the Lord’s University

BYU

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he deflated. “Oh yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Leaving Provo

provoSometimes when I travel I find myself wanting to create an alternate origin story for myself, skew just a few details to make my story a little bit more even-keeled.

Today on the flight to San Diego, I sat on the back row of the plane. We flew out of Provo, Utah, departing from a tiny little airport surrounded by dry fields and, farther off, breath-taking mountains. My car in the long-term parking lot was just across a small road from a literal cow pasture.

I was placed in the middle seat, and the woman to my right snored gently as the baby across the aisle cooed and cried, alternatively. The girl to my left, I later learned her name was Kimber, dutifully scrolled words in her leather bound diary as I read my book, the autobiography of Greg Louganis. She was gorgeous, a shapely blonde with her hair in pigtails under a ball cap, and she wore only a modest amount of makeup, something rare for Utah girls. I glanced at her moving pen from time to time and caught glimpses of angsty words.

Why can’t the world understand that people are just people and I’m so tired of having my heart broken and I just wonder what Heavenly Father has in store for me.

About halfway through the short flight, Kimber cleared her throat a few times, gently trying to get my attention. I could tell she wanted to talk. When we made eye contact, she opened our conversation with a casual “So are you from Utah?” and within minutes she was telling me her entire life story. I have the odd ability to get strangers to open up to me, likely my social work background and my empathic nature; sometimes I love this about myself, and sometimes I don’t.

Kimber talked about being the youngest of four kids and growing up in southern California with her single mother after her father left when she was a child. She talked about playing softball in high school and dealing with getting teased for being a lesbian all the time, even though she wasn’t gay. Her eyes flashed to the cover of my Louganis book, and then she glanced back up, seemingly trying to tell me that if I was gay, she was okay with that. She said she joined the Mormon Church when she turned 18 and moved to Utah for college.

As Kimber peppered me with a dozen rapid-fire questions about myself, I found myself filling in the facts wrong, creating a slightly different timeline for myself with the basic facts of my current life staying the same but my past vastly changed. I told her I grew up in Missouri, went to college in Seattle, and moved to Utah to launch a business. I told her I was a single father of two sons, that I was a therapist, and that I taught college.

Kimber leaned forward in the small space, her eyes alive with wonder, as she told me she served a mission in Oklahoma and had been home for two years, when she began therapy herself, and it changed her life, she said. She held up her journal and said it had become her best friend and her best coping mechanism.

Her voice lowered as she began asking me questions. She had an insider, a therapist as a captive audience for the rest of the flight, and she was going to take advantage of it. Is porn addiction real? she asked, as she confided that her current boyfriend had problems. Is it true that Mormons have more depression and teen suicides? she asked, as she talked about a suicidal friend. Is it normal for girls to want to wait until they are 30 to get married? she asked, as she talked about wanting to explore the world before she took the plunge. Is it more important to be in a relationship 100 per cent, or to have a life outside of the relationship? she asked, as she told me about her desire to be a career woman and not a housewife.

At one point, Kimber held up a finger to stop me. She had to write this down, she said, and began furiously scribbling notes in her journal as the flight attendants announced our landing in San Diego. I showed Kimber pictures of my sons, when she asked, and she commented how they looked just like me.

As we stood to gather our bags, Kimber and I exchanged names, finally, belatedly, and wished each other well. She gave me an extra sincere look in my eyes as she firmly shook my hand. “It was an honor to meet you,” she said, and her intense gaze seemed to convey the subtext that this meeting was meant to be, orchestrated in the pre-existence by God himself perhaps. I smiled at her genuineness and sincerity.

I gave Kimber a bright smile as I walked away. “Kimber, you’re my favorite kind of Mormon,” I said, then turned to the waiting San Diego sunshine, ready for adventures ahead.

Patriarchy in Provo

Provo

“So, when are you gonna make an honest woman out of that girlfriend of yours?”

The young blonde guy with the bright smile took a sip of his ice water and looked at his friend across the table, a tall guy with thick black hair and broad shoulders. Both of them were handsome and had that returned missionary look that is so common in Utah, clean-cut, short hair, shaved faces, bright smiles. I automatically dubbed them Smiley and Shoulders in my mind as they continued their conversation.

