On a warm day toward the waning end of 1988 I was baptized into the Mormon church. The uniform for the occasion was a white jumpsuit which zipped all the way from my little eight-year-old crotch to my neck, wrapping my body in a warm cocoon of clean cotton. In the church changing room grown men—the fathers of the other kids being baptized—disrobed alongside me. Their large, muscular forms were the first I'd seen without clothes. It would be many years before I understood my attraction to them.
My turn came to enter the baptismal room, where my father waited already half submerged in water as an audience of family and strangers looked on from rows and rows of velvet-upholstered chairs. The chill of the baptismal font took my breath away, dipped beneath the water I came up to absolute silence aside the plop-plop of water dripping back into the font. I don’t know if I expected applause, as Mormons do not clap or exclaim during services, but the quiet seemed to punctuate the absence of any celebration.
Again we changed, this time into Sunday clothes and the ceremony concluded with a particular blessing Mormons think is unique to them but is actually quite common among all the religions which similarly sprang up during the so called Second Great Awakening that occurred in the United States during the early eighteen-hundreds. Later that evening a party was thrown in my honor and attended by aunts, uncles and cousins during which I received presents and made cardboard wings and enjoined my uncle to fly me around in circles. We played board games and ate until we couldn’t eat any more.
A few days later my mother sat me down at our dining-room table and placed an empty page from my journal to which she had taped a photo of me and my father taken right before my baptism, I in the white jump suit and he in his trim Sunday best. “Write about your baptism,” she said.
Pen in hand I set out to faithfully accomplish her request. ‘This is a picture of me when I was baptized,’ I wrote. It was concise, truthful, sufficient. "I'm done," I announced.
She took my page but the approval I anticipated was not forthcoming. “You need to write more," she said with a scowl. "Write about how you felt, about how special your baptism was. And you can’t get down until you’ve filled the entire page.”
What more could I possibly write? Grown-ups had made me enact a ritual which meant nothing to me, had no real meaning, or consequence, except what was inherent to the observers. My mother would not like to see that on paper. Actually, it seemed I understood baptism exactly for what it was, but being eight I assumed there was something I didn’t get, some secret of the universe which eluded my young mind. When my family came together to celebrate, the rare moment my distracted Father was proud of me—that was the part about which I would write, if I could. Unable to be honest about my skepticism yet unable to lie I decided to play up my gratefulness to my father, and cleverly increase the font size to quickly reach the bottom of the page. It was an obvious cop-out but who would call out an eight-year old for writing too big? The look on my Mother's face when I handed it in a second time was muted consternation. I had technically fulfilled my obligation but she was clearly frustrated in convincing me of the importance she thought I should weigh that day in my life. She didn't realize I perfectly understood it. I just didn't agree.
Years later, when I was almost twelve, I had my first orgasm. It happened under the sheets late one night while quarantined in a room with all five of my younger siblings. My father was currently remodeling the house we lived in, one-half entombed in a wall of clear plastic to keep the construction dust from contaminating what spare livable space remained. For a few years now we had been living like this, moving from one house to the next while tearing them apart and trying to eat, clean, and cook amongst the constant interruptions of electricians, plumbers, and drywall dust. My siblings didn't have as much trouble sleeping as I did, still tucked naively in the comfort of pre-adolescence. Not realizing what I was even doing, I suddenly I found myself in the alarming throes of an orgasm. It was amazing, like nothing I had ever experienced. I felt there should be more to it, as eleven is usually too young an age to ejaculate. It would be something with much importance and consequence on my life, jerking off, a tool with which I could bring myself rare comfort during the fast approaching tumult of my religion-addled adolescence and destabilizing family life.
That I discovered my sexuality so early is no coincidence—Mormons are obsessed with sex. It is spoken of with much frequency, though usually in the context of not having it, and even with the very young. Every Sunday there are lessons in which church leaders describe sex or variations on it, then demean and shame it and those considering its engagement who probably weren't even thinking of it until you brought it up in church but now it's all I can think about. I could not get away from discussion of sex even if I wanted to, and I often very much wanted to. Now that I am a grown man I recognize many of these adults as sexual predators, their fetish for exposing young people to eroticism veiled as religious instruction, enabled by a culture comfortable with shame and secrets. One creepy religious leader who often took to discussing sex behavior when leading our young men's group was later arrested for criminal sexual conduct at his place of work, having assaulted a female colleague and installed hidden cameras in the women's locker room at his place of work to record them in states of undress. As a concept, I first learned of homosexuality from my own father during our first sex talk in which he described anal sex between men. By that time I had already found myself attracted to boys, and I think he suspected and meant to warn me against acting on it, although, bless his heart, he never really had the meanness to outright condemn me and is the only reason we have any kind of a relationship to this day. But with the newfound knowledge that I could put my penis in another boy I was struck not by the possibility of penetrating one but in finding comfort from drawing so near, to think his smile could be meant for me, the touch of our skin during a warm embrace. A passionate kiss.
