How a Black Gay Mormon Kid Lost His Faith 

My Thing Is: I learned that I didn’t believe in God, the Mormon church or any religion that would make me feel that just being myself was insufficient.

Gary James
Gary James Courtesy of Gary James

Growing up Mormon in rural Alabama sheltered me from many lessons that my friends and cousins had learned at an even younger age—some trivial (like how to cuss) and some more vital (like how to stand up for yourself, even when you’re afraid).

In time, life would teach me these lessons and so many more.

In the sixth grade I realized I was gay. Based on the intensity of their taunts, my classmates knew this long before I did. I was in Ms. Kidd’s fourth-period history class. “Derek” (not his real name) asked me if I was gay. Stunned by his directness, I offered what I thought was a convincing “hell naw.” But the truth was, I had no idea. That’s not the type of question 12-year-old Mormon boys ask themselves.

But when I did ask myself that question, it took only a few hours to get an answer. Despite the fact that I had a girlfriend at the time, I was gay. Suddenly my obsession with certain male actors, my secret love of My Little Pony and the relentless taunting by my peers all made sense. I was gay.

And that’s exactly what I told (actually, wrote to) “Derek” at the end of the day in a letter I sent all the way across the classroom in our last-period English class. Derek and I kissed in the bathroom a few times, but other than talking on the phone, that was the height of our preadolescent love affair. Did I mention I was dating a girl at the time?

Learning that I was gay was more than enough knowledge for my 12-year-old body and mind to process, but life would insist that I learn much more.

That summer—while Derek visited family up North—my family and I were visited by a new set of Mormon missionaries. Dozens of missionaries must have come and gone over the 11 years we’d been members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but these two missionaries were the first I remember actually liking.

Normally, when the missionaries came to our house to do “home visits,” I’d pretend I was asleep. But these missionaries liked pop music, and one of them even played “Super Mario 64” with me, which I’m sure is not allowed, since it distracts the “spirit.” My parents and I prayed and read the Book of Mormon with the missionaries, a common practice to strengthen our faith. I grew to idolize the missionaries so much that I decided I would become one when I turned 19, the age when Mormon boys and girls go away to teach people about Jesus in the Americas. But if I was to go on a mission, I would need to get my life right.

At age 8, Mormons are baptized and confirmed official members of the church. They call this “the age of accountability.” From that moment on, you’re officially accountable for all your sins. The way Mormonism works, you have to repent for every bad thing you do—at least that’s how my 12-year-old brain understood it. When you repent, you say a prayer to God during which you confess your sins, ask for forgiveness and promise never to do it again.

Confess. Forsake. And forget. Already very much type A, I made lists of sins I’d committed: teasing my younger brother, lying to my parents, masturbating and the list goes on. Needless to say, I had a lot of praying to do. And I did it.