the intersection of dreams and reality

As a therapist, I regularly tell my clients that sometimes the best way to appreciate where we are in life is to look back at where we were. 

And I hold myself to this frequently. I regularly look backwards so that I can properly assess my current standing and then look forward to the paths I should be on. But lately this has been a struggle for me, in some unexpected ways.

First of all, sometimes I don’t know how far I should be looking back. Do I consider the lonely teenager who was writing ideas down in a notepad yet never really writing anything, that boy who was so strongly holding tightly to Mormonism that he couldn’t see a future ahead in which he was happy? Do I look back to the married Mormon father, who was running a business and writing comic books, yet feeling completely unfulfilled and wondering when he might be able to overcome life’s challenges and actually come out of the closet? Both of those past versions of me clearly give me perspective in the present. They ground me. I look at how far I’ve come and I see my world around me and love the person I am and the life I’ve created.

But my current struggles are far removed from those, in some ways. They are far beyond. They stem more from five years ago and the risks I took back then, and the ways that they have paid off, or not paid off, into this current present.

Five years ago, I took major stock of my life, and I decided to take some huge risks. I quit my job and I launched a personal business, doing therapy for clients on an hourly, private-pay basis. I began sub-letting an office, I upped my rates, and I believed I could do it. I came up with a formula to keep myself financially afloat, and I set big goals to eliminate all of my debt, and to put savings and emergency funding in place should I ever need them. And with hard work and consistency, I achieved these goals, and then set others, like establishing a retirement account and getting better health insurance.

From there, I started listening to what my internal dreams are. Many of them, those that didn’t directly revolve around my children, focused on travel, research, and writing. I started small, taking short weekend trips and reading about things that interested me more often. And then the goals grew bigger and loftier as I started thriving. Travel became more frequent and more adventurous, and I began making a list of places that I had always wanted to see but hadn’t. As I saw more places, the list grew longer. And along the way, I met my boyfriend, and had someone to share this with.

Then I set a lofty goal. I determined that within four years, I would be making a living as a writer and storyteller. I just had to figure out how to do it.

Channeling my love of research and writing, I started doing daily posts on LGBT history, a huge personal passion. Eventually that turned into themed research, and then I turned that into a YouTube station. I started seeing a vision of the future in which I could share my passionate research, in spoken word format, with audiences who would be hungry to learn what I was learning. So I began putting my personal money into web developers and graphic designers to build a platform and an audience to share with. For the following year, I continued to pour money into this venture, loving every moment of the research, and agonizing every moment when the videos were only getting a few dozen views. I was putting money out, and watching numbers in the double digits roll back, and I took it personally. It hurt that I believed in myself so strongly and it wasn’t paying off in the way I’d hoped. My love of research and writing was becoming dominated by the lack of success, and I began to doubt myself.

And so I closed the YouTube channel down. I stopped researching for a time, and I did a lot of self-assessment as I tried learning tough lessons. And then I refocused and tried again, this time on a new project.

I started researching gay hate crimes in Utah. I found a list of names and I started asking questions. I copied court records, make extensive notes, drove throughout the state, and started looking people up. I found graves, recorded memories. And I felt my passion for research returning. I came alive with joy as I began finding stories to tell. Eventually, my primary focus landed on one case, that of Gordon Church, a young man killed in 1988. His murder resulted in two trials for his killers, and one of them ended up on death row. Months went by as I lost myself in this research, and in time, I began thinking that a documentary about this content would be ideal. I found a film company who began working on the project with me, and we completed dozens of interviews, gathering dozens of hours of amazing content. Over a period of 18 months, I watched the project come to fruition, and a film that would end up altering lives would soon be complete. I was on fire.

Until it boiled down to money. Without funding, we couldn’t go forward to editing the film. We needed a minimum of one hundred thousand dollars to finish, though closer to five hundred thousand would be ideal. Believing I could do anything with a project this valuable, I started holding meetings and pitches, even fundraisers, to find the necessary cash. I asked benefactors, support agencies, film studios, and especially local people who had funds and might share my passion for this project. I had dozens of meetings, with politicians and millionaires and everyone in between. Many turned me down. Many said they’d think about it. And a few said they would love to fund the project, but then kind of faded into the distance. And with every failed meeting, my aggravation, pain, and self-doubt returned. I wasn’t finding the right audience, and again, the passion I wanted to share with the world was being replaced by the reality of the world in which I was in. (Note: the film is still in the editing phase, which will take many more months without funding. While I believe it will be finished, it is on a much longer timeline than I had anticipated).

