Sex Education Part 6: Brotherly Love

Elder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seattle Part 8: Hymns on a Houseboat

November, 2014

Ironically, it was the Mormons who provided safety.

With my hour commute to work and my hour commute home, and with the long and very exhausting days of doing therapy, I had very little energy in the evenings. Often I would exercise, or walk along the lake and read, or go jogging. But after a period of time, I didn’t put much effort into dating any longer. I grew weary of getting stood up, endless chats, or misaligned intentions, and I got tired of the gay club scene very quickly. I was traveling back to Utah one weekend per month to see my children. That left three weekends to explore.

Seattle never lost its magic. I could see plays, live music, public readings by authors, art galleries, shopping districts, and restaurants any time I wanted. Then again, after a few months of that, I realized that Salt Lake City had all of the same things to offer. It only felt differently here because I had more free time.

I needed friends.

My roommates were busy and aloof, rarely keeping any commitments to hang out or do anything together. I worked on building casual friendships with a few guys I met in the city and their friend groups, but some were only looking for sex, some enjoyed drinking and partying far too much, and others just already had active groups of friends, and didn’t seem to have a lot of room for one more. On top of that, overwhelmingly, they had far more disposable money than I did. Child support, rent, travel to and from Utah, insurance, gas, and occasional leisure left me very strapped, and things like eating out were a huge luxury. Ironically, despite my years away from my own origins, I felt like I was too Mormon for the men I was meeting in Seattle.

Then again, I was far too ex-Mormon for the Mormons I was meeting. Still, they were the most welcoming. Although Seattle wasn’t drowning with gay and ex-gay Mormons like Utah was, there was still a healthy and active friend group of gay Mormon guys and girls here, some of them transplants from Utah itself. Most of them still went to church every week, in a ward where the bishop lovingly embraced them for being gay, and they had social activities outside of that often: game nights, pot lucks, birthday celebrations. I was invited to a few of the parties, and I started making friends.

There was the architect, the engineer, the chef, the model, the design specialist, the government agent. There were couples and single individuals. I was one of the few fathers in the bunch. I was part of them, and yet separate, but around them I felt safe in a strange way. I could laugh, relax. It felt like my youth, with my Mormon friends playing board games and watching movies yet without alcohol or cursing.

The group even convinced me to attend church with them on a few Sundays. After coming out of the closet, going to church felt dangerous, threatening, like I was entering a space where I couldn’t breathe. The long suffocating three-hour blocks of church, with six prayers, the hymns, the testimonies, the lessons about obedience and sacrifice. I was back in church, yet I was sitting among other gay Mormons, ones who wanted to be my friends. Among them, I was the only one who had officially left the church, my name off the records, yet among them I found just a touch of safety.

Over a period of weeks, I felt my old demons start to quiet, the ones that resented Mormonism, that raged at my upbringing. I began to find a space of healing within me, a place where the parts of my upbringing that I loved could dwell. The pain, the rage, the hurt, they were all still there, but I could separate all of those out from the parts that I loved. I hated the lies, the impossible expectations, the homophobia and misogyny and racism of Mormonism. But I began to realize that I loved the community it provided, the consistency, the music, the safety, the heritage.

I started to wonder if maybe I could own the word Mormon again. I would never be part of the Mormon church again. But could I use the word Mormon, as an adjective, as a bookend for myself, honoring my roots and my upbringing. I am gay, I am Mormon, I am a dad. I’m a writer, a helper, a teacher. It’s one word among many that can fit in my being and simply dwell there. I could redefine the word that had hurt me so much and make it part of me. I was Mormon, but on my terms. Everything to do with heritage, and nothing to do with religion.

My greatest healing took place on the houseboat, the one where my dear friend Mary lived. When people asked how we knew each other, I gave the simplest answer I could. “Mary is my ex-step-sister-in-law.” Or, the slightly more detailed answer. “My mother used to be married to her ex-husband’s father.” I grew up looking up to Mary, who had a sense of style and social justice about her. She styled herself after Clara Bow and silent film stars, and she exuded love and confidence as she sang sweet melodies as her fingers moved up and down the piano keys. My sister Sheri grew up playing her music on repeat, songs over and over again, till they became familiar parts of my adolescence.

Mary was remarried now, and her sons were teenagers. She lived on a houseboat with her British husband. And she was, of course, allied to the LGBT Mormons that she knew and loved. She began to host monthly singing nights on her houseboat. As the structure rocked back and forth, the gay Mormons sat in circles, on chairs and couches or on the floor, and we sang the hymns. The songs that had touched me so much as a youth took on new meanings for me now in this circle.

