to ourselves before the big family dinner that evening. I got behind the wheel of the car and closed my eyes briefly. I was shocked to find tears suddenly cascading down my cheeks.

Mike gripped my hand. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. Nothing’s wrong. Just… that conversation with Sheri, remembering who she was, who I was, who we all are now, all that pain in a place of such beauty. I’m just–remembering.

Grieving.

Happy.

Changed.”

 

Sex Education Part 2: And None Will Molest Them…

I loved the hymns. I loved all of the rituals of Mormonism, in fact. Prayers before bed, church every Sunday, fasting and tithing. But the hymns, sitting in the chapel and singing with the Saints on Sundays, they made my heart soar. My family was very musical, all of us, and we would sing loudly in the congregation, harmonizing and singing in all four parts. I loved watching the conductor at the front of the chapel. I loved the piano refrains. I loved tracing the black notes in the hymnals with my eyes.
Now let us rejoice in the day of salvation.
No longer as strangers on earth need we roam.
Good tidings are sounding to us and each nation,
And shortly the hour of redemption will come,
When all that was promised the Saints will be given,
And none will molest them from morn until ev’n,
And earth will appear as the Garden of Eden,
And Jesus will say to all Israel, “Come home.”
I knew very early on of my divine purpose. I was a child of God, with a divine destiny in store. Where much was given, much was required. Because I knew of my godly heritage, I was expected to be obedient and follow all of the rules because I loved God and he loved me. Everything happened for a reason. God saw and heard everything and there was nothing he didn’t know. And if anything bad happened, it was because God had something to teach his children. It all made sense. Perfect sense.
There were a lot of women in my home, and I was often hungry for male attention. I had five sisters and my mom was responsible for most of the parenting. Dad was gone a lot, and always quiet and sad when he was home. That left my brother, Kenny. He was 8 years older, and a bully, constantly teasing me and my little sister, Sheri. We shared a bedroom, and he made it widely known that I was not the kind of brother he wanted around. I was too much of a sissy and I liked girly things.
So far as I can put it all together, I was 5 when the abuse started, and I think I was around 8 when it ended. My memories of this time remain fractured. As with all survivors of trauma, my memories are sharp and clear on certain things, and completely blank on others. I write this at the age of 40, and it still brings back dark shameful painful yucky feelings to consider what happened. My family also remains extremely uncomfortable with me talking about it. So I won’t be overly specific, I’ll simply talk about the experience itself.
Kenny, who was in some ways a child himself (though the older he got, the harder it is to use the excuse, and, again, I was only 5), he used the typical tactics of all abusers. There was grooming. He made the abuse feel like a reward for good behavior and deeds. If I helped with his chores, we could go up to our room and spend quality time together. I was warned not to tell anyone. I was given instructions while at school to think up new games we could play together. At times, when I tried to initiate encounters between us, he would shove me aside and embarrass me if he wasn’t in the mood. It was sometimes frequent, sometimes infrequent, and I kept it silent for a very very long time.
As I look back, I think that I thought of it almost like a game. As I process memories not related to the abuse, they are otherwise very normal. Family dinners, spelling bees, swimming lessons, Christmas mornings. My brain hones in on very specific instances and the things that happened, and then there are big gaps. There may have been weeks or months when the abuse didn’t happen at all, and there were times when it was frequent. I don’t know exactly how it started, and I don’t know exactly how it stopped.
I do now that by the time I was baptized at the age of 8, I knew far too much about the male body and how it worked. I still had a lot of innocence, but I knew about masturbation, and intercourse, and orgasm. I knew about sexual shame and secret keeping. And so, that day when my dad dipped me beneath the water and declared I was without sin, that day when I was wearing white, I didn’t realize how deep the darkness within me was. I had no idea how far the roots of pain and confusion had spread.
First there was the awareness that I was different, something I ultimately learned to mean I was gay. And then there was the abuse. And those two things in conjunction with the messages I received about God and divine destiny created deep wells of confusion within me. I developed an understanding that I was designed wrong, that there was something inherently flawed within me. And that deep pain, it was with me during all of those normal moments of childhood. Through the chores, the stories I wrote in notebooks, the playing with friends at recess. It was there on summer vacations, and in Cub Scout activities. It was there when I made friends with boys and girls, when my oldest siblings moved out of the house, and when one of our dogs was hit by a car.
I learned to put on a happy face. It was genuine. I was a happy kid. I was kind and compassionate, I cared about others, I loved learning about animals. All those parts of me were real. But they also became the parts that I learned to show the world while I kept the rest secret. It’s what was expected. It’s what Kenny taught me to do, but I’d learned to hide my differences even before that.
Years later, as an adult, I would look back at these early photos of me, and see an innocent kid. I was the perfect target. I was eager to please, accommodating, happy, easy to manipulate. I kept confidences. I was hungry for attention. And I was in a busy household where it was hard to notice if one kid was going through hard times, especially if he was quiet about it. And above all else, he had easy access to me. I was right there, one bed away, right behind closed doors.
I turned 8, and Kenny turned 16. He started drinking more, and he got a job, and he cycled through girlfriends. And I had no idea how unhappy mom and dad were, they were good at keeping their own secrets. But by the time I was 11, they would split up and we would move across the country, away from Kenny and dad and my childhood home.
And then adolescence began. And suddenly being different from everyone wasn’t okay anymore. I would only become more aware of it with every passing day.
Jesus

