Image: “Many Men” by Beth Starger, charcoal, 9×10 in.
By Shaun Anderson
The mission president told me I suffered from something called “spiritual dissonance.” He described it as a situation where what I know (I am a missionary, called by God, to teach others about the true church of Jesus Christ) and what I want (a relationship with a man) exist with internal discord. In order to get rid of the dissonance, I must stop wanting the thing that goes against what I know.
I arrived in Laguna Hills, California on December 11, 2012. I had already spent nearly a year living in California, dedicating every moment of my life attempting to tell everyone I met why they should join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Over the course of that first year as a missionary, I spent hours on my knees praying before going to bed, upon waking up, with strangers in the street, inside the homes of families, in my missionary apartment, before reading my scriptures, after reading my scriptures, before eating, and on days when I decided to eat nothing in order to fast. I had grown confident walking up to strangers. I had learned to tell who would want to talk, who would take a card, and who would swear at me and chase me away.
I could sit in strangers’ homes and be bold. I could say things like “I know that this is the church that Jesus Christ established while he was on the earth, restored once more,” or “I know that Joseph Smith saw God the Father and His son, Jesus Christ,” or “Will you follow the example of Jesus Christ and be baptized by someone holding the Priesthood authority of God?” and my stomach wouldn’t churn.
A week after I called President Cook to tell him about my attraction to men, he pulled me into his office inside the church building. He sat across his desk from me and tried to meet my eyes. I would not look at him, afraid that all I would see was disgust.
“It breaks my heart that you’ve been carrying this for so long without telling anyone,” he said after several moments of silence.
My head jerked up. Pity. Not condemnation. I could accept pity.
He explained that my attraction was like the birds outside his window: I couldn’t stop them from flying overhead but I could stop them from building a nest in my mind.
I thought back to my high school choir class, where we sang Johann Sebastian Bach’s funeral dirge, “Come Sweet Death.” We didn’t really love the song until our conductor showed us a YouTube video of another high school choir singing the song and sounding better than us. After one time through the first verse, a single soprano began a reprise of the verse. After a few seconds of clear melody, a bass joined, starting his own reprise, moving at his own speed, ignoring the soprano. More and more voices joined, each moving at their own speed, singing their own part, creating a cacophonous wail rising and rising. The notes were jarring, terrifying, and beautiful. That dissonance made my hair erect, my body light yet the dissonance President Cook described felt like claws shredding the lining of my stomach.
What I Know:
- I called my parents six months before my mission to tell them I’d rather not do the whole “mission thing.” I wasn’t sure I knew enough to do a good job. My mother told me that she knew I wanted to do the whole “mission thing,” that God would bless my life because of my service.
- I cried when I prayed about The Book of Mormon.
- I spend every day of my mission talking to people, telling them that I know the message I share is true.
- I am supposed to talk to everyone.
- I did not talk to that man walking shirtless in the park.
- I haven’t felt connected to another human in nearly a year.
What I Want:
- To baptize the entire city of Laguna Hills. I want the baptismal water to heal the drug abuse, shattered families, poverty, and pain I see in the city around me.
- To be the kind of missionary my mother thinks that I am.
- To receive a letter from my old roommate, the one who invited me up to his home for the fourth of July over a year ago. I cried the night he moved out.
- People to believe me when I say that I know that the message I share is true, because I want it to be true. I want God to be there, and I want Him to answer my prayers, too.
- To be able to ask the man on the street if he’s happy, if it’s everything I think it might be when he tells us, “I’m really not interested, guys. I’m living with my boyfriend.”
- To talk to the shirtless man in the park, but not about Jesus.
- To be transferred out of Laguna Hills.
- To go home.
A journal excerpt from January 7, 2013: “We learned today that telling yourself you are something is better than saying, ‘I will be.’ I realized this whole ‘I am’ thing will work for my sexuality and sins. I am straight. I am a recovered addict.”
It is easy to come out through an email.
