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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the Garden of Eat’n

 

Bev loomed over the table, hands on hips. “Ready to order?”

I did one last quick scan of the menu. “I’ll take the ‘Paradise Veggie Burger. Can I get it on wheat bread instead of a bun? And is a side of cottage cheese possible?”

She moved her tongue against the inside of her cheek and nodded. “Yup. Lettuce, tomato, pickle okay?”

“Yes, thank you.” I handed her my menu as she took the orders from Jason and Dave, my colleagues there on a work trip for me. Without another word, Bev turned back toward the kitchen to place our orders. She was a large woman, in black pants and a white shirt that was likely supposed to be tucked in. She had on heavy foundation but no blush or lipstick, and her dyed-red hair was slicked back. She was probably 50 years old, and had a wedding ring on her finger.

We made small talk as we waited for our order, and I recounted some of the stranger happenings during the day there in Fillmore, Utah, a small town just off the freeway in the center of the state. Earlier in the day, I’d stopped at a grocery store called Duane’s, one that still had a video check out counter, where the cashier had nearly fallen asleep while ringing up small purchases. After that, needing some electronic supplies, we had entered the local Radio Shack only to find some sort of craft store within. When we’d asked the woman working about it, she’d informed us that “Radio Shack went belly up years ago. We just haven’t taken the sign down yet.” Instead, we’d found our electronic supplies at a little home business that advertised computer repair, except the sign out front called it ‘Computor Repair,” making all of us chuckle.

Bev soon returned our plates of food. I placed my requested vegetables on top of the veggie patty and tucked the slices of bread around it, taking a hearty bite, and it was good if not great. We were at the only sit down, non-fast food restaurant in town, the Garden of Eat’n, and when we entered, Dave made the joke that the owners must be Adam and Eve, to which I responded that Adam and Steve were more likely. The place was nearly empty, except for a few older cowboys, and the four employees we had seen, including Bev, all looked as if they would rather be any place but here.

We continued chatting as we ate, then I took a spoonful of cottage cheese and placed it in my mouth. It… bubbled. It tasted carbonated, almost like it had been soaked in Sprite for a bit. It was odd, a bit sour, and popping. I set my spoon down, disconcerted.

“Oh, something is wrong with this.”

Jason leaned over and took a small bite of the cottage cheese from his fork. “Oh, yeah, that’s bad. That’s expired.”

I’d already swallowed the bite I had taken, which caused me worry as we had hours of work still ahead. I raised my hand into the air, signaling Bev.

“What is it?” she asked without smiling.

“I, um, I think the cottage cheese has gone bad.”

She reached down and plucked the bowl of my plate. “Yeah, I thought that might be the case.” Then she turned toward the kitchen to return it.

Jason and I made eye contact and he immediately started laughing.

“Wait, did she just admit she knew the cottage cheese was bad but she served it to me anyway? What–why would she–did she think I wouldn’t notice?”

Bev returned with a dish of cole slaw, one that was mediocre but I ate it all more out of necessity than hunger at this point. And soon she brought our check, plopping it down on the table without asking how our meal was or if we enjoyed our service.

I took the receipt up to the checkout counter where Rose, a skinny raven-haired 20-something took it from my hands, and asked, without inflection, how everything was.

“Um, it was fine, except I was served expired cottage cheese. Except I think she knew it was expired and served it anyway.”

Rose didn’t look up, processing the transaction. “I’m real sorry about that, want to leave a tip on the card?”

I had nothing to say to that, so I simply walked out, ignoring the jibes of my colleagues, though I was laughing myself. I nodded at them, telling them I was going to grab a cup of coffee before meeting them back at the station.

I walked across from the Garden of Eat’n to a gas station, where I found four pots of coffee inside. I found the attendant unloading boxes in one of the aisles and gave him a smile.

“Hey there, which one of these coffee pots is the freshest?”

The man’s expression shifted from a smile to a look that could only be described as “I-just-ran-over-your-dog-and-I-don’t-know-how-to-tell-you”. I grimaced, and he gave a grimace back, and I decided that maybe i didn’t need coffee after all.

As I walked out of the gas station, a woman walked in, and I heard the man enthusiastically greet her. “Hey, Lorraine, don’t forget Relief Society is tonight!”

And I couldn’t help but laugh out loud, somehow charmed by this bizarre life in a small town. Then I tasted the cottage cheese again and my smile left.

“Yeah, I thought that might be the case.”

Eatn

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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