Wednesday, October 27, 2010

No Going Back: A Review

No Going Back by Jonathan Langford is essentially the coming out story of a gay Mormon teenager. It is also -- and this is very important! -- the story of all the significant people in his life, and the impact his coming out has on their own journeys of faith, and the impact that they have on his. The main character in the novel, Paul Ficklin, struggles to understand himself, and to find a voice and a place, both in the Church and in the world.

The novel occasionally reads a bit like an After School Special or a Church educational film in print -- except for the PG-13 parts, where euphemistic references are made to erections and masturbation and... an incident that isn't explicitly described except in a confession scene between Paul and his bishop. The novel also -- refreshingly, for literature aimed at an LDS audience -- does not shy away from the word "gay." Or, I should say, the novel acknowledges the reality that the word "gay" has entered the American English vernacular as a word simply denoting anybody attracted predominantly to members of their same sex. I suspect Langford recognized that had he, for the sake of Churchly political correctness, insisted on constantly afflicting the reader with terms like "same-gender attraction" he would have lost from the get-go what is evidently his prime target audience: Mormon youth growing up in the new millennium, youth who increasingly have openly gay acquaintances and friends at school.

No Going Back is told from the viewpoint of an omniscient third-person narrator, a literary device of which I am not a fan. However, I ultimately came to agree that using this narrative voice was the right choice for this novel because of the importance of telling this particular story from the different perspectives of each of the significant characters. Langford has done a beautiful job of portraying the nuanced impacts that each character in the story has on each of the others. And this is, in fact, what I love about this novel, what I believe makes it so powerful and important.

This novel is also important because though the main character is gay it is primarily not about sexuality but about faith, about what nurtures as well as what strangles faith. Though there were a few stylistic and philosophical things in the novel that bothered me (I've already covered the stylistic and I'll get to the philosophical later), I found myself deeply encouraged by this story, and deeply gratified that the author of this novel understands and values faith, and has told us a very realistic story about the difference that faith can make in a person's life.

A very important strand of the story involved showing the reader how terribly things could have gone wrong in the life of the main character if the most important people in his life had not been there for him, and if they had not been able to transcend their own prejudices and limitations in order to reach out to him. Paul Ficklin's lifelines, so to speak, were his (straight) best friend Chad, his bishop (who just happened to be Chad's father), and his divorced single mom. Each of these individuals let themselves be guided first and foremost by their love for and loyalty to Paul, and it was for the sake of that love and loyalty that they were willing to question certain ideas about homosexuality that they would have all but taken for granted if it had not been for Paul.

I was particularly moved by the relationship portrayed between Paul and his bishop, precisely because there is a moment portrayed in that relationship that very much reminded me of my relationship with my bishop at a critical moment in my own journey of faith.

Paul had been called as the teachers quorum president, but at some point after receiving his calling, in a moment of loneliness and depression, he looked at some Internet pornography with a friend and allowed that friend to masturbate him. The key moment in the novel is when Paul confesses what he has done to his bishop. Under such circumstances, one might expect his bishop to release him from his calling and perhaps even take other measures, such as requiring him to stop taking the sacrament or even perhaps going so far as to disfellowship or excommunicate him. Instead, Paul's bishop makes a pact with Paul. Paul promises never to engage in that kind of behavior again, and his bishop asks him to call daily and check in with him until they feel sure that Paul won't slip up. They talk about ways that Paul can be safe in his Internet use, and the importance of Paul avoiding situations that involve being in a house alone with a gay friend. Though his bishop is uncomfortable with Paul's participation in the Gay Straight Alliance at school (where Paul met the friend he ended up getting sexual with), the bishop does not forbid Paul from continuing to participate in the group. He lets Paul make those kinds of choices on his own. Most importantly, he keeps Paul as teachers quorum president.

Paul's bishop's actions motivated Paul to keep trying to do what he -- in his heart of hearts -- knew was right. They gave Paul a reason to keep trying. They sent Paul the message, in concrete ways, that Paul was good and that he was a valuable member of God's kingdom.

When I read this scene, I remembered a very similar situation in my own life. In my case, I had not looked at pornography. I had never let another guy touch me or been sexual in any way with another guy. I did struggle with masturbation. My BYU bishop had extended a calling to me to be a ward clerk. In the interview, I admitted that though I did my best to avoid masturbating, I occasionally succumbed to the temptation. My bishop told me he would not be extending me a calling after all. He took away my temple recommend. And he told me to stop taking the sacrament until I had been masturbation-free for a minimum of three months. I was shattered. I felt like the scum of the earth. When I pleaded with my bishop for advice about how to accomplish what he was asking of me, he suggested that I consider getting married as soon as possible. My bishop didn't offer to schedule regular talks or interviews to help me with this "problem." He wanted to see me again after I had been masturbation free for three months. That was pretty much the end for me. The short version of the story is the only appointment I was ultimately able to envision after that was an appointment with a running car motor in a closed garage. Thanks be to God, I found a better way, with the caring, kind assistance of an Episcopal priest.

