5—Touching the closet door on the other side of the world
9—This post was difficult to write. This is about the aftermath of my American experience. It was a painful time. That summer remains a real turning point in my life.
France, October ’97—I had been disfellowshipped for two months now—a status between full fellowship in the Church and excommunication. I deserved it. I was still a virgin, but I had broken the Law of Chastity. As a convert, I knew full well was the rules were. This was a wake up call—and that’s what it was meant to be.
Could I ever go back to the way things were before? I had lost faith in Church members—in “humanity” even, I said back then, “because of Utahans” who seemed to compete to get the prize for self-righteousness. Besides, did I want to go back to the way it used to be? I had tasted freedom. I had let my self be. I was 21.
This was the perfect time to go inactive and leave the Church. But I never considered it to be an option. It’s only in Utah, where everybody was a member, that I struggled with the Church. I thrived in France with the opposition. This was the Church I believed in. I had a powerful testimony. Besides, I still wished I was not gay. I was not coming out. Repentance would be easier without the gay bars of Utah (as I wrongly assumed there were none here). In fact, there were no options for a closeted gay boy there, so I thought I had better repent and get right with the Church.
I knew some members judged me, even though they hadn’t been told the reason why I was disfellowshipped. I now sat next to Sister St John ¹ during Sacrament meeting (which I couldn’t partake of) and Family Home Evening with the other single members (on Mondays at the meetinghouse). The connection I once felt with the missionaries had stopped now that I was no longer a new member, but I felt a connection with her.
Sister St John once asked about the returned missionaries I stayed with in America. She and her companion were living in the Church-owned apartment (where Shawn used to stay) near my mother’s house, so I often walked them home. I remembered Shawn smiling over the phone when I called him a few weeks after his transfer. “No way, man! No freaking way!” He said I needed to come visit on his next ‘P-Day’—Preparation Day, his weekly day off. So I did. We went to that big park to lie in the grass after feeding “the freaking deer.” He talked about going to Paris together after his mission, and he was so excited for me to come to America: “Don’t get your driving license, so you have the money for the flight!”
But in America he threw me out in the street in the middle of the night. And I never saw him again. I didn’t tell the sisters that. I didn’t tell people because I wanted to protect the Church and its reputation, especially with non-members. I tried to avoid questions because I wanted to protect my own reputation too. I was kicked out for being “a deviant.” That night I’d kissed Chris. And even though I wished I was not gay, I did not wish to forget about kissing those men. Because that was the nicest thing ever. It was nothing like kissing girls. I didn’t tell the sisters that either. I told no one.
There were no options for a closeted gay boy there, so I thought I had better repent and get right with the Church.
The one person I had spoken to about all this was the Bishop, but to get punished. Of course, I spoke to the Lord too. A lot. But I still needed to ‘talk’ to human beings, though, and started to write novel about a woman—not a man—who falls in love with a gay man in the bars of Utah that I knew. I let a couple of friends read the first chapters. I dyed my hair burnt orange. The Bishop did not approve. But I’d wanted to do that for so long. I was becoming confident enough for that, and I also needed to externalise the riot I felt inside. Like the writing or the music I tried to learn on a keyboard the neighbours lent me, the hair colour was a coping mechanism, an attempt to process those intense feelings that had to remain silent.
“You have Joe’s eyes,” Sister St John observed one day. When I asked who Joe was, she said, “He’s a friend of mine back in Utah. He hurts inside, and he has the same sad look on his face.” I think she knew. Years later, she let on that Joe was indeed a gay Mormon too. Like him, I wanted to keep my religion.
I still wanted to go on a mission. University classes hadn’t started yet, so even though I was disfellowshipped, I went to teach with Sister St John and her companion. Investigators claimed to be touched by my testimony. It meant a lot: not only was I glad that I could help but it encouraged me to keep asking God for forgiveness. It meant I was not ‘damaged’.
But I was somewhat damaged. My panic attacks started again, and worse than ever. Spasms crippled me. I couldn’t stand up; I struggled to breathe. I wondered if it was divine punishment, probably making it all worse, not realising it was because of those attempts to kill one side of me. Particularly bad attacks forced Mother to call paramedics.
Nocturnal panic attacks (with or without paramedics’ Valium shots) made me lifeless, drained of all energy the next day. Too weak to read I would lie on my bed and listen to music. Tori was for introspection; Stevie was for energy. Because Stevie’s still virtually unknown as solo artist in France, I wonder if it was angels that placed the CD I heard at the Dear Hunter ² in the small basket of the second-hand shop where I’d found it.
The Other Side of the Mirror is not Stevie’s best album, but it’s still my favourite. (And like Alice) I couldn’t relate to anything or anyone, but I related to many of the lyrics I read in the booklet. Also, Two Kinds of Love was a duet with a man who had the exact same voice as Chris. “Well, it’s just another test… Because there are two kinds of love: one for the way you walk; one for the way you love me.” But it was Doing the Best I Can that I had on repeat until I felt galvanised.
I wondered if it was divine punishment, probably making it all worse.
Whenever the weather was clement enough, I’d go outside to feel the autumn sun on my face. That too helped me feel less numb. On one such occasion, I was read the Scriptures when a relative from out of town came sit next to me. She softly said, “Be strong… It will get better.” I looked to the ground. It was the nicest thing anyone said to me. “You’ll need to find a girl who has suffered as much as you have, so she can understand you.” I couldn’t speak.
And then I was told Sister St John was no longer allowed to speak to me. Her ‘inspired’ Mission President considered it inappropriate for a member of the opposite sex to be friendly with her. I might want to seduce her. She had been the one ally who helped me remain anchored to the Church, so I didn’t find that funny.
I remember the dream I had that night: I was outside. It was a dark, cold and windy night. And I was trying to get inside a big safe house with warm lights on. Church members were standing at the doors and windows, shouting to me to get inside the house. But as I tried to fight the strong wind and get closer, they started throwing bricks and pans at me.
The family doctor was called to give me another Valium shot that week. He asked me again if I had done drugs in America. Was I having withdrawals of another kind? I didn’t even drink. Not even when I visited Las Vegas for the first time with Elder Larson and Tandy. I remember feeling so lucky—in the water at night, looking at the stars, in America, in Vegas! I was living the dream! Did it get any better than that? And suddenly, in the warm desert air and the cool water of the motel pool, I had grown afraid of what life would be like back home. And I was right to be afraid.
My heart was bursting but my spirits were incredibly low. At night I cried with my face buried in the pillow, tears of rage and despair. I wish I had known that I had made friends for life, who would love me regardless of my sexual orientation, and that I wasn’t alone. I wish someone had told me that I’d be going back to the States the following summer. It gets better. And if you are in a similar situation, I am saying that to you too.
That autumn was a painful transition. It was also a much-needed learning curve. Looking in the mirror was painful, but at least now I was looking. I see all events in my life as either before or after the summers of ’97 and ’98. I am genuinely grateful for all the scenes and actors of that journey!
To be Continued.
¹ Some names have been changed when authorisation was not or could not be granted.