Learning to Leave

Learning to Leave

When I was 12 years old, I sat with my family on the back row of the middle section of the chapel during sacrament meeting. My sister Sheri sat to my left, barely 9, and my mother sat to my right. And as Sister Stratton bore her testimony from the pulpit, I watched my mother turn ashen gray.

She started with the standard ‘I want to bear my testimony that I know this church is true’, followed by professions of belief in the prophets and the scriptures and the love of God. And then her tone changed to something sicky-sweet, words so sincere that they sat like a piece of undigested roast beef in my stomach.

“Brothers and sisters, I want to bear my testimony on the blessings of temple marriage. I met my husband when I was 18 and he was 21, just off his mission. My father promised us back then that if we followed the teachings of God and honored our temple covenants, our lives would be blessed beyond measure. We now have seven beautiful children and are so happy. I want to promise you that if you follow the counsel of your leaders and marry in the temple, you can have what I have, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

She returned to her seat on the second row and snuggled up next to her husband, their children on either side of them taking up the entire bench. On the back row, I watched my mother swallow hard and close her eyes tightly as big tears formed and began cascading down her cheeks. She let out her breath slowly and more tears followed. Despite her best efforts, she was soon openly crying. She excused herself as I sat there, not knowing what to do.

My mother grew up in the 1950s in potato country, Idaho. Even the mascot at the nearby high school was a potato. She was the middle daughter of a farmer and a teacher, the only one in the family with blue eyes and blonde hair. They were the perfect Mormon family, descended from pioneers and strong in their faith. Her beauty blossomed in her teenage years, when she learned to style her hair in the perfect beehive. She was asked out constantly, and even years later, she bragged about ‘kissing up a storm’ with her high school boyfriend in the back seat, but never taking it so far that it would disappoint her father. She turned down several marriage proposals before she finally said yes to my father.

He was the good-looking son of a sheep farmer, with four older brothers and one baby sister. He was a returned missionary, and a veteran, and he had a strong testimony of the gospel. When he proposed, he was 25, and my mom just 20, and they were blissfully happy. They had children, finished college, built a house on the hill, started their careers, had a few more kids. My mother had four daughters and a son, the same composition as her family growing up, and she loved dressing them up for church every Sunday and parading them in to fill up a row, just like Sister Stratton’s family would years later. Perhaps she even bore her testimony about the blessings and happiness of marriage back then. Maybe she made promises that others could have what she had, through righteousness and obedience.

But then, when she was in her early 30s, my father started growing quiet. A darkness was developing within him, and she couldn’t make sense of it. When he grew distant, surly, and critical, she threw herself harder in to church service and raising the perfect family. Scripture study, fasting, prayer, and temple attendance weren’t working. He wasn’t getting better. Her testimony remained solid, but he grew darker. And then she started finding out about the credit card debt and his losses on the stock market, things he kept secret for years.

In the mid 1970s, my father abruptly announced his plan to move the entire family to rural Missouri, where he saw a chance to get rich quick. My mother, ever the good wife, acquiesced and packed up their entire lives into a truck. They sold their home and left their parents, foraging into the great unknown, like their pioneer ancestors before them, but for entirely different reasons. Once they arrived, my mother, now more isolated and fighting off a building panic, saw things get worse for my father, as he fell farther into debt and depression. And with her old children now hitting early adolescence, she got pregnant again, this time with me. And then again, with my little sister. And suddenly, it was the mid-1980s, and she had seven mouths to feed, ranging from baby to pre-teen, with maxed out credit cards and a house payment due. All that plus a husband full of darkness.

My mother stayed for far too long. Quiet painful hours in her marriage balanced by the joys she found in her children. Those hours stacked up to years. Two years turned to 5, then 8, then 12. The debts mounted from thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds. The older children started struggling with decisions, going off the deep end, straying from her deeply held beliefs. She continued making the dinners, doing the laundry, paying the bills, cleaning the house. My father worked too much, and then came home and locked himself in the bedroom to cry. Well on the days when he wasn’t mean and critical, blaming mom for everything, leaving her lists of all she was doing wrong while telling her that if she was a better wife, then maybe the Lord would bless the more. He closed off, refusing to talk to her, to open, to touch her. She took on a part-time job, then another. My dad went to therapy and to treatment multiple times, but he never listened, it never worked. He grew darker still. I grew up with a mother who was attentive, loving, and playful, and a father who barely noticed I was alive, who sucked all of the energy out of the room.

It wasn’t until 1990, when my mom got spiritual confirmation while visiting the temple, that she knew she needed to leave my dad. Divorce didn’t come easily to her. It had long-term spiritual ramifications, eternal ones, as she felt that leaving her marriage meant severing sacred family bonds that were meant to extend into forever. Marriage was the most sacred institution, and she felt as if she hadn’t been strong enough to make it work. The consequences were astronomical and eternal. But after over a decade of increasing pain and unhappiness, she’d realized that the consequences for staying might be worse. And so she’d boldly packed the truck once again and drove thousands of miles back to her roots.

In her mid-40s, my mother moved back in with her parents. She took a teaching job and eventually started renting a home. She showed super human strength in rebuilding her life in the state she’d left behind. To me, age 11 at the time, my parents’ divorce came as a relief. Finally, I thought even then. Finally.

