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.)

 

Advertisements

Bag of Treats

wonder.jpg

“Welcome, Chad, I bought you a bag of treats. It’s on the floor back there. Make yourself at home!”

I climbed into the back seat of the car and noticed the bag on the floor, then smiled up to the front seat, where Evelyn could see me in the rearview mirror. “Thank you, I appreciate it.”

“Just look through it and see what you like. And don’t forget to buckle up!”

I slid my seatbelt across my frame and clicked it closed, then set my backpack and pillow on the seat next to me. The drive ahead was only four hours, but I didn’t want to get bored, so I’d packed a pillow in case I wanted to sleep, a notebook in case I got any story ideas, and three different books, though I knew it wasn’t likely that I would finish even one of them. Two of them were Choose Your Own Adventure books, where you could read and make choices for the characters, your decisions leading you to different parts of the book where you might meet a tragic end or wind up making yet another choice. I loved those books, and had even written a few of my own, starring my favorite cartoon characters. I’d also packed a Nancy Drew book, taking it from my sister Susan’s collection. She didn’t want me to touch those books, but I loved them so I would often sneak them away and return them a few days later, hoping she wouldn’t notice. I was trying to read them all in order.

The car was quiet for a moment as Evelyn guided it down the road and turned toward the freeway, passing the Snake River and miles of potato fields along the way. Evelyn was a nice woman in our ward, or local Mormon congregation, one I didn’t know very well. She was in her early 70s, and had agreed to give me a ride to Salt Lake City from southern Idaho when my Mom had asked.

“Are you excited to see your father?” Evelyn smiled at me again in the rearview.

“I guess so,” I smiled back. I said I was, but I really wasn’t. My parents had been divorced over three years now, and I’d barely seen Dad since the divorce, since we moved from Missouri to Idaho. He’d moved to Salt Lake, just a few hours away, but he hadn’t made much effort to spend any time with me. He was living down there with some college aged guys, I’d heard, and was working at some menial job now. I was 14 years old and I didn’t feel like he really even knew me. “It will be good to see him during summer break. Mom will come down and get me in a few days.”

Evelyn laughed, I couldn’t really say why, and accelerated the car, headed south now. “Well, do you see anything you like? In the treats?”

“Oh,” I said, “Let me see.”

I picked up the bag and set it on the seat, opening the plastic sides of it. It was a Wonder Bread grocery sack, from the store in Idaho Falls where they sold packaged sugary treats and breads. The bag had no less than eight separate packages of processed pastries, and one can of Shasta, black raspberry flavored, a carbonated sugary punch that could be purchased for a quarter from the vending machine in front of the local grocery store. I thumbed through the different treats. Twinkie. Hostess Cupcakes. Ding-Dongs. Ho-Hos. A fudge brownie, an lemon frosting pie, powdered donuts, and chocolate donuts. My mouth salivated over all of the sugar available, having no thought for Calories or content, only wanting to sink my teeth into any and all of the treats.

“Everything looks really delicious. But I’m not hungry just yet. I’ll just lay back and read for a bit if that’s okay.”

“Of course that’s okay, dear. I’m just going to turn on some gospel music, if that wouldn’t bother you.”

“No, go right ahead.” Evelyn turned on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as I placed the bag of treats back on the floor and arranged my pillow behind my head. I thumbed through my pilfered mystery novel and found my place, beginning to read.

My stomach rumbled, but I resisted the urge to reach for a treat. It was always best to sacrifice needs and to be unselfish, I reminded myself. Evelyn was really nice to have purchased these things for me, but if I didn’t eat them, that meant that she could enjoy them, or she could share them with someone else, someone who might need them more than me. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, sacrifice was a regular part of my daily religion, something that God expected. I thought of several scriptures that backed that up.

Where much is given, much is required.

The natural man is an enemy to God. 

Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of Heaven.

