Wednesday, July 31, 2013

San Francisco Diary: Day One

"We are in lovely San Francisco. I loved the drive in here. The hills are all a golden yellow with these groves of trees that looked like they were planted specifically in arrangements okayed by Georgia O'Keefe - especially the solitary ones." 
~ Mark in an email to his family this morning

We arrived in San Francisco mid-afternoon yesterday and checked into our hotel, The Majestic. I had done a lot of research on hotels here; we wanted to be fairly close to Japan Town, and we also wanted a place with some character. And if the Majestic has anything, it has character. The Edwardian building was constructed in 1902 and managed to escape damage after the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and subsequent devastating fire. As such, it holds the distinction of being the longest continually operating hotel in San Francisco.

Adding to the hotel's character is the rumor that the fourth floor is haunted by the spirit of a daughter of the man who constructed the hotel. Fortunately, we are on the second floor, so I doubt we will have any ghostly experiences while we are here. You can read a bit about the ghost here. Her portrait is in the hotel's lobby. I have to say that when I stood in front of it to take a picture, there was something about her eyes ...

"The room is so comfortable and this morning we are sitting in the bay window 
listening to the city wake up while we drink coffee and write in our journals. 
We are going to let the day unfold as it will."

So wrote Mark this morning. We love our room. One of the things we enjoy doing on trips is what we do most mornings, and that is sitting in a comfortable place, preferably outside, writing in our journals. And this room has a perfect place for that. In front of the bay window with cool breezes blowing in through the open windows, the busy street below us.

The bed is not only beautiful, it is extremely comfortable.

Taking our picture in front of the mirror. Mark is saying,
"Why don't we just take a picture of ourselves? What's with the mirror?"

Last night, we walked down to Japan Town for a traditional Japanese public bathing experience, followed by an amazing massage using both the Swedish and Shiatsu methods. Again quoting from Mark's family email of this morning: "We took to alternating between the hot tub, steam room, dry sauna, and cold bath (ice cold) for about an hour before getting an hour massage. I'm surprised I don't see bruises all over me this morning." I wish I had time to write about the traditional Japanese bath. I'm sure I will have that opportunity in the near future, but for now, if anyone reading this is interested, there is a Wikipedia article here. The massage was out of this world, hands down the best massage I have ever had (sorry Mark P.). If anyone is considering going to San Francisco in the near future, try out Kabuki Springs and Spa, and ask for Giovanni for your massage.

Mark continued in his email:
"On the walk back we stopped at a Mediterranean place for dinner. A small corner restaurant where it seems the popular thing to do was to sit and smoke out of a hookah and drink tea. We went in the back and ate a not so great meal but enjoyed the feeling of being far from Salt Lake. Not that I don't love Salt Lake, but here it feels far less sterile, gritty and more - as Joseph wrote about in his blog [yesterday] - on the edge." 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Sex in the Cedars

I was awakened at 4:30 this morning in our South Lake Tahoe hotel room by a loud noise, even with my ear plugs in - something I started doing on my mission in France because my companion/roommate snored.

It was a loud, squeaky, scratching, abrasive noise. I jumped out of bed. Mark said something but I didn't quite catch it. I went over to the sliding door (pictured above to the right of the table and chairs) which we had left open 6-8 inches to let in the cool night air. I wondered if the sound was coming from outside. Mark said, "Joseph, where are you going?" I mumbled something about looking for the source of the noise which had awakened both of us. He mumbled something back, but I again didn't quite catch it.

The noise wasn't coming from outside. I took a couple of steps and looked up at the ceiling fan, wondering if that was where this horrible scratching noise was coming from. Then, it hit me. The noise was the sound of the bed in the room above us. The couple above us, it dawned on me, were having sex. At 4:30 in the morning! This is what Mark had been trying to tell me.

I got back into bed. We lay there, listening, wondering how long the noise would continue. Fortunately, a few minutes later, they were done. Or at least he was. We could hear muffled talking for a few minutes, then silence, and we were able to get back to sleep.

Later that morning, as I wrote in my journal, I thought back on the last 18 months and how many times we had heard people having sex while staying in a condo or hotel. First of all, there was a year ago this past spring in Maui ... I wrote about it at the time on my blog:
I was awakened around 1:30 by the sound of a man and a woman talking in a normal voice, apparently quite close by.  [In the condo complex where we were staying, all the high bedroom windows faced the exterior walkway. Thus, sound carried quite easily.] I was wearing my ear plugs, and was focused on trying not to hear them, rather than on what they were saying.  I eventually was able to get back to sleep. 
The following morning, while Mark and I were having coffee on the balcony, he nonchalantly asked, 'So, did you hear the couple having sex next door last night?'  When I shook my head and replied that I had only heard talking at around 1:30, he responded, 'Yeah - around midnight. "Ooooh.  Aaaahh.  Oooooh.  Aaaaah,"' Mark mimicked the woman's voice.  'They were really going at it.  Then again around 2:00.  Same thing:  'Ooooh.  Aaaahh.  Ooooh.  Aaaaahh."' 
I was glad that I'd only heard the talking.
The thing is, that sort of thing went on for several nights. Loudly. We finally complained to the condo management. They talked to the couple and the guy's response was, "That's just the way we roll." Yeah, right. Well, okay, dude.

The next time something like this happened was when we took the kids to Disneyland in June. We were staying in a very respectable place close to the parks. We experienced no problems, except for one night when the people in the room next door decided to throw a party until the wee hours of the morning. Finally, we were able to get to sleep.

Then, the next night, Mark and I were awakened by the sound of a bed banging against the wall behind our bed. Moans. Banging. Finally it stopped. Fortunately, the children were in the other room. When we said something to the management about the party and the poor sound insulation, they offered to not charge us for our parking during our stay there. Sigh.