It is easier to come out through an email a year after you’ve told your mother (via email) that you were molested as a child, so you can blame the attraction on that event.
It is easiest to come out in a half-assed, “I think I might struggle with same-gender attraction, but I definitely know that the church is true,” half-truth, half-lie type of way.
In order to serve a Mormon mission, a man between 19 and 26 or a woman older than 21 must first meet with his or her local ecclesiastical leaders to establish his or her worthiness. They will be asked questions about their honesty, sexual history, tithing donations, and willingness to abstain from alcohol, coffee, tea, and drugs. (My bishop asked me if there was anything else I felt like I should tell him. I told him no). Then they will be required to get a physical exam, a dental exam, and an eye exam, in order to ensure that the potential missionary will be able to accomplish the physically demanding tasks a mission involves. Then comes the paperwork, where the potential missionary lists medical history (I checked yes on the question where I was asked if I had ever been suicidal) and answers questions about why they want to serve a mission (I didn’t say I wanted to serve because I hoped it would make me straight), what languages they speak, and whether or not they would like to learn a language.
After the meetings with ecclesiastical leaders and doctors, all of the paperwork gets sent to the church headquarters in Salt Lake City, UT. There, official leaders of the worldwide church look at all of this information and thousands of pictures of these men and women to decide where each of these potential missionaries should be sent. After it has been decided–two years for men or eighteen months for women–a letter is sent to the potential missionary, letting them know where they will be spending their mission, and what language they will speak.
“Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination” (Leviticus 18:22).
“The first time I met Brother Roberts, all I thought was ‘Oh my God. He’s gay,'” one of the women from the Laguna Hills congregation told us in the privacy of her living room.
We started by asking her about ways we could get the congregation to help us find people to teach, but our conversation rapidly spiraled into a gossip session about different members of the congregation.
We ended up discussing the Roberts family. He led the music in the main worship service and his wife taught Sunday School. Together they had four children.
“What do you mean?” I asked, while the missionary I was supposed to train snickered. “He’s married.”
“I shouldn’t have said anything,” she said and covered her mouth.
I watched Brother Roberts from then on. Watched the way he and his wife navigated the congregation independent of one another, driving to church separately, sitting apart, speaking to different people within the congregation. I didn’t know he was gay, but I, like the woman in her living room, now had my suspicions.
What I Know
- Gay men can marry women.
- Gay men cannot marry men either legally or righteously.
- Even if I marry a woman, there will be rumors around my congregation that I am gay.
- After a year of fasting, prayer, teaching, studying scriptures, and effort, God will not make me straight.
- Gay people do not get into heaven.
February 26, 2013, journal entry: I told Mom… She already knew…
February 28, 2013, journal entry: I’m tired. Elder Wilde calls me a ‘fairy.’ Elder Kriser wrote ‘the Gay area’ on our board. I can’t love this district. I can’t love. Period. That’s it. The end. Oh, God, help! Send some sort of aid in this fight, because here, I feel so alone.”
February 26, 2013, email to my family: I’m not the best missionary ever… Tried to be, realized I couldn’t be, but still stress about it more than I should. […] It seriously hurts when I see people trudging through life (lesson about California… NO ONE IS HAPPY HERE! It’s the sunniest most beautiful place, but there’s so much sin, and hardship), and I just want to tell them ‘YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE SAD!!!’ The gospel will fix that. Read this book, talk to Heavenly Father, and He will let you know what to do to feel okay.
February 26, 2013 [Missing]: There is no record of the email I sent to my mother to come out. My mother deleted the email. The church deleted my mission email account.
March 5, 2013, email to my family: I’ve been trying to learn a new way to live my life, because how I do it right now is not healthy. I overthink everything, and stress myself out WAY too much… So I’m trying to learn to stand back, and just take a deep breath. There are so many times that I can look back and see myself thinking ‘That’s it, I can’t do this anymore, I’m done’ (and that doesn’t even just relate to missionary work). But weird thing, all of those times, THINGS WORKED OUT! Every single time, things just work out, because I have a Heavenly Father who loves me.