If I didn’t eat the treats now, that would be another sign to God that I served him and deserved to have him in my heart. I tried regularly to keep him securely in my heart, though it wasn’t always easy. I was starting to notice boys more, and I was very scared of getting caught looking at someone handsome walking by. So I’d developed a mantra of always keeping a hymn and a prayer in my heart. I could sing one of the religious songs to myself, like “Count your many blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done” or “Called to serve him, heavenly king of glory, chosen heir to witness for his name” or “Sweet hour of prayer, they wings shall my petition bear” or “Nearer my god to thee, nearer to thee.” I found it easier to stay focused on God when I had him on my mind, just like the prophets had taught me since I was a young boy. I tried hard to follow all of the rules, including morning and nightly prayers, daily scripture study, weekly church attendance, and payment of ten per cent of all my earned money from my paper route to the tithes of the church. That also meant fasting to improve spirituality at least once per month.

Mormonism was the central theme to my existence. My family’s rituals were molded around it as were my daily activities, my thoughts, and all of my plans for the future. Months before, I had been ordained a Teacher, an office of the Aaronic Priesthood for all worthy young men ages 14-16. It entitled me to bless and pass the sacrament and to go with older Priesthood holders into the homes of members as a home teacher, where we would check on the welfare of the families monthly and teach them gospel lessons. At 16, I would become a priest, and at 18 an elder of the Melchizedek Priesthood, then I would get to go through the temple for my endowment, serve a two year missionary service wherever I was called in the world, and finally marry a woman in the temple and begin my family. I loved my church, and everything in my life revolved around it.

I fell asleep for a time, and Evelyn drove smoothly, making great time. When I woke up, she asked how I was, and asked if I might like to enjoy a treat now. She reminded me of my grandmother in all the best ways.

“I’m okay, maybe in a little while.”

Besides stopping for gas briefly, we drove the rest of the way in silence. It was early afternoon when we pulled into Salt Lake City, in a spot downtown near Temple Square, where the very origins of my beloved church were on display in museums and visitor centers all placed directly around the Salt Lake City Temple itself. My dad would meet us there soon.

I climbed out of the car and pulled my backpack and pillow with me, leaving the treats on the floor in the bag. My stomach grumbled with hunger, and I wished again for a treat, but I didn’t want to take something that Evelyn could use for herself later.

Soon, my dad arrived and Evelyn drove away with a friendly wave.

“What would you like to do?” Dad asked, his voice its familiar quiet.

“Can we get something to eat?” I asked. “I’m starving!”

Believing in Angels

jm_400_CH1.pd-P4.tiff

I grew up believing I could see angels.

At least if I was worthy enough.

In fact, the first tenets of my religion, outside of belief in Jesus Christ himself, were tied up around visits from heavenly beings to those who had enough faith. The very origins of the Mormons, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, lay in the tenet that something asked with faith would be revealed. A Mormon favorite scripture lay in James 1:5: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. Joseph Smith did that, they believe, and God manifested himself with his son, Jesus Christ, at his side, inspiring Joseph to create a brand new church.

Nearly twenty years later, I can still remember the night I went to bed absolutely positive I would be seeing an angel, one with a miracle in his hand. At the time, I was training to be a missionary, in the aptly named Missionary Training Center, one of the holiest places on Earth according to Mormons. I had had Priesthood leaders lay their hands on my head and set me apart as a missionary, placing a ‘mantle’ upon me, one that was there to increase my spiritual sensitivity and my access to the Holy Ghost itself, so long as I was living worthy. I had literally set aside all of my mortal concerns. I had delayed college for two full years so that I could go be a missionary, paying out of pocket to do so. I had left my family behind, not even allowed to make phone calls to them while I was gone. I was leaving my friends, my home, my hobbies and interests, and sacrificing every moment of every day.

In the days prior, I had been reading the scriptures nonstop, praying constantly, and thinking of nothing but spiritual things, even keeping hymns playing in my heart. I had fasted and listened with my full heart and spirit to the leaders who had spoken to us, listening for every answer.

The night before, Steven R. Covey, the famous businessman, author, and motivational speaker, the man who had written Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, himself a Mormon, had given a speech to a crowd of young missionaries about looking at others the way Jesus looks at us. I had been implementing this view during the day, seeing those around me as children of God, and then I had taken a step farther and turned it inwardly. For one of the first times in my life, I saw myself as a child of God, someone who deserves happiness, someone who can do anything with God, someone who was capable of performing miracles.

And then I saw myself as, perhaps, someone who could have a miracle performed upon him. Someone who was worthy. Someone who could be healed, not for selfish reasons but to make me a better servant of God, a better advocate of his as I spent the next few years bringing other souls to him.

