Leaving the Fold
James W. Ure, editor
There is no substitute for talent.
[p.77]Owner of an avant-garde furnishings store in downtown Salt Lake City, Scott Burton lives in a spacious and inventive apartment that is part of his store. It’s a dramatic and delightfully off-key setting where we settle to conduct the interview. Three zany dogs, all large, suddenly enter like a circus-come-to-town, roaming among chairs upholstered in unmatching but harmonious fabrics, prancing across handsome oriental rugs, sliding against raw birch wall coverings. Scott patiently calms them.
Framed pictures are in abundance, including a large 1890s organizational chart with photographs of the “Zion Leaders of the Dispensation, Past and Present.” Rolls of leopard-spotted fabric stand next to a dozen lamp pedestals; panels of bright fabric hang as drapes over his windows. A kitchen island overflows with votives, and rolls of paper, vases, and even an animated Santa bank sit atop tables. An amateur painting presents a good likeness of Wallis Warfield Simpson, the late Duchess of Windsor. Scott has owned and operated a number of retail stores in Salt Lake City, where he was born in 1958.
You were born here in Salt Lake?
[p.78]Did you come from an active Mormon background?
I came from a very active Mormon background; my parents were quietly devout. I like to think they didn’t scream and shout religion, but they were very active themselves. They did temple work and they did church work and participated on a lot of different levels, but allowed their children to choose how they would approach it.
You say they were “quietly active.” Did they attend church regularly?
They paid tithing?
Oh, they paid big tithing. You know, they’ve always had temple recommends … worked in the temple. That was a part of all of that I grew up with, and it was a very normal part.
You went to church every Sunday with them?
I went to church probably through my early teens, and then began to lose interest, partly in the structure and partly in the content. It just didn’t take for me. I remember several times trying to do the things you were supposed to do to get a testimony or the spirit of it. I went through the motions of it, or at least as I understood them, and it just never quite jelled for me as a concept. For me, it was a very narrow structure. The lack of diversity was very difficult for me.
When you say “lack of diversity,” what do you mean?
I don’t have a strong background in a lot of the historical rhetoric or doctrine of Mormonism. But early on I feared the whole thing about being like everyone else. Is it the very best you can be to be like your neighbor? That’s what everyone wanted. I was really disturbed by that.
You used the word “fear.” Are you saying you feared it?
At that age I knew I was gay and I knew that being gay was a bad thing. I wasn’t willing to accept a doctrinal belief or group of people who arbitrarily chose to make me a bad person because of something I truly knew I had no control over. I think it’s an absurd perception that somebody picks their sexual preference or that it’s changeable. I knew that early on. So that was a big problem for me. Then you can extrapolate from that a lot of other issues of lack of diversity.
[p.79]You knew being gay was a psychological and physiological part of you.
I’d guess that’s by far the most typical response you’d get from someone who’s fairly comfortable in that part of their life.
What did you hear in church about this?
Growing up in the neighborhood I grew up in, there wasn’t a big difference; I mean, you knew clearly everyone was Mormon. I can’t remember too many people who weren’t. So the crossover between the prevailing social climate and Mormonism got very skewed, at least in my time, and I think certainly that’s different in this city now to some degree. But within the social class and structure of the neighborhood I grew up in, if you weren’t Mormon, you weren’t good. So there was a real clear line that you were either an insider or an outsider, and as I’ve met people who’ve grown up here outside of that, it’s been fascinating to know the other side of it and how strongly they felt ostracized for being Catholic or having some other faith. I found that disturbing. I felt that I saw early on the hypocrisy of the difference between what people said was right and what they did, and that was disturbing. But clearly to this day, I think at some point the hierarchy of the church will have to figure out how to de-demonize homosexuality because in my view it will come to a point where there’s clearly some genetic link. Therefore you can’t make a moral judgment against it. I think they’re going to have to figure how to backtrack out of that, and I’m not sure how you do that in terms of getting a vision from God or whatever their process is. I think they’re in the process of softening the hard stance, but at that point it was clear that: (a) I had made a choice, and (b) it was a bad choice. Being gay was the second worst thing to murdering somebody, or so it goes within the church. I chose early on not to listen to a lot of that because I was tremendously disturbed by it. I truly felt that I tuned it out.
