Spirit 7: Truth or Consequences

When I was an infant, my proud parents held me up in front of a church congregation so the assembled Mormons could coo at the new baby boy. I wore all white. A group of men, some related by blood and some by belief, stood in a circle and placed their hands on my head to give me a blessing. They did not bless me to go forward and change the world, or to live my best life, or to find happiness on my own terms. They blessed me to be a good Mormon boy, to embrace the true gospel, to be a missionary, to marry a woman in the temple, to have babies, and to spend my whole life serving god. That was the path, the one for every Mormon boy. It was the true path, the right one. Anything else was deviant.  And I understood that right from the beginning.

Growing up, once per month, meetings at church were reserved for members to go up and bear their testimonies of the truth of the gospel. It was an act of boldness, of solidarity. Sharing beliefs according to the pre-established formula, in front of your like-minded peers, was to be admired. They all followed the same format. I was four when I tried it myself for the first time.

“I’d like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true. I love my mom and dad and my brother and sisters. I know the Book of Mormon is the word of god and that Joseph Smith was a prophet, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”

Some small variance from this format was allowed, but not much. This profession of beliefs was a tried and true process, and there was a right way to do it. That single opening phrase was uttered more than any other. I KNOW (not believe, not hope, not think, but KNOW) that THIS CHURCH (this one right here, the Mormon one, the one we are in) is TRUE. The word true here is the operative one. In Mormonism, the tenet that if one part was TRUE then it was all TRUE. It was a power word, something to evoke loyalty, pride, ownership, a depth of power and rightness, and above all, conformance. It was a word like Freedom, or Justice, words used regularly in the American vernacular. For if Mormonism was true, then everyone else was false. If Mormonism was true, that meant it was all correct, all right. The bad parts were worth overlooking to focus on the greater good, because of TRUTH.

And so all the little rules blended in to the TRUE. Many Christians hold on to their understanding of the Bible, as justification for even unkind behavior. “I can believe this/do this/act this way because the Bible says it’s okay.” Mormons take that a step farther. They have a prophet who leads and guides the church, and one who communes with god. He has 12 apostles at his side to back him up, just like Jesus did. He gives regular addresses in which he uses prophecy and revelation to tell people what god wants them to do, to believe, to say. Thus if I say it is all TRUE, that means the prophet speaks TRUTH, and I have to follow his directions because it is what god wants.

And so, people pay ten per cent of their income to the church. They saved themselves for marriage. They marry young and have babies early. The devote two years of their lives to unpaid missionary service. They try and convert their friends. They go to church for three hours every Sunday. They wear the sacred underwear, and keep their haircuts and clothing styles in particular ways, and women avoid having more than one piercing per ear. They keep their sins secret and repent of them as needed. They conform, and blend in, and feel special for doing so, because they are part of the TRUE church, the only one who has it right. And, in many cases, they sacrifice happiness as they try to follow all of the rules.

This concept of TRUTH was huge for me, for all of them, because there consequences attached. If I didn’t follow one of the rules, that meant I was a sinner, that I was denying truth, that I wasn’t conforming or fitting in. Everyone would see, but worse, god would know. Some sins, some small rebellions, could be easily shaken off, like missing a church meeting, or wearing a blue shirt instead of white, or missing a month of home-teaching. But others had vastly greater consequences: sexual activity outside of marriage, NOT going on a mission, NOT marrying in the temple, turning down a church calling, or, the worst possible scenario, being gay. If the rules weren’t followed, that meant there was a denial of truth, that one was turning their back on god. Sometimes this resulted in minor consequences (a conversation with the bishop or not taking the sacrament for a time) and sometimes in more severe ones (being disfellowshipped or excommunicated). And even worse, sinning in this life meant an inability to be with family in heaven in the next life. An entire eternal heritage cast aside for laziness, or orgasm, or the easy way out.

When I was actively LDS, I looked at those who were sinners, who were cast out, or who didn’t conform which such sadness and disregard. I saw them as failures, as selfish, as weak, as poor in spirit. Look what they gave up, I’d think. Look at all they cast aside. How sad, how pathetic. There were believers and sinners, the righteous and the apostate, the member and the non-member.