All day that day I had been filled with light and love. My nerve endings were on fire, my stomach felt full with no food, my head felt light and brimming with hope. I climbed into my bed at the MTC that night with more hope than I had ever felt before. I muttered a prayer to God, with tears streaming down my face, that I was ready. I was ready, at last, to be cured of being gay. I had been hoping for this cure since I was in elementary school, and I knew now that finally, finally, I could be made whole, be made straight, be made right in the eyes of God. I had been promised I could be cured if I tried hard enough, and this time I knew I could. I had faith.

As I closed my eyes that night, I remember wondering if I might actually see an angel. My desires were righteous, my heart was pure. I might actually get my  miracle.

And then I fell asleep. And then, hours later, I woke up. I came aware suddenly, my stomach rumbling, my head clouded, and I swiftly sat up. I scanned my insides. Nothing felt different, but everything would be, I just knew it.

Within a few hours, walking around outside among the other missionaries, I had immediately noticed a few of them were attractive, and I silently cursed myself. I instead made myself look at the women around, the sister missionaries and the employees at the MTC, and wondered if I could find them attractive now. But it was the same as it had always been, there was nothing there, no attraction, no noticing.

I found a quiet corner and prayed, asking God for guidance, and I felt that I just needed to be patient. No angel, no cure, but perhaps a bit more patience. I needed a blessing.

That entire day, I squirmed in my chair, still mostly fasting, and I struggled to stay focused. I needed that blessing and I needed it now. Finally the evening had arrived, and I rushed into the man who served in a leadership position over me, a branch president, a man I had never met but one who was assigned to help the missionaries during their training.

Brother Christensen listened kindly as I told him everything. I told him about being gay, about being here on a mission for the right reasons, about knowing I could be cured, and about needing his help to make the cure happen. Tears had spilled down my cheeks the entire time and I had made no effort to wipe them free. My heart had thudded in my chest, my fingers had been tightly clasped into fists.

Brother Christensen listened. And then he stayed silent. And then he spoke the words that would haunt me for the next several years.

“Elder Anderson, your desires for a cure are righteous, but it is not your lot to be cured of your same-sex attraction. This is your cross to bear. It’s a condition you were meant to live with and to learn from. Perhaps a cure can come in the future, but this is not something I can help you with today.”

He had given me a blessing that night anyway. One of comfort. But I couldn’t hear a word of it through my own shame. My ears and heart had been filled with foolishness and embarrassment. I had felt so sure, so pure, so trusting in God. I had believed in angels.

A small part of my spirit died that day, and stayed that way for a long time to come. I finished my missionary training, and I spent hours, days, weeks, months knocking on doors, teaching others how to make themselves right with God so that they could join his church. But the entire time, I felt like a hypocrite. Because how could I teach them to be right when I was never right myself?

I had believed in angels. But they had just flown on by.

Supernatural elements in Religion

angels

I grew up in a religion that actively taught about supernatural forces directed by God for the good of mankind. I was taught that everyone who has ever lived on Earth existed in a spiritual form prior to coming to Earth and receiving bodies. In that pre-mortal form, we had relationships and interactions and intellect, and that we made the choice to come to Earth, knowing we would have spiritual blinders placed on us to restrict our memories of that pre-mortal life. Any spirit who didn’t choose to come to Earth could roam the Earth and was called an “evil spirit”, and there were potentially billions of them, all who worked for Satan. Mortals were meant to choose religion and God and sacrifice, and after dying, spirits would go on existing in another realm called the Spirit World, where they would wait for resurrection (or unification of the spirit with the body) and then judgment, so God could send them on to Heaven and Hell accordingly. In addition to that, God, who lives on another planet, had a planetary spiritual force, called the Holy Ghost, through which he could send messages in the form of thoughts and inspirations to his believing children.

Also, I believed in the Priesthood, a magical type of authority passed from one man down to another, so long as they are worthy according to Church standards. The Priesthood had various levels of authority mixed in, and the men who held it were authorized to channel some of this godly force to perform tasks on Earth, such as blessing the bread and water of the sacrament to performing a valid baptism to laying hands on the heads of another to give them a blessing, or special individualized message from God. Again, very supernatural in its essence.

