Losing My Religion — Or, How I Baked a Custard Pudding and Lost My Belief in Mormonism
by Connell O’Donovan
First Place, 2005 Affirmation Writing Contest.
This is a tale of two Ward dinners. The first dinner was all too real, while the second one came to me in my dreams; both forever changed my life as well as my relationship to the Latter-day Saint Church.
Deeply wounded after the painful break-up of my first Gay relationship in July 1986, I scurried back to the security of Mormonism. I tried re-orientation therapy one last time to make me a heterosexual, through the University of Utah Counseling Center. A Mormon intern there named Randall F. Hyde (now an adjunct professor at BYU and chair of the Psychology Department at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo) put me through several sessions of extremely debilitating hypnotherapy, which culminated in a session during which Hyde hypnotized me and then had me split myself into “Gay Connell” and “Straight Connell”. He then had me visualize Jesus coming down through the ceiling and utterly destroying Gay Connell to dust and then “a mighty wind” blowing all the dust away. This is the single most emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually crippling experience of my entire life. Some 19 years later I am still healing from that traumatic “therapeutic” experience.
Around that same time I had found a small group of relatively liberal, young, straight Mormons to hang out with. Most of them attended the Emigration 2nd Ward (for single young adults only, most of whom were, like myself, University of Utah students) in the Avenues of Salt Lake City, so I began attending church services with them. I then moved into the Ward boundaries and had my membership records transferred to make my attendance official. I was soon called to be a “Gospel Doctrine” Sunday School teacher, and my class quickly became the most popular of the three Gospel Doctrine courses taught in our Ward. In the mid-80s at the University of Utah I had taken philosophy of religion classes from Sterling McMurrin and LDS Institute of Religion courses from Reed C. Durham (who was very much a father figure for me), and inspired by their brilliant pedagogical styles, I had learned to love teaching. With my intense interest and research in Mormon history and doctrinal development under the mentorship of Stan Kimball at the Church Historian’s Office, I always brought as much interesting information into my Sunday School lessons as I could, using the blandly pedestrian manual provided by the church as only the very loosest of guidelines. Every Sunday morning there was “standing room only” in my classroom and I was both thrilled and humbled by the Ward’s exuberant response to my lessons.
Soon however, I grew tired of having several single women from the Ward hit on me often and regularly. I was the frequent recipient of love letters, poetry, and cookies left on my doorstep from well-meaning young women. Exhausted from living a life of pretense and hypocrisy, on Sunday, February 1, 1987, I impulsively stood up during “Fast and Testimony Meeting” and formally announced by homosexual orientation to the entire Ward! Later, I recorded in my journal,
“I stood up and asked my Ward to learn compassion and mercy, especially in relation to those who are ‘different’ in any way. I then told them that I am Gay, and that they had a responsibility to treat me with compassion. I feared total rejection; in fact I was [literally!] planning to escape to Northern California, if necessary. I had my car parked outside, half-packed and ready to move within the week. But the Ward’s immediate reaction was admirable. I merely related to them who I am. I told them I’ve been dealing with it [my sexual orientation] for years, but now I’m tired of the secrecy. I said, ‘I’m comfortable with who I am. It’s your turn to deal with it. The ball is in your court.’ I then sat down amidst profound silence, interrupted only by a sniffling crowd.”
The Ward members were initially very supportive of me, although I was released from all my church callings, pending further ecclesiastical investigation. While Bishop Ross E. Kendell and I began to meet regularly to discuss my “situation”, the general members showed me a lot of sympathy and understanding. In fact, the Elder’s Quorum president (a warm and compassionate straight man) discreetly informed me that the church’s prejudiced policies on homosexuals had long concerned him and he had fasted and prayed many times already that the hearts of the Mormon prophets would be softened enough to receive a revelation from God that would somehow resolve all the anguish over and answer all the questions about homosexuality. Two other Gay men in the Ward also decided to come out of the closet after seeing how well I was being treated. Quite naively I began to dare to hope. The faintest glimmer of light shone through the depths of the dark spiritual tunnel I had been in for so many years.
Unfortunately, by March and April of 1987, things started looking very grim. Victoria Harris, at that time the only black woman singing in the Tabernacle Choir, had also begun to attend our Singles Ward, since she and I had been good friends for two years and knew that I was being treated with a modicum of respect. While she watched me struggle with so much prejudice and bigotry, her own faith in Mormonism was being sorely tried, just as mine was. Racism thrives within LDS culture and she was exhausted by confronting it so often, so consistently. However, even in our relatively liberal Ward, the covert bigotry got so bad that she and the three of us out Gay men in our Ward all sat together in the pew at the very back of the chapel, a little enclave of safety. Twice that Spring, during Sacrament Meetings, I hung up a sign on the end of our back pew that read “Coloreds and Faggots Only”, to emphasize our growing sense of rejection and alienation from the other Ward members. I personally found this “sign of the times” cathartically funny but other Ward members weren’t quite as amused as I was.
