I spent a recent weekend seeing a one-man play called Becoming Norman at a little nonprofit theater in the North Hollywood section of Los Angeles. This intimate, honest, heartfelt, engaging play is the dramatized memoir of a guy who grew up Mormon in Orem, Utah, served a mission and attended BYU, but ultimately chose to leave Mormonism and pursue a gay lifestyle and gay romantic/sexual relationships. It was written and performed by my wife's cousin and good friend Norman Dixon, who I too enjoy and value as a person.
The play is basically a very entertaining personal history and explanation of why and how Dixon has become who he is today. While sexual orientation is a major theme, another major theme is the struggle to realize one’s talents and share them with others. While the career theme really interests me, as he and I share some shortcomings and disappointments along these lines, the sexual orientation theme is what I will write about now. I think the gay issue will, more than any other, become society's organizing principle between the secular/agnostic and the religious, and it's a situation that deeply troubles me because I think homosexuality will be to the Mormons in the twenty-first century what polygamy was in the nineteenth, in terms of affecting our place in society. For me, Dixon's play is an opportunity to reassess my attitudes about homosexuality and my personal beliefs about if and how Mormonism--which I firmly hold as my theology and worldview--could better accommodate homosexuality.
As a believing Mormon, it's been clear to me so far that I cannot accept any choice to participate in gay relationships as being pleasing and acceptable to God. However, part of me is open to the possibility that someone may find a way to somehow harmonize homosexuality with Mormonism and give me reason to accept that choosing to pursue one's homosexual desires is a morally, theologically, eternally valid and worthwhile choice. In that spirit, I actually said a little prayer to myself while waiting for Dixon's play to start, asking that I would be able to learn anything I'm missing so far on this perplexing issue and, if necessary, adjust my attitude and opinion regarding gayness.
In processing Dixon's play, I find myself thinking about the two most interesting earlier attempts I've heard to harmonize homosexuality with Mormonism. I will first revisit those two attempts and then give some thoughts on Dixon’s play and whether or not it has changed my personal position on the gay issue.
1) One person I know speculated that perhaps some children of God really are eternally gay and can be fully saved in that identity, perhaps in the middle kingdom of the celestial kingdom in some kind of eternal partnership with their same-gender loved one. We know that fully exalted heterosexually married couples go to the celestial kingdom's highest level, but it's less clear who goes in the middle and lower celestial levels, and perhaps a place in God's presence is reserved for moral, ethical gay people to continue being homosexual throughout the eternities.
Here’s why I reject this one: There is no evidence or logical reason to believe that God would procreate some children in a state that would never allow them to attain full exaltation. There is no such thing as a special class of God's children for whom the plan of salvation does not fully apply, including its gender and heterosexual aspects. All those who are born on the earth have the potential for full exaltation by overcoming their weaknesses through the Savior's atonement, including people who are same-sex attracted in this life. Of course, full exaltation means an eternal heterosexual union that can produce spirit offspring, like God.
Now, I'm open to the possibility that gayness may, in some cases, have some connection to premortality, just like many other aspects of the human condition may. Some of our mortal proclivities and weaknesses no doubt first started to develop in the premortal spirit world through our own choices and behaviors, some of which may have been aberrant or disobedient. After all, a third of God's children developed such negative, rebellious characters and personality flaws during premortality that they disqualified themselves from earth life altogether. But regardless of what happened or didn't happen in premortality, anyone born to this earth has just as much opportunity as anyone else to be fully exalted through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and his atonement, if they so choose. There is no special place set aside in the celestial kingdom for exceptions like gayness or any other ungodlike trait or identity.