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.

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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.

Inner Dialogue

I’ve been working on mindfulness lately. Slowing the world down. I’ve been practicing this for years, and I still have more work to do. Lately, my meditation has been all about inward body monitoring. Breathe, focus, calm, and a focus on what is happening under my eyelids, or against the lining of my stomach; picking out sore spots in my back, slowly and deliberately; feeling where cloth is touching my skin and how that is distinct from the air. It’s powerful work, and it brings a calm I couldn’t have anticipated.

Mindfulness is applied to other areas of my life as well. Mindfulness in the way I’m spending money. Mindfulness in the types of food I’m choosing to eat, and when. Mindfulness in how I spend time with my children, in the way I exercise, in how I read books, in how I spend my mornings. I know the difference between peace and discord, and I’m ever striving toward peace. Accountability. Integrity.

This morning, I put mindfulness in a new and unexpected direction. I lent it toward the inner, critical dialogue, the one that seems to play on autopilot during moments of vulnerability. In the last few years, I’ve worked to silence that voice. It runs so far in the background now. But I found it sparking up while I was exercising, and I paid attention to it, from a non-judgmental space. I just observed it there, from deep down inside me. And the moment I allowed it to speak, I realized it wouldn’t shut up. I realized it never has.

I was stretching on a yoga mat at the gym. I was in a black tank top and orange camouflage shorts, and I had on long Wonder Woman socks, a pair given to me as a gift recently. My phone and my library book, a collection of letters that I planned to read between sets, sat on the floor next to me. It was a quieter day at the gym, only 6:45 am, but the morning regulars were there, walking around, gabbing, listening to music, lifting weights. A blonde woman kept slamming a ball on the floor and I could feel the tremors beneath me. All the way across the gym, a man was dropping heavy weights on the floor as he grunted loudly, and I could hear the crash every time. Obnoxious 90s rap music played. The wind was blowing outside. I was hungry, and sore, and still sleepy.

A gym regular walked past, one I used to have a crush on years ago. I remembered asking him out a few times a few years back and he’d never responded one way or the other, reacting with ambivalence and a shrug. I remembered feeling, back then, like I wasn’t good enough to get his attention. He was younger, fitter, and must have his pick of men, I told myself. Or maybe I was intimidating. Or maybe too old, too out of shape, too talkative. Maybe my teeth weren’t straight enough. Or maybe he just wasn’t interested. Then again, he hadn’t answered at all, so maybe I wasn’t even interested in the first place. Maybe I’d been desperate. Maybe it had just been a passing crush. Maybe if I’d gotten to know him, I wouldn’t have been interested at all.

And, in fact, I wasn’t interested. Not now. I’ve been with a man I love very much for the last two years. And yet those feelings were still there, deep down, that old dialogue. The ones that spoke to insecurity, confusion, harsh self-criticism. The ones that told me I was never good enough. The ones that tried to make sense of the world as I understood it and why I never seemed to fit in. The ones I grew up with. Instead of silencing them, I spend some time with them. Safely. I observed them as I let that narrative continue. I closed my eyes as I did sit-ups and planks and twists. It was easy to give it voice. I’d spent so long there, so long, so many years.

