I’m From Provo, UT.

by kimberly burnham

Summer vacation at seven years old, the best part of the day is as much ice cream as I want and a can of grandpa’s Fresca, which he always had in the fridge because he was a diabetic. With saccharin instead of sugar, the Fresca is “healthy” for my recuperating body, now missing a set of tonsils, removed the day before. I am resting comfortably on the yellow and brown plaid couch. My parents, younger sister and baby brother are outside having a picnic in Provo’s dry summer heat. They are eating corn on the cob, thickly sliced red beefsteak tomatoes on soft spongy hamburger buns and homemade pickle relish. I am staring at the red brick fireplace in a place that has always felt like home to me.

Once when I was ten and could swim really well, I woke in this house. Then in the coolness of the early, early morning, my dad explained photosynthesis so he could stay awake as we drove through Southern Utah, past Blanding, where he was born, meeting my cousins in the red rocks of Lake Powell. I was finally old enough to see the lake because you had to be able to swim to go on trips on my great uncle’s boat.

In those moments, my dad never imagined years later writing a letter, a response to his oldest coming out. “I don’t understand or condone, but you are my daughter whose happiness I value. I love you.”

I lived, here in my grandparent’s house with my mother, when I was born. That day, my father got a telegram through the U.S. Naval Messaging Services. He was sitting quietly in his compartment lacing his shoes, when a voice shouted down the topside hatch, “Your telegram is here!” The message had arrived a few hours before, but since it was not his ship’s turn for the radio guard, no one woke him as soon as it arrived, as he had instructed every single one of the watch standers to do.

Incoming Message: “Provo, Utah 7:10A Girl Weight 7 Lbs doing fine born July 21st 9:30 PM. Congrats, Ace.”

He sends back a message carried by Western Union Telegram, his response to his first child, “I am filled with pride and happiness. God keep both of you until I get home. All my love. At Comfleacts Yokosuka, Japan.

Twenty-one years later, I am back at my grandparents’ place getting ready to go a few blocks away to the Missionary Training Center, where I  spend two months learning Japanese.

Just before I put teenage crushes aside and served a year and a half mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) in the Tokyo North Mission, I am studying with the local women missionaries, where I live outside of Cleveland, Ohio. I want to be around them and admire them. I am like a puppy, hanging on their words and the scent of their perfume. I am electrified by an accidental touch, knowing I will soon be one of them, albeit far, far from home.

One of those muggy Ohio nights, standing by my car, saying good night to her, a Mormon missionary after a day of pious preparatory study, I am struggling to see the way clear to “nothing wrong with hugging”.

“Of course you can hug me,” she says.

But there is too much desire. I do not have innocent thoughts. She does not understand, nor do I but it is the only righteous path I see. “I can’t hug you, because I want to.”

A few months later in Japan, my red and white tennis shoes sit ready by the unlocked apartment door, side by side facing outward, where four of us live, in the humid Tokyo evening. Calmly, I stand up and move as if looking for a book to intensify my scripture study. I make my escape into the crowded night where I am not allowed without my companion.

Alone, I run past the yakimo man hocking hot orange fleshed sweet potatoes, past the family in flip flops on their way to the public ofuro to bathe. Breathing in the steamy spicy air of soba noodles, I savor my brief autonomy.  I run until all the stress has left my body. Releasing the anxiety of a bar set too high, I pass the red Shinto shrine and the still dark bell of Buddhist stone guardians. I run back to my life as a Mormon missionary, back into the predictable uproar of broken rules.

A few years later, after I have returned to Provo, to BYU, to complete my degree, my cousin prods, “When are you getting married, already? Any prospects?” She confronts in the August heat of a family reunion. Nearly thirty years old, I say, “I am gay.” Speaking the words to my favorite cousin. My cousin, who when a stranger cuts her off in traffic excuses, “he probably just got the call, his wife is in the hospital having his first son.”

She and I shared summers sorting cherries on her father’s farm and running free around Europe, where my family lived. There were cool desert nights in sleeping bags watching shooting stars and times together riding farm cows and Belgian street cars. A childhood full of memories, never imagining a future split open like a ripe red farm tomato by the revelation, “I am gay.”

That day, the deep waters of Lake Powell cooling our shoulders. These waters safe for cliff jumping, water skiing and swimming.  I have been with a woman for five years.

My cousin wants to know,  “Are you attracted to me? to my sisters?”

“Ewww, stop.”

“Do you wish you were a man?” I look at her, loving a woman is not the same as wanting to be a man.

She wants to know, “Why are you gay?” She is a mother concerned for her children, for the way they will grow up in a world where, “I am gay.” Years pass, before I venture out, again in a letter to my parents.

I used hate easy questions like, “Where are you from?”, “Okay, where were you born?” “Where did you go to school?”, “Where do your parents live?” Straightforward questions are unbearably tricky for me. The answers, the intersection point between my straight-laced Mormon past and my activist lesbian present.

The funny thing is, while I was born in Provo, Utah and my parents moved into my grandparent’s newly renovated house after my father retired, I grew up overseas, so there are ways in which it doesn’t feel like home, except in my heart. After my mission, I returned to Provo, to Brigham Young University, so simple cocktail party questions once answered, usually lead to, “Are you Mormon?”

I am, five generations back and yes, there were polygamists but then I kiss a woman, while still attending a Mormon university.

6 Comments:

  1. OMG I just found this website from bullying RSS about Nathan Manske… what a great great story about a gay teen who is overcoming pressure of being different and doing something that interests him and he enjoys.

    Also Kimberly’s story here is so touching which remind me a little of mine coming to US from a conservative country… thank you for your work here!

  2. Kimberly, I’ve read the piece several times… I was looking for some cohesion. Seemed to me like a patchwork quilt, some of the panels oriented north/south and some oriented east/west. Loose threads at some of the edges. And after saying that I will add that this story takes courage to confront. More courage to put to paper. And enormous courage to send forth. But that is nothing compared to sharing it with circumstance such as the one you describe. It is a story that may never end well. All that notwithstanding we must carry on. Which you are obviously doing.

  3. Hey Peter, thanks for the feedback. My grandmother taught me to quilt. She learned from her Mormon ancestors, the same blood that runs in my veins. My life is a patchwork quilt, with pieces, images, bits of fabric in time and space, stitched together into one physical structure, beautiful when you look at the whole with some jarring edges and places where life keeps coming unstitched. The quilt, I sleep under with my girlfriend, warm in the winter of alienation, comforting in the learning of how to stitch a life.

  4. A powerful and poignant story about a young woman finding her way through the labyrinth of growing up Mormon and lesbian, and having the courage to step outside the prescribed lines to live her own truth. Thanks for posting this.

  5. Kim, you did it again. I was engrossed in what you went through growing up, your confusion in what you were being taught and your internal messages as a lesbian, and the responses you were received with to cause you disturbance with certain “simple” questions. I am moved by your boldness in writing it with poetic grace.

    I will also have to agree with Peter when I was reading toward the end of this article. It seemed to be going somewhere and then jump to a different story. I was still looking for the destination of the first part.

    I enjoyed reading it. Thank you for sharing!

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