Saturday, March 9, 2013

Growing up gay in the Mormon bubble

"Don't look under the Playstation," my friends cautioned. I was young, perhaps in fifth or sixth grade. Of course, how could I resist? Curiosity got the better of me and I looked. Underneath my friend's playstation was a picture of a woman's breasts. I immediately recoiled. "We told you not to look."

My childhood and teenage years were characterized with religious zeal. As a young teen, I was cautioned about the perils of premarital sex and pornography. Sex was, at that age, a topic that elicited giggles and awkwardness. "A condom is like a sheath for the penis," I read in a sex-ed textbook. "Oookay, that's all I need to know..." I said to myself as I slowly closed the book. After all, I wouldn't be needing condoms. I would save myself for that special woman that would be my wife for time and all eternity.

I knew what the term "gay" meant. Nobody ever explained it to me, but somehow from the way it was joked about, I knew. My friends and I made liberal use of the word "gay" as a general derogatory term. When we played video games and lost, we might exclaim, "That's so gay!" or just "Gay!" to express disappointment at the outcome. I recall a few friends adopted the term "Jew" for much the same purpose. "Don't be such a Jew," they would say. This word selection seemed odd to me, but I thought nothing of it. "Retarded" and "dumb" were similarly used. I got the subtle message that such people, the homosexuals, the Jewish, the mentally handicapped, were undesirables. I believe one or two friends may have also used the term "nigger," but I always knew that race discrimination was wrong. I assumed that "nigger" and "Jew" were used almost jokingly. I doubt any of my friends harbored serious ill will towards these groups. "Gay," however, simply wasn't openly talked about at all, except in jest and insult.

The topic came up once or twice in religious Seminary meetings, probably during studies of the New Testament, particularly the Pauline epistles. (In light of the apostle Paul's homophobic remarks and views on marriage, I am now led to believe that he was himself a closet case.)

Still, little was said about homosexuality. All we really needed to know was that it is wrong and it destroys civilizations. Homosexual behavior, we were taught, is a perversion of the sacred powers of procreation that God has given us. We were told nothing about what makes someone feel sexually attracted to the same gender. Most students certainly couldn't fathom it. It was clearly a very bizarre thing to do, a crime against nature. How distorted and sinful one must be to stoop to such depths of perversion to satisfy sexual desire.

This line of reasoning made perfect sense to me. I just filed homosexual sin right alongside heterosexual fornication and adultery. These thoughts disgusted me. I held women in high regard; I would never dream of making such a mistake with a woman. I respected women too much, I respected myself too much, I respected God too much to fall into such transgression. This attitude I ascribed to personal righteousness and devotion. Now I see that there was perhaps another element that influenced my feelings on the matter.

Despite this rhetoric, I still had a sense that "gay" people were essentially different. A few rare guys I knew did not behave very... manly. A "theater geek" or two, perhaps. I, in contrast, was very math and science oriented. Gay people like shopping. They like to look fabulous. They like cleanliness to the point of being OCD. None of these things described me. I did love to sing and play the piano, but this is hardly unusual for a Mormon boy.

I recall one evening at the dinner table. I made a remark in an effeminate voice, mostly as a joke. My mother told me not to do that, even jokingly, because it could quickly become habit. And I wouldn't want anyone to think I was... like that. Mormonism encourages very traditional gender roles. The man is the breadwinner and the muscle, while the woman is the homemaker and caretaker of children. It was the men's responsibility to ask women on dates. This baffled me. In our age of gender equality, why should dating be so lopsided? My future wife and I would be equals.

Perhaps part of the reason I felt this way was because of my lack of interest in dating. I just didn't see the point. Sure, I went to prom, because that's what you're supposed to do. I had a great, chaste evening  both times I went to prom, with women that I really admired. (One per prom! Mormons don't do polygamy these days.) I knew that I was supposed to eventually find an eternal companion, a woman to spend the rest of my life with, and more than that, the rest of eternity, too! But prior to serving a religious two-year mission (which is expected of every faithful Mormon boy) this seemed utterly unimportant to me. The other boys that seemed to feel... urges sooner than I; dating was for them. To kiss, to cuddle, to satisfy their early-onset need to be with a woman. But me, I could wait. I had no trouble putting off courtship until after the all-important missionary service.

