“I try to focus on the positive,” Adam tells me. His body leans forward in the chair as if his thin frame will add heft to a statement that his eyes don’t support. “I’m fine.”
Outside my office windows, the campus sits brown and empty. Late fall is the only time of year when northern Utah loses its beauty. Snow has not yet covered the mountains that rise all around us. Bereft of leaves and birds, they huddle closer to the ground. The semester has hit the same brown patch as the season, far from the beginning but not close enough to the end to count. The radiator bangs to life, pinging like a mechanical heart.
“I know of someone you can talk to,” I say. “Her voice mail is password protected. Any message you left would be safe.”
“Thanks,” he says, “but I’m fine.”
I return to his essay, the sheaf of paper bending in my hand, and read my comments asking him to “flesh things out” or “set the scene.” These questions of craft feel like another shore at this moment, an island distant and foreign. What I want to do is shake him, beg him to leave the valley, head for the coast. What I want to do is hold him in my arms and tell him that everything will be okay. But I don’t. We sit in silence, the radiator’s last beat echoing down the hall.
“I’m worried about you.”
He laughs nervously and shakes his head, then wipes his hands up and down his jeans to scrub an invisible stain.
I can’t tell him I am worried he will kill himself. I have said as much to other students, but I knew them better. Adam is buried in his down-filled coat, far away from me. I think about giving him the statistics for gay teen suicide, pointing out the fact that Utah’s numbers are among the highest in the country, but figures wouldn’t matter in this conversation.
“Okay,” I say and push my rolling office chair toward the bookcase, wishing I could keep on pushing it, out the window, into the sky, and then up over these mountains with their 1,000-year-old juniper hunkering into otherwise barren south faces, to a place with more color, more moisture, more oxygen, a place where I could fill my lungs with more air and less God.
Before leaving my office, Adam will take the piece of paper with the phone number on it. I will watch him shove the folded note into his backpack with his books, a laptop, and several worn spiral notebooks. I imagine it is still there.
I am in the grocery store, standing in the checkout line. As I often do, I scan the headlines of the magazines to keep abreast of the Beautiful People’s latest misfortunes. The magazine rack is filled with the titles you would expect, though many of the covers are concealed behind squares of brown plastic. Instead of seeing the cover of Vogue, I read the title in white letters across the plastic sheet. Good Housekeeping is plainly visible, as is Family Circle. The magazines that are concealed are those that reveal women and their skin.
Just how much skin matters is a calculus I have tried to work out in the 10 years I have lived in this predominately Mormon state. What I have learned is that bare shoulders and midriffs are unacceptable, but arms are okay. Legs must be covered from the knees up. It has been a decade since I have seen Elle or Self or Cosmo sitting out in plain view.
Years ago I taught a class on gender. I asked the students to read an issue of YM, a now-defunct teen girls magazine, and come to class prepared to talk about images of girlhood portrayed by the media. Before class that day, a student of mine, Brent, came up to me, the magazine rolled in his hand like a club.
“I just wanted to let you know that my wife made the magazine okay for me to look at.” He met my eyes.
“Okay?” I asked. “Okay, how?”
Then he uncurled the glossy magazine and showed me the pages. His wife had lovingly taken her Sharpie to every page, every ad, every image and added cap sleeves, moderate necklines, and knee-length dresses. She had made it all acceptable.
Standing in the grocery store, the fluorescent lights above me harsh and cold, I think about the murdered pages of Brent’s YM. I see the glint in his eyes as he explained how he had gone out to his garage the night before and located his electric drill so that he could drill a hole in the cover, right through Britney Spears’s forehead. The person in front of me finishes, and my groceries move forward on the belt. As I have done many times before, I remove the plastic shields from every magazine in checkout aisle number 9 and leave a quivering sea of flesh in my wake.
Adam’s essay begins when he is 15 and mowing the lawn one afternoon. As his father’s car makes its way up the driveway, Adam can smell the stench long before the car stops in front of him. His father tells him that the kittens Adam has been nursing the past few weeks climbed up into the engine of the car and died there. It is up to Adam to get them out. He slides under the car, face only inches from the engine, and pulls bits of kitten from the metal, the flesh popping with the release of pressure, maggots falling to the ground. At one point, he stumbles out, gasping for breath, begging his father to take the task from him, only to return to what he describes as a second world, a darker one, one full of stain, stench, and displeasure. In the end, he stands before his father bloodied and undone. The reflection from his father’s white shirt almost blinds him after his time under the engine.