What I Want:
- To be a straight man married to a woman.
- To be married to my roommate who stayed up until 4 am waiting for me to come home from my family vacation.
- To tell Brother Roberts that there are rumors about him spreading through the congregation.
- To pray myself into loving my female best friend whose picture I’ve hung above my desk.
- To be made straight before heaven.
By February 26, 2013, President Cook had chosen me to train a new missionary. He assured me that his asking me to train was the highest sign of trust. This statement contradicted the steady realization that President Cook had assigned me the least attractive missionaries in the Carlsbad area as my companions.
I had spent the previous month and a half working with a rotund young man from Utah named Elder Parker. He would lure neighborhood cats into our apartment whenever I spent longer than three minutes in the bathroom. He would catch bugs on an electric bug zapper, and watch them burn, his hungry squinty eyes feasting on the smoke rising off the small sizzling bodies. When I made him angry he would wait until I went to bed, then poop in the toilet and leave it unflushed until I got out of bed the next morning and made my way to the bathroom. If President Cook was trying to ensure I wouldn’t fall in love with my companions, he knew what he was doing.
My new companion fit the same mold.
Not that it mattered. After a year apart, I still fantasized about my roommate leaving his mission in the Philippines and finding his ways to Laguna Hills. I only let myself imagine him taking off my missionary name tag before I had to shake him out of my mind.
August, 9, 2013, journal entry: This is a fit of passion, because I’ve just been realizing stuff about myself today. I still love you. All those stupid love songs… It’s still your name that my mind blasts through my whole body, and there’s the chills, and goosebumps. All my hair stands on end, and I realize how truly infatuated I am with you.
But then I picture that scene of waking up beside you and I don’t want that. I imagine falling asleep in your arms and I melt. I just can’t imagine anything better… But waking up with your head next to mine, and realizing what I would have done… It’s horrifying.
So there’s spiritual dissonance. I know what every part of my natural man wants, and I know what would kill my spirit, and I’m scared that they’re the same thing. The natural man inside of me is screaming at me to run and find that man who I love and be with him, just him and me and that perfect romance.
But that would destroy my whole life. There go all my other relationships in life… There goes salvation. There goes the church. There goes the gospel. There goes my family. There goes my relationship with my Savior. There goes my ability to serve my Father in Heaven…
Still, there’s this small voice nagging me, telling me that you would be worth it all. That that second with you would be worth the sacrifice and that I can and should go after this.
Missionary work dragged in Laguna Hills. It was the first place in my mission where I never baptized anyone. At the beginning of my mission, in the eight months I spent in Fallbrook, I taught and baptized four individuals. In my second area, Escondido, where I spent nearly five months, I taught and baptized four more people. In Laguna Hills I never baptized anyone. I barely taught anyone.
I explained it in my letters home by saying that people were just meaner in Laguna Hills. They just didn’t know what they were missing. They were too wealthy to realize they needed God.
I explained to my missionary leaders that the area had lazy missionaries before me. I explained that I would get it up and running, and we would baptize in no time.
I explained to myself that I failed.
Midway through my mission I hadn’t even begun to feel the smallest fraction of attraction to any of the women I saw on the street. I had decided to go on a mission to change my orientation. I expected at least the beginnings of change after a year.
What I Know:
- I love Michael. When we were roommates, he would write his initials on all his food: “MAD.” I would write my initials on everything in the fridge: “SMA.” We would write our combined initials on anything we bought together: “SMAD,” claiming joint ownership.
- I should love the girl whose picture hangs on my wall. She lived across the hall from Michael and me. She called me weekly after she moved away for the summer. We’d talk until midnight, and then Michael and I would talk for four more hours.
- I should be trying to teach people about Jesus Christ instead of worrying about who I will love after my mission.
I had adjusted to the California heat by the time I made it to Laguna Hills, even though I grew up with snowy winters where the temperature plummeted into the negatives. In Laguna Hills, I still needed to bundle up in a sweater and a coat every time the temperature dropped below 60.
