A Place I Used To Live

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fast forward to 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Spoon seeking spoon

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I miss being married.

It took me a long time to get there. As a young Mormon man, I spent two years after high school knocking on doors as a missionary. After that, there was tremendous pressure to marry, constant and consistent from all sources. Marriage was defined as the ultimate destination in life, to marry young and to have children and to stay married until old, then die and still be married to each other in the Heavens. I don’t believe any of that now, but back then it was the only way to go for young Mormon men.

I was caught in a massive trap. I didn’t yet have the ability to have anything but shame about being gay, and thus couldn’t date men, and so I could only date women, who I felt no attraction toward. I coped by focusing on personality traits rather than physical appearance. I knew what type of wife I should want, but ultimately I just didn’t have any drive. I was scared to death to marry, and yet knew it was my only option. At the time, being gay or being single were both spiritually forbidden.

When I finally married my wife, I was 27 years old, and I had never held hands with or kissed anyone, male or female, up to that time. I found a girl with a tremendous personality and a huge heart, a beautiful woman who wanted to spend her life with me. We had a brief conversation about the fact that I was gay once during the six years (yes, six years) that we dated, and then we took the Mormon plunge and married in the temple.

And honestly, except for the whole gay/straight thing, marriage was awesome. (And yes, that played itself out in many ways, from me being the kind of husband who planned themed dinner parties to a very strained aspect to certain parts of the relationship). It was wonderful, for both of us, to have someone to come home to at the end of the day. We went to church together, we had friends over for dinner, we went to each other’s family holiday parties, we vacationed. We had silly rituals, like playing board games at night and the loser having to do the dishes. We painted bedrooms and planted gardens. We set and achieved financial goals together. Since I was already done with school, I helped her get through school financially, and then we both worked and supported each other. We bought a house and worked on the yard together. We talked, we laughed, we binge-watched television shows on DVD, we gave each other back massages. We were best friends.

And then we had our first son, and he was a miracle, and we both loved being parents. We worked hard together and we resolved conflicts well. Had it not been for the absolute demon of shame and pain dwelling inside me due to me hiding from who I really was, we could have lasted forever. In fact, when we got divorced, after the birth of our second son, a dear friend told us, “but you two were perfect! If you can’t make it, no one can!”

It’s coming up on six years now since I’ve been single. (She has moved on, by the way, and is very happily in love with a straight guy this time; I know readers are wondering that). And I remain single. Exhaustingly and determinedly single.

The first few years out of the closet were incredible and difficult. Being a newly out gay man navigating a divorce, a new job, a new city, and now free from a religion that harmed me, I had to figure out dating with a toddler and an infant who owned my heart, and all of the financial, emotional, and time responsibilities that come with that. Still, single has been good to me too. I’ve learned how to take care of myself. I’ve learned to travel, to set and achieve goals, to self-validate, to spend time alone and appreciate it. I’ve learned how to make friends and live authentically. I’ve learned how to be true to myself. I’ve learned how to be a single father (with shared custody) and how to embrace my time with my children and put them first while still putting me first.

Yet despite consistent efforts to the contrary, I remain single (which is something I’ve written about that an to an obnoxious degree over the years). Today it dawned on me that it took me six years to marry after I returned home from my Mormon mission, and now I’ve been out of the closet and single for nearly six years.

The major difference this time is (well, outside of being closer to 40 then 30, as well as all of the other obvious differences) that I’ve put effort into dating this time. That’s something I had to learn how to do: date. I missed all that as a teenager, so I had to learn to fall in love, to leave when it wasn’t right, to have my heart broken, to compromise while keeping clear boundaries, to be lonely, to know what I’m looking for.

Dating at this stage of my life, with two grade school age children, is relatively simple. You feel a connection with someone, you ask them out for coffee some time. If there is interest back, they’ll say yes. If the guy says yes, and if coffee goes well, and there is conversation and interest on both sides, I’ll invite them out on an actual date–a play or live music perhaps, and dinner. Here is where it tends to fall apart: if the date was fun, I’ll say something simple like ‘I would enjoy seeing you again’, and then… that’s it. There is the expectation that they will initiate the second date. Days will turn into weeks and the guy generally remains silent. And for me, if there isn’t reciprocity and clear communication, well, then I’m not interested.

