Cat-calls and hate speak

At 9 am on Saturday morning, Mike and I were holding hands as we walked down the sidewalk. It was our third day in New Orleans, and we had grown relatively familiar with the city streets around where we were staying.

We walked past a few hotels, one so decked out in Christmas decorations that it looked like Santa had vomited all over it. Girls in fancy dresses walked on the sidewalk with their rich parents, on their way to something called ‘Teddy Bear Tea’. A high school team for some sport or another took up space, all of them on their phones as they stood there idly. And, as you find in any big city, we saw a few people asking for cash and handouts mixed among them.

A small group of teenage girls walked out of the hotel in front of us and turned the same corner we did. They must have been between 17 and 20 years old, and they were dressed in comfortable clothes, shorts and t-shirts, perhaps heading out on a quick coffee run. As we approached the corner, I noticed two men sitting on some steps in front of an entrance to an apartment walk-up. Both were African-American, one probably sixty years old, the other around forty. They were engaged in an animated conversation, then they looked up at the girls walking by.

“Ooooooh, girls girls girls!” The younger man said, cocking his head, making a few small whistling sounds as his friend cooed. “Girls!”

The older man turned his full body toward them, his hands on his legs. “My-my-my look at that!” His voice was full of enthusiasm. “What’s your hurry, young girls?”

My brow furrowed in disgust as I witnessed this. I whispered to Mike, “Good God, is this what girls deal with?”

Mike muttered, “Apparently.”

The last of the girls walked by, and the younger man gave another happy moan sound. “Look at that, a tall one! She must play volleyball! Girl, I’d like to spike you!” He spoke loudly and I saw the girl wince. The sixty year old gave his friend a high-five, and my eyes must have flashed fury as I walked by. I briefly considered something, but realized it wasn’t worth it in this context. I simply whispered a ‘Gross’ loud enough for Mike to hear.

The light was red at the end of the block, and we had to wait to cross the street. I was watching the girls, wondering if I should say something to them, when I heard the voice from behind me.

“Faggots!”

I craned my head back in shock, and the younger man looked at me with challenge in his eyes. My jaw dropped slightly. “What the fuck?” I said, loud enough for him to hear me, then the light turned green and Mike tugged on my hand as we walked across the street.

My heart was still thudding three blocks later. “I’ve never been called a faggot before!” I said. “Wait, that’s not true. Like, back in high school, guys would tease other guys and called them faggots. My step-dad called me names, but it was never ‘faggot’. I can’t believe that just happened!”

Ironically, the day before, Mike and I had had a small argument just a few blocks away. We’d seen a group of elderly Asian women with microphones standing on a busy street corner, all chanting out about how Jesus saves, demanding that everyone turn from sin. I’d wanted to hold his hand tightly, to show courage and bravery, and he’d felt nervous, not wanting any sort of uncomfortable confrontations. We’d made up quickly. And yet, here we were being called ‘faggots’ the very next day.

I usually feel safe in big cities. I stopped worrying a long time ago about holding hands with my boyfriend in Salt Lake City; the few ugly looks we got didn’t bother me at all. Most big cities have gay areas of town, kind of like “Chinatown” or “Little Italy”, districts where there were gay clubs and gay friendly businesses. In New Orleans, we were staying near the French Quarter, which was full of loud music, shops, and drunk people, and it was very gay friendly. I counted no less than eight (yes eight) gay clubs within a mile radius of where we were staying. It was the little towns, in places like Wyoming or central Utah, where I get nervous holding hands, or, in other words, being openly gay.

After being called a faggot, I wondered if I should perhaps be more worried, more careful. I’ve been assaulted and mugged on big city streets, not for begin gay, but still. I’ve talked about this in other blogs, but holding hands with a man while walking the streets kind of puts me on an autopilot of defensiveness. It makes me feel like everyone notices. People sometimes notice and then try to act like they didn’t, some act with derision or looks of disgust, and many go the opposite way and go out of their way to be friendly or complimentary. It felt rare to feel, well, not noticed.

The past few days in New Orleans, we’d had a lot of the third kind of experience, the cute looks, the friendly faces, people working hard to make us feel welcome or, perhaps, they are just genuinely happy to see a bit of diversity in their neighborhoods. One woman told us, “Ya’ll are cute!” when we walked by. A heavyset black woman practically stopped us on the street one morning, yelling us down. “Hey! Hey! I wanna hold ya’ll’s hands, too! I’ll go right in the center! Ya’ll need some chocolate in the middle of all that white!” Mike and I had both laughed heartily. And then perhaps the most delightful encounter, when we’d passed a group of college kids on the street, and a tall nerdy white guy with glasses, who was holding hands with his girlfriend, pointed at us as we walked by. “You guys. Whatever this is, I’m into it, I respect it, and I like it very much.”

