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.

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Sex Education Part 2: And None Will Molest Them…

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

Heaven or Hell?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I grinned widely. “That sounds perfect.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Porn Addiction in Utah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Prince Henry

Yesterday on Facebook, an old friend of mine uploaded photos from nearly 20 years ago, from my first year in college.

The year was 2001. I was a newly returned missionary, age 22, and I planned on a major in social work and a minor in acting; at the time, this made a lot of sense, but later I dropped the acting. I was taking between 16 and 21 college credits per semester while also working nearly full-time. I went to my Mormon ward every Sunday, attended the temple weekly, had roommates, and dated girls. At this particular time, I was just pretending that I wasn’t gay, though deep down I had a hope that I might be able to cure it all if I could just try hard enough.

After the completion of my second semester, I stayed on campus for the summer. I was at Ricks College, an all-Mormon school in Rexburg, Idaho, and in the summertime there were less students, but the school remained a very busy place. I’d already been in the Ricks College Mens Choir, and I’d tried out for a few plays and had joined the story-telling troop. Later, I’d help found the improv comedy group on campus, and I’d form my own A Cappella group. But for this summer, while I took classes and worked, there was nothing I wanted to do more than to be in a school play, entertaining the crowds.

The play was “This Castle Needs a Good Scouring”, a silly farcical comedy version of Cinderella, designed to get big laughs from kids, and the director of the show was one of my former teachers, a warm and friendly Mormon man named Omar. Not only was Omar directing the show, he had also written it himself, and he would play one of the lead characters, the ineffectual king; Omar’s lovely wife, Laurie, would play the wicked stepmother. In the play, the king had two sons, one quite effeminate and bumbling, the other a handsome and witty rogue.

I hoped for the latter part. Instead, I was cast as the effeminate prince.

Despite my worries about being on stage in this role while also trying to hide the fact that I was gay, I quite grew to enjoy playing Prince Henry. He was loud, prone to monologues, and quite dramatic. He got jokes only several seconds after the punchline was delivered, and he responded with a loud hearty laugh. He spoke with a thick, lilting, upper register British accent, and he walked in long strides. Henry loved the idea of love. He wanted to fall in love with the most beautiful girl in the land, and he often turned toward the audience and spread his arms wide as he loudly proclaimed what love meant to him.

We rehearsed the play for weeks and I grew to lose myself in Henry. He was delightful, and I knew the audiences would simply crack up at him. Along with a few other characters (including a malicious and dreadful stepsister and a bumbling mute elf named Wolfgang), he was the show’s comic relief. In one scene, he had to sing a love song to Cinderella, and I had a nice tenor voice. The song suited me. At the end of the song, as we rehearsed the scene, I tried convincing the director that I should be able to kiss Cinderella to show my love. Inwardly, I needed this to happen. I was going on lots of dates, but I was unable thus far to kiss a girl, not for lack of opportunity, but because I was simply too scared or too grossed out; I wasn’t wired for women, but I needed to be straight. I felt like if I could kiss a girl on stage, I could finally, finally see what it was like. But Omar wanted the moment to be funny, and so, when Henry moved in for the kiss, Cinderella turned her cheek, and the kiss landed there instead. I was disappointed, but it was the right call for the play. Audiences would love it.

As the set was completed for the show, the costume designing department finished their work for the play. I was given green leggings to wear underneath a very flow royal-looking shirt. It billowed out in a skirt-like fabric. A white shirt with lace collar and sleeves was placed underneath it, and my arms would go through the holes of the outer shirts’ sleeves, which hung down to my sides. The shirt was green on the outside with a pink interior, and a pink stripe ran down the center. I wore a simple felt crown on my head. As I moved about the stage, my outer shirt would flip upward, revealing the pink beneath. One particular scene, in which I brandished a sword, I would turn my body quickly, and the shirt would billow outward like a flowing skirt, creating a bright pink slash through the air. The effect was hilarious.

Without realizing it, I was participating in a long-standing tradition of making audiences laugh at effeminate men pretending to be straight. I was the buffoon. I was the character that audiences would look at and laugh at, practically limp-wristed as I pranced about talking about women and love. I saw myself Prince Henry as a comedic character, but I never thought of him as gay.

Iw as the closeted gay Mormon kid, playing the closeted gay prince, and I didn’t think of either of them as gay.

