By Jefferson Cloward
I was told my father was gay when I was 10 years old. My mom wanted to tell me and my brother before spending a few weeks with my dad and his side of the family to make sure we didn’t overhear anyone and be taken off guard. How does a mother explain that to a 10 and 13 year old? I shrugged my shoulders and my brother asked how it could happen to our dad, and my mom did the best she could.
When I was 14 I connected with something in religion. I had gone to church like everyone else until this point, but there was something about deep study of the scriptures that felt sogood and invigorating. I had a desire to be obedient, fulfill everything god had sent me here to do, and a hunger for learning new things. I set out to study the Old Testament in depth using one of the church’s manuals; I still remember the moment vividly . . .
Sitting on my couch in the front room of our house on Dover Street, my Bible on the coffee table before me, I read a passage describing the despair of hell. There are times when a concept you’ve heard about your whole life leaves the realm of thought and entersexperience; when you don’t just understand something with your head, but feel it on a new level.
The passage described the darkness, depth of agony, and endless despair people in hell will suffer. I went there; in my mind I left the earth and went out into space, into the most lonely place imaginable: no light, no other people, just me left to my thoughts. Left to ponder on the selfish decisions I made in life, and wishing I had acted differently. Wishing someone had reached me before it was too late. When I opened my eyes I was crying, my mind turned towards my dad. My dad . . . not just some stranger I could write off. I didn’t know him very well; my parents were divorced when I was one. But I knew I didn’t want him to suffer for eternity like that, and if there was anything I could do to help him wake up before it was too late I was going to do it.
I latched onto that thought like a drowning man in a squall. I felt a peace, a confidence, that God wasn’t going to let him suffer. I felt a conviction that God loved him and He knew this was going to happen.
That’s why I was born.
Hopefully none of you know the exact date of your conception; most parents wouldn’t be able to tell you even if they wanted to. But I know mine . . . because my parent’s relationship was almost at its end: intimacy wasn’t happening. But one night my mom had a dream: one of the vivid ones left un-muddled by sleep, still very alive when you awaken. In that dream a tall, blonde man came to her and asked, “Will you let me come?” She fought against it because it didn’t make sense, but decided to follow the dream anyways, and when she found out she was pregnant she knew it was a boy without a doubt. I was told this story from a very young age; my mom loved me and wanted me to know how precious I was to her. How important I was to her.
“Why? Why was it important,” I thought, “that I be born to this family?” In the front room of our Kaysville house, at age 14, the reason was made clear. I was to be an instrument in God’s hands to bring my father back to the Gospel. I was promised by God that if I was faithful my father would have another solid chance at returning. Others in the family were to be important in this as well, but this was my mission.
I was sitting across from him at the Cloward grandparent’s house in their sun room. I was a bold boy of 17 and needed to talk to him alone, so I asked if we could chat for a second. The others in the room left to give us privacy and I went to grab the Book of Mormon I had marked for him. I had fasted and prayed to be guided, but had no clue what to say. I told him I was thinking about him, that we had never talked about why he left and that I’d like to know. He told me he “didn’t want to hurt me,” and he had promised my mother he wouldn’t try to sway us, so he couldn’t go into the specifics. He mentioned that it was not easy, that there was a lot he found in the history of the church that was very troubling, and eventually he didn’t believe it anymore. I bore my testimony and gave him the Book of Mormon I had prepared, and asked him to read what I had marked on his flight home. My brother, Nate, was so proud of me, so proud of how bold I was, and said he was going to talk more openly with Dad again, like he had in the past.
Hot water flowed through my hair and over my face, I looked up, the morning light glowing through the shower’s translucent window, and thought about where I was. “Normal Illinois, the first area of my 2 year mission.” It was finally here, my preordained mission to take the joy of the gospel to many others. It was like waking up in the MTC after my first night of sleep: it was hard to believe. I had planned for this my whole life. Do you ever think about what your loved ones are doing right now? Right at this moment? Whether your girlfriend is looking at the same moon, even though you’re separated by thousands of miles? I thought of my dad, thought “maybe he’s showering right now too.” I felt a loneliness for him: certainly his life must be shallow and non-fulfilling. Surface-level happiness, the kind that comes with the “eat, drink, and be merry” life . . . he probably had that. But true joylike I had . . . he couldn’t have it without Christ.
Elder Minnesota and I were teaching Anneliese, who had been investigating the church for a few months. She was atheist, her husband was Jewish, her children were taught about everything, and she had a deep love of people. During the conversation she became quiet and when asked about it she said she had a serious concern; she had many gay friends,great people who loved each other even more than her straight friends, and she just couldn’t see that it was a bad thing. Elder Minnesota, the senior companion, tried to take the lead but didn’t know what to say. So I opened up, told her about my dad, and immediately started crying uncontrollably. I hate how my mouth turns upside down when I start to cry . . . it makes it impossible to talk like a normal person. This was the first time I told anyone who wasn’t extremely close to me about my dad. It was therapeutic; obviously I needed to talk about it. She asked me, a concerned look on her face, “Why do you think your dad can’t be happy because he’s gay?” That was the first time anyone had asked me that.
I now, for the first time in my life, have a close relationship with my father. The conversation has changed because I no longer have it in the back of my mind that he needs to change. My questions changed from “Why did you leave?” to “What was it like?“
And that makes all the difference.
Jefferson Cloward runs a fencing company in Austin with his brother, Nathan, and in his spare time he pursues his passion for philanthropy. Check out his blog the weekend philanthropist, and his interview for GayMormonStories.org where he and Nathan talk about their experience of having a gay father.