And so, while working on the film, I began seeking out other projects that would help keep my passion and love for research and writing alive. I maintained a blog (trying hard not to get frustrated with the low numbers of readers). I wrote a book, Gay Mormon Dad, and self-published (and tried hard not to take it personally when sales remained abysmally low despite reviews being incredibly high). I formed a monthly story-telling group called Voices Heard and began collaborating with dozens of incredible local story-tellers to share with assembled audiences (and struggled to remain positive when audience numbers remained small when I hoped we would have sell-out shows). These struggles have been manifesting

And now it is summer of 2019. And I’ve been in an emotional spiral these past few months as I’ve considered what to do moving forward. And so, with a bit of perspective and focused attention, I can boil it all down to a list of facts, as I seek to make sense of all of this.

  1. Writing brings me joy. Research, blogging, outlining, interviewing, story-telling, performing, and even editing make me happy. They fulfill a particular part of me. They enrich my spirit. I don’t feel good when I’m not doing them. And writing has been part of me for as long as I can remember, from my very earliest days in childhood.
  2. I can do hard things! And it is good to be confident about those things! I wrote a book, and it’s good! I built and sustained a YouTube Channel for a year, and then made the hard decision to retire it! I researched, and collaborated, and nearly completed a film that is going to be revolutionary! I created, and collaborated, to share stories at a monthly event that I love, and that is so so so good, and I’ve maintained it for over two years now! Believing in myself in crucial, and I’ve shown myself that I can create and sustain things that I ove.
  3. I love collaborating with others. I love forming new friendships with talented people and working together. The men who have made the film with me are among the most genuine and talented individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, and we have built something special over a period of years together. The story-tellers who perform with me at Voices Heard are so authentic and talented, they leave me stunned with every word; they are enthusiastic and kind and so good at what they do. And every person who has spoken to me about my book, my research, or my writing and has been excited, enthusiastic, and kind in response, to anyone who has believed in me, it has given me a confidence I never knew I was capable of.
  4. Trust is in short supply lately. I hate asking for money, and I hate paying the people for services that they can’t deliver on consistently. I’ve had over a dozen major disappointments over the past few years from people who promised something and couldn’t or didn’t deliver, including offers from publishing companies, major media presences, and benefactors who have offered to cover the costs of the documentary. I’ve reached a place where big offers leave my guard up, and I’m finding it more difficult to take it back down as time goes by.
  5. There are a lot of things I am terrible at. Marketing, graphic design, promotion, and fundraising top the list. Every time one of these topics shows up in my life, I want to scream in response. They bring up pain and insecurity because my failures in these areas directly impact the way I measure success in other areas.
  6. “Success” has become a word that is difficult for me to define. These products that I’m extremely proud of (Gay Mormon Dad, the documentary, Voices Heard, the blog) tend to have relatively small yield in profit, number of readers, or number in the audience. The documentary remains unfinished, I didn’t sell enough copies of the book to cover the costs of printing it (no less the time spent writing it), the blog rarely gets more than 30-40 reads per entry, and Voices Heard consistently only has 20-40 people in the audience (meaning I tend to lose money every month on the costs of putting it all together). It is hard to dwell in the space of gratitude and love that I feel when I write and perform, when I feel the financial and self-esteem hits when not many people are reading or attending the things I’m so proud of.

Writing all of these things down in one place is hard. It’s only after literal months of personal reflection and riding these waves that I’m even able to articulate what is happening within me. The intersection of the joy I get from writing, and the reality that I’ll likely never make a living doing it… sitting in that intersection and feeling both sides is difficult, but its the only way forward. I have to do what I do because I love it. I have to have hope that I can do more, that I will someday achieve the success I someday hope for, while simultaneously accepting that that may never happen, and still be okay and believe in myself while accepting that reality. I can’t give up on my dreams, yet I also can’t keep beating myself up when they aren’t achieved in a particular way. I have to change how I define success. I have to challenge myself at being better while accepting where I currently am. That intersection is uncomfortable, even painful, yet I’m working very hard to find peace with its existence.

