Sex Education Part 5: High School Dances

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There was an expected ritual to asking out girls in high school. Just asking, with a note or, worse, a direct question, was frowned on. There needed to be scavenger hunts, puzzles, elaborate ruses, or public embarrassment of some kind, just to ask. Why ask the girl directly when you could hang a banner down the hallway saying “Will You Go To Prom With Me, Emily? From Travis”, or when you could have the girl pop one hundred balloons and then rearrange letter squares from in the balloons to find out who was asking her? The more elaborate the ruse, the more interested in the girl you were.

Of course, I wasn’t allowed to date until I was 16. And then, I was only encouraged to date Mormon girls. And I would be chaste, moral, and pure until marriage, which was still years in the future. Dating at 16 was an early way of preparing myself for marriage to a woman.

I was fully coming to terms with being gay at age 15, and I finally needed to tell someone about it. I went to the bishop, a family friend, and told him, ashamed, with my head hanging low, that I was attracted to boys. He responded with kindness and compassion, and informed me that I was special and God was giving me an extra challenge to prove my worthiness. He gave me a book written by prophets, one that talked about how evil homosexuality was, and then he sent me on my way.

I did my best to avoid sin at all costs. I played Mormon music in my room, put pictures of Jesus and the temples and apostles on my bedroom wall, and kept my thoughts pure. I did all I could to avoid masturbation and evil thinking, but there were times I failed. Every dark thought led to nausea and stomach aches, sometimes gastro-intestinal issues, and I was having regular stomach troubles and anxiety on a daily basis from the 8th grade on.

Before I turned 16, I thought receiving my patriarchal blessing would give me all the strength I would need to move forward. It would give me the answers on curing homosexuality, striking it from my system once and for all, I just knew it. But the patriarch was a stranger, and his words rang with authority, telling me I was a choice son of God who should not disappoint God in any way. He promised me a wife and kids in my future if I just lived worthy.

And then I turned 16, and dating was both encouraged and expected. I pretended a healthy interest in girls. I had to. It was the only way to get through it all. I was occasionally teased for being sensitive or feminine, and I was at times called dork, or fag, or sissy. The worst bullying happened in my own home, where my stepfather used name-calling, threats, intimidation, and volume to keep a tight hold on all of us, resorting to violence when necessary. He doled out love and fear in proportionate measures, and we never knew what was next. He called me “little fairy-boy”, and told me directly that he’d never wanted a son like me. In his crueler moments, he would say he understood why my dad left. But he counter-balanced it all on other days by telling me what a great kid I was, what a strong man I was growing into. His love came with healthy heapings of shame and fear, and it felt a lot like the love I had come to expect from God.

And so, I found ways to have crushes on girls. I chose those who had strong testimonies in the church, who were modest, who were pretty but not too pretty. I chose those who would respect that I was a good Mormon boy, and who wouldn’t expect anything physical from me. I sometimes chose girls who didn’t get asked out by other guys. And some of them got crushes on me, and I didn’t have crushes back. Some of them got hurt. I dated often. I double-dated with friends, guys I had actual crushes on, and I envied them as they danced with their dates and I danced with mine. The dates were always elaborate, pure spontaneous fun. There was movies and dinner, picnics in the park, silly board games, trips to the zoo or plays, hikes, and concerts. And there was always the school dances. several of them every year, and then the stake, or church, dances on top of those. Lichee, and Rochelle, and Tammy, and Malina, and Josie, and Karen, and Katie, and Meranda, and Malinda, and Larena, and Gelin, and Cathy. So many dates, some friendly, all respectful. Mormon dating. A young gay kid going on chaste and friendly adventures.

Sometimes we were lectured on morality and chastity at church. There was an emphasis on no pornography, no masturbation, no heavy-petting, no making out. Dancing was allowed, so long as hands were placed appropriately. Boys were told to keep thoughts pure and to stay worthy for our future wives. Girls were told that virtue was important above all else, because no one would want damaged goods when there were undamaged ones around. Sexual sin was bad, bad, bad, and just being gay was sexual sin already. I would have to work that much harder to prove God loved me. I had to be worthy of a cure.

I started my mornings with scripture studies. I prayed throughout the day. I sang hymns in my head. I did my homework, got good grades, was kind to my fellow students, reached out to the outcast and the misunderstood, and performed service for those I loved. I went to church on Sundays, paid my tithing, went to Seminary daily. I was a great kid. But I was constantly attracted to other boys, and it made me ill, and I started wondering how much effort it would take to prove to God that I was worthy of the cure he’d promised.

Over the course of a few years, I went on several dates with a high school friend named Karen. She was vibrant, beautiful, spontaneous, and fun. She wasn’t shy about her interest, but I remained carefully distant from her. I pushed and pulled. I wanted to date her to see if I could, but I didn’t want to because I lacked interest and attraction. I must have baffled her as she had no idea about the war happening under my skin.

One day, we sat in my car and talked, and she confronted me, asking me if I was interested or not. I was, I explained, but had a lot going on. She said if I was interested, I should show it, I said I didn’t know how to do that. She said it was easy, I should just kiss her. And I said I wasn’t sure how to do that. I’d never done that before, I explained. She rolled her eyes.

“It isn’t that hard to do, Chad,” she said, and she got out of my car. I didn’t call her back, and two weeks later, she had a new boyfriend. More evidence that something was wrong with me. I felt weak. I begged God for help. But I kept getting nauseous, kept dating girls, kept shutting my own heart and thoughts down. If I focused hard enough on church and school, God would cure me. He’d finally hear me.

He had to. He just had to. What other option did I have?

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Sex Education Part 2: And None Will Molest Them…