And that, in short, is my dating life this past year, with a few exceptions. There are the guys who show way too much interest way too quickly, and the guys who don’t have their lives together (as in lacking a job or going through a major crisis of some kind). And then there are the guys who seem interested but are too passive to ever express direct interest. And there was one guy I fell for pretty hard for a few months, but that didn’t turn out well at all. And I’ve certainly broken a few hearts and have had my heart broken a few times. Who knows, maybe I’m picky. But I know what feels right, and I’m absolutely unwilling to sacrifice my authenticity for an unhealthy coupling.

And so, single remains incredible and lonely. I get to set and achieve goals, and travel on my terms. I spend incredible times with my sons, having all kinds of adventures. And yet, I do miss being married. It would be wonderful to have all of those things that you see happy couples having: someone to come home to at the end of the day, someone to host parties with, someone to cuddle up to on rainy days, someone to raise the kids with.

And until that day when/if that relationship happens, well, I have a big comfy pillow that fits right under my arm where the little spoon should go.

Father’s Day

When I was a Mormon missionary, I didn’t trust others easily, I was too afraid of letting them see my real self. But from time to time, I would open my heart up, just a little bit, in small pieces, and see how it reflected off of others.

A random woman in one of my wards in Pennsylvania, an older and unconventional woman named Del, was a kindred spirit. We would find ways to laugh and share all at once. There seemed to be an  unspoken understanding between us, an ability to say very little and yet see each other’s subtext somehow, to realize that with a few words we were conveying much more than that.

Del once told me I looked like Donnie Osmond, and we had a good laugh over that. My companion was talking to her spouse, and Del and I started talking about fathers for a bit. It was a natural normal conversation with a lot of underlying pain in it.

“My father was a difficult man,” she had told me. “He was stubborn. Unbending. He loved us, but he never said it. He showed it. Not with hugs, not with words, but with consistency. He went to work, he came home. He’d flash a look, a silly smile, then be gone for days. What about yours?”

I avoided speaking of my father at the time, having a difficult time taking the conversation in that direction. I remember trying to change the subject, but Del redirected me, not letting me get away with it.

“My dad was a quiet man.” I paused, and she encouraged me to go on. “He was always in a lot of pain, but he never spoke up about it.”

“Well, what kind of pain?”

I had grimaced, looking over to my companion to make sure he wasn’t listening. “The heart kind. But he was silent. He was a strong presence of emotion all the time, but his face never showed it. Well, not very much anyway. He would lay on the floor after work and just be there until he fell asleep for a while. He’d find reasons to be by himself almost constantly. He never laughed, never smiled. He’d lose his temper sometimes, but–”

“But mostly he was just quiet.” She stopped me, not even looking over. “When I joined the Church, years ago, someone explained to me that the way we see God’s presence in our lives is in direct reflection to how we have experienced our own father. I think there is a lot of truth to that.”

“So you see God as difficult?”

“Absolutely. God is stubborn and unbending, just like my dad. But he’s consistent. And he loves with force.”

There was several seconds of silence while she let me think things through. I thought of all the endless prayers I’d made both for myself, to help me be righteous and good and to let me be healed from my attractions to men, and for my family and friends, to ease their sufferings and improve their circumstances, prayers that had always come from the right place but which always seemed to be met with a stony silence.

I looked back to Del and just nodded. She knew what I meant. To me, God was quiet.

“Well, we learn from our fathers, too. We learn how to be different kinds of parents. I made my share of mistakes, but I made sure my children knew they were loved. I spoke it loudly and often. But I was also rigid and stubborn. And when it comes your turn to have children, you’ll be the same. You’ll do things differently and make your own mistakes.”

I didn’t mean to speak the next part out loud. “I don’t think I’ll ever have children.”

Del whooped and slapped my shoulder, this time drawing the attention of my companion and her husband. “Of course you’ll have children! You’re handsome, spiritual, you can sing, and you have a great heart. You’ll make an excellent father and a great husband.”

The conversation turned after that, but I remember thinking, loudly, to myself that I wanted to be a father, but that I couldn’t do that unless I stopped being gay. And at that point, I was 20, and the cures hadn’t worked yet.

