Saturday, November 10, 2007

No More Beards?

I actually attended the panel at the 2005 Salt Lake City Sunstone Symposium where I saw the presentation of the paper published in the October 2007 issue of Sunstone, "Clean-Shaven: No More Beards." The author's talk actually made me squirm a bit. Not because I particularly disagreed with her central argument -- that gay men and women should be allowed to choose to marry a same-sex partner if they wish -- but because of the angry tone. The predominant emotion I felt at the time was relief that I was not one Ben Christensen, some hapless homo who had earned her wrath by marrying a woman and then compounded the sin by daring to write about the experience in Dialogue. And what was worst of all when he married was he knew he was gay, and so did his fiancée! And apparently, after publishing his article in Dialogue, so did everybody else!

Now as you can see from this recent picture, I rather like beards, and so does my partner. (I've tried to shave it on numerous occasions, but he won't let me because he likes it.) We're not anti-beard in this household. But we're talking about literal beards, not the figurative type which is a pejorative term applied to the wife of a gay man. In the classic sense of this meaning of "beard," a gay man marries a woman in order to create the false impression that he is heterosexual, and then he fools around with men behind her back, all the while enjoying the benefits of heterosexual social privilege. We are not so fond of that kind of beard.

But obviously, neither is Ben Christensen. Or, maybe he just didn't get the instruction manual, because he failed to acquire a proper beard on at least two counts. He forgot that when you marry a woman, you are not supposed to announce to the whole world that you are gay. That sort of defeats the purpose of marrying a woman in order to hide your sexual identity. Second, you don't remain faithful to your wife, and make infidelity extremely difficult by announcing to her and to everyone else in advance that you are gay, thereby building a certain kind of accountability into your marriage. That to me seems like guaranteeing that you will get the worst of both worlds: public skepticism about you caused by homophobia, and private inability to experience the same-sex sexuality a very important part of you craves. It does also, on the other hand, help to ensure that your marriage is based on something like total honesty and genuine affection. Now call me crazy, but if a gay man wishes to marry a woman, he should do it exactly the way Ben did.

Now this essay did express concerns about marrying under such circumstances that I find quite legitimate. One concern is that the time for announcing your gayness to a potential opposite-sex romantic interest is early rather than late in the dating process, preferably on or before the first date. Why? Because once a woman becomes emotionally invested in a relationship, once she falls in love with someone, she is not likely to be able to think as clearly as she ought to about the realities of marrying a person of differing sexual orientation. And if you don't think that it is possible to become emotionally invested in a relationship after a single date, then you've never dated at BYU. The time for her to decide if this is really something she wants to get mixed up in is when she has zero emotional investment, and is therefore totally free to decide, "Yes, the difficulties will be worth it," or, "No, this is not what I've envisioned for me."

A second concern she expressed is that in a society and in a Church where there is such extreme bias against homosexuality, and where there are still lots of folks talking about and believing in the possibility of voluntary change in sexual orientation, it is still possible to have dangerously unrealistic attitudes going into such a marriage. Again, I agree. There's disclosure, and then there's disclosure. Telling a potential significant other that you once struggled with same-sex attraction and then leaving it at that is probably not sufficient. Encouraging a potential significant other to think in terms of life-long conditions, and maybe even pointing her to educational resources providing real-life stories of marriages that failed and marriages that succeeded under such circumstances probably is closer to what I'd consider full and fair disclosure. Inviting her to read MoHo blogs, for instance, might be a great starting point for such disclosure.

A third concern she expressed is one I agree with only partially. She complained that no one who's ever getting married has any clue what they're getting into. But no person on the verge of getting married -- gay or straight -- ever thinks seriously in terms of the possibility that this might fail. To the contrary, young engaged folks are almost always bubbling over with the we're going to take on the world and succeed where all others have failed mentality. They probably are not normal if they do not also occasionally have attacks of the what can we possibly be thinking mentality. This just goes with the territory of the two conditions of youth and marriage. And life just is not (or should not be) about always playing it safe.

I admire Ben/Mr. Fob a lot. I also respect his fundamental motives for getting married, which are obviously not (to anyone with eyes and a heart) trying to somehow wrongfully claim heterosexual privilege that doesn't/shouldn't belong to him. His motives as I understand them, as he himself has clearly explained, include wanting his own biological family, and that is an understandable, even admirable, motivation. He clearly loves FoxyJ a lot. And there are certain things about marriage that should be held sacrosanct, one of which is namely that how Ben/Mr. Fob and FoxyJ work things out between them to make their marriage thrive and be happy is their business.