I loved the hymns. I loved all of the rituals of Mormonism, in fact. Prayers before bed, church every Sunday, fasting and tithing. But the hymns, sitting in the chapel and singing with the Saints on Sundays, they made my heart soar. My family was very musical, all of us, and we would sing loudly in the congregation, harmonizing and singing in all four parts. I loved watching the conductor at the front of the chapel. I loved the piano refrains. I loved tracing the black notes in the hymnals with my eyes.
Now let us rejoice in the day of salvation.
No longer as strangers on earth need we roam.
Good tidings are sounding to us and each nation,
And shortly the hour of redemption will come,
When all that was promised the Saints will be given,
And none will molest them from morn until ev’n,
And earth will appear as the Garden of Eden,
And Jesus will say to all Israel, “Come home.”
I knew very early on of my divine purpose. I was a child of God, with a divine destiny in store. Where much was given, much was required. Because I knew of my godly heritage, I was expected to be obedient and follow all of the rules because I loved God and he loved me. Everything happened for a reason. God saw and heard everything and there was nothing he didn’t know. And if anything bad happened, it was because God had something to teach his children. It all made sense. Perfect sense.
There were a lot of women in my home, and I was often hungry for male attention. I had five sisters and my mom was responsible for most of the parenting. Dad was gone a lot, and always quiet and sad when he was home. That left my brother, Kenny. He was 8 years older, and a bully, constantly teasing me and my little sister, Sheri. We shared a bedroom, and he made it widely known that I was not the kind of brother he wanted around. I was too much of a sissy and I liked girly things.
So far as I can put it all together, I was 5 when the abuse started, and I think I was around 8 when it ended. My memories of this time remain fractured. As with all survivors of trauma, my memories are sharp and clear on certain things, and completely blank on others. I write this at the age of 40, and it still brings back dark shameful painful yucky feelings to consider what happened. My family also remains extremely uncomfortable with me talking about it. So I won’t be overly specific, I’ll simply talk about the experience itself.
Kenny, who was in some ways a child himself (though the older he got, the harder it is to use the excuse, and, again, I was only 5), he used the typical tactics of all abusers. There was grooming. He made the abuse feel like a reward for good behavior and deeds. If I helped with his chores, we could go up to our room and spend quality time together. I was warned not to tell anyone. I was given instructions while at school to think up new games we could play together. At times, when I tried to initiate encounters between us, he would shove me aside and embarrass me if he wasn’t in the mood. It was sometimes frequent, sometimes infrequent, and I kept it silent for a very very long time.
As I look back, I think that I thought of it almost like a game. As I process memories not related to the abuse, they are otherwise very normal. Family dinners, spelling bees, swimming lessons, Christmas mornings. My brain hones in on very specific instances and the things that happened, and then there are big gaps. There may have been weeks or months when the abuse didn’t happen at all, and there were times when it was frequent. I don’t know exactly how it started, and I don’t know exactly how it stopped.
I do now that by the time I was baptized at the age of 8, I knew far too much about the male body and how it worked. I still had a lot of innocence, but I knew about masturbation, and intercourse, and orgasm. I knew about sexual shame and secret keeping. And so, that day when my dad dipped me beneath the water and declared I was without sin, that day when I was wearing white, I didn’t realize how deep the darkness within me was. I had no idea how far the roots of pain and confusion had spread.
First there was the awareness that I was different, something I ultimately learned to mean I was gay. And then there was the abuse. And those two things in conjunction with the messages I received about God and divine destiny created deep wells of confusion within me. I developed an understanding that I was designed wrong, that there was something inherently flawed within me. And that deep pain, it was with me during all of those normal moments of childhood. Through the chores, the stories I wrote in notebooks, the playing with friends at recess. It was there on summer vacations, and in Cub Scout activities. It was there when I made friends with boys and girls, when my oldest siblings moved out of the house, and when one of our dogs was hit by a car.
I learned to put on a happy face. It was genuine. I was a happy kid. I was kind and compassionate, I cared about others, I loved learning about animals. All those parts of me were real. But they also became the parts that I learned to show the world while I kept the rest secret. It’s what was expected. It’s what Kenny taught me to do, but I’d learned to hide my differences even before that.
Years later, as an adult, I would look back at these early photos of me, and see an innocent kid. I was the perfect target. I was eager to please, accommodating, happy, easy to manipulate. I kept confidences. I was hungry for attention. And I was in a busy household where it was hard to notice if one kid was going through hard times, especially if he was quiet about it. And above all else, he had easy access to me. I was right there, one bed away, right behind closed doors.
I turned 8, and Kenny turned 16. He started drinking more, and he got a job, and he cycled through girlfriends. And I had no idea how unhappy mom and dad were, they were good at keeping their own secrets. But by the time I was 11, they would split up and we would move across the country, away from Kenny and dad and my childhood home.
And then adolescence began. And suddenly being different from everyone wasn’t okay anymore. I would only become more aware of it with every passing day.
Jesus

Heaven or Hell?

“Dad, how come you don’t believe in God now?”

I sat at the stoplight, looking up at a Christian billboard, one of those aggressive ones that shows up all over Utah lately. “Will you be in Heaven, or in Hell?” it asked, with dramatic images on each side. There was a phone number, and a scripture that I would never look up.

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I cocked my head, looking back at A, my precocious 7-year old. He was bouncing his new plastic red-eyed tree frog around in the back seat, idly playing. Although he’d been the one to ask the question, he was barely paying attention now. His older brother, J, now 10 years old, was looking out the window.

“Why do you ask?” I said as the light turned green.

“Well, you’re an atheist now, right? But why?”

I looked at him in the rearview mirror. “Well, I’m happy to answer, but I’m just wondering why you want to know that right now?”

A shrugged, looking at the frog in its red eyes. “I was just wondering, I guess.”

I considered for a moment. My kids had been asking me hard questions for years, and I had learned years before that the direct approach was generally the best one.

“Well, buddy, we can have more serious talks about this when you get older. But I just want you to know that I love you whether you believe in god or not, it just so happens that don’t believe in one anymore.”

I saw J turn his head, more intent in the conversation now. “We know, Dad. You love us no matter what.”

I smiled softly. I loved that he could say that with confidence. Just a few nights before, we had been watching an episode of Queer Eye on Netflix together, and a young woman had talked about getting disowned by her family when she came out as gay. J had snuggled tightly into me and said, “You would never kick me out for anything like that. You and Mom both love me.” I adored that assurance he had in that.

I pulled up to another red light. “Okay, so I was Mormon for a long time, you know that. When I was Mormon, I believed in God and I said lots of prayers and everything. But lots of people told me that I was bad for being gay. Some even told me that God could make me straight if I was a really good boy. And I was a really good boy, but God never made me straight. So when I stopped being Mormon, I stopped believing in God.”

I worried even that much was too much information, but they both seemed to understand. “Okay, cool,” said A.

J looked back out the window. “I haven’t decided if I believe in God or not. But maybe I’ll decide when I’m a grown-up.”

I grinned widely. “That sounds perfect.”

And soon we were home, and we played with toys together, then I made dinner while they watched a cartoon. As I grilled the eggs and stirred up the protein pancakes, I contemplated how far removed I am from my former lifetime. I used to be so caught up in the Mormonism of it all, both before and after I left the religion. Now I barely noticed an impact in my life at all, in any capacity.

In November, 2015, the Mormon Church implemented a policy that said that gay people who married a same-sex partner were considered apostate. Then it went on to say that the children of gay people couldn’t be blessed or baptized until they were adults, and only after disavowing their parents. Back then, those three and a half years ago, I had had such a profound anger response to this news. How dare they! How dare they use their influence to shame and label. How dare they use that dirty word, apostate. How dare they make it about children.