The bishop in Langford's novel, by the way, does not stress excessively about masturbation. He encourages efforts at self-control, but not getting down on oneself because of it or "obsessing" about it. A central moral of Langford's tale is that our actions do have an impact on others. Yes, we can make the difference between a gay youth finding a way forward knowing that he is loved and valued, or literally perishing in unbelief -- a message more timely now in light of current events than ever! Langford presents an unstinting portrait of Mormon homophobia. He portrays Mormon youth taunting and belittling Paul and Mormon adults gossiping about him and referring to homosexuality as "evil." He portrays Mormon adults railing against homosexuality in Church meetings and describing it as a sign of "the end times." Paul is denied advancement to the rank of Eagle Scout because he is openly gay. And Paul's bishop is portrayed as having to face criticism for allowing an openly gay youth to hold a leadership position in the ward. Ultimately, in fact, the taunting and ostracism of Paul by the youth of the ward and the discrimination on the part of the Boy Scouts of America are portrayed as the driving factors in Paul's clinical depression, his need to go on anti-depressant meds, and the decision of Paul's mom to move so that Paul could get a fresh start somewhere else. (Did she really have to move to Utah though?)

Even though homophobia is (rightly!) portrayed as having a painful and devastating effect on Paul, Paul is also (rightly!) portrayed as having the ability to transcend the pettiness and hateful behavior around him, to find the inner strength that enables him to live and have joy, regardless of outward circumstances and regardless of the unkind ways others try to define him. And, in the end, the key to the inner strength that Paul finds is his testimony and his relationship with God. Once Paul finds that, he is able to face extreme circumstances with equanimity and with charity.

The issue for gay Mormons, I believe, is not to reconcile our homosexuality and the Church. It is to access the resources of courage, love, and hope that faith permits us to access. Homophobia in the Church is a stumbling block, to be sure. But if homophobia in the Church is to be overcome, it will be because we understand the larger picture of what faith is and why it is important. We will overcome homophobia in the Church not because we find some way to fit homosexuality into Mormon theology, but rather because we learn to see God more clearly, with eyes unclouded by fear. I think Jonathan Langford, in the way he has unfolded this story, has understood and done a good job of portraying this profound truth.


Having said that, I do have a couple of reservations about the resolution portrayed in the novel, and the message it potentially sends to LDS readers, both gay and straight.

This novel is about choices, and specifically the choices faced by gay Mormons. There are several key points where characters in the novel are portrayed saying things like, "[Paul is] going to be making a lot of choices over the next few years that will make a difference for -- well, forever." For the main character of this novel, those choices presumably include whether or not ultimately to seek a committed relationship with a person of the same sex.

But in relation to that choice in particular, there's a kind of bait and switch in the novel. The novel certainly places this question at center stage, given the central role in the novel of the political debate over gay marriage. Conflict over gay marriage and the reactions of individuals to this political debate drive most of the action in the second half of the novel. There are also moments in the novel when both Paul's mother and his bishop are portrayed musing about same-sex relationships. But Paul -- the gay Mormon character -- does not.

This is significant. There is never a moment in the novel where Paul gives serious consideration to the possibility of a committed relationship with a person of the same-sex. At some level, this is natural. The novel essentially portrays one year in the life of a 15-year-old gay Mormon. Any kind of committed relationship -- gay or straight -- was certainly the furthest thing from my mind when I was 15. In Mormon culture, 15 years old is not even old enough to date, much less think about a committed relationship.

What Paul does is have a sexual experience with another guy. So most of Paul's energy within the scope of the novel is focused on repenting of this act and avoiding a similar lapse again. Now again, this seems appropriate in terms of the kinds of choices that 15- and 16-year-olds are actually making in relation to sexuality. Establishing appropriate boundaries and learning self-control are among the key things that young adults of that age are learning in relation to sex. This is certainly true of most heterosexual kids I know/have known in that age group, and it was certainly true of our gay foster son during that period of his life, which is one reason why my husband and I established rules and boundaries for our son that were not much different from the rules Paul's bishop expected him to follow in the novel.

But the problem is that in the framework of this novel, this act of sexual fooling around ends up standing for the choice that Paul faces in terms of homosexuality and the Church. The only choice. This becomes all the more problematic when we consider how same-sex relationships are characterized in the novel.