You must’ve had real guilt and conflict …
I have to say I have suffered from a lot of guilt or conflicted feelings. I went through electroshock therapy from, I think, age thirteen to fifteen which was at that point a very vogue treatment specifically within the Mormon church to “cure” homosexuality.
This was an attempt to make you heterosexual?
It was. The way it came about is that my parents through a series of [p.80]events found out about my orientation. They must have sought some advice because one day I came home from school and my dad was sitting on the porch and I could tell he was upset. He said, “Is this something you want to change? Do you want to work on it?” I thought they were very smart in finding out what they were going to approach me with. They gave me a choice, so I thought, “Sure. I might as well attempt to change.” I wasn’t threatened by change at thirteen. So I agreed to do it. I have to say I never believed that they knew exactly what the procedure was. I think they would’ve been tremendously alarmed had they known [he laughs] what actually went on, and it was never discussed with me present that they knew.
What was the procedure?
At thirteen, with a Mormon psychotherapist, I was shown heterosexual pornography films and homosexual pornography films. It was the first time that I’d ever seen any of that [he laughs], so it was a pretty interesting thing to get thrown into. This psychotherapist was one of the big people treating it. He had a huge practice in it. I knew the first time I met him that he was way out there and had some strong issues floating around of his own, as I came to find out from someone who was ten years older than I was who was being treated as an adult by him at the same time.
Anyway, electrodes are placed on your wrists and then a meter is attached to your penis to gauge the arousal. I’m this thirteen-year-old kid thrown into all this stuff, and it had a rather surreal quality to it. When I call up that memory, it’s this strange quality of doing this really absurd thing which from day one I knew was bogus. The whole patterning thing is absurd, and I figured out how to work within the system and simply didn’t look at the gay stuff so I wasn’t aroused. I tried to arouse myself through the straight stuff. I was playing into what he wanted as the end result. I remember going home at night for dinner. It had never been discussed in my family, never been brought up to the rest of my family, and I would have burn marks on my wrists from this shocker thing. The shocking never worked for me either, because I have a fairly high pain threshold and it was very unmoving. I can’t imagine how it would ever get you to change your behavior. One of my clear memories is going home and wondering if my siblings had any understanding or recognition of what was happening—if they’d [p.81]question me about this burn. There were these two very clear, round burn marks on my wrists. It was the extraneous things like that that are the memory parts of it. I was magically cured when I told him I’d been elected student body president of my junior high school. He deemed me cured because he perceived me as an active member of a social order. It cracked me up and taught me, very early on, that regardless of what we want it to be it’s often how you’re perceived and how you present yourself which matters in the world. In a lot of ways I feel like what I learned there was quite positive and useful. I made a real conscious effort not to be overwhelmed by it. I could’ve chosen to really be angry at my parents about it, or I could’ve chosen to become antisocial. A lot of people are really pulled down by stuff, and I chose to look at it as a thing that happened. I didn’t realize until my mid-thirties when I was going to a counselor because of a relationship break-up that there was a whole part of that stuff inside of me still. It didn’t take too much work to get it out or at least give it a voice. But it was interesting when I finally decided to try and pull it up and get it out. There was a lot more there in terms of raw nerves or damage or whatever you want to call it. It’s interesting from that perspective how an element like that can take you to “another place,” if you will.
After your “cure,” did you return to church?
By that point I might’ve gone through the motions of it and I might’ve attended off and on and probably to some degree for the social aspect of it. But in my heart-of-hearts I knew that it was never going to work for me. The biggest thing is I simply refused to have anything to do with a group that tells me I’m a bad person for something I know in my heart-of-hearts I had nothing to do with it. I guess I continue to have a lot of anger with people who can tell me that they know for sure because it’s written somewhere that it’s a choice I’ve made and God will punish me.