Well, this week, they changed their minds. Apparently God decided that it was mean to do this. Now gay people aren’t apostates, they are only sinners. And their kids don’t have to be kicked out any more. A step in the right direction, perhaps. The news came without apology, without acknowledgement for the extreme damage done in the lives of so many three years ago.

But the new news didn’t hit me at all. I barely reacted. When my friends posted notes on social media, heartfelt paragraphs about their coming out journeys, about their struggle to belong to a religion that didn’t want them, about their deep and abiding pain with it all, I just casually observed. I grimaced, I shrugged, I barely noticed the bad taste in my mouth. Look at this as evidence for god. Why would I possibly believe in god when he was always presented to me this way.

After dinner, and pajamas, and a dance party, and brushing teeth, I tucked my kids into their beds. I gave them both huge hugs and told them how much I loved them. I gave them both sincere eye contact. “You’re important to me,” I told them both. And they went to sleep, knowing they are loved.

An hour later, I went to bed myself, and I contemplated god for a minute. I thought of the rituals I had growing up. The shameful prayers on my knees, the waking every morning and reading chapters of scripture, the three hours of church every Sunday morning, the 2 years I spent as a missionary, the ten per cent of my income that I paid to the church for the first 32 years of my life, the pictures of Jesus and prophets and temples that lined the wall of my home growing up. I remembered how ‘all in’ I was, and how hard it was to leave it all.

And then I assessed my simple and beautiful life now. Happy kids, a job that makes a difference, and a man that I love who shares my bed. And if God looked down at all of this and saw me as a sinner, as an abomination, as an apostate, well, I want no part of that god.

I thought back to the billboard. Heaven or Hell? I’ll take whichever this one is, the one without god and Mormons and self-hatred. This one suits me just fine.

Porn Addiction in Utah

“What is it with men and porn in Utah?” A friend from out of state asked me that question in a recent online exchange. “I grew up Mormon but not in Utah, and porn is a big deal here, but it seems to be even bigger there. Like is porn addiction a thing? And is it the same as sex addiction? And is it really as big a deal there as they say? And does it have anything to do with women and depression there and how they have the highest rate of anti-depressant usage?”

I responded with a “Whoa, hang on! That’s a lot of questions!” And then we went on to talk for two hours about Utah and its complexities. I’ll summarize a lot of these thoughts here. Keep in mind, reader, that while I am a mental health expert, I fully admit this is not a topic I’ve done personal research on. The thoughts presented here come from my own perspectives, as an ex-Mormon gay father and therapist who has some years of experience behind him. I fully admit my own bias, but there is a lot of truth to my words for many as well.

First of all, since it’s inception, Utah has treated women as a commodity. Mormon men, from the leaders on down, competed for women as an acquisition. There are love stories, sure, but there are also stories of conquest, of older wives being forgotten and set aside as younger wives were obtained. Young virgin girls were hot market items, married off to men two or four or six decades their senior. Men’s names were to be blessed in their righteousness as they fathered children and established lineages on Earth that would follow them into Heaven. And while times have changed, well, a lot of these cultural trends remain the same.

Mormon marriage now is ideally young returned missionary and young out-of-high school girl, both virgins, who marry quickly. She’s promised happiness and motherhood in exchange for her modesty, virtue, and dedication to her husband. She is destined to be a queen and priestess, reigning forever at the side of her husband. It’s church first, then husband and kids, then herself last. Except by age 25, there are 3 or 4 kids and they are screaming and her husband is gone a lot and she doesn’t know what to do. And there is depression. And then one day she finds out that her husband has been secretly watching porn in the basement, and what does that mean. It feels like slaps to the face, an abject betrayal. This isn’t how here life was supposed to go! Why would he do this to her! Isn’t she lovely enough, sexy enough, good enough, isn’t she enough for him? Why would God let this happen? And so she keeps her pain quiet and focuses on the kids and pops anti-depressants and hopes things will work out.

And for him? The Priesthood holder? The one who is burning the candle at both ends, with a full-time job, and debt, and church callings, and the kids, and the wife, the one who is always needed and is expected to be pure and righteous? He is meant to be a king and priest in Heaven, to have his own kingdom, his own planet one day. It’s church first, then wife and kids, then work, then him last. But he can barely seem to keep his energy and morale up for the things happening around him in his busy household. It’s all too much. And porn, well, it’s an easy escape. It’s indulgent. It’s secret. It’s not hurting anybody. It’s contained to a laptop screen. He can look up what he wants, pleasure himself. And if that gets boring, he can always jump online, into chatrooms, maybe exchange some photos or jump on a webcam, so long as he doesn’t show his face. It’s private and exciting. He gets attention from women (or at least men pretending to be women) that aren’t his wife. And so it becomes a habit. He stays up late multiple times per week. 15 minutes easily turns into 2 or 3 hours. He’s not addicted, he tells himself, he just enjoys it, so long as no one finds out, and he can keep the reality of it all in a different box, one that isn’t connected to his faithfulness or his Priesthood at all.

Except then he gets caught. He stammers lies about how often he does it, how much there has been, how far he has gone. He lies, and then makes excuses, and then blames others. There is shame and penitence. He has been told hundreds of times from his Priesthood leaders about the evils of pornography, about how it burns images permanently into your brain. Just one second, one image, that is all it takes and you are forever unclean. And now his wife is furious, and there is even less sex. He’s sent to the bishop. He vows to never do it again. She’s crying constantly, feeling lied to, betrayed. She was faithful and it isn’t supposed to be like this. It’s wrong, and he’s bad, and he’s unworthy. And if he relapses and gets caught again, well, he needs to go to therapy, to sex addiction recovery, where he can sort out what is wrong with him and make himself a better son of God, a more worthy Priesthood holder.

There are pornography and sex addiction recovery clinics all over Utah. They specialize in helping men move past the desires of the flesh and be better. Pornography is evil, vile, wrong. In fact, just a few years ago, the Mormon governor declared pornography a health epidemic. On a governmental level. (Seriously.) And so the man either gets better, or he finds more discreet ways of meeting this dark need. Or maybe he starts cheating. Utah does have a thriving prostitution industry, after all.

(And if you feel like this characterization is unfair or dramatic, take a moment to assess the people you know in Utah, even your own friends and families. Chances are, this describes more than a few of those men, women, or couples, if not now, than a few years back. This represents nearly every Mormon family I know, honestly).

So is there such thing as porn addiction? Absolutely. Food can be addictive. As can bad relationships, or gambling, or work. When you engage in something in one area of your life that is hurting the other areas; when you spend hours and hours on it; when you are keeping major secrets and justifying bad behavior; when you are telling lies and making excuses; all of these things contribute to addiction. But it is very important to understand that porn is not an addiction for everyone. In fact, studies show that porn is mostly addictive in heavily religious cultures and communities, ones that treat sex with shame, one with rigorous standards of what it means to be worthy.