Elder Parker and I spent each night walking the streets, trying to find people to talk to. In the stretches when we saw no one, we walked in silence. He ticked off the weeks he had left as a missionary on one hand. I alternated between fantasizing about Michael and lambasting myself for fantasizing about Michael.
Near the end of January, we walked down Alicia Parkway, one of the main streets in Laguna Hills. The sun had set a few hours before. We stayed out, only because mission rules dictated we proselyte from ten in the morning until nine at night. We had no plans, no appointments, no one else out walking near us who we could talk to. We reverted to silence.
It felt like the nametag on my chest bore the single word: Failure.
On the street corner of Alicia Parkway and Wilkes Place, we stopped for the light.
Under the layers I suddenly felt warm. A different warmth than the sweaty heat of bundling up and hiking through town. The hairs on my arms, legs, neck, and scalp stood on end. The sensation was simultaneously hot and cold, pleasant and uncomfortable, spiritual and physical. It was the same feeling that blasted through my veins when I heard the blaring dissonance of “Come Sweet Death” from the other, better, choir. Without any provocation except for the thrumming cars and the momentary respite, I felt engulfed in that warmth.
I interpreted it as a message from God, like He was telling me to stop beating myself up. Like God loved me even though I had let the bird named Failure and the bird named Gay Thoughts share a nest in my mind.
What I Want:
- I want a message from God. Just one message that will let me know how I can get rid of the attraction I feel toward men.
- I want to be a good trainer. I want to have confidence that God inspires me as a missionary and as a trainer.
- I want to sit out in the front lawn and craft poetry every afternoon, instead of having to go out and talk to everyone I meet.
Excerpts from my third day planner in Laguna Hills (February 2013 – April 2013):
On the front cover: Elder Anderson
All complicated problems can be solved simply!
On the first page: Proselyting Area: Laguna Hills
Let me out!!!
Six weeks in: Tell Michael about Tisha Next Tuesday. Thank you for Michael. In eternity it will all work out.
For the first time as a missionary, I start leaving entire days blank in my planner. A sign that we have no lessons, no plans, no direction. The missionary I am supposed to train explodes at me one afternoon when we’re back in our apartment. I am a failed trainer. He imagined missionary work would be so much more rewarding. He wishes that the cooler, rugby-playing missionary, Elder Wilde, had been chosen as his trainer. I wish that, too.
We glare across our one bedroom apartment.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
“It’s not an excuse,” I say fumbling for words, for anything that will make me feel less like a failure. “But I’m worried about my mom.”
He stands silent.
“A few weeks ago, I dropped a pretty big bombshell on her.”
“And I’m just afraid that she’s not doing well.”
Does he already know?
He waits. I open my mouth. Close it. Open it. Stammer. Give up. Look at the floor.
“I have an STD,” he says. “I’ve never told anyone. But I feel like I should tell you.”
I look up and meet his eye.
I start to speak, not sure how to say what I’ve wanted to say out loud for so long: “When I was a kid, I…” I try to say it, not the part about being gay, but the part about being molested; it’s the part where I can be the victim, not the sinner. “I…” It won’t come. “I…”
I give up. Look back at the floor. I can’t say it out loud.
“Let’s go out and talk to people,” he says after several minutes, his voice cold.
President Cook visits me two weeks before he sends me away from Laguna Hills, south of Carlsbad. The missionary I’m supposed to train sits on our couch in the living room, while President Cook sits across from me in the bedroom, the door closed. I asked him to come. I hoped he would send me home.
“I’ve been struggling, President,” I say. “I keep thinking about my mom, how hard things must be for her with everything.”
I don’t tell him that I keep fighting the urge to jump into oncoming traffic. I don’t tell him that I’ve let myself imagine Michael peeling away more than my nametag. I don’t tell him that the birds are nested, and I’ve grown attached.
