Matt

“Do you personally relate to Matthew Shephard? How did his death impact you?”

I furrowed my brow. I hadn’t expected that question. “I’d have to think about that a little bit.” I smiled up at the crowd for moment as they waited patiently. It was getting closer to 11 pm, and the crowd was awake, but we were all emotionally exhausted after the production of the Laramie Project that we had just witnessed.

The play had beautifully recreated the Matthew Shephard story. A group of actors had portrayed a few dozen people from Laramie, Wyoming in a rapid fire monologues, all based on interviews that took place after the horrible hate crime had taken place in 1998. Ranchers, friends of the victim, friends of the killers, drug addicts, bartenders, teachers, students, their only connection having been living in a small Wyoming town that had been  ravaged by a nosey and impossible media that flooded the town for a time, then left it abruptly when another story had come along.

I flashed my brain back to 1998, when I learned about Matthew’s murder. He was only months older than me, just shy of 22, and I was turning 20. I was a Mormon missionary at the time, barely out of high school, and steadily internally torturing myself for being gay, begging in prayers every night for an impossible cure. The first person I had baptized on my mission had been gay. And I knew other gay people. But the way I thought of them at the time, gay people, I thought of them as weak of character, like they had succumbed to temptation, like they hadn’t been strong enough to stop themselves from being gay. Not like me, I was strong enough to not be gay… but I hated myself at the time, because the temptations kept recurring, kept coming back.

The thoughts spread through me and I looked back up at the crowd, a sad smile on my face. I was there as a social worker with training in working with the LGBT community, and as someone who had spent time researching hate crimes in recent months. Earlier in the day, I had given a lengthy presentation to the students at Southern Utah University, and now I was here for a post-show discussion. This had been the toughest question so far.

“Well,” I started, eloquently, “I was basically the same age as Matthew Shephard. I was 20 at the time of his murder.” The time he was punched with fists, pistol-whipped with the butt of a gun, kicked and beat more after being tied to a fence, and then left to die overnight with his skull crushed. He’d been in a coma for days before finally dying. “I guess his death impacted me a lot, it impacted all of us a lot. I grew up gay and religious and in a small town too.”

My eyes moved over the crowd a bit and I breathed out slowly. “More than anything at the time, I remember how whenever anyone talked about Matt, they were finding ways to blame him for his own death. I remember people saying terrible things. If he hadn’t been gay, if he hadn’t flirted with those men, if he hadn’t gone out alone, if he hadn’t been at a bar, if he hadn’t been drinking, if he hadn’t been so flamboyant, if he hadn’t experimented with drugs, if he had been smarter and not gone off with those two men… if if if… then he wouldn’t have been killed. And no one was talking about the killers, no one was outraged in the same way I was outraged. I remember his death scared me. It was one more reason to not be out of the closet, because if I was out of the closet then I could get attacked and beat and killed like Matt had been. And in my brain, I figured that didn’t happen to people who weren’t gay. And in my brain, I guess I thought it was Matt’s fault too, at the time.

“And I didn’t realize that there had been hundreds of other men attacked and killed for being gay. I just knew about Matt. And I saw the protestors at his funeral, and I saw how his parents spoke up and chose not to pursue the death penalty for one of the killers, and I heard no words from the Church leaders that I looked to for guidance about it.

“And that was almost 20 years ago. And Matt didn’t live. I lived. If that had been me, all of the experiences I have had since then would be erased. I wouldn’t have served a mission, or gone to college, or had children. I lived, and Matt didn’t. And his family has had every day since then without Matt in their lives. His parents and his brother, his family and friends, they never got to see what he would become. So I guess Matt’s death affected me a lot.”

There was a pause before I decided I didn’t have anything else to say. The questions continued for a bit, and the evening ended, and there were hugs and handshakes and goodbyes. And then I was dropped back off at the hotel.

I looked out at the horizon in the dark over the nearby streets of Cedar City, Utah, and I felt temporary, as this would be one more moment that would soon be passed.

matt

 

 

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hummingbirds

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I woke up in someone else’s house this morning.

It was peaceful and I had the realization that it felt more like home than my home does.

I sat out on the veranda at 6 am, clutching my hot cup of coffee in my hands, and I watched the sun rise over the valley. The house is up in the hills, behind the Capitol Building in Salt Lake City, and offers a beautiful view of the valley for miles and miles around. I looked at long stretching roads toward the south, rolling hills to the east, lights and buildings and distant traffic, clouds and atmosphere.

My heart literally skipped when I looked up to see hummingbirds at the feeder. Two of them. Their wings flapped swiftly, in little blurs, as the birds launched themselves several feet in one direction, then hovered there in the air before launching somewhere else. I watched them for a full 15 minutes, these small and fragile and amazing creatures.

Back inside, I looked at the home itself. Hardwood floors and marble countertops. Soft lighting. Black and white photos of trees in snow on the walls. An espresso machine. Freshly picked lilies on the table. Comfortable chairs with pillows. Wide spaces and high ceilings. Air conditioning. I looked behind me and the hummingbirds were still there, visible with the entire world behind them.

I’m alone here, and that is appropriate. I’m house-sitting for a friend of mine, a man who came out of the closet around the same time as me, a man who also has two children, although his children are much older than mine. A man who fell in love with another man right away, a relationship that lasted two years. And now he was in love again, going on another two years, and he and his boyfriend had moved in together, in this beautiful home in this beautiful place, with hummingbirds and lilies.

