Community Voices: Literary Balm for a Modern Dilemma

This is an essay about how I’ve personally grappled with the modern-day same-sex 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 same-sex 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-sex 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 same-sex 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 same-sex 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 same-sex 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 same-sex 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.

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19 Responses to Community Voices: Literary Balm for a Modern Dilemma

  1. Ann Best says:

    "Today’s gay identity is a huge deception." It is now, and it was in the seventies when my supposedly eternal husband decided he was, first, bisexual and then, gay. When he left in 1980, he left church, wife, and four children ages 10, 12, 15, and 17. After reading the first chapter online of Langford’s book and being impressed, I ordered it but received word it wasn’t available before Christmas. I hope it will be soon after. I’ll be interested to see how Langford handled the subject, and then I can respond to my view of the public’s reaction to it as you state above. I find it interesting that as the public is responding to his book, my own book which will be published sometime in the very near future by WiDo (it’s in the editing stage right now), a novel based on the last eight years of my marriage to my so-called gay husband. Since I haven’t read Langford’s book yet, I can’t compare the two, but I will at a later date. Choices do have consequences, including responses from readers. I’m with everything you say here, and might add that as a widow, I choose to stay in the mainstream of the church and be celibate! (I think that you feel you are "a man without a community" because of what you are trying to do from your home base in Utah where the "gay issue" is so strident. I no longer live in Utah; I’m in Virginia. There is value in distance! Though interestingly enough, I live in the heart of Mennonite country, some of whom–mainly the Church of the Brethren–really don’t like Mormons.) Whatever you decide to do eventually with your press, I applaud your efforts to tackle difficult topics, the gay issue being one of the most difficult. Difficult because we are surrounded by loud voices coming at us from every direction. Last Days stuff indeed!

  2. Jacob says:

    [quote]"Jonathan has been attacked by some [liberal side readers] in unexpected ways, such as trying to discredit him by aggressively psychoanalyzing him personally through the novel."[/quote]

    I don’t find this unexpected at all. There’s a viciousness in the pro-gay Mormon liberal population that is very ugly indeed. I’ve been on the receiving end of it in a very small way and lost all sympathy I might otherwise have had for that "community".

  3. Mark B. says:

    So I’m wondering how the success and the controversy over this book makes you feel about your publishing venture overall. Are you energized? Demoralized? I think Zarahemla is the best thing about LDS publishing right now and I’d be terribly disappointed if it were to lapse into inactivity.

  4. What I’ve discovered is that there’s potential for viciousness on all sides of the controversy. I actually expected more flak from the liberal side than I’ve received to date. I should add that in addition to the negative response from some liberal readers–and some people who haven’t read the book but are sure they know what it "must" be like just from what’s been said about it–I’ve also received some very positive comments from people who don’t agree with the Church’s position, including some ex-Mormons, but who feel that I do a good job of portraying the experience in an even-handed way.

    The thing I don’t think I really understood before publishing the book was just how rigid and doctrinaire some of those who are believing LDS can be about the "right" way to approach homosexuality (including areas where the Church has no official stand), and how upset they are when my book doesn’t line up with their agenda or where I’ve chosen realism over a perfect depiction of "how things ought to be." Case in point: The Church encourages people to use the terms "same-sex attraction" or "same-gender attraction" rather than "gay" or "homosexual" in talking about themselves, for reasons that actually make a lot of sense to me. But writing about a 15-year-old boy growing up in western Oregon, even one raised in the Church, it simply did not sound natural to have him tell his friend "I’m same-sex attracted" rather than "I’m gay." I still think that stylistic decision (and the decision we made to use the word "gay" in our marketing material and back-cover blurb) may have cost us some readers right there, because they were sure it meant we were endorsing the gay agenda.

    I should also say that most of those I consider to be members of my central target audience–orthodox, believing members of the LDS faith with some degree of tolerance for realism in their fiction–have liked the book when they read it. The challenge has been to (a) get them to find out about the book, and (b) persuade them that it’s something they might actually want to read. I’ve posted some thoughts about this on my blog at http://www.langfordwriter.com/blog/?p=55.