I type this story now at age 37. This morning, I made my sons pancakes and cuddled them. I played with them and helped them clean their room. I set up my expectations for them when they got into an argument. I sang songs to them, and I reminded them, with an enormous kiss and hug, that they are loved.

And if my sons grow up believing in a God, I hope they see one that is consistent, and present, and loud, and affectionate, and playful, and funny, and strong, and clear.

Though she couldn’t possibly have seen this far into the future, and I doubt she would have predicted this set of circumstances, it turns out Del was exactly right.

Poz: my first encounter with AIDS

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In 1999, I was a Mormon missionary in inner city Philadelphia. At that time, the Mormon Church ran ads on television stations, advertising free copies of the Book of Mormon or Bible, or free videos about forever families. A person who called the phone number would request a copy of the free merchandise and give their name and address, and then a “media referral” would be passed on to the missionaries who were closest to that person geographically. We would grab the merchandise, walk over to the individual’s house, and deliver it, while offering to teach them about the Church in the hopes of converting them. At the end of each week, we would call the local leader and report how many media referrals we responded to, how many doors we knocked on, how many lessons we taught, and the data was collated and sent back up the chain to the presidency of the Church in Utah.

And this was how I met Vincent.

Now keep in mind, I was a 20 year old white kid in the inner city, and I looked like I was 16 at best. I was skinny in worn out shoes, a faded shirt and a thrift shop tie, with a bad haircut. I sported a backpack full of supplies every day, stuffed full of Mormon merchandise I hoped to pass out. At the time, I had a strong testimony of the Mormon faith and I went to no small effort to share that testimony with whoever would listen. And I was constantly praying to God that my efforts would prove to him that I could be cured from being gay; I went the entire two years hoping that if I baptized enough people, my homosexuality would go away and I could like girls like a “normal” guy.

When my companion (my fellow missionary, who I had to stay in sight of 24/7) and I knocked on Vincent’s door to deliver his Bible, we could immediately tell something was wrong with him. He was very ill and looked like he was likely in the last stages of cancer or another terminal illness. He was probably only in his mid 30s, but he looked 60. He was tall, about 6’5”, and had a thin gaunt face. He wore a large pair of glasses, a black beret, and was in very baggy sweat pants and a sweatshirt, a scarf around his neck. He was sweating slightly from shivering, a feverish sweat. He had a few sores on his face, including one on his lip that was distracting, hard to take my eyes off of.

Vincent invited us in. He was very effeminate, yet very kind. We pulled up two chairs next to the hospital bed he had in his small apartment. I remember feeling nervous, like whatever he had I might catch it. He climbed back into his bed and drew the covers up around him.

Vincent quietly explained that he was dying. He said he had been watching television a few days before and that he had seen the ad for the free Bible. He didn’t think he had long left to live, and he wanted to make things right with God before he passed.

I was young and knew very little of the world, and I asked Vincent what he was dying of, very little compassion in my voice.

He was unapologetic as he explained that he had AIDS. He told me he had grown up in a religious family in central Pennsylvania, that he had been kicked out as a teen for coming out as gay, and that he had been with the same man for years before a sad breakup. He said he made a few choices a few years back, and got HIV, and that he couldn’t afford to take care of himself, and now he was dying. He wanted to be baptized and to make himself clean.

We were kind to Vincent, but truthfully, we had no experience with anything like this. We were two very young men from rural Idaho, and this man was looking for absolution. We promised to come back and see Vincent the next day. That night at home, I called up my Priesthood leaders and explained the situation, and we were told that we were not allowed to teach a gay man by ourselves. We explained that Vincent wanted to be baptized, to be forgiven of his sins, and we were told that given his condition it was very unlikely that baptism could be approved, that Vincent would have to meet with local Priesthood leaders first and be interviewed.

The next day we visited Vincent, and he seemed sad and dejected. He said he had spent the evening researching our church and he realized that gay people didn’t have a place in it. He politely declined our invitation to teach him about the Church and said he would seek forgiveness elsewhere. He kindly asked us to leave.

I tried to visit Vincent a few weeks later, when I had a new companion. He didn’t answer the door. I can’t imagine he lived much longer.

