White Shirt, Black Name Tag, Big Secret

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Modern Love

Except for the pain in his eyes, he looked good: tan and wiry with wild blue eyes and an all-in smile. It was weird to see him not wearing his white shirt, tie and black name tag, but it was just as weird for me not to be wearing mine.

We had just finished two years of missionary service in northern Italy for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the Mormons — and were about to start our first semester at Brigham Young University. We hugged, stuttering over the first names we hadn’t been allowed to use and laughing at having to “introduce” ourselves after knowing each other for two years.

It would have been easier to just call each other “Elder,” but I was now Ellis and he was Justin. We got a table for two in the student center food court. My plan was to tell him that I was gay, because I thought he would want to know and because I needed him to know. But I had never seen him so down; he looked call-a-hotline sad, broken.

I could come out later. First I needed to figure out what was bothering him.

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.

Elder Ellsworth and I spent every minute of every day and night within obligatory arms’ reach of each other for the first 10 weeks of our missions while we slowly learned Italian and quickly learned to hate each other. I was loud, emotive and social; he was quiet, reserved and home schooled. I rigidly followed every rule; he struggled to remember what the rules were. I resented him for how little we had in common, and he resented me, rightly, for resenting him.

Our breakthrough was the worst (and loudest) case of food poisoning I have ever had the misfortune of witnessing. Late one night, I woke up to three realizations: The hall light was shining directly on my face (annoying); Elder Ellsworth was not in the room (against the rules); and something awful was happening in the bathroom.

I climbed down from the top bunk, made my way to the bathroom and called out a tentative, “How you doing?” Under the stall door I could see his feet curling and twitching in what looked like agonizing pain.

“I’m good,” he said, weakly.

I got the hint that I needed to get lost so he could die alone. I found a mop and bucket of soapy water in the custodial closet down the hall and set them by his stall, then headed back to our room.

The missionary rule book says that companions “must always sleep in the same room (but not in the same bed).” I dragged our mattresses to the bathroom entrance and settled in for a long night.

Elder Ellsworth emerged from the restroom several minutes later, alive and unwell, and collapsed onto his makeshift bed. I was too awake to sleep, so I started rewriting the words to the song “Two Is Better Than One” by Boys Like Girls (featuring Taylor Swift).

My version was about a missionary companionship with the runs, and I sang each successive draft and edit in the semiregular intervals between his mad dashes back into the bathroom. Secular music was against the rules, but it was the middle of the night and my obedience was crumbling in the face of the hesitant smile forming at the corners of his mouth. The louder I sang my ridiculous song, the bigger he smiled, until eventually we were sitting up and laughing like kids on a backyard campout.

After that, the things we didn’t have in common became the stories we could share with each other, and we gradually learned to like and need each other without contracting sudden, violent illnesses.

At the end of our time at the training center, we shipped off to Milan and were assigned to different cities, where the challenges of learning Italian, converting Roman Catholics to Mormonism and getting along with our new companions took over our full attention.

For the first year we barely saw each other, except for occasional, brief and excited conversations at train stations when our paths crossed. But our last two assignments were in the same cities (Venice and Genoa), where we got to see or call each other almost every day.

He had, almost without my realizing it, become my best friend, and I couldn’t fathom or remember why or how I had been so wrong about him at the beginning. He had become more confident, assertive and emotionally transparent, and I was calmer, not so judgmental and considerably less manic about rules.

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. But I wanted my mission to make me straight and believed that, if I worked as hard as I could and followed every rule, it would.

Every time I woke up late, or let someone walk by me on the sidewalk without stopping to share my message, or hummed a song from the radio instead of the hymnbook — every time I broke a rule — I felt as if I was not keeping my end of the deal, as if I was going to be gay for the rest of my life and it would be my own lazy fault.

When I was 13, I came out to my local bishop, and we agreed that I should see a therapist. I made my bishop promise to not tell my parents why they had to drive me all the way to Houston (two hours from the coastal, Cajun bedroom community in southeast Texas where I grew up) every Tuesday evening, and my parents reluctantly cooperated with my desperate insistence that they not ask questions. The therapist, my bishop assured me, would help me get my sexuality “under control.”

He did not. He didn’t even try.

“Nothing is wrong with you,” he said. He told me that I would always be gay (not at all what I wanted to hear) and that homosexuality didn’t have to stop me from doing and having everything I wanted in life, including Mormonism. Our sessions were always positive and validating, which was cool (and probably lifesaving), but they were never interventional or transformative. I was more than a little disappointed.

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.

I kept a low profile. Eventually I came out to my siblings, then my trusted friends. I trusted Justin more than anyone, so he was one of the first I wanted to tell. I called him and arranged for us to meet at the student center to catch up over dinner.

Something was seriously wrong, though. He and I had been through some pretty dark moments together, but I had never seen him so unhappy. I asked what was bothering him and was surprised when he kept dodging my questions. Whatever it was that had him down, he didn’t want to talk about it.

After one too many lulls in the conversation, I decided to fall back on my original plan and tell him the only thing about me that he didn’t know.

“I’m gay,” I said, bluntly.

The darkness in his eyes gave way to a hesitant light. He looked down for a moment, then back up to flash that quick, familiar smile. “Me too.”