And yet if I turned my gaze inward, I didn’t fit either. God had made a design flaw. I was gay. It took me years to sort this out, but there were deep psychological wounds that formed within me because I was born wrong. I was born gay, and I knew it early. And so I didn’t fit the standard. I couldn’t conform naturally, I could only do so by hiding in plain sight. I held on to the rules tighter than most. Any aberration, any entertaining of alternate thought, meant denying what was true, and that meant losing everything. I held on tighter than almost anyone I knew. I had to be the best if I had any hope of belonging at all. (I would learn later that many other gay men held on in similar ways).

Whenever I bore my testimony, I held tightly to the truth, and I never spoke the doubts out loud. “I know the church is true.” What I could have spoken, what I should have spoken, was an entirely different sort of testimony.

“I desperately want to believe the church is true because I so badly want to fit in with all of you. I’m afraid I can’t, and that I never will. I’m different on the inside, I’m gay, and I am worried that by telling you that, I won’t be accepted here, that you’ll look at me like you do the other sinners. If I admit I’m different, I’m afraid god won’t love me and that I won’t have a place in my family. I’m following all of the rules because I want to be what you are, I want to have what you have. I want to feel sure, but I don’t. I have doubts. I don’t believe deep down that it is all correct. I think that there is some good here, in this church, in these meetings, but as I look around, there are a lot of people in pain here, and I think all of you have doubts as well. I think our leaders get things wrong, and I think that people get hurt because of it. And I think that people here are so focused with fitting in that they allow themselves to compromise their own morals, and then they convince themselves that these actions are sanctioned by god. And I’m worried that I’m going to grow up and have to redefine every one of these beliefs, every aspect of truth, and that is going to cause me to leave the church I love, both because I won’t believe it anymore and because I won’t fit here anymore. And there are consequences for that, according to your rules. I stand to lose my salvation, my family, my entire belief structure.

“But I’m worried that one day, I’m going to have to ask myself the opposite. What are the consequences for staying? And I don’ think any of you are going to like the answers I find.”

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Learning to hate

shadow

Hate.

Humans are the only species that hates. We dominate. We smother, choke, and silence. Anything that is inconvenient to us. Anything that isn’t like us. Anything that makes us uncomfortable. Even when, especially when, it is within us.

I was raised by a loving mother in a busy family home. She taught me to follow God, to love my neighbor, to be a good and ethical person who is kind and Christlike. Every Sunday, we sat in church and sang songs of the love of God while learning about family, service, eternal bonds, and sacrifice. It was idyllic. It was wonderful. Except I didn’t fit the mold.

I realized early on that I was gay. I didn’t have the words, but I knew I was different as young as age 5. And I learned to hide. I know I didn’t fit. I wasn’t like the other kids around me. God had made me different. The messages of love I was being taught became conditional, based on my ability to conform.

There were no hateful messages delivered across the pulpit in my Mormon congregation. There were no sermons on how gay people should burn in Hell. There was just no mention of gay people at all, anytime, ever. Mumbled conversations in hallways about the AIDS epidemic being a curse from God toward the immoral, yes. But no hate speech against gay people. And this silence spoke volumes.

Instead, there were reinforced narratives. Poster boards showing the paths that everyone takes to get into Heaven. Worthiness. Obedience. Sacrifice. Church attendance, scripture study, repentance, baptism. Ordinations, temple attendance, tithing, two years as a missionary. And then, marriage to a woman and children and service in the church for a lifetime. All to ensure that whatever came next, after this life, would be good. A life with God, rich with blessings and family.

And I didn’t fit into that. Right off, in learning how to blend in, I learned how to deny those deeper parts of myself. Every television show, every story book, every song on the radio reinforced that men were men, and women were women, and men were supposed to be with women. There was no alternative. I knew no gay people. I had no role models for a successful or happy gay life. There was only one path, only one way. And so I learned to hide. To lie. To seek a cure. To try and fix it. All without anyone ever pointing a finger at me that said “You are broken, fix yourself.” They didn’t have to point. I just knew I was broken.

Until I turned 15. When I was 15, I finally asked for help. And a kind religious leader gave me a book that was written by a long-dead Mormon prophet, a book written before I was born. Homosexuality is a sin. A crime next to murder. An abomination. A curse. A curable curse, but a curse nonetheless. It was detestable, horrific, a blight upon the land. I got the message loud and clear. Everything I’d ever worried about myself in silence was confirmed in print. I was broken. I learned to hide even more.