In May of 1987, once again suicidal over my prospects with remaining in the church I had loved and served, and feeling more and more like an outcast, more and more adrift amidst an immense sea of monotonous uncertainty, I made a desperate phone call to Carol Lynn Pearson in California. Her book, Goodbye I Love You, had just come out about her life with a Gay LDS husband who eventually died of AIDS in her home, in her arms. We talked for a couple of hours that first night and she sent me an autographed copy of her book. I promptly read it four times through, crying all the way, and then followed more phone chats with her, correspondence, some poetry exchanges, and eventually several months later we would meet in person and begin a long friendship that I am delighted still reaches to this day. I will always be grateful to her for letting me have my dramatics, letting me wail and feel victimized and grieve for my lost innocence.
After a three-hour interview with Bishop Kendell on June 1, 1987, he informed me that no High Council Court would be held (which meant I would not be excommunicated, at least for the time being) but that he would convene a Bishop’s Court for me on June 23rd. The worst that a Bishop’s Court could to do to me as a holder of the higher Melchizedek Priesthood was “disfellowship” me and recommend a High Council Court (which could then fully excommunicate me). Bishop Kendell, who was then the president of KeyBank Utah, told me that his two counselors, Ted L. Wilson (the former mayor of Salt Lake who was running for governor of Utah at the time) and O. Rhees Ririe (another successful businessman and part owner of Salt Lake City’s renowned dance troupe, the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company) would also be in attendance — three of Utah’s most influential business, social, and political leaders, versus yours truly. I felt that those odds weren’t good at all but Kendell also told me that I could bring any witnesses to the trial that I wanted.
As my court approached I became more and more scared. Several of the Gay men in my Ward (both out and closeted) rejected me, and I was losing some of my straight friends too, which saddened me. Carol Lynn Pearson, Victoria, and my dear friend Lorette remained my greatest supporters however, and I relied on them heavily during this anguishing time. I also informed my usually distant mother about the impending trial and surprisingly, she became very irate at the Bishopric and acted very protective of me, even offering to come to the trial to testify about my life and character. I was really shocked by how supportive she was, but I declined her offer. I felt that I needed to face this trial on my own.
The day before my court, one of the women I was particularly close to, invoking an earlier era of Mormonism when women openly gave healing blessings, placed her hands on me and gave me the sweetest blessing I have ever received, calming my troubled soul. I then spent three hours at the Church Historian’s Office, preparing my defense. I photocopied some of my poetry (which I described at that time as being full of “pubescent, homoerotic angst”), all of Mark E. Petersen’s homophobic editorials from the Church News dating to 1977-79 that had profoundly wounded my self-esteem as a teenager when I had first read them, and the virulently anti-Gay “Crime Against Nature” chapter from Spencer Kimball’s book, The Miracle of Forgiveness. I made three packets of these materials, one for each member of the Bishopric. For all three packets I then highlighted (in lavender, of course) all the negative, homophobic words and phrases to be found in these articles – words like repugnant, abominable, hateful, vicious, unnatural, vile, deviant, perverse, pernicious, detestable, ugly, polluted, disgusting. All used by these “Apostles of God” to sweepingly describe me and other homosexuals whom they had never even met! (Little did I know at the time that these articles were the very first documents in what would become my extensive archival collection on Gay Mormon history, currently containing about eight linear feet of documents.)
Then came my “court of love”. It was a horrible experience. I honestly didn’t feel loved or sustained by these men at all during the whole three-hour ordeal. I sat in a room with three of Salt Lake’s most powerful men and tried to explain to them what a cross my sexuality had been to bear because of the church’s homophobia; that the blatant injustices I had suffered for my sexuality far outweighed any sinfulness that my desire to love another man might be. But the Bishopric wanted me to repent. They wanted me to say that I was sorry for being Gay and that I was sorry for having loved a man so intimately. Yet I wasn’t sorry for those two things. I was sorry that I hated myself. I was sorry that I had broken solemn baptismal, temple, and sealing covenants; my word and my honor are of vital importance to me. I was sorry that I had trusted ignorant, misinformed homophobes (no matter how well-intentioned they may have been). And I was sorry that I felt incomplete, unwhole without the intimate love of another man. But I had given these men the power and authority to tell me that my fruitless sexuality was my cross to bear. And honestly, I was gladly willing to shoulder that cross…if I could just get back my temple recommend! That’s really all I wanted, to return to temple worship. Frankly, I found the rest of Mormonism rather boring, increasingly swamped by tedious mediocrity, but I really felt holiness whenever I was in the temple and I clung to that desire to be in such sacred space again, a life-raft to preserve me.