And so, today, I sat down to write about it. I wrote about my journey, and what I’ve learned. I expressed my pains and doubts, my beliefs and hopes. And just like every time before, I feel better now that I have. I feel inspired. Capable. And soon I’ll click publish and know that only 20 to 50 people will read it. I have to embrace both sides of that. I knew that going in to this blog.

And I wrote it anyway.

And therein lies my lesson.

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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.

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

A Place I Used To Live

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Back then, the word ‘Gay’ was tossed to the side, put in a dark place in my brain. It represented selfishness, debauchery, sin, darkness, and evil. It belonged on a list of words that represented similar ideals, words like Abortion, Alcohol, War, AIDs, Drunkenness, and Democrat.

I had been raised to love all people, it’s true, and I was taught that God loved all people the same, but still, those who were Gay, those who chose such a lifestyle, they were to be kept at arm’s length, they belonged over there somewhere. “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” I could tell them with words that I loved everyone, but I was not to allow them to influence me, to be a part of my life, or I could be tempted too far, influenced too much.

And so, when I arrived in Philadelphia in early 1999, at age 20, I got off the subway with my new companion, Elder Shoney, and I wheeled my suitcase behind me down the concrete paths toward my new home. I had a backpack over my shoulder, filled with my scriptures and journals, and containing a glass jar in which my pet fish Caliban lived. (The fist was against the rules, shhh. Missionaries aren’t supposed to have pets.) Sweat dripped down my back, under my white shirt and garments. Although I had been a missionary for a full year at this point, I hadn’t ever been to a city this size, and it was completely overwhelming.

I looked like I was 16 then. I was sad inside, shut down, fractured. I was going through the motions, embracing the ideals I was raised with. Prayer, scripture study, knocking doors, teaching when I could, more prayer, more study. I knew I was gay by then, but I had long given up finding a cure.

Elder Shoney and I walked through the narrow streets of Germantown, and I realized that I saw no white people here. There were black people everywhere, women, children, grandparents, families. I occasionally saw someone Hispanic. But no white people there, just us, just these two young boys. We walked farther, past storefronts covered in graffiti, with garage door-style bars that would lock securely to the ground at night to protect from theft and vandalism. Elder Shoney told me that we should be in by dark every night, “cause that’s when it gets dangerous in the streets here.”

We walked over a street and into the nicer area of town, where the houses shifted from stacked row homes into larger structures with porches, windows, and backyards. A kind and successful black attorney owned the home where we would live. I wheeled my suitcase up the front steps of the house then carried it inside, up two more flights of stairs, to the apartment where I would spend the following nine months. I wasn’t excited,  I wasn’t scared, I was just ready to continue the monotonous daily work of the missionary for another year until I could finally go home and start my life.

Fast forward to 2018.

20 years later, I found this same house, the one I lived in back then. I stood on the sidewalk in front of it. On one side of me stood my sister Sheri, my gay sister, taking a few days away from her wife to come and see me during my vacation in Philadelphia. On the other side of me stood my boyfriend.

“This is where I lived,” I told them. “For nine months. I thought I would be here four, maybe six maximum, but some special circumstances kept me here for nine, then I finished my mission out in northern Delaware. Twenty years ago. Man, twenty years.

“That’s the mailbox where I’d get between two and eight letters per day, making my companions jealous. I walked up and down this street hundreds of times. Down there, I would catch the train to the subway to the bus that would take us to church, and it would take an hour each way. That two mile radius over there contains what we naively called ‘the ghetto’, filled with these beautiful African American families, and so many churches, and so much poverty. It was so unsafe for us! There are good people here, of course, but there are also gangs, and we had no protection and no training.”