  5. Ann, your book sounds interesting.

    Jacob, it goes well beyond "liberal" for me. I personally think any Mormon who is in favor of today’s gay identity movement or gay "marriage" in any form is almost like a wolf among sheep, with strong secular/agnostic leanings at some level, perhaps even subconscious in some cases. Sorry to draw battle lines like that, but this is war.

    Mark B., depends on what you mean by "success." No Going Back is just now creeping up on selling 100 copies, which I consider worth doing but is obviously very micro-niche and not very lucrative for Zarahemla, the author, or, heaven forbid, myself. I’m still trying to figure out Zarahemla’s role in my future and my role in its. At a minimum, to keep it going I’m going to need the literary community’s ongoing help to bring worthwhile titles to my attention, as I don’t have time to read submissions myself. And I’m not opposed to the idea of handing over Zarahemla to a group or organization that wanted to take it on. I imagine one way or another, Zarahemla will continue putting out 1-3 titles per year indefinitely, but if we miss a whole year here and there, so be it…

  6. Kathy says:

    Like Ann, I was married in the temple for twenty-six years to a man who initially decided he was bisexual, and then determined he was gay. He left me and our five children, ranging in age from fourteen to twenty-two, to pursue his new lifestyle. He has moved through several relationships and is now HIV-positive, jobless, and homeless. Our hearts break for his decisions and the impact they’ve had, not only on us, but on him. When I moved into a new ward in American Fork and told my bishop about my background, he said I was the seventh woman in that ward who had endured the same kind of situation. Like it or not, this is something we are facing, and something we will have to deal with. Personally, I agree with Chris; my personal opinions on same-sex attraction are fairly ferociously conservative, partly because of my own experience in having a marriage and family destroyed. But I applaud Chris and Jonathan for providing a perspective; I can certainly seek understanding without being forced to change my position. All of us would do well to at least try to understand what we’re up against, and how it might impact all of us (as individuals and as a church), as we work to determine our position and opinions.

  7. Ann Best says:

    To Kathy: I know where you are emotionally. My husband died of AIDS and heroin in 1998. He was never jobless or homeless, but he did almost lose his house to drugs. My son stepped in and saved it (for his siblings) but couldn’t of course save his father. Such horrible stuff for the children to go through. Yes, this is a "plague" that will be with us until the Second Coming, and will impact all of us in the church. I’m ferociously conservative, too, and have strong opinions that I think I’ll try to articulate on my blog (accessed through my website that is still in the process of being set up; the home page is still in Latin.) I believe that all of us have something in our lives that tempt us and try us, and that although we might not always understand the why of our afflictions, or feel, as in same-gender attraction, that we are "born that way," we do have the power to choose to overcome or live with our affliction, however difficult that might be. "Why does it have to be so hard?" my alcoholic second husband said. "Why did the gods make me this way?" my first (gay) husband said. Like your husband, he "determined" he was gay. (I agree with the "church’s" same-gender attraction terminology, but in reality, as Jonathan says, the term "gay" is the natural way. Just some random thoughts. If you’d like to dialogue with me….

  8. Alan says:

    Maybe if the Church recognized reality and didn’t try so "ferociously" to pressure God’s gay sons into marriages they aren’t equipped to handle in the first place by telling them it’s that way or the road to hell, no alternatives, then maybe tragedies like Kathy’s and Ann’s could be avoided.

    Fortunately, it is finally moving in that direction. It now counsels against such marriages and admits that being gay is a "core characteristic." Yet a generation ago, leaders sustained as prophets, seers and revelators preached with absolute certainty that being gay was a choice, was "curable" by traditional marriage, and was something people could be "recruited" to. Now it’s reversed course on all of that. This record of flip-flops is one reason why it’s difficult for many gay Mormons to trust anything the Church says on the subject.

  9. Alan, your phrase "God’s gay sons" tells me a lot about your stance. You make it sound like you think God purposely created them that way. Personally, I don’t think he created someone to be gay anymore than he created someone to be an alcoholic or a pedophile or a shoplifter or any other mortal weakness/compulsion. Mortal life includes flaws for us to overcome through the atonement, and we’re not meant to celebrate our flaws and embrace them as our identity.

