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Pride, Prejudice, and Protest

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HOMO SEX IS SIN

BELIEVE TRUST FOLLOW OBEY JESUS

ASK ME WHY YOU DESERVE HELL

The signs were tall, large bright capital letters on bold backgrounds, yellow on black, black on white. The word Hell was bright red, the letters dramatically lapped in flames along the bottom. There were no exclamation points, but they were certainly implied. (At least there was no ‘God Hates Fags’ signs this time. That one makes me angrier than the others, somehow.)

And the protestors looked like normal people, men and women in shirts and jeans. They were relatively peaceful as they stood there with their signs of condemnation, their T-shirts (ordered out of the back of some fundamentalist magazine somewhere, perhaps) with similar messages of hate and judgment.

They occupied a prominent corner in Salt Lake City, on a major intersection, right in front of a hotel and restaurant, right where the parade began. Just across the street from the protestors, a large booth blared happy, peppy music like Born This Way by Lady Gaga and Holiday by Madonna, songs about embracing who you are and celebrating life. The streets were full of people assembling for the upcoming Pride parade, a lengthy procession that would last over two hours and would include lavish floats and huge groups of people. Those marching in the parade would include everything from men in leather with whips, mothers holding signs that said they loved their gay children, huge processions from local businesses in matching T-shirts that embrace diversity, Mormons holding signs like ‘Jesus Said Love Everyone’ who were trying to seek change from within, the local gay swim team in speedos and roller skates, mayoral and Congressional candidates with throngs of supporters, and drag queens in flowing gowns on the tops of trucks and busses. Every one of them would march past those signs as they were cheered by the thousands upon thousands of those there to cheer them on.

ASK ME WHY YOU DESERVE HELL.

My little family hovered in the shade across the street from the protestors, waiting for the parade to begin. My sons, J and A, ages 9, sat on the ground, talking back and forth about the adventures we had been having all morning. The night before, we’d rented a hotel room downtown in order to be closer to the parade route, and I had assembled a team of bird toys as super-villains, calling themselves the Bird Brigade. The bald eagle, flamingo, chicken, goose, cassowary, and others all had villain names and super-powers and they had been led by a cartoonish looking Baby Bluebird. The kids had made hero teams out of their animals and they had spent hours laughing at the antics of the Bird Brigade, who, of course, lost every battle. Now, after coffee and breakfast, they were still talking about the adventures and cracking up. (This quality time with them was my very favorite thing about being their father).

My boyfriend reached over and scratched my back. “Are you sure we should stand here? Do you think the kids will wonder about those signs?”

I shrugged. “Well, if they ask questions, it gives us an opportunity to talk about it. They’ve been at Pride every year, and there are always protestors here. They’ve never asked questions before. But I don’t want to move. I am kind of determined to stand my ground.” I put my arm around him as he understood.

Just before the parade began, one of the protestors grabbed a megaphone and began shouting over the music and the crowd. As I looked over to watch him, trying to make out his words, I noticed three policemen standing right behind him, against the wall. They were there to protect us, of course, but they were also there to protect the protestors who, I realized again, had every right to be there, every bit as much as we did.

“God condemns sin! Those who do not repent will all be burned! The Bible is clear in its condemnation of sinners! Turn back from sin now or burn! All sinners will burn in Hell!”

In response, the music was turned up louder. The protestor went silent, then he tried blaring a Christian song over his own megaphone to drown out Rihanna. Ultimately it was ineffective and he gave up, returning to standing there quietly.

I found myself voicing my thoughts out loud, my boyfriend listening as I sorted through my complex feelings. “The thing is, I believe in their right to protest. Freedom of speech and all that. They deserve to have a place to stand and protest. But it’s just… gross. It’s gross! Then again, they think that we are gross, for being a couple out here in public with my sons at our side.”

As I talked, I watched a Latina drag queen with bright purple hair, in a corset and skirt, with bold make-up, walk out in front of the protestors and raise her middle fingers in the air as people cheered her on and photos were taken. “We are responding to their hate with hate,” I thought to myself even as I found myself clapping for the drag queen.

“I just don’t understand why they are here at the start of the parade in such a prominent position,” my boyfriend said.

“Honestly, they probably just got here really early and claimed a place where they would be seen. In past years, they are usually at the entrance to the festival after the parade. In fact, they will probably be there, too.”

The parade started, and went for hours, but my thoughts kept going back to the protestors. Who were these people? Are they just locals who hate gays so much that they want to voice their fury in this way? Do they think that they are saving souls by turning people away from lives of sin? Do they do this professionally? Are these T-shirts their work uniforms, those signs their gear? Do they travel from city to city  at various Pride festivals, paid to promote their cause by a various church or business? There is a website at the bottom of their signs, I noticed. Is that it, are these just paid groupies of some kind? They seemed so calm as they stood there.

