Skip to main content



Saving Alex: When I Was Fifteen I Told My Mormon Parents I Was Gay, and That's When My Nightmare Began

"Look at that dyke,” came the voice from the dark of the living room as I stood facing the wall, weight from my heavy backpack biting down into my shoulders, pain arcing down my spine.
“You’re at a dead end, dyke.”
I did not know how many hours I had been standing there, quietly trying to manage the pain by shifting my weight from foot to foot.
“Your family doesn’t want you. God has no place for people like you in His plan.”
Only the lengthening dark of the afternoon measured the time passing. Only the light and the changing stream of people who came and went from the house hour after hour, day after day—good people who believed that I deserved whatever I was getting and God wanted it that way.
God has a plan for all of us—that’s what my parents had raised me to believe. If we followed the plan, God would keep us safe and together as a family, forever.
My parents wanted that most of all. They wanted it so badly that they were willing to send me away, into the hands of strangers who promised they could change me, cure me, whatever it took.
But standing at that wall, the word “dyke” slapping the side of my face, pain biting into my back, I realized that what made me different also made me strong.
I would need that strength to get out and get my family back together again. And to embrace who I really was.
They just wanted me to be safe. 
Why else would my parents have moved to Apple Valley, a little town tucked behind a big ridge of mountains east of Los Angeles, and surrounded by miles and miles of sand, yucca, and Joshua trees? The main road that ran through town was named Happy Trails Highway because Roy Rogers and Dale Evans made their home just on the edge of town for many years. That’s how it was, once upon a time, when movie stars would come to build ranches, ride horses, and get away from the stresses of city life. 
Now it was families like mine who were looking to get away—families that wanted their kids to be safe and happy, and they weren’t sure they could pull it off, or could afford to pull it off, even in the suburbs. My mom had already had more than her share of stress. Her first husband had died from early onset heart disease, leaving her with my five older brothers and sisters to raise by herself on a nurse’s salary. She was a pretty and sensitive redhead, and she was strong in her own way, but I wouldn’t call her a fighter. She just wanted to keep everything comfortable for herself and the people she loved—the kind of person who, no matter what was happening around her, made sure that her nails were perfectly manicured.
My mom came from a big Mormon family with eight children and deep roots in the faith. Her father had been a convert but her mother’s side of the family had been in the church since its beginnings in the early nineteenth century. Her great-great-great-grandparents had been Mormon pioneers who crossed the plains to Utah, sacrificing everything to live the way they believed. Mom went to church pretty much every Sunday.
Dad wasn’t even Mormon yet when he met mom on a blind date, but eventually he decided to join the church.  He never explained why, really, and he was never the type to stand up in Sunday meetings and talk about his conversion or any of his private feelings.  Once he did tell me privately that it took him a few months of soul searching to decide that Mormonism was what he wanted. Maybe it was because Mom would only marry another Mormon. Maybe it was because as a former military man he liked the orderliness of Mormonism, with its strict rules for living and the church’s tight top-down organization. Maybe just he wanted a fresh start. 
Dad also never really explained what it was about mom that he fell in love with, or why after just six months he asked her to marry him. It was always clear to me, watching them, that they needed each other.  I’m sure he loved the way she looked after him—cooking, cleaning, keeping the household together—ways in which I’m not sure he could look after himself.  As for my mom, it was simple: she always said she married my dad because he was the first person who didn’t care that she already had five children.  I think they had a silent agreement to look after each other, no matter what, and they stuck to it. 
The home my parents made together was surrounded by apricot, pear, and plum trees that flowered in the springtime and grew heavy with fruit in the summer. There were chickens, roosters, and rabbits in the yard, a reminder of my mom’s own childhood in a farmhouse in a little California ranch town called Ojai. Ours was the kind of street where a bunch of kids were always out, riding bikes or scooters until the sun went down. Inside the house, pictures of Jesus hung on the walls, and on the entry table was a little painted wooden tree with Mom’s and Dad’s names painted on the trunk, and my name and the names of all my brothers and sisters painted on the branches.
