My mom was unflinching in making sure that my brothers and I knew from the moment that sentient thoughts first began to form in our minds that we would be going on missions if we didn't masturbate and eventually marrying a good Mormon girl in the temple if we didn't fornicate. It always came back around to the sex somehow. When you're a kid, you tend to believe everything your mom says.
And moms can be so convincing.
In addition to her lessons on appropriate sexual behavior my mom also made it abundantly clear that if we did everything we were told to and obeyed all of the commandments without exception for all of our lives, we would be going to the Celestial Kingdom where we would be waited upon by those who didn't quite measure up. I remember asking her about my paternal grandmother who wasn't a Mormon and yet was the saintliest, kindest, most loving woman in the world. Mom explained that grandma would be our handmaiden in the Celestial Kingdom - always there amongst us catering to our every need but unable to touch us, hug us or even probably speak to us.
This thought alone, of my beloved grandma as my servant, standing there in front of me with her head bowed and a tray of food held out to me, sank deeply into my consciousness as a child and pretty much determined my willingness to toe the line for a very long time. Somehow I knew that if I didn't mind my Ps and Qs, I too would end up a servant like my grandma, waiting on the rest of my family for eternity.
My grandmother's body was barely cool in her coffin before my mom made sure that someone in the family went to the temple and was baptized "for and on her behalf." An act of utter futility as far as I'm concerned, seeing how my grandmother had nearly eighty years of living amongst Mormons in Southern Idaho to decide for herself if she wanted to be a part of them or not. She didn't. The presumption that everyone upon their death is greeted by a Mormon God and is suddenly desirous of being baptized, would be funny if it wasn't so delusional.
I grew up in Rome where my family moved in the very early sixties so that we could be nearer to my father who was designing telecommunication sites for NATO in the countries bordering the Mediterranean. After returning to America to attend high school in the late sixties, I was called in 1974 to return to Rome to serve a mission - convinced that it was my native fluency with the language and not divine inspiration that got me back to the country that I loved and called home.
It was there in Italy that I met a young man that I fell deeply in love with and who changed the course of my life forever. Sitting outside the apartment one night while my companions slept soundly inside, Gianni and I kissed for the first time and I remember pulling back from that kiss and thinking, "Where have I been all of my life that only now I am getting to this?" In an instant, everything changed. I finally knew what had been going on inside of me for a long time - and in a way, it was almost a relief.
But I also had this huge sinking feeling - I had always been told that homosexuality was right up there with murder and knew that there was no way this was ever going to fly. It was a searingly conflicted time for me and the fallout from my realization of it as a young missionary in Italy was devastating. There was nobody to turn to, nobody to talk to. It was just something I had to learn to live with in my own private, despairing way. I wasn't even sure what a homosexual was then but I knew that Mormons didn't like them and that there was a special place reserved for them in the Telestial Kingdom - the same place where people who smoked cigarettes or drank Coca Cola would be going. :-)
Imagine my astonishment years later when dating Thomas S. Monson's daughter and I learned in a visit to their home that her dad drank Pepsi. I couldn't believe that my mom had been so wrong about this point of the Word of Wisdom.
My mom had painted such an excruciatingly narrow path for us to follow when it came to Mormonism, that any little step outside the boundaries meant a one way ticket to eternal misery in one of the lower heavens. And no child of hers was going anywhere but straight to the top of the heap in the Celestial Kingdom. With this kind of deeply-ingrained conditioning at work in my life, the realization that I might be homosexual completely ripped me apart and left me feeling dirty, hopeless and ruined.
I used to sit up late into the night in my apartment long after the other missionaries had gone to bed and look out the window at the prostitutes working in the streets below. I remember feeling that I was somehow no better than them; strangely fascinated and repulsed by them all at the same time.
I prayed and I prayed and I prayed that God would take this from me, make the feelings go away; believing that if I prayed hard enough a miracle would happen and the whole mess would just disappear. But the miracle never came and the only thing that took the pain away was being with Gianni.
After seven months in the Adriatic resort town where I'd met Gianni, I was transferred out to the island of Sardegna, which I felt at the time was akin to being sent to Alcatraz - my punishment for having been so errant and sinful in my relationship with Gianni. Though we managed to keep our romance a secret, the rumors were still there about our friendship and the transfer became a point of heartbreak for both of us since we were certain that it was just the mission leaders trying to tear us apart.
