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.

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The Sexy Cop at Gay Christmas

“Maybe I could actually pull this off,” I told myself, surveying my costume in the mirror.

I’d purchased a “sexy cop” costume for forty dollars at a local costume shop. It came in a small compact plastic back that fastened together with a small snap, like one you’d find on a pair of jeans. When I got home, I opened the back up to look at its contents. A police cap of cheap material with a plastic bill. A small vest that would fit over my shoulders but leave my chest and abdomen exposed. An armband that would go around my bicep, one that read Sheriff on it. A pair of black leather briefs with a zipper along the front. A silver star to pin on the vest, like something my kids might be handed by a cop at a family parade. And finally, a small plastic nightstick, 1920s/Keystone Cops style, one I could twirl around like a baton or perhaps slap against my own hand for emphasis.

I looked at myself in the mirror, turning this way and that. My chest looked good. My arms looked great, especially with that little band to emphasize the definition. My legs were strong. I turned and felt like my ass looked nice as well. Turning back, I realized the zipper over the crotch was a nice touch, kind of left the imagination working. And while I wasn’t super proud of my abdomen, I figured I could just kind of keep my gut sucked in all night at whatever party I was going to and just see how it turned out.

This was my third Halloween since coming out of the closet. I was 34 years old, and while I hadn’t quite achieved the type of body I hoped for, I was in great shape for me. Somewhere along the way, I learned to quit caring what other guys thought about me. I mean, either they were into me or they weren’t. I wasn’t for everyone, nor was everyone for me, and that was fine. I liked my body, especially given the fact that I’d weighed 80 pounds more just a few years before. But still, this was Halloween, and I was going to be wearing a ‘sexy’ costume for the first time, and I didn’t have a ton of body confidence. “Maybe I can’t pull this off,” I muttered, changing back into my regular clothes.

When I first came out, a friend jokingly told me that Halloween was kind of a ‘gay Christmas’, meaning that gay men took it very seriously and went all out. I’d known growing up that there were all kinds of ‘sexy’ costumes for women. But I had no idea how seriously gay men treated this idea of ‘sexy’ costumes. I spent Halloween in 2011 at a gay club called Jam. I wore a costume, something simple and not at all sexy, I think I was a 1930s mobster guy, and I went out dancing with friends that night, and I’d been astounded at the costumes. Sexy Mario? A guy wore a red hat with an M on it, a fake moustache, and a red jockstrap that literally left his ass hanging out. That was it. Sexy Tarzan? A super buff guy in a loincloth, under which he wore nothing. I know because I saw him lift the loincloth several times to show people. Sexy Angel Moroni? A lean, muscled guy who basically wore a diaper, painted himself gold, and carried a plastic trumpet. Man, it really was gay Christmas.

So was I sexy enough to pull off a sexy cop costume? Or should I go back to a more traditional costume, something that covered my body? Ugh. I had to try it. I’d been invited to two Halloween parties, and dagnabit, I was going as a sexy cop.

I showed the costume to a female friend, and she fully encouraged me to go for it. I asked what she was going to be that year: a sexy cat, a sexy witch, a sexy nurse perhaps? She laughed and said she was far too feminist for that. When I suggested she should try maybe a sexy suffragette, or maybe a sexy Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and she was not amused.

The first party was on a Saturday afternoon. I went in a bit nervous but confident. My best friend Kurt was there, and as I exited the bathroom in my costume, he threw his head back and laughed with joy. “Yes! You did it! And check you out, you sexy, sexy man!” I blushed as others from the party came to look, and I ended up getting plenty of attention that night. I spent the evening snacking, having a few glasses of wine, and feeling a little bit shy as I fended off veiled comments about the nightstick and the handcuffs. And then, at the end of the evening, there was a vote for various costume categories, with prizes awarded at the end. Funniest, most original, etc. And guess who won the sexiest costume award? The hot cop. That’s right, this guy. Maybe it didn’t matter that I was the youngest person in the room by at least 11 years, I still got the award, and it was a nice ego boost. (When you’re a gay dad with young kids, and you have a lot of gay dad friends with older kids, well, this wasn’t so unlikely).

But the next party, that would be the real test. It was a huge house party, with an expected 150 people going. This was a younger crowd, full of athletes and professionals, many of them men who spent hours in the gym every day. This was a party that would start late and go all night. There would likely be drugs in quiet corners, groping and nudity were a given, and I’d expect some guys would have quick sexual encounters behind closed doors. This was the kind of party some of Mormon friends warned me about when they told me not to pursue ‘the gay lifestyle’. It would be out of my element, but I desperately wanted to fit in in this crowd. It was a lifelong need for me to fit in, a primal part of me left over from my adolescent days when I was the gay kid with the straight guys, feeling less than them but in love with them all at once, yet always picked last for every sports team. I needed to fit in here.

The party started at 7 pm, it said on Facebook. So I arrived at 7:02. I was the first guest there. The next few arrived around 8:45. When I’m not careful, the dad part of me shows up very clearly. And so I helped the hosts set up snacks, I had a strong drink that one of them mixed for me, and by the time the party was really going, with loud ‘nn-ts nn-ts nn-ts’ music blaring all over the three story house, I was good and sauced, a rare occasion for me. I chatted a bit, yelling into some guy’s ears, introducing myself to others, dancing a bit in the main room. There were sexy guys everywhere, ripped and toned, with muscles on their muscles, and I felt very exposed in comparison. I drew a few eyes, but the Charlie Brown tree hardly stands out among a forest full of sequoias. Clearly I needed one more drink.

Someone handed me something homemade, and I took it without much of a thought. It was sweet, and I drank it a bit too quickly. It was about 11:30 pm, and the house was full of people. I went back out to the dance floor and saw a sexy construction worker making out with a sexy Superman (he was shirtless with a red S painted on his chest), and the music kept going nn-ts nn-ts nn-ts. I started to dance a little, and then quickly realized that something was very wrong. My head was starting to spin, and my heart was beating faster, and my stomach was seizing a bit.

Now the next day, I would make sense of all of this. I either drank too much too quickly, something I had literally never done before, or that drink I’d been given had been laced with something. It was very likely the second, because I learned later that several other people from the same party had similar side effects, so I’m guessing it was probably something in the drink. Regardless, I had to get out of that room, where the bass was thrumming in my head and in my stomach, and it had to be now.

