Behold my bi-monthly, post-mission ritual: I’d be strolling across the BYU campus, minding my own business, when suddenly I’d bump into a returned missionary from my mission who’d returned home after I did. I myself had only been back for 6 months, but this was long enough for me to view each RM as a potential gold mine of information and updates about my old areas. So I’d make the predictable inquiries … about my baptisms, my investigators, my favorite ward members, my mission companions. Interesting tidbits of information were few and far between, but the potential was always there, so I never stopped asking. Occasionally I’d get some morsel of gossip, but nothing to write home about. Until one fine afternoon – as I interrogated a recently returned elder about each of my junior companions – I participated in the following bombshell exchange:
RM: “Dude, did you hear about what happened to Elder Sorenson?”
Me: “No, I didn’t. What happened to him? He was my comp, you know.”
RM: “Yeah, he got sent home a few months ago. Something to do with homosexuality.”
Me: “WHAT? Are you kidding me? No way! I cannot believe that. What in the world happened?
RM: “Honestly, I don’t know. I never did get the full story, but it had something to do with Law of Chastity problems. Homosexuality specifically.”
I was stunned. I hadn’t served with Sorenson very long, and I wasn’t particularly close to him, but I felt like I knew him pretty well. He didn’t seem like the type to go home early. And never in a million years would I have guessed he was homosexual! I may not have possessed the most sophisticated gaydar, but I still imagined myself as savvy enough to pick up on this sort of thing. There were plenty of elders who I could imagine being sent home (or who I thought really should’ve been sent home) for one reason or another, but Elder Sorenson was not one of them. I just couldn’t fathom it.
Later that afternoon, I returned home to my apartment, which I shared with several friends, including “Elder K”, an RM from my mission who’d returned to the States at the same time I did.
Me: “Dude, you’re not going to believe what happened today!”
Me: “I just ran into Elder So-and-So. Remember him? Well, we were chatting about the mission and he mentioned that one of my comps was sent home for being gay!”
K: “You mean Elder Sorenson?”
Me: “DUDE! How did you know?”
K: “I didn’t. But if you tell me one of your mission companions was gay, I’m going to figure it was Sorenson.”
K: “Oh Aaron. Don’t be so naive.”
Elder K – an aspiring psychiatrist-in-embryo – explained to me how, in his limited interactions with Sorenson, he observed this or that telltale sign of gayness. Nothing blatantly obvious enough for someone like me to notice perhaps, but subtle signs for those with eyes to see.
Anyway, the semester dragged on. As other elders returned home from my mission, I’d have occasion to chat them up as I’d done their predecessors. Sometimes the conversation would turn to my former companions, including, inevitably, to Sorenson. And on two additional occasions, I had elders relate to me the very same story about Sorenson’s Law of Chastity problems and his dishonorable mission discharge. Everyone confirmed that Sorenson’s grievous, mission-ending sin involved homosexuality in some way. But with whom? What were the details? No one knew.
* * *
Fast forward 8 months or so. John W. and I returned to Argentina during Christmas break, with plans to visit several of our old areas. As it happens, one of these was the very same city where Elder Sorenson was serving when he was ejected from the mission (though this happened many months after I’d served there). I maintained a mental list of things to do and people to see once I arrived, and I must say that investigating the circumstances of Sorenson’s travails wasn’t high on it. But, I confess, it was on it. “Why?”, you might ask. Why did it matter? Why couldn’t I just leave it alone? Why did I need to bother myself with a past scandal that didn’t involve me, and wasn’t any of my business? I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps I needed to hear the story directly from someone who really knew the details, so I could put to rest this inconsistent picture of Sorenson I had in my head. Or perhaps I just wanted to gossip. Honestly, I don’t really know. I like to think I had a combination of high and low motivations, though perhaps I’m fooling myself.
One of our first orders of business in the area was to visit one of my youth baptisms, “Alex”. Alex was now 14 years old, living with his elder brother and mother, and I was anxious to catch up and see how he was doing. I had written him a letter a few weeks prior to my arrival, telling him to expect us at a given date and time. When John W. and I arrived at the house, we were greeted by its three inhabitants and had a joyous reunion. But we were surprised by two other houseguests who were also on hand to greet us. I refer to the notorious “Belinda” and “Carla”.
Belinda and Carla were famous in the stake. They were well-known as the worldy, 20-something, gossip queens of their ward. Really nice and loads of fun, the elders always enjoyed talking to them. Belinda was surely the more infamous of the two — attractive enough that every elder took notice of her, but not so attractive as to be irresistible, she was the quintessential mission “snake.” (Picture a younger, prettier version of Latoya Jackson). Belinda was inappropriately flirtatious with every non-ugly elder that passed through the ward. At times she tried so hard, she seemed a little desperate. For this reason, she seemed more harmless than she might have otherwise. Carla, meanwhile, was the less sultry, heavy metal biker chick. Not quite as attractive as Belinda, and not as prone to come on to the elders, but loads of fun all the same. It was enjoyable to catch up with the two of them.
As the afternoon dragged on, an obvious thought occurred to me: If anyone knew the story of what happened to Elder Sorenson, it was surely these two. They knew everything about everyone. So at a certain point in the conversation, I decided to take the plunge and make some inquiries.
Me: “Um, did you guys ever know an Elder named Elder Sorenson? He was my junior comp, and I think he served in this ward at one point.”
All heads around the table nodded in unison. Everyone apparently knew him.
