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.

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the Mormon out of the Man

moroni

“At what point will I stop talking about Mormons? When will it no longer be a part of me?”

I leaned back in my chair, a deep sigh escaping my nose as a I did so, and I couldn’t help but smile. “I don’t think that will ever be the case.”

“But I’m not Mormon anymore! I left! I’m not in it any longer!”

“Well, neither am I. In fact, I can’t seem to stop writing about it.” Internally, I reviewed the ways Mormonism was showing up in my life, even after my years away from the religion. In fact, I’d just finished my own memoirs, and I gave it a three word title, all three words easily capturing my story: Gay Mormon Dad.

“It just makes me crazy. I don’t go to church. I don’t associate with my family. I don’t even live in Utah anymore. I just, I swear it comes up in conversation at least a few times per week.”

I laughed out loud this time. “For me, too. I mean, I do live in Utah, but it is constant. I choose biographies randomly, for example. Recently I read one about James Buchanan, the president before Abraham Lincoln. He was a terrible president, and, ironically, was probably gay. Anyway, before he led the country into Civil War, he actually sent an army out to Utah to confront Brigham Young and his followers. There was a whole chapter about how Young ordered the Saints to destroy their own lands so the army couldn’t get them, and how they later came to peace and rebuilt. I spent two days thinking about how that was the environment I grew up in. The prophet tells you to burn down your own house to defy the government, and you do it, and then he convinces you that it was what God wanted. That’s how I grew up.”

My friend rubbed his fingers over his temples, fighting off a headache. “That is the world we grew up in, isn’t it? It feels like brainwashing.”

I leaned back in my chair. “I once had someone, who is still actively Mormon, tell me that I was obsessed with Mormonism, that I couldn’t stop talking about it. He said that if I wanted to get out of the church, then I should just get out and let people who practice the religion do so in peace. He asked me whyI keep writing about it.”

“Well, what did you say?”

“I told him it’s still a part of my existence. It was the driving force of the first three decades of my life, and of my childhood. My family still actively practices. My kids’ mom grew up in it, and their heritage on both sides for generations was part of it. And it surrounds me here. The streets in my  neighborhood are named after Mormon places. The government is predominantly Mormon, and the culture all around me. The very history of the place I live is all Mormon-influenced. If I talk about grade school, my grandparents, my college years, my mission, the births of my children, being gay, being a dad, dating, or where I live, they are all tied to and influenced by Mormons.”

“Well, fuck.” My friend said, and we both laughed more loudly this time.

I jabbed his shoulder. “I guess it is easier to take the man out of the Mormon than it is to take the Mormon out of the man.”

Our conversation shifted for a bit to current events across the country. Hurricanes were ravaging Southern coastlines, again. The children of immigrants were being told by those in power that they weren’t welcome here, again. Transgender people were being banned from the military, again. Racists were marching in the streets while public officials refused to denounce them, again. Public shootings were being reported daily in the news, again. Connections to Russia were being investigated and it felt like the Cold War, again. Women’s right to health care was being debated, again. It felt like all of the most dark parts of America’s history were showing up in politics and the media in the worst ways, and in the most public ways possible. It was exhausting.

“If we left the country, moved somewhere that felt safer and more accepting, like Canada or France or wherever, I bet we would still talk about being American, almost constantly. And we would talk about being gay. And we would talk about growing up Mormon. And being parents. We would always give voice to the things that inspire us, that shape and mold us into the people that we have become. And I guess that is brainwashing in its way, but I guess it is also just human culture, the way we tend to view things through our own eyes and experiences.” I rapped my fingers on the table gently as I talked, positing a different reality that somehow felt the same.

My friend laughed again. “I guess it is easier to take the man out of the gay Mormon American dad than it is to talk the American gay Mormon American dad out of the man… or something like that.”

“Hey, not so much the American part, but that sounds like an awesome book title!”

“Man, you do love to talk about yourself.” He jabbed.

“So do you!” I jabbed back.

And so do we all.

Independent Christian Bookstores

jesusfish

“Thank you for calling Covenant Books, I’m Dawn, how can I help you?”