In the next scene, Adam reveals he is gay and Mormon.
Almost three out of four people in Utah are Mormon, but you can’t fully understand what that means until you live here. Knowing that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is one of the fastest growing in the world with more than 14 million members, or watching Big Love on HBO or The Book of Mormon on Broadway cannot prepare you. Even the intense media attention on Mormonism with the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman barely touches the surface of the faith. Mormons themselves who come to live in Utah from other parts of the country make the distinction between Mormons and Utah Mormons. The climate is so different here. In this theocracy, in a place Mormons refer to as Zion, I will always be an outsider, but I have made a kind of peace with the state. You have to if you want to remain. The peace is both hard earned and uneasy, tested continually. And it has been the stance of the LDS Church on homosexuality that has most recently challenged any goodwill I have fostered over the years.
By some estimates, the church contributed 40 percent of the funds collected to pass Proposition 8, a ballot initiative in 2008 ensuring that marriage in California would be limited to a man and a woman. When passed, it overturned an earlier California Supreme Court ruling that had allowed same-sex couples to marry. Church members were encouraged to drive to California and campaign for Prop. 8 in person, to stand on corners with signs, to plaster the state with flyers. In the aftermath, the church found itself having to explain its actions, in particular how being against same-sex marriage was not the same thing as being against gays.
In official documents, the church takes pains to describe the place of its gay members. Leaders don’t deny that same-sex “inclinations” might exist, though church leaders are quick to point out that “gratefully … same-gender attraction did not exist in the pre-earth life and neither will it exist in the next life.” The late Gordon B. Hinckley, a past president of the church and as its prophet the one who spoke for God, said that gay Mormons could obtain every other reward promised to all good Mormons as long as they didn’t act on their homosexuality. Gays and lesbians were free to remain in the church, serve a mission, and conduct temple work as long as they could “control” their “inclinations.”
My partner, Michael, and I had lived in Zion for only a few weeks when Ezekiel paid us his first visit. Close to 90 and crippled by arthritis, Ezekiel was our neighbor to the south. It always took him almost half an hour to walk the stretch of lawn between our houses, each step slow and calculated. When he got to the concrete steps of our porch, he would fall to his knees, then climb the stairs to ring the bell. Upon learning we were nonbelievers, he arrived monthly, often bearing produce from his garden along with his testimony.
We tolerated his visits because we had just moved to the neighborhood and didn’t want to offend. But his persistence became annoying. “If you read the Book of Mormon with an open heart,” he would say, “then you will know it is true.” Some days he would describe how often he prayed for us; other days, the temple work his wife was doing in our name. Pamphlets were wedged in our door, paperback copies of Mormon literature left on our steps. Michael and I would find ourselves hiding in our own house, asking, “Do you think he’s still there?” I threw the zucchini away, along with the books. I felt that accepting anything from him meant accepting all of it.
One day, perhaps not long after a student called me a feminazi on my teaching evaluations, I watched Ezekiel from the window as he walked toward our house, his hands empty this time. Instead of hiding in the upstairs study, I opened the door before he could even ring, just as he picked up his body from the ground. “Come in,” I said. I helped him up the stairs to the living room. I could feel the thin bones in his arms, the push of his ribs. He was a sack of a man. At any other moment, such fragility in a human being would have cast me back on my own mortality. Now his efforts just incensed me.
He collapsed into the couch, back rounded like a child’s, his breath still coming quickly. I offered him water, the only beverage in the house I knew he was allowed to drink. As I filled his glass in the kitchen, I imagined him looking around the room at the figures of Buddha and Shiva on the bookshelf, the temple rubbings from Thailand, the Sanskrit wall hangings. We had no picture of Joseph Smith, no set of wooden blocks spelling out “Family” or “Love,” no American flags. We had no television. Any direction he looked would have unsettled him. When I returned to the living room, he gazed steadily at his shoes.
“Have you read the books I have given you?” he asked, taking the glass from me. I noticed his hand shook, the water sloshing at the rim. “Have you prayed on them?”
