By Christopher Ammon
I was never allowed to watch MTV growing up.
Having been raised in a very strict LDS (Mormon) home, I had always been taught that MTV was the primary purveyor of filth and wickedness on cable television.
And Real World? There was no greater evil. "Homosexuality, AIDS, sex, drugs, drinking...it's a wonder they even permit such things to be on TV", I remember my parents saying when I first asked them about TV's oldest and most notorious reality show.
You can imagine the look on their faces when, years later, I dropped out of Brigham Young University (the foremost private Mormon college in the country), told them I was pansexual, moved to NYC and promptly accepted a spot on Season 31 of Real World: Go Big or Go Home.
"Go big or go home" had special meaning to me. For me, it literally meant: "Go big," or you will be forced to return to the life you have sacrificed everything to escape from. "Go big," or live with the knowledge that giving up your family, your community and everything you've ever been taught has been for nothing.
Growing up, the idea of NOT being a Mormon seemed nearly impossible. My father's father had come from a long line of proud, church-going Mormons, and my grandmother had converted from Irish Catholicism to Mormonism before she and my grandfather were married. My mother's father was a prominent LDS author, having written books on Mormon doctrine and theology that were printed and circulated in the millions. Many times growing up, I remember prominent leaders from the Mormon church sitting in my grandparents' living room or eating with us at their kitchen table. My father once told me that my grandfather probably would have been a leader in the church himself had he not been so proud and hard-headed.
My father's family and my mother's family both traced their ancestry back to Joseph Smith, the Mormon church's founder and first prophet. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or Mormons as they came to be called, study from "The Book of Mormon," a book of scripture Joseph Smith claimed to have translated from gold plates chronicling Christ's sermons while he visited the American continent.
When I arrived at the Real World suite in Las Vegas, it had been nearly a year since I had read from -- or even TALKED about -- the Book of Mormon. I was naive in assuming that on a television show where people of different backgrounds were made to live together and tell their unique stories, my intensely religious upbringing would be of little interest to anyone.
I was very, VERY wrong.
On the first day, as we drove across the Las Vegas desert and began getting to know one another, the girl sitting next to me in the limousine -- Jenna, a dyed-in-the-wool Southern girl from Easley, South Carolina -- confessed to us that she had also been raised Mormon.
The difference between us? While I had spent every waking moment of the last year distancing myself from the Mormon church, Jenna still maintained -- and fervently defended -- her Mormon heritage. Though I no longer believed in afterlife (or God or the Devil, for that matter), the idea of living in close quarters with a Mormon again was my idea of a living hell.
To my surprise, during the first few weeks in the suite, I actually took comfort in having a Mormon nearby. She understood that because of the way I was raised, I was not used to the excessive amounts of partying and drinking that the other roommates were. She was empathetic when I confessed that it had only been a year since I had even lost my virginity (Mormons take vows of chastity that prevent them from having sex before marriage).
Yet not soon after we had identified the similarities between us, the differences began to become more and more apparent.
I had spent my year in New York dating and befriending individuals of different races, genders, and sexual orientations. I had learned from them, loved them and began to understand a world outside of Mormonism through the perspective that they shared with me. Jenna, on the other hand, had stayed confined in her small Southern town. She had not seen or learned the things that I had since leaving the LDS church.
In November of 2015, several changes made to the LDS handbook of instructions, and policies were leaked to a major news source. These changes stated that all same-sex couples were to be considered apostate, and that their adopted children could not be baptized until the were 18 years old, had moved away from home and had disavowed the practices of their "gay parents."
Having only recently begun coming to terms with my own sexuality, this news hit me especially hard. Arguments about marriage, sex, sexuality and religion became commonplace in the suite as Jenna defended the church's decision, and I vehemently opposed it.
One day after a major argument, I received a phone call from a producer on the show. He told me of a mass resignation taking place at the Mormon Church's headquarters in Salt Lake City that I had not only been invited to but asked to speak at.
I don't think I ever remember being so nervous in my entire life.
As I sat at the computer that night and began to write my speech, the memories of abuse, brainwashing, and the discrimination I had experienced while a member of the Mormon Church flooded my mind. I remembered the boy I had dated in secret while at Brigham Young University. The boy who, in a moment of intimacy, confided that after having been drugged and raped by an ex-boyfriend, had told a bishop who not only never reported the rape but expelled him from school and publicly outed him to his family.
I remembered the moment I looked my own bishop in the eye and told him of the abuse I had undergone at the hands of several church members both in and out of my family. I remembered him looking me in the eye and telling me to leave his office -- insisting that it was not my place to speak of things ever again.
And I didn't, until now. With my stories and the stories of friends, lovers, and loved ones in my back pocket, I stood in front of a crowd of nearly 3,000 former Mormons and on national television proclaimed: "I am proud to stand with others like me who, when their church refuses to do so on its own, will stand apart from it and independently say, 'I am here to stand for what is right.'"
Today, as I sit in my New York apartment and reflect on everything I have seen and been through, I cannot help but smile. Yes, I have lost much. I have lost family. I have lost friends. I have lost a community that at one point was all I thought I would ever want or need.
But I am happy.
Happy to be me. Happy to be free. And happy to have finally had the chance to share my story.