I grew protective over my mother in the following years. I was the man of the house now. I would set my alarm early and shovel the sidewalks, clean the kitchen, scrape the car windows, all before she woke up. I made myself the moral authority of the house, lording it over my sister. I took jobs doing paper routes and babysitting, and would often sneak the money I was making into her purse to help. Seeing her walk out of the chapel that day with tears in her eyes, hearing Sister Stratton profess how happy marriage was if you just followed the rules, well, it broke my heart for my mom. I had no words. All I knew was that my mother was the strongest and most Christ-like person I knew, and those things hadn’t worked out for her, despite the prophetic promises. I realized even then that sometimes breaking the rules requires more courage than staying miserable ever could.

I wish I could say life got easier after that. My mother fell in love again a year later, and then spent a few more years with a man who used fists, insults, and control to terrorize us. She had seven children, and she would see seven divorces among them happen in the following years, while many grandchildren were born. My father, though distant, would remain a painful presence in her life. And then her youngest two children would come out of the closet. Health scares mounted as well. But over the years, I watched her maintain her church attendance with grace and dedication, all while balancing out her love for her children, even those who left the faith she believed so strongly in.

I once saw my mother get a Priesthood blessing, on a night after my stephfather had hit her. The bishop laid his hands on her head and promised her comfort, then he told her that in the pre-existence, before she came to Earth, she had agreed to give these two men that she’d married the chance to redeem themselves during mortal life. That day, I watched her go ashen again, and that night was the only night I ever saw her go to bed without praying first.

My mother always called me her Nephi, her stalwart one, and I did my best to be that for her. She wrote me literally every day for two years while I was on my mission. And we talked often while I was in college. At a certain point, she started opening up to me about my father and stepfather and why the marriages had gone so poorly. At the time, I was going through training on how to be a therapist, and I was facing some deep depression of my own. I’d grown up believing that following the rules meant happiness and miracles, I’d even been promised a cure for being gay, and I didn’t know any other truth, not yet.

And in time, I recommended that my mother do some therapy of her own. I needed to be her son, not her confidant. Though initially heartbroken, my mother did sign up for therapy. She listened and learned quickly, and I watched a transformation happen. I watched a woman in her mid-50s learn that happiness is a personal choice, and that it does not come simply as a reward for obedience. She learned that staying in impossible situations, even marriages, is sometimes the wrong decision. The consequences for staying can last generations. She learned how not to hold on to pain for so long. And by learning to properly heal from her past and confront her pain, I saw her move forward with new light and strength. She faced life with an internal grace I’d never seen in her before.

I’m 41 today and my mother is 76. She has been happily married to her third husband for many years, and they have been sealed in the temple. She is a loving mother of seven children, and they range from a stake president’s wife to an ex-con, right on down to her two youngest, the gay ones. Sometimes we talk about bravery, and we draw the comparison between her hard choice to leave my father, and my hard choice to leave the closet and religion behind. And though I’m certainly not her Nephi any longer, at least not in the way she’d once hoped, we respect each other. We understand each other. And she remains the best example in my life of courage, grace, power, and love. From her, I learned that sometimes it is far braver to leave than to hold on so tightly to what hurts.

 

Spirit 4: Moral Authority

I was 12 when I received the Aaronic Priesthood. They explained that this was the lesser Priesthood, or the official authority to act in god’s name, to perform his ordinances. It wasn’t the first Mormon ritual I underwent: I was blessed as a baby, then baptized at the age of 8, then I was confirmed a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when I received the Holy Ghost. All of those ordinances were done by Priesthood holders, men who were given the Priesthood by other Priesthood holders when they were younger. It was like a treasure map with necessary stops along the way, all necessary to reach the final destination: salvation.

At 12, as a deacon, I was allowed to pass the sacrament, the blessed bread and water, to members of the congregation during church meetings. At 14, as a teacher, I was given additional responsibilities, those of home-teaching. At 16, as a priest, I could bless the sacrament, sanctify it. At 18, as an elder, I was given the higher Priesthood, called the Melchizedek, which gave me many more abilities. I could perform baptisms, perform blessings of healing and comfort, consecrate oil, and dedicate homes, among other things.

It was all very official, very coming-of-age. Other cultures let young men go on their first hunt to become a man, I received the Priesthood for mine. First, I had to pass the worthiness interview: did I pay my tithing, obey the law of chastity, believe fully in the church and the prophet and the teachings, etc, and if I said yes to all the questions, I was deemed worthy. I said yes to all the questions, but at the same time, I didn’t believe I was worthy, not truly. I hoped God would find me as such, but I didn’t believe it. I was attracted to boys, even back then, and that made me less than the other boys. Less manly, less straight, less worthy.

Worthiness was the key component to holding the Priesthood. That and having a penis. Boys held the Priesthood and ran things and girls got to be wives and mothers. In the temple ceremony years later, I would stand with the men and promise to follow God; the women would, with veiled faces, stand together and promise to follow their husbands. Clear chain of command.

All the Priesthood holders I knew had it rough, living up to the strict expectations of the church, paying ten per cent of their money, giving much of their time for free to church activities and meetings, all while providing for their families and keeping their families happy. They had to do so willingly and worthily or they wouldn’t be fit to carry god’s authority any longer. There was the full-time job, the full-time calling, and the busy household to maintain. All while staying worthy.