There is a heartache for me, though. It is to do with the fact that while Ben and others who pursue the particular path of love he has pursued are guaranteed protections and privileges and even a certain social status, my partner and I find ourselves facing very real disadvantages and discrimination because of the path of love we have pursued. I understand our choice is evil and all that, so we probably deserve whatever we get. But still, when you truly love someone, you hate to think that he might be imprisoned just because he can't establish his citizenship through you, or that he might get really sick and be hospitalized, and you would not have the fundamental right of helping to ensure that he gets the medical care he needs, and so on. And I am aware that folks feel obliged to deny me and the love of my life those kinds of fundamental human rights, because apparently the success of the entire Western-Civilization-thing depends upon coercing us to marry heterosexually. But it is a heartache nonetheless.

I have sort of given up on the worldly marriage thing. I have gradually grown in the awareness that whatever society says and does, there comes a point where you have to grow up, face your feelings, and take responsibility for your moral choices and your relationships. You have to figure out who you are, what you want, and then accept the risks and consequences of pursuing the path that you know is right for you. In Mormon circles, there's a special term we have for that: Free Agency. I admire Ben (and Beck, and Abelard, and Geckoman, and -L- and others) for having done that, and I pray for the grace and the love and the courage to do the same.


playasinmar said...

I love a good, idealogical throw-down as much as the next extrovert but I can't help but wonder what Ben and Holly are really fighting about.

He married. He married but came out anyway. FoxyJ's a dupe. You're an egotist. No, you're an egotist.

And yes, beards are sexy.

J G-W said...

Only if they're neatly trimmed. Lorenzo Snow style beards going down to your knees are kind of a turn-off for me.

Beck said...

I'd love to grow a beard (the short trimmed kind, not the Lorenzo Snow kind), but my wife doesn't like it when I've done it (it tickles and scratches too much)so I don't - but she does allow me to grow my hair in my current hippie stage, so all isn't bad... :)

Ben is amazing. His honesty and vision are commendable.

I appreciate your view of me, but I can't help but feel how I'm living my life is anything worthy of praise. Ben, L, Gecko and Abe have progressed more honestly in their marital relationships than I have. I honor them for their examples!

J G-W said...

You know, I really ought to have included a caveat in this essay. Though I was responding to a piece specifically critical of Ben, so I had his specific situation in mind when I wrote this.

Many of us did not inform our romantic interests of our attraction to men because we ourselves had not figured out the meaning and nature of those attractions. (I include myself, because I dated women back in the day, though I decided to kill myself before I decided to propose to anyone.) Most of us in my generation were promised that those attractions were ephemeral and they would go away after marriage.

So obviously, what is really important is to be forthcoming with potential spouses/current spouses about what is going on with us, as we become aware of it. The challenge is to be in touch with our feelings, and then communicate. What more can you really do?

Beck, one of these days we'll help cure you of this penchant for beating yourself up. Your struggles are real and painful, and yet you keep getting up and facing each new day. You have a testimony (do you forget you bore it in your last post?) and you are living that testimony faithfully. Faithfully to your wife and faithfully to God. If that isn't admirable, I don't know what is. And fortunately, you don't pick who I get to admire, I do, and you can't make me take you off my list. So get over it!

J G-W said...

Oh, and you'd look cute with a beard. But you are right to let your wife make the call on this one.

Beck said...

"...So obviously, what is really important is to be forthcoming... about what is going on with us, as we become aware of it. The challenge is to be in touch with our feelings, and then communicate."

Ahhh... there's the rub! :(

Beck said...

"...Oh, and you'd look cute with a beard."

Thanks, I needed that!

FoxyJ said...

I like this John. I agree with many of your points--I had similar objections to Holly's article. I don't think either of us thought that in getting married we were somehow getting some sort of "societal privilege". We were young and naive (and still are). I also didn't like the fact that she barely mentions women in the article other than a throw-away comment that all Mormon women are too blinded by marriage and too ensnared by the patriarchy to think for themselves. Isn't the definition of assuming women are ignorant and incapable of independent thought and action misogony? Huh.

Anyways, I also don't like the assumption that because we chose to marry we are against same-sex marriage. Neither of us is, and I am like a lot of members torn between my faithfulness in the leadership of the Church and my conscience that hates inequality and discrimination.

Mr. Fob said...

Thanks for the post, John. As always, I like it when people say nice things about me. As Playa hints at, this whole thing with Holly is really about my ego more than anything else. :)

One of the bigger reasons I am for same-sex marriage is because it bothers me that the choice I made gives me social and legal privileges that other, equally valid and honorable choices deny to people like you. It's hugely unfair and simply wrong.

J G-W said...

FoxyJ - I did feel it awfully unfair to make so many assumptions about your motivations and character, rather than letting you speak for yourself. (I also thought it was unfair to assume that you had some kind of obligation to speak out just because Mr. Fob wrote about the experience from his point of view. Like I said, it's your business.) Thanks for visiting my blog! You are always most welcome here!

Mr. Fob, FoxyJ - I don't assume that because two people love each other and choose to get married that they are opposed to letting same-sex couples do the same. Nor do I assume that people who are opposed to same-sex marriage are homophobic. But I appreciate you voicing your support!