Completely absent in the novel is any realistic portrayal of a committed, long-term same-sex relationship. The novel relies, instead, on a particular, negative characterization of same-sex relationships (that appears in the thought processes of Paul's mother and his bishop) in order to provide the rational structure within which a commitment to the LDS Church is sustained. That characterization includes the assertions that: A) the love between two members of the same-sex is only a counterfeit of the true love between two members of the opposite sex, and therefore of necessity inferior to heterosexual love, and B) entering into a same-sex relationship can (therefore) perhaps offer pleasure in the short-term, but only unhappiness and misery in the long-term. This characterization is the primary support for the argument under-girding the novel that the Church's restrictions -- though seemingly unreasonable -- are actually calculated to ensure individuals' greatest happiness.

That sounds good in theory, if you come from a culture saturated with anti-gay stereotypes, as most Mormons do. But it runs into trouble the moment you encounter happy, truly loving, real-life, same-sex relationships. There's much more I could say on this score, but I'll let it go at that for now.

I think the larger question is whether the church's position against same-sex marriage necessitates belief that the love between two people of the same sex must be less loving and must lead to misery. If so, then actual data on the quality of same-sex relationships can potentially disrupt LDS beliefs about marriage. From a Latter-day Saint perspective (to speak nothing of a more general Christian perspective), I think there is a problem with arguing for the spiritual inferiority and/or sinfulness of same-sex relationships, if there doesn't appear to be any qualitative difference in terms of love or happiness between same-sex relationships and heterosexual relationships. Sin in the classic sense has concrete, this-worldly consequences with observable, measurable impacts on this-worldly happiness. Lying, stealing, coveting, murder, adultery, substance abuse, all have clear, observable, obvious impacts on an individual's ability to live happily and lead a productive, positive life. In Mormon terms, "wickedness never was happiness." So if we find genuinely happy, loving same-sex relationships, where does that leave a theological position that same-sex relationships can only be sinful?

A young, gay Latter-day Saint beginning to feel with increasing urgency the hunger to connect intimately with another human being needs to know if the unique demands the Church makes of him or her can for a life-time actually be navigated successfully, not just theoretically, and not just in the imagination of a well-meaning author. If they are encouraged in the path of LDS faithfulness by holding up an ultimately falsifiable stereotype of same-sex love, are we setting them up for a very deep kind of disillusionment, not to mention an ultimate loss of faith?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Wearing Purple

I was bullied in school. There was a group of guys who -- for lack of a better word -- enjoyed sexually harassing me. They would say really vulgar things, and ask me sexually explicit questions, just to see if they could upset me or get some kind of a reaction out of me. They'd also taunt me for being Mormon, with questions like "How many mothers do you have?" The sexual teasing was also related to being Mormon, because these bullies knew I was deeply religious and sexual teasing was the most religiously offensive thing they could think to do. I never thought it was obvious I was gay, but -- according to my sister -- it was considered common knowledge in my high school that I was also queer, a fag. So if that's the case, I was literally tortured for being both gay and Mormon.

Fortunately I was never physically assaulted, though in seventh grade (when I was 12 and 13) the teasing, taunting and bullying was almost constant. Every day there were new insults (or, old insults tediously recycled again and again). It was almost unbearable, and it was everywhere -- in class, out of class, during lunch, and of course the dreaded gym class. In the lunch room there were a group of them who would converge on me like a pack of wolves, and start on me with the nasty questions almost every day.

I generally did the best I could to avoid giving them satisfaction by reacting in any way. Though my mom tells me every day of the seventh grade I would arrive home in tears.

I guess I understood why other, well-meaning kids never stood up for me. Who wants to be next on the bullies' list? What I never understood was why teachers and gym coaches and lunchroom attendants never did anything. They had real power in that situation, but they always looked the other way.

Life does get better. People (usually) eventually grow up and learn that being an asshole is no fun. Junior high is the worst.

I want to say that it was my faith that helped me survive. Knowing that there is right, and the right will eventually prevail gave me both patience and endurance. My faith, and the loving upbringing I had from my parents, also helped me to believe in my own goodness. To know that even if people treated me like shit, I was not shit. Thanks to my parents and my faith, I never doubted in high school that life was worth living, nor that I would eventually prevail over my adversaries.

My suicide crisis came later, in college, as I was coming to terms with my gayness, when certain elements of my religious upbringing made it impossible for me to believe in my own fundamental goodness, and when I began to doubt that I could succeed at anything important in life or find long-term happiness. That I survived that was something like a miracle.

But I'm here, I made it. I survived the bullying and coming out, and have a life I wouldn't trade for any other. I have a husband and a son and a great home; I'm able to do things I love -- writing and teaching. More importantly, I know who I am, and I have a relationship with God and a life full of spirit and truth as well. I've had my share of struggles, but also my fair share of triumphs. And I'm wearing a purple shirt today as a way of saying to those who are still struggling, that life holds too many big surprises to give up on it before you've had a chance to see what they are.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The One True Church?

Kevin (MidKnight543) recently expressed strong objections to an experience I described in Church recently, where I felt the Spirit had born witness to me that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints "is Christ's Church.... the only Church that acts with Christ's full authority and has a true and complete understanding of his doctrine." He said he would quit following my blog as a result.