We kept holding hands as we walked. No one else called us ‘faggots’, that day or any other. Perhaps those men didn’t realize the power of that word or what it represented. Perhaps they didn’t know how we were bullied growing up, forced to play a role in a closet so that we wouldn’t make those around us uncomfortable. Perhaps they didn’t know that during this trip, we visited the memorial of a mass murder right here in New Orleans, where forty years before dozens of gay men had been burned alive in a gay club in one of the country’s worst hate crimes ever. Perhaps he was just showing off for his friend. Maybe he didn’t know what it was like to be gay and holding hands on the street.

But then I remembered that he was black, and his experience being a black man in white racist America, while different than mine, must elicit some of the same reactions. I also remembered the way he talked to those young women. This was a man who didn’t care how others felt, who didn’t look outside of his own experiences. The world was full of wonderful people, but it was also full of bullies. And, I remembered, it only takes one man to hurt another.

And these realizations made me clutch Mike’s hand all the tighter.

Fragile Mormon Ego

In a college class I taught a few years ago, right in the heart of Salt Lake City, what many locals might call the “Mormon Bubble”, during which we discussed the way Utah is viewed by the rest of the world. (In fact, I think I even blogged about this. It can be hard to remember). We talked about all of the times that Utah has hit the international media circuits over the past few years.

The actively LDS students in the room had hoped that stories about Utah would be related to charity work, to missionary work, and to Christian examples. But universally every story that we found was, well, negative. Maybe even a little bit embarrassing.

We found stories on CNN, Fox News, and other sites that were related to how Mormons make policies against gay people and fight gay marriage, about how gay teens are committing suicide, and about young women coming forward at BYU and in churches who were told to keep their sexual assaults quiet by church leaders (or worse, they were blamed for their own assaults). There were stories about tithing dollars being used to build a mall, about how BYU was being considered for a list of institutions that were known to hate gay people, and how Utah was leading the nation in gender discrimination in the workplace statistics. We made lists of these headlines, and they were hard to face up to.

One student in the classroom, a lovely LDS girl who worked hard to love everyone, raised her hand and wondered aloud why people saw the church she and her family loved so much with so much hatred and vitriol, why they laughed at things that were sacred to her. We had a discussion about reputation, and about how things can look different from the inside than from the outside. She was receptive to feedback, and ultimately it was a strong and openminded lesson for all involved. (She is my favorite kind of Mormon. She loves her church, and she is open to the ideas of others around her).

Well, yesterday, Utah hit the national headlines again, this time for a bizarre poster that was printed up on BYU campus. A small organization that is part of the school’s math department, called Women in Math, created an event in which four of the school’s beloved math professors would speak to those in attendance. The young woman who created the poster placed four photos of the teachers across the top, then the name of the organization underneath them. So it resulted in… four white guys over a heading that read ‘Women in Math’. And then, in the most Mormon way possible, the poster finished with “There will be treats. All levels of math welcome.”

28058776_10215033666012976_6880746897050503549_n

I copied this to my own Facebook wall with a roll of my eyes, and the tagline “Mormons gotta Morm. Oh BYU, what have you done now?”

Swiftly, like all things on Facebook, some of the comments became politicized. Some decried that all Mormons are misogynistic. (I argued that while the organization and belief system is misogynistic, that doesn’t mean the individual members are). Others, actively Mormon, felt their religion was being attacked and began writing out lists of facts in defense of their beliefs. This lead to some back and forths, some private messages, and, well, a few Facebook unfriendings before it was all finished.

These days, it takes a lot to get me fired up. I use a life motto, a Jewel song lyric that I refer back to often: “No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from.” As such, I am careful with who I allow into my life, who I choose to engage with. I keep a far distance from all things Mormon in my day-to-day life, but it still hits me regularly because of my family, my community, my friends, and my clients. It’s hard to stay far from. And when you’ve lost a few friends to suicide, it is very difficult not to get very passionate about.

In a few of those private chats, one friend abjectly refused to admit that the Mormon religion is homophobic, racist, and misogynistic, and they felt that my stating such was a direct attack on their beliefs and family. “How would you feel if I said terrible things like this about gays?” they said, to which I responded, “Many gays are absolutely misogynistic, racist, and even homophobic, but not inherently. And there is a huge difference between a sexual orientation, which is not chosen, and a religious belief system, which is chosen.” Despite this, they refused to bend.

Now here is the thing, I remember how fragile my ego as a Mormon used to be. The slightest criticism of the prophets, the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, or the Church led me to defensively dig in my heels and refuse that there could be any flaws. But even when I dug in, I knew I had doubts about polygamy, about the way the church treats women, blacks, and gays, and about its weird mystical/esoteric history. (God lives on another planet, remember. It’s all very Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.)