    It’s certainly true that some, perhaps even most, men who are taken in "gayness" should not marry hetero-ly, but it’s also true that many can make hetero marriage work even if their same-sex attractions never go completely away. I personally know four such men who are in long-term successful marriages with children. I’m sure it’s a struggle at times, but there’s nothing any more "special" or "exceptional" about that struggle than many other marriage-related struggles not related to same-sex attraction.

    I’ve never heard your quote about gayness being a "core characteristic"—do you have a reference for that? As far as choice regarding gayness, the Church still claims that ACTING on same-sex attraction is a choice, which is surely is. Also, it is absolutely possible for one gay person to try to "recruit" or seduce someone else into gayness and be successful doing so, especially in a person’s younger years when sexual identity and orientation are still fluid. I have heard many people say that they became gay through trying out the sex and enjoying it, not because they felt attracted exclusively to their same gender prior to experiencing gay sex.

    So I see the Church making clarifications, but not flip-flopping like you say. I’m glad they’ve backed off from things like recommending marriage in all cases and using electro-shock therapy down at BYU. I do know that if the Church ever says it’s acceptable for people to give in to their gay inclinations, then I’m going to go ahead and start giving in to my inclinations to, for example, enjoy intoxicants once in a while, which I naturally would like to do but don’t do because it’s not in harmony with the gospel and because its unholy and impure, which also applies to gay sex. While homosexuality is more complicated than most vices, it’s still at heart a vice to be resisted, not someone’s real identity that can provide eternal happiness, even if some temporary earthly companionship and sexual gratification can be found in living gay.

    For me, this whole gay argument is really about something deeper: Is our society a secular society in which humans are the ultimate authorities and we should do whatever we feel like doing, or are we a god-fearing society that wants to find out God’s will for us and obey? I see the fight over gay rights becoming an unprecedentedly intense focal point for that deeper struggle in our society, which is why it’s so alarming to me. It’s going to make the fights over abortion and the E.R.A. look like child’s play in comparison.

  10. Eric Jensen says:

    Hi all, I have read each of the submissions on this topic, and clearly this is a group of intellegent people, some of whom have experienced a great deal of pain because of the gay issue. I don’t discount Ann or Kathy’s stories, but also don’t discount the pain your ex-husbands went through to come out. I’m facinated when straight people, especially religious ones, make outlandish statements like "Personally, I don’t think God created someone to be gay anymore than he created someone to be an alcoholic or a pedophile or a shoplifter or any other mortal weakness/compulsion." Aside from your personal conviction, how do you justify that statement? Do you feel that gay people should never experience the joy of a sexually fulfilling relationship? Sex between two loving and consenting adults, whether same or opposite gender, should be a validation of love. Wouldn’t your time be better spent showing your commitment to a loving God in helping reduce suffering, rather than creating more?

  11. Eric Jensen says:

    And Ann and Kathy, your ex-husbands have suffered from AIDS, drug use, homelessness and joblessness, which you evidently blame on their "decision" to be gay. After twenty plus years of sticking to a straight marriage, you simply write it off as a compulsion? I bet they both worked very hard for many years to not give in to their compulsion. I bet they were good fathers, good churchgoers, good men. Couldn’t it be that they felt like they weren’t living their true lives, and that before they died, they wanted to be authentic? Can you imagine the shame he must have felt in being gay, that as Chris said he was no better than a pedophile or shoplifter? My friends intolerance is always justified by the accuser.

  12. Jacob says:

    [quote]Sex between two loving and consenting adults, whether same or opposite gender, should be a validation of love. Wouldn’t your time be better spent showing your commitment to a loving God in helping reduce suffering, rather than creating more?[/quote]

    Please, I beg you, show me the scripture that says sex "should be a validation of love". I mean, you’re comment is sentimental and all, but hardly helpful to the discussion of same sex marriage.