I thought back to a few years ago, when some of the protestors chanted hateful rhetoric at a group of gay people. I watched a furious young lesbian couple screaming at the protestors, who stood there silently.

“It’s people like you who fucking ruined my life! You’ve turned my family against me! My whole church disowned me! And you stand here saying that God hates me! God created me this way, you fuckers! How dare you stand here hurting people while you say you love them!”

And she was right, of course. Except her fury was misplaced. The protestors and their messages reinforce messages that most LGBT people hear growing up, over and over again. I was given those messages, and I still am. “If you work hard enough, you can cure yourself from being gay.” “I like gay people, I just don’t support your lifestyle.” “I’m happy you have found someone, but I still think being gay is a choice.” “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” “Homosexuality is a gross abomination.” “You say you are born this way, but God would never do that to anyone.” And are any of those messages any better or worse than “Ask me why you deserve Hell” or “God hates fags”?

Yet what good does it do to stand and rage at these (likely paid) protestors, screaming in pain and vulnerability at strangers?

Still reasoning out loud, I turned back to my boyfriend. “How different would the news coverage be if we gay people made giant-ass signs like this and we stood outside churches every Sunday with hate messages. ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged.’ ‘God said to love, not condemn and disown.’ Or worse. ‘You aren’t true Christians!’ ‘Burn in Hell!’ ‘God hates you!’ Or, even, perhaps, ‘Ask me why you deserve Hell!’ The media would label us haters, disgusting, sinners, anti-Christian, and the world would leap to support them.”

I looked back at my children on the ground, still laughing over Baby Bluebird. Then I looked around at the crowd of people, all of them, in leather, in purple wigs, in make-up, in tight shorts, in jeans and t-shirts and dresses and tank tops and body glitter, all there to celebrate life. I recognized the change happening in the world.

And I came to my own conclusion. “We are the future. My sons are the future. They are the past. I support their right to protest, and I protest them in return, and I have no desire to sink to their level. I choose to celebrate life rather than hold signs.”

 

I paused for a moment, speaking to myself. “I can’t do much. But I can write about it. I can live my own truth. I can help others. And I can raise my sons to live in a better future.”

Later, my boyfriend and I held hands. J held my right hand, A held his left hand, and we formed a little chain, walking down at the road, a different family, but a family all the same. We took up a whole sidewalk, my little family. And if that made me deserve Hell, well, I’ll see you there.

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Monuments

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I’m a product of everything that has come before me. Small and large, historical and irrelevant. I’m a composite of human history, events and decisions that shaped my destiny for thousands of years before I was ever conceived on this small planet. Political revolutions, marriages, tragic deaths, wars, the founding and dissolutions of nations.

Sheri (my younger sibling, and the other gay member of my family) and I (a gay father of two sons from Utah) pulled through the small town of Sharon, Vermont, watching for the sign announcing the birthplace of Joseph Smith. It felt strange for the two of us, both no longer affiliated with the Mormon church, to be stopping here. We were road-tripping through Vermont, however, headed from Brattleboro to Burlington, and when would I ever be near Sharon again.

We drove past small farm houses and a few small local businesses. This was clearly a small community. (A quick Google search confirmed that the town population was 1500). The season, in mid-November, was shifting from fall to winter, swiftly. The leaves were no longer changing, already shifted to a deep brown and most of them on the ground, just a few left clinging to barren branches. A breeze blew outside the windows, stark and biting, over the small rolling hills outside. It was lovely.

Finally, we found the turn to the homestead where the prophet Joseph had been born. How well I recalled the narrative. Toward the end of his short life, Joseph Smith had released an official account of his life from his perspective, in which he recalled growing up with hard-working parents on a farm and having been born in Sharon, in Windsor County, Vermont. The family had moved when he was an infant, and had gone on to New York, where, in Joseph’s adolescence, he encountered a period of religious revival, and he had to decide which church to join. According to his account, he prayed for truth, and was visited by God and Jesus Christ themselves, in glowing, floating, resurrected bodies, and they told him to join none of the churches and instead to start his own. I’d practically memorized this account as a young Mormon missionary 20 years before. As we drove through Sharon, I wondered how differently my life would have been, over a century later, if Joseph’s parents had stayed in this small town instead of moving. Would there ever have been a Mormon Church if they stayed?

We pulled down the large driveway toward the homestead. There was a small branch of the Mormon Church there, a cemetery of ancient graves (with no names that I recognized), a home (where the man who managed the estate lived), and a small visitor’s center. I could see Christmas lights wound around the trees of the grounds, not lit up, and realized they likely did a local Nativity scene here at Christmas time. Pleasant gospel music played over the speakers. I immediately thought of other Church history sites I had visited, most prominently Temple Square in Salt Lake City, where it felt the same: manicured lawns, Christmas lights, church music.

