the Locker Room

 

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“My back hurts. I can’t go to gym today. Here’s my doctor’s note.”

The gym teacher looked at me with unfeigned frustration as he considered the note. He was a large man, one who also taught the history class in ninth grade, and he generally seemed bored at his job. I also took history from him, and he seemed bored there, too. (In fact, we had counted during the semester the times he had simply shown a movie to the class instead of actually teaching, and he had shown us the same Michael Jordan special seven times during the year).

The other gym teacher in the school was a very attractive man, and I was relieved he wasn’t the head of my class. I was already distracted by handsome teachers in Algebra and Band, and I hardly needed more distractions.

“So you are saying you can’t participate in class activities?”

I shrugged awkwardly. “Depends on the activity. I can probably do, like, volleyball. But maybe not, like, running and stuff.”

“Well I guess you get to spend an hour doing homework or fitzing around while everyone else exercises. Have fun with that.” He tucked the note into the back of his teacher’s folder, breathing out hard from his nose with frustration. “But for today, we are working on stretches and a bit of lecture. Think you can handle that? Go ahead and dress down.”

I swallowed, embarrassed and a little ashamed. I wondered if the teacher was calling my bluff. My diagnosis of scoliosis was legitimate, as was my back pain, but I had been participating in P.E. class for months prior to this doctor’s note. Now I was looking for a way out of P.E., claiming, with a doctor’s support, that I wasn’t able to do physical activities. I had never been one to push my physical limits in class, but I had always been willing. And now I wasn’t.

But I wasn’t sure how to talk to him about it, how to talk to anyone about it. I was 16 now and things at home were rough, with my step-father’s constant anger and occasional violence, and things felt even worse on the inside. I had thought that once I started dating, maybe my attractions to men would diminish, but they hadn’t. In fact, they had maybe grown worse. I was attracted to my guy friends, to guys who walked by, to guys on television, and I was exhausted by pretending I was attracted to girls, and sick of mentally beating myself up for being distracted by guys.

And now here was the locker room. I hated the locker room. I didn’t fit in with other guys, who talked about sports and girls. And I was attracted to many of them and here they were getting undressed and I was afraid of getting aroused or of getting noticed stealing a glance. And I wasn’t comfortable in my own body, being less athletic than the other guys around me. The locker room tended to expose every insecurity I had, and left me beating myself up for hours afterward. I hated that it was part of school. I could avoid the group shower, but I couldn’t avoid changing.

I stepped in to the locker room and walked directly over to my assigned space. Tuning out distraction around me, I opened the locker and began to change, unbuttoning my shirt and sliding on my gym shirt. Immediately to my right, I saw David pull his jeans and underwear off, and I turned to avoid looking. On the other side, Eddie looked perfect and toned shirtless, and I turned to look back at the locker, containing my frustration. It was impossible not to be distracted in here.

I quickly slid off my jeans, then felt Scott, another guy in my class, flick his towel against my leg, seemingly aiming for my butt.

“Nice tighty whities, Chad!”

I turned to roll my eyes at him, then noticed that David was now completely naked, and was in very good shape. My eyes lingered a bit too long, then I forced them down on the floor. I then forced myself to look back up at Scott, swearing at myself internally. They’re gonna notice that you looked at David. They are gonna notice that you looked at the floor. They are gonna notice that you aren’t joking around with Scott back. Damn it, David is right there. Don’t look or you’ll get aroused and they will for sure notice that.

“Yeah, like yours are any better,” I quipped lamely, and Scott laughed, turning back at his locker.

I turned back to mine again, purposefully avoiding looking at David, who was still naked (damn it! get dressed!), then I swiftly pulled up my shorts, then sat down to put on my shoes. Eddie was dropping his shorts to change them, and across the room an obese kid was putting his arms behind his back and making his stomach shake to make a few people laugh. As someone called him a name, two other guys were talking about the girls they were planning on getting with that weekend while they changed.

I tied my shoes and saw that David was finally putting on his shorts, and I snuck one last glance before grabbing my stuff, closing my locker, and rushing out of the room.

