Our amazing friend from the podcast Zach Anderson talks about leaving Mormonism, coming out as a gay man, and how we can move through our mental health struggles.
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This is Joy & Claire Episode 127: How Are You, Really? Catching Up With Zach Anderson
Episode Date: May 19, 2022
Transcription Completed: June 20, 2022
Audio Length: 65:47 minutes
Joy: Hey guys, this is Joy.
Claire: And this is Claire.
Joy: I hope you’re loving our conversations with friends. Maybe we should do this every year in May.
Claire: Yeah. Or April. April/May.
Joy: Just, “Conversations in May.”
Joy: Conversations with friends in May. They’re all going to drop in May.
Claire: We’ve got to come up with a tagline for that because it’s not very interesting. May…
Joy: We’re working on it. It’s a half-baked idea.
Claire: Work in progress. So today we are so excited to have Zach Anderson joining us. Zach is a long-time friend of the pod.
Joy: Such a long-time friend.
Claire: Such a long-time friend. He is an attorney in Nebraska. So congratulations to Nebraskans for being represented on today’s podcast.
Joy: First time.
Claire: Is it? I don’t know. Somebody is going to call us and be like, “I’m from Nebraska.”
Claire: But actually, Zach is not from Nebraska. He is from the same hometown as Joy, which is a fun little fact. Zach has been going through quite the personal transformation over the past few years. He has been deconstructing from the Mormon church for a handful of years. And then about six or seven months ago, he came out as gay and has been rebuilding himself since last fall. Fun fact is that we were actually supposed to record with him the day after he came out. He called me and he was like, “Maybe we should reschedule the podcast.”
Joy: “It’s just a lot going on in my life right now.”
Claire: Just a lot going on. So welcome back, hi.
Zach: Hi. I feel like I’m fangirling in a major way because I remember back in the early days of Girls Gone WOD and I was like, who are these women? I need to meet them. And then I met you both, and now I’m here.
Claire: Here you are. Hold on, I left out a really important fact. You also are a dad to the cutest little – she is what, 14 months?
Zach: Hold on, we’re almost in May. So she is 19-20 months.
Claire: Oh my gosh.
Zach: I know, it’s wild.
Claire: This is like the time warm. She is so cute. Her name is Maeve. She is the cutest little thing.
Zach: She is the cutest.
Joy: But I do feel like you’re one of our podcast friends that I just feel like we’re friends in real life. We do have a lot of people like that in our lives from the podcast where it’s surprising to me that you have yet to be on the podcast because we’ve known you for so long. And we’ve followed you on Instagram, you’ve followed us on Instagram. We’ve met you in person. It just feels like one of those instant connections, so I’m really excited to chat and catch up with a friend in real time here on the podcast.
Zach: That means the world. Being the listener that I have been for so long, I feel like I’ve been through all of your phases and how many parallels I’ve felt have been happening. So I’ve listened to your conversations and I’ve been like, oh my gosh, there are so many things happening in my life that I can relate with. Or I didn’t come to appreciate what you were talking about until much later in life. So I even reflect back on to some of the conversations that I’ve listened to the two of you have and still is meaningful. So it makes me even more excited to have this in person.
Joy: So let’s start with a basic question. How are you doing? It’s been a year. How are you?
Zach: It’s been a wild ride. It’s a loaded question. I feel like my life has kind of imploded in so many ways in the last nine months especially. I came out in September. When you come out at 37 years old after being married to a woman and having a child, restructuring the whole process of your upbringing, it’s a lot. I have been in a consistent state of questioning and trying to have a lot of curiosity with myself rather than being harsh on myself, which is new territory and hard enough as it is. So right now, I’m doing fair. I don’t know how else to say it. I still have really good days, and I still have horrible days. That’s one of the best parts though about rebuilding. I feel like I’ve had this moment to really acknowledge my feelings and not just try to pass them away or put them into a box or try to discount them and actually honoring them. I think that’s actually been one of the most powerful things that I’ve been doing. So that’s the reality of, I’m not going to say that I’m good – because I’m not. But I remind myself on a regular basis that it’s not okay right now, but it will be. So when I keep on having that mentality that I have a lot of room to regrow, I have a lot of hope in that.
Joy: Thank you. I think that’s a very honest answer. You came from a situation that not only is not everyone’s own personal journey to decide to come out, but you have a background of a lot of religious trauma. So that’s layer on top of layer on top of layer. With a religion that… I don’t know, speak to this. With a religion that doesn’t support the LGBTQIA community. I’ve been so far from it since I’ve left that town that I don’t remember the stance that the Mormon church has on LGBTQIA community.
Zach: It’s a really interesting time to either be associated with Mormonism or to be Mormon-adjacent. Even though I consider myself ex-Mormon, I do consider myself Mormon-adjacent very much because it was so much of my upbringing.
Joy: For sure.
Zach: If you don’t know, Mesa, Arizona where Joy and I grew up is predominantly Mormon. For me, 80% of my high school was Mormon.
Joy: 90%, I would say. And I think I heard a statistic. I don’t know if this is true, but I believe it. That per capita, Mesa, Arizona had more Mormons than Salt Lake City, Utah.
Zach: I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised. But right now, the media is especially drawing attention to it. BYU just had their graduation last week. There was a student who placed a pride flag inside of her robe –
Claire: She sewed a rainbow flag into the inner lining of her graduation gown.
Zach: And when she walked the stage, she opened it up so that everyone could see it. That is a very radical act at a university like BYU.
Joy: Yeah, and just in case people don’t know, Brigham Young University is a predominantly Mormon university.
Zach: 99%. I went there, and 99% of the people who go there are Mormon. And the 1% are usually athletes.
Joy: Yeah. And is it considered like a gold standard if you’re Mormon to go to BYU, either in Hawaii or Salt Lake City? Or is it in Provo?
Zach: It’s in Provo. Yes, we were like, “We are going to the Lord’s university.” You think very highly of yourself when you get into this school. It’s an objective, like, wow I must be doing well. I go into [with emphasis] the BYU, because there is also one in Hawaii and one in Idaho as well.
Claire: When you are there, you are held to a very strict code of conduct that is very much tied to the Mormon code of conduct.