And even if you had the Priesthood, you couldn’t use it if you weren’t worthy, that was evident. See, god gave the authority to certain prophets before Christ, then he gave it to Christ, who gave it to his apostles, but they all died and the authority was taken away from the earth, but then god gave it back to Joseph Smith when he founded Mormonism in the 1830s, then Smith passed it on to his apostles, and it got passed right on down to me. One long chain of authority. Baptisms would have to be done for everyone who ever lived on the earth, as well as temple work, because Mormonism was supposed to fill the whole planet stretching back to the earliest days of the earth and on into the eternities.

But the thing was, men lied about being worthy all the time. Even as a young kid, I saw Priesthood holders performing ordinances like blessings for the sick and blessings on the sacrament, when I knew they weren’t worthy. There were members of my own family who did this, and many members of my friends’ families. Men who molested children, who viewed pornography, and who hit their wives were regularly attending the temple and participating in ordinances. And these men were the same ones guiding the families and the wards. These were the men that the women and children were supposed to follow. I used to believe these stories were few, but they seem to be a large minority of the households out there, these corrupted leaders guiding others with the sanctioned authority of god.

I brought up these concerns with church leaders a few times, and I was generally told to just be patient and trust that god would work it out. I knew at least seven girls in high school who were being molested by their fathers, and some of these men had high positions in the church. But we were to just trust in god. Just trust that he will work it out. These men are the leaders, and god knows their hearts, and god will guide them to do what is right. Only god could judge. God is in charge and he says the men are in charge, even the ones who hurt others. Just trust.

Some examples of this stand out more than others in my mind. I once reported to a church authority that a man was molesting his daughters; that man was given a ‘talking to’, I was told, but he was never released from his calling, never excommunicated from the church; he stayed right there where he was and he kept molesting his kids. And when my own stepfather’s physical abuse was exposed, he was temporarily disfellowshipped, and then reinstated three months later, still serving in the temple, still sitting in church every week. Meanwhile, the men who were exposed as being gay were being excommunicated right and left.

The whole ‘authority of god’ thing felt pretty special in the beginning, but as with all things in religion, it grew more complicated the more I learned. Joseph Smith claimed angels had come down from heaven to give him the authority. He used it to get revelations for the whole church, for the whole earth even, and the revelations were often complicated and contradictory. He used it to marry four dozen women, and he gave other men that right, but later men couldn’t do that anymore. He said only white men could have the power, but that changed too in the late 1970s. Certain men could do certain things, but only if they were worthy, and it all depended on their jurisdiction–one man could run his family, other men ruled congregations or geographic areas. There were “keys to the Priesthood” conferred to various men in various positions for various tenures.

Me? In the beginning, the Priesthood made me pretty special. But it added a burden to what I was already carrying. This intense pressure to be right before god when I knew I was wrong, it caused a deep rift within me, one that resulted in deep depression, pain, and anxiety. And eventually, when it all came apart at the seams, the release of that pressure gave me a new lease on life. Ultimately, giving up this pressure to be good according to a list of rules was replaced by just being good for its own sake.

And something I’ve learned almost more than anything else since leaving it all behind: women should be the ones in charge, and the men agreeing to follow them.

Spirit 2: On Divine Potential

I was raised to believe I was one of the chosen ones. I was of a chosen generation, saved to be born in these latter days to help usher the kingdom of heaven to earth in preparation for the second coming of Christ. This was the ned of human mortal history, we were taught. The dispensation of the fullness of times. The creation of the earth and every ounce of human history that preceded would be culminated in this one, when Christ came again and men would be judged.

And where much was given (i.e. being one of the chosen ones, being born into the true gospel), much was required (i.e. a full life of dedicated service to the church, ten per cent of my money, and strict obedience to all of the rules).

And like all things in the religion, this could be very simple or very complicated. God had billions of spirit children in a spirit realm that we called the pre-existence. He created the planet and had humans born so they could be tested to see if they were worthy to return to him. In the thousands of years of human history, billions of humans were born in different eras. Some humans were born with advantages and others with disadvantages, the way I was taught. I could have been born into poverty or into slavery, during the dark ages when god didn’t allow his word to be taught correctly, or in the wrong religion. But I was born American (in the country god set up to establish his church), male (the gender god allowed to hold his priesthood), and white (seemingly god’s preferred skin color). On top of all of that, I was born Mormon, because my parents were Mormon. So I already had the true religion. See how fortunate I was?

The scriptures were full of stories about choosing the right paths, sacrificing everything for god, and following the rules with exactness even when life got difficult. I was born gay, but I could change that, they said. The rest was there, there were no questions and there was no room to question. I had a hero’s quest ahead of me and it was all laid out. I had every tool I needed to succeed. Baptism, Priesthood, two-year missionary service, temple marriage to a woman, and a life of service to the church. I was one of the chosen ones. I could stand up in my white shirt and tie next to all my brethren and be proud that I had it right while everyone else had it wrong. But they could have it right, also, if they learned to be just like me.

What I never realized at the time, what I couldn’t realize, is how inherently arrogant those messages made me. By teaching me that I was chosen, that meant I was superior. Inherently better. I had something that everyone else needed, and they had to be like me to get it. They had to follow the same rules and ordinances. I had no concept of human history, of slavery, of war, of poverty, of gender discrimination, of sexual assault, of addiction. The message I had to share was just ‘turn to god and be like me so you can have what I have’. Gay men were told to make themselves straight, people with disabilities were told they could be healed, women were told to be happy with their station in life, people of different races were (for a time at least) told they could be made white. We were all god’s children, and he wanted us to look the same, one happy family of white men with women behind them, stretching on for generations.

