Sex Education Part 6: Brotherly Love

Elder

I only had the one brother, and he was much older than me. I had lots of friends in the high school, but I kept my guard up around them almost constantly, so scared of being found out for being gay. I had one friend that shared a bed with me sometimes on sleepovers throughout high school and, well, that was tempting, but I still kept myself so carefully contained.

And then I went on a Mormon mission for two years. First there were three weeks at the Missionary Training Center in Provo. I was 19, and at the height of my sexual exploration phase, just like all of the other thousands of missionaries. I was 19, and surrounded by other 19 year olds. I had no personal space, no free time. I shared a room with good-looking young men. We studied scriptures together, read together, walked together. The only time I had to myself, literally, was when I closed the stall door in the bathroom. And, strangest of all, we showered together. No shower curtains. Big group showers with multiple shower heads coming out of each pole in the room.

I’m positive there were other gay kids in the MTC, but I didn’t know that then. The elders were relentless. The wore the name of Jesus Christ on their shirt lapels, but they were very young and very horny. Some walked around naked. They talked about girlfriends, and fantasies, and wet dreams. They openly discussed the size of their penises and sometimes showed them off. They bragged about past sexual encounters, the sizes of girls’ breasts, what they did on dates to stop from getting erect. I’d never been around other guys like this, and I wasn’t coping well. I had to cope by being pious, by being the most dedicated missionary possible. But when I did that, I didn’t fit in, and when I didn’t do that, I didn’t feel worthy. God was never going to cure me being gay at this rate.

And thus set up the following two years. A constant war with me trying to fit in and follow the rules at the same time, and both of those were impossible, because I didn’t fit. And I had nowhere to hide, no rooms to retreat to. The bathroom was my only solace, my only break. That and sleep. Depression set in deep, and the anxiety continued whenever I felt attracted to someone.

I found myself adapting swiftly to whoever my companion was. When I was attracted to my companion, I had a clumsiness and a defensiveness about me. When I was with a jock or a bully, I became the misfit, the awkward nerd who didn’t conform. When I was with someone with strange social manners, I had an air of impatience and superiority about me.

I wouldn’t realize it until much later, but at least two out of my fifteen companions were also gay and later came out. I haven’t ever asked if their internal struggles were like mine, but I found myself wondering after my mission, what if something had happened. What if there had been a mutual attraction, and someone had made a move, and the other had responded. What if we had found pleasure, found lust realized, found love back then, a fling during a time we should have been in college. The consequences at the time would have been devastating, humiliating. There would likely have been confessed sins, an early release home, a heartbreaking coming out to the family, some therapy. But maybe, maybe that would have propelled me out of the closet much sooner. Maybe it would have changed the entire course of my life.

Instead, the duration of my missionary experience was me staying tightly locked up inside of myself while I knocked on doors, faced the tedium of the day-to-day monotony of missionary work, read the scriptures, called in numbers to the mission president, hoped for success. I taught a few openly gay men on my mission, and I saw them as weak, morally inferior, as less than for submitting to being gay. I had grown to hate what I was, and hate it even more when I recognized it in others.

I certainly wouldn’t call myself free of sin during this time. I worked hard and studied hard. I prayed often, journaled, wrote home, asked for guidance and blessings, and tried hard to keep the spirit. But the depression got bad sometimes, and I frequently felt worthless, hopeless, and without any kind of drive. I lusted after some of my companions, and others that I met. I wanted so badly to be noticed by them, to have them desire me back. I had errant thoughts, sexual fantasies, and sometimes struggled with masturbation. And I knew that if I told anyone about this, they would respond that if I had even one sexual sin, how could God possibly cure me, how could I be considered worthy. God had given me so much, how could I make Jesus suffer like that with my sin? I was so locked up.

All in all, during that two years, I did nothing egregious. I baptized a few people. And in those two years, there was only one companion I fell for. He was straight, but he was handsome, and kind, and attentive. He asked how I was and he listened. He offered back massages. He made me laugh. He thought I was cool. And we spent every waking moment together for three months, how could I not fall for him? One night, I told him in a quiet voice that I was attracted to boys. He responded that he wasn’t that surprised, and it didn’t bother him at all, but he wanted to make sure I knew he was straight. I assured him I was as well, and we never spoke of it again.