Joy: The same standards as the Mormon religion. Is it kind of implied that way?
Zach: Correct. So regardless of whether you’re Mormon or not, you are expected to abide by what is known as the honor code. It involved the way that you dress. Men are not allowed to have beards. They can have mustaches though. Don’t understand that. That’s not odd.
Claire: [laughing] Gross.
Zach: Yes. You have to be in at a certain time. You technically can’t go into another person’s bedroom that’s of the opposite sex. It’s very much a mentality of you have to be truthful with your ecclesiastical leaders and the leaders of the university. But if you’re not, if someone sees what you’re doing, you’re also expected to tell on them and report them to the honor code. So it’s this constant mentality of being very aware of what your actions are, but you’re also being very aware of if someone else is seeing them because you might get reported.
Claire: Totally confined. And this is during a time when you are developing all your instincts around how to socialize and relate as an adult to the world.
Zach: Absolutely. I am really grateful for the opportunity I had to go to BYU. I went there as a collegiate athlete. I swam in college. So I didn’t really pay for much of my college education. It’s also subsidized by the Mormon church. If you are Mormon, I think the tuition was something like $4,000 a year. Which for that good of an education –
Joy: Is nothing.
Claire: Right. For the equivalent of a really good state school. I know that BYU is not the Utah state school, but in some ways it’s at that level.
Zach: Right. So I went from also a really predominant Mormon community to an even more predominant Mormon community where everyone essentially graduates with a minor in religion, even though we aren’t awarded that. So we all take 15-16 hours of religion credits that’s very specific to Mormon indoctrination and the way that they do certain things. So when you grow up in these types of environments, especially for someone like me who grew up deep down knowing that they were a gay man or at least attracted to men, the type of dialogue that I experienced within Mormonism but then was also put in as part of my education in the way that I was educated was very… I guess it was traumatic. It was spiritual and religious trauma. I was caused to hide even more parts about myself. And to also be in an environment where you don’t necessarily feel safe to talk about those types of experiences, knowing that someone else might turn you in because you are attracted to someone of the same sex. That you can’t even find out or experience with people of the same sex. If you think about it, people of the opposite sex – that’s why so often people get married so young there. I was one of the few people who left BYU not married. I had so many teammates and friends who got married while they were there. So you have all of those experiences. And also, while I was there, I saw one of the school therapists that was obviously paid by the university. And it was a conversion therapist, and he still practices at BYU. You were indoctrinated in so many ways, and you were led to believe that this is what you were expected to do and these types of things. So when we’re seeing this in the media where the student, Jillian Orr I believe is her name, where she is coming out literally and doing such a radical, courageous act. For those of us who were alumni, we’re just like, holy shit. I graduated 13 years ago and for me to be able to see that is just really powerful. And to be able to see more of the courage and the dialogue that’s taking place there, I think is really powerful.
Claire: I’m glad that you’re speaking to how intense that experience of seeing her is. Because when I see that, I grew up in Boulder. I had maybe the opposite…
Joy: Right. You’re in like the capital of rainbows.
Claire: I’m in the capital of rainbows. My high school’s largest extracurricular club was the gay-straight alliance. To me, when I saw that, I was like, “Oh, that’s cool.” It didn’t hit me for how significant that would be in that community or how big of an act of bravery that would really take. Because for me, it was the equivalent of the drunk frat kid flashing their boxers as they walked off the stage or something, where you’re like, eh, it’s sort of a prank. Not that I viewed it as a prank. But just like, oh yeah, people do stuff as they are walking off the stage. That’s a thing that happens. It’s interesting also – I hadn’t really thought about what you said around you’re not able to have those intimate experiences, not only with the opposite sex but even with the same sex. I think about this a lot. I think that there is a lot of bisexual erasure in college where people will say, I’m in my phase of experimenting. Where it’s like, you might be bi. I don’t know what to tell you. You might not be interested in “experimenting” with the opposite sex. Not everyone is interested in that. I think we have these perceptions of everyone “goes through a phase.” No, they don’t. I wish that was talked about more because I think that it is sort of this erasure of a true part of someone that they might just think, “Oh, everyone has these questions.” No, everyone does not have these questions. Everyone does not have those instincts towards the same sex. But even to your point of not even being able to have an experience with the opposite sex and think, “Well that wasn’t what I was expecting.” Even that could have been so clarifying.
Zach: Right. And to be honest with you, I didn’t have my first kiss until I was 23. I can’t say that was an experience for anyone. You also have to realize that the way that I was indoctrinated was what evangelicals might call purity culture. That might sound familiar to people. We in Mormonism call it the law of chastity. Essentially that’s not any sex before marriage. They use the terms “no necking or petting,” which I didn’t even know what that meant.
Joy: Wait, wait, wait. No what?
Zach: Necking or petting.
Claire: Petting? No petting.
Joy: I made you repeat it.
Zach: It makes me queasy thinking about it.
Claire: I feel like we need to bring back the word snagging.
Zach: Sure, yeah.
Claire: No snagging.
Zach: So we were taught to be really cognizant of our sexual behaviors or desires or anything like that. But then added on top of that was, again, I being attracted to men and what the Mormon church described as “struggling with same-sex attraction.” That it’s always seen as an affliction or a struggle. Then you just don’t do it at all. And if you don’t do these types of things, if you’re super obedient and if you do everything that Mormonism teaches you that those afflictions, that those struggles of being attracted to the same sex are going to go away. So I really started to take the mentality of, well, if that’s going to be the case, then I just need to abstain from everything. So that way it’s not even in the realm of possibilities either. I can’t say that my experience was the same as other Mormons. I know plenty of people that I went to high school with that certainly did more than making out that were Mormon. The way that I was indoctrinated, at least with being a gay man, was these are the things that I have to do.
Claire: This is like an affliction you have and you can out-perform it.
Zach: Correct. First of all, that’s a really hard habit to get out of. Which I think is probably when you asked me how I’m doing, hey, guess what. I am learning to overcome that right now. So I’m in therapy and I see a life coach right now, and I messaged my life coach the other day. It was this meme of just like, “Everyone knows you go to therapy to prove that you’re the favorite, right?” That’s exactly my mentality or my desire.