Tomorrow, no matter what the activity in class was, I planned to have a bad back pain day. I needed to not be in that locker room again so soon. If that didn’t work, maybe I could find another place to change, but then everyone would notice. Maybe I should ask a girl out for this weekend so that I would have something to talk about in the locker room on Monday, that would make it easier.

The coach lined us up for stretches, and I got placed between David and Eddie, and as class begin, I did my best not to picture them naked and began singing religious hymns in my head instead. My thoughts were straying and later I would have some repenting to do.

 

the rated R movie

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“Mom, do you realize we are paying for poison to come into our home each night?”

My mom looked over, confused, her hands deep in dishwater. It was only 7 am. “What do you mean by poison, Chad?”

I stood nervous, almost shaking, feeling abjectly ashamed of myself. I was just out of the shower and dressed for school, in jeans and a striped t-shirt, and my hair was still wet. I’d been mentally flogging myself in the shower, telling myself I was horrible and evil, and I’d come rushing up the stairs to talk to my mom about it as best I could.

“We–we are paying for a monthly subscription to HBO,” I explained. “It is constantly streaming evil content. Bad things. Sexual situations. Mom, it shows moves that are rated R!”

She pulled her hands from the water, drying them on a towel. “Well, yes, but only late at night.”

I nodded, shutting my eyes tight and feeling fresh tears on my cheeks. “Yes, but I have a TV right there in my room. I wake up at night and I’m tempted. I have pictures of the Savior on my bedroom wall, but there is a TV right there, and I just know that if I turn it on, it will have sexual content on it. It’s far too tempting, Mom! I’m being a good Priesthood holder, at least I’m trying, but I’m constantly tempted! And we are paying for that filth to come into our home!”

Mom placed a hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eyes. “That’s a good point. I hadn’t really thought of it that way.”

“We are paying for it!” I repeated again, with more emphasis.

“Okay, okay.” She gave me a hug. “You’re a good son, Chad. Let me talk to your step-father about this. He’s the one who uses HBO the most.”

I pulled away, still panicking. “If we can’t get rid of it, can we put some sort of password on it? Or–or maybe I just need to get rid of my television so I won’t be tempted.”

Mom assured me again that she would talk to Kent about it, and then told me she appreciated me for talking to her about it. Then it was time to catch the bus.

I was 15 years old. I was a teacher of the Aaronic Priesthood in my local Mormon ward in Idaho. I was paying my tithing, going to church, and reading my scriptures, plus I was saving up money for my mission, but from time to time I just gave into temptation. My friends would joke about watching shows like Baywatch or Strip Poker on MTV, where they could see hot girls in bikinis, and I chided them for it, saying they were inviting spirits of temptation into their homes. But I was much worse. I was a hypocrite. I would stay up late to watch girls who weren’t in bikinis, and, even more, watch the guys who would get naked with them.

I didn’t dare tell anyone about the rated R movies, and I definitely didn’t dare tell anyone about how I liked to watch the guys. Guys my age couldn’t stop talking about boobs, but I couldn’t get my mind of good-looking shirtless men. When I got distracted from being religious, these handsome men would consume my thoughts. I had a secret video tape in my bedroom where I had used the VCR to record guys on various shows who had their shirts off, like Billy from Melrose Place and Eric from the Grind. Watching this tape felt naughty and sinful, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the HBO shows, where the men would be shown in sexual situations, and it would usually show their butts too, and that filled my thoughts in a different way. It was arousing and heady, and would almost always lead to masturbation. But then I would be overcome with a sense of deep and abiding shame. I hated myself for giving in to temptation. I knew it was normal for teenagers, but I wasn’t supposed to be a normal teen. I was supposed to be better.

The first naked butt I could ever remember seeing was on the movie Dances With Wolves. For just a few seconds, Kevin Costner’s character had his butt exposed, and I couldn’t stop staring. I’d asked for the movie for Christmas that year, and sometimes when my parents were gone, I would just fast-forward it to that scene and push pause. Later, I’d fantasize about him, and then immediately feel terrible afterward again.