Standing in front of his broken form, my urge was to undress, to throw my clothes off and stand naked in front of him, feel the weak sun shining through the picture window on my bare skin. I wanted to be seen. I wanted him to take notice of who I was, not someone to convert, but someone who could refuse his version of salvation and still not be lost.
While he continued to talk about Scripture, I brought my hands to the bottom of my T-shirt, felt the raw edge of the fabric, lifted the hem. I imagined my nakedness blinding him, imagined him shielding his gaze from my breasts.
Then I looked closer at his eyes, rheumy and white. Arthritis alone wasn’t responsible for his agonizing journey to our house. I would never be seen.
Clothed and standing, I screamed, “We don’t want to become Mormon!” He flinched, drew his hand to his chest, and was silent.
The same fall Adam wrote his essay, I invited a panel of students to speak to a different class. We had just finished reading Mark Doty’s Firebird, and I wanted my students to hear their peers describe similar feelings of self-hatred and prejudice. The panel consisted of gay, lesbian, and bi students from campus and was moderated by the program coordinator from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Ally (GLBTA) Services. The five of them sat before my class, several sporting tattoos and piercings, most wearing black. The room was silent as the panelists introduced themselves.
“I’m Steven,” the first student began, “and I identify as gay.”
“My name is Miranda,” the next took up, “and I identify as bi.”
All 30 pairs of eyes trained on these brave 20-somethings. I sat to the side, pencil in hand, and realized I was holding my breath.
The panelists spoke for 45 minutes and then asked for questions. To my surprise, many hands went up. Toward the end of the period I posed a question of my own. “Do you feel safe in Logan?” I asked, about a town where most residents never lock their doors.
The panelists all looked to Amanda, a white woman with long, brown dreadlocks who sat in the middle of their group. She took a breath and began.
Originally from the Washington, D.C., area, Amanda moved to Logan seven or eight years ago with her partner. At the time her hair was short and her skin without tattoos. One afternoon shortly after her arrival, she was walking home from work, not three blocks from where I live now, smack in the center of Logan. She wore jeans and a T-shirt. Two men in a pickup truck pulled to the side of the road. They leapt from the truck and started beating her, yelling “dyke,” yelling “bitch.” Cars drove past, and drivers did nothing. The mountains watched in silence. In broad daylight, near the neighborhood quick mart, only two blocks from the university, Amanda was beaten until she broke free and ran for home.
The next week when the men stopped Amanda, they had baseball bats.
Beaten nearly to death by repeated blows, Amanda stumbled home through the back yards of churchgoing folk. No one came out to help. No one so much as cracked a window. No one called the police. Nobody asked her, blood dripping from her nose, her cheeks, if she was okay. When later she told the police that her attackers had called “Dyke!” between blows, one officer responded, “Boys will be boys.”
Like many Christians, Mormons have a strong belief in eternity. Their belief in the next life shapes and controls their actions in this life, such that earthly existence becomes almost a means to an end. When a Mormon man and woman are married in the temple, they are “sealed” to one another for “time and all eternity.” Their children are “sealed” to them as well, so they enter their marriage believing that their family will be together forever.
For them, evidence of the world’s corruption is all around us, in those magazine covers, in R-rated movies, in men having sex with men. But in the celestial kingdom all will be restored. So, for example, if your child has Down’s syndrome in this life, then in the celestial kingdom her body will be made whole. If your child is gay, as long as he never acts on his homosexuality and remains a church member in good standing, in the celestial kingdom he will marry a woman and populate the world with spirit children.
When you are 20, eternity has a fairly strong pull on you, especially if all your family will be hanging out in the celestial kingdom forever. The promise of a whole body is compelling when you are taught that the body you have is impure.
Adam has made the choice, for now, to stay in the church and focus on other things in his life. When he told his father he was gay, his father stayed on script and said he loved him no matter what. He then described how the church could keep Adam strong. Life was short, he said, but eternity was long. They drove together in the car, trees flashing past them in the dusk, the silence thick but familiar. In the version I remember, Adam’s father then revealed his own struggles with impurity—porn addiction. Utah has the highest Internet pornography subscription rate in the country, another product of the fierce sexual repression and almost a cliché. But Adam says I am confusing his story with someone else’s. His father might have a porn addiction, but he doesn’t know anything about it. After 10 years of hearing them, my students’ stories have begun to blur together into a single scene of suffering set in a car, streetlights marking bars on the pavement.