Does he notice me now, I thought. Does he see me. If I asked him why he’d never been interested, what would he say. If I were to ask him why he never responded back then, what would he say, how would he respond. I found my internal self playing out some form of the conversation in my brain. You were too needy back then, he might say. Or maybe he might say that if I looked then like I do now, more fit and focused on myself, maybe he would have been interested. What would I have said back, I wondered. Would I have told him to fuck off, that he should have gotten to know me back then, that I was worth his time then and now I wasn’t sure he was worth mine. Would I walk away with head held high, would I gush, feel confused, brag about how happy I am now. How would I respond. Of course he wasn’t interested, of course. You were insecure, you never measured up, you had children, you were in debt, your teeth weren’t straight, you’d been married, you waited too long to come out of the closet, you didn’t love yourself enough.

Guh. I sat up on the mat and took a long inward breath. That inner dialogue. Playing out these shame scenarios that would never happen and that I wouldn’t want to happen in the first place. Listening to those inner voices, the ones I had grown up with for so long, the ones that had infected my head for all of those years. The constant measuring, the never being enough, the endless comparisons. I wasn’t that person any more. My way free had been hard fought and hard won. It had taken effort, therapy, soul-searching. I had a healthy spirituality now, and I liked myself. I didn’t give a shit what people thought anymore, not in most cases. But if I gave it voice, it was all still there, deep down, all still present. The old wounds, the old heavy spaces, still there. A part of the old me, deep down, needing to be channeled just once in a while.

And then I found comfort. I found peace with the me that was, and the me that is. And I found comfort in the old parts of me being integrated into these new parts of me, with peace and space. Inner child, closeted Mormon, repressed father, all of those pieces from my past were still there, part of this new independent me. I could learn from them. I could listen and be okay.

I got up, walked past my old gym crush, thought of my happy little family now, and grabbed some free weights, ready to get to work.

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Naked, with grace

“When was the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror, naked?”

My friend giggled, perhaps embarrassed that I’d said the word naked in a public coffee shop. “This morning.”

“All right. And what did you think when you looked?”

She raised an eyebrow in confusion. “I don’t think I did think about it. I mean, I saw my reflection, but I didn’t really look. I just did my hair, put on my make-up, got dressed.”

I sipped my coffee. “Okay, let me try again. When is the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror naked?”

She wrinkled her nose. “Oh, God, not only do I not know, I don’t think I want to do that.”

“Why?”

“Cause ew.”

Now it was my turn to laugh? “Ew? You’re so profound.”

“I don’t want to see that!”

“And yet you see it every day.”

“But like, I don’t want to see see me naked!”

“Hmm.” I responded.

“Oh stop it!” She flashed me her death glare from across the table. “I hate when you do that thing where you act like you are in a therapy session and you want the client to reveal something about themselves through your casual observance.”

I wiggled my eyebrows. “When I do that, how does it make you feel?”

She laughed louder. “Stop it!”

“I’m not your therapist. But I am therapist. How does that make you feel?” We both laughed again. “Okay, but honestly, as your best friend, can I just say that if the thought of looking at yourself naked makes you say ‘ew’, what kind of energy does that put out there into the world? How does that influence how you think men see you, or your own self-confidence and energy?”

Her eyes narrowed, playfully, but I could tell she was thinking that through. “I hate you so much. Okay, Mister Therapist, when is the last time you looked at yourself naked?”

I non-chalantly sipped. “This morning.”

She laughed. “Oh fuck you. And how did that make you feel?”

“Well that’s why I brought it up.” We both laughed, and then I grew serious, sober. “Okay, so first it dawned on me, historically I have never given myself a good look. I’ve avoided looking. And most my life, I’ve just been hard on myself, like feeling ashamed about how I look naked, but also not wanting to look at myself naked because then I would have to feel ashamed. Does that make sense?”

“Oh my God, yes. But I think you just described everyone, ever.”