If the spiritual forces, the spiritual realms, and the Holy Ghost weren’t sufficient, I also grew up believing in spiritual gifts, immortal creatures, and mystical artifacts. Each individual (but mostly the men) has inherent individual spiritual gifts that can be enhanced through belief, things like the spirit of discernment or the power to heal others, gifts that, like mutant powers in a weird way, could be discovered and utilized for the good of God with his blessing. Angels appeared all over the scriptures and in Church history, performing miracles and giving advice and causing mortals to speak in tongues, and the devil tried to possess or influence mortals through duplicity and temptation. And prophets used magical stones to translate ancient records or to light up ancient wooden submarines on ocean voyages,  and golden balls to give directions in the wilderness.

As I look upon all of this with a critical eye with a grown-up, I am a bit taken aback by how fantasy novel it all seems. There are such elements of story-telling to the whole belief structure. Epic franchises like Star Wars and Harry Potter and the Wheel of Time and the X-Men that so beautifully explore the concepts of destiny and prophecy, and that allow certain characters to be born with special powers so they can fight against the forces of evil. But somehow when we toss the word God in to the mix, these concepts are taken serious. There is a suspension of disbelief in mortals who belief in virgin births and men being raised from the dead, and who use those beliefs to form and shape entire societies through narrow interpretations of rules.

I now consider myself a very spiritual and non-religious atheist, if I have to use a label, and I have a difficult time understanding supernatural religious belief structures in a world that avoids scientific interpretation and quantifiable evidence and results. I do still believe in elements of “supernatural”-ness, however. When I examine my beliefs, I do believe that individuals have special skills and talents that others do not. I do believe that human energy exists after the body expires, not as a ghost or spirit necessarily but perhaps as a consciousness, even if only in the memories of forms of the people and places they lived among.

Regarding individual skills and talents, for example, I have a unique capacity for empathy: I can easily read the energy and emotions of most people around me, particularly when there is eye contact and communication happening. I am also a quick study, and can often make sense of complex human stories across history and find truth and enlightenment in them. I think I also have a talent for teaching, for facilitating groups, for presenting information, and for writing. Other people are builders, or organizers, or are amazing with machines and industry, or are nurturers. The lists of skills is endless.

After my grandfather died, my mother would often speak of being able to feel him around, near her, especially during times when she needed comfort or guidance. While I never felt his presence, I believed her when she said this. And I think anyone who has ever lost a very close loved one has that capacity, to feel the energy of their loved ones, even to hear their voices, in particular places or during particular times of need. I had this same experience after Kurt, my best friend, died in a car accident last April.

This blog entry is a bit more free-form, but I needed a chance to organize my thoughts and experiences in this matter, and it is all here to set up a blog I will write tomorrow. About a month ago, I had a woman reach out to me stating that Kurt’s spirit had reached out to her and that he had a message for me. And a few weeks ago, I met with this woman, who called herself a medium. I went into the meeting skeptical and open-minded all at once. And it turned out to be a wonderfully healing experience. I’ll be back tomorrow to share more.

 

 

One Lonely Rainbow

rainbow

Well, your friends know what’s right, and your friends know what’s wrong

and your friends all know sometimes it’s hard to choose

I stood in front of my high school Seminary class, my knees involuntarily knocking together as I sang. I was looking down at the floor instead of into their faces directly. Why was I so nervous?

But the friend who helps you see where the choices will lead

is the kind of friend you never want to lose.

My voice was a high baritone. I had been singing in church functions for years, in sacrament meetings and Relief Society lessons, but doing this here, in front of my peers, this was a new experience.

I was 16 and this was my second year in the Seminary program. One hour of school each day was reserved for Seminary in my predominantly Mormon high school. There was a church-dedicated building right across the street from the school where each faithful Mormon student took one hour away from regular classes to come over here and learn about the scriptures. I had chemistry just before this, and band just after. Seminary felt like a regular school class, except we started with a prayer and a hymn, and our text books were the Mormon scriptures: the Old and New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. We studied the words of God and the prophets, and then would head back across the street to high school when the bell rang.

It’s the friend that leads with love, doesn’t push, doesn’t shove

Just reminds you of the truth you’ve always known

Then does more than just talk, takes your hand and starts to walk

by your side along the road that leads back home. 