And thus passed my time from ages 19-21. The height of my sexual development. I spent it hiding, scared, ashamed, depressed, and feeling broken. I would later contemplate what it would be like for straight young men to be sent to live with beautiful women, to shower with them, to sleep in a bed feet away from them, to never be alone. What if we told these men that lusting was wrong, that they couldn’t masturbate, or deviate, that they couldn’t have sexual thoughts, and that if they did they were wrong, broken, and should be ashamed. Realizing this helped me realize what a torturous and cruel time this was. It was spiritual abuse in a concentrated form.

In December of 1999, I went home, my head and heart full of shame, my spirit dark. And I started college two weeks later.

Europe, in Reflection

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Someone brought out a stack of family photos and slapped them down on the kitchen table. “Have you looked at these yet? They are from the family vacation to Europe, back in 2001.”

I grabbed the stack of pictures and began leafing through them. My first impression was of how young we all looked. 18 years brings a lot of change. I am 40 now; I was 22 then. My younger sister, Sheri, is now 36; she was 18 then, right out of high school. My father and mother, now 80 and 75, had been 62 and 57.

For Mom and Dad, 18 years brought with it a lot of age and health struggle, graying of the hair and a lowering of the posture. But it also brought new grandchildren and great-grandchildren, new marriages for both of them, new perspectives. Times were changing, and we with them.

And for Sheri and I, 18 years meant finishing college, starting our families, losing weight, leaving Mormonism, and coming out. It meant leaving an old life behind and beginning a new and authentic one. The differences were startling.

I viewed 22-year old me in the photos with kindness and understanding. Chad then was just off his mission and attending an all-Mormon college. He knew he was gay, but he felt he was broken and beyond repair. He was resigned to a Mormon fate of temple marriage and children, never knowing the touch of a man. He had determined he would never be happy because that isn’t what God wanted for him. He held on so tightly to that.

I flipped through these photos and I saw a young man full of ambition, with a clear heart and head, so ready to embrace the big world out there. But his soul and spirit were so locked up. He had bright brown eyes and a careful but happy smile. He had thick hair that curled when it grew long. He wore baggy shorts and tent-like shirts over his Mormon undergarments. He so hoped to be seen by the world around him. He so badly needed the world to notice the space he occupied. He smiled so wide, but was so sad.

Sheri walked up behind me. “Whoa, look at these!” She sat next to me and we laughed about the pictures. I looked over at her now, the skinny, vibrant, blue-eyed, short-haired beauty next to me. She runs now, for health, because she loves it. She watches what she eats. She i married to an incredible woman. She loves herself.

And then I looked down to the Sheri from those old photos. Her hair was longer and parted down he middle, and it hung limply on the sides of her face. She had headphones in, using them to drown out the world around her. She wore baggy clothes, shielding herself in them. Every photo in the series, one after another, showed her glowering at the camera. Not just not smiling, but refusing to smile. She looked so unhappy, so closed off, from everyone around her and from herself. It broke my heart to see the differences.

Sheri gently jostled my arm. “Do you remember that day on the trip when you threatened to punch me in the face? I was so mad at you!” Sheri was looking at the photos and ha mirth in her voice. She was teasing me. But I felt a sharp jab of pain at the memory.

I kept the humor in my voice. “Do you remember the whole story? Do you remember why I said that?”

Sheri shrugged. “I think so. But it definitely wasn’t okay, especially after what we went through with Kent when we were younger.”

Kent was our abusive step-father, the man who had terrorized us when we were teenagers. I felt another jab of pain.

“Okay, hang on. Here’s the story. We are in Europe and everything is fucking beautiful, all  Swiss Alps and Black Forests and ski chalets and cuckoo clocks. And you are all up in your music for days at a time while we sat on the bus for hours. I’d grab your arm and be like ‘look at those mountains!’ and you’d just ignore me. Meanwhile, Mom is back there crying because for some reason she agreed to go on a European vacation for two weeks with the man she has been divorced from for over a decade, and Dad never has a word to say, and I’m all locked up inside like a good little Mormon boy.”

Sheri looked up, a bit defensive. “Hey, I had my own stuff going on!”

