The first alcoholic drink I ever had was a rum and Coke, and I was disgusted. It wasn’t the rum that was the problem; it was the Coke. Mormons typically don’t drink caffeinated drinks, so I wasn’t accustomed to the taste of Coke. It tasted bad, like something a sinner would drink, and it was completely ruining the experience of my first mixed drink. My friends made me a rum and fruit punch instead, and I spent the rest of the night enjoying the spicy taste of rum blended with sugar and red dye #40.
Strong reactions to illicit sodas—just one of the many remnants of my history with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church. You wouldn’t suspect my religious past from interacting with me. I’ve assimilated to secularism quite nicely. But say the word “Mormon” and I’ll snap to attention, like a sleeper agent who’s just heard her activation phrase. “What did you just say about Mormons? Sorry, it’s just that I used to be…”
There’s a saying within the Mormon community that goes, “You can leave the Church, but you can’t leave it alone.” The line is from a 1989 talk by church authority Glenn L. Pace, who goes on to explain:
“The basic reason for this is simple. Once someone has received a witness of the Spirit and accepted it, he leaves neutral ground. One loses his testimony only by listening to the promptings of the evil one, and Satan’s goal is not complete when a person leaves the Church, but when he comes out in open rebellion against it.”
If God is a woman, then maybe Satan is too. She, that wily serpent, began teasing me with lesbian thoughts when I was a senior in high school. By my sophomore year of college I was thoroughly seduced. Now, here I am writing about Mormonism on the unholy site that is Autostraddle. Just call me Satan’s mouthpiece.
Maybe my frequent musings on Mormonism are “open rebellion,” or maybe it’s just the result of constantly being reminded that the Church was a fundamental (no pun intended) part of my life for almost two decades.
The Church influenced minor aspects of my life, like who I rooted for during American Idol Season 7. (I was Team David Cook, but it felt like treason.) Then, there are the major things that the Church affected, like how I viewed my sexuality. Some misguided people will tell you that being gay is a mental illness. It was Mormon doctrine for the longest time, although they no longer teach this. I don’t know how long I’ve been “sick,” but I was asymptomatic for most of my life. I was a devout Mormon, so any flickerings of gay feelings I might have had were snuffed out by my piousness.
Around the time that I was applying to college, however, things started getting a little weird. For example, there was a period of time when I had an unexplainable obsession with Bryn Mawr, a women’s college. Senior year of high school was a tumultuous time, so any gay angst was overshadowed by other issues, such as:
What school should I attend?
What should I choose as my college major?
Forget choosing a major, would I even be able to afford college?
I desperately wanted some guidance. Enter the patriarchy.
A Mormon patriarch is an old man who is called of God and is sensitive to guidance from the Spirit. The patriarch has one responsibility, and that responsibility is to give patriarchal blessings. Patriarchal blessings are special blessings given to worthy Church members and contain personalized counsel from the Lord.
A patriarchal blessing is like one grand tarot reading for your life, except instead of reading cards, the patriarch is speaking words inspired by the Spirit. The caveat is that the blessings bestowed upon you will only materialize if you obey the will of the Lord. Since I’m, you know, gay and not Mormon now, I think it is safe to say that I have not obeyed the Lord’s will. That means I’m missing out on some choice blessings promised to me, like the one about getting married in the temple and having wonderful children with my husband. It’s a loss I’m willing to take, although at the time of the blessing I was definitely relieved to know that I wouldn’t be Forever Alone™.
I received my patriarchal blessing in late July of 2011, a few weeks before I started my senior year of high school. I went with my mother, stepfather, and stepsister to the patriarch’s house after church. The patriarch and his wife were pleasant people, and we chatted with them for a bit. When it was time for the blessing, my family and I went with the patriarch to a specially prepared room. I sat in a chair, and my family sat behind me while the patriarch stood over me, placed his hands on my head, and began to pray aloud. By the end of the blessing, I was crying silently. The message had been so beautiful, so personal, and so very clearly a loving message from God.
After you receive a patriarchal blessing, the patriarch sends a recording to Church headquarters, where they transcribe the blessing and mail you a copy. My typed blessing is a page and a half, single-spaced. I read it every now and again, but there are three things that I will always remember even without looking at the transcription.
The first thing is that either God or the patriarch was awkwardly mistaken about the nature of my relationship with my father.