Utah is well-known for having a poor sex education system in place. Safe sex isn’t discussed so much as abstinence. Sex is equated with shame, revulsion, and sin. Every human teenager has a sexual development taking place, it comes along with the hormones and the genitals. They experience attractions and desires. Those who have pre-marital sex are considered dirty, or damaged goods. And what extends with that is a culture of secret keeping. Let’s not talk about sex, let’s keep our sins secret, and let’s ignore the sexual things happening all around us. Looks bury our desires, never talk about them, never masturbate, never learn, and instead save ourselves for marriage. And then let’s marry our young sons and daughters and see what happens.

And what happens? Depression and addictions to pornography. Men and women grow up into adults while never allowing their sexual sides, which are just as prominent as their spiritual sides, to develop. Those sides stay stuck in adolescence. They seek expression. They cry out for release. And it’s even rougher on gay men and women, who have the added burden of growing up of being ashamed for WHO they are attracted to, leaving more psychological and emotional needs unmet.

I could likely prepare an entire two-hour conference on this, but I’ll wrap it up here. After a robust discussion, my friend asked me how I help people through all of this.

As a man, I struggled with pornography and masturbation during my Mormon years, when I was both married and single. Both resulted in major depression and anxiety problems for me, as well as physical issues. I had nausea, major stress, and sometimes vomiting or diarrhea issues after indulging in pornography or masturbation, and those conditions extended to when I would even notice an attractive man on the street. “I experienced an attraction! Oh no! I’m evil, God hates me, what have I done!” as my stomach churned. Now I live as an out, proud gay man. I’m sexually active, and I occasionally view porn. Masturbation is a pleasurable activity on occasion as well. And I experience zero shame in relation to any of it. I accept my sexual identity as very much a part of my overall person. I’m not a sinner or an addict. I’m just a healthy human 40-year old man.

Over the years, I’ve had a number of clients come to me with goals of reducing masturbation or to work on their pornography addictions. I take these concerns seriously. I listen. I reflect. I’m kind and calm andpatient. But I have to help the clients recognize that the shame they feel around sex is the primary cause of their emotional struggles. I have to help them learn to accept and love themselves, all parts of themselves, and then make decisions from there. I have to help them measure out their motivations. If their goal remains to watch pornography less, or to masturbate less, listen to the difference between these motivations.

“My goal is to masturbate less because when I do it, I am dirty and wrong. I’m breaking my covenants and making God disappointed in me. I’m sinning and permanently damaging myself. It’s going to take me years to earn back the trust of my wife, and I’m no longer worthy to go to the temple. Help me!”

Or: “My goal is to masturbate less because I want to live up to my covenants. I accept and embrace myself as a human person who has sexual desires. I was created that way and I’m not ashamed of that. Sexual desire is normal and natural, but I want to be a stalwart husband and father, and to live the teachings of my religion, so I want to make some changes to that behavior.”

Those are very different places to begin from. As for me? I don’t see anything wrong with a bit of porn, masturbation, or sexual activity, so long as it is from within the ethics and guidelines of the person’s overall life plan. Those things don’t fit in certain relationships or religions. Consent and ethics and all of that applies here, of course. And that’s where an individual has to measure out his or her own value system, because hurting the people you love isn’t the desired result here. Addictions or dependencies in any form, to food or alcohol or porn, are damaging and need to be worked on. But being a porn addict doesn’t make you a sex addict. Take accountability of yourself and be ethical and make your life decisions around that. Because shame is going to ruin you otherwise.

Embrace all of the parts of you, and learn how to be healthy. The rest will fall into place.

(And for those of you not in Utah, well, I love it here, really. It’s super charming. But oh my stars is it strange. And one way to emphasize that: there is a whole genre of porn under the category of ‘Mormon’. Both gay and straight. Seriously. It’s like a thriving industry. Fascinating, I tell you.)

 

Skunktrap

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what kinds of predators?”

“Raccoons, coyotes, red-tailed hawks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skunk

One Epic Fantasy

MagicJesus

There is a reference in the Book of Mormon that talks about the “great whore that sitteth upon many waters”, meaning the “great and abominable church” established by Satan to confuse and corrupt men. Growing up, I was taught that this meant, basically, that every religion except my own was a confused or corrupted version of the truth, and that only I had the real, whole truth. I was taught, as a child, to stand at the pulpit and profess this truth. I was taught to thank God daily for blessing me with this truth. And I was taught that I must consistently seek to help others find this truth. Every other religion’s claims of heavenly visions, divine miracles, spiritual truths, and godly gifts were false, they were corruptions at worst, misunderstandings at best. Only my church was true.

“I’d like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true.”

This gave me a sense of superiority. I was a choice son of God from a chosen generation, in the last days, preparing the world for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. I was taught that my religion would slowly spread through the world, breaking borders and barriers, and every soul on Earth would slowly and surely join the true church of God. (That word again, true, my word we used that word a lot).

My religion, like all others, stared science in the face and stuck its tongue out. Forget scientific advancements, delete evolution, overlook the dinosaur bones. The truth of the world was part fairy tale, part epic science fiction story, and the closer you looked the more complex it became.

See, the world was created thousands of years ago, not millions, and it was by godly beings, Michael and Jehovah, angels with epic powers commanded by a Celestial man named Elohim who lived on the planet Kolob. Elohim had billions and billions of spirit children, and he needed a place for them to live, where they could be tested properly and receive bodies. Satan had one plan, and Jesus had another. God liked Jesus’ plan, so Satan and a third of God’s children declared war and were cast out, forever unable to get bodies after that, leaving the billions of them to only try and tempt mortals all the time. God sent Michael down to be Adam, took out a rib to create Eve, and told them not to eat some fruit, and when they did they were cast out to live for hundreds of years in toil. The following generations encompassed the Bible stories, epic adventures all. There were major floods with ships full of animals, a whale who swallowed a guy, mass genocides of cities full of sinners, and slave revolts. There were oceans parted by a man’s hands, plagues of frogs, voices out of burning bushes, and little guys knocking over big guys with a slingshot. There was incest, adultery, slave-mongering, diseases, mass murder, and untold numbers of dead babies. Oh, and lots of white guys with beards who spoke for God. White guys with beards in the Middle East who spoke for God.

And then Elohim finally sent Jesus down through a virgin birth, kept most of his life a mystery, then gave him all kinds of godly powers to change water to wine, survive starving in the desert, and multiply food sources, all while teaching mortals a lesson. Then he let Jesus bleed from every pore, be whipped and flogged, and then get nailed to a cross to die painfully, only so mortals could be told they would never be good enough to make it on their own, they would need to learn from all this, cause Jesus suffered for them, way worse than any mere mortal could suffer, and he had two because Adam and Eve ate that fruit that one time. And then God raised Jesus from the dead. So if we want some of that, we better listen and do as we are told.