In an effort to be together for as long as was humanly possible, I had Gianni accompany me on the transfer under the ruse of needing help with my luggage since I was dealing with nerve damage to my shin. Everybody bought it and Gianni and I climbed onto a train bound for Rome with all of the missionaries and members there to say goodbye and wish me well.
We found an empty compartment on the train, dumped my luggage into it, pulled the door closed behind us and collapsed in a heap; sobbing into each other's necks and holding each other like two frightened little boys. We cried the entire two hour train ride across the peninsula and then spent the rest of the night on the cold damp floor of the train station in Rome - our coats pulled up over our heads and still holding tightly onto each other.
As we waited for the ferry boat later that cold February day, further north in Civitavecchia, I knew that I still couldn't say goodbye to Gianni and offered to pay his fare if he'd continue on to the island with me. He agreed and the two of us boarded the ship for Sardegna and watched as the mainland disappeared over the horizon and into the darkness of night.
I rented a small cabin on the ship and we eventually retired there later that evening, exhausted beyond belief and ready for some sleep. The cabin was tiny with a little shower, bunk beds and a porthole looking out into the blackness of the sea. A single dim light bulb on the wall cast a pale yellow glow across our tired faces. I undressed and took a shower and then stood watching as Gianni undressed to take his shower. As he pulled the bathroom door closed behind him, I leaned against the wall of the little cabin in my towel, my knees barely holding me up, and had a talk with God.
"Heavenly Father, I know that what I'm doing is wrong. But there's nothing I can do about it. If you need to punish me for what I'm about to do, then go ahead and punish me. Whatever the price is I have to pay for this, I'll pay it. But I have nothing left in me to fight with. I've prayed to you a thousand times to take this from me - to make these feelings go away. But nothing's changed and I'm tired of hurting."
Gianni came out of the shower, crawled into the bottom bunk with me and I made love to him for most of the rest of the night - relieving myself finally of the virginity that I'd fought so hard to hold onto for so many years.
The next morning at the train station on the island it finally came time to say goodbye. We knew that Gianni couldn't go any further with me because there would be companions waiting for me at the train station in Sassari. In one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life, I finally let Gianni go and watched him as he slowly made his way back along the winding dirt road to the ship. In place of the tears that had accompanied me most of the way from the Adriatic coast, now came a numbing emptiness. Everything stopped and I felt like my heart had broken into a thousand tiny pieces.
I boarded the train for Sassari in a state of complete emotional and physical exhaustion; uncertain as to how I would ever be able to get through the rest of the day, let alone the rest of my mission.
Somewhere along the way in the months that followed, I was assigned a companion fresh from the states who carried on day after day about how much he hated his brother back home because his brother was homosexual. Thinking I could somehow help him feel better about things, I told him about my experience with Gianni.
What a mistake that was.
Where my young companion's anger had once been directed at his brother it was now turned against me. He told me, among other things, that if I didn't go immediately to the mission president, he would. Preferring to do the job myself, I contacted the mission president, who was Italian (and not so given to hysteria about these kind of things) and told him what had happened. After an excruciating few weeks waiting for word from Salt Lake as to what to do with me, the decision was made to let me finish out my mission and let my bishop at home deal with it.
My bishop, David Moller, was a family friend and a very evolved man who I loved and admired. He put an end to the whole mess with an honorable release and some very comforting, compassionate words. He remains to this day the only person in the church I've ever spoken to who's had any inkling of the enormous complexity and challenges that face a young Mormon who's in the throes of discovering their homosexuality.
Instead of preaching to me about the peril my eternal soul was in and how much the church and God disapproved of me, he spoke to me about a college professor of his; someone, who he indicated by subtle references and suggestions, was just like me. And he told me how much he admired this man, how clever and intelligent he was. And what a good person he was.
I'm not sure I realized it at the time but David Moller had given me a thread to hold onto - a tiny thread of acceptability wound loosely around the possibility that that there was something in me worthwhile and good. It would turn out to be the only lifeline ever offered to me by someone in a position of authority in the church.
After finishing up my education at BYU in the spring of '77, I moved to Salt Lake City and it was there that all hell broke loose, culminating in the experience that finally showed me what I was up against when it came to Mormonism. After numerous affairs with both men and women, married and not, but all decidedly active Mormons, I knew that something had to give. Everywhere I turned there was yet another Mormon wanting to have sex with me - not the least of which was my boss, a prominent married businessman with lots of children. After nearly a year of this, it all became too much and I eventually headed to the bishop's office to try and sort things out.