I fell against a wall and kind of leaned into it down the hallway to the bathroom, where of course the door was locked. I slumped on to the floor and covered my eyes with my hands, and my brain felt like it was swimming around in my head, just turning and turning. The door finally opened and two drunk and giggling gay men, one of them in some sort of sexy Pikachu costume, came stumbling out, and I crawled in, kicked the door closed behind me, managed to lock it, and then proceeded to vomit. And then again, and again. I threw up until there was nothing left to throw up, and then I dry heaved a few times, and sat back against the wall, where my head was still swimming. I’m not sure how long I sat there, but someone finally knocked and shook me to alertness again, and I stood up, flushed the contents of my stomach away, and washed my hands before opening the door.

It was sexy Pikachu again, with yellow ears, yellow briefs with a lightning bolt tail, and a Pokeball hanging from each side of his shorts. “Hey, hot cop costume!” he said, tracing his finger down my stomach and to my leather shorts. While such attention in this setting might welcome in different circumstances, I was seeing four of the shirtless Pokemon bouncing around in the air in front of me, and I simply muttered a thanks while holding on to the wall for support again. I found the stairs and used the banister to pull myself up. There were three bedrooms upstairs and only one was unoccupied. I made my way inside, lay down on the floor by the bed instead of on it for some reason, and watched the dark ceiling twirl above my head as I lay there.

I must have stayed in that spot for three hours. At some point, freezing there on the floor in my sexy cop costume, I pulled the comforter off the bed and onto the floor, where I covered myself with it. Shortly after that, two drunk men came in to make out with the door closed, and they continued even after they saw me, perhaps thinking I was asleep, or perhaps just too drunk to care. And then, I fell asleep.

Around 3 am, I woke up on the floor. I’d turned on my side, the sheriff’s star poking hard into my chest, my trusty nightstick still near my fingers somehow, the handcuffs still hanging from the side of my briefs. The room wasn’t spinning, but now my head was thudding terribly. I got up, saw two people sleeping in the bed, and exited the room. I heard someone vomiting in the bathroom, saw about 8 people passed out in various rooms of the house, and realized the music was still playing. Nn-ts, nn-ts, nn-ts. I turned it off, found where I’d stashed my keys, and exited the house. There was more vomit in the driveway.

As I drove home that morning, I thought of my children, and the way they grounded me. Sometimes I resented having all that responsibility. I’d started my life so late. I hadn’t come out until I was 32, which was also the age when I first kissed a man, first had authentic sex, first stopped hating myself. Sometimes I sat around and felt sorry for myself, for all the time I lost. No college parties, no backpacking across Europe, no crazy adventures with a first love. I’d missed my 20s somehow, spent them being a responsible Mormon boy. But an event like this, with loud music and strong booze and promiscuous hook-ups and revealing costumes, well, they might make a fun story to tell one day, but they ultimately weren’t things I really wanted. They were just thinks I thought I wanted. I’d much rather have A drink, hang out with a FEW friends, and be in bed by midnight so I could wake up to the sounds of my children. A night out from time to time would be wonderful, but I certainly didn’t need a headache like this to show me a good time.

I got home, unzipped my leather shorts, un-velcroed my arm band, slipped out of the vest with the sheriff’s star, removed the hat, and hung up the handcuffs and nightstick. Then I slipped on a pair of baggy blue sweat pants and a tent-size T-shirt left over from the days when I used to be fat, popped a few Ibuprofen, and collapsed on the couch, where I would sleep as long as I could. I certainly never wanted another hangover.

I smiled to myself as I fell asleep, though. I’d won a ‘sexiest costume’ award. And I’d gotten drunk at a party. That was enough, once, I told myself as sleep beckoned. That was plenty sexy enough.

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Seattle Part 9: Far Away Daddy

November, 2014

The day I drove into Seattle, after unpacking my car into my new room, the very first thing I did was call my sons. Given their ages, it wasn’t easy to connect with them via phone, so it had to be over FaceTime. J was 5 and just starting kindergarten. (“Don’t go, Daddy,” still rang in my brain, sparking fresh tears easily). A was 3 and thriving in pre-school. Conversations over the phone tended to be about cartoons, and silly stories. As long as they could see my face and know my voice, I could make them laugh and we would stay connected.

Still, I made a vow to make it much more special than a daily phone call. I would be back to visit every month, I told them. I already had my first trip out planned in just three weeks. My best friend Kurt had already offered to let me stay there with them if I couldn’t afford a hotel. I promised my boys fun adventures. While my first trip back, in October, was fairly routine, the one in November had us booked in a local hotel and seeing sites we had never seen before, and in December I rented a car and took them to Dinosaur, Colorado for an epic weekend.

In addition to our daily calls and my monthly visits, I mailed my sons gifts as well as weekly comic strips. “The Adventures of J!” had my older son going on all kinds of crazy capers with silly endings. He teamed up with princesses and his favorite super heroes, fought ridiculous bad guys, developed super powers, and saw the world. We had a ritual of reading the latest comic strip I had mailed him together over the phone every Sunday night, and after only a few weeks, he began asking about the adventures over the phone, wondering what would happen to his comic strip avatar next. It delighted me to create this continuity in our far-away connections.

A, at 3, had to be entertained differently, and he had always loved animals, so his weekly hand-drawn comic strip became “A’s Amazing Animals!” I started with the letter A, and I drew him in the center of the page surrounded by all of the A animals I could fit. Alligator, Armadillo, Albatross, Aardvark, Army Ant. Each Sunday night, when I called, we would identify the animals together over the phone, and he began compiling a book of each letter that I sent. (Unknowingly, this weekly series for my toddler son would measure my time in Seattle almost perfectly. One letter per week until I landed at Z, ironically the same week I would return from Seattle to Utah).

I talked about my sons non-stop to anyone who would listen. Their pictures lined my bedroom walls. I ached for them. I cried for them. I knew I needed this time for healing, and I felt I deserved that time, but my heart felt torn in two being so far away from them. It was difficult not to dissolve into a ball of shame for my selfishness. I constantly thought about fatherhood and what it meant to me.

I’d had so little example of fathers in my own life. My own dad and squandered my childhood with depression and distance. My stepfather had used fists and angry words when not using fear and manipulation. My older brother had always been a bully. Outside of a few family friends and more distant relatives, the only examples of fatherhood I had were in my local Mormon congregations, and it would take me years to realize how much they emphasized obedience, conformity, and hiding who I was. Thus the ultimate example of fatherhood was a God I grew up believing in, one whose love became conditional upon my ability to be obedient and straight.