Adam ends his essay by looking out over the lights of the city and noticing a sickly yellow light amid all the white ones. He is, he says, that sickly yellow light. He is the one stained, the one in hell under the car, maggots falling all around him. He is the one who can no longer breathe.
My reassurance that his sexuality is both natural and acceptable cannot change the fact that when he sits in church, he is told that his feelings are immoral. He will be redeemed, he is told, he will be made whole. He only has to sacrifice this one life.
The first time missionaries came to our door, Michael and I had moved to an even more rural area, in a house that sat across from an LDS church. The local bishop had visited to tell us that the fact that we weren’t married would lead us to certain ruin, but for the most part we had been left alone once word got around that we were nonbelievers. Which is why I was surprised when I opened the door that afternoon to the two missionaries. Although there are more than 50,000 full-time LDS missionaries in the world, serving in 340 missions worldwide, you don’t typically see them in Utah. Still, each and every baptism is worth seeking. In 2009, the LDS Church converted 280,106 people. It was possible that Michael and I could be numbers 280,107 and 280,108.
“Hello,” they said in unison, grinning with the sun. “I’m Elder Beck, and this is Elder Smith. What’s your name?”
“I’m not becoming Mormon,” I said.
I had been baking, and flour dusted the front of my shirt and the tops of my shoes. I could feel the bread dough drying between my fingers, cracking like a second skin. I kept my hands behind my back so that I wouldn’t have to shake theirs. The two men were young, 19 I would guess, with short-cropped hair and acne. They wore ill-fitting suits with padded shoulders and pants unevenly hemmed. One had black Reeboks on his feet, the other a pair of scuffed loafers. I saw no bikes, so I assumed they were walking their route that day, even though houses in the area were a good half-mile apart. It would have taken a lot of energy to seek us out, the only non-Mormons for miles.
“This sure is a nice house,” the Reebok wearer said. He was apparently the one in the pair who, according to the standard arrangement, had been in the field six months longer and therefore had seniority. His twin looked around the yard, nodding his head.
“Can we come in?” the senior missionary asked.
The fear I had nursed by my outsiderness had hardened into a shell of hatred by then, four years after our move to Zion.
“No,” I said, “you can’t.” The porch boards creaked under the weight of the shifting missionaries, and my skin cracked with dough. “And another thing,” I continued, “I don’t know why you think you have the right to come to my house, interrupt my day, my bread, whatever it is I am doing, and tell me what I should believe.”
The senior partner began to object, held his hands up, took a step back.
“I don’t go to your house! I don’t travel halfway across the country to go to your house and tell you what I think you should believe. I don’t say I think you treat your women unfairly. I don’t try and persuade you to become a feminist or an environmentalist or a Democrat. I don’t try and convince you to spend less time baptizing the dead and more time engaging with the world of ideas.”
By now, the two missionaries, kids really, though at the time they felt like the machine itself, had backed away from the door. They didn’t argue, didn’t get angry. They had been trained not to engage.
“How dare you come to my house!” I yelled, aware my voice was shaking. “How dare you knock on my door!” My last words fell on their suited backs. Their rubber-soled shoes made hardly a sound on the concrete as they returned to the road. I watched them carefully latch the gate behind.
The same fall that Adam came to my office, an LDS Church official, Elder Dallin Oaks, gave a speech to the students at Brigham Young University-Idaho. His topic: religious freedom. In the speech, he worries that “the vitality of religious freedom is in danger” and urges his listeners to prepare for a new battle. Mormons, he suggests, are the subject of unparalleled religious persecution and “aggressive intimidation” in the fallout from the Proposition 8 debate. They are an “unpopular minority religion,” he says, even in the face of the church’s rapid, global expansion. They have to fight against this persecution.
Toward the end of his speech, Elder Oaks compares the struggle of LDS members to that of southern blacks during the civil rights movement. In this scenario, Mormons, who funded the effort to deny same-sex partners the civil right to marry, are likened to a people who faced generations of persecution. What Elder Oaks doesn’t say but leaves for his listeners to infer is that nonbelievers are the ones burning crosses on their lawns.