My purpose in writing this blog has, of course, always been to find a way forward as a gay Latter-day Saint. There have always been folks out there who think I'm crazy to be a Mormon. There are other faiths that are much more accommodating of same-sex relationships, and why couldn't I embrace one of those instead? Mormonism is so obviously a fraud and hokum, etc., etc. And then of course there are (probably the majority) within my own faith who reject the various spiritual experiences I've had prompting me to stay in relationship with my husband. All those folks are entitled to their opinions. I'm even open to having civil conversations with them on my blog about my beliefs, and am happy to explain why I believe the way I do and not some other way. And in the end, I hope for some respect, just as I try to be respectful of others. And if you're really unhappy with my views, and it really hurts that much to read them, no one has ever obliged you to read my blog.

If someone finds any of my views so upsetting that they don't even want to read what I have to say, it is probably pointless to try to rationally explain my views to that person. So I debated as to whether I should even make the attempt here. At the same time, I do understand why certain people might be offended by the statement I made, especially if they take it out of context or don't understand how it fits in the overall framework of my beliefs and values. So, for the sake of those who were offended or confused but who are nonetheless still reading my blog, I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss this a bit -- both what it does and does not mean to me to believe in "one true Church."

The religious experience I described is -- first and foremost -- just that. An experience. Intellectually, I find it more comfortable and defensible to back away from the kinds of absolutistic statements I described receiving as a witness of the Spirit. It's perhaps my own personal discomfort with the statement that is prompting me (perhaps somewhat defensively) to feel I ought to explain myself here. I could certainly rationalistically distance myself from the experience. I could try to explain it away in terms of religious psychology or sociology. But the point is, this is an experience I had. It is not something I chose to have (at least not consciously), it is something that came to me quite unbidden. I did not expect to have this experience when I went to Church this past Sunday.

Nor, should I add, is it necessarily an experience or a revelation that makes life easy for me. Embedded in the experience was my sense that it is not helpful for me to argue with Church leaders (such as Elder Boyd K. Packer) about the morality of same-sex relationships or the nature of homosexuality. For obvious reasons, that's not so convenient for someone in a committed same-sex relationship.

But what I've discovered in my journey is that advancing spiritually requires a certain level of trust. It requires learning to recognize the Spirit of the Living God, and surrendering to it. When I have done so in the past, the Spirit has led me in fruitful, life-giving directions. I have -- in other words -- a relationship with God that is tried and tested and has been validated again and again for me. So even when the Spirit's promptings are intellectually uncomfortable, I've learned to trust and see where they lead me.

That is the importance of this experience that I've had. What does it mean to have received (and to accept as valid) a revelation that the LDS Church "is Christ's Church.... the only Church that acts with Christ's full authority and has a true and complete understanding of his doctrine"? It means potentially lots of things, but first and foremost it means I have an obligation to stay committed to this path somehow. It means I won't ditch it for some other spiritual path that is more pleasing or convenient to me. I am committed to learn what I need to learn from this path, no matter how personally difficult it can be at times.

Here's what it doesn't mean: that I think what everyone else believes is a load of crap. That I have no respect or love for other faiths or other churches. Anyone who has read my blog for more than a few entries knows how much I cherish and love every faith and every religious path that individuals pursue sincerely and with devotion. I am fascinated by other religions, and I spend at least as much -- if not more! -- time studying them as I do my own. Other faiths teach me profound truths about my own. Furthermore, other faiths have truths that are often overlooked in Mormonism, and that enrich my life as I am able to incorporate them into my own, Mormon belief system.

My own faith teaches me that if I am to be a true believer in Jesus Christ, I must love and respect people of other faiths as my own brothers and sisters. I should be as willing to defend them, serve them, and strengthen them as I am members of my own faith. I am utterly committed to their freedom of worship and freedom to practice their faiths, so long as doing so does not infringe on the rights of others. (And I will also be quick to jump into the fray on the side of religious freedom and against my own faith community, if I perceive that my faith community is trying, in some way, to infringe on the rights of others.)

Finally, I recognize that others may have strong beliefs that conflict with my own. Others may belong to Churches that they have their own reasons for believing to be "the one true." I have no problem at all with that. My advice to anyone in any religious path is that you must follow your conscience, find truth as best you can, and be faithful. I feel I have the right (and the obligation) to demand the same privilege.

