Chapel of Pain

Beginnings and Ends

We bury her tomorrow. My mother. She had been sick for a while, but after a debilitating month she finally let go.

After the initial shock of her passing, I have to admit I felt only relief and release. Her torment, that she had both suffered and created, was finally over. The fear and apprehension I felt every time I spoke with her, her projection of guilt and shame over my ‘apostasy’, her deep-seated need for comforting lies about her as a mother … and overshadowing it all, her enduring abusive behavior. It all died with her and I finally felt free.

Yet now as the funeral approaches, I’m experiencing a growing sense of dread. In part because of the platitudes I expect to hear about my mother, ‘the angel’. In part because of the mormon service my family is planning. And in part because it will be held in the LDS chapel where I suffered so much as a child.

Dark clouds of trouble hanging o'er us - an LDS chapel overshadowed with foreboding clouds
Look, see yonder… dark clouds of foreboding

Buildings and Tearing Down

Attending her funeral in that chapel won’t be easy. Some may see it as a house of peace, but for me it was a house of pain. So many conflicts. So much torment. So many memories. It may seem strange to think how strongly they still affect on me 30 years later, but I suppose that’s why they call them formative years. It was traumatic at the time and it remains difficult to process today, especially at the thought of going back.

I have vivid memories of that chapel. So much of who I am was formed there during the bubbling cauldron of my adolescence.

That was where my father forced me to get baptized when I turned 8. I told him that I didn’t believe and didn’t want to make that commitment, but he said my testimony would come after my act of faith and he set the date. When it was over, I couldn’t stop crying from the font to the confirmation. Because I had just made lifelong covenants to a church I didn’t believe in, and I took that seriously.

So you see, that chapel was where I learned to doubt myself, where I learned that those who can’t feel a testimony of mormon truth must be blinded by sin or pride. And that if I couldn’t believe, then I must be sinful … my thoughts and feelings unreliable. And if so, I was better off trusting my leaders instead of myself, even when it didn’t make any sense.

That chapel was where I learned that only mormon kids were worthy of being friends with. That I was to live in the world, but not of the world. And to avoid the world, the people in it and their beliefs at all costs, associating only with mormons whenever possible … because mormons were safe and the world was dangerous.

– But ironically, that was where I was bullied and beat up by the ‘moral and worthy’ mormon boys at church. I was so excited to learn how to camp and earn merit badges with the scouts, but they only wanted to play sports on scouting night. I was asthmatic and didn’t know how to play, so they used me as a tackle dummy and laughed when I lay on the ground and couldn’t breathe. And when I tried to quit, I got in trouble for not being a team player.

– Where the bishop interrogated me in detail about my worthiness. And publicly humiliated me by not letting me pass the sacrament. Why? Because touching myself was the only way to get rid of my morning erections so I could get dressed for school. I tried everything … wearing tight clothes to bed, tying it off with rubber bands or string, self-inflicted pain, icy cold showers, scalding hot water … but nothing worked. The only way to get dressed was to ‘commit a sin’. I felt so horrible about myself that I even tried to follow the Bible’s advice and ‘cut off the hand that offended me’. But the attempt was so painful I couldn’t go through with it, leaving me feeling even more guilty about my lack of resolve as I cleaned up the bloody mess and painfully tried to heal. At church, the other boys laughed and joked about touching themselves, and obviously never told the bishop. I saw them rewarded for lying about something normal, while I was punished and shamed for being honest.

– Where I was forced to attend Youth Conference, where we were lectured about the evils of science, the lies of the world, the temptations of movies and music, and the sins of desire and sexual attraction. They taught us never to touch or fantasize about the opposite sex. And that god would judge us for eternity over every thought and feeling that crossed our adolescent minds.

– Where I was forced to attend church dances, even though looking at girls with desire was apparently a sin next to murder. And touching them with desire would lead to my damnation. But I found out the hard way that declining to attend dances (even with the pure intent of avoiding sin) was also wrong, and would get me in trouble with my parents and church leaders. I guess the only thing worse than touching a girl is acting like you don’t want to touch girls.

– Where I was taught about the blessings of eternal sex in the celestial kingdom. I remember the married man standing in front of the class, telling us all that sex was worth the wait and how he wanted to stay worthy and enjoy it in heaven forever. Which was in stark contrast to his declarations of the evils of masturbation, sex and fantasy from just a few moments before. I was literally being taught that even though sex was good and I should want it, that any desire for it would lead to my damnation.