During those teenage years, I never felt "tempted" to look at a woman "inappropriately." I didn't seem to see women the same way my friends did. I attributed this to personal righteousness, all that prayer and scripture study was surely paying off! My reaction to even the slightest hint of pornography was the same as my reaction as a young boy to the picture under the Playstation. From a religious point of view, this was good. This was the correct response: being so close to the Holy Ghost that even the very thought of evil was repulsive. I could pat myself on the back for living a chaste life, for not falling to that devastating sin of premarital sex. My lack of sexual feelings for women could be written off as righteousness. But, what about my attraction to men?

Well, there was simply nothing to be done with that feeling. My world view simply didn't admit it. The nature of homosexuality was so taboo, so mischaracterized, that for a long time I simply didn't see it for what it was. I knew something was different about me. I didn't feel the urge to go out on dates or make out with girls or any of that stuff. A few friends had girlfriends. Others talked about girls' beauty or attractiveness. Some, like me, did not. Most of this latter group were surely straight. We all develop sexual urges at different rates. Mine probably developed later rather than sooner.

The Mormon view I grew up with depicted homosexuality as a dead end. Homosexual behavior was the result of abandoning God and succumbing to one's carnal desires, leading to a chaotic end and meaningless life of promiscuity, STDs, drugs, and alcohol. This could not possibly be the life for me, a valiant and faithful son of God, one of the few chosen people to have been born and raised in the one true church of God. I did not see this as arrogant; I was humbled and honored to be entrusted with so great a blessing and responsibility.

I was destined for greatness. I grasped the teachings of the church quickly and easily. I thought carefully and responded thoughtfully to teachers' questions in Sunday School. I was a "spiritual" person. I had, by the age of 14, read the Book of Mormon, cover to cover, and received spiritual confirmation that it was true. My parents were (and still are!) stellar Mormons, and of course, just wonderful people in general. My older sister was an exemplary young woman. She was like my second mother. When we were very young, she would come back from school and teach me the things she learned: rudimentary reading, writing, and possibly arithmetic.

I loved learning. Church and school were both places where I could excel. Meanwhile, basketball, football, baseball, and soccer were all second-rate in my eyes. Sure, I enjoyed a little soccer now and then, but the other boys' fascination with football and basketball perplexed me. I preferred video games, and could play them for hours on end. I settled on tennis, which I quite enjoyed. I was on the high school junior varsity tennis team, which was a lot of fun.

I was ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood at 12 years of age, as are most Mormon boys. I served in various quorum presidencies, and was at one time the Teacher's Quorum President. I wasn't perfect, but these leadership opportunities taught me the importance of thinking about and caring about others. Life for a teen can become so very self-centered: with all the pressure there is to do well in high school (because it "actually counts" and affects your future) is it any wonder that teens feel like the world revolves around them? I am deeply grateful for the opportunities the church gave me to serve others and "forget myself."

As a young boy, I was short and skinny. Sometime around middle school I became roughly average height (still on the short side) but still was exceptionally thin. I disliked this, probably because I was easily displaced and pushed around as a child. I remember in elementary school my friends would pick me up from behind and carry me around. When I felt the need to assert control, I would kick my heel into their shin. This seemed dramatic and unwarranted to them, but was necessary at times to me. I remember one time at a boy scout day camp, a good friend was teasing me, holding my pencil up out of my reach. I bit his arm, not very hard, but it was weird.

During junior high years, the young men and young women occasionally went to the Bountiful Bubble for a swimming party. The boys would dunk each other, and again, I was easy pickings. There was only one or two other boys that I could manage to dunk by myself; I was too scrawny. I envied the stronger, heftier boys.

Perhaps innately, or perhaps out of necessity, I developed a very acquiescent personality. I became a people pleaser by a very early age. Almost everyone liked me. I craved acceptance and praise, and that is exactly what I got. I was the "good influence" friend that my friends' parents adored. Gay children sometimes turn out this way, because the receive a subtle message that they are flawed or "wrong" for having same-sex attraction, so they feel the need to make up for it, to prove that they are lovable.

