I grew up in the Mormon church.
From a teeny tiny tot.
But that happened in Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee and Oklahoma. Mormons are RARE in these places. So I was faced with a choice: embrace it and wear it like a letterman's jacket OR feel like an oddball and be weird about it.
I chose the former.
For me, that was not hard to do. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the point I'm making is... I was never ashamed about being Mormon. Even in THE SOUTH. Even in Dixie, y'all!
This attitude I took in my approach to my religion gave me a sense of identity that I sorely needed. When I was at church, I knew who I was- absolutely- but it went beyond that. I was extremely comfortable in my Mormon skin everywhere I went. I gave my black, Baptist Louisiana elementary school teachers Books of Mormon for heaven's sake.
This was my experience until BYU and not just because of the lack of black Baptist teachers.
It wasn't just that Mormonism- what I'd always viewed as the thing that made me unique my whole life- was now in the very air I breathed and water I drank. It was also that now I had to discover things about me that were special and different that others/myself would value beyond Mormonism. Um, that is hard for a frustrated 19 year old to do.
But there was no room on that campus for the parts of Ashley that I learned to value.
It hurt. It physically hurt to be in this community no matter the frame of mind I adopted, whether that was trying to fit in, trying to stand out, or trying to simply co-exist.
The reason it hurt is because I didn't feel okay. For the first time in my life, I didn't feel okay to be me. It felt that everywhere I went on that campus, there was a message being broadcast to me, loud and clear: YOU MUST BE 'THIS'.
And when I didn't want to be 'that', I began calling things into question that, again, I never had before: "Do I not have a testimony?" "Did my parents screw up in the way they raised me?" "Am I not of as much worth as the girl with the petite figure or the guy whose dad made 3x's as much as my dad did last year?" "What is it exactly I am supposed to be?"
And now we've come full circle.
I got angry. I was angry that the religion facilitated a community of SAMENESS. A community where identity is about an Institution and not about my heart. That identity is wrapped up in physical appearance and hiding authenticity. That identity is wrapped up in saying the right thing, because saying the wrong thing will brand you as an outsider.
So I started to rebel.
Oh, just see what I did that was soooo hardcore~
I wore jeans with holes in the knees (against the dress code which is part of a larger Honor Code). I would get scathing looks all damn day.
I wouldn't come home most nights until 2am during my freshman year, and sometimes not at all. I was with my friends or with this guy I was seeing (which did escalate to naked make-outs). One night, I came home earlier than normal, got off the elevator of my dormitory floor, and a whole bunch of the girls were sitting there on the landing just chatting and laughing. "Well, hi," I said to them all. "Hi, Ashley," replied a few of them. Then one followed that up with, "Thanks for coming home tonight," as I was walking away to my room. The group burst into laughter. Ooooo, they showed me!
Once in a class, several papers were passed out so the teacher got a stapler going around for us to use. A guy sitting behind me had just stapled his papers, and I turned around, handed my papers to him, and said, "Will you bang me up?" He looked at me like I had just molested him.
At BYU, you cannot live the gospel as a 'personal' thing. There is an Honor Code. 80% church attendance was required and an ecclesiastical endorsement once or twice a school year (cut to Bishop's office and 'are you living worthily' questions). There are/were rumored to be Honor Code 'spies' who reported misconduct.
I desperately needed to find a way to be Mormon on my own terms.
I remember the beginning of sophomore year in a theatre movement class sitting off to the side on the verge of tears. A sweet friend came over and asked, "What's the matter, sweetheart?"
"I'm freaking out because I'm back here at BYU where people get married before they finish school and have babies really young... I don't want that! I don't want to be that stereotype!"
She comforted me and said some helpful things. But I was still at BYU.
I got married before I finished school. A Mormon temple marriage- the end all, be all of Mormon existence. I'm not joking.
When I took this step, I let myself be immersed in the culture of Provo, Utah- not too far off from life at BYU. I think I felt like I didn't have a choice.
And that was the first time I became legitimately depressed. Sure, my marriage to a gay man had a lot to do with that, but, I mean, I felt sick to my stomach whenever I was out and about. I think of certain places right now, like the Target in Orem, and the memory comes attached with nausea.
I've heard it said several times in recent years that how we live the gospel is a personal thing.
Um, not really.
Not if you want a temple recommend.
Not if you want to avoid alienation in your religious community.
Not if you want to take the sacrament.
People can lie, I suppose, in order to keep their status or appearance of blending. I'd rather sleep at night.
So 15 years later, I left it.
I had a conversation on Halloween with my old BYU professor, Brilliant Amazing.
I mentioned a couple of Mormons who are very much in the public eye and who very much make up and live their own version of Mormonism.
I asked B.A., "Why does that make me fucking insane?! The LDS religion does not make room for you to make your own version. It has never been that way, and it never will be," (especially if you want the full privileges the church offers).
To which B.A. replied, "Mormonism has to change or die. Honestly, that's where we are."
I then asked, "And if it dies, what does that mean for you, if you don't mind me asking?"
"I'll find another spiritual home. It won't be easy."
Boy! Did he just say it or what?
"You just struck a chord in my soul!" I told him.
That is where I am. Trying to find my spiritual home.
Because I now have a wonderful and exciting chunk of clay in front of me. I have all the freedom in the world to mold it and shape it according to what feels good and right to me, but more importantly, what feels authentic.
As of right now, it's just a chunk of clay that I've played around with. Nothing defining about it yet.
What I really hope is, at some point, it will look like me.