The Silver Lining to Every Cloud

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big mormon family

My Family

“Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get    wisdom: and with all thy getting get           understanding.” - Jewish Proverb

 

People are constantly surprising me; the ability people have to empathize with other people not like them. Such as the experience I had when I came out to my brother, Caleb. I actually didn’t tell him – I told his wife. He was very homophobic back in the day. He’s the sort of guy that I would consider classically American: The “God, Country, Guns, and Family” sort of person. Because of that, I figured he wouldn’t talk to me for quite a while or would create assumptions and stereotypes to distance himself.

That didn’t happen. His wife, Vanessa, told me later, “He felt bad actually. Because you had been struggling with this for so long and couldn’t tell him.” That was shocking to me.

My most recent experience of this nature was with my mom. She wrote me a letter a while back that I talked about in “The Gay Man and the Christian Religion.” After that I had to take a week to breathe before I could write back because I was pretty upset. I showed my hairstylist, Cam Ron (A.K.A. my therapist), what I had planned on sending and he told me that I should probably sit on it for a week before sending it because it was a little… “intense.”

So I did and what I ended up telling her was that I didn’t think we were good for each other and that I didn’t need constant negativity in my life. I also said that if I weren’t a positive influence to her either, that severance would be mutually beneficial. I also presented the societal rejection and emotional traumas that LGBT people typically experience.

She sent me a letter back and this is part of what she said:

“I hope you know that I have never written an e-mail to antagonize you. I thought it would be good for you to see what has happened in my family. I never intended to antagonize you, but the detrimental effects of my e-mails have been the same no matter what the intent was. I am sorry I have done this to you for so many years. I am amazed you and your siblings have been able to have the self-esteem that you have… I think I have been particularly hard on you. I noticed the distance between us when you were young. I thought it was just something you were going through. I never thought to look at myself to see if I was contributing to that distance… I want you to continue to be a part of my life. I am sorry I have hurt you again. I seem to do it even though I do not intend to do it. I realize my problem is that I have not accepted you. I have wanted to change you. After talking with you on Tuesday, I thought, ‘How would I feel if you were always wanting to change me?’ I know I would never feel good enough for you. I would always feel like a worm in your sight. I am sorry I have done that to you. I did not see that before. I want to try to just love you no matter what your decisions are and recognize the great good you do in this world.”

She not only wrote this but she has recently been trying to understand what it’s like to be gay. A few months ago, while I was in New York, she ordered books on reparative therapy in order to find some way to “help” me.

Since she wrote me that last letter, she has thrown those out and replaced them with a book by Ty Mansfield called, “In Quiet Desperation: Understanding the Challenge of Same-Gender Attraction.” She told me about the struggles he faced as a Same-Sex Attracted (SSA) young man; to reconcile his feelings with his religion, the inhuman treatment of those that identify as LGBT in the LDS community, and his conquest for truth, acceptance, and peace.

parents eating together

My mom and dad

This struggle is something she can empathize with since she herself has struggled to find belonging and love. A few weeks ago she asked if I would go to the NorthStar Conference with her of which Ty Mansfield is the president. This is an organization affiliated with the LDS church that is targeted towards persons “struggling with same-sex attraction” but who want to live the standards of the LDS church.

I don’t feel I “struggle with same-sex attraction,” I’m just gay, but of course I went with her since this was the first time she wanted anything to do with a group of people who identified as a sexual minority. It was a really good experience.

I wasn’t sure how mom would handle being surrounded by gay or SSA men, but she did fabulous. We talked to quite a few people there. One later emailed me and told me that he was so happy to have met my mom and that she was “a gem.” I was so proud she made such a huge step.

Carol Lynn Pearson, a well-known woman in the LDS church for her poems, written works, and plays talks about this capacity LDS people have to empathize with those that struggle. She experienced it firsthand since her late husband, Gerald, was gay.

She described her fear of people knowing about Gerald in Utah given their general attitude towards gay people as such:

“Our community viewed homosexuality as evil and disgusting. I couldn’t bear to have people talking about Gerald as if he were a monster. In all the praying I had done, I had felt strongly that Gerald was as much loved of God as I was. I did not feel that the answer was to banish him or to separate him from his children If the worse actually happened and we ended our marriage, could we somehow still maintain a relationship? That would be hard to do here. Crushing judgments and shame would take their toll.

When a young man in a nearby town was discovered to be a homosexual, his mother had taken it upon herself to call BYU and have him expelled from school. She then called his place of employment and told them he was gay and should be fired. She called every subsequent place he worked and gave the same information. She told him, ‘I want you to repent, and I know the only way you’ll repent is to be reduced to the gutter. That’s what I pray for.’