But even the most rational person can admit that the Mormon church (as well as the wider society around it) is abjectly homophobic, racist, and misogynistic. It denied blacks the Priesthood and taught that they were cursed with blackness by God! It currently calls gay marriage apostate and doesn’t allow children of gay couples to be baptized! Women bow their heads in temple ceremonies and promise to subject themselves to their husbands… with their faces veiled!

If you are Mormon, I understand you. I empathize with you. And I probably like you. But if your ego is so fragile that you can’t admit basic facts, well, I have very little room for you in my life ultimately.

But back to that Women in Math poster, come on, that is hilarious. And if you can’t laugh with me, well there is probably not much room for you either.

Heaven

heaven.jpg

“Hey, monkeys, I heard your great-grandpa died. How are you feeling about that?”

My sons, now J (age 9) and and A (age 6), thought about it briefly.

A set down the toy crocodile he’d been playing with. “I’m sad. But he was really old, like 85, so I guess it’s okay.”

J didn’t look up from the pad of paper where he was drawing. “I’m just glad he is with great-grandma in Heaven now.”

Later that evening, I gave thought to Heaven itself. Growing up, I’d thought of it as some sort of city in the clouds with golden gates and marble spires, where everyone was white with white hair and flowing robes. For most people, Heaven was a simple construct, a nice cloudy place for the dead to keep existing and to relax forever.

But I’d been raised Mormon, a religion that taught that all of mankind existed as spirits before coming to Earth, and that in Heaven, after the judgment, those who were worthy would get to live forever in their resurrected bodies. But there also some kind of in between life, which Mormons called Spirit World, where the good and evil spirits were divided into paradise and prison before the final judgment. Then, after the judgment, there were various kingdoms where humans would get to live depending on their worthiness, and men could only aim for the very highest through obedience to complicated rules. Married heterosexual couples who were worthy would stay married and would be bonded to their children and their parents, and on and on forward and backward, creating a family chain from beginning to end. The unworthy were severed from these bonds, yet they still had their own version of the afterlife, just a little less nice, a shack instead of a mansion, or a mansion instead of a planet. In the end, the most worthy would get to live on Earth again, which would be made paradise and its own version of Heaven.

All of that, with afterlife and varying levels of worth and reward, suddenly made Heaven very complicated. And that was before introducing the concept of Hell.

My children, in their short lives, have already seen more death than I had in my childhood. By 9, I didn’t really know anyone who died, not personally, until I was a teenager, but they have lost five of their great grandparents (the other three having died before their births). Death, to them, is something that happens to the old, as a natural part of existence. They don’t seem overly impacted, sad, or distressed, they just know that someone who was a parent to their grandparents is now gone on. To them, Heaven is still simple, a place to rest and be happy.

I’m not sure what Heaven is to me now. As a therapist, I often have spiritual discussions with my clients, helping them discover their own truths and sort out the complexities of their religious upbringings in their own lives. When asked to give a label to my own belief structure, I often tell people that I’m a “spiritual atheist” and that, while I don’t believe in God or religion, that I do believe in the human spirit and its capacity for progress and change, for peace and purpose. And while I don’t believe in cloud cities and white flowing robes anymore than I do in winged beings with harps, I also don’t believe in a great void of blackness where souls just slip away into oblivion.

It’s hard for me to sort out thoughts on Heaven without being influenced by my upbringing, where eternal rest was equated directly to obedience within a narrow set of rules. “Do as you are told, and you get to have the best afterlife” no longer sits well with me. And there are billions and billions of human souls who have come before me. In a world where millions have been killed in concentration camps or by atomic bombs and were told that they deserved it because of their heritage, where millions spent their lifetimes in the bonds of slavery and were told that they deserved it because of their skin color, or where millions were ravaged by AIDS and told that they deserved it for their lifestyle choices… what is the afterlife for them? Is it a place that white Christians have determined is primarily set up for white Christians? I can’t reconcile those untold millions into the Heaven I was raised to believe in, and so I reject that concept completely.

If my children were asking me about Heaven, I wouldn’t list any sort of merit-based system. I wouldn’t discuss a premortal existence, or God, or fire and brimstone, or higher or lower degrees. I would instead describe the very images they are likely to draw. A place where we are happy and love the people we love. And there can be clouds and trees and peace, human development in healthy relationships, free of war and pain. That’s the place I want them picturing their great-grandparents.

An uncomplicated space of love and health where every voice is heard and every person is loved.

In fact, maybe I won’t ask them to draw it, and maybe I won’t draw it for them. Maybe we can draw it together.

Burned

abinadi

I can see myself up there

High on a mountaintop

(“A banner is unfurled”

the familiar sing-song lyrics autoplay in my head

by rote

and I squelch them swiftly).

From such a vantage

I could view the entire valley

with perspective

and see all the corners and shadows

that have given me life.

In them, I would find my heritage,

equal parts handcart and homophobia.

 

The streets are quiet up here

Full of newly-weds and nearly-deads they say

because history is changing and people with it.