As a missionary, I taught people these things. I sat with the elderly, with the poor, with ex-cons and addicts, with the abused and the disenfranchised, with African-Americans and Pennsylvania-Ducth and Methodists and the Amish. I was 19, and I told them how to make their lives better by being more like me. And if anyone challenged this inherent arrogance within me, well, I could just shrug and fall back on what I was taught. I wasn’t being sexist or ageist or racist or homophobic or xenophobic. I was just preaching it the way I was taught. I was chosen. And this was how god wanted it to be.

I look back on that era of my life with shame and embarrassment now. I can’t believe what I used to believe. But the truth is, I just didn’t know any better at the time. Once I knew better, everything was different. I had to change myself and the way I look at life. Once I learned about the world, I couldn’t put blinders back on and ignore it. Superiority is no longer my religion. My spirituality is now more closely associated with fairness, equality, and human potential. It is about learning from history, understanding privilege, and fighting for the underdog. It’s about celebrating diversity, embracing all of god’s children, and sharing, or even surrendering, power to those who have been disenfranchised for too long. I listen now. I hear. I inquire. I learn. I don’t spout my dogma and silence the voices of others, I instead seek my place at the table of good and ethical people who want to make the world better. I suppose that makes my spirituality a bit more socialist than capitalist, a bit more Democrat than Republican, a bit more humanitarian than industrial revolutionist, but I like it that way. I like my current ethics, the way I want to preserve this planet and improve the people on it. I’m proud of my journey now and I have no doubts about it.

And, truth be told, that is something I couldn’t say before.

Fulfilled

Years ago, I stopped letting myself

contemplate the paths not taken. 

I was still grieving then, over my years in the closet, 

and it hurt to think about the life I might have had. 

Instead, I chose to focus on what is, 

strengthening an already constructed platform,

with children and debts, a college degree, Mormon roots, 

and equal parts curiosity and determination. 

From there, I would build. Reach. Strive. Begin. 

 

But today, my mind slipped into a parallel world. 

 

I saw myself… elsewhere. 

In Denver or New York City or Amsterdam. 

An apartment with a balcony. Careful furnishings. 

A closet full of well-made suits and shoes. 

Season passes to the symphony, the theater, the opera. 

An office, seeing patients and changing lives. 

A billion frequent flier miles. A gym routine. 

Dinner parties with wine and friends and laughter. 

I saw him, that other me. 

He was watching the sun set from his balcony, 

a glass of brandy in his hand. 

He looked happy. Fit. Lonely. 

Fulfilled. 

He had light and clarity in his eyes. 

 

He saw me too. 

Writing. Investigating. Confused. Striving. Spread thin and unsure. 

A home with bedrooms full of toys. A shelf of memories. 

An office, seeing patients and changing lives. 

Children at my side, laughing constantly. 

An arm over my boyfriend’s hip as he sleeps against me. 

He saw me swimming in unfamiliar waters, 

unsure of my destination, or even of which stroke to use. 

My flailing confidence, my fierce determination, 

my desire for something more. 

I looked happy. Fit. Lonely. 

Fulfilled. 

I had light and clarity in my eyes.

He saw me in a field, turned toward the sun as it set in the distance, 

fists clenched.

 

He saw me. I saw him. 

He raised his glass. I nodded kindly. 

 

“You’re so lucky,” we said in unison. 

“You’re so richly blessed.”

 

And then the sun set and he faded from view. 

skinheart

at times, my heart seems made of skin

bared for breath or covered for protection

reacting to ever-changing boundaries and limits,

sounds and space,

climate and condition.

soft and pink,

white at the center when gently pressed,

blanched in panic when squeezed too hard,

and, when set free, pink and pooling as safety is restored.

soft mostly, but also

callused where worn,

scarred where cut,

evidence of healing where bleeding used to be.

gooseflesh at just the right gust or whisper.

tightly sealed for protection,

or weeping in times of fever, times of pain or burn or blister.

layers deep,

each one durable, pliable, paper-thin,

each blood-red at the center.

it curls over me, around my skull, down my spine, stretching to my extremities.

and then, at the certain place, for the certain person,

it trusts,

staying soft and smooth as fingertips trace its edges.

Discontent at Back Cove

BackCove

“Sometimes I wish I could go back in the past,” I said as I looked over the waters of Back Cove in Portland, Maine. A colony of seagulls flitted about over the far shore, and a few large birds of prey, likely falcons I considered, soared over the green horizon.

My best friend, Tyler, walked at my side, hands in pockets, thoughtful. He’s one of the few people I can engage in deep conversation with. “Like to try and change your life?” he asked.

“I mean, yes. But that’s not what I mean.” I scratched my own head, trying to sort out my thoughts. “I don’t mean to relive my own life. Just in a weird way, it would have been amazing to live in a different era.”

Tyler waited for me to sort my thoughts, listening as a few joggers passed us.

“It would have been amazing to live in a time when trends were being set. Back in the late 1980s or early 1990s. To be a gay man in that era, who was on the front lines implementing change. Advocacy, exploration, pushing forward against all odds.” A pang of guilt hit me for even thinking that way, so I clarified. “I love living in this era. I love the skin I’m in. I love my life. And I respect and appreciate all who fought to make this world better. Just sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to be a, I don’t know, a trendsetter. Back then, gay people we celebrate now were still living hidden lives. And then the AIDS crisis happened and Harvey Milk and all the Pride marches. I don’t even know what I’m saying, I just wish–it would have been cool to see all that, you know? To have lived through all that.”