Then, this morning. I later saw the guy upstairs sitting on his balcony. He looked like the kind of guy who would say, "That's just the way we roll."

I realize that sex is a part of life. But, I mean, come on. You know what these experiences made me think of? How some straight people make a big deal out of public displays of affection by gay people, e.g., kissing or holding hands in public. This makes them feel "uncomfortable." And the mere concept of two men making love absolutely sends them into full revulsion mode. Yet, here we are, two gay men, who have been subjected to unwanted exposure to heterosexual sex. I mean, really. What would people have said had that couple in Maui been a gay couple? Would they have been able to say, "That's just the way we roll?" 

On a totally different note, when we set out for our ride yesterday morning, we passed this sign:

My first thought was, "Well, I guess it's good for them to diversify."

But then it hit me. We were in California. Mark and I could legally go into that chapel, having obtained a marriage license from the county seat, and get married. Wow! It was so ... affirming and validating. And I thought about how heterosexual couples take getting married for granted. And I wondered ... will that day eventually come for gay people?

* BTW, the trees were actually Ponderosa Pines, but the alliteration doesn't work.

Lake Tahoe and Life on the Edges

Mark and I are on our way to San Francisco to ride with a friend in the Marin County Century - my first 100-mile bike ride. It had been suggested to us that we stop at Lake Tahoe on the way out and someone - we're not quite sure who, because neither of us want to take responsibility for this decision - suggested we ride around the lake, a 72-mile journey.

The ride was unquestionably beautiful - well, most of it. For some strange reason, I had expected the road to hug the lake all the way around. It did, but only for a few miles. The rest of the time we were primarily either climbing up above the lake, giving us some great views like the one below, or riding in pine forest, as depicted above. 

This part - through the forest - was nice. It reminded me of our tour in Corsica and reminded me why I enjoyed it so much. Riding through the beautiful countryside on roads with very little traffic. Soaking in the sun and breathing the fresh air. This is one of the reasons I enjoy cycling so much - being outside, experiencing and seeing things that are never experienced or noticed when inside a car. I also love the thrill of a descent - particularly when there are few cars to worry about when you can glide down the middle of a road, not worrying about the edge of the highway.

But back to yesterday's ride, there were bike paths through some of the pine forest on the west side of the lake, which was great because we could get off the busy road which had absolutely no shoulder. The issue then became all the walkers and vacation bikers who were definitely not looking at completing a 72-mile ride that day.

The main problem and downside of the whole ride was the traffic. There were a few stretches on the west side of the lake where we actually rode in silence. No cars. No trucks. However, once we approached the northwest corner of the lake, there was steady traffic all the way around the north and down the east side. It got particularly bad the last 14 miles as we descended into South Lake Tahoe, where we were staying. 

And thus beginneth the lesson about life on the edges. A lot of drivers have absolutely no idea of what lies at the edge of roads. They think that so-called bike lanes should provide cyclists with lots of room. Or shoulders of roads (when they exist). But if some of these drivers would per chance get on a bike, they would see that bike lanes and shoulders are often full of gravel, broken glass, storm drains, man-hole covers, and other hazards. 

This, of course, assumes there are shoulders or bike lanes on which to ride. Sometimes, like yesterday, there literally is no place to ride at the side of the road. This is when we cyclists have to assert our rights to be on the road along with cars and trucks. But there is a risk. While many drivers will be courteous and give us a wide berth, others seem to think that they should be able to whiz by at 65 miles per hour, no more than a foot away from us. That is when I take to riding out in the middle of the lane, particularly when the road is 4-lane, as was the case yesterday afternoon, thus forcing cars (hopefully) into the left lane.

As I have encountered various hazards on the edges of roads, I have had occasion to think about a lesson that such encounters teach. I thought about how so many of us glide through life, oblivious to the hazards and pitfalls and conditions that exist on the edges of our families, our communities, our society and our world. And we don't understand them because we have never traveled in that path, along the edge. We may tend to metaphorically do what some drivers do, i.e., curse those who travel along the edges, yelling at them to get off the road, not remembering that those people have just as much a right to be on the road as we do, or deciding ourselves how much room at the edge such people need because, after all, we are bigger and more important.

I gained and continue to gain important lessons about life on the edges as a result of coming out. Many people remain ignorant of what it means to be gay because they are riding comfortably down the middle of the highway, secure in the size, power and speed of their vehicle and everything else that makes traveling in a vehicle so comfortable. Many metaphorically or literally jeer or crowd gay people to the side, thinking that they have no rightful place in society. The truth, however, is that gay people have just as much right to exist and ride down the highway of life as do others in more comfortable, more powerful positions.

Of course, being gay is only one example of life on the edges. There are countless others. I would hope that all people might have an opportunity to metaphorically get out of their comfortable vehicles and get on a bike and go for a ride to witness what life along the edge of the road of life is like - not only so that they could become more aware of the hazards that are there, but also so that they can experience what I described above: the thrill of being out in life, of seeing its vistas and minutiae from another perspective and, as a result, feeling more alive.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Candles for Mark

We met some wonderful people on our cycling trip to Corsica last fall. Among them were Michelle and Malcolm, a couple around our age who are from Washington State but are currently living in Germany. Not that that matters, except it is important for my story - not that they are from Washington but that they are living in Europe.

Michelle, like me, was raised a Catholic. Unlike me, she never felt the need to join the Mormon Church; and her life has been far less complicated as a result. She still struggles, however, in some form or another, with the faith of her youth. And I totally understand that. The faith of our youth holds a special place in our hearts. Like our first love. And as we confront the ugliness and realities of life, even though we know we can't go back to the nursery and believe in the fables of our youth, we still hold a spot of secret comfort in our hearts as we age.