Those who built these sidewalks

are no longer the ones treading upon them.

 

The street signs bear Mormon names.

Zarahemla: fictional capital city,

Cumorah: hill full of secrets,

and Abinadi, a man I once admired

because he allowed himself to be burned to death.

 

My back is to the city now

and all is rustling leaves

and birdsong

and one lone cricket

and sunshine on my skin

and I think of how I was carried here

by pioneer women

and how I almost

let myself burn.

Dark America: 5 painful responses to Trump’s election

darkamerica

Without revealing any individual’s identity, here are five genuine responses from people that I have heard from in private conversations since the election of Donald Trump. As you read this, I ask you to simply hear the experiences of others, without justification and without comparison. Pain isn’t meant to be compared to the pain of another, everyone’s pain is valid. And no matter what your personal feelings and reactions to all of this are, I invite you to recognize that these are real people who are in pain that is different than yours.

1: “When I was a teenager, I was raped. I’ve been dealing with the consequences of that rape my entire adult life, and it has affected my self-esteem and a lot of my personal relationships. When I tried to talk to others about it, I was blamed. I was told that maybe I was asking for it, I was told that boys can’t be expected to be responsible for themselves when girls put themselves in particular positions, I was told I should have said no or fought back harder, and I was told that a lot of girls go through the same thing and it was no big deal. I was even told by one person that maybe I was asking for it and maybe I learned some things and maybe deep down I enjoyed it.

Since the Access Hollywood tapes were released about Trump, I have been hearing those same excuses about him, excusing his behavior, all over the media and all over the Internet. He dismisses it as locker room talk, his son says women in the work place should expect it if they want to interact with men, and people keep saying it is no big deal. I’ve been a nervous wreck for months. And now, now that he has been elected, I feel like the rape is happening all over again. Not literally, but emotionally. I can’t be silenced this time.”

2: “When I came out of the closet, my family disowned me and I had to leave my faith, after I attempted suicide a few times, in order to find peace. A few years later, I found a partner and learned to live happily. We made a home and a life for ourselves. We had to wait ten years to get legally married. We have always wanted to be parents and because of state laws, we couldn’t adopt together or be foster parents together until we were able to be married. Now we have two kids in our home and we are going through the adoption process. With Trump, and worse, Pence, in the White House, I am genuinely scared for my family. We are on our own. Are they going to try to cancel my marriage? Take my children from me? I’ve been walking around nervous for months. Now I am downright scared.”

3: “You have no idea what it is like to be Muslim in this country, especially in places where there is a lot of white people around. I’m not a practicing Muslim. I don’t wear the head covering or go to worship. But just by my face, my coloring, people know I am from the Middle East. I’m small, and even though I have a family through marriage who happen to be white, I constantly fear just a bit for my safety, especially when I’m on my own. In crowds, at sports games, especially in airports, you should see the looks people give me. I can’t be deported, I’m a citizen now, but is this government going to require me to register in a database? Are there going to be witch hunts like there were for the Japanese in World War II or the Communists during McCarthyism? What does this mean for me? And what about those who are more vulnerable, more isolated than I am? What about those who waited years to escape war zones and refugee camps, only to arrive here to discover they aren’t safe after all? And now, with Trump as president, I’m scared I’ll be getting more than looks, that those who hate Muslims will be braver in expressing that hate. I feel vulnerable all the time lately.”

4: “I found my son crying in his room on Wednesday, the day after the election. He’s only 8. We hadn’t really talked about the election, but he came home from school crying. When I asked him what is wrong, he told me that a few of his friends in his school class who are Mexican were upset at school because Donald Trump was going to send their families back to Mexico behind a wall and they didn’t want to leave their school and their friends. My son is white, but he doesn’t understand why his friends might get sent away. I had absolutely no idea what to say to him. I still don’t.”

5: “I’m a mess. An absolute mess. And it has taken me hours of contemplating to figure out why. The last several elections haven’t upset me like this. I had general respect for George Bush and Mitt Romney and John Kerry, even if I didn’t like their politics. They are good honorable men with families and histories of public service. They were accused of flip-flopping and inconsistency and their public service careers were widely scrutinized, and their campaigns lost on fair ground. (And all of these men came out against Trump!) Donald Trump hasn’t had a public service career, and his professional life has been combed over but no one seems to care about sexism, homophobia, racism, law suits, tax evasion, bigotry, infidelity, or narcissism. Democrats and Republicans have come out against him and no one cares. Sarah Palin would be a better president than Trump–she’s ridiculous and illogical, but at least she has experience in public office!

I sat there watching the election results this week, seeing the numbers of people voting for Trump all over the country, and my senses were reeling. I expected those results from Utah and Idaho perhaps, but seeing the close margins all over the country, well, I felt like a giant spotlight had suddenly exposed this country I love for the ugly place it is. All the pockets of muck and cobwebs and skeletons, all the history of lynchings and slavery and genocide and everything that has happened here, it just all came gurgling to the surface. How could this have happened?