Although I was well-liked, I still felt feeble, fragile. I was starting to fit into the "skinny white nerd" role, and though I prided myself in being the "intelligent" one, I was still dissatisfied about my physical stature. I envied the heftier boys. I stole glances while in the boys' locker room, wishing I could be more like them. The super muscular look never appealed to me, but with a moderate increase in fat and muscle, I could be less scrawny and more "normal."

Of course, the thought of working out bored me. I was an intellectual. I didn't want to become a "jock," focused on building muscle. I also wasn't particularly concerned with my own looks, since unlike the other boys, I was not naturally inclined to look good for the ladies.

Well, this being the turn of the millenium, I naturally turned to the internet for assistance. "How to gain weight," I queried. Of course, the internet is riddled with advice on how to lose weight, so I often found myself wading and sifting through mountains of drivel. I browsed various forums on building muscle, but was often put off by the hypermuscular ideal and pseudosciencey "jock" feel that such discussion boards carried.

I stumbled across a different kind of weight gain community: "gainers" and "encouragers." This was a male community with relatively diverse tastes, but an apparently similar goal to my own: to be less scrawny. The hyper muscular look was not the goal here. Finally, I had found some like-minded individuals. (Little did I realize how like minded we truly were.) I loved seeing pictures posted to these sorts of websites: men who had successfully put on weight. It was like the reverse of those various weight loss before and after images. I was fascinated by these sorts of counter-culture success stories. I looked at these images and thought to myself, "I want to be like that."

As I learned to refine my internet searches to locate this community, I also learned that this area was riddled with male pornography. I learned to used advanced search features to weed out websites that referred to sexual terms. I wasn't interested in porn. And yet, when I reviewed these images of shirtless, beefy men, I felt good. I was aroused. But I told myself that I was looking at them to remind myself that I was not alone in my desire to put on weight.

I came to understand that the community I was mentally associating myself with was gay: it was apparently a sub-culture of the "bear" community, which idealizes a "manly" gay man over the stereotypical effeminate high-fashion gay man. But it wasn't necessarily gay, I told myself. My internet searches also led me to find things such as BBW and fat acceptance. I didn't know what to make of my sexual arousal at seeing shirtless guys, so I just tried to ignore it, although I kept coming back for more.

Eventually my parents confronted me about it. Since wanting to gain weight was so strange,  and the pictures that I had looked at were embarrassing to me, I would never do it while others were around. But one way or another, they found out. And despite my attempts to avoid images depicting genitals, I could never completely avoid them. I was worried that they had first confronted my older sister about it, but did not voice this concern. I explained to my parents about how I wanted to be fatter, and how I had used search features to avoid rather than locate sexual content, which was absolutely true.

I don't recall exactly how the conversation went, but I do know that I omitted the part about being aroused. I didn't understand it myself, and of course that isn't why I was seeking out this community. I was no longer to look at those pictures, and was to pray about my desire to gain weight. It was one of those situations where your parents let you make your own choice, as long as you make the right one, which in this case was to abandon the silly notion.

Of course, none of this affected my physique as a teen. I was a picky eater, and in fact, eating just seemed like a chore, a tedious task to be completed each day. Throughout my teenage years and into my early twenties, I remained fairly skinny.

Being a stalward and faithful Mormon boy, I was naturally interested in EFY ("Especially For Youth," a week-long religious retreat for Mormon youth such as myself. I believe I went at ages 13 and 15 to BYU and BYU-Idaho, respectively). EFY is a time of short-lived pseudo-romance. Youth are separated into small groups of boys and girls, where each group is led by one male and one female counselor, usually a college student at the corresponding university. Inevitably, one or more pairs are formed between boys and girls from the group.

