I have a confession to make. I was once a Mormon. I was 21 years old. It wasn’t a good fit for me, or for them, but as in any bad relationship we had put up with each other; until I chose to end the abusive relationship. No matter how much I was cajoled, threatened, or guilt-tripped, after so many years, I was not going to change. And I knew God was OK with that. The Mormon Church for me had simply become as Evlyn Waugh wrote, much like a once-beloved wife for whom all affection had departed.
When I was a young man, Orange County, Calif., where I spent my youth, was ground zero for a hippie-youth revival movement. There were several factions such as the Jesus freaks, the Children of God, and the Hara Krishna’s to name a few. Drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll, we realized, could only do so much. People began “turning on” to an inward form of spiritual enlightenment, much of it fueled by LSD. I did not do drugs, but had plenty of rock ‘n’ roll, if not as much sex as I liked. But like most of my generation, I was disillusioned in 1972. We could not get Nixon to stop the war even after the Pentagon Papers were revealed. In fact, Nixon had even turned the guns on us at Kent State. Body bags were still piling up. Charlie Manson taught us that not all hippies were into “Peace Love and Happiness.” The Summer of Love was over. The Beatles had broken up. And I had lost at love.
My generation always wanted to be part of a movement greater than ourselves. I think that defines Baby Boomers. The spiritual revival of the early 70s was yet another attempt to change the world but this time by changing ourselves. George Harrison, former Beatle, sang “My Sweet Lord” and Norman Greenbaum sang “Spirit In the Sky.” In college I began to take Old Testament classes taught by a Rabbi, early Christianity classes by a Greek Orthodox monk, and a Book of Mormon class from an LDS Institute instructor.
My affinity for Mormonism was twofold. First all the gay kids I had known at Cypress College were Mormons. Second, the fantastical world of the Nephites and Lamanites were, as we use to say, “such a trip.” Being a history major, Mormonism had a curious freaky attraction to me. As hairbrained as it appeared, the LDS kids all seemed to have a Gnostic experience that I wanted for myself. They were certainly not as cultist as the Children of God, not as annoying as the Jesus freaks, and were within the perimeters of my own Christian heritage. Plus all the Mormons I had known in California were kind and good people.
When I began to have LDS-missionary lessons I was hooked. I had no belief in the theology of Mormonism but I did have an immense attraction to the missionaries and the sincere naivety of these cute guys from Utah. I know I must have flummoxed them with questions like,“Does God have a bowel movement if he has a physical body?” But they just smiled, humored me, and gave me that much more of their undivided attention. I must admit that when I agreed to be baptized I chose the cutest of the pair to baptize me. The gay part of me knew I would see him naked afterward when we changed out of our wet duds. I guess I should have known then that I was not exactly what the church wanted in a neophyte.
Perhaps the real reason I joined the Mormon Church was not a burning in my bosom, but rather a desire to extinguish the burning in my loins. I secretly hoped the “Mormon gospel” would be just-the-ticket for overcoming my more “grave and abominable” flaws. I was a conflicted young man.
After joining the Mormon Church, and a stint as a youth counselor at a YMCA summer camp, I changed my name to “Ben,” meaning son, to reflect the new me. My family was less than thrilled that I had joined the Mormons. I was sworn to secrecy so as not to bring shame to the family. My former heathen friends laughed and eventually turned away from me as beyond redemption – lost to religious insanity. Looking back now, they were right. It was a form of insanity. So desperate was I not to be gay that I was willing to sublimate my former identity to an abusive dogma.
I never do things in moderation. I am an extremist. Always have been. Always will be. So when my family and friends ostracized the fanatically new me, I had to leave. Like Mormon pioneers before, I put my shoulder to the wheel and moved along to Zion. Having only my BYU admission slip, a pillow and suitcase in hand, I boarded my Greyhound handcart expecting to have a “marvelous work and a wonder” waiting for me.
After a 14-hour bus trip through all the hamlets and villages of Utah I reached Provo at 5:30 a.m. It was pitch black outside and bone-numbingly cold. It was Jan. 8, 1973. Stowing my stuff in a bus-station locker I proceeded out into the cold. Trudging up Provo’s icy sidewalks, as I encountered people, I would ask “Is this the right way to BYU?” Finally after about a two-mile walk and climbing the steep escarpment, I set foot on the Brigham Young University campus for the first time. After saying a prayer of gratitude I asked for directions to the Wilkerson Center where I was to register, being as I was a day late. Finding a place to live would have to come later.
The Wilkerson Center always smelled like cinnamon rolls and sex to me. It smelled inviting. Waiting for registration to open I wandered to the east of the building and nearly fell down as the sun peaked over the Wasatch and I saw the mountains for the first time! I never knew Utah had mountains. They were majestic, towering, breathtaking and formidable.
As lack of sleep and road weariness caught up with me, I went and stood dutifully in line because that is what college students do most, stand in line. In my heart I was so overjoyed that I had the wherewithal to leave all that I knew behind to become a stranger in a strange land. That had to count for something.
Standing in line however, I felt that “all was not well.” Two suited men in their mid 20s were pacing up and down the registration line. Hands clasped behind their backs they seemed to be searching for something or someone. Upon stopping at me, my heart sank. Oh no! They have the power of discernment and they know my dark past. Beads of sweat trickled down my neck as one scowled at me, “You’re a borderline case.” Then to my utter relief he barked, “Your hair touches your ears. Get a haircut.” That was it? I gushed “I will! I will!”
After them telling me where the BYU barbershop was, I rushed downstairs and paid for a BYU trim. My first purchase at BYU. Then I dutifully stepped back in line where I now was compliant.
This was my first encounter with the guardians of BYU standards. It would not be my last. But so happy was I at the moment to belong to something greater than myself that I did not immediately realize the lesson learned that frosty morning. While God may look upon the inward heart, BYU was all about outward appearances. Like many other insulated young people attending BYU, I was too immature, too fragile, to sustain any sufficient scrutinizing of its emphatic rules.
BYU, in 1973, was a LDS-religious institution maintained to support the dogma of the LDS in a tightly controlled LDS environment. Little did I know that BYU would become for me, and others like me, simply an institute of terror.