My mind raced with the memories. “I lived here with four different companions. Elder Shoney, who was a basically like a brother to me; we had so much fun. Elder Borne, my greenie, who was so clearly gay; we knew each other were gay, and we were both so depressed; he thought our home here was such a disgusting mess until he saw where the other missionaries lived; he threatened to throw himself off the roof just so he would have a reason to go home, and eventually he did, and when he left, I just stopped caring.  Elder Donner, who was such as asshole, so holier-than-thou, so bossy; he once kicked a door while yelling ‘Fuck you, Anderson!’, and that was the day I got mugged and knocked unconscious. Elder Sanders, who was so-so nerdy and hilarious.

“I baptized three people in this city. William, a 13-year old boy whose mom had died and whose dad was in jail, and his grandmother Clarice, the woman raising him. She was so sweet, and she had no teeth, and she wanted her grandson to have a church to go to every week with kids like him. (Boy did she pick the wrong one). And I baptized Nyoka, a gorgeous college student. I don’t know where any of them are now.”

I went quiet for a moment and turned around, pointing down the street. “See that hair salon? That used to be St. James Chapel Fire-Baptized Congregation Holy Church of God of the Americas. We went to so many churches here! I learned so much about religion! Race! Privilege! Life and ethics and fairness. This city taught me so much, but I was a scrawny little Mormon white closeted kid here, with no perspective, no experience. What was I doing here?”

I turned back to the house, letting the memories wash over me. I put my arm around my boyfriend, pulling him in close. Sheri and I talked casually about all of the changes we had been through. And then we turned away, hungry, ready for lunch somewhere.

I turned back to the house, giving it one last look. It didn’t feel like home. It never had. It was just some place I used to live.

Washington Square

Square.jpg

“Where are you headed on your mission?”

In the airport security line, the sister missionary turned around to face me, pulling a lock of blonde hair off her face and behind her ear. She was in a modest black skirt with grey top. Her tag read “Sister Jensen, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

“I’m going to Montreal, and I’m so freaking excited!”

I laughed, her enthusiasm contagious. “I’m excited for you! Congratulations!”

“How about you, where are you going?”

I gave a soft, tight-lipped smile, and looked down. “I’m headed to Philadelphia, actually. I went on my own Mormon mission there nearly 20 years ago. I haven’t ever been back.”

She held up a hand for a high-five, and I gladly gave her one. “Well, heck yeah! Now you’re going back! Good for you! Gonna see all those people you converted?” She did an awkward little hillbilly-like dance, conveying her good humor.

“Ha, actually, it’s a different life now. I’m no longer Mormon, and this time I’m going back with my boyfriend.” I craned my neck, indicating the handsome fellow standing behind me in line.

Sister Jensen made a sober face. “Oh. Oh! Well, um, good luck!” She rushed off, having been called forward by the next available agent.

I was overcome by a strange sense of nostalgia. In January of 1998, I had entered this same airport in a white shirt and tie, with my own name tag reading “Elder Anderson, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” clipped to my shirt pocket. I wheeled behind me a suitcase full of clothes and toiletries, scriptures and supplies, things I would use for the next two years as I lived with strangers and attempted to convert those around me to what I believed, at the time, to be the true religion. At the time, with only two weeks training under my belt, I had just turned it all over to God, hoping he would make me successful and reward my efforts with great numbers of baptisms.

Just a few years ago, in this very blog, I took time to go through my mission experiences in several different entries. I recounted my efforts to cure my homosexuality through missionary service, my bizarre and tragic experiences with companions, my converts, and my life lessons. But here I was, prepared to actually physically go back to the city I had once lived in for nine months. Then, I was 19 (and looked 14), away from my family for the first time, full of naiveté and self-doubt. Now, I was 39, confident in my own skin and full of life experience, out of the closet and with a fantastic partner at my side. And I was beginning the trip in line behind a brand new sister missionary. The irony made me smile.

The plane ride was smooth. I got a middle seat in the 20th row, and was comfortably nestled in between my boyfriend and an elderly woman who kept hacking, complaining about not being able to smoke on the plane, and sipping on a Bloody Mary and a coffee the flight attendant had brought her. We landed in Philadelphia around 4 pm, gathered our things, and caught a car into the city without incident.