I believe that every person of faith -- no matter what faith they profess -- has a moment where they, in essence, confess, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6: 68). Everyone has some reason why they choose the religion they choose and why they -- push comes to shove -- believe their faith is truer than any other. Different faiths promote different hermeneutics for discerning truth. Conservative Christians emphasize a more literal reading of scripture and the sufficiency of the Bible alone. Liberal Christians emphasize reason. Mormons emphasize the Spirit and modern-day revelation. That's why a Conservative Christian will justify his or her beliefs through proof-texting and a close reading of the Bible. A Liberal Christian will stress how his or her rational evaluation of truth claims has led him or her to embrace a certain system of faith. Mormons, on the other hand, will certainly read scriptures carefully and subject truth claims to rational analysis, but in the end give priority to the witness of the Spirit. A Mormon, in the end, is encouraged to choose their true religion because it is where the Spirit has guided them.

Mormons are constantly attacked by conservative Christians on scriptural grounds, and by liberal Christians on rational grounds. Conservative and liberal Christians alike, on the other hand, get offended when Mormons simply explain that they believe their church is true because the Spirit has witnessed it to them. But there's no point in getting offended by that, any more than that Mormons should be offended that conservative and liberal Christians question their hermeneutic on scriptural or rational grounds.

I do believe that something wonderful can happen when we get over this kind of defensiveness and commit to learn from each other. If we can't hopefully learn from one another on these terms, we can at least hopefully co-exist peacefully and lovingly.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Riots in Salt Lake?

A well-meaning brother, someone I just love, in his testimony yesterday mentioned "riots" in Salt Lake because of people's "opposition to the teachings of the prophets."

I guessed he was referring to the recent quiet, lawful protests of gay rights activists in response to Boyd K. Packer's remarks. The protesters specifically expressed concern that telling people a condition over which they have no control is sinful contributes to depression and suicide, especially among youth.

I've not hesitated to criticize gay rights protesters when they've crossed the line from protesting homophobia to expressing anti-Mormon hate. But the news accounts I've seen of the recent protests in Salt Lake don't suggest that that line was crossed...

Anybody aware of anything different?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Full of Light

The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. (Matt. 6: 22)

I knew I had to go to Church today. I've actually been hungering to go all week. I've known that Church was where I needed to be today.

The sister giving the opening prayer quite unexpectedly started to weep, as she prayed for those in the Church who are struggling or in pain. I wept through the prayer, and a good part of the Sacrament Meeting. But the Spirit was present there unlike any presence I've ever felt. It was like the chapel was just filled with the most pure, white light, and this incredible clarity and warmth. I half expected Christ to appear above the podium. Tears were streaming down my cheeks during the passing of the sacrament, but I felt so incredibly calm and happy. And the Spirit said to me very clearly and unequivocally, You are a part of my Church.

Never have I had such a powerful experience at Church of being totally enveloped in God's loving embrace. I kept looking around me, trying to see if other members were feeling what I was feeling, to see if they were aware that there was something very, very special happening. There were some incredible testimonies born, but they were nothing compared with the almost electric presence I felt.

The Spirit bore witness to me of so many incredible things this morning, but the most powerful witness was just that Christ has set us free from the sin, darkness, and despair that reign in this world. Another powerful witness came to me as I simply let myself be immersed in the sheer gratitude and joy I felt about that, and it was that this is Christ's Church. This is the only Church that acts with Christ's full authority and has a true and complete understanding of his doctrine. And so many of the things that I stress and worry about, I needed to just set aside so I can partake fully in the blessings that having his Church here on earth can offer us. I was so incredibly grateful to be there, so glad that I hadn't let anything hinder me from coming, so glad that I had paid attention to that urgent sense that I had deep down inside that Church was the place where I needed to be this morning.

It almost killed me not to be able to stand up and bear my testimony. I so wanted to just get up and bear witness of what I was feeling, what I was experiencing right then and right there, to ask the others if they realized how lucky they were, how blessed!

The entire morning, a portion of that presence lingered, in Sunday School and Priesthood. When the meetings ended, I didn't want to leave. But I had to hurry home because I had to get our Aunt Dottie (visiting this past week from Memphis) back to the airport.

I have been thinking about this experience all day since, wondering about its significance. And the scripture that comes closest to making sense of it to me is this one about our eye and our body. There was a lot I had to let go of to go to Church this morning, a lot I needed to let go to even begin to approach God there.

The pain we feel, the sadness, the craziness purifies us. It helps us to define ourselves by forcing us to choose what is most important to us. And if we can find it in ourselves to turn to the light, we can be filled with it.

We become what we see.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Human Touch

I've been feeling sad a lot lately.

When I've searched my feelings, to try to understand why I've been feeling sad, I couldn't come up with a solid answer. It was a mystery.

Prayer helps. I get on my knees and I pour out my feelings to God. I ask for help, and I wait and I listen. And the Spirit is present as a comforter, reassuring me that I am loved, that I am good, that my Heavenly Parents are proud of me, that I have much to contribute to my family and the world around me. Recently, the Lord has also offered me this: The Spirit whispered to me the other morning that my sadness -- like any affliction -- could be a reminder that I belong to the Lord, because I find such deep comfort in him. It also connects me to the world around me. It makes me more sensitive to the sadness and pain of others, makes me want to reach out more.