And I guess the reason I’m so upset is in seeing America for what it really is. Even Obama and Clinton are giving messages of ‘just be optimistic and patient and it will all work out’, but I can’t look at my neighbors the same. My mother, my sister, my best friend, they all voted for Trump. And after all these years of progression, with gay marriage passing and health care reform and discussions about the one per cent, I have gradually felt safer in  a country that was making slow and consistent change over the years. Well, that is at a screeching halt now. I naively assumed Hillary would win and progress would continue. But now I know the real America. And I’m not sure I want to live here anymore.”

Two White Guys Talking About Privilege

dc9Kn6pqi

Hey, professor, you wanted to see me?

Yeah, Mark, close the door, let’s talk for a bit. Have a seat.

What’s up?

During class today, when we were talking about privilege, you got quiet.

That’s because I didn’t have anything to say.

I think that is unlikely. You are usually very talkative and insightful during class. And you were more than just quiet, you were uncomfortable and closed off.

Nah, I’m good.

Mark, look, you aren’t being graded on this. You showed up to class and got your work done. Grade already recorded. This is just a discussion and a check-in. What happened today?

Look, I–I just learned early on in this program that when it comes to topics like this, no one wants to know what I have to say.

And why do you feel that way?

I’m a white guy. I’m the minority here and no matter what I say is going to be wrong. And when I have tried to share things in this program, I’ve been attacked.

Okay, let’s look at the big picture here. You are working on getting a Masters degree in Social Work. You are in a cohort of primarily women, in fact about 80 per cent of the students are women, and it is safe to say that all of them are feminists.

That’s fine. I’m a feminist too.

So am I. Now why do you feel like you are attacked when you share your opinion on the topic of privilege?

I don’t feel attacked, I am attacked.

Why do you feel attacked?

Okay, okay. Look, a couple of weeks back, I tried sharing my opinion on gay marriage in a class where the topic came up. I don’t have a problem with gay people, I really don’t. I have gay friends, I believe in gay rights. I know you’re gay. And I’m not Mormon like most of the people here, but I am Christian, and it’s not so easy, you know? I see gay people at my internship and I was talking to my pastor about that once and he told me that any time I choose to provide service to gay people, then I am choosing them over God. And so I shared that in class, that I felt divided, and a bunch of the students interrupted me and got angry and told me that if I wanted to be a social worker, I would have to quit my church, and no one would listen. They attacked me for being a Christian white guy. So now I just don’t share my opinion any more.

Okay, to start, you have heard me talk about the ‘yes, and’ principle in class before. Two realities can co-exist at the same time. The sun can warm me, and it can burn me. Food can nourish me and make me gain weight. My mom can have two gay kids that she loves and supports and still not know where she stands on gay marriage. And you can be a Christian white social worker whose religious beliefs and professional beliefs don’t always line up. There is room for contradictions in all of us.

Yeah, I get that.

So I’m going to be tough on you before I am supportive. Is that okay?

Yes, I trust you and your intentions.

There is an absolute irony about you feeling attacked.

An irony? How so?

Be fair, be strengths-focused. Why do you think your comments upset the people around you?

Because they are women with strong opinions, and anything but the answer they want is the wrong answer.

I don’t think that is the case at all. Try again, why do you think they are upset.

I honestly don’t know. Help me out here.

You understand the concept of privilege, right?

Sure, those in the majority have inherent privileges in their day to day living that those in minorities don’t have to deal with.

Give me a few examples.

As a man, I can be hired and expect a fair wage, where women often get harassed and paid way less than men for doing the same job. As a white guy, I see my majority represented everywhere in American leadership, I have better access to scholarships, jobs, pay, legal representation, college opportunities, etc.

Excellent. We had a conversation about privilege on the first day of class. The more majority statuses you fall into, the greater your privilege opportunities. White, Christian, male, young, fit or thin, able-bodied, gender-defined, straight, healthy, middle class or above.

Yeah, I remember. We talk about it in all of our classes a little bit.

Since your legs work, you don’t have to worry about whether or not a wheelchair ramp is available to your second floor classes. Since you were born male, and you define as male, you get to use the men’s room without having to worry about what people think because you are transgender. Since you are young and not elderly, you can drive a car without everyone around you assuming you are slow or lacking purpose, everyone being impatient around you.

Right, I get all that.

You get it in the head, not sure you get it totally in the heart. They don’t always line up.

Okay, what does that have to do with all this.

You are in a graduate program in a field that advocates for social justice. This is one of the few programs that actually has a lot of material on privilege and its implications, one of the few programs that has a majority of women. This program actually gets you to think about and confront difficult ideas on these topics.

So what makes my experience here ironic?