“Oh, I know. I’m not saying you didn’t. We both had a lot going on. So no blame. Just setting the picture. I’m in the prettiest place I’ve ever been and I want to share it with someone and you keep ignoring me!”

“Well, I didn’t want to talk to you!”

We both laugh and smile. We are close enough to have conversations like this and have them remain light-hearted.

“Okay, anyway,” I continue, “we were in Austria, and I was really fucking lonely, and I asked if yo would go explore a church with me, and you said no, and I was like, ‘Sheri, please!’ and then you told me to fuck off! And I quote, ‘Fuck off, Chad,’ like so unnecessarily. And I was all Mormon so language super-offended me back then, so I responded with anger. ‘If you ever tell me to fuck off again, I’ll punch you in the face.’ That’s what I said. And of course I didn’t mean it! I could never hit someone! It was just the thing I said to get my point across. And I did, and then I immediately regretted it and apologized, but you ignored me for, what, five more days after that?”

Sheri looked me in the eyes and a bit of shock passed there. All the details came rushing back to her. “Oh. Yeah.” She was quiet a moment. “Well, I ignored you cause you pissed me off!”

“Oh, I deserved it, probably. I was pretentious back then.”

We changed the subject and kept looking at the pictures. My eyes kept switching back and forth between the sad looks on our faces and the amazing scenery. The Eagle’s Nest resort, set in the Alps. Sheri’s headphones. The green rolling hills of Salzburg. My fake smile. The centuries-old Gothic cathedral. Sheri’s glower. The intricate woodcrafting in a local shop. Dad’s stern and sad frown. Flower boxes filled with colorful blossoms on Bavarian homes. Mom’s pain hidden so carefully behind her smiles.

Minutes later, Mike and I walked outside, taking a few hours to ourselves before the big family dinner that evening. I got behind the wheel of the car and closed my eyes briefly. I was shocked to find tears suddenly cascading down my cheeks.

Mike gripped my hand. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. Nothing’s wrong. Just… that conversation with Sheri, remembering who she was, who I was, who we all are now, all that pain in a place of such beauty. I’m just–remembering.

Grieving.

Happy.

Changed.”

 

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.

A Place I Used To Live

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Back then, the word ‘Gay’ was tossed to the side, put in a dark place in my brain. It represented selfishness, debauchery, sin, darkness, and evil. It belonged on a list of words that represented similar ideals, words like Abortion, Alcohol, War, AIDs, Drunkenness, and Democrat.

I had been raised to love all people, it’s true, and I was taught that God loved all people the same, but still, those who were Gay, those who chose such a lifestyle, they were to be kept at arm’s length, they belonged over there somewhere. “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” I could tell them with words that I loved everyone, but I was not to allow them to influence me, to be a part of my life, or I could be tempted too far, influenced too much.

And so, when I arrived in Philadelphia in early 1999, at age 20, I got off the subway with my new companion, Elder Shoney, and I wheeled my suitcase behind me down the concrete paths toward my new home. I had a backpack over my shoulder, filled with my scriptures and journals, and containing a glass jar in which my pet fish Caliban lived. (The fist was against the rules, shhh. Missionaries aren’t supposed to have pets.) Sweat dripped down my back, under my white shirt and garments. Although I had been a missionary for a full year at this point, I hadn’t ever been to a city this size, and it was completely overwhelming.

I looked like I was 16 then. I was sad inside, shut down, fractured. I was going through the motions, embracing the ideals I was raised with. Prayer, scripture study, knocking doors, teaching when I could, more prayer, more study. I knew I was gay by then, but I had long given up finding a cure.

Elder Shoney and I walked through the narrow streets of Germantown, and I realized that I saw no white people here. There were black people everywhere, women, children, grandparents, families. I occasionally saw someone Hispanic. But no white people there, just us, just these two young boys. We walked farther, past storefronts covered in graffiti, with garage door-style bars that would lock securely to the ground at night to protect from theft and vandalism. Elder Shoney told me that we should be in by dark every night, “cause that’s when it gets dangerous in the streets here.”

We walked over a street and into the nicer area of town, where the houses shifted from stacked row homes into larger structures with porches, windows, and backyards. A kind and successful black attorney owned the home where we would live. I wheeled my suitcase up the front steps of the house then carried it inside, up two more flights of stairs, to the apartment where I would spend the following nine months. I wasn’t excited,  I wasn’t scared, I was just ready to continue the monotonous daily work of the missionary for another year until I could finally go home and start my life.