Hate can be subtle. It isn’t always like a fist to the face, sometimes it is more like shadow, creeping over walls and under doors, unseen until you learn to see it clearly. I didn’t fit. I was an abomination. God created me in his image, but he made me different. He loved me without condition, yet I was an abomination. He expected honesty and authenticity in service, yet I didn’t know how to face myself. I had no narrative, no ability to speak truth. And so I hid. In plain sight. For decades. He hated me. Those around me hated me. And I learned, early and deeply, to hate myself.

The boys at school weren’t so subtle. Manhood needed to be proven there. Athletic prowess, an interest in girls, a tolerance for pain, no show of emotions. Be a man. And anyone who wasn’t a man, they got called the humiliating names, the ones that every boy dreaded. Sissy. Fag. Queer. Homo. Fairy. Faggot. Fudgepacker. Playground taunts would go dark and extreme sometimes. “You can’t throw a ball, you fag, go die of AIDS.” Children saying this. Children.

And every word, directed at me or at anyone else, sent quivers through my soul. They shook me to my core. I was so scared of being exposed. What if someone caught me looking at a guy. What if I got a boner at the wrong time. When if I wasn’t good enough, man enough, at any given moment. And so I learned to hide, deeper and darker. I learned to lie even more. In order to survive.

When I mix these three origin stories: the suffer-in-silence child side, the not-man-enough-little-queer-kid side, and the God-created-a-monster side, it boils down a complicated stew of self-hatred. It’s a miracle I survived. It’s a miracle any of us did. I used to shut entire parts of my brain, my body, my psyche, my spirit. I shut them down so I could stop feeling, so I could try to survive. It physically hurt. I’d stare at myself in the mirror and call myself names for not being man enough. I’d sob my eyes out in anguished prayer while begging for a cure. I’d look girls in the eye and tell them that I was interested in them, of course, as I delivered some excuse for not engaging in physical activity with them. I hated myself, because I just knew that everyone hated me.

Hate.

It’s only in the last few years that I’ve learned to hear and share the stories of others. My story is my own, but it is in no way unique. There are millions of other gay Mormons from across the decades who learned to be silent like I was, who learned to believe God hated them. They considered suicide, and in some cases completed it. They submitted themselves to therapy practices that promised a cure. They got electro-shocked, harming their brains in the hope of reducing or eliminating their sexual attractions. They got married and then cheated on their wives, hoping to never get caught. They were excommunicated, disowned, extorted by the police, and assaulted for being gay. In the worst cases, they were killed, by men who learned to hate other men for being gay.

And it isn’t limited to Mormons. Gay people in every corner of the world, in every country, culture, religion, and time period, have learned the same hate. In some culture, the hate comes from God and religion. In others, it is societal norms or government practices. Hatred has become generational. It’s in the DNA of gay people. It crosses every border and barrier. It is the shadow on the wall, the one I forget to look for sometimes.

I’ve been out of the closet for eight years now, and I love my life. My home, my job, my partner, my children.  I see a future for myself, where I once saw no future. And in my work as a therapist, and as a storyteller, I’ve learned to embrace the stories of queer people as they begin to sort all of this out and learn how to love themselves. They began to see clearly how they learned how to hide in their own homes. And then they start to look at the world around them and figure out how to live in it, how to understand and even embrace the hate and use it to propel themselves forward. It is an epic and exhausting journey, and one that gets easier with time.

And I don’t hate that at all.

In fact, I love it.

Love.

My Father’s Grave

There it was. My name etched in stone. On the back of my father’s grave. My father’s grave. My father is still alive, yet he has a grave.

His headstone is in a family plot east of Idaho Falls, Idaho. It’s a remote pretty cemetery, the kind of Rocky Mountain Cemetery I’m accustomed to, with simple headstones in long rows with plenty of space, lush green grass everywhere.

As I walked through the rows, I realized that times and customs are changing, even when it comes to how people die. Headstones like this, family plots, are a thing of the last generation. Now everyone, for the most part, seems to be getting cremated. People are being sprinkled into lakes and on hillsides, or kept in vases, or put into pots for plants to grow out of. (Just this morning, I saw a headline about the state of Washington legalizing the compositing of human remains as another alternative. I mean, there are 8 billion of us now…)

My relationship with my father is difficult to talk about. It’s hard for me to even make sense of internally, and I do therapy for a living. It’s a big void, a question mark in my center. And this cemetery brings that to life more acutely than even being around him.