By the way, while I can't help you with the project you're working on looking for essays by spouses of same-sex oriented individuals, I'm glad you're doing the project, and look forward to seeing what evolves from it.

harrison kane said...

On that last point, we part ways. i do think that people who oppose same sex marriagetend to be motivated by internalized (maybe not fully recognized, though?) homophobia. Civil marriage extends property rights and legal protections to couples. This is most obvious not in the making of medical decisions (a favorite example), but rather in divorce. Divorce allows couples to divide property that is legally recognised as belonging to both of them. Same sex couples have this so-called community property just like het couples, but without the legal recognition and protection.

The law governs property in the broadest sense, even laws which seem somehow removed from property, like marriage. The separation of custody, for instance, harkens to a time in the not so recent past when minor children were literally, under the law, a special kind of property belonging to their parents (this is still the case; parents are permitted to raise their children however they please, within reason, even when the parents employ frequent harsh corporal punishment).

When you look at civil marriage through the lens of property rights, it seems to me that only a cruel homophobe bent on punishing people whose behavior he or she finds yucky or immoral would deny homosexual couples the right to marry. Civil marriage does not obligate religious denominations to extend religious marriage. Catholics do not perform marriages at the altar between a member of the faith and a nonmember, (like Mormons with the temple). Orthodox Jews do not recognise any civil marriage, or even marriages officiated by reform rabbis.

It's something I don't understand about Mormons, though. I read these Moho blogs sometimes and find them extremely interesting, but I'm unclear on what you who are openly gay and living with same-sex partners desire? Clearly it's not just civil marriage. Do you want the LDS church to change its position on teh gays, to openly accept you in congregation, in the temple and in marriage? I'm not being skeptical here. I am curious. That is all.

J G-W said...

Harrison - Thanks for commenting on my blog!

I agree with all your points about the value of legal same-sex marriage. I also agree that I don't see how legalizing same-sex marriage would prevent any religious body from defining marriage however they choose, since that is what they do already.

I also believe that much of the movement against same-sex marriage is driven by homophobia. However, I simply do not believe that everyone who opposes same-sex marriage is necessarily homophobic. I think it is possible to take a principled position against same-sex marriage and still desire same-sex oriented individuals to prosper and to be treated equitably.

I haven't heard a principled argument against same-sex marriage that I agree with, mind. But I don't believe it is fair to say that everyone making such arguments is automatically homophobic.

J G-W said...

Harrison - to answer your other, more personal question...

I don't, at this point, want anything from the LDS Church. I have had countless spiritual experiences that have convinced me of the existence of God and of his love for me. And I have also had many spiritual experiences and much life experience that have convinced me that the basic principles of Mormonism are true. I choose to affiliate with the Saints because that is where I experience the presence of the Holy Spirit most powerfully, and where I feel the Lord wants me to be.

The fact that many Saints have a difficult time accepting me or my relationship with my partner does not matter to me. What matters is my relationship with God and my understanding that he loves me unconditionally, and bearing witness of that relationship and that love.

Maybe someday members of the Church will be more open and loving toward gay people, and even more tolerant of gay relationships. Maybe the Church will someday modify certain positions in a way that will make it easier for me to be me, and also to express and live my faith as a Mormon. But whether such changes occur or not has nothing to do with my sense of how I should live my life or what I should believe in.

Does that answer your question?

harrison kane said...

i don't know if that answers my question. no, actually. I am still confused. but I want to make it a policy not to argue too stidently with faith.

my first job, when i was 16, was at a movie theatre in tempe, arizona. i worked with a guy named dan. i had known a couple of queer kids before dan, but not very well. dan and i started around the same time and were frequently put on the same task together--ushering, concessions, cleaning the theatres between shows, running bissels over the carpet in the lobby.

every once in a while we'd get lucky and take tickets at the door. on more than one occasion, another teenaged boy without a ticket would come with his friends and do an imploring shuffle dance, say something about how he didn't have the five bucks for the film and ask us if he could go in anyway. i didn't have the nascient affectional pull that dan did. he always said yes when i would have said no.

this has always been what gay (or, conversely, straight) is to me. When you ask someone the question, "for whom would you be willing to bend the rules" not just in theory but in situations like the one with dan, you see a kind of hope--not just the erotic hope, but the piqued interest, the desire to be desired, to be liked, to be recognised, to be, you know, whatever. for some people, i think, the answer to that question is 'nobody.' there are people who wouldn't bend the rules no matter what, and they may be the ben christensens of the world.

i am not one to say how anyone should conduct his most personal life, that is for sure. but that's what i don't get about the mohos. your church says unequivocally that what you are doing is a grave sin that puts your immortal soul in jeopardy. the church's position is that gay members should remain celibate, just like single members. the culture of the church encourages marriage and seems to me to cast suspicion on unmarried adults. when you stay with the church, and you know that something so fundamental to who you are as your affectional desires is what will come between yourself and full membership, how do you envision the future? the present is what it is, but the future is full of potential, and what is that potentiality to you? i guess that's what i want to know.

