the Dark Side of Calgary

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“Maybe I’ll go on a killing spree! Maybe there’s gonna be human flesh all over the pavement!”

The man was shouting at no one in particular. He was just kind of yelling into the sidewalk. He was in his late 30s, approximately, Hispanic, with a buzzed head and thick lips. He sat on the ground, wearing camouflage pants and a thick black coat, his back to a concrete structure, and he just yelled. He didn’t seem to see me walk by. I only paused briefly, and as he quickly scratched at a purple spot on his head, I determined he was on drugs and kept walking.

Encounters like this in big cities seemed relatively commonplace. Just in the last year, in San Francisco, and again in Seattle, I’d witnessed bizarre encounters like this on the streets. My boyfriend and I, during our travels, had seen one woman scream about the entire world being rapists while she scratched at open sores on her legs, and we’d seen a homeless man in a wheelchair masturbating in a stairwell right outside our hotel. Still, something about the human flesh comment left me feeling a little frightened this time around.

It was my final night in Calgary, Alberta. After a few lovely days of exploring various parts of the city, including the national park, the zoo, a couple of gay clubs, a shopping district, and a professional theater, I wanted to make my last day leisurely. Sunday had been full of church bells, slowly sipped coffee, and contemplation. I’d been writing poetry, thinking deeply about where I am in life, and determining what goals I want to work on next. The trip overall had been deeply healing. And this evening would be my last quiet night before flying home at the ungodly hour of 4 am.

I briskly walked away from the man in camouflage and noticed a beautiful courtyard park in front of a massive church just across the way. It was gorgeous in layout, with steel benches, curving sidewalks, and small manicured gardens in front of the large church. I hurriedly cross the street to check it out.

As I entered the park, I noticed the tall brown building against the dull grey sky. It had been grey my entire time in the city, but somehow it was perfect. This weather is what people think of when they think of Seattle, this gray overcast heaviness. But it didn’t bother me. I liked the drizzle, the clouds over the river. It was music to me.

I looked back down and realized that several different men were watching me from benches. It wasn’t a casual gaze, they were staring me down. I did my best not to make eye contact, but counted four of them, all of them clearly homeless and very likely high. Suddenly I remembered the building I’d passed a few blocks back, the one that had “JESUS LOVES” written across the top in giant red letters, and I realized it might very well be a homeless shelter. Had I wandered into the local version of Pioneer Park? Back in my home in Salt Lake City, there is a downtown park in a prime location that is generally very unsafe and full of homeless people due to its proximity to the shelters. This could be downright frightening.

I paused briefly at a small manicured garden full of what looked like cabbage plants. They were green, purple, and white, and came out of the ground in jagged spikes. I stared at the plants for a few moments, stunned by their strange beauty, yet still aware of the men in the park behind me.

Then I got scared.

“Fuck everyone! I fucking hate humans!” A woman stumbled from behind a group of trees as she yelled into the sky. Her hair was sloppy, pulled back into a shaggy ponytail, and she had far too much face paint on, bright blue over her eyes, pink on her cheeks, and red on her lips. She was slightly plump, likely in her early 40s (or maybe in her 20s but far older than her years). She wore a leather jacket over a black t-shirt that was cut low to reveal cleavage, a pair of jean shorts that had the legs cut off of them (likely with a pair of scissors), fishnet stockings with holes in them, and a pair of scuffed high-heeled boots. I immediately assumed she was a prostitute.

The woman tripped slightly and dropped a white container of some kind onto the sidewalk. “FUCK!” she screamed, then she bent down, nearly falling off her heels, picked up the object, and threw it across the street. “FUCK!”

She then took a leather purse from off her shoulder and threw it hard into a bench, where it landed in a pile on the concrete. “FUCK!” She slumped herself down onto the metal bench near her purse, unzipped her jacket pocket, and wrestled a cell phone and headphones out of her pocket. The cord was tangled up and as she unraveled it, she just kept screaming. “Fuck, fuck, fuck! I hate humankind!” Finally, she just dropped the headphones, put her phone on top of her purse, and just collapsed her head into her hands. She started sobbing her eyes out.

I stood there frozen for a moment, wondering what to do. Should I go to comfort her, ask if she needed anything? She shook with deep, silent sobs. I looked closer and saw needle marks up and down her legs under the fishnets. I was just remembering the men behind me and how I needed to leave when another man came from behind the trees, and I immediately wondered if he was this woman’s pimp.

He was bald with a spotty goatee and a patchy face. Shorter than me, he was missing teeth and wore a dirty white T-shirt and blue sweat pants over his white sneakers. He looked at the woman, then looked at me. He had a bizarrely playful look on his face.

“Hey.” His voice was almost calm. “Trust in JC, am I right?” I didn’t answer, and instead gave one last look at the woman. “Hey, that’s my coat, right? You take my coat?” I looked at the red jacket I was wearing, then back up, and simply shook my head. “That’s my coat.”

I almost answered, but instead just turned away and started walking quickly, not running, away from the cabbage plants, the crying woman, and the bald man. I crossed paths with the men with scary eyes again, and turned right out of the park. I kept walking fast, noticing the other people around me on the sidewalk, just regular civilians, realizing none of them had been in the park. I walked a full block before I turned my head around and realized the bald man was following me. He was only 20 yards back. We made eye contact and he playfully spoke again.

“Just trust JC.”

I went from nervous to downright scared now, and walked more quickly. Was he that woman’s pimp? Was he mad at me for having looked at her? Did I step into his territory? Was he mentally ill? Did he just really like my coat and want it? Or was he just high and curious? I walked faster.

Two blocks later, he was a bit farther behind, but he was still following. I was a mile from the Airbnb where I was staying. This wasn’t going to end well. I came on a new block and realized I was passing a business. I stepped inside without looking, and realized I was in an ice cream shop.

The shop was empty except for a small Asian girl working behind the counter. She greeted me, and I approached a bit nervous. As she described their unique ice cream methods, I felt myself begin to calm, and then I heard a tapping behind me. I turned around and saw the bald man standing right outside, tapping his hand softly on the glass. He was staring through the window right at me and wanted my attention. What kind of fucking Stephen King nightmare was this?

I turned back to the Asian girl, and told her how the man was following me, and how maybe we should be ready to call the police. She couldn’t be more than 17. She looked over my shoulder at the man, then smiled reassuringly. “This is a sketchy area sometimes. I don’t think he will come in.”

“No, but I have to go back out at some point.”

A few minutes later, I sat at the table, eating a scoop of mango ice cream that I didn’t even want, and tried to avoid the man staring at me from outside. There were no other exits that I knew of. How was I going to handle this? I opened up my phone and began to Google the Canadian police phone number. There was no way I was walking out there.

When I looked back up from my phone, the man was gone. I waited ten minutes, then wandered up to the window, wondering if he was around some corner. A mile was a long way to walk with someone after me, and I’d been mugged pretty badly once before (back when I was a Mormon missionary in Philadelphia). Instead, I summoned an Uber. The car pulled up within two minutes, and I rushed outside and jumped in, my heart thudding in my chest.

Twenty minutes later, I called my boyfriend to tell him what had happened. Knowing me far too well, he responded simply.

“Huh. That’s scary. I’m glad you are okay! But I bet this will make one hell of a blog post.”

Pride, Prejudice, and Protest

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HOMO SEX IS SIN

BELIEVE TRUST FOLLOW OBEY JESUS

ASK ME WHY YOU DESERVE HELL

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

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

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

ASK ME WHY YOU DESERVE HELL.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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.