Anyway, when Michelle heard about Mark's cancer, she embarked on a crusade of sorts. No, that's not the right word. She decided, in her travels around Europe, to light candles in small and large Catholic churches across the continent in remembrance of Mark and the journey he is now on.

How beautiful is that?

Malcolm and Michelle in Corsica

Not that Michelle believes that the Virgin is going to intercede on behalf of Mark. Her offering is far more sacred than that.

I was raised Catholic, like Michelle, but I honestly don't think I've ever lit a candle; though I remember them in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary at a side altar (not the right word), flickering away, in the midst of St. Polycarp's vaulting modernity. Quite a contrast to the churches that Michelle enters on her travels across Europe. And saints were never a big deal to me. And novenas and rosaries and all that other stuff that Catholics are known for.

Which is why I think I connect with what Michelle is doing and think it is so awesomely cool.  (I know I sound a bit like a juvenile, but whatever.) I read on a website that lighting candles is "a way of extending one's prayer and showing solidarity with the person on whose behalf the prayer is offered." To me, it is similar to the thought behind Tibetan prayer flags: the wind catches the flags and releases the prayers, blessing unknown beings throughout the world. 

The difference with a candle is that it is lit as a prayer, as a remembrance, for one specific person. And I think that is even cooler. Not that some saint or even the Virgin is going to reach down and bless Mark - who has a decidedly Lutheran background which I'm not sure the Virgin would entirely approve of. The point is that he is being remembered across the breadth of Europe, or as Michelle put it, from the Chapel of Dachau to the Notre Dame de Paris. 

And what can you do with friends like that except embrace them across the miles and thank them for their offering from the heart. The point is not whether there is actual metaphysical efficacy in such offerings. That doesn't matter. At least not to me, and I suspect to Mark. The point is, that someone on the other side of the globe is thinking of him and is making efforts to go into centuries-old sacred spaces to send a prayer into the universe on behalf of my beloved.

Thank you, Michelle. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Keeping Cancer at Arm's Length

When Mark was first diagnosed, it seemed in some ways like the world had come to an end. The shock of it all left us in a daze. The cancer, along with the dismal prognostications and statistics, was just beyond that daze, staring us in the face. We could feel its icy, foul-smelling breath.

With each passing day, however, we were able to put some space between us and the diagnosis. And that helped. We were able to function. But there were times, however, that something would remind us, would remind me. In late April, for example, I wrote in my journal: "Though I try to hold things at bay, I broke down on Saturday night as I was preparing the salad, listening to music from the 70's playing. It reminded me of that special space that Mark and I share, and the thought that Mark may not be here someday filled me with immense sadness."

At the end of April, we left on a trip to Maui that had been planned months prior to the diagnosis. It was therapeutic to get away, to focus on the sun, the ocean and playing paddleball, rather that the cancer. But of course the cancer had followed us to Hawaii and, though I became better at keeping it at arm's length, it occasionally made its presence painfully known. 

On our first full day in Maui, there was a scare that we later realized was likely attributable to some medication Mark was on. His left hand became numb, and it scared us. "These experiences," I wrote, "remind us of the specter in the room. Death sits quietly in the corner, but he occasionally reminds us that he is there, silently waiting and watching, occasionally reminding us of his presence lest we get caught up in the exuberance of life and temporarily forget."

I described another experience a week later in my journal:  
"Mark and I were playing paddleball after cocktails and were enjoying it. Mark looked so beautiful standing there with the setting sun behind him, that I suddenly became overwhelmed with the prospect of losing him and started crying. He of course couldn't imagine why. It took me a while to compose myself. It was all so beautiful. Then a few minutes later, we went out into the water and watched as the sun disappeared behind Lanai. It was magical."
A couple of weeks later, back home, I noted that Mark had had a bit of a down day. "Some days," I wrote, "in fact most days, I put his cancer out of my mind entirely. I don't think about the ways things may be in six months or a year. I don't think about the possibility that, eventually, he will become very sick and, ultimately, die. Of course, these aren't 'possibilities'; they are likely 'certainties'. But until that time arrives, I will continue to enjoy each and every day with him and not think or worry what may lie down the road."

It's usually at this point that I try to think of something pithy to end a post with. Some lesson. Some realization. Today, however, I can't do that. I know the cancer is never going to go away. So does Mark. We try to live each day, to live in the moment, to appreciate all that we have; but cancer is still an unwelcome stranger who has set up camp in our lives and whom we haven't really gotten to know very well yet.  

Thursday, July 25, 2013

"They all found me ..."

I have written in previous posts about my daughter Hannah's blog post at the end of June, in which she wrote about her efforts to reconcile her love for her father and his partner with what leaders in the LDS Church had taught and told her about relationships such as I have with my beloved, Mark.

The line from her post that stuck with me, that resonated the most, was this sentence: "In a moment of frustration, [my husband] said to me "You need to stop looking for the negative things about the Church!" But I know, and he realizes now, I never looked for any of them. They all found me"[emphasis added].

How profound, and how true. When one is gay (and Mormon or various permutations of "Mormon"), the whole world looks different. But especially, the Church looks different. Because one is "other." The same often applies to family members of such "others," such as my beautiful daughter, Hannah.

Hannah went on to write, "The Mormon world is a beautiful, happy, wonderful one. I never wanted anyone or anything to ruin that for me. I WANT to be a part of that world. But my integrity won't allow ignorance anymore."

How beautiful is that? How poignant? 