Fast forward to 2018.

20 years later, I found this same house, the one I lived in back then. I stood on the sidewalk in front of it. On one side of me stood my sister Sheri, my gay sister, taking a few days away from her wife to come and see me during my vacation in Philadelphia. On the other side of me stood my boyfriend.

“This is where I lived,” I told them. “For nine months. I thought I would be here four, maybe six maximum, but some special circumstances kept me here for nine, then I finished my mission out in northern Delaware. Twenty years ago. Man, twenty years.

“That’s the mailbox where I’d get between two and eight letters per day, making my companions jealous. I walked up and down this street hundreds of times. Down there, I would catch the train to the subway to the bus that would take us to church, and it would take an hour each way. That two mile radius over there contains what we naively called ‘the ghetto’, filled with these beautiful African American families, and so many churches, and so much poverty. It was so unsafe for us! There are good people here, of course, but there are also gangs, and we had no protection and no training.”

My mind raced with the memories. “I lived here with four different companions. Elder Shoney, who was a basically like a brother to me; we had so much fun. Elder Borne, my greenie, who was so clearly gay; we knew each other were gay, and we were both so depressed; he thought our home here was such a disgusting mess until he saw where the other missionaries lived; he threatened to throw himself off the roof just so he would have a reason to go home, and eventually he did, and when he left, I just stopped caring.  Elder Donner, who was such as asshole, so holier-than-thou, so bossy; he once kicked a door while yelling ‘Fuck you, Anderson!’, and that was the day I got mugged and knocked unconscious. Elder Sanders, who was so-so nerdy and hilarious.

“I baptized three people in this city. William, a 13-year old boy whose mom had died and whose dad was in jail, and his grandmother Clarice, the woman raising him. She was so sweet, and she had no teeth, and she wanted her grandson to have a church to go to every week with kids like him. (Boy did she pick the wrong one). And I baptized Nyoka, a gorgeous college student. I don’t know where any of them are now.”

I went quiet for a moment and turned around, pointing down the street. “See that hair salon? That used to be St. James Chapel Fire-Baptized Congregation Holy Church of God of the Americas. We went to so many churches here! I learned so much about religion! Race! Privilege! Life and ethics and fairness. This city taught me so much, but I was a scrawny little Mormon white closeted kid here, with no perspective, no experience. What was I doing here?”

I turned back to the house, letting the memories wash over me. I put my arm around my boyfriend, pulling him in close. Sheri and I talked casually about all of the changes we had been through. And then we turned away, hungry, ready for lunch somewhere.

I turned back to the house, giving it one last look. It didn’t feel like home. It never had. It was just some place I used to live.

Washington Square

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“Where are you headed on your mission?”

In the airport security line, the sister missionary turned around to face me, pulling a lock of blonde hair off her face and behind her ear. She was in a modest black skirt with grey top. Her tag read “Sister Jensen, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

“I’m going to Montreal, and I’m so freaking excited!”

I laughed, her enthusiasm contagious. “I’m excited for you! Congratulations!”

“How about you, where are you going?”

I gave a soft, tight-lipped smile, and looked down. “I’m headed to Philadelphia, actually. I went on my own Mormon mission there nearly 20 years ago. I haven’t ever been back.”

She held up a hand for a high-five, and I gladly gave her one. “Well, heck yeah! Now you’re going back! Good for you! Gonna see all those people you converted?” She did an awkward little hillbilly-like dance, conveying her good humor.

“Ha, actually, it’s a different life now. I’m no longer Mormon, and this time I’m going back with my boyfriend.” I craned my neck, indicating the handsome fellow standing behind me in line.

Sister Jensen made a sober face. “Oh. Oh! Well, um, good luck!” She rushed off, having been called forward by the next available agent.

I was overcome by a strange sense of nostalgia. In January of 1998, I had entered this same airport in a white shirt and tie, with my own name tag reading “Elder Anderson, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” clipped to my shirt pocket. I wheeled behind me a suitcase full of clothes and toiletries, scriptures and supplies, things I would use for the next two years as I lived with strangers and attempted to convert those around me to what I believed, at the time, to be the true religion. At the time, with only two weeks training under my belt, I had just turned it all over to God, hoping he would make me successful and reward my efforts with great numbers of baptisms.

