5—Touching the closet door on the other side of the world
5—I was disappointed with Utah Mormons. Hormones, loneliness (and guilt) pushed me TO DISCOVER GAY BARS IN SALT LAKE CITY—A PLACE THAT STILL MEANS SO MUCH TO ME.
Salt Lake City, Utah, July ’97—Elder Larson, Shawn and other returned missionaries had to work, so I visited the Assembly Hall, the Tabernacle at Temple Square and the Church History Museum across the street on my own. I didn’t mind spending so much time alone, as it meant I could go contemplate the temple whenever I liked. I was in awe of its architecture, and of what it represented.
Last summer I had breakfast with a friend in SLC. He told me about his famous Mormon ancestors: the Cannons, ¹ before giving me a guided tour of the State Capitol. 19th Century Utah makes for the best epic drama with its colourful protagonists. It is the chapter of Mormon history that fascinates me the most. I love Utah’s old buildings, and I still look at the temple—completed in 1893 after 40 years of construction—with the same wide eyes.
Last weekend I had brunch with my friend who’s related to the Cannons, here, in Britain. He said that the inside of the Salt Lake temple was to be restored to its 19th century glory. “And, of course, there will be an open house before the re-dedication!” My heart leapt… I never thought I’d ever be able to visit the temple that I’ve loved for a quarter of a century!
Back in 1997 I often walked around the temple or sat outside. I’d look at it, filled with awe and pride. Mormons worship in LDS churches—which we call meeting houses—but I didn’t hold a temple recommend. That ID is issued after a successful ‘worthiness’ interview with the Stake President—like the Bishop in a Diocese—and is one’s passport to the most sacred place in Mormondom. Inside, members participate in Masonic-like sacred initiatory rites and other ceremonies for the living and the dead. Male members tend to go right before their mission (and females before marriage).
Coming out as a gay man led to my excommunication, so I’ve never been able to go, bar a modern European temple—and only to the basement where young people are baptised by proxy for the dead ³ in the large baptismal font—like a Jewish mikvah—and to a newly-built Utah temple a few years ago before its dedication. In a few years (God willing), I’ll finally enter the Salt Lake Temple. Whenever I get Downtown, I feel like I’m coming home. There’s an instant smile on my face and a tingle inside as I spot the famous sites I know, as well as several random places that conjure up intense memories. Episodes that are among the best in my life—and the worst too.
What struck me on my first visit—not so much now—was how different LDS members were compared to those in other places. Self-righteous, to be blunt, and with an incredible sense of entitlement. Some members were wonderful but how many others shocked me for coming across as spiteful and proud. It was something I had never experienced before!
Pushing that door would effectively shut the door of the temple for me. Was I aware of that?
Shawn’s friends looked down on me for not being of “Pioneer stock”—a descendant of Mormon pioneers. I pointed out that Joseph Smith, Brigham Young or John Taylor (the first three leaders of the Church) were all converts too—but the point was moot. Shawn would side with his friends when they made offensive comments. His father had defected from the Church, so I wondered if he acted so differently to make a point. At any rate, Shawn was no longer the rebellious missionary who had been such a close friend of mine, back in France. Here, he played by the book and tried to fit in at all costs, as if he needed to score points.
All Mormons believe in their special destiny. But I found the Saints in Texas were authentic and humble—like those in France. It sure was different in the arrogant Mormon Mecca. The LDS Church in Utah seemed to me a country club for perfect members. Maybe because they were in majority, and so everybody was judging their neighbour while fearing to be reported to the Bishop. I missed Texas.
After leaving San Antonio for SLC, I stopped in Dallas for the weekend to visit Grant, another returned missionary. Grant’s best friend lived in a big house that had a huge built-in bookcase in the spacious living-room. I read Brigham Young’s Teachings in a big, comfortable armchair. Even before I became a Fundamentalist in 2012, the old doctrines (and the old hymns) drew me in. With nice people and pure doctrine, I felt whole. Now, in Utah, the tension was palpable with Shawn’s friends. The only one I enjoyed meeting was Angie, who had red hair and reminded me of Tori Amos.
Tori’s music had now become my new form of escapism. Her defiant but vulnerable voice and her haunting piano transported me someplace else. Yet her work also forced me to deal with real and complex emotions I was beginning to process for the first time. Tori’s 90s work had a huge influence on me. It marked a turning point and became the soundtrack of that summer (and the next).
While in Dallas I never resorted to escapism. That coping mechanism had manifested itself at a very young age, I’m sure, in cartoons, but I became aware of it with Dallas—the groundbreaking show of the 80s—that I grew up watching with my family (or my Dad’s new family). I would take refuge in that alien world of eternal sunshine, wealth, big hair drama and resourcefulness. I was over the moon when Grant took me to Southfork Ranch before we met with his fantastic friends.