2) Someone sent me a personal essay from a 1995 Sunstone magazine that threw me for a loop, as far as reconciling gayness with Mormon theology ("'My God, My God, Why Has Thou Forsaken Me?'" by Oliver Alden, which a little googling leads me to suspect is a pseudonym related to The Last Puritan: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel, a nineteenth-century book that apparently has some homosexual themes). The following passage is the part that I remember as the most troubling to me:
After sustaining minor injuries in an automobile accident, I had requested a priesthood blessing from this man--a humble man of profound charity, but one who had gently but firmly made clear from the outset his fundamental opposition to the course I had adopted. When this leader laid his hands on my head, however, he blessed me not only that my injuries would heal properly (they did), but that I would one day meet the man who was to be my "companion in this life." It was the only time in my many years in the Church that I have stood after a blessing to see its giver manifestly shocked and horrified. That leader remained shocked and horrified for a very long time, but eventually--a year after the blessing, perhaps--walked up to me after sacrament meeting one Sunday and quietly told me that he hoped I would find my companion.
One reason this passage rattles me is that I received a similar blessing given by a person who did not want me to be with a certain girlfriend, but then to his surprise he blessed me that I could be an instrument for saving this girl. He too was shocked and perhaps a little horrified, and of course the blessing had a big impact on me, although it ultimately ended up not working out between that girl and me due to my own foibles. But the point is that I'm quite open to the idea of a priesthood holder receiving inspiration to say something in a blessing contrary to his own opinion or desire.
My mind keeps returning to this passage whenever I try to work out the gay-Mormon puzzle, and I’ve pretty much decided that it could be true only if we're talking about a nonsexual companion, because God does not look upon sin with the least degree of allowance, and to me he would cease to be God if he endorsed any form of homosexual physical relations. Another alternative is that the essayist is either mistakenly or purposefully misrepresenting this blessing. The bottom line is, I simply cannot interpret this blessing as a release from God for this person to enter into a sexual union with someone of his own sex; otherwise, the whole structure of Mormon theology breaks down for me and I may as well stop paying tithing and go enjoy some real beer.
3) And now, Dixon's play. The story begins with young preschool-age Norman dressing up in girl's dresses and playing with dolls. A major dramatic theme revolves around his parents' decision to buy him a dolly of his own when he was four years old. His mother wanted to buy it, but his father and teenaged brother opposed it. In the end, the mother won out, and the play program features a photo of young Norman tightly hugging his new doll at the base of the Christmas tree, surrounded by other toys that don't seem as precious to him as the doll.
Personally, I believe buying him the doll was unwise, although I'm sure it was done out of pure love and innocence, because it set a pattern of indulgence for Dixon's life. I acknowledge that gender roles can be restrictive, but today's alternative of ever-increasing gender-neutral chaos is worse, in my opinion. One useful thing about gender roles is that they help people with inborn gender confusion to follow a useful template and exercise some gender self-discipline. Yes, there are some cultural limitations on how we understand gender here in mortality, but our essential tendency toward gender differentiation is God-given, I believe. I'm willing to admit that my own life is somewhat gender neutral, as many people's are in this modern civilization, and that this is not necessarily all bad. But I think most of modern society's tearing down of gender roles is evidence of how society is moving away from God, who clearly created his children in male and female identities and roles.
Especially after having seen Dixon's play, I would tell my own boys no if they wanted to have their own girl doll. I wouldn't freak out if they played with someone else’s girl stuff on occasion, but I would want to guide them in the right gender path. I admit, I'm fearful of contributing to any gender ambiguity or potential for same-sex attraction my boys may hold, because in today's world there are few if any taboos left to help them stay on track. I don't think people are either gay or not gay; I believe in the Kinsey scale that shows a range of orientation, including Kinsey's finding that one’s place on this scale can change during a lifetime, depending on circumstances, environment, and behavioral choices. With the gay movement so prominent today, I think it's playing with fire to indulge gender confusion, especially with boys, because personally I think homosexuality is a bigger temptation and trap for boys than it is for girls. With all that's happened in the recent past regarding the battles between secular and god-fearing people over homosexuality, I'm to the point now where I don't even like it when my boys wear pink shirts. Twenty or even ten years ago, this stuff wouldn't have bothered me, but we live in a different world now, and we are practically in an open war over this issue, with clashes promising to worsen in the near future.