Back behind the center was a large monument to Joseph, a giant pointed structure towering into the sky, and a sign near it talked about how the monument had been built out of one single stone. Plaques adorning it told the story of Joseph, and golden writing wound around it quoted James 1:5, the scripture that inspired Joseph to pray for God’s revelations in the first place. “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God…”

“It looks a lot like a penis,” Sheri whispered, though no one was around to hear.

“Oh yes. Men and their phallic architecture,” I laughed back, and we looked around. There was a trail off to the side, brown and winding through the woods, that led to the site of the Solomon Mack homestead; Mack was a Revolutionary War veteran who’d lived in the area. It was a mile hike, but it was far too cold to venture into the woods. Just the day before, Sheri and I had visited a similar site in New Hampshire where a woman named Madame Sherri had built a “castle” in the woods, entertaining there for decades before the place burned down.

Sheri and I stood facing the woods. “Sometimes I wonder what future generations will think. Whose names will they choose to remember. What markers and monuments will be placed from our times. Or will it all just be ruins and dust, leading archaeologists to dig up our remains and wonder who we were.” We contemplated that for a bit before going into the visitor’s center.

Inside, we were greeted by Elder Abbot, a nice man from central Utah who was serving an 18 month mission in Sharon, greeting visitors. He told us the local branch of the church had about 80 active members in a 60 mile radius. “The church isn’t that strong in this area, but we are sure working on it!” He told us that in the summer and around Christmastime, the center gets hundreds of visitors daily, but in the off-seasons, only a few per day. “Church members don’t really come here. Honestly, there isn’t a lot of relevance to this place for us. Joseph was only born here. Nothing else momentous happened.”

Elder Abbot led us into the central room, where we saw a large statue of Joseph, a library of church books in glass casings, and giant pictures of Jesus Christ and Thomas Monson, the current Mormon prophet. We looked around for a bit, done after a couple of minutes.

“Can I take your picture in front of the statue?”

Sheri and I, still bundled up in our winter gear, sat next to each other, giving small smiles for the picture. When he handed it back, I zoomed in on our faces, our expressions clearly underwhelmed. Behind us were tributes to Christ, Smith, and Monson, the three men (all white, of course) that our birth family most revered. They were still looking over our shoulders, promising to judge our lifestyle choices in a weird way.

We walked out, thanking Elder Abbot with a handshake, and got back in the car. “Hey, remember that time the two gay ex-Mormons went to the birthplace of the founder of Mormonism, and they were totally bored?”

We laughed together, driving out of Sharon, but my thoughts turned to origins and long-term decisions, and I couldn’t help but wonder what my actions now meant for generations down the line. Then I clicked open my phone and realized the monument to Joseph was a Pokemon gym and I laughed even harder.

Believing in Angels

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I grew up believing I could see angels.

At least if I was worthy enough.

In fact, the first tenets of my religion, outside of belief in Jesus Christ himself, were tied up around visits from heavenly beings to those who had enough faith. The very origins of the Mormons, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, lay in the tenet that something asked with faith would be revealed. A Mormon favorite scripture lay in James 1:5: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. Joseph Smith did that, they believe, and God manifested himself with his son, Jesus Christ, at his side, inspiring Joseph to create a brand new church.

Nearly twenty years later, I can still remember the night I went to bed absolutely positive I would be seeing an angel, one with a miracle in his hand. At the time, I was training to be a missionary, in the aptly named Missionary Training Center, one of the holiest places on Earth according to Mormons. I had had Priesthood leaders lay their hands on my head and set me apart as a missionary, placing a ‘mantle’ upon me, one that was there to increase my spiritual sensitivity and my access to the Holy Ghost itself, so long as I was living worthy. I had literally set aside all of my mortal concerns. I had delayed college for two full years so that I could go be a missionary, paying out of pocket to do so. I had left my family behind, not even allowed to make phone calls to them while I was gone. I was leaving my friends, my home, my hobbies and interests, and sacrificing every moment of every day.

In the days prior, I had been reading the scriptures nonstop, praying constantly, and thinking of nothing but spiritual things, even keeping hymns playing in my heart. I had fasted and listened with my full heart and spirit to the leaders who had spoken to us, listening for every answer.

The night before, Steven R. Covey, the famous businessman, author, and motivational speaker, the man who had written Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, himself a Mormon, had given a speech to a crowd of young missionaries about looking at others the way Jesus looks at us. I had been implementing this view during the day, seeing those around me as children of God, and then I had taken a step farther and turned it inwardly. For one of the first times in my life, I saw myself as a child of God, someone who deserves happiness, someone who can do anything with God, someone who was capable of performing miracles.

And then I saw myself as, perhaps, someone who could have a miracle performed upon him. Someone who was worthy. Someone who could be healed, not for selfish reasons but to make me a better servant of God, a better advocate of his as I spent the next few years bringing other souls to him.