i know a so-called mixed orientation couple who say they were inspired to marry and will continue to fight the good fight so long as they continue to feel that inspiration. i do not claim to understand their marriage, but i believe it is genuine. when someone like ben christensen begins to give reasons for having married, he opens himself up to be shot down. you married because you want your own biological family? well, given that there are no guarantees would you have divorced your wife if she was infertile? What if you found you were infertile after marrying to have a biological family? In unconventional marriages, i think there is but one answer, no matter the myriad reasons you come up with to try to explain why you're doing something so many people see as doomed to fail, and that is that you felt prompted or inspired to do it. almost nobody is going to argue with your promptings, but even people of only average intelligence can find the gaping holes in others' reasoning.

J G-W said...

Harrison - First of all, thank you for that LOVELY, very wonderful notion that being gay or straight comes down to whom you would be willing to bend the rules for. What a delightful story, and beautiful analogy!

The same notion could be applied to faith, I think.

By the way, if you get to know Ben Christiansen better, I think you will learn that he is hardly the kind of person I would describe as unwilling to bend the rules for anyone. Quite the contrary.

Holly said...

The central argument of my presentation at the 2005 Sunstone was not, as you put it, "that gay men and women should be allowed to choose to marry a same-sex partner if they wish," but that female sexuality, both straight and gay, as well as the general well-being of women, are typically ignored in discussions of homosexuality in Mormondom, and that "patriarchy endows men with a sense of entitlement...that blinds them to the real cost of their actions....Whereas women are trained, through doctrines like the new and everlasting covenant, to accept, however grudgingly, that they will not have the exclusive regard or affection of their husbands, that indeed their feelings about their marriage are of secondary importance to the patriarch’s wielding of authority." I do argue that consenting adults should be legally entitled to marry same-sex spouses--as well as, coincidentally, multiple spouses--but that argument is ancillary to other primary points.

I suppose I should be grateful that you somehow missed my main argument, as you indeed validated it: you proved yourself deaf and blind to issues of female sexuality and well-being. I really don't know how you missed that stuff, but you did. You heard what was all about YOU, and ignored what was all about women. You missed this central point even in an essay by a woman devoted to women's concerns, in an issue edited by a woman devoted to women's concerns.

Wow. Thanks. Way to go.

As for the suggestion that my use of "No More Beards" in the title of my presentation is somehow inappropriate because Ben is not closeted in the same way as most men in mixed-orientation marriages: Ben is by no means the only gay man in a mixed orientation marriage I discuss, although he is the one man in a MOM I mention most often, because his arguments defending MOMs are the most objectionable and illogical I have come across. (Which isn't saying much, I admit--outside of Mormondom at least, it's hard to find defenses of MOMs. Most people can see that they're a bad choice and feel no need to defend them.) What he is really arguing for, as I have repeatedly pointed out, is approval and approbation for his choice (or any gay man's choice) to marry a woman, which you are happy to give him, and which I am not, for the overwhelming majority of women who have been involved in mixed-orientation marriages say those marriages have been the source of profound heartbreak and despair. (Things that generally cause profound heartbreak and despair tend to be less politically correct than other courses of action, to offer one brief answer to his question as to why MOMs aren't more politically correct.) I readily and repeatedly acknowledge Ben's right to do whatever the hell he wants, but I'm not going to pat him on the back for arguing that society should endorse any and all choices like his. Furthermore, the other three women on the panel were all beards at one point in their lives. Only one was informed before her marriage that her fiance was gay--and he was deep within the closet for most of their marriage.

You write that I "complained that no one who's ever getting married has any clue what they're getting into." What I actually wrote was

I doubt that even full disclosure before marriage really improves the likelihood that such marriages will succeed; in a separate response to Christensen’s essay, Marybeth Raynes states, “it is difficult, even impossible, to count the costs of being married to a gay person beforehand;” I believe the costs are even more difficult to count when the straight person in such a marriage is a Mormon woman, given how naively and earnestly hopeful Mormon women are on the topic of marriage. And despite Christensen’s announced expectation that he will never be “cured” of his same sex attraction, I suspect many gay men still marry straight women imagining they will be “cured,” leaving the woman open to blame–just as in Fales’s case--when the cure doesn’t take. But why should women rather than men bear the burden for male sexuality?

You go on to write, "But no person on the verge of getting married -- gay or straight -- ever thinks seriously in terms of the possibility that this might fail."

Actually, plenty of people think exactly that. In fact, I have been told by someone who spent almost five decades working as a therapist and marriage counselor that the majority of people who get divorced within three years of the ceremony knew before the ceremony that the wedding was a mistake. Sometimes they even go so far as to discuss with their intended calling off the wedding (as Christensen did); but they go through with it anyway, for reasons ranging from "we already paid the caterer and bought all the dresses and tuxes" to "I didn't want to hurt my fiance." And I also know people who had successful marriages spanning several decades who asked themselves, "What the hell am I doing? How on earth is this ever going to work?"