Vincent crossed my mind yesterday for the first time in years. It’s nearly 20 years since I knew him so briefly, and I don’t even remember his last name. He was among the first gay people I knew, and the first with AIDS that I had met. Since coming out five years ago, I have met many people who have HIV, some of them are my very closest friends. They are incredible men with healthy lives, jobs, and routines. Technology and medical procedures have come so far, giving amazing quality of life.

Yet since its inception, HIV and AIDS has infected an estimated 78 million people and taken an estimated 39 million lives, wiping out entire generations in some countries.

I’ll have more to write about all of this soon, but for now, I want to honor my memory of Vincent, that quiet man who wanted peace with God before he died, but who was unable to find it with two 20 year old Idaho boys, one of them gay himself.

 

What’s Your Name Again?

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It’s 2 in the afternoon on a perfect August Monday in Salt Lake City, and I’m in my favorite coffee spot with a tall drip coffee and my journal. Down the table from me, an older man loudly lauds his career accomplishments to an unimpressed woman as two teenagers who type on their phones frantically. Across the room, three college aged men type on their computers, and a beautiful girl reads the newspaper.

Behind me, I hear a guy talking on his phone. I turn around and catch a good-looking guy, beard, likely in his early 20s , stirring his coffee as he talks to a friend on the phone.

He isn’t here. I told you he wouldn’t be here. We chatted for a few weeks, but he’s gonna be a flake like all the others… I know, I know. I gotta keep trying or I’ll be single forever. It’s just–oh wait, he’s walking in. Gottagobye.

I look curiously toward the door and see a blonde guy, early 20s, both ears pierced, cute, walking in. I see him make eye contact with the guy behind me and walk toward him. I turn back at my coffee, thinking it’s rude to eavesdrop, but what they don’t know won’t hurt them.

Hey, you made it.

Yeah, sorry I’m late. I couldn’t find parking.

No worries, I got you a coffee. Hope it isn’t cold.

Thanks, man. That’s nice.

As I jot the weekend’s events in my journal, they discuss the basics: what they do for work, some of their hobbies, where they are from, and I find myself writing less and listening more.

Yeah, I’ve only been in Utah about a year. Came here for school. I like it, though.

Oh, I hate it here. I grew up here. My family is all here. I mean, I don’t hate it-hate it, I just haven’t ever been anywhere else, except for my mission in Brazil for a couple years.

So you grew up Mormon?

Yeah, super Mormon. My whole family is Mormon. I came out like two years ago and they are going crazy with it all. They think I’m an apostate and treat being gay like I’m a drug addict or something.

Oh, that sucks. I didn’t know much about Mormons before I moved here. It’s a real thing here, though.

Oh definitely. I try not to date guys who used to be Mormon anymore. Too much drama.

What do you mean?

Oh all these shame issues. Guys who grew up totally ashamed of being gay. Family problems. Did the whole mission/BYU thing. Some guys even got married and had kids before coming out. I just get sick of the drama.

But doesn’t that–I mean, did you go to BYU?

Well, yeah. I just, I mean I don’t judge. I just get tired of the same stories.

I hear that. I don’t like drama either. But everybody’s an individual. I mean, every gay guy had to come out to their family and like take that whole journey. My family is cool now but they weren’t at first. Utah isn’t so different.

I think Utah is different. Mormons are different though. Especially in Utah. It’s like the church is the government and the families all follow it and it’s just such a big deal.

But have you ever lived anywhere else? I mean after you were out of the closet?

No. Just the mission.

Okay. Anyway, what do you do for fun?

I hear them talk about hobbies and interests for a while. One mentions his dog while the other talks about the gym. I realize I’m not even writing now, engrossed in their conversation, and thinking of the billion first dates I have been on that sound exactly like this in some form.

So what do you look for in a guy?

You kind of asked me that when we were chatting. Sense of humor. Guy who takes care of himself and can hold a conversation. Not in a hurry, but looking for a relationship ultimately.

Oh yeah, I remember. I’m all of those things. I’m one of the good ones.

Yeah, you said that in chat too. It’s been good getting to know you, John, but I probably better get back to work.

I had a good time. Would you like to get together again some time?

Yeah, that’d be cool. Text me later.

Before it gets too awkward, what was your name again?