And although the world had a few thousand years of religion prior to this, this is when religion as a culture really kicked in. Christians had already separated from Jews. But then lots of different men said that they were doing the Jesus thing the right way, and they formed their own churches, cultures, and governments around it, then started fighting with others. And as humans expanded from millions into billions, they divided themselves along those religious lines. Hindu. Islam. Buddha. Jewish. Christian. Far too many to count. Then they subdivided again, then again.

The way I was taught it, God was so upset over the way Jesus was treated that he took religion away from the Earth for nearly 2000 years. He waited a good long time for a nice righteous white boy in America. In fact, lots of history happened just to get the world ready for that white boy. There were wars and revolutions, slavery and crusades, but finally Joseph Smith came along. He was visited by God and Jesus, floating in the air in white robes, and then a series of angels and magical powers followed. There were buried artifacts, stones in a hat that could translate old records, and relics from an ancient civilization that has somehow evaded every scientist ever. Outside of Jesus, Joseph was the most important man to ever live, they said. He set up the true religion with the true scriptures, and he started converting people by the tens, the hundreds, the thousands, moving them from city to city and asking them to focus on his holiness and his revelations, and not on his increasing number of wives, his failed banks and smashed printing presses, and his youth full of treasure-digging. He retranslated the Bible, then brought forth more scriptures from some hieroglyphics he found in a mummy case. When Joseph died, the Mormons moved west and set up their own government, even though it meant fighting against the American government, and the Mormons changed their laws when they had to, which meant changing their belief structure and pretending  God had planned it that way all along.

Things are different nowadays in the true church. There is way less magic, fewer visions from the sky. Now there seems to be a strong focus on forgetting the past and focusing on conformity and obedience. Only certain things should be talked about. In a new world focused on equal rights, in a world where we talk about sexual abuse openly, where gay marriage is legal, and where it is considered cruel to discriminate against transgender people or anyone else, the Mormons want to keep the focus on happy families, and not on the excommunication of gays, the sexual abuse of women, the 150 years of denying blacks the Priesthood, the opposition of the Equal Rights Amendment, or how they treated young women as acquisitions for old men for many years past the time when it was declared illegal.

Some days, I feel angry about the religion I grew up in. Some days, sad. Some, numb, confused, or embarrassed. Some days, I even grow nostalgic. But others, like today, I look back on what I grew up believing and I can’t help but choke on my own laughter. It’s all just so asinine, so full of holes. It’s corruption from the inside out. It’s rotten to its core. It’s abusive, bizarre, ridiculous, beyond comprehension. It’s Star WarsLord of the RingsLord of the Flies, Animal Farm, Lolita, and Wolf of Wall Street all in one bizarre life-ruining epic. It’s crazy-making.

And it’s a system I’m relieved to be free from. But damn if it isn’t a good read.

 

 

Love the Gay Away

Jesus

The four “recovering Mormons” took the stand and, one by one, introduced themselves to the audience. All of them had found solace and belonging in a new faith community, an Evangelical church, and now wanted to share the good word with the public. A room with a few hundred people watched as they spoke on the topic of leaving Mormonism to find new religion.

The first woman spoke about her lifelong struggle with depression as she fought to be the perfect Mormon daughter, wife, housewife, and mother. She internalized her doubts and pains for years before learning about some of the more bizarre Mormon doctrines (like “the second anointing”), and she suddenly spiraled right out of the church. She replaced her depression, she said, with a profound love for Jesus.

The pastor of the church gave a fascinating account of setting up a Christian organization within the confines of Utah, which he profoundly described as different than any other place. The bulk of his congregation, which had grown by about 150 members per years over the past few decades, were made up of those who had left Mormonism, or at the very least who were constantly influenced by the Mormonism around them. He was handsome, cheerful, and charismatic, and it was easy to picture him leading a congregation in a sermon and inspiring them to belief and action with his words.

Everyone present talked about a great love for the Bible and for the teachings of Jesus, and they discussed everyone in the room being welcome. I remained skeptical, but happy to see this resource in this community. I remembered the months I had spent as a Mormon missionary in Philadelphia, two decades earlier, investigating other religions, and after a while all of them felt mostly the same with just a few differences.

And then the next member of the panel introduced herself. She was likely in her late 30s or early 40s and wore comfortable clothes, jeans and a jacket. She had short blonde hair. She reminded me immediately of my sister Sheri, who lives on the East Coast with her wife, and I wondered if this woman might also be gay. “If she is, then cool, they welcome gay people here,” I thought. And then the woman started sharing her story.

She talked about growing up with damaged parents and being raised by her grandparents, leaving Mormonism after coming out of the closet (“ha, I was right,” I thought), entering a series of bad relationships, and eventually finding Jesus in this faith community. She then began to refer to her lesbianism in the past tense. She now realized that she was part of a worship community that taught her actual truth, she reasoned, and if she truly loved Jesus, then she had to do as he commanded. Sex was to only be in the bounds of marriage, and marriage was only between a man and a woman.

I leaned over to my friend next to me and whispered, “oh, gross”, feeling the strain of all of the years before that I’d had in the closet. It exhausted me to see yet another person going through this damaging reasoning, away from Mormonism, years after being actively gay, only to return to the closet in the name of Christianity.

 

My friend whisper back, “Wait, is she saying she is ex-lesbian?”

The host of the event asked the woman that, followed by several other questions. He is an accomplished host, a straight male with a wife and family who was excommunicated from Mormonism for asking hard questions, and one who has done advanced research studies on LGBT change efforts in religious communities. He recounted basic research that showed that change efforts were universally successful, that mixed-orientation marriages almost always fail, and that the worst of all of the options for overall mental health was a life of celibacy (which is what the Mormon religion and other faith communities currently expect from their active LGBT members).

But the woman dug her heels in. “The more you try to persuade me, the more I extend my roots into Jesus.” She talked about finding more love in Jesus than she ever could in the arms of a woman, wanting to marry a man eventually (one who loved Jesus more than she does, she said), and about teaching others in a ‘homosexuality and Christianity group” in the church about her story. She said the church had a lot of gay friends, some of them even married, who attended or who came in for lectures in the group.

The charismatic paster then grabbed his mic, talking about how at the last sermon he gave, “four or five gay guys” came up to him after the service and shook his hand, saying how much they enjoyed it. He then reemphasized that everyone was welcome, and that we are all “sexual sinners” who have to become right before the Lord.

“Gross,” I muttered again. Because as a “sexual sinner”, he still got to have sex with his wife, and he was propagating the expectation that those who are gay never get to enjoy sex at all.