All day that day I had been filled with light and love. My nerve endings were on fire, my stomach felt full with no food, my head felt light and brimming with hope. I climbed into my bed at the MTC that night with more hope than I had ever felt before. I muttered a prayer to God, with tears streaming down my face, that I was ready. I was ready, at last, to be cured of being gay. I had been hoping for this cure since I was in elementary school, and I knew now that finally, finally, I could be made whole, be made straight, be made right in the eyes of God. I had been promised I could be cured if I tried hard enough, and this time I knew I could. I had faith.

As I closed my eyes that night, I remember wondering if I might actually see an angel. My desires were righteous, my heart was pure. I might actually get my  miracle.

And then I fell asleep. And then, hours later, I woke up. I came aware suddenly, my stomach rumbling, my head clouded, and I swiftly sat up. I scanned my insides. Nothing felt different, but everything would be, I just knew it.

Within a few hours, walking around outside among the other missionaries, I had immediately noticed a few of them were attractive, and I silently cursed myself. I instead made myself look at the women around, the sister missionaries and the employees at the MTC, and wondered if I could find them attractive now. But it was the same as it had always been, there was nothing there, no attraction, no noticing.

I found a quiet corner and prayed, asking God for guidance, and I felt that I just needed to be patient. No angel, no cure, but perhaps a bit more patience. I needed a blessing.

That entire day, I squirmed in my chair, still mostly fasting, and I struggled to stay focused. I needed that blessing and I needed it now. Finally the evening had arrived, and I rushed into the man who served in a leadership position over me, a branch president, a man I had never met but one who was assigned to help the missionaries during their training.

Brother Christensen listened kindly as I told him everything. I told him about being gay, about being here on a mission for the right reasons, about knowing I could be cured, and about needing his help to make the cure happen. Tears had spilled down my cheeks the entire time and I had made no effort to wipe them free. My heart had thudded in my chest, my fingers had been tightly clasped into fists.

Brother Christensen listened. And then he stayed silent. And then he spoke the words that would haunt me for the next several years.

“Elder Anderson, your desires for a cure are righteous, but it is not your lot to be cured of your same-sex attraction. This is your cross to bear. It’s a condition you were meant to live with and to learn from. Perhaps a cure can come in the future, but this is not something I can help you with today.”

He had given me a blessing that night anyway. One of comfort. But I couldn’t hear a word of it through my own shame. My ears and heart had been filled with foolishness and embarrassment. I had felt so sure, so pure, so trusting in God. I had believed in angels.

A small part of my spirit died that day, and stayed that way for a long time to come. I finished my missionary training, and I spent hours, days, weeks, months knocking on doors, teaching others how to make themselves right with God so that they could join his church. But the entire time, I felt like a hypocrite. Because how could I teach them to be right when I was never right myself?

I had believed in angels. But they had just flown on by.

He Said

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he said

“You’re husband material,” he said, looking into my eyes with candor. “And I have a terrible habit of only falling for guys who are bad for me. So I’m not really interested in seeing you again.”

“I made a huge mistake,” he said, looking away. “Making out with you sent the wrong message because I don’t think you’re that cute. But maybe we can hang out again some time.”

“Chad was the one who got away,” he said to a friend, who later told me. “He was sweet and good-looking and actually wanted to date me. But he expected me to text back, to put in effort. I know he’s still single, but I’m just not ready for that kind of guy.”

“You’re the kind of guy I could move across the country for,” he said, with those blue eyes right on mine, “and you’ve accomplished so much. I can’t do this, not until I’m someone who’s done as much as you have.”

“You’re friends are crazy hot,” he said, eyes mischievous on the dance floor. “But they aren’t my type. I prefer guys like you, guys more average.”

“I like everything about you,” he said with a reassuring lopsided smile, “and there is nothing I would change. I could spend my life with you if you just change the following things about yourself.”

“I love you,” he said, with sincere eyes much too quickly, repeating it often and consistently until I believed him. Then one afternoon, he shrugged, averted his gaze, and said, “You know, I’m just not feeling it anymore.”

“If only I wasn’t married,” he said.

“If only I was younger,”  he said.

“If only you were younger,” he said.

“I’m not ready for kids,” he said.

“Can you bring your kids on our second date?” he said.

“You have nice skin but you have some work to do on your body,” he said.

“I might be busy for a month or two but maybe I’ll give you call some time,” he said.

“I only like older guys,” he said.

“I only like younger, skinny guys,” he said.

“I only like beefy bears,” he said.

“It’s only been three days, but do you want to be my boyfriend?” he said.

“You’re not Mormon enough,” he said.

“I don’t date ex-Mormons,” he said.

“I like you, but not as much as I like meth,” he said.

“I like you way too much way too soon,” he said.

