It’s December 22, 2016. I’ve just written my mom an email.
The contents of this email include me breaking her heart. I’ve thought of a dozen reasons not to write it and fought with myself about it for over two months but at the end of this day, I will go to sleep knowing she knows the truth. The peace I feel from that thought engulfs me and I hit send.
I’m eight. I was just baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I’ve been waiting for this day because ever since I can remember, I’ve been promised that on this day, the day I am baptized, I will feel 100% sinless and clean. It will be the most beautiful day I can imagine, I’m told, and I’m so lucky to be in a family that is LDS because being baptized by immersion is the only *true* way to have your sins washed away. I’ve contemplated the near disaster I avoided many times over the past year leading up to my eighth birthday. What if I had been born to another family? Or in another country where Mormons didn’t exist? What if? This thought has kept me up at night because I know I’ve done nothing to deserve this life, which means it’s completely out of my control.
As I’m raised from the water, the white zippered suit clings to me in annoying ways. I feel naked in this completely wet suit in front of several dozen people, mostly parents and family members of all the eight-year-olds getting baptized today. A tiny bit of water got up my nose, but I was careful to pinch it tightly so I wouldn’t feel like I was drowning. This is another fear that has kept me up nights for many months. What if my hand slipped off and I got water up my nose? I would cough and probably come up too soon which would require them to dunk me again, and if that happened, I for sure wouldn’t get clean enough.
I look out at the smiling faces as the water beads down my face and neck. I feel no different but maybe it just hasn’t had a chance to work yet, I think. Maybe my sins are like rubber cement and don’t come off so easy and it will take until I get dressed and then confirmed with a prayer from my dad and THEN it will take. THEN I’ll feel clean. I walk up the steps and out of the font and feel sins clinging to my ankles, trailing behind me like shadows. The things that have happened to me will never leave.
After I’ve changed into my dress, after I’ve been confirmed, after I give my dad a hug of thanks, my primary teacher asks me, Leah, don’t you feel wonderful? Don’t you feel clean? Don’t you feel the Spirit? Yes, I say, and nod my head and in that moment I realize two things. I am a liar and will always be a liar, and if I don’t feel clean right after I was baptized I won’t ever feel clean and that’s just who I am. I feel further away from God and the people in my family than ever before.
I’m fifteen. I’ve been to several parties on a weekend night where most of the young men and some of the adult men in this chapel have been partying and engaging in debauchery, some of the time with my own person. It makes it very, very hard to take it seriously when I’m told these men hold the only true priesthood directly from God, the only true source on the earth today.
Hypocrites, I think. Everyone in this room including me is pretending to be something they aren’t.
It’s been a fight to get me to church for years, but now I stop going at all. I stop pretending to be good. I embrace who I am like never before. I cause trouble. I hurt my parents. I choose to be Real, no matter the cost.
I’m attracted to one of my best girlfriends and have dreams about her, but in real life I have sex with my boyfriend repeatedly and my parents send me in to talk to the Bishop. He tells me to repent and I tell him I will try. I don’t really try. My parents are beyond hurt. I’m messing up the entire family in an eternal sense. It’s too much pressure for a teenager. They send me to live with various family members to get me away from the situation. I find trouble no matter where I’m sent because that’s what I believe I am and like seeks out like. I am trouble. I will always be trouble.
I meet a guy my high school junior year that seems like a straight-laced good Mormon boy. A few months later I get pregnant. A few weeks after that I get married and six months later, our son is born. On the day he makes his debut, I am seven days away from turning eighteen. I am a baby raising a baby married to a guy who is determined to be an adult. He is alone in his ability to do that.
The pressure from the church to get sealed in the temple is non-stop. My husband and I finally agree and are rushed through two weekend classes with missionaries to prepare us. Our son is one and I’m pregnant with our daughter. We live in Germany and my husband is in the Air Force. Everything about our lives is new and stressful to me.