    Oh. And I’ll spend my time doing what I believe God wants me to do. If that means buying into the pablum that gays should marry because it’s all about luuuuuv, then that’s fine. If that means opposing gay marriage, then that’s where my efforts will go.

  13. Th. says:

    .

    I find it interesting that for a generations we’ve been so proud of our moving away from marriage as a social contract to marriages based in love, and now this change has become a new source of conflict.

    In regards to arguing over this, as my new hardcore punk queer transvestite newly rebaptized active Mormon friend recently told me, "The spirit of contention is SO non-fabulous."

    (Interview coming soon on Motley Vision!)

  14. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    This discussion is moving away from Mormon literature.

  15. jendoop says:

    Chris, Thank you for the thoughtful article and your comments. The last comment outlining your view on this issue is one of the best I’ve seen (I might not have seen your other writings).

    Living ‘in the mission field’ as Utahns like to put it, I’m interested in the book, and think others who interact daily with those living gay lifestyles would be interested in understanding the issue better. (Yes, I’m saying Utahns don’t interact with gays very often.) But the word "gay" – it’s just a hot button topic and I’m sure you can understand some members knee-jerk reactions to a book on the subject. Maybe marketing could be improved? If people were to read your statement posted alongside the book or as a part of promotional materials you might find more willing to pick up a copy. I’d like to see your endeavor succeed.

  16. Eric Jensen says:

    Jendoop, you may want to say "Mormons don’t interact with gays very often" rather than Utahns, as there are plenty of gays in Utah that you interact with and may not realize.

    I love Th’s comment "The spirit of contention is SO non-fabulous." Heartily agree.

    Also, I understand Kathleen’s comment that this discussion is moving away from Mormon literature. Although I have a vastly different viewpoint on "the gay issue" (sounds reminiscentof the "jewish solution") I respect that this blog is meant to encourage dialog among Mormons about Mormon literature, so this is my final post. I understand it’s inconvenient for Mormons (and other conservative religions) that same sex attraction exists, as it doesn’t comply with Mormon doctrine, and there’s just no easy fix. I will read Jonathon’s book, and I assume it will be very convincing that there is a better path for Mormon gays, and will accomplish its goal to convince them to stay in the closet (or at least act out when no one is looking). But don’t fool yourselves that convincing words are a cure. They may stay in marriages for 20+ years before they get the strength to be authentic, and the toll that this falsehod causes on families and communities will continue.

  17. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Yes, Eric, do read Jonathan’s book. I think you are in for a surprise if that’s what you think you will find.

  18. Scott Parkin says:

    Eric, I think you do Jonathan a disservice by assuming that his intent is to convince gays to stay in the closet–not least of which is the fact that the main character is not entirely happy with that choice, but chooses to reduce the noise in his life as he seeks peace in a way that makes sense to him.

    As you suggest, the issue is a little more complex than the relatively simple solutions offered in most public discourse, and I think Jonathan’s book does a reasonably good job of telling a story about a real, complex character who hears a lot of fundamentally opposed viewpoints and finds none of them particularly satisfying as he tries to understand his own system of beliefs, allegiances, communities, and hopes.

    I’m not asking you to like anything anyone has to say about anything, but I believe you’re being a bit unfair about a book you haven’t read. You may well hate the book, but I think fundamental fairness suggests you read it before you attempt to interpret the author’s intent.

    On convincing words…every conversation has to start somewhere, and I appreciate attempts to encourage that conversation. Those with little or no firsthand knowledge will tend to converse badly at first, but at least the conversation is happening and the possibility remains that it can progress to something more meaningful.

    We still struggle with basic racial issues in this country; I suspect that less visible distinctions will take a while yet work out, especially when both sides exhibit easy readiness to walk away at the slightest hint of opposing viewpoint.

  19. Th. says:

    .

    Boy. All that telling Eric to read the book was making me defensive there for a moment.

    It’s on my nightstand, people!!!

    But you don’t mean me.

    Incidentally, it won’t go live till tomorrow morning, but here’s the link to the interview that quote came from:

    http://www.motleyvision.org/2010/pugmire-interview/

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