Jamie Cannon, my bishop, was a tall, good looking man with an air about him that made me feel like I was in good hands. But there was also a subtle sense of arrogance about him that I kept trying hard to ignore. I wanted to believe he could help me and I needed to give him the benefit of the doubt for my own sake if nothing else. I told him what had been going on without getting into any specifics and everything seemed to be working out. He smiled, looked at me matter of factly and said in pretty much these exact words:
"We need you to give us the names and numbers of everybody that you've been involved with. If you do that, we'll disfellowship you instead of excommunicate you."
Shocked at what I was hearing, I told him there was no way on earth I would give him that information; that I was there to confess my own sins and not those of others. To which he responded, "If you don't give us this information you'll be excommunicated. And I'm sure you can imagine how humiliating that will be for both you and your family and friends." I told him to do what he needed to do but that I wouldn't be involved in this witch hunt. And I left his office determined that I would never return.
I remember lying in my bed later that evening and thinking how insane it was that I had been standing there in a bishop's office, plea bargaining for my membership in the church.
A few days later I went to Hawaii for a much needed vacation with the Elder's Quorum president who was a friend of mine. While there, he convinced me that the only thing I could do was to return home to the bishop and give him the information that he'd asked for. Wanting desperately to make things right in my life, I returned to the bishop's office and gave him what he wanted; the names and phone numbers of almost everybody I'd been involved with. I say almost because I purposely left out the name of my best friend from college who I was still in love with and was trying to protect.
The shit hit the fan with a fury unlike anything I'd ever seen, culminating in my boss's wife throwing a plate of food at me and shouting at me in front of everybody in the store that I had seduced her husband and that I was going to hell. And it went down hill from there.
I was given a date for the "court of love" and showed up feeling embarrassed and afraid. I sat down in front of four or five of the ward leaders and the inquisition began. Not only was I asked about each individual affair, but I was asked to describe in detail exactly what I had done with each of these people. I remember being so horrified at what I was being asked to reveal, that I could hardly speak. I had never spoken these sexually oriented words aloud before and I had no idea how to describe in polite terms just exactly what it is that two people do in bed together - much less what two men do in bed together.
The questions kept coming at me like bullets and I sat there feeling so embarrassed and so humiliated that I wanted to die; just disappear and have it all over with. I couldn't believe that these heterosexual men could be so interested in the graphic details of my sexual activities with other men. Or how this could be at all relevant to what they were calling a court of love.
I knew love and this wasn't it.
I could see the revulsion in their faces as I recounted one painful detail after another to them. I felt like the scum of the earth. And you know, maybe I was. But I couldn't for the life of me figure out how any of this was going to help me feel any better about myself.
When it was all over, I was told to get some counseling and that was it. We all shook hands and I was shown the door. I wasn't told where to get counseling or even how to approach such a thing. I'd heard about the electroshock therapy that homosexuals in the church had been subjected to and I wasn't about to go and have anybody hook anything up to my genitals and shoot electricity through them. Better to rot in hell I thought.
I wasn't even told to go and sin no more. I was just told to go - which I did, feeling worse than I ever had before the whole thing started. It was announced in Sacrament meeting that I'd been disfellowshipped and Jamie Cannon was released as bishop a few weeks later. I never saw him again.
An older man stepped into his place - a man who couldn't even say the word homosexuality but instead referred to it as my "little problem." And that was only once, in an interview to have me reinstated a year later when I wanted to get married in the temple. As his parting words of counsel this older bishop said to me as I was about to leave his office, "And by the way, don't wear your pants too tight." As I closed his office door behind me, I knew in my heart that it was pretty much over where the church was concerned. All of the pain, anxiety, confusion and heartache of the past year had just been reduced to the tightness of my pants.
I knew it was time to look for answers elsewhere.
No courts were held nor were any disciplinary actions taken against any of the people whose names I'd given to Jamie Cannon during my proceedings. For whatever reasons, I was singled out and disciplined as the lone fornicating seducer - a turn of events that left me feeling confused and disillusioned. I didn't want anybody else to get in trouble but I also had a hard time understanding how it was that my fornicating merited a church court and disfellowshipment, while adultery, which was what most of the others had committed, didn't. What became apparent was that it was my homosexual activities that had gotten me into so much trouble.