“I’m just not ready to date someone again,”  he said.

“I’m just looking for sex,”  he said.

“You actually look good now, what changed?” he said.

“Don’t call me handsome, it makes me insecure,” he said.

“I’m ashamed of myself as a person,” he said.

“I’ve never dated a therapist. Do you think I have depression?” he said.

“I’m not capable of trusting another person again,” he said.

“Yo keep a lot hidden,” he said, his brown eyes focused on me intently. “It makes me wonder what you’re thinking. It makes me wonder about you. You seem like a great guy. I mean, how is a guy like you still single?”

 

 

 

 

Spoon seeking spoon

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I miss being married.

It took me a long time to get there. As a young Mormon man, I spent two years after high school knocking on doors as a missionary. After that, there was tremendous pressure to marry, constant and consistent from all sources. Marriage was defined as the ultimate destination in life, to marry young and to have children and to stay married until old, then die and still be married to each other in the Heavens. I don’t believe any of that now, but back then it was the only way to go for young Mormon men.

I was caught in a massive trap. I didn’t yet have the ability to have anything but shame about being gay, and thus couldn’t date men, and so I could only date women, who I felt no attraction toward. I coped by focusing on personality traits rather than physical appearance. I knew what type of wife I should want, but ultimately I just didn’t have any drive. I was scared to death to marry, and yet knew it was my only option. At the time, being gay or being single were both spiritually forbidden.

When I finally married my wife, I was 27 years old, and I had never held hands with or kissed anyone, male or female, up to that time. I found a girl with a tremendous personality and a huge heart, a beautiful woman who wanted to spend her life with me. We had a brief conversation about the fact that I was gay once during the six years (yes, six years) that we dated, and then we took the Mormon plunge and married in the temple.

And honestly, except for the whole gay/straight thing, marriage was awesome. (And yes, that played itself out in many ways, from me being the kind of husband who planned themed dinner parties to a very strained aspect to certain parts of the relationship). It was wonderful, for both of us, to have someone to come home to at the end of the day. We went to church together, we had friends over for dinner, we went to each other’s family holiday parties, we vacationed. We had silly rituals, like playing board games at night and the loser having to do the dishes. We painted bedrooms and planted gardens. We set and achieved financial goals together. Since I was already done with school, I helped her get through school financially, and then we both worked and supported each other. We bought a house and worked on the yard together. We talked, we laughed, we binge-watched television shows on DVD, we gave each other back massages. We were best friends.

And then we had our first son, and he was a miracle, and we both loved being parents. We worked hard together and we resolved conflicts well. Had it not been for the absolute demon of shame and pain dwelling inside me due to me hiding from who I really was, we could have lasted forever. In fact, when we got divorced, after the birth of our second son, a dear friend told us, “but you two were perfect! If you can’t make it, no one can!”

It’s coming up on six years now since I’ve been single. (She has moved on, by the way, and is very happily in love with a straight guy this time; I know readers are wondering that). And I remain single. Exhaustingly and determinedly single.

The first few years out of the closet were incredible and difficult. Being a newly out gay man navigating a divorce, a new job, a new city, and now free from a religion that harmed me, I had to figure out dating with a toddler and an infant who owned my heart, and all of the financial, emotional, and time responsibilities that come with that. Still, single has been good to me too. I’ve learned how to take care of myself. I’ve learned to travel, to set and achieve goals, to self-validate, to spend time alone and appreciate it. I’ve learned how to make friends and live authentically. I’ve learned how to be true to myself. I’ve learned how to be a single father (with shared custody) and how to embrace my time with my children and put them first while still putting me first.

Yet despite consistent efforts to the contrary, I remain single (which is something I’ve written about that an to an obnoxious degree over the years). Today it dawned on me that it took me six years to marry after I returned home from my Mormon mission, and now I’ve been out of the closet and single for nearly six years.

The major difference this time is (well, outside of being closer to 40 then 30, as well as all of the other obvious differences) that I’ve put effort into dating this time. That’s something I had to learn how to do: date. I missed all that as a teenager, so I had to learn to fall in love, to leave when it wasn’t right, to have my heart broken, to compromise while keeping clear boundaries, to be lonely, to know what I’m looking for.

Dating at this stage of my life, with two grade school age children, is relatively simple. You feel a connection with someone, you ask them out for coffee some time. If there is interest back, they’ll say yes. If the guy says yes, and if coffee goes well, and there is conversation and interest on both sides, I’ll invite them out on an actual date–a play or live music perhaps, and dinner. Here is where it tends to fall apart: if the date was fun, I’ll say something simple like ‘I would enjoy seeing you again’, and then… that’s it. There is the expectation that they will initiate the second date. Days will turn into weeks and the guy generally remains silent. And for me, if there isn’t reciprocity and clear communication, well, then I’m not interested.