Me: “Um, someone told me that he was sent home early from his mission. Do you guys know anything about that?”
Heads nodded again. Belinda even said, “Yes, it’s true.”
Me: “So, um, I just have to ask…. rumor has it Elder Sorenson was sent home because of Law of Chastity problems.”
Several heads nodded. It was confirmed. And at this point, I decided to ask the $64,000 question, the one I really wanted to ask. I felt a little guilty about it – I wasn’t sure it was appropriate – but I was so close to getting the real scoop, I just couldn’t stop myself …
Me: “Um, I also heard … that Sorenson’s offense had something to do with homosexuality.”
There was a long, awkward pause in the room. Belinda leaned forward in her chair, and gazed at me intensely. Her next sentence – uttered very slowly and forcefully – is burned into my brain to this day:
“Elder Brown … let me absolutely assure you that Elder Sorenson was NOT a homosexual.”
More silence. Belinda stared at me. I stared at her. Was she saying what it sounded like she was saying? Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Belinda got up to use the restroom, and Carla took over. She explained the whole sad story.
Belinda had been trying to bed an American elder for years. And for the longest time, she was completely unsuccessful. But her persistence was bound to eventually pay off with someone. And with Sorenson it finally did. She and another woman from the stake had propositioned Sorenson and his companion, and in a moment of weakness, they gave in. The four of them apparently went on an overnight “camping” trip, where they all did the deed. The next morning, both elders felt guilty about the previous evening’s activities. So guilty that they both confessed to the mission president that very day. Both were immediately sent home.
I was floored. This unexpected relevation raised so many troubling questions. How could Belinda have done this? How could Sorenson have succumbed to her charms? How disturbing was it that even my 14-year-old baptism seemed to know all about this? But I couldn’t think about any of these things. I was too busy preoccupied with one question, and one question only:
“How the Hell do you get sent home from your mission for having sex with a woman, yet have half the mission end up thinking you’re gay?”
I posed this question to Carla, to Belinda, to everyone in the room really. But no one knew what to tell me. Truth is, none of them had ever heard the gay rumor before I mentioned it. And everyone agreed it was ridiculous, particularly under the circumstances.
* * *
I still have no idea where the Sorenson gay rumor came from. I suppose I’ll never know. But I have a theory. That is, I have a mental narrative in my head that I’ve composed to explain how this false rumor may have originated. It goes something like this:
Elder Sorenson confesses his sin to the Mission President and is promptly sent home. The Assistants to the President drive him (and his companion) to the airport and see them off. Given their participation in the departure, it’s inevitable that they come to understand the circumstances of Sorenson’s discharge. Meanwhile, Elder X is serving in the mission office, so he also learns of Sorenson’s early exit, but unlike the APs, he is less privy to the details. Still, Elder X is curious. He assumes Sorenson has broken the Law of Chastity; after all, a certain number of elders inevitably do, and this is always a mission-ending offense. So he asks the AP about the circumstances of Sorenson’s departure. He just wants a few details. But the AP Is tight-lipped about the whole affair. Giving Elder X any information about Sorenson’s case would be unseemly, inappropriate gossip, he thinks. Best not to engage in such talk. But Elder X continues to push, in a gentle, tactful way. So the AP realizes he needs to say something to convey the gravity of the offense without providing actual details, so as to shut Elder X down. The AP then says to Elder X, “All I can say, Elder, is that it was a very, very serious matter, and I really can’t talk about it. Trust me, you’d rather not know.” Elder X gets the message and he backs off. But later, he wonders, “What could be so serious that it can’t even be named? Law of Chastity violations are serious, sure, but they’re not so scandalous that we can’t call them what they are. So what could be even worse than a run-of-the-mill chastity violation?” And as Elder X ponders this question, the same thought occurs to him that occurred to Elder K at BYU: “Sorenson does seem to have certain tendencies, now that I think about it. Perhaps this means that ….” Elder X shares his theory with his companion. This companion in turn shares it with another elder, except the “theory” has evolved into a “fact.” And so it goes. The story travels from one elder to the next. It never spreads far enough to reach everyone in the mission, of course. It’s too scandalous to simply trumpet from the rooftops. But elders talk, and some naturally inquire about what happened to Elder Sorenson. And so they are told, by those who imagine themselves in the know. Eventually, the story makes it all the way to the BYU campus, yea, even unto the incredulous ear of Elder Brown.
Am I right about this? I don’t know. Is it a plausible story about the origin of the rumors about Sorenson? I think so. How else does a false gay rumor about a disgraced straight elder spread around the mission? But even if you’re not convinced, just ponder the possibility for a moment. Imagine that the explanation I’ve given – or something roughly like it – is true. Because if it is, it becomes easy to imagine how things might have played out differently. And difficult not to wish that they had, for Sorenson’s sake. What if the AP had been a tad less ominous in tone as he offered his vague, non-explanation to Elder X? What if he’d just acknowledged the chastity violation? What if he’d even provided a true detail or two, justifying this as fleshing out a cautionary tale that illustrates the precise ways in which Elders can and do fall from grace? Little decisions at key junctures might have quelled any colorful rumors before they began – false rumors any heterosexual elder would surely find more distasteful than true rumors that at least portray one’s sexual orientation accurately. In short, disclosure on the front end might have prevented outlandish, false rumors on the back end.
Or, in other words, if anything like my imagined explanation is correct, a counterintuitive moral emerges from the whole Elder Sorenson affair:
Sometimes, a little bit of gossip is preferable to no gossip at all.