Proud Dad

When I was 3 years old, I stole my mother's pink socks. I would tell anyone who would listen that I was "stuck on pink." The socks proved to be incredibly effective in fulfilling a need I couldn't explain. My parents eventually learned that the socks were a gateway into harder things -- soon I was binging on Rainbow Brite, Punky Brewster, and Jem and the Holograms. This leaning to the "sparkle side" would end up informing much of my childhood and adolescence. Ok, fine. It still informs my life today.

In spite of the late 80s being an amazing time for a little gay boy to be inspired and entertained -- we're talking the era of My Little Pony and Strawberry Shortcake -- I was taught early on that my natural tendencies were not...natural. This conflict was aided by the fact that I was born in Salt Lake City to Mormon parents. In fact, my father's Mormon lineage dates back to the earliest days of the religion in the 1830s.

My father followed every rule and lived his life in the specific order a good Mormon man would live. At 8, he was baptized into the faith by his father. At 12, he received the priesthood -- a sort of magical power, by which Mormon men believe they can heal the sick through prayer, among other things. The strength of his priesthood powers increased every two years, until the age of 19. At that point, he was given the full priesthood and sent to live as a missionary in South Africa for two years. He then returned, started college, and met my mother within a few years. After 6 weeks of dating, they became engaged. 5 months later, they were married "for time and all eternity" in the Salt Lake City Mormon temple. Within 2 years, they heeded the advice of their church elders and began to "multiply and replenish the earth." Then I entered the picture.

I lived in a conflicted state. I wanted to make my dad as proud of me as he was of my younger brother, the baseball star. But I wanted to do this in my own way. My early attempts at athletics were embarrassing. In fact, the very first baseball practice I had as a 6 year old ended with me getting hit in the groin with a ball. This was the universe telling me to stay in my lane (which was theatre).

When I finally came out at the age of 21, no one was shocked. My parents began to slowly tolerate the changes they saw in me -- tighter jeans, and better hair, mostly. But, this began a period of estrangement from my family for me. I had three younger siblings, all of whom were still practicing Mormonism. While I could still see my family, there was a disconnection between being my true self and being a member of the family. I wasn't to speak of the boys I was dating, let alone introduce them to the family.

This tense time boiled over in November 2008. The same night that my friends and I celebrated the election of Barack Obama was also met with angst, as the largely Mormon-funded Prop 8 was voted into law. The anger was palpable. It was truly one of those "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" Network moments. The only thing we could think to do was march in protest around the Salt Lake City Mormon temple -- the very temple where my parents and grandparents were married.

When I told my parents what I was doing, they were very upset. In their eyes, I was crossing a line. Attacking them and their way of life personally. But wasn't their church doing the same thing to me? Looking back, that evening was one of the turning points of my life. I also took this opportunity to formally resign from the Mormon church. In doing so, I forfeited all rights and privileges that Mormonism afforded a man. I guess there will be no planet for me in the afterlife.

Change came to my family from two unforeseen sources. First, one of my younger brothers also came out. It came a surprise to my entire family -- myself included. I suppose I was too focused on my own gay journey to notice. He was always a devout Mormon, even serving a mission in the Netherlands for two years. This meant that my parents belonged to a religion that more or less excluded half of their children.

Second, a 19-year-old Mormon kid who lived near my parents hanged himself in his backyard. It shook the community, but like everything in Mormonism, people were quick to sweep it under the rug. Depression got lead billing as the cause, and there was no mention of his struggle with his sexuality. It's part of a greater problem in Utah, which ranks fifth in the nation for youth suicides.

Something snapped in my mother. She could not comprehend the loss of this boy, and why the circumstances around his death were being hushed. Rather than screaming at a temple, she turned to PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), the Nation's oldest family and ally organization, to figure out how she could help. She ended up founding the third chapter of PFLAG in Utah, serving as its president for 5 years.

To celebrate my mother's contributions to PFLAG, I flew back with my now-husband, to surprise her by joining in the Utah Pride March. As we prepared to join the parade route in downtown Salt Lake City, I looked around at the amazing love surrounding me, at my family, at those in the crowd who weren't so lucky to have their family's support. The metamorphosis of my family was a slow burner, but it was worth the process. I can say wholeheartedly that I receive unconditional love from my family. That is a blessing more valuable to me than eternal salvation on my own planet.

As we joined the march, I looked over at my father, a man who had been proud in his youth, but now a man who was a different, more loving kind of proud. A man who understood that being a father is supporting your kids, providing a toast at their wedding -- even if it's another groom to whom he's toasting. We rounded the corner of a side street, turning onto the main thoroughfare. I was blown away by the thousands of people lining the streets. Suddenly I heard someone yell "Yeah! Proud Dad! Thank you!" I looked over and saw that my father was holding a sign that said "Proud Dad" in bubble rainbow letters, which he had drawn himself. Tears began to roll down my face. I walked over to him, an even prouder son, and gave him the biggest hug I could.

2016-06-16-1466041969-5520171-JoshBlackParents.jpg

Note: This essay originally appeared in longer form in La Petite Mort, a publication from the Manhattan-based design and strategy studio Sub Rosa.