Listening there, I had the bizarre realization that this experience was the direct counter-point to Mormonism, yet still the exact same homophobia and discrimination. Growing up Mormon, I was told homosexuality was evil, abominable, and curable. Lately, the narrative had changed yet remained the same. Now homosexuality was seen as something that couldn’t be altered, but that must be just ignored and denied, for those who had sex even with a same-sex married partner would be shunned and kicked out. Yet here, the message was one of celebration and joy. Instead of “follow our rules or you are out,” it was “Everyone is welcome here! Jesus loves everyone! We don’t care about your sins cause we are all sinners! (And also, gay people are worse). Let Jesus love your gay away!”

I walked away from the broadcast feeling confused, angry, and sad. While each person has their own individual journey, including the right to be celibate or in a mixed-orientation marriage, I was so weary of people putting themselves on a platform to say “I did it, so you can too! Look at me as an example! If I can suffer, you can join me!”

I walked back into the cold night sky contemplating the ideas about Jesus, a bizarre concoction of unconditional love and required suffering, and realized that pretty much any moment I spent in any church was a moment I could be spending somewhere else. And if Jesus is real, I’m pretty sure he would be okay with that.

Homeless

Nun

“This is my brother, Chad!” Sheri said excitedly to her co-workers. She marched me into the call center where she worked, introducing me haphazardly to the employees who weren’t on the phone. “He just flew in from Utah!”

“Chad, it’s nice to meet you!” one of them extended her hand. “I know all about you. Sheri tells me everything. I love your blog!”

I smiled as Sheri rambled on a bit. She talks quickly, full of nervous creative energy constantly. Moments later, she showed me her “fidget” drawer, full of objects she could play with so that she could stay focused on work calls and reading assignments for college. “We have an hour before I work, so I’m gonna show him around a little bit. I think I’ll walk him over to where the homeless guy lives, and then maybe over to the monastery. Then I gave him a list of things he can do tonight while I’m working.”

Sheri gave that weird laugh she sometimes gives although nothing funny had been said. Members of my family do that sometimes, give off a laugh to perhaps fill the silence or to avoid something awkward, though the laugh makes it inevitably more awkward every time. I smiled, remembering how I’d had that habit all through my school years.

Soon we were walking down he hill outside her work at 4 pm, knowing it would get dark in another hour. Sheri asked about my flight in, I asked about her classes, and we discussed plans for the coming days of vacationing together in New England. I enjoy how comfortable I am around Sheri, instinctively. She’s familiar, the sibling closest in age, and the one I had the most in common with.

“So there is this guy who lives underneath the freeway that goes over the dike,” she explained, “and he sets up tables and sells things sometimes. He has this whole section of land to himself. He has like a sleeping area and a cooking area. He is known. People walk through there as a shortcut to the shopping center.”

I found myself smiling. Sheri and I both love random encounters, and we can enjoy most any experience. We got closer down to the encampment and Sheri gave an ‘aww, oh no’ sound. Apparently, the city was changing the local area, taking out trees and building trails. Sheri had heard about it, but hadn’t realized that it might impact her homeless friend. “That’s sad. He’s been there forever. It’s kind of like his home. I wonder where he’ll go?”

We walked by the edge of the area, looking at the concrete pillars covered in graffiti. There were flattened cardboard boxes, a pair of shoes, and a random book, but no either sign of life. “That’s sad,” she repeated, assuming he had already moved on.

We started walking away, back up the hill and across a field toward a local monastery. “Did I ever tell you about the homeless guy from right before I came out of the closet?”

“I don’t think so.”

I breathed in the cold fall New England air, and began telling my story.

“Back when I was Elders Quorum President, I used to have to attend this Bishop’s Council meeting every Sunday morning before church. It would last like 90 minutes, and we’d talk bout ward business, events, members we were worried about, stuff like that. We’d give reports on budget and numbers. Anyway, the Bishop was this older serious farmer businessman guy who was very no-nonsense. One day he noticed that a homeless man had moved into the vacant lot across the fence from the church. There was this giant pine tree, and the man had set up some chairs and boxes underneath there to stay out of the cold. The Bishop was super worried about it.”

We walked up to the monastery as I spoke, and I noticed the stark white statues of the Mother Mary and Christ outside it. Sheri interrupted me, explaining that the church was open to the public, but we had to be silent because nuns lived in the building behind it, and they had taken the vow of silence. I lowered my voice as we walked the perimeter of the grounds.

“The bishop felt we should warn the ward to watch their children around this man. He felt like he could be a danger. He had acted the same way a few months before that when a registered sex offender had moved into the ward, and he had wanted to warn the families not to interact much with him. Anyway, he counseled us to keep an eye on things and said he would get it taken care of.

“During the following week, he contacted the owner of the vacant lot by looking through the records at City Hall. He got permission to go in and chop down the tree. He had the homeless man escorted away and chopped down the tree so no one could come back. All because the man claimed a tree too close to the church.”

On the edge of the grounds, we could see through the tall hedges briefly to behind the monastery. There was a stark white graveyard back there, and one solo nun stood among the graves, arms folded as she surveyed the small plot of land.

“The irony of a church denying a homeless man refuge instead of offering him aid wasn’t lost on me. And then, a few months later, I came out. And I never heard what the bishop said, because I stopped going to church, but I wondered if he worried about me the way he had about the sex offender and the homeless man. I wondered if he had warned people to keep their children from me, to watch me close when I entered the building.”

We walked into the monastery then. It was wide and beautiful, with stained glass Biblical depictions of the life of Christ lining both sides. Two people were there, praying silently on the hard back benches. The old man looked up and waved at me when he heard me enter, then returned to his prayers. A golden shrine of some kind lay at the front of the building, and I watched two nuns leave an offering of some kind and then move off to the side, entering a beeping code into a security device to enter the door that accessed their chambers, presumably. I walked to the front and saw lit candles and a book where civilians could write down the names of those who needed prayers for healing. A note suggested a two dollar donation for the prayer and candle.

Donations for prayers. Vows of silence. Shelter trees being cut down, and the homeless removed from their non-homes. It was all suddenly a bit claustrophobic and I stepped outside, returning to that view of the stark white graveyard, contemplating my old life, and comparing it to the new.

Like Lambs to the Slaughter: a critical exploration of children in religion

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I came across a photo recently, quite by accident, while doing a google search for “crazy lambs”, looking for a funny image to cheer a friend up with. I initially just clicked past the image, but then found myself going back and staring at it for several minutes. I found it sad, entertaining, thought-provoking, profound, and painfully true.

