I was raised in a small, mountain town in Utah, the child of two devout Mormons. My entire family, including all my grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles are all active, down the line Mormons. I was raised in the LDS faith and spent my entire childhood being a part of the Mormon culture. I loved the Church. I went to primary and Young Women’s and even received my Young Womanhood of Recognition Award at 17. When I was a child, I thought I would be Mormon forever. My family would be eternal and I would see them all again when I entered the kingdom of heaven.
Then my father came out of the closet and all hell broke loose.
It was the day after my 19th birthday, at 6:47 in the evening. My father asked me to go for a drive. I remember we were standing in the kitchen of my family home, my mom and dad were standing by the white cabinets and I was seated at the dinner table, a fresh piece of buttered toast in my hand. I saw a look pass between my parents that I didn’t understand but definitely did not like. It was my first year of college and in my ego-driven teenaged mind, my parents had somehow found out about the 5 Zima’s I had consumed and that I had made out with one of the stage hands at my first Theatre Department party.
I was a scandal.
In any case, I had no interest in hearing another rendition of the condom talk so I tossed my father a glib, “NahthanksI’mgood” before going back to studiously crunching on toast and pretending I was still the pure Mormon girl that had left for college a few months earlier. My father looked askance for a moment and then pressed again.
He really wanted to go on that drive.
And I knew I was beat. I could never say no to my father. He is my hero, I love him. So, with an internal sigh for what I was sure was going to be an awkward dad talk, I got into the car and off toward the canyon we went.
My family has always gone for long drives when there was an important conversation to be had. The beauty of the canyon, the quiet, the fact that you are trapped together in about a ton of accelerated steel. And you don’t have to look at each other, which helps a lot.
We got to the mouth of the canyon. It was a snowy night. Big snowflakes, fat with mountain spring water flew across the windshield and made the warm interior of the car seem like a safe little oasis in the middle of a lazy storm.
I sat quiet, not wanting to incriminate myself by offering any evidence, I waited for the old man to make the first move and get on with the recriminations already.
But my father, a handsome man in his 40s, blue eyes fixed on the road ahead, was unusually quiet. He has a PHD in Exercise Physiology, runs triathlons for fun and has always been bigger and stronger than all the other dads. And all my dates. He lifts weights for 3 hours a day and trains the best athletes in the state. He is gregarious and smart and people respect and love him.
But he was silent.
I started to worry.
“Dad,” I said. My palms starting to sweat. “Dad, is everything. . . “
And then he began to talk. He talked about growing up in his tiny Utah town. About going on his mission. About loving my mother. About loving the church.
And then he brought up the boy.
A boy that he had met through the high school swim team. A boy that was his very best friend. A boy he thought was beautiful. A boy who thought he was beautiful too.
They persuaded themselves that they weren’t gay. That the sweet and tender feelings of first love that they were sharing had nothing to do with the lecherous and creepy men they had seen in the health films. The ones that would show a man with a bad moustache invading the space of a blindly innocent young man. They weren’t perverts. They just loved each other. Dad’s boyfriend begged him to go away with him to New York but Dad was young and deeply religious. He couldn’t bear the idea of never seeing his family again. So he stayed.
I had gotten quieter and quieter as the story poured out of him. He had gone to his bishop and begged for help. They told him that he was just confused. That he just needed to find some nice girl and get married and all these feelings would go away.
So he did. He found my mother. Adored her. Married her. Had 5 children with her.
And the feelings never went away. They stayed.
And he had felt so lonely. So lonely that he wanted to die.
That is how my mother found out. He had been working on his suicide note and she found one of his research books by their bedside table, “Loving Someone Gay”. In it, my father had written notes in the margins. Things like, “Yes! This is me!” and “Exactly how I feel!”
She was devastated. She was heartbroken.
But she was not afraid. She knew my father is a good man. She loved him. So she threw them both into serious therapy and didn’t say anything to anyone for a year. They worked it out. And they had decided to present a united front that said, “Steve is gay, and we love and support him. That is all.”
In that time and space what they were doing was radical. It was shocking. It was dangerous.
I watched my father tell me this story, his eyes welling up with tears and his voice cracking when he asked me what I thought. I had never seen him like that. My father was never afraid of anything. He caught spiders with his bare hands to set them free and taught me how to pet bumblebees. I remember the horrifying moment I realized that he was afraid of ME, of what I might say, of how I might respond.
And I looked at him, the man who had loved me and supported my every move. The man who taught me to jump off the high dive and took me on my first roller coaster. The man who owned the complete Barbara Streisand collection. The man who once made my sister and I learn an entire “Oklahoma!” medley, complete with choreography. I looked at that man and said the only thing that came to mind,
“Oh Daddy, I already knew that.”
And I did. I had asked my mother a year before if she thought it was possible that Dad was gay. At the time, she changed the subject rather quickly, but I knew, in my little theatre major heart of hearts, that he was gay. No straight man loves musicals that much.
Afterward, we hugged and I told him I loved him. There was never any recrimination because I already understood that he could not help who he was. That to be dishonest about who you are is soul-crushing.
The rest of my siblings had a similar reaction to mine. We all had understood for years that Dad’s depression and anxiety had to be symptoms of a deeper issue. Every teenager knows what angst looks like.
Unfortunately, the rest of our family on both sides were less than understanding when my father was outed by a reporter. They had been doing symposiums on the subject of homosexuality and the Mormon Church and campaigning that the church change its stance on homosexuality when they met a reporter eager to do a story on gays and the LDS church. My parents spoke to her on the proviso that they remain anonymous as Steve was not out to the extended family. That reporter deiced instead to publish not only my father’s name and place of employment, she revealed my mom’s name and where she worked, all the children’s names and where we were going to school.
It was chaos.
My mother called me at college to tell me she was turning of her phone and she suggested I do the same. It was insanity. Both families freaked right the fuck out. Her family screamed for her to leave him. His brothers said they didn’t want him near their children. People wrote us hate mail. My brothers got into fights. We all left the church.
It was like a bomb had gone off. Afterward, the smoke cleared and we all left Utah to find ourselves. I went to Chicago, my father and brothers went to Kansas, my sister moved to Alaska. My mother had died after a long struggle with cancer, my father never leaving her side as she fought the good fight. They only had each other toward the end, disowned by both families, the church now threatening to take away the memberships they had forged over a lifetime. He held her hand through the chemo and radiation and hair loss and fear and she held him up when his family told him he was disgusting and disinvited him from the annual family Christmas party. She loved him. And he loved her. They didn’t care if it made you uncomfortable.
My father gave us a gift, you see, when he threw his skeletons out of the closet. By freeing himself, he gave us all permission to be free, to pursue a life of authenticity and love. He did it because he loved my mother, he did it because he loves us, he did it because he is a hero and that is what heroes do: they get up and fight, even when the game is rigged, even when they lose. Because it is the fight that matters.
And my parents are heroes.