Tyler laughed, but stayed silent as my thoughts raced. These words, these feelings, had been building up in me for a while, and now they were cascading outward, trying to find some sort of clear path from my soul to my mouth. It was jumbled.

And so we walked in silence for a minute. I felt the ocean breeze against my skin, thick with the scent of blooming flowers. It was so green and lush here. My first time in Maine, a new city to explore, new ground under my feet. My soul always comes most alive during these times. I gave thought to what I was even trying to say. I wondered if feminists sometimes wished they could go back to help in the Suffragette movement, or if my Black friends wondered what it would be like to fight for Civil Rights among the Freedom Riders. A sense of nostalgia washed over me. Not nostalgia, gratitude. Not gratitude, envy. Not envy, hope.

I exhaled a deep sigh. “I’m not sure what I’m trying to say.”

Tyler chose a park bench to sit down on, facing the water. A large puddle sat at its base and I carefully placed my feet to avoid getting them wet.

“You wish you could be some sort of trendsetter?” he asked. Tyler understood me in a way most people don’t, and he could somehow sort through the nonsense.

“No? Yes? I don’t know. I want to make a difference. I want to do something huge.”

“That’s what she said,” he responded, and I rolled my eyes and laughed. Then he grew a bit sober. “You already are a trendsetter.” He listed off the things I’m doing, the things I’ve done. The book, the graphic novel, the story-telling performances, the advocacy and interviews, the upcoming documentary, and, above all else, raising two amazing kids. I smiled. Tyler knows me well. And he understands. He works himself hard and dreams big as well, in his classroom, in his advocacy work.

“Thanks,” I responded simply. “I just–I’m all in a jumble. I want to see the history. I want to face it head on. I want a huge success. I want a big win. I want to change hearts and minds. I want to matter. I want to feel it, the quest, the journey, all paying off.”

Tyler gave me the gift of his listening ear as I listed out the things I’d tried, the small successes I had achieved that had relatively low yield, and the many failures and unfinished projects along the way.

“2016 was about learning to follow my passions. 2017 was about doing the impossible, and seeing that I could do it if I put my mind to it. 2018 was about learning that quality goods don’t mean quality results, and that people who say they will show up don’t always show up. But it was about more than that, about pushing hard for myself and realizing that it is within me to build and sustain.”

Tyler nodded, knowing my journey well. “You’ve always been more of a fire-starter than a fire-tender. You still need to learn how to get the right people in your camp and keep them there, and then ask for help.”

I wanted to argue with him, but I couldn’t. I was great at sustaining some things, and terrible at others. Then I surveyed all I’ve learned this last year, and took stock of those who were now in my camp. Volunteers, critics, story-tellers, film producers. I had a lot of plates spinning in the air, and realized I wasn’t spinning them myself any longer. I was platform building, yes, but I wasn’t the only one with a hammer.

More silence as I let the frustration seep out of me. I visibly sighed, then put my head in my hands with my elbows on my knees.

“Ah, the plight of the artist,” I said dramatically, and Tyler laughed. “There are a thousand alternate worlds out there. In one, I’m the faithful Mormon father, unhappy in my skin. In one, I’m the successful author, never home. In other, maybe I own a coffee shop or a bed and breakfast. But in all of them, I’m discontent, wishing for more, even while loving the life I have. I don’t think that part of me changes.”

“Well, maybe the quest, the search for a fire to start, is exactly what keeps you going. Maybe it’s that desire for something more that keeps the artist in you alive.”

And I kept those thoughts in my head as we continued walking around Back Cove. I thought of blue herons and mosquitoes, tides and shorelines, cloud and city skylines, of all I’ve done and all I’ve yet to do. The sun fell on the water and on me in equal measure, and for once, I welcomed the discontent, letting it grab hold of me and push me forward.

“Mom, it’s me, I’m gay.”

rearview

I pulled my car into a remote parking lot, undid my seatbelt, and twisted the rearview mirror down so I could look myself in the eyes. My cheeks were bright pink and fluffy, and my eyes brimmed with tears. How long had I been crying? How many tears could I possibly have left? I squeezed my eyes tightly shut and let a stream of sadness roll down my cheeks and onto my shirt. The day had been terrible already, but I had to get this over with.

I picked up the phone and dialed my mom’s number. She answered at the first ring.

“Hello, son!” She had such enthusiasm in her voice. She was always singing, playful, sweet. Hearing her voice usually brought me joy. Today, it brought more pain.

“Hi, Mom.” My voice was cracking. There was no way to hide that I’d been crying.

She shifted to concern. “Chad? Are you okay?”

“I don’t think I am. I need to tell you something. Something hard. Is it a good time to talk?”

“Of course it is. Are you okay? Is it Maggie? The baby? Little J?” She immediately asked about my wife, my 2-year old son, and our unborn child.

“Everyone is fine. Physically. I just—are you sitting down?”

“Chad, yes. I’m sitting down. What is it, you’re scaring me. I’ve never heard you like this.”

“Mom, I’m gay.” I blurted it out abruptly. It felt like throwing a baseball indoors, unnatural and loud and not knowing what would break into pieces. The words floated there, heavy and painful, then passed through the telephone wires like a poison.