I put my full intent into Seminary classes each day. I read my scriptures nightly and offered heartfelt prayers. I played Mormon Tabernacle Choir music to fall asleep to every night and kept paintings of Jesus on my walls. I paid ten per cent of my earnings to the Church. I attended three hour services every Sunday, and went to youth activities every Tuesday night. I reached out to people who were struggling, offering them support and love. I offered to teach my friends who weren’t Mormon all about the Church. I was all in, one hundred per cent Mormon, true blue through and through.

And this friend seems to see all the great things you’ll be

Even when some things you do would prove him wrong.

Despite my efforts, though, I felt hidden. Shy. Quiet. I was afraid of letting anyone get to know me because I was afraid they would learn my terrible secret, that I was attracted to other boys. Same-sex attracted, I was told to call it, not gay. That word was dangerous. It was only a few months ago I went to my Mormon leader, our Mormon bishop, a close family friend, and I told him that I had sinned. I had stayed up late at night and watched a television show that had shirtless men in it, and I had had impure thoughts. I had never told anyone before. He had reacted with kindness and compassion, and he had reminded me that Heavenly Father loves me very. He had given me a Priesthood blessing, his hands on my head, reminding me what a stalwart son of God I was, and then he had given me a book to help me have a greater understanding of things. A book written by a prophet just a few decades ago, called the Miracle of Forgiveness.

But he always believes that the real you he sees

Is a champion he’s simply cheering on.

I had read the book front to back multiple times now, especially focusing on the parts on homosexuality. It let me know how dangerous associating with other people was, how it could destroy my spirit and lead me to the devil. It taught me that masturbation can cause homosexuality, and most importantly, that homosexuality, even though it was abominable and evil, could be cured with enough effort. I just had to try harder, be more faithful, press onward ever onward.

And the love that you feel from a friend that’s this real

Is as powerful as anything on Earth.

At this point, I finally looked up at my peers and saw them looking back. I could tell my voice sounded good, even though my leg was shaking. I was doing this, singing for my peers, in an effort to challenge myself spiritually, to show God that I loved him. I paid careful attention to not looking at any of the boys in the room, especially not the handsome ones. They could never know I found some of them attractive.

For it lifts and it grows and it strengthens and it flows

It’s what allows a soul to feel just what they’re worth.

Even as I sang about true friendship, I realized the irony. I didn’t have any friends. I was doing in my life just what the song requested, just what it asked. I was surrounding myself with peers who were good Mormons, who made good choices. But I didn’t let anyone of them know me, because if they knew me, they would know my secret, and that would be not only embarrassing, it would be sinning. No one could know, not even my family. They would be so ashamed.

So many lonely souls are calling, and our brightest stars would not be falling

if only they had a friend, a real friend.

I was singing the song “Be That Friend” by Michael McLean, a church singer who put out CDs for youth, catchy lyrics and tunes that brought the spirit, reminding Mormon youth that they weren’t alone, that their friendships would last into the eternities, that Christ understood and loved them, that they were special. I listened to McLean’s music all the time. I wouldn’t learn until many years later that around this time, he had a son coming out of the closet, coming forward as gay, and that his own family was being pushed to the limits as they tried to figure out this unsolvable problem in their own home.

Everyone hopes to find one true friend who’s the kind

They can count on for forever and a day.

I firmly believed that with enough effort, I could conquer this, I could will myself to be straight if I could prove myself to God. I knew it. And I knew my options for the future, even if I couldn’t find the cure: marry a girl and trust in God, or just be celibate my entire life and then I could get married to a girl in the next life, in Heaven. Those were my choices.

Be that friend, be that kind, that you prayed you might find

And you’ll always have a best friend, come what may.

I finished the song and sat down in the silent room. It was considered irreverent to clap in church functions, but many of my peers gave me nods and silent congratulations. After class, one of the popular girls in school told me I had a nice voice and invited me to audition for Show Choir next year, which I did. It felt good to be seen. I was so used to hiding in plain sight, I guessed it was okay to be seen, just a little, just so long as no one looked too closely.