It was also very clear to me that not one of the people I'd been involved with had been seduced, as each and every one of them had entered into our relationships with consensual, staggering enthusiasm. In the case of my boss it was a relationship that he initiated, pursued and maintained vis-à-vis clothing, credit cards, buying trips, Broadway shows, promotions, an inflated salary and a beautiful black sports car. As he told me often, I wasn't the first. And as I learned years later, I wasn't the last. But I was the one who finally pulled back the curtain on his duality.
He confessed to me after the fact, that he had told both his wife and his bishop that I had seduced him in a weak moment. A weak moment that apparently lasted five years where I was concerned. He'd taught me how to lie in business dealings and now he was teaching me how to lie to the church. Maybe it wasn't all for naught as I soon developed a real talent for lying to my bishops.
I was playing a game with the brethren by now - telling them what they wanted to hear so I could get what I wanted in return. It had become almost too easy once I realized what the rules of the game were. I met and fell in love with a girl that I wanted to be married to - she wanted to be married in the temple and I was willing to do whatever it took to not lose her. And yes, I did tell her very candidly what had been going on.
In dealing with a bishop who couldn't even say the word homosexual, it was a slam dunk to get myself a temple recommend. In the Manti Temple the night I got married, my boss Bill Vriens Jr. and his wife Heidi were there beside the altar where I kneeled across from my wife. The same boss with whom I'd had the five year affair. His wife knew what was what, my wife knew what was what and of course my boss and I both knew that all four of us knew what was what. But there we all were anyway, smiling and pretending like this was the most normal thing in the world. And maybe for Mormons it is.
Strange things go on in Utah.
Not long into my ten year marriage, I removed my garments and began my slow but steady climb out of the abyss that Mormonism had become for me. My marriage ended quietly here in California with my ex-wife and I agreeing to share custody of our precious daughter.
After dogging the home teachers through nearly a half-dozen moves following the divorce and insisting in vain that the church stop trying to re-fellowship me for almost ten years, I finally reached a breaking point. Sitting here alone in my home one evening at the computer and enjoying a glass of wine, I heard a knock at my door and damn if it wasn't a home teacher with a missionary in tow. I looked at them in total disbelief, my jaw nearly on the floor. When I pressed them as to how they'd found me, they told me that the church keeps track of everybody but couldn't or wouldn't tell me more than that.
My immediate thought was that I was going to kill my mother. She insists it wasn't her.
Trying hard not to be too rude, I told them I wasn't interested in speaking to them and quietly shut the door. I sat back down, called information and got the number of the local bishop, who oddly enough, picked up the phone when I called his office. I finished my glass of wine while we spoke.
Without getting into any long explanations, I simply told him that my privacy was being violated, that I was gay and that I wanted my name removed from the church records. He tried to talk me out of it with all of the usual dire prognostications concerning my eternal future. But I was adamant and the papers were in the mail a few days later. When he received my letter of resignation he called me once again and said he was giving me another chance to change my mind. I groaned silently, thanked him and told him that I had never done anything in my life that I was more sure about than signing those papers.
A few weeks later it was official - I received a letter saying that I was no longer a Mormon; something I'd known long before that letter arrived. But it was kind of nice to have it in writing finally.
I had asked myself many times over the years why I wanted to be a part of something that didn't want me - why I continued to stay in a place where there was so much contempt for who I was. In time it became clear to me that I was dealing with a deep and persistent conditioning that had begun when I was a child. And that was what was keeping me from walking away, long after I should have.
Somewhere in the back of my mind was the memory of stories told to me in my childhood of my grandmother holding out a plate of food to me with her eyes cast downwards; my servant, standing there in front of me unable to touch me, hug me or perhaps even speak to me. Now as a young adult, the story no longer had the literal significance it once did in my childhood but it was still the thought of being separated from my family and friends forever that kept me bound to the church.
What if it was all true?
Leaving was a risk I had to take because I could no longer stay where I wasn't wanted. Late into my marriage and well into a long period of inactivity, I somehow ended up attending a priesthood meeting wherein the subject of homosexuality was discussed. I sat there and heard the most vicious, awful things come out of one mouth after another until I thought I was going to explode. My body flushed with anger and the blood was pumping so hard to my face that I feared I might pass out.
They were talking about me. And they were wrong.
Unable to speak for fear of betraying myself to those in the meeting, I sat silently and resolved that I would never again go back to church. I walked out of the front door of the Hollywood Ward that day and never looked back. Enough was enough. I was no longer going to be a part of a church that didn't want me and that held me in such contempt.
It was over.
