Sunday, September 28, 2014

Happy Birthday, Carol Lynn Pearson

This weekend we celebrate the birthday of Carol Lynn Pearson--kind of our Mormon "Grande Dame" when it comes to finding space inside our faith for people who feel on 'the outside looking in.' Well, that's who she is in my eyes, anyway. And I love her a ton. 

This is the story of how I met Carol Lynn. I guess you could say she was kind of the starting point for me for my work inside the faith to reach out to others like me, and all who don't quite fit the imagined Mormon mold. 


A few years back when I was attending the Oakland First Ward, someone handed me a book in Sacrament Meeting—it was “I Love You, Goodbye,”by Carol Lynn Pearson.  I didn’t know what to say at first— while I wasn’t in the closet anymore (I was happily living a great Mormon life: partnered,  active in Church and teaching Sunday School) I also wasn’t as “out” as I am today. But I took the book gratefully, and I read it. 

Throughout my adult life, I’d ravenously read any books or articles that talked about the church and homosexuality—they had, for the most part, left me horribly depressed. But this one was different. Yes, the story was sad—tragic even. But in the honesty and candor I also found something else: hope.  
As I poured through the pages something within me stirred. It was as if someone was turning a key to a box inside my head, and in the box was this simple knowledge that my story—like the one I was reading—had healing power, and perhaps, maybe, it was time to share it.

I was inspired to take action, but had no idea where to begin. On a whim, I went to Google and typed in Carol Lynn’s name. Most of the references that came up were commentary on her work—and not all of it good, I might mention. It became clear very early on that this woman was not short of detractors of her perspective and her work. Yet, I remained undaunted and finally stumbled upon a website that looked to be a legitimate page of hers.

I scoured the page for an email address, and found one. Without really planning out what I was going to say, I dropped her an email. I wish I’d saved a copy of it—it was nothing short of me pretty much clumsily throwing my story down in a few short paragraphs along with my then-sketchy ideas of how I might make this come to life when I chose to share it with others. I sent the email, and honestly expected that to be the end of things.

Within less than an hour, there was a response in my inbox. “I assume you live in San Francsico,” she said. “If that’s the case, what are you doing Tuesday afternoon?” To say that I was stunned would be an understatement. Not only did this woman respond back, but she’d invited me out to her home to talk in person about my experience and how I might bring it to life to help others who muddle through this thing called “gay Mormonism.”

As I drove out of the city and got closer to her home, my palms began to sweat on the steering wheel. I was, admittedly, a little star-struck. Here I was, just a normal guy with no real published author credibility being invited to this famous author’s home! In my mind’s eye, I imagined her to have the commanding presence of Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wore Prada,” only much more kind and benevolent. I envisioned being invited onto a back patio with sweeping views of Mount Diablo and being served small sandwiches with the crust cut off by what I was sure would be her ample house staff. I knew, in that moment, my life course could very well be altered. And it was—but not in the way I expected at all.

I drove up to the upper-middle class home, and before I even had the key out of the ignition, out ran Carol Lynn from the front door—arms outstretched to greet me. She was a wiry framed, small woman with a bright shock of curly white hair that encircled her head like a halo. Her clothes were hiking clothes—cargo shorts, a tee shirt, and walking shoes. And her hug, deep and tender, was as genuine as her appearance.

“I would imagine you have to use the restroom after that drive!” she said, once we’d exchanged greetings. I smiled wryly, feeling a little awkward about my first exchange with somewhat of a literary hero to be about the rather small size of my bladder, but I agreed.

She walked me into the house, “The bathroom is over to the left, help yourself—and get a glass of water from the kitchen, because I am taking you on a hike!”

The first thing that struck me when I walked in the door was not that I was some sweeping palatial estate of the rich and famous—I was in a Mormon home. For those of you who have been in one—or grew up in one—you’ll know exactly what I mean. Front and center in the living room was a grand piano, since music played such a critical role in the homes and lives of Mormons. The furniture was well loved and well worn, and it was clear it had welcomed guests and family to this home for years. The walls were cluttered not with dazzling self portraits of the author or original works of art, but with frame after frame of family photos of all different shapes and sizes—some new, some faded—but clearly a shrine to a family that loved one another and called this place home.

But what struck me most about the house was the smell. Again, for those of you who grew up Mormon or had friends who did, you’ll know exactly what I am talking about. It was food—good food, homemade food, the kind of stuff relegated to June Cleaver and Mormon Mom’s.

Looking back, I think the truth of the matter is I had walked into a palace. I had walked into a palace that celebrated the lives, the love, and the talents of the Pearson family. And I was more honored to be there than if I had stepped into the Taj Mahal itself. You see, Carol Lynn had not just invited me into her home, but by extension, she’d also invited me into her heart—and the heart of her family.

The hike happened, as promised, and it was indeed an arduous one. I expected some easy stroll along side a creek bed, and Carol Lynn surprised me once more. She took me directly to the top of Mount Diablo—and without much rest for breathing, I might add.

Along the way I shared my story, and she shared more of hers. At the top of the mountain we stopped, and she asked me to join in her ritual of blessing mother earth—I heartily agreed, but didn’t really know what to do—but that wasn’t a problem. She turned and pointed me in each direction and told me exactly what words to speak. Here we were, two Mormons—albeit unorthodox ones—at the top of Mount Diablo, offering  a non-traditional blessing to the whole earth, without regard to specific faith—other than faith in our Creator.

As we walked the path home, I spoke more of my story, and finally of my fear. My fear, you see, was that of retribution. I loved my church, and I’d worked hard to eke out a quiet, little corner in the Bay Area where I could openly gay to a point, and still enjoy all the blessings that a straight member would elsewhere. My fear, I told Carol Lynn, was that I would come out both in print and in person, and then would be excommunicated for my honesty.

She stopped in her tracks, and looked at me for a moment, and didn’t speak right away. Then she shielded her eyes from the sun with her hands, and made direct (and rather piercing, I might add) eye contact. “Do what is right. Let the consequence follow. That is my advice to you.”

When she spoke, I thought of the chorus from the Mormon hymn she’d referenced:
Do what is right; let the consequence follow.
Battle for freedom in spirit and might;
And with stout hearts look ye forth to tomorrow;
God will protect you; then do what is right.

I knew I must begin.

For most of my life, I felt like I was a man with a foot in two different worlds—and that I belonged in neither. But as I have grown through this work—and in my testimony, I remain a man with a foot in two different worlds.

And I belong in both.

Thank you, Carol Lynn. And Happy Birthday.

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