I heard a gasp, a long silence. “Oh, Chad,” she whispered, and that simple phrase was a knife, slicing open my heart. My gut clenched tightly as I began to sob, the tears running down my cheeks now. I pathetically hit the steering wheel with the palm of my hand. “Chad, hey, hey, my boy, my boy, it’s okay, it’s okay.” Her voice was soft, soothing, and in a flash I considered everything we had been through together. My father’s depression, the divorce, her second marriage to a man who hit us both, me being molested as a kid. I was 32 years old and she was still the most important person in my life, along with my wife and kids.

A few more sobs and then I tried, pathetically, to get more words out, to reassure her, to help her understand. “I’ve—this isn’t new. I’ve always been gay. I’ve known it for as long as I can remember, since kindergarten even, but I never knew how to tell you. I’m sorry, I’m so so so sorry. I’m so sorry, Mom.”

Her voice took on a tone of strength, but I could tell she was crying too. “You listen, the first thing you need to hear is that I love you and I will always love you and I will never stop loving you.”

More tears, more pathetic sobs. “I know, Mom, I love you too.”

There was a brief, pregnant silence, and then the hard questions started. “Does Maggie know?”

“Yes.” I swallowed, wiped my face again, got a hold of myself. “Yes. She knows. She knew before we got married. But—but I just told her again. I met a guy when I was on my business trip, and we kissed, and—and I didn’t feel broken anymore, Mom. I’m so used to feeling broken. I’m so tired of feeling like I’m shattered into pieces. I—I felt normal with him, like things would be okay, but now Maggie is hurting, and she’s pregnant, and we have a home and a kid and—and everyone hates me and—“

Mom interrupted, both stern and sad. “Oh, Chad, my sweet Chad. Hold on, hold on, just wait. Nobody hates you.”

“God does.”

“God doesn’t hate you! You have a stronger testimony of God and of our church than almost anyone I have ever met. God sees you and he loves you and he knows you. He’ll help you with this. Have you talked to your church leaders?”

I stuttered for a moment, then chose to remain silent. There was so much subtext with that question. I could tell her about the bishops I had come out to, asking for help from. I could tell her about the Miracle of Forgiveness and how it cruelly promised a cure if I just sacrificed enough. I could tell her about all of the years of being broken, depressed, disconnected, about all my years of faithful church service and dedication all in the hopes that I could be cured of being gay. I could tell her about the therapy, the journaling, the Priesthood blessings. Instead I just said, “Yes, I’ve talked to my bishop.”

“Good, son. I’ll be okay as long as I know your testimony is solid.”

And here I had to consider how honest to be. I could tell her that I wasn’t sure my testimony was solid anymore. But if I told her that, she would go into a full panic. Coming out and leaving Mormonism would mean that I was willfully turning from God, that I was breaking my temple covenants, that I was choosing a life of sin and pain. If I turned from God, I was turning from my eternal bonds to my family, and I wouldn’t be with them in the next life. Instead, I just changed the subject.

“I’ve told Maggie. I’ve told my bishop. I’ve told a few friends. And I’ve told Sheri.” My sister’s name brought it’s own pain. She had come out of the closet years before, and my family, including me, hadn’t reacted well. Sheri and my mom were still working on repairing their relationship all these years later.

There was another long silence, and I could tell my mom was crying. I thought of all the things I should say. I’m sorry for letting you down. I’m sorry I’m gay. I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to find a cure. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I’m sorry this hurts you. But I didn’t want to apologize anymore. Maybe I should lie. I don’t have to be gay, I’ll keep trying to change. Don’t worry, I’m going to save my marriage and be the son you want me to be. I’ll make this right with God through repentance. Nothing is going to be different.  But I couldn’t lie anymore. Maybe I should reassure her. I’m still the son you always knew! I’m still me, I just want to be a better version of me! All the things you knew about me before, they are still true, I’m just… different… now. The words in me, the tune, it’s the same, but I have more confidence now, more love for myself. You’ll see. I’ll always be there for my sons, and Maggie and I will figure this out. Those were better, but the words wouldn’t come.

Instead, we just sat and cried together, hundreds of miles apart. And I realized I would have to have this same conversation with each of my sisters, my friends, my coworkers, the members of my ward. The word would spread to neighbors, cousins, old college roommates and mission companions, everyone I’d ever known. “Remember Chad? He’s gay!” I hit my head against the steering wheel and cried even more.

Weeks later, when some of the trauma of my coming out had passed, my mom called me again.

“I always knew you were gay,” she told me. “I knew you were different from the time you were a child. I was so afraid of it. I so badly didn’t want that to be true for you, because it would make life so much harder. And seeing you come out, it breaks my heart, because you were in all of that pain all of these years and I never knew it, or at least we never discussed it. I’m so sorry for your pain, my son. And I don’t know how this all works when it comes to religion, but I know I love my church, and I know I love my gay kids. Those two truths do now cancel each other out. So we will keep working on it, on us, because I love you, and you love me.”

“The difference now,” I whispered, “is that I’m learning to love me too

So Carefully Contained

Lately, I feel fingers scratching at the edges of reality. 

It’s like those moments when you first wake, 

when you slowly come aware, 

when you remember you have a body and a bed in the darkness

when everything downloads itself back into your brain

and then you pick up where you left off. 

There is more to all of this

(there has to be)

meaning behind the madness

not God but… something. Something out there that I can make sense of. 