Instead I ask for a blessing. When he places his hands on my head, I hope for a message from God.
I will forget everything President Cook says in that blessing.
Doctrine and Covenants 50: 40-44
40. Behold, ye are little children and ye cannot bear all things now; ye must grow in grace and in the knowledge of the truth.
41. Fear not, little children, for you are mine, and I have overcome the world and you are of them that my Father hath given me;
42. And none of them that my Father hath given me shall be lost.
43. And the Father and I are one. I am in the Father and the Father in me; and inasmuch as ye have received me, ye are in me and I in you.
44. Wherefore, I am in your midst, and I am the good shepherd, and the stone of Israel. He that buildeth upon this rock shall never fall.
One Sunday after church, I start talking to a man in our congregation outside one of the offices. He gestures to the missionary plaques hanging on the walls. The plaques have pictures of all the missionaries who have left their homes in Laguna Hills to be missionaries around the world.
“As a psychiatrist, I got to work with some of these fellas before they turned in their papers,” he smirks.
“Nice,” I reply, unsure of why he’s telling me. “Sounds like a good job.”
“See this guy?” He points to a smiling blond young man whose plaque says he’s from Laguna Beach. “He wouldn’t have been able to go on a mission without me.”
He lets the words hang in the air, and I try to think of a reason to escape.
“I helped fix him, if you understand me,” he leans in, his square face close to mine, leering.
A reminder that he can see the truth.
What I Know:
- If I stay in Laguna Hills, I will eventually kill myself.
The missionary I am supposed to train will not forgive me.
He will tell each companion he has after me: “My trainer was gay.”
The missionary I am supposed to train and I will avoid each other at every mission meeting.
The missionary I am supposed to train will train other missionaries. I will meet one of the missionaries he trains at a meeting before I go home. This new missionary will tell me that his favorite scripture is Doctrine and Covenants 50: 40-44. He will tell me that the missionary I was supposed to train showed him those verses on a bad day.
The missionary I was supposed to train will be loved by the missionaries he trains.
President Cook calls my last week in Laguna Hills.
“What do you think of Elder Wilde?” he asks.
I think of playing rugby with Elder Wilde and his companion. Each time I’d drop the ball he would yell to my team, that’s what you get for giving the ball to a fairy.
“I think he’s a good missionary,” I lie.
“Do you think he could train?” President Cook asks.
“Definitely,” I reply, remembering how the missionary I am supposed to train told me he wished I was more like Elder Wilde.
“And what about you?” President Cook asks.
“What do you mean?” I ask, lying back on my bed.
“Could you train again?” President Cook asks.
“I could.” I try to let the words stand. Try to believe them. The rest spills out: “President, can I tell you what I really want?”
“You can, but it doesn’t mean that you’ll get it,” I can hear him chuckling like I’m being precocious.
I tell him that I want to be transferred to Carlsbad. There’s a missionary there who I connected with at the beginning of my mission. I tell President Cook that I need a friend.
“I’ll keep it in mind,” President Cook says before hanging up.
What I Want:
- To die.
The missionary I’m supposed to train says a hurried goodbye when we find out I am headed for Carlsbad. We shake hands, his meaty palm swallowing mine. Squeezing.
One last attempt to hurt.
What I Don’t Know:
- I don’t know how my mother reacted to me coming out. She told me in the email that she always suspected it. Still, I picture her sitting at home, at the computer, in the basement, alone. I picture her crying. She’s always crying in my imagination. She sits in our black office chair, holding herself, because there is no one around to hold her.
- I don’t know that I will go back to Laguna Hills with my mother six months after I come home. We will return for a baptism. I will see Brother Roberts. He will not remember me. My mother will ask me after the baptism if he is gay.
- I don’t know if I will find anyone I love as much as Michael. He and I will help teach and baptize two of our friends when I get home. After that year, I will come out, and Michael will end our friendship in a Facebook message.
- I don’t know what life sounds like without dissonance.
If I know nothing, I have permission to want anything