I was over the moon when I visited Salt Lake City CDs too. They had posters of Tori splashed across the walls, her CD singles and bootleg CDs in the racks. I bought the Crucify EP, with Tori’s cover of The Rolling Stones’ Angie and her rendition of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. I would play that CD all the time! I thought the female energy was real and inspiring; Shawn’s friends said it was “faggot music” as they barged in in the middle of the day.
It was nothing compared to what I had read in The Miracle of Forgiveness ³ that I had found at Shawn’s. No other book has ever made me feel as worthless in my entire life. It reinforced the notion I had that my own nature was shameful. I wished I could discuss this with someone. But all my friends here were LDS, and I wasn’t out to anyone back home. Bruce—the only gay man I knew— was in Texas (and he never picked up the phone).
I could no longer breathe in the basement apartment. I had to get some air. I walked down a few blocks. I got to Salt Lake City CDs and went inside, not to buy anything but to be among folks in a neutral place, and then I picked up a free newspaper on my way out. The sun was hot but I kept walking. I eventually got Downtown and I stopped at Temple Square.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that book. I needed to talk about my homosexual feelings and about what happened at Bruce’s apartment in San Antonio. The sister missionaries got me a Bishop. We sat in some office. The man was patient, and perfectly nice, but he said I needed to wait until I got back to France to disclose that information to my own Bishop. I could start repenting now, though.
I would walk the five miles to the west side of town again. Out of desperation; something hope and an incredible need.
I just could not face the guilt. Like I couldn’t face Shawn’s friends at the apartment today. Temple Square was like a safe space. I sat down and tried to relax. I opened that free paper I picked up at Salt Lake CDs. Some gay bars were advertised in it. The bars were only a few blocks away. Should I go? I felt a fear inside of me. I felt curiosity raging too.
I walked in the burning sun again until I got to the rail-tracks. Whatever pushed me to Bruce now pushed me to find those bars. A train was stationary. I jumped between two coaches and landed between two disaffected warehouses. This was the “wrong side of town.” But the grid system made it easy to find The Sun.
Yes, it was not how to start to repent, but the 21 year-old virgin’s hormones, the pain and desperate loneliness he couldn’t push aside led him to that door. Pushing this door would effectively shut the door of the temple for me. Was I aware of that? All I wanted was to see what those bars were like, to feel less alone with this. And to explore my sexual side too. I was afraid and my stomach hurt. I didn’t know what to expect. I could not see inside. No windows. Nothing like the straight bars in France.
I pushed the door.
On the other side the air conditioning soothed me a little but my stomach burned even more. I could feel my face burn too: I had got too much sun. My mouth was dry. I shook a little. The place was made of wood and red bricks, and was bigger than it looked from outside—with the highest ceiling above the largest bar I had ever seen. It was like in American films. The sweat on my back turned icy and a chill ran down my spine.”Can I help you? Nobody’s gonna show up before, at least, 9 p.m. tonight,” said the owner.
I had never been to a gay bar in my life. I was out again and the sun was so bright and felt so much worse after spending a couple of minutes indoors. A few blocks south was The Trapp. I decided to try that one too. Sitting in the corner, in the middle of nothing, it looked like a saloon in an old Western movie, all made of wood—with no windows either—like nothing I had seen before. I pushed the door, slightly less nervous this time.
It was so dark inside. The air conditioning was welcoming. The country music too. The old barmaid not so much: “You shouldn’t be here! This is a private club for members,” she shouted with a hoarse voice behind the bar, smoking a cigarette. I could see her now that my eyes were getting used to the darkness. The older guy sitting at the bar explained more kindly that, in Utah, bars were “private clubs for members.” Being from overseas, I could sign the register the first time, then get ‘a friend’ to ‘sponsor’ me.
Neon light beer signs and black and white framed posters of topless cowboys hung on the red brick walls. This place was much smaller than The Sun but I liked it. I was so thirsty but I didn’t dare asking for a glass of water. I asked the old hag at the bar if I could use the bathroom. She cried “No!” and the old patron told her off. After using the bathroom, I said “thank you” to the older guy and the sunlight blinded me as I walked out. I didn’t know it yet, but The Trapp would be the stage of watershed episodes that summer (and the next).
I walked the five miles back to Shawn’s. My feet hurt. I had burnt too. I finally got there, drank a pint of water and sat down on the couch on which I slept. Shawn emerged from the bathroom. “I’m going out,” he announced. He clearly no longer wanted to have anything to do with me at this stage.
I would be going out too. I would walk the five miles to the west side of town again. Out of desperation; something between hope and an incredible need.
The next day I went to the parade that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Mormons’ arrival in the valley where they founded the city that I love.
Some names have been changed when authorisation was not or could not be granted.