Out of my four siblings, only one of them is an active Mormon. I had a discussion with the active one—my brother—and it was absolutely fascinating. He’s forty-eight and a very bright guy. He’s a judge and hopefully well read, but he still maintains that it was a choice I made. Then I convinced him that it wasn’t a choice, and for him it became an obstacle that God had put in my way that was supposed to make me stronger. I said, “So that means I’m supposed to die at [p.82]eighty-five, never having had any significant relationship or any kind of primary relationship because that’s what God wants?” I was trying to convince him that that is an absurd concept. I think I got him past that, but he absolutely refused to believe that there was any genetic sense to it because he said it made it too easy (to be gay). He said to me, “You know I’ve really never thought about this, but this is what I’m supposed to believe.” That says so much to me about the people who are successful with their Mormonism. Many choose not to think it through too much, because there are too many loose ends to it.
Did you ever have a bedrock belief in the Book of Mormon?
It was a social thing to go to seminary in the ninth grade before we went to school, but it was also the social thing within my group to lie about reading the Book of Mormon. [He laughs.] So we all lied, and I’ve actually never read it. I guess I’ve read parts of it. The basic concept of someone in the nineteenth century, a fourteen-year-old, finding the real and only true religion in an age when starting your own religion was a big deal? It was quite a fashionable thing to do in the nineteenth century.
I guess the absoluteness of it is what I find objectionable. I think any belief in a system in which God creates a better world—why we’re here and where we’re going—is great. But I can’t imagine how centuries of people who’ve lived and died and believed in a diversity of faith have all been wrong, and a 150 years of Anglos living in Salt Lake City, Utah, are right. It’s certainly spread beyond that, but the concept of the rightness and wrongness of it is very troubling to me. Many people are drawn to that—that they are the “right” ones, and everybody else gets to be wrong.
Have you ever thought of asking to have your name removed from the records of the church?
I’ve thought about that and I’d probably do it if it was easy. I guess I do have some issues being counted among “the numbers,” although I certainly haven’t been tracked like a lot of my contemporaries have been. Somewhere along the line I was dropped, and I don’t know if that was something my parents had something to do with and said, “It’s not going to happen there.” A lot of my friends who’ve been very removed from the church for even twenty years still get people trying [p.83]to pull them into it. I find the church a curious organization, but I’m not drawn to antagonize it. I guess I don’t particularly want to give anybody the thrill of excommunicating me. I don’t have any need for that finality, because I think I relate so much to my personal heritage, my familial background which is very tied to Mormonism. That’s very comforting, and I like that part of my history. I’ve been able to separate that, enjoy it, and remove it from my own personal sense of what should be. I really have a tremendous amount of respect for my parents’ sense of faith. But my parents also gave me the ability to find my own place in that, which has a lot of power to me. I’ve seen so many parents who don’t do that. I feel extremely lucky to come out of a basic conservative Mormon background without a lot of the baggage—guilt being part of that baggage that a lot of my friends have.
Would having your name removed cause your mother a lot of pain? I know your father’s dead.
I don’t think it would. My mother is aware that I have a sister who converted to Catholicism as an adult, and she’s very aware that out of her five children only one of them is active. My second brother had a situation with his young children—four and six and an infant at the time. They were being sexually abused by Mormon neighbors, and the reason the Mormon element is important in it was because the acts were very much contained or structured within that environment. The way these people worked was through the church “format.” It’s a very complex story. It’s a group where men are given all the power. Traditionally nobody else has a voice, so it’s a perfect setting for it to happen. Certainly for political reasons they don’t want it to become public that we have this problem. But it was interesting to see them go from absolute belief to “this can be a very destructive element in somebody’s life.” They actually do some work in trying to bring about change by being on panels, working within the community. They’re not just sitting there saying it’s a bad thing. I think some day the church will have to address that problem, too. But those kinds of things build little layers of stuff where you see this organization whose most basic tenet is to protect itself.
It’s survival of the church’s positions politically and socially, and so [p.84]often times it gets more and more inwardly directed. I’m fascinated to see where that will land, where that will put them.
What’s good about Mormonism?