And that, in short, is my dating life this past year, with a few exceptions. There are the guys who show way too much interest way too quickly, and the guys who don’t have their lives together (as in lacking a job or going through a major crisis of some kind). And then there are the guys who seem interested but are too passive to ever express direct interest. And there was one guy I fell for pretty hard for a few months, but that didn’t turn out well at all. And I’ve certainly broken a few hearts and have had my heart broken a few times. Who knows, maybe I’m picky. But I know what feels right, and I’m absolutely unwilling to sacrifice my authenticity for an unhealthy coupling.

And so, single remains incredible and lonely. I get to set and achieve goals, and travel on my terms. I spend incredible times with my sons, having all kinds of adventures. And yet, I do miss being married. It would be wonderful to have all of those things that you see happy couples having: someone to come home to at the end of the day, someone to host parties with, someone to cuddle up to on rainy days, someone to raise the kids with.

And until that day when/if that relationship happens, well, I have a big comfy pillow that fits right under my arm where the little spoon should go.

Pride

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The year I was born, the first Pride flag flew. It had eight colors on it, each representing an inclusion of human character and history.

Pink represented Sexuality.

Red represented Life.

Orange represented Healing.

Yellow represented Sunlight.

Green represented Nature.

Turquoise represented Magic and Art.

Blue represented Serenity.

Violet represented Spirit.

The flag was commissioned by Harvey Milk, an elected official in San Francisco who served as an openly gay candidate after decades of political activism. He had a large following in his local neighborhood of the Castro, where he legitimized gay relationships and fought tirelessly for equality. The original flag was designed by Gilbert Baker, who drew inspiration from a number of sources.

The flag was first displayed in San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade that year. LGBT people marched in celebration of their lives, the rainbow representing safety and inclusion, sex and love, equality and peace. And then, just a few months later, Harvey Milk was assassinated, along with Mayor George Moscone. Orders for the flag sky-rocketed and in time it became a natural symbol for gay Pride.

While LGBT people are not the only group in the world to have suffered simply for being who they are, their struggles can not be overlooked. Over the centuries, they have been hidden, dishonorably discharged, imprisoned, put to death, denied health care, forcibly sterilized, disowned, fired, denied rights, electro-shocked, disenfranchised, ignored, condemned, beaten, murdered, and looked over simply for being attracted to the same gender or for having a different gender identity.

The rainbow flag now shows six stripes (hot pink and turquoise having been removed years ago, primarily due to the availability of the fabric at the time). It is hung in windows throughout in businesses and homes around the world, it is placed on the bumpers of cars, it is hung from flagpoles in public buildings, and it sends a message, quietly and colorfully, that all are welcome within, that LGBT people are celebrated instead of just being tolerated, that equality is a guiding principle of that home or building or community. A simple message, and profound.

This weekend in Salt Lake City, is the Pride festival. The rainbow flag can be seen everywhere. A festival occupies a major section of the city, where booths filled with food and advertisements, political endorsements and inclusive religious communities, free hugs from gay Mormons and free condoms from sexually affirming clinics, will be on display for families. Tomorrow morning, an hours-long parade will march through the streets, with businesses and organizations, clubs and churches, will march and sing and ride on floats, all with messages of love and inclusion. It isn’t about “gay agendas” or “gay lifestyles” or “religious tolerance and discrimination”. It isn’t about overt public sexual expressions or loose and scandalous morals. It is about respect for individuals who have a history that dates back to the beginnings of the world and factors into every society, every community, every family and culture.

Gay Pride is about Sexuality. And Life. And Healing. And Sunlight. And Nature. And Magic. And Serenity. And Spirit.

For me, Gay Pride is about loving who I am exactly as I am. It is about my first kiss with a man at age 32 and feeling my heart and spirit come alive. It is about holding the hands of my sons in a public park, where we will play catch and hide-and-seek, and them knowing that I am gay. It is about the tears I used to shed during my evening prayers, asking God for a cure. It is about hundreds of gay fathers marching in the streets of Seattle while thousands of people cheered for us in every direction. It is about standing tall and proud, not broken, and being lost in a see of humanity, shades of every color and aspects of every gender in each and every person. It is about dancing, arms spread wide, while music resonates within me and light washes over me. It is about learning where I have come from, and barely understanding where I am going. It is about falling in love, and having my heart broken, and standing back up again. It is about joining with my brothers and sisters, cis- and transgender, and standing tall, hand in hand, united despite our differences.

A stranger asked me yesterday, in kindness, how I would define my “gay lifestyle.” I smiled because I’ve been asked that question before, far too many times. And my answer was simple.

“My gay lifestyle is a lot like your straight lifestyle. I get up and brew my coffee. I exercise. I go to my office where I try to help others. I write and read in my spare time. I watch movies. I travel. I spend time with my friends. I raise my children to be happy and healthy and well-adjusted young men. I pay my bills. And I date men.”