When I lived Philadelphia for those 9 months of my mission back in 1999, I stayed in Germantown, in a crime-ridden area filled with poverty, though the house I stayed in was blocked into the nicer city area where it was safe. This time, we’d be staying in an Airbnb in Washington Square, what they now referred to as the “Gayborhood”, a place with mostly safe streets, thriving businesses, and gay bars. It was sure to be a very different experience.

After checking in, the boyfriend and I went through a long walk in the area, and so much felt familiar, although the city was as different as I was. The skyline, the moisture in the air, the sheer diversity of the people around us, the long flat stretches, the century-old churches int he middle of large blocky brick buildings, the row homes, the garbage on the curbs waiting for pick-up, the people just stacked on top of each other. A million flashes of memory hit me. Trying to maneuver a couch up and down flights of narrow stairs while helping someone move, ringing every doorbell on a particular building while hoping someone would answer and invite us up to teach, tables full of counterfeit products on street corners ready to be sold, navigating busses to subways to trains in order to get anywhere. This city had been so overwhelming to me at the time, so monstrous and impossible. Now it felt both familiar and foreign, like a place I’ve been yet just like every other place, its own history and people here all along, moving forward without me.

In nearby Washington Square Park, I stood in the middle to survey my surroundings. Behind me stood a statue of George Washington behind an eternal flame, making the grave of an unknown soldier to honor those lost in the Revolutionary War. Arrayed around that were benches and tables, pathways, and trees filled with birds. And across the park, a sea of humanity. A beautiful white man with a gorgeous black woman, cuddled tightly on a bench together, clearly in love. A gay man in a pink tank talking loudly on his cell phone while walking several dogs. An older black man with a thick beard mumbling to himself as he looked into one garbage can, then the next, trying to find some treasure. An Asian man reading medical textbooks. A heavyset woman wrapped head to toe in a burka and hijab, the symbols of her religious devotion, the colors of the robes flashing black and red. A well-dressed elderly black woman with tight grey curls laughing loudly, showing half her teeth missing. A handsome man instructing a white couple on how to do burpees in the main pathway. A lithe black woman with a baby strapped to her chest watching the water spilling in the fountain.

A sea of humanity, and one that included me, a formerly Mormon missionary who once stood in this park doubting himself, yet who had now returned to see it with new eyes.

the Lord’s University

BYU

“If you aren’t Mormon yet, just give it time!” the man laughed, running his hand through a thick red beard. “I always said I wouldn’t give in, but my wife convinced me eventually!”

I sipped my coffee, listening intently as the man went on and on, eager to have a captive audience. Only slightly frustrated, I heard his life story of growing up a “Jack Mormon”, but eventually marrying a “nice modest Mormon girl who turned my head right around.” Now, he said, they were living in a two bedroom apartment and she was seven months pregnant with their fifth kid. She stayed home with the children while he worked, as they kids were all under six and one was medically needy with regular seizures. He’d dropped out of college a few years ago, trying to make enough money to pay the bills, but now they needed the bishop to help regularly. He went on talking as I just smiled and nodded. I’d barely said a word, only mentioning that I wasn’t from this state.

“Anyway, now that you live in Utah, you’ll join up eventually.”

“Probably not,” I smiled, choosing what I wanted to share about myself carefully. “I have a boyfriend.”

“I knew it!” He pumped his fist in the air. “That’s way too nice a shirt for a straight guy! But you don’t seem gay, like, at all. Wait, are you one of those gay guys who gets, like, all of the girls? If so, we totally need to hang out. You could pass them on to me.”

I laughed, and winked. “Wife? Four kids, one on the way?”

And he deflated. “Oh yeah.”

Awake from the coffee, and with a few hours to kill before my next work shift began, I considered what to do, and realized the BYU campus was nearby. In my 8 years in Utah, I had never once visited the campus, having no reason to go there. As I drove there, I took time to realize that this was maybe the one place in Utah I would be nervous to hold my partner’s hand–I think I could even do that at Temple Square comfortably, but not at BYU, that was different somehow.

