The first time I made out with "Trey," he pushed me up against the door of a mausoleum in an Idaho cemetery. It was equal parts macabre and magnificent. I was in Pocatello doing summer stock theatre, and as a 19-year-old, I might as well have been making my Broadway debut. I was getting paid real dollars to act (or overact), sing, and dance, but whatever. I was a professional performer -- at least for the summer -- and I felt famous as fuck.
Trey and I slobbered on each other and exchanged emotionally charged hand jobs on the grass, surrounded by death and feeling more alive than ever. Afterward, we sat cradling each other and talked about our futures. I wanted more of this. More acting. More storytelling. I confided in Trey that I was considering dropping out of school and moving to New York when our contract was over.
Trey was our Link in Hairspray, and I was his understudy. He was a far superior singer and dancer, and I thought his hopes and dreams might be similar to mine. But Trey confessed something to me that I did not expect. When our contract was over, he would be going on his mission as an elder of the Mormon Church. He told me he couldn't wait to spread God's message and then get back to Idaho so he could "marry a fabulous girl and have tons and tons and tons of fierce little babies."
The irony of the whole situation was so extreme that I felt like I must be the one who was missing something. Was this some kind of weird pre-mission ritual? Was he making a joke? I didn't know what to say so I settled with a classic. "Cool," I said, nodding.
In the silence that followed, it became clear that Trey was being genuine, and it dawned on me just how deeply trapped some gay people are. I felt trapped growing up in Montana. I didn't know any older role models who looked like what I wanted to be when I grew up. Like all of us, I lived a secret life inside my head while I went through puberty. What I was was synonymous with "bad." "Don't be gay." "That's so gay." I didn't feel welcome in this place, and so as soon as I was old enough, I got out. But I could get out. It was easy for me to leave. It was freeing, liberating. That in itself was a blessing. For Trey, I could see that there was no "getting out." For him, his religion wasn't a small town or one group of bullies that could be escaped; it was a whole philosophy inside his mind. As long as he believed what he had been indoctrinated to believe, he was both the tormentor and the victim.
Today, there is a little Mormon church down the street from my apartment in East Hollywood. I often see missionaries on the sidewalk, and I used to that think their existence must be so different from my own. And in some ways we do live in two very opposing worlds. But then I see this bright-eyed kid who has come to L.A. to follow his dreams, so sure that the light inside him will shine through all the bullshit. I see him in my grungy neighborhood, sweaty, shirt pit-stained, hair matted, trying to make conversation with some homeless person who is throwing garbage at him or some asshole slamming a door in his face. I think of how chipper I was when I moved to this city and how many doors I've had slammed in my face, and I realized we are exactly the same.
Anyone who follows their heart and leaves home will ultimately have to ask themselves if everything they grew up believing was a complete and utter fantasy. Whether it was a religious text or simply a feeling you had while you were doing a toe touch during "You Can't Stop the Beat," you have to decide if that thing is worth the dedication of your entire life. Because with dreams and religion -- you're either in, or you're out.
JOSEPH BAKEN is an actor and the creator of Ding Dongs, a web series about Mormon missionaries in Los Angeles, costarring Drew Droege and Willam. Watch the first episode below.