I look back at Prince Henry with affection. I adored playing him for that summer. But as I see these photos now, of me in pink and green, prancing about the stage in tights, I marvel at how deep the programming was back then. Being gay simply wasn’t an option. Were I to view myself in this production as an audience member, I would find the character hilarious, and I would immediately realize the actor was gay. I would embrace him exactly as he was, and never try to change him.

I smile at these photos, but they also make me sad. Cause this guy, who disliked himself so much back then, had another ten years to spend in the closet before he came out of the closet. He needed a lot of love back then.

I downloaded these photos, showed them to my boyfriend, and said “Look how masculine and heterosexual I was back in college! I could sword fight! I was surrounded by women! And I was so confident in my masculinity, I could wear pink and green!” He laughed then, and so did I.

 

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Release Time

moroni

“Brothers and sisters, I want to bear you my testimony that I know that this book is true. I know it in the depths of my soul. I know because I have prayed about it, and God has confirmed in my heart that it is a true work.” My seminary teacher straightened his tie, clutched his hands behind his back, then continued with his testimony. “I will now quote to you my favorite scripture, the one I used on my mission over and over again, from Moroni Chapter 10, verses 3-5. ‘Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost, ye may know the truth of all things.’

Brother Acey quoted the scripture with a loving reverence in his voice, and somehow a sense of both drama and urgency. It was a familiar tone to me, one that Mormons used when bearing testimony. They didn’t just know the truth, they know the truth! All of the truth! With every fiber of their beings and beyond the shadows of any doubts!

Then Brother Acey concluded his testimony. “And I promise to you, to all of you, that if you feel that same spirit, then you too can know that what I say to you is true. And I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

Brother Acey let a long silence hang in the classroom for a few seconds. His eyes scanned over over us. “Do you feel that?” He asked. “What is it you are feeling now?”

I felt goosebumps break out on my arms. I felt my heart pounding. I felt joy in my soul. I raised my hand and waited until he called on me. “The Holy Ghost,” I said, with enthusiasm. “I feel the Holy Ghost.”

“That’s right. Now take a minute to consider the story of Moroni, the one who wrote the words I just read to you. His father was the great prophet, Mormon. Moroni grew up during a time of war, when he saw the people of God being slowly slaughtered by their enemies because they had turned away from their beliefs. His life’s work became protecting the Holy Scriptures, the words of God etched on plates of gold. He spent years wandering in the wilderness, alone. And before he buried those records, knowing that they would be found hundreds of years later, he took time to carve those words I just read to you into that gold. He knew. He knew with all of his heart of their truth. Now, we have no idea how much longer he lived after that, but eventually, he was blessed to come down as an angel, an immortal being, and tell Joseph Smith where to find those plates. And now you, Chad, all of you in this room, you hold that record in your very hands. It is an absolute miracle.”

A few other students shared their thoughts when Brother Acey called on them. I felt electric the entire time he was speaking. I had always loved the Book of Mormon, since I was a very small child. I’d read it when I was still in kindergarten for the first time. And I’d always believed it was true. But at times like this, it was more than belief, I just knew it. I was so blessed to just know, to have my testimony come so easily to me.

It was a Wednesday afternoon, and I was 16 years old, and sitting in my Seminary class. On my report card, this block of time was just called ‘Release Time’. It was the fourth hour of my academic schedule. Before this, in third hour, I had U.S. History, and after this was lunch and then fifth hour, English class. Then Band, then P.E. to finish the day off. As the majority of my school in southern Idaho were believing members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, around 60 per cent I estimated, Release Time was a popular selection for many students. We didn’t get actual academic credit for it, instead we just attended the class during the school day, just like a regular class. It was held in a specially consecrated building across the street from the school. There were pictures of Christ on the wall and hymnals and scriptures on every desk. We had a lesson plan that covered church-approved content, turned in homework, and opened and closed every class with a prayer. It was my favorite time of day. And it was the most important. The things of God would always be more important than the things of the world. And my religious education mattered more to me than my regular classes.

In Seminary, I belonged. I blended in. It didn’t matter that I was attracted to boys, or that my step-father had hit my mom in front of me the night before, or that I was teased for being a sissy simply because I was less athletically inclined. I didn’t fit in the world around me, but here I fit in. I didn’t notice boys as much, the temptations seemed to diminish when I was worshipping and learning about the things of God. Thus it was easier to keep my thoughts clean, meaning I didn’t feel like a sinner as much. This class was a refuge for me, and I simply loved being there.