 

I created these walls around me. I painted them brightly. They protect me. 

When I grew weary of boundaries, of need, of being hurt by others, 

I changed myself. I made it so that I would reduce hurt, 

so I could expect more from myself and less from others

I set my own terms and began dreaming bigger and achieving more. 

And here I am, in the dwelling I desired

Full, ripe, plentiful, rich

So carefully contained in this space

the one I created

and wondering what else is out there to be discovered. 

I love it here, but I’m outgrowing it, I can feel it. 

The old itch is returning, the one that tells me I need to change. 

I need. To change. I need. More. I need. (What is it I need?)

Desire, lust, forgiveness, sanctification, release, horizons, animal passion, to be seen, to be heard, to feel loved, to forgive, to change the world.

I need. 

 

Lately, I feel fingers scratching at the edges of my reality. 

They mean something. Some success, some discovery, something

Right around the corner. 

And it’s going to require me spilling over the edges of this container I’ve built and embracing.

Embracing. Risking. Trying. 

It’s right there. 

(I need.)

 

 

Milk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

First Love

FirstLove My first week at Ricks College started just two weeks after I returned from my Mormon mission in January of 2000. I spent my last months as a missionary in rural Delaware, and I just no longer gave a shit. By the end, I was going through the motions, knocking on the doors and following the rules, for the most part, but I stopped praying, studying the scriptures, and journaling. I realized by that point that a cure for homosexuality was just not possible, no matter how dedicated I was or how many people I converted.

I lived at home with my mother and little sister during that first semester. I slept in my old bedroom, four walls that felt so familiar. The same painting of Jesus on the wall, the bookshelves full of bagged and boarded comic books, the same clothes in the closet. It smelled the same. The air hit the walls in the same way. But I was different. I was 21 now.

I got a full-time job working at a call center for a pyramid company, a place where customers signed up to receive monthly orders for a fee, as they worked on signing up new customers on a monthly basis so they could unlock new benefits. The shifts were busy, but they paid a bit above minimum wage, and I needed the cash. Full-time school plus a vehicle and insurance and gas money, well, it was going to add up over the next few years.

And so on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I drove the 45 minutes from Shelley, Idaho to Rexburg, Idaho in my little two-wheel drive red truck. It performed well enough, except when going up hills, or in wind, or in the snow, but I made it work.

I signed up for 15 credits that first semester. I’d start with the basics, working toward my declared major in Social Work. I had English, History, Introduction to Acting, Men’s Choir, and a Book of Mormon class.

It felt amazing to be on campus. There was an energy in the brisk winter air, a group of like-minded youth, people who mostly looked like me and believed the same as me. The buildings bore the names of prominent Mormon leaders from the past. It was common for classes to begin with prayer and sometimes hymns or a scripture shared that was relevant to the chemistry or classic literature or algebra lesson. In this learning environment, we already knew that the Book of Mormon was true, there was no need to debate about it, so a study of the American Revolution could automatically, and without argument, include the history of the Nephites. I was hungry for knowledge. And, if I’m honest, for escape from myself.

My best friend, Jesse, from high school was already a student there. We got together for lunch every day I was on campus. After lunch, we headed out into the courtyard where we could, and I quote, “Scope on girls”. We used a 5 to 10 rating system for the girls that walked past. I know it was supposed to go one to ten, but we seemed to have an unspoken agreement that putting anyone below a 5 felt cruel. Mormon college girls everywhere. Blondes and brunettes, tall and short, leaner and heavier. We commented on the ones who wore too much make-up, or the ones that didn’t realize how pretty they were, on the ones who seemed to have good solid testimonies and sweet spirits. We laughed about how some of the girls were probably there to get married, but how they likely wouldn’t find anyone before they turned 21 and so they would just end up going on missions themselves. Once in a while, we saw a girl as young as 18 or 19 pushing a baby carriage, walking toward married student housing. Jesse said he couldn’t wait for that, finding a girl to carry his children. He said that, but I knew what he meant, that he was very excited to be able to start having sex and hopefully soon.

One day, over lunch, Jesse asked if we could sit in a remote corner of the lunchroom so he could talk freely. He was wearing a green t-shirt with wolves on it, and it was very tight. He had a muscular chest, big shoulders and arms, and an insane smile. I made sure I was looking right into his eyes as he talked, but that wasn’t necessarily easier. His blue eyes were piercing. He was so damn handsome.

“Dude!” He always called me dude. “So there is this girl Ava from my science class. She’s a total 9. Blonde hair, perfect lips, amazing body. We were flirting and she gave me her number and we texted a bit and then Saturday night she basically booty called me. She told me to meet her in the Gardens. She had to sneak out cause it was past curfew at the dorms, but we met there and made out for like two hours. And then like back in my car for another two hours. It was the hottest make-out I’ve ever had, like ever. She kept like sucking on my tongue, like it was a popsicle. Like I was just sitting there forever like ‘bleeeeeh’ and she’s just sucking on it. It was weird but awesome. And then she had to hop the gate to sneak back in. It was so so hot. I think I’m going to ask her to the dance this weekend, but I’m going to have to wear like four extra pairs of briefs over my garments cause I’m totally gonna end up getting hard dancing with her and that would be so awkward if she noticed. Dude, it was so amazing. How about you, have you been macking on any girls, or are you still part of the VL Club?”

