For most of my life, I felt like dirt. I don’t mean that I felt kinda crappy and sluggish; that nagging feeling that something was always wrong. No, I mean that I felt like I was the living equivalent of the dirt on the bottom of your shoe. I was taught to feel this way. I was conditioned to feel this way. I was expected to feel this way. Being the conscientious, straight-A student I always was, I passed with flying colors.
A lot of people from my early years will probably want to argue with the above statements: “Of course we didn’t want you to feel like that;” “We weren’t talking about you;” “Love the sinner, hate the sin;” etc. etc. The point is there is no real differentiation there. I am not an exception to your rules; I am, I hope, the rules I set for myself.
I was raised in ultra-conservative Logan, Utah…and I’m gay. I wasn’t supposed to be, according to those around me. According to them, no one is supposed to be. But these are the facts. I’m actually lucky to only have to deal with society-as-oppositional in regard to my sexuality. Others have it much worse. After all, I’m white and more-or-less gender conforming; if I keep my mouth shut and my head down, no one bothers me. But as I grew up and kept my head down, my eyes were always focused on the ground; on the dirt they told me made up my very being.
And despite the warrior spirit I have cultivated and maybe was intrinsic to me, it still hurts. You can’t outrun hurt. It catches up to you and you just have to feel it. I was raised in an overwhelmingly Mormon household and community. I only remember a handful of people I even came into contact with throughout high school that were not Mormon (It turns out these same handful of people were some of my very best friends. Coincidence? I think not…) It was made very clear to me at a young age that there was only one way to be: tow the line; you’re with us or against us. I was happy to oppose these tenets on rebellious principle, but in the back of my head, I always resented the fact that Mormon doctrine taught “good” Mormons that they were being benevolent by extending themselves and dealing with those that had different viewpoints, while never acknowledging or challenging the core tenets of the Mormon religion that foster inequality and discrimination from the outset. In other words, I don’t want you to love the sinner - AKA, me; an actual person - while hating the sin - AKA, everything I do and believe in. Does no one see how disingenuous and hypocritical that belief actually is? And I know it’s not restricted to a Mormon faith; but they seem to have a particular and familiar (for me) way of patting themselves on the back for being able to dissociate a person from their beliefs; the same disassociation they would never be comfortable with if it were applied to their own lives and beliefs.
In the Mormon faith, I am dirt. Please don’t argue me on this point; it is quite apparent to anyone that studies Mormon scripture and faint, and I have no desire to argue semantics. I internalized that contamination, probably from the time I was born; certainly from as far back as I can remember. I still live with the consequences. The real insidious part of internalization is that it does not go away, no matter how much you may want it to. No matter how much you know better. No matter how much you learn. The homophobia of the religion and the people I was raised around/with is a part of me. A part I constantly fight, yes; but still a constitutive part of what made me. Being cognizant of that fact, doesn’t make it easier or make it hurt less; it just pushes it closer to the surface.
And being that close to the surface, internalization - an internalization I would argue the Mormon church endorses, encourages, and intends - turns into other things. In my younger years, I considered suicide; even planned it out one night and, thankfully, just cried myself to sleep trying to work up the courage to go through with it. But what I’m left with also sometimes feels like suicide. Just a prolonged kind of suicide.
Spoiler Alert / Confession time: possibly the one thing that most no one knows about me - the one thing I try to keep under wraps at all times - is the fact that I’m afflicted by pretty severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). And it has debilitated me on more than one occasion.
Just like I was taught long ago, I feel that I am dirt - or rather, I am dirty for being who I am and so am destined to be inevitably contaminated and diseased because I am who I am. This belief was instilled in me - tacitly - by my family, my community, and the culture and religion in which I was raised. Symptoms began to manifest themselves in high school - the same time I began to try to come to terms with my own sexuality. But my attempts at independence and empowerment backfired. Or maybe they imploded.
I may have appeared confident, cool, and collected on the outside, but all the while I was worrying that clean laundry out of the dryer would be contaminated by disease if I grazed a wall as I carried it to my room, which necessitated me to start completely over and throw it back into the washer. While I wore a “fuck you” menacingly look on my face in the halls of my high school, I figured any unspoken thought that belied same-sex desire somehow turned my boy dirty. I became dirty to myself and a source of contamination for those around me. As an intelligent person, I knew this made no logical sense. But as a young person trying to deal with internalized contradictions about the way the world was “supposed” to be and the different ways that my own experience challenged that, these were matters of life and death.
I’ve had intense panic attacks. I’ve collapsed under the metaphorical weight of the possibilities of disease. I’ve washed my hands hundreds of times a day - until they cracked and bled - and then washed some more. I’ve memorized where band-aids were stuck on sidewalks so that I wouldn’t come anywhere near them on my commute. I’ve thrown out $50 worth of brand-new cleaning products after carrying them home from CVS because the cashier that checked me out mentioned going to the doctor to a co-worker as I stood in line; thus, “infecting” my items as she checked me out. I’ve taken 6 or more showers in one day, until my skin was raw because I couldn’t make myself feel clean. I’ve cried, not wanting to take a 7th shower, but continuing to do so because I didn’t fell clean with out it. And the trick of OCD is, I didn’t feel clean after it either.
Where do these feelings come from? Who taught me I wasn’t clean in the first place? Who planted the seed in my head that certain things were “dirty” and needed to be avoided, all while those same thoughts seemed so natural and normal to me? Yeah, maybe the wiring in my brain was genetically disposed to imperfections and probably faults, but without the cultural conditioning that I was wrong - that I was literally DIRT - those tendencies may have found other outlets. Maybe with even stronger cultural conditioning, I wouldn’t be here to tell this story. Maybe with none of that cultural conditioning, there would be no story to tell.
Luckily, I have managed the OCD (mostly) successfully for the past few years. I haven’t found myself spiraling out of control - crying in a scalding hot shower still not feeling clean - in over 6 years now. But it’s happened. And it could happen again. And it could happen again after that. And no matter what, the thoughts are always with me. Even when I don’t act on the impulse to wash my hands or take that shower, the thought crosses my mind. Because I was programmed to think that way. And while I may suffer for it all, the joke is still on the Mormon community that conditioned me. Because somewhere the wires got crossed and they’re condemnation never served as an actual deterrent to my feelings. I trusted myself more than I trusted them.
Now, every time I feel that dirtiness, every time I feel like the dirt under you shoe - which is much more often that I care to admit, I experience a brief sadness. But not a sadness for myself. It’s a sadness for everyone that tried to make me feel like I was unworthy. Yeah, I could have had a different upbringing - for better of worse. But each time I give in to the impulse to wash my hands because I feel dirty for no reason AND for each time I resist the impulse to wash my hands because I feel dirty reason, I choose to feel sad for those sorry, petty people that can’t open their minds wide enough to see outside their own experience. Because I’m here, whether or not they believe it; whether or not they want me to be. I scramble and I struggle and I survive. And if they keep working against that reality, there is a beautiful world they will never see. There is a beautiful world they will actively prevent. That beautiful world includes a lot of wonderful, dynamic, diverse people: their children, neighbors, friends, etc. That beautiful world includes me. And I choose that beautiful world. All the ugliness is on them…