Mark, when it comes to big conversations like this in the public, who do you think has the most to say? Who do you think gets the final say?

The majority. Men. White men.

Absolutely. And who feels silenced?

Women. Gay people. Everyone that falls into those non-majority categories.

Absolutely. But it is about more than feeling silenced. It’s different on almost every level. Let me give you an example. You are married, right?

Yeah.

Okay, when you go out in public, do you hold your wife’s hand?

Yeah, sure. All the time.

And do you feel watched, criticized, discriminated against?

No, why would I?

I’m a 36 year old man. I am dating a guy. A few Sundays ago, we are out walking, and we are holding hands, nothing else. Just walking, talking, and holding hands. And I hadn’t done that in a while. But everyone we walk by, I feel a nervousness creep up in my chest. I’m watching them to see if they notice us holding hands, every person we pass. And I’m expecting them to say things like ‘gross’ or ‘fags’ or ‘disgusting.’ I’m expecting someone to just look up and say ‘we don’t care what you do in your home, but do you have to do that out here?’ And I’m walking around and I’m nervous, even though I’m trying to relax.

Look, I–

Wait, I’m not done. So this guy and I, we see this couple sitting on the concrete stairs in front of us. An older white guy with a beard, and an older black woman, and both of them are in dirty clothes and look like they have probably been using drugs recently. As as we get closer, they both sit up and I’m waiting for one of them to say something rude to us. The lady, she says loudly, ‘Hey!’ and I take a step back, nervous, not sure if she is going to ask for money or say something rude to us. And I say ‘yeah?’ and she says ‘I just wanted to say, I think you two are cute.’ And I say ‘thank you’ and the guy I’m holding hands with and I both smile and laugh about this.

Okay, but–

Just a minute, I’m almost done. So I’m walking away, and I’m thinking about how terrible it is that in 2015, I have to be nervous about something as simple as holding hands with a guy that I like, and how straight people never have to think about it. And that’s privilege. And then I realize that because I’m in the middle class and I have an apartment and a bank account, I see this couple and I automatically assume they want to ask for money, and they probably think that every person who walks by them thinks they are going to ask for money. People avoid eye contact, treat them rudely, get scared when they say ‘hey’ because they assume these things about them. And they have to live with that. And this woman, she’s not only poor, she’s a woman, and she’s black, and she has all these other things in her mind. I’m worried about what people will say because I’m gay. She’s worried about sexual assault and judgments and where she is going to sleep tonight. And that is privilege. And it sucks that we live in a world based around it.

I… okay. Yeah. That sucks.

So here is the irony. You are feeling marginalized in one class by a few people who didn’t like what you had to say. You felt attacked by some students in your cohort in a program that is all about social justice.

What makes that ironic?

Well, simply put: that feeling you felt in class? Feeling silenced, disrespected, like no one around you wanted to hear what you had to say?

Yeah?

That’s how I felt all the time as a gay kid growing up. Every day. That is how many of the women in your class feel in this patriarchal world of men. That is how everyone who doesn’t fall in the majority feels all the time.

Whoa.

Yeah. And you felt it once. And so now you aren’t talking any more.

I–yeah–that–wow. Okay. So that’s what it feels like to not be privileged.

Exactly.

Okay.

Now let me give you credit. You have a good brain. An intuitive mind. You care about people. You advocate for others. You are a good student and a good social worker. And this is a ‘yes, and’ thing again. You are privileged. You are going to have to learn how to listen to others. How to feel marginalized and be okay with it. How to share your experiences and conflicts with others, and listen when they don’t agree with you, and ask questions, and learn how others feel, not just with your head but with your heart. You don’t get to shut down. You get to be uncomfortable and learn. Because…

Because that is how others feel all the time.

Exactly. So next time the conversation starts, I want you to join in, because we need your voice. It’s a good one.

Thank you, professor. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

Thank you for being willing to think about it. See you next week, Mark.

Yeah, see you next week.

Dear Mormon leaders,

12141168_10153481737947013_1826969617379202509_o

I don’t plan to send this letter, but I’m writing it just the same. I won’t send it, because I already know what your response will be: no response at all.

I spent my childhood, adolescence, and much of my adult life believing that you had my best interests at heart. I have the same story that you must have heard hundreds of thousands of times by now. I knew I was different from other boys from the time I was five years old, I knew to hide it by seven, and I started getting teased about it at 10. While all of you were (presumably) learning how to like girls and what that meant for you, I was learning how NOT to like boys, how to form a part of myself deep down inside that no one could know about.

I don’t blame you for any of that, of course, that is just how society treats gay people. But here’s the part where you are to blame, where you hurt me: you created and backed up church policies that taught the contradictory doctrine that God loves his children and creates them in His image, yet he doesn’t create gay or transgender people. You published books that taught me that being gay was being selfish, was not trying hard enough, was a crime against nature, was an abomination, was wrong. You taught me how to be ashamed of who I am in God’s eyes, and perhaps worse, you taught me that I could cure it, if I just tried and kept trying.