You also write, "there are certain things about marriage that should be held sacrosanct, one of which is namely that how Ben/Mr. Fob and FoxyJ work things out between them to make their marriage thrive and be happy is their business."

I don't see how that's something about marriage that should be held sacrosanct; that's something about Ben and FoxyJ. Nonetheless, I would agree with your (badly stated) premise were it not for the fact that Ben chooses to publish essays discussing the details of his marriage, while the two of them agree to be interviewed for newspaper articles on the topic, and blog about it. If Ben and Jessie want the details of their marriage to remain their business, they should refrain from discussing such details in newspapers, other print media and on the internet.

Or are you suggesting that Ben should be allowed to write whatever he wants on the topic, including using his own experience to support larger arguments about marriage, political correctness, Mormon social taboos, and relationships between gay men and straight women, and that no one should be able to criticize him or his arguments, because his writings involve a topic most people prefer to keep private?

You yourself stress in your bio on this blog that at one point you "Got really, really angry. Got loud and proud. " I have no difficulty understanding why you would be angry at the way gay women and men have been and continued to be oppressed. I think anger is a perfectly appropriate response. The same goes for subsequently getting loud and proud.

But you object to "the angry tone" of the panel I organized. You object to the fact that women are loud about the ways we have been objectified and hurt by patriarchy, particularly in marriages and relationships with gay men who have been encouraged to pursue what is best for them, with little regard for the women they involve in their struggle. You seem to object to the fact that we are proud of the ways we have claimed the right to value our own happiness and well-being as much as men value theirs. But how is our anger, our volume or our pride unjustified?

One of the women on the panel recounted how her husband refused to have sex with her the first few nights of their marriage, and how, after they finally consummated the marriage, he went in the bathroom and vomited. One of the women dealt with years of infidelity from her husband. Another has discussed the fact that her husband had absolutely no interest in their children. (I confess I don't remember if she mentioned that in the panel or if it's something I've only heard her say elsewhere; still, it's part of what upset her about the the whole business.) Are these not valid reasons for anger, particularly in light of the fact that for most of the time that the church has even acknowledged the existence of homosexuality, it has encouraged men to pursue these sorts of marriages--without informing the women they choose to marry of what's going on?

I think your discomfort with the "tone" has much to do with something you acknowledged in a comment on Ben's blog: you continue to defend the church, to seek full recognition and status in it, even though it continues to oppress and hurt women in ways far more basic and damaging even than those in which it oppresses gay men. I don't know how you reconcile that, but I hope someday you will seek to understand and advocate for women's rights, even at the expense of some of your own privileges and prestige, in the same way many straight people have sought to advocate for gay rights even at the risk of censure from the church and other institutions they belong to. After all, it's the ethical thing to do.

J G-W said...

Hello, Holly. I'm glad you've commented on my blog. Your lengthy post suggests a certain kind of respect, and I'm grateful for that as well. I suppose I've gotten off to a bad start with you, and I honestly wish it weren't so. My friend Jim said he had a very interesting chat with you at the non-fiction writers' conference in Iowa, and he shared with me some of your observations about lesbian and gay politics, all of which I agreed with (at least, as he conveyed them to me).

In fact, there's very little of anything you've written or said on the subject that I can take issue with. I agree that women's experience and perspectives need to be taken more seriously, and that women's voices need to be heard more often -- at least as often as we hear men's, if not more, given past imbalances. Women's needs and wants are as important in marriage as a man's. And you'd have to be some kind of sociopath not to feel anger and sadness about the things that were done to the other women who spoke on your Sunstone panel. I'm certainly not, for Heaven's sake, about promoting mixed orientation marriages. Though I will gladly support in any way I can those who freely choose -- for whatever reason -- to enter them.

One of the factors that led to the despair I experienced before nearly committing suicide in 1986 was my awareness that I could never marry, because I could never give a woman what she needed. At that point, it certainly wasn't about meeting my own needs. It took a long time after leaving the church for me to come to the point where I could accept that my options were anything but (hetero) marriage or celibacy. Finding my own happiness was not something I accepted easily. I dare say a lot of gay Mormon boys grow up socialized the same way.

I did get angry. I was angry for almost 20 years. Anger helped me find myself; it protected the very most vulnerable parts of me until I could find a different kind of strength. Anger can even be effective at creating certain kinds of solidarity.

Anger is not so functional when it comes to communicating across difference. In fact, anger is dysfunctional for that. It frightens and intimidates. It shuts people down and closes off communication. I've also found that while anger got me to a very important place in my life, it also closed me off from important things that I needed to learn, and cut me off from very important aspects of myself that I've needed to integrate in order to evolve as a human being.

I didn't say you don't have a right to your anger. I was entitled to my anger, and you're entitled to yours. I do empathize with Ben. I consider him my friend. I'd just as soon discuss issues related to marriage without making him (or anyone) the enemy.