Being a young teen, I, like many other boys, hoped for a little romance. Mormons are encouraged not to date until age 16, but romantic pairings, especially in the limited context of EFY, often occurred earlier. One girl in my group noticed how shy and introverted I was, and decided to "crack" me. In truth it took little more than getting to know me and gaining my trust to loosen my tongue (to talk!). I noticed and reciprocated the extra attention from her. I explored my romantic desires, and was pleased by the idea of a loving companion. I kissed her on the hand, which somehow got miscommunicated to the other boys in my group, who applauded my manliness for stealing a kiss. I didn't bother to correct this misconception, since I enjoyed the validation, which rarely came to me in this form. There was a very real sense of appeal that this short-lived relationship had for me, but it was purely based on the comfort of a companion; in retrospect, I felt no sexual arousal towards my "girlfriend." Of course, I did not expect arousal to be involved; my religion provided and in fact encouraged a life of non-sexuality before marriage. Especially given the "strange" nature of my erections, I simply did not realize that this component might be important to or common for other boys in their relationships. Our culture (Mormon or not) certainly neglects to portray this basic element of romance, and encourages the obscuring of such an indicator, relegating the issue to awkward humorous scenes.

My next EFY led to a much different form of romance. I became very emotionally attached to one of the boys in our group. He and his brother were reluctant to be there; they had serious doubts about the church and their parents sent them to EFY as sort of a last-ditch effort to get them to "see the light." While the other people in the group seemed to slightly distance themselves from this boy when they detected the edge of cynicism in his voice, I instead befriended him. I took it upon myself to be his friend, somewhat similar to how my "girlfriend" from the other year had made me her pet project. I recall one evening, our group was in a classroom, and we took turns sharing our testimonies, as moved upon by the Holy Ghost. My friend exited a little early, and I followed him to his dorm. We talked. He revealed his doubts, and I bore my testimony. At one point, he got emotional and seemed to be in distress. I specifically remember throwing my scriptures (which for that week had practically become an extension of my hand) onto his bed and beckoning for an embrace. We hugged. I had an erection. I remember feeling annoyed by this. Why did my body have to have that random reaction now? A few days later I confronted him and asked him if he had felt the Spirit yet that week. He lied, and said, "Yeah, I did feel something." It was an obvious cop-out, but for some reason I believed him. I followed his blog for a short time afterwards and was deeply disappointed to see him breaking commandments and further distancing himself from the church. I couldn't stop thinking about him. I had become extremely attached.

I reported this experience (sans the arousal, of course) to my seminary class as an opener to a lecture entitled "Godly Sorrow." The day's lecture was on sorrow for sin which leads to repentance, but I had misinterpreted the purpose of the title to mean "sorrow like that which God feels when his children go astray." I believe one of my few "nemeses" was present in that class. This particular nemesis likely recognized my unusual emotional attachment to this other boy for what it was, and occasionally called me "gay" thereafter. I never quite made the connection, and simply assumed that he was using the term as a generic insult, though I did notice that this was apparently his insult of choice for me. In retrospect, he may not have even intended insult; perhaps he was simply calling out the unusual.

In junior high, I had a secret (female) admirer for a short time. She left a note or two in my locker, and for Easter she left a pink stuffed bunny riddled with white hearts. I was flattered, although the bunny was a bit weird. Somehow I discovered who it was. I did not reciprocate the little acts of love, but at the next school dance, I asked her to dance with me. She asked if my friends had put me up to it. I assured her that it was of my own free will. She was a fine young woman, and for me, there was always a sense of formality and conforming to social norms connected with asking a girl to dance. I did not realize that perhaps some people were motivated by a basic physical attraction; for me it was all theatrical - political, even - and this fit well into my intellectual and pious worldview.

Around my 16th birthday, my parents agreed to get a car for me to drive, once I completed my Eagle Scout award. I earned the award, and we got a used white Mustang. The "terms" were unclear, but part of the expectation was that I would use the car for Junior Prom. I had an idea of who I wanted to ask to the prom, but the appeal was again theoretical, political, and social, rather than a basic natural desire to be physically close to someone. I again noticed that other teens were more interested in the idea of the prom than I was. I again failed to notice that this was probably due to my sexuality. My date confronted me and asked me if I had indeed asked her out only for the sake of having the car. I assured her that it was due to sincere interest, and indeed it was, as sincere an interest as I could have (and have ever had) in a woman. I can only wonder how my date heard about my parents' conditions. I can only wonder how many of my peers suspected that I was gay. At the time, I was totally oblivious.

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