And so I spent days in prayer and fasting, nights and mornings on my knees pleading, wasted energy in public service. I asked for blessings, I served in every calling, I was faithful and true, I served a mission, I was unfaltering in my resolve. And every General Conference, I would tune in with open heart and ears, hoping beyond hope that there would be guidance from God on how I could live with myself, hoping I would finally fit in and belong, feel that God loved me.

What I didn’t know is that my story is the story of hundreds of thousands of other gay and lesbian Mormons, and it is even harder out there for the transgender Mormons, the ones whose spirits don’t match their bodies, and the ones who are made to believe they can’t even exist. No answers came, not ever. And worse, no compassion. Only calls to repentance.

Because I was raised this way, because I was made to believe I was broken, I never held hands with or kissed another person until I was 26 years old. I married a woman and we had children. I went to therapy. I did everything I was told, and I was a shell of a person, empty and broken and bleeding and pleading. My entire life.

And there was no light from God, no compassion, no love. I began to hear of other gay Mormons out there, excommunicated for being homosexual, being told to marry someone of the opposite gender, being sent to reparative therapy camps where they would be abused. I heard about the Proclamation on the Family, Church’s stance in Proposition 8, and I heard about the suicides that resulted after both. Dozens upon dozens of bodies that were broken and bleeding like me until they couldn’t do it any longer. A mass grave of God’s LGBT children, dead because of the words you spoke.

And now, I am no longer a member of your organization.  I finally accepted myself for who I am. It was like coming up for air after years of holding my breath. I finally felt what it meant to kiss someone, to hold hands, to feel whole. I finally understood that God loved me, once I realized the words you speak are not the truth. I was, quite literally, born again, my baptism and rebirth made possible only through leaving your organization.

I now reside in Salt Lake City, just blocks from where you meet, from where you make decisions and policies that impact the lives of my loved ones and community and family. Though I am not a member of your church, I see and feel the pain you cause in the hearts of LGBT members around the world, and the wedges you drive into families. Every few weeks, there is some cold and painful new announcement from your mouths, or from your offices, that sends furious winds across the lands, and every time there are those who are like I was, silently suffering and hoping beyond hope that you will show your love instead of your disdain.

I grew up with an abusive step-father. Much of the time, he would just ignore the fact that I existed. Then he would get violent, with flung fists and objects, ugly and painful words. And then, on rare occasions, every once in a while, he would do something just a tiny bit kind, and I would light up and think that he loved me again. Days later, the cycle of ignoring and abuse would start all over again.

And it dawns on me, that this is you. This is how you treat your LGBT members. You ignore them most of the time, then you are cruel and spiteful and mean. You use penalties and punishments, lay out impossible expectations, give poor counsel, and throw around harsh words like apostate and sinner and abomination. And then, from time to time, you will say or do something just a tiny bit kind and everyone will hope beyond hope that at last you are changing, at last you will show love. Then the cycle of ignoring and abuse starts all over again.

And yet the thing that makes me most furious? Only the merest shred of kindness on your parts is needed to save lives. No dramatic change or reversal in policy is necessary, no temple acceptance. All it would take for you to save lives would be just a few words of kindness.

Elder Nelson or Elder Oaks or President Monson, any of you, standing up and saying, “My dear brothers and sisters, those of you who are gay and lesbian and bisexual and especially transgender, we want you to know that God loves you and he wants you to be happy. You are welcome in our wards and worship services. We love you and we want you to be part of us. We are so sorry for any pain our actions have caused. Please, never never think of harming yourselves. We love you and are here to help.”

A few words and hearts would heal. Lives would be saved. Families would be reunited.

Men, there is blood on your hands. Every time a Mormon mother throws out her lesbian teenage daughter into the streets, it is on your hands. Every time a young transgender boy cries himself to sleep, praying for God to make him a girl inside, it is on your hands. Every time a gay man takes a woman to the temple, promising to love her forever yet knowing he can’t, it’s on your hands. Every time a council of men gathers to excommunicate a member of their ward for daring to find love in the arms of someone of the same gender, it’s on your hands.

And every time a 15 year old child wraps a rope around his neck and hangs himself from a closet rod because he believes God didn’t love him enough, it is on your heads.

You claim to speak for God, and you deliver words of hatred. If you could look your own children and grandchildren in the eyes as they sob, and tell them, “I speak for God. You are broken. He loves you, just try harder to change. Anything else is a sin. Try harder.” If you can do that… well, I can’t imagine how the spirit of God you strive for could possibly dwell in you.

I could never look into the eyes of my sons and see anything but a miracle. Not something to be fixed or amended, but a perfect child who deserves every ounce of happiness in the world.

