It only takes one trip through the Salt Lake valley to see how fond the founders were of keeping things in order. It’s the streets. It took a year of driving the winding roads in the Puget Sound to really notice how straight streets in Salt Lake are. Learning to drive and not having a natural sense of direction like some people, I appreciated the shit out of the street system at one point. It’s like a sheet of grid paper was laid over the city plans, increasing and decreasing the roads numerically in order. Businesses, schools, houses, and of course churches, all fit into their own little box of space throughout the valley, keeping everything and everyone in line.
When you’re talking about streets, keeping everything straight and in order makes sense. When you try to apply the same principles to people it becomes more complicated. Some of us are meant to wind and twist. We need to express ourselves – who we really are inside – to the outside world. But that type of self-expression is not encouraged in a place like Utah. What is encouraged is fitting in, being happy for happy’s sake, and knowing who is in church with you on Sunday. That last part is most important. The people in church on Sunday were the safe ones. They were the worthy ones. They were your community. The people not in church on Sunday were the trouble or troubled. They were lacking. They were to be avoided. I know this form of judgement can be attached to a lot of religious communities but there is a unique difference in Utah created by the dominating population of church members.
As a kid in the eighties and nineties I had a hard time not being myself. That’s not a brag – in most places I still would have been considered a “goody goody.” I didn’t get in trouble much as a kid, and when I did my mom would ground this homebody from my bedroom. As a teenager I didn’t sneak out or party. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t drink alcohol. None of that normal teenage stuff. I was a huge fan of Pepsi back in the day though, and that alone marked me as a rebel to some. I had a few piercings in my ears which someone else’s grandmother told me would land me in hell. I wore hats, which caused a friend to plead with me not to wear them to her house because her mom thought I dressed like an “easy girl.” We were still in elementary school. Lucky for me, that mom didn’t know that besides my Debbie Gibson inspired hats, I’d also let most our class know I didn’t believe in god.
It was a revelation made in self-defense, really. God is always watching Jenny told me. Jenny who also told me about her dad drowning their kittens in the canal behind our neighborhood like it was something everyone’s dad did. Jenny who licked glue off her hand in class on a dare but then kept going. That Jenny was the first one to leave the sting of judgement that I’d eventually try to get used to. We were lined up for lunch on a Monday and Jenny was talking about whatever it was that happened in Sunday School and pointed out that I wasn’t there. Honestly, I usually wasn’t there. I couldn’t even tell you why she singled me out that day, but she did, and it wasn’t the last time for me. I told Jenny we weren’t in church the day before because we went to visit my grandparents and if that upset god then he wasn’t for me. It was the first time I’d been brave enough to say what had always been my thoughts. It also scared the hell out of me after I said it out loud, but no lightning struck that day.
Growing up, I always wanted things to be fair. Not just fair for me, but fair for everyone. It didn’t seem fair to me, even as a kid, that I couldn’t be myself because it was different than what was accepted. It seemed silly that so much of my worth could be tied to something as fantastical as church attendance. Whether or not I was a good person, an honest person, a person worthy of respect, was all tied to where I was on Sundays, regardless of how I lived the other six days of the week. The older I got the more obvious that point became. It is hard to comprehend how overwhelming and lonely the lack of community can be for those of us who aren’t good at fitting in the box. It’s an unfair pressure to put yourself through as a kid. And if you haven’t been there, it’s hard to understand how harmful it is for those who keep themselves locked in those boxes, disappearing like a melting snowflake, to avoid being shut out.
It’s a different kind of isolation you experience as the Non-religious person in an overly religious space, like Utah. They pride themselves at being nice. They smile big and they’ll sometimes be polite, but they’ll shut you out all the same. In some ways it’s subtle – talking to you at school but not playing together after school. Inviting some friends for sleepovers, but only who they saw during Sunday School. Other times it’s more direct, and oddly those usually hurt less. I was gifted copies of the Book of Mormon. I was invited to concerts at the ward house when the music group The Jets were gaining popularity. I was invited to Young Women’s nights, and get togethers, but when my church attendance didn’t also follow their missionary endeavors, those friends broke away. If I wasn’t going to give in they couldn’t play.
There were more extreme versions of the same as I got older, especially during my year away at college, and throughout my unwed pregnancy a year after that. I was unknown by the church members in my parents neighborhood until I sent a letter requesting to be removed as a member. Suddenly, relief society women I had never met were leaving me cards and stopping by the house unannounced and uninvited to see how they could help. And by help I mean help me in my “crisis of faith” not with anything I, as a single mom, would have actually found helpful. And they definitely were not there as friends, which I really could have used. They didn’t know me. We had never met even though my parents had lived in the house for a decade. But the bishop gave the relief society an assignment, and that assignment was me.
When I pushed forward with officially being removed as a member there were no more visits. No more waves from the other young mom on the corner who had dropped off a Ziplock bag of hard cinnamon bears when it was her turn to bring me back. If I wasn’t going to go to church the offers of friendship were rescinded. That’s they way it works for non-Mormons in Utah. If you talk to a devout member of the church about what I’ve written here most will brush it off. People like me always think it’s bad, right? But it is that bad for so many young people living outside of the church but inside of the state, and their options are so limited. I got lucky because my family – some members religious, some not – were always accepting of me.
I didn’t have the pressure at home that many face just to stay connected to the first group of friends we ever make. Family. This pressure isn’t limited to Utah Mormons though, and we’re seeing a push to make this version of righteous discrimination a national standard. Every court ruling and state mandate that is put into play on the basis of “protecting” Christian freedoms is a line dug deeper in the sand between the Evangelical minority and the rest of us just trying to find a place in our communities. Putting on a smile and faking it, even at the cost of your own self, is often the only option kids are left with.
This pressure causes so much pain, anxiety and confusion that they are forced to hide their truth away. They go along with things like praying on football fields and separating out the non-believers to avoid being shut out themselves. Keeping it all neat and tidy while their real self is melting away inside of a box. That type of self-destruction is a hard thing to recover from and our country is on the road to put that pressure on entire generations for the sake of maintaining the power of a few. In my forties, some of those old jabs still sting, and my heart breaks for the kids who will endure the next round.