Last night, I woke in the middle of the night, and it finally dawned on me why I have been feeling sad. I first began to notice increased feelings of sadness some time in August, after I returned to Minnesota from the Sunstone Symposium, where I had experienced some incredible fellowship with other gay Mormons; so I thought maybe it was just that I was really hungry for a deeper level of fellowship that I had experienced in Salt Lake that I don't regularly experience here. But then last night I realized, a week after my return from Salt Lake, Glen moved out of our house and into his dorm on campus. He only lives three miles away, and we still see him at least once or twice a week, but we've certainly been sad not to have him around the house all the time. We've got a major case of "empty nest" syndrome. But I realized even that is not completely it.

A year ago last September, I convinced the law firm I work for to let me work from home, so that I could be a more constant presence for Glen, so I could be a better father. But since Glen moved out, I am now spending many more hours every week alone at home. A stay-at-home dad without a kid.

Monday, a friend of mine called seemingly for no reason. This friend is very in tune with the Spirit, so I feel certain that the Lord had had something to do with prompting him to call. He was concerned about me and he wanted to know how I was doing. I almost wept I was so happy he called. I told him I was feeling "isolated." I didn't know where the feelings came from. I wasn't even sure why I picked that word at the time. But it does describe what I often feel lately.

Is it possible that there is just a basic quotient of human contact that any person needs in order to feel balanced and healthy and whole? Is it that working alone at home and losing my kid has just tipped the balance into the unhealthy range?

Part of what helped me acquire this insight is that I've been reading Jonathan Langford's No Going Back, and there are is some interesting narrative in there that has prompted me to reflect on the relationship between healthy human touch and spiritual well-being. I realized that I have been "hungry" for touch lately. When Göran leaves in the morning, and when he gets home from work, he's been getting much longer hugs and kisses from me. I've been much more affectionate. (He doesn't mind! He's always wanted me to be a bit more affectionate!) I find I have also become a better, more sensitive, more responsive listener. I think all because of my increased need for human connection.

I can't imagine what my life would be like without some kind of life partner or companion. Göran and I are blessed to have an excellent relationship that has only gotten stronger and stronger over the years, despite bumps in the road we've traveled together. Loving touch is very important to both of us, and it is woven into the life we have together. Good morning hugs and kisses; hugs and kisses after coming home from work. Meeting for lunch. Eating dinner together. Watching TV intertwined on the couch. Holding hands at the theater, or in church, or at foster care meetings. Playing games together. Doing chores together. (I wash, he dries the dishes!) And -- as we both experienced when I was in Salt Lake last August -- neither of us sleep very well if one of us is not curled up against the other as we sleep.

We both take good care of our health. We eat right, we exercise. We don't smoke (and he drinks only very rarely and very little). We anticipate, God willing, having many, many more years together, perhaps adding another four or five decades to the nearly two decades we've been together so far, "growing old together." We are so much closer as a couple now than ever before in our relationship. Each year seems to bring us closer together. I can only imagine how intense our bond will be, if we continue to tend and care for our relationship as much as we tend and care for our physical health. I think I understand why it is that when couples live together into extreme old age, it is not uncommon for one to die shortly after the other.

I wonder about eternity...

I know it is possible to live alone. And yet... I have experienced a noticeable increase in sadness, just because of the reduced human contact that has taken place as a result of the teenager being around less. Where would I be without Göran? I'm not sure.

So I want to extend an invitation. Or make a promise. If you are lonely, reach out to someone. If you have no one to reach out to, reach out to me. I could use a little extra friendship right now.

If you know someone who lives alone, be a friend. Sit next to them in church. Invite them out to the movies or over to dinner more often. (Even though I don't live alone, I so often go to church alone, and it feels so good when someone sits next to me, or invites me to come sit by them!)

Give more hugs. Be kind.

Love one another.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Cure for the Post-Conference Blues

I've talked to enough folks -- testimony-bearing, faithful folks -- who came away from the Sunday morning General Conference session just feeling plain hurt or discouraged. If you're still feeling pain or sadness about Elder Packer's remarks that morning, I suggest you cross reference that talk with this talk, given in the October 2007 first general session.

Here are a few highlights:

No one of us is to consider himself of more value than the other (see D&C 38:24–25). “God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34–35; see also Romans 2:11; D&C 1:35; 38:16)....

There is the natural tendency to look at those who are sustained to presiding positions, to consider them to be higher and of more value in the Church or to their families than an ordinary member. Somehow we feel they are worth more to the Lord than are we. It just does not work that way!...

As General Authorities of the Church, we are just the same as you are, and you are just the same as we are. You have the same access to the powers of revelation for your families and for your work and for your callings as we do....