 

**lyrics to Be That Friend by Michael McLean

 

 

 

The Mormon Church is a bully

963b27f73fec3bd8128f1243bfbb4f45-d3fm0oi

“It doesn’t matter if I told you to bring in wood or not. You should have looked and seen that it needed to be done. So yes, no matter how much whining and crying you do, you’re grounded, Chad.”

My stepfather, Kent, bald and in his late fifties, didn’t even look at me as he punished me for something I hadn’t done. He sat on the living room sofa watching a football game on the television that I wasn’t allowed to use; it was his TV, not to be used by children.

I stood there, feeling helpless. “But–but, dad, I–rehearsals start tonight.” I called him Dad, since mine wasn’t around, although Kent never acted like much of a father. My voice sounded weak, unsure. Talking back had never worked well for me in the past. Usually when he got like this, I knew that my job was to remain silent and quietly accept my punishment. Talking back would only make it worse.

But if he grounded me tonight, I would miss the first rehearsal for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My parents had allowed me to try out for the show and I had a lead in it, and I had been excited for weeks about the chance to begin rehearsals. If he grounded me now, I would miss rehearsals and then be kicked out of the play.

Kent still didn’t look over, but he raised his voice, exerting his authority. “I said you are grounded!”

“What if I carry in some wood now? I could do it really quick before I have to leave.”

“You’ll be doing that anyway. But you are still grounded. Now go get to work.”

My insides clenched up. I knew if I pushed him much farther he would get violent. “I–can I at least call to let them know I can’t make it?”

And now he turned toward me, still sitting, but his hands balling into fists. He was yelling now. “I said you were god-damned grounded! If you wanted to join your little fairy play, then you should have done your little fairy chores! You don’t get to use the god-damned phone! Now get out there and stack the wood, Chad!”

families-are-forever-free-blogger-button.png

I fled from the room and put on my coat, boots, and gloves. We had a wood stove in the basement that needed to be regularly stocked with wood to keep it burning. Our family had a large wood pile in the back yard, covered in snow. Once a week, it was my job to bring in armfuls of wood, which had to be dug out of the snow pile, and stack them in the garage, where they could dry and be ready for the fire. I checked the garage and found there was a full stack there already; I had just restocked the wood two days before, but I knew it was pointless to bring this up to Kent. When he got in a mood like this, he would find something, anything to rage at until his rage passed.

I spent the next hour chipping ice and snow off of the wood pile using a hammer and a shovel, then I loaded my arms up with one load of wood at a time. I stacked the pile in the garage until there wasn’t anymore room, then went inside, shedding my wet coat and gloves, my skin dry and red from the cold. I put my winter gear away and went silently to my room, not bothering to ask for any dinner or to use the phone again. Rehearsal would be starting in ten minutes and I couldn’t be there, and I couldn’t tell anyone why.

A few minutes later, Kent walked into my room without knocking. He stood over me, his voice stern but a bit kinder. “You worked hard tonight, so I’m going to give you a choice. You can stay here and be grounded. Or you can go to rehearsal tonight. You will still be grounded for the week, but I’ll let you go just to the rehearsals. If you choose this, though, there will be additional consequences.” I had no idea what he meant by that, but I had to go to the rehearsals, I just had to. I told him my choice, and he responded with a “so be it.”

“Thanks, dad,” I said, grateful and relieved. “It starts in five minutes. Can you give me a ride?”

“I most certainly can not.”

“Can I call someone for a ride?”

“Absolutely not. You’ll have to walk.”

The high school was three miles away. I would never make it in time. “But I’ll be late!”

He started me down, eyes furious. “That isn’t my problem.”

Three hours later, I got a ride home from friends. Rehearsal had gone well, even though I’d been late, and we’d read our parts out loud for the first time. A few friends asked me what was wrong, but I couldn’t tell anyone. I was invited out for milkshakes, but I said I couldn’t, I had to be home immediately.

When I walked in the front door, the house was deathly quiet. I walked up the stairs, where Kent was still sitting on the couch, but in the dark this time.

“I’m home,” I said softly.

He didn’t look at me. “Go talk to your sister.”

I walked down the hall to Sheri’s room, nervous. I knocked on the door, softly. “Can I come in?” Sheri didn’t answer, but I opened the door. Sheri, age 12, my only younger sibling, sat on her bed, tears streaming down her face. I could tell Kent had been screaming at her. When he got like that, he would call her such terrible names.

