Years ago, when I was just starting my PhD coursework at Oklahoma State, a bunch of us got together at the conclusion of a devilishly difficult research methods course. The party was simple (snacks, booze, mix tapes) but more than enough to help us celebrate our survival. That class was so rough, a party was definitely in order, even though I’d quit “partying” in my early twenties when I found my way into the Mormon faith.
During that time I learned that there are a lot of reasons people don’t drink at parties once you get older, one reason is being Mormon, another is being a recovering alcoholic, another is being pregnant, etc. So, there were a couple of us not drinking, but most of the people were letting their hair down. As the party rolled on, we eventually got to the drunk storytelling part of the night. Drunk storytelling is not a big part of my big fat Mormon life anymore, and though I don’t miss drinking at all, I miss drunk story telling something terrible.
The subject of the night was losing your virginity. The stories were rich and varied, a crossfade of sad to hilarious. There’s no good word for this kind of story: a mix of wistfulness, caution, triumph, exuberance, passion, nostalgia, beauty, and regret. Maybe the Portuguese have it with saudade. Maybe the French have covered it with tristesse-joie.
In the end, I think it’s one of those things that doesn’t reduce.
Each of these stories was its own world and a cutting from the same tree. As we went around the circle it became abundantly clear that I was the only one who hadn’t yet passed through this threshold. Still a baby, I guess.
I like to think that I didn’t care or that I was strong enough in my convictions to boldly state my case. Truth be told, I was afraid of the ridicule. Thought I’d be a joke from a Judd Apatow movie. Deep down in my heart of hearts I didn’t feel like Daniel refusing Pharaoh’s food or Joseph fleeing the advances of Potiphar’s wife. I was just trying to gather up a few scraps of sexual encounters I’d had as a teenager just to see if I could fake it. A lot of people fake sex things, right?
But the thing is, you don’t fake it in drunk storytelling. It’s like the first rule of Fight Club. Exaggeration is okay, perhaps expected. Bullshitting is also part of it. But outright fabrication (e.g., Brian Williams’s helicopter "mix up") is not okay. You don’t do it. You can flee, but you can’t lie.
So, when we got to my turn, I gathered my courage and said, “I had some near misses, but I’ve still got mine.” The room erupted into wows of disbelief. I tried to brace myself, but it felt like being on your back, on the ground, in a snowball fight, with the other guys standing over you, their arms loaded.
In the middle of all that, a flamboyantly gay man and occasional cross-dresser named Adam West rushed to my defense. “You stop it,” he said with the inflection of Joan Rivers. “I’m proud of him. I gave it away to the wrong person at the wrong time,” he said. “Sex needs to mean more than it does these days.”
Adam encouraged me to hold out for the right person (Don’t worry, Adam. I did.) His brave monologue shifted the tenor of the room. Somehow, an out-of-the-closet and out-on-the-dancefloor gay man had turned my mid-twenties Mormon-flavored straight life and virginity into a badge of honor. I felt less like a nebbish than a mensch.
To borrow a line from the Mormon hymnal, “I stood all amazed at the love Adam offered me.”
After that, drunk storytelling moved on to drunk kvetching, which is pretty much the best thing when you’re drunk and the worst thing when you’re sober, so I grabbed what was left of my artisan root beers, said my good byes, walked home, crawled into bed, and realized that I was going to be in Adam’s debt for a long time, and the only way to repay him was to pay it forward.
Which is why I bring this story up now. In recent years, my adopted tribe seem to be forever at the epicenter of some controversy regarding homosexuality, the most recent of which was the Church’s well intentioned but ultimately botched attempt to speak about legal protections for LGBT people and religious practice.
I am thrilled that the Church is trying to go off the standard script for religious people regarding homosexuality. I am also crestfallen that it is still so difficult for folks to find any common ground in the debate. In the end, it's still just a bunch of my way or the highway thinking.
Adam West came to my defense, which showed real bravery, bravery that had to have come from being gay in Oklahoma. I feel that straight Mormons like myself need to be brave as well, not just in standing up for ourselves but in standing up for all the other freaks and geeks in the room who get bossed around by the jocks and the soches.
Adam didn’t need me to be gay to qualify for his support and assistance. Gay people don’t need to be straight to qualify for mine.
I think that's where I fall out on this.
The deeper I dive into this memory and into the subject, the more scattered my thinking becomes. None of it is clear enough to me to be helpful to anyone else at this point, but I’m sure of a few things:
- I’m orthodox enough to believe that God has rules that outline our sexual conduct, and I don’t get to reshape those rules to my desires.
- I’m Christian enough to know that it’s not my place to judge anyone for their path through this life. I also know the forgiveness we’ll need to move forward in the next life will be based on the forgiveness we extend to one another in this life.
- I’m libertarian enough to argue that the state should stay out of people’s marriages except to record them and to help people sort out their custodial responsibilities and personal property if those marriages should dissolve.
- I’m conservative enough to know that government isn’t going to solve this problem.
- I’m liberal enough to want laws in place that will set a high standard for fairness and for the protection of every single citizen of this country, even if I don’t like them and their politics.
Adam, brother, wherever you are, I want you to know that I have thought about your gesture regularly for the last eighteen years. Whenever the Mormon people around me have something to say about homosexual people, I have a little mantra I say to myself:
Always be yourself
unless you can be Adam West
then always be Adam West,
but not that Adam West...
I mean the better one.