My last name is Anderson. It is the last name of both of my sons. It was my father’s name. He had five brothers and one sister; I’ve only met half of my aunt and uncles, and then only once. It was my grandfather’s name. Justin Anderson was a sheep farmer in southern Idaho, and I met him a few times when I was a child before he died. And Justin’s father was… I don’ know. My knowledge pretty much ends there. But there is my grandfather’s grave, just down he row from my father’s. My grandmother Alice is there. A few of my father’s brothers. And then cousins, children, infants, names I’ve never heard or seen before.

In some ways, I respect my father’s choice to purchase a headstone. It shows foresight. He chose the stone himself and paid for it. He had it etched with his name and birth date and the names of his children. It mentions both of his wives by name as well, acknowledging that those marriages took place, although he is divorced from my mother and not living with his second wife. He paid for the plot of land as well. When he goes, he will be buried near his parents, his family, the ones I never knew.

I look like my father. I have the same build, the same coloring, the same grey on the temples, the same baby face. Once when I was 22 (I’m 40 now), I was living in the mountains of a rural area of Idaho and performing as an actor in a dinner theater for the summer. A man and his wife attended the play, and afterwards they approached me. I’d never met them, at least so far as I remembered. The man asked me if I was K. Anderson’s son, and I told him yes. Then he introduced himself as my uncle. He said I looked just like my father. I had the same walk, the same laugh, the same way of carrying my hands, he said. I asked a few questions, bid farewell, and then went home and cried that evening, because that void at my center made no sense.

It still feels that way now. Yet my name is still on the back of his grave.

In the early 1970s, as I understand it, my father had the mad urge to leave his home, his parents, and all that was familiar, and buy a cattle ranch in the rural Missouri Ozarks. Idaho sheep farmer to military man to school teacher to Missouri cattle rancher. A strange symmetry, I supposed. My mother reluctantly consented. They sold their home, packed everything they owned, loaded up the five children, and left the potato fields of Idaho for the green, lush, Mormon-hating country of small-town Missouri. He never bought that ranch, but they did start life over. He took a job in a cheese factory, and stayed for years. I was born in Missouri in 1978. My little sister followed in 1982. We were the sixth and seventh children in the family line. (Years later, both of us would come out as gay. Maybe we can blame Missouri.)

As I understand it from my older siblings, my father was a pretty happy man. He smiled and laughed, played hard, spent time with his kids. But by the time I came into the picture, something had changed. He grew sad and serious. Sometimes angry, but never happy. He seemed haunted. He was hot water, forever waiting to boil, and stuck at that temperature. He worked, he cried, he grew angry with my mother. Mostly he sat silently. No board games. No tickle fights. No camping trips or tossing the ball in the backyard. A serious, sad, haunted man who was doubled over in half due to the stress of raising and providing for seven children. A man who bit off far more than he could chew, who followed all of the rules of Mormonism yet somehow couldn’t experience any of the happy things. A stranger in my home.

I adapted. I wrote stories and played games, collected toys and made treasure hunts for my mom and siblings. I excelled in school. Dad was around but never seemed to notice or care much, and so I just got on with the process of growing up.

And then, in 1990, when I was 11, my mom made the boldest decision of her life, and she left. She went back to Idaho, after nearly two decades away. My dad stayed behind. And I remember being relieved. The world made more sense without him around.

Life got complicated for all of us after the divorce. My mom remarried, but he was mean. My dad ended up in Las Vegas. Months would go by without a phone call, and there were no visits. There was always a birthday card, and another at Christmas. Kitschy greeting cards from the grocery store with a check for one hundred dollars inside, and a short sentence. Surprise, Dad  or Happy Birthday, Dad. That was it. Those small gestures of love meant very little, though, without the relationship to accompany it. He remained closer to my five older siblings, yet put no effort into me or my little sister. When my stepfather grew violent, my dad had nothing to say. When I starred in community and school plays, he wasn’t there (except perhaps once, when he was in town). He didn’t know my friends, my interests, my struggles. And then there was the time I heard my mother tell him over the phone that his children wanted to see him. And my dad responded that he had no children.

