Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Literary Balm for the Gay Dilemma

The Association for Mormon Letters has a new blog, and I've been asked to contribute monthly. Here's my first post:

This is an essay about how I’ve personally grappled with the modern-day gay dilemma and how I’ve looked to literary self-expression as a form of soothing balm for what I believe is one of the most dangerous issues of our generation, with the potential of dividing our society as catastrophically as the slavery issue did back in the nineteenth century, if not more so. Fortunately, with the recent heartening victories against gay marriage in California, New York, and Maine, it doesn’t look like that will happen anytime soon, but the fight is far from over, obviously.
I acknowledge the reality of same-sex attraction and the difficulty of the dilemma it poses. However, I don’t think it’s the world’s hardest challenge or even necessarily harder than some challenges that can arise within heterosexual marriages, even if some people make it sound like living a life of celibacy or living in a hetero marriage when one’s stronger romantic desire is oriented toward the same sex is absolutely unreasonable and undoable. Nonetheless, I acknowledge that the same-gender dilemma is certainly right up there with some of life’s more difficult trials, and it’s no doubt harder for some individuals than for others.
When I was an editor at the Ensign magazine in the mid-1990s, I pulled the first same-sex personal essay out of the files and published it in the magazine. This came soon after Elder Dallin H. Oaks opened the door with the first Ensign article on the topic. I tell you this to demonstrate that I think open discussion of this dilemma is valuable and necessary in the LDS Church, and in fact I think we need to take it deeper and younger to better inoculate children against misinterpreting and mishandling the same-gender attractions some will feel during youth and, certainly, to inoculate them against society’s growing encouragement and even pressure to pursue one’s gay impulses, if one feels so inclined to any degree.
While I feel compassion for people who experience same-sex attraction, especially when it seems to crowd out all heterosexual potential and comprise 100 percent of their orientation, I think today’s gay identity is a huge deception, and it sets off many of my last-days alarm bells. If I weren’t a believing Mormon, I don’t think I’d have any trouble with the gay movement, because without the Mormon worldview I’m the kind of guy who just thinks people should take whatever pleasure and satisfaction they can get out of life. But from a Mormon viewpoint, the emergence of the gay movement is clearly a sign of the times; after all, it’s already becoming one of the main wedges between the secular/agnostic and the religious in our fast-polarizing society, including within the church. There’s no way I can see that Mormonism could do anything to endorse the misdirection of romantic/procreative emotions and spirituality into gay relationships, let alone endorse actual acts of gay sex, and still remain Mormonism, and I expect that at some point we Mormons will have to withdraw from society when society becomes wicked enough to try to shove homosexuality down our throats, which I’m sure will eventually happen with even more gusto than when society pressured us to end polygamy.
So I am very leery of anything that I sense plays into the gay-rights agenda. I even thought the recent LDS Church public-relations endorsement of Salt Lake’s ordinances spelling out special protections for those who’ve chosen to pursue their gay inclinations was a step in the wrong direction, one that counters what some apostles have said and that I seriously doubt was based on revelation. What pushes my buttons most is when so-called fellow Mormons try to normalize and romanticize gay relationships. In fact, I’ve gotten myself banned from some Mormon blogs for being outspoken against such an outlook, and I’ve weakened my ties with many post-Mormons and liberal Mormons, such as the Sunstone crowd. But I don’t even care, because the gay issue alarms me so much.
So with that background, along comes a novel manuscript by Jonathan Langford about a teen who feels he’s gay yet wants to stay in the church. While my zeal for devoting time and resources to my Zarahemla Books enterprise has been gradually waning, Jonathan was able to get several qualified readers to vouch for his manuscript and attract my interest, and I agreed to publish it. I would have liked more sensory detail in the novel, but other than that I feel it’s a wonderfully realistic account of what it might be like for someone caught in this dilemma. I feel Jonathan is fair to his characters and fair to both sides of the issue, and I felt it would be good karma for me to publish it, to show that I really am open to understanding the complex human realities surrounding this issue. Literature can be an excellent tool for increasing understanding and even for some healing of rifts and dissensions, in my opinion.
So far, however, my experience in working with Jonathan on publishing the novel has shown me what I’ve long suspected: I’m a man without a real community. I’m too culturally liberal for conservative Mormons, and I’m too doctrinally conservative for liberal Mormons. The mainstream orthodox Mormons have blocked out the novel just as efficiently as we suspected they would, even though we took out all the f-words. In fact, one very conservative Mormon anti-gay group, Standard of Liberty, called us modern-day Korihors for publishing the novel and said we were trying to lure readers into accepting the gay agenda. This is so far from the truth that it still makes me laugh out loud, but it illustrates how some Mormons just can’t handle realistic culture; for them, everything must reflect and promote the ideal, and any portrayal of the realistic or the ambiguous threatens them. Ironically, I happen to agree with almost everything Standard of Liberty says on its website, so it was quite shocking to have the group turn on me so vociferously regarding this novel.
We are finding a smattering of “radical middle” readers who love the book, but of course the liberal side—the side that wrong-headedly, in my opinion, equates the church’s past history regarding blacks with how these liberals expect things will unfold regarding gays, with the church finally coming around to accept gay relationships and sexual acts as okay within “marriage”—do not find the book to be pleasing, and Jonathan has been attacked by some of them in unexpected ways, such as trying to discredit him by aggressively psychoanalyzing him personally through the novel.
The bottom line is, I’m glad I’m involved with Jonathan’s book. The book has a great spirit about it, and yet it doesn’t provide easy answers. It’s a book that engenders compassion without looking upon sin with the least degree of allowance, and publishing it assuages my social conscience to some degree for being so hard line against the gay movement. It’s a book that helps us understand what our youth are facing in today’s society and hopefully motivates us to take more steps to help them get through the maturing of their sexual identities without succumbing to gay temptations.
Deep down, I’m actually glad for this gay dilemma, for while it has upset me and sucked up a lot of my time and energy reading and writing about it, it has also strengthened my ties to the Church and my faith. At the same time, I’m glad to be able to play a small role in helping some realistic same-sex accounts come to light within the culture. I’m grateful that literature can help humanize things for us, and I hope to see future literary expressions cast more light on the gay dilemma. I just wish more Mormons were more open to literature that challenges us and promotes real dialogic thinking and discussion, like Jonathan’s novel does.