“Well,” Shoulders pointed with a finger at Smiley as he spoke, a mindless gesture that he likely used in every conversation, “we’ve only been dating for a couple of months. And the fact that she is a non-member is a huge red flag. I mean, she’s hot, but she has to have the same values as me. She started taking the discussions from the missionaries and now she’s praying about the Book of Mormon. She’s telling me she is getting a testimony, but I want to give it a couple of months and see if she’s sincere. If she can stick with it, well, then she’ll be a lucky woman. I’ll baptize her, marry her, then take here through the temple a year later.”

Smiley reached over to high-five him across the table. “Score!”

I felt a look of disgust cross my face, unbidden. There was so much wrong with this conversation. I understand this culture and mindset. I grew up in it. But the sheer arrogance of it all, the sheer patriarchy…

First of all, I had to realize I was in Utah County, home of vast majorities of Mormons and Mormon families, and home to Brigham Young University, the famous Mormon school. Nearly everyone is white here. These two young men were likely 20 or 21 years old. They had likely been raised in Mormon families where they had a very clear timeline for their futures set up: graduate high school, go immediately on a two year missionary service wherever the Church sends you, come home and enroll in college, and then quickly marry a worthy and modest young woman over the age of 18 and start a family.

Provo is eerie that way. Loads of white smiling young men and blonde smiling young women, many with wedding rings on their fingers, many with babies in carriages as they walk down the road, waving at passersby. It has a very Stepford Wives feel.

I looked at Smiley and Shoulders high-fiving, and I had to sit back in my chair and reason out what it was about this image that bothered me so much. First of all, it was the way he was talking about this girl. He wasn’t listing her talents or personality quirks that he loved. He was basing her entire value, at least in this conversation, on how attractive she was and what her potential for being a faithful Mormon was. He saw her as having more value, rather like a commodity, if she could prove herself to him by adopting his values and beliefs. And then, he saw himself as her reward. The sheer arrogance…

But then I thought back to my own days as a Mormon missionary, where I would knock on people’s doors, teach them, befriend them, and invite them to be baptized… IF. IF they gave up coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol. IF they agreed to pay ten per cent of their income to the church. IF they agreed to stop having sex outside of marriage; either marry your sexual partner or stop having sex. IF they weren’t gay. We accept you, we love you, we want you in our church, IF…

Then I remembered a news story from a years ago. A young Mormon girl sat in the BYU library studying. A young man she didn’t know walked over to her and handed her a note, then walked away. The handwritten note said something like “I’m trying to be a good Priesthood holder, but when you wear such tight clothing it is distracting. I invite you to be a better daughter of God and dress more modestly so I can keep my thoughts pure.” The young woman later posted a photo of her outfit on social media, and it was tasteful, conservative, and nice, in no way revealing. The whole encounter left me nauseous.

I pictured this girl that Shoulders was dating. I assumed she was pretty and young and freshly moved to Utah, maybe from some place like California. She meets an attractive, muscular, strong man with a killer smile, and he seems interested in her, IF she can join his church and marry his straight out. I wondered if she realized what she was getting into.

Smiley took another sip off his water while Shoulders warmed his hands on his hot chocolate. They had been quiet for a second.

Smiley grinned again. “Well, man, she is a lucky girl. Me, I’m just playing the field for a bit.”

Shoulders laughed, stretching his spine against the back of his chair. “Well, don’t you worry, buddy. Hold strong. You’ll catch one soon enough.”

The two young men left shortly after that, and I sat thinking about a culture that still values men over women, putting pressure on them to be successful under certain terms, to be virile, to be providers, to be strong and non-emotional. And a culture that tells young women to accept their station in life, to get an education as a back-up in case their plans to be wives and mothers doesn’t work out, to be beautiful and to just want one man to nurture and please for the rest of their lives. A culture that tells both sides to be content in their station and to turn it all over to God. It all felt very 1940s to me.

I left Utah County a few hours later. As I drove down the freeway, the businesses and billboards flashed by my windows as blurs. I thought of all the Mormons and all the smiles and waves, all the weddings and babies and prayers on knees. And I thought of the statistics here, of depression and pornography addiction and suicide and divorces and sexual assaults. I thought of my own upbringing as a Mormon, and my living here as a non-Mormon now, of my family, of my clients and friends, and soon it was all spinning and whirling just like the view of the road from my car.

