Happy Birthday to Me

On queerness and the Mormon church

Matthew Gong
Jan 10, 2020 · 14 min read
Illustration by Carmen John

EEvery year for the last eight years, I have written myself a birthday letter. They’re glorified journal entries that distill experiences from that year into meaningful stories. After I came out, I started posting the letters for family and friends to read.

Last year, I didn’t post a letter. I didn’t write one either. It’s not that I didn’t want to; it’s just that last year was . . . complicated. When I get stuck in my head, my boyfriends like to remind me jokingly, “Other people feel things, too — your emotions aren’t unique,” and they’re usually right. However, there aren’t many people who are queer and whose dad is an authority in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also known as the Mormon Church). If there are, I would love to meet them for a nice cup of group therapy. We have so much to talk about.

Even before I was born, my dad immersed himself in Church service. He accepted every church responsibility asked of him, including teaching Sunday school in our congregation, being a youth group leader when my brothers and I were young, to serving as a Stake President for student congregations at BYU. When I graduated high school and went off to college, his church responsibilities changed. He went from local callings in nearby congregations to a new calling as a General Authority, which is international; it’s sort of the Mormon equivalent of a cardinal. Despite the all-consuming nature of his work, when he turned seventy, he could retire. His time in church leadership would be “just a phase.”

LLeadership in the LDS Church is a peculiar thing. The Apostles, the top fifteen leaders who comprise the first presidency and quorum of the twelve, are appointed for life. They are pseudo-celebrities to many practicing Mormons, treated with reverence and then asked for selfies. When an Apostle dies, it’s a somber spectacle. At the next bi-annual church conference, a new replacement is ‘called’ to fill the vacancy. The online Mormon community buzzes with speculation about who will be called next. Once someone is called, they’re called for life. They never get to step down or retire. They will age publicly, and they will die publicly.

I found out my dad had been called to be an Apostle at the same time as the rest of the world. I didn’t know it was happening until his name was read from the pulpit during an international TV broadcast and in front of a live audience of twenty thousand people. I’d had my suspicions my mom was stressed, and my dad had his diplomatic stoicism cranked past eleven for the week leading up to the announcement, but I didn’t actually know.

I found out my dad had been called to be an Apostle at the same time as the rest of the world.

Despite my melodramatic gut-reaction, he is still my dad. It doesn’t matter that we don’t agree about everything; we are family. I am not thrilled about his decision, but I respect his choice. I have known him for my whole life. He is human and fallible, but he strives. I have seen him make mistakes. I have seen him change his mind. I have seen him struggle. I have seen him grow more compassionate. I have never seen him desire a position of power. If he’s given power to wield, I trust that he will exercise his conscience and wield the power to the best of his ability for the betterment of those in his stewardship. I am hopeful he will be a force for good.

It took two years for me to be comfortable enough to write the letter. It was necessary for me to take the time I needed to come to terms with everything. I am aware of many post /ex-Mormon groups who want to co-opt my voice for their own agenda. I didn’t want my actions to be dictated by knee-jerk emotional reactions. I waited to be certain I was speaking my truths and not parroting someone else’s opinions. There were also mundane reasons. I had my life to live, new jobs, new relationships, and the minutia of daily living.

There was some trepidation about becoming visible. More than the fear of unwanted negative attention, I didn’t want to risk the relationships I worked so hard to reclaim. By choosing to claim my voice and become visible, some Mormons will rant that I’m a radical dissident, while others will decry me for not being critical enough. I have watched people politicize the relationship I have with my dad. Our interactions are nitpicked and we are cast as avatars of ideologies, tokenized to represent a facile dogma in someone else’s narrative.

GGrowing up Mormon can make it really difficult to realize you’re queer. Decades of counsel from the Brethren encouraging mixed orientation marriage as a “cure” to homosexuality, and an intense cultural stigma surrounding sexuality in general, create a stifling atmosphere. The fact that I was attracted to men should have been obvious to me, but I was practically in Narnia. The signs were all there — I checked out the wrong mannequins at the mall, I was super friendly to certain boys at summer camp, and I could list male porn stars by name. Whenever chastity was taught in Sunday school, “thou shalt not lust after women,” I felt smug satisfaction. I just thought I was a late bloomer. I wouldn’t even acknowledge the possibility that I could be queer until after my first suicide attempt. I tried so hard to be righteous; but more than anything, I wanted to belong in God’s plan.