As Dixon's story progresses, self-indulgence continues to emerge as a theme in his journey. He describes attending BYU preschool, where, when the other kids were out at recess, he snuck back inside to put on the pretty dresses from the dress-up box. He says he knew deep down that he shouldn't let other people catch him doing this because they would not approve, but I would also say his conscience was telling him that this wasn't a good self-indulgence for his own gender identity. Later, Dixon graduates to Barbies, playing with them obsessively even though his mother disapproves. When he reaches the puberty years and sex enters the picture, he discovers masturbation early and makes it a daily habit, which he admits continues to this day. Not only does the thought of such daily exercise sound tiring, but isn't that just a little bit self-indulgent? Dixon doesn’t seem to acknowledge any value in the concepts of disciplining oneself and trying to resist impulses. I assume that he fully indulged all his same-sex fantasies as well, reinforcing them more deeply with every masturbatory act. As a Mormon, I know there's value in abstinence from a wide variety of potentially addictive things, including sexual. Dixon doesn't give me any reason to think his approach is superior, although worldly philosophies surely back up his attitude of "do whatever feels good."
One of the most remarkable things about the play is Dixon's lack of bitterness or anger regarding Mormonism. In fact, he recounts an amazing sequence from his mission when, feeling terribly lonely and displaced with his first companion, he knelt in desperate prayer and received a spiritual manifestation of love and concern that he says kept him going for the entire remainder of his mission. Dramatizing this extremely Mormon-sounding spiritual experience reflects Dixon's integrity and honesty, all the more so because this experience negates the validity of his post-mission sexual choices. In this mission experience, we find a microcosm of how God expects Dixon and all of us to live our lives, and yet Dixon does not make that connection or try to keep applying the principles he learned. I'm sure he prayed after his mission in dealing with his same-sex attraction, but for some reason he did not stick with it enough to get the spiritual help and support he needed to stay on the Mormon track during his adult life, despite the loneliness and displacement caused by his same-sex attraction.
Let me clarify that I don't doubt Dixon's degree of same-sex orientation and gender confusion. For whatever reason, he naturally felt feminine impulses and intense homosexual attraction from an early age, with crushes on boys and other aspects. I would not claim that this was his choice, especially considering the teasing and abuse he got from other kids, although on the other hand this teasing didn't sound any worse than most people get for a wide variety of reasons. While Dixon had girls who were friends, he didn't ever make a real romantic/sexual connection with one in his formative years, and I don't know if he could have accomplished such a connection even if he was really trying, including abstaining from gay fantasies and masturbation. Perhaps if he'd tried harder, he could have actually made an authentic-enough heterosexual connection, even if his homo attractions never went fully away. Observing people like Dixon, I feel sympathy for gays who really believe that their homosexuality is an integral, essential, positive part of who they are, no more needful of resistance than eating or breathing. But I'm afraid such self-rationalization is a deception.
To the best of my memory, the turning point for Dixon appears to have been when a BYU therapist gave him advice that didn't make sense to him: start fooling around a little with girls so he could get himself sexually interested in them and stop desiring boys. I can see where this was weird advice, but it's not an excuse to give up. Soon after that, Dixon allowed himself to undergo a seduction by an older man. From this point onward, Dixon seems to forget all about the spiritual experience on his mission and about Jesus Christ, and he starts to fulfill his spiritual needs through various trendy New Age techniques. Rather than looking to Jesus Christ as his example and savior, he discovers a new mentor to worship: k.d. lang. From a Mormon perspective, that's a rather ridiculous tradeoff, but judging by how Dixon has chosen to depict himself in his play, he often does not seem to have much concept of purposefully redirecting his own thoughts and impulses in the most productive, sensible ways. He seems to be a guy who can only believe in what’s in front of him and who interprets almost any impulse he feels as worthy of pursuing.