From there out my sexual development grew in secrecy, as I quickly recognized my religion’s disdain for those like me. As my parents and leaders indoctrinated us, I suffocated under the burden of my sexual orientation and the ruse of heteronormalcy I felt obligated to perform. Religions reduce sexuality to obscene physical acts, to mundane descriptions of our God-given bodies, invalidating the pure innocence of a person's ability to love another and robing participants from experiencing what it really means to love, even those who think they are doing what it right. The obvious reduction of women to mere physical roles is a serious consequence, but even straight men find themselves criticized for wanting to love someone, their God-given sexuality reduced to banal and disrespectful anectdotes. Robbed of an opportunity for real intimacy yet lacking courage to fight for themselves they then project their emotional isolation onto others in inappropriate ways. As a thirteen-year-old I once had to listen in silence to one of my child-abusing uncles describe a desire to kill a man who had hit on him while traveling, and watched in horror as my parents left such talk unchallenged though all of them had long suspected me to be gay.
Mormonism promised many things, but even before I left home I had discovered the emptiness of those promises and been hurt by every person important to me. Finally at eighteen I waded alone and inexperienced into the terrible world of humanity, to discover the harsh realities of life and no tools with which to survive or support group to catch me if I fell. The world beat me immediately. To what other conclustion could a boy like me come than that God didn’t exist, or that he did and hated me? Either option meant no God, and so it was, as it is for too many.
One dark night in 2001 I took a kitchen knife to my wrist. This is the solution reached by a tender-hearted boy who believed in everything. Surviving it, I found a determination to live in spite of my wounds and find a way to be happy. One thing became clear—I could not live life using the rules from my childhood. They had failed me completely. I had to find new rules which would actually help me live. I would spend the next fifteen years striving to discover what those could be. I would move to Los Angeles. I would make friends, lovers, and business associates. I would often act selfishly. Occasionally I fell prey to predatory individuals. I learned from meditation that peace comes when you are still. Drugs and alcohol brought joy and relief. From love I learned where I belonged, and from heartache even more so. The more I lived the more apparent the fallacy of my religious upbringing, further reinforced by the struggle of siblings, parents, friends, cousins, aunts and uncles who continued to grasp their religion only to find their happiness implode.
One day my own struggle finally culminated in the collapse of everything I had tried to build. Alone, abandoned without resources and friends (or so I thought), physically sick and headed toward death, few of my new rules held up. I had become an alcoholic (my article on The Cure for Alcoholism discusses what alcoholism is and what it isn't and what do about it), but that is not the point of this story. One requirement of the program that helped me recover, however, is to learn the true parameters of life, the exact bounds by which we are encompassed and not the ones which most of us wish to exist. The point was to accept whole-heartedly the conditions of my reality, desirably fallible and legitimately powerless. Like so many gay boys I had tried to be strong in the face of my adversity by excelling at whatever I attempted—school, athleticism, relationships, to show I was stronger than my adversaries but which brought further inexplicable demoralization. Now I was no longer at the mercy of people, places, and things, and for the first time in my life I could actually operate with success and without fear and sadness, logically within the limits of existence and stop stepping on the toes of everyone around me, no longer needing to force life to bend to my will, no longer a victim of my own expectations.
It was a daunting and uncharted direction, and worst of all the apparent validation I might give to the very people and institutions which had done me wrong, whom had all laid a claim to God. I made the decision anyway. Suddenly my life got easier. Before that time I had been responsible for nothing less than raising the very sun every single day. That’s a lot to have on one’s shoulders, especially when I can hardly remember to brush my teeth every morning, let alone excel at an impossible career, bend the favor of every man and woman I meet, or convince an unavailable parter I was worth loving. Previous to realizing the true nature of life I saw adversity as evidence of either no God or a God that disapproved of people. The reality I found is one who never forces any person to do anything. This is why terrible things are allowed to happen, and why the consequences of my own behavior piled upon my life whether I was trying or not. The wonderful truth is that I was never alone. Even when I was trying my best to destroy my life, I was given ways to escape, to heal, to get better, even when I didn't ask for them. Suddenly I saw reality for what it was, instead of the illusions put upon me from childhood. I suddenly found the ability to leave things as they are and focus only on what I am truly capable.
