Eli McCann: My gay date at Mormonism’s first temple

Yes, it was strange, but, hey, it worked — I married him.

(Tribune file photo) Temple in Kirtland, Ohio, where Eli McCann went on his first date with his future husband.

My first date with my now husband, Skylar, was at the Kirtland Temple in Ohio. This wasn’t intentional.

I had connected with him on a dating app because he had touched down at the Salt Lake City International Airport for a one-hour layover. He was living in Wisconsin at the time, and when I discovered this, I figured there was no way we’d ever actually meet each other. Then, after a month of talking on the phone for several hours every day, he called me up and invited me to be his plus-one at a wedding in Cleveland.

A friend took me to the airport for my red-eye flight a few weeks later. During the drive, I told her I was going to arrive in Cleveland some 12 hours before Skylar, I couldn’t check into my hotel room until the afternoon, and I didn’t know how I was going to kill some time after I landed. That’s when she informed me Kirtland is only 20 or so minutes outside of Cleveland.

Having grown up a Latter-day Saint, I was, of course, familiar with the stories of my pioneer ancestors’ sojourn in Kirtland. Families in my neighborhood in the ‘90s — the kind who all wore matching BYU T-shirts and went to church on vacation — would even plan entire family pilgrimages to the place every few summers.

I had stopped going to church a year or two before, so it was perhaps an odd thing that the next morning I found myself on an extended one-on-one tour of the Kirtland Temple led by an elderly man sporting a wizarding beard that ran down to his navel. I guess it seemed to me it would have been a shame to not pop by this place that had occupied hundreds of Sunday school conversations from my childhood, given that I was staying just one town over.

I don’t know how long the tour lasted, but it felt like hours. The tour guide told me that since the place was empty, he had time to give me an extended lecture about the building and its history, which he then did without breaking eye contact for the better part of the morning.

As we descended the stairs at the conclusion of the presentation, he asked me if I was musically inclined. I thought he was just making small talk. I didn’t know at the time that the tour of the Kirtland Temple traditionally ends with the tour group convening in the main chapel area of the building to sing a vibrant rendition of a classic Mormon hymn, “The Spirit of God.” Had I known this, I probably wouldn’t have volunteered that I sometimes dabbled in the piano in response to his question.

The next thing I knew, I found myself accompanying my tour guide as he belted all hundred or so verses of the hymn, his right hand resting on the piano, foot a-tapping, and openly weeping down his long white beard. It was sometime during this musical performance when it occurred to me that my attempt to fly to Ohio to go on a gay date with a man I had found on the internet had already gone very off the rails in the most surprising way possible.

When Skylar arrived in Cleveland late that evening, we briefly met in the hotel lobby, where he asked me what I had been up to all day. I word-vomited the story at him, watching a look of confusion and concern cloud his face as I blurted out words like “temple” and “missionary” and “altar” and “everlasting covenants.”

Skylar did not grow up religious and had no exposure to Mormonism, and as I heard myself recounting the experience, it occurred to me I probably sounded to him like a religious fanatic, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had started glancing around for the exits. But just before I had an opportunity to acknowledge how strange this all surely seemed, he leaned in and asked in amazement, “Would you be willing to go back there tomorrow?”

The next morning, we drove 20 minutes to take a romantic tour of the Kirtland Temple. I couldn’t help but stand in awe that what might have scared away many others seemed instead to be a bonding experience for us. I was touched, in fact, by his fascination and his sincere attempt to understand and appreciate this part of my background as we stood in front of a desk the tour guide explained to us was used by church founder Joseph Smith himself. (Skylar supportively gasped and put one hand to his chest when this fact was shared, even though he didn’t know who Joseph Smith was.)

There were other visitors when we arrived: a large family wearing matching BYU T-shirts. The mother was aggressive in volunteering to play the piano, and her children sounded like The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.

We left Kirtland at the end of the morning, giggling, well aware how odd of a first date this was. I was still half convinced once the weekend was over that I would never hear from Skylar again. But he continued to surprise me by not ghosting me. Instead, he moved to Salt Lake City many months later, and we got engaged not long after that.

While growing up, I was told that one day I’d get married in a temple. That, of course, didn’t happen. But it seems only fair to give half credit to the church leaders of my youth considering that I did fall in love in one.

(Pat Bagley) Eli McCann, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist.

Eli McCann is an attorney, writer and podcaster in Salt Lake City, where he lives with his husband and their two naughty (yet worshipped) dogs. You can find Eli on Twitter at @EliMcCann or at his personal website, www.itjustgetsstranger.com, where he tries to keep the swearing to a minimum so as not to upset his mother.

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