Just a few years ago, in this very blog, I took time to go through my mission experiences in several different entries. I recounted my efforts to cure my homosexuality through missionary service, my bizarre and tragic experiences with companions, my converts, and my life lessons. But here I was, prepared to actually physically go back to the city I had once lived in for nine months. Then, I was 19 (and looked 14), away from my family for the first time, full of naiveté and self-doubt. Now, I was 39, confident in my own skin and full of life experience, out of the closet and with a fantastic partner at my side. And I was beginning the trip in line behind a brand new sister missionary. The irony made me smile.

The plane ride was smooth. I got a middle seat in the 20th row, and was comfortably nestled in between my boyfriend and an elderly woman who kept hacking, complaining about not being able to smoke on the plane, and sipping on a Bloody Mary and a coffee the flight attendant had brought her. We landed in Philadelphia around 4 pm, gathered our things, and caught a car into the city without incident.

When I lived Philadelphia for those 9 months of my mission back in 1999, I stayed in Germantown, in a crime-ridden area filled with poverty, though the house I stayed in was blocked into the nicer city area where it was safe. This time, we’d be staying in an Airbnb in Washington Square, what they now referred to as the “Gayborhood”, a place with mostly safe streets, thriving businesses, and gay bars. It was sure to be a very different experience.

After checking in, the boyfriend and I went through a long walk in the area, and so much felt familiar, although the city was as different as I was. The skyline, the moisture in the air, the sheer diversity of the people around us, the long flat stretches, the century-old churches int he middle of large blocky brick buildings, the row homes, the garbage on the curbs waiting for pick-up, the people just stacked on top of each other. A million flashes of memory hit me. Trying to maneuver a couch up and down flights of narrow stairs while helping someone move, ringing every doorbell on a particular building while hoping someone would answer and invite us up to teach, tables full of counterfeit products on street corners ready to be sold, navigating busses to subways to trains in order to get anywhere. This city had been so overwhelming to me at the time, so monstrous and impossible. Now it felt both familiar and foreign, like a place I’ve been yet just like every other place, its own history and people here all along, moving forward without me.

In nearby Washington Square Park, I stood in the middle to survey my surroundings. Behind me stood a statue of George Washington behind an eternal flame, making the grave of an unknown soldier to honor those lost in the Revolutionary War. Arrayed around that were benches and tables, pathways, and trees filled with birds. And across the park, a sea of humanity. A beautiful white man with a gorgeous black woman, cuddled tightly on a bench together, clearly in love. A gay man in a pink tank talking loudly on his cell phone while walking several dogs. An older black man with a thick beard mumbling to himself as he looked into one garbage can, then the next, trying to find some treasure. An Asian man reading medical textbooks. A heavyset woman wrapped head to toe in a burka and hijab, the symbols of her religious devotion, the colors of the robes flashing black and red. A well-dressed elderly black woman with tight grey curls laughing loudly, showing half her teeth missing. A handsome man instructing a white couple on how to do burpees in the main pathway. A lithe black woman with a baby strapped to her chest watching the water spilling in the fountain.

A sea of humanity, and one that included me, a formerly Mormon missionary who once stood in this park doubting himself, yet who had now returned to see it with new eyes.

Missionary Training

MTC

I remember lying in bed that first night at the MTC, feeling empty and eerie. I was in someone else’s bed, in someone else’s room. Across the room, someone I didn’t know was snoring. And this was going to be my new world.

It was 10:30 pm on December 31, 1997. In just a few hours, the rest of the world would be celebrating the arrival of a New Year with celebrations and resolutions. But I was a missionary now, an elder, and I was dedicating the next two years to God. I was tired, but my head wouldn’t stop spinning with memories and fears, hopes and wishes.

Just a handful of hours before, I had bid my family farewell. My family. My mother, my little sister (still in high school), and I had been through a lot together. My five older siblings had been out of the house for years, and we were the youngest two left with a single mother, our own separate little family unit, different from the home my siblings had known. We had survived the abuse at the hands of Kent together. I had been the Priesthood holder in the home, the protector, the man of the house. And now I was leaving them behind for two entire years. But I felt safe knowing I would see them in a few weeks again, when they came to bid me farewell on the day I would go to the Salt Lake City Airport and fly to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the central city of the area I would be spending the next two years in.