Brother Acey issued us a challenge at the end of class. “The prophets have taught for years that every member should be a missionary. Every one. That means each of you. If you have a testimony of the Book of Mormon, then it is your duty, your obligation, and your privilege to share it with others. I challenge each of you to think of someone you know who is not a member of the church, and I want you to bear them your testimony and give them a copy of the Book of Mormon. If you do this, your life and theirs will be richly blessed. If they choose not to be converted now, well, at least you tried, and maybe you’ve planted a seed for the future. But maybe they will gain their own testimonies and choose to be baptized, and then how great shall be your joy! Go forward and speak boldly, without fear. After the closing prayer, please grab a spare copy of the Book of Mormon from the box at the back of the classroom. I will invite you to share your experiences in class next week.”

I was filled with excitement in my next class, and I immediately began making a list of every person I knew who was not a Mormon. Most everyone in my life already was, but I could still think of a few. I had a large group of friends, and at least two of them were not Mormon, Kenny and Desiree. And there was one neighbor down the street. My mom had a few non-member co-workers. There was the lady at the bank. Oh, and there was Mrs. Campbell, my English teacher. She liked me, I bet she would enjoy a copy. Maybe I could help save their souls! Maybe I could help convert them! The thought thrilled me. Maybe if I could do this, it would make me just a bit worthier in the eyes of God, and maybe I could finally be cured.

I had only recently told my Bishop that I was gay, and he had responded with kindness and love. He’d explained to me that this was a particular challenge that I had been given to overcome and to prove my worth to God. He’d given me a blessing, and then sent me home with a copy of the Miracle of Forgiveness, a book that loudly proclaimed the evils of homosexuality. Gay people were an abomination, and they could be cured if they tried hard enough, the book assured me. And then there was my patriarchal blessing, which told me that I would be an effective missionary, and I knew deep down, that maybe if I could help bring more people into the church, then maybe I could help make myself straight. I couldn’t ask that of God, not directly, but he knew the desires of my heart, so just maybe it would work.

I prayed that night for guidance, that I might know the best person to give my testimony to. And after careful contemplation, I chose three names off of my list. Kenny, Desiree, and Mrs. Campbell, all three of them. We’d only been challenged to give out one copy, but I would give three, to show my commitment. I got two more copies of the Book from Brother Acey the following day, and on Friday, I was ready to go.

I woke up and said my prayers, and then I began my day with a fast, avoiding food and water for the school day to make me spiritually sharper. The day before, I’d asked Kenny to meet with me before school, and Desiree during lunch, because I had something I wanted to talk about with them. They’d both agreed.

Thus, I met with Kenny first. He and I were close, and his parents were super nice, but we didn’t really talk about religion that much. So when I sat next to him in the school cafeteria and got out a copy of the Book of Mormon, one where I had written my testimony inside, he looked shocked. I started to tell him how I knew the book was true, but Kenny interrupted me.

“Chad, look. We are friends. But don’t try and shove your religion down my throat. Your church is totally historically inaccurate, and weird, and it doesn’t make sense. And if you are going to try and convert me to your church, we can’t be friends.”

I began apologizing, but then remembered how Brother Acey had encouraged us to be bold. “Just try it, Kenny. Just try and read it. If you do, I know you’ll find out the truth just like I have. Let me share one scripture with you. I highlighted it here.”

Kenny agreed to take the book, but he was hurt. He walked out of the classroom and didn’t speak to me for days. He never mentioned it again, and neither did I.

After Seminary, my lunchtime meeting with Desiree was even more painful. “What? Are you actually trying to make me a Mormon? I thought you respected me more than that, Chad. Do you have any idea how much teasing and bullying I put up with here because I’m not Mormon? Do you know how cruel the other girls are to me, or how hard it is to find a date? Do you know what I go through? You are one of the few people I feel safe around. Don’t do this.”

“But I do respect you!” I argued. “I respect you so much! And I care about you! And that’s why I wanted to share with you something that is so important to me.”

“Fuck you, Chad,” she said, furious, a wounded look in her eyes. “I thought you were my friend.”

“Desiree, please, just give me one minute. Let me read you just one–“. She gave me a death stare, then she walked out, taking the book I’d forced on her and throwing it in the trash. She didn’t speak to me for weeks afterwards, not until I apologized and promised to never bring up religion again.