What causes two men to drive their pickup down the central street of a university campus yelling, “Fag! Fag! Fag!”—something my five-year-old son, Aidan, and I witnessed while walking through campus on the way to his swimming lesson? Who are they yelling at? Who do they hope will hear? I used to believe it was hatred that caused such actions, pure undiluted rage. But I have lived here long enough to understand the power of fear. Such behavior, I imagine, begins in the grocery store where images of bodies are concealed and sexuality is contained. It begins at the kitchen table where your father cracks gay jokes. It is furthered at school where the teachers allow kids to call each other fag. It grows into a hot flame in the church pew on Sunday where you are told that the door to eternity is narrow and policed, where the lines between lost and saved are engraved into your skin. All of that fear must go somewhere. It cannot be contained. And so it erupts in ignorance and baseball bats.
I also understand the origins of hatred because of how bright my own anger glowed in the first few years I lived here. I understand how fear gets fueled, feeds on itself, becomes such a dark and scary thing that it suffocates any possibility of conversation, any possibility of change. At the moment I slammed the door on the backs of the two missionaries, flour sifting to the floor and covering my shoes, I didn’t feel vindicated; I felt empty. It would take several years for me to admit this sadness, an awareness of my complicity in perpetuating an us-them dichotomy. The acknowledgment of my own prejudice would begin with my students.
A few years ago, a student named Linda wrote about her bulimia in my creative nonfiction class, the way she struggled to hide her vomiting from her sister missionaries, a difficulty given that one rule of LDS mission work is that a missionary can never be alone. Linda was serving her two-year mission in Brazil, knocking on doors and bearing her testimony. She described the heat and the twisting vegetation around her. She described the days of rejection, doors slammed in her face, curses flung from windows like rocks. She took us into the stifling bathroom with her, where in her loneliness she purged every bite of apple, every piece of bread. With her, we ran circles on the tiny balcony of her apartment above the jungle, laps to burn any calories that might remain. And when she was sent home a year early from her mission, we, too, could not meet the eyes of her family at the airport, shame surging like a wind through our empty bellies.
As a teenager, I too suffered from an eating disorder, so I read Linda’s story as a physical struggle rather than a spiritual one. That Linda was a missionary mattered less to me than the familiar battle she had fought with her own flesh. I saw her as someone like me, rather than someone who scorned me. For once, it didn’t matter what she or I did with our Sundays.
This realization didn’t mean I then sanctioned the LDS Church’s enormous missionary undertaking or its stance on homosexuality. It didn’t mean that all of a sudden I could read the local newspaper without anger. It didn’t mean that my feelings about the church changed in any way. Rather, it was just one of many moments over the years when I realized that the church and the people who populate it aren’t the same thing.
Brandon was in the same creative writing class as Adam in the fall of 2009. Like Adam, he is gay. Unlike Adam, he has left the church. In his essay, he wrote about being noosed with a rope and dragged by the neck around his high school’s auditorium stage because his peers suspected his sexuality. His journey out of the church began with his entry into the gay Mormon subculture. Groups have formed for LDS members who are gay and want to stay in the church. Brandon might tell you that these groups are the first step out, even though many are church sanctioned. To gather in one room that many gays and lesbians, who are normally made to feel isolated, creates too much possibility. The pent-up sexual energy can easily transform the gathering into a kind of pickup scene. Those who succumb to the temptation, almost without realizing it, are no longer in good standing with the church, their eternal lives in the celestial kingdom forfeited.
The openly gay Mormon community came into existence in 1977 with the establishment of a group called Affirmation, a forum for gay Mormons and ex-Mormons who claim their sexuality while still celebrating “being part of the great Mormon tradition.” The LDS Church’s own approach to dealing with members who think they are gay is to reprogram them. Evergreen International is one place that helps with that. Though not officially a part of the church, Evergreen acts in “harmony” with it. As the group proclaims on its website, “If you want to diminish your same-gender attractions and avoid homosexual behavior, there is a way out.” The promise of escape from yourself.
Evergreen International aims to help church leaders and church members by providing the necessary resources for aiding those who “suffer” from same-sex attraction. It puts gay Mormons in touch with trained therapists who use reparative therapy and reorientation therapy to “diminish” same-sex attraction and help these individuals, many of whom are already married, become “clean.”