And I realized that perhaps that is the only way to look at this place, to combine all of its complexities in one snow globe and then to shake it up and see what falls to the ground and sticks.

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Provo to Hollywood

It’s 9 am and I’m sitting in a crowded plane on the tarmac at the Provo, Utah airport, and everyone is white. Literally, everyone on the entire plane is white. I’m not sure why things like this startle me any longer. It’s Utah, I know, but there are billions on the planet.

I’m in the middle seat toward the back of the plane, squished in between two blonde girls. The one on my right is a little bit daft. She keeps looking at me and smiling and not looking away when I do. She’s wearing shorts that literally start just above her butt crack and end where her hips meet her legs. The one on my left is a brooding soul. She has a notebook open in her lap and she’s drawing pictures in her notebook of skeletal girls with speech bubbles coming out of their mouths, saying things like “what’s the point?” and “maybe tomorrow.”

I try propping up my laptop on my lap during the flight, and I can barely open it. The seats don’t recline and my knees hit the seat in front of me. I try typing, but I have to bring my elbows up to my shoulders and bent my wrists weird. I take out a paper and pen instead. I’m sleepy, but adventure beckons.

It’s 11 am and I’m in a new time zone, now in California, and I’m in the back of an Uber car. My driver is Azer and he’s from Armenia, and I realize to myself that I know literally nothing about that country. I couldn’t even pin it on a map. We make small talk, and he tells me of his wife and two adult daughters. He tells me how he used to own a kebab restaurant in Little Armenia, a section of town near Hollywood Boulevard, for 15 years until it got too expensive to maintain, but oh how he misses it.

I got off the plane with all the other white people just a bit ago, and got lost in a sea of bustling humanity in the airport. Every shade of skin, people of every shape and size. And I have a big smile on my face because this is exactly why I needed to be here, or at least somewhere. I needed to be anonymous, to go missing in a new place, to think and to read and to write and to experience.

I close my eyes briefly as Azer talks, feeling a mix of proud of myself for taking another adventure, and a little bit lame for doing it by myself. But I’m okay with being a little bit lame when it means I get to adventure on my terms.

It’s 1 pm and I’m sitting on the couch where I’ll be sleeping for the next four nights, talking to Mazie, my Airbnb host. She’s already among my very favorite people. 5’5, beautiful black skin, hair in multiple braids. She is dressed in a gorgeous yellow summer dress adorned with flowers, and she looks incredible. She has a cute brimmed hat on her head. She is bustling about the apartment setting things up for her week. She made me a welcome basket with towels, a throw blanket, and a fresh toothbrush. She tells me she is a scientist, and when I ask what kind, she tells me how she analyzes fluid samples in the hospital and gives the doctors the results, so that the doctors can pretend they knew what was going on all along. She says this with a laugh, and I’m laughing too. I don’t know her story, but this woman is a powerhouse.

It’s 3 pm and I’m sitting in a Starbucks on the quiet end of Hollywood Boulevard, if there is such a thing. I walked over the golden-edged stars adorned with the shining names of celebrities. There are many I know. I’ve been drowning myself in LGBT history research lately, and here mixed in with the other names are Ellen DeGeneres and Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift and dozens of others, and I’m thinking about how each of them had to pretend to be straight, publicly least, in order to get their careers going. Many of the stars are empty, waiting to have a name immortalized.

Outside the window, I see a Hispanic man holding a microphone and praying loudly, publicly calling those around him to repentance. “Dear Lord Jesus, though I be unworthy, I ask you to help me, Lord, help those around me to realize, Lord, that we, all of us, are sinners, that our time here is fleeting, Lord. Help me inspire them ot change their lives, Lord, and to find peace, Lord.” I look down and realize he is standing on the Hollywood star of Adam Sandler, and I literally laugh out loud at the deliciousness of that fact.

I make small talk with the man sharing the table with me. He’s jotting down complex notes, some sort of music set he has for an upcoming show, but I don’t ask questions. I think he’s flirting with me a bit. He asks me what my plans are while I’m in town, and I get a huge grin on my face as I reply.

“Nothing and everything. I have no concrete plans. I will see where my feet take me, and I will experience life.”

He nods respectfully, and soon packs up his things and leaves. And I open up my computer and write about my day as I sip my coffee and water, and watch the people passing by, the thousands of them, walking on the names of the famous. empty-hollywood-star-01.jpg

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.