Claire: There’s another tweet that’s like, “I want to win at therapy. Something that is both normal to want and impossible to achieve.”
Zach: Yes. I am convinced that I am my therapist’s favorite because I make him laugh and swear, and I don’t think he does that in front of his other clients, right?
Joy: That’s really funny. I actually had a client message me one time and say, “I am your favorite, right?” I was like, yes, yes you are. Yes, you are.
Zach: But getting out of those types of patterns. This is a new experience for me to be able to do that. And so I think one of the more challenging parts is I kind of informally left Mormonism about five years ago. I made a formal decision to remove my records from the Mormon church, which doesn’t sound significant to a lot of people. But if you are in Mormon circles, you know that that is actually a very significant act. It’s similar to excommunicating myself.
Joy: I was going to say, is it like excommunication. I would love for you to talk briefly about what it really means to leave the Mormon religion. Because I know it so intimately and you know it way more intimately than I do, I don’t know if everyone truly gets if you don’t know Mormonism. I also want to be very clear – I’ve heard you talk about this on other interviews with other podcasts. If that is your religion, we are not here to bash it. I just think it’s really important for people who may be struggling. And this goes for any religion or any type of questioning that you have where you may not feel like you fit in or you are othered. That is really the broad message. This is not an attack on the Mormon religion, per se, but the othering that happens in religions. This just happened to be your religion. I also think it’s important to make people understand how powerful it is when you are in a religion such as Mormonism, that your identity from day one, that is who you are. As opposed to, I await raised Catholic. Yeah, we kind of joke that Catholicism, you’re a sinner, da da da. But I didn’t 99.9% identify like my whole life wrapped around it. It was just something that I did on Sundays. We would go to the church services and practice Good Friday, Lent, that type of thing. But it wasn’t 99.9% of my identity. I think that’s important for people to understand so that when you are talking about it, there’s some foundation of how much is wrapped up inside of you around this religion.
Zach: I really appreciate that you brought that up. I try to make it clear when I do talk about this. I have a lot of family, a lot of friends, a lot of people that I do love that choose to stay within Mormonism, and I respect their decision to stay. I’m very glad that they feel comfortable and that they feel at peace with that decision. I am not saying that in a condescending way, like I legitimately mean that. But I think it is important to have these types of conversations for people who have been harmed, who have been traumatized, who have experienced something very different than what they did. I want to honor other people’s experiences who choose to stay within Mormonism or any religion while also drawing attention to the fact that there are many of us who didn’t have that experience and there are repercussions that we want to be able to talk about and that we want to help people feel like they are not alone. I want to make it real that that loneliness is very, very real for those of us who are either questioning or leaving Mormonism. And for so long, I felt alone. Growing up in a predominantly Mormon community, going to BYU. I served in missions for the Mormon church.
Joy: Oh, you did? You went on a mission. Where did you go?
Zach: I went to Oregon, so I did not go to Africa.
Joy: Midwest though, man. Even more as a closeted gay man –
Zach: Yes, Oregon.
Joy: Sorry, I don’t know why I was thinking Midwest.
Claire: I was like, is Oregon in the Midwest?
Zach: But I’m in the Midwest now, so yeah.
Joy: I was thinking Ohio for some reason. It’s early. Whatever. Still.
Claire: I am really bad at physical geography.
Joy: Oh really? I thought you’d be really good at it.
Claire: you would think I would, right? But there is something about the states of the United States, I don’t know where any of them are. I just this week found out where South Dakota was, that it touches Minnesota. I had no idea. I don’t know where it was in my brain. It was just floating out in space. So when you said that, I was like, is Oregon in the Midwest?
Zach: It might be.
Joy: Claire, you’re right. Your gut feeling is right. Trust that. So I digress. You served on a mission for two years.
Zach: Yes. Went back to BYU. And one of the reasons that I chose to go to the law school that I did is that there was a significant number of Mormons that went to that university. And the dean of the law school at the time and also one of the professors was also Mormon. They needed up being my ecclesiastical leaders as well while I was in law school. Interesting experiences having professors also be the leaders of the congregation. That was very much embodied in who I was. Everyone I knew knew that I was Mormon. I can’t tell you the number of people who I would bring to church functions. I was a really good missionary. I converted well over 50 people. Even outside of my mission, there are 5-10 people that I helped convert. One is my ex-spouse. So it was a major part of who I was, and even converting people and bringing them into Mormonism. Around 2014 was when I was willing to address a lot of the questions that I had. In Mormonism, one of the big things – if any of you have seen The Book of Mormon musical, which for some people it’s highly irreverent. But when I saw it, I didn’t know if I was supposed to laugh or cry because it was my trauma while at the same time making light of it. I think people outside of Mormonism appreciate it, but the full appreciation – again, as a gay ex-Mormon person who served in mission, the parallels are pretty significant.
Joy: Yeah. A lot of the jokes that they make in the musical – there’s songs around turn off your feelings if you have an attraction to men. They make light of understanding that that’s going to happen, but you’re just supposed to turn off your feelings.
Claire: Crush it.
Joy: Crush it.
Claire: Put it in a box and crush it.
Joy: Put it in a box and put it away.
Claire: I think it’s interesting to hear you say that you weren’t sure if you were supposed to laugh or cry. As someone who has no background – I didn’t grow up in a Mormon town, as we have already discussed. I remember seeing that musical and thinking, well, I hope that’s not how it really is.
Zach: We were told to put any issues that we had into a box and put that box on a shelf. Well one of the big things that happens eventually is your shelf starts to break. I started to notice that my shelf was starting to break, and fortunately my ex-spouse was really actually very instrumental in helping me take down a lot of those boxes and to start to be able to unpack them. I actually connected with my best friend from college. Her in-laws were some of the few people that we realized we could trust with a lot of the concerns that we had. The other hard part is that once you have these things, who can you talk to about this that isn’t trying to rope you back into it? But is willing to be able to have some really honest and vulnerable conversations that aren’t judgmental. The answers would always be – you just need to pray harder. You need to try harder. You need to be more obedient. And guess what? I’ve done all that before. I recognize that to a “T.” It was really powerful to feel like I could have that support tool.