I came here once back in high school, for a summer youth program. But I’d never been back. The grounds are clean, and the campus is right at the base of beautiful, snow-capped mountains. The buildings are unique and uniform at the same time, and the campus felt full without being crowded. I walked the grounds, meandering in and out of buildings that all bore the names of old or dead white men, all leaders in the Mormon church at some point. Though most of the student body was white, there were touches of ethnic diversity, and overwhelmingly everyone seemed happy, young, and modest. It really was a lovely place.

While I never attended BYU, I did go to its sister BYU campus in southern Idaho, a slightly smaller version that was much the same, also uniform, in the mountains, with smiling students who were mostly white. There, it wasn’t strange for math class to begin with a prayer, for students to bring up scriptural references in history as if they were concrete fact, or for a religion class to fall between science and communications. I remember the great sense of belonging that I felt there, a sense that everyone had the same values and morals that I did. There were large buildings devoted to theater, music, and the arts, as well as enormous churches and religious institutions everywhere. It was the Lord’s University, and I got to be a part of it.

Walking the campus now, though, as an ex-Mormon, a gay man, someone who no longer belongs, it didn’t feel safe. It was familiar, but uncomfortably so. All of the inconsistencies and cracks showed themselves, almost too quickly. I found myself wondering why I’d come here, and if it had been to look for these cracks. Why couldn’t I just look at the pretty campus and not see the flaws in the system?

I saw a sign advertising a board games club, and immediately thought of the LGBT student organization not being allowed to meet on campus, instead relegated to the city library. I saw a couple holding hands with a new baby wrapped tightly against the mom, and I knew they were likely living in married student housing nearby, but I could only focus on the young gay men like me who were marrying women because they felt they had no other choice. I saw a group of guys devouring piles of burgers and fries, and I could only think how coffee and tea were forbidden but not high fructose corn syrup. While most universities emphasized individuality and the finding of self, this one demanded obedience and conformity. It was very Stepford Wives at its essence.

Little stories began flashing through my brain, all of them painful ones, but they didn’t bring any feelings with them this time, they were only there, for me to bear witness. I thought of my friend who was subjected who electro-shock treatment years ago, here on campus, for being gay. I thought of another friend who was kicked out of school for dating a man, losing all of his college credits and facing disgrace in his family. I thought of a close friend who, just a few years ago, told me how he walked this campus and looked for just the right building to jump off of because he couldn’t face being gay anymore. I thought of the client who reported to her bishop how she’d been raped on campus, and his only response had been to ask her what mixed messages she might have sent to the young man before reminding her that she would now need to repent. Isolated stories, yes, but far too familiar, especially given those that I spend my time with in my day to day life. It was impossible not to hold them in my heart as I viewed all of the green trees and the white smiles. The Mormons were my people: we had a culture and an upbringing in common, and the gays were my people, having a shared experience of growing up different and coming out. But more than anything, the gay Mormons were my people, and if statistics held true, then about 8 per cent of this campus was gay, and that was a whole lot of people.

I left campus soon after, and drove up the hill, toward the large Y on the mountain. I parked the car and got out, sitting on the hood, taking in the city below from a higher vantage point. The lake, the house, the roads. It was stunning from here. Breathing in the fresh air, I thought about the reading I had done the night before, for a small crowd, from my book. I’d read about what it had been like being married to a woman as a gay man. And though I had shared the story many times before, I’d been surprised by a heavy vulnerability, having to pause a few times to not cry. Those in the audience had listened with rapt attention to the painful experiences, and their eyes on me as I read opened up the wounds, in health and fulfilling ways. It was wonderful to share. Sometimes it felt so nice to stand up and speak my truth.

And other times, more than anything, I needed to be anonymous in a crowd of strangers, observing from the inside and then retreating to the hills above.

Animal Doctor

Animaldoctor

“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.

Hot For Teacher

Jonah

“You can’t understand the story of Jonah without understanding the culture of the times.” I picked up the dishcloth I had brought from home to use as a sweat rag and dabbed it against my forehead. “Here is what most people know about Jonah, much like the one you might read in the Children’s Bible: Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh but he refused, so God humbled him by having him swallowed by a whale, and the whale then delivered Jonah to Nineveh to preach. Can anyone think of other any individual details?”