I’d learned about masturbation from a Mormon bishop when I was 12. In an interview about worthiness, he’d asked me if I obeyed the law of chastity, and I’d had to ask what it was. He then told me about masturbation. And so I’d gone home and tried it. Now, at 15, I felt horny almost all of the time, but couldn’t tell anyone about it, so I just pretended it wasn’t happening and focused on the church and its teachings.

I was lonely a lot. I was too young to date girls then, but it was guys I couldn’t stop thinking about. I wanted friends to have sleepovers constantly just so I could be close to other guys. It was exciting, even though we never did anything, and sometimes I would make suggestions that we play truth-or-dare or strip poker, but the other guys never seemed interested in it. And a few times, when friend slept over, we would turn on HBO together, watching briefly, and there would be a moment when I could tell we were both aroused, but we never did anything about it. I was alway so scared of them noticing, yet also scared that the wouldn’t notice. If any of my friends had been interested in cuddling, kissing, strip poker, or fooling around, I wasn’t sure I would be able to resist. I wanted that more than anything, and there was nothing I was more scared of.

We didn’t really talk about HBO again. Kent refused to get rid of it. I tried hard to avoid temptation, but I’d give in from time to time. And after one night of seeing a rated R movie, I scheduled an appointment with the bishop, and in that appointment, I told him I was attracted to men and that I struggled with masturbation. In response, he gave me a book called the Miracle of Forgiveness, one that would teach me to repent, and one that taught how to cure homosexuality. More than anything, the book taught me to lock up all the parts of me that were gay and never show them to anyone ever again.

After that, I didn’t struggle much with rated R movies. I didn’t need them anymore. The family had just purchased monthly access to the internet through America Online. 

a room full of gay Mormon fathers

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I should have been nervous. There was something poetic about the entire thing.

When I had first come out of the closet five years ago and moved to Utah, my friends Troy and Ryan, two gay fathers who had been together for years and had raised their kids together, offered me a place to stay in their basement for a time. My first two painful and liberating months in Utah had been spent here before I got a place of my own.

And now I stood in the same basement, a place I hadn’t been back to since I left it, and I was talking about my experiences with a room full of gay fathers.

I looked around the room at these men, all of them Mormon, or formerly Mormon, like me; all of them fathers who had been married to women, like me, though I only have two children and some of these men have five or seven or ten. Some were just barely out to themselves, some had just told their wives, some had just moved out on their own, and some had been out for a few years but still sought fellowship. Men in their 20s all the way up to their 70s.

I took myself back to that place in my mind, when the pain had been so raw and real, when even a conversation with someone about being gay brought me solace. All those years of silence, suffering on my own, just knowing that no one would understand. All those years with secrets. All those years desiring to come out of the closet and so very afraid that if I did, the consequences for my family and my loved ones would be devastating. Imagine telling the spouse you’ve built a life with that you are gay. I took time to remember the difficult months after my big announcement, and how it redefined every relationship in my life, and how I had to learn how to feel and have friends and to see the world with new eyes. It had all been so raw.

I’ve shared my story widely at this point, hundreds of times, to groups of students, to peers, on my blog, to friends, to men I’ve tried dating. And it’s difficult to understand if you didn’t grow up Mormon. Yet these men sitting and standing before me, dozens of them, they are all in the same place that I was just a few years ago.

And so we talked. I shared my story, and the story of nearly all the gay people I know. We talked about growing up and realizing you are different from others, learning how to blend in and hide by forming a secret self deep down within to cope. We talked about wasted efforts in curing a condition that can’t be cured by begging God for it and being great and stalwart Mormon men. We talked our decisions to marry women, and how that had been the only option. We talked about being let down by our religion, and about being fathers. We talked about the risks and benefits of coming out, how it would affect our primary relationships. We talked about hurting our loved ones when we didn’t mean to. We talked about navigating separation and divorce and how to be kind and fair at the same time. We talked about coming out to our children, our parents, our friends. We talked about the differences between guilt and shame, and how only guilt is healthy for we are all of us individuals with worth. We talked about integrity, and how lying to ourselves can be just as damaging as lying to others. We talked about spirituality, and embracing the things in our life that bring us peace, even if that means leaving the religion. We talked about hope, and love, and faith, and sex. We talked about the difficult process of facing puberty emotions as adults, because we never went through it as teens. We talked about heartbreak and sadness and joy and elation. We talked about how coming out did not not make life magically easy, but how it did make life so much more vibrant and wonderful. We talked about the history of religion and culture and policy and how they have influenced our heritages and histories. And we talked about the wonderful, delicious, and painful cost of authenticity.