I wanted that beautiful Mormon world more than anything for so many years. I tried SO hard to obtain it, to make it mine, to be a part of it, to breathe it, to live it. The Plan of Happiness. But it was not the Plan of Happiness. It was, sadly, a difficult, hurtful, destructive path. 

And ... at the end of the day, that [Mormon] world was and is ... an illusion. And being gay, accepting gayness, accepting loved ones who are gay, makes everything different. Because the old world no longer fits. It no longer exists. It is lost forever. And that is frightening ... and liberating.

If the second most senior apostle of the Mormon Church, Boyd K. Packer, had not given his infamous October 2010 Conference address, this blog might not exist. I might not exist as an openly gay man. 

I never planned to come out of the closet in which I had deposited myself many, many years ago. I resisted divorce and the end of the Mormon idyll, even when my ex-wife was pushing for divorce long before I "came out." But, in the end - as my daughter Hannah wrote - I didn't look for the negative things about the Church, they found me. Boyd Packer's words found me. And they catapulted me out of the closet ... and, ultimately, out of the Church to which I had devoted almost three decades of my adult life.

Talk about tragedy (in the truest sense of that word ...

My wish tonight, as I sit on my front porch on a Summer's eve, is that all those out there who, through no fault of their own, are finding troubling truths, might find peace and comfort. Because, there really, really is, LIFE ... somewhere over the rainbow.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Happy Birthday, Mark

Today is Mark's birthday. He quips that he used to celebrate it until he moved to Utah, when he found out his special day is the same day as Pioneer Day. But we celebrated it anyway. For this is his first birthday since he found out he has inoperable (at this point) prostate cancer.

We went for a bike ride with a friend this morning to the top of Big Mountain. OMG, I thought I was going to die. Well, not really. But pretty close.

We had cycled this a couple of times last summer in preparation for our cycling trip to France. This morning, I was wondering how the hell I had ever been able to ride such iconic Tour de France rides as Alpe d'Huez, Col du Galibier and Mt. Ventoux. 

A picture I took last year as we rode up to Big Mountain.

I guess it was appropriate that we rode this route this morning, it being Pioneer Day and all. Cause this is the route the "pioneers" took into the Salt Lake Valley back in the summer of 1847. 

There's lots I could say about the "pioneers," but I will forebear. Except to say that I can't number the times that it used to drive me crazy to hear people talk about "the Pioneers." Yeah, they were pioneers, but so were my ancestors, only they weren't Mormon. They pioneered places like Plymouth Colony, western Massachusetts, Vermont, the Hudson River Valley, western Virginia and North Carolina, Tennessee, then on to Illinois, which was my nest. 

But we (me and those with whom I came to a certain level of maturity) didn't really think about these people being "pioneers;" nor did we celebrate them in verse and song and effected patriotism. They had just done their thing, just like I was doing mine. And it frankly never occurred to me to celebrate their memory as "pioneers." Cuz we're all doing our thing, right? We're all pioneers in our own lives, because we haven't lived our lives before (or have we?).

But they weren't "Mormon Pioneers."

And, like, I'm digressing.

Today is Mark's 59th birthday. And I love him. We're going to Market Street Grill in Cottonwood Heights tonight to celebrate. Because we are here, and we are in love, and life is good. And what more reason do we need to celebrate?


Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Law of Chastity, Micah and Same-Sex Relationships

The other day, I wrote a post about calling good evil and evil, good - particularly in the context of homosexuality and same-sex relationships. I referred to a passage from the Book of Isaiah that had been rolling around my head.

I have a few more thoughts on this subject, but today I want to refer to another passage of scripture from the Old Testament, this time from the Book of Micah, 6:8:

"He has shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, 
but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God." (KJV)

Or, as translated in the Common English Bible:

"He has told you, human one, what is good and
what the Lord requires from you:
to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God."

As I contemplated comments that my daughter and I had received with respect to a couple of recent blog posts, the thought coalesced in my mind that so much of the condemnation of same-sex relationships - both within the LDS Church as well as in other conservative Christian denominations - boils down to the so-called "Law of Chastity."Anyone familiar with Mormonism knows that, in today's Church, the Law of Chastity has been elevated to a position of extreme importance, almost as important as the Law of Obedience (to the Gospel as promulgated through the General Authorities of the Church). 

The law of chastity has many different manifestations in today's Mormon culture and theology, ranging from the importance of "modesty" - particularly in young women in the Church who are objectified and taught to think that how they dress is who they are - to telling gay men (who are now accepted, but only if they play by a proscribed set of rules) that if they show displays of affection that would be considered normal and appropriate to heterosexual males, that they are in violation of the law of chastity.

The thing that these manifestations have in common is that they reduce human beings to objects who are slaves to animalistic desires. 

In the context of accepting and supporting gay family members, it appears that the law of chastity trumps love, whether toward a parent or a child. It trumps all other qualities that a parent or a child may have, anything "lovely, praiseworthy or of good report": their loving and kind heart; the love and devotion that they show toward their same-sex partner; their compassion; their desires for a just and humane society; their value as a human being, or, in Mormon theology, their value as a son or daughter of God. All of these qualities suddenly become practically invisible in the looming shadow of the Law of Chastity.

What does the Lord require of us? To condemn a loved one and cut off acceptance and support because they don't happen to view the normal expression of their sexuality as immoral, animalistic and wrong?

No. Micah tells us what is required: to do justice, to embrace faithful love, and to walk humbly. It is my hope that increasing numbers of LDS parents, children, and siblings of gay men and women - as well as the general membership - will come to understand and embrace these concepts.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Them That Call Evil Good and Good Evil

"Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, 
and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!"

~ Isaiah 5:20

This well-known and well-used scripture has been floating around my head for the past several weeks in the wake of my daughter's blog post about reconciling what she knows to be true about the family that Mark and I have created with what the LDS Church has told her about same-sex relationships. It was a powerful post, and if you have not read it, I highly recommend it.