Unknown said...

Glad you posted this. Thanks.

Wasn't aware of Dr. Dan's review until today. I'm still processing it. Wow. Can't decide whether to write him a response or ignore him. Wow. He completely missed the point, didn't he?

Keep doin' good stuff. Thanks!

C. L. Hanson said...

Re: Jonathan has been attacked by some of them in unexpected ways, such as trying to discredit him by aggressively psychoanalyzing him personally through the novel.

If you're talking about my review, I certainly was not indending to "discredit" him by assuming that he's gay. Saying that the author clearly knows his subject well is normally a credit to him, not a discredit.

Considering how much Jonathan Langford has posted about his writing process, I find it very strange that you consider it somehow out-of-bounds to talk about his research/qualifications to write a book that is intended to show us an intimate portrait of what it's like to grow up as a gay Mormon teen.

Pomoprophet said...

" I believe is one of the most dangerous issues of our generation, with the potential of dividing our society as catastrophically as the slavery issue did back in the nineteenth "

This issue is dividing insomuch as some people refuse to change their views. Just like people refused to change views on black people. Those were the people (and churches) that advocated black people as less than. Those that dared to fight for racial equality were labeled radicals and too progressive. They were the ones tearing society apart.

I know you'll say race and sexuality are different. But the religious people of the day sure didn't think so. They were positive the Bible (and book or mormon) were crystal clear on the matter. Now we look back on them as misguided just as 100 years from now people of faith will look back on people like you as misguided.

Christopher Bigelow said...

You're overstating the comparison, Pomoprophet. On the race issue, you had individual Mormon leaders saying certain things against blacks and the civil rights movements, but you never had a unified statement from all 15 members of the First Presidency and 12 Apostles, like we do now on the issue of marriage and sexuality. We could survive the black problem because we didn't have as much skin in the game, but now on the gay issue we've already gone way beyond as a unified church, and to back down would be to deny our theology and cease being Mormon. What's going to go down, eventually, is not Mormonism but civilization, and civilization's embrace of corrupt things like the gay movement is what's going to lead to its downfall as it alienates itself from God and God withdraws his protection and blessing. I'm not saying the gay thing is the only thing that is leading to civilization's decline, but it's certainly a biggie and going to just keep getting bigger.

Alan Williams said...

You're a rather strange person to say that the "gay movement" leads to civilization's decline, but then you yourself were instrumental in publishing a "gay" novel. Do you not find this the least bit bizarre and ironic? The only way it makes sense, from my perspective, is to take into account competing narratives in society about sexuality and God over the past 100 years, and then to place you in a "believing" way at a specific intersection. But to assert that this intersection about God and sexuality is "true" for everyone everywhere throughout time (or even within the Church) strikes me as terribly naive and claustrophobic.

Perhaps your giant concern about "gay issues" is a individual manifestation of the difficulties the Church as a whole is having. The Church might be unified against "gay marriage" and "gay sex," but it is not at all unified when it comes to "gayness," as evidenced by No Going Back's reception and the SLC ordinance. You have been on the receiving end of multiple viewpoints on the matter (which is more than most Mormons can say), and you thus describe yourself as "a man without a community." Why not just internalize all the viewpoints and become a much more enlightened individual on the matter, rather than spout nonsense about the end of civilization?

BTW, I agree that you will receive good karma for publishing the book. =) Kudos.