After the presentation ended, many of the men approached me one on one with questions. “How do I tell my children that I’m gay when my wife thinks I’m evil?” “My mom told me it would have been easier for me to die in a car accident than to be gay. How can I ever forgive her?” “My church leaders think I’m being selfish. They say that the peace and acceptance I find among gay men is me being influenced by the devil.” “How can I choose between the life I have created with my family, my wife and children, and one that means I’m gay and single and divorced? How can I do that?” “I thought it was supposed to get easier. Why does it hurt so much?”

And then we broke for lunch. We talked, and laughed, and shared with each other.

As I left, a hundred stories from my own journey came to mind. All the love I received after coming out, and the 20 or so times people reacted really terribly and painfully. I thought of the people in my life, the love that I feel for myself and my sons and my friends. I thought of how Megan (my ex-wife) and I are so much happier now, but how we had to go through those hard times first.

And as I drove away, tears rolled down my cheeks, for these men and for their wives and children and families, and for myself. And I looked to the horizon, ready for all of the joy and love and integrity and authenticity ahead.

Ah, look at all the lonely people

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I remember a year or so after coming out of the closet, getting caught in the middle of a group of men who were all in pain and causing so much drama, rather like a bad episode of Melrose Place where everyone loves everyone else and everyone is both a hero and a villain… and I remember absolutely loving the feeling.

It was a typical Saturday night in Salt Lake City and a few friends and I decided to go out dancing together. It was March, a beautiful spring evening. We loaded the car up with five of us, all friends of mine, and though the other four knew each other, I was the common factor among them; none of them knew each other well. So there we were, five gay men in our 30s, all of us formerly Mormon, ready to go out for a night on the town. None of us were in the mood to drink alcohol, so we planned to just go dance our asses of at the local gay club. We got their around 10 pm so as to avoid cover charges, though we all knew the club didn’t get busy until 11:30.

There were only ten other people in the club that night when we arrived. Versions of popular songs by various artists played, each with a techno beat and a loud bass line, and we spent our evening dancing around then heading out to the patio to talk, back and forth. The club got more and more busy throughout the night and overall we had a good time. But oh the drama that developed.

Friend A tried flirting with and dancing with friend B a few times, but when B, who recently had a breakup, wasn’t interested, A found a mutual friend of both of theirs and made out with him for a while on the dance floor, making sure B could see. B pulled me to the side to confide in me and that is when his ex walked in, arm in arm with another guy, and then B wanted to make the ex jealous and danced with another guy, which made A furious.

Friend C was sad that night, feeling like he would never meet anyone and fall in love ever, and friend D tried consoling him, but C left the club without telling anyone and went for a long contemplative walk during which he ignored our texts, only to return when we were ready to go looking for him. D was relaxed and enjoying himself, much as I was trying to do, but at the end of the night, he ended up going home with A, leading B to get even more disgusted with A and C to ruminate on how he didn’t even get flirted with.

I remember laying in my bed that night with a giant smile on my face. Though the evening had been stressful and not as relaxing as I had hoped, I had the incredible sense of power and comfort that I actually had friends, drama and heartbreak included. I had spent so many years without true friends, without experiences like this, that to suddenly have that in my life felt like such a wonderful blessing. I remember rolling over in my bed that night, feeling wonderful and a having a general sense of ‘okay, this is what it is like to be single and gay in Utah, even for a guy in his 30s. Some day soon, I’ll meet somebody and be in a relationship and…’ I drifted off to sleep.