As lunch ended, I tried hard to find my courage to give my final copy to Mrs. Campbell. I thought of all of the prophets, from Noah to Moses to Ammon to Abinadi, who had been rejected in their efforts. But if I was going to be a missionary for two years, when I turned 19, I had to learn how to do this now. I walked into English class a few minutes before the bell rang. Mrs. Campbell sat at her desk alone. The other students hadn’t started entering yet.

“Hi, Mrs. Campbell,” I said, cheerfully. She was a young teacher, with a husband and a few kids at home. She’d moved here a few years before to take this teaching job.

“Chad, hi! I wanted to tell you how much I loved your essay comparing Batman to Beowulf. In fact, I would love to keep a copy of it to share with students who need to see how great writing looks.”

I was thrilled at her words but muttered a simple thank you. My heart was thudding in my chest. I was so nervous. Without speaking, I pulled the final copy of the Book of Mormon from my backpack and placed it on her desk.

“Mrs. Campbell, I wanted an opportunity to share with you—“

“Oh my God, this again?” She rolled her eyes as a look of significant annoyance crossed her face. “This is my third year at this high school. Every damn year. Ugh.” She made eye contact with me, her usual look of kindness back on her face. “You got the Seminary challenge, didn’t you? Which means you are the first today, but between now and Monday, I bet about 12 of you offer me these damn books with your testimonies written in them. I respect you, Chad. I like you. I love your writing. You have a tremendous talent, and you have a great future ahead of you. But I need to be able to come to my job and not have religion be a part of it. Separation of church, and state. Of your beliefs, and mine. Please put your book away, sit down, and we can talk about your essay after class.”

I fought back tears the entire class. My head burned hot with embarrassment, and my heart thudded in my temples. I had clearly exasperated Mrs. Campbell, who was normally the friendliest and funniest teacher, but today she seemed flustered. She looked over the classroom exhausted, perhaps wondering how many more books of scripture from eager young 15- and 16-year olds would be tossed her way by the end of the day.

That night, in my prayers, I apologized to God for being an ineffective missionary. I prayed for the souls of my three friends, all of whom were not Mormon and would eventually need to be if their souls were to be properly saved. Maybe I’d planted some seeds today. I asked for comfort and guidance, and then closed in the name of Jesus Christ.

And then I turned on a cassette tape of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, pulled the knot on my sweatpants extra tight so that I wouldn’t be able to masturbate while sleeping, pushed out thoughts of the really good-looking wrestler in my P.E. class, and went to sleep, wondering if my efforts had been enough to make me straight yet.

Seattle Part 8: Hymns on a Houseboat

November, 2014

Ironically, it was the Mormons who provided safety.

With my hour commute to work and my hour commute home, and with the long and very exhausting days of doing therapy, I had very little energy in the evenings. Often I would exercise, or walk along the lake and read, or go jogging. But after a period of time, I didn’t put much effort into dating any longer. I grew weary of getting stood up, endless chats, or misaligned intentions, and I got tired of the gay club scene very quickly. I was traveling back to Utah one weekend per month to see my children. That left three weekends to explore.

Seattle never lost its magic. I could see plays, live music, public readings by authors, art galleries, shopping districts, and restaurants any time I wanted. Then again, after a few months of that, I realized that Salt Lake City had all of the same things to offer. It only felt differently here because I had more free time.

I needed friends.

My roommates were busy and aloof, rarely keeping any commitments to hang out or do anything together. I worked on building casual friendships with a few guys I met in the city and their friend groups, but some were only looking for sex, some enjoyed drinking and partying far too much, and others just already had active groups of friends, and didn’t seem to have a lot of room for one more. On top of that, overwhelmingly, they had far more disposable money than I did. Child support, rent, travel to and from Utah, insurance, gas, and occasional leisure left me very strapped, and things like eating out were a huge luxury. Ironically, despite my years away from my own origins, I felt like I was too Mormon for the men I was meeting in Seattle.

Then again, I was far too ex-Mormon for the Mormons I was meeting. Still, they were the most welcoming. Although Seattle wasn’t drowning with gay and ex-gay Mormons like Utah was, there was still a healthy and active friend group of gay Mormon guys and girls here, some of them transplants from Utah itself. Most of them still went to church every week, in a ward where the bishop lovingly embraced them for being gay, and they had social activities outside of that often: game nights, pot lucks, birthday celebrations. I was invited to a few of the parties, and I started making friends.

There was the architect, the engineer, the chef, the model, the design specialist, the government agent. There were couples and single individuals. I was one of the few fathers in the bunch. I was part of them, and yet separate, but around them I felt safe in a strange way. I could laugh, relax. It felt like my youth, with my Mormon friends playing board games and watching movies yet without alcohol or cursing.