Before coming out, I was terrified that I would be discovered. I felt like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a despicable queer, a gay doomed to succumb to carnality. I built alligator-infested moats in front of spike-filled trenches in front of my emotional walls. I crafted dozens of masks and tailored each one to fit specific social interactions. I switched masks so frequently that I lost track of who I was, like a magician who forgot which card they’d palmed. Compliments and real emotional connection were stopped at the gate, halted by the unassailable logic of fear. “They love the mask, but would they love me if they knew?” Every time I imagined being outed, doubts crept like assassins in the lonely halls of my fortress. My barriers only served to isolate me and make me vulnerable to all the nightmares my depression whispered into my head.

I tried to be the perfect child. I never broke curfew. I tried to get good grades. I suffocated my queerness under the weight of expectation. I believed that if I was perfect in every other way, my family could love me despite being queer. I was anxious, depressed, and suicidal. Being dead seemed like a rosy alternative to disappointing god. Being out was more shameful than being dead.

MyMy family is (in)famous for our analytical and serious dinner discussions full of “I think” statements. We’re great about having analytical “I think” conversations, but sometimes we struggle with the “I feel” conversations. My coming out was definitely an “I feel” kind of conversation.

I came out to my family seven years ago, two years after I first let myself use the label “gay” in reference to myself, and ten years after I first realized I was different. When I came out, my relationship with my parents immediately hit a rocky patch. It wasn’t because they rejected me. They were raised in a culture where queerness is taboo. They didn’t know what to do. Putting aside their misunderstandings of queerness was a huge task. To my parents’ credit, it was always clear they loved me, even when they made faux paus. Through the depression-induced brain fog, I struggled to understand that they were learning to love me for me.

I came out to my family seven years ago, two years after I first let myself use the label “gay” in reference to myself, and ten years after I first realized I was different.

BBelief and the Church are complicated subjects for me. They need . . . context. In my head, I deconstruct churches into three distinct entities: the organization, the religion, and the culture. The organization is embodied by the institutional hierarchy — for the LDS church its organization is made up of the first presidency, the quorum of the twelve apostles, the general authorities, and local clergy. The religion is the collection of beliefs, dogmas, and practices that comprise worship and daily living. The culture is dictated by the local congregations and communities. It’s the lens through which the organization and religion are often filtered.

From a grassroots perspective, the LDS Church is built on good intentions and succeeds in many ways. Functional congregations are strong communities with members that care for one another. I have seen participation in religious service inspire people to become kinder, more compassionate, and change despite the immutability of their own past. These positive aspects are not unique to the LDS Church, but I believe most Mormons are trying to live virtuously to their experience.

I see potential within the organization to affect powerful change and good in peoples’ lives. However, the LDS Church is a hierarchy, a power structure. Power structures are inherently vulnerable to the mistakes of the well intentioned and the corruption of the malicious.

Despite its efforts to appear culturally homogenous, the LDS Church is anything but. There are West Coast Mormons who are different from Utah Mormons, who are different from International Mormons, etc. Within each region, there’s latitude in congregation cultures. Peoples’ lived experience of the religion is a spectrum. The “standardized” handbook is interpreted based on the discretion of a local leader; we call it “bishop roulette.” Some bishops welcome same-sex couples into their congregations and others excommunicate allies for supporting gay marriage.

The monolithic rigidity of the religion today makes me super sad. The old school doctrine was punk rock and radical. The idea that everyone was an embryonic god? Wild. When they preached that heaven was for everyone, and they actually meant it? Unapologetically universalist. The beliefs were molten — shifting and evolving — in fascinating and weird ways. The possibility of change was exciting and hopeful.

When they preached that heaven was for everyone, and they actually meant it? Unapologetically universalist. The beliefs were molten — shifting and evolving — in fascinating and weird ways. The possibility of change was exciting and hopeful.

There are parts of the religion that I still value and cherish. I am a consummate humanist and fiercely devoted to the belief that humans have agency. While I believe actual uses are rare, I maintain that it is possible. By extension, I value my choices and accept the consequences of my actions. I believe we are responsible for more than just our own short-term happiness. I believe that humans are fallible, but not that we are inherently corrupt. Despite our imperfections, there is value in humanity, and that value is not infringed upon by any litany of labels and asterisks. The religion taught me to be intentional, patient, compassionate, forgiving, and to strive to better myself. I believe at the religion’s core is powerful set of values that drive human progression. In those core values, I see an elegance beyond human intention.

I have also seen the human intentions in weaponizing religion. The religion also taught me that queerness is a mental illness, is vile, or simply does not exist. I learned this explicitly from the pulpit, and implicitly through the actions of members of my congregation.

A truth behind any religious power structure is that the power the system has is proportional to peoples’ belief. As much as the organization appears to be top-down, meaningful changes in the lives of individuals start from the bottom up. This gives me hope that, even if the organization and religion remain unyielding, the culture can be the impetus for change.