I think any religious teaching that helps us to do good things in the world or to be better people or live a Christ-like life is good. “Christlike” can take on a lot of different meanings, but a more charitable, giving life is a very good thing, and I do believe the church does that for a lot of people. That’s a mechanism in which they work well at reaching out to others and doing good works. It’s very valuable that way. I think it brings a lot of peace to people. One of my favorite memories of my maternal grandmother—one of the last times I saw her in her house—was when she’d just turned ninety, and I went to see her for her birthday. She was sitting on her sofa reading the Bible on a Sunday afternoon. She was very content to move on to the next life; the church really worked well for her. It was like she wanted to turn ninety and then she was ready to go. For her it was such a clear path from where she had come to where she was going. I thought that was a beautiful thing to have such a clear sense of this life and an afterlife. I think that’s a very valuable thing for anybody to have. I think there’s a sense of peace that it can give people, a sense of structure that a lot of people need and is very powerful. You know, I think anything that tells us to be good, to do good things, is a good thing.
Let’s backtrack for just a moment. Why do you think some of us simply seem unable to have the faith that the church is true?
I believe that I have faith in things that I can’t touch, feel, see, explain. I don’t need everything proven to me. But my whole issue really revolves around it being a much bigger picture. I have a real belief in an afterlife. I think the element of a supreme being is something to do with the collective good energy, not one “divine” soul. I don’t think it’s a “guy” because honestly I’d be disappointed if it was just this “guy” and women could never be the “guy.” Men are not inherently better than women or more “godlike.” I’m not happy with those kinds of dynamics of Mormonism where the guy gets to do it, the women don’t, so deal with that. I’m fascinated with how it’s a religion that was designed by a white man for white men of influence and it’s always been that. They have done a good job of protecting their power base. As for the element [p.85]of faith, I think it depends on how you define “faith.” For me, the historical and social aspects of Mormonism were interesting and comforting, but as a doctrine, as a belief system, I just never could buy it. It’s fine in the context of other religions, I suppose, but the absoluteness of it is what really has always struck me as being totally off-base.
Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?
I’d like to think I am. The night my father died, I strongly felt that I was experiencing him leaving his … I could feel a spiritual being who was leaving this physical body and it was very comforting and it was very real. It had a comforting quality. We’re made of certain molecules and energy, and then there’s a kind of energy that has to somehow go somewhere. I was very close to my dad and he was a great guy. I feel connected to him, and sometimes it has a very strong message-quality to it, as if his “soul” is still present. It’s like trying to listen or build on what we learn as we go through life, and we’re all going to make mistakes, but hopefully we’ll figure out how to do it better the next time.
You mentioned that you almost felt your father’s spirit leaving his body as he died. Is this your Mormonism still tagging along?
I can call that memory up pretty clearly (the memory of his death). I’m a pretty bad memory kind of guy, but it was such a strong quality that for me it didn’t have a religious overtone and certainly not a “Mormon” one for me. Death is culturally so removed from us. I was driving to my parents’ house because my sister called in the middle of the night and said he’d died. I knew I could react really badly. It could be very traumatic. I was really surprised how comforting it was to see him after he died. It had a really strong sense of the process we go through entering and leaving this world.
A spiritual thing?
Yes, it was. It wasn’t like Mormonism versus whatever. I’m so removed from the patterning of Mormonism that it doesn’t come up in many images of what that is.
When was the last time you were in a Mormon church?
For my father’s funeral three-and-a-half years ago. It was interesting because it was in the chapel I went to as a child. I hadn’t been in [p.86]one for a very long time. So it was interesting because it does call up a lot of memories. His funeral was a very strict, traditional Mormon funeral. I really didn’t need that closure for me personally because my whole thing with my dad was very separate from the public goodbyes. It was fascinating on one level to see the comfort, especially to my mother, of the structure, and it made a ton of sense to me why people are drawn to it. There were people there whom my dad had gone to grade school with—he was that kind of guy. People remembered him and he was well regarded. I met a few people who’d never entered my life before, and it was fascinating to see how overlapping all our lives can be. That’s the result somewhat of culture, somewhat of this city being as small as it is. The sense of community was so strong, and I think that’s a very good thing for people.
Could you foresee any way that you might return to an active Mormon life?
No. [He laughs.] I think off and on about trying to become more connected to something more structured because I do think there’s some good to allotting a time in a day of the week to focusing on it. I think you can get so lost in everything else. I really do think that the structure, the go-to-church-on-Sunday thing, has a lot of positives. But I don’t think it would ever be Mormonism for me.