Her post was subsequently re-published on Feminist Mormon Housewives and on No More Strangers. I wrote a post in response, and it was also republished on No More Strangers.

The comments that my daughter received were generally very supportive. My post, however, received a number of negative, condemnatory comments. With respect to both posts, comments that were not entirely supportive tended to fall within the following categories:
  • Church leaders are human and sometimes make mistakes.
  • Church leaders should be forgiven when they make mistakes.
  • If one does not forgive for an "offense," then the greater sin lies with she who has been hurt.
  • My 19-year-old daughter should have "stood up" to her stake president - the man who had the power to deny her temple recommend immediately prior to her temple wedding.
  • The Church is making "progress" and those who have been hurt by its shifting policies on homosexuality should be patient and forebearing.

There is much that could be said about these statements, such as:
  • Why the constant need to defend leaders?
  • Why the constant insistence on the point that the Church is perfect but the people in it are not?
  • Why the need to bash those that have been hurt in order to defend leaders?

But I am not going to address these questions in this post.

I want to look at a larger issue. 

The scripture that I quoted above has often - many times - been used to condemn what are perceived as "wicked" practices and trends in society, as well as to defend Church doctrine, policies and practices. Those who have different views from the Church are perceived as calling evil good, of putting darkness for light and bitter for sweet. 

On the other hand, those who criticize certain doctrine, policies and practices of the Church are perceived as calling good evil, of calling that which is light, darkness, and of calling that which is sweet, bitter. 

These kinds of attitudes are deliberately fostered within the LDS Church (as well as in many other conservative Christian denominations) with respect to many issues and teachings. Mormons are taught to view themselves as both guardians of virtue and recipients of the mockery of the prideful world (e.g., in Lehi's Dream). This view tends to promote self-righteousness and a rigid, skewed and frankly uncharitable world view, justified by scriptures such as Isaiah 5:20.

But I'd like to turn this scripture around, looking at the Church's teachings about homosexuality and family. I'd like to suggest that it is the Church (through its doctrines, practices and policies that have in turn affected the attitudes of millions of Church members), that has called bigotry, judgment

For most of its history, in fact until just recently, the Church taught that those who experience feelings of attraction to members of their own sex were depraved, in grave danger of hellfire. Men and women, but primarily men, were (and are) labeled and judged based on a single (but very important) characteristic - their sexual orientation. 

Any other "redeeming" qualities of such persons that were/are "virtuous, lovely or of good report," were ignored. Such people were/are "evil," and it wouldn't do for them to be considered "good." They had to change from "evil" to "good." Any pronouncement that gays are just as good as other people (or just as bad), that homosexuality is not a moral issue, was calling evil, good; and any criticism leveled at the Church for its teachings on homosexuality was essentially calling good, evil.

The Church teaches and has always taught that "acting" on one's gay sexual orientation is a sin and bad. And this is not limited to actual sex. It applies to any other type of activity, feelings or gestures that, with respect to a heterosexual relationship, would be considered healthy, appropriate and in no way a violation of the law of chastity - but with respect to a same-sex relationship is wrong. In fact, there is no such thing as a same-sex "relationship" - at least nothing that could be considered "good." Mormon gays are expected to be not only celibate sexually, but celibate emotionally as well. 

And as to gay relationships, gay partnerships and gay marriage, the Church's stance was pretty well stated recently by Boyd Packer when he referred to same-sex marriages and partnerships as "Satan's counterfeit for marriage." Any claim that such relationships were anything but bad was calling evil good, and any criticism of the Church's stance in this regard is calling good evil.

But I think it is time to turn Isaiah around. The Church is calling something that is good, evil. It is labeling something that is full of light, darkness. It is claiming that something that is sweet, bitter. These sentiments were expressed by my daughter in her blog post:
"I watch my dad and Mark interact with each other, I see love, respect, kindness, loyalty, and dedication. I watch my dad and Mark interact with my siblings, and I see the same things. I see my little brother come over and sit on Mark's lap and Mark intently listen to what he has to say, whether it's about his lego set or his little sister that is bothering him. I hear him tell my six-year old sister that she looks so beautiful in her new outfit. I see the joy in his eyes when he sees the my siblings laugh and play. 
"Mark and Dad are good parents. Obviously my dad has always been my dad, and I've always loved him for it, but it's been amazing to me to see Mark come into our lives and be another loving parent to me and my siblings. 
"There is a peaceful spirit I feel when I am at dad and Mark's house. It is calm, simple, and beautiful. I don't feel like there is anything amiss, or missing, though of course I always miss both my parents and all of my family members whenever we are not all together. 
"I guess I am saying all of this as a back drop to my feelings I want to express in this post. 
"I've been taught at church to think that what I experience at my dad's house is "wrong." That it isn't natural, right, healthy, or good.
"Well I've come to the point when I just KNOW that is not true. I believe it, I feel it, I know it."
Thankfully, more and more people are realizing that not only the LDS Church, but many other conservative Christian denominations, pundits and political groups are under Isaiah's condemnation. They are realizing that what they had taught to regard as evil is nothing of the sort; that their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers are not the people that others would portray them to be; that these people's relationships are based on love, commitment and dignity - not depraved sexuality as they had been taught.

And when they see love for what it truly is, when they give themselves permission to act on the love they have for their gay family members, they in turn are blessed with that same love and are enabled to better view the world as a place of goodness, sweetness and light, rather than a vale of evil, bitterness and darkness.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Cancer - The Beginning

I can't recall how many times, during the months that I was going through my divorce and its aftermath, that I had said to Mark through tears as he held me, "I am so weak now, but I promise you that I am strong and, someday, I will be strong, strong for you." We met nine days before I was served with divorce papers, about two and a half months after I had lost my job of ten years. I couldn't have gotten much lower. In some ways, I had lost everything.

