I do not belong here, and these are not my people. They don’t want to read my book, and they are too wrapped up in their own moments to share one with me. How did I let Elizabeth talk me into this?
These were just a few of my nervous thoughts as I sat behind my assigned table at the Affirmation conference for LBGT Mormons and their families this past Saturday. Tucked back into a corner, further away from the foot traffic than most ware peddlers would want to be, the seclusion of my location was quickly becoming a comfort. I watched as gays and lesbians passed by on their way to workshops and speakers that were surely far more informative and experienced than myself and what I had to offer. Most of them were well-dressed men with perfect hair and broad smiles, and all of them appeared to be content, even confident, as they walked gaily past my table without so much as a glance.
There were a few that stopped (perhaps out of pity) to look at the photos of Jared, the Tribune article, and the reviews that Elizabeth had printed out and slipped into brand new clear acrylic display frames. I sat with my Mac on my lap, ticking away at what I hope will be my next book, trying to look legitimate and qualified as an author while feeling crippled with inadequacy. Unlike my father, who could sell life insurance to the already dead, I am not a good salesman.
I got a bump around 10:00 am when Carol Lynn Pearson, who was speaking at the conference, came and met me. She has been reading “West of Independence,” and to have such a giant among writers and poets hug me and tell me that I was doing a good work was rewarding, a real dream come true.
But soon after Carol’s visit the morning was dragging on, and were it not for my two fellow table-bound peddlers David Moore from Safe and Sound and fellow author Jeff Laver and the deep discussion we shared about so many things including God, gays, and redemption, I would have lost all hope, gathered up my wares, and left for good.
At last Elizabeth returned from the “Out of the Darkness Walk,” which she had done in memory of Jared. With her she brought me some sustenance, and not just in the form of food. She has long been my buoy, keeping my pessimistic head above water when all I see about me are heavy seas and wind driven rains. We eventually sold all but two of the copies we had brought with us, and handed out several “West of Independence” information cards. Things are always better with Elizabeth beside me.
The evening events started with a social hour, and the large room quickly filled to capacity with happy, smiling, eating gays and lesbians, some with parents and siblings, others with partners and friends, and still others with their adopted children. Elizabeth and I sat amidst the cheerful banter and watched as people connected and reconnected all around us. I felt a bit like Mr. Scrooge looking through frosted windows at happy Christmas families, wishing to be a part of the celebration but somehow unable to knock on the glass and selfishly draw their attention.
The social hour ended, and a testimony meeting began. For those not acquainted with the LDS faith, this is a meeting that is typically held once a month within each congregation. It is a chance for those who feel so inclined and inspired to stand up and share what they know and feel and believe to be true. In this particular testimony meeting, I sat and listened as people stood and wept, overcome with emotion in a moment that for many was the first time they had felt able to bear their testimony in years. (Many gays and lesbians have been dis-fellowshipped or even excommunicated from the church, while others fear isolation should they stand and share their true selves with fellow members.)
I wanted nothing more during that hour than to stand and share Jared’s story, and to ask them for his forgiveness by proxy. My back began to ache with the stress of it, and I stood in order to pace at the back of the room. As a young man from South Africa stood to share his personal convictions and hope for the future, I felt crash over me a powerful wave of embarrassment at the realization that I have many times taken for granted the opportunities I have to worship, to learn, to serve, and most of all, to fit in at church. Rather than take time away from those that had been given the rare opportunity to stand and share their feelings, I chose to pace at the back and wish away a past that I cannot change.
During the very moving testimony of a man from South Africa, I recalled a particular moment of my past that has haunted me for more than two decades, and felt a tear-filled compulsion to send a letter of apology to my older brother.
The moment went like this: My brother (I call him Harrison in the book) and I were arguing about something quite forgettable in the upstairs hallway of our home in Connecticut. I had recently discovered the fact that he had “decided” to be gay. Pride and anger dictated that I had to win the argument, and so I uttered with great disdain a word that I knew would cut him to the quick.
Cut him to the quick it did; I saw defeat and despair in my brother’s eyes. Over the next several years my behavior towards my two gay brothers followed suit.
Standing and pacing at the back of that testimony meeting, I realized that I had never truly apologized to Harrison for that moment. I left the meeting and made for my table of solitude.
The evening program was about to begin, and people began to once again pass by the peddler’s tables. A woman approached my display, and after a moment stated that she would like to buy a copy.