Progressive Mormons often say that the doctrine is inclusive, or, if it isn’t now, that it could be. Someday . . . if people would just be a little bit more Christlike . . . if the leaders would just be a bit more inspired . . . if god would change his mind. I still hope for a day when the radical free spirit of the Church will be rekindled and shake off the rust. Maybe someday, the religion will change. For me, waiting for that day was like standing on a glacier and hoping that it would melt before I froze. The conflict and tension of the predicament were artificial, a false dichotomy. Those weren’t my only options.

WWhen I was growing up, I couldn’t see a future where I was happy. I sat back and observed. I saw patterns and templates to model my life after. The templates played out in film, stories, celebrity, and in our family friends’ lives. Sometimes, they were cautionary tales: “Vengeful-man-is-consumed-by-own-hatred.” Others were bittersweet: “Underdog takes on the Man, dies trying but their legacy brings change.” Some were even aspirational: “Luxury-obsessed teenager becomes famous by social media fluke.” I saw life templates for the 1950s heteronormative ideal wife-two-kids-white-picket-fence or the grandiose capitalist “successful-rich-asshole-with-no-real-friends,” and I’d even heard about an elusive template for “aloof-and-contented-possibly-with-a-dog.”

I tried to shoehorn myself into different “straight” templates. I lived according to the template and, for a while, things would be going well — but then something would jolt me back to my reality. I’d see a couple kiss in public and think: “I will always be nervous that kissing my partner in public will draw unwanted attention.” It didn’t matter which template I tried or how similar it looked from the outside. I didn’t fit.

Coming out to myself dissolved all my future into uncertainty. I was off script. The only queer life templates I had heard of were tragic: “died-young-of-AIDS,”estranged-from-family-with-trust-issues,” or “celibate-and-self-loathing.” I never imagined “being-happy-as-you-are” was even a possibility.

MyMy boyfriends call me an “experience vampire.” I think it’s supposed to be a compliment or, at the very least, not an insult. They usually call me this after I geek out with him about a book or show that he’s experiencing for the first time. I can’t feel the smug satisfaction about being right about a plot twist in a favorite series again, but I can re-experience it through his excitement.

The vampirism is an extension of my drives for novelty and connection. That drive for novelty is altruistic, mostly. Sharing things that are awesome is a good thing. When I share something I love in hopes that they love it, I’m sharing a piece of myself in hopes that they see me. It’s just a convenient side-effect that I get to savor a vicarious thrill. The drive for novelty extends beyond vicarious living. I get in trouble when I listen to the little voice that answers, “Well, why not?” to weird and random stuff. The drive for novelty has been the impetus for many stories. The kind that are funny in hindsight, with ample perspective.

The thing about the stories you remember is they mark an instant in time when something shaped you. I call these blips of experience “ephemera.” They’re like the crystals inside geodes. Crack open a memory, and you’ll find them. Most ephemera are small. The hike that taught me to love the sound of rain on stone at the top of Mount Timpanogos. The first bite of an apple from the family tree after being gone for two years, the summer-ripened sweetness crunched like fall and tasted like home. Some are consequential and defining. The phone call that bore news of the death of my grandfather, and feeling, for the first time, the solidity of history that came before me. In many ways we are the sum total of our ephemera. I love watching the spark in someone’s eyes as they find an ephemera inside a new experience. If that makes me an experience vampire, then I guess I am one.

I have spent this year trying to understand how shared experiences build empathy. People are rational to their experience. Experiences are qualia and aren’t transferable. Humans understand each other through our conception of projected personas. Knowing why someone is slow to trust or quick to smile or has a different opinion requires context that can’t be given easily. I wonder if there are ways of architecting an experience to bridge the communication gap.

Giving people intentional memories seems like a good place to start. But how do you construct an experience to give a specific ephemera outside their comprehension? I think about this when I watch friends clash over political ideologies. I think about this when I hear coworkers disparage people affected by homelessness. I think about this when I feel the scars on my hands, mementos of my former faith failing to understand queer experiences.

The struggle to reconcile my history with my reality has shaped me in ways deeper than I can comprehend. I will carry those marks, both good and bad, forever. The LDS Church will always play some part in my life because of my family, and that’s . . . how it is. I don’t hate the Church because, distilled to its essence, the Church is its people, striving for meaning and a better life. Beautiful in their attempts, terrifying in their potential, and human in their efforts. The greatest gift of being queer is the necessity to build my own template. There are still many chapters to write, but I think I’ll call the template for this chapter: Matt-unapologetically-queer-and-happy.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Matthew Gong

Written by

Writer, VR Developer, Origami Artist.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Matthew Gong

Written by

Writer, VR Developer, Origami Artist.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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