“Hi, I’m Chad. I wrote a book, a memoirs of my life. I’m looking for a literary agent and a publisher to help me get it on the shelves.”

I kept enthusiasm in my voice, even though I was a bit nervous. Calls like this challenged some of my greatest fears and insecurities.

“Well, Chad, congratulations on getting your manuscript finished!” The word manuscript felt strange, it wasn’t a word that was part of my regular vocabulary. I would have to get used to it. “Tell me a bit about it!”

And so I told Dawn a bit about my book, telling her that it was my story of growing up Mormon as a gay kid in large and chaotic family, about my attempts to cure my homosexuality with religion, about getting married to a woman and having children, and about finally coming out of the closet and finding myself.

This was the fourth or fifth call to a literary agency that I had made in the past few days, and one of the agencies had already mailed me an official “we aren’t interested” letter. I’d done this once before. Just after college, years before, I had written several comic book scripts and shopped around for talented artists to draw them. Only one of my several books ever made it to print, and it had taken four years, and several thousand dollars, to publish. And then I had spent many months traveling around and selling it, never quite breaking even, and definitely never making a profit. I didn’t want to have to do that all over again.

My book now, which I was calling Gay Mormon Dad had come on suddenly. After years of blogging and writing my story, suddenly the format and layout of the book had struck me like a bolt. I’d hidden in a hotel room for four days, where I wrote the first third, and then I couldn’t stop writing it over the following weeks. Some formatting, some edits and alterations, and suddenly I had a manuscript. But I had to have a literary agent in order to connect me with publishers if I wanted this read. This book was me, my very essence, in so many ways, and I felt like it had the power to change the lives of those who read it. It could inform if not inspire. It felt like a calling to get it out there.

Dawn listened to my passionate, nervous voice for a bit, and then confidently responded. I could tell that her words were rehearsed, she must speak with many writers every day, but I could hear the warmth in her voice as well. She sounded as though she loved her job.

“The first thing I need to make sure of, you understand this is not the Covenant Publishing that is a business affiliated with the Mormon church, correct? That is a separate one. We get calls sometimes, and your book has the word Mormon in the title.”

“Oh, I don’t think the Mormon church would have any interest in publishing my book,” I laughed.

“Okay, good. Well, let me tell you what we could do for you.” She invited me to submit a full copy of the book to an editorial team, and they would review it to see if it was a good fit, to make corrections, and to recommend any formatting changes. If the book was accepted, I would then sign a contract with the company and pay a “to-be-determined” fee. That fee would go toward a cover design for the book, the initial printing, social media advertising, and the publishing of the book itself. I imagined it would be several thousand dollars out of pocket, but I didn’t know any other way around it. I grew very nervous and excited.

“The book would be available in certain places online, mostly in our European markets, and we would get it on the shelves in all of our stateside stores that want to order it. Most of these stores are independent Christian bookstores.”

“Wait, what?” I could hear the screeching tires sound effect in my head. My nervousness and excitement were replaced by a sense of dread. “Independent Christian bookstores?”

“Yes, we have a wonderful market across the country.”

“Dawn, my book in large part covers being gay, leaving Christianity, ending a marriage, and becoming an atheist, and it has references to gay sex.”

Dawn cleared her throat. “Well, like I said, our review team will determine goodness of fit with the company.”

“That isn’t the market for my book. There is no way this would be the right fit.”

For a moment, my brain flashed back to growing up Mormon in Missouri, and the hatred some of the other Christian groups had for Mormons there. I wondered if some of her initial interest in the book was due to the fact that I’d mentioned leaving Mormonism.

“Well, I certainly respect any decision you make. But if you’d like to try working together, we would certainly give the book a read and see how we feel about it.”

I thanked Dawn and hung up, drawing a black ink line through the name Covenant Publishing on my sheet of paper. Oh the irony, I thought. I envisioned the Christian mother in small town Alabama walking into her local Jesus Saves store and seeing a book called Gay Mormon Dad on the shelf. I couldn’t help it, I laughed out loud.

Back to the drawing board, I thought, and I dialed the next number on the list.