“Do you have change?” She asked, pulling a fifty from her bra.
“There’s something about a woman that keeps money in her bra,” I remarked.
“Can you trust such a woman?” She asked.
“I’d probably trust her more for it,” I replied while counting out her change, grateful for the light-hearted moment.
I carried the last copy of my book into the large conference room and sat beside Elizabeth. We began the meeting with a standing congregational hymn entitled “The Spirit of God.” It was loud, and it was proud! I began to feel a comfortable welcome creep into my veins.
A man wearing a Hawaiian lei stood at the pulpit and recited a blessing in his island tongue. He then spoke about his first Affirmation conference some thirty-plus years ago, and the immediate feeling of belonging that he had felt for the very first time as a gay Mormon. It was very moving, but he didn't stop there. He then remembered and spoke the names of some old friends that had since passed away, and invited anyone who wished to stand and speak the names of loved ones gone but not forgotten. Without so much as a hint of trepidation, I stood in turn and with what I hoped was enough conviction and power to mask the complete sadness I felt at having to do so said aloud, “I remember my little brother Jared.”
As many others stood to remember loved ones, it became clear to me that Jared was not alone; he was not the only one who had taken his life after suffering rejection, confusion, and depression because he was gay.
The feeling of comfortable welcome was more than creeping now, it was rushing.
The program continued, and a woman named Judy Finch spoke to us about her own trials and joys of being a mother and grandmother to gay boys and men. It was of some comfort to hear that her own initial reaction to such a challenge had been similar to mine, but the greater comfort came upon hearing that time, faith, experience, and love had eventually won the day. She is now a pillar among the people, a champion for the good cause, and a true example of loving motherhood. A remarkable woman indeed.
The evening continued, and Steve Young (yes, that Steve Young) spoke. Being a Cowboys fan, I can still respect all that the man has accomplished on the field, but I honestly had no idea that he was such a true champion off the field. He spoke candidly about his own fears, his own weaknesses, and his own trials, and how he has learned to turn them into strengths. He spoke of “throwing without knowing,” which was something he had to do many times because at 6 feet (and three quarters) he was much shorter than many other great quarterbacks, and was therefore unable to see his receivers. He confessed that one of his greatest moments was hearing a stadium filled with opposing fans settle into silence as he lay underneath hundreds of pounds of defensive players; the pass he had thrown in faith as he went down had been caught to win the game. He was humble, honest, and hilarious, and I admire him for the good work that he does.
And then Barb Young, Steve’s wife spoke. Beautiful does not describe her, inside or out; she stood up and glowed. Her love and spirit were tangible; they seemed to fill the room. I somewhat irreverently pictured her warmth piercing the hearts of everyone in attendance, like the lightning at the end of “Raider’s of the Lost Ark” but in a good and kindly way. She moved us all from laughter to tears and back again, sharing her deep feelings of love, admiration, and hope for her beloved LGBT family. What a pinnacle moment, to hear her share her convictions and love with such energy and sincerity.
To conclude the meeting we stood and held hands while singing the children's song “Love One Another.” I held Elizabeth’s hand and felt her tremble when the tears came. I thought back to growing up beside my sweet little brother and how as we grew older I had not lived the words of the song, in spite of a constant self-assurance that in rejecting him I was in fact, loving him. I bowed my head under the weight of a familiar sadness, lost in grief for a moment.
And then I looked up and around the room. I saw hundreds of people holding hands and singing words of love with powerful yet gentle conviction. My eyes were suddenly wet with happy tears, and I felt sure that Jared knew my heart. I felt sure that I belonged there in that moment, singing words that had never before meant so much to me.
The meeting ended with a prayer of hope, and people began to mill about and chat before reluctantly saying goodbye. I watched a mob descend upon the Youngs. They were all smiles and hugs, posing for photos and chatting quite comfortably with everyone who approached them. Elizabeth and I sat there for a few minutes, wondering if we were going to do the same, when we saw a break in the wall of people that had rushed to greet and thank Judy Finch. We stood and made our way over, hoping to thank her for her words. I carried under my arm the last copy “West of Independence,” with the thought of possibly gifting it to Barb Young should I suddenly become courageous enough to approach her.
Judy Finch was an absolute doll. She took our hands and thanked us for being there, and we traded kind words and smiles before she asked what had brought us to the conference. I shared with her our story and told her about "West of Independence." She saw it under my arm, took it from me gently, and asked if she could buy it. I gifted it to her immediately. She asked for a way to contact me after she had finished reading it, to let me know what she thought. We said our thanks and goodbyes, but before leaving I had to share one more thought with her.