Rather than dedicate my life to maligning the church or investing my energy in being angry, I've chosen instead to write about my experiences candidly and honestly and share them wherever and whenever possible - hoping ultimately that something will change. But being realistic enough at the same time to know that the wheels of change within Mormonism turn slowly, if at all most of the time, and that many more young men and women like me will ultimately have to leave the church to find happiness and a sense of self-worth.
My experience has been that one cannot be both homosexual and a Mormon and have any hope for lasting happiness and peace of mind.
In the meantime, the pain inflicted on gay men and lesbians by the church is more than enough evidence for me that Mormonism is not a viable sanctuary for all of humanity. But rather an institution that serves well, those who can narrow their thoughts, feelings and personalities down far enough to fit them through the pin-hole of Mormon acceptability. For those who find solace and purpose in Mormonism, I say fine. To each his own.
As for me, I've found an extraordinary world outside of Mormonism. A world full to overflowing with intelligent, compassionate and loving people; people who don't live in fear of what God may or may not do to them someday but who choose instead to live in an arena where doing unto others as they would have done unto them, here and now, is all of the morality they need to live good lives.
In all honesty, Mormonism has mostly become a non-issue for me even though what I've written here may seem to indicate otherwise. I have never once winced at my decision to leave the church or at having had my name removed from its records. When I compare my life now to what it was when I was in the church, there's no question but what I've made the right choice. And it's a choice I'm completely at peace with.
I do however, take issue with Mormonism's stance against homosexuality because I know firsthand the depth of pain it causes young people and their families. One could argue that if the church isn't working for somebody, they should just leave. But when you're a young boy or girl who's been brought up believing that Mormonism is the absolute only choice you have in the world, it isn't all that easy to just up and walk away. Something needs to change so that the lives of young gay Mormons aren't shredded in the rush to get them out of the way.
Evolutionary change is a given here on planet earth. With or without our consent or cooperation, change continues to happen in the greater scheme of things. Those who make peace with the nature and inevitability of an evolving planet, survive and thrive and grow. And those who don't eventually fade away into extinction.
Religion, in all of its various permutations, has persisted for several thousands of years now because it apparently serves some kind of human desire and need. But any religion, or institution for that matter, that fails to keep up with the evolutionary growth of sentient beings, is bound to find itself a fossilized footnote in the history of our blue planet.
Mormonism may continue strong if for no other reason than the fact that it's such a powerful financial corporation. But I believe that it will eventually be forced to rethink it's stand on homosexuality just like it did with its discriminatory attitudes towards blacks. And my guess is that this will probably happen when societal pressure becomes so strong that the church has no choice but to change. Odds are, it's going to happen sooner or later - and then maybe the president of the church will receive another convenient and timely revelation that it's finally time to allow homosexuals full fellowship in the church.
Not that that would make any difference for me. I wouldn't go back even if they made Elton John president of the church. But it might help some young person's life to be a lot less painful than mine was for many years if the church would abandon its hateful attitudes and beliefs.
I realize that in sharing my stories, I risk exposing some of the people I've been involved with over the years. And I'm OK with that. I am not the keeper of other people's secrets, much less their hypocrisies. The story of my life is mine to tell and as long as Mormonism continues hurting people, I will keep telling my stories. As long as there are men like my former boss in Salt Lake who support the church with their money, time and service, while secretly sexing young men in the basement, all bets are off. And so are the gloves.
Unlike the revised history of Mormonism, my life cannot be whitewashed to serve the common good.
One of the other things I've come to realize is that my mom taught us kids the things she did when we were little because those were the things she was taught when she was little. And they were the things that she'd grown up believing and holding onto as the only keys to happiness and salvation. It's hard to argue with another person's beliefs. But when those beliefs hurt people, the argument against them has to be made. Every young man and woman is precious and there is no morality on earth or in the heavens that can justify hurting them simply because they're different.
The tradition of Mormonism in my family has at least in part been broken with me as my daughter has also chosen to leave the church. And that makes me happy because I know that her beliefs and those of her firstborn who I delivered recently, will always be rooted in love and compassion for everyone. Not just for those who fall within the narrow definitions of Mormon acceptability.
My mom taught me by teaching me to fear. I have chosen instead to teach my daughter by teaching her to love. And judging from the exquisite and happy young woman she's become, it's pretty clear that love works better than fear when it comes to teaching our children how to live good and happy lives.
Copyright 2002 by Tom Clark
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