José Mandojana for Reader's Digest
When I saw my parents’ white car, packed with my belongings, pull up in front of my friend Brianna’s house in September 2010, when I was 15, I thought they were taking me to visit my grandparents. They had kicked me out of the house about a month ago, when I had told them I was gay. I’d been staying with Brianna* ever since. My family is Mormon, and there’s no place in Mormonism for girls who like girls. Gay people can’t get married in the temple, and they don’t go to heaven.
“You’ll be staying with your grandparents for a couple of weeks,” my father said when I met them in the driveway. “So we can figure out what to do.”
I got into the backseat of the car. My dad drove, and my mom sat up front, crying. Silently, we made our way north, from Southern California toward Las Vegas. After about five hours, my dad exited the highway in St. George, Utah, the place where the rest of the world ends and the Mormon world begins. And a few minutes later, we pulled in to my grandparents’ driveway. We got out, and they met us at the front door. My grandma opened her arms to hug me.
“Are you ready?” my father asked my grandparents before we had even had the chance to sit down.
“We’re going to meet a woman who can help you with school while you’re here,” my mother explained.
The five of us piled into my parents’ car, and my dad drove a few minutes to a brown stucco house with a tile roof. I could see a faded red-and-yellow plastic playhouse on a bed of rocks in the backyard. In the distance was a tall ridge of mountains.
Silently, my parents and grandparents got out of the car and started unloading my stuff from the trunk. I sat frozen in the backseat.
“What are you doing?” My voice started to shake. “What is this place?”
A woman came out the front door and greeted my parents. She looked to be in her 30s. She had olive skin and long, wet, curly black hair.
“Hi, Tiana*” I heard my grandmother say, her voice low.
“Alex, you need to stay here with the Siale* family for a little bit,” my mother told me as we went inside. “You need help. They’re going to help you.”
I heard the door close and the car engine start. My parents didn’t even say goodbye.
I scanned the house: a kitchen, a second-story loft, doors to bedrooms, a side door to the backyard. And no telephone in sight.
That’s when it hit me: My parents are sending me here because I am gay.
“Mom, please, don’t leave me here!” I pleaded.
Tiana gently interrupted, saying to my parents, “Do you have the papers I asked you to bring?”
My mom reached into her purse, pulled out some school and health insurance papers, and handed them over to Tiana. I didn’t know it at the time, but these documents granted the Siales temporary custody of me, allowing them to enroll me in school.
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That’s when I got angry. “I hate you!” I yelled. My mom, dad, and grandparents gave me a sad look, then turned and left the living room. I heard the front door open and then click closed. Outside, the car engine started. They didn’t even say goodbye.
Tiana led me to the bedroom off the kitchen, and her husband, Johnny,* followed us down the hall.
“This is where you will sleep,” Tiana said, motioning to a pile of blankets on a thin pink mattress on the floor. I heard the door from the garage open and the sound of kids coming into the house. Tiana went out to meet them, and Johnny shut the door behind her. He motioned to a garbage bag filled with oversize T-shirts and long skirts.
“Change clothes,” he said.
When I finished, I joined the rest of the family in the kitchen. I counted seven kids seated at the kitchen table: Tiana’s nephew Sifa,* 19; her brother Calvin,* 18; Johnny and Tiana’s sons Victor,* 12, Joseph,* 11, and Sione,* nine; and their daughters Olivia,* eight, and Grace,* four.
“Alex,” Johnny said, squaring his shoulders and addressing me directly. “Remember that we know everyone in this town. We know the police, the schools, and the courts. They all know us and trust us. They know we take in troubled kids.”
After his speech, I went to my room and sat down on the mattress. I’ve got to find a way out of here, I thought.
About a month into my stay, Johnny asked the family to join him in the living room one night after dinner. All the older kids sat down on the floor. I sat down with them. Johnny and Tiana took their seats on the couch, and four-year-old Grace curled up in her mother’s lap. Johnny leaned forward and put his hands on his knees. “Do you know why Alex is here?” he asked the kids.
Joseph shot his hand in the air. “Because she likes girls when she is supposed to like guys.”
My heartbeat quickened, and my face flushed. I felt like I couldn’t move. It was the first time it had been stated so boldly.
“Yeah.” Johnny nodded. “That’s right, and that’s why we’re going to help her.”
Johnny fixed his eyes on me. “Alex,” he asked, “do you understand the plan of salvation?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You know it doesn’t apply to gay people,” he said. “You’ll be in the telestial kingdom.” The telestial kingdom is the Mormon version of hell.
“You’ve made some bad choices, and you think you’re gay,” Johnny pressed ahead, “but that is not how God made you. You are confused. We are going to help you change. That’s why your parents sent you here.”
Two months later, in November, Tiana came home from work and went straight to her bedroom. She got a black nylon backpack out of the closet and set it on the kitchen counter. Then she gathered five or six large gray rocks from the backyard. One by one, she put the rocks into the backpack while we all watched, and then she zipped up the backpack and called me over.
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“Alex,” she said. “This backpack represents the physical burden of being gay. This is what your mind and emotions are putting you through because of the choices you have made. You are going to wear this from the time you wake up until you go to bed every day.”
She handed me the backpack. I slipped it on and felt the weight of the rocks settle onto my shoulders.
“You can choose to be gay, but you know it’s not in the plan of salvation. That’s a heavy burden, Alex. You need to feel it to help you make the right choices.”