But, I gained everything.

Mark was there for me, every step of the way.

Now, the day has come for me to be strong for him.

On Friday morning, April 5th, Mark received a call from his urologist. Results from a biopsy of his prostate had come back. He had cancer. Advanced. The statistics were not good, given his Gleason Score and the fact that every one of his biopsy samples had been cancerous. There would be more tests and scans run on Monday.

I wanted to scream after the call came. Could this be real? Why was this happening? What kind of cruel trick was this that life had played on us? We had gone through our whole lives, much of them in the closet, we had met and fallen in love in our mid-50's and had planned to spend the next 20-30 years together. 

Mark stared off into space, his whole world suddenly changed, as if everything had suddenly, abruptly, violently, gone out of focus. Which it had.

Did I mention I wanted to scream? Perhaps I did scream. I remember wailing as I called my daughter and my sister to tell them the news. It all seemed so grossly unfair. I haven't been able to write about it until now. But I think the time has come. 

The thought of losing Mark was devastating. I couldn't imagine being left to live out the last 20-30 years of my life alone. I thought of the past 20 months with Mark, and if ever I had had any doubts or regrets about the investment I had made in my relationship with him, those doubts and regrets vanished. I had followed my heart, and I had no regrets. None.

Prostate cancer typically spreads from the prostate to the bones. As we approached the scans Mark would take on the following Monday, we hoped for the best but feared the worst. Would they indicate that the cancer had spread? What would that mean?

After spending an entire day at LDS Hospital, after having gone over scans with radiologists and other specialists, there was hope that the two boney masses that had been discovered were benign. But a hastily arranged MRI confirmed that they were almost certainly cancerous. A biopsy could not be taken, and it was possible - just possible - that they were benign. We would have to wait a couple of months to be sure.

The next morning, we found ourselves sitting in a conference room at the Huntsman Cancer Center at Intermountain Medical Center - a hospital where Mark had worked countless hours in its emergency department as an ER physician. A series of doctors who had met that morning to go over Mark's tests came in to talk to us. The prostate could not be removed, or at least doing so would provide no benefit. Radiation was not an option at that point, but the radiologist who talked to us was quite optimistic that this might be an option further down the road. The consensus of the Tumor Board which had just met was that hormone therapy would provide the most hopeful treatment.

I had gone on a crash course within the past few days to learn as much as I possibly could about prostate cancer. I had learned that cancer is spread from the prostate by testosterone. The purpose of Mark's hormone therapy would be to kill his testosterone. Totally. He received an injection that very afternoon and was also put on oral medication that would finish off the job - and would continue to do that ... until the therapy failed.

This was of course devastating to Mark. To a man who had spent his life cycling, skiing, working out and being physically active, the prospect of losing the testosterone that fueled that activity was daunting. Then of course, there were the other side-effects, such as killing his libido. He would be, as Mark bitterly remarked on a number of occasions during those first days, chemically castrated.

We had no idea whether the hormone therapy would work. We would just have to wait and see whether Mark's body would react positively to the therapy, thus driving down his PSA. 

In the weeks ahead, we would learn that there would be much of waiting and seeing, of roller coasters of hope and despair, of questions left unanswered.

What we knew, now more than ever, is that we had each other.


As soon as Mark's full diagnosis came down, we were confronted with many decisions, not the least of which was whom do we tell and when do we tell them? There was Mark's family. My children. Friends. Colleagues.

Mark, as soon it was revealed that the cancer had spread to the bone, made the decision to retire from his emergency physician work. That necessitated telling people the reason for this decision. Mark hated to be the center of attention, but was comforted as words of encouragement, love and support came in from his colleagues and friends.

Then, he had to face the decision of when and how to tell his siblings and his mother. I'll leave that story for another post.

Our first inclination was to not tell the Quads, our (my) four younger children who range in age from 10 to 6. I felt it would be best to keep it from them as long as possible because they had already been through so many changes in their lives. They had come to love Mark and look upon him as a second dad. (In fact, Levi (my eight year old) had started referring to us as "J-Dad" and "M-Dad.") The thought of telling them that Mark has cancer and what that meant, this terrified me.

But when I talked to my counselor about this, she suggested that we tell them sooner rather than later, the rationale being that it would be better for them to have the knowledge now and feel like they had some sense of control.

I wrote about my feelings in my journal toward the end of April:
"During the past two and a half years, it feels like I have gone from one closet to another - the gay closet, the Invictus Pilgrim closet [my blogging persona that I created in the blog I started when I came out], the Mark closet (in the initial stages of our relationship), the resignation from the LDS Church closet (when I felt I had to keep my resignation a secret), the divorce closet, my other blogs' closets, my financial situation closet, my 'fear of my children's reaction' closet, and now most recently, the cancer closet. 
"In each case, I was afraid of being open for fear of what people would think. And in each case, as I was afraid of being open, I was afraid of being myself, as if my 'real' self behind all the secrets didn't deserve to come out into the full light of day and of disclosure. 
"I think what I have found these past few weeks is that cancer changes everything. Mark and I are much more openly affectionate in public than we would ever have allowed ourselves to be before the diagnosis. It's like, 'Why do we care what people think?' And in ways that I cannot fully articulate, I think I have become more accepting of myself.   
"Cynthia [my counselor] told me that she imagines that Mark and I have drawn closer together, which is true. We are more in love now than we have ever been, and I see us drawing even closer and closer as time goes by. 
"I guess one way of expressing what I'm feeling right now is that another layer is being peeled off the old me and I am becoming more a person, rather than a cipher, an actor on a stage who is going through the motions ... I had a realization yesterday that, because I never trusted or valued my own convictions (because I was afraid of what people thought of me), I never developed a strong sense of self. Living in various types of closets makes one hollow inside. I am continuing to learn to love myself, affirm myself and to appreciate who I am."
Stripping away is one of the side-effects of cancer. There is no time to live in closets in anymore - of any kind. So, perversely, another side-effect of cancer is healing.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Maui Memories