In some alternate world, this was my fate. A beautiful home, a partner, a yard and a view, a place for my children to feel grounded and at home when they come over. My path has taken its own turns, though, to an apartment filled with furniture and toys that doesn’t feel like home, like the one before it didn’t and the one before that.

I sat down in one of the chairs, sipped my coffee, and contemplated where I am at in life right now. Things are changing all around me. Of my two best friends, Cole is in love with someone now, and Kurt is gone. My ex-wife has been in a new relationship for over a year. My sons are entering kindergarten and second grade soon, and the younger one is having his fifth birthday in just a few days.

And here I am, feeling more at home in someone else’s home than my own.

It’s a strange realization that I’ve been out of the closet for over five years now, and that I have achieved so much, yet I still haven’t found a home. I’ve lived in 8 different apartments in two different cities in that time span, searching for that grounding, that sense of belonging. But it simply isn’t there yet. I’m grounded in my own skin, that part feels wonderful, but I haven’t found a place to belong yet.

Much remains elusive to me, and it may always be so. Satisfaction, love, financial success, nutrition and fitness, things I continually strive for. My path is my own now. It feels like my own. I enjoy being hungry for more in my life. I enjoy the balance of the pursuit of knowledge and success and raising my children, at least so far. Despite all of that, it’s been a rough and strange year.

I look back at the hummingbirds. One of them is at the feeder now. It looks almost serenely still for several seconds as it drinks, it’s body not moving. But it’s wings… it’s wings are going one hundred miles per hour in order to hold it in place.

Then a huge smile crosses my face as I watch it, and realize maybe it and I are just a little bit alike.

a room full of gay Mormon fathers

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I should have been nervous. There was something poetic about the entire thing.

When I had first come out of the closet five years ago and moved to Utah, my friends Troy and Ryan, two gay fathers who had been together for years and had raised their kids together, offered me a place to stay in their basement for a time. My first two painful and liberating months in Utah had been spent here before I got a place of my own.

And now I stood in the same basement, a place I hadn’t been back to since I left it, and I was talking about my experiences with a room full of gay fathers.

I looked around the room at these men, all of them Mormon, or formerly Mormon, like me; all of them fathers who had been married to women, like me, though I only have two children and some of these men have five or seven or ten. Some were just barely out to themselves, some had just told their wives, some had just moved out on their own, and some had been out for a few years but still sought fellowship. Men in their 20s all the way up to their 70s.

I took myself back to that place in my mind, when the pain had been so raw and real, when even a conversation with someone about being gay brought me solace. All those years of silence, suffering on my own, just knowing that no one would understand. All those years with secrets. All those years desiring to come out of the closet and so very afraid that if I did, the consequences for my family and my loved ones would be devastating. Imagine telling the spouse you’ve built a life with that you are gay. I took time to remember the difficult months after my big announcement, and how it redefined every relationship in my life, and how I had to learn how to feel and have friends and to see the world with new eyes. It had all been so raw.

I’ve shared my story widely at this point, hundreds of times, to groups of students, to peers, on my blog, to friends, to men I’ve tried dating. And it’s difficult to understand if you didn’t grow up Mormon. Yet these men sitting and standing before me, dozens of them, they are all in the same place that I was just a few years ago.

And so we talked. I shared my story, and the story of nearly all the gay people I know. We talked about growing up and realizing you are different from others, learning how to blend in and hide by forming a secret self deep down within to cope. We talked about wasted efforts in curing a condition that can’t be cured by begging God for it and being great and stalwart Mormon men. We talked our decisions to marry women, and how that had been the only option. We talked about being let down by our religion, and about being fathers. We talked about the risks and benefits of coming out, how it would affect our primary relationships. We talked about hurting our loved ones when we didn’t mean to. We talked about navigating separation and divorce and how to be kind and fair at the same time. We talked about coming out to our children, our parents, our friends. We talked about the differences between guilt and shame, and how only guilt is healthy for we are all of us individuals with worth. We talked about integrity, and how lying to ourselves can be just as damaging as lying to others. We talked about spirituality, and embracing the things in our life that bring us peace, even if that means leaving the religion. We talked about hope, and love, and faith, and sex. We talked about the difficult process of facing puberty emotions as adults, because we never went through it as teens. We talked about heartbreak and sadness and joy and elation. We talked about how coming out did not not make life magically easy, but how it did make life so much more vibrant and wonderful. We talked about the history of religion and culture and policy and how they have influenced our heritages and histories. And we talked about the wonderful, delicious, and painful cost of authenticity.

After the presentation ended, many of the men approached me one on one with questions. “How do I tell my children that I’m gay when my wife thinks I’m evil?” “My mom told me it would have been easier for me to die in a car accident than to be gay. How can I ever forgive her?” “My church leaders think I’m being selfish. They say that the peace and acceptance I find among gay men is me being influenced by the devil.” “How can I choose between the life I have created with my family, my wife and children, and one that means I’m gay and single and divorced? How can I do that?” “I thought it was supposed to get easier. Why does it hurt so much?”

And then we broke for lunch. We talked, and laughed, and shared with each other.

As I left, a hundred stories from my own journey came to mind. All the love I received after coming out, and the 20 or so times people reacted really terribly and painfully. I thought of the people in my life, the love that I feel for myself and my sons and my friends. I thought of how Megan (my ex-wife) and I are so much happier now, but how we had to go through those hard times first.

And as I drove away, tears rolled down my cheeks, for these men and for their wives and children and families, and for myself. And I looked to the horizon, ready for all of the joy and love and integrity and authenticity ahead.

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.