My sister and her husband fly out to be with us for the temple sealing. Everyone in my family is so excited we’re taking this next step. I’m hoping and praying that I will feel something while I’m in the temple. I’m hoping God will finally answer my prayers and bless me to feel the Spirit.
We begin in the temple by doing the Initiatory and I immediately feel violated by hands touching my naked skin. The rest of the time in the temple is a blur as the feelings of violation continue and I can’t figure out how to act right. So many memories of being abused from my childhood are swirling around in my head. I feel angry that everyone has been telling me to come and do this and I feel bewildered by every else’s lack of concern by what happens inside the temple.
I don’t go back.
I drift in and out of mental stability, birthing three more children, weathering the mostly downs of a marriage created of necessity. Most of the time it takes too much will power on my part to buy into the idea that there is a God who would approve of how my life has gone down.
During one of my active church phases in 1995, I sit in the bishop’s office and listen to him tell me that I should forgive my husband his indiscretions again and if I don’t, the sin is with me. Forgive, forget, and move on, he tells me. That’s what Jesus wants you to do. Do it for your family.
I think about what he said as we drive home and I realize I won’t be able to and I literally have no idea what that means for my future. The idea of divorce doesn’t move in my circles. This is an unknown world. I will again be the person in my family who is completely different than everyone else. This isn’t a new feeling, but it doesn’t seem to get any easier as the years go on.
Joe and I have been unofficially dating for two weeks. It’s October 2002 and neither of us wants to date anyone but neither of us wants to not spend time with the other person. This leads to lots of hanging out and doing nothing remotely date-like while at the same time totally dating.
It’s a Sunday and LDS conference is airing. We’re watching it together and I’m explaining that I’ve been thinking about going back to church after years away. Joe tells me he’s never going to be a Church Person. I tell him I want to be with someone who is religious. He shakes his head, no, he doesn’t think he ever will be. I start to cry. And then he starts to cry, because it’s possible we just identified a Deal Breaker even though we most certainly aren’t dating.
I’ve recently come out of a second mental hospital stay and the urge to try and fit in with my family is insistent. It’s exhausting to always be different. If I found someone religious, maybe I’d be like all of them.
Instead, I listen to my gut and start to really date Joe on the record.
Joe and I are married. Our parents all come to our home for a weekend to meet. I’m struck by how vehemently his mother, Phyllis, argues in favor of Catholicism straight to my mother’s face. It’s like she believes it as much as my own mother believes in the LDS religion! My mind is blown. In all my travels, I just assumed Mormons were the only ones that truly believed theirs was the real truth or cared that much. Other people seemed to take their religion with a grain of salt. To realize that most religions believe they are also The One True Religion is information I wasn’t prepared for.
My thinking about religion and churches begins to change. I attend mass with Phyllis and get blessed by a priest. I ask one of my Catholic friends if she truly believes her church is the only true one. Of course, she says, why else would I attend?
Why else, indeed, I think. And when I extrapolate this thought to the millions of people around the world who are alive now or who have ever lived, religions begin to seem much more like tribes of people who need rules to keep them similar and give them structure than they do divine institutions created by God.
All the churches can’t be true, can they? Wouldn’t that make none of them true? And what does “true” mean, anyway? There are parallels to country patriotism here that I can’t quite put my finger on, but the negative feelings I have when people go super-mongo USA! USA! USA!!!! and how I feel when someone says their church is the only true church begin to converge.
My youngest son is nine. He has not yet been baptized into the LDS church. This is causing concern for many people, none of the least being my own parents. My son isn’t sure if he believes what his teachers have been teaching him. He is a slow and methodical adopter and will not be rushed. He has gone to church sporadically over the years as I’ve ping-ponged between believer and doubter, resulting in stretches of months of non-attendance. His three older siblings have all been baptized. Eventually, he decides what the heck. Might as well. I attend the service with my husband. My ex-husband is the one who is baptizing our son. I know for a fact that he isn’t “worthy” to do it because he drinks alcohol. No one seems to care. The LDS church is full of people just like him and it no longer surprises me that so many are lying and pretending.