The group even convinced me to attend church with them on a few Sundays. After coming out of the closet, going to church felt dangerous, threatening, like I was entering a space where I couldn’t breathe. The long suffocating three-hour blocks of church, with six prayers, the hymns, the testimonies, the lessons about obedience and sacrifice. I was back in church, yet I was sitting among other gay Mormons, ones who wanted to be my friends. Among them, I was the only one who had officially left the church, my name off the records, yet among them I found just a touch of safety.

Over a period of weeks, I felt my old demons start to quiet, the ones that resented Mormonism, that raged at my upbringing. I began to find a space of healing within me, a place where the parts of my upbringing that I loved could dwell. The pain, the rage, the hurt, they were all still there, but I could separate all of those out from the parts that I loved. I hated the lies, the impossible expectations, the homophobia and misogyny and racism of Mormonism. But I began to realize that I loved the community it provided, the consistency, the music, the safety, the heritage.

I started to wonder if maybe I could own the word Mormon again. I would never be part of the Mormon church again. But could I use the word Mormon, as an adjective, as a bookend for myself, honoring my roots and my upbringing. I am gay, I am Mormon, I am a dad. I’m a writer, a helper, a teacher. It’s one word among many that can fit in my being and simply dwell there. I could redefine the word that had hurt me so much and make it part of me. I was Mormon, but on my terms. Everything to do with heritage, and nothing to do with religion.

My greatest healing took place on the houseboat, the one where my dear friend Mary lived. When people asked how we knew each other, I gave the simplest answer I could. “Mary is my ex-step-sister-in-law.” Or, the slightly more detailed answer. “My mother used to be married to her ex-husband’s father.” I grew up looking up to Mary, who had a sense of style and social justice about her. She styled herself after Clara Bow and silent film stars, and she exuded love and confidence as she sang sweet melodies as her fingers moved up and down the piano keys. My sister Sheri grew up playing her music on repeat, songs over and over again, till they became familiar parts of my adolescence.

Mary was remarried now, and her sons were teenagers. She lived on a houseboat with her British husband. And she was, of course, allied to the LGBT Mormons that she knew and loved. She began to host monthly singing nights on her houseboat. As the structure rocked back and forth, the gay Mormons sat in circles, on chairs and couches or on the floor, and we sang the hymns. The songs that had touched me so much as a youth took on new meanings for me now in this circle.

The morning breaks, the shadows flee, lo, Zion’s standard is unfurled. 

Count your many blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord hath done. 

Though hard to you this journey may appear, grace shall be as your day. 

Sweet hour of prayer, they wings shell my petition bear. 

Peace and plenty here abide, smiling sweet on every side, time doth softly sweetly glide. 

Forward, pressing forward, as a triumph song we sing. 

I was singing again. I was getting in touch with those parts of me that I’d left behind after coming out. I was beginning to realize that the me then, the one that had hurt so bad for so long, he wasn’t something that I had to escape from. I didn’t need to completely redefine myself. I didn’t need to be someone new. I just needed to be someone who loved himself. I could leave the painful parts there, and reclaim the parts of me that I loved.

Skunktrap

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what kinds of predators?”

“Raccoons, coyotes, red-tailed hawks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skunk

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.

the Lord’s University

BYU

“If you aren’t Mormon yet, just give it time!” the man laughed, running his hand through a thick red beard. “I always said I wouldn’t give in, but my wife convinced me eventually!”

I sipped my coffee, listening intently as the man went on and on, eager to have a captive audience. Only slightly frustrated, I heard his life story of growing up a “Jack Mormon”, but eventually marrying a “nice modest Mormon girl who turned my head right around.” Now, he said, they were living in a two bedroom apartment and she was seven months pregnant with their fifth kid. She stayed home with the children while he worked, as they kids were all under six and one was medically needy with regular seizures. He’d dropped out of college a few years ago, trying to make enough money to pay the bills, but now they needed the bishop to help regularly. He went on talking as I just smiled and nodded. I’d barely said a word, only mentioning that I wasn’t from this state.

“Anyway, now that you live in Utah, you’ll join up eventually.”

“Probably not,” I smiled, choosing what I wanted to share about myself carefully. “I have a boyfriend.”