After these experiences and many more, I grew to hate that building and the faith it represented. To hate the lies my church leaders taught me, the no-win situations they put me in, and the physical and emotional abuse they both inflicted on me and forced me to endure within its walls.

And now my family wants to celebrate my abusive mother’s life in that house of lies and pain.

The moon casts eerie light on the ruins of a chapel on the plains.
The paths of my memory lead to the crumbling walls of a broken childhood.

Out of the Frying Pan

The closer I get to the funeral, the less I want to go. I don’t even want to get on the plane, much less step foot in that building. I feel sick, paralyzed. My wife had to buy the plane tickets, and I’ve been so upset I had to call in sick every day this week.

Some mormons would say my negative feelings prove that ‘apostates’ are filled with the spirit of the devil … or that a sinner has innate intolerance for the holy ghost … or that an ungrateful son will always be selfish toward his mother. But no, this is what happens after 27 years of abuse at the hands of a church.

To dismiss me as an ungrateful, angry apostate is to ignore the 20 years that I devoted to the LDS church after my baptism. Submitting myself to the mormon faith I had no testimony of. Believing that my thoughts must be wrong because everyone I loved and trusted told me so. Studying, fasting, praying … hoping for a long-awaited testimony with each act of faith. But receiving nothing in return but emotional and religious abuse, a near death experience from arsenic poisoning on my mission, and years of subsequent nerve pain that the LDS church covered up, blamed on imaginary sins, and threatened me to keep secret.

So when I say it will be difficult for me to sit through my mother’s funeral in that chapel, I’m not talking about a little boredom or discomfort.

I’m talking about going to dinner with your rapist and having to pick up the check. Or holding your child’s birthday party in your pedophile uncle’s back yard and having to smile and introduce him to all the kids. Or openly crossing enemy lines after escaping a POW camp where you were tortured and almost killed.

To go to my mother’s funeral, I will have to walk back into the house of pain where I suffered decades of emotional and religious abuse that I’ve worked so hard to leave behind.

Right through the front door. Tomorrow. 

I’m scared. 

Mormon… And Gay?

I get a lot of people who just don’t understand how a gay person could be Mormon. When I talk about the discrimination that members of the LGBT community face within the church, many are simply baffled. Why stay in a church that so obviously hates you? Why put up with the crap? So, here’s how this works:

While there are plenty of people who convert to Mormonism and join the church in their adult years, the vast majority of the membership numbers are coming from those “born in the covenant”. That means your parents are Mormons and you get the wonderful blessing of being born into a family already sealed in the temple. It means you get to grow up with Primary. Yes, Primary. A lovely little class where you sing songs like “I Am a Child of God”, “Follow the Prophet”, and “I Hope They Call Me On a Mission”. You get to practice giving talks and prayers, memorize the Articles of Faith, and learn all about how lucky you are to get to grow up with “The Truth” that nobody else has.

As you grow up with this Primary, you’re given a CTR Ring to remind you to always “choose the right”. You’re taught about how the world is in a fallen state and how as a member of the “One True Church”, you’ll be expected to be “in the world, but not of the world” and be a “light” to everyone around you. A wall is put in place early, as you are taught to distrust everything that doesn’t come from church sources. Only the prophets have the truth. Only by following the prophets will you be able to be happy. Only by staying on the “straight and narrow path” will you get into heaven and be able to be with your family for all eternity.

See, family is a very central theme to the Mormon faith. To Mormons, God is quite literally their Father in Heaven. We were all there with Him, His children, before coming to this earth. We even chose our earthly families, as spirits, before we were born. We were sent to earth to get a body and to complete a special earthly mission designed just for us, and our family was designed “perfectly” with a father, a mother, brothers, and sisters to help us along the way. This family is joined together through a sealing ceremony performed in the temples and it is only by remaining worthy of a temple recommend that the family remains together after death.

According to the Mormon faith, we were created MALE and FEMALE as spirits before receiving our bodies, and our gender is divinely connected to our earthly mission. The roles we were meant to play were determined by our gender, and the sacred bond of marriage between a MAN and a WOMAN is the key to the highest degree of glory in God’s heavenly kingdom.

