Link and Comment: Religion v. Reality

One more item from last Sunday’s New York Times: the weekly “Modern Love” column, reader-submitted essays about “the joys and tribulations of love.”

White Shirt, Black Name Tag, Big Secret

It’s about a young Mormon man sent into the world on his church’s characteristic ‘mission’, to spend two years abroad proselytizing his religion. He and his fellow missionary “companion” or “Elder” spend the first 10 weeks at a Missionary Training Center, where they learn (in this case) Italian and are obliged to spend every night and day within arms’ reach of each other. He learns to like his fellow Elder, and eventually agonizes whether to come out to him.

More to the point are the details about how Mormon missionaries’ activities are regulated by the companions, presumably as a way to shield them from the temptations of the secular, or non-Mormon, world.

Mormon missionaries are assigned to companions they have to stay with all day, every day. Usually the more experienced missionary is the senior companion and the other is the junior, but your first companion, the one you meet on Day 1 at the Missionary Training Center, the school where you learn your language, is just as new and afraid as you are.

There are a lot of rules on Mormon missions: Stay with your companion at all times, don’t call home except for Christmas and Mother’s Day, exercise for 30 minutes every morning, etc. Following them is almost always a good idea, but obedience for the wrong reasons can be toxic. Missions are supposed to be difficult; they’re supposed to change you.

Earlier, he relates, he saw a therapist at age 13, who tells him there’s nothing wrong with him. But he struggled for a while.

The acceptance that I really would be gay forever did not come until seven years later, and was accompanied by the liberating realization that I was O.K. with that. I became, instantly, happy. The second year of my mission will always be one of the most magical times of my life, and not just because I spent most of it with Elder Ellsworth. I finally liked myself. I finished my mission triumphantly, and just as gay as the day I was born.

Back in Utah, though, my sexuality had to stay a secret. Feelings of same-sex attraction are not against Mormon rules, but acting on those feelings is. I was still leading a devoutly Mormon life, so the risk of being discovered was low, but if administrators at Brigham Young suspected that I was acting on my homosexual feelings, I could be expelled, fired from my part-time job as an Italian teacher at the training center, evicted and even excommunicated.

The piece has a resolution that is predictable, yet touching.

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