As far as my relationship to the Church goes... I've resigned myself to spending the rest of my life as a persona non grata in the Church. If I were primarily concerned about recognition and status in the Church, I could easily achieve it by dumping my partner. I believe the Church is supposed to be about embodying love, which means all of us needing to stick with each other and work out true community based on mutuality and service. That means being part of a community that isn't perfect.

I believe Joseph was moving the Church toward full equality of the sexes in the late Nauvoo period, with a theology that recognized female and male divinity on an equal plane, and that would eventually have established women as priesthood holders. I believe that eventually, when things on Earth become as they are in Heaven, that kind of mutuality and equality between the sexes is what will reign. I look forward to that time.

I do advocate for the rights of women. I have put time, energy and money into efforts to advance women's rights.

I defend the Church and I choose to participate in it as much as I can, because I believe that is the only way it can become the kind of community I want it to be.

I don't consider you my enemy any more than I could ever consider Ben my enemy, and I think it would be silly for us to argue. Hope you can come to feel the same way.

Holly said...


for the record: I have never assumed that you or Ben were politically opposed to gay marriage. I have only pointed out--and Ben has verified--that at a crucial time in his life, when he first had the epiphany that he was not exempt from heavenly father's plan for his children to marry, he was unable to imagine the possibility of gay marriage for himself.

I discuss women consistently throughout my essay, far more often, in fact, than I mention men. For example, I spend several paragraphs talking about female sexual desire, as well as several more on the reasons why straight women participate in girl-on-girl action. I discuss the goals and history of the feminist movement. There's plenty there about women if you want to find it. Nor do I consider my comments about the ways in which women are trained to put their husbands concerns before their own and to be "naively and earnestly hopeful on the topic of marriage" "throwaway," as you termed them. I consider those comments very central to the larger point I am making. I realize, of course, that those comments are implicit criticisms of the choices you have made, but frankly I think the criticisms are justified.

I do not believe that women are the least bit incapable of independent, rational thought. I do believe, however, that there are institutions that strive to stifle women's independent, rational thought. I believe the Mormon church is one of them. I believe it is the church's attempt to stifle women's independent, rational thought that is misogynist, rather than my calling attention to ways that the attempt has succeeded.

Holly said...


You write that "Anger is not so functional when it comes to communicating across difference. In fact, anger is dysfunctional for that. It frightens and intimidates." What were the shared characteristics of the speakers on the panel; what were the predominate characteristics of the audience; what were the primary differences/similarities among both?

The women on the panel
1. Had Mormon backgrounds
2. Had been in love with gay men
3. Had suffered terribly in their mixed orientation relationships
4. Had come to the conclusion that it is unwise to encourage people to enter into MOMs
5. Were advocates of gay rights

It's a little tricky to generalize about the audience, because it was huge and I of course don't know everyone who attended. But there are a couple of safe assumptions about the majority of the audience members:

1. They had Mormon backgrounds
2. They were advocates of or at least sympathetic to gay rights. (I base that assumption on the general tenor of Sunstone panels and publications on the topic of homosexuality.)
3. As I could see from my position on the stage, the audience was overwhelmingly male.
4. Given that my panel followed immediately after Carol Lynn Pearson's presentation on her new book, and given the number of men who approached me after the panel and told me they were gay, I think it's safe to assume that a fair number of those male attendees were gay men.
5. Some of those gay men had suffered terribly in MOMs.
6. Some of those gay men wanted to avoid the suffering in MOMs.
7. Again, given the general tenor of Sunstone panels and publications on various topics, I think it's safe to assume that the majority of straight men in the audience had an interest in gay equality, women's empowerment, the suffering women typically endure in MOMs, or all of the above.
8. As for the women, I know that several were dealing with heartbreak of failed MOMs; others had gay friends or loved ones.

So.... what are the primary differences? I see a lot of similarity there. I admit I expected some reactions like yours, and was gratified and pleased by the number of men who approached me afterwards and thanked me, who told me that now that they had children, they couldn't bear for anyone to do to their daughters what they'd done to their wives. It went on and on. I got emails for several months afterwards.

You simultaneously acknowledge that anger was a justified response, and you even write, "you'd have to be some kind of sociopath not to feel anger and sadness about the things that were done to the other women who spoke on your Sunstone panel." And still you stress that you were put off by "the angry tone" of the panel. But I would further point out that anger was by no means the only emotion expressed. There was also heartbreak and grief. And there were positive emotions as well. All the women talked about how grateful they are for what they've learned from their gay friends. I quoted a long passage from Virginia Woolf about what she called "the society of buggers" (or the friendship of gay men) and the ways that understanding the lives and passions of gay men changed the whole of her life. (I wanted to include that in the magazine article, but the editor nixed it.) The panel and the panelists expressed affection, admiration, respect and concern for gay men--as well as concern and regard for other women who marry them. Some panelists even expressed affection, respect and concern for the church.