Another Mormon mother, discovering that her teenage son had had homosexual encounters, did not speak to him for three months or set a place for him at the table. She was arranging to place him in a foster home.”

Later, when Carol and her family moved to California: bay area, she and Gerald got a divorce. After her own struggles to understand her own self-worth and her husband’s homosexuality, they were able to maintain a loving relationship as close friends. She met many of the men Gerald dated and continued to be a support to him.

During the huge AIDS epidemic, Gerald ended up being found positive for the disease and Carol ended up caring for Gerald till he died. In her book, “Goodbye, I Love You,” she describes the agony she personally experienced seeing someone she loved so much – who directly had a hand in her success as a writer – someone full of life, light, hope, and aspiration be reduced to a sick, dying man.

Carol Lynn and Gerald Pearson

Carol Lynn, Gerald, and their family

Along with being emotionally drained, she was also physically drained taking care of him. She turned to her ward (what Mormons call their congregations) for help. She asked a good friend of hers in the ward to tell the Bishop all that was happening. This is what her friend told her:

“’Last year a young man moved into the ward boundaries, and when they went to visit him he told them he was gay and would not be participating and wanted to be left alone. But they checked on him every once in a while, and when they learned that he was in the hospital in Oakland they went to see him. He has AIDS. The bishop’s been over several times, and the guy’s mother is here from Utah. The Elder’s Quorum is driving her back and forth from Walnut Creek to the hospital.’

I felt tears stinging at my eyes. Well, of course that’s what they would do. People who won’t even drink coffee, have a hard time understanding homosexuality and AIDS, but they don’t have a hard time understanding suffering and need. Mormons have been trained to deal with disaster since pioneer days. They can mobilize a hundred wards to get out the sand bags against a flood in half an hour. And where other floods happen, private floods that leave you adrift, they can get there in a hurry too.”

Even if my mom doesn’t fully understand what its like to be gay, she does understand the struggle people have for acceptance – not only from their peers, but from themselves because she dealt with the same thing growing up. Our struggles can either make us bitter or more full of empathy towards the vast majority of people who suffer.

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Living Authentically

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My 16th birthday. I made my own cake!

Why is it so important for gay people to “come out?” As far as I go, I haven’t cared much for dating and I’m definitely not interested in sleeping around. I had someone tell me recently that I should be one of those gay men who are active in the church and live their life in celibacy. So why is it important to “come out” for people like me? Especially when you risk severing relationships and estrangement from your community?

I think “coming out” has less to do with our view of ourselves sexually and more with the ability of living our lives in an authentic way.

Growing up, there was a certain amount of information that couldn’t be divulged and a personality needed to be developed that would be more socially acceptable.

As a child, who I was didn’t really matter. I liked to crochet doilies, I played the piano, I loved flowers, etc… That really didn’t matter at the time, but I wasn’t like other boys. I didn’t like wrestling with my brothers or playing sports for one. Even with these differences, however, I was never treated very differently.

Adolescence was a different story. Going through puberty was not fun for me. I grew increasingly different from my friends. It wasn’t just the fact that they were all talking about girls or things sex related. I grew apart because I couldn’t identify with them. I was different; my interests, what excited me as far as entertainment went, and social activities all differed from what other boys my age found interesting or worth their time.

I never liked basketball; I couldn’t care less about sports. The point of the game did not motivate me to play well. I don’t even know what straight people really liked because I took no interest in it. I liked classical music, playing the piano, gardening (except for dirt… dirt always drove me crazy. I had to wash my hands immediately after handling it), cooking, and being creative. I spent money on gardening projects. I wanted to build a beautiful pond so I saved my money so I could finance it. I enjoyed houseplants.

I’m not saying these are typical of gay men. What I’m pointing out is that I was different and found it increasingly harder to relate to people.

I learned to compensate by finding ways to distract people from how different I was. I became a perfectionist at piano performance in order to get some sort of approval from people. I became a hard worker and demanded a lot of myself in work and college. I did well. I won state competitions for piano performance at least every other year. I also was consistently on the Dean’s List in college every semester and had a GPA of 3.95.

Despite these accomplishments, I was also very depressed. I used to starve myself because I didn’t want to grow up. I wanted to be a kid again where what you did or what you talked about didn’t matter. I found it a great accomplishment when my jaw didn’t grow big enough to support all my teeth that I needed to get a molar removed. My lack of respect for my body reflected the mental and emotional maturity I developed.

Our sexuality, in reality, influences every aspect of our lives. A very small part of that deals with our sexual preferences. Sigmund Freud in his book “Sexuality and the Psychology of Love,” wrote:

“The behavior of a human being in sexual matters is often a prototype for the whole of his other modes of reaction in life.”

