Today I am thinking a little about where we’ve been and where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. The truth is that as I’ve been forced into this journey with Justin and accepted the challenge, my heart has expanded exponentially toward everyone. I find myself constantly reminding myself that we’re all just trying to do our best and today, for today, THAT’S ENOUGH.
I’ve also been thinking about the power of narrative and active listening to help us get to know each other. Do you know how many group therapy circles I’ve been in during the last 4 months? so many…and they are amazing. People telling their stories, bringing you in, letting you see them as they really are even if it’s just for a minute. And there’s something sacred about that.
You haven’t heard much from me because I’ve been moving into my crazy work mode (fall and spring) and helping with a fundraiser for the FAR BETWEEN documentary that is all about STORYTELLING. Last weekend, I got to perform a story at two fundraising events in conjunction with another great organization THE PORCH and it was such an amazing experience.
IT was amazing because storytelling and stand up comedy are things that I have been wanting to experiment with for a while now, but it was also amazing because for the first time in a long time, Justin and I both felt so connected. We have always been knit together in our desire to serve and this was a sweet opportunity to explore that again when it wasn’t all about Justin and his health and healing. I think we both just felt NORMAL and outwardly focused for a few days. Like we remembered who we want to be when this is a little further down the road.
Anyway, here’s an essay-ish version of the story I told:
In the winter of 1997 my Philadelphia singles ward made a pilgrammage to NYC for the macy’s thanksgiving day parade. Somehow in between making fun of Kenny G’s mullet float:
and the pirate ship full of the cast of cats (grown men in unitards pretending to bat at nothing. Really?)
we found time to make friends with the other people around us. We shared bagels and huddled together for warmth and when a large contingency of rainbow shirted children and adults made their way down the parade route singing and waving their jazz hands in mock cheerfulness, it wasn’t at all unnatural for someone to make a comment. The surprise was that the comment came from one of our new found NY friends who turned and said loudly.” Ah, here come the Mormons. Yep, look at those hands and faces. Mormons!” We all kind of laughed nervously because this is the part where a missionary moment is supposed to happen, right? Of course someone from our group said, “well, you know, we’re mormon and we’re not like that!” With out skipping a beat, our friend looked us straight in the eye and said “Honey. Honey. NO. Those. Those are UTAH Mormons.” THere it was…And suddenly I had a name for this group of people who made me feel bad that I had no pioneer ancestors and hadn’t ever been to EFY. UTAH MORMONS. From that point on, Utah Mormons came to mean overly cheerful, inauthentic, and bad fashion sense. Because, rainbow shirts?
SO I probably need to back up and tell you that I grew up in Pennsylvania where we attended church in a tiny branch with about 80 people every sunday. The missionaries referred to it as OUTER DARKNESS, so you can imagine how popular it was. It was probably only because of those missionaries and the western transplants who came to our town that I realized we were different from other Mormons. I knew THEY were different with their Hawaiian Haystacks (seriously, what the crap?) and the constant references to being “in the mission field”, and I guess that meant that I was different from them. But somehow I also knew that being Mormon in Pennsylvania had a slight air of “coolness”. Don’t get me wrong, it didn’t make ME cool, because nothing could help that greasy middle school hair and sally jesse Raphael glasses.
But it is true that in a town where everyone was Polish, Italian and VERY catholic, I was different. Unique. And that was kind of cool. So when the kids in my 8th grade geography class wrote Christmas jingles about Joseph Smith on the bus, it was flattering instead of horrifying.
You know what happens next. I moved to Utah. I came to Utah for lawschool (oh, don’t worry, I didn’t actually GO to law school) at the ripe old age of 23 and I was convinced that Utah Mormons were the devil and I was bound and determined to avoid the appearance of evil. I did everything I could to be un-UTAH mormon – I joined an interfaith council at the U of U even though I wasn’t even a student. I got a job at the freaking NATURE CONSERVANCY which is probably the least Mormon organization I could work for… And I vehemently proclaimed that I was from Pennsylvania every chance I got (which may not have been to my credit since few people equate cultured refinement and Pennsylvania.)