My dad had a job selling mortgages that would take him all over Southern California, driving from place to place with a thick briefcase of paperwork, helping other families get into the houses they wanted for their kids. Early in the morning he would get in his big, loud pick-up truck, and by the time he got home, I was often asleep. My mom really loved being a stay-at-home mother, even after raising five kids from her first marriage, so she quit her job as a nurse and stayed home with me. After school, she would pick me up, and I would sit at the kitchen table and do my homework. She would make dinner for the two of us, and then we would lie on the couch and watch television, snuggling under our favorite blue-and-white afghan with yarn fringe and tassels on the corners. I’d lie there with my mom and run my fingers through the fringe, untangling the knots as the sun went down and the house got darker until there was just the light from the television screen.
I was baptized at eight years old, just like all Mormon kids. And just like in most traditional Mormon families, my father performed the baptism. Every night my father was home we had family prayer before I went to bed. My parents would come into my bedroom, and we would all kneel at the side of my bed and fold our hands on the purple-and-green-flowered bedspread. Usually it was my dad who said the prayer for all of us, out loud. He would ask Heavenly Father to watch over us and keep us all safe.
I especially loved Monday nights because my parents would sit down and teach me lessons from a church manual, and we’d have homemade treats. Mormon families the world over did the same thing Monday nights; we called it Family Home Evening. 
But there were signs even when I was young that I was the kind of person who couldn’t stay in a place like Apple Valley for long. School I found dreadfully boring, and even in elementary school I fought my mom about going. When I got there, I would goof off to kill the boredom. I also fought her over piano, karate, and ballet lessons. Looking back, I remember arguing with my parents a lot, and always getting into trouble. I was a bit of a handful at times—rowdy and independent. 
But being strong willed and spirited also has its benefits. One time I organized all the kids on the block to build a tree house for me. I had asked my dad to build me one, and but he hadn’t gotten around to it, so one day when he got home from work he found me directing a group of five or six neighborhood kids cutting up the wood. I think that’s when he realized it would be better for everyone if he finished the project. When he’d completed it, a ladder went up to the tree house, and built-in seating benches were inside. It even had a basket you could raise or lower. I loved it. I would stay up in that treehouse all day when I could, reading Little House on the Prairie books—the whole set, over and over again.
My big dream was to grow up and become a lawyer in New York City. Not that I knew any lawyers, especially women lawyers. But one of the shows Mom and I loved to watch was Law & Order. I felt outraged watching bad things happen to good people, especially watching good people go to jail. I loved watching the gray-haired prosecutor put a case together and try to get things to turn out right. I wanted to help. And the fact that I was really good at arguing—with my parents, for example—could only be an asset.
But all that seemed so far away. Even when I was goofing off, or talking back, or riding my purple Go-Kart a little too fast down the street, I could not imagine a life apart from my parents. I can see now that when I was testing them it was because I wanted to know they loved me. I wanted to belong to them as badly as they wanted to keep me safe. 
When I was about ten, my oldest brother came home for a visit. He was in his twenties then—tall, with big muscles, not married, but going to community college and feeling newly serious about his life. He made a special point of sitting me down in my bedroom for a talk. We sat side by side on my flowered bed spread.
“Alex,” he said, “Do you have a testimony? Do you know the church is true?”
He wanted to know if I felt as strongly as he did about being Mormon, if I believed in everything I learned on Sundays, if I believed as he did that our religion had the answers we needed to get us safely back to heaven. 
I wanted to make him happy. I looked at my brother, and I nodded my head. He smiled.
“I just have this really good feeling,” he continued, “that Jesus is going to come back before we die.”
In church sometimes my Sunday school teachers would show us a picture of Jesus coming down through the clouds surrounded by hundreds of angels. We talked about the Second Coming, and how it would solve so many problems.
“I think we’re the generation,” my brother told me, smiling. We would be the ones to see it happen in our lifetimes, to make it happen even.
I remember looking at my brother, and a warm feeling washed over me. I felt excited by the idea that we would be the ones to see Jesus come back. I wanted to have a testimony. I wanted to believe, I really did.
We all wanted to believe that everything would work out, that our home and our faith could save us. If we just kept to all the rules, if we held it all together, our family would be safe and together forever. We’d be protected against the stresses and dangers of the outside world—that’s what our religion promised, and my parents worked for it every day.
Who can blame them for feeling this way, really? 
I don’t blame them still.

Saving Alex: When I Was Fifteen I Told My Mormon Parents I Was Gay, and That's When My Nightmare Began
by by Alex Cooper with Joanna Brooks

  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: HarperOne
  • ISBN-10: 0062374613
  • ISBN-13: 9780062374615