You could see yourself in another religion?
Maybe, and it would probably be some religion or philosophy with looser definitions of what’s right and wrong, good and bad. One of the most poignant examples of the rigidity of it for me was when my niece had been abused. She was six and was in the car with me one day. We were looking for a new place for them to build a new house because they left the old place to get the kids out of the neighborhood. She was a very serious six-year-old kid. And she turned to me and said, “You know, Scott, my dad said that you drink coffee.” I said, “Yeah, I do.” I couldn’t figure out why she was saying that. But one of the ways they—the perpetrators of the abuse—manipulated these kids was to make them drink coffee. The kids had always been taught from day one that drinking coffee was a very bad thing. The abusers made the kids drink coffee and said, “If you ever tell that we did this (the abuse), we’ll tell your parents you drank coffee.” So in a kid that age, that threat has more negative power than the abuse. I’m a bad person [p.87]because I drink coffee? People drink gallons of Coca Cola. There are basic health tenets that we should all live by. But the concept that you can take one element out of the bigger picture—as in coffee versus Coca Cola—and focus on it to the point where it manipulates people’s lives so dramatically is very troubling to me.
If I were the president of the Mormon church, what would you say to me?
I’m not sure. I don’t know how I would relate to someone so removed by life experience from me. I’d like to believe that the expressions of compassion and reaching out that you hear from these guys are true. So my desire is to believe that they have good intentions about what they’re doing. I have respect for the institution and understand that to maintain that you have to have certain guidelines. My personal sense of things is that they’ll have to adapt to the next century. They’ll have to figure out a way to make it okay for women to respect themselves if they go to work, because otherwise they’re “not being good mothers.” They have to allow women to take more power in general. That one baffles me to this day. Most families now—young families—have to have two people working. But at least there’s a subliminal message, if not an active one, that says a mother should be with her children, which obviously most mothers, if they could economically afford it, would do. It would be great if men were given that same option socially, which I know within the culture (Mormonism) is not thought of as being up-and-up. Those are the things I’d like to see change first because I think they cut a deep wound in people. In all of the people I know who survive in Mormonism, there are pieces of that which don’t really go away; the doctrines don’t fit anyone’s life completely. Everyone has their own way of dealing with where to place that. I guess my statement would be: Come to the party (as in, get with it), come to the year, come to the day in which we live and then figure out what works. They’re very old guys and they’ve lived in a different time; so it’s very easy to make these rules and lose focus on how poorly they may work. I guess the other thing is that Ezra Taft Benson at one time said he couldn’t believe that anyone could be a good Democrat and a good Mormon. I was so appalled by it. It’s like, have a little respect for a difference of opinion. That’s the kind of thing that troubles me dramatically, because if that’s the message people hear, it’s not going to work.
[p.88]I certainly feel a part of the bigger thing—heritage or history—and again partly that’s my familial heritage. My great-great-grandparents were killed by Indians in Ephraim, Utah, during the Black Hawk War. I just recently found a memorial for it (their gravesite); and it struck me how amazing their lives were and what they gave up. He was a sailor in Denmark, came to Utah, and was sent to Ephraim by the powers that be to be a farmer. He was very ill-suited for that. It amazes me that we’ve become so removed from giving up anything. I think of people who lived through World War II, lived through a hard time, and knew what giving things up was. They struggled for a “greater thing,” and now we have this generation which I belong to where you had expectations of getting things the easy way. I was really struck by the color of the day in Ephraim and the setting where these people led this life and worked really hard and then died and were buried in a common grave with seven people because they just couldn’t deal with digging single graves. It fascinates me how difficult those times were and how people survived it all.
It still binds you to the church?
Yes. I don’t know if it’s cultural or “the” church, but the church is the culture today and it certainly was then. There’s that binding, and I think it’d be fascinating to go back in time and feel a sense of what that was like. We have a pretty easy and comfortable life even at its hardest, you know. So those kinds of things I have a great appreciation for, and I’m appreciative of my parents for speaking of it (my “Mormon” heritage) and giving me a heritage because a lot of people my age don’t have a sense of where they came from and of their family history.