As Dixon grows older, he starts to look to homosexual relationships themselves as a way to save himself and become happy. Eventually, he reaches the stage where he wants a monogamous lifelong partnership with a fellow man. He tells about one major failed relationship with a guy I remember meeting at a family picnic some years ago, and then he tells about a newer relationship with Raul, his current partner who, in fact, produced Becoming Norman. The problem is, even if he manages to find a lifelong partner to solace and console him for the rest of his life in this lone and dreary world, gay sexual/romantic relationships cannot survive death in any Mormon concept of an afterlife.
The real issue underlying the gay debate is: do we serve God or do we serve ourselves? Are we secular/agnostic/atheistic, or do we believe in a higher power and strive to connect with it and serve it to the best of our ability? In Dixon's case, nothing about his play suggests that his journey is taking him closer to God; rather, his journey is downright narcissistic in looking to himself as the ultimate authority, as is true for so many people today. At one point in the play, he even says something to the effect that God and the self are actually the same thing.
This quote from John Gardner reminds me of Dixon's persona as presented in his play, as well as so many others in today's world:
Leo Tolstoy knew about the universe of despair and endured . . . a crisis certainly profound and all-transforming. He came out of it not with a theory that every man should make up his own rules, asserting value for all men for all time, but with a theory of submission, a theory which equally emphasized freedom but argued that what a man ought to do with his freedom is be quiet, look and listen, try to feel out in his heart and bones what God requires of him--as Levin does in Anna Karenina, or Pierre in War and Peace.
Judging by Dixon's play, we don’t see much evidence of this kind of introspection and effort, at least in terms of his sexual orientation, which he now accepts as a morally neutral trait, like being left-handed. Yeah, it may be morally neutral if you don't act on it, but it's immoral to act on it because it goes against God. This is a problem that more and more people today are trying to address by turning themselves into God, so they can make whatever rules they want. Talk about pride!
It's been said that, as mortals, we are all drowning in our own dilemmas and in need of a savior, but we cannot pull ourselves out by our own hair. Judging by his play, Dixon is looking for the ultimate perfect gay relationship to save him, but I don’t think it's going to happen that way--especially not in the next life, even if he does manage to find a fellow gay to grow old with in this life. After watching Dixon's play, I'm left feeling more confident than ever that nothing can really save any of us except repentance and faith on the Lord Jesus Christ. Not even a heterosexual relationship can save us, although once we're saved by Christ, such a relationship is necessary to reach full exaltation. It's a terribly difficult thing to expect gay-attracted people to either be celibate or find a way to have an honest, committed heterosexual marriage, but there are certainly many worse trials in life than wrestling with lifelong gay feelings. Gays are not some kind of special exception who are justified in pursuing ungodly ways, even if they really, really, REALLY want to.
While I have no way of knowing everything about how personally accountable Dixon is for his own situation and choices in life, his play does give some clues as to the human foibles that can exacerbate a challenge like homosexuality, and I think people in Dixon's situation may possibly be eligible and due for some self-discipline and repentance. I do know that, while it's not right to judge individuals or treat them poorly, it is right to resist the gay movement and gay marriage in general. I can and do certainly enjoy Norman and Raul as people and respect their right to pursue happiness as they see fit, but I can't endorse their choices, and while I can very much enjoy going out with them for an adult brunch, I don't want them to model a happy-seeming, normal-seeming homosexual relationship in front of my young boys. We need to protect kids, as much as reasonably possible, from risky ideas that can be planted like seeds and grow into something that will interfere with their ultimate happiness. And we all need to continually humble ourselves and repent, or the Lord will humble us instead, either as individuals or, as I believe will eventually become the case, as a society.
So no, Dixon's play didn’t crack my Mormon nut, as far as the homosexual dilemma goes. But I sure feel for him more now after seeing his play, and I can't really blame or judge him personally, although I can give my own strong response to how he presented himself in his courageous, publicly performed play. I wish Dixon the best, and perhaps he has a better chance at happiness through homosexuality than my Mormon beliefs say he does.