When I grew up, I made a few passing attempts to get to know my father, and I sensed some gestures in return. He wrote a few letters when I was a missionary, and I wrote back. He took Sheri and I on a bizarre trip to Europe; he and I shared a room for two weeks, and never really spoke. He showed up at my wedding. My older sisters always encouraged me to put more effort in, to try harder, to seek understanding. He’s different than you think, they said. He tries and shows love just not how you can see it, they said. Maybe he can’t express anything to you, they said.

Maybe, I would think back. But the man whose name I bear can’t tell me the names of my own children, and that tells me everything I need to know. Four decades in and not much has changed.

My father just turned 80. I’m 40. I drove down with my partner to celebrate dad’s life, meeting the rest of my siblings there in Las Vegas. Conversations were superficial. He seemed genuinely happy, in his way, to see his children there to honor him. He told a few terrible jokes. He thanked everyone for being there. I left silently, overwhelmed by the experience.

A week later, I got a card in the mail. It was more than a sentence this time. “Thank you for coming to surprise me,” he said. “I’m glad we can seek common ground, despite our differences. Love, Dad.”

Our differences, I thought. What common ground, I thought. I set the card down. And again, I cried.

But at his grave, I didn’t cry. My name is on the back of his headstone. Etched there, permanently. I’m sixth in a list of his children. And one day, a death date will be carved into the front, and my father laid beneath. But my name will already be there, unchanged, like it has been all along, even before I knew about it.

Once, a therapist asked me how my father had impacted me the most. And I surprised her by answering that he made me an incredible father to my sons. I show interest in them, I said. I listen. I tickle and sing, dance and play, travel and teach, set boundaries and enforce routines. I’m there. Every day. There are no question marks in their center spaces. When I tell them I love them, they roll their eyes and say,  “Dad, we know! We love you too!” I’m there, and he wasn’t. He taught me to be an incredible father, I said, by never teaching me anything at all.

grave

“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

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.

Sex Education Part 4: Scout Camp

My first day at Scout Camp, I rolled out my sleeping bag in the small tent, anxious about sharing my space with other boys in my ward.

There was Josh, my tall, gangly friend with his thick glasses. Stephen, the handsome nerdy guy with the perfect smile. Charles, too handsome for his own good, constantly bragging about girls. Sam, with thick blonde hair, who looked perfect with his shirt off. And scrappy little Daryl, who had a constant sneer on, always trying to pick a fight. These boys and ten others in our little troop, along with the Scoutmasters one tent over.

Sam was the nicest to look at, but it was Stephen that I had the biggest crush on. I often found myself watching him across the camp, wondering if he ever noticed. He was handsome and adorable all at once. I was only 14, but I wondered what a future with him would be like, if that was something that was allowed. But then I mentally flogged myself for feeling that way in the first place, knowing that even those thoughts made me a sinner.

The first few days of Scout Camp were a blur of skits and singing, flag raises, swimming, building fires, cooking eggs and bacon over an electric grill, and working on a number of merit badges. The leaders encouraged us to get as many badges as possible during the days we would be there. Every morning and meal started with a prayer, and we sang hymns and Scout songs throughout the day. It was meant to be the ultimate getaway.

I mostly stayed quiet as the other boys interacted. When the leaders were away, the conversation automatically steered to girls.

“Dude, have you guys seen Becky? She has the biggest boobs in the whole class and I heard she made out with Joe Adams once.”

“I totally made out with her.”

“No you didn’t!”

“I so did. She’s dumb as rocks though.”

“Whatever, I made out with your sister!”

The boys talked about their crushes, their conquests, their future wives. And I didn’t participate. I tried to blend in to the background, wanting to fit in but not wanting to engage either.

“What about you, Chad, who do you like?” Sam asked me over the fire one day.

My eyes immediately shifted to Stephen across the camp, then I lowered them to the ground. “Oh, I don’t really talk about that stuff. I’m trying to just stay focused on school and church stuff until my mission.”

Sam nodded, laughing. “I respect that. I’m into this girl named Amber. She’s really cute and want to know my favorite part about her?”

“Sure, what is it?”

“Her butt. She has the perfect butt. Want to know how I know that?”

I looked over at him as he stared in the fire. “How do you know?”

“Cause my hands have told me so.” I looked over in surprise. “Yup, that’s write. She let me grab it once. I think I love this girl. I told her I would carve her name into my arm with a knife, but she didn’t want me to do that.”