“I knew it!” He pumped his fist in the air. “That’s way too nice a shirt for a straight guy! But you don’t seem gay, like, at all. Wait, are you one of those gay guys who gets, like, all of the girls? If so, we totally need to hang out. You could pass them on to me.”

I laughed, and winked. “Wife? Four kids, one on the way?”

And he deflated. “Oh yeah.”

Awake from the coffee, and with a few hours to kill before my next work shift began, I considered what to do, and realized the BYU campus was nearby. In my 8 years in Utah, I had never once visited the campus, having no reason to go there. As I drove there, I took time to realize that this was maybe the one place in Utah I would be nervous to hold my partner’s hand–I think I could even do that at Temple Square comfortably, but not at BYU, that was different somehow.

I came here once back in high school, for a summer youth program. But I’d never been back. The grounds are clean, and the campus is right at the base of beautiful, snow-capped mountains. The buildings are unique and uniform at the same time, and the campus felt full without being crowded. I walked the grounds, meandering in and out of buildings that all bore the names of old or dead white men, all leaders in the Mormon church at some point. Though most of the student body was white, there were touches of ethnic diversity, and overwhelmingly everyone seemed happy, young, and modest. It really was a lovely place.

While I never attended BYU, I did go to its sister BYU campus in southern Idaho, a slightly smaller version that was much the same, also uniform, in the mountains, with smiling students who were mostly white. There, it wasn’t strange for math class to begin with a prayer, for students to bring up scriptural references in history as if they were concrete fact, or for a religion class to fall between science and communications. I remember the great sense of belonging that I felt there, a sense that everyone had the same values and morals that I did. There were large buildings devoted to theater, music, and the arts, as well as enormous churches and religious institutions everywhere. It was the Lord’s University, and I got to be a part of it.

Walking the campus now, though, as an ex-Mormon, a gay man, someone who no longer belongs, it didn’t feel safe. It was familiar, but uncomfortably so. All of the inconsistencies and cracks showed themselves, almost too quickly. I found myself wondering why I’d come here, and if it had been to look for these cracks. Why couldn’t I just look at the pretty campus and not see the flaws in the system?

I saw a sign advertising a board games club, and immediately thought of the LGBT student organization not being allowed to meet on campus, instead relegated to the city library. I saw a couple holding hands with a new baby wrapped tightly against the mom, and I knew they were likely living in married student housing nearby, but I could only focus on the young gay men like me who were marrying women because they felt they had no other choice. I saw a group of guys devouring piles of burgers and fries, and I could only think how coffee and tea were forbidden but not high fructose corn syrup. While most universities emphasized individuality and the finding of self, this one demanded obedience and conformity. It was very Stepford Wives at its essence.

Little stories began flashing through my brain, all of them painful ones, but they didn’t bring any feelings with them this time, they were only there, for me to bear witness. I thought of my friend who was subjected who electro-shock treatment years ago, here on campus, for being gay. I thought of another friend who was kicked out of school for dating a man, losing all of his college credits and facing disgrace in his family. I thought of a close friend who, just a few years ago, told me how he walked this campus and looked for just the right building to jump off of because he couldn’t face being gay anymore. I thought of the client who reported to her bishop how she’d been raped on campus, and his only response had been to ask her what mixed messages she might have sent to the young man before reminding her that she would now need to repent. Isolated stories, yes, but far too familiar, especially given those that I spend my time with in my day to day life. It was impossible not to hold them in my heart as I viewed all of the green trees and the white smiles. The Mormons were my people: we had a culture and an upbringing in common, and the gays were my people, having a shared experience of growing up different and coming out. But more than anything, the gay Mormons were my people, and if statistics held true, then about 8 per cent of this campus was gay, and that was a whole lot of people.

I left campus soon after, and drove up the hill, toward the large Y on the mountain. I parked the car and got out, sitting on the hood, taking in the city below from a higher vantage point. The lake, the house, the roads. It was stunning from here. Breathing in the fresh air, I thought about the reading I had done the night before, for a small crowd, from my book. I’d read about what it had been like being married to a woman as a gay man. And though I had shared the story many times before, I’d been surprised by a heavy vulnerability, having to pause a few times to not cry. Those in the audience had listened with rapt attention to the painful experiences, and their eyes on me as I read opened up the wounds, in health and fulfilling ways. It was wonderful to share. Sometimes it felt so nice to stand up and speak my truth.

And other times, more than anything, I needed to be anonymous in a crowd of strangers, observing from the inside and then retreating to the hills above.