Thursday, August 30, 2007

I'm Not a Gay Mormon, But I Play One in Angels in America

Yesterday I had dinner with David, a young aspiring actor and student at Macalester College in St. Paul. He's playing the role of Joe Pitts in the school's production of Angels in America, and he wanted to talk to a real, live, gay Mormon "who came of age in the 1980s!!" I realized he couldn't have been born any earlier than 1985. For the first time in my life I actually felt old.

I shared with him my story, and pieces of the stories of other people I've come to know along the way. My three best friends at BYU, all of whom were gay (though I wasn't aware of it at the time), and two of whom, like me, were suicidal. I told bits of the stories of some of the folks I've come to know well in returning to the fold, including some of you.

I told him what it was like for me growing up in the Church. Which for the most part was an experience of feeling surrounded by love. Loving parents and family. Loving bishops and teachers and quorum leaders. I talked about what it was like becoming a priesthood holder as a youth, what it was like getting ready to go on a mission. I talked about patriarchal blessings, and getting ready for the temple. And I talked about struggling with feelings of unworthiness as I became aware of my gay feelings. I talked about Packer and the infamous talk, and The Miracle of Forgiveness, and various statements I heard made by priesthood leaders and bishops and stake presidents.

As I talked, I had this insight about why I wanted to kill myself. It wasn't because the Church hated me or treated me cruelly. It was the opposite. It was because the Church loved me. Because it made me feel warm and safe and protected, and a part of something, a part of the very best thing I could possibly be a part of. And when I was confronted with losing that, and when my faith began to fall to pieces, I felt like there was nothing left for me. Literally nothing.

He quizzed me about my mission, and I talked about how I felt incredibly close to every single one of my companions, how every transfer broke my heart. And how I also struggled and felt anguished because I felt attracted to every single one of them.

I talked about how some guys have related how they closed themselves off from male friendships because they were afraid of what it might open up in them. That was never me. I talked about how some guys have had to separate the Mormon thing from the sexuality thing, how they have had to compartmentalize and almost create two versions of themselves, and what a struggle it is to try to bring those things together.

I talked about what a powerful thing the Church is in our lives. I told him about men I knew of who had been in same-sex partnerships and left them in order to be reunited with the Church. I talked about my own journey back, with its attendant struggles and heartaches and joys.

He quizzed me about gay married Mormon men. He needed insight into how his character, Joe Pitts, would relate to his wife Harper. I said, "The bottom line, the thing you need to understand most is, the gay married Mormon guys I know love their wives. They love them deeply, sometimes more than they love themselves. They would lay their lives down for them. In a sense they already have. When things go wrong in the relationship, they have a tendency to blame themselves. They feel responsible. These guys are some of the sweetest, most humble, most sensitive guys I know." I dunno, guys, did I represent? That's truly my perception of you... He took copious notes.

I actually felt the Spirit there as we spoke. I felt really good. Later, after I went home I prayed a prayer of gratitude, because looking back over my life, and looking where I've come to, I feel so blessed.

When we had finished, he thanked me very warmly and gave me a good strong handshake. I told him, "You've got a Mormon handshake there!" He laughed.

He said, "I'm so glad I talked to you. I've talked to other folks, but from you I got a more positive view of the Church. That's the view I think Joe would have had."

"Yes," I smiled.

I'm sure Joe's view of the Church was complicated. But on balance, good.


-L- said...

I really enjoyed Angels in America (somehow despite that I felt the whole thing was antagonistic to me personally... bizarrely). There was so much I could identify with, and there was so much that seemed so steeped politically and ideologically that it was distracting.

Joe may have been a good caricature of some MOMs--feeling trapped and unhappy--but certainly not mine. When I feel tempted to cruise, or get a crush on someone, or get worked up and anxious about life, the person I go to for understanding and comfort is my best friend, my wife. She understands the struggle in a way Harper never even began to approach, and consequently fills my needs in a wonderful way.

GeckoMan said...

Thanks, John, for the "sweet" endorsement! I'm not familiar with the play, but L's synopsis of "trapped and unhappy" is certainly a place where I've been and have had to work myself out of. In fact, I'm loving my wife more and more as I'm coming to better terms with my gayness and including her in; she is rising to the occasion herself with love and understanding, so I'm winning on most fronts currently.

I've gotten the perception from many of us Mohos who married in the 70's or 80's that the full realization of gay didn't come along until later in marriage; it did for me. We weren't flaming gays in high school--we were tightly under wraps. We didn't have the cultural questioning and loosening of attitudes toward gay issues at key crossroads in life that occur in your twenties. And perhaps most significantly, we didn't have access to forums like this where we could explore with others what being gay meant to us, or see the variety of options being played out in people's lives. But once one marries and has kids to nurture, the whole equation gets very sticky because you've got serious allegiances in more than one camp.

Some of us have succeeded; certainly some have given up on their marriages. There's probably a good many more out there not aware of this Mohosphere and not sure what to do with their situation. Some 280 individuals subscribe to the Disciples2 list which provides some comfort and a place for discussion of issues. Others use counseling and various therapies to come to peace. Whatever our road is, I hope it is one of reconciliation to self, to spouse, the church (as active or not), and most importantly to Heavenly Father.

J G-W said...

-L- It's funny how my take on the Joe Pitts character has evolved. When I first saw the play, I felt like Joe Pitts vindicated my staying away from the Church. I realized how much things had changed for me when I was contacted by this acting student who wanted to interview me in preparation for the role. In thinking about the character, I actually felt a kind of a ache, some sadness about how he is portrayed and how he is sort of left out in the cold at the end of the play. You're right, he is a caricature, and a sad one.