Over a period of weeks in Seattle, I explored my role as a father. I was meant to be a dad. I was a good one. My heart melted every time my children called me ‘daddy’. One day, they would be grown men, and I hoped beyond measure that they would view their childhoods with happiness and peace, with supportive and loving parents, and not the way I viewed my own, as one of conditional love, silence in my own skin, and painful growth. I wanted nothing more than for my sons to learn how to be the very best versions of themselves, and to grow up with self-love and confidence.

But I had come about my children dishonestly, in a mixed-orientation marriage where I wasn’t happy. For a time, I berated myself over this. But over time, I grew to view myself with more compassion, and less judgment. I’d done the best I could with what I had at the time. I hadn’t come out yet because I hand’t known how. And so I married, followed the path ahead of me, and that led to two children. I was grateful I had come out while they were young, and I loved them with all of my heart.

My judgment of myself grew less when I began looking at the world around me with a more critical eye. Children born into happy households with authentic parents seemed to be the exception, not the rule. How many kids were born to parents who didn’t yet know what they were doing? The results of teenage pregnancies, or one-night stands, or accidental and unplanned inceptions. More than that, how many kids were born to parents who changed after the births of their children, who grew to struggle with the circumstances of life, or debt, or stress? How many kids saw their parents divorce, how many suffered abuse or violence, how many grew up with different parents entirely? Ultimately, these realizations helped me forgive myself more quickly, forgive myself again. I couldn’t change the origin stories of my sons, the circumstances in which they were brought into the world. But I could make sure I led an honorable life from here forward, and that I continued making them my priority by also making myself a priority.

I might be far away, at least for a time. But I would speak to them every day. I would draw them comic strips, and visit for monthly adventures, and pay my child support in full. The would know, daily, that I loved them exactly as they were.

I might be far away, but I was their daddy still, and they were loved.

Seattle Part 4: First Date

September, 2014

With enthusiasm, I downloaded all of the dating apps when I arrived in Seattle. I wasn’t in a hurry, but I was enthusiastic. Utah had felt so full of men who had the exact same origin story I did, all former Mormons who had grown up ashamed of themselves and were now trying to find their way in the world. So many were still struggling with depression, anxiety, self-loathing, and major family and religious issues that in ways, dates in Utah felt the same, over and over again. I longed for something new.

I had a few good friends in Seattle before I moved there, but, not surprisingly, they were all former Mormons also, given my social circles. In fact, a lot of them still went to church, to a local ward that was very gay friendly and welcomed gay couples into the weekly meetings with open arms. I’d been invited to go to church several times, but I had very little interest, at least for now. I wanted a fresh beginning, something new. I wanted movie nights with friends, and a local bar where they knew my name, and new routines. I’d been craving that ‘brand new’ feeling my entire life.

I immediately found a small corner coffee shop, close to where I was staying, one that opened ridiculously early. It was there I could wile away the morning hours and make plans for the future. And it was there I first starting chatting with Devon.

When we first matched on Tinder, my stomach fluttered with excitement. That we matched at all had meant there was mutual attraction, a swipe in the right direction that indicated there was interest. In his photos, he was absolutely stunning. Deep brown eyes, rich cocoa skin, a huge brilliant smile. He was an impeccable dresser, in amazing shape, and I could tell he chose his words carefully.

Devon and I spent a few days chatting. He knew I was a father, one who had recently relocated to Washington, “for work” I had said. And he told me about his upbringing in central Washington, his career in the financial industry, and his love for Seattle. He talked about coming out to his family as a teenager, and having a loving and strong relationship with them, and I couldn’t help but wonder how differently my story would have been if I could say the same. We exchanged ‘good night’ and ‘good morning’ messages and called each other ‘handsome’, and then he asked me on an evening date to his favorite restaurant, and my stomach filled with butterflies.

And so, Thursday night, less than a week after I had arrived in my new city, I found my way to Pioneer Square for a date. I felt like Mary Tyler Moore at the start of her show, taking a big risk by moving to Minneapolis and throwing her hat into the air, as the singer proclaimed, “You can have a town, why don’t you take it? You might just make it after all.”

Devon was even more handsome in person. He wore a snug white shirt, a dark blue jacket, form-fitting slacks and black shoes. His smile was amazing. I was in a baggy yellow button-down shirt, tucked in, and dark slacks. (I’d never been a great dresser). I felt out of my league, with my crooked smile and slightly out-of-shape body, but he seemed interested. He had a genuineness about him, but a directness as well. He was the kind of guy who could make you feel welcome, and then order for you and get it exactly right.

We ordered some delicious food and drinks (a rum-and-coke for me, a hard lemonade for him), and we talked about my first impressions of Seattle, my upcoming job, and my fresh start in the city. But there was something on Devon’s mind, something bothering him. He leaned in and touched my hand briefly over the table.

“I’ve really enjoyed our connection over the past few days, Chad. But I want to get something out of the way quick. You have sons, and I love that about you, but why aren’t they here with you?”

I smiled and sighed. Part of me wanted to make up some alternate version of my story, something that would allow me to escape from my roots. Besides, I was tired of crying.

“They are back in Utah, with their mother. I was married before coming out.”

“Oh!” He was genuinely surprised. He took a sip of his lemonade, then continued. “And Utah. Why are you here, and not there?”

I felt my defenses rise a bit, and I used a few too many words to explain myself. Even as I spoke, I was aware that I sounded defensive and anxious.

“I, well, I needed a fresh start. I came out later in life, and I wanted a chance to figure me out in a new place. My sons, they are 5 and 2, and they are amazing, we talk every day, and I’ll see them monthly and send them lots of things. I’m a great dad, and their mom is working with me on this. I just, I grew up Mormon, not in Utah but in Missouri, and it was only a few years ago that I stopped being Mormon, and everything in Utah is Mormon. Everything. Even the gay population. I just wanted to find me away from all of that, see how things can be when I’m not bogged down by all of that religious shit. It’s just, it was more than I can take. I know that is a lot to hear, first meeting someone, but I want to be honest with you. This is for me, my journey here, but it is also for my kids.”

I watched Devon’s smile fade and his expression go stern. He pulled back from me and settled back into his chair. As I spoke, his arms folded in a defensive position over his chest. He stayed silent for several seconds after I finished. And as he spoke, it was my turn to go pale.