I dabbed the cloth along my neck line and looked out at the crowd over the 100 or so members of my Mormon ward. The bright pancake lights above hit me brightly as I looked over the faces of the crowd. There were young mothers with newborn babies, elderly couples who had been been attending weekly Sunday School Services for seven decades, and every shade of person in between. Most Mormons, even those who actively read their scriptures and lived their religion, didn’t take much time to study the Old Testament, so sharing content from these stories always brought me joy. With enough research, I felt like I could truly enlighten those in the room and leave them feeling inspired. Sunday School teacher was my very favorite church calling.

I would spend hours researching my Sunday School lessons during the week, reading the content and taking pages of notes, looking into supplemental articles, cross-referencing pieces of history. I would often prepare a lecture that could last for 2 hours, and then I’d pull out the most fascinating content, enough to fill about 40 minutes, which would then leave 10 minutes for discussion. Even paring things down that much, I tended to get overly enthusiastic, rushing my words to fit as much as I could before the bell rang for the next class to begin. I had to learn, slowly over time, that it was best to teach just a few things effectively rather than a bulk of things in a huge rush. It was much better to have people leave the class inspired, with a new sense of understanding, rather than a wealth of new information that was rushed. (This approach would later help me to become an effective college teacher).

My wife, Maggie, came in an out of the room a few times, taking care of our infant son, J, who was now getting more mobile and difficult to contain as he crawled rapidly, exploring every corner of the room. He wouldn’t be old enough to attend the nursery program for a few more months yet, and sometimes it was easier to just let him roam the halls rather than expect him to sit still.

I fanned my suit jacket open a few times, able to tell the white shirt I wore beneath it was already soaked through with sweat. I had taken to wearing baggier clothing lately, now that I was 255 lbs. My pants were now at a 39, where just a few years ago I had worn a size 32. If I wore layers, others couldn’t see how think my sweat was, except along my forehead and neck line. My face glistened in the bright lights. I hated how much effort just standing here and talking took out of me. It made me thirsty. And hungry. I always felt hungry. I woke up in the night to eat sometimes, and I ate between meals, always feeling full yet always wanting more. Sometimes I wondered what had become of myself. How had I sunk this far?

The clock ticked by as I discussed theories about the whale in the Jonah story being metaphorical versus theories that it was literal. We discussed the wickedness of Nineveh and what made the city unique, and why Jonah had been reluctant to go there. And then I tried to make Jonah real, illuminating for the class how much effort it would take to face an impossible task given to us by God, one that had to be taken on faith. I asked some of the class to share the difficult things they faced in their lives, and what made them a bit more like Jonah, weathering through illnesses, family struggles, or crises of faith. And somewhere deep inside, I faced my own Nineveh task, unable to reconcile being gay with Mormon.

Soon, the bell rang, and people began filing out the door, significantly lowering the temperature of the room as the doors opened and the air circulated. I stepped off the side, leaning against a wall slightly, out of the hot lights and somehow sweating more as my body seemed to realize class was over. Several people stood up at the front of the class, making comments from the lesson, asking questions, some reminding me how much they looked forward to my lessons.

With the room nearly empty now, Maggie made her way up to the front of the class. My son J patted at my calves, and I bent down to scoop him up careful to hold him out on my arm so he wouldn’t be pressed against my sweaty face. He grinned at me, silly and happy with a full tummy, and I squeezed him in close. As Maggie asked me how I felt about the lesson, I noticed Brother and Sister Markel, a couple in their late 70s, casually waiting behind her, and I beckoned them forward.

“Brother Anderson, thank you as always for your wonderful lessons.”

“Thank you!” I exclaimed back.

Sister Markel opened her shoulder bag. “Brother Markel and I have noticed you seem a bit… uncomfortable lately. We got you a small gift that might help.”

Using my third grade sense of humor, I took the present from their hands, immediately quipping, “Why Sister Markel, does this gift mean you’re hot for teacher?”

Maggie rolled her eyes as Brother Markel laughed heartily. Sister Markel looked surprised, then smiled gently. “I… I guess you could say that. Open it up.”

I opened the gift and found a small battery-operated fan inside.

“You seem to get very warm up here. We thought a small fan on the table might help keep you cool. So it is a ‘hot for teacher’ present, I suppose.”