Saturday night was our last happy hour on the beach, our last Maui sunset this time around, the last Maui sunset, I'm sure, for the extended Koepke family. And like every sunset on Maui, it was magical and unique. One of the many things sunsets teach us is that each day is unlike another. Each day brings promise. Each day presents unique challenges. But each can be magical, whether on Maui or elsewhere.

We had gone to Lahaina that day for lunch. We ended up meeting up with two other family groups at the Cool Cat Cafe for fish tacos and their famous hamburgers.

Lunch at the Cool Cat, with the Koepke-Brooms, the Zellers and the Arnolds

Sitting in the park with Joan amidst the huge Banyon tree there. I wasn't as bored as I look.

That morning, Mark and his siblings had gathered on the beach to talk about their childhoods, their parents, the challenges the family had faced and where each of them are with respect to how they are processing events that occurred many years ago. It was the first time they had done this, and it turned out pretty well. I had told Mark that I wished my siblings and I had done this at some point, but we never did. We never talked about what each of us had accepted as our "normal," but was anything but normal. We never talked together about what each of us had experienced as children. And I think that is a shame. And that's why I'm glad Mark and his siblings did this.

The Koepke Siblings on the Beach

Mark, Sarah, Deb, Rebecca and Tim

A picture such as the one above, taken the night of the luau, was never taken of me and my siblings and never will be - if for no other reason than that my older brother, Danny, died 12 years ago. I am so glad for Mark and his brother and sisters that they had this opportunity spend this wonderful time together.

The Koepke Family, circa 1960-61. Mark is standing at far right.

Like I said, that last night on the beach was magical. The wind had picked up in the late afternoon, but we gambled that it would calm down, and it did - making for a wonderful last shared evening on the beach.

Mark on the beach

My sister-in-law, Marie, a reflexologist, works on Megan's feet

Mark and his sister Rebecca playing volleyball with the youngsters

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Mormon Church, Gays and "Spiritual Tough Love"

“This life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life
 is the day for men to perform their labors.” 

~ Alma 34:32 (Book of Mormon)

Last month, my daughter wrote a beautiful post that she published on her blog. It concerned resolving conflicts within herself about, on the one hand, what her Mormon religion and leaders had taught and told her concerning homosexuality and, on the other hand, what her own experience had been with her gay dad and his partner.

I wrote a post in response to Hannah's piece, and both of our pieces were subsequently republished on a couple of other large blogs in the Mormon blogosphere. Many of the comments that were left on these various blogs have caused me to reflect on a number of issues concerning the LDS Church. This is the first of a series of posts in response to these comments.

Because of the nature of Hannah's post, a number of the comments focused on what Mormon families with gay members can or can't do to "support" them. One commenter quoted the following from a discussion between the Mormon Church's Public Affairs Department and Dallin Oakes, one of the Church's senior apostles:

PUBLIC AFFAIRS: At what point does showing that love [for a gay family member] cross the line into inadvertently endorsing behavior? If the son says, ‘Well, if you love me, can I bring my partner to our home to visit? Can we come for holidays?’ How do you balance that against, for example, concern for other children in the home?’ 
ELDER OAKS: That’s a decision that needs to be made individually by the person responsible, calling upon the Lord for inspiration. I can imagine that in most circumstances the parents would say, ‘Please don’t do that. Don’t put us into that position.’ Surely if there are children in the home who would be influenced by this example, the answer would likely be that. There would also be other factors that would make that the likely answer. 
I can also imagine some circumstances in which it might be possible to say, ‘Yes, come, but don’t expect to stay overnight. Don’t expect to be a lengthy house guest. Don’t expect us to take you out and introduce you to our friends, or to deal with you in a public situation that would imply our approval of your “partnership.”

There are many things that could be said about the above quote. As I contemplated it, the thought that came forcefully to my mind is that the Mormon Church forces devoted Mormons with gay family members to make a choice between (i) fully accepting these family members or (ii) tolerating them to varying degrees - a tolerance that the Church has the nerve to call "love." Of course, for faithful Mormons, this really isn't a choice.

The Church advocates a form of what could be termed "spiritual tough love": parents are encouraged to predicate their love for their children (and children the love for their parents) on how well standards of the Church are being lived.  If children deviate from those standards (e.g., if they are gay and "act upon their sexuality"), the Church encourages parents to distance themselves from such children lest their behavior (i.e., of the parents) be deemed implied endorsement of such deviation, justifying such counsel based on the premise that such "tough love" is for the eternal welfare of "wayward" children.

But what delusion! Many "faithful" Mormon parents really believe (because they are taught to do so) that, after a lifetime of distancing themselves from their children (or, in some cases, of children distancing themselves from their gay parents), that their family is somehow going to be "healed" in the eternities. However, Joseph Smith taught that the spirit that possesses a man at death will carry on with him in the next life. In other words, Mormons don't believe in death-bed repentance: a man's lifetime of works will be carried with him into the spirit world upon death. This philosophy is also expressed in the Book of Mormon scripture quoted above that is widely known and quoted in the Mormon Church.