But you missed all that, and focused on the anger, just as you missed my argument about the way discussions of homosexuality ignore the concerns of women, and focused on the bit about gay marriage. That, JGW, says considerably more about you than it does about the panel or the panelist.

As for supposing that "[you've] gotten off to a bad start with [me]"..... Well, you proved my central argument by missing it, and you wrote a glib, superficial critique of my presentation and my essay that doesn't even include a single direct quote from either. Yeah, I'd say that pretty much qualifies as a bad start. I suppose it helps a little that you admit to me that "In fact, there's very little of anything you've written or said on the subject that I can take issue with." But given the importance of the topic to begin with, given that you claim to care about women's issues (could you point me to some evidence of that claim? Unfortunately I haven't found much in your recent work in Sunstone and Dialogue--or your blog roll, which has links to 30 blogs, only three of which seem to be by female bloggers), and given the respect I have shown you elsewhere in the blogosphere, I think a more nuanced, careful critique of my statements would have been warranted.

A couple other things.

Re: your speculation as to what Joseph Smith might have done in Nauvoo.... I consider Joseph Smith a sexual predator of the first stripe (think David Koresh), and imagine that had he not been assassinated, his megalomania would likely have destroyed the church within a few years. But I also believe that speculating about what someone would have done had s/he not died is a fairly futile exercise.

Re: your original post. You write, "Now call me crazy, but if a gay man wishes to marry a woman, he should do it exactly the way Ben did." But Ben violates what you admit is an important consideration in pursuing a MOM: you also write, "the time for announcing your gayness to a potential opposite-sex romantic interest is early rather than late in the dating process, preferably on or before the first date....if you don't think that it is possible to become emotionally invested in a relationship after a single date, then you've never dated at BYU." As he acknowledges in his essay, he cultivated a correspondence with Jessie with an eye to marriage, and they went on several dates and were already discussing marriage before he told her of his homosexuality. Further, you also acknowledge that "there is disclosure, and then there is disclosure." According to his essay, Ben provided mere "disclosure."

So which is it? Is he really the model other gay men should emulate if they want to marry straight women, or were there ways in which he had room for improvement?

Re: Your statement that you "respect [Ben's] fundamental motives for getting married, which are obviously not (to anyone with eyes and a heart) trying to somehow wrongfully claim heterosexual privilege that doesn't/shouldn't belong to him."

My argument is not that he's ["claiming] heterosexual privilege that doesn't/should belong to him," but that he's exercising male privilege he simply has. After which, he expects the support of feminists, suggests a comparison between his situation and those of women and people of color (from which he is now trying to distance himself), and wonders why his choice--which is, as I have already noted, generally one that causes heartbreak and misery--doesn't get more respect and support from society in general.

Finally, re: your statement that "I don't consider you my enemy any more than I could ever consider Ben my enemy, and I think it would be silly for us to argue. Hope you can come to feel the same way." I don't consider you my enemy--I don't particularly think that way. I agree that it would be silly for us to argue, particularly given that you have already acknowledged that " there's very little of anything [I've] written or said on the subject that [you] can take issue with." But I do hope I have made you aware of the ways in which you have laid yourself open in your discussions not only of homosexuality in Mormondom, but of Mormon culture and doctrine in general, to the central critique I offer in my work: you sometimes ignore female experience and female well-being in your writing, even when the former is vitally important to understanding the full situation and the latter is vitally threatened by the issue as you frame it. Cease to do that, and I will have little reason to object to your statements.

Holly said...

p.s. Yes, real beards are sexy. I was surprised when I went home for Thanksgiving to see how great my brother looked with a full beard--his wife is thrilled. As for beards on gay men, I suggest you check out the photo in Sunstone of my gay ex and his husband--they both sport absolutely fabulous facial hair. I have always liked the way beards look--and, when I've dated a man who wears one, how they feel as well.

J G-W said...


Thanks again for responding in depth to my response. I thought maybe you'd had your say and weren't planning to come back. I assume you don't put a lot of energy into dialoguing with folks you consider enemies or hopeless causes. And you really are a person I'd rather consider a friend than the opposite, so again, I'm grateful to continue the conversation. I now also sincerely regret the glib tone and narrow focus of my treatment of your essay in my original post.

First, let me clarify my response to the 2006 Sunstone panel. In general, I was deeply moved. Nothing any of your panelists said threatened me in the least, though what they had to say did leave me with feelings of grief. As I've already said, I have always known at a very deep level that marriage was not for me. Also part of what I "knew" is how deeply unfair it would have been to any woman I might marry. When I heard your panelists' stories, I felt grateful that I chose to go with what I knew.

(Parenthetically, other gay men clearly "know" this at some very deep level too. We get into trouble, I think, when we let our sense of what we're "supposed" to know override what we do know. Personally, all I can do on this score is tell my story, and hope it will encourage other gay men to trust the "knowing" that comes from that deepest, most profound place -- even when it goes against what everyone who counts in their lives has been telling them since they where yea high to a grasshopper.)