“That’s… intense,” I thought, and my eyes flashed back to Stephen.

Daryl was the toughest one to be around. He’s the only one what wouldn’t let me blend in. He pushed and pushed. It was like he had something to prove.

One idle morning, the guys lined up and wanted to see who could throw logs the farthest. They chucked them across a field, trying to hit a far away tree. I stood timid, in the background. When asked if I wanted to throw a log, I simply said ‘no thanks’.

And then Daryl turned to me. “What the hell, Chad, you can’t do anything! What kind of man are you! I’m shorter than you, and I bet I can throw one farther than you! Hell, I bet my dick is bigger than yours, too!”

I didn’t engage. I simply walked away.

Every day, I was becoming more and more aware of how different I was from the other guys. I had no words for it, but it consumed me, those differences. I was unworthy, aberrant, an other. I felt unseen constantly, but also like everyone was constantly staring, noticing every glance and every movement. I wanted to hide, but more than anything, I just wanted to be like them. No one understood. I was an island on my own, sharing space with everyone else who belonged.

I avoided showering for days. There was a big group shower up the hill, an open room like those at community swimming pools. 15 shower heads lined the walls, all pouring hot water from the tank outside. Should I wear a swimsuit in there and claim modesty? Should I wake up extra early and shower before anyone else? I wanted to see the other guys, be part of them, but that was the last thing I wanted as well. What if I got aroused? My body had a mind of its own sometimes.

But on day three, I couldn’t avoid it anymore. I shut down my brain and marched with the troop up the hill to the shower. In the locker room, they all undressed and I kept my eyes fixed tightly on the floor. My heart was pounding. Stephen was right there, and Sam, and the others. And then everyone was naked except me. I wore a bright orange swimming suit as we all walked into the shower together, me doing my best to keep my eyes on the floor.

There were six other boys in the shower, all older kids from another troop. Tall, strong, good-looking guys, all of them naked as well.

One of them noticed me and shouted across the echoing room. “Hey! There are no swimsuits in here!” I looked up at him in surprise. He grabbed his dick and balls in his hand and shook them back and forth. “Welcome to the Ball Show! This is where we see who has the biggest wang and who has the biggest balls! How can you play with a swimsuit on?”

I finished my shower quickly, keeping my head down, never saying anything. Some of the guys in my troop compared penises. A few lobbied teasing remarks to me.

On the hike back down the hill, I mentally flogged myself for not fitting in again. I thought about the other guys, talking about their crushes on Lindsay Lohan and Hillary Duff, about their talks about Becky’s boobs, and Amber’s butt. But I couldn’t say anything. If I talked and was honest, they’d know my crush was on Zach from Saved by the Bell and Wheeler from Captain Planet. They’d know I didn’t like boobs or girls, and instead that I had crushes on Sam, and Stephen, and my algebra teacher, and the neighbor who mowed the lawn with his shirt off, and the wrestler kid in my PE class. I was different and there was no changing that. I would never not be different.

Years later, looking back on this time as an adult, I realized that I wasn’t all that different. I was a typical boy, pumped full of hormones, obsessed with sex jokes and fitting in; I just liked boys instead of girls. But while the other kids were learning how to have crushes, fall in love and lust, be rejected, and fit in with other guys, I was merely learning how to hide everything about myself. The repercussions of this would last a lifetime. For me, and for every other gay kid like me.

BoyScout

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.”

 

Sex Education Part 3: the Law of Chastity

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When I turned 12, I was set to receive the Aaronic Priesthood, the lesser authority given to worthy young men to perform ordinances in God’s name. 12-year olds with the Priesthood were given small responsibilities, like passing the sacrament during the main congregational meeting, a group of young men standing at attention as they passed trays of bread and water down the rows. At 12, young men moved from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts, and they left Primary at church, the organization for children, and instead became Deacons. It was a powerful rite of passage.

We left Missouri when I was 11, when my parents finally split up. The divorce would take a few years. I had no idea how wounded mom was at the time. The older kids who were still at home stayed behind to finish high school with my Dad, and the youngest three went with my mom. She went back to work as a teacher. We lived with my grandparents for a few weeks, then rented a home and enrolled in school. I was in fifth grade, and I made friends quickly.