The Church, however, teaches a different philosophy and doctrine with respect to how parents have treated their children throughout their lives because of a belief that the parents have to "remain faithful."  (This is based in part on a doctrine that was taught by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, i.e., that if parents are "sealed" in the temple and their children are sealed to them, wayward children will eventually be saved in the eternities IF the parents remain faithful.) This gives rise to a sort of "spiritual tough love."

This doctrine and philosophy results in a belief in a sort of converse of death bed repentance: a magic wand will be waved over a family in the next life, and all the separation, all the unhappiness, all the heartache that has been created in families in mortality - springing from a desire to remain "faithful" - will somehow magically disappear. 

Therefore, with respect to what the Church teaches is the most important thing in mortality - the family - this life is apparently NOT the time to prepare to meet God; it is NOT the time to focus on creating loving bonds, of cherishing our children, of loving our parents FOR WHO THEY ARE. Instead, it is a time to predicate familial love on adherence to a set of imposed standards, a time to carefully control love lest it be deemed "endorsement of behavior."

In this regard, I am reminded of a story I was told by a Mormon mother of a gay son. She and her husband had traveled out of state to attend the wedding of their son to another man. Upon their arrival back home, the stake president paid them a visit to counsel them about they could appropriately love their son and "support" their son. He solemnly concluded his counsel by stating the above-described doctrine. "If you are faithful," he said, "you can be with your son in the eternities." The mother replied simply and firmly, "But I want to be with him now."

I conclude with the following words that my beautiful daughter published on her Facebook page on the day that the Supreme Court decisions on marriage equality were handed down:
I believe in kind, respectful, loving, honest, dedicated relationships. I believe that family is loving and supporting each other no matter what your differences may be. I believe that love itself can never be evil. I believe that fighting against any kind of respectful, loving, honest, dedicated relationship is wrong.  
I hope and pray that my children will grow up in a world where children don't have to fear being who they were born to be, where they will be treated differently, let alone be bullied and threatened and told that there is anything they could do that will make God love them less.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Canoes, Hula Dancing and Haleakala

Thursday started off with Hawaiian canoeing with members of the Maui Canoe Club. It was cool to learn a bit about this type of canoeing, and it was also a great workout. It was one of those things that Mark and I would not have done had we not been with the family.

Neil, Marie, Tim and Joan

That evening, Grandma Koepke treated the entire family to a luau at the Wailea Marriot - the same place Mark and I had gone a year ago last spring. He and I therefore knew pretty much what to expect; but what we didn't expect was to find Nathan up on the stage following the conclusion of the luau - dancing. He hadn't told anyone he was going up there; he just did. It was so funny that we made him repeat it, only this time Mark recorded it. It was the highlight of the evening.

A group of the family left at 3:00 the following morning to see the sunrise from Mount Haleakala. Mark and I were not among that group, but Nathan was. Instead, we drove up to the summit that afternoon with others of the group. It was spectacular to ascend over 10,000 feet and then see the views from up there, including a view over to the big island of Hawaii.

Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii are visible in the distance 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Modesty, Mormonism and Booze

We came around a corner while leaving the beach and saw four young girls playing volleyball. They are pictured above. Each of them was wearing a bikini. I felt self-conscious taking this picture lest someone think I am a pervert, but it represented thoughts that had been congealing in my mind all week - thoughts concerning modesty, Mormonism and booze.

Mormons make a huge deal out of modesty. Especially when it comes to young women. They are taught from a very young age that they need to cover their bodies. Young girls are taught to not wear sleeveless dresses or tops because temple garments come just off the shoulder. They are taught to wear long shorts; the length of shorts should not exceed the width of a credit card above the knee (I kid you not). They are taught to wear one-piece bathing suits, etc., etc.  They are taught that they are responsible if they inflame young men's passions as a result of there "immodest" dress.

Justifiably, my daughters have complained that they were treated by the Mormon Church as objects. That they are no more than their bodies, and that their worth is judged on whether they wear shorts of an appropriate length. Girls judge other girls; boys judge other girls, deeming them sluts if they wear a sleeveless top. I kid you not. 

Being around the Koepke Family here on Maui has reminded me that there is a whole world of healthy attitudes toward life and religion outside the constrictive confines of Mormonism. I see Mark's nieces wearing two-piece suits, knowing that they don't give it a second thought. Why? Because it is normal. These girls that have all been raised in religious households, Lutheran and Catholic; yet they all appear to be totally comfortable in their bodies, the concept that they are responsible for what some random guy on the beach is thinking totally foreign to them.


Elizabeth, Nathan and Marina


Rachel and Elizabeth, Nathan and Marina

It is also a feature of the Mormon world to equate alcohol consumption with personal righteousness and thereby with personal worth. This latter concept is one that pervades Mormonism and Mormon culture, i.e., that one's personal worth is tied to how well one conforms to the rules and regulations of the religion (termed "righteousness" in Mormon-speak). And the more visible the rules, the more the judgment that occurs when these rules are not kept. Alcohol consumption is a prime example. Children are taught that this is bad, and by extension, those who consume alcohol are bad. Most Mormons will deny the latter statement, but this attitude is pervasive,particularly in areas that have large Mormon populations.

Joan, Neil, Megan, Sarah and Mark

Here again, the Koepke Family are far from being tee-totalers. And of course it would be a foreign concept to them to equate one's "righteousness" with alcohol consumption, let alone one's personal worth. They are church-going people, for the most part; and alcohol consumption to them is a normal part of life.


Sarah and Mark

Nathan and Mark

I have been grateful in many ways for this time spent with the extended Koepke family. One of those ways is the reminder I've been given that there is so much life, beauty and humanity outside the Mormon church and world where I lived for most of my adult life.

Joan, the matriarch, widow of a Lutheran pastor