One of my very first non-utah Mormon acts of rebellion was to attend a local poetry slam in downtown SLC. Because Mormons HATE poetry, right? I had attended and even performed at a few in Philadelphia so I guess I knew what to expect. I was thinking cool hip-hop vibe, a little overt sexuality and maybe the hint of the political. I remember sitting at a table by myself feeling very grown up as I waited for the spoken word to start, but as the evening wore on, my feelings changed from excitement to shame and I don’t know…fear? I am certainly prone to exaggeration, but I’m pretty sure that EVERY. POEM. was about how the LDS church was ruining their lives and how they felt marginalized by the Mormons in their midst. I shrunk lower and lower in my seat… felt like everyone in that place could TELL that I was Mormon and they hated me for it without even knowing ME. I think now, looking back at that experience and my subsequent actions, I allowed that shame to get in the way of the opportunity to be a real change maker. I channeled my shame about being Mormon into hating other Mormons as a way of distancing myself from other people’s judgement. So i refused to own my new home and I rejected a lot of people because of that. Now looking back at it, I’m most ashamed to say that I have purposely not accepted people into my heart because of the way they say MELK and MELL and MOU-EN. I have not been true to myself and my desire to be a peace-maker, a bridge-builder because of this perception that I am better than someone just because I don’t wear bejeweled pants and see things with the same black and white surety that they do.
I wish I could say that I had some epiphany about my Utah Mormon hatred that changed everything. But the truth is, over my 8 combined years as a citizen of this state, it’s been a slow burning process to come to a place of acceptance…I’ve left Utah and come back twice now, so obviously, there is something I love about it being here, but it’s still not easy. Something that has helped me to accept and attempt to move past my own prejudice is my own work as an ally to the gay community.
When I moved to Utah it was from Oregon where I had just been in love with a gay Mormon man. My first gay Mormon. Not my first gay crush by a long shot… I was a theater nerd in highschool and college..so you know. In fact, I would say that I was in love with no less than 4 gay men during my 4 years in school…many of whom were Jewish…but no Mormons. It wasn’t hard for me to make sense of their sexuality because it had nothing to do with me. I just enjoyed the non-committal party fondling that being the straight fat girl in the gay community afforded me. And I felt like I had a pretty ROCKIN’ gaydar by the time college was over. But Mormon gays flirt. And I know all gay men flirt. But gay men GAY FLIRT and Mormon gay men STRAIGHT FLIRT. Seriously, the night my Mormon gay came out to me, I was still convinced he was going to kiss me… I was like… “Feel all that nervous tension in the air? That’s makeout tension… YEAH.” Well we all know what that nervous tension was really about.
It was a bitter sweet experience, his coming out. Because this wasn’t just a crush but true and honest love, I was, for the first time, acutely aware of the constant crush of his faith and culture on his heart and the way it hindered him from leading a truly authentic life. His faith community (my faith community) was failing him in ways that I didn’t quite understand yet, but somehow I knew that I needed to be part of a solution. Here’s where it gets tricky…While the conservative culture that I perceived as belonging to the UTAH Mormon community seemed like the perfect representation of all that was oppressive and wrong, I have since realized that it is ME who needs to change.
The truth is that I NEED to believe that there is space for everyone in this faith, church and gospel that I love so much. I NEED for there to be room for all in my church pew: gay, straight, Pennsylvania, Utah, conservative, liberal, black and white thinkers and those of us who swim comfortably (or not so comfortably) in the gray. And in order to be a true ally, I have to be the one to MAKE THE SPACE. I know now that I am doing more harm than good for my gay brothers and sisters, for ALL my brothers and sisters, by separating myself from the rest of my people. My own prejudice has crowded my church family out in ways that I don’t really fully understand yet, but want to understand. That wanting to understand is the first step, but more than that I need to own this community and become part of it.
Because the next time some fabulous New Yorker turns and says, “Honey. HONEY. THOSE. Those are Utah Mormons.” I hope and pray that she is pointing at me. And I will say, proudly, I am a UTAH MORMON and I am open. I am a UTAH MORMON and I see you. I am a UTAH MORMON and I choose authenticity instead of perfection. I am a UTAH MORMON and I seek to understand. I choose empathy as Christ did. I allow others to be who they are and expect the same respect. I am a UTAH MORMON and I am an ALLY to those who feel abandoned, marginalized, alone, rejected and displaced by their community be it religious or otherwise. I am a UTAH MORMON and though I will always fight against be-dazzled pant pockets and big hair, I am ready to embrace my home and make room in the pew for YOU and everyone. I am a UTAH Mormon.