The guy laughs, tells John to look back at his chat, and then leaves to head back to work. In seconds, I hear John get back on his phone.

Hey, he showed up. I totally screwed up and forgot his name, though… He’s cute, looks like his picture. Ugh, I’m going to be single forever. Why can’t I find a guy who wants to date me?… Yeah, I’ll call you tonight. I’m meeting a different guy from Grindr for dinner in a bit.

the Origin of My Species

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“B-9! The tumor is benign! B-9!”

I stood in the background among the trees, feeling awkward as the dozens of family members searched their small paper cards for the number that will give them the coveted Bingo, oversized red blotters in their hands, filled with dripping red ink.

“I-23! I act 23! I-23!”

The campsite is as beautiful as I remember it, though it’s been years since I have been here. Large luscious pine trees, thick foliage in varying shades of green, wildflowers and pussy willows, a gentle cool breeze, rich dark chocolate soil. The area is covered with trailers and tents. A campfire smokes and pops off to one side. Card tables littered with playing cards, Styrofoam cups, candy wrappers, and aluminum soda cans. Island Park, Idaho holds powerful memories of my childhood, my origins.

“B-4! B-4 this, we had lunch! B-4!”

I have been out of the closet for nearly five years now, yet this is my first time seeing some of these family members since my grandmother’s death, over five years ago. I look around the room and think of the extension of relations. Brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces; aunts, uncles, cousins with their spouses and kids; grandparents’ brothers and sisters and their kids and spouses and grandkids. I don’t recognize about a fifth of the people here and have no idea how I am related to them.

“O-68! Oh, to have an IQ over 68! O-68!”

My mom looks up and gives me another small wave. She’s happy to see me, I know. She’s happiest when surrounded by family and chaos, and here there is that multiplied by one thousand. A few of my sisters give me similar waves, and they are happy to see me too. But no one gets up. I arrived during Bingo, after all. Hugs will have to come later.

“N-32! ‘n my heart, I’m still 32! N-32!”

I close my eyes for a moment and just… feel. There is a growing panic in my insides, an old familiar fight or flight response. I grew up in this environment, this chaotic loving family, hidden in plain sight. A gay kid who pretended to be straight for a few decades. Being among them again after all this time, it brings back those old familiar panicked feelings, that sense of otherness, of being different. I haven’t felt like this in years.

“I-16! I’m a good Mormon, and I don’t date til I’m 16! I-16!”

Someone calls out Bingo and they get to choose a prize: either a bottle of Diet Coke or a bag of Licorice, and then the next round is announced, a version of Bingo where you have to create a giant X on the card. I take a seat in a dusty camp chair toward the back as the cards are cleared and the new game begins. A handsome young man sits next to me and it takes me several seconds to realize it is one of my cousin’s sons, a kid I haven’t seen in probably six years, when he was 12. He’s holding a book in his hand, wearing a t-shirt and shorts.

He extends a hand. “I’m not sure we’ve met. I’m Casey.”

I smile and shake his hand, such a Mormon thing to do, something I still do in my interactions, shake hands when you first see someone. “I’m Chad.”

He leans back in his chair. “I’m reading the most wonderful book.”

“Oh? What’s it about?”

The Bingo competition begins again. “N-37! ‘n 37 seconds, I’ll kiss my wife! N-37!”

He smiles and holds the book up. “It’s about a man who fell in the paths of sin. He struggled with pornography and masturbation, and eventually had sex outside of marriage. He wrote this book about his repentance process, how he obtained forgiveness from the Lord, and made his way back to the church. It contains lots of quotes from the modern prophets.”

I feign interest, looking at the book briefly. “It sounds very serious.”

“Well, yes. But I’m leaving on my mission to the Phillipines in a few weeks, and I want to read everything I can to be prepared. I only get two years as a missionary to bring souls to Christ.”

I smile, and we fall into a comfortable silence as the Bingo game continues. This kid, that was me, back in the late-1990s. Carrying my scriptures around with me constantly, keeping a constant prayer in my heart, knowing that if I worked at it hard enough, God would take away my attraction to men. I was pure, innocent. I had no idea how the world worked, what was out there. I was caught up in this simple god-fearing existence, oblivious to how much pain I was in. Two years spent completely dedicated to God while I was a missionary in the eastern United States, and I hadn’t come one lick closer to a cure.