It wasn’t until I learned to accept myself in my 19th year that I was able to actually grow up both mentally and physically. My mission played a big part in my self discovery and helped me further my acceptance of myself.

I came out publicly after my mission in 2011 – not because I wanted an excuse to do whatever I wanted, but because I wanted to be accepted for who I was. Until I gave everyone the chance to actually love me for whom I really was, they could never really love me because sexuality is such a central part of who I am – And that has very little to do with sexual preferences as I said. If someone has a hard time accepting me as a gay man, then they never really loved me because most everything I did was in an attempt to distract people from what was inside; they just loved an empty shell that I built for myself. As Dr. Brene Brown states in her book, “Daring greatly,”

“If you divide the men and women I’ve interviewed into two groups – those who feel a deep sense of love and belonging, and those who struggle for it – there’s only one variable that separates the groups: Those who feel loveable, who love, and who experience belonging simply believe they are worthy of love and belonging. They don’t have better or easier lives, they don’t have fewer struggles with addiction or depression, and they haven’t survived fewer traumas or bankruptcies or divorces, but in the midst of all of these struggles, they have developed practices that enable them to hold on to the belief that they are worthy of love, belonging, and even joy.”

This cannot come while we continue to rely on what we built to get us through life. It can only come when we accept ourselves and tell ourselves that we are good enough to be loved and that we are deserving of peace and joy.

Topeka Is Full Of Crazies Like Me

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Image of graffiti on building. Jesus is King.

Jesus is King!

Topeka, Kansas was probably more interesting than Disneyland. There are way more characters walking the streets out there than I ever saw in California… Such as the lady who would walk her imaginary dog behind our apartment everyday. She would just hold a leash and walk around while, every so often, she would make sure to it didn’t poop where it wasn’t supposed to poop. That would just be embarrassing.

It wasn’t Lawrence type of crazy. People in Lawrence were just hippies. The students were at least. Some of the women would “French it” which is where its apparently against their religious beliefs to shave hair. (Why?!… If you aren’t going to shave, could you at least keep your arms down? No one wants to see that.) It was absolutely revolting. But then, I think my face is disgusting if my uni-brow grows in… Needless to say, I’m not a fan of that Mexican art that you find in classy places like Taco Bell or what not. No, Topeka was different.

As legend has it: Topeka used to be the home to 3 insane asylums or “assisted living” centers. Rumor in the mission said that funding had been cut for these places so they had to consolidate their space and a few patients were let out. I’m pretty sure Elder Swapp and I met a few of them.

There was a guy named Micah. He probably wouldn’t hurt a fly, but he believed he was a hermaphrodite the first time I met him. He actually went to church with Elder Swapp once and proceeded to let everyone know that he was a hermaphrodite and that he might be gay or something. It caused quite the disturbance in our poor Victorian moral church from what I heard.

When I met him he apparently was chosen by the plants to be a prophet because they saw that he was a good soul. So he started the religion, “Ker-aft.” The worship involves doing the hokey pokey facing the plant while directing each movement toward the plant as to transfer your energy to it. They told him that the earth would be destroyed in 3 years by a planet that would collide with ours, causing major flood issues. The flood isn’t the cause of our eventual death though. No, the plot thickens…

Deep in the ocean there lives a colony of octopi. They are currently killing everything living deep in the dark waters of the Atlantic. When our earth floods, those octopi will commence the Armageddon-like destruction of all things living. He was definitely inspired, because I see no other way he could pull an idea like that out of his ass and run with it so smoothly. He didn’t even have to think about what he was saying. He knew the information both emotionally and physically.

One day a voice in his head asked him, “Do you want this to be your last life?” And before he could tell the voice, “yes,” a car whizzed by, almost clipping him, and took away his soul. He was reborn an Asian man. He even tried to prove it to us by showing us his license. He “used” to be black… Now he is “less black” according to him. See link.

I was sad when Micah ended up moving. He wasn’t all that bad to be around. He even said I had the aura of a Mason while he proceeded to open and close the palm of his hand up in my face a few times.

We didn’t live in the greatest part of town. Anything west of Washburn was pretty nice. East wasn’t so great. It made sense though since all the streets east of Washburn were named after presidents or states. I have a theory… and that is: if we want to decrease the number of troubled neighborhoods, don’t name your streets after presidents or states. Every city I’ve been to that has streets named after those two categories seem to be exceptionally seedy areas of town.

Image billboard saying haters beware. welcome to the hood.

Haters Beware!

 

I did meet a nice prostitute there. She didn’t want to hear about religion though. She was on the clock… I can respect that. Industry is a person’s best friend.