The most evil people I have ever met are those who will tell you God is not available to you. It is a lie which leverages our instinct to connect to something greater for another's personal gain. Believing them will rob you of a life full of joy, and peace even in the face of adversity. Like so many others I always had confused religious institution for God, when they are in fact as separate as a bagel is from cream cheese. They can go together but are not actually joined (yes, God is the cream cheese in this metaphor). I am a gay ex-Mormon and I have more God in my life than any person I have ever known, and I never go to church or read archaic texts.
Young people are finding more than ever that religion fails to live up to its own standards. Even the Mormon church has a "youth retention problem." If other people are anything like me, we grew up with promises of humanity, love, and kindness only to watch in horror as those leaders use the sacred to defame innocent children, demonize kind and loving people, stoke racial tensions and ignore mass murder. Is it any wonder the new generations eye these institutions with scorn, especially when God can be had without them?
These answers are easily found through personal-inventory. It's a practice that makes complete sense and is really easy to accomplish, yet hardly anyone has ever done it, least of all your religious leaders. If you have never learned how to do this a broad range of instructions can easily be found online by searching 'personal-inventory.' While associated with 12-step recovery programs, the exercise is really just serious mental health therapy. The practice diagrams your life experiences, separating out the events which influence your life from the ways in which you influence it, highlighting the cause of your hurts, who caused them, what effect they had, what part you played and lastly the personal character weaknesses which cause us to do things like continually dating the wrong person, worrying too much, or always overdrawing our bank account. It gives both legitimacy to your life experiences while helping you to separate yourself from events that may have been traumatic and saddled you with burdens you'd rather not be carrying and is hands down the most effective therapy I've ever encountered. Including fears in the inventory remedies preoccupation with things like death, social anxiety, and self destructive behaviors. What occurs when doing a self-inventory is enlightenment to exactly what parts of life we can control and have responsibly and what parts are left to fate. This suddenly relieves us of bearing the burdens of institutions, shame, and rejection and opens the space for peace, compassion, and love that we are all so desperately searching. While this practice has benefits for all, gay men and women and others rejected for being different may find this practice especially helpful for finding peace in themes of rejection, abandonment, violence, body image issues, sex shame, isolation, unrequited love, broken relationships, unmet expectations, and financial insecurity.
Personal Inventory PDF
Fear Inventory PDF
My upbringing said I had to be worthy of spirituality, but spirituality runs through everything. It is the undercurrent of all life, the power that brought us into consciousness is what we have always felt to be God. It is at our fingertips, and had easily through moments of quiet and reflection and internal dialogue. Our ancestors felt their spirituality no less powerfully than our contemporaries, not because any of them are inherently right but because whatever the divine is it clearly has no ego and cares not for anyone's conception of it. Better for those of us who have been cast out by the seething masses it cares not what their conception is either. Sadly, evil men have always used lies and deceit to sway influence, and so it still is. It does not mean they know God, as anyone who pays a little attention can plainly see.
Today I understand what is required of me, and what is not. Life is immeasurably easier, but also richer and wonderful. The great acrobatics to discover reasons for God or for Not God are over, no one who hurt me is right and I get a great comfort in living without a desire to know the future or the past, even when things go badly, and especially when they are good. In the years of my struggle I belived the lie that God only exists in religion. Man is the author of religion, and man is pretty much all that religion offers. God is found elsewhere. I have a connection to the ebb and flow of the great universe I thought was reserved for leathery old white men, whom I now realize do not actually have it, and so my once resentment of them has given way to compassion, because where I live is more wonderful than I ever believed was possible, and they will likely go to their grave still trying to believe they are better than others.
But don’t press me for a conception of God. She-Ra is probably the closest description I could give you. I mean, why shouldn’t the Master of the Universe be devastating in a white mini-skirt beneath gold armor, armed with a magic sword and hair piled high astride a rainbow-winged horse who speaks? To me that is a lot more impressive, and relatable, than an old, white man sporting a beard. It's certainly more like what I've come to know, and I very much prefer it.