You who are men. White, elderly men. You who are retired fathers and grandfathers, men who wait for years for seniority appointments into the roles of apostles and prophets. You who speak in the name of God to millions of his children here on the Earth. You who say that you don’t, you can’t make mistakes; and that if you do, they are the mistakes of men, not of God. You who hold the powers of life and death in your hands.

If you see dead teenagers and broken marriages and parents disowning their children and pain in the hearts of your LGBT Saints as acceptable collateral damage in your quest to enforce your views of the laws of God, well, then, I want no part of the God you believe in. The God I believe in is one of love.

I won’t send you this letter because I know it will be met with silence.

A few words of kindness and compassion from you is all it would take.

Brethren, people are dying. Children are dying. And it’s on you. The blood of children is on your hands.

first-presidency

Why-oh-Wyoming

29826b834b35c31422c4b3e07c89d817602f6f85

“Now remember, just because he has a mustache, it doesn’t mean he’s 21. Make sure to card before selling alcohol. The risks are just too big.”

As the public service announcement ended and more country music came back on the radio, I looked across the vast stretching snow-swept plains that extended in every direction, rolling black and brown peaks in the distance, a few rocky outcroppings stretching into the sky. The sun was just coming up over the peaks and I could finally see the terrain, after a few hours of driving in the early morning darkness. Gusts of wind blew light drifts of snow across the road.

scr-IMG_8634-WyomingWinter-GreenMountains-cropped-smallversion

I pulled into Rock Springs, Wyoming a brief time later, here for a work shift for a few days. As I stepped out of the car, the wind cascaded across me, biting and much colder than I had anticipated. January in Wyoming was a bitch, clearly.

I shivered and pulled my scarf tighter around my neck, nestling into my coat, and stepped into the nearby gas station, a local place with the god-awful name of the Loaf ‘n Jug, it’s sister station the Cum n’ Go right across the road. Yes, spelled just like that.

Half of the gas station/convenience store was devoted to the sale of liquor. I looked around, hearing more country twang from the loudspeakers, and saw several shelves full of booze. Hey, the locals needed something to keep them warm. Several dead animal heads hung on the walls over the shelves, deer and elk and a mountain goat or two. My eyes fell on one of the bottles of liquor, a cinnamon red of Fireball Whiskey, with a handwritten sign over it that said “Buy two bottles of Fireball, get a free fishing lure! Inquire at the desk!”

As I munched on my trail mix and sipped on my hot, and terrible, gas station coffee in the car, I realized I had thirty minutes before my shift began. I grabbed my phone and Googled Rock Springs, Wyoming, figuring I may as well learn about the city I was in.

chinesemigration.img_assist_custom-479x319

I read about how, in 1885, the Union Pacific Coal Department was able to hire Chinese workers at a lower wage than White workers, so they, of course, hired more Chinese. The White workers rioted in an explosion of racial tension, burned down 75 homes, and killed dozens of Chinese. I didn’t see a single report of a White person killed. I read how the local newspapers at the time had sympathized with the White man’s plight, and how 16 men had been arrested for the murders, but all were acquitted one month later, met by the cheers of their loved ones for their heroic actions. It was with a pit in my stomach that I thought of recent anti-Muslim, anti-Jew, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic content in the media, in the current presidential campaign, and I wonder, for the one millionth time in my life, if we have evolved as a species at all.

I read about local industries and businesses and politics, about forms of entertainment (shooting ranges and the rodeo), about the long history of the state. And before long, it’s time to step outside the car, back into the biting wind, and to prepare for another day of work, this time in a strange and faraway place.

Later, I check into my hotel, and the kindly front desk attendant informs me that I’m just in time for happy hour. I shrug. It’s a week night, and only 5 pm, “But the drinks are free!” she exclaims. “One hour only!”

moose-1

And so 30 minutes later, a grandmotherly bartender mixes me a rather strong Rum and Coke. I take a few sips and make eye contact with the severed moose head hanging on the wall in front of me.

“He’s a beauty, ain’t he?”

I look over and see a woman behind me that I hadn’t noticed before. She looks as though she just woke up, her hair disheveled and in her nightgown, a large pink muumuu that drowns her. She takes a large handful of Lays potato chips from a bag she is holding and somehow fits the entire handful of chips in her mouth, cramming them in and not missing a crumb. She has no teeth, so she makes large gumming noises as she munches down on them loudly.

“Um, the moose?” I look back at his marble eyes. “Yup, a real beauty.”

The woman finishes gumming her bite and takes a swallow of the pink alcoholic mixture from the cup in front of her. “I bet he’s been dead fifty years.”

I look at her as she takes another handful, and realize I have nothing to say except, “Yup.”

And this is my life right now, I think. Me and this woman and a moose head at 5 on a week night, drinking free alcohol in a hotel bar in frozen Wyoming.

I give myself a little mental toast and take another sip.