No member of the Church is esteemed by the Lord as more or less than any other. It just does not work that way! Remember, He is a father—our Father. The Lord is “no respecter of persons.”...

And so the Church moves on. It is carried upon the shoulders of worthy members living ordinary lives among ordinary families, guided by the Holy Ghost and the Light of Christ, which is in them....

This talk reminds me of what I love about Elder Packer. I just finished reading this message and it brought tears to my eyes. It speaks directly to some of the hurt I and others have felt since Sunday. Read the whole thing with an open heart, from beginning to end, and maybe you too will find that by the time you get to the, "In the name of Jesus Christ, amen" you'll feel much, much better.

I know I did.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Ockham's Razor: A Review

I'm not a big fan of fiction. I will occasionally read literary classics like The Brothers Karamazov or the Divine Comedy or The Lord of the Rings (does that count as a "classic"?), especially if they are of historical importance, or if they deal with theological or philosophical themes I'm interested in. More rarely, I'll read a novel that a family member or friend has given me as a Christmas gift, just to please them. (I managed to make it through the first Twilight book for that reason, but haven't been able to work myself up to the point of picking up any of the others that have been sitting on my book shelf for coming on three Christmases now.) Given a choice, I'd almost always rather bury myself in history or theology or scripture (Jewish or Christian or Mormon or Gnostic or Mayan or Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim... you name it).

All the same, I found Ockham's Razor, a fictional account of the relationship between two gay Mormons, by Alan Michael Williams, to be a gem, a little masterpiece. Once I picked it up, it was hard to put down until I had finished, and I am certain it will haunt me for long after I turned the last page. The characters are vivid and believable, and the story powerful and almost perfectly told. And like all truly great stories, it leaves you at the end unsettled, with a few really good questions and no answers but those you must work to supply yourself.

I suppose it bears asking -- since the novel enters the philosophically and theologically fraught engagement between homosexuality and Mormonism -- whether a good novel can have a philosophy or a theology. Perhaps a novel should by definition have only the viewpoints, philosophies and theologies of its characters. Only a poor novelist would force his views on the reader by making its characters speak only for the author instead of for themselves. And so, in a good novel with realistically drawn, believable characters, if important perspectives appear to be missing, one can acknowledge that a novel can only be the story of the characters it is about, and an author is not obliged to tell a story from the perspective of a character the novel is not about. I felt some important perspectives were missing from this novel, but I still found the conversation carried on in the pages of the novel worth listening in on, and I found myself speaking back to the story, and in turn being interrogated by it. And a story must be well written indeed to do that, so congratulations to the author are in order.

The story of Ockham's Razor revolves around two gay Mormons. Micah never really believed in Mormonism, and left the LDS Church as a teenager, but still engages it because it is the religion he was brought up in and is the religion of his family. Brendan wavers between belief and unbelief, and wrestles to make sense of the apparent clash between his feelings of same-sex attraction and the teachings of the Church. Both characters long to find a place of belonging. Micah believes he has found his sense of belonging in an intimate relationship with Brendan. Brendan must ultimately choose whether to find his sense of belonging in Micah or in the LDS Church. In the process, each character wrestles in his own way with questions related to choice and determinism, isolation and connection, absolutes and relativity, addiction and health, normality and perversity, lust and love.

Gay Mormons are portrayed in the novel as occupying a space that is of necessity liminal. "Every gay person in the LDS Church is fated to float in doubt and skepticism," the main character, Micah, editorializes. Apparently, part of the doubt and skepticism in which we must float is the question of whether "gay" is even a valid category; though there must be some reason we identify ourselves as "gay" enough to be condemned also to float in doubt and skepticism in relation to the faith that might otherwise serve as the ground of our existence. I've seen gay Mormons all across the theological spectrum "float in" and wrestle with both kinds of doubt.

But if we are "fated to float in doubt and skepticism" for at least some portion of our lives (and I have not yet met one of us who hasn't), we can't remain in that state forever. We are ultimately forced to find a harbor somewhere, to make a faith for ourselves and choose a path. And it seems that the choice must always be one pole or the other, either to embrace one's gayness or to embrace one's Mormon-ness, but never both. To be sure, at one point in the novel, Micah urges Brendan to
Choose the center path. Be Mormon and gay. ...[I]t's like meeting fate half way.
But Micah urges this path on his friend Brendan only because he (correctly) senses that Brendan will not be able to abandon his Mormon-ness. He himself rejects such a middle path by utterly rejecting Mormonism. He never seriously gives Mormonism a chance. Ultimately he's offended and infuriated by the choice to be Mormon, and finds it incomprehensible; just as Brendan, in the end, can only deal with his gayness through denial and selective amnesia.