The essay Brandon wrote for the workshop that fall was about going on a mission and realizing he was gay. In it, he described in detail a sexual encounter with another man. At the time, he was still trying to go to church every Sunday, and much of the essay was about his inability to live a double life.
And there we sat on a fall afternoon in a state that is overwhelmingly Mormon, a fall in which Dallin Oaks had just delivered his call to arms, only a few months after the passage of the heavily church-funded Prop. 8: 20 students, among them, an openly gay woman; Adam, a closeted gay Mormon; and Brandon, a gay Mormon on his way out; plus me, their teacher, who was learning that tolerance is a common act, meaning it arises from common, everyday interactions. And it begins with the individual.
Our classroom was physically small, the smallest in the building, so the semicircle we formed with our desks was crowded and tight. At times, we touched our neighbors’ elbows and ankles. We each held a copy of Brandon’s essay in our hands. The night before, we had all read his lines at home. The sex scene was explicit, charged with an underlying self-hatred. In his writing, Brandon did not flinch from the oral sex, even though, in class, I could feel his nervousness. None of the student essays I’d read over the years had approached the rawness of what Brandon had written.
I began, “OK, what do we think is working well here?”
Then silence, but not an unusual silence, just the engaged silence of students thinking.
“It’s brave,” one student volunteered, a woman who only days before, I imagine, had been sitting in church while church leaders warned against the evils of gay marriage.
“Brave, how?” I pushed.
“Well,” she said, “what he writes about, his sexuality and his mission, most people wouldn’t admit to it.”
“So how does that help the writing?” I asked.
“We can’t look away,” she said. “It’s like you always say about nonfiction. When you write about something true, something real, the reader can’t look away.”
Other students nodded their heads in agreement, several of them looking to Brandon.
He had given us something from his life, this small story, this gift, and having read it, we empathized with his struggle. For a moment, the length of a breath, what was invisible had become seen for what it was. Less remained in the dark.
In November 2009, just a few weeks after I had talked with Adam in my office and the day before Amanda recounted her beatings, the LDS Church came out in support of proposed Salt Lake City laws that would prohibit discrimination against gays in housing and employment. It was the first step toward hate crime legislation, the first legal acknowledgment in Utah that gays are a protected class of people. Some conservatives were incensed by the decision and suggested the church supported the proposed legislation only as a public relations stunt after the Prop. 8 backlash. An LDS spokesman was quick to point out that the action was “consistent with the church’s prior position on such matters.” But it was a solid victory nevertheless.
The other day, missionaries returned to our house. We moved three years ago to be closer to town, to a university neighborhood in which we feel less ostracized, and this was the first time the church had officially visited us.
Snow fell the day the missionaries came. I watched them walk to our door, hoods held close to their faces. “Will you get it?” I said to Michael, who sat at the dining room table with the newspaper.
“No way,” he said, and I, too, wondered if we should hide. But every light in the house was on, and I was standing at the kitchen window in full view of the street. We have two boys now, Aidan and Kellen, who ran to the door when the visitors knocked. They jumped up and down at the possibility of guests on a cold winter’s day. With their eyes on me, I opened the door.
“Hello,” the pair said in unison, their shoulders fringed in white. Behind them, snow swirled in circles.
“That’s a cool picture,” one of them said, pointing behind me to the only slice of view I had given them into our house. “Where’s it from?”
“Look, guys,” I began, “we have lived in this valley for 10 years and aren’t interested in being Mormon.” I said it as a fact, rather than an accusation.
I thought of Brandon on his mission, thought of Adam as well, Linda running laps on her balcony, and the path I wanted my sons to learn to walk as they grew up in this valley. Even though the two men stood before me in dark suits and white shirts, wore name tags above their hearts that said they were from the LDS Church, I didn’t assume I knew them.
“Many of my students are missionaries,” I continued. “And they write about how hard it is to go from house to house knocking on doors all day. They say how disheartening it can be, how lonely. I only want to be clear that we aren’t interested in being Mormon.” And then I paused, the cold air bright and clean against my face. “But I do wish you the best.”
My son Kellen grabbed me from behind and pressed his body into my legs. Aidan danced in front of the plate-glass window.
“We just came by to borrow some flour,” one of the men quipped. And we all laughed.