The man sat back, surprised for moment, and then made eye contact with me and nodded.

“We really aren’t that different, are we?”

 

my best friend

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“God, Kurt, I love them so so much.”

“Careful, or you’ll make me cry.”

It is a picture perfect San Diego Saturday morning, spring 2013. I woke up in the hotel room at 5 am, unable to sleep any longer, a heavy burden on my mind. I’d gone downstairs to find a cup of coffee, book in hand, so that my best friend Kurt could continue sleeping upstairs. And within a few minutes, I got a text from him asking where I was. He got dressed, slipped on a pair of shoes, and now we were out walking the streets, the sun just coming up, golden and beautiful.

Kurt had come out here on a business trip and had invited me along. We get along famously, he and I. We had spent the long drive down singing songs, telling stories, gabbing about our families and friends. Kurt is nine years older than me, in his mid-40s, but we have been out of the closet about the same amount of time, just a few years each. Being gay after all those years of being Mormon, being married to women that we loved but weren’t capable of loving fully, hiding in plain sight hoping that no one would notice the fact that we were homosexual in a church that doesn’t welcome gay people. These shared experiences bonded us, pushed us together. A bond had formed between us months before. Not a romantic one, but a brotherly one. Kurt and I weren’t just friends, we were brothers.

“My sons, Kurt. I feel terrible. Every time I leave Salt Lake City, I miss them, of course, but I come alive, I feel at peace and open to the world. When I’m there, I love my time with my sons, but I feel broken, I feel a shell of myself. I sleep on the couch and feel trapped and awful and bitter. I just go through the motions. And I hate it because just being with my sons should be enough to make me happy. That should be all it takes.”

Kurt stops walking. I take a few steps, realize it, and turn back to face him. He has tears in his eyes and he looks so sadly serious. I step back toward him.

“You listen to me, mister. We have lived our entire lives for other people. I raised my stepdaughters and my sons. I took care of my parents and my wife. And you, you took care of your mom and sister, your wife and children. No one ever took time to care for us and so we have to learn to do that ourselves.”

Tears run down my cheeks and tears run down his.

“You know me,” Kurt says. “You know how much I love my children. And it kills me, it literally kills me to live so far away from them. We talk and we text and we video chat, but it isn’t the same until they are with me. The summers, the holidays, I count every moment I’m not with them, and I make the most of every moment they are with me. But I had to leave in order to live. I came out here, I built my business, I bought my house, and I do it. I live my life every day.”

“I know.” I look around to see if anyone sees us, two former Mormon gay dads standing on the street crying, but the streets are empty.

“Now if you have to leave, if you decide to move to Seattle or wherever, that will not make you a terrible father. It makes you a brave man. It means you have courage. It means you are teaching your sons to be bold and strong and authentic. And if you go, know that it will hurt, massively, every day. You will ache for them. Trust me, I know. But if the alternative is staying and being sad and miserable, well, that’s a decision you’ll have to weigh out. You know I have your back either way. If you have to leave, you leave. And when you are ready to come, if that happens, then you come back.”

I give Kurt a massive hug and we stand there for a minute, then we start walking. After several seconds of silence, I jab him in the bicep with a finger. “Stupid jerk, making me cry.”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure you started this.”

We are laughing as a group of three men jog by, too handsome for words, and our eyes widen. We look at each other with a ‘holy mother of God, did you see that’ look on our faces, then we both burst out laughing again.

“Which one do you want?” I nudge.

“I’m taking all three! Find your own!”

“Greedy,” I mutter.

He smiles. “You probably need it more. How long has it been now?”

I laugh. “Shut up.”

We walk a few blocks. Kurt admires the flowers and plants, like he always does. I watch the people interacting and wonder about their stories, like I always do. We both get coffees and take a seat on a small park bench.

He looks me right in the eyes. “Whatever you decide, you have incredible things in store. You’re going to write a book. You are so talented, Chad, you have no idea. You are going to write a book and you are going to change lives.”

I look down, knowing he believes it, but not sure if I do. “Maybe some day.” I whisper.

“Mark my words. And I’ll be the first in line to congratulate you.”

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This blog is dedicated to the memory of my best friend, my brother, my biggest support, Kurt Peterson, who died in a car accident yesterday afternoon. Kurt, thank you for your amazing and limitless friendship. You changed me. You made me believe in myself. And you will be with me, in my heart, for all of my days. Rest with the angels, my truest friend. I will go on being authentic like you taught me.

Kurtt

a room full of gay Mormon fathers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, look at all the lonely people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resolute

Resolute

Seven hours remain in 2015, and I sit, engaged in my favorite pass-time: writing. And I realize at this moment, I am resolute (defined as admirably purposeful, determined, and unwavering).