Instead of getting divorced when things start to fall apart between us, we radically change our lives by selling all our stuff and making a plan to travel the United States. Our first stop is to visit Joe’s parents in Virginia and instead of leaving right after Thanksgiving, we move in and I become his mom’s companion for the next year.
I watch Phyllis get weaker day by day physically, but her spirit just gets stronger. She’s a beautiful example to me and I grow to love her deeply. Joe’s dad is what I would describe as agnostic and pokes a little fun at religion in general, but Phyllis never apologizes for having her beliefs. She never tries to convince anyone else she’s right. When I’m with her, I can believe, too. She just simply Is and Believes until the very end.
My dad is getting older and continues to remember less and less. I go home to spend some time with them while he can still remember my name.
I’m with my mom in the basement going through boxes of old family photos. She asks me how I know Joe is faithful to me after my first marriage ended so poorly. I tell her it’s because one day early on, Joe called me from work to tell me a redheaded woman had just walked in and he was suddenly smitten with a crush. In that moment I realized he would always tell me. He wasn’t into secrets. He didn’t get off on constructing an alternate life while married to me. He immediately called me to include me. I was on the inside. He would never cheat on me and lie.
Mom asked me if I had ever had the experience in reverse. I told her about a woman I had fallen for during the period Joe and I were separated in our fifth year of marriage. I heard myself saying the words but I couldn’t believe I was actually telling my mom I had had extremely deep feelings for someone the same gender as myself. Her face was turned away from me as she bent over the box to grab another album.
But that was then, she said into the box, now you and Joe are fine. And that was true.
I’m becoming Reiki certified. I finally feel things– energy and movement–and it is a type of spirituality and I embrace it. I start to understand what everyone has been talking about all these years. There is a warmth you get in your chest or a melting in your gut. I can sense movement in my hands and denseness or clearing as I work on someone else. It’s amazing. I am thankful and enamored with finally being able to talk about Feelings and know what I’ve been missing. This is a connection to my family that I’ve longed for. I can talk of spiritual things and fit in. I’m a part of It and it is delicious and satisfying.
I find God or He finds me. I’m determined to get to know Him better. I embrace the concept of being a Church Person.
It’s October 2014. I’m in my quest of Reclaiming the Divine. I decide that I don’t know what I’m saying no to, so I better go back and try the LDS church back on to see if it fits me now, or if I fit within it, now that I’m older and can feel things.
I decide that if I’m going to do it, I’m going to Do It. I’ll become temple-worthy and say yes to callings and get involved in every way. Immerse myself as completely as I can.
I keep the Word of Wisdom. I throw out my inappropriate clothing. I attend church meetings. I tell my mom I’m going back to church. She is astonished. She does not believe it. She is unbelievably happy. Her prayers are literally being answered. The missionaries tell me that the rituals inside the temple have changed since I went in so many years ago. They tell me I have nothing to worry about.
On Halloween, late in the afternoon, tattoos carefully covered, I sit across from my mom on a beautiful couch in a heavenly, white room inside the St. George LDS temple and she still looks as if she can’t believe it. I smile at her. She leans forward and whispers, I didn’t think this day would ever come. Tears glisten in her eyes. Where is your faith, Mom, I whisper back jokingly to her in hushed tones. My brother, sister, and niece are beaming. I feel like I finally, truly fit in with my family.
In the temple it’s quiet. For a person like me who is sensitive to mental energy, it’s such a relief from everything. White and calmness are everywhere. I step inside, and it’s peaceful. I step outside and it all comes landing back on my shoulders again. I am relieved that what the missionaries told me is true. The way things are done in the temple has changed. I don’t ever feel uncomfortable and no old, painful memories are triggered when I go. I make a goal to go weekly to enjoy the peace and freedom I feel inside.
