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.
But no matter how many times I prayed to be forgiven for kissing Derek, I never felt forgiven—like a bounced check or a letter returned to sender. In cases of severe sins, when violence or sex is involved, Mormons are encouraged to go to their local church leader—always a man—to get support and guidance. One Sunday I cornered our church leader and asked him if we could go into his office. I confessed my sins (including the kisses) and told him I wanted to be worthy to go on a mission.
He was supportive and empathetic. He advised me to pray multiple times a day. Read specific sections of the Book of Mormon. And come see him in a couple of months. I did this for two months.
Two weeks before my repentance process would be complete, 19-year-old “Greg” (not his real name) joined our congregation. He was tall, brown and handsome. The missionaries were in the process of converting him to Mormonism, and he seemed to have this missionary-approved halo around his head. My family took a liking to him—so much so that they had him stay with us for nearly a week. I would learn a lot of lessons that week.
Shortly after Greg arrived, I realized that something was wrong. It started when Greg showed me how to roll a blunt, which became a sin when he smoked it. Then he tried to kiss me. When I finally gained the courage to confront Greg about his behavior, he looked me in the eyes, grabbed my throat and said he’d cut me if I said anything. The next few days were a blur. I grew detached from reality during the day in anticipation of what would happen at night—when his 19-year-old body would penetrate my 12-year-old body. Over and over again.
I still ask myself why I didn’t scream. Why didn’t I tell my parents right away? Why didn’t I run? Fifteen years later I still feel responsible, even though I know I’m not.
When I told my church leader what happened, he assured me it wasn’t my fault and that my repentance process was complete. He said that he would notify my parents. On the surface I was calm and quiet, but inside me something died that’s never been reborn—my innocence, my naivete, my faith. All gone.
I had done everything I was supposed to do. I had followed the repentance procedures exactly; I even brought in reinforcements in the form of my church leader. My parents had opened their wallets and hearts to the Mormon church, which led them to open their home to a man who would rape their son and steal his sense of physical and emotional security. The church would advise my parents to send me to a psychologist, who would spend our sessions trying to turn me straight.
I didn’t learn how to be straight; nor did I learn how to process my rape. I did learn how to ask my doctor to test my blood for HIV. I learned the excruciating anxiety of waiting for test results. I learned that sometimes you have to call to get the results. I learned the relief of being told you’re “negative.”
I also learned that following the rules won’t ensure success; that it may, in fact, quicken your defeat. I learned that no one else will save you, so you have to save yourself. I learned how to start difficult conversations even as I withdrew emotionally from the situation. I learned physical and emotional resilience.
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. I learned to be skeptical of institutions and people designed to “help.” I learned to be fake—to pretend that I believed in things I vehemently opposed in order to keep the peace. I learned to submerge my own pain in order to lessen the pain of others. I learned how to stay in my room for hours at a time so I wouldn’t make my parents uncomfortable. I learned how to be alone and make the best out of it.
All these things and more I learned at just 12 years old. I’m almost 27 now, and I’m still learning to forgive and forget.
Gary James is a communications professional in Washington, D.C.
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