One thing that really made me uncomfortable was the vitriol you directed at the Church, which led me to assume (correctly, I guess) that you would judge someone like me extremely harshly for loving and wanting anything to do in any way with an institution like the Church, which you consider evil. The other thing that bothered me was the vitriolic tone you used against Ben. I think you could have made your point without that.

You said I "sometimes ignore female experience and female well-being in [my] writing, even when the former is vitally important to understanding the full situation and the latter is vitally threatened by the issue as you frame it." In general, I consider myself most competent to discuss my own experience, so you surely aren't faulting me for wanting to focus on that. When I almost committed suicide in 1986, it wasn't because of unfair treatment of women (though at the time, I did feel a sense of despair about my recent awareness of some outrageous treatment of certain women in my family), it was because I saw no way to exist in this world as a gay man. So much of my focus since then has been to find ways to exist.

I am concerned about women's experience and well-being, I do listen to and am grateful for their voices and stories, and I do reflect on the implications of my life and behavior for women. In most of my writing, to the extent that I reflect on women's experience and well-being, I generally stress the importance of self-determination, equality and fairness as regards practical concerns, and my sincere belief in the equality and divinity of women as regards spiritual concerns. I support lesbian rights and lesbian relationships, which means that I also (inherent to that notion) support the right of women to create community, and build networks and relationships that are completely independent of men if they so choose. I believe in reproductive freedom, I believe in equal pay, workplace equality, and freedom from sexual harassment. I also believe that ultimately the Church will best reflect the divine pattern when women can hold the priesthood and positions of real ecclesiastical authority.

When you say women's experience and well-being is "sometimes" "vitally threatened by the issue as [I] frame it." Perhaps you can clarify if I'm wrong, but I have to assume by this that you are referring to my theological views and my desire to be a part of the Church.

I'm aware of feminist critiques of atonement-based theology. I agree with some of them, and I think some of them can help clarify how certain ways of approaching the atonement can be abusive and disempowering to women. Perhaps I can clarify my views on this subject best in another post.

As for my relationship (or lack of relationship) with the Church, I've already explained my feelings in this regard. You and I have different ideas on what the Church is and how it is supposed to function, I think. All I can say more on this score is that I've found the profoundest, most lasting, truest growth and transformation always takes place in the context of relationship. That is why I have insisted on my right to be in relationship with my partner, even as I seek a positive relationship with the Church. It is also why I hope for a relationship with you.

(That was not, by the way, anything like a proposal.)

And yes, I noticed the lovely facial hair on your friends in the photo accompanying your article in Sunstone. Very dashing. I wish I looked that good in a beard.

P.S. My rule of thumb has been to link to other people's blogs when they comment on mine. I actually searched for your blog some time ago so I could start reading it, but I couldn't find it. I finally found it after following your profile link from a comment on someone else's blog, and I have been following it since then.

If you don't mind, since you've commented (and then some) on my blog, I would love to link to your blog from mine.

Holly said...


Thanks for your response. I appreciate the care and concern in your last comment.

I don’t suppose there’s a lot that requires elaboration, but there are a few points I want to touch upon.

I do not think I used a particularly “vitriolic tone” against Ben. At one point I said something like, “Poor Ben Christensen--he’s probably a really lovely person in real life, but he just wrote such a bad essay.” (I don’t have a copy of the panel, so I can’t vouch for the exact wording, but I remember very clearly making that comment.) When you publish something, you have to deal with the fact that people might disagree quite strongly with the position you’ve taken. And as Ben continues to admit, my critiques of his essay are in many regards justified. (I have every confidence that before too long, he’ll also back off on this “why aren’t MOMs more politically correct?” business because the answer is so bleedin’ obvious if you just THINK about it for moment.)

I admit that I consider the church a dreadful institution in many regards. But I have also tried to see and defend the value the of the spiritual training the church provides. You might check out “Mormonism as Praxis,” which includes all the presentations plus my introduction, in Sunstone 135 (December 2005).

When I say women's well-being is "sometimes" "vitally threatened by the issue as you frame it," I was referring to your discussion of MOMs in the summer 2007 Dialogue. Although there were elements I found quite admirable, I thought with regards to the issue of MOMs, the approach was superficial and left much to be desired. For example: you discuss Lester Leavitt’s marriage, and the decision he and his wife reached to separate after 25 years of marriage. You quote a letter from him, in which he writes, “We reached the point that she wanted what was best for me, our love had become that strong.”

Well, I wanted what was best for my gay ex from the beginning--it didn’t take me 25 years of marriage to get to that point. And at what point did Lester want what was best for his wife? There is plenty there to critique--gently, if you wish to do so--but still, I think these issues need to be confronted more directly.

In any event, I am flattered and pleased that you would like to link to my blog, and I will return the favor if that’s OK with you.