Actually there were a lot of nice and friendly people there for real. In a world where social status and social norms are given such high regard, it’s easy to stop seeing each other as humans like we are. People become threats or competition. In these poorer communities, I found that people treat others more like people. Saying the right thing or being the right type of person wasn’t as important as how you treated them. I kind of liked it.

There was this one woman named Grace. She was our “mother in Christ.” She referred to us as her “Mormon babies” and she absolutely adored us. She would call us almost everyday. Sometimes it got a little much. One morning, Elder Swapp and I were volunteering at “Let’s Help”: a homeless food pantry where those less fortunate could come and eat a good meal. She called, and we didn’t answer… She called again about an hour later, we still didn’t answer… She called again, and we didn’t answer. She left a voice mail for each of them. This is how it went:

“Hi Elder Nielson, Elder Swarpp, this is your mom in Chirst, Grace. I was just checking up on all ya’ll and want to make sure you’re safe. Call me back. This is your mom in Christ, Grace. God, Jesus, and the holy Trinity love you all. Especially me, your mom in Christ.”

Next one: “Hi Elder Nielson, Elder Swarpp, this is Grace, your mom is Christ. I’m getting worried you know. Make sure you drinking water: it’s hot out there! Give me call back! This is your mom in Christ. God, Jesus and the holy Spirit bless all ya’ll. Call me back. This is your mom in Christ.”

Last one: “WHY DON’T YOU ALL CALL ME?! I’M WORRIED ABOUT YA’LL!. CALL ME BACK! THIS IS YOUR MOM…”

This was really comical actually but it was also nice to know someone was thinking about us and cared about what happened with us. No matter where I’ve gone, I always say that I meet the best people because it’s true. Some might be a little crazy. But then we’re all a little crazy.

Bridgette and I:The Early Years

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Remember when life was so hard because mom made you eat split pea soup again? You didn’t want to eat it because 1-if it was green, it was going to be gross because the only other green thing you could think of was diarrhea which is exactly what split pea soup looked like. 2-Your dad would sit there telling you that if you didn’t finish it, you wouldn’t get any dessert. So you’d sit there for what seemed like hours building up the courage to down such a repulsive substance. You were going to die of it anyway and then your parents would be sorry.  Either that or you’d just run away from home, find a rich family that would feed you coco puffs, and then that’d teach them.

I grew up in a family of 9 kids. Adam, Bridgette, Caleb, Dantzel, Ephraim, Frank, Gideon, Hannah, and Isaac. If you’ve ever seen the play, “7Brides for 7 Brothers” you’ll see a pattern in all this. My mom had planned it this way. My dad knew they were naming us all alphabetically but didn’t catch on to the play until I was born apparently. It made keeping us all in order since he could just count us off alphabetically whenever we went to church, scouting activities, or family trips.

Our family would be a great study for gender dynamics. My sister, Bridgette, was one of the toughest girls I knew. One of her hobbies was wrestling boys and peeing on the front lawn like Adam – that didn’t work out so hot, but still… Her point was that she could do just as well at any activity that any boy could. We all hated it when Bridgette was left in charge by mom and dad when they would go to the temple or company party because she ruled with an iron fist. She was out for power. She told you to vacuum the stairs, you better vacuum the stairs and do it well or she would have your hide so fast.

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I once told her, “you’re the baby sitter.” And she then proceeded to send me to my room. I really don’t know why. She is deaf and all I can figure is that I really didn’t know how to sign when I was young and I told her to sit on the baby or something.

She had her redeeming moments though. We would sometimes have a movie night and she’d make popcorn or provide something else to eat. I remember watching Disney’s 101 dalmations on what seemed to me to be a massively huge tube television. She made sure to make us close our eyes whenever pongo and purdy would lick each other because that was not appropriate. Anyway, so there we were eating cheerios and not watching cartoon dogs lick each other and the TV pops someplace in the back and smoke starts fuming from the case. Someone in the mess of kids yells, “it’s gonna blow!” So we all run outside to the front lawn and count from 10 to 1 because that’s how all bombs work. The house didn’t blow up so we figured that we counted to fast. So we count slower 10-1… nothing. I don’t remember at which point we decided that the house wasn’t going to blow up but we probably all slept on the same bed that night after such a terrifying ordeal.

One of her life career goals was to become a robber. She wanted to wear black and beat up boys. I think she got the idea that robbers could be as fabulous as Cat-Woman from watching too much T.V… Which we really didn’t do much. She just wanted that sort of challenge I guess. People used to say that she should’ve been the boy in our family and that I should’ve been the girl.

Growing up she also taught me one of my greatest lessons and also became one of the most supportive people in everything that I’ve done and all that gone through. I would not be the person I am today if it wasn’t for her. People generally say that I’m charismatic and outgoing. None of that would be true if it wasn’t for her.