Claire: I hate to keep referring to tweets and memes, but it actually seems fitting because that is 90% of how I communicate. I saw one the other day that’s like, “If being hard on yourself worked, it would have worked by now.” I think that obviously applies to so many situations, but I think that is exactly kind of what you are speaking to here is you pretty much were told time and time again that if you are confused or concerned or questioning or whatever, it’s your fault. It is not because there is flaw or inconsistency or whatever with the organization. It’s that you are at fault for having these questions.
Zach: And that is one of the big things that even now I am working through. I still feel a lot of shame because I was indoctrinated to believe that if I didn’t try hard enough, if I didn’t do these types of things. That I could have overcome my sexuality. Even me inherently knowing that I’m gay, when you’re indoctrinated with that, it takes forever to get out of that. I know it’s going to take me a lot longer to get out of that, but that’s what I was led to believe. So any time you are questioning these types of things where you are led to believe that you are not enough, you are seen as the broken one in the situation. So when I started to finally question and have these types of conversations and I started to realize there are other resources. It just takes a lot of time and energy to be able to find those resources and who you can trust. So in 2016, I was seeing a therapist. He was not Mormon. He knew nothing about Mormonism. He was like, “What happens if you just don’t go?” I was like, wait, that’s an option? You just stop going? So that’s what happened. I just stopped going. I was like, oh, there are a lot of parts of me that feel a lot better. So that kind of led to this experience of being able to really unpack a lot of things from those shelves. The pandemic is when I started to unpack a lot of things with my sexuality It wasn’t surprising. I had a lot of alone time. It was also in the height of when my daughter was going to be coming. I recognized I need to figure some of my own shit out in this moment, and I don’t want to pass on my religious or my spiritual trauma or my generational trauma to my daughter. So as a result of that, I formally made the decision to remove my records from the church, knowing that it would be majorly impactful to my family and the way that others would treat me. Because as a result of that, I was essentially removing myself from my family for eternity. I would not be living with them in what Mormons refer to as the celestial kingdom, which is the highest kingdom, and living in God’s presence. I was essentially turning my back away from God and from everything that I knew. I was essentially going to be going to hell because of this decision that I made. But I knew that I was much better outside of it, and I knew that I didn’t want to pass that on to my daughter either.
Joy: Yeah. And that’s so big. It’s so big. With the belief of after you pass that there is the highest kingdom in heaven, that is a really big deal in the religion. You had to come to that decision and know that and know that your family was going to grieve that. Has there been understanding, connection with your family? You don’t need to share details because I think that’s private. But are they supportive in a way that feels good to you? Are you still working that out? Are they still going through grieving process? What is that right now?
Zach: We are navigating very choppy waters. And I understand why. It’s one of the reasons why I try to make it clear to anyone who chooses to stay that I respect that. And also to honor people who are choosing to leave. I can’t tell you the number of times that people come into my DMs saying, “This is what I’m experiencing. How did you handle this?” It’s one of the major reasons why I have chosen to be a lot more open in my dialogue, not only on Instagram but coming into podcasts to help people no matter where they are at with whatever religion that they are in. Especially if they are within Mormonism because that is my experience. To be able to give them a sense of validation and a sense of knowing that they are not alone. And I think that that is a really powerful experience because, again, I recognize how hard it is to find those types of people that you can turn to. I can’t tell you the number of people that I thought that I could trust and then ultimately realized that they were just trying to bring me back in. So I have been working actively to give my family the benefit of the way that they are navigating something that’s very challenging for them, not only because of me actively removing my records from the church, but also being someone who is very adamantly opposed to within their indoctrination and the thinking that sexuality is a choice. So we’re navigating a lot of new waters in that regard. I want to honor anyone who is experiencing these types of things as well, just to recognize this is messy and it’s going to stay messy for a long time. But the freedom that comes from it ends up being really powerful. It’s being willing to engage in something really uncomfortable because it’s super comfortable to stay.
Joy: Okay, I have a question that I want to ask, but we do need to take a quick break. So let’s take a quick break.
Claire: I feel like this episode is the perfect time actually to talk about Mental Health Awareness Month, which is the month of May. Our favorite sponsors, Ned, provide some awesome tools to help you support your mental health. One of those things that we really love is the Destress Blend. You’ve heard us talk about it before. For me, it’s something that I use when I get to the end of the day and I’m feeling a little bit overwhelmed or I know that I’m going to have a tricky bedtime with the kids. Or I’ll also use it if I have some big meeting coming up during the day that I just want to take the edge off of my anxiety or my nervousness. You guys have also heard both Joy and I talk about how we both struggle with true anxiety. We have both been on medication for it in the past.
Joy: Still am.
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Joy: Back to you Zach. I did have a quick question that I asked at the very beginning, but I don’t remember us fully answering it, which is fine. We go off on tangents. But do you feel that the Mormon religion is adjusting some of the practices or beliefs around inclusion and diversity, or do you think that’s not on their radar?
Claire: PR fodder.
Zach: I think they have attempts. They’ll take one step forward. Not even one step. They’ll shuffle, and then they’ll take two steps back. So every once in a while, I feel like my hopes get up in being able to see that change. Not that I would go back. But just for the sake of those that are there that might be in a similar predicament to me.
Zach: I personally don’t see that as being something that’s been happening. I will share a story that I have not shared before, which I think is really powerful. So when I came out, one of the decisions that I made is that I felt the need to make some sort of amends with Mormonism. I had a lot of anger towards Mormonism. I acknowledge that. I do. I have been in my angry phase. I have grieved so many parts of my life and even my upbringing because of Mormonism. So it’s natural for me to be angry. One of the ways that I chose to be able to make amends was something that felt comfortable to me was inviting the Mormon missionaries to come back to my home.
Joy: You mean, to your house?
Zach: Yes. So I invited them. It was three sisters – or women missionaries. We call them sisters – that came. And I told them, listen, you’re not going to convert me. I’m not coming back. And my objective isn’t to bring you back or to kick you out of Mormonism either, to convince you that you shouldn’t stay. My purpose here is to try to come up with some way for me to mend this part of me in a way that feels safe, and this is what feels safe to me right now. So I had the conversation with these sisters. All three of them said to me, “Congratulations. That’s such an incredible story.” I look at them and I think, wait. Excuse me. This isn’t the Mormonism that I was in. This is not familiar to me. It really threw me off guard.