This was my greatest disappointment in the novel. Attempts to reconcile being gay with a genuine Mormon faithfulness never move out of the realm of the philosophical and the abstract, such as Micah's attempts to argue that not all souls must, of necessity, be heterosexual in the eternities. Such arguments come across as disingenuous, presented as they are by a character who never seriously considers embracing Mormonism. They would have a completely different resonance had they been presented by Brendan, the character who ultimately commits to Mormonism. But Brendan is presented as incapable of asking these kinds of questions. Unfortunately, Brendan's relapse into Mormonism (it is presented almost as a kind of psychological break) is portrayed as a frantic kind of denial rather than a rational choice deserving the kind of respect that Micah expects for his insistence on loving Brendan.

To the author's credit, neither choice is presented as unproblematic. Micah describes Brendan as "broken," and Brendan seems to acknowledge the truthfulness of that assessment. But Micah also comes across as desperate, lost and broken in his own way, and admits, "I'm barely happy with myself." The closest he comes to any spiritual path at all is toying with a pop-psychology version of Buddhism, whose primary merit appears to be that it "doesn't have absolutes." Neither character achieves a place of groundedness or happiness. The novel ends with both wrestling with varying degrees of doubt. And while there are characters -- Micah's mother, for instance -- who seem certain that groundedness and happiness are possible for gay people within Mormonism, we don't see examples of gay people achieving it.

I found the novel powerful because of its realism. The characters in the novel, and their perceptions and struggles, were real. But these were characters for whom doubt is more real than faith. Even Brendan, who chooses faith, does so more out of neurosis and insecurity than out of hope. Where is God in this? Where is the "I-Thou" encounter that sustains faith over the long haul?

I loved this book. I loved the questions it asked. I loved the emotions I felt. I was grateful for the light it shone on my own choices and challenges, though quite different from both of the main characters. It's worth reading, and I hope many, many others will. If you are gay, or Mormon, or neither, there are wonderful moments in the novel that bear witness of beauty and truth and humanity and love.

I should caution that there are a number of sexually explicit scenes in the novel. Alan has argued that the scenes are necessary because they reveal important things about the characters, and advance the story in important ways. I tend to agree. The novel explores the intersection between body and spirit, between physicality and relationship and meaning, and exploring how sex relates to all these things is an important and legitimate part of what the novel is trying to achieve.

Nevertheless, unfortunately (and ironically), the very difficulty of sorting these things out means that sexually explicit material in the novel will make it inaccessible to some of those who could benefit most by reading it. In an important scene in the novel, Brendan cries out in distress and anger that sex between him and Micah came "too soon! How could you not have known it was too soon?" And I wonder if the same isn't true of the sex in the novel. Not everyone will be ready for it. Perhaps Alan will someday feel it worth telling a story that explores these same themes in a way that can be accessed by devout Mormon family members or friends, or gay men or lesbians who need to explore these issues more gently, and with more diligent exploration of what it means to find faith (and not just grasp ineffectually at it). If anyone could do it well, Alan Michael Williams could.


Coming soon: a review of Jonathan Langford's No Going Back.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Why Would God Do This to Me?

I realize a lot of folks are angry or discouraged by Elder Packer's words in General Conference. But I'm not. I'm actually encouraged.

When Elder Packer denied that homosexuality could possibly be inborn, and rhetorically posed the question, "Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone?" he was asking the same question I and countless other gay folks have asked ourselves.

And the reason we asked ourselves such a question is because our experience of our sexual orientation as some fundamental, inherent aspect of our beings prompted us to ask it. Because our efforts to stamp this aspect of ourselves out, to deny it, to run away from it, or to "pray it away" simply and utterly failed, no matter how much faith we exercised and no matter how urgent our desire to be straight. Yes, this is an existential problem. It is very much about who we are, what our natures are. That is why the problem of gay suicide is very much connected to this issue. To be or not to be, that is the question. Gay suicide is the urgency of our desire to be something we are not crashing up against the reality of what we are. And out of the pain of the conflict, if we somehow survive it, comes that anguished question: "Why, God, would you do this to me?"

We can try to deny the data, but the data is there. The lives, the experiences, the struggles, the truth is all there, bigger than the denials.

So Elder Packer's speech is comforting to me. When he asks, "Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone?" he is asking the right question.

Friday, October 1, 2010

New Collection of Essays on Being Gay and Mormon

My writing partner, Jim Smith, has been prodding me to put together a collection of my favorite essays and publish them in an e-book format. I finally gave in to his cajoling, and have done just that.

This collection includes papers I've published in Sunstone and Dialogue and that I've presented at the Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake, in addition to my favorite blog posts.

Since it's been released exclusively in an e-book format, if you're interested in buying it you'll need to either own a Kindle, or download the Kindle software to your computer or i-Pad, etc. But then, in the e-book format you'll pay $3.99 instead of the twenty bucks or so you need to shell out if you want my other book in paperback or hardcover format.

Let me know what you think, especially if you like it!