During the hour-long interim between my trial and the announcement of the Bishopric’s judgment, I grew alarmingly suicidal, fearing the worst: I really thought that the Bishopric would recommend a High Council Court after all, so that I would be excommunicated eventually. I had my journal with me and wrote in it that, “I could have, and should have, lied to them”; that I felt they were so concerned for their “beloved little institution that they forgot that I’m an individual. Goodbye Mercy. Hello Justice and the Letter of the Law. But I’m a living, breathing, sentient being. My heart is made of flesh while the law is carved on crushing, grinding, unyielding stone.”
Despite my dramatics that evening, Bishop Kendell called me back into his office to let me know that I was only “on probation”. Not quite in full membership but not quite disfellowshipped either. I distinctly remember Ted Wilson warning me that he was deeply concerned with my “messianic pretensions” because in my self-righteous zeal, I felt I had a deep moral duty to cleanse the church and all of society of homophobia (something I still feel very strongly about, “messianic” or not). We then discussed the terms of my probation, which were that I could have church callings and speak in meetings, but the one thing I wanted most would be denied me. I would not be allowed a temple recommend. Instead it would be used through the next few months as a carrot on a stick, or perhaps more appropriately, a bull-ring through my nose, to lead me around and manipulate me into repentant obedience.
With almost two decades of hindsight, I see now that this was the best decision that those men could have made for my own good. I was in such a fragile state at that time that a more punitive decision could have pushed me to suicide. Total exoneration would have kept me careening aimlessly, needlessly in that religion for several more years. But being put on probation was just severe enough to anger me without making me despair.
Besides the denial of a temple recommend, there were also a series of charges given to me in how to conduct myself that rankled me at the time. This uneasy feeling increased significantly over the next few weeks, growing eventually into anger. Two of the charges especially stuck in my craw (see 2 and 3 below). I felt bound and gagged by these commands, and my inner-rebel (the part of me that demands free agency) started to panic.
A letter from Bishop Kendell showed up at my home on 2nd Avenue on August 5th, reiterating the bishopric’s decision and the boundaries of my probation.
The letter listed the following (quote):
During the period of your probation, the Court specified that you do the following:
- Strictly adhere to the law of chastity, including all sexual relations with other males.
- Avoid encouraging homosexual activity by others by any words or actions.
- Avoid unnecessary notoriety about your homosexuality with Ward members and any others.
- Perform intensive service to others, shifting focus from self to lightening the burdens of others.
- Continue diligent daily scripture study and prayer.
- Pay tithes and offerings.
- Place your life in order so as to achieve temple recommend worthiness.
- Continue to wear temple garments both night and day.
- Monthly visits with your Bishop.
- Diligently seek the termination of the probationary period.
I really tried to be obedient to this counsel, as misguided as I thought some of it was. Most notably, the line of distinction between being honest about my sexuality and being “notorious” was frustratingly blurry.
Then in November 1987, for the Ward’s annual Thanksgiving Dinner, a dessert competition was announced. I had planned on making something for the competition but then had forgotten about it until the very last moment. I quickly whipped together an easy custard recipe (see bottom for recipe) that is baked inside of a hollowed out pumpkin. After baking it, I placed it on a silver platter, tossed some autumn leaves around it and hauled the custard to the chapel, left it on the judging table, and then pretty much forgot about it.
After the main Thanksgiving meal had been served that afternoon in the Cultural Hall, the dessert judging began and the judges (the Bishopric) started announcing the winners. Several prizes were given out in lots of categories: Most Colorful Jell-O Salad; Greatest Amounts of Chocolate and Cool Whip in a Single Dessert; Most Creative Use of Deep-Fried Ice Cream. With each award, it slowly began to dawn on me that even though the competition theoretically had been open to the whole Ward, only women had submitted desserts for the competition. That is, with one significant exception. Me.
Then the judges got to the grand prize: Best Overall Dessert. Bishop Kendell stood up on the stage in the cultural hall to make the formal announcement that the award was going to…that’s right, the custard baked inside the pumpkin! This took me completely by surprise. I had no idea, had all but forgotten about my dessert; thought it had been totally bypassed in the judging. Then I realized I had actually won the grand prize and needed to go up to the stage to accept the award from the Bishop. As I stood up and people (especially the bishopric) realized that a MAN had won the dessert competition – and not just any man, but the WARD FAG had won – chaos broke loose. The court’s counsel to avoid any notoriety was tossed right out the window. Half the Ward was on the floor rolling with laughter. Some of the women who had been in the competition glared at me like they were fit to execute me on the spot. The Bishop turned blue then red with humiliation and disbelief, shaking his head in his hands as though the cruelty of the gods had become too much for his simple soul to bear. Later, a woman named Karen drug me into another room and literally yelled at me, “You’re gay! Oh my heavens, you’re GAY!” She sobbed that I was such a spiritual person, was so faithful and strong in my testimony that she had assumed that over the past few months somehow I was turning straight. But my victorious yet insidious Pumpkin Custard had laid waste her assumptions; had provided a sure sign of my moral depravity and my gender treachery.