During the first few days, the pain in my shoulders and lower back went away after I took off the backpack at night. But soon, the pink marks on my shoulders grew red, and the tightness in my lower back deepened into a constant cramping.
Johnny kept pressing me to give him the last name, phone number, and address of Yvette, my girlfriend in California. When I refused, he ordered Calvin or Sifa to get another rock. “Make sure it’s a good-size rock,” he said, “or you’ll wear a backpack too.”
Soon Tiana increased the stakes. “Until you reveal information about Yvette,” she said, “you will wear that backpack of rocks from breakfast through bedtime, while facing the wall right here in the hallway.”
Johnny got up from the couch and joined Tiana in the kitchen. “You can start now,” he said.
I slowly stood up from the table and walked across the kitchen to take my post.
By mid-January, I was in near-constant pain. My lower back ached. My shoulders were bruised and red. I had had enough of the backpack and wall.
“Tiana,” I called out. “I’m ready to quit.”
“OK, honey,” Tiana said in a soothing tone.
I stepped away from the wall. I took the black backpack off and set it on the floor. My shoulders continued to cramp, and my feet still ached. I felt numb and hopeless. But I was finally off the wall.
I told them the only information I knew about Yvette—her birth date and phone number. Tiana wrote the details on a pad of paper, then called my parents. They filed a complaint against Yvette with the police.
After that, Tiana and Johnny rewarded me by allowing me to go to Snow Canyon High School. Soon, I had become friends with Jason Osmanksi, a lanky redhead, and I told him about my move to St. George, the Siales, and my backpack. “We’re going to get you out of there,” he assured me. Jason introduced me to Delsy Neilson, an English teacher and the adviser of the Gay-Straight Alliance at the school.
Delsy and Jason connected me to Paul Burke, a lawyer they knew who worked for a powerful Salt Lake City law firm. I told Paul everything. He said little, but I could tell he was listening intently. “Alex,” he finally said, “I would like to offer to be your lawyer, pro bono.”
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I accepted immediately. Unfortunately, the conversation with Paul made me late for my next class, and without my knowledge, an automatic call went out to the Siales, letting them know about my tardiness. That night, Johnny called all the kids together at the kitchen table.
“Alex, we got a call from school about you,” Johnny said.
“It’s clear we can’t trust you to attend classes properly,” Tiana said. “As of Monday, we are pulling you out of school.”
“And as of tonight, you will go back on the wall,” Johnny said. “With the backpack.”
This was the final straw. I had to get away.
After dinner, the kids filed off to bed, and Johnny sat down on the couch to play video games. When he finally fell asleep, around 4:30 a.m., I took off the backpack and crossed the kitchen to the sliding door. I grabbed my flip-flops, gripped the door’s handle tightly, held my breath, and pulled the door open six inches. I slipped out into the night air.
Outside, I focused all my energy on getting as far as I could from the house. My bare feet slapped on the black asphalt as I ran past the houses of the Siales’ neighbors and all the people we went to church with on Sunday. Every time a car came down the road, I slowed to a walk or hid in the bushes.
Finally, I made it to the public bus stop, slipped my flip-flops onto my feet, and squatted down in the sagebrush, trying to make myself as small as possible. It was still early; the bus wasn’t scheduled to come for a while. My stomach hurt with anxiety, and my mind raced, trying to come up with a plan: What would I do if the Siales found me?
I watched the color of the sky begin to change over the eastern edge of the desert, then heard the sound of a large engine rumbling toward me.
The lights of the morning’s first city bus crested the hill. I stepped out of the shadows and to the edge of the curb.
When the door opened in front of me, I stood in the circle of light at the foot of the steps but didn’t climb in. “I don’t have any money, but I really need to get to the high school,” I told the bus driver.
“OK,” she said. “Come on in.”
As we drove, I watched the red-rock desert and lava fields go by outside the windows. We were getting closer to Snow Canyon, and the closer I got, the more I felt my courage grow.
“We’re here now,” the bus driver said, her voice soft. “You going to be OK, honey?”
“Yes,” I said, though my voice shook and my body shivered. “Thank you.”
I stepped off the bus. The doors closed behind me, and the bus drove away. I crossed the front lawn and hid in a gap between a wall and the school building. Around 7 a.m., when the janitors began unlocking the doors, I slipped through the back doors of the school building and ran straight to Delsy’s classroom.
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“Alex!” Delsy said when she saw me waiting.
“I’m not going back,” I blurted out. Not one more day.”
Delsy called the police, and later that morning, Child Protective Services and a police officer showed up. I gave them my account, and they decided that I should be taken to the Youth Crisis Center, a beige building nestled up against a wall of red-rock hills on the north side of town.
A police detective walked me through the front door of the center. We were greeted at the front desk by a blond older woman with a warm smile who introduced herself as Sandra. She stood up to shake my hand. Hers was warm and plump. I found everything about her comforting.
“This is Alex Cooper,” the detective said.
“What are the chances they can take me back?” I asked.
“No chance as long as you’re here,” Sandra told me.
“Please don’t let them take me back,” I pleaded.
She smiled. “It’s OK, Alex. You’re safe here.”
Alex lived at the crisis center for a month, then with her father and grandparents in her grandparents’ house. After the Utah Court of Appeals issued an emergency order in the summer of 2011, a lower court ruled that Alex could date other girls. Alex graduated from Snow Canyon High School in 2012 and earned her cosmetology license. Now 21, she lives in Portland, Oregon, and works as a fund-raiser for a nonprofit organization that helps needy kids get an education. She’s still in touch with Jason, Delsy, and Paul.