“We don’t know each other well yet, but let me tell you something about me. A few years ago, I went through a bad break-up, and I was really struggling spiritually. After a long search, I found a religion I wanted to be a part of. I joined the Mormon church and I go every week faithfully. Obviously, I’m not overly strict about the rules, I drink and date men, but I believe in it. And you left all that behind, plus your children. I don’t think this is going to work between us.”

The waiter brought our food, and we made casual and very uncomfortable conversation as we ate swiftly. And then Devon was gone, with a handshake and the bill still on the table.

I drove home and cried my eyes out, yet again. But I couldn’t help but laugh. How could it be that in one of the biggest cities in America, one with an enormous gay population, that I had connected to a gay black man who had converted to Mormonism? How could that possibly be? Was the universe trying to teach me some grand, painful lesson? Ugh, how was this possible? This was the kind of plot twist in television shows that was simply unbelievable.

I didn’t message Devon again, and it would be several weeks before I ran into him again, on a Sunday when I would try church out with some gay Mormon friends. But that night, I had a good cry, then a good laugh, and then I logged back in to Tinder to see who else might be out there.

Seattle Part 2: “Don’t Go, Daddy.”

September, 2014

Before I left Salt Lake City, I sold most everything. I put out furniture adds on Craigslist, and people paid small amounts of cash as they picked up the items one by one. The kitchen table and chairs, the couches, the beds. I’d built this little home in this small apartment for my children and I over the past few years, and now I was ready to leave it all behind in order to take a great chance on myself.

What I couldn’t sell, I either gave away, or gave to friends for safe-keeping. I was tired of moving, and little things didn’t matter all that much anymore. The boxes of comic books I’d been keeping since I was in high school, I gave to a former student to sell or give away. My kitchen dishes went to the local thrift store. I boiled it all down to non-essentials, giving the remainder of my children’s toys and clothes to their mother to hold on to. And when I was all done, I packed my few remaining items in my car: clothes, blankets, pictures, toiletries, a few electronics (including my television). It was enough to fill the car up, but overall, it wasn’t much at all. A human life in those few boxes. It all fit in a small four door car.

I felt miniscule. And free.

And then came the goodbyes. My best friend Kurt hosted a goodbye party, and I invited many of the friends I’d made in Salt Lake City. Friends from the gay swim team, friends from the support group of local gay fathers, and a few of the guys I dated who had remained friends. We ate barbecued food in Kurt’s beautiful backyard, sat in the shade and shared drinks and memories. It was the perfect conclusion to a dramatic and wonderful chapter in my life. Utah had brought so much joy and freedom, and so many harsh life lessons after coming out.

Saying goodbye to my sons was harder than I ever thought it would be. Of course it was. They were five and two, such amazing, inquisitive, happy little creatures. The thought of not seeing them every day broke me into pieces on the inside. How could I be doing this? But I reminded myself that the quality of my connection to them, even from far away, could remain with a lot of effort and consistency. I owed it to myself to try this, to take a big risk for me. Best case scenario, I told myself, I became deliriously happy and spent a lot of time coming back and forth to see them, with them coming up on holidays and in the summertime. Worst case scenario, I spent a few months in Seattle, realized I was unhappy, and came back, and my kids grew up remembering that I was only gone for a while once when they were very small. My decision felt selfish, but it also felt doable, liberating. I was allowed to do something for me.

When I sat down to tell the boys, I made the news happy, despite my broken heart. I showed them pictures of beautiful Seattle, and talked about going to have some adventures there. We talked about the animals that lived there, and the ocean, and I shared some of my plans to send them letters and to call every night. I’d be back to see them every month, I explained, and we would keep having dad and son adventures. My voice had forced enthusiasm, joy, and wonder in it. We spent that last evening before I left playing together, building a blanket fort and having a dance party while singing silly songs. We looked at family pictures, colored, and ate their favorite foods. Then, I put them in their pajamas, snuggled up to them, and sang lullabies. It was our typical magical evening together.

And then J, my magical little five-year old, gave me a huge hug. He spoke only three words. There was no drama in his voice, no need, no pain, no hurt. Just three, simple, matter-of-fact words during a brief squeeze. Words that would haunt me to no end in the coming weeks.

“Don’t go, Daddy.”

Driving to Seattle would take an entire day. I had a few hundred dollars in my bank account, a couple of credit cards, and a job waiting for me once I got there. A couple of tanks of gas, some music, and a few pit stops, and I would be there, exhausted and ready to start life again.

“Don’t go, Daddy.”

A few hours outside of Utah, I had to pull the car over. My tears started small and silent, then they grew in size and intensity. I had to get out of the car at the rest stop, and sit in the grass to cry more. It was early morning and I didn’t see anyone else there. My cries turned to gasps, and then to choking sobs. “Don’t go, Daddy.”

I cried until I was done crying, then I climbed back in the car, turning toward Seattle. I spoke aloud to my sons, from far away.

“I’m not leaving you. I would never leave you. I’m here. I’m here, and I’m going to find me. I’m not leaving like my dad left. I’m going to be here. I need to find me! I need to find my happy so I can be a better dad for you! I’m going to be here, right here, for you both, for your whole lives! You’ll see. You’ll see, buddies. You’ll both see. I’m gonna be the best dad ever. And I’ll be back here, right with you, in just four weeks, I’ve already got the plane tickets. I’ll be right back here. I’m coming back!”

And as tears rolled down my face anew, the sense of hope returned. I rolled the windows down and drove forward. My sons behind me, yet right there in my heart. Now I needed to find space for me there, too.

Seattle Part 1: the News

September, 2014

“I don’t make this decision lightly. In fact, this is one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made.” My hands clutched my coffee mug tightly, absorbing the warmth. My insides were churning.

Maggie, my ex-wife, the mother of my children, sat across the table from me. Her face was all-business, but I knew it guarded a mixture of anxiety, pain, anger, and compassion. “So that’s it. You’re going to leave your children behind, just like your dad left you? I don’t mean to be cruel, but that’s what it sounds like.”

I paled, and closed my eyes in shame. I had come out of the closet three years and six months before this. After the birth of our second son, Maggie and I had divorced, sold our home, and moved to Salt Lake City to start a new life. Despite the difficult negotiations of parenting in two different households, finding a new steady job, and making new friends, I had grown to love Salt Lake City in many ways. But this past year, life had gotten more difficult. There was something about this place that was infecting me, and I couldn’t seem to shake it.