In it, a small girl of about five is smiling, wearing a pretty, white, frumpy church dress. The dress is modest, extending up to her neck and all the way down to her hands. She has brown curly hair, a bit messy. She has on a small necklace. She seems to be missing a tooth. In her small hands, she holds a large knife, black handle with a long silver blade, in a delicate grip. The blade of the knife is making a small incision in the neck of a large white lamb, sculpted of butter or frosting; with just a small thrust of the knife, the head of the lamb will lop off and on to the plate. The lamb is peaceful, all in white, and on a bed of frosting and flowers, seemingly unassuming, unsuspecting, his head literally about to roll. Behind the girl stands a man, presumably her father. Not much of him is seen, only his black apron and his white sleeves, with his two hands guiding the girl. One hand lies suspended above her hands, guiding her to push the knife forward, the other hand holding the plate, ready to collect the lamb’s head.

I contemplated this little girl, about to mutilate a frosting animal as her family stood around her smiling and encouraging her. I pictured this as some sort of rite of passage, something the girl dressed up for, something she will be celebrated for. Her friends have all cut the lamb’s head off, now it is her turn. She’s been waiting for this for years, and she is so proud. Her dad gently guides her, the knife is freshly sharpened, and everyone celebrates and smiles. And one day, she will grow up and have daughters and a man can show them the same ritual.

Images from my own childhood, as a young Mormon kid in Missouri, flashed into my brain. All the little rites of passage. Making my first dollar, and learning how to give ten cents of that as tithes to the church. Taking the sacrament every Sunday and praying to be forgiven of sins. Entering the waters of baptism at age 8 and pledging myself to the church. Receiving the Priesthood at age 12, then 14, then 16, then 18, with new responsibilities each time. Going to the temple and undergoing a series of rituals, involving wearing sacred holy undergarments, getting a new name to enter Heaven with, and pledging my all and my everything to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I remember being walked up to the front of the Church during fast and testimony meeting at age 5, where my mom whispered in my ear the things to say to the congregation, a chance to bear my testimony of beliefs for everyone to hear. “Brothers and sisters, I would like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true. I know Joseph Smith is a prophet of God and that the Book of Mormon is true. I know God loves me. I’m thankful for my family. I can’t wait to go on a mission some day. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.” And the crowd oohed and aahed, how cute, as the next child lined up behind, another parent whispering a testimony in their ear, just as their parents had with them years before.

I looked back at the image, and I thought of the little girl.

“But, daddy, I don’t want to chop the lamb’s head off. I like animals.”

Honey, no one likes to chop the lamb’s head off, but it is what good little boys and girls do. It’s what Jesus wants you to do. Mommy and I love you so much. I will help you and be so proud of you.”

I thought of all the terrible and bizarre stories I grew up believing.

God commanding Abraham to take Isaac up in the hills, to tie him down, and to stab him through the middle with a knife, before saying ‘just kidding, Abe. I was only testing you.’ The lesson? You do as God says, whether that means stabbing your son, or laying there to be stabbed; you don’t have to understand, just do it and don’t ask questions.

God destroying the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, tens of thousands of his children wiped out for sinning (where in other cases, sinning souls are saved out of love). He lets Lot and his family escape and commands them not to turn back. But when Lot’s wife turns around, curious likely at the fiery destruction of her home and all her friends, she is punished and turned to salt. Lesson: God will crush you if you deserve it, and he might decide to save you as long as you do what he says, but don’t question him or he can crush you, too.

Or one from the Book of Mormon: God commands Nephi to cut off Laban’s head, wear the dead man’s clothes, and steal his treasure so that Nephi’s family could have the scriptures in the wilderness. Surely, God could have found a way for Nephi to get the scriptures (the Liahona was left outside their tent magically, for example) that didn’t require him to violently murder a man and steal his things. Lesson: God will test you and make you do terrible things to prove you love him.

I pictured then all the terrible things people teach their children in the name of religion. The little girls in polygamist compounds who are married off at 14 to 70 year old men. The little boys in Aryan gangs who see Neo-Nazi tattoos on their father’s chests and believe a White America is the best America. The kids who grow up thinking marriage is forever, and only between a man and a woman, and you stick it out no matter what it takes, no matter the abuse, the infidelity, the lovelessness.

I was 12 when I sat down with a new bishop in our ward, a man I didn’t know, and he interviewed me to see if I was worthy to receive the Priesthood. Part of our conversation went like this:

“Chad, do you obey the law of chastity?”

“Chastity? What’s that?”

“Well, do you masturbate?”

“Um, I don’t know what that is.”

“Well, masturbation is when you stimulate your penis. It feels good and you touch it until you ejaculate. But that is a sin and it shouldn’t be done.”

Later, I went home and tried it out. A 12 year old kid with a 70 year old man learning about masturbation? I can’t tell you the number of young girls and boys I know who were sexually molested by church leaders in similar circumstances, the man behind the little girl gently guiding her to hold the knife. Just do as I say, it’s what Jesus wants.

And so much of the damage happens beneath the surface. Growing up, we focused most of our lessons in Church and family about love, and sacrifice for the greater good, and the blessings of being a Mormon. But the subtext, the things that are believed but not as actively taught: Gay people can be cured and made straight. Black people exist because God cursed wicked white men with black skin, and if they live righteously, eventually they will be made white again. In Heaven, one man will marry multiple women, have and create their own planets, and become Gods themselves. The subtexts of this religion, of any religion, and the sanctions it creates for profit, for abuse, for discrimination… it’s horrifying.

The dad in this picture, he may not think that what he is doing is horrifying. He may truly believe what he is doing is right. He teaches his daughter about Biblical sanctioned murder, Christ on the cross, and the destruction of cities and sinners, and believes it is right. And then he guides his daughter in using a knife to chop the lamb’s head off. And similarly, the parents who let their children receive interviews about sex from old men, then parents who marry off their teenage daughters, the parents who send their gay teens to reparative therapy, the parents who kick their questioning children out on the streets to homelessness, the parents who raise their kids to believe in justifiable hate of minorities… in their minds, they are doing the right thing, the good thing, the thing God expects.

Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist, once said, “A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents. This latter nomenclature, by the way, would be an excellent piece of consciousness-raising for the children themselves. A child who is told she is a ‘child of Muslim parents’ will immediately realize that religion is something for her to choose -or reject- when she becomes old enough to do so.”

I plan on raising my sons to be free-thinking, to love others, to have critical and searching minds. I will teach them to be moral, kind, charitable, and loving. But I will not let them hold knives to the necks of lambs.

the Origin of My Species

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“B-9! The tumor is benign! B-9!”

I stood in the background among the trees, feeling awkward as the dozens of family members searched their small paper cards for the number that will give them the coveted Bingo, oversized red blotters in their hands, filled with dripping red ink.

“I-23! I act 23! I-23!”