The rituals and prayers in the temple are beautiful. There is a sense of the Sacred all around you. I sit in rooms quietly and contemplate God. I can’t seem to rectify how I believe He is with how my church describes Him. As usual, I’m quick to believe the fault must be with me and my understanding.
My God is welcoming and non-exclusionary. I don’t believe God requires special words or handshakes that only some people know to come into his presence. I push away my questions about why I continue coming and working in the temple because I fit in with my family and because I assume I must be missing something. I just don’t get It. I continue to focus on the parts I love and appreciate and not look at the parts that don’t make sense. This isn’t hard for me because I have lots of conflicting beliefs at the same time.
I simultaneously hold and believe the following two concepts: 1. Everything matters and everything I choose to say and do, or not say and not do, impacts everything else in large and small ways. I am responsible for everything I experience so if I’m frustrated and disappointed by the world, I need to fix things inside of myself. 2. I am insignificant and nothing I say or do matters in the big scheme of things because Almighty God is in control of all things and His plans won’t be thwarted by someone so insignificant as me.
It crosses my mind that this entire thing is privilege. I have the opportunity and time to sit inside holy buildings and have these philosophical thoughts when others are outside these walls simply trying to survive. That in and of itself is something I can’t make sense of.
The attack in the Orlando, Florida nightclub happens. I’m devastated. I feel it inside my bones. I weep. I see posts on social media declaring that these people brought it upon themselves because they are gay. I’m sick to my stomach when I realize some of them are LDS.
In grief, I brandish my keyboard like a sword and write a Facebook post declaring that it’s no secret I’ve been in relationships with women in the past and if you believe it’s a sin then you should unfriend me immediately.
But, then I find out it has been a secret to a lot of people that I am Bisexual and I realize I haven’t been true to myself or others in my community because I Pass.
An LDS friend send me a message telling me I’m not sinning because I’m not acting on those feelings and I’m married to a man. No one would ever know if I didn’t tell them, so why tell them? I’m hurt and angry by this note but I can’t put into words exactly why because she’s right. No one would ever know if I didn’t tell them.
Someone asks me if it hurts Joe’s feelings when I talk about being in relationships with women and I have to think about it. I realize what she’s asking is if it hurts him MORE than it would if all my past loves were men. Like, me being Bi is against him somehow. Insulting to him, maybe.
I visit my brother and his wife. It’s the 4th of July. We’re talking about politics, which is historically a no-no given that we are on diametrically opposite ends for most things. The LDS church has recently come out with additional policy statements for how the Gay community is to be treated. Love the sinner, hate the sin remains the mandate, but now we’re going to love the sinner even better and harder and with more intensity so they really feel it. But their kids can’t be baptized until they are over eighteen to save the families from fighting and even though it’s the law of the land, if you’re in a same-sex marriage, you are apostate and will be disciplined and probably excommunicated from the church.
I ask my brother if he understands how it feels to be the person who is “the sinner” being loved, despite the sin. He tells me of course he does because we’re all sinners.
I tell my brother that I’ve been in relationships with women and been in love with women and to me, loving a woman or loving a man is the same thing. He reminds me that I was like that “before” and that those sins don’t apply to me anymore, thank goodness. I struggle with how to tell him that I’m still the same person. I’m Bisexual. That’s how I’m made. I’m married to a man who I love deeply and can’t imagine being with anyone else. But that’s not because he’s a man. It’s because he’s Joe. I “pass” because Joe is a man. No one who knows me from church would think of me as Bisexual.
I explain to my brother that there are countless people who are in relationships with someone who is the same sex as them and they are in love, married, having families. They are happy. I watch his face as he starts to understand what I’m saying. I’m telling him those people don’t feel like they are sinning. I’m telling him those people are just like me. Up until this point he has assumed that people who engaged in same-sex love and relationships knew they were sinning and doing the wrong thing. It’s almost beyond comprehension to consider that they just feel like regular people.