I thanked the Markels, turning bright red, not wanting to even talk about the noticeable sweat. Instead of staying for the third block of church, I took J and went home early. There, I poured myself a bowl of cereal, a snack before the later lunch, and, noticing the small fan on the counter, thought that one of these days I needed to do something about my weight problem.

FAN.jpg

City of Trees

CityofTrees.jpgThe colors are more muted than I remember. It’s still pretty, but the greens, browns, and blues seem to dull at the edges and blend in to each other.

I remember the first time I drove to Boise as an adult. I had only been here a few times as a teenager, on trips with the high school band perhaps, but at the age of 23 I packed my little red truck full of my things and drove from southeastern Idaho to southwestern, and along the way the potato fields, volcanic rock, and white capped mountains shifted to green trees and brown hills, beautiful but a different kind. The Snake River moved from one side of the state to the other along with me.

My life was so different in 2004. After over two years at a Mormon-run school, which had followed a two year missionary service, I had spent a summer mourning my life (and my inability to cure my homosexuality) at a little mountain theater, playing roles in mediocre plays, walking trails, and reading books in isolation. Now, Boise beckoned, a brand new world. I had a scholarship, I found a cheap apartment, and I could always make friends in my new Mormon ward. Life was full of possibilities.

I was shifting from an all-Mormon campus to a secular one. People wore shorts here, and smoked cigarettes. They had beards. There was much more ethnic diversity (if still not much), and I sometimes saw gay guys now, which just baffled me and scrambled my senses. My first teacher in my first class used the word ‘fuck’, and my history professor told us that the Bible had no historical accuracy. I was stunned, intrigued, and ready for a new life.

Now, in 2018, Boise feels… safe. It’s not like home. It’s been too long since I’ve been here. I’ve changed too much. But it feels quaint, open, protected. It’s been nearly 15 years, and the city has changed as much as I have, but it’s still the same. The same buildings, the same river running beautifully behind the same picturesque campus, the same streets winding around the state capitol building. But the people are all different, occupying the benches, paths, and corners where I used to dwell.

Memories come haphazardly, quietly, non-intrusively. The apartment where my little sister told me she was gay and I yelled at her in response. The parking lot where the mentally ill client threatened my life. The gazebo where I saw two men kissing, and I knew that I would never be able to find love like that. The greasy burger joint where I would order a triple cheeseburger and a giant package of onion rings. The hotel where I studied social theories in between checking in clients. The tennis courts I worked in, where I should sit anxiously at the desk knowing that all of the male athletes were one locker room away. The institute classroom where the teacher taught us all about the Plan of Salvation, God’s grand scheme, the one I didn’t fit into. The therapy office where the counselor said he thought being gay was the source of my depression, and I stormed out in fury. The library room where I spent an entire weekend polishing a policy paper on the death penalty, it later being published in a professional review. The charity home I worked in, where I was once caught watching porn after hours. The Mormon temple where I attended services every week, trying to prove to God I was worthy enough. The city park bench where the girl I’d been dating told me abruptly that if I didn’t finally kiss her it was over. The town hall where, as an actor, I played a dead body for a drunken crowd, and a woman in a nun costume, who was part of the audience, came up to the stage and grabbed my ass, saying to laughter “I have to make sure he’s dead.”

Walking the streets now, I can only wonder what my current life might be like had I come out back then, at 23, when I began to realize what a gay life might mean for me. I would almost assuredly have still finished college with the same degree, and worked many of the same jobs. I would have found plenty of support. My family would have adapted, after their initial grief and pain. I would have left Mormonism and started dating, finding connections and strength along the way. I would never have married, would never have broken hearts when I later divorced. But then my sons would never have been born. Would I have been a parent still? Would I have settled down with one partner and built a life from the ground up? Would I still be acting and singing? Would I have traveled the world? Would I be living in Seattle, San Francisco, London? Would that extra ten years of happiness, of life, made a substantial difference?

In an alternate universe somewhere, Boise, this City of Trees, represented a different path, a jumping off point that changed everything, and I hope that the Me in that universe is as happy as the Me in this one is right now.