The campsite is as beautiful as I remember it, though it’s been years since I have been here. Large luscious pine trees, thick foliage in varying shades of green, wildflowers and pussy willows, a gentle cool breeze, rich dark chocolate soil. The area is covered with trailers and tents. A campfire smokes and pops off to one side. Card tables littered with playing cards, Styrofoam cups, candy wrappers, and aluminum soda cans. Island Park, Idaho holds powerful memories of my childhood, my origins.

“B-4! B-4 this, we had lunch! B-4!”

I have been out of the closet for nearly five years now, yet this is my first time seeing some of these family members since my grandmother’s death, over five years ago. I look around the room and think of the extension of relations. Brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces; aunts, uncles, cousins with their spouses and kids; grandparents’ brothers and sisters and their kids and spouses and grandkids. I don’t recognize about a fifth of the people here and have no idea how I am related to them.

“O-68! Oh, to have an IQ over 68! O-68!”

My mom looks up and gives me another small wave. She’s happy to see me, I know. She’s happiest when surrounded by family and chaos, and here there is that multiplied by one thousand. A few of my sisters give me similar waves, and they are happy to see me too. But no one gets up. I arrived during Bingo, after all. Hugs will have to come later.

“N-32! ‘n my heart, I’m still 32! N-32!”

I close my eyes for a moment and just… feel. There is a growing panic in my insides, an old familiar fight or flight response. I grew up in this environment, this chaotic loving family, hidden in plain sight. A gay kid who pretended to be straight for a few decades. Being among them again after all this time, it brings back those old familiar panicked feelings, that sense of otherness, of being different. I haven’t felt like this in years.

“I-16! I’m a good Mormon, and I don’t date til I’m 16! I-16!”

Someone calls out Bingo and they get to choose a prize: either a bottle of Diet Coke or a bag of Licorice, and then the next round is announced, a version of Bingo where you have to create a giant X on the card. I take a seat in a dusty camp chair toward the back as the cards are cleared and the new game begins. A handsome young man sits next to me and it takes me several seconds to realize it is one of my cousin’s sons, a kid I haven’t seen in probably six years, when he was 12. He’s holding a book in his hand, wearing a t-shirt and shorts.

He extends a hand. “I’m not sure we’ve met. I’m Casey.”

I smile and shake his hand, such a Mormon thing to do, something I still do in my interactions, shake hands when you first see someone. “I’m Chad.”

He leans back in his chair. “I’m reading the most wonderful book.”

“Oh? What’s it about?”

The Bingo competition begins again. “N-37! ‘n 37 seconds, I’ll kiss my wife! N-37!”

He smiles and holds the book up. “It’s about a man who fell in the paths of sin. He struggled with pornography and masturbation, and eventually had sex outside of marriage. He wrote this book about his repentance process, how he obtained forgiveness from the Lord, and made his way back to the church. It contains lots of quotes from the modern prophets.”

I feign interest, looking at the book briefly. “It sounds very serious.”

“Well, yes. But I’m leaving on my mission to the Phillipines in a few weeks, and I want to read everything I can to be prepared. I only get two years as a missionary to bring souls to Christ.”

I smile, and we fall into a comfortable silence as the Bingo game continues. This kid, that was me, back in the late-1990s. Carrying my scriptures around with me constantly, keeping a constant prayer in my heart, knowing that if I worked at it hard enough, God would take away my attraction to men. I was pure, innocent. I had no idea how the world worked, what was out there. I was caught up in this simple god-fearing existence, oblivious to how much pain I was in. Two years spent completely dedicated to God while I was a missionary in the eastern United States, and I hadn’t come one lick closer to a cure.

I stood up and patted Casey on the shoulder briefly. “Congratulations, man. You’re going to be an amazing missionary.”

He thanked me as I walked away, back through the trees to the dusty trail where I’d parked my car. No one noticed me leaving, they were all focused on their Bingo cards.

“B-1! BYU is number 1! B-1!”

A few hours later, after a cup of coffee and a long walk in the glorious flowery fields near the camping lot, I returned. I had missed the family frying pan toss, the pinochle tournament, the talent show, the family crossword, birdhouse making, and horseshoes.

The next several hours were filled with conversations, awkwardness, hugs, rolled eyes, and laughter.

“Whose kid took the keys to my motorized wheelchair! Everyone stop what you are doing, the keys to my motorized wheelchair are missing! Who took them! Oh, never mind, they are here, in my bra.”

“Sorry for getting sweat on you during our hug! I guess I have become the sweaty one in the family!”

“Oh, my life is the same as ever. No one cares enough to even ask how I’m doing, so I’ll just sit back here and pretend like everything is fine. But thanks for asking.”

“Did you hear that Darrel told one of his kids to kick one of Kim’s kids in the balls because he thinks Kim is a terrible mother? Can you believe him!”

“I just want you to know that I think being gay is completely cool. I mean, I totally support gay marriage. It’s about time. And if anyone says anything against it, I’ll tell them what I think.”

“Did you hear about Darrel? I think he’s addicted to pain pills. Why else would he have said that?”

“Chad! I have a gay friend I want to set you up with. He lives a few hundred miles from you, but he’s a total sweetheart. Can I set you up?”

“Did you hear about Darrel and Kim?”

______________________________________

The next day, I head over to the campsite early and sit in the early morning next to a crackling fire. Most everyone is still asleep, except a few cousins and their kids making their way around camp in various tasks. I don’t talk to anyone, and I think about where I’ve come from, and all the memories I have here. I miss my grandparents suddenly, both gone for years, and I wonder how would feel about this expanse of dozens and dozens of lives that sprang from their simple, post-Depression love story.

In time, pancakes are being flipped and donuts are being fried. It’s a few more hours before the giant family potluck begins and I observe the spread of food, the same heaping dishes that I grew up devouring. Sugared cheese balls, potato chips, licorice, candied popcorn, instant potatoes mixed with cream cheese and sour cream and melted cheese, a heaping sugared ham. I take a step back and look at the table. There is one small bowl of green salad, ice berg lettuce with carrot shavings, a few bowls of fruit mixed in with whipped cream, and one big bowl of watermelon. Giant tubs of sugary lemonade at the end.

This… this is how I ate growing up. This is what was available. Grab as much as you can, then get more, then more. Huge meals every meal with snacks in between.

Soon the family raffle begins, a four hour long event where they call one number at a time, corresponding to a prize. Tickets are 25 cents each; some people buy five dollars worth, others buy five hundred dollars worth.

“Next up is a hand-crafted quilt! Number 252, who has number 252?”

I look around at the crowd, groupings of families sitting in lawn chairs, picking their plates clean. Kids burying themselves in dirt, babies being rocked by their mothers, men drifting off to sleep, women fanning themselves with paper plates. Every one of them will stay until every last number has been called.

The next morning, as I drive away, I find myself overwhelmed with gratitude, that I was raised in this insane and incredible family, an entire childhood that revolved around gossip, food, faith, and love.