“I also want you to know how blessed you are to come through a wonderful mother who has sacrificed much for you, and all that you have at this time is because of your good mother, father and your stepfather, who have sacrificed much for you.”
It was disturbing to hear the patriarch say something that I knew to be false. I was raised by a single mother who had indeed sacrificed a lot for me. But my father? I’d never met the man, and he’d never so much as contacted me, much less sacrificed anything for me. It seemed like an assumption on the patriarch’s part, but what was a patriarch doing sticking his assumptions into a blessing that was supposed to be directly from the Lord? I wanted to hear the rest of the blessing though, so I pushed that thought aside and turned my attention back to the prayer just in time to hear the patriarch say, “Your mother loves you deeply and desires for you to cherish virginity and pureness.” Ooookay. Did she tell you this herself? Ew.
Eventually, the patriarch addressed the matter that was weighing most heavily on my mind and said the second thing that I will always remember:
“I also promise you this day that if you are faithful that you will be able to become anything that you desire to be and that you will be able to seek education at those places where you want to go.”
Jackpot! I mean, not jackpot, because gambling is of the Devil, but this was exactly what I was hoping to hear. I was going to be able to go to college, and I was going to be able to go to the college that I wanted to attend. This was important because the college application process would turn out to be a huge source of contention in my home. My mother wanted me to go to Brigham Young University-Provo, the Harvard of Mormons. Ever since I was a kid, I’d had the same goal. For some reason, however, 17-year-old me was strongly against the idea. I applied only so that my mother would stop pestering me about it.
My dream school was University of Chicago, to which I applied early decision. When I read my acceptance letter online, I burst into tears and then played Coldplay’s “Paradise” at full volume on my computer. I called my mother to tell her the good news, but she was more interested in hearing about when I would find out my status with BYU.
When the BYU decisions were released and I received my acceptance, I was much less enthused. I didn’t want to go. Whenever Church members incredulously asked me why, the best reason I could articulate was that BYU lacked diversity. At the time, it had a Black population of .01%. Yes, there’s a decimal point there. I had spent the first half of my life living in a small Utah town, and I didn’t want that kind of racial isolation again. Although there was an even bigger reason that I would have been uncomfortable at BYU, I wasn’t aware of it at the time.
I later received a full-ride scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis. I loved the school and community when I visited, so that’s where I decided to go. Just as the patriarch had said, I had my choice of school. My mother begged me to go to BYU instead and even arranged an intervention meeting with our bishop so that he could convince me. I wasn’t swayed. This whole ordeal was becoming highly uncomfortable. Why couldn’t my mother just let me go to the school I wanted to go to? Well, she seemed convinced that if I didn’t go to BYU, I would become spiritually lost.
I remember telling her that it was okay, that I wouldn’t leave the church just because I was going to a non-Mormon school. The concept itself was laughable to me. My testimony of the gospel was strong, and it seemed so obvious that I wouldn’t stray from the path. It took a while, but my mother eventually accepted my decision to matriculate at WashU. I stopped going to church within weeks of starting college.
The final paragraph of my patriarchal blessing contains the third message that I’ve always remembered: “Be an example to your race and do not be ashamed of it, for you are indeed a daughter of God, and He loves you.”
If I wasn’t already crying, I was definitely crying when he said those words. I did at times feel ashamed to be Black. I didn’t love myself. How did he know? Truly, this message must have been inspired by God. It wasn’t until college that it occurred to me that the Mormon Church was part of the reason I felt ashamed of my race in the first place. Knowing the way the Church has treated its Black members, I would not be surprised if being told to “be an example to your race” and to “not be ashamed” are standard lines for patriarchal blessings given to Black people. It seemed inspired at the time, when in reality it’s likely that any Black member of the Church feels at least a little unloved.
It was in college that I learned to love my Blackness. My class was 6.9% Black, which may be a small percentage to some, but it was the largest Black community I’d ever had. How lucky I was to be at WashU instead of at BYU, where some people believed that the color of my skin was due to my supporting Lucifer in the premortal existence. My older siblings who had attended BYU had had to deal with racism and ignorance, but I had been spared that fate. It was a good thing, too, because there was another soon-to-be-discovered reason that I would have suffered at BYU.
When I was a senior in high school, I found an old Mormon magazine that contained an article about homosexuality. The article itself was condemning, but the topic stayed in my mind. Same-sex attraction…what a concept. I only had one gay friend, and he happened to be my ride to school. Some of our church peers cried sorrowful tears when he came out.