I was a very innocent and naïve 11, despite my upbringing. I enjoyed playing Nintendo, reading books, writing stories, and drawing. I played with kids much younger than me and organized them in neighborhood games. I couldn’t ride bike yet, or sink a basketball into a hoop, or throw or catch a ball, all bizarre tests of masculinity. And I was teased occasionally by other kids for being a ‘fag’, ‘sissy’, or ‘fairy’, all of which sucked. I desperately wanted to fit in, to be just a standard member of the student body, a part of the kids who happily co-existed. Somehow, whether because I was Mormon, or gay, or feminine, I was on the bottom of the pecking order, and I knew that as early as third grade.

In fourth grade, when I was 10, kids started talking about sex more. There were veiled references. “How far have you gone?” “How many people have you done it with?” “Are you still a virgin?” Every boy knew just to brag and boast when truthfully no one really knew what they were talking about. Strangely, I don’t think I remembered the abuse I suffered as a young child during this time. I didn’t know how to process it. I was just caught up in adolescence, in moving to a new state, and in the tragedies happening in my family.

And so, before I turned 12, in preparation for the Priesthood, I was called in by our new bishop. We’d known him a few months, but he was really a stranger to our family. He was a pleasant retired man, a grandfather in his seventies, with thinning white hair. We started the meeting with a prayer and then he asked me the standard questions. Do I pay my tithing, do I obey my mother and father, do I believe in the Mormon Church as the one true church, do I have a testimony of the Savior. And then…

“Chad, do you obey the Law of Chastity?”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“That is when a man and woman are sexually involved only with the person they are married to.”

“Um, I guess so.”

“Do you avoid pornography?”

“What’s that?”

“Images or videos of a sexual nature.”

“Yes, I avoid that. I’ve never even seen any.”

“And do you masturbate?”

“What’s that?”

And so he told me what it was. “Masturbation is when a man plays with and strokes his penis because he thinks it feels good. But it is against the commandments of God.”

“No, I’ve never done that.”

I passed the worthiness interview. And the next Sunday, I got the Priesthood.

Reflecting back on this interview as an adult, I see an innocent kid who had already been sexually exploited, who was then sent into a room with an unfamiliar man. Behind closed doors, this man asked questions about sex, pornography, and masturbation, and he used descriptive terms to teach me what they were. While I believe this man had good intentions, the very idea of this enforcement, of strangers questioning children, of perceived virtue being the sounding board for worthiness, these messages taught me all about sex. And these were things I should be learning from parents or teachers, not a stranger.

But I remembered his words. And I was curious. Within a few weeks, I tried out masturbation. It felt great to play with my penis. Like really, really great. It got hard and had so many nerve endings. I found myself closing the door to my room and playing with it. I’d even do my chores and reward myself with time to play with my penis later. (Processing as an adult, I realize that I was reenacting my abuse: masturbation as a reward for chores. But I didn’t know this then). I wasn’t thinking about sex or sexual intercourse or sexual partners, I just liked touching myself. I found myself doing it at the dinner table, in the shower, in the bathroom, when I thought no one could see. I knew it was wrong, knew it was forbidden, but it felt so good!

And then one day, early in the morning, I was playing with myself in my bed, and it felt more intense than usual, and I went faster, and then… I ejaculated for the first time. It scared me! What was that! Oh my god, what was that! It went everywhere and was sticky and messy and I felt like something was wrong with me. The pleasure passed quickly and I panicked, remembering how the bishop had said this was wrong. And so I cleaned up and then dropped to my knees, immediately begging God for forgiveness.

And that day began a cycle that would stick with me for the next 20 years. I would stave off masturbation, for days, weeks, sometimes even months at a time, and then I would give in. And after I gave in, I would feel ashamed and beg for forgiveness. Sometimes I got nauseous. Sometimes I got really nauseous. Sometimes even the idea of sexual pleasure would make me nauseous. And the older I got and the more intense the sexual feelings got, the worse the nausea got.

But for now, I was chaste. And I knew masturbation represented sin. But I wondered why, if God didn’t want me to do that, then why did he make it feel so damn good? Why was it a constant temptation? I guess so that I could show God that I was dedicated to him. That was my job, to keep that relationship strong, to be a good Priesthood holder, to be worthy.

And then puberty started, and the hormones hit, and the struggle intensified.

Sex Education Part 2: And None Will Molest Them…

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

Heaven or Hell?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I grinned widely. “That sounds perfect.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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