Only a few months before, I had received my missionary call. It was a moment I had prepared my entire life for. I had saved up money, read and studied the scriptures, prayed and stayed active in Church all through my adolescence. All in preparation for what everyone said were the ‘best two years’ of a young man’s life. I would serve for two years, then come home and enroll in college and get married and have children and stall a faithful Mormon for my entire life. That was the blueprint, that was the divine plan. That day, I had received the letter in my hands. I could be going anywhere. My best friends from high school had gone on to Munich, Germany, and Trujillo, Peru, and Cape Town, South Africa. I could be going to Russia (and learning Russian) or going to China (and learning Chinese). It could be anywhere. I gathered all of my friends and loved ones that evening and ripped open the envelope. Philadelphia. I had been a bit flummoxed, a bit disappointed to be serving in the United States, somehow wondering if I wasn’t a bit less worthy than the others because I was gay and that was why I hadn’t been called overseas.

My mom had beamed with pride and sadness as she sat next to me in the farewell family meeting. There were prayers and songs and testimonies and then I had hugged my family goodbye. Me and hundreds of others, all there on New Years Eve, changing our lives. Then I had wheeled my two packed suitcases, full of white shirts and black pants and scriptures and ties, along with a few toiletries. That was it. For two years, there would be no books, no magazines, no movies, no television. Just the scriptures. Just hard work and prayers to God. We elite young men and women (but mostly men) would spend two years bringing souls to God.

Ages passed in my brain over that next hour as I lay there in bed, watching the minutes creep by. I had graduated high school just six months ago, and I had waited patiently until I turned 19. I had worked at comic book shops and at a local Target to pass the time, delaying college until my return. I had said goodbye to my friends, leaving on their own missions and going off to school and getting married. I had kept myself worthy. I had avoided dating girls completely, and avoided thinking about boys. And now I was here, and I didn’t know how to feel, what to feel.

After finding my assigned room and bunk earlier in the day, I had met the other missionaries in my district. For some bizarre reason, my companion, Elder Franklin, and I had been placed in a group of missionaries who were all headed to Raleigh, North Carolina, and not with the rest of the group who were going to Philadelphia with us. I sat with the other young men in meetings and at dinner that first night, immediately realizing I didn’t fit in. Some of them were athletes (and so so handsome, but I didn’t let myself dwell on that), some were funny, some were quirky. They formed a brotherhood. But I was on the outs, I was the secretly gay one. I wondered if my entire mission would feel this way, me trying to fit in with the other guys, the normal ones, with me on the outskirts squirming in my own skin.

Elder Franklin was nice. A California guy from a good family, funny, class clown type. He weighed 317 pounds, and he jokingly referred to himself as Franklin 3:17, a loose reference to the family scripture in the Bible in the book of John. But where all of the other guys were sleeping in rooms with four elders in them, set in two sets of bunk beds, Franklin and I had our own room. I felt isolated and forgotten, homesick and foreign.

I watched the clock turn 12:00, and realized 1998 was here. The next twelve months would be one hundred per cent in the arms of God, doing his service, acting as an instrument of his hands. I would teach others diligently and dutifully of the atonement of Christ, the love of God, the life of Joseph Smith, the truth of the Book of Mormon, the sole truths of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was humbling, overwhelming, mind-boggling. How would I do this? How could I rewrite my very self for this? I turned on my side, away from the harsh red numbers of the clock, and shut my eyes tight. Tears leaked out onto my pillow. Ignoring the snores on the other side of the room, I muttered a prayer, my hundredth such prayer in just a day, and my first of the new year.

Dear God, I began. I asked for his guidance, his strength. I asked him to watch over my family in my absence. I asked him to keep the desires of my heart pure. I asked him to bless me with his holy spirit, to give me truth, to give me strength. And then I made that most frightening request, the one God had remained silent on for so long. I asked him to heal me. I didn’t use the word gay this time, God knew what I meant.

My eyes closed and I sang hymns in my head to help me fall asleep. I had a busy day ahead. A busy two years ahead.

the Origin of My Species

MA48727

“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.