When I was sharing my observations of real life MOM's, David actually got excited. He was saying, "This is good! This is good!" and, as I said, he was taking copious notes. So I hope our talk will have some positive impact on this production, and maybe redeem that character a little bit, even if only a little bit!

J G-W said...

Geckoman - It's interesting you mention the issue of timing. Yes, the 1970s and 80s was a much different time in terms of coming out and coming to terms with some of this stuff. We actually spent a fair amount of time talking about that as well...

MoHoHawaii said...

I'm glad you did this. It may result in a more nuanced portrayal.

I find the character of Joe Pitts unsympathetic. He's a cold apparatchik. The tortured-gay-Mormon part comes through pretty well, but what the script misses is the passion of belief.

Overall, I don't care for the play because I find it morally corrupt. It panders to its audience and excuses inexcusable disloyalty on the part of Louis, who is clearly the character meant to represent Kushner himself. (Louis abandons his dying lover.)

The play is pretty much a must-see for MoHos. You can probably can rent the DVD of the HBO production or check out the script from your local library. There are two parts Millenium Approaches and Perestroika.

John, are you going to go see the eventual performance?

J G-W said...

Oh, yes. I absolutely have to see it now.

I've never seen it on stage. I've read it, and I saw the HBO version. After our conversation I'm going to be very curious to see how David portrays Joe Pitts. I think your take on the weakness of the character in the play is right on.

I'll post a review of it after I've seen it!

Anonymous said...

i saw the original stage production--don't know whether there have been changes--in which joe was a very lonely guy. not so much trapped (not much of a trap--he got out pretty easily) and lonely more than unhappy.

i didn't feel that mormanism was being dissed, any more than judism. they were just the playwright's symbols of establishment. Could just as well have been catholics and southern baptists.

i'm curious how straight actors feel about playing gay roles (especially in this play with physical contact and some nudity).

Elbow said...

I love Angels in America, it's so brilliant and still continues to make me think.

You're a great person for him to speak with. I love how positive you are and I love that you felt the spirit and that you...pray. I haven't done that (really done that as much as I should). So you've inspired me further to pray more.

And, last but not least. I listended to your podcast for sunstone!!!! I loved it and felt so connected to it. I was so happy to hear your voice and even though we've never met I felt like I was listening to a friend. Thanks for sharing your story and being so full of integrity in the process.

Ron Schow said...


You said...

"I dunno, guys, did I represent? That's truly my perception of you... He took copious notes."

You raise a most interesting question when you ask how to represent the gay married Mormon man.

I thought, as I read of your efforts to orient David who will play "Joe," of the two LDS guys and their marriages that were described in our documentary films. You can watch them or David could and see if they help him. I was told recently that our 3 films of LDS gay guys have more than 100,000 hits on Google. I assume a few people feel these are representative guys of all those who have tried LDS MOMs. But they cannot represent the full range of guys out there. Some are like Joe. Some are like L. Some are like Ben or Beck or Abelard and so many others.

It is a challenging thing to try to answer how to represent them all. There must be a variety of different categories. Geckoman says there are 280 on the Disciples2 list. Are they all married on that list or a mixture of married and single? I have been told they receive over 300 contacts every month at Evergreen and about half are from those directly affected by SGA. Of these 150+, 40% come from married men. That is 60+ men per month. 50% of their contacts are with single men. That is 75+. These are the ones in some distress, I assume, calling for help. I assume they are mainly the 5s and 6s. I believe those who are 4s and lower on the HH Scale have less challenge and less need to call for help or advice.

It would be fascinating if we could draw a truly random sample of 100 LDS married guys with SGA and see what the different subgroups would be like. How many would be like "Joe" etc.

Thanks for sharing your experience, John.

J G-W said...

Santorio - You're probably right about the role of Mormonism in the play... When I read the original script, I remember thinking that Tony Kushner didn't seem to have much of a feel for what it was really like to be a Mormon -- it just didn't ring true for me. When I saw the HBO production, however, it seemed better and more authentic. I think a lot can be done by actors and directors to translate a script into a flesh and blood stage production that feels more real. That's why I was glad to see that both this actor and the director wanted to make some effort to get Mormonism "right."

Elbow - Thanks so much! I'm glad you enjoyed the podcast interview, by the way...!

Ron - As you know, I've watched your documentaries (some of them 3 or 4 times!). In my recent Dialogue article, I described how two married gay Mormons I knew of at the time were attempting to move forward. The more gay Mormons I become acquainted with (married, unmarried, and same-sex partnered), the more impressed I am at how impossible it is to make sense of our lives or our experiences by applying stereotypes or simple formulas.

I don't doubt that the "Joe Pitts" character in AIA is representative of at least some. I'm glad I had an opportunity to present a more complicated picture, and at least give him something to think about, some handles on how to maybe interpret that character in a less stereotypical way.

Clark said...

Wow I remember when I saw this HBO version I just layed there watching it and felt just stunned. I was nearly emotionally paralyzed honestly. I don't even know what I was feeling but it was definitely a lot. Joe certainly would make nearly any gay mormon sympathize, especially when played by someone as cute as Patrick Wilson.

I think that kid is so lucky he talked to you-- I would agree that men in this situation love their wives so much. Of all my friends who are currently in mixed-orientation marriages-- that is a common thread that I have observed. Harper is clearly not a good candidate to be in a marriage like that, as she seems to have just as many issues as Joe if not more. The only difference is that her issues do not really put her at odds with the culture of the church the way Joe's do.

In any case, hopefully you will post a full report on the show and how you enjoy it.

Thanks a lot of posting on my blog even though im new.. the welcome wagon is greatly appreciated!!