I knew as surely as I knew God loved me that being gay was not okay. In 2008, I had been a staunch supporter of Prop. 8—the California ballot proposition that aimed to eliminate same sex couples’ right to marry. I was relieved when it passed.
I loved the Church, and I loved the gospel. I was the kind of Mormon who politely dismissed myself from classrooms when teachers showed R-rated movies. At my first and only high school rager, I texted my mother to pick me up because I felt out of place amidst the drinking and smoking. That was me, Straight-Edge Dera, except apparently I wasn’t so straight.
During the spring of senior year of high school, I found myself watching an It Gets Better video created by LGBT students at Brigham Young University. I was in tears by the end of it. I had a strong feeling that there must have been some confusion—God truly did love and accept LGBT people, and somehow this message had just gotten lost along the way. “If there’s any Mormon who’s making a gay person’s life a living hell,” I thought, “then they need to watch this video. Then they’ll understand.”
LGBT was an ever-present thought-worm after that. I made queer friends. I supported LGBT causes. I went to a Pride meeting (for the food, of course). “Love the sinner; hate the sin” wasn’t cutting it for me anymore. I didn’t think being LGBT should be considered a sin in the first place. My interest in all things LGBT was blossoming, and the entire time I thought it was merely because I was a strong ally.
In freshman year psychology, we learned about split-brain patients. There is a bundle of nerves called the corpus callosum that connects the left and right hemispheres of your brain. In split-brain patients, however, this nerve bundle is severed. When scientists observed patients with severed corpora callosa, they discovered that the two hemispheres of the brain have distinct perceptions, personalities, and beliefs.
In one famous scenario, a split-brain patient became angry with his wife. His left hand attacked her. His right hand grabbed the aggressive left hand in order to protect her. In another scenario, a man was asked, “Do you believe in God?” and was told to point to yes or no. His left hand pointed to “yes.” His right hand pointed to “no.”
One brain, two minds.
Sophomore year of college is when I dissociated myself from the Mormon Church and realized I was gay, in that order. I stress the order because I don’t think it could have happened for me any other way. First I had to accept the fact that I no longer believed in the Church or in the God I was taught to revere. Then I could accept the fact that I was sexually attracted to women. I always joke that it happened that way because my brain could only handle one traumatic realization at a time.
While Mormon Brain was calling all the shots, Queer Brain was putting in work. I’m amazed at how much it was able to accomplish without raising suspicion from Mormon Brain. By the time Mormon Brain realized it no longer believed in the Church, Queer Brain had already composed a detailed slide presentation titled “Here’s How You’re Gay Now.” Slide 1 is just a picture of Arden Cho from Teen Wolf.
No longer intimidated and restrained by Mormon Brain’s religious zeal, Queer Brain is finally able to feel at home in its own body. Mormon Brain, on the other hand, is doing some personal development. It has changed its name to Skeptic Brain. It believes in dinosaurs and evolution now.
One brain, two minds. Both are happy to be free.
Being an ex-Mormon is like being able to see both sides of a coin at once. I still remember what it felt like to be Mormon. My mind remembers the Young Women’s oath I recited every week in Sunday School. My hands remember the piano hymns that they memorized for church services. My heart remembers the ache from watching people I love sin and leave the Church.
I have kept all those memories, and they share brainspace with newer memories. Memories of me drinking caffeinated tea for the first time, of me watching my first R-rated movie, of me telling a friend that even though I’ve started saying “shit,” I haven’t gone off the deep end until I’ve said “fuck.” Countless memories of me saying fuck, because fuck it feels good to be free.
I don’t fault my younger self for believing what she believed. My patriarchal blessing is just a relic now, but I still understand why it was so important to me years ago. As peculiar as the blessing seems to me today, I’m glad that it contained the assurance that I should follow my heart during the college admissions process. Without the freedom of a liberal college environment, I might have been a very different person.
Recently I visited some old (Mormon) friends. We were having a meal together. I started to take my first bite and was caught off guard when they asked if we could say a prayer first. I had forgotten the habit of asking God to please bless this food, that it may nourish and strengthen our bodies before eating. Just because I can remember what it’s like to be Mormon doesn’t mean I always do.
These days, I do a lot of sinning. Sometimes it’s getting a tattoo or having guilt-free premarital sex. Sometimes it’s drinking green tea in the morning or wearing a sleeveless shirt. I am my younger self’s antihero. The patriarch never saw it coming.