I stood up and patted Casey on the shoulder briefly. “Congratulations, man. You’re going to be an amazing missionary.”

He thanked me as I walked away, back through the trees to the dusty trail where I’d parked my car. No one noticed me leaving, they were all focused on their Bingo cards.

“B-1! BYU is number 1! B-1!”

A few hours later, after a cup of coffee and a long walk in the glorious flowery fields near the camping lot, I returned. I had missed the family frying pan toss, the pinochle tournament, the talent show, the family crossword, birdhouse making, and horseshoes.

The next several hours were filled with conversations, awkwardness, hugs, rolled eyes, and laughter.

“Whose kid took the keys to my motorized wheelchair! Everyone stop what you are doing, the keys to my motorized wheelchair are missing! Who took them! Oh, never mind, they are here, in my bra.”

“Sorry for getting sweat on you during our hug! I guess I have become the sweaty one in the family!”

“Oh, my life is the same as ever. No one cares enough to even ask how I’m doing, so I’ll just sit back here and pretend like everything is fine. But thanks for asking.”

“Did you hear that Darrel told one of his kids to kick one of Kim’s kids in the balls because he thinks Kim is a terrible mother? Can you believe him!”

“I just want you to know that I think being gay is completely cool. I mean, I totally support gay marriage. It’s about time. And if anyone says anything against it, I’ll tell them what I think.”

“Did you hear about Darrel? I think he’s addicted to pain pills. Why else would he have said that?”

“Chad! I have a gay friend I want to set you up with. He lives a few hundred miles from you, but he’s a total sweetheart. Can I set you up?”

“Did you hear about Darrel and Kim?”

______________________________________

The next day, I head over to the campsite early and sit in the early morning next to a crackling fire. Most everyone is still asleep, except a few cousins and their kids making their way around camp in various tasks. I don’t talk to anyone, and I think about where I’ve come from, and all the memories I have here. I miss my grandparents suddenly, both gone for years, and I wonder how would feel about this expanse of dozens and dozens of lives that sprang from their simple, post-Depression love story.

In time, pancakes are being flipped and donuts are being fried. It’s a few more hours before the giant family potluck begins and I observe the spread of food, the same heaping dishes that I grew up devouring. Sugared cheese balls, potato chips, licorice, candied popcorn, instant potatoes mixed with cream cheese and sour cream and melted cheese, a heaping sugared ham. I take a step back and look at the table. There is one small bowl of green salad, ice berg lettuce with carrot shavings, a few bowls of fruit mixed in with whipped cream, and one big bowl of watermelon. Giant tubs of sugary lemonade at the end.

This… this is how I ate growing up. This is what was available. Grab as much as you can, then get more, then more. Huge meals every meal with snacks in between.

Soon the family raffle begins, a four hour long event where they call one number at a time, corresponding to a prize. Tickets are 25 cents each; some people buy five dollars worth, others buy five hundred dollars worth.

“Next up is a hand-crafted quilt! Number 252, who has number 252?”

I look around at the crowd, groupings of families sitting in lawn chairs, picking their plates clean. Kids burying themselves in dirt, babies being rocked by their mothers, men drifting off to sleep, women fanning themselves with paper plates. Every one of them will stay until every last number has been called.

The next morning, as I drive away, I find myself overwhelmed with gratitude, that I was raised in this insane and incredible family, an entire childhood that revolved around gossip, food, faith, and love.

Green means Go

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“Well, it isn’t that confusing. I was married to Mom and we had you two little monkeys. And then mom and me got a divorce, so we live in two houses and we both love you both.”

I look at the rear view mirror, which reflects the face of my six year old son, J. His brow is furrowed in frustration. “But you like to marry boys, so why did you marry a girl, then?”

I smile and sigh. He has so many questions, that one. To him, the idea of ‘marrying’ someone is the expression of love. He’s really asking, ‘if you like boys, why did you marry mom?’ “Well, we’ve talked about this before, son. Do you remember why I married mom?”

He nods, looking down at his fingernails. The light turns green and I move the car forward. “You married mom because you loved her and you didn’t think it was okay to marry a boy, so you  married a girl.”

