Sex Education Part 5: High School Dances

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There was an expected ritual to asking out girls in high school. Just asking, with a note or, worse, a direct question, was frowned on. There needed to be scavenger hunts, puzzles, elaborate ruses, or public embarrassment of some kind, just to ask. Why ask the girl directly when you could hang a banner down the hallway saying “Will You Go To Prom With Me, Emily? From Travis”, or when you could have the girl pop one hundred balloons and then rearrange letter squares from in the balloons to find out who was asking her? The more elaborate the ruse, the more interested in the girl you were.

Of course, I wasn’t allowed to date until I was 16. And then, I was only encouraged to date Mormon girls. And I would be chaste, moral, and pure until marriage, which was still years in the future. Dating at 16 was an early way of preparing myself for marriage to a woman.

I was fully coming to terms with being gay at age 15, and I finally needed to tell someone about it. I went to the bishop, a family friend, and told him, ashamed, with my head hanging low, that I was attracted to boys. He responded with kindness and compassion, and informed me that I was special and God was giving me an extra challenge to prove my worthiness. He gave me a book written by prophets, one that talked about how evil homosexuality was, and then he sent me on my way.

I did my best to avoid sin at all costs. I played Mormon music in my room, put pictures of Jesus and the temples and apostles on my bedroom wall, and kept my thoughts pure. I did all I could to avoid masturbation and evil thinking, but there were times I failed. Every dark thought led to nausea and stomach aches, sometimes gastro-intestinal issues, and I was having regular stomach troubles and anxiety on a daily basis from the 8th grade on.

Before I turned 16, I thought receiving my patriarchal blessing would give me all the strength I would need to move forward. It would give me the answers on curing homosexuality, striking it from my system once and for all, I just knew it. But the patriarch was a stranger, and his words rang with authority, telling me I was a choice son of God who should not disappoint God in any way. He promised me a wife and kids in my future if I just lived worthy.

And then I turned 16, and dating was both encouraged and expected. I pretended a healthy interest in girls. I had to. It was the only way to get through it all. I was occasionally teased for being sensitive or feminine, and I was at times called dork, or fag, or sissy. The worst bullying happened in my own home, where my stepfather used name-calling, threats, intimidation, and volume to keep a tight hold on all of us, resorting to violence when necessary. He doled out love and fear in proportionate measures, and we never knew what was next. He called me “little fairy-boy”, and told me directly that he’d never wanted a son like me. In his crueler moments, he would say he understood why my dad left. But he counter-balanced it all on other days by telling me what a great kid I was, what a strong man I was growing into. His love came with healthy heapings of shame and fear, and it felt a lot like the love I had come to expect from God.

And so, I found ways to have crushes on girls. I chose those who had strong testimonies in the church, who were modest, who were pretty but not too pretty. I chose those who would respect that I was a good Mormon boy, and who wouldn’t expect anything physical from me. I sometimes chose girls who didn’t get asked out by other guys. And some of them got crushes on me, and I didn’t have crushes back. Some of them got hurt. I dated often. I double-dated with friends, guys I had actual crushes on, and I envied them as they danced with their dates and I danced with mine. The dates were always elaborate, pure spontaneous fun. There was movies and dinner, picnics in the park, silly board games, trips to the zoo or plays, hikes, and concerts. And there was always the school dances. several of them every year, and then the stake, or church, dances on top of those. Lichee, and Rochelle, and Tammy, and Malina, and Josie, and Karen, and Katie, and Meranda, and Malinda, and Larena, and Gelin, and Cathy. So many dates, some friendly, all respectful. Mormon dating. A young gay kid going on chaste and friendly adventures.

Sometimes we were lectured on morality and chastity at church. There was an emphasis on no pornography, no masturbation, no heavy-petting, no making out. Dancing was allowed, so long as hands were placed appropriately. Boys were told to keep thoughts pure and to stay worthy for our future wives. Girls were told that virtue was important above all else, because no one would want damaged goods when there were undamaged ones around. Sexual sin was bad, bad, bad, and just being gay was sexual sin already. I would have to work that much harder to prove God loved me. I had to be worthy of a cure.

I started my mornings with scripture studies. I prayed throughout the day. I sang hymns in my head. I did my homework, got good grades, was kind to my fellow students, reached out to the outcast and the misunderstood, and performed service for those I loved. I went to church on Sundays, paid my tithing, went to Seminary daily. I was a great kid. But I was constantly attracted to other boys, and it made me ill, and I started wondering how much effort it would take to prove to God that I was worthy of the cure he’d promised.

Over the course of a few years, I went on several dates with a high school friend named Karen. She was vibrant, beautiful, spontaneous, and fun. She wasn’t shy about her interest, but I remained carefully distant from her. I pushed and pulled. I wanted to date her to see if I could, but I didn’t want to because I lacked interest and attraction. I must have baffled her as she had no idea about the war happening under my skin.

One day, we sat in my car and talked, and she confronted me, asking me if I was interested or not. I was, I explained, but had a lot going on. She said if I was interested, I should show it, I said I didn’t know how to do that. She said it was easy, I should just kiss her. And I said I wasn’t sure how to do that. I’d never done that before, I explained. She rolled her eyes.

“It isn’t that hard to do, Chad,” she said, and she got out of my car. I didn’t call her back, and two weeks later, she had a new boyfriend. More evidence that something was wrong with me. I felt weak. I begged God for help. But I kept getting nauseous, kept dating girls, kept shutting my own heart and thoughts down. If I focused hard enough on church and school, God would cure me. He’d finally hear me.

He had to. He just had to. What other option did I have?

The Mormon Church is a bully

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“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!”

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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.”

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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.

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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.