The fact that I so easily, so simply, so unthinkingly transgressed firmly established gender roles was just too great a burden for the Singles Ward to bear. My rebellious little custard broke the camel’s back and left me a pariah among my peers. The deliciousness of my custard surely flew in the face of the God-given moral and social order established by the Prophets. The men of the Ward suddenly became extremely distant, distrustful, avoiding my gaze. And the women felt betrayed because a man had so easily dominated the one realm, domesticity, in which they were encouraged by the church to excel. The Ward’s rejection of me was quite solid and unwavering from then on. I was stunned by their reaction to my custard, and my soul-searching took a whole new path after that. I began to pray fervently that I would receive much-needed guidance on how to proceed, that somehow the shackles Mormonism held on me would be loosened, broken, and I could breathe freely, cook freely.
Some two months later, once again deeply in conflict over my relationship to Mormonism, I had the most significant dream of my life, an answer to my prayers for assistance. Even now, 17 years later, I can recall every single detail of it with crystal clarity.
There was a Ward dinner being held in some generic Ward Cultural Hall. I arrived late and snuck in the back, near the kitchen. I could see a generic Mormon bishop standing at a podium, head bowed in an endless, generic Mormon prayer. What struck me at first as being so odd was that other than his droning voice, utter silence prevailed in the room, usually impossible for a large Mormon congregation. Then I saw right in front of me a table piled several feet deep with dishes of food. In fact, there was so much food on the table that it was bowing from the weight of it all. Every kind of dish you could imagine was there, wafting its delicious odor throughout the hall. That’s when I finally realized why all the people were so quiet. They were all emaciated, glassy-eyed, nearly catatonic from advanced stages of starvation. Yet with all the food nearly breaking the table under its weight, each person had on their plates merely a tiny dollop of mashed potatoes, a couple of peas, a tiny serving of this, a half a spoonful of that. And the Bishop’s prayer droned on and on and on and on. But I was STARVING. And the beauty of the feast before me was too much to bear. Ignoring the fact that the Bishop hadn’t gotten very far along in his monotonous liturgy of thankfulness for his many blessings, I dove into the feast laid out for us, loudly, joyfully devouring anything within reach of my hands. Several starving people nearest to me temporarily came out of their zombie state to shush me and glare at my audacity but none had the energy to stop me physically, so I continued gorging myself on the abundance before me.
I awoke from this dream and fell into a fit of tears of relief and lamentation. A huge piece I had been missing finally fell into place inside my soul and I realized with every fiber of my being that Mormonism was spiritually starving my Gay Soul to death. I could at last see that the feast was so readily available and yet none dare partake of but a morsel in this Mormon economy of scarcity. The feast laid out was far too huge, too expansive for the Mormons to appreciate, let alone take advantage of. They were too bound by the rigidity of structure, hierarchy, unquestioned obedience, tradition, and authority, while my soul simply hungered to be fed with the tender mercies of the Spirit. My ravenous spirituality finally cast off the fetters of Mormonism with that dream and I have never looked back, never regretted for a single moment that the patriarchal grip of Mormonism would never hold me captive again. The profound despair, unhappiness, and tumult I felt while in Mormonism have only been exceeded by the happiness, freedom, and peace I have found away from it.
Four years later, on December 5, 1991, after a year of very visible and vocal political activism with the radical group “Queer Nation”, especially targeting LDS homophobia and heterosexism, I was finally excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints under the direct order of Apostle Boyd K. Packer (via Elder Loren C. Dunn). I also made the pages of the Salt Lake Tribune for it — but that’s a whole other story.
That’s me in the corner.
That’s me in the spotlight, losing my religion.
— “Losing My Religion”, R.E.M. (1991)
However, my expulsion from the communion of the Saints only formalized what had already happened in my soul as the result of two nightmarish Ward dinners.
And I’ve never stopped feasting since then!
Pumpkin Custard Recipe
6 lb. pumpkin – fill one third full with blanched pumpkin if you desire (although I don’t)
2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 tablespoon dark molasses
1/2 cup brown sugar
Freshly ground cinnamon, to taste
Freshly ground nutmeg, to taste
Fresh ginger root, grated and mashed, to taste
Mix together custard filling, place in pumpkin and bake with pumpkin lid on at 350. When custard is done, it may cause the lid to slightly rise off the pumpkin. Let cool and serve.