“And, like, what does that say about me? It’s just easier not to look, so I just won’t look? Because if I do, I might be ashamed? That’s gross! I hate thinking that way. So I gave myself a good look this morning. And my very first impulse would be to be super hard on myself. I have a few inches around my stomach. Like I’m strong, but I have fat deposits there, and they are jiggly, and there is some extra skin there from when I used to be fat. And when I turn around, I can see where my spine curves, and my ass only looks great if I stand at just the right angle. My feet are flat. There is a space next to my chest by my armpits where there is just some skin there and it doesn’t look like I’d want it to ideally look. And I have grey on my temples.”

She stared at me. “Okay, I know I’m married and straight, and I know you’re gay, but you know how much I love the gray on your temples. You’re giving me all the right daddy vibes.” We both laughed. “And to hear that you are being that tough on yourself, when I look at you and think you are super hot, it pisses me off.”

“Yes! Me too! It pisses me off! Also, thank you! I am super hot!” More laughter. “But isn’t that what you’d do, automatically see the flaws when you’d loo? If you’d look?”

She bit her lip. “All right. I’ve had kids. I’d see stomach fat, and stretch marks, and my boobs would be saggy because I’ve breastfed kids. And I’m sure I wouldn’t like the rest. This sucks, I don’t want to talk about it.”

I gripped her hand. “And so whenever your husband sees you naked, you just assume he’s going to look at those things, or that he will just purposefully look past them. Like you’d be mad if he noticed, but you’d also feel ashamed. Like self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Yes! Yes! Okay! You made your point!”

I laughed again and winked. “I haven’t even started to make my point yet. I feel the same way! Like all this body shame that I want to avoid thinking about! And I have those same expectations from my boyfriend cause he basically looks perfect naked.”

“So does my husband! Damn we have good taste in men!”

“Or they have great taste in us!” I countered, and we laughed again.

She laughed harder. “I fucking love you.”

“I fucking love you!” I countered. But then I sobered a bit. “Have you ever gotten angry with your husband for not loving you in a particular way? Like you inherently expect him to see past your insecurity and just make you feeling fucking beautiful. And you’re hurt and angry when he doesn’t. Like because he doesn’t make all your pain go away, then he needs to be punished.”

She glared. “You already said that. Well, kind of.”

“Hey! I’m processing here! And do you ever find yourself resenting someone who you think looks great, and you are mad at them because they have some sort of insecurity? Like I have this friend who has literally done underwear modeling, and I saw him once and told him he looked incredible and he was like ‘don’t say that, not today. I don’t feel good about myself’ and my natural instinct was to be like ‘fuck you! you aren’t allowed to be insecure when you look that good! Only I get to be insecure!’ but instead I was like ‘oh man, I’m sorry you are having a tough day’. And he actually gave me a hug and said ‘thank you for letting me be human and have insecurity for a second. No one lets me do that.’ Like am I the only one allowed to be insecure? It’s an actual human trait. We all experience it. And we waste all of this time and money on shitty behavior that we think will make us feel better because we aren’t at some standard of beauty that society has branded into us! We can only be successful if we are this particular definition of hot!”

“Okay, now you are just ranting. So what is the point of all this?”

I took a deep breath. “So this morning, instead I tried the opposite. Looked at myself in the mirror with grace instead of judgment. I was… kind. I thought of all the time I’m spending in the gym. I looked at my massive arms, my thick shoulders, my back, my muscular legs and calves, my ass, my stomach, my smile. And instead of feeling ‘ew’ I felt… happy. I felt driven. I felt like I wanted to eat healthy and exercise and see what I’m capable of. I thought of how my partner sees the best parts of me, so why would I see the worst parts? Why would I waste time either not looking, or just hating what I saw? Why would I do that?”

And then I leveled my gaze. “And why would you? You’re gorgeous!”

We talked about our naked selves for a while, laughing and connecting, because that is the kind of friends we are. We smiled. We discussed loving ourselves, with grace, not with judgment. We talked about how we want to raise our kids to do the same, and then laughed about how we can definitely not talk to our kids about nakedness cause that’s weird. But then we talked about wanting to use grace more, with all the parts of our lives. About our jobs, and our friendships, about our writing and our families. About our personal journeys. We talked about using grace and not shame as a way to motivate ourselves, to find love and self-acceptance. We talked about how confidence is the very sexiest thing.

Because if we can’t look at ourselves naked, how can we expect anyone else to?