Later that night as I fall asleep I pray to God and ask Him how this all works. How can I know so strongly that I’m ok, that all these people who are like me are ok, and at the same time belong to a church where people like me are thought of as being wrong and sinners when they choose to be with someone who they love who is the same sex? There are no answers as I lay in bed, but I feel the string that makes me fit in with my family begin to go slack and become tenuous. I’ve tried so hard to fit in, but there is the slightest fragrance of relief I sense just outside my field of consciousness as I drift to sleep.
It’s October 2016. I go in to talk to my bishop and renew my temple commitment. He asks me questions, which I recall answering two years ago, and answer the same way. I pass.
I meet with the stake president and he asks me the same questions. I answer the same way. I pass.
It’s November 9, 2016. I feel hungover even though I haven’t been on a bender in many years. I’m devastated by the election results. I slept terribly. I feel crushed and worried and I’m in mourning.
Most of the people at church that next Sunday are curiously quiet. It takes me way too long to realize that’s because so many of them voted for Trump. The message is unification and moving forward. I am heartbroken and alone. I realize I haven’t done my job in declaring who I am and what I believe and decide going forward I will be different. I consider how that will work when I teach the women’s class and the lesson talks about the Proclamation to the Family and I realize this is going to be even harder than I thought it would be. How will I fit in with them and still say what I need to say? How will I bring their white privilege to their attention and help them understand how voting for Trump put so many at risk? How will I pass as a good Mormon, Relief Society Education Counselor, Temple Ordinance Worker, and still be who I feel like I need to be?
But then I realize, I don’t want to pass anymore. I’m not straight and I don’t agree with some church policies. I plan to publicly protest for the rights of marginalized people, including the gay community. It feels vitally important post-election to do whatever I can and to use my voice however I can.
I set up an appointment to speak to my bishop again and explain how upon further reflection, I can’t answer the questions the way I did originally. I need to change some of my answers. After some consideration, he asks me if there’s any way I could have my own private beliefs and support groups as I see fit, but not protest publicly, and teach the lessons as outlined in the handbook. I tell him I cannot. What seems to him to be privacy, feels to me like hypocrisy. I cannot be one thing but pretend to be another. I won’t.
My husband tries to get me to reconsider and move slower as I extract myself from my church commitments for reasons I think even he doesn’t understand. He’s seen me have a lot of joy these past two years. He’s helped me pay my tithing and made sure I got to the temple. He’s gone to church with me and sat through uncomfortable fast and testimony meetings where people of all ages speak to the congregation about why our church is the one and only true church. He’s never made fun of the sacred underwear or changes to my wardrobe. I literally can’t imagine a more supportive person. I listen to his worries and I take them to heart because he’s seen how happy I’ve been.
We eventually find our way into a tense discussion where I have to ask him to stand down. I tell him that no amount of fitting in with my family is worth living a lie that I don’t believe, and they wouldn’t want me to do that, anyway. I tell him that I don’t believe there is one true church and that the very exclusive nature of the phrase “One True Church” has the narrow-minded sticky fingers of man, not God, all over it. I reject it. My heart tells me all churches are good that bring people closer to God. That in the scriptures it talks about the Body of Christ and that’s everyone who identifies as a Christian. We all have to work together. We need to stick together. We need to accept each other. God lives in my heart and I take Him with me no matter where I go. I fit in with God and it no longer matters if I fit in with my family or not.
Life feels so incredibly short and precious to spend any of it worrying about if I’m fitting in the right way or belonging to the right church. What spectacular wastes of time those things are and what a significant amount of energy I’ve been spending on them. I renew my commitment to God to be the best person I can be and to be His hands wherever and whenever I possibly can.
I feel a weight being lifted off my shoulders. I feel a warmth in my chest. I feel a confirmation that I’m doing what’s best for me and I’m immediately engulfed in gratitude to my God.
I start writing an email to my mom.