I put on my familiar grin, the same one I’d been using since high school in conversations like these. VL Club stood for Virgin Lips Club. And yes, I was still a part of it. “I just haven’t found the right girl yet.”

Jesse rolled his eyes. “Dude! How long are you going to wait! You’re 21 and you haven’t even kissed a girl yet!”

He kept talking, listing all the girls from high school that he remembered, girls that, according to him, I could have made out with if I wanted to. But he didn’t understand. He couldn’t. It was him I wanted to make out with. I met Jesse when I was 15, back when things at home were going so bad. He transferred into school my sophomore year, half-way through the semester, after his parents’ divorce. He was super cute. And he was nice to me. We hung out all the time. He considered me his best friend. I hadn’t really had one of those before. And the next two years had been full of video games and movies, double dates, pizza, church activities, and sleepovers. He talked about hot girls constantly, and always wondered why I didn’t. There were times back then when he would sleep over and share a bed with me. He’d lay next to me and my heart would thump so hard in the darkness. I was aware of his body right next to mine, his breathing. He slept in a pair of briefs, that’s it. I could just reach over and grab his hand, or his leg, or his—And the very thought of that had always left me nauseous because I knew it was so wrong. I just wanted him. I wanted him to notice me. I wanted him to want me in the way that I wanted him. But it would never happen. It couldn’t. I was broken, designed wrong. I couldn’t ever let him know how I felt. He’d never be making out with me in the gardens on a Saturday night and bragging about it the following Monday. I’d never suck on his tongue like a popsicle in his car. He’d never go on a date with me and wear four extra pairs of briefs to hide his arousal. He wasn’t gay. He was normal, and I was the one who was broken. I was in love with a guy who couldn’t possibly love me back, and I was so ashamed that I couldn’t even talk to God about it. I couldn’t even put it in my journal, because what if my future kids read this about me. This was cruelty in its sharpest form, it felt like. It felt unbearable.

Jesse hit my arm with a closed fist. “Dude! Where did your brain go just then? Look over your shoulder, ten o’clock. There are like eight hotties all at one table, all of them are eights or above. Let’s walk over there and introduce ourselves.”

I looked over. The girls noticed us looking and some of them smiled, Jesse and I smiled back. I turned back to Jesse. “Look, I’ve got a paper due in English, actually. I should head to the library and finish it before class.” There I was with another excuse about why I wasn’t dating women. I was so used to lying now, to others and to myself, that it didn’t even feel like lying anymore.

Jesse punched my shoulder a little harder. “Priorities, elder!” He still called me ‘Elder’, a term he had used during his own missionary service to the other guys around him. It was almost a term of affection for him. “This is what is going to happen. This weekend, we are going on a double date. I will set you up. Me and Ava, you with one of her roommates or something. And you will finish that date with a kiss. You’re just gonna lean over and kiss her right on the mouth when she’s least expecting it. And I will watch you do it. You got it?”

“Yeah, yeah, I got it.” I laughed outwardly, but the second I walked away, my smile died right there on my face, and a deep furrow settled between my eyebrows. I remembered being 11 years old, a full decade before, and my best friend Jason at the time making me stay after school and shoot basketball until I finally made a basket from the free throw line. I’d been making excuses, finding reasons not to play with him because I hated sports, but he told me I wasn’t leaving that blacktop until I scored one basket. “We’ll make a man out of you yet!” he had said to me then. Or my brother, when I was five, telling me I had to kiss a girl to be a real man. Or my mission president just a few months before saying that the Lord had a beautiful wife in store for me as a reward for being a faithful missionary. It all felt eerily similar to Jesse trying to force my first kiss. “And I will watch you do it,” he had said. I walked away from that conversation, deeply angry and horribly ashamed.

That weekend, I got mysteriously ill and couldn’t make it on the date. The rest of the semester passed. We continued scoping out girls at lunchtime. Jesse went through a few girlfriends. I moved to campus and became Jesse’s roommate, sleeping one bed over from him. And I started drowning myself in everything. I worked full time. I took 18 or 21 credits at a time. I auditioned for school plays so I could perform in the evenings. I went on dates and to dances and I was perfectly respectful to every girl, but still no kiss. I just couldn’t do it. I wasn’t scared, I just wasn’t wired for it, it grossed me out. I respected women, liked them so much, but there was nothing romantic or chemical for me there. I desperately wanted to be cast as the romantic lead in a school play so that I could force myself to finally kiss a girl, but it never happened. In fact, I wouldn’t kiss anyone until I was 27, and that would be the girl I would marry. We dated for six years, off and on, and I kissed her for the first time on the night that I told her I was gay.

Jesse and I went on to be roommates in college for the next three years. He slept in his underwear, he walked around nude, he had girls over. And in time, I somehow just got over my crush. It went away, it died inside me like my hopes for a future where I would be happy. Being gay wasn’t an option, and I couldn’t make myself straight, so what else was there except to keep going on, lying and being sad.

In 2004, Jesse got married to a gorgeous woman from California, and I was his best man. I stood at his side smiling, posing in the photos. At the reception, he pulled me aside and gave me a huge bear hug. “Dude!” he whispered. “I got married! I’m about to get so laid!”

And I was happy for him. How could I not be? He had it all now, the wife, the temple marriage, the future eternal family, and the best friend still at his side, cheering him on. The best friend that he knew better than anyone. The best friend that he didn’t know at all.