“I’m not gay,” I said, “but I have to say it; your hair is fabulous! You are a silver fox!” And she is.
We milled about the room some more, and I finally met John Gustav-Wrathall, who was a source of inspiration and comfort in the months following Jared’s death. His powerful testimony and endless service to others are benevolent forces to be reckoned with, and his words and faith blessed our lives in a time of great trial. I am sure that I was unable to communicate that effectively to him, but perhaps he will read this someday and know what he has meant to Elizabeth and to me.
Elizabeth then sent me over to meet a woman named Wendy Williams Montgomery while she stayed put in order to meet Barb Young. I walked shyly across the room and stood alone outside the circle of people that were hugging, laughing, and taking photos with a woman whose love for her gay Mormon son roars like a lion. After a few minutes I gathered up my courage and reached out to touch her shoulder.
“My wife sent me over here to meet you,” I said. “She says that you read my book after meeting her on Facebook.”
She had read it, and she loved it. I was in a weird way honored to hear her tell me that it moved her to tears. She pulled her husband Thomas over to meet me.
“Remember that book that I read, the one that made me bawl my eyes out? He wrote it,” she said by way of introduction to a man with whom I can relate in more ways than one, and hope to get to know better one day.
We chatted away like old friends, and I loved them both in an instant. Elizabeth made her way over for a hug and some happy conversation, and we took a photo together. They are special people; their courage as parents is infectious, and they will long serve as an example of unconditional love.
From there Elizabeth and I moved closer to Steve Young. The crowd around him was much smaller now, comprised of just a few men.
“How was Barb?” I asked, while waiting for a window.
“She was sweet, I am glad that I met her,” Elizabeth admitted.
“Screw it, I’m doing this,” I finally said, making my way over to shake Steve’s hand.
And to tell him that I am a Cowboys fan.
(Personal Note: when meeting a Super Bowl MVP and star quarterback, there is no need to inform him that you are not a fan…)
I recovered quickly by telling him that my Uncle Freddie “The Giant” had been a huge Forty-Niners fan.
And then I went in for the hug. Yes, I hugged Steve Young without warning.
“Hey look, six feet tall,” I then said like an idiot, waving my hand over both our heads.
I am pretty certain that Elizabeth made in that moment a conscious decision to keep me clear of heroes and celebrities.
But she did let me meet one more, and I am grateful. I walked over towards Barb Young with confidence, and then melted into a six foot tower of warm candle wax as I approached her. I felt like an idiot, out of place and naked. I stepped forward nonetheless, and was greeted by her dynamic, even explosive smile.
“I just wanted to thank you for your example,” I think I said.
She said something in reply, but my ears were burning with red-hot intensity as they often do when I am nervous, and so I can’t be sure of what she said.
I managed to tell her that I was like her friend, a former “sign-pounder.” In her talk, Barb had told the story of her Mormon friend from California that had pounded a “Yes on Prop 8” sign into her front yard. This sign pounder had subsequently learned a valuable lesson of love from her lesbian neighbors when she came to them literally on her knees and weeping to ask for their forgiveness when Prop 8 passed. They had held her close, forgiven her, and told her “all that matters is this moment.”
I told Barb about Jared’s suicide, my great shame, and my hope for redemption through “West of Independence.” Her reaction was unforgettable; she took my face in both her hands, her eyes conveying an empathy that I have not often seen in others.
Tears welled in my eyes as she said, “All that matters is this moment.”
We shared a hug, and I thanked her. I walked over to Elizabeth, and was at once welcomed into yet another happy conversation with friends that I hadn't yet met.
And then it struck me.
I had started out that morning feeling alone, unwanted, and afraid, surrounded by strangers that belonged with each other. I had watched them, envious at the comfortable way that they gathered together in a purpose that they loved and in which they believed. The isolation that I had experienced was but a fraction of what these same people often felt whenever they dared cross the threshold of their local Mormon churches in order to worship, learn, and grow.
I was lucky; it had only taken a few hours for me to be accepted, welcomed, loved, and taught by these wonderful people, while they have waited for years to enjoy the same from a church that they patiently love. And their wait goes on. I felt like a thief, having taken from them more than I think is possible to repay.
But I have to try, because all that matters is this moment.