Joy: Meaning their acceptance and love was not something that you were ready for, that you had been used to?
Zach: Correct. And just the fact that they’re telling me “congratulations” about this part. I think it was because these sister missionaries, I think they’re between 19 and 20 years old.
Joy: Yeah, when you go on a mission, you’re 16, 17, 18. That’s really the usual. I guess you can always go on a mission any time in your life, but the typical age in Mormonism is right out of high school.
Zach: Right. And I went out of my sophomore year of college, so you kind of get a broad range of people who are right out of high school and people who are in college.
Joy: And the purpose of that really is, once you go on your mission, really the expectation is to get married right away and start having kids. Start creating that family for the celestial kingdom.
Zach: Right, Right. So having that dialogue –
Claire: This is wild to me. I just need to say that. I don’t know any of this, and this is wild to me.
Zach: The number of people who I’ve made friends with over Instagram who are just like, “Can you tell me more about this?” Especially with what’s been happening at BYU. Under the Banner of Heaven just came out on Hulu.
Joy: Yeah. The Jon Krakauer novel, yeah.
Zach: So people are asking me, “What does this mean?” I’m just like, oh yeah. I will field all of your questions. “Is this traumatic for you?” No, this actually educates you in what happens. By the end of the conversation with these sister missionaries, it had been about an hour. And one of the missionaries, she had never told anyone other than her bishop that she came out as bisexual in this meeting. Her companions didn’t know. It was a really powerful moment that she felt safe enough with me to be able to share that knowing that her companions hadn’t known that, there really is potential for impact on what it has for her.
Joy: Oh my God.
Claire: Based on what you said, too, before about the culture at school where you were waiting to get told on and you’re constantly looking over your shoulder thinking, if I say or do the wrong thing, is there a watch dog who is going to report me? I don’t want to get too into the nitty gritty, but if you’re comfortable sharing, I am just curious, what’s the type of stuff that would happen if you were “reported.”
Zach: You’d get generally kicked out or put on probation.
Joy: Do you have to go to a bishop and talk to a bishop?
Joy: So the bishop is the head of the church you go to.
Claire: It’s like a pastor.
Joy: Yeah. And you’re in a ward. “Oh, what ward are you in?” Is kind of like, “What neighborhood do you live in?” So you would go to the bishop and the bishop would probably guide you on what to do and pray. I heard you talk about this in other interviews too of basically being like, if you get married and have a kid, this will lead you down the path of what you’re supposed to be doing.
Zach: Right, correct.
Claire: I was just curious for that woman’s experience, the risk that she’s taking to say this in front of the group that’s supposed to be working with.
Claire: Yeah, really profound.
Zach: I just felt this sense of this is the generation coming up in the church, that’s talking to people. So not only are they honoring my experiences, but one of them was courageous enough to be able to share, “I am bisexual. I am part of the LGBTQ community. Here are some struggles that I have.” And even her companions, they did not seem upset by what she just shared. They didn’t seem like they were up in arms. And they continued to come for some time. I don’t think that the change is happening from the top down. I think it’s grassroots. I think it’s what’s becoming more acceptable.
Joy: For sure. That makes sense.
Zach: And I also think it’s very dependent up on what area you grew up in. Growing up in Mesa, highly predominant. The way that that’s managed is very different. Growing up in Utah or Idaho is probably the same. My close friend who grew up in California, her dad was a branch president, which is like a smaller version of a ward, just not as many people. They grew up in San Francisco. So she grew up going to church with lots of gays. There were drag queens in their congregation. So those types of experiences that she had were very different from mine. So when she went to BYU, it was a complete culture shock for her because that was not the Mormonism that she was raised in. She grew up in a very liberal, accepting version of Mormonism.
Claire: More inclusive.
Zach: Yes. And so I think that the change isn’t going to come necessarily from the top down. Until you see how many people are leaving Mormonism or are just not being active participants anymore. I also think that there are a lot more Mormons who are willing to be involved in some way, just not to the extent that they were. And they are a lot more willing to just be like, I want to pick and choose these things that I believe in, and I’m also going to say, “That doesn’t sit well with me. I’m going to be okay with that.” Personally, I can’t manage that type of mental gymnastics or that type of –
Joy: Like buffet style.
Zach: Correct. That’s not me. But that’s also not my life or that decision, so I honor people who choose to stay who can acknowledge the complexity in that. I think that’s really important.
Joy: The basis of the religion is there’s love and there’s a lot of goodness. There’s nothing to say that there’s bad people, by any means. A lot of my best friends I still hang out with every year when I go home are Mormon. That’s really important to note that this is not any ill intention, but the effect that it can have when your worldview is very small. And that’s kind of what it does is it really makes your worldview very small. I say that because even the friends when I go home, if I talk about things that are social justice issues or anything that’s kind of out of that circle of knowledge, the responses are very limited. Meaning, oh, your bubble is super small and you don’t think beyond that. Not out of ill intention, but just not being exposed to it. And that’s where, I believe, the change needs to happen is the people who are grassroots of saying, hey, we’ve got to start looking at these things because the world is so much bigger. It probably comes from a fear of change. That type of thinking, you don’t want change. You don’t want different. But that is where I think it needs to happen. People need to start speaking up. Why aren’t we being inclusive? What is the harm there? So those conversations that need to happen.
Zach: I really agree with that sentiment. One of the other powerful things that I think is happening because of social media, because of this situation at BYU more recently, and then there’s Black Menaces on TikTok, which I know both of you are morally opposed to TikTok because I send you the videos that I like.
Claire: Thanks to everyone who curates TikTok for us so that we don’t have to go on there.
Zach: I don’t know if they have an Instagram. I haven’t looked. But it’s Black students at BYU – I don’t know if people know, but Blacks couldn’t hold the priesthood in Mormonism until the 80’s. They say it was revelation that they were allowed to be able to do it, but it was pushback.
Joy: And revelation meaning…?
Zach: Meaning it was God who said that.