“Are you okay?” I asked, and Sheri wouldn’t look at me.

“Kent told me I’m grounded for a month because I should have been helping you with the wood. He’s been yelling the whole time you were gone.”

I looked behind me and saw Kent standing over me in the hallway. “I told you there would be additional consequences, Chad. You made your choice.”

handcarts

Kent stayed in my life for five years, from ages 13 to 17. Toward the end I started fighting back, which only made him more violent. At the end, he put my mom in the hospital and we got a restraining order against him. The divorce happened quickly and he was out of our lives. I didn’t see him after that, and got the news of his death years later. But those are stories for another time.

Kent was a bully, in the truest sense of the word. He would rage around in storms. He would be calm and happy for days, even weeks at a time, and then he would be emotionally manipulative, verbally abusive, and sometimes physically violent. We never knew when the storm would hit. He had this ability to make you believe the abuse was your fault, that you should have been able to anticipate his needs and understand the consequences before they had been laid out.

While Kent was in my life, I walked around believing that I was flawed, broken, and incapable of doing anything right. And I truly believed it was my fault and that he was innocent. He was the father figure, there to be obeyed. He was the Priesthood holder, holding God’s authority to make decisions in the household, and our place was to obey.

 

I have lived in Salt Lake City as an out, gay man for just under five years now, and it struck me this morning, with breaking news from the Mormon church, that the leaders of the LDS church treat the gay population the way that Kent treated me growing up. Every few months, for the entire time that I have lived here, there is some new subtle, passive information from the church, delivered in such a way that it indirectly attacks gay people. Painful and direct public statements and initiatives that cause turmoil, emotional pain, relationship stress, and thoughts of suicide in believing gay members. (While I myself am no longer Mormon, my family still is, as are many of my friends and many of my clients).

Yesterday, the Mormon church publicly stated that God, through revelation, has publicly backed church policies that state gay couples are apostates and that children of gay parents may not join their church without disavowing their parents. A few months ago, the church responded to the policy change, saying they were only doing it to protect families not hurt them. A few months before that, they showed their public support of groups in Utah that are vitriolic in their hatred of gay people. A few months before that, they called gay families ‘counterfeit’ in comparison to heterosexual families. A few months before that, they released a public statement of their disappointment over the passage of gay marriage. A few months before that, the church put their public support into initiatives fighting gay marriage. And on and on, going back to Proposition 8 and opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and the support of reparative therapy initiatives and the teaching that homosexuality is curable and to the usage of shock therapy in attempts to cure gayness.

And all the while with the message that “we are the prophets, we are the authority, we speak for God and your place is to agree and support us. If you are gay, you aren’t trying hard enough not to be. And while we continue to wound you, abuse you, and hurt you with our agendas and initiatives, we expect you to love us and know that we are right.” The message remains consistent, every few months a new statement or action to put gay people in their place.

For those that read this post, there will be many reactions. Some, those who are hurting, will nod and agree, perhaps shed a few tears. Some will be angry, and wonder why I have to criticize the church that they love. Some will dig their heels in, believe that the church is good and that eventually it will come around. Some will read in disgust and agree fully that the church is wrong. And some will stay where they are, hurting, not knowing how to reconcile their feelings of pain with their deep belief that the church is true and that its leaders speak truth.

5fa4bcb9aed01df9ea895f19a6ba2d74

I remember well those feelings. And so I close this blog post with one final story. After living with Kent for years, and suffering his abuse, I was pulled in by the school counselor to discuss what was happening in the home. It was the first time I opened up about the abuse.

“My stepfather yells a lot, and he gets violent sometimes, but that’s okay, it just means I need to keep trying harder. It’s not his fault, he is doing the best that he can. It’s not so bad, he’s gonna get better and see what a good family we are someday. I just have to stick with it and be strong.”

And the counselor had looked back at me and compassionately told me, “Chad, your stepfather is abusive. He’s hurting you and your sister and your mother with words and actions. You don’t deserve it, you aren’t causing it, and it isn’t  your fault. There is nothing wrong with you. Never, never allow yourself to be abused.”

And I realized, quickly and with clarity, that my stepfather was an abusive bully.  And I realize now, with quickness and clarity…

So is the Mormon church.