What Doesn't Kill You...

I started my life of crime rather late, around the age of 37. My kids didn’t know of my criminal inclinations, but my wife had her suspicions. I’d spoken with her briefly about them before we married, but it was a subject we never discussed in any depth.

Before I got married I talked with church leaders about my past. They gave me the best advice they could: get married and have a family. Everything will be ok. After all, they said, you can’t live in the past.

So that’s exactly what I did: I looked to the future. I married my best friend and we started our family. I was 21 years old. Family life had its challenges but it was everything I hoped it would be. We welcomed five wonderful children into our home—three sons and two daughters. I was the luckiest dad in the world.

But the ghosts from my past never went away—not completely. They would surface from time to time when I least expected them to. They reminded me something was missing, but I didn’t want to believe them. As a father and family man I had everything I ever wanted. I wanted the nightmares gone. I prayed for them to go away. I was a believer and a churchgoing man. Surely God would answer my prayers and destroy those demons from so long ago.

But he didn’t.

One lonely night I started talking to someone who I thought was in my same situation: married but haunted by his past. We talked about faith and family. We talked about isolation. I thought there might be a connection. Turned out he was a cop.

“Mr. Peterson, you are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney…” I’d heard those words dozens of times on TV. Hearing them recited to me filled me with dread. I knew my life would change forever. I thought I would lose everything, and for the most part I was right.

My crime was being gay. During our discussion that night I thought I had met someone else who was gay but married to a woman. It wasn’t that uncommon in rural Idaho where I lived. In fact, if you remember Senator Larry Craig you know that Idaho is famous for its married gay men. A lot of us were encouraged to tie the knot thinking that marriage would cure us. Sex, it seemed, was kind of like an unfamiliar dessert: just try it and you’ll like it for sure!

Only it didn’t quite work out that way—not for me. I had tried to do it all right, chasing away the demons of desire for many years. But that night the conversation turned sexual. And after the undercover officer followed me into town and joined me in my car for more “private conversation,” he had all the information he felt he needed to make an arrest.

The ride to jail was the longest ride of my life. I was humiliated and deeply ashamed. All I’d wanted was to experience some kind of meaningful connection. As a result my life—at least as I knew it then—was over.

The next day, to avoid the embarrassment and publicity of a trial, I pled guilty to a charge of Public Nuisance. A second charge was dismissed. I started to breathe a little easier. It was a wakeup call, I told myself. Maybe I’d be given the chance to make it all right. Maybe it would fade into the past like the nightmare it was.

But I was wrong.

The cop who arrested me decided my punishment was insufficient. For months afterward he continued his personal case against me: he went to my employers to make sure I got fired. He showed up at my first divorce hearing to support my wife’s bid for sole custody of the kids. He even contacted my bishop so I could be excommunicated from my church. He went above and beyond the call of duty.

I was broken. I had lost everything that was important to me. I was ready to give up and accept defeat, and I would have, had it not been for Patricia Alexander.

How do I begin to describe Patricia? Barely five feet tall but larger than life, Patricia has a heart the size of Texas and a fiery, fearless personality to match. Her career as a psychologist has been spent serving our men and women in uniform. She listened patiently as I told her everything, but nothing could have prepared me for her response:

“Russ,” she said, “you’ve got to pull your head out of your ass! You’re a good man and a damn good father, and no one that really knows you would ever think otherwise!”

Her lecture continued for at least thirty minutes, but those are the words that stuck. By the sheer force of her personality she cancelled my shame and put everything else in perspective. There was no point in arguing with her. You don’t argue with Patricia.

That was the turning point. I had been ready to accept defeat but I realized then that I needed to fight for my kids. They still needed a dad.

And the fight was just beginning. When the rural Idaho judge heard I was gay and that I had been arrested because of it, nothing else mattered. He let my ex move the children out of state—away from me and everything they had ever known. My kids went from having a full-time father to seeing me four days a month.

I appealed the custody decision all the way to the Idaho Supreme Court. I hoped the Justices would have broader views and would be able to see past a single incident to consider the needs of my children. Instead, their decision contained a single footnote explaining that I had been arrested and that the trial judge’s decision had been justified as a result.

I didn’t have time to focus on that loss. My kids needed me and I wanted to be as close to them as possible. So I set my sights on living near them.

{Read in a monotone, "announcer" voice: Warning: what you are about to hear may be offensive to ex wives everywhere. Listener discretion is advised.}

You’ve heard of Disneyland dads. Well, my kids have a Disneyland mom. It was when she took the kids to Disneyland that I finally had a chance to investigate the neighbor-hood where they lived. The first thing I noticed was the house right next door to them: it was empty. But I didn’t know who owned it or if it was even available for rent.

I’ve seen Perry Mason, Columbo, Remington Steele, McGuyver, and Terminator. Combine them all and you still wouldn’t approach the energy, ingenuity, and dogged determination of a gay excommunicated public-nuisance-of-a-father trying to be close to his kids.

I’ve also seen Maleficent, Catwoman, Carrie, and Jaws. Combine them all and you still wouldn’t approach my ex wife’s wrath when I parked my U-Haul in front of the house next to hers. My kids? They were ecstatic, and that’s all that mattered.

Time passes. Wounds heal. My kids know I’ll always be as close to them as I can; they know they are worth fighting for. But for the most part my ex and I have stopped fighting. We are working toward a better relationship for the benefit of the kids.

As for the cop: I hope one day he will come to accept himself. There are so many wrongs that need to be made right—so many real problems that need to be solved. But until we accept ourselves for who we are, we will never be able to make the world a better place for those we love. That’s what it means to me to be a father, and that’s my story.