How could I explain it to her? Would she understand? Every time I left Utah, even for brief weekends, I came alive. I felt free and clear, full of hope and potential; yet every time I returned, I was full of dread and pain, like shackles were being placed around my ankles. I wasn’t sleeping in my bed anymore, I had a permanent place on the couch, because my bed felt so lonely. I felt lonely when the kids weren’t with me, and lonely when they were, and I felt constantly guilty for realizing that just being a dad wasn’t enough for me. The constant barrage of Mormon everything around me was traumatizing, bringing back all those memories of pain. The men I dated were Mormon or formerly so, the clients I saw were the same. And every few months, the Mormons had something painful to say about gay people, and it haunted me. Mormon culture felt like the air I was breathing, and I had no idea how to stop breathing it. After all the work I had done to come out and face my life with grace, it felt like I was just constantly surrounded by the very things that had hurt me. I wasn’t dating now, and work felt empty. My sons were my sole solace, and it wasn’t enough.

But it was more than that. I was 36 years old and I hadn’t lived yet! When I came out, I had two children, and financial obligations. I hadn’t come out as a teenager. I had spent two years on a mission, then six in college, then seven more married to a woman, all of those years dominated by Mormon expectations. It wasn’t until now that I was seeing myself as someone capable of being happy, some who could believe in himself and see potential in the future rather than only dread. I couldn’t reclaim my 20s, or my teenage years, but I could try to live now, try to find myself now. I needed to grieve, I needed to learn to live for me. And I believed I could do it with honor, with integrity. But it meant leaving, and that part made me feel selfish and ashamed.

“I’m–I won’t be like my dad,” I promised. “He left and he was gone. He was depressed. There wasn’t child support, or phone calls, or visits. I will be in constant contact with the kids. Letters, phone calls every day, monthly visits, holidays. And I’ll stay up on my child support. I know this puts a ton of pressure on you, but I’m hoping with your parents here to help you, and with me visiting every month, that it might be okay. I know this is a huge risk. I need this. I need it for me. I need this opportunity. In fact, weirdly, if I stay I worry I’m more like my dad. In some ways, it feels like leaving will help me figure out how not to be that way.”

Sighing, Maggie peppered me with a few dozen questions.

“Why Seattle?”

“I was offered a place to live for very affordable rent. Remember Rob, my gay step-brother? He’s a doctor there. He has an open room.”

“If you don’t have a place here when you visit, where will you stay?”

“Kurt, my best friend, told me I could stay there on my weekends in town.”

“Do you have a job lined up?”

“I have some interviews scheduled. I won’t go without a job in place.”

“Our sons are 5 and 3. J is just starting kindergarten. How will you tell him?”

“I don’t know yet, but I’ll find a way. I’ll be open and honest. I think he’ll be okay, honestly. I will miss them more than I can possibly express. It makes me want to sob, nothing seeing them every day, not holding them. But I will write letters. I’ll FaceTime with them every night. I’ll be a daily presence in their life. I’ll be there for them, I promise. I promise. I just, I need a chance to make me a priority also. I’ve never done that, ever. I’ve never put me first. You know me, better than anyone. Trust me. Give me this chance, and I promise I’ll show up, I’ll do this with integrity.”

Maggie gave me a level look and nodded. “I get it. I never thought you’d be that guy. This isn’t fair, and I don’t like it, but I understand it. I can’t stop you. Our divorce paperwork says we will give each other notice, and you’ve done that. But you’ll be the one to tell the kids, not me.”

I thanked Maggie and watched as she left. I sat there for another twenty minutes, full of hope and dread. I was doing this. I was going to do this. I was going to move to Seattle, away, on my own. I was 36, and I was going to take a risk on myself, knowing I might crash and burn. My sons would have a father in another city. Was I only making excuses for myself, finding reasons that things would be okay? What if it was all a big disaster?

I owed it to myself to find out.

Skunktrap

The air in Leamington was clear. Sometimes I forget how polluted the skies in Salt Lake City can be until I drive outside of it. It’s like my lungs just adapt to the smoky congestion, and when I get away I remember how to breathe.

Leamington is a little stretch of nothing in the center of Utah. There are no businesses. I saw a one-room post office as we drove into town, turned onto a dirt road, drove round some bends through farmland, and parked in a dusty outcropping of the house’s driveway.

Like the rest of Utah, Leamington was settled by the Mormons a few generations ago. I pulled up the Wikipedia page and read about the original settlers, establishing farmland, growing sugarcane to make molasses, rerouting water through a canal, and growing crops, which they would take to a local mining town (appropriately named Eureka) to sell. (I drove through Eureka later. It has a few gas stations, and more homes. The closest business to Leamington was a few dozen miles away). Eventually, the settlers built a little branch of the railroad. The Mormon church and the local cemetery are the only things listed as noteworthy to visit. Still, a few hundred people live here, which seems like so little until you realize that a few hundred is still a lot of people when you line them all up.

My friend Tyler and I got the kids out of the car and surveyed the rolling farmland around us. We could see cows in the distance, crops, shades of green and brown. I could hear songbirds and the sound of many buzzing insects.

“What kinds of animals live out here?” A, my 6-year old, asked.

“Well, lots,” Tyler answered, having grown up in the area. “Owls, birds, lots of voles, tons of bugs. Mule deer.”

“And what kinds of predators?”

“Raccoons, coyotes, red-tailed hawks.”

We knocked on the door of the farmhouse where we would be sleeping for the night. I’d confirmed this reservation weeks ago when we first planned to come to this remote area of the state. As I reminded the boys to be on their best behavior, our host opened the door.

She was a plump woman in her late forties, her hair pinned back, her granddaughter on her arm. She wore an apron over her white shirt and black pants. Beyond her on the wall, I could see a large picture of a Mormon temple, and a family portrait with she, her husband, and their six children. This was a salt-of-the-earth, hard-working family. I knew from the online profile that the husband worked nearby as an engineer, and that she was a housewife, though the older four children were all out of the house now.

“Hi, I’m Chad!” I said, enthusiastically, waving at the grand-daughter. I saw the woman’s smile slowly drop as she realized there were two men there with children. Her eyes flashed between us, one to the other, and her mouth dropped open. Her face paled. There was a long, pregnant pause as she tried to figure out our relationship. (I would later explain that while Tyler and I are both gay, we were not a couple and would be sleeping in different rooms. It’s quite possible we were the first gay people she’d ever met.)