These concepts are taught very early. In Primary. Through songs, games, interactive roleplay activities, and through active participation in teaching peers these basic roles and concepts. At eight years old, children are “blessed” with the opportunity to “choose” baptism and commit themselves to the church. This is considered the “age of accountability”, where you are now entirely responsible for all your actions and all your “sins” starts counting against you.

Gender roles are further enforced once you turn twelve and separate into the Young Men and Young Women classes. The Young Men bear the Holy Priesthood, participate in the blessing and administering of the sacrament, get God’s power to bless and heal, attend Scout meetings, and are prepared for their roles as leaders and heads of households within the church. The Young Women are endowed with the blessing of… motherhood, and they are prepared to be housemakers, homemakers, and helpmeets to their future husbands.

And ALL the youth receive very explicit instructions concerning sexual activity. Chastity until marriage is the rule, and anything that causes even a hint of arousal is forbidden. Young men (AND women) who struggle with masturbation are counseled to meet with their bishops and discuss their sexual sins and seek help in bridling their passions and repenting of their sins. All youth activities in which young men and young women mingle are heavily supervised and regulated to prevent “temptations”. Despite the hard stamp of disapproval on tom-foolery, the youth are still known to transgress, as who can really expect perfection?

The young women bear the brunt of the responsibility for any youthful indiscretions. They are expected to maintain modesty so as to prevent their bodies from enticing the young men. They are taught that the loss of their virginity is comparable to becoming like a licked cupcake or a chewed piece of gum. Rape victims are expected to repent and forgive their rapists. And if a couple engages in sexual activity out of wedlock? The woman becomes pregnant? Abortion is off the table. Adoption? Maybe. But the standard advice is to hurry up and wed so that the baby can have a “healthy family” to grow up in and so that the couple can avoid continued sinful behavior.

And homosexuality? The Mormon church won’t even use the term. Instead, they prefer “same-sex attraction”.

They list it among the sexual temptations that “some” are challenged with, but God designed every individual’s temptations specifically for them. Such are hardships meant to aid in spiritual growth and learning, and the rejection of these temptations is what keeps an individual on course for eternal happiness. If you feel same-sex attraction, it is what God knew you needed for your own personal growth and He endowed you with the skills and attributes you would need to be able to overcome it.

A young child, growing up in this church, who finds themselves feeling attracted to members of the same sex will quickly bury and repress those feelings. Confessing it to peers would be a cultural death sentence. Confessing it to family often leads to getting disowned and tossed out onto the streets. Confessing it to a bishop leads to regular intrusive meetings where your sexual desires and preferences are discussed and attempted to be “cured”. Many will never tell anyone. They won’t even admit it to themselves. Instead they bury it. Deep, deep inside.

Now if you live outside Utah, you interact more with peers and individuals outside the church, maybe you have a more laid-back family and regular church attendance isn’t all that important, you likely aren’t getting the full blow of brainwashing and indoctrination. You aren’t feeling the brunt of the peer pressure and isolation. Maybe, rejecting the church teachings for personal happiness isn’t too difficult. Or perhaps you’re just naturally a rebellious sort. You’re somewhat immune to parental, peer, and community pressures to conform and fit in. You see through the bullshit easily and have little trouble letting it all go, leaving a ruckus in your wake.

For those who find themselves deeply entrenched, though, it’s a very different story. When you grow up in the Mormon church, being Mormon is a huge part of your personal identity. So when your personal identity also includes being gay… you are faced with a major internal conflict as these two pieces of your self war with one another. Many attempt to find consolidation, accepting that they are gay while still maintaining their faith in the Mormon church. These get hit the hardest, as they must constantly struggle with cognitive dissonance and their gay identity is attacked at every angle. If they opt to marry a member of the same sex, they get excommunicated and any children they have are barred from baptism. Other options are a heterosexual marriage, celibacy, or compartmentalization – having a secret gay life apart from their Mormon life.

So how can someone be Mormon AND gay? Because they were raised Mormon. Just picture, if you will, going through this Primary, going through this youth program, being surrounded by your Mormon peers who are competing amongst one another to be the most faithful, being surrounded by Mormon family. And if you live in Utah, add in Mormon controlled media outlets and businesses, Mormon newspapers, Mormon television channels… Church is your life – there are church activities every DAY. If you’re in Salt Lake, you have a massive temple in your backyard to remind you of the expectations. And in the layer of isolation and distrust for any information coming from non-Mormon sources… Now you have a cult. And that can be very… very hard to escape.