Claire: Like an IOS update for Mormons.
Joy: Exactly. It’s exactly that.
Zach: So it was changed in the 80’s soon following the Civil Rights Movement, et cetera. But it’s these Black students at BYU who are asking questions about Blacks and gays on BYU campus and really putting these students in a very uncomfortable predicament to them. Talking about these social justice issues and racial justice issues and then posting it for the world to see. It’s incredible to be able to see because there’s now becoming a very public reconciliation about how harmful these types of doctrines and dialogue and how it impacts a lot of people.
Joy: The hard part about this, and not just Mormonism but with any religion, is when things like this come up, it is talked about in the context of the religion, “Well, this is just the devil trying to infiltrate the work that we’re trying to do in this world.” And that is just so dangerous thinking because then that messes up – and if you were raised in this religion, that’s all you know, so you’re like, “This must be the devil testing me.” And then it grounds them even more where this is where I get to stand in truth.
Claire: You have to double down on it.
Joy: And double down on it. That’s where it gets really dangerous. Because then you’re so… I hate to say the word “brainwashed,” but I can’t think of a better word right now. Where you can’t see anything else, and that’s where it scares me that this will continue. My guess is when these people do those TikToks and do the questioning, people are probably deer in the headlights. But also then strengthening their faith. Maybe some question it, maybe if they have the curiosity to ask questions and to look beyond their lens. But that’s where it gets dangerous is where the people double down and strengthen their faith more.
Zach: I mean, I’m going to be completely honest. I was one of those people
Zach: And not only because then was – I mean, I was jeopardizing everything that I was working for. If I were to question that, then it’s just like, then I’m not going to be safe.
Joy: Exactly, if you question it, then their whole life is a lie. In a way. And that is so scary. No wonder, like when you’re saying 34 years of this, unlearning is very profound.
Zach: Right. And that’s one of the big reasons why I think it’s important to share these experiences and why I don’t want to place judgement on people who choose to stay. Because again, there are a lot of really beautiful things about Mormonism, about religion. But again, you can’t acknowledge the beauty without acknowledging the fact that it can be damaging to someone else, and that the same statement can be super powerful to someone and just be the downfall to someone else.
Joy: Right. So let’s talk really quickly, because we’re almost out of time today, and I think this deserves a much longer conversation. So we definitely don’t want to cut this off. I think it would be lovely to keep talking about this and have you back for more discussion around this. Really just in terms of identity and how we move on and how we work through this and how we heal.
Claire: And I still want to talk about mental health. We were like, “Oh, we’re going to talk about diet culture today.” Not one word has been uttered about diet culture.
Zach: That’s really what I came prepared to talk about. We haven’t even gotten there. I’m more than happy to come back and talk more. I’m not mad. Listen, I’m not mad.
Joy: I just completely derailed all of this.
Claire: But I have to say this out loud on the air because yesterday Joy and I were texting, “Hey, what are we going to talk to Zach about?” And I was like, you know, I have some questions in mind. If we don’t want to dive too far into Mormonism – because at first I said, you guys can connect about your upbringing in Mesa. And she was like, “Well, that’s a can of worms.” I was like, we can keep the questions structured. So as soon as we started, I texted Joy and I was like, “Claire: Let’s keep the questions structured. Joy: But how are you?”
Zach: [laughing] I mean, really, you threw that and I was like, oh boy. It was a good thing I had breakfast.
Claire: Joy, stick to the brief.
Zach: It’s okay. I was like, wow, this took a serious turn and I’m not mad about it. It’s my reality. I’m all about giggles and shit that’s fun. That’s me times a thousand. If you know me, if you’ve engaged with me, give me all the laughs. But I had therapy on Thursday. I have coaching on Friday. So I am in life-figure-out mode right now. I laid the last two hours thinking about everything I’ve talked about in therapy and life coaching, and I’m just kind of like, oh… okay.
Claire: It was primed.
Joy: You were primed for it. It was just going to be. And then sometimes it just kind of goes to a place of, I feel like this is important right now. May is mental health month, so I’d be remiss to not bring up the mental health piece. So two things. One is very random, but the other is about mental health. One I just have such a hard time with, and I’d like to get your take on it. Your personal opinion, your personal feelings around it. So I watched the Coming Out Colton documentary series, which was amazing. Did you watch it, by chance?
Zach: I started it, but it was at a time where it was still very triggering. I was not in the right space to watch it.
Joy: Totally. And it was hard to watch just as a straight chick who’s never had to deal with anything like this. It was really hard to watch. I imagine that would be something that you could not watch right now. But basically the sentiment we’ve all heard before and friends say. Colton’s a stricter practicing Christian and has a lot of Christian friends and people who have those belief systems around him that he’s very close to. It was really hard for me to watch when he told his friends. His friends were like, “Yeah, buddy. Good for you. I don’t agree with your lifestyle, but we still love you.” And that just makes my skin crawl. Colton, you could see the struggle within to be like, I love my religion and my friends, and how do I marry that together to where I can keep my identity? I want to stand in this identity and in my truth, but also have friends around me – the whole “I just don’t agree with your lifestyle” – “lifestyle,” by the way… what the hell does that mean? “But we still love you.” I don’t know. That’s something that makes my skin crawl, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.
Zach: I mean, that’s literally my lived experience as well, so I understand that. I’m going to bring it into two parts. One of the big reasons why we struggle – and I can’t talk collectively. I’ll talk about my own experience. Why I struggled with coming out obviously was acceptance. The reason why I got in the predicament I was in was all I wanted was to be accepted, so I did everything in my power to please everyone else so I could be accepted. And despite all of that, I could not meet that mold. So one of the biggest fears by coming out was me being rejected by a lot of people, a lot of people that I loved, that I cared about, that I thought were my friends or my family. So when someone says, “We’re so happy for you, but we don’t agree with the decision that you make,” you are reinforcing the worst fear that we have because at some level you are still rejecting us.