After the initial awkwardness passed, she greeted us with a forced smile and invited us inside. She showed us the rooms where we would be sleeping in the basement. The shelves down there were packed with thirty years worth of clutter, almost hoarding levels of clutter. It was organized, but it felt like it would cave in on us. Board games, books, notebooks, old art projects, and Tupperware containers full of knickknacks. The beds were lacy and plush, with names of children stenciled onto pillows. Family photos, pictures of Mormon prophets, and pictures of Jesus lined the walls. Somehow, it was all incredibly comfortable, being in the home of this family, one who had carved out their entire existence in this stone farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.

After the kids settled down, I walked back outside to grab the suitcases and came face to face with a skunk. It was less than ten yards away, and I immediately felt my heart rate go up. It was quickly gobbling food up from a cat food dish, and it lifted its head to meet my gaze. I could see its jaw working, up and down, then it ducked to get another bite. It was strangely beautiful. It’s face was majestic in a way, and the pattern of black and white shaggy fur ran down its sides, with a thick tail flowing behind it. It was right in front of the car, and I stood watching it for a minute, calculating the risk of getting sprayed if I stepped toward it, but it scampered away after another bite, rushing down the driveway and up a hillside. It flowed as it moved somehow, and I had images of Pepe Lepew from Looney Toons rush through my mind, jumping gracefully as he chased the female cat.

After a good night’s sleep, the four of us woke to a hearty farm breakfast. As we sat to a meal of banana chocolate chip pancakes, sausage, fried eggs, fresh fruit, milk, and juice, the farmer’s wife told us about getting her degree in biochemistry before she chose to stay at home and raise her children. She talked about how much work it was to maintain a home this size in this location, and how much she loved living out here, yet how isolating it could be. I talked about my documentary project, Tyler quipped about science with her, and my sons bragged about how they wanted to grow up to a geologist and a farmer, respectively. It was a lovely meal,  and I could see her relaxing around us, perhaps realizing that gay people are just, well, people.

As the kids finished their breakfast, I packed the suitcases and went outside to load the car. I looked back over toward the car, and skunk was back but this time it was in a cage. The cage was small, triangular, and barely big enough to contain the small creature. It was panicked, scratching at the ground, unable to get free. It raised its head and I swear it made eye contact as it made a helpless little squeak of a sound. My heart pounded as I went the long way around, loading my suitcases in the trunk before heading back inside.

“There’s a skunk out there! In a trap!”

“Oh!” The farmer’s wife looked delighted. “Good! It finally worked! My husband placed cat food in the skunktrap several nights in a row to catch it. The darn thing keeps eating all of the cat’s food and scaring the grandkids. We used to get a lot of skunks around here, but this is the first one in a while.”

“What will you do with it? Do you take it out in the woods somewhere and let it go? Do you kill it?”

She grimaced. “Well, neither. If you get too close, it gets scared and sprays. In fact, as it starts to get hot outside, it will start to spray in panic. It’s going to smell around here today. But we will just wait for it to die. Skunks are nocturnal, they burrow during the day to stay cool and hunt at night. It won’t take long for it to overheat.”

A look of disgust crossed my face. “You let it cook to death?”

She frowned, sympathetic. “I don’t like it either. But if you see a spider in your house, do you step on it? Living in a place like this, we have to protect our space, and that sometimes means letting creatures die.”

When we left, I walked the kids the long way around, and told them that the skunk would be let go later. The looked at it with fascination and fear. It was getting warmer out, and it was sitting calmly now. I could see it breathing. We loaded ourselves into the car, and as we backed up, I took a long last look at it’s flowing tail, it’s frightening beauty, its helplessness. It was facing its inevitable end after seeking an easy food source in a dangerous place. And it had been caught. I humanized the creature, determining that it was facing its own fate.

We drove down the hillside, through the dusty farmland and back to the highway. I left Leamington, thinking of history, of humanity, of skunks, and of traps.

Skunk

Animal Doctor

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“GrrrhissgrrhssssgrrROARslurp!

A, my 6-year old son, lurked down the hall in a crouch, curling two fingers on each hand into twisted claws. He rounded the corner, making a series of growls and hisses before he made a small roar. He finished off the monster song with a long slurping sound of spit being sucked through teeth.

When he noticed me sitting on the couch and looking at him, he immediately straightened up to a human posture and began explaining. A can talk for several minutes without interruption, and I’ve developed the skill to patiently listen and give him all of my intention, letting him know that each word of his is important to me.

“Oh, hey, Dad, I was being a raptor. You know, like those little T-Rex creatures from Jurassic Park? They walk differently than humans so I was putting my butt back and sticking my head out and then kind of walking like with my feet forward and out like this.” He gave me a quick demonstration of his posture again. “And then I was sticking my fingers like this for claws. I was pretending that I was like hunting some prey down a hall here and then I hissed to scare it and then roared when I attacked it, and did you hear that like spit sound at the end, that was me eating the creature. I had to make a wet sound because that was the sound of the creature’s blood and wounds and stuff.”

I winced a bit at the graphic nature as he continued talking. A has been fascinated by predators his entire life. He loves all animals, but, rather like Hagrid from the Harry Potter series, he has the most fondness for the ugly, toothy, craggy creatures, and he automatically sees them as cuddly and misunderstood all at once. Tigers, sharks, hyenas, falcons, gross bottom dwellers and fierce meat-eaters. Anything with claws or rows of teeth automatically makes his favorite list. Yet at the same time, he coos and fawns over baby animals of any kind, but especially mammals. A tells stories constantly, and his epic tales generally star a baby mammal of some kind with a fierce predator of another kind who comes to protect it. He stories commonly result in bloodshed of some kind or other, but it is almost always evil humans who meet grisly ends. It’s never animals.

At the same time, A has a tremendous sensitivity about him. Violence in any form, particularly directed toward animals, leads to long piercing cries. He despises cruelty. I’ve been reading my sons the Wonderful Wizard of Oz books recently, the original ones from 1900 and on. In the original book, in one scene, the massive Kalidahs (with heads of tigers and bodies of bears) attack Dorothy and her friends, and the Tin Woodsman casually lops off the heads of the beasts; in another chapter, the Scarecrow rings the necks of 40 crows and the Tin Woodsman kills forty attacking wolves. Each of these details has caused a crying spell in my sensitive son, who now hates Dorothy’s companions for their wanton violence. “I hope the Tin Woodsman never gets his heart!” he yelled after yet another beast, a wildcat, was killed.

“They didn’t have to do that!” he exclaimed. “They could have just hided or scared the animals away! Why did the author let that happen!”