I began 2015 in Seattle, Washington, where I had moved in a grand gesture to find myself. I had been there since September the year before, three months of intense personal growth where I dated, found new employment, and explored every corner of a new city. Now far away from my children, I found new ways to stay connected to them, through drawn comic strips, nightly webcam calls, monthly visits, and little mailed gifts and postcards.

In January and February, I found myself with new friends and new support systems, yet working in a difficult job with high stress and low satisfaction. I spread my exploration of Washington to varying corners, looking at rainforests, islands, mountains, and beaches, and I grew to love the climate, the people and the area, and to hate the traffic, the parking, and the cost of living.

As March approached, I came to a few powerful realizations. 1. That in Seattle, I was the same me that I had been in Utah, just a lot farther away from my children. That sounds like such a simple realization now, but it was a powerful one toward my journey. 2. That I was losing all interest in dating, and that I no longer wanted to put my energy toward it. I learned to spend time with myself, and had dinners, saw independent films, and went to plays and movies on my own. 3. That I had all the building blocks for a powerful life already in place: a love of history and books, a kind and strong heart, a curious and careful spirit, a great smile, talents for helping and understanding others, and a consistently developing skill of writing.

And once I knew all of those things about myself, I was able to return to Utah, stronger than before, and ready for the change. I left the difficult job behind, and seized a new life in an old place. I moved into a downtown apartment, renewed old friendships, and started brand new life initiatives.

In June, I opened up an Airbnb in my home, welcoming guests from around the world, and had some great and some not-so-great experiences. I began doing therapy part-time, and crisis work on the side, and I made the decision to work only for myself from now on, for as long as possible, so that I can love what I do and give it my all. I taught a few college classes again, and realized that I didn’t enjoy it like I used to, and I was peaceful with the change in myself.

I spent every waking moment with my sons. We drew, we played, we swam, we explored, we read and wrote, we laughed and screamed, we wrestled and snuggled and lived, and one night, one of my sons looked up at me and said “I’m so glad your back” and tears came to my eyes, and I knew that even though I had had to leave, I also had to return. I began volunteering in their school classrooms, and I learned how to be friends with their mom again.

I stayed in Utah for several months without leaving, and I tried my hand at dating a few times, though I didn’t really mean to. And against my better judgment, I fell just a little bit in love a few times, and I had my heart broken just a little bit a few times. And I learned that I was stronger than ever, better at taking care of myself, and independent, all qualities I had wanted for myself for so long.

In September, I made a surprise connection with someone from far away, forming a new and binding friendship, and it gave me foundation, hope, and strength, and I realized my own potential as a writer, a father, a counselor, and a man once loneliness was gone from my heart. I learned how wonderful it was to have someone care about my day-to-day life.

I went to my family reunion and found peace. I attended my sister’s wedding to her lovely wife in Massachusetts. I went on a wonderful weekend trip to New Orleans and awakened my wanderlust. I spent Thanksgiving with my mother and sister. And I ended the year with a surprise trip to Palm Springs. I realized again that my world is more full when I travel.

When gay marriage passed, I celebrated. When reparative therapy was shut down in courts, I rejoiced. And when the Mormon church put policies in place that called gay couples ‘apostates’ and turned children against their gay parents, I grieved.

I discovered more than ever my love of expressing myself through writing. I wrote about social justice, politics, zombies, dating, and my children. I wrote my observations on the world, on people around me, on ego, on courage, on the social work profession, on parenting, and on provocative and titillating professions and mindsets. I began a daily post on LGBT history that quickly became a personal quest with future potential.

I joined a Men’s Choir and began singing again.

More than ever, I began dreaming of the future, and realized that at 37, I am now just beginning to realize my potential.

In 2015, I danced, drank coffee, laughed until I cried, cried until I slept, and slept until I awoke with new hope. I set boundaries, made new friends, and grew closer than ever to some of the most important people in my life. I learned to say I’m sorry when I need it, and to ask for an apology when I need it. I learned to forgive. I learned how strong I am, and how things that I once perceived as weak are really just parts of my overall strength. I learned to relax, to work hard, to put myself first. I learned that the world has a long history, and I am only part of it for a brief time, and that I want to live that part as powerfully and authentically as I can.

And as I approach 2016, I vow to take care of myself in every category: physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. I vow to feed and foster the important relationships in my life. I vow to get out of debt. I vow to push my limits professionally and to learn just what it is I’m capable of. I vow to travel. I vow to let myself believe that love is possible so long as I love myself. I vow to embrace every emotion in its entirety, in safe and healthy ways: gratitude, fear, anger, sadness, peace, security, guilt, happiness. I vow to live, more than I ever have before, with my life and the lives of my sons as my primary priority.

And thus I enter the New Year not with resolutions, instead I enter the New Year… Resolute.

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