Zach: I can’t tell you how easy it could have been for me to step back into that closet because that’s comfortable. I’m not going to lie, there are a lot of parts that I miss about that comfort. But that being said, I recognize why people say that and want you to know that it is harmful to us. But the way that I try to mitigate with that is with those people who are still deciding to be participants in my life or that I am allowing to be participants in my life, I want them to see how I am actually a better person by being exactly who I am. The way that I can best honor myself is by accepting myself and not seeking their acceptance. If they see that light and that growth and that happiness that comes as a result of that, then they get to benefit from that. But if they choose not to, then that’s them. One of the big lessons that I’ve been learning, that I’ve been working on is I am of inherent worth and love. So I am immediately lovable. Someone’s inability to love me has nothing to do with my worth or my lovability. It has to do with their capacity to love me.
Joy: Yes. And their judgements. Yep.
Zach: So if they choose to say, “We love you, but we can’t accept this part of you,” then they are choosing not to love me in a way that is possible to them, and I have to honor that and also work to not let that impact me to deny myself or to not accept myself.
Joy: Yes. Yeah. It’s the piece of not taking that on. It’s on them, not on you.
Claire: And that must just tie so much back to what we were talking about earlier around, what we’ve talked about a lot in this episode, around if you have a question or if you see an inconsistency, then that is your fault. And that the information that is being presented to you is the truth. It is up to you to reconcile yourself to fit that box, not the other way around.
Claire: I can just imagine that feels so similar to if someone comes to you and says, “This 20% of you is fine. This 80% I’m not so into,” then your knee jerk reaction would be, alright, let me just clean that up real quick.
Zach: And pausing myself and realizing who benefits from this. As being someone who used to die to myself by putting my own priorities first for so long, again, that’s uncomfortable. That’s really uncomfortable for me. So I’m working through that and recognizing that’s a them thing. That’s for them to take on. That’s not my responsibility.
Joy: So finally talking about mental health and how important it is to take care of your mental health, I also think about people who may be more isolated, who might not have people to talk to. There have been a lot of tragic endings to people’s lives because they weren’t able to talk about it, and it’s so difficult. I look at you when all this was going on. When I was watching this through social media, obviously. It wasn’t like I was walking next to you as a human in person. But I’m so excited and so happy. It’s this joyful feeling as someone on the outside, but I also recognize how much pain has been collected throughout your life to come to this point. While it’s seen as a celebration to the outsiders and to the people who were witnessing your journey, recognizing how much pain. And still, there is pain. So advice you would give to someone who is struggling with some similar things. Not that they have to do exactly. But what is the things looking back that you’re like, really make sure you take care of this, or really make sure that you’re talking to somebody. Or if you don’t feel safe, who can you go to?
Zach: I will tell you from one perspective, one of the things I appreciated the most was when this was happening, one of the first questions that people would ask me is, “Are you safe?” And I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that question. I know that Claire, you were one of the first people that I told, and you were one of the first people to ask me if I was safe. I want you to know how much I appreciate that. So when you know that someone is going through these types of experiences, we genuinely just need someone to ask us if we’re safe. That gave me a sense of hope in recognizing that, again, things weren’t okay, but they would be. So if you know someone is going through these types of life-changing experiences, asking if they’re safe. I think that’s really key. The reality was until I came out, suicide seemed like a reasonable option to me, and I didn’t feel safe. So that’s what I would say first. From my perspective, I wish that I had seen a mental health practitioner a lot sooner and a lot more often and one that wasn’t associated with my religion. Or with someone who specialized in religious trauma but was not there with the hopes that you would stay or that you would then use that tool to be able to convince you to stay.
Joy: Right. And not to interrupt you, but I’ll post resources in the show notes for therapy. I think that’s an important point that you bring up. If you are struggling with religious trauma, there are therapists that specialize in treating religious trauma. Never ever ever ever should you be in a session where the therapist is guiding you back to something like that. I know that in Mormonism, it’s very much that you go to the counselor of your bishop or someone in your church to help you. There are so many levels of wrong with that that I can’t even talk about it. Because really what it’s doing is keeping you in the trauma where you need someone who is objective that has nothing to do with that church to guide you with a more objective view.
Zach: I completely agree with that. I still have the books from my therapist from when I was in college that are titled things like You Don’t Have to Be Gay. These are resources that I got from my therapist. I think that’s why it’s really important to either specialize with someone who does it. Or fortunately, two of my therapists, they may not be trained in it, and that’s okay with me because they don’t have any of the bias that might come with religion either. Just religion as a whole, let alone the religion that I was raised in. I am a big believer in using medication if you need it. There have been many times in my life where I have needed those types of medications.
Claire: Joy and I are raising the roof.
Zach: I have been in a fortunate place where after I came out, about a week later I got off of the medications that I was on. That was in coordination with my doctor. That was not a personal decision that I made. I talked to my doctor about it, and we made the determination that I could be taken off of them. I realized that’s where much of my anxiety and my depression was coming from. Do I still have anxiety attacks? Yep, sure do. But I’m working through other skills and other resources to be able to manage those. They’re just not the level that they were before. I think one of the other aspects is finding people that you feel comfortable with, that you can talk to your therapy session – that if you are able to afford therapy is normalizing therapy. The amount of conversations that I have with my really close friends about, “Hey, this is what my therapist said.” These types of things. And you’re just like, “And hey, I was telling my therapist this.”
Joy: Which by the way, it always feels weird when people tell me that. When they’re like, “Oh my friends and my husband, we talk about” – it’s weird as the therapist to hear that they talk about you to their friends or partner. I had a client the other day that was like, “Yeah, my husband said I needed to come talk to you because I’ve been really moody.” I’m like, you talk about me? I’ll never get used to that.
Zach: But for me, not that it’s always applicable, but one of my best friends that I met through Instagram, she tells me all sorts of things that her therapist tells her. I’m like, oh my gosh, that’s so applicable here. And then I’ll do the same thing. She’s like, “I love that reframe.” We both experienced religious trauma in very different ways. I think that’s another really powerful tool is if you feel confident enough and courageous enough – because it does take courage talking about your mental health and being open about that and the resources that you use, because you’re normalizing it for other people. That’s why even as a man, I can’t speak for all men, but it’s a tool that generally men don’t use, and they don’t talk about. Even though I’m a gay man, it doesn’t really make a difference because men absolutely need therapy rather than buying Twitter.