A has been telling me recently that he wants to be an animal doctor, a veterinarian when he grows up. I’ve been telling him that he’ll have to go to college and learn a lot, how he’ll have to choose an area of specialty.

“Some veterinarians work with small animals and pets, like cats, dogs, birds, and lizards. Some work on farm animals. And there are special kinds that work on zoo animals, like elephants , and they have to get special training. Some work on big cats, some work on predator birds, some work on large fish. What kind of veterinarian would you want to be?”

I assumed his answer would be all about predators. But he surprised me. “I think I’d want to work on cute little animals and kittens.”

Just yesterday, I found A, and his brother, J, playing with their collection of animal toys. My boyfriend and I have been slowly getting them a collection of rare animals: a black rhino, a cassowary, a rhinoceros hornbill, a lynx, an octopus, a water buffalo. The boys have dozens of them. From the next room, I heard them playing out a scenario.

“Doctor Otter! The wolverine has been injured! He needs a surgery!” J said.

A put an official tone in his voice to respond. “Well, luckily, I am specially trained. I can treat his wounds, open him up, fix him, and then tuck his meat all back in. He’ll be better in no time!”

Friday night, I had friends over to my home to watch an old movie, Out of Africa. In the middle of the film, A came to sit on the floor, watching as Meryl Streep led her allies on a trek across Nairobi. As the humans slept, a pair of lions attacked, scattering the oxen and killing one of them before the beasts were scared away. A stood up in the center of the room.

“Wait, did those lions actually kill that ox?”

“Not in real life, but as part of the story, yes.”

“WHY! WHY DID THEY DO THAT!”

“Well, it was part of the story. You know how lions hunt zebras, gazelles, wildebeests, and other animals, right?”

“Well, yes, but they didn’t have to show it!” He began shaking and crying as he climbed up into my lap in tears, snuggling me tight for comfort. “They didn’t have to show it!” he cried again.

“Son, they didn’t actually show anything. But really, lions should only hunt when we can’t see it!”

“Do you think the humans should hunt down the lions now?”

“No! Of course not! They were only trying to survive!”

A few minutes later, nestled into me, no longer crying, he muttered softly. “I just don’t want anyone to get hurt. I don’t want to see it.”

This from my raptor child who mimics the sounds of meat being eaten, from my carnivore who pretends to be Dr. Otter packing the meat back in, from my sensitive child who cuddles into his father for comfort. This, from my complicated, beautiful son.

“I don’t want anyone hurt either, son.”

And soon he fell asleep.

Raising a Gay Son

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My mother was hurt when I first came out of the closet. I was 32, and I was a father, and when I called to tell her, she reacted with shock and pain, as if her life was falling apart. She’d reacted much the same way when my younger sister, Sheri, had come out years before. She somehow, at the time, saw our exits from the closet as a personal failing, as if she had done something wrong, and being told her son was gay was a personal trauma for her.

This was a delicate time for me, one where I felt my own life was falling apart, and it took me a long time to be able to recognize her trauma. The night after my call, she called several others to confide in them, telling them I was gay and that she wasn’t sure what to do. And when word of this got back to me, I called her back, furious and screaming that she had no right to tell my secrets to others. It was perhaps the only time in my life when I had yelled at my mother. She understood, of course, but she was hurt too. Everything she had ever known about me was a lie, she said.

And then, our emotions spent, my mother’s voice softened, and she confided in me. “That’s not true. I knew. I always knew. I was just so afraid of it. But I knew.”

“How did you know?” I asked, confused and hurting.

“You were just different. More compassionate. Different from the other babies, the other kids. I’ve always suspected, always been afraid that you were gay.”

I’ve now been out for seven years, and I’ve seen that narrative play out in coming out stories over and over again. Mothers and fathers who knew their kids were gay, right from the beginning, but were afraid to say it, afraid to talk about it. And sometimes I can’t help but wonder why.

How different my upbringing would have been if my mom, if anyone really, had told me that being gay was a normal, healthy, happy thing. What if it had been a viable option? What were people so afraid of? I asked a few different parents of gay kids this, and I took notes on their responses.

“I was worried that if I told her she might be gay, that it would actually cause her to be gay. Like it would set up expectations for her future.”

“I thought that if I told him he was gay then he would get teased by other kids more, and I didn’t want to make his adolescence harder.”

“Even though I knew he was gay, I didn’t want it to be true. I thought that he could change it if he tried, so I was harder on him than my other sons.”

“I wanted grandchildren. If he was gay, I’d never have grandchildren.”

“If any of my children were gay, I didn’t know how to reconcile that with my religion. If gay people can’t be in heaven, what would that mean for our family bonds there? What would happen to them? It was easier to keep quiet.”

These are difficult questions to address, but what all of them leave out is this: by not making homosexuality an option for children, by not letting kids be who they really are, kids end up raised in the closet. If straight kids are taught that gay is inferior, they treat gay as inferior. If gay kids are taught that gay is inferior, they grow up hiding, feeling inferior, and seeing themselves as broken; they grow up silent, silenced, closed off, and divided. They feel different and can’t talk about it. Sometimes they are abused, forced into therapy, told they are not good enough or that they must change. And then these kids grow up into adults who have attachment, anxiety, depression, and self-esteem problems. Unhealthy relationships, suicide attempts, and therapy rates go up-up-up because there is more pain from childhood, more trauma, represented across the gay population. (And the statistics for transgender individuals, as always, are much higher).

My sons, J and A, are 9. They have a dad who is gay and a mom who is straight. They have gay friends, straight friends, and transgender friends. They know that there are differences in skin color, languages, religions, and social statuses. They know that both of their parents date men. They ask hard questions. There is no disturbance for them with this, because their parents are happy and balanced people. And while we have ideas about them and their futures, we don’t give them a script. We teach them to be kind, to have manners, to apologize when needed, to express their feelings, to listen, to be responsible. And we encourage them to be exactly who they are.

In discussions about the future, both of my sons have, more than once, said that they are gay, and that they are straight. “I have a crush on a boy. I’m gay” or “I like a girl, I’m straight” or “I don’t think I want to get married ever, but maybe I’ll adopt some kids.” And I hear these statements in exactly the same way that I hear their changing ideas that they might want to be a dancer, a hunter, a millionaire, a farmer, a rancher, a zookeeper, or a doctor. I tell them that they have plenty of time to decide who they are, and that I will love and support them no matter what. I tell them that they are beautiful to me, and that I love them “a million times.” (My 6-year old recently responded that he loved me “a million infinity thousand googleplex times back”, followed by a “ha-ha, Daddy, I win.”)