“Yes, that’s right. You have a very good memory.”

“Yeah, but why?”

I shift my eyes to my three year old, A, strapped in to his car seat. He has my furrow, the same way of scrunching his eyebrows down to give off an excellent look of consternation. Though two years and nine months younger, he weighs almost more than his petite older brother.

“Why what, A?”

“Why didn’t you marry a boy?”

I had thought it would be a few more years before they started asking questions like this. J had been only 3 when I came out of the closet, finally and officially, and A hadn’t even been born yet. They’ve basically always known I was gay. They have other gay family members, they know many of my gay friends, and having a gay dad will be a completely normal part of their upbringing. They would never recognize the man that I used to be.

A few memories flood back into my mind; the Priesthood blessing I had asked for as a missionary that I believed would finally cure me; the hours spent in therapy, asking for help with being attracted to men and being treated for “porn and masturbation addiction” even though I wasn’t addicted to porn or masturbation; the night that I told Megan that I was gay, after years of dating her, and her nodding that she understood–that was the night of our first kiss, my first kiss, at age 26; (I didn’t kiss a boy until I was 32).

Then I think of the first few weeks after I had come out, and how I had very briefly considered taking my own life, believing at the time that my sons would be better off with no father than a gay one. I look back at them now and think of all the confusion they would have have had without me in their world. All these questions they have now, they have me to ask; what kind of questions would they have if I wasn’t here.

I think of rocking them when they were infants, cuddling them when they were toddlers. I think of the stories, crayons, and toys; the trips to the zoo, the aquarium, and the aviary; the wrestling matches, puppet shows, dance parties, and dragon fights. I think of the early morning feedings, the diaper explosions, the projectile vomit, the emptied cupboards and crushed crackers and spilled juice cups. I think of Christmas mornings and Halloween nights and Easter eggs and Valentines and Independence Day fireworks.

“Dad, I said why didn’t you marry a boy!” A shouts, playfully yet sternly, impatient for an answer.

“Whoa, be patient!” I pull up to another red light. How do I answer such a complicated question to kids that are 3 and 6? “Well, I grew up in the Mormon church, and they said that marrying a boy was bad, and that boys should only marry girls.”

A wrinkles his nose. “Well, that’s dumb.”

I laugh. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

But J still looks very serious. “Wait, but Mommy wanted to marry a boy and you are a boy.”

“Well, yeah, but mommy is straight. That means she wants to marry a boy who wants to marry a girl. I’m gay, and that means I want to marry a boy who also wants to marry a boy.” I am tempted to change the word marry to love, but decide that isn’t necessary right now.

The light bulb of understanding comes on over J’s head as it all clicks together. “Oh, that makes sense.”

A nods. “Yeah, that makes sense.”

“Well, good.”

The car is quiet for a moment as we get closer to our destination. The radio plays softly. I look up to the mountains in the distance, covered in snow, the sky filled with clouds above them. It is an absolutely beautiful day.

“Well,” J starts, thinking for a minute. “When I grow up, I think I’ll marry a girl. Maybe Hannah in my class.”

“That’s a great plan, J.”

He continues. “We can get married when I’m 25. We can have a boy and a girl and name them Tad cause it rhymes with Chad and Dad. And the girl will be Aloy.” I feel tears come to my eyes unbidden. Aloy was the name of my grandmother, the name I had selected if J had been a girl. “And we will have a rabbit named Sunface, and we will live in north Idaho because it’s so pretty, but not in Provo cause it is too hot and gross. And I will be a Wendy’s chef.”

I laugh out loud at his little plan for the future. “That sounds like a great life, J.”

Never one to be one-upped by a story, A pipes in. “And I’m not gonna get married to a boy or a girl. I will just live in a hotel with nine million dollars and I will have a dog named Loki and I will be a mighty hunter. Or maybe I will marry one boy and four girls and have nine million kids instead.”

The last stop light turns green, and I pull into the parking lot at McDonalds and both boy gave out a whoop of joy at the thought of Chicken Nuggets and milkshakes, and I think, no matter the wayward path it took me to get here, this is a pretty good life to have.

I think of all the years wasted at red lights, and resolve, again, to seek out the greens. It’s time for forward motion.