That was over three years ago, and the novelty of being single has long worn off. Just a few nights ago, I had a group of friends over, and I love being surrounded by people I care about. Some of them are partnered and they cuddled next to their partners, hands clutched tight. Others looked across the room at the person they have a crush on or used to have a crush on. Others chatted on their phones with the boys they hoped to date next. At the end of the night, I checked on my sleeping sons, tucked them in tightly, kissed their foreheads, and climbed into bed. I no longer go to sleep thinking I’ll meet someone soon. Instead, I just go to sleep.

It took me a long time to understand the psychology of being gay, and it is intensely complex, as all human psychology is. Simply put, human beings go through active brain development from birth until approximately the age of 25. In the beginning, the brain pathways are forming enormously fast, using the blueprints of DNA, or nature, and coding them with the development of experience, or nurture. The first few years of active development turn into the slightly slower development of learning and relationship formation, which then meld into adolescence and hormones, and finally into adulthood. Many of the developments happen at particular ages, such as the early building blocks of language and motor skills. When something happens to interrupt that learning process, personality can be impacted long-term, lasting throughout the life span. For example, if a young girl is abandoned by her father, she may grow up having difficulty trusting members of the opposite sex, and that aspect of her personality will show up in different interactions in different ways throughout her life span. There are volumes and volumes written on this topic and I can only cover these thoughts briefly here.

Now most kids recognize an attraction or interest in the opposite gender relatively early on. It might be as early as first grade or even younger when they start having ‘crushes’ on kids, and it is only a few years later when sexual interest and attraction develop. For most gay kids, they develop an understanding that their attraction to the same gender is wrong, it makes them different from other kids, and they learn a coping mechanism to deal with it; they hide it, suppress it, or ignore it, even as young children. So a few years later, when sexual interest develops, heterosexual Janie gets a crush on heterosexual Charlie and they go out and kiss and break up and she cries over her heartbreak and falls in love all over again with Sam just a few months later, and her brain, at age 13 or 14 or 15, learns how to process this and handle it. But homosexual Linda has a crush on heterosexual Sally, and she can’t tell anyone, so Linda instead pretends to have a crush on heterosexual Bobby, and she never learns how to love, or be loved back, or to have her heart broken, or to get over it, and instead she only learns how to hide.

Now for many gay men and women who grew up in religious environments, such as Mormonism in Utah, there is the additional damage that comes from growing up believing that their homosexuality was a curse from God, an affliction like alcoholism, and/or entirely curable through therapy or faithfulness. Coming out of the closet often results in a loss of faith, rejection by religion and family, and a loss of community.

Now, fast forward to five gay men in their 30s at a nightclub in March, having their hearts broken, feeling rejected, feeling like they are doomed to be lonely forever. Suddenly, those lessons that most of the straight kids learned when they were 13, the gay grown-ups have to learn while they hold grown-up jobs and grown-up relationships. And some of them, like me, have kids to raise. And it is difficult and painful and there is so much at stake.

I can’t tell you the dozens of men and women I know who turn down love because they think they don’t deserve it; who value sex more than they value relationships; who fall in love but run from it because they think they are settling too quickly and maybe there is something better out there; who grow despondent and depressed because the person they like doesn’t like them back; who grow jaded and bitter toward those who don’t have the same values and motivations that they do; who isolate themselves or cry themselves to sleep or think that loneliness is the only long-term option. And these are the people, these often damaged and in pain individuals, who are dating each other and looking to each other for their own loneliness to be filled up and taken away.

Coming out of the closet and experiencing the authenticity of self is a powerful and incredible thing. After so many years of hiding, it is wonderful to have a clear head and a full heart, like coming up for oxygen after years of holding breath. It is also intensely confusing and painful. You have to learn to experience not just happiness, attraction, and fulfillment, you have to learn how to process shame, desire, rejection, and confusion. There’s no easy way through it. Friends help, therapy can help, journaling can help, a supportive family can help. But ultimately it is a path that simply must be taken and a journey that must simply be experienced.

My only advice for those going through this part of the journey to authenticity is to be kind to yourself, to take it one day at a time, to surround yourself with people who love and validate you, and to know what you are looking for so that when you find it, you are prepared to embrace it, work for it, and be happy and alive.