The key point is here that I will not project my own biases on to my children. I want them to be the best versions of themselves. I want them to be, well, them. Gay or straight or transgender, Mormon or atheist, just them, and happy, and good.

And for every parent out there, those who worry that their kids might turn out gay, well, don’t. Honestly, I think every parent deserves at least one gay kid. Research shows that many gay people have greater amounts of compassion, creativity, and talent per capita than straight people do, so who wouldn’t want that for their family?

And as for me and my mom? We talk every day. She grew up in a different era, so having gay kids is still unfamiliar to her, but she loves her children, and she supports us. She asks Sheri about her wife, she asks me about my boyfriend. We talk about the things that I write about (blogs like this one), and she offers opinions and understandings. Our relationship is much deeper than it was before I came out, and we are close friends. She has four straight daughters, one straight son, one gay son, and one gay daughter. And she loves us all just the same.

And that’s how it should be.

 

 

Drag Queen Bingo

Petunia.jpg

“Guys, tonight, we are gonna play drag queen bingo.”

“What’s a drag queen?” one son asked.

“What’s bingo?” the other asked.

I sat down on the floor to explain that bingo was a game where someone called out numbers, and that you had to watch your card to get patterns of numbers, and that the first one to get it won prizes. With a visual demonstration, they quickly understood.

Explaining drag queens was a little trickier.

“You know how some of Dad’s friends are transgender?” The boys nodded, remembering what that meant. “And you know how last Christmas, your uncle dressed like a girl for Halloween, but he isn’t transgender and he’s not really a girl, right?”

“Right, of course.”

“Well, drag queens are kind of like that. They aren’t transgender. They are men who like to dress up like women, sometimes in pretty silly costumes, so they can perform. They are more like, well, like clowns. They usually wear big, big wigs, and lots of makeup, and silly dresses. Some of them have giant bras on with, like, decorations on them. And they are really silly and funny.”

The boys asked a few questions, but they swiftly understood the concept. My 9 year old, J, remembered a recent rerun of Pokemon he’d seen where the character Jigglypuff sings and puts everyone to sleep, then draws marker all over their faces. “What if Jigglypuff put everyone in this house to sleep and then turned them into silly drag queens before they woke up?” We all shared a laugh.

A few hours later, we walked up to the church cultural hall where the bingo event was being held. Several dozen people packed in around round tables. There were hugs and greetings exchanged around the room, people purchasing snacks and cards, and coats hung on the backs of chairs. As the event began, the announcer, over a microphone, welcomed four separate drag queens out on the floor. One had a floral dress, a bright wig, and a thick mustache. The most extravagant was Petunia Papsmear, who happened to be a friend of mine, wearing a large brassiere with fluorescent tassels spilling out of each breast, a giant cartoon-like wig that looked like flames, and huge plastic spectacles. My sons watched the queens with amusement, fascination, and confusion, as they paraded around explaining charitable donations, party fouls, and complex rules.

Over the following hour, the kids learned how to monitor their own bingo cards, to find the right numbers under each letter and how to check the board for marked off numbers, and how to listen for the rules for each round, regarding bingo, blackout, center square, etc. Petunia came over behind me at one point and asked quietly if the kids might enjoy getting a party foul, and I shook my head no, at least not yet. So as the night went on, other tables were fouled, for inane reasons such as sending a text messages or having their elbows on the table. Tables with party fouls moved to the center of the room, where they put on a large and frilly hat, then grabbed a butterfly net, dancing around the music plays to collect money from the other tables. All of the money collected goes toward a local charity of some kind. The entire set-up was elaborate and adorable.

About 20 minutes into the event, A, my younger son, age 6, grew a bit bored and wanted to be entertained. I pulled out a notebook full of scrap paper and a pen, items I had brought just for this eventuality. I gave him a few different drawing assignments, and he passed his bingo card to someone else as he drew pictures titled “the War of the Gorillas”, “the Healthy Vegetable Patch”, and “Spaceships Invade Earth!” A is a prolific artist, one who focuses on delightful details, taking the assignment he is given and embellishing it with elements all his own. In “the Healthy Vegetable Patch” for example, he drew a plot of dirt with growing vegetables, then drew an entire family of spiders who lived above the patch. As he showed me the drawing, he told me each of the spiders names. The spider family included two children, one who “always gets into trouble” and one who is “very boring”. I’m constantly delighted by his art.

Growing bored again, A wanted more assignments. I looked around, then smiled, giving him the assignment to draw “Drag Queen Bingo.” Sticking his tongue out slightly, he looked around the room, examine the different drag queens, and then he began sketching them in adorable detail. He drew four figures in two rows, each with arms and legs spread out, as if performing, singing and dancing perhaps or just posing. With four separate hairstyles and appearances, and each with long eyelashes, he detailed the four queens. One had shaggy hair and a thick mustache, her toes turned inward. One had on a skirt over pants, with enormous lashes and a stacked wig on her head. One had long flowing hair, a round stomach, and a large bra with tassels hanging from the tips. The last was impossibly skinny with a tiny head and long braids. While they weren’t direct reflections of the queens present, they were close enough, and as we passed the drawing around the table, we all began laughing in delight.

During the next bingo break, I walked the drawing up to Petunia, who held the microphone, and told her about it. She began laughing, and soon she held the picture up for the assembled crowd, laughing about it and telling others that it was perhaps just a bit too accurate.

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“Can the young man who drew this picture please stand up?”

A stood up on his chair and took a small bow as instructed.

“Such realism!” Petunia said. “How accurate! Whatever inspired you to draw such a thing?”

In his husky voice, A shouted back across the crowd, heard by all. “My dad made me do it!”

As the crowd erupted in laughter, I felt my cheeks turn pink with happy embarrassment. During the final break, my sons and I stood up and got a picture with the assembled queens, and during the drive home they laughed about how much fun they’d had.

For a brief moment, I thought back to my own youth. Even a decade earlier, if I had heard of something like ‘drag queen bingo’ I would have tsked, seeing it as something frivolous, sinful, and certainly not a family activity. Yet tonight, I’d sat with my sons in a room full of people in love with life and having an incredible time. We’d been happy, laughing, and entertained. And I celebrated these new moments that I get to share with my sons, even as men in jeweled bras and wigs ran around.