Claire: Burn, Elon Musk. What I also want to say to that is you don’t have to go through – we talk about this a lot where I’ll bring up a postpartum experience or something. A lot of times, people will talk about therapy when a really serious issue comes up. What we always like to say is there is no minimum qualification for going to therapy. Being a human and being forced to endure the human experience is enough of a minimum qualification. You don’t have to be in a situation where you feel your life is at risk. Please don’t wait until it gets to that point. I know that is something that I’ve done in the past. I shouldn’t want to end my life – that’s a red flag. There were a lot of other red flags before that. I think it’s getting so much more normalized, but that’s so different even in the last five years. So I hope that people listening to this, you don’t have to have trauma. You don’t have to have this dramatic coming out experience. You don’t have to disown your community.
Joy: You don’t have to be at the level of hospitalization.
Claire: Yeah. You can just go to a therapist. There is no minimum qualification for therapy, and no therapist is ever going to compare you to their other clients.
Joy: No. No. You’ll get clients that are like, “Is this an okay thing to talk about in therapy?” Or “Is this enough?” I’m like, you just being here is cool. We don’t judge. It’s a zero-judgement zone. And any therapist that makes you feel like you’re judged, bye. Go to someone else.
Zach: The amount of petty things that I take as petty but are actually deep rooted in something else, that’s the thing. I’ve talked about super petty shit, and then five minutes later I’m crying about something, and I’m like, oh, I didn’t realize those were related. You know what I mean. It might seem petty. But then you get down the rabbit hole and you’re like, oh.
Claire: Oh, this is actually about something way bigger. Brandon and I are in regular couple’s counseling, and that always happens. We’ll start with being like, “We had a fight about who is going to pick up the kids.” And the next thing you know, oh, this is related to this much bigger thing from your childhood. I’m like, “Oh, dammit.”
Zach: Yep. That’s a thousand percent. Usually the petty stuff happens when I go in with no plan. Like, I was like, I don’t really have anything to talk to my therapist about.
Joy: Always. Those are always the best sessions.
Zach: I start with something petty. I feel the most broken afterwards. Okay, we’ve got a lot of reworking to do here.
Claire: We are really out of time. I want to be respectful of your time. I know listeners that we’re definitely going to have to have you back. Maybe one day we’ll get to talking about diet culture. Zach also has his whole other alter ego of being a fitness and nutrition –
Joy: You’re a fit-fluencer.
Zach: Oh gosh.
Claire: Sometimes I’ll joke with my colleagues, “In my alter ego as a fitness influencer,” and they’re like, “You’re not wrong.” So you do have this other other alter ego as a fitness and nutrition influencer. We’d love to talk to you about diet culture one day. I would love to talk to you about parenting, all the things. We really value your insight and your perspective, and it’s been so great to chat with you. Tell our listeners where they can find you.
Zach: Instagram would be the best place to find me. What I always warn people is you’re literally going to see all parts of my life there. You are going to see me talking about religious deconstruction. You’re going to see me talking out against things that I see problematic within Mormonism. You’re going to see me talking about being a gay man and even what it’s like being in the culture of a gay man. Maybe I’ll share with you some of my dating experiences. You’ll also get diet culture-y type messages. I consider myself to be a nutrition educator. Then you’ll also see pictures of my daughter and random pictures of new tattoos or nose rings or whatever else have you. You’re going to get it all. You’re going to see everything.
Claire: The top half of your chest.
Zach: The reverse crop top is actually a more appropriate term.
Joy: I love that, the reverse crop top.
Zach: So you can find me on Instagram at @motionsustained. Yes, it sounds like a Fergie song when you spell it like that. But yeah, it’s a legal pun with a legal pun of when a motion is sustained, but also I work in wellness so continuing in motion.
Joy: That’s the best.
Claire: I love it. I love a pun.
Joy: I would just like to say really quick, thank you for normalizing soda. Or Diet Coke, whatever you drink. What do you drink every day?
Zach: It’s usually Diet Dr Pepper. They have those on tap here at the McDonald’s. That’s not universal. I know where all of the McDonald’s are in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Joy: I love that about you. I love people that know where to go to get their donuts or… like the drive thru people. I’m not a drive thru person, but I love people who are like, “Every day, I go get my Diet Coke. I go get my donut through the drive thru.” I love you. The people that do that, I think are the best people. Thank you for normalizing that.
Zach: I have pretty standard things. Like I know where to go to get my donuts. That’s another one we can talk about another time. I will normalize eating donuts. I will normalize drinking diet soda. I will normalize hot dogs. I have a hot dog tattoo, so we can normalize hot dogs. It’s fine.
Joy: Claire has a croissant tattoo. Let’s normalize croissants.
Zach: Let’s normalize food tattoos, how about that?
Claire: Oh, it’s going to be a whole menagerie of critters with baked goods. My next one is going to be an otter laying on its back holding a bowl of soup.
Zach: That’s so you.
Claire: Then I’m going to get a snake wrapped around a baguette. I have a whole thing.
Zach: I mean, you helped inspire me to get a nose ring. So here we are. We’re just inspiring each other in all these ways.
Joy: We’re going to be so stylish and cool.
Claire: Oh my goodness. Listeners, thank you so much for being here. Thanks for joining us for another week. Joy and I will probably be back next week with some J&C. I don’t know.
Joy: Maybe. I don’t even know what our calendar looks like. But May is friendship month. We’re talking to our friends.
Claire: Yes. Which is appropo that it is also mental health month because those things are hand in hand. They are spooning. You can find us on Instagram @joyandclaire_. You can go to our website, joyandclaire.com. It’s had a facelift. It’s just delightful over there.
Joy: I thought you said, “how to facelift.”
Zach: That’s what I thought.
Joy: Are we doing that?
Claire: It has had a facelift. You will not find instructions on how to facelift. Sorry for disappointing you on that. Don’t forget to support our sponsor, Ned. That is helloned.com, discount code JOY for 15% off your order. Support your mental health with some herbs and CBD and we will talk to you next Thursday just like every Thursday.
Joy: Forever and ever and ever. Amen. That was appropriate.
Claire: It was.
Zach: It was. Or a-women.
Joy: A-men and women.