The morning breaks, the shadows flee, lo, Zion’s standard is unfurled. 

Count your many blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord hath done. 

Though hard to you this journey may appear, grace shall be as your day. 

Sweet hour of prayer, they wings shell my petition bear. 

Peace and plenty here abide, smiling sweet on every side, time doth softly sweetly glide. 

Forward, pressing forward, as a triumph song we sing. 

I was singing again. I was getting in touch with those parts of me that I’d left behind after coming out. I was beginning to realize that the me then, the one that had hurt so bad for so long, he wasn’t something that I had to escape from. I didn’t need to completely redefine myself. I didn’t need to be someone new. I just needed to be someone who loved himself. I could leave the painful parts there, and reclaim the parts of me that I loved.

Remembering Natalie

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Natalie Wood had that dangerous gleam in her eye. The smallest change of intention can be seen there in her movies. With one glance and no words, she could turn from playful to flirtatious, sexual to bored, casually interested to deeply hurt.

And that laugh. That delicious, almost childlike laugh of hers, whole body behind it. And she could definitely turn on the tears.

And, my god, her figure, her small-waisted perfect figure.

Natalie Wood was a powerhouse.

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In her movie career, she would play Native Americans and HIspanics and Puerto Ricans, but her ethnicity was actually Soviet. Natalie’s parents both hailed from Russia, and her birth name was Natalia Zakharenko. Her parents (though it is believed the man who raised her wasn’t her biological father) fled from Russia after violent political conflicts that had deadly consequences for both sides of the family, came to America, and started a family, changing their name to Gurdin. Natalie Gurdin had an impossible stage mother, Mara, who pushed, prodded, screamed, and manipulated to get Natalie roles in films in Hollywood.

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And so the studios started casting little Natalie in movies, using the last name Wood to make her more accessible. And so she spent her childhood sometimes a regular kid in a regular class, and sometimes on movie lots, working long days alongside Fred MacMurray and Bette Davis and a hundred others, going to school on a lot. She made duds (Tomorrow is Forever and Father Was a Fullback) and she made classics (The Star and the Ghost and Mrs. Muir), but she became immortalized as the practical monkey-faced girl who learned to believe in Santa Claus in the Miracle on 34th Street.

As a teenager, Natalie sought to claim life as her own. She discovered alcohol and sleeping pills, rebellion against her overbearing mother, and how to use sex, even to get roles if needed. She made films that were iconic for her time but that have been nearly forgotten now, like Marjorie Morningstar, and she made sure she would never be forgotten when she played the female lead in Rebel Without a Cause at the age of 16. The following years were hard. She lost friends to tragic deaths, fell in and out of love, struggled through medcical emergencies, had her heart broken and broke hearts, dabbled with substances, even attempted suicide.

But those eyes… those eyes just kept showing up in role after role. And that laugh. That smile. That figure. That soft voice that could carry weight. Bob and Carol and Alice and Ted. West Side Story, yet another iconic role. Splendor in the Grass. The Great Race. Gypsy. They wouldn’t let her sing in West Side Story, she just wasn’t ready for that, but she did her own songs in Gypsy. Various moments in her adult life were immortalized in Hollywood as you watched her grow from child to mother.

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Natalie ha one great love, the actor Robert Wagner. But after her marriage to him failed, she tried again with actor Richard Gregson, and had a daughter, Natasha. She married Wagner again and had little Courtney. And she loved being a mother. She had years off screen when she wasn’t acting. She traveled the world. She had lovers and friends, straight and gay, in Hollywood and around the world.

Natalie died far more tragically than many realize. She grew up deathly frightened of dark water. Her mother had received a warning from a fortune teller about dark water, and Natalie herself had had a frightening experience as a child, nearly drowning in dark water on a movie set. She told friends about her fear her entire adult life, refusing to swim unless the area was well lit. So when she boarded a boat in her early 40s with her husband Robert and her movie costar Christopher Walken, and had far too much to drink, mixing it with sleeping pills, and argued with her husband that night… well, her body was found the next day, drowned, floating in dark water. Controversy and opinions about Natalie’s death still make tabloid headlines, and the investigation into her death is still ongoing, even 31 years later.

Were she still alive, Natalie would be in her 70s now. Her life would undoubtedly have had more heartbreak, losing friends through the AIDS crisis, struggling to find roles in her older life, likely struggling with alcohol and depression still. But she would have seen her daughters grow, and she would have met her grandchildren. And she would have definitely made